Flash Review: Difficult Women

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading, March 2017

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The protagonists in Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women are just that—women who struggle, who go after what they want, who make heartbreaking compromises, who weather storms with grace. Each one of the short stories in this collection hits a distinctly different note: in one sitting, I met two female friends who show their love in a dystopian fight club, a stripper who suffers a very complicated attack from a devoted customer, and sisters running from a hurtful past into the arms of imperfect saviors.

Each woman I’ve met in this book has been complex, flawed, and gritty, determined to make life work no matter what hardships come her way. It can be troublesome to look for strength in characters who make bad decisions, like many of Gay’s do, but that’s the point—female strength comes in many forms, some of them worrying and counter-intuitive. It has been a heart-opening exercise to work my way through this collection and practice empathy towards every woman Gay introduces me to, to confront my internal bias, and to see myself in each imperfect hero.

Flash Review: Real Artists Have Day Jobs

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, January 2016

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I’m a huge fan of Sara Benincasa’s essays and fiction, and her latest book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, will keep me company well into 2017. The premise is exactly what you’d think, but the hilarious, poignant, and honest essays within provide endless surprises and laughs. What’s great about Benincasa is that she is 100% without pretense—her self-deprecating humor and relatable nature make reading this book feel like you’re having a cocktail with that one particularly snarky and witty friend.

But beyond all that, the advice and insights are thorough and spot-on. ‘Real artists have day jobs, and night jobs, and afternoon jobs. Don’t ever let them tell you you’re not a success. No matter how much time you spend at the office, it’s just a side gig. You are an artist, full-time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.’ With chapter titles like #23, ‘Life is Too Short for Shitty Friends,’ #35, ‘Ask for Exactly What You Want,’ and #47, ‘Realize Your Dress Size Doesn’t Matter,’ it’s hard to find a part of this book I DON’T resonate with.

And at a time when so many other aspects of life are competing for the precious energy I need to write, think, edit, and create, and I’m feeling like I’ll never write another half-decent essay again, it’s great to have someone like Sara around to make me laugh and remind me that (at least according to #48) ‘The Darkness is Where the Good Stuff Starts.'”

Flash Review: H is for Hawk

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading, December 2016

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I’m so deeply engrossed in Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk in a way that few nonfiction books have pulled me in before. After the death of her father, MacDonald turns to an old love to find meaning in her life: falconry. It sounds almost bizarre—trying to tame a wild hunting bird in order to grieve, and perhaps heal.

MacDonald is successful with the deft treatment of not only the history and art of falconry, but the tense emotional development that occurs between captor and captive, owner and pet, hunter and prey. It’s these tenuous relationships that evoke her lost patriarch and shed a new light on what it means to navigate loss. The balance of history and research with a truly moving narrative makes me want to fly back to this gorgeous book again and again.

Flash Review: The Art of Memoir

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, September 2016

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This summer, I had the good fortune to attend a nonfiction conference called HippoCamp, which boasted many benefits to the avowed memoirist—chief among them, the chance to hear Mary Karr speak. I’ve been dog-earing and memorizing quotes from her latest book, The Art of the Memoir, since it came out. While I’ve read my share of craft books for nonfiction writers, this particular one hits a note that I come back to, time and again.

It is a comprehensive work, exhaustive in its exploration of the genre, and is written very obviously by a voracious reader. Every example, every theory, every gripe is footnoted with a quote or reference from another excellent work (all collected in the back of the book—thanks, Mary). But beyond that, the book is written with Karr’s signature spitfire wit. She sounds, throughout each chapter, like the wise, smart, tough-as-nails aunt who takes you out to a beautiful lunch and sets your fool-ass straight with a smile. It’s a guide written with the kind of care that makes it widely accessible, and the ever-alluring I-don’t-give-a-hoot attitude that makes it uniquely Mary.

For those who have already finished the Karr library, you’ll find something else in this book that not only solidifies the author as an authority on the subject, but also as the beloved, flawed character you know and love. In this work, Karr emerges as a teacher, even a mother at times—a person who has devoted her life to ushering the rest of us into who or what we were meant to be. In all the recaps I’ve read about HippoCamp, one quote from Karr’s speech kept reappearing: ‘Don’t write how you suffered. Write how you survived.’ For my money, you just can’t get better advice. Thanks, Aunt Mary.

Flash Review: Modern Lovers

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading August 2016

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While I’m certainly not the first person to extol the virtues of Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers as a summer reading staple, I happily join the chorus. I recently took Straub’s latest novel with me to a week-long vacation in Mexico. Under the relentless sun, I was introduced to the book’s colorful cast of characters, all with their own intertwining crises. With a focus that rotates every chapter, and major themes including love, marriage, identity, and art, Straub masterfully slips and twists in and out of plot points, disasters, and denouements. I’ve never been what you’d call a “beach-book” person, unwilling to commit my attention and emotions to lighter fare, simpler language, or two-dimensional characters. So for a lit-loving girl like me who wanted to relax and stay engaged, this smart and charming novel, as thoughtful as it was entertaining, was the perfect seaside companion.

Flash Review: The Liars’ Club

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, June 2016

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I just finished my thesis, a collection of essays heavily influenced by my relationship with my father. In writing, I did a lot of research about how to write a father well—it’s important to be fair, honest, and walk the line between admiration and condemnation. (Kind of like life.)

It’s no surprise that through this, I kept returning to Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. In this memoir, which is lauded as the work that sparked the memoir wave, Karr watches her father’s habits and mistakes like a scientist might observe a rare species. She loves him, happy in his shadow, but is somehow careful never to rose-tint his anger, jealousy, or rage. It is one of the most loving portraits of a father I could ever hope to see—one that acknowledges and respects the dark while still celebrating the light.

Flash Review: Diary of a Teenage Girl

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, March 2016

Telling the truth about one’s own life is risky business. It can be tempting to wrap up a story with redemption, allowing the narrator to enjoy her status as survivor. But what’s braver, I think, is reflecting on a difficult, tumultuous life and turning an unflinching eye toward what it’s like to be a woman in the world. This is what Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl accomplishes.

Part memoir, part graphic novel, and all guts, Gloeckner’s fictionalized self, Minnie, takes the reader through her turbulent upbringing in 1970s San Francisco. Minnie experiences sexual abuse, emotional heartache, and every drug under the sun. Some of the heartbreak comes of living in a cruel world, and some is the result of her irresponsible decisions. But for all the ugliness and all the struggles, Minnie shines with honesty and resilience.

She is unafraid to admit that she’s scared, or desperate for love, or confused about what she’s worth. Her life is human life, in all its messiness and complication. While Diary is not what I’d call an uplifting account of a young girl surviving her adolescence, it’s a perfect example of what memoir can do at its best: shine a light, however harsh, on what it truly means to be human.