Flash Review: The Way We Weren’t

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading, January 2016

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The strength in Jill Talbot’s incredible memoir, The Way We Weren’t, lies not in its action or drama, nor in its twists and turns. The narrator’s traveling—from job to job, state to state—is as much a map to nowhere as it is a meditation on leaving. We follow Talbot as she starts over and over again after Talbot’s partner and the father of her child abandons them.

The journey we go on moves backwards and forwards at the same time. How does Talbot interweave blazing a new trail with dissecting the past so effortlessly? I am still trying to discern the answer. What I know for sure is that Talbot’s masterful writing and the emotional core of this book ring so true, I let go of my need to know where I’m going, and simply let the narrator lead me where she needs to go.

Flash Review: A Homemade Life

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, December 2015

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Lately I’ve been thinking about legacies—what we leave behind for future generations, what we pass on to our friends and family. Recipes are a huge part of that. Even though it’s a strange concoction of all the wrong foods, I will always love my mother’s ‘cherries ‘n noodles,’ a cloyingly sweet unbaked kugel of sorts that no one outside the Jewish enclaves of Northeast Philadelphia seems to be able to stomach.

One of my favorite writers, Molly Wizenberg, wrote eloquently about the family legacy of food in her 2010 masterpiece, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table. Molly writes with grace, gumption, and gusto about the way food reflects life. Each recipe in the book is paired with its own carefully woven tale that connects family, identity, and memory. Her mother’s pound cake recipe comes with nostalgic stories about midwestern pot luck picnics. Simple directions for bouchons au thon (little tuna cakes which I have made maybe a hundred times in the last few years) come with lovely tales of Molly’s time in Paris, and her charming host family.

In a way, Molly’s recipes and stories are something that she has passed on to me, too. I might never live in France or lay out a picnic blanket under the Oklahoma sun, but I can, in my own small way, continue these distant family legacies in my very own kitchen.

After Page One: The Journey

From the Literary Mama Blog, December 2015

 

The phone rings. My boss calls me into her office. Three clothing donors show up, all asking for help with carloads of shoes and suits. Two volunteers don’t come in for their shifts.

After all this, I’m supposed to go to campus for a three-hour class and be inspired?

Getting my MFA at night while working full time is not an easy road. A lot of times, I find myself thinking, Everything keeps getting in my way. I have this illusion of a clear path, with no bumps or obstacles, and my stupid messy life keeps throwing crap in the middle of it. If the road were clear, I could write beautiful, evocative essays. If the road were clear, I could finish my first thesis draft before it’s due. If the road were clear, everything would be so much easier. Get out of my way, I think. Everyone. Everything.

The phone rings. The printer messed up the new brochures. A client has a complaint.

I know I need to be less resistant. Maybe all these distractions, they are not IN my way. Maybe they ARE my way. Maybe my MFA path is not meant to be smooth and problem-free. Maybe I’m not just learning how to write, and read, and critique. Maybe I’m learning how to edit poems on my lunch break, how to summon creativity after a long day at the office, how to let the small inconveniences roll off my back because they don’t matter, how to be everything I need to be, all at once – a student, a professional, a writer, an editor, a friend.

The phone rings. I find out we didn’t get a large foundation grant that would have put us in the black. I forget to eat lunch.

This is not to say that those who pursue an MFA without working are not motivated or busy. This is not to say that those who pursue an MFA while working are smarter or stronger than other people. It is to say that life’s major obstacles could be our biggest teachers.

The elevator breaks down. Someone steals a handbag. The phone rings, and rings, and rings.

Every time I get frustrated (which is often), every time I choose to mindlessly watch TV after work instead of read or write (which, again, is often), every time I pass up a project or opportunity or social engagement because I’m “too busy” (see a pattern here?), I’m going to ask myself – What can this crap in the middle of my road teach me? How can I use this to become better, to learn how to prioritize, to favor self-care over disconnection, to engage my mind instead of turning it off?

Don’t misunderstand. I am tired. This is hard. There is no way around either of those facts. But changing my view so that obstacles become opportunities will at least ensure that when I’m supine and exhausted, I also feel accomplished and useful and…

Hold on. The phone is ringing.

Flash Review: Blackout and Sleepwalker

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From Literary Mama’s Now Reading, October 2015

I can’t imagine what it must be like to black out―to carry out actions and conversations with absolutely no conscious recollection. Luckily, I don’t have to imagine because this month I read two books that cover very different aspects of the idea: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, and Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist by Kathleen Frazier. Hepola gives a gripping account of her years of severe substance abuse, taking the reader through the shame and embarrassment that comes with not being able to answer the simple question, ‘Do you remember what you did last night?’ Hepola’s account is scandalous and rimmed with debauchery―there were many moments when I wanted to yell, ‘Put the drink down! You know what’s going to happen!’ But the young narrator doesn’t listen, instead testing the limits of her own connection to reality, and her creation of a world that includes so many of her own bad decisions results in dizzying, claustrophobic prose that is enormously affecting.

Conversely, Frazier’s memoir reads more like an epic family history, tracing the lines of sleepwalking and addiction through the branches of her family tree. While Frazier overcomes her own substance abuse as well, it’s not the abuse that kicks off her condition. The stories of the young narrator waking up in the middle of mortifying, strange, and sometimes seriously harmful behavior, broke my heart. Frazier maintains a steady, poetic, almost ethereal voice in her prose, giving the sleepwalking stories a dreamlike quality and muted edges. While these two books could not be more different, in the end, I was left feeling similarly haunted by the trouble a body without a conscious mind can find.

Flash Review: Let Me Explain You

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, September 2015

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Have you ever read one of those books that haunts you when you’re not reading it? I remember, in my younger days, hungrily sneaking chapter after chapter of The Hunger Games trilogy under dinner tables, at bus stops, in line at the post office. . . It’s been a while since a book has hooked me so completely, but Annie Liontas’ debut novel Let Me Explain You was my object of obsession for approximately five straight days. Let me just say—Katniss and Peeta have nothing on this one.
Liontas builds a world between countries where death is predicted by the stamping hooves of goats, where love makes us christen the entire menu for one person, where forgiveness gives way to broken glass on a diner floor, where obligation shadows over what the heart wants. After the first chapter, in which an email from Let Me‘s patriarch, Stavros—Stavros ‘Steve’ Mavrakis to the women in his life—explains his completely plausible and inevitable death in exactly ten days, I could not stop reading. Greek words dot the dialogue, and even the omniscient narration (depending on which character is taking us through the chapter) is littered with charming broken English and curious cultural idioms.
Like a piece of sweet, custardy galaktoboureko, I kept sneaking bites everywhere I could. Before bed, before work, during dinner, even at lunchtime. At the end, I felt so satisfied and a little bit heartbroken that it was over. I warn you—don’t even start reading if you’re having a crazy day, week, month. Be ready to begin and to know immediately that not only do you have to finish, but that you do not want it to end.

Flash Review: My Body is a Book of Rules

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading: August 2015

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At AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair) in Minneapolis this past April, I was hungry to find new essayists. A panelist recommended Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules. I wandered over to Red Hen Press’ table to pick it up, only to find that Washuta herself was standing by, ready and willing to chat. I hadn’t read her book yet, of course, but I told her I was embarking on my own essay collection, and she wished me ‘wonderful words and structural magic’ in her inscription.

I wish that when I had met her, I could have told her about the ravenousness with which I have devoured her book, a heartbreaking and sly collection of essays, chat logs, medication lists, Internet profiles, historical discourses, bibliographies, and diary entries that illustrate the author’s struggles with bipolar disorder and sexual assault. Believe me—I know it sounds a little devastating. But in truth, Washuta’s collection is painstakingly researched—from religious stories to pharmaceutical side effects and, perhaps most interestingly, the history of her hereditary tribe, the Cascade Indians.

That research and context helped this essay collection show me something I didn’t expect. Instead of feeling lonely or depressed at the book’s end, I ended up feeling a keen, almost comforting understanding of how personal tragedy and pain can communicate richly with universal misfortune. Perhaps we cannot avoid hardship in this world, but if we are lucky, we can look to facts and history, as Washuta has smartly done here, and find unexpected meaning in the hits we take.”

Flash Review: Agorafabulous!

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading: June 2015

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Severe anxiety and agoraphobia shouldn’t be this funny, but I found myself laughing out loud every time I cracked open Sara Benincasa’s Agorafabulous: Dispatches from My Bedroom.

Sara takes us to so many different places—to her tiny apartment in Boston, to a spaced-out spiritual retreat in rural Pennsylvania, to a high school deep in the heart of Texas—and yet, our host for all this traveling is a woman who, for much of the opening essay, is not able to leave her own room. This essay collection merged two things I look for most in creative nonfiction, humor and humility. Sara never takes her own struggles too seriously, but she is wise enough to know that the stuff she’s dealing with is very real, and not just for her—for a lot of people.

The best part is the prose. Sara is a born storyteller, and her pacing and comedic timing makes this a collection I will happily come back to again and again.