I work in nonfiction because nothing is more curious or exhilarating than real life.
“Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom…”
- Luis Buñuel
A Fig to Remember || SweetLit, 2022
Every August, when the tidal chorus of crickets swells to high volume, and summer drapes a silky, humid sheet for one final, explosive round, I succumb: to a fickle, flinty fruit that I crave with such passion, it withers other mouthy pleasures. more
Book Review: Permafrost by Eva Baltasar || Rain Taxi, 2021
Eva Baltasar’s well-paced, debut novel opens with a glimmering scene of existential crisis: the narrator is standing on the roof of a building, contemplating suicide. “If surviving is what it’s all about, maybe resistance is the only way to live intensely.” more
Twenty years ago, a cancer reprieve for my husband on one of the country’s most terrible days || The Washington Post, 2021
Was it over? I felt joy, of course, but had lived so firmly in the grip of denial that relief barely registered. more
Even a Hollow Object Will Displace Water and Air || Speculative Nonfiction, 2021
I thought I was writing a piece about resistance. But I came to see the writing more genuinely concerned with negative space. more
Urn || River Teeth Journal: Beautiful Things, 2021
“What kind of urn do you have in mind?”
“No need,” I tell the funeral director. “My mother was a potter.” more
Henry Street || Flatbush Review, 2020
Every year, a blue jay returned to nest there. I learned its song, and believed it was the same bird coming back year after year like an old friend, to teach of loyalty and joyful recurrence, the opposite of dread. more.
The Route of My Escape || Blood Tree Literature, 2020
Crossing the Talamanca Range for the first time, heading to Puerto Limón on a rickety train while devouring a mango, I watch vertical peaks melt into the Caribbean. Farther on, banana plantations settle the sultry valley once owned by United Fruit, like a page out of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Oh, this is why I came.” more
A Legacy of Falling || Brevity, 2019
In the last few months of her life, when she could no longer get out of bed without falling, my mother told her nighttime caretaker that she had contemplated throwing herself from the subway platform into an oncoming train. more
Cardinal || Haibun Today, 2019
For a time, he flew into our side door. Made a habit of hurling himself, red chest and wingspan smashed to two dimensions by the windowpane. more
Kerria || River Teeth Journal: Beautiful Things, 2017
“Cheerful!” she said, “What is it?” Then recognizing the compact rows of marigold trophies lining spray upon spray arcing over the yard, “Oh, kerria, that was my mother’s favorite.” A moment of silence for one mother’s mother gone twenty years. more
The Eighth Life (For Brilka) by Nino Haratischivili
I enjoy reading more than one book at a time. My collagist brain sparks from the random juxtaposition of ideas, craft and story elements swirling side by side. The Eighth Life, an absorbing multi-generational saga about the Jashi family of Georgia, is all about adjacency. Events that take place simultaneously affect characters contiguously, in messy and unpredictable ways. This is, after the all, the Red Century; life inside the republic of Georgia is being ravaged by a cruel and bankrupt system. But The Eighth Life is not just a story about the impact of politics on the individual. Here, the threads of personal history are woven together in shifting patterns of proximity; they derive energy from one another. One character’s experiences are told in the context of, or through the eyes of another.
“Perhaps it was not his aunt’s physical beauty Kostya had fallen for, Kitty considered; rather that there was something concealed behind that beauty, something vulnerable, mournful, unhappy. And perhaps he needed the aloofness that Christine radiated in abundance; needed to immerse himself in it, to lose himself, so as not to have to face reality. Perhaps, Kitty speculated, it was fear that governed him: the fear that he could not stand the test of the world.” (270)
Everyone knows Stalin ruined whatever he put his hands on. Tearing through these 934 pages, I could feel what it must be like to live in a beautiful and bountiful country abused and corrupted via the bum luck of geography. Now, with war raging in Ukraine, this novel feels all the more urgent and relevant. Perhaps written as a call to arms after the 2008 Russian invasion, it takes on a form of cultural reclamation. The narrator is radical and funny, the “cool Aunt” who pours out stories she’s heard from her grandmother and passes them on to her niece (“For Brilka”). It’s a narrative gambit that carries an exile's abandon, someone for whom the worst has already happened. The blended structure of fiction against the backdrop of actuality enhances the power of both. This book was a revelation for its imagination, its voice and for the historic detail of a region I knew little about. It has the epic sweep of 100 Years of Solitude or War and Peace (with fewer dinner parties). Plus, chocolate features prominently. No wonder it became a best seller in Germany where it was first published. I was so captivated, I dropped everything else I was reading alongside for the duration. Once I had finished, I wasn’t sure what book could possibly follow…
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
Three short memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth,” & “Dependency” describe the circumstances out of which the author sprang. Born in 1917, Ditlevsen was determined from an early age to write poetry—one storyline, the ascendent arc of her early career. Another—the crushing force of circumstance working against her. She recalls the first day of school, at age 6. Her mother tells the principal (whose “greenish hair perches like bird’s nest on top of her head”) that Tove already knows how to read. When the principal condemns this achievement, the mother steps away from her child and replies that the girl learned to read on her own; she, the parent, is not at fault. “I look up at [my mother] and understand many things at once. She is smaller than other adult women, younger than other mothers, and there’s a world outside my street that she fears. And whenever we both fear it together, she will stab me in the back.”
The family is poor, Tove is awkward, different (a basic job requirement for a writer). She is raised with the idea that she is a problem in need of solution. From about age 15 she seesaws between two main preoccupations: who is the right man for her and how to get published. She does begin to get her poetry into print and marries a sequence of men, moving almost passively along an emotional spectrum from editor/mentor (no sex) to true love (sex and children) and finally to a controlling man she ends up needing because—Spoiler Alert—he hooks her on demerol. (Her trigger—a home style abortion that he, a pharmacist, arranges; she doesn’t want another child to interfere with her writing. How ironic.) The tension between her vulnerability and her will to be an artist fuels the story.
Her stark descriptions of drug use have been much remarked, but to me, it isn’t the unflinching narration of it that is shocking. She deploys the same clear-eyed, distilled, pull-no-punches style throughout the book. Far more disturbing to me is how randomly and easily she succumbs to addiction. She opens chapter 5 of the final volume:
“Then time ceases to be relevant. An hour could be a year, and a year could be an hour. It all depends on how much is in the syringe. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and I tell Carl who is always nearby…We have to scale back , he says, otherwise you’ll end up getting sick. I get sick if there’s not enough in it, I say.”
The translator chose not to call this memoir “Addiction” but rather, “Dependency,” which makes it that much more horrifying. She’s helpless, as if prone to a grim and unavoidable fate from her earliest memories. According to Hilton Als, writing in The New Yorker, the Danish title for this volume is “Gift”—a word flexible enough to also encompass “marriage” or “poison”—an utterly strange combination of meanings, except here. For Ditlevsen’s narrator, all these referents contribute to a portrait of someone raised and trained for dependency, marriage being the way to escape an unhappy family and to ensure one’s economic survival, the potentially poisonous gift offered women as the sole option, throughout most of history. Her predicament is extreme yet reflects an existential conflict facing countless artists. In the end, she will call for help not “just for the sake of my children, but also for the sake of the books that I had yet to write.”
From Rachel Cusk’s Second Place
”…the revelation that my whole life, which appeared to have been built on love and freedom of choice, was in fact a facade that concealed the most trivial selfishness was deeply shocking to me. There is no limit, I said, to what certain people will do to you if you offend them or take away what they want, and the fact that at one time you liked or chose to be among those people is one of the central mysteries and tragedies of life. Yet it is only a reflection, I said, of the very conditions and substances out of which your humanity is made—it is the attempt by selfishness and dishonesty to reproduce themselves in you and to continue to flourish in the world. You might as well go mad, I said, as try to resist that attempt.” Ooof.
The Promise, by Damon Galgut. This novel won the Booker Prize in 2021, but I had never heard of it until a friend sent me a copy as a gift. The story takes place on a farm in South Africa over the years in the 1980s that apartheid rule is crumbling, and chronicles several generations of the white and black families who live there.
Early in the novel, Anton, the prodigal son returns home for his mother’s funeral.
“The silence between the two of them is comfortable, unfraught. She [Salome] has seen him grow up, from a tottering infant to a golden boy to this, whatever he is now, tending to him every step of the way. When he was little he use to call her Mama and tried to suck on her nipple, a common South African confusion. No secrets between them.” (59)
Perhaps Anton, who’s stated ambition is to study writing abroad and write a novel, is a stand in for the author.
“Anton can see a black man in the next bed bandaged up like a mummy. Verwoerd must be spinning in his grave, can’t believe they haven’t changed the name of the hospital yet. The man groans aloud from inside his wrappings, not quite a word unless it’s from inside a foreign language, the language of pain. Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.” (100)
Amor is Anton's younger sister. She yearns to make good on a promise her father made her dying mother to bequeath to Salome her house as a kind of reparation:
“All she’s done since leaving South Africa is keep moving forward, or at least keep moving, not always sure of the direction, changing rooms and cities and counties and people, all of it smearing past like a landscape at speed, something in me unable to stop.” (105)
There’s no omniscient narrator. Galgut doesn’t wrap up all the details—a promise is after all, as light as a feather. Characters die without learning answers, one character has an affair that remains secret. The narration moves fluidly from character to character; it’s the promise that spins the story.
“Here comes the sun, little darling…Pylons stamped in silhouette against the red. He’s walked quite far, the house out of sight behind him. Birds in full whitter now. Foolish old earth, returning and repeating itself, over and over. Never misses a show. How can you bear it, you ancient tart, giving the identical performance again and again, evening and matinees, while the theatre crumbles around you, the lines in the script unchanging, to say nothing of the make-up, costumes, the extravagant gestures…Tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after that…” (230)
Perhaps this fluid style is an example of the Tender Narrator that Olga Tokarczuk described in her Nobel speech. Not an objective voice but a “mysterious, tender narrator … who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters” who may “step beyond the horizon of each of them.”
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich has lyric passages that reminded me of some of the unraveling moments in The Promise. Both of what follows belong to Thomas, the main character based on the author’s grandfather.
“The patterned tiles of the stone floor rose. He was on all fours, then diving down, swimming through blacked blackness. He had a sense of how tiny he was. And the world, monstrous space, it swelled, greater, greater, all space and water. He knew back there, somewhere up there and all around, swirls of motion. Shouts and calls. He must ignore everything and keep swimming down, and down, even though this blackness was becoming thick and resistant. And he would barely keep moving. He must find a mote of strength, then another even smaller mote, to keep puling warred the bottom of this blackness. He had to reach the bottom before he cold come up. That was the muskrats’s task. “ (411)
“All of a sudden he and his father were sitting outside the old man’s cabin. Thomas stared at the bright pope leaves, trembling and flashing as they swirled thickly off the branches. Frantic yellows and golden red and orange leaves filled his eyes. But it’s spring, he thought. I shouldn’t be here. Something’s happening to me again. He looked around and saw that the wild prairies were littered with bones thick and white as far as he could see.
The bones tipped and staggered, assembling into forms, and took on shaggy flesh. The grass rippled and billowed like a green robe and the animals crossed vast and vaster numbers. The earth trembled in a serpentine rush, blew away, and vanished into the sky.” (443)
While we're on lyric and indigenous voices:
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“The Consolation of Lilies” chapter is about when her youngest heads off to college and that feeling of sadness and pride that comes upon us all. Here she goes kayaking, to do something for herself.
“I don’t know how long I floated, but my little red boat drifted the length of the lake. Rustling whispers around my hull drew me from reverie and the first thing I saw upon opening my eyes were polished green leaves of water lilies and spatterdock smiling up at me again, rooted in darkness and floating in the light. I found myself surrounded by hearts on the water, luminous green hearts. The lilies seemed to pulse with light, green hearts beating with my own. There were young elves below the water on their way up and old leaves on the surface, some with edges tattered by a summer of wind and waves and, no doubt, kayak paddles.”
“This summer is my last with a child at home. Yellow apples plop into the water from an overhanging tree. I am mesmerized by the yellow apples on the dark, surface of the pond, globes of light dancing and turning. The breeze off the hill sets the water in motion. In a circular current from west to east and back again, the wind is stirring the pond, so gently you wouldn’t see it but for the fruit. The apples ride the current, a procession of yellow rafts following each other along the shoreline. They move quickly from under the apple tree and follow the curve beneath the elms. As the wind carries them away, more fall from the tree so that the whole pond surface is stenciled with moving arcs of yellow, like a procession of yellow candles against a dark night. They spiral around and around in an ever widening gyre.”
In the The Overstory, one of the characters articulates Richard Powers view: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” From roots to seeds, a complex weave of characters who are drawn to each other through the love of trees.
“She sighs and follows, into a bower of branches and mad lianas. Four of the men stand marveling at a big tree with buttresses like falling folds of cloth. She can’t even guess the family, let alone the genus and species. But the species isn’t what interests them. She comes behind the excited men and gasps. No one tells her what to see. A child could make it out. A one-eyed myopic. In knots and whorls, muscles arise from the smooth bole. It’s a person, a woman, her torso twisted, her arms lifting from her sides in finger branches. The face, round with alarm, stares so wildly that Patricia looks away….It’s the Virgin, looking on the dying world with horror. “
An arborescent novel, which was prescient too. So many great moments in this big novel. Here's one, toward the end
“A glance down at his handwritten notes. On cue, words boxed in red swim up from the clairvoyant past to the forgetful future. Adam has delivered the line before, for several years running in this survey course, but their full sense has a waited for now. He pushes his rimless glasses back up the slope of his sweating nose and shakes his head a the packed hall. What a lesson these students will leave with today. 'You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice.”'
From Lit Hub, "How Einstein Arrived at his General Theory of Relativity"
"In Newton’s theory, one describes the force of gravity as acting on mass. The path of a satellite passing near the sun would be bent by the pull of the sun’s gravity. But in special relativity, mass is just a form of energy, and in the general theory, gravity acts on all forms of energy. Light has no mass, but it does carry energy. So the paths of light rays should be altered from simple straight lines as they pass near objects with strong gravity."
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
“…Elf began work on ‘increasing her visibility.’ She had been inspired by the ochre painting on the rock, by the impermeability and their mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance, and eternal aloneness. She decided she too would make her make. She came up with a design that incorporated her initials E.V. R. (Elfrieda Von Riesen) and below those initials A.M.P Then, like a coiled snake, the letter S, which covered, underlined, and dissected the other letters. She showed me what it looked like, on a yellow legal notepad. Hmm, I said, I don’t get it. Well, she told me, the initials of my name are obviously the initials of my name, and A.M.P stands for All My Puny…then the big S stands for Sorrows which encloses all the other letters. She made a fist with her right hand…”
I loved the way this novel is both hysterically funny and undeniably sad in the way of real life. The story of two sisters: the disheveled narrator who is recuperating from a divorce, seeing several men (oh yeah), while raising a teen & a college age kid, and her sister: a beautiful, amazing classical pianist with a devoted following around the world and a loving husband. About the sister’s piano, Toews also offers an apt description of the structure of her novel:
“She told me that the most important thing was to establish the tenderness right off the bat, or at least close to the tope of the piece, just a hint of it, a whisper, but a deep whisper because the tension will mount, the excitement and the drama will build—I was writing it down as fast as I could—and when the action rises the audience might remember the earlier moment of tenderness, and remembering will make them long to return to infancy, to safety, to pure love, then you might move away from that, put the violence and agony of life into every note, building, building still, even briefly, glancingly, or continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end.
Okay, I said, that should do it, well thanks for sort of answering my question, weird.”
That tender rendering of “infancy” tells us how to read the novel.
I hadn’t realized that two books I’d chosen somewhat randomly from the library both treat the thorny issue of assisted suicide. How you love and care for someone who wants to end their own life? What is your own moral and ethical stance while preventing or supporting another human being’s most intimate wish? The evolution of the narrator’s stance from resistance and a creeping desperation to acceptance and lifelong regret, is threaded through each story. The suspense of these novels—what will happen?—lurches reader and writer ever nearer toward heartbreak.
Sadly, both All My Puny Sorrows and What Are You Going Through? by Sigrid Nunez, are based on real events, one with a sister in her prime but suffering from mental illness, one an older friend with terminal cancer. “Switzerland” where assisted suicide is legal is the safe word destination in both books.
Miriam Toews writes:
“…no. I won’t take you to Switzerland.
Please…I’m asking you to do this one last thing for me. In fact, I’m begging you.
No. And don’t say one last thing. That’s so morbid.
Do you love me?
Yes! Which is why!”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being also chronicles a Russian invasion of a sovereign nation. The character Tereza picks up a camera to document daily atrocities crushing the brief reformist period called Prague Spring. “All previous crimes of the Russian empire had been committed under cover of a discreet shadow….Not so the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, of which both stills and motion pictures are stored in archives through out the world.” (67) Now, we see a continuous play out of war crimes streamed from Ukraine.
I hadn’t read the novel since it came out in English in 1984. At the time, I searched it for clues about behavior of the male species. Men I dated (or refused). My absent father. I took the sexism of the character Tomas for granted. Now I see some attempt by Kundera to give women their due, away from the male gaze (he fails). To seek what’s admirable in Tereza and Sabina within a philosophical argument lyrically filtered through a series of motifs and binaries: light/heavy, soul/body, appearance/hiding, fidelity/betrayal, weakness/strength, etc. “A man who wanted to master her? How long would she put up with him? Not five minutes!” And when Sabina asks her married lover, Franz, why he doesn’t use his strength on her, he replies, “Because love means renouncing strength,” at which “Sabina realized two things: first, that Franz’s words were noble and just; second, that they disqualified him from her love life.” (112)
But still, it is a book about people warped by ideology, their reality snatched out from under them. “A man who loses his privacy loses everything, Sabina thought. And a man who gives up his own free will is a monster.” (113) With the author/narrator pushing back intellectually against tyranny, a self-conscious analyst… “…characters…are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about…The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.” (221) Another form of hiding. “Sabina was unaware of the goal that lay behind her longing to betray. The unbearable lightness of being—was that the goal?” (122)
In my 20s I found the story instructive. In a passage referring to Sabina’s relationship with her lover Franz she draws a distinction with what she shares with Tomas—a mutual understanding symbolized in how they see her bowler hat—one of many motifs that repeats like a dash of color across a canvas or a recurring musical theme: “Although they had a clear understanding of the logical meaning of the words they exchanged, they failed to hear the semantic susurrus of the river flowing through them.” (88) I love that sentence; it reminds me of a line from one of my pieces, “The Route of My Escape:” I failed to hear the spirit of his words, just as he tried to ignore my loyalty to a dream…A line it took 30 more years to write, but a reflection I knew intuitively at 24 because I had lived it.
Speaking of 20-something sexuality as we lived it, another random novel coupling: I picked up Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? just as Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, was pressed into my hands by a friend, so I read them side by side. In both novels, female narrators are writing their way out of marriage and through other relationships, mainly with the self. One narrator is hilarious the other melodramatic. The ways each contorts herself makes for an intriguing contrast. How should a person be?
“Ever since I was a teenager, I had been drawn to men exclusively, and they drew themselves to me—as lovers, as friends. They pursued me. It was simple. It was men I enjoyed talking to at parties and whose opinions I was interested in hearing. It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influenced by…I never worried that a man’s heart would run against me—at least not before mine turned against him—and certainly not for no reason at all. There would always be a veil over their eyes when they looked at me, which was a kind of protection.” (32)
“I was ashamed of myself. Yet I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t think of anything except how to get him back. I soon developed an obsession to see him, tell him that I could no longer manage, show him how diminished I was without him…if he knew about the state of the house, if he could follow for a single day our life as it had become—disorderly, anxious, taut as a wire digging into the flesh—if he could read my letters and understand the serious work I was doing to sort out the breakdowns of our relationship, he would immediately be persuaded to return to his family. Never, that is, would he have abandoned us if he had known about our condition.” (34-5)
I loved the Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend (and the adaptation on HBO), but I couldn’t bear the prostration of this other narrator. Heti, I’d never read before—this ironic set up and me laughing out loud:
“We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time. I look at tall the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries!
We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art from. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.” (3)
In her work, Ferrante consistently returns to the theme of female rage—women who have to fight for every opportunity to express their art. Yes! “I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful. I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his. At every crisis of despair I had aside my own crises to comfort him. I had disappeared into his minutes, into his hours, so that he could concentrate.” (63)
Near the end of the novel, Heti’s response to her question, HSAPB? and Ferrante’s related dilema, sounds harsh out of context, but the whole novel portrays the main character—Sheila?—defining her inner self. “How could I castrate my mind—neuter it!—and build up a resistance topknot what was mine from what was everyone else’s, and finally be in the world in my own way? That endless capacity for empathy—which you have to really kill in order to act freely, to know your own desires!” (228)