Tag Archives: books

VESTIGES OF COURAGE by Mireya S. Vela

book cover of Vestiges of Courage, by Mireya S. Vela (cover art by the author!)

Vestiges of Courage, by Mireya S. Vela (cover art by the author!)

There are ways of saying things, making phrases and sentences that could not be any more succinct or perfect. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I read it. When I consider the brilliance of Mireya Vela’s writing in her memoir, Vestiges of Courage, I marvel at her ability to work with a gratifyingly tight linguistic economy. In the memoir, Mireya exposes the toxicity and spirit/mind/body assaults women are expected to endure, and boils it down to the bone, illuminating the lived truth. Her act of peeling back, her lack of veil and refusal to bullshit carries incredible power. There is no time for waste, she seems to say. You just have to speak the truth.

For instance, on page 24:

“Women are trained into this type of acceptance:

‘Kiss your relatives.’

‘Hug creepy Uncle Manny.’

‘Don’t be uppity. You’re rude. Go sit on Uncle Joe’s lap.’

‘Uncle Manny gave you a gift. Show proper gratitude.’

‘Liar. He didn’t touch you. That’s your imagination. Why are you always such a drama queen, looking for attention?’

Whittle down the women. Take off all the rough edges till they are smooth and fit into the palms of men.”

***

And it’s beautiful how she writes about the armature of memory…on page 132:

“Sometimes I see people I know aren’t there. This has been happening since I went into therapy four years ago and I unhooked the memories from their anchors.

Memories float. No matter what you do, whoever you were 15 years ago can float to the surface to haunt you. It doesn’t matter if you are ready or if you are walking back to your classroom.”

***

And finally, she offers affirmation about the pain and necessity of healing. On page 134:

“I don’t talk to my psychiatrist about the people I see. I know she’ll heavily medicate me. I strongly suspect this is post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem with PTSD is that it prefers to unsettle you just as you feel you are moving beyond those memories. When you feel strong, the memories appear, waiting for resolution.

Instead, I go to my therapist. The words spill out of my mouth with trepidation.

‘Is it men?’ she asks.

‘Yes. How did you know?’ I say.

‘It’s out of the corner of your eye?’ she says.

‘Yes.’

‘Do they look like the men who hurt you?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘That’s common with people who have had sexual abuse. I’m sorry,’ she says.

‘I’m not crazy?’

‘No,’ she says, ‘You are just healing.’

‘Healing feels awful. Why am I doing this to myself? I just want it to stop.’

‘Because,’ she says, ‘you want something better for your children.’

‘Yes. Yes, I do.’

But for a moment, I think about quitting. Why do they call it healing when it feels like being ripped open?”

***

We need to do this work; we need something better for our children. We need more books with the inside of the human showing. We need more writers who can cut through bullshit, use deft strokes to arrange the words so that they accumulate to tell the truth. I am grateful for the act of humanity that Mireya Vela did in writing this book.

(And speaking of deft strokes, Mireya Vela is also a visual artist. Please go peruse her creations here: https://www.mireyasvela.com/)

Many Restless Concerns by Gayle Brandeis

many restless concerns book cover

Many Restless Concerns (a testimony)  by Gayle Brandeis

(This post is being drafted using voice typing on Google Docs. I am using this technology because I broke my dominant wrist and had surgery, and am still recovering.  Please excuse any Typos and imperfections!)

In thinking about my friend Gayle Brandeis’ new book, I recalled Joy Williams essay “Why I write” from her book Ill Nature. In the essay, Williams writes, “The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work– this Other, this other thing– this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so alarming, really.  Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three or four or five in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve… something.  Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness– those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.”

I was thinking about how to talk about my experience of reading the new work of Gayle Brandeis. How these riveting verses accumulate into story, and along the way, yes, enchant, for their lyrical brilliance, and yet still, for their horrifying imagery, explode in my face. Although (please know) they are extremely unsettling and certainly violent, the voices of these (imagined or channeled) victims of Countess Bathory make their impression in part because of the importance of not looking away.  The lives of these girls and women, from the perspective of their torturer, were incidental, always a casualty to Bathory’s drive to torture.

The victims survived by adapting. As victims often do. On page 29, Gayle writes,

“We learned to stay upright, to work even when wounds wept beneath our sleeves; we learned to keep our voices down, learned to not look her in the eye; we learned fear becomes another organ in the body, pulsing gall through every vein.”

On page 35, Gayle writes about how the body keeps the score, writes about the words burn, drown, freeze, scald, verbs which were among the methods of torture, how they stay with the spirit even when the body is gone.

“…These words have become something more than words. They have become weapons, ready to get under the surface of you, pry you back open.

Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body.

(some tender part of you still flinches.)

( some immaterial nerves still flare)”

This short, crystalline book is not an easy read. After diving in and becoming quickly engrossed,  I was unsure how exactly I would get through it. But I trusted that Gayle–and the survivors’ spirits–would lead toward light. And they did. The victims, so many unnamed survivors, found and picked up their power through making a circle, banding together. And they needed to tell their story. Ghosts need witnesses. 

We need to witness.

From page 102,

“It’s fine you don’t know our names now.

 You know our testimony.

 You know enough to yell “Meat!”

 when we call out “Bone?”

 if you are listening

(are you still listening?)

 You know enough to lay some flesh upon our forgotten skeletons,

 to feel the weight of our death inside your own body.

 You know enough to remember how alive you are

(how lucky).”

***

I am grateful for the reminder, for knowing enough to remember how alive I am, and how lucky. 

Because, by Joshua Mensch

Because, a lyric memoir by Joshua Mensch

Because, a lyric memoir by Joshua Mensch

Because, by Joshua Mensch, is a devastating and beautiful lyric memoir. I can’t recall why I picked it up to read, but I’m so glad I did. It was rough going because of the subject matter (childhood sexual abuse) but the language, its incantation and repetition and just plain brilliance is so well suited to how memory and trauma work that the writer’s work (processing the devastation, and crafting language to approximate it) pulled me through.

If you have a history of sexual abuse, you might only want to read this book if you feel sturdy in your recovery. I’m sure it could be very triggering. But I also found it very healing to read.

I won’t soon forget this diamond.

Sex Object (by Jessica Valenti) (& walking down the street)

Sex Object by Jessica ValentiI’m woefully behind on posting about books. There are piles of gorgeous books waiting for me to have time to tell you about them. (I hope the books forgive me!) Catching up a little, at least today.

I don’t even recall how long ago I read Jessica Valenti’s book SEX OBJECT—it’s been months and months, maybe a year. My friend Ashley loaned it to me a long time ago. (Thanks, Ashley! I can return it to you now.)

So much within these pages resonated. Here’s one passage from p. 64 that articulates how it can feel to walk down the street—not just in NYC but also in my small, friendly home town—while female.

“There is a look that comes over men’s faces right before they are about to say something horrible to you.

Or make a noise at you, or whistle in your general direction.

By the time I was fourteen years old I could spot this look a half a block away. In the same way I can tell if someone is a tourist by their shoes or if a person has recently done heroin, I can predict that a man is going to be an asshole on the street—sort of like a depressing New York City sixth sense.

And the moment when you take those few steps before crossing paths with the man who you know is about to say or do something is the moment when you look down, or turn your head to face across the street, or put your earphones in—as if to signal that you won’t see them no matter what they do. That they are invisible to you.

Of course, they do it anyway. And you see it, or hear it.

Sometimes it’s not as bad as you thought, it’s a Hey, beautiful or a simple hello. But more often than not it’s a lascivious intake of breath or a clicking noise, or sometimes just a smirk while they stare at your breasts as you walk by. Once it was a man who came close to my ear and said, I want to eat you. No matter the content, the message is clear: we are here for their enjoyment and little else. We have to walk through the rest of our day knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on.

We are trapped in between huge bodies unable to move, too afraid to yell or bring attention to ourselves. We are trapped on the train, in the crowd, in the street, in the classroom. If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where is it that we’re not forced? The idea that these crimes are inescapable is the blind optimism of men who don’t understand what it means to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with magnetic force. What it feels like to see a stranger smiling while rubbing himself or know that this is the price of doing business while female. That public spaces are not really public for you, but a series of surprise private moments that you can’t prevent or erase.

And so you put your headphones on and look straight ahead and don’t smile even when they tell you to and just keep walking.”

 

Year’s Best Weird Fiction times 5

SONY DSC

Year’s Best Weird Fiction series bundle!

Happy New Year! And may 2019 be a weird one (good weird, I mean).

Maybe you haven’t heard that you can buy the entire series—all five volumes of  Year’s Best Weird Fiction from Undertow—together in a tidy bundle, thereby securing hours of weird reading pleasure. Go here for more about this fabulous deal!

(I’m honored to have my stories “Rabbit, Cat, Girl” and “Curb Day” included in volumes 3 and 5, respectively.)

Some recent recommendations

rainbow bookshelf

(Sometimes it’s hard to find a book, though.)

I haven’t made time to post lately, but here’s a short list of books I’ve enjoyed recently. Enjoy!

Banish Your Inner Critic by Denise Jacobs

Salt by Renee Ashley

Another Phase by Eloise Klein Healy

Bone Black by bell hooks

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Family Trouble edited by Joy Castro

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

 

 

books & resources about puberty & adolescence

stream, red flower, and tree roots

Glen Helen

I’m keeping a list of books that seem helpful as I raise a child and guide her through puberty. I thought it would be helpful to share them here.

Puberty resources

BOOKS for children

BOOKS for adults

 ONLINE:

from Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg

several short sentences about writing--book cover

 

 

From Page 131:

“You may feel uncomfortable with the word

‘authority.’

Perhaps is sounds dominant, overbearing, ‘authoritarian.’ You may need to work on the problem of self-deprecation,

Self-distrust,

Especially when it comes to noticing the world around you

And what you’re able to say about it.

You may be used to denying your perceptions and dismissing your awareness.

You may be caught in a constant state of demurral

Or have the habit of belittling yourself.

 

Watch for the chronic language of self-disparagement,

The moments when you say, ‘My problem is…’

Or ‘It doesn’t matter what I think.’

If you say these kinds of things, you probably say them out of habit, almost unconsciously.

This is a product of your education too, at home and at school.

Pay attention to it.

Recognize how harmful it is.

Its message—subliminal and overt—is that your perceptions are worthless.

 

Do everything you can to subvert this habit.”

 

 

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Black Wave by Michelle TeaThis book. So beautiful. A delectable collision of intelligent prose with the viscera. So visceral, and so smart—the sentences hold an intelligence beyond any I can think of, even, in a way, beyond Didion’s. But the sentences aren’t overly smart in a told-you-so kinda way. They’re smart in a way that has faith, more faith than most sentences have, in the reader. The book, the story, is so dark and so light. It’s a gift, really.

Black Wave was my first encounter with the work of Michelle Tea, and I can’t wait to read more of her work. For now, all I can do is urge you to read Black Wave—knowing that it’s written for adults, and has a lot of very specific, intense detail about sex and drugs—and today I offer this passage.

Michelle Tea, Black Wave, p. 151:

“Where did your own story end and other people’s begin? Michelle wrestled with this question. After her first book came out she’d been invited to give some lectures and teach some workshops, and always the people who came were females, females who wanted to tell their stories. Their stories being female stories, there was a lot of hurt inside them—abuse, betrayals, injustices, feelings. They were all worries about getting in trouble for writing the truth. They didn’t want people to be mad at them. It’s Your Story, Michelle would insist.

She wanted to free them all, all the girl writers. Girls needed to tell the truth about what the fuck was going on in this world. It was bad. It was brave of the girls to let themselves stay so raw, though Michelle worried that some of them had had to conjure personality disorders in order to cope. Sometimes the girls were too much even for her, Michelle wondered if she could handle another piece of writing about sexual abuse or sex work. But it seemed that this was to be her job upon the earth. If you don’t tell your story, who will? It was important. Our stories are important.”

**

Read the whole book and you’ll understand its uplift.

 

 

Heartberries, by Terese Marie Mailhot (“The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”)

9781619023345-256x413A thousand thanks to my friend Dr. Kelli Zaytoun for recommending this distilled and beautiful memoir. From the publisher’s description:

“Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.”

This book is among a few gems I’ve read lately, written by women, that grant permission. Permission to reveal the self, in all its tatters and glow. Permission to speak the truth even when it isn’t convenient or dainty. I can’t recall where I heard this, but somewhere, a wise human referred to writing memoir as a kind of alchemy: how a writer metabolizes her experience into a distilled piece of art. Mailhot does so here, with grace and wisdom.
A couple shimmery passages from Mailhot’s memoir:

Page 72: “[My mother] taught me that I didn’t own things. I really liked the idea of possession. We don’t own our mothers. We don’t own our bodies or our land—maybe I’m unsure. We become the land when we are buried in it. Our grandmothers have been uprooted and shelved in boxes, placed on slabs of plastic, or packed neatly in rooms, or turned into artifact—all after proper burials. Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that.”

And: 

 

Page 97: “I can’t believe my reserve of water—from my nose and eyes. I have dormant fluid in my body, every woman does. I don’t know if I am a cavern or a river.”

In the back of the petite volume, Mailhot is interviewed by Joan Naviyuk Kane. In the conversation, Mailhot says things about writing that I know will stick with me (and will help, in working on memoir):

About women writing our stories:

Page 131: “I know the book isn’t simply an abuse narrative, but then it is. I was abused, and brilliant women are abused, often, and we write about it. People seem so resistant to let women write about these experiences, and they sometimes resent when the narrative sounds familiar. It’s almost funny, because, yeah—there is nothing new about what they do to us. We can write about it in new ways, but what value are we placing on newness? Familiarity is boring, but these fucking people—they keep hurting us in the same ways. It’s putting the onus on us to tell it differently, spare people melodrama, explicative language, image, and make it new. I think, well, fuck that. I’ll say how it happened to me, and by doing that maybe it became new. I took the voice out of my heat that said writing about abuse it too much, that people will think it’s sentimental, or pulling at someone’s pathos, unwilling to be art. By resisting the pushback, I was able to write more fully and, at times, less artfully about what happened.

I remember my first creative writing professor in nonfiction asked his class not to write about abortions or car wrecks. I thought, You’re going to know about my abortion in detail (if only there had been a car crash that same day). I don’t think there is anything wrong with exploring familiar themes in the human experience. When the individual gets up and tells her story, there’s going to be a detail so real and vivid it places you there, and you identify. I believe in the author’s right to tell any story, and the closer it comes to a singular truth, the more art they render in the telling.”

And about work that is never really finished:

Page 132: “Cathartic or therapeutic—those words are sometimes used to relate a feeling, like a sigh of relief, or release, but therapy is fucking hard. My therapists didn’t pity me, not the good ones; they made me strip myself of pandering, manipulation, presentation—they wanted the truth more desperately than I did, and they wanted me to speak it—live it every moment. I feel like writing is that way. Writing can be hard therapy. You write, and then read it, revise your work to be cleaner, sharper, better, and then, when you have the best version of yourself (not rhetorically, but you’ve come close to playing the music you hear in your head)—you give it time and re-read it—you go back to the work—it seems endless. Nothing is ever communicated fully. The way being healed is never real unless every moment of every day you remind yourself of your progress and remind yourself not to go back, or hurt someone, or do the wrong thing—it’s not healing unless you keep moving—you’re never done. The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”