Tag Archives: books

The Grief Forest by Laraine Herring

If we are human, there is sure to be grief in our past, present, or future. We can deny or try to avoid this fact, but to me it seems better to prepare and find helpful resources.

My friend Laraine Herring has written (and illustrated!) The Grief Forest, a beautiful and necessary book, really a container for process and feelings, and a light along the path through grief. A picture book intended for all ages, this book is a gift to the world: beautiful, deeply resonant, and reassuring.

2020 has brought me and us plenty of reasons to grieve. I’m so grateful to Laraine for manifested a book that will help lighten the burden.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

When the news was announced that Jacqueline Woodson was awarded the MacArthur Genius grant, I had just finished reading her gorgeous memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. I had recently seen her in conversation with another writer I admire, and so I could hear her voice and image the writer as I read the memoir. I can’t wait to read more of Woodson’s work.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful and generous glimpse into a young writer’s emergence, where family and sense of place both act as characters in the story. I hope you will read it. Two poems that really stood out to me:

On p. 80:

miss bell and the marchers

They look like regular people
visiting our neighbor Miss Bell,
foil-covered dishes held out in front of them
as they arrive
some in pairs,
some alone,
some just little kids
holding their mothers’ hands.

If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just
an evening gathering. Maybe church people
heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk
about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds
closed, the people fill their dinner places with food,
their glasses with sweet tea and gather
to talk about marching.

And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady
who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you
on that line!
Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing
she can do,
knows that people fighting need full bellies to think
and safe places to gather.
She knows the white lady isn’t the only one
who’s watching, listening, waiting,
to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’
glasses filled, adds more corn bread
and potato salad to their places,
stands in the kitchen ready to slice
lemon pound cake into generous pieces.

And in the morning, just before she pulls
her uniform from the closet, she prays,
God, please give me and those people marching
another day.

Amen.

And this beautifully embodied gift on p. 217:

writing #1

It’s easier to make up stories
than it is to write them down. When I speak,
the words come pouring out of me. The story
wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair,
crosses one leg over the other, says,
Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on.
But as I bend over my composition notebook,
only my name
comes quickly. Each letter, neatly printed
between the pale blue lines. Then white
space and air and me wondering, How do I
spell introduce?
Trying again and again
until there is nothing but pink
bits of eraser and a hole now
where a story should be.

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.”