Tag Archives: books

From Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

This passage from Celeste Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere, captures so perfectly the feeling of wanting what I know I can’t have.

“After Pearl had begun to snore softly, Mia kept her hand in place, as if she were a sculptor shaping Pearl’s shoulder blades. She could feel Pearl’s heart, ever so faintly, beating under her palm. It has been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. As a baby Pearl had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she set her down, Pearl would cry. There’d scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been pressed together. As she got older, Pearl would still cling to her mother’s leg, then her waist, then her hand, as if there were something in her mother she needed to absorb through the skin. Even when she had her own bed, she would often crawl into Mia’s in the middle of the night and burrow under the old patchwork quilt, and in the morning they would wake up tangled, Mia’s arm pinned beneath Pearl’s head, or Pearl’s legs thrown across Mia’s belly. Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare—a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug—and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”

—Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (p. 248)

(Learning “to live on the smell of an apple alone” seems like the work of my current stage of motherhood.)

A SHINY POSTCARD WITH BIG NEWS!

assemblage of small items on desk, ermine, elephant, mug with tiger on it, Hans Bolling figure, clock, pencils, etc.
Step Right Up!
vintage postcard of California Alligator Farms, Los Angeles, Cal.
A Peep! A Teaser! A Glimpse Of What’s To Come…

My novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival, is forthcoming from What Books Press!

It’s official!

I’m overjoyed and gobsmacked to announce that The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival is forthcoming (October 2021) from What Books Press. I’m so grateful to Rod Val Moore and Kate Haake and Gronk all who are working to make What Books Press such a fabulous collective. I’ll share more news when I can. For now, please mark your calendars for October, and get ready to enjoy the show!

p.s. No animals were harmed in the writing of this post, or the writing of this novel.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

I recently read The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Wheldon Johnson. Johnson was the polymath who (among so many other experiences and accomplishments) wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which I hope some day the United States will embrace as national anthem…please enjoy this glorious video presented by 105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir.

About The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, from the Penguin website:

“Originally published in 1912, this novel was one of the first to present a frank picture of being black in America. Masked in the tradition of the literary confession practiced by such writers as St. Augustine and Rousseau, this “autobiography” purports to be a candid account of its narrator’s private views and feelings as well as an acknowledgement of the central secret of his life: that though he lives as a white man, he is, by heritage and experience, an African-American. Written by the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, in its depiction of turn-of-the-century New York, anticipates the social realism of the Harlem Renaissance writers. In its unprecedented analysis of the social causes of a black man’s denial of the best within himself, it is perhaps James Weldon Johnson’s greatest service to his race.”

The novel is extremely relevant and feels very modern. When I heard “Lift Every Voice And Sing” growing up, I don’t recall learning about the life of the person who wrote it. The resonant anthem seems almost incidental in Johnson’s life story, just one of his many varied works, although music was central to his existence. I’m grateful to know these things now. How different so much would be if I had been taught more about the writer behind the beautiful song, when I was a child.

May we teach our children and ourselves more fully about what our country is made from, so that we may lean toward what it finally may and will be…

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…

This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell

Cover: This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell
A really helpful book!

This book is great! I got it for my teen to read, and she loved it, and then I read it, and I also loved it. Very accessible but not at all dumbed-down, it’s a really helpful guide for young (and older) people to help frame the importance of moving toward justice. With writing/reflecting exercises with depth and power. I recommend it highly!

Happy new year (& here’s to good news in 2021)

photo of painting on wall, shadow of paper snowflake

Happy new year! May 2021 be gentle and kind to you, as it wipes the mess of 2020 from its shoes.

Reading my novel-in-progress, I found this bit, and I like it so thought I’d share. Completely torn from context but so what.

“In the silence, there are actually heaps to hear. Train your ears. Slow your breath until you glean what’s left. What’s been missing. The exhalation. Feel your shoulders drop. Everything you’ve been ignoring during The Disaster hasn’t disappeared. Even if it’s in the river and snagged on a rock, been taken captive, or submerged in mud, it’s still there, still out there somewhere. Maybe sleeping, maybe waiting. Maybe it’s only the bones. Maybe the next thing that happens is: whatever’s waiting wakes up.”

It’s fascinating to read through the pages of a novel I began writing in 2004 (that’s not a typo)…fascinating seeing how the “now” me filters through and makes sense of it…very strange. Like when Owl meets himself on the stairs in Arnold Lobel’s excellent book, Owl At Home. (“There must be a way,” said Owl, “to be upstairs and to be downstairs at the same time.”) I hope my next novel will take a shorter span of years, which may yield a psychically simpler writing process, I think? But this bit is new-er and informed by my fascination with embodiment, trauma, resilience, holding many things at once…etc.

(STAY TUNED because I will have some good news to share in the not too too distant future…)

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.