Don’t Go Crazy Without Me by Deborah A. Lott

Don't Go Crazy Without Me by Deborah A. Lott (cover image)

Deborah Lott’s memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, is an embodied act of generosity. The narrator shares her life, turns everything inside out, paws through debris, so we can see how it’s possible for people to love and survive. She writes with unwavering clarity and precision. She never varnishes things, never looks away or shrinks from writing about the intricacy, the sticky quality of finding oneself born into a situation, and staying deeply tied to the other humans who live there.

Reading this narrative—enjoying how boldly and beautifully it’s told—I feel a sense of openhearted optimism. A sense of hope, of humanity’s possibility of survival.

Also delectable is how Lott shares a riveting glimpse into the early writer’s psyche, her awareness about what it is to be a writer. Here are a few bright bits:

p. 186:

“I wrote in the persona of an orphan, inspired by the cheesy Keane print of a huge-eyed, sad girl harlequin that adorned my bedroom wall as my patron saint. The girl in the painting, like the speaker in my poems, was an unloved, misunderstood waif. I wrote in the persona of a child grieving and then turning away from her mother, whose true state she finally recognizes: Look up at me, mother, and feel a moist eye / look up at me, mother / for mother I cry / …so bury your face / and I’ll cover your head. I must walk alone now / for mother you’re dead. I wrote as the confused, estranged girl who, a la some episodes of The Twilight Zone, suddenly realizes that she is dead herself: Don’t hate me / Don’t hate me with wet eyes / Talk to me / Don’t let me cry / …I’ll never know why you were that way / Why did you have to go? / Because I’m dead, you wouldn’t stay?”

[For me, this passage recalled that particular sheen of 1960s & 70s sadness…that ubiquitous art by Keane, from childhood…the images of freaky-sad children and animals that I remember spanned the walls of our veterinarian’s office…I hadn’t thought about how haunting those images were for a long time. Recalling them made me wonder if they were an early seed for my own writing about orphans, or the sense of being an orphan.]

p. 199:

“On the walls of my bedroom, I hung up my poems. They were close enough for a foot to touch when I lay in bed and stretched one leg out toward the cool wall. I’d copied them with colored markers onto butcher paper in my own approximation of calligraphy. In this graphic form, they provided an assertion of self larger than on the pages of my notebook or diary. I saw them when I woke up every morning, and they provided the backdrop as I fell asleep. This is who you are, they said, a writer, an observer, a fighter for freedom and justice. Hang on.”

And finally, on p. 250 (a conversation between the narrator and her brother, as adults)

“‘You know, I’m writing a memoir about our family,’ I say. ‘Do you want to read it?’

‘I’m not sure. I bet if I wrote it, though, it would be a much different story.’

‘To the writer belongs the story. You could write your own version; no one’s stopping you. Maybe if you wrote, you wouldn’t have to hold onto so much actual stuff. Maybe you could find some peace in writing about it.’

‘Has it given you peace?’

I laugh. My brother knows better.

‘At least it takes up less room in my house.’”

May you, too, enjoy this powerful and life-affirming memoir. To learn more about Deborah Lott, visit her website.

Book Nook interview available for streaming at WYSO

Two cats cuddling and sleeping
(Jessie and Elly probably missed the interview, too.)

If you weren’t awake and listening to WYSO at 7am Eastern a few Saturdays ago, have no fear! You can now hear my conversation with Vick Mickunas at the Book Nook on WYSO at your leisure. I’ve long been a fan of Book Nook, and it was such fun to talk with Vick. I’m grateful that he took the time. I hope you enjoy!

Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief by Victoria Chang

 Cover of Victoria Chang's book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief

I love how Victoria Chang employed the form of the letter in her gorgeous book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. The interplay between her letters and the imagery shimmers with life. And I love how she grapples with gaps in memory, gaps and erasures in family stories, and struggles in the reaching toward understanding that is the human urge, and an impossibly hard urge to sit still within. It’s a gift: there is so much to learn about the writer and the process in these pages.

The beauty and clarity of Chang’s voice in these pieces is simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-mending.

Such as:

“These are the kinds of questions that absolutely did not matter at the time. The things that didn’t matter at the time are often the most urgent questions after someone has died.” (from Dear Mother, p. 27)

“When we say that something takes place, we imply that memory is associated with a physical location, as Paul Ricoeur states. But what happens when memory’s place of origin disappears?” (from Dear Mother, p. 49)

“Each book isn’t just a book, but a period of life, a period of learning how to write. Each book has its own hair color, its own glasses, its own favorite mug, its own computer, its own shirt and pants, its own tears.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 77)

“As I write, more and more of my cells are replaced by language. When they burn a writer’s body, the smoke will be shaped like letters.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 77)

“You told me that suffering can deepen and expand a poet’s work. And that sometimes suffering can put so much pressure on a person that they have no choice but to become a poet. You told me that suffering is one’s fate and that regardless of whether the fates have distributed suffering to me, if I see the world around mew, care about and for other people, face the setbacks of the world, read with hunger, get older, encounter illness, and if life is not lost on me—and if, all the while, I learn how to write better and pay attention better—maybe, just maybe, I would be able to write better poems.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 87)

“I don’t know if you know that Charles Simic once said: The world is beautiful but not sayable. That’s why we need art. I think that’s why we need all art. Not just art from some people. Or whether you know what Osip Mandelstam said: What tense would you choose to live in? I want to live in the imperative of the future passive participle—in the ‘what ought to be.’ I don’t know where this is or what it looks like, but I know somehow it begins with language.” (from Dear B, p. 130)

“Working on these letters and listening to the interviews made me think that grief and memory are related. That memory, trying to remember, is also an act of grieving. In my mothers case, sometimes forgetting or silence was a way to grieve lost lands and to survive. In my case, trying to know someone else’s memories, even if it’s through imagination and within silence, is also a form of grieving.” (from Dear Reader, p. 144)

“In the end, these epistles brought me much sadness and shame to write, but the process was also joyful. I’ve always loved what Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects says about the chisel:

The chisel must be capable of shaping any material however unlikely. It has to leave runnels of great strength and infinite delicacy. In her own hands, the chisel will come to feel light and assured, and she refines it to take her grip and no other. If someone borrows it, it will handle like a clumsy tool or perform like a trick. And ye to her, as she works with it and works upon it, it will become the most precise instrument she knows. There are plenty of tools a writer can beg or borrow, but her chisel she must make herself, just as Michelangelo did.

I’m still learning how to make my own chisel, but everything I write, no matter how crude, is an experiment with my unfinished chisel. Each time I sit down, I pull out my imaginary chisel, listen to the words that come up, like eavesdropping, crane my neck into language, into memory, into silence. And each time I write, the chisel becomes more and more finished and distinctly mine. And with each word, I become more and more myself.” (from Dear Reader, p. 146)

Book Nook Interview on WYSO

On Saturday, March 26, 7am Eastern you can tune in/stream from WYSO to hear Vick Mickunas interview me about The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival. (This is my first ever radio interview!) If you are not awake at 7am Eastern, fear not: eventually, the interview will be available to stream anytime from this page: https://www.wyso.org/show/book-nook.

I’m extremely grateful to Vick Mickunas for taking time to discuss my novel & other ephemera, and more, for creating and sustaining the Book Nook since 1994. And grateful to WYSO for being such a fabulous radio station.

A Rememory of Virginia Hamilton (for the Dayton Daily News)

Cover of The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton

I’m extremely honored to have been invited to write about Virginia Hamilton for the Dayton Daily News. Virginia Hamilton was an early and abiding influence on me, as a writer. In the essay, “A Rememory of Virginia Hamilton,” I reflect, as well, on Virginia’s impact on literature and our local community. The piece was published in print and online on February 6. 2022. (It was a further honor to have this piece appear in print alongside pieces on Paul Lawrence Dunbar by Dr. Herbert Martin and Ralph Ellison by Sierra Leone. And I’m grateful to Leigh Adoff Hamilton and Jaime Adoff for their support, and to Ron Rollins and Nick Hrkman for the invitation.)

Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts

cover of Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts
Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts

Catching up on some book notes, I’m thrilled to spend a moment recommending that you hurry up and read Chris Tebbetts‘ fabulous & fun novel, Me Myself & Him.

I read this novel in 2019, but because the author is a beloved friend from early days, I was “only” able to absorb and enjoy. (There is nothing wrong with reading for pleasure! Please, let’s read for as much pleasure as we can! We need all the pleasure we can get—these days, any days.) In 2019, I was happily distracted by familiar details and voices, and I let myself get swept away in the experience. But recently, I re-read the novel with a blog post in mind.

Even if Chris Tebbetts were not my friend, I would still call this a friendly book. There’s an amiable generosity in the self-deprecating humor of the narrator—the voice—and I can imagine being a friend to the fictional Chris. Fiction or non, I love reading books like this, where the narrator seems honest, earnest, and trustworthy, fully human. In the case of Me Myself & Him, some of this trustworthiness comes from the narrator’s willingness to show his imperfection, his mistakes. I found that aspect of this novel extremely life-affirming. We make choices, we make mistakes, we fuck up. We keep going, despite injury and heartache. We endure shame. Sometimes people grow, and sometimes, people forgive each other.

This novel is a beautiful artifact of connection and friendship. (Very necessary in these times of isolation.) It centers friendship as an openhearted pursuit, through many twists of fate, or plot—and speaking of plot, this novel is so appealing in its puzzle-parts, its twin lines of possibility, in being a rumination on what might happen if.

One of the most compelling textures is the narrator’s storytelling voice. Readers glimpse the interior of the character as he grapples with a complicated relationship with his father. Such as:

p. 13: In a conversation with his father about college:

“Birch had been my first choice, and against all odds, not to mention my own expectations, I’d gotten in, as a film and English double major. I had no idea what I wanted to do yet (as in, when I grew up), but I knew exactly where I wanted to be for the next four years—at Birch. And, just as important, anywhere but Green River, Ohio.

I couldn’t not go to Birch, and Dad knew that, didn’t he?

‘I know you feel forced right now,’ he said. ‘I’d feel the same way. But this is all about choices you’ve made. You do understand that, don’t you?’

This is what I’m talking about with him. It’s like falling down a hole and there’s nothing to grab onto because it’s all lined with that stainless steel logic of his.

Then on p. 28:

Then he did this one thing that he and my mother share. They’ll smile in this patronizing way when I’m acting stupider than I actually am. It’s a harder habit to break than you might think—for me, I mean.

He took a sip of coffee, to let my stupidity sink in. Then he said, ‘Actually, I want two things. I want you to speak with a counselor, and I want you to come work at the lab this summer.’ Felicia moved her head, like maybe an eight of an inch. ‘Assuming you’re still planning on Birch in the fall,’ Dad added.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the bottom of the hole. Please remain seated until we’ve come to a full stop at the terminal and the captain has turned off the HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS COMING? sign.”

And later, on p. 217 in the alternate narrative strand, re: his father’s second wedding:

“I kept forgetting—or losing track of the idea—that everyone else who was coming to the wedding thought of it as this champagne-soaked, all-good thing, and entirely worth celebrating. Mark and Felicia, together forever, whatever.

At the same time, there was a little bit of What the hell is wrong with me? mixed in there. Seriously, why couldn’t I just be neutral about it, or even, god forbid, happy for them? Why did everything always have to be so considered and examined and dissected? By the time you finish dissecting anything, it’s a disgusting mess. So what did I expect? That I was going to chew on all this wedding stuff, spit it out, and like what I saw?

Please.

Honestly, what I really wanted—what I’d always wanted with regard to Dad—was to not think about it. But that never seemed like an option. He had this sway over me; this way of invading my thoughts that only got worse when I was around him. Whether that was about my own weak-mindedness, or his strength, or something else, I don’t know, but I resented it as much as anything.

It was going to be a long three days.”

Although I recoil a bit at implying that authors have a responsibility to make characters “relatable” (no pressure, writers! and I just don’t like that word), I do find the gently neurotic flavor of the narration…familiar. :) Appealing. Reassuring? (Proving that maybe neurosis/over-anxiety is not only in my head.) Maybe because the neurotic bits are so artfully balanced by a round, complicated character. Interior rumination is used judiciously here, by a writer who knows well how to handle texture and pacing—so the rumination is, to me, one of the most delicious parts of this novel.

You can learn more about Chris and his work at the website above, and on Instagram here.

Oh, and p.s., thank you, Chris, for giving young people (and old people) such a beautifully engaging novel as Me Myself & Him that feature LQBTQ+ protagonists! What the world needs!

Q&A at the Pan Review

(image stolen from The Pan Review)

Dear friends,

Mark Andresen at the Pan Review (“a bi-monthly look at the arts and literary scene”) graciously invited me to answer some wonderful questions for the Pan Review Of The Arts No. XIII. I’m very grateful to Mark for this opportunity, and grateful there are such fascinating corners of the internet, where we can ponder the inner workings and explore inspiring esoterica.

Here’s where you can read the Q&A. And please support these creative people, including Daniel Mills, whose story collection Among The Lillies can be found at the most fabulous Undertow Publications.

Love, Rebecca

I’m So Fine by Khadijah Queen

Cover of book: I'm So Fine by Khadijah Queen

I’m So Fine: A List Of Famous Men and What I Wore by Khadijah Queen

This book is hypnotic and gorgeous and it is so good to be alive right now and be living at a time when this book exists. My friend Melissa loaned it to me, and I am ordering a copy for my shelf, because, well, if you’ve read it, you know why, and if you are yet to read it, you will soon discover why.

Queen builds a rock-solid feminist narrative—a memoir formed by tight, crystalline, lyrical fragments, whose accumulation seems as effortless as how iridescent shells appear and gather on the beach, carried by waves of awareness and poetry, to shine in the sun…

Here are some of my favorite fragments.

On page 27:

“I never met Bill Cosby but I met Beverly Johnson at Magic Mountain with my dad & my sister one summer in the mid-1980s & she had on an oversized cardigan & jeans casual but lovely my dad chatted her up while we rode the Colossus with her daughter he said he asked for her number & she politely declined I remember her grace & regality & lace-up boots she sat on the beat bench with her feet crossed at the ankle so when she went public about Cosby drugging & trying to assault her I immediately believed her & not him I have seen enough of powerful men by now to know she had nothing to gain by going public & the truth of beauty means both spotlights & shadows find you & it takes more than instinct to know where to stand on the stage & I don’t mean looks all the time I mean all women are all beautiful and I wish we knew it in ways that make us realize the relative insignificance of the arrangement of external features so we might as well not get so caught up & my dad had a lot of nerve right I mean some men have a lot of fucking nerve in general & I think my sister & I had on matching Hawaiian shirts that day & wore them tucked in I didn’t wear that shirt again & not long after that I fell in love with fashion & asked my dad to start buying me issues of Vogue”

On p. 53

“At the end of summer I met a guy who looked like a six-foot-two Lenny Kravitz but he turned out to be another narcissistic sociopath & where is the law against men that fine &  that messy but at least I could tell within the first 30 minutes of conversation which included tales of his multiple cars &  failed pro football career &  travels to China where he had adventures with sex traffickers &  drug dealers &  later (because I had to finish my raspberry cheesecake &  glass of rose) the break up with his Chinese baby’s mother who he called his former weed bitch & his switch from Christianity to Judaism because he said he wanted to be rich & what in the world happened to this man to make him think it’s okay to reveal all of that to a stranger what kind of man does that I thought but it’s the kind who makes sure you arrive at the restaurant in time to see him speed into the parking lot in a black on black Porsche &  the kind that wears not one but three diamond rings not one but three gold chains & after he hugs you hello reaches back into the car to grab his Louis Vuitton man purse & the zing of attraction crackles to ash because when I met him at the bookstore he claimed to be a small-time restaurateur he had on jeans &  Frye boots &  a worn Jimi Hendrix T-shirt no gold no chains just a leather cuff & a zillion tattoos & his arms were CUT so when he asked to buy me a drink later I gave him my number I had on zero makeup my 20 post-surgical pounds & an orange & white maxi tank & raffia wedges & I should have known better because he was 10 years younger & chose one of those self-published looking wealth management books & wandered to the money-oriented magazine aisle but his attention made me feel lovely at a time when I needed to feel lovely but I’ll be damned if I get dumb so I blocked him & changed his name to Red Flags & avoid making eye contact with men at the Barnes & Noble”

On p. 68:

“When I saw John Singleton buying a bean pie at Simply Wholesome I knew I had done the right thing cutting off all lover & ex-lovers all man candy & even decent prospects & coming to L.A. for my 40th birthday to hang out with my best friends & also who doesn’t love bean pie if they’ve had some bean pie & my son came with me his face all smiles because spicy Jamaican patty & cream soda heaven & even the live music at Simply is perfect & even though I’d had two surgeries & my newly cut up gut prone to protest I was alive in my hometown & seeing celebs just like old times & when I was young I could in equal measure celebrate & take everything about living for granted but 40 is so cool 40 is seeing & knowing not seeing & wanting 40 holds beauty as the accumulation of bliss & survival 40 widens its arms 40 seeks all the June sun instead of shade & flies with more than usual mechanical luster & says yes to all the right things because 40 knows what it wants & mostly gets its every fineness”

Please read this book!