Review: MAYHEM: THREE LIVES OF A WOMAN by Elizabeth Harris

MAYHEM_elizabeth harrisMayhem: Three Lives of a Woman
Elizabeth Harris
Gival Press, October 2015
140 pp, $20

Pre-order here

In the opening scene of this exquisite first novel by prizewinning short fiction writer Elizabeth Harris, a young farm wife in a black cloche hat and rummage sale dress climbs out of a 1920s Essex and up the steps of a Texas county courthouse that locals proudly describe as pink granite but that “is really an under-color like raw liver, flecked over with black and gray and the sparkle of mica.” Two of the three lives of Evelyn Kunkle Gant, a “modest, obedient, well regarded woman taken in adultery,” have already ended. The third has not yet begun, as—shunned by every member of the Kunkle and Gant families, neighbors for generations—she dutifully attends the 1936 trial of her husband and brother-in-law for “a crime whose mention makes men cross their legs.”Continue Reading

When We Were Little Women


Like all the books I loved as a kid, Little Women took over my imagination and play and conversation—but in this case, more than any other, the takeover was communal. With my friends, I play-acted scenes from the book. Meg’s stay with the fashionable Moffats. The onset of Beth’s illness. Amy’s humiliation at school over those limes. The dance where Jo meets Laurie. My ratty-haired Barbies often became Jos who dramatically sacrificed their tresses to pay for their mothers’ tickets. When I asked my mom what a poplin was, or a bower, she not only had the answers but remembered the exact episodes of the book the words came from. Nancy McCabe’s recent post on children’s book festivals shows the power these works can hold over their readers, and that was how this book was for us. Bookish friends loved Little Women, non-bookish friends loved Little Women, my older and younger cousins loved Little Women. It was a shared world we could all step into at the same time
I find this widespread appeal a little surprising now. We were all reading Little Women more than a century after it was written, and it isn’t necessarily a book you’d expect to age well. The dialogue can feel mannered:

“Oh, tell me about it! I love dearly to hear people describe their travels.”

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“This World and the World Just Beyond It”: An Interview with Brynn Saito

Hong Kong Apartment Building

Brynn Saito’s poems are lyrical, sometimes mystical, dream-like yet also grounded in what feels like lived life. Her debut book, The Palace of Contemplating Departure, is marked by a striking voice that sounds both of this world and as if it comes from somewhere far above it. With Traci Brimhall, she also co-authored the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace. Brynn lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she directs the Center for Spiritual Life and teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Matthew Thorburn: The distinctive, dream-like voice in these poems hit me right from the first line of the opening poem: According to Theresa I was born from a wolf.Is this something you were conscious of or worked toward as you wrote the poems?

Brynn Saito: I wasn’t conscious of working on those registers—the grounded and the mystical—but both are surely there. I was raised within the Japanese Buddhist and Christian communities—a strange and dynamic spiritual brew!—and those cultural contexts imprinted my orientation to The Word and The World in powerful and unnamable ways. Incidentally, I had just seen Kiki Smith’s Rapture—a sculpture in which a woman rises naked from the body of a wolf—when I wrote the first line of the first poem. I love her piece for the way it concretely manifests the mythic and glosses it with an allusion to the biblical. “Try to praise the mutilated world,” writes Adam Zagajewski. I want to know how to praise (how to know, through poetry) this world and the world just beyond it.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Life-Saving Genius of The Drinkable Book

maxresdefaultChemist Teri Dankovich recently created a life-saving tool in the form of a book with perforated pages that filter water. The book, simply called The Drinkable Book, “acts to both educate the user and purify their drinking water.” It is a low-cost, portable, and reliable alternative to other water purification systems and methods, and though it is not yet commercially available, it aims to be soon. Watch a video of The Drinkable Book in action here.

One copy contains twenty-five pages, and each page uses silver nanoparticles to filter up to twenty-six gallons of water. The pages also function as educational tools, drawing attention to the dangers of drinking unsafe water. An estimated 663 million live without access to improved drinking water, and with 3.4 million dying of water-related diseases every year, this new venture is capable of offering real, lasting, dramatic aid.Continue Reading

10 Inspiring Books on Women’s Lives

books by women
I never tire of learning about other women’s lives and how they were forged.  How does one construct a passionate life?  Or articulate the way one survives the throes of it?  What art can be made from mess?  My first two books circled these questions in different ways, and my reading life continues to focus on books that explore these questions.

Here is a non-fiction reading list of memoirs and biographies, if you too like a fire lit underneath your chair and inside of your pen.

1. Nora Zeale Houston’s Dust Tracks on a Road — A memoir I’m currently reading, which Maya Angelou said was written with “royal humor and imperious creativity.”  “I was always asking and making a crow of myself in a pigeon’s nest,” Houston writes of her incessant and early curiosity.  “It was hard on my family and surroundings, and they in turn were hard on me.”

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Literary Blueprints: The Monster


Despite the simple title, the Monster is perhaps one of the most complicated, shifting characters in literature, past and present. Much of defining the Monster means defining ourselves and our views of the world. No other character relies so much on perspective to explain who (or what) the evil really is.

Origin Story: When has mankind existed without monsters? Some creature who lurks in the shadows and waits to destroy the unfortunate? In literature, the Monster propagates the earliest myths, be they Greek, Sumerian, Chinese, Aztec, or whatever—we are a people rooted in fear of the “other.” Monsters like the Cyclops in The Odyssey are not just antagonists to the Hero, they are malformed roadblocks who require physical as well as mental agility to overcome. Often the Monsters are unnatural crosses between threatening creatures, such as the Sphinx who riddles Oedipus. Some Monsters, for example the Sirens who lure Odysseus, require closer inspection to recognize their deformities. Whatever the form, Monsters represent human fear of the unknown, unnatural, and unexplained.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Love” by Clarice Lispector


There have been many craft essays written over the last few decades arguing the merits of the classic Joyce-ian epiphany. In “Love,” (The Offing), Clarice Lispector (translated by Katrina Dodson) explores the nature of epiphanies, and perhaps more importantly, what we do with them once they happen.

We meet the protagonist Ana as she’s returning from the grocer. We find she is well settled into domestic life, where her familial responsibilities have insulated her from the broader world. Notice how Lispector illustrates this through Ana’s inability to conceive of her former self, before being a homemaker.

“What had happened to Ana before she had a home was forever out of reach: a restless exaltation so often mistaken for unbearable happiness. In exchange she had created something at last comprehensible, an adult life. That was what she had wanted and chosen.”

Ana wants a comprehensible life; she doesn’t want mystery, she wants understanding. She doesn’t want surprises, she wants control. Or at least a part of her does. Lispector reveals that at moments during each day, that domestic tranquility is threatened.Continue Reading

Review: Out of My League by George Plimpton


Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur’s Ordeal in Professional Baseball

George Plimpton

Lyons Press, 1961

150 pages

Buy: book

There is, surrounding George Plimpton, the same world-traveled air that surrounds the fictional beer-selling sliver of a character The Most Interesting Man in the World (TMIMITW). TMIMITW gains his fictional interesting-ness via the sheer imposing number of his travels, an original far-flung montage of adventure and sport to accompany each new commercial in an apparently eternal series. Plimpton’s interesting-ness is a bit more interesting because, well, he actually did all of the journeys that would be recounted with a laugh over a beer. The trade-off for adventuring fictitiously versus actually: while TMIMITW commands each day with magnetic suaveness, Plimpton’s most interesting moments were a carnival of mishaps, his own shoes endlessly tripped over. Which probably makes for more interesting reading anyway.

Plimpton’s personal journey into “participatory journalism” began with him sitting in Yankee Stadium, watching a ballgame and basically wondering what it would take to get on the field with real-live Major Leaguers. It feels like an impossible ask here in 2015: inevitably a small army P.R. staff would materialize from thin air to prevent today’s journalist from playing the game in front of actual paying spectators. In the late fifties, though, one could, as Plimpton did, talk to a man named Toots Shor in a New York City bar, and Toots would be able to convince a magazine editor that it would be a good idea to have Plimpton pitch before a November exhibition of All-Stars. Continue Reading

What Happened to Tagore?

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.02.51 AMYou could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

And Tagore didn’t write poetry only either: he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bengal, he composed plays, gave speeches, and, in his later life, took up painting. He frequently traveled to Europe and other parts of Asia to lecture; he met with Einstein. So why does his name no longer resonant, especially among younger Indian poets and artists?

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Reading as Intoxicant, Part I: Neurochemical Qualities of the Modern Manic Page Peeler

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

Richard Wright once wrote that reading is like a drug. Countless other authors have written some variation of that same assertion. If you’ve ever found yourself crushed in a corner weeping like a crazy person because the end of your latest literary fixation was fast coming to a close, or buying more books than you could ever read in a lifetime, or huffing the exquisite scent of a freshly bound book like that accidental splash of gasoline upon your sneaker, then maybe you’ll agree. And so would science.


Like some illicit depressants, a book can be a most calming boon. The act of reading for just six minutes is enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68% or aid your nocturnal rituals. Like the most haughty of hallucinogens, vivid reading can also stimulate all kinds of interesting brain function, eliciting hypervisceral and tactile responses:

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. (Source)

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