Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman
Gival Press, October 2015
140 pp, $20
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
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.”
Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur’s Ordeal in Professional Baseball
Lyons Press, 1961
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
You 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?
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)
At a cultural moment when it seems the Southern Way of Life needs some image rehab, the timing of Harrison Scott Key’s memoir of his Mississippi childhood is impeccable. The World’s Largest Man takes on the Southern masculine ideal, violence, race and more, all under the guise of amiable family anecdote.
Comprised of humorous, highly polished essays with a loose through-line (mainly Key’s rural upbringing and his relationship with his taciturn and boulder-like father), the book can be described as at least part hunting memoir. During his childhood, young Key was regularly roused by his father in the pre-dawn hours to commence a “campaign of slaughter through the animal kingdom,” which included at one point, accidentally shooting the face off a fawn. The episode is one of many that shape the author’s ambivalent relationship with guns. “It was embarrassing that my children did not know what an actual gun looked like,” he writes late in the book, “Or was this a good thing?”Continue Reading
What Comes Next and How to Like It
Scribner, March 2015
Buy: book | ebook
I was first introduced to Abigail Thomas’s work in grad school when I read Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life. Initially, I was startled by its economy of words, wondering how all those little pieces were going to fit together to form something larger. To my surprise (which says a lot about me, I’m sure), they did fit, perfectly, and after I closed the book I found myself thinking about it for days.
Such is the subtle way Abigail Thomas enters the lives of her readers. Now in her 70s, she recently published her seventh book, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Like Safekeeping, it’s filled with white space, some chapters holding no more than a single paragraph, others filling a few pages; all of them seeking to answer the question of what comes next—in her life, and perhaps in ours.Continue Reading
We all know the best thing to take with you on a summer vacation is a good book. Here are this August’s must-reads, begging to be read poolside or in the shade.
Norton, August 3
In his debut novel, Writing Award winner Vu Tran writes that “the life you leave behind never dies.” This eerie truth forms the thematic backbone for Dragonfish, a juicy Las Vegas noir about the ruthless ties that bind old lovers, mothers and daughters, and double-crossing gamblers.
Robert is a weary Oakland cop who can’t help but miss the chaotic romance he had with his ex-wife Suzy. When he finds out his beloved has disappeared from her tumultuous and violent life in Las Vegas, he descends into the whirlwind of their past together and the secrets she hid about her life in a Malaysian refugee camp, including the existence of an estranged daughter. Suzy’s new husband Sonny—who is, by turns, both savage and kind—blackmails Robert into finding the wife he loves and also feels he owns. Robert’s allegiances twist and double-back as he learns the truth about Suzy’s mercurial existence. As his own hopes of reuniting with her hang in the balance, Robert must put himself in one powerful man’s line of fire in order to help mend a broken family bond, just as the golden dragonfish is believed to do.
A sophisticated mystery anchored in one woman’s quest to make amends with the daughter she abandoned, Dragonfish delicately capsizes our notions of what it means to long for escape from the prisons of our own making.
Chamique: On Family, Focus, and Basketball
Chamique Holdsclaw with Jennifer Frey
Much like Brittney Griner’s In My Skin, Chamique is a slapped-together memoir by a college basketball wunderkind, Chamique Holdsclaw, following the player’s uneven rookie year in the pros. Where In My Skin charmed with Griner’s honesty and desire for self-improvement, Chamique broke hearts with a tale that has since been proven to be an elaborate façade—although it’s not easy to tell if Holdsclaw herself understood the book’s content was a façade at the time.
This is pretty astounding, considering the many beans that Holdsclaw is willing to spill in Chamique. Pre-teen Holdsclaw is effectively forced to steal money from her parents, themselves nonfunctional alcoholics, to get food for herself and her younger brother, Davon. As she grows older, Holdsclaw dishes dirt about plenty of her professional relationships, including her displeasure with her WNBA team, the Washington (D.C.) Mystics, for allowing her closest friend on the team, backup Rita Williams, to be signed elsewhere.Continue Reading
This Is the Homeland
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.
The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading