Book Review

Make Present the Experience of the Other: Three Memoirs of Political Witness

February 9, 2020

By Glen Retief

on I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan

No Ashes in The Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America by Darnell L. Moore

A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory by Jamal Mahjoub

1.

In Carolyn Forché’s introduction to the seminal 2014 Norton anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, she has this to say about poetry shaped by, and reacting to, conditions of political extremity:

Witness, then, is neither martyrdom nor the saying of a judicial truth, but the owning of one’s infinite responsibility for the other one (l’autri). It is not to be mistaken for politicized confessionalism . . . . In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other . . . .”

Memoir has, of course, never carried the cachet of poetry. Yet like the poetry or fiction of witness, the outward-looking, politically engaged memoir and essay have a rich and respected literary pedigree, including slave narratives (the predominant form of African-American literature until the twentieth century); Mark Twain’s pamphlet about the genocide in the Congo Free State; James Baldwin’s and George Orwell’s searing dissections of racism and colonialism; Ivan Turgenev’s descriptions of Jean-Baptiste Tropmann’s execution; and Mary McCarthy’s brilliant denunciations of American Stalinism, to name just a few.

At its apex, the memoir of political witness, like its poetic sibling, transcends simple confessionalism or historic documentation to provide a window into what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself” and what Forché names as a “wound” in consciousness, where “language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic.” Indeed, Forché’s own powerful What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction, is a fine example of nonfiction prose that “makes present the experience of the other,” in this case the lives of El Salvadorans during the country’s 1980s civil war. (Disclosure: I am thanked in Forché’s acknowledgements for reading early drafts of that book).

Contemporary memoirists drawn to this act of outward-looking witness have deployed chiefly three formal approaches: the deployment of investigative journalistic techniques to confirm and elaborate one’s personal history (examples include Aminatta Forna’s Devil that Danced on the Water and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart); the novelistic reconstruction of traumatic experience (Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True; Ismael Beah’s A Long Way Gone; and Rigoberta Menchú’s I, Rigoberta Menchú); and the essayistic or ruminative approach, which uses the experience of extremity to launch a meditation on root causes and their contexts (Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind).

Three memoirs of political witness by men of color, all published within the last two years, continue to illustrate the relevance of these three different formal approaches to the memoir of witness. They also sample the kinds of contemporary human rights abuses that engage writers in the age of a resurgent, nationalistic populism across the globe.

2.

The first, I Will Never See the World Again is a masterful and harrowing account of the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of the well-known Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan. Altan was arrested in September 2016, in the aftermath of that country’s attempted coup, and charged with treason for, in the words of his prosecutor, “sending subliminal messages” to the plotters. His misfortune, it seems, was to be have been interviewed on national television the night before the coup where he denounced state corruption. Sentenced to life imprisonment for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” and banned from all written communication, Altan secretly wrote his memoir on pieces of blue paper that he smuggled out with his lawyer.

It is possible the publication of this memoirfirst by Granta in the UK in March 2019, and now in North America, helped Altan briefly see the world again, thus avoiding the prediction of the memoir’s title: on November 4, in response to a global campaign, a Turkish court reduced Altan’s sentence to ten years and six months and released him on parole in recognition of time already served.  However, on November 12 he was re-detained in what Amnesty International calls “a scandalous injustice.”

I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer deploys the novelistic techniques one might expect of a fiction writer. Scenes are vividly reconstructed from memory or notes, beginning with Altan’s arrest:

Dawn arrived. The sun rose behind the hills with its rays spreading purple, scarlet, and lavender waves across the sky, resembling a white rose petal opening . . . .

While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on.

“Would you like some tea?”

They said they would not.

“It is not a bribe,” I said, . . . “you can drink some.”

The poeticism, lyricism and humor here are representative of the book as a whole. Indeed, there are moments when the skill of the narrative composition, the confident dance between story and reflection, makes it hard for me to imagine it could have been composed under such punitive circumstances.

Not that the book avoids confronting the aforementioned oppression. For most of the narrative, Altan is confined with other leaders of Turkish society—among others, a military colonel, a teacher, a religious scholar, and a judge—in a gloomy communal cell, sleeping on the floor. There are no mirrors in the prison campus, built to house 11,000 people: “By simply putting away the mirrors,” he writes, “they had erased us from life.”

At times, Altan experiences overwhelming claustrophobia and terror: “I had the feeling that the walls would close in on us, crush and swallow us like carnivorous plants.” Worse, none of the political prisoners whom Altan meets appear to have the slightest idea why they are in indefinite pre-trial detention for supporting the coup: one colonel was on vacation with his family on the night of the uprising.

Altan describes a disturbing trip in handcuffs to a hospital for X-rays. During the course of his walk and transit-vehicle ride to the hospital, his wrists become pinched and sore. In the X-ray room, the gendarme holds Altan’s wrists and readies to remove his cuffs:

“There is no need for the handcuffs to be removed.”

I turned to look. It was a petite young woman wearing a headscarf, loose clothes and no makeup. She was the X-ray technician.

She knew the handcuffs were hurting my wrists and making it difficult for me to move, yet with a voice like ice she stopped their removal.

There was no anger, no irritation, no sign of enmity on her face . . . .

Here was pure evil neither nurtured by nor derived from nor mingled with any kind of emotion.

The picture of Erdogan’s Turkey that emerges may, indeed, remind readers both of Arendt’s “banality of evil” and of Kafka’s The Trial, with citizens detained at random, and with no hint of animosity—only bureaucratic indifference. Yet somehow Altan maintains hope in the power of words to safeguard his humanity. “Wherever you lock me up,” he tells his readers at the end of the book, “I will travel the world with the wings of my infinite mind.”

The claim may strike some readers as brave. Yet it is also earned: Altan provides ample gorgeous descriptions of the novels and movies he re-lives (Doctor Zhivago, Irma la Douce) as well as those he writes in his head. Ultimately, Altan’s eloquence provides perhaps the most potent testimony to this inner liberty he accomplishes. It is in the shapeliness of this story itself that the power of literature is made visible anew, and with it, imaginative freedom.

3.

If I Will Never See the World Again reads much like an impressionistic novel, then Darnell L. Moore’s No Ashes in The Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America, one of the most prominent memoirs to emerge out of the Black Lives Matter movement, seems more grounded in the journalistic tradition. Again, this makes sense given the author’s professional background: He has worked as a community organizer, activist, and freelance journalistMoore shares extensive recollections of the joys (community love and support) and tribulations (violence, bullying, an absent father) of growing up black, gay, and poor in Camden, New Jersey. It also tells an unabashedly inspiring story of the author’s resisting racism and homophobia to become a leader, speaker, and educator in both the national Black Lives Matter and LGBT movements.

No Ashes in the Fire contains some affecting scenes. One that especially lingered in my mind dates from when Moore was fourteen years old. OB, “the oldest and toughest” of a crew of teenage boys that hangs out on Moore’s street, calls Moore a “faggot.” Moore tries to ignore OB’s taunts and questions about whether he is scared. But then OB empties a milk carton of gasoline on Moore’s head:

The liquid covered my body. I could barely see. My eyes were glazed and throbbing. The pungent smell of fuel, which belonged in a moped tank and not a child’s mouth, heightened my senses . . . . I caught a few glimpses of OB as he attempted to strike the match. It flickered several times. However, the wind instinctively seemed to put out each flame . . . . I was in shock and emotionally numb. The psychic pain was so deep I could no longer sense its presence.

Some clumsiness in the prose style needs to be acknowledged here. There is the unnecessary editorializing (“which belonged in a moped tank”); the linguistic vagueness (“pain so deep I could no longer sense it”). Still, it would take a heartless reader to not be moved by the sincerity and palpable vulnerability of the autobiographical disclosure, in this and similar scenes. Likewise, the moral summons in the memoir seems as urgent as anything in James Baldwin or Audre Lorde: a call to the black community to stop tragically reenacting its oppression on its most vulnerable members.

When No Ashes in the Fire offers more explicit journalistic commentary on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in today’s America, the memoir likewise delivers important contemporary insights about mass imprisonment, police violence, civil disenfranchisement, and homophobia.

Moore is especially sharp and detailed in tracing the history of Camden, where systematic economic disinvestment followed white flight in the 1970s, and where his great-grandmother, a domestic worker named Elpernia Lewis, saved her pennies to buy a house, only to lose it in a sheriff’s sale in 1977. He is also incisive in dissecting bourgeois hypocrisy in relation to the Black Lives Matter and hip-hop movements. Here he comments, for example, on the anti-rap discourse emanating from “the cloistered class of upwardly mobile black people” in the 1990s:

National events in the mid-1990s created an environment that encouraged the performance of bravado among black youth . . . . The kicks to [Rodney King’s face], the punches to his body, the blood pouring onto the streets were reminiscent of police practices common in places like Camden . . . . Black youth in Camden did not have to rehearse and perfect the stories we heard in the rap songs we listened to . . . . We only needed to look around at what was happening closest to us to see that our survival would come at our own hands, not at the behest of the state.

The memoir ends with an ode to the Ferguson Freedom Rides—chartered busses that brought hundreds of black activists to Ferguson, Missouri, over Labor Day weekend in 2014, to protest the killing of Mike Brown. Moore joined Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors to organize these busses “[w]ithin two weeks, without a budget.” “What I wish I could adequately detail,” Moore writes, “is the spiritual undercurrent and the radical black love that flowed that weekend.”

Indeed, I longed for more specific details of that camaraderie—the long bus talks; the eyes meeting in solidarity; the sheer novelty, in twenty-first century America, of black people gathered in large numbers to fight back. Instead, we receive only the briefest of summaries of a moment of collective fist-raising at a rally at the Saint John’s United Church of Christ of St. Louis. Still, No Ashes in the Fire unmistakably serves as an expression of that black love, from a marginalized perspective within that love—an essential and important contribution.

4 .

A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory, by the Sudanese-British novelist Jamal Mahjoub, seems a paradigmatic example of the third formal approach—the ruminative or associative method that draws on history, memory, and research to dig into the background of, and provide context for, the atrocity under discussion. I will argue here that, regrettably, A Line in the River mostly fails at this particular goal because, for all its good intentions, Mahjoub remains ultimately too closely tied to his own Northern Sudanese community that provided the backbone of support for the regime. The memoir, however, is a beautiful and accomplished work of creative nonfiction as well as an important tribute to the art, architecture, cultural diversity, and physical beauty of one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.

The project of witness is articulated in the book’s prologue: “This book emerged partly from a sense of anger and outrage at what was happening in Darfur.” However, as Mahjoub acknowledges,

[T]his project soon began to spiral out of hand. It felt like a book that was open-ended, limitless . . . . I was trying to find an end point, and at the same time did not want to . . . . So what is this book? Fiction, nonfiction? Personal memoir, political history, travelogue? I still find it hard to define.

The book’s formal ambiguity is, in fact, a strength, leading to a work of extraordinary richness. Form mirrors theme. Thus, as a panegyric to the cultural diversity of Khartoum, the Mahjoub’s portrait combines gorgeous description—“At night, seen from the air, the city of Khartoum appears to float untethered in the dark void, a glittering tray of precious stones”—eccentric tidbits of history—like revisiting the death-by-decapitation in 1885 of Major-General Charles Gordon—and evocative fragments of childhood memory, tinged with nostalgia: “My memory of those years is of a simple life. We lived and slept outdoors. The houses were open-sided and cooled by gentle fans . . . .”

It is a feast, both intellectual and sensual: readers will learn about everything from the ancient Nubian cities erased by the Aswan Dam to the collection of ancient Sudanese spears, swords, and hippopotamus-hide shields housed at Blair Castle in Scotland. What seems unavoidable, though—a kind of implicit underpinning of the entire enterprise—is Mahjoub’s rejection, on both aesthetic and political grounds, of the conventional memoir of political witness.

Here, for example, is Mahjoub making fun of Bernard-Henri Levy’s May 2007 essay, in Le Monde, about Darfur conflict:

[The essay] reads like an updated outtake of Beau Geste. [Levy] races across the desert while talking into his satellite telephone to contacts in Paris. He is here to bear witness, he declares, and that is what the great man literally does: “I witness it: the paraphernalia, the big guns, and the smell of a hot war and large-scale crimes against humanity. It’s all there.” The grandeur of the telling makes the actual event shrivel.

The aesthetic objection to the memoir of witness here, Mahjoub himself seems to raise, is one of arrogance. Who calls the memoirist of witness to the stand, and how dare that witness then infuse his enterprise with such self-righteous moral solemnity? The political objection, on the other hand, seems to be the concept of “large-scale crimes against humanity” itself. The overall line of argument in A Line in the River makes clear that while Mahjoub deplores the fragmentation of the Sudanese state and the failures on both sides that led to it, he does not believe the Sudanese crimes were as large, grave, or one-sided as commonly assumed in the West.

Although Mahjoub’s skepticism about such Western clichés as “marauding Arabs preying on innocent Africans” seems warranted, his move to treat the situations in South Sudan and Darfur as failures of diversity and inclusion rather than major crimes against humanity seems much less well-supported by the relevant scholarship.

Clearly, definitions of “genocide” are complex. Mahjoub provides a reasonable review of the controversy about using this term in relation to Darfur, where, on the one hand, institutions like Yad Vashem, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court uncovered an intent to eradicate tribes opposed to Northern rule, while, on the other hand, groups like the 2004 UN Commission of Inquiry and the African Union found evidence of war crimes “as grave or heinous” as genocide, but no literal intention to eradicate.

If there is a purpose in A Line in the River to reckon specifically with what almost all scholars agree are some of the most serious human rights abuses committed by any government in the twenty-first century, it eluded me. Here, for example, is Mahjoub on the general topic of Darfur:

The point being that it was no longer about Sudan. Darfur had become an American issue. It had more to do with America’s need to understand itself, to see itself as a world leader, as the needle on a global moral compass . . . . Darfur offered the chance for America to believe in itself again, after the dismay of Iraq.

The tone here is disturbing: Dear Western reader, please stop making such a fuss about a quarter million murdered civilians!

Or here is Mahjoub, on the topic of South Sudanese secessionism. For context, readers should be aware that in a 2011 referendum, pronounced credible by international observers, 99% of voters expressed their wish to leave the country dominated by Mahjoub’s Arab-African ethnic group:

A few half-hearted placards by the side of the road proclaiming “Our Strength is Our Unity” are not going to [persuade Southern voters to stay in the union]. Perhaps it is because racial and cultural purity are so hard to come by that there is an obsession within defining oneself as being so distinct from everyone else. We cannot deal with fluid, open-ended existences . . . . In a country of in-betweens—Arabised Africans and Africanised Arabs, all floating along freely—there is an existential need to cling to the slightest vestiges of distinction.

There we have it. The overwhelming will to separate expressed by South Sudanese voters was not a response to, for example, what Vukoni Lapa Lusaga has called“a racist, minority Arab-supremacist, and crypto-apartheid regime.” Rather, secessionism represented “an existential need to cling to the slightest vestiges of distinction” because of the depth of the similarities between North and South Sudan.

Here, one is reminded of Martin Luther King Junior’s insight in his “Letter from Birmingham”:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

For “Negro,” substitute “Sudanese Southerner”; for “white moderate,” substitute “liberal-multiculturalist Northerner”; for “order,” insert “diversity.” Alas, there you have the failure of Mahjoub’s attempt to contextualize the twin crises in Darfur and South Sudan: The author is so grief-stricken about the loss of his country, and so allergic to Western self-righteousness about the Arab world, that he ends up minimizing his culture’s crimes.

It seems telling that, during the course of writing A Line in the River, Mahjoub failed to travel to Darfur. “I had been hoping to find a way out to Darfur, to see what was happening there for myself,” he tells us, “but my plans fell through.” Although he arrived in Khartoum after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, when regional security was improved, he still seemed to require, for reasons that are never fully explained, a guide to make the journey there. Two potential aides in this quest, an Oxfam press secretary and a human rights lawyer, essentially both reject him as seeming too close to the dictatorship.

Instead, Mahjoub visited a holding camp for Darfur refugees in Khartoum and an Oxfam operation in an impoverished neighborhood of Southern migrants living in the capital as well. There, his questions continue to hew to the preoccupations of a disappointed liberal multiculturalist rather than those of the more radical, human-rights-oriented writer of witness represented by voices like Altan’s, Baldwin’s, Forché’s, or indeed Martin Luther King Jr.’s.

Mahjoub asks the Southerners and Darfurians he meets for their general stories; he meditates on how likely they will be disappointed in Khartoum, a city no longer poised to fulfill anyone’s dreams of sanctuary. What he does not do is probe for narratives of anti-black racism, stories that, one suspects, could risk confirming those deplorable foreign stereotypes of “marauding Arabs preying on innocent Africans.”

5.

In many ways A Line in the River is a masterful, even exquisite work of literature. Like Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul it provides a haunting and compelling meditation on a great, decayed civilization. Like that literary predecessor, it also weaves together art, history, and memory in a nostalgic, compelling ode to an extraordinary place.

Pamuk published Istanbul in 2005, when he was facing a possible prison sentence, in a case brought by Turkish ultra-nationalists, for having (correctly) told Swiss newspapers that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed in Turkey. Under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, acknowledging this history has often been interpreted as “insulting the Turkish nation” and carries a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment. Eventually Pamuk was exonerated of these charges. Still, in Istanbul, Pamuk wisely maintains a disciplined and therefore unforgettable focus on his theme of hüzün, the Turkish melancholy he associates with the loss of global prominence.

Perhaps such a choice was not a realistic one for Mahjoub, writing about a nation that literally was torn in two, and a city which—unlike Istanbul—was decimated by a worse set of crimes between 1985 and 2007 than between 1914 and 1923. Still, unlike Pamuk, Mahjoub seems ultimately not up to the task of facing his culture’s most painful history. These failures become, in his memoir, a regrettable distraction in an otherwise brilliant book.

Be that as it may: in Poetry of Witness, Forché’s co-editor, Duncan Wu, begins his introduction by saying, “This book is the work of those marked by history.” For all their formal differences, Altan’s, Moore’s, and Mahjoub’s memoirs all show this scar: a signifier of a sensibility imbued with history and entangled in it—both richer and more wounded for that point of connection.

I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan

Other Press | Buy Now

No Ashes in The Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America Darnell L. Moore

Bold Type Books | Buy Now

A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory Jamal Mahjoub

Bloomsbury | Buy Now


Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood won a 2011 Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University and writes frequently about racism, apartheid, and homophobia.

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Sonnet 29: Word for Word

By Cyndie Zikmund
The Fact of Memory is an unusual prose experiment. Using Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29,” which begins with the famous line, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” the author Aaron Angello takes each word of the sonnet, 114 in total, and uses each word as a springboard for a short ruminative essay. He writes a single page of prose, 114 in total, which become the book’s chapters, the single words the chapter titles.

As a daily regimen, Angello savored, absorbed, and meditated on the impact the word had on him, then wrote his thoughts out in a sort of altered state of consciousness. The result is a meditation on life and memory that is sometimes directly related to the word being studied, the sonnet itself, or, at other times, the process the project inspired.

The Writer-on-Writer Memoir

By Thomas Larson
Emerging in the midlife of the ongoing memoir explosion is what is variously called the bibliomemoir, the memoir/biography, or the writer-on-writer memoir. I like all three but the third type comes, I think, closest to a book that engages with a writer of central importance in one’s personal life and who deserves a paean of sorts to say and show how and why. It’s a book that ostensibly is about the other author, often borne out via the title— My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, referring, of course, to George Eliot’s masterpiece: note the my—but it really should cover one’s shared experience via the (usually) dead author’s work and a profound self-discovery that experience has hailed. “I could not have known myself fully without having read X.” I’m intrigued by these books, one, in particular, from 2020, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland.

The House That Rape Built

By Emily Waples
CW: Rancher is an essay with rape. This is not to say that Selah Saterstrom’s Rancher is an essay in which rape happens, or that rape is a peripheral event. I use the phrase “with rape” rather than “about rape” to acknowledge Saterstrom’s own assertion of purpose: “This essay isn’t working towards anything,” she writes. “It is a being-with. It is trying to be with something.”

This enduring presence is no small feat, especially when—as Saterstrom intimates by way of, or rather in lieu of, closure—the dominant cultural narrative is that which comes after: the meaning-of, the healing-from, the accounting-for, the reckoning-with. An essay itself, Saterstrom notes, is conceptualized as motion: it turns, we say. But being-with substitutes suspension for motion: it abides, resides. And Saterstrom is preoccupied with one residence in particular, as she announces in the essay’s first line: “My rapist bought a house with a swimming pool in El Paso.”

Attention Maximally Paid

By Sebastian Matthews
I must admit, before reading Supremely Tiny Acts, I hadn’t read Sonya Huber’s work. When the book arrived on my doorstep recently, I wasn’t sure about its context. Did I order it? Had someone sent it to me as a gift? Was it an advanced reader’s copy? I read the first few pages with mild curiosity; and, enjoying what I read, I put the slim, key-lime green book on my things-to-read pile and promptly forgot about it.

Celebration and Lamentation in Place and Time

By Robert Root
The back cover of Robert Miltner’s Ohio Apertures asserts that the book’s “brief pieces of creative nonfiction” include “flash memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, travel writing, and historical excavations of place.” In the text no selections are identified with those labels, leaving readers free to apply some themselves as they read. Having skipped that back cover, I read the book first and enjoyed the range of writing it displayed but had to decide for myself about its organization.

Robert Miltner is best known as a prose poet and most of the pieces here reflect in their brevity the concentrated lyricism of his poetry even as their perspectives are expanded and enhanced.

Meditative, Lyric, Useful: Two New Books on Writing

By Marcia Meier
From Michigan and Milkweed come two new books about writing, personal explorations on self, identity, and nonfiction form. Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart features lovely meditations on her life and the craft of writing. Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory is a stirring series of letters to her forbears, her children, and her mentors on writing, in tandem with meditations on silence and grief. Chang’s writings accompany collages made from diverse graphic elements: photos, marriage certificates, and other artifacts from her parents and grandparents’ lives in China and in the United States, the textured layout also revealing her reflections as a visual artist.

The Weight of Grief Goes Round and Round

By Penny Guisinger
Tarn Wilson’s memoir in essays, In Praise of Inadequate Gifts, has things to teach us about unusual topics. For example, the first essay teaches us about teeth. Some people’s teeth arrive on schedule and behave the way they’re supposed to, but some don’t. Teeth fall out and get lost. Teeth require nurturing and care. Teeth can disappoint. And speaking of unusual topics, the second essay teaches us about assembling circuit boards. Circuits are “Pretty striped glass beads with wires on the ends, stamped with little numbers” and “black rectangles with curved legs like centipedes.” Arranging and soldering them in place on green, plastic boards is careful work, and even when you follow the instructions you can get burned if you’re not careful. Like teeth, circuits are sleek jewels that are supposed to conform.

Noticing as Rebellion, as Resistance

By Emily Dillon
Dara McAnulty, an environmental activist from Northern Ireland, may not yet be an American household name like his peer Greta Thunberg, but he certainly stands among the most accomplished champions of the environmental movement today. In his new book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, McAnulty, who is seventeen and lives with autism, writes autobiographically about environmental conservation and activism. The diary entries, written during his thirteenth year, ultimately build an impressive collection that reads as reminiscent of McAnulty’s age and far beyond his years. He maintains a childlike wonder in his descriptions of nature while offering mature perceptions of other people that challenge even the most ardent stereotypes of autism.

We Don’t Know Their Names. But We Know Their Character.

By Katy Major
David Lazar’s latest collection, The Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, is an artfully attuned set of essays that analyzes the delightful nuances of cinema’s Golden Age and the author’s love of its movies. The book’s slim black rectangle is screen-like, and it sits, dark and strangely velvety in one’s hands—a diminutive, dense piece on an expansive topic, rich with possibility, like the moment before an artist’s vision is revealed. A microcosm and a world. From the cover, too, a gleam: Celeste Holm’s level gaze meeting ours, her lit eyes enigmatic and beckoning as Eckleburg’s eyes from the cover of The Great Gatsby.

Big Ideas in Bite-Sized Essays

By Rebekah Hoffer
Jason Schwartzman’s first book, No One You Know, contains sixty-two essays—many of them just a few paragraphs long—in a concise 155 pages. Each tiny essay in this fragmented collection illustrates a brief, memorable interaction with a stranger, creating the effect of a photo collage. Settings and characters pass by rapidly. We are invited to eavesdrop on Schwartzman’s meandering examinations of the world, gleaning small epiphanies as he interacts with strangers. Three consecutive essays, for instance, feature a struggling actress on a long bus ride, a scientist giving a presentation about whales, and a pickup basketball game with nameless men. Most of the people in this book, in fact, are nameless. The author refers to them instead by how he knows them: “the boogeyman of our building,” “someone I bumped into on the street,” or “a Chinese man on the phone.”

We Might As Well Die Laughing

by David MacWilliams
To look backward and to look around now are equally valid; his main goal is to bear witness to the environmental evils we’ve inflicted on ourselves, and on a much smaller scale, to record some of the kindnesses we’re still capable of.

Essays All: However We Decide To Collect Them

by Beth Alvarado
I love essays in all their permutations however we decide to collect them and whatever we come to call them: memoir in essays, essay cycle, essay collection, book-length-essay. When writers use these terms descriptively, they are useful in figuring out how the parts relate to one another and to the whole book.

Exorcising, Freeing, and Healing Trauma

by Krystal Sierra
Tromblay’s account shifts in time between his childhood at Fond du Lac Reservation to his early days in boot camp as a private in the Armed Forces. Time shifts from one chapter to the next, seemingly haphazard as memory does while theme builds on theme and increases in intensity chapter by chapter.

Next Stop, Middle-Aged Fatherhood

by Cyndie Zikmund
By the fourth essay in the book, I realized, this was not simply a meditation on uncomfortable truths and mythic delusions. It was also, at times, an insightful demonstration of the craft of writing personal essays, experimenting with form, tone, and structure, and providing guideposts for other writers when crafting their work artistically.

The People We Once Were

by Mark Neely
Though her former doctors may have questioned her trustworthiness, Sawchyn’s readers should have no such concerns. She is a highly likeable, piercingly honest narrator of her own story, unafraid to shine light on her worst moments, or to celebrate her best.

Meditative Naturalist, Intimate Essayist, Visionary Author

by Robert Root
Elements of memoir run through most essays—reflections on Sanders’ upbringing, his youth, his intimate surroundings. His reflections on the nature of beauty, in “Useless Beauty,” originate from the shell of a chambered nautilus, purchased at a flea market thirty years earlier by his mother.

Reckoning with Not-Knowing

by Joanna Eleftheriou
Together, these two exceptional works of nonfiction help us deepen our grasp on one of the hardest human truths to learn: we must absorb as much knowledge as we can, but no matter how hard we seek, we know very little for sure.

What It Means to Bless

by Debbie Hagan
Throughout The Blessing, Orr guides readers with a steady, searching, contemplative voice. He combs the past for meaning—not just how it pertains to the deaths of his brothers and mother, but small moments in life, such as a flicker of grief on his father’s face.

The Cadence of an Individual Heartbeat

by Tarn Wilson
Her themes, likewise, are not merely intellectual, but vulnerable, human—our essential loneliness and longing for connection. Naturally, McClanahan, new to the city, is lonely, but we soon learn that she has touched loneliness before.

Bathing (Again) at 9600 Feet

by Jill Christman
There are moments in these essays that aren’t for the squeamish or those who prefer to look away. Winograd holds us by the scruffs of our necks and turns our faces to look, and not just once, at the dead and the dying, over and over—trees, birds, calves, fathers—until we have some chance of seeing with her.

Relighting the Candle

by Renée E. D'Aoust
In Sonja Livingston’s The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author is drawn to explore her youth in the Catholic Church. She longs to return to the intertwined experience of childhood and faith when the two were inseparable.

How to Save Yourself in Nine Steps

by Deborah Hall
I was so immersed in Judith Sara Gelt’s memoir Reckless Steps Toward Sanity about her life growing up in a Denver neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s that I kept entering a time warp. It’s not fair to Gelt’s story that my own memories of living during the same era kept flashing through.

Haunted by Sandy Hook

by Joy Gaines-Friedler
Carol Ann Davis’s collection of nine essays is a memoir, a treatise on aesthetic expression, and a philosophical journey through the aftermath of what was, in 2012, the deadliest school shooting in American history. Her son Willem, seven at the time, was at Hawley Elementary, one mile away from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Scholar’s Sensibility, Poet’s Eye

by Robert Root
We know what she sees, what she feels, what she comprehends, what she discovers; we come away from the reading with a fuller, richer sense of who she is and what she gains from being in the world; and we value being in her company.

A Tragic History. Its Legacy Still Troubled.

by Richard Goodman
For me, this is the ultimate strength of Siberian Exile: the dramatization of an Oedipus-like weight many of us feel about what our parents and grandparents have imbued us with, through deeds, blood, or both. We are what they were, to some extent, no matter what we do.

Their Home Is Not Here

by Lindsay Hickman
This book is about the people who try and find a way around the gates, the rules, the barriers of language, culture, dialect, and borders to create a life for themselves and their families.

Michael Steinberg: A Remembrance and a Review

by Thomas Larson
The surprise of thinking about his evolution as a writer requires some speculative closure. I don’t believe any of us who knew Mike’s avidity with creative nonfiction really understood how he wrenched himself out of baseball and into a literary art. I understand only now that he’s gone how vexed he was by this transition.

tree outline on grainy wood

Feral Youth, Fast Cars, and Fraught Love

By Brandel France de Bravo
While billed as a memoir, Knock Wood, winner of the 2018 Dzanc Nonfiction Prize, is more akin to a theme-and-variations composition: Think love-child of early Bruce Springsteen and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. An acclaimed poet, Militello tells her story in twenty-nine discrete essays that mostly eschew chronology.

yellow and orange circle

The Biology of Flesh and Bone

By Detrick Hughes
In To Float in the Space Between , Terrance Hayes writes, “One’s poetics should be liquid.” Before grabbing hold of that line, I had already dipped into this book’s structure, a dialogue between Hayes, Etheridge Knight’s life and his poetry, and interviews and stories by writers acquainted with Knight’s work.

Cartoon anatomical heart

Many Lives, Many Bodies

By Katy Major
Be with Me Always is Randon Billings Noble’s first book, although she has been a celebrated essayist for at least a decade now. In 2008 Noble published “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” in The New York Times’s Modern Love column, retitled here as “Ambush.” The piece recounts Noble’s reaction to a jolting Valentine’s Day email from a contentious past lover and how the potential of a path not chosen can haunt us irresistibly.

flame

One Word Says It All

By Jenna McGuiggan
Where—or what—is your hearth of hearths? Where is the place you feel most alive or connected? What is the thing that reminds you who you are and to what (or whom) you belong? In all the world, what do you call home? These are some of the questions that Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor pondered as they edited  Hearth: A Global Conversation on Identity, Community, and Place .

swimmer underwater

Shapes Shifted, Senses Altered, Values Freely Wheeled

By Thomas Larson
There may be no more startling way to bait readers into an essay than this: “Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?”

Grounded and Discomfited: Women in the West

By Ana Maria Spagna
Visit Whitman Mission National Historic Site outside of Walla Walla, Washington, on a fall day, and you see golden rolling hills against rich blue sky. Bright clouds float toward flat-topped ridges lined with windmills. The scenery stretches spacious and bucolic and belies the bloody past. Here, on November 29, 1847, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, a doctor and his missionary wife, and eleven others were famously massacred.

Keeping Connected to the Natural World

By Robert Root
Most days my wife and I read a book aloud at dinnertime and we each read a book silently at bedtime. Sometimes one book reverberates with the other, cumulatively expanding our consciousness. That happened when we read Hope Jahren’s  Lab Girl  together and I read Elizabeth Rush’s  Rising  over the same period. 

Every Time I Read Him, I Feel Smarter

By Judith Sara Gelt
Since the 2016 election, most of us have made up our minds about President Donald J. Trump. He’s either shrewd or incompetent. And, as a human being, either noble or immoral. Thus, according to polls (and my family’s political rifts), these dichotomies have left us with our nation’s “great divide.”

Resisting the Bright Shining Epiphany

By Tarn Wilson
Karen Babine’s All the Wild Hungers  captures the disorientation we feel when faced with this most ordinary, yet extraordinary, of shocks: the mortality of those dearest to us. Intellectually, we know we all must die, but when the reality of death hovers over our own families, our foundation trembles. When Babine’s mother is diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, Babine feels untethered.

The Limits of Ownership, The Vagaries of Possession

By Jessie van Eerden
Sarah Viren's debut collection explores the concept of ownership. It begins with an essay on the ownership of material goods—the narrator’s landlord lends her the furniture that belongs to a man on trial for murder. The essays that follow ask what it means to own one’s body, one’s family members, one’s language, even one’s story that is inextricably intertwined with the stories of others.

Blamed No More

By Ann Piper
Heartland, by journalist Sarah Smarsh, already a nonfiction finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, is a multigenerational account of a hardworking family caught in the systemic forces that perpetuate the unknown and disdained Americans who are sometimes called "white trash."

It’s Not Marriage. It’s the Husbands

By Eric Farwell
In her debut memoir,  For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, Laura Esther Wolfson, an American essayist and Russian translator for the PEN World Voices Festival, has written a complex book about three interacting subjects: her Jewish heritage, marriage to a Russian man, and her difficulties as a translator of Russian literature.

Making Violence Holy

By Thomas Larson
D’Aoust and Larson reflect on the structure, style, and meaning of Scott-Coe’s research-based prose meditation on the mass murderer Charles Whitman. The ex-Marine sniper killed his mother and wife as well as more than a dozen people from the University of Texas Tower in Austin on August 1, 1966. But there’s a companion story—that of an alcoholic Catholic priest whose friendship with the killer (he married Whitman and his wife) is also core to the tale.

The Thrill of Narrative Incompleteness

By Jessica Handler
At first glance, the photographic record of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, shows an average town for the time, from 1890 to 1910. The wallpaper was patterned, the furniture solid. Some citizens were old, others young, some were black, others Native American, most were white. The living sang, farmed, posed in their best clothing, played with their children, went on errands. The dead looked out from open coffins in parlors.

Chucking Hail Marys from the Throw Line: On Failing to Define the CNF Chapbook

I'm pretty sure that the day Thomas Larson asked me to write a review of creative nonfiction chapbooks was the same day I said to a room full of people at AWP, "I don't know what a chapbook is." The fact that I was on a panel about chapbooks (and am rumored to have published one) only underscores the truth that I am probably the wrong person for this job. Or, conversely, maybe exactly the right one.

A Failing Body Summons a Restless Mind: A Polio Memoir

By Katharine Coldiron
Sandra Gail Lambert is not interested in being anyone’s inspiration. If this review called her memoir in essays,  A Certain Loneliness , inspiring, the author would recoil. That much is clear from a memorable scene in a laundromat where the author in her wheelchair is doing laundry. A stranger, so intrusive that it’s impossible even to describe her as well-meaning, uses every possible cliché to speak to her. “You are so inspiring,” the stranger says and the essay begins. Just when Lambert thinks she is rid of her, the worst happens:

One Reader’s Homage to Two Dogeared Authors

By Robert Root
The next time you stop by my house, ask to see my copy of Patricia Hampl’s  The Art of the Wasted Day , her most recent book. You may not know that long ago, feeling guilty about writing in the margins of books, I began dogearing pages where the author wrote something I hoped to remember. Some people think that’s as bad as writing in the margins, but I can always turn the corners of the pages back up again.

A Mother’s Tale, An Enabled Son, The Damage Done

By David MacWilliams
Meg McGuire's memoir explores addiction, mental disorder, denial, guilt, and the destructive effects of a parent's love. McGuire narrates events over more than two decades during which her son Ryan suffered frantic rises and falls in mood as well as doomed attempts to combat his addiction to heroin and other substances. On the surface, she examines the damage that bipolar disease and the disease of addiction can wreak upon the patient, the family and those closest to the patient. Most poignantly, she examines the role she played—out of love—as his enabler.

Rooted and Reaching

By Sarah M. Wells
My yoga instructor calls it “rooted and reaching,” that connection between the earthly and the sacred. I am here, even though somewhere in the past, if you’d asked me to shift into downward dog, I would have warned of some foreign demon taking residence in this Christ-saved jar of clay. I am here, on my mat, Christ-filled yet, rooted and reaching.

Cover of The Real Life of the Parthenon by Patricia Vigderman

Art and National Identity

Future ages have indeed wondered at the monuments created in fifth-century Athens, to which Pericles (495-429 BCE) refers in his famous Funeral Oration mourning the first warriors to fall during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Rather than elegizing the fallen soldiers, Pericles, the ruler of Athens, celebrates the accomplishments of the culture for which they fought. Athens was a democracy, after all, and, unlike Sparta, a military city-state. Athens was also in the midst of a great artistic outburst of sculpture, architecture, and literature as the temple to Athena at the Parthenon testifies, an outburst that would be diminished though the course of the war. War, as Pericles anticipated, would encourage the spread of Athenian monuments everywhere.

Houses of Injury and Healing

By Sarah Cheshire
When I was a senior in college, I was lovingly roped into stepping outside my comfort zone and joining a body-positive arts’ collective, curated by my dear friend Lexie. The collective was called “Attention: People with Body Parts.” The mission of the specific initiative I was involved in, Portable Homes, was bodily reclamation: through art, writing, and movement, survivors of domestic violence found ways to reconnect with parts of their bodies that had been impacted by abuse.

The Heart He Hearts Aching Inside Him

By Elizabeth Dark
“EKG,” the prologue to Alex Lemon’s Feverland: A Memoir in Shards, is a one-paragraph list that runs two-and-a-half pages. In it, Lemon records his heart’s electrical activity through a catalogue of the things he “hearts.” The repetition prepares us for a read in which our categories of convenience quit making sense: “I heart the butcher beneath my ribs. I heart it all wrong. I heart no speed limit and flicking my headlights off. I heart swerving beneath the moonlight. I heart the kitchen with the oven baking bread. I heart the midnight inside me, nailholed with starlight.”

Of Poets, Police Dogs, and Their Handlers

By Amber Anderson
While most humans encounter daily stress, how many, given the chance, would volunteer to face their extreme fears? To be a recipient of a violent act, to pursue violent perpetrators, to report on those who confront violence—willingly, courageously—this is the fascinating world of The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops.

The Country Cousin to Love

By Katy Major
When a friend of Kate Carroll de Gutes remarked about how often the positive aspects of others’ lives are mentioned on Facebook, as opposed to the negative, de Gutes, in the essayist’s quintessential way, got to thinking. What her musings sparked is The Authenticity Experiment, de Gutes’ attempt at representing the duality (what she calls “the both/and, the dark/light”) of life as it exists outside of a two-dimensional screen. She challenged herself to write a blog post, representing dark and light both, every day for thirty days. The Authenticity Experiment, a tight 167-page essay collection, is the happy result of that blog. It’s a brave interrogation of the truth and a chronicle of an unusually ambivalent year, which includes the death of both her parents and the celebrated publication of her first essay collection, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Part of de Gutes’ authenticity is that she does not merely confront the pain she experiences; she is also honest about the fact that, in the midst of it all, she experiences joy.

Slim & Sublime

By Renée E. D'Aoust
In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser extols the memoir form: “For me, no other nonfiction form goes so deeply to the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and humor and unexpectedness of life.” Zinsser suggests, “What gives [memoirs] their power is the narrowness of their focus.” “Narrowness” means the writer focuses on particular experiences and crafts their moment-to-moment being. Beth Ann Fennelly exemplifies this skill in her newly released slim and sublime Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs.

The Dead Baby Lives

By Marilyn Bousquin
Jennifer Sinor’s birth, which is anything but ordinary, sets up the thematic trajectory of Ordinary Trauma, a coming-of-age memoir that doubles as a father-daughter story. In the opening chapter, titled “The Bucket,” we meet Jennifer’s father in the waiting room of the obstetrics ward of Kingsville County Hospital: “A man used to being in charge, only recently released from his tour of duty in Vietnam where he had served as a legal advisor, he does not wait well.” When the doctor finally “bursts into the waiting room,” it is to tell the expectant father that he must choose between his wife and his baby: Saving one will mean the death of the other. “Faced with the possibility of losing the woman that he loves, the young man chooses his wife. He lets the daughter go.” That decision lands infant Jennifer in a bucket—a literal bucket—where she’s left for dead, the cord still wrapped around her neck, until an older doctor “sees the bucket holding the discarded baby on the floor. . . . From what will forever be known as The Dead Baby Bucket, the doctor pulls the baby out. Though bloody and broken and blue from lack of heat and oxygen, it is breathing. The dead baby breathes.”

Words and Their Users: Wrestling with John D’Agata’s Canonry

By Thomas Larson
I suppose it was inevitable. The age of self-disclosure—memoir writing, celebrity tweets, one-person Broadway shows, jihadist pre-bomb goodbye videos—would give way to one editor’s need to order up a new hegemony for that intractable thing we call the essay. In this case, one I want to prosecute, it’s John D’Agata’s twenty-first-century’s politicized obsession-collection, which Graywolf brought out over the last decade and one-half as a course text, an MFA genre, a private breviary on the essay’s evolution, which of these I’m unsure. Under D’Agata’s leadership (he chairs the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Program), this three-volume opus speaks to the essay’s undiscovered past and its experimental future.

The Art of Voids

By Jennifer Ochstein
Voids—holes, blank spaces, silences—are often interpreted as meaningless. But they shouldn’t be taken that way. Voids may contain even more meaning than filled spaces. It’s what isn’t seen or what isn’t said that causes the most doubt and consternation. Consider an unseen god or a beloved one who fails to say “I love you.” The meaning of such absence is that a void requires rendering, interpretation, guessing. Voids and their uncertainty can be terrifying. Heartrending. Conversely, they can also bring the most profound recognition.

What Also Matters? The Voices of Women of Color.

By
The Crunk Feminist Collection is a much-needed anthology of short essays written by black women and women of color. Its narratives center on race, gender, pop culture and current events. The collection blends writers who specialize in personal anecdote with razor-sharp critique and who employ a conversational tone as complex issues are carefully dissected and taken to task. Appearing first as blog articles at The Crunk Feminist Collective from 2010-2014, the pieces capture the brevity today’s readers expect: precise techniques that this self-proclaimed riot girl found urgent and timely.

Must Hard Stories Be So Hard?

By N. West Moss
Midway into the first semester of her MFA, Melanie Brooks finds herself struggling to begin a memoir about her father, a distinguished thoracic surgeon, who was infected with HIV while undergoing open-heart surgery in 1985. Her father chose to keep his illness a secret thinking he would die within months. The fact that he lived for ten years and kept this information from others meant that, as Brooks put it, “the secret of his disease and the specter of catastrophe” defined her life. “Unearthing the ongoing grief of losing my dad to AIDS in 1995,” she writes, “has been agonizing. And terrifying. And, more often than not, paralyzing.”

Happier Than He Has Any Right to Feel

By Karen Donley-Hayes
It may seem a foregone conclusion that Should I Still Wish, by John Evans, would make worthwhile reading. Evans is a Stanford University lecturer, memoirist, and winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for Young Widower: A Memoir, in 2014. His writing has set him apart. What is not unique, however, is the subject of this memoir: death.

One Era Ends. Another Begins.

By Sebastian Sarti
When the past doesn’t suit you, from what do you build the future? It’s a question that lumps at the throats of many twenty-somethings who know their lives will not follow those of their parents. Though Leslie Lawrence is well past her twenties, she uses the same question to animate her book of essays, The Death of Fred Astaire, an eclectic collection that ranges over decades of its author’s unexpected life.

The Kingdom of the Sick

By Elizabeth Dark
My best childhood friend, Vanessa, suffers from debilitating chronic pain. She has seen multiple specialists, tried numerous treatments, and been diagnosed with a handful of conditions, all of which perhaps come close to naming her experience, but never fully. When the pain first began, she was thirty-four, a nurse practitioner and an avid yoga student. But as the years have dragged on, she’s had to quit working. She spends her days at home trying to manage the pain with both focus and distraction. When I visit her, we do not go out. She can rarely sit for more than twenty minutes before the pain becomes too much, so a restaurant or coffee shop is not a good idea.

A Life Story, Buried and Unburied

By Jo Scott-Coe
I seek out some nonfiction knowing I will find the author’s train of mind as compelling as his subject. This was certainly true with John Edgar Wideman’s latest book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.

Why We Need Literature More Than Ever

By D.L. Hall
I read Jan Shoemaker’s collection of essays while America was casting votes for the forty-fifth president. So, when I say I read this memoir during a time of despair, I mean it was like waking up in the middle of a nightmare, surrounded by folks you love who are bedazzled by flash and bravado, who have fallen for a con man’s promise to return us to the golden age of white middle-class America. It was in this state of reckoning that I entered Shoemaker’s world where the first essay opens in the middle of a white-knuckled cab ride in India, heading to the caves of Ellora, and, right away, I was clicking on my seat belt because here was where I needed to be—engaged in the world and unfearful of others. Flesh and Stone came to me at the right time, bringing a nostalgic reminder of the connections Americans share, why we need literature more than ever, and how our neighbors, our country, and, most important, our families are worth fighting for. Civilization is worth the fight.

Stitched Together

By Heather Gemmen Wilson Body Memory is comprised of five, intimately connected essays. All of the essays, together, weave a story, simultaneously sad and expectant, of a man bereft.

A Craft He Would, Thankfully, Never Learn

by Michael Steinberg
"As for my part, it’s a no-brainer; Murray’s writing, thoughts about writing, and generous mentorship will continue to inspire, guide, and instruct me for as long I write and teach."

Growing up with Doomsday

by Mimi Schwartz
"It is a coming-of-age story of his South Chicago life from age six to sixteen, as an African-American child with two blind, finance-strapped parents and five siblings who belong to the Worldwide Church of God that predicts global doom—and soon."

True Grits

by Richard Gilbert
"Crews devotes the first three chapters, Part One, of this concise twelve-chapter book to extending his risky imaginative and reflective opening. In this way, he shows overtly, implicitly, and spatially how his father’s death reverberated in his life in backwoods Georgia."

The Importance of Being Outside

by Gail Folkins
"Folkins’ essays hit on all the typical topics of the Pacific Northwest: Bigfoot, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, salmon, employment at Boeing (her dad’s boss) and Microsoft (her own)."

For You, the Universe on a String

by Art Edwards
"With the book, Firstman is ready to give the raw emotions surrounding her relationships with her parents narrative form, utilizing storytelling, science, and the quirks of a 1970s upbringing to make sense of a childhood less than ordinary."

Thought Paths

by Lanie Tankard
"Linking concrete and abstract, head and heart, Madden offers us his soul. Such a style elicits our own memories, heightens awareness of life’s minutiae, and deepens our understanding of their connectivity."

The Uncomfortable Place Between Vulnerability and Voyeurism

by Carolee Bennett
"Implicating us as voyeurs in the opening essay is a wicked trick. When Hollars writes about a “carnival atmosphere” after the Tuscaloosa tornado, we want to stake our claim to righteous indignation. But, as he watches “people clogging the streets in SUVs, the passengers half-hanging out the windows,” we see ourselves."

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

by Robert Lunday
"The main organizing principle of the collection is borrowed from popular music: the “cover,” or the practice of one musician redoing a song by another. The hope is, the editors write, that “these essays . . . envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.”"

Faith, Fear, and Fractals

by Tarn Wilson
The dominant voice of these essays is descended from the lineage of that twenty-two-year-old: witty, smart, funny, self-deprecating, self-aware, and sometimes self-conscious. But Bradley also regularly interrupts that voice with flashes of vulnerability.

Out of Sight

by Richard Gilbert
"Dean knows that most Americans lost interest after the 1959–1972 “heroic era” of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. But she forever imprinted on spaceflight as a girl when her engineer father took her regularly to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum."

Legacy of Lobotomy

by Denise Wilkinson
While her research into lobotomy provided much documented information, tracing her family story was more difficult. Complicated by the fact that only one aunt, Pauline, remained alive, and the information Aunt Pauline provided “overturned everything” Sternburg had believed all her life, she questioned whether she could get to the truth.

Each and Both

by Renee E. D'Aoust
"Water Rising functions as a tribute to a shared creative life, but the chance that its creation would work as a thing of beauty was probably far from sure during its making. How do you know that works created independently will come together?"

A Wildly Funny Life Story — I, Too, Admire Your Shoes!

By Glen Retief
“I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation,” wrote Flaubert to his friend Mademoiselle Leroyer in 1864, talking of what would become his semi-autobiographical novel, Sentimental Education. “It’s a book about . . . passion such as can exist nowadays . . . inactive.” In fact, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is anything but emotionally dead or passive. It details a young Frenchman’s intensely felt financial, sexual, and romantic mishaps against the background of the 1848 anti-monarchist revolutions.

Loosen Up

By Kate Hopper
A couple of months ago, I curled up in chair in the corner of my living room to begin reading Dinty Moore’s latest book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. The book, as you can probably guess from the title, is a writing guide in the form of an advice column. In it Moore fields tongue-in-cheek questions from 20 contemporary essayists on topics such as grammar, the writing life, why so many writers write about writing, and how to recapture the humor of a cocktail party story without having to get drunk again. Each of Moore’s equally tongue-in-cheek responses is accompanied by an essay inspired by the exchange. In this way, it’s both a collection of personal essays as well as a (very amusing) dialogue with other essayists.

An Inner Exuberance

By Thomas Larson
One of the most poignant, absorbing autobiographical memoirs I’ve ever read is this gem from 1943, The Little Locksmith. I say autobiographical memoir for Katharine Butler Hathaway’s is old school, telling an outwardly undramatic tale about an exuberant inner life: she died at 58 just after this book, the first of several planned, was published. What gives it its memoirish intensity is her probity: she plunges into self-entanglements that would trip up most authors but gives her the freedom to invent herself in prose.

Here’s One for the Bookstores

By Allison Backous Troy
Editor Samantha Schoech writes, in her introduction, that there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this essay collection: it is a “vote for a certain way of life. The bookish life. More specifically, the bookstore life.” The compilation appeared this spring to commemorate Independent Bookstore Day. For Schoech, the indie bookseller provides a necessary space in a world of “tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads.” They affirm our need for “aimless perusal,” where a day spent stalking the shelves might lead us to a “novel that expands (the) heart,” or an “art book that changes the direction of your life.”

What’s Left from the End Times

By Elizabeth Raby
To begin her new book, Joni Tevis, the author of the equally unusual, The Wet Collection, quotes the Midwestern novelist, Sherwood Anderson, in an epigraph: “Just say in big letters, ‘The World is on Fire.’ That will make ’em look up.” So she does and so do we. In well-researched and telling detail, she explores objects, places, and people in danger of being lost or falling apart—closures and collapses of factories, diners, towns, celebrities. She brings them back to life by a plethora of specific images. Of her father’s factory, she says, “Strange to think of the old shop sitting empty now, the machines gone, Barbara’s first-aid kit and I’ve Been Beat Up poster gone, the thumbtacks that held it to the wall gone. But curls of scrap must still be there, corkscrews of brass and steel pressed into the filth of the shop floor.”

Climbing the High Ridges and Stumbling

By Jeff Muse
I should be clear: I think writing well is terribly hard work, and I admire anyone who endures it. Me, I’ve yet to publish a book of any kind, and I don’t teach writing or literature at any college or university, so maybe you’d just as soon stop reading right here. After all, I’m hardly a professional book reviewer.

It’s About Time

By Janice Gary
On the first page of Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso tells us that she started keeping a diary because she didn’t want to lose anything. “I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had happened.”

Where Have All the Overmedicated Mermaids Gone?

By Samir Atassi
Elissa Washuta’s memoir is a twisting, chameleon-like work of reportage, highly poetic at times, showing how cultural forces and tragic events have left their tracks on her body and mind. The search “for an identity to sink into” in a savage, selfish world is at the heart of this book. The author examines all the moments from her past that have tried to define her, including—her rape while living on the Mid-Atlantic coast, her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, her search for an ancestral connection to the Cowlitz Indian tribe, and her strict upbringing as a Catholic. Tension is felt as Washuta battles to stay sane while being menaced by past experiences.

A Son Coming Home

By Virginia Taylor
Steven Harvey, in his marvelous memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, is on a journey to discover and understand his mother who committed suicide in April, 1961, when Harvey was eleven years old. Reflecting on her act, Harvey observes that it “had exploded in my life like the flash of a camera at close range, darkening everything around me and casting me into blindness, and when the light returned she was gone. . . . She was there and she was not, and there was no getting her back. Ever.” Missing are his memories of her, of his being with her, and this: “I could not, and this is the heartbreaker, hear her voice. All of this—what do I call it?—this mothering was gone, wiped out by her death.”

Which Way Next?

By David MacWilliams
In his brief essay, “Dead Weight,” Eric Freeze describes a walk he takes with his dog, Zeke, a walk that ends horribly. He sees a police cruiser descending a hill, his Dalmatian blundering into its path, and there’s nothing he can do but shout and witness the inevitable.

A Beautiful Savage Game

By Amber D. Stoner
First and foremost, Steve Almond wants you to know he’s a football fan: he’s one of you; he’s one of us. But after forty years of watching the game, playing fantasy football, and mourning yet another Oakland Raiders’ loss, Almond no longer indulges his love of watching football and his latest book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, explains why.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Women Authors

by Josette Kubaszyk
"Since its inception, Shebooks’ digital collection of downloadable fiction, memoir, and journalism has grown to over 70 books, each of which the publishers say can be read “in an hour or two.”"

To the Body Born

by Jan Shoemaker
"Moving across the page in her essay collection, You Feel So Mortal, with the same agility she took to the polished wood of the dojo floor, Shinner explores the flesh and blood experience—hers and ours—of having a body."

The Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

by Doug Rutledge
"Of course, one is led to ask the inevitable question, why write and why read a book about nothing? In Praise of Nothing offers several answers, some generic, some philosophical, others emotional, but none are completely satisfying—though this lack of satisfaction is part of the book’s point."

Essaying a Spinning World

by Robert Root
"Much of what Skloot deems "off-kilter" seems the kind of emotional imbalance with which we can all identify. Each chapter is alive not only with narrative memories but also with personal associations, pertinent research, and literary references."

The Inner World of Caregiving

by Jennifer Ochstein
"Harris owns her uncertainties and qualms; she’s honest about the grueling nature of caregiving. Caregiving is not a badge of honor. It’s dirty, ass-washing work."

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River Teeth Book Reviews

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