Book Review

The Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

September 3, 2014

By Doug Rutledge

on Eric LeMay’s In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments

In Praise of Nothing is both an interesting and a frustrating book. It’s interesting in its attempt to write a postmodern memoir. It’s frustrating, however, because it does not fulfill the reader’s conventional expectations of coherence and meaning. Postmodern thinkers, such as Roland Barthes, are highly skeptical of the idea of human agency and would also doubt the coherence of the self. They believe the idea that a human being who is a psychologically whole and stable person is largely fictionalized. Therefore, LeMay has written an unstable memoir.

LeMay’s book is divided into three large sections with five smaller essays in each. Every section contains a biographical sketch. We never watch Eric grow from a child to an adult, overcoming his challenges and celebrating his successes, as we might in a coherent narrative. However, we do pick up snippets of his life, such as why his father named him Eric, how he made his mother laugh when he picked on his younger brother, and finally, how he gets a position at a university.

In the first section, LeMay writes about people who are given a label that amounts to some form of nothing, such as John Doe or Patient Zero. In this context, we learn that Eric’s Dad named him after Kirk Douglas’s role in the movie Vikings. Because Douglas risked dying without his sword and, therefore, failed to reach Walhalla, or Viking Heaven, young Eric carries a butter knife around for weeks. In the second section, the adult LeMay tries to recapture his youth, arguing that language has become a virus. He also recounts telling a party joke about fatally dropping babies. He goes on to philosophize about comedy, while remembering the underclothes he wore as a child. He seems particularly interested in Underoos, though there is a slightly more humorous riff on leaving off his underwear as a form of sexual initiation in middle school. But then he runs the risk of showing the telltale marks of urination on his trousers. In the last section, he meditates on lottery winners and losers and on an insane asylum in Ohio. Here, LeMay also places a lampshade on a backyard chimney and calls it art, “readymade heureux,” in imitation of Marcel Duchamp.

The philosophical point of LeMay’s broken narratives appears in the final essay describing the garden of an insane asylum:

The garden of Herman Haerlin was not a garden for perfection. It assumed you were broken when you entered it. The garden began its work there, because the garden knows that to be alive is to be broken. This is the story of the Fall, the story of the lost Garden.

The Haerlin gardens were beautiful, well ordered and peaceful, but they were designed for people who are less than whole. For LeMay, the garden becomes a metaphor. We are all broken, he suggests, so writing a coherent narrative, while more satisfying, would offer a false sense of what it is to be human.

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.

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to nothing. Perhaps I’m escaping our culture’s overload of images through images. Perhaps I’m already so overloaded with images that I no longer need content, just the pure image, distilled to nothing. Perhaps I’m losing it. I do know I get tetchy if the webcam I’m watching shows more than nothing, or the wrong kind of nothing, or aspires in some artistic way to nothing: a nothing that, in showing nothing, attempts to mean more than nothing . . . .

I take this passage from the book’s first essay as the author’s interpretive direction to the reader. However, despite LeMay’s claim, In Praise of Nothingapproaches its nothingness in an artistic way; its attempt “to mean more than nothing” is an attempt both successful and frustrating.

LeMay establishes a literary context for his book about nothing when he recalls,

Two decades ago, I read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and what’s stuck with me ever since is Heller’s description of the bombardier Yossarian lying in bed, intentionally staring at the ceiling, watching nothing. Yossarian is trying to make himself as bored as possible, because when he is bored, time slows down, and the more time slows down, the more time he has until he has to fight again and so the more time he has to live. “He had decided to live forever,” writes Heller, “or die in the attempt.” He lives through nothing.

This passage becomes interesting as LeMay reveals how he is attempting to mold his postmodern vision into an applicable contemporary genre. The idea of living forever by doing nothing looks forward to LeMay’s essay, “Once More to the Lake,” where the author attempts to relive a summer in his youth when one pleasant day morphed lazily into the next without the pressure of accomplishment and without a sense of time having passed. But doesn’t it also suggest how boring an attempt to describe a human life through the concept of nothing might become? The passage evokes a kind of bureaucratic reasoning that, LeMay implies, lends itself to the meaninglessness of postmodern life.

For LeMay, an absurdist comedy exists in the mind-numbing, bureaucratic stupidity, the maze through which our lives are lived. In the essay, “Biography of the Nameless,” he considers various legal and bureaucratic reasons why people are tagged John Doe. He weaves in history—the original John Doe appeared in the Magna Carta, but his name didn’t become a synonym for Everyman until the Victorian era—with police and asylum cases. Through John Doe, LeMay offers a vision of cultural clumsiness that becomes an ontology or a philosophy of being:

The Does come into play when our social practices demand an identity in order to function, but we have no identity to provide. Most . . . elements within our culture demand that information. Our names, our social security numbers, and similar identifiers form a central cog in our collective existence. While we may be able to function . . . with some informational gaps, everything breaks down without markers of identity. John and Jane Doe fill those slots that must be filled for our social machine to run, holding us together and binding us where names play an essential role.

In LeMay’s telling, John Does are real people; usually insane, ill, or dead, they are unable to give the authorities their names. Nevertheless, the suggestion is that we are all cogs in a social machine insisting on markers of identity, but not necessarily meaningful markers.

LeMay’s recounting of John Doe’s tale becomes painful when we learn about the murder of James Jordan, father of Michael Jordan, the basketball star. Jordan’s stolen Lexus 400 was discovered outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Shortly afterwards, a body with a .38 caliber bullet in his chest was found in a swamp near McColl, South Carolina. The body was labeled John Doe and cremated. Through DNA evidence police later determined the body was James Jordan, owner of the stolen car and Michael’s father. For LeMay, this story is an odd kind of nothing (a nothingness tied to Jordan’s temporary lack of identity—his being named John Doe) that painfully turns out to mean more than nothing, (the murder of someone with whom we can all identify—the father of someone many admire), precisely the kind of aesthetic nothingness LeMay claims not to like.

In Praise of Nothing includes touching moments. LeMay’s essay, “Gaëtan Dugas, A Personal History,” offers a case in point. His consideration of Dugas is an extension of his meditation on John Doe. Dugas was the Patient Zero of media hype, the person who was supposed to have had sex with enough men to have generated the AIDS crisis. Being referred to as Patient Zero makes Dugas a kind of nothing. However, this morphs into LeMay’s development of sexual identity in the midst of the AIDS crisis. LeMay is not coming out. Rather, he is confessing that as a seventeen-year-old boy, he admired someone like Dugas who was self-confident and sexually adventurous. LeMay recognizes the media portrayal of Dugas as mythological and believes his own reinterpretation of Dugas’s experience is another myth. LeMay admits, “I can’t see through any of these myths, but, even now, I can acknowledge the truth of his humanity.” Suddenly, LeMay’s book stops being oddly humorous and becomes honestly touching. Again, however, this seems to be a kind of nothing that means more than nothing—like the webcam LeMay disliked because it “aspires in some artistic way to nothing.”

The Foucauldian notion of the unstable self permeates LeMay’s book. Again, in his meditation on the Does, LeMay develops his ontology, which holds that identity is fluid and therefore indefinable. Why, he wonders, is the memoir difficult to write:

The answer has to do with the evolving self a memoir tries to snare. It won’t still, it won’t stay. On a given day, the self we once knew slips its old habits, abandons its lifelong friends and favorite coffee mug, only to show up, years later, with a scraggily beard and a limp, asking: “Who are you?” The dual (sometime dueling) versions of these essays are a nod toward that unfixed “I” we all think of—how could we not?—as me.

In an essay written in three parallel columns, one describing the essays of Francis Bacon, one quoting passages from Bacon and one offering aphoristic descriptions of LeMay’s own life, the author asks himself the following question:

[W]e often portray ourselves through experiences and events we see as emblematic of who we are . . . and these portrayals are like aphorisms. Moreover, we often sort these events and experiences into categories . . . [which] are like the subjects of Bacon’s essays. Given these likenesses, what might a Baconian personal essay look like, one as distinct and disjointed in its portrayal of self as Bacon’s aphorisms? What purposes might it reveal? What rifts? What connections?

Through the use of aphorisms, Sir Francis Bacon broke the conventional narrative of his time, which held that all observable phenomenon had divine will as a final cause. LeMay, on the other hand, is breaking the conventional narrative of his time, which holds that human beings have a coherent self and a coherent story to tell.

I mentioned at the outset that I appreciate the intellectual reasons for reading this book, and yet I find the experience unpleasant. Personally, my response to the book is rather like the paradox I feel toward the flat-earth phenomenon. Obviously I am convinced that the earth is round, but during each day of my life, I walk on its surface as if it were flat. Similarly, I am willing to entertain the notion that my sense of self is mythical, that it is fictionalized, that in fact my sense of self is a series of largely unrelated events that I remember in a pattern, a pattern which I fictionalize in the very act of remembering them. However, my problem is that I am reading LeMay’s book through the mental perception of my fictionalized self. As broken as I may be, I do not perceive myself to be as broken as LeMay’s narrative would suggest. And this unbroken self finds LeMay’s apparently unrelated vignettes largely meaningless. He is welcome to reply that their meaninglessness is exactly his point. But I find that I am bored by the fragmented meaninglessness of LeMay’s perception of his own life. He might hope that, at least, I found it funny, to which I respond that few authors can write meaningless comedy. His literary hero, Joseph Heller, may have been successful. LeMay has yet to pull it off.


In Praise of Nothing: Essay, Memoir, and Experiments by Eric LeMay

$15.95 Paper | Buy Now |


Doug Rutledge has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Chicago and an MFA in creative writing from Ashland University. Doug is the author of The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away published by the University of Minnesota Press. His reviews have appeared in The Journal, Rattle, and the Asheville Poetry Review. Doug is currently a reader for the Winter Tangerine Review.


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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.

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

by Glen Retief
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.”

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.


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.

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."

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."

Do have a book review?

Queries for book reviews (both for reviewers and for authors or publishers requesting a review) may be sent to our Book Review editor. If you wish to write a review, please query with examples of critical writing. Do not send completed reviews or titles you wish to review. Reviews are published on the website only. Authors and publishers requesting a review may send a print or electronic copy to:

Thomas Larson
River Teeth Book Reviews

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Have you written a book?

River Teeth‘s editors conduct a yearly national contest for a book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction in English. All manuscripts are screened by the co-editors of River Teeth. The contest winner receives $1,000 and publication by The University of New Mexico Press.