Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

A former U.S. Poet Laureate remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in compelling and feeling style.

Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. Trethewey’s mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter’s memories and what she’s forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother’s murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, “a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South.”

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter’s move to Atlanta, when Trethewey’s parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother’s apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness, and recalls her developing love for and skill with metaphor, language, writing. Back home in Mississippi, her great-aunt “would appear each day at the back door, singing my name through the screen, her upturned palm holding out toward me three underripe figs… she was teaching me the figurative power of objects, their meaningful juxtapositions.” During the painful retelling of her stepfather’s physical abuse of her mother, Trethewey resorts to the second person, a whole chapter delivered to her younger herself. Concluding: “Look at you. Even now you think you can write yourself away from that girl you were, distance yourself in the second person, as if you weren’t the one to whom any of this happened.” Memories of her mother often appear as images, offering symbolic interpretations of the 12-year gap left by trauma. While Trethewey does pursue forensic exploration (transcripts of recorded phone calls between Gwen and Joel, as well as a visit to a psychic), this memoir is more introspection than true-crime investigation. And it is gracefully and gorgeously rendered, as befits a poet of Trethewey’s stature.

Trethewey declines to offer a neat conclusion, but she succeeds in making meaning from pain. Memorial Drive is loving and elegiac, disturbing and incisive.


This review originally ran in the June 18, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lost records.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

An unusual story of 1970s Communist Romania with a thread of magical realism, told in flash-style snippets.

Bottled Goods, Sophie van Llewyn’s first novel, is a curious story of oppression set in 1970s Communist Romania, featuring a young woman pressing against the confines not only of culture and state but of family. Largely realistic, the narrative takes the odd, surprising turn toward magical realism, making the already strange world of heavily monitored government control feel stranger still.

Readers first meet Alina as a girl, then a young single woman, working as a translator and tour guide on the Romanian coast. It is here that she meets her future husband, a history student (later professor) named Liviu. While Alina comes from a background of privilege and property, lost when the Communists took power, Liviu comes from privation, which he does not let her forget. When they marry, “It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions that she had been watching, trapped inside the bride’s body.” Trapped indeed in several ways, she goes to work as an elementary schoolteacher–which she dislikes–but life is tolerable until Liviu’s brother defects to France. Then the Secret Services enter their lives and everything changes.

Luckily or unluckily, Alina has an aunt with connections to the government, to whom she turns for help. Aunt Theresa’s assistance varies from intervention with the authorities to entanglements with fairies and strigoi (Romanian folk spirits). When Alina gets desperate, the fairies’ form of help will upturn her life yet again.

The short chapters in Bottled Goods resemble pieces of flash fiction (van Llewyn’s accustomed form). Some unfold in first-person narration, some in third person; some take the form of lists, postcards or how-tos. This formal variation puts readers slightly off-balance, as Alina is continually off-balance, trying to navigate the dizzying rules of her society and increasingly frustrating relationships with her husband and her mother, among others. Van Llewyn’s prose, often simple and unadorned, has moments of lovely imagery: “The beach is a conglomerate of eyes glazing her as if she were an apple.”

Though not always entirely likable, Alina is an insistent protagonist, pulling readers along relentlessly. The magical elements of her story play well off the mundane and the grotesque in everyday life, with surprisingly charming details throughout. Fluid in form, often stark in style and surrealistic in subject matter, Bottled Goods is a strange and compelling story about freedom of choice and those we choose to keep near to us.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pairs of Levi’s blue jeans.

Curious Atoms: A History with Physics by Susanne Paola Antonetta

Full disclosure: the author was a professor and mentor of mine at Western Washington University.

Curious Atoms is an essay chapbook, 50-some pages in length, dealing with physics and the author’s own life experiences: part memoir and part science, told by a serious reader of physics but with no formal training in the hard sciences (as far as I can tell). “A History with Physics” feels like an apt subtitle.

There is a certain density to this subject matter. For one thing, admittedly I neither much understand nor much care about the theoretical physics discussed here; I had to let it go by, try to meet it where I found it and move on. But it didn’t hinder my appreciation for the writing, because a great writer can carry us through any subject. (Although I might have gotten more out of this had I been more comfortable with quantum whatnots.) The physics might challenge you as it did me. The personal material is heavy in a different way; Antonetta delves into her experience with bipolar disorder, with mental health and treatment, stigma, medication, and more. She’s also a deeply intelligent and well-read narrator, ranging widely. It’s not an easy read in a few ways, but a rewarding one. I love that wide-ranging headiness, and I loved feeling like I could hear the voice again of a woman I got to hear speak in a classroom a few days a week – that was a real privilege.

Here are a few lovely, thought-provoking, representative lines.

To bring to the lyric the mind and body that I have, and speak from the lyric soul, I cannot. I’m not sure what of mine can be called mine, body or mind; the lyric, with textbook definition of “the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker,” wants a warm hand, not mineral. I am not an individual, quite, but a chemo-dual.

That “our bodies of difference,” as Stephen Kuusisto writes, “offer crucial ways of knowing” I do believe. I can only give the cellular knowing of my chemical history, with the punctuation of what I suppose I really am, unmixed: hysteria under the bed, glitter. I can talk about 1970s psychiatry, the time I first encountered as a girl patients preyed on sexually, the awful, always visible electroshock machine, used as treatment and threat, its aftermath a gelled amnesia. I do not think, however, that such memoirizing would get to the question.

Gifted memoirist writes that memoirizing is not the solution. Note the interest in the idea of dualism or multiplicity, as in the multiverse, as in bipolar, as in the highs and lows of minds and lives.

Better still – I apologize that this review is half quoted text, but David Lazar’s brief introduction is too perfect to pass up. I think he describes the collection perfectly, and I couldn’t agree with his final statement more.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s essays are full of erudition and stunning self-appraisals, hair-pin turns between metaphysics and splintered pieces of autobiography, dark energy and light asides, tossed off like hand grenades. These essays are sculpted – I’m tempted to say forged (so necessary is each sentence, even each word one feels). Yet in the midst of work so exorbitantly cooked, the raw springs of the felt occasion drive the essayist through her thought-projects. I loved being in the company of this mind.

You can view the entire chapbook here, and you really should.


Rating: 8 sides.

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories by Lee Child

All the Reacher short stories! I thought I could take this one in chunks, but no: I stayed up later than I should have to rush through the whole thing, as per usual. I loved it.

I’d read “Second Son” before, but I was glad at another chance. It’s definitely one of those that requires a suspension of disbelief, as Reacher at (I think) thirteen is just a slightly smaller version of himself: badass, a fighter, and very clever. He solves two mysteries for the MPs, which seems a bit unrealistic, although also an excellent backstory for a later MP.

I’d also read “Small Wars,” but I doubted my memory of the ending, which made it fun again. There is an element almost of a Poirot-style detective in Reacher’s intuition, his ability to take scattered facts and build a whole story out of them.

Some of these stories star Reacher in adulthood, in his post-military rambling stage, which is when most of the novels are also set, and some see him still in the Army. But we also have several instances of teenaged Reacher. These are fun for me, although they make that mistake, as mentioned above, of treating younger Reacher as a miniature (still very large) version of adult Reacher. Whatever; it’s a departure from realism, but the Reacher corpus is not about hyper-realism. “Everyone Talks” is told from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not Reacher, and according to my memory, that’s unique. I appreciated the variety, being a bit outside his own perspective. By contrast with longer stories of 40+ pages (“High Heat” runs over 70), some of these stories are very short, almost vignettes, and might serve as character studies of Reacher himself: what does a guy like this do in a particular situation, that sort of thing. He’s a problem solver, he’s a hero, he’s an eccentric, he does the right thing. He’s a romantic, and a sexual creature, and he uses his fists, but with a code.

As a collection, I think No Middle Name is an excellent addition to the Reacher world, satisfying fans’ desires both for plot, storytelling, and action, and the Reacher character himself. (Also the odd romance or sex, which I think is a well-established if secondary element.) Longer, more involved stories come earlier in the collection; it wraps with several shorter ones. The final story, “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” (reference to the Hopper painting), felt like the perfect closer. Again, I thought short stories might help me take smaller sips of the fiction I love, but I ended up binging as usual, so consider that a warning of sorts. Possibly a good entry point for a curious reader. Certainly, a great read for the established fan.


Rating: 8 lines of adult dialog.

bonus post: Shelf Awareness Turns 15!

Please pardon the extra post on a Tuesday, for this pleasing big news. I loved yesterday’s email, and hope you will too. Shelf Awareness Turns 15.

four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.

Past Tense by Lee Child

I was having a bad day and hit a couple of not-great books in a row, so I checked this one out from my local library and sat back. It’s a wonderful system, to get that ebook on my Kindle in minutes. Fixed my day right up.

Even a mediocre Reacher novel is a fun time, but this is one of the better ones: a real joy ride. Past Tense sees Reacher leaving Maine and aiming for San Diego, more or less, as winter approaches. Why not the beach and some warm weather? But of course he doesn’t make it that far. Instead he takes a spontaneous turn toward Laconia, New Hampshire, because he knows that name: it’s where his father is from. Stan Reacher, who never talked much about his past, whose origins Reacher has never visited before. So why not? And when he gets to Laconia and goes looking for the old homestead – property records and all – thinking he’ll cruise by and see it from the curb at least – the records are dodgy. Where did Stan Reacher hail from, really, exactly?

Also, being Reacher, he gets himself into a scuffle or two right off the bat. First, he’s awakened at 3 a.m. by a cocktail waitress being assaulted in an alley, which he fixes for her, with the result that some people come looking for revenge. Secondly – but that’s a longer story. There’s also a parallel storyline going on with some unrelated characters off in the nearby woods.

This novel (the 29th published, called #23 in the series) has everything I love about a Reacher thriller: hand-to-hand combat, with clever internal monologue; intrigue and fast guesses; front of brain versus back of brain; some great Reacher family history; fascinating twists and surprises; and for a refreshing change, romance that isn’t just about a thin, hot, young woman having sex with our favorite hero. The collision of the two storylines is pretty neat, too. I like that I can see it coming but not precisely how it’ll come. I loved the ending. This is classic stuff here, Lee Child more or less at his best. On the one hand, I can see the caricature pretty clearly at this point – I don’t know if Child’s writing has gotten more over-the-top or if it’s just my having read a few dozen of them. I don’t really mind, but it does require some suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, I am always pleased when a mystery/thriller (especially from an author I know so well) can surprise me, and this one did.

I’m still a huge fan.


Rating: 8 quad-bikes.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Recommended by Liz to help break my reading slump. I picked up Pachinko as an e-book from my local library, and saw the descriptors ‘multigenerational epic,’ among others, go by as I opened it. Now, normally ‘multigenerational’ and ‘epic’ are both turnoffs for me, but I trust Liz entirely. And it’s a great book – maybe I should consider more multigenerational epics.

The cultural backdrop was fascinating to me, and almost entirely new. Pachinko is set in Korea and Japan, following a family of Koreans who become Korean Japanese, across most of the twentieth century. The cultural implications – the perceptions of Koreans in Japan – were a big part of the appeal, and the point, of this novel. I learned a lot. And as far as that (potential) ‘multigenerational epic’ problem, any hesitations I might have felt were well taken care of by Min Jin Lee’s excellent handling of a large cast of characters over time. I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of them, because each was well-developed and clearly delineated. I lived so thoroughly with these people that I still feel myself a little bit with them, even now it’s been a few days since I finished reading.

The first line of the book reads: “History has failed us, but no matter.” In 1910, in a little Korean fishing village, an old fisherman and his wife have a single son, Hoonie. Given his cleft palate and club foot, he considers himself lucky to marry at all. With his wife Yangjin he has a single surviving daughter, Sunja. She becomes pregnant as a young woman by an older, wealthy, married man. Therefore she also considers herself lucky to marry Izak, a young minister who considers it a charitable act to give her child legitimacy. Izak and Sunja go to live in Osaka, in Japan, with Izak’s brother and sister-in-law. Sunja’s first son is Noa; her second, with Izak, is Mozasu.

Sunja is surprised to find how poorly Koreans are treated in Japan. Back home her family was poor; here they are poor and abused. Circumstances are harder still during World War II, until Sunja’s first lover Hansu – Noa’s biological father – resurfaces to help the family. It turns out he’s been helping behind the scenes all along, which is not equally appreciated by all. When Noa learns the truth, he cuts all ties, and establishes a new life for himself in another city, where he represents himself as full Japanese. Both brothers wind up working in pachinko parlors, in different parts of the country and in different contexts.

Sunja and her dearly loved sister-in-law support the household, now including elderly Yangjin as well. Mozasu’s wife dies young. They have one son, Solomo, who attends college in New York, then returns to Japan with his Korean-American girlfriend. But even in 1989, Korean Japanese occupy a special sort of cultural no-man’s-land, unable to return to a national home that no longer exists (Korea in its pre-war form), and not accepted in Japan despite having been there, in many cases, for four and five generations.

The book’s central themes include cultural dislocation and (the myth of) racial difference; home, identity, and belonging; gender (there is a refrain that “a woman’s lot is to suffer”), class, and the stereotypes about pachinko (a totally legal, highly profitable and enormously powerful industry, but with continuing perceptions of criminality). It is a gorgeously rendered novel, rich with details and with food (which I love), and with wonderfully wrought characters: complex, complete, sympathetic but flawed. I loved the, yes, epic sense of time and scope, everything that Hoonie’s generation and Solomon’s do and do not have in common. I noted that when Sunja got pregnant out of wedlock, her mother did not shame her; she seemed sorry that her daughter would have a hard road to walk, but she never called her any names. Yoseb and Kyunghee take her in and ignore the elephant in the room. It is only when Hansu returns to their lives that there is a sense of shame. “A woman’s lot is to suffer”: if she has a baby out of wedlock, certainly; if her brother-in-law won’t let her work for a living; if her son finds out she’d been pregnant out of wedlock; because she must work long and hard from childhood until old age ends her life; because she must bow to the wishes of the men in her life. But also, a Korean’s lot in Japan is to suffer; and they will remain “Korean” even when it’s been several generations since anyone in the family saw Korean soil. That sense of cultural homelessness touched me deeply.

My ebook came with an interview with the author. Lee indicates that it was indeed the cultural situation of Korean Japanese that she wanted to explore with this novel. “Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources,” Lee says, and I couldn’t agree more: the narrative history of ordinary people is endlessly appealing to me, and beautifully accomplished here.

This is an absorbing novel of a world quite far from the one I know, but with people I easily recognized and related to. I could spend more time lost in Lee’s remarkable writing and characters. Definitely recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of kimchi.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

I read these nearly 400 pages in a single sitting, because that’s how compelling I continue to find Jack Reacher.

At the conclusion of another brief love affair, Reacher takes a bus out of Milwaukee, and gets out to stretch his legs at a comfort stop in a small Wisconsin town. In the window of a pawn shop, he spots a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s tiny; its owner must have been female, and small. He’s bothered: graduating West Point, as a diminutive woman, in 2005 – and whatever might have come afterward in Iraq or Afghanistan – would have been hard, meaningful. She shouldn’t have pawned her ring. Being Reacher, he doesn’t get back on his bus, but instead follows the ring’s tracks backward, through South Dakota into Wyoming.

He liked Wyoming. For its heroic geography, and its heroic climate. And its emptiness. It was the size of the United Kingdom, but it had fewer people in it than Louisville, Kentucky. The Census Bureau called most of it uninhabited. What people there were tended to be straightforward and pleasant. They were happy to leave a person alone.

Reacher country.

Being Reacher, again, he gets into scuffles along the way – in Wisconsin, in South Dakota, in Wyoming – and makes alliances: a retired FBI agent turned PI; a wealthy young woman with a mystery to solve. This installment in the series is satisfying in some of the usual ways. There are brawls and matches of wits, random trivia and landscapes and local color. There is rather less sex than in some Reacher novels (but not none). That last I didn’t mind; I was getting a little sick of Reacher getting laid in the same fashion and with the same type of woman over and over. I’d encourage Lee Child to keep exploring Reacher’s options in this regard. (Although now I have to lobby someone different, don’t I. Fingers crossed for the new guard.) And this time, there are cowboys. Mostly the retired, drug-addicted kind.

I found everything I wanted in this read, which was escapism; action; and the comfort of returning to an old favorite. I’m glad there are still a handful of Reacher books left (written by Child alone) for me to snuggle into.


Rating: 7 hikes uphill.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is lovely, painful, and important. It opens with three epigraphs, and the first, by Harriet Tubman, provides Ward’s title.

We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

This memoir focuses on the deaths of five young men, close friends and relatives of the author, including her brother. One suicide, one murder, two car wrecks, and one death by drugs. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, Joshua. Ward profiles each, tracks a life and a death and the consequences for those who loved him. In shining her light on these five individuals, she also examines race and racism, gender, poverty, and the historical patterns that contribute to deaths like these. Most centrally, racism. (See footnote re: caste.)

Ward introduces her topic and the five young men, briefly, then handles them one by one in reverse death order, from Ronald back to her brother Joshua. In between, sections titled “We Are Born,” “We Are Wounded, “We Are Watching,” etc., track the experiences of Ward and her family, growing up the eldest of her mother’s four children, in chronological order. In this way, two threads of her story meet when the backwards-moving and forwards-moving chronologies intersect with Joshua’s death, hit by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run for which the driver – a white man – would receive a sentence of just five years.

Men We Reaped is a personal memoir of Ward’s own life, as well as a profile of five individuals and their social and family circles. It is also an examination and social critique of race, gender, and class, within the United States and within the historic Deep South. Ward was raised in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, near Gulfport-Biloxi. It’s a particular place, of the old Confederacy, divided by race even as its inhabitants recognize that this is a false division; poverty-stricken, it provides few opportunities for its young people, especially young black men. Ward offers her reader the history of this place as well as of her own family, hearkening to the town’s former name: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” That this range of subjects is so neatly woven into Ward’s intriguing narrative structure – those forward- and backward-moving chronologies that meet in the middle – results in an extraordinary piece of literary work. Ward’s points about social structures and prejudice are intelligently made, her personal stories are deeply moving, and her craft is admirable. Her writing is lovely and expressive. I am deeply impressed.

This audio narration by Cherise Boothe felt right to me; I appreciated the pacing and weight and pronunciations of place names. (There are so many ways to say “New Orleans.”) As I’ve struggled to write this review – often more difficult the more I appreciate a book – I’ve missed having access to a text copy for reference, but the experience of the audiobook was excellent, so that format is recommended but having the print copy alongside would be ideal.

Everyone should read this book.


Rating: 8 holes in the ground.

I listened to this book while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s forthcoming Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, also a stellar and deeply important book. As Wilkerson illustrates, these forces are the work of caste and casteism. I chose to stay with the term of racism for this review, as it’s the one Ward uses and I think it’s an accurate term, but please see also Wilkerson’s arguments.

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