What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence ed. by Michele Filgate

Diverse writers answer the title’s prompt with essays that are cutting, furious, delicate, generous and everything in between.

Literary Hub contributing editor Michele Filgate thought she was writing an essay about her stepfather’s abuse, but it turned out she was really writing about the relationship with her mother that allowed such abuse to continue. After years of work, her essay was eventually published by Longreads under the title “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” Readers and writers responded strongly, and Filgate’s piece now leads this astonishing anthology.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence follows that essay with a breathtaking range of responses. Filgate writes, “Mothers are idealized as protectors: a person who is caring and giving and who builds a person up rather than knocking them down. But very few of us can say that our mothers check all of these boxes. In many ways, a mother is set up to fail.” And while many of the essayists featured here reproach mothers who have hurt them, there are also apologies, confessions and unsolved mysteries. These essays bring many perspectives and deal in self-awareness, too.

In “Thesmophoria,” Melissa Febos considers her close relationship with her psychotherapist mother by recalling myths, chiefly that of Persephone and Demeter. “We often love the things that abduct us.” Brandon Taylor wrestles with the pain his mother has caused: “It’s strange, really, that to grasp that which has hurt you, you must trust it not to hurt you when you let it inhabit you”–or when you write about it.

Alexander Chee hides the abuse he’s suffered from his mother because of the tragedy they’ve endured together: “This is how we got each other through.” Dylan Landis seeks to understand her mother better through an old apartment building, and a possible former lover. Amid the layered traumas of race, nation and gender, Kiese Laymon asks his mother: “Can we please get better at loving each other in America?” Carmen Maria Machado finds her own conflicted feelings about parenthood linked to her mother’s harsh treatment. And André Aciman considers his deaf mother’s language, separate from words, and what it taught him.

Leslie Jamison closes the anthology with an essay exploring her mother through the eyes of an outsider to the family unit: her mother’s first husband’s unpublished novel about their marriage. It is a fitting conclusion, with that surprise perspective and a careful, loving attention to the woman who came before the mother.

These collected essays are variously rich, tender, angry, despairing and clinical. The result, greater than the sum of parts, is part paean and part denunciation, intelligent, heartfelt and wise. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a shrewd, glinting collection of beauty and pain: a gift for mothers and their children.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 myths.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump

A shadow of tragedy hangs over this lovely, lyric memoir of Tutsi childhood in Rwanda, but the author’s love for her strong mother remains central.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (Our Lady of the Nile; Cockroaches) is a loving tribute to a strong mother and a striking work of memoir.

Mukasonga and her family lived as exiles in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide of the Tutsi. This time in her life, when they were all together and alive, was short, but Mukasonga has vivid memories, especially of her mother, Stefania, a leader in the makeshift village where they were regularly terrorized by Hutu soldiers. In an earlier memoir, Cockroaches, Mukasonga depicted the horrific end of her family. Here, she focuses on her mother: Stefania is a hard worker, always with her hoe in hand; a healer with a medicinal garden of grasses, tubers, roots and tree leaves; a “highly respected matchmaker”; and a dedicated, ever-vigilant protector of her children. Saving them was her “one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving.” She is not a hero with a single dimension, though. In Mukasonga’s warm telling, Stefania has personality, a sense of humor and a deep love for her family.

The book opens and closes with dreamlike sequences. At the beginning, in the narrator’s memory, Stefania reminds her children of their duty to their mother upon her death. At the end, Mukasonga describes a dream about her mother’s uncared-for dead body and those of so many Tutsi. This sets the tone for the rest of the memoir, which often feels dreamy as it turns to childhood memories. Extraordinarily, this story is at times horrifying in its content and at other times playful; lyric in its style and tender in its handling of the central character. While the reader’s knowledge of the genocide to come hangs over the narrative, the everyday events often retain a quotidian feeling; Stefania and her neighbors worry over their children but also laugh and celebrate and arrange marriages. As a literary work, this establishes a rare balance. Jordan Stump’s translation from the French beautifully conveys this sense of both tragedy and day-to-day joy.

The Barefoot Woman is also an essential record of traditions and a way of life that are in danger of disappearing. It describes the inzu Stefania builds, with great effort, in exile: a traditional straw-dome house “that was as vital to her as water to a fish.” The importance of keeping a fire going, and why a mother would borrow fire from a neighbor rather than use a match. The significance of sorghum, “a true Rwandan” crop, and why Stefania insisted on a cow, the traditional gift for her son’s marriage pact, even in the inhospitable new place where cows were no longer a part of their everyday lives.

This is an adoring, gorgeously rendered memorial to a mother and testimony to a people.


This review originally ran in the November 19, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 little loaves of bread.

guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

follow-up to The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

This Wednesday I posted my review of Kim Adrian’s new memoir; but I have more to say.

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet came to me as one of a series of happy accidents, or coincidences – or synchronicity. At this point, I’m not sure I can call it coincidence; this is more like the result of a cultivated reading life, for which I’m grateful. Recall how I loved and raved about Adrian’s Sock. That review posted just as I headed off to residency, and I heard almost immediately from her publicist, offering me this memoir for review. Well, I say no to these offers 99% of the time, plus I was at residency (spread extra thin), and entering thesis semester. But I was intrigued. I looked up the book. I knew I liked the author; it was the right length. I pitched the review to Shelf Awareness, who accepted, making it worth my time in that (monetary) sense. So I said yes, send me that book.

And it was not only a wonderful book, as I’ve written, but turned out to be uncannily well-suited to my studies this semester – in other words, it serves all these functions for me: a review for the blog (as requested by a pleasant, not pushy, publicist), a review for the Shelf, and a nice tie into my schoolwork.

Adrian’s memoir features photographs – described, not included – which is also something I’m doing in my thesis. (My dear friend Delaney used photographs in her thesis last semester – included them, as in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know For Sure – and taught on “art and artifacts” for her graduate seminar.) She studies a difficult-to-pin-down mother figure, which was the original plan for my thesis – I’ve given up on that for now, but it’s still in the back of my head. Finally and best of all, she uses that strange but quite successful structure, the glossary, an alphabetically organized series of fragments. These entries rarely strike me as “narrative” on their own, but they definitely combine to tell the story, and in chronological order. My lightbulb realization, which seems so obvious in hindsight: these entries were not titled and then sorted; they were titled for their place, to serve the alphabetical structure.

I found this fruitful reading in several senses – and not least, it was gripping. I stayed up until 1am to finish it, which is something I’ve not done, I think, in several years. So it merited this second post and my firm endorsement.

Thank you, Kim Adrian, and thanks to her fine publicist, Carrie Adams, for doing the work of connecting the right reader with the right book.

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

A remarkable memoir, organized as a glossary of terms, that is part detective story, investigating a mother’s mental illness.


The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a memoir with an unusual structure to match its ever-shifting reality. “I’ve wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember wanting anything at all,” writes Kim Adrian (Sock): the story of her mentally ill mother, how she got this way and what Adrian can or should do about it.

Linda, Adrian’s mother, has been diagnosed with a long list of ailments: borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, bipolar, psychosis, paranoia and more. Adrian’s father is an alcoholic; his memories, his assertions that Linda wasn’t always this crazy, “not like she is now,” can’t be trusted, because “he’d been drunk the whole time.” Adrian’s sister has few memories from their childhood. In constructing this narrative, then, she relies entirely on her own memory. But the trouble with remembering the truth of what happened is that Linda’s lies, manipulations and her own troubles with reality created a wildly shifting experience for her oldest daughter. If Linda retold a story, the very truth of it changed for Adrian. Reconstructing the past now is therefore a fraught undertaking.

This troubled and troubling attempt to reorganize a life is organized alphabetically, beginning with an anecdote titled “Abecedarian” about an unexplained event in grade school, and ending not with “Zigzag” (Linda weaving down a city sidewalk), but with the entries under “&.” “Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet,” and for Adrian it offers inclusivity, “a verbal umbrella” under which she is both mother and daughter, both happy and sad.

This structure, the glossary, would feel contrived or awkward in less capable hands. The narrative of Adrian’s childhood through her own motherhood and healthy, loving family life is told more-or-less chronologically, but in fragments, whose alphabetized titles emphasize the narrator’s reliance on words, on the power of storytelling to restructure her experiences, perhaps to fix something. The glossary’s entries are anecdotes, descriptions of family photographs or simple definitions. “Domesticity: A kind of faith, in my experience.” Deceptively simple fragments add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Adrian’s story is often horrifying. Both of her parents were violent; her mother’s emotional and verbal abuse is ongoing and perhaps more shocking still. The older woman’s circumstances, bouts of homelessness and hospitalization, and the younger woman’s inability to extricate herself from the cycle of abuse, can be difficult to read. But, see “Hope: The ‘only way of knowing a person,’ said Walter Benjamin, is to love them without it.”

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, but in many ways also continuing. She gives it meaning without having answers to all the questions she still asks herself. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. Her glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. Memoir readers should not miss this singular offering.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nutcrackers.

Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained by August Kleinzahler

I bought this book nearly two years ago, on the recommendation of my friend Doug.

Cutty, One Rock has four parts in this edition (three in the original). Generally, the book deals with Kleinzahler’s background–family, hometown and neighborhood–in a Mob-rough New Jersey; it deals with place, relationships with people, and eventually with art. His parents live a middle-to-upper-middle class life, concerned somewhat with appearances; his mother is devoted to Shakespeare. The back of the book calls them “both cultivated and deranged,” which I think is apt. Early in the book, these parents figure as central influences, central characters in the child’s upbringing, but stay tuned for another important family member to come later in the book.

The adult Kleinzahler is an expatriate Jerseyite living in California’s Bay Area, and the differences between these two places, the baggage he carries between them, is another central feature. Here he is describing the “swagger, a bluff air of menace that many of the males wear”:

Once, after leaving a restaurant in North Beach, here in San Francisco, I gave a panhandler a dollar, a middle-aged black guy with some amusing riff or other.

“Thanks, Jersey,” he said, to the great amusement of my companions.

“How did you know I was from Jersey?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?” he said.

The narrator does substantial traveling beyond these two points, east and west, and these other locations and the nature of travel itself offer another recurring thread. The essay “East/West Variations” opens:

There’s a window, thirty-six hours or so, not even, when traveling by air between places, places where you’ve lived for a long time. After you’ve landed and into the next day, perhaps the evening–then you begin to lose it. It goes very quickly, decaying like a tone in the air. But for a while, inside that window, you’re hyperawake.

He goes on to describe this “window,” which I couldn’t help but conflate with the window you look out of when traveling by air–which I was doing, as it happens, while reading this book. He concludes on the next page that “places are conditions of mind.” By the end of this wide-ranging essay (which catalogs several romantic interests and his hard-nosed mother’s reactions to these women), we deal directly with a parent’s mortality. It’s a hell of an undertaking, and I’m not sure I followed him everywhere he tried to take me, but I appreciate the ambitious handling of place and people, and their intersection.

Part three tackles the subject of poetry, and poets. Kleinzahler is a poet; but he’s a rough-and-tumble Jersey poet, with no patience for poetry readings or academia. He writes a particularly scathing send-up of Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems; a profile of Allen Ginsberg (reminding me, not for the first time, of Joseph Mitchell); and a lovely elegy of Thom Gunn. The Keillor criticism, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” is clever, and the Ginsberg profile is incisive; but I love Kleinzahler’s voice best when he writes with love, as he does of Gunn.

Kleinzahler is derisive toward intellectuals,

particularly university intellectuals, [who] indulge in pissing contests over how much they’ve read, quoting at length by heart and so on. No wonder they have no friend off-campus. Thom could more than hold his own if sucked into one or another of these contests, but it wasn’t his sport.

And it’s not Kleinzahler’s sport, either, but I do want to point out that he had me noting (and in some cases looking up) terms like diabase, tibouchina, carillon, cloaca, tatterdemalion (great fun, that one), superannuated, and–very happily–sprezzatura, which I remember from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, in which McPhee expresses a sense of total consternation at this untranslatable and mysterious term. So there, Kleinzahler.

While there are many fine essays here–like “The Bus,” about public transportation, class in cities, and the invisible weirdness of strip centers–this book held two exceptional highlights for me. One was the essay, in part two, “The Zam Zam Room.” It offers a profile of a bar, a dark and smoky bar with a characterful bartender/owner who professionally throws people out.

When David Letterman came to town to do a week of shows, his advance people phoned Bruno to see if he would throw Letterman out of the bar on the show. “No, I’m sorry, thank you,” Bruno said over the phone. “Who’s David Letterman?” he asked us. “I don’t know this person. Why do these people bother me? He must be some New York person.”

Perfect descriptions of place, local culture, and especially a singular personality, make for an essay I love–but if it’s also set in a bar, I’m really sold.

The finest thing in these pages, though, is part four. Where the first three parts contain three to four essays apiece, this is a single essay, which shares the book’s title, “Cutty, One Rock.” That’s what Kleinzahler’s older brother always ordered when he went out, which he did, just about all night and every night until he died young and tragic. I heard echoes and rhymes of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” loud and clear throughout. This deeply loving study of a loved brother, its close attention and reluctant acknowledgement of flaws, its worship–because the narrator was the much younger brother, always looking up–is so good it hurts. That’s them on the front cover.

This book is worth reading from cover to cover, but that final section really blew me apart. Booze; sense of place; difficult families and unbeautiful homes. Also, memoirs by poets. Good stuff. Thanks, Doug.


Rating: 8 dry martinis.

Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain

Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun is a compelling, heart-breaking piece of personal narrative, and it is told beautifully, with restraint and with artistry and structure. The first observation is one any reader might make; the second is the more subtle observation of a reader looking for writing tricks. This is a book that works beautifully on both levels.

The narrator was raised by a complicated woman named Debbie. She was a soldier, a strong woman who made impulsive decisions and charged ahead, took care of herself and her two sons through all kinds of hardship; she had poor judgment in choosing romantic partners, was married five times with many relationships in between, for which she was harshly judged in turn. When Justin was 20, she was murdered by her most recent husband, Ray, a former cop with the requisite mustache and mirrored sunglasses. Until then, Justin had thought Ray the most harmless one of the bunch.

This memoir is the story of Justin’s mother’s death: his shock and grief, his anger, the violent end of Debbie and, later, of Ray. It ranges between these individual instances of gun violence and others, personal and societal, as Justin visits with Debbie’s former partners, goes shopping at a gun show, and cycles back over and over again to Tombstone. Oh, did I leave that part out? Justin and his brother Josh were raised in Tombstone, Arizona, a town whose very existence depends on the legends of Wild West shoot-outs.

I appreciate St. Germain’s title, because it reinvents an old and meaningless saying in a fresh new way: making the point that he is indeed a son of a gun, of a gun culture that engineered his mother’s demise. I also appreciate the way he handled his own character, the narrator, in a spare way that acknowledges (for example) the problematic way in which the 20-year-old reacts to his mother’s murder. He does not always behave well, but who would?

It’s a hell of a sad story, one that recalls my recent read Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood (review to come), and A Woman on the Edge of Time. It’s a hell of a story, in the first place, and at the same time, tragically, nothing out of the ordinary: a 2017 CDC report concluded that nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by a current or former intimate partner. St. Germain does deal with this larger context, although his primary concern (understandably) remains personal.

A hell of a story, but also artfully told. I often think that creative writing, the kind I’m studying, has two parts: an interesting story, and the artful telling of it. A book can become successful, can please or entertain and sell, with either one or the other of those elements, but the best books have both a good story and a good telling. One of the key features of this book, I think, is the narrative restraint. Anytime a writer handles a story this close to home and this fraught–emotional, violent, graphic–it’s difficult to keep a calm perspective, and yet not be cold and distant. St. Germain walks that line. Another strength is the weaving in of the external, if you will, theme material: the history of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral (which St. Germain informs us actually took place “in a vacant lot to the north, between a back alley and what is now the highway. But try putting that on a T-shirt”). This is a classic gift to the writer from the universe: that he was brought up in Tombstone, that Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and the O.K. offer such a backdrop for his story and his reflections on it. This braided-in information is almost too perfect for his story; but this is why we say fact is stranger than fiction. It allows a very neat context for the narrator to think about not only his personal tragedy, but the larger cultural implications.

I was riveted as I read this book, all the way through in a day, because this story has momentum, suspense and crafted pacing. I was heartbroken for the characters, and struck by St. Germain’s gestures at the larger world. It’s a very fine book.


Rating: 8 arcane alphanumerics.
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