The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

Letters from mother to daughter shed glimmering light on reunions, reconciliation, immigration, heritage and familial love.

Poet and translator E.J. Koh grew up in California’s Bay Area, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her parents moved back to Korea when she was 15, leaving her to live with her angry, taciturn 19-year-old brother. By the time her parents returned to the United States, Koh was off to graduate school in New York City. During those years of separation, a flurry of letters from mother to daughter sketched a yearning over distance.

The Magical Language of Others revolves around these letters, translated from occasionally English-spattered Korean. Koh read them as arrived, but it wasn’t until much later, in their rediscovery, that she came to understand what they offered. In a small box she has kept for years, Koh finds exactly 49 letters: “In Buddhist tradition, forty-nine is the number of days a soul wanders the earth for answers before the afterlife.”

As Koh studies Korean and Japanese, and eventually adds a graduate degree in Korean translation to her graduate poetry studies, she works as well to translate the love, longing and abandonment of generations of women. Her paternal grandmother’s memories of Jeju Island are first idyllic and then filled with trauma from the massacre in 1948. Koh’s privileged but heartbroken maternal grandmother, after several suicide attempts, left her cheating husband in Daejeon and took an apartment in Seoul. She loved it there, but eventually relented and moved back home to a family that begged for her return. “Coming to one home, she had abandoned another.”

Meanwhile, in Koh’s own lifetime, she deals with young adulthood with her antagonistic brother. She makes frequent trips to see their parents in Korea, where she shops and visits the bathhouse with her mother, formally studies languages and informally studies people. “He waved not a hand but a blank page, and I knew it was gestures like this one that meant nothing.” Such luminous prose is evidence of an unusual mind.

This slim book is a memoir–of the years Koh spent quasi-orphaned in California; her visits to Korea; finally sharing a continent and eventually a home with her parents again in adulthood. It is also a study of generations of women before her. Koh considers how people make poetry out of imperfect lives, and how they interpret and generate love. In startling, lyrical, imaginative prose, Koh wrestles with the meanings of devotion and duty, and with the challenges of language and translation. Her final lines are as heartbreakingly beautiful as the entire book deserves. The Magical Language of Others is a masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 parentheses.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between the worldFinal review of the year, and the book is a great one. Pops reviewed it first, and I knew it was one I needed, but it just took me a while to get to it. The reason I finally prioritized it now is because I suspected a student needed it – actually, that was Pops’s suggestion, too – and so I needed to read it first, to know, and to be able to recommend it to her. So I have that student to thank for my own education, which is often how it works.

Coates speaks painful truths about our society and the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism in this country. He speaks with specificity and detail of his upbringing in a Baltimore that was worlds away from what he saw on TV growing up, the world where “there were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak.” I think of his narrative as accomplishing three things: a review of the evils of racism in this country since its founding and continuing today; a memoir of the experiences of one man, his coming-of-age and coming to realize the above, and of growing up in Baltimore; and a review of the writings and philosophies of Black American thinking and activism. Coates has an inquisitive mind from a young age. In this book, he actively investigates the nature of education, and who gets to define the value of a civilization. I loved the part where we learn that his mother used to have him, as a child, write essays about his own mistakes. This taught him to question, and that the question itself, not any purportive answer, is the point. This lesson has got to be the most important lesson anyone can offer a young person. This is the concept behind the classic liberal arts education, right: critical thinking?

Coates assigns his son the same essays in response to his own transgressions.

I gave [these assignments] to you not because I thought they would curb your havior–they certainly did not curb mine–but because these were the earliest acts of iterrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing–myself.

Oh, that I could teach one or two of my own students the same.

I have tried to write more about this book and what it accomplishes, both artistically/stylistically and in its content, but I keep observing that my dad did it better. (I especially like his work with what he calls metaphorical coding, and the Richard Wright poem that gives this book its title and a refrain.) His book review says everything I’d like to say about this book, and says it beautifully, so let me again try to send you back to it. Thanks, Pops.


Rating: 9 open, easy smiles.

Educated by Tara Westover

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.

Last Friday, I briefly reviewed Tara Westover’s talk at West Virginia University. Now here’s her book.

It’s a hell of a book. I’ve written about this before: every book has the two layers, the content itself – the story it tells – and the telling of it. Sometimes one or the other clearly dominates. I read a lot of books in which the telling, the lovely lyric or literary or weirdly styled telling of it, trumps the story itself (man comes of age, meets woman, ho hum). And I read some that are very much about the story, where the telling is just serviceable. I sometimes remark when they both align to a remarkable level. This one is noteworthy because the story is so outrageous: truly, it would stand alone as a sensational tale (which is not altogether a good or a bad thing, although rather maligned in memoir). But it doesn’t rely on the shock value of its story to carry it; the telling is also elegant, and Westover makes some wise observations along the way.

As I wrote the other day, Westover was raised by some pretty extreme isolationist Mormons. She was not allowed to go to school or to a doctor. Her father seems a little nuts; he is a religious zealot, insists upon total control in the household, is prone to wild mood swings, and late in the story, becomes something of a cult leader. He makes his living by scrapping metal from his junkyard(s) and doing odd building jobs. His seven children are expected to work as part of the family business – with him, or with their mother, a midwife and homeopathic healer. This latter was not her idea, but his, so that the family would not need doctors, and as a way to serve God. She is a reluctant student but eventually finds her stride and gets serious about faith healing (which involves something she calls muscle testing, clicking her fingers and whatnot). It’s all pretty far out for me. Because Dad is crazed about the junkyard/scrapping work, and because he lives in a bit of a fantasy where nothing bad happens to the righteous, he is opposed to safety measures, actively forbidding gloves and protective eyewear (etc.) and using ludicrously dangerous equipment. So the family suffers quite a few serious injuries. They do enter the hospital a time or two, but also treat third degree burns over a large percentage of the body, and head wounds involving exposed brains, at home. So, the first sensationalist point of this story is the extreme isolation, zealotry, and risk-taking the Westover family lives.

The second is abuse. Young Tara is absolutely placed in mortal danger by her family, repeatedly and constantly, and this is a form of abuse. But the greater issue is with one of her older brothers, who beats and tortures her as a matter of daily life when she is a teenager. He inflicts sprains and I think one broken bone. “I found myself cleaning the toilet every morning, knowing my head might be inside it before lunch.” He laughs at her, taunts her, calls her whore until she knows deep within herself that it is so, and he gaslights her into feeling that she’s imagined all of the above. I can’t do the trauma justice here. Talk about shock value.

The abuse extends from here. She and a sister try to confront the family about the brother’s abuse (which apparently extends to several of his siblings), but this results in a range of lies and false fronts, and no change. Eventually, it results in each whistleblower being invited to recant and be received back into the fold, or be disowned, which is Tara’s fate. At the time of the book’s writing, she is not in touch with her parents or most of her siblings.

But again, her book does not rely on these events for its impact – or at least, not entirely. It’s hard to think about her life without concentrating on these stories (as I have here in this review). But meanwhile, Tara gets an undergraduate degree from Salt Lake City’s Brigham Young University; travels to Cambridge on a Gates scholarship; receives an MPhil from Trinity at Cambridge; studies at Harvard; and gets her PhD back at Cambridge. This would be a remarkable academic journey for the most privileged among us, but especially so for someone who never set foot in a classroom until Brigham Young, who had no support at home for her education, and who battled mental illness and extraordinary obstacles and gaslighting from her family at every step along the way. For dog’s sake, she takes school breaks at home where she is gaslit and physical abused, then returns to the school grind. It’s quite bizarre and almost unbelievable.

So, let’s mention the whiff of controversy. The Westover family is divided: some of Tara’s siblings back up her story, while others (and of course her parents) deny what she has written. I’m not especially concerned. If they are the people we’ve read about in these pages, we expect them to react in these ways. It’s hard to confirm such a story, but she does seem careful to consult the memories of others (those siblings she’s in touch with), and why would they support her if indeed this were fiction? I tend to believe her at this point.

I don’t think Tara’s done growing and learning – she’s just in her early 30s now, and I appreciated her comments at WVU last month, that she doesn’t know what’s next for her. (Nothing more arrogant than thinking we know what’s coming next! Or maybe that’s just the van-dweller in me.) I don’t think she’s done integrating the lessons of her spectacularly weird upbringing; we probably all still have a lot to learn, from her and from ourselves. But I think her telling of this story is careful, thoughtful, and compelling. She throws no one under the bus; even the abusive brother, even her enabling, turncoat mother, even her possibly mad father, get compassion, second-guessing, the ambivalence of a narrator who knows she doesn’t know everything. I found her someone I’d be glad to be friends with. She has a curious mind, and is still investigating what’s happened to her (although she’s come a long way in protecting herself).

There are other elements here to appreciate as well. For example, Tara’s attachment to her family is also inextricable from her attachment to place, the mountain where she’s grown up exerting a hold on her (and you know I like a sense of place). She meditates on the value of education, and its different definitions – the value of open-mindedness, and of knowing there is a larger world out there than your own particular mountain.

I am left quite impressed – by what Tara has lived through and overcome, by her journey and her accomplishments, and by her thoughtful, precise, contemplative, considered, literary telling of it. And I am curious about what she’ll take on next. I’m very glad I read this book. (And very sorry to miss the second book club meeting on it, but that’s another story.)


Rating: 7 tinctures.

Appalachia North by Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my earlier review, I am so deeply pleased to shared with you today this review in the Fall 2019 issue of Still: The Journal.

Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North is both memoir and outward-looking examination of place: what it means to be from somewhere, how our relationship to home can change, and the complicated and too-often negative role Appalachia plays in the national imagination, and in its own.

Ferrence was forty when he received a life-changing diagnosis…

Please click over to read the full review. Look for my interview with Matt on Friday. And many thanks again to the Editors at Still for considering and accepting my work.

Wyoming by JP Gritton

This shadowy novel of desperate acts, brothers, friends and grudges pulls readers relentlessly down a complicated and uncertain road.


JP Gritton’s first novel, the dark and gritty Wyoming, explores themes of family, love and every kind of trouble. Luckless narrator Shelley Cooper opens his story: “I’ll tell you what happened and you can go ahead and decide.” His telling is jumbled, though, jumping through time and space, and sometimes readers may be a bit unsure of who’s responsible for his actions: Is it Shelley, or the nasty “second voice buzzing in [his] ear”?

In shards and pieces, a backdrop becomes clear. Shelley’s lost his construction job. His best friend Mike’s kid is really sick. Shelley’s wife left him some time back for the next-door neighbor and took their son with her when they moved away. Shelley has longings that he understands to be inappropriate. He hates his brother Clay with deep, visceral force, yet he must accept Clay’s offer to drive 50 pounds of marijuana down to Houston from where they live near Denver. The pay is measly–insulting, even, he decides as he drives–but Shelley needs the money. Mike needs his help.

In Houston, the exchange of drugs for money goes okay, but the rest goes south. Shelley can’t help but veer toward trouble even when he sees it for what it is. A few acts of self-sabotage later, he’s on a bus headed for Kansas City for an impromptu visit with his ex, her new husband and the son he doesn’t really know. Meanwhile, back in Montgrand, Colo., problems multiply. Shelley owes Clay a lot of money. As he turns west, he continues to do battle with “that same ugliness rising up and up inside of [him].” Readers must piece together from a fractured narrative how circumstances got this bad, and where the roots of Shelley’s love and hate begin and tangle.

Gritton writes Shelley’s voice in a vernacular readers can almost hear spoken aloud. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, Shelley’s speech bites, and Gritton’s prose is curt but expressive. The title is a glancing reference point, since little of the novel’s action takes place in Wyoming, but it gestures toward the road map of Shelley’s undoing, which easily spans half a dozen states. It also points to the hopes, dreams and hazards on offer on the next stretch of road. The achievement of Gritton’s ill-fated protagonist lies in readers’ ambivalence: How should one feel about this man who simultaneously deserves revulsion, pity, compassion? Shelley is so determined to make an enemy of the whole world, of himself, of those he loves. Wyoming is a novel both sensitive and brutal, and impossible to turn away from.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 broken televisions.

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Inventive, dark, pathos-evoking, this sensitive novel of survival and discovery asks just how far innocence stretches in a remote cove of Newfoundland.

“They were left alone in the cove then…. A body must bear what can’t be helped.” Michael Crummey (Sweetland; Galore) rivets and flays his readers with The Innocents, a novel of innocence and hardship and what is intrinsically human.

“They were still youngsters that winter,” begins the story, in the season when siblings Evered and Ada lose their family: first their baby sister dies, then their mother and then their father. Baby Martha is buried. Their father takes their mother out to sea, bringing back her dress for young Ada: “You’ll have need of these,” he tells her, but she “held her hands behind her back and shook her head fiercely.” When their father dies, Evered takes him out to sea, as he had their mother. When Evered returns, spent, his hair has turned stark white: “As the driven snow, their mother would have said of it.”

Following these events of just the first five pages, the two children fumble through the tasks their parents had struggled to complete. Evered fishes in a small boat in the Newfoundland cove that is all they have ever known. Ada gardens, after both children haul seaweed and caplin (small fish), turning them stinking into the scant soil. They pick berries in the fall, collect caplin in the spring, fish for cod all summer and salt it throughout the season. Every winter, the weather forces them to rebuild the stage at which they clean and salt fish. Twice a year they expect a visit from The Hope, the schooner that rules their lives, which their father called The Abandon Hope All Ye. This vessel brings flour, peas, salt meat, tea, molasses and eventually rum, on credit against salt cod. The first time Evered must row out to meet the schooner alone is the first time he has seen a man not his father. Evered does not know his age, but the beadle aboard The Hope tells him he is 11. Ada is younger.

Against all odds, and to the continuing surprise of the crew of The Hope, the youngsters survive that first year, and another, and on. They learn best practices, and the few rare visitors teach them new skills: how to fire their father’s old flintlock, enabling Evered to shoot fowl; how to trap fox, otter, beaver for their pelts and precious meat. They muddle through their own changing bodies and desires, with disturbing if foreseeable results. They eventually hear that others now call the place they live Orphan Cove.

A gifted writer, Crummey shows imagination and compassion for his young protagonists, and a care for the oddities of language specific to time and place: the grieving children drink “bare-legged tea,” which in Newfoundland is tea without saucer, sugar or accompaniment. The Innocents is deeply pained and enchanting, full of small joys and victories as well as the pressing multitude of aches and challenges that mere living offers to two babes alone in this fierce environment. This searing novel will keep readers engrossed in its harsh world long after its hopeful conclusion.


This review originally ran in the October 18, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wish rocks.

Firebird by Mark Doty

It has taken me far too long to branch out in the world of Doty, having read Still Life With Oysters and Lemon at least six times by now. Well, I’ve got three more of his memoirs on my shelf and will rectify this. I may even venture into his poetry. Who knows.

Firebird is the second of his three memoirs (which list excludes Still Life), and focuses on his childhood: in an nutshell, a gay kid’s coming-of-age in a turbulent and troubled family that moved around a lot. From Tennessee to Tucson, Florida to California and back again, Mark’s family followed his father’s profession as an Army engineer. His mother eventually slides into alcoholism. His older sister leaves home in her teens to escape her own difficulties with their parents; she will wind up a single mother of three and later go to prison. Mark, after a traumatic haircut against his will, attempts suicide and confesses for the first time, to a nurse at the hospital, that he is gay. These are the troubled-family highlights, but Firebird does not rely on its sensational headlines for effect. It’s as much about art and beauty, the way these can overhaul pain and save his life, as it is about any particular painful story.

Doty excels at calling forth the beauty of the desert around Tucson, which his mother so loves, a Georgia O’Keefe landscape of color and contrast; her art–his mother’s–which brought her to life, and the entrance into a world of art that she gave him.
I was pleased to see so many echoes between this book and Still Life. I love the way Doty questions, turns back on himself: “Does he mean… Or no–does he meant it this way… But there are two lenses… Is that the point?” And his focus on “the resonant object,” which I absolutely recognize. The book’s prelude, “Perspective Box,” feels pulled directly out of that other book I have so loved. Firebird is as full of things as I could want; it fits right into what I love about his art.

I can’t wait to read more.


Rating: 8 complicated, studded walls.
%d bloggers like this: