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Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I recall studying a poem in high school by Eavan Boland titled “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me.” As I approached this semester’s critical essay, one of the talented faculty in my program, Diane Gilliam, recommended this work of prose, for my topic on objects. Diane’s words, to the best of my memory, were, “Every woman artist needs to read this book.” I’m so glad I did; especially when I got to page 231, where “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” makes an appearance, as the only poem of her own that Boland chooses to feature. Synchronicity.

Object Lessons is an examination of the conflict Boland has experienced between her self as poet and her self as woman, with the overlay of Irishness on it all. She leaves Ireland at age five, to a London that largely rejects her kind, to return to her home country in her teens and to study poetry at Trinity in Dublin, a charged literary atmosphere. It takes some time for this young person, still discovering herself as a woman, a sexual creature, and a person of a nation, not to mention as a poet, to see the holes in the legacy she has inherited: there is no place for her in this history. “It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world–a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine–were absent from the tradition [of the poet’s life], although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” Names are important. “Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them.” Further, about the poet-versus-woman tension: “For anyone who is drawn into either of these lives, the pressure is there to betray the other: to disown or simplify, to resolve an inherent tension by making a false design from the ethical capabilities of one life or the visionary possibilities of the other.”

Over the course of this book, she lays out the problems she found and her own best efforts at solving them, a job she acknowledges is unfinished. But she hopes that a book like this helps future women poets, by giving them a starting point, something else to point to. Heartbreakingly, by contrast, she relates that the first woman poet she knew of as a young woman was Sylvia Plath, and that name she knew first as a suicide, not a poet at all.

I was also very interested in the way this memoir started: with the missing, imagined, scantily sketched biography of her grandmother. The narrator explores the history, the meager records of the woman; she imagines; and she travels to view a grave and a hospital. It’s a lovely study, the story of someone absent, and a consideration of what we get from an ancestor we can’t really know.

Boland has plenty of good thoughts about place, sense of place, and nation as aspect of our selves and our writing selves. She makes much of the Irish poetic tradition to conflate the feminine and the national. Her musings can get pretty cerebral and abstract, so this memoir took some slow, thoughtful reading; but I think it’s worth the time. Also, I am very interested in Boland’s assertion that she structured the book like a poem: “in turnings and returnings.” I have more thinking to do.

Rating: 7 high heels tipped with steel.

reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

You’ll recall that I really loved this book when I read it in 2013. (First review here.) I reread it recently as part of my first semester reading list (see new tag here, many entries to come!). Students’ reading lists are individual, created by the student and faculty advisor together, so Katie Fallon and I came up with my list as a team.

couchI loved this book again. Havel Kimmel’s mother is far from perfect; she struggles to hold herself together and care for her children and family in a way that her society deems correct; she appears ill-kempt. But in the course of this book, in Kimmel’s youth, she also learns how to drive a car (and buys herself one), enrolls in college and goes on to graduate school, gets a job as a teacher, and goes through a divorce. She struggles, but she keeps it together, accomplishes these large goals, and as this book’s existence shows, her youngest daughter loves her very much through it all. In other words, she’s our favorite kind of hero: challenged, imperfect, but eventually victorious against long odds.

So, a great story. But more than a great story, because Kimmel also presents it cleverly, with enormous humor (even when terrible things happen, like fifth-grade Kimmel’s double compound fracture with shattered bone extruding through the skin) and the kind of detail that makes the whole thing alive to her readers without ever feeling overloaded with descriptions. How does she do it? This is what I’m here to learn on this read. Because my stories are only as great as they are – I can’t control that part – but I can control how I tell them.

I’m still learning this kind of reading, how to read for the craft, to take it apart and see how it works. But here are some things I see:

  • Kimmel’s book is about her mother. The title and Preface make that clear. But many chapters hardly mention her, or don’t mention her at all. Much of Kimmel’s story characterizes mom Delonda without even touching on her. Who she married, what her children and family do when she’s not around, where she isn’t – all these things serve the development of Delonda, which I think is really cool.
  • Kimmel is hilarious. (Here, I don’t have much hope for myself; I’m afraid I’m missing that funny bone…) In the incident I mentioned above, the double compound fracture etc., she uses a totally hilarious doctor to add much of the humor in that scene. Was her doctor really that hilarious? I don’t know. Maybe she was gifted a comic doctor; or maybe she knew how to write his dialog to play that up.
  • Her POV rarely departs from that of the child she was in each scene. She stays in the past tense, but her conclusions, what she sees and what it means to her, stay in character. This often yields humor, because her audience knows more than her narrator does. It can yield poignancy in a way that is just honest without being precious. And it plays up the few moments when adult Kimmel comments on her past: these are rare enough that we pay extra attention.
  • A few chapters take unusual formats. There are lists; a transcript of an audio recording; rules of a game she plays with her friends. This kind of formal play (that is, playing with form) can be dangerous – it can distract, or call attention to itself, as in ‘look how clever I am’ – but I think it serves her well here. For one thing, it’s used sparingly. For another, the formats really do feel like they contribute to the narrative she wants to tell. I think a transcript of an audio recording is a great idea, because it’s in the moment. It’s real.
  • I spent some time focusing on the short chapter “Brother” that biographies her much older, and therefore mostly absent brother Dan. It’s a little bit of a departure from the rest of the book, in tone as well as subject, and I found it a charming encapsulated profile.

This is just the beginning of what I have to learn from Kimmel. Exciting, right? If you haven’t read her work yet, you obviously have my recommendation. I love everything she’s written, in fact, as you can see here.

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.

Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.

Gamechangers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History by Molly Schiot

This photographic survey of trailblazing female athletes through history celebrates a diverse range of inspirational talents.


Molly Schiot created the Instagram account @theunsungheroines to celebrate pioneering female athletes the world has scarcely heard of. Game Changers expands that concept: a collection of historic photos Schiot found in libraries and archives, paired with short narratives of a page or less, tell the stories of groundbreaking and little-known female athletes.

The women featured here include some better-known names like Kathrine Switzer, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King and Nadia Com─âneci. These are joined by early mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, powerboat racer Betty Cook, judo champion (and mother to Ronda Rousey) AnnMaria De Mars, the “Sea Women” of the Korean island of Jeju and many more: boxers, billiard players, swimmers, skateboarders, players of team sports, Olympians, referees and umpires, sports journalists, coaches and policy makers (for example, the legislators behind Title IX). While women from the United States dominate these pages, every continent is represented except Antarctica. Women of color and those of non-binary genders are given special consideration as well. Among the strange and wonderful, don’t miss the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail’s entire length in one season: she was 67 years old at the time.

These stories are brief but breathtaking. Not only athletes, these women were often activists and advocates as well as accomplished in business and the arts. Their photographs, naturally, speak volumes on their own. To be read in small pieces or cover-to-cover, Game Changers is an obviously indispensable choice for athletes, fans, parents or anyone else stirred by courage, talent and determination.

This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 6 balls.

A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son Investigates His Trailblazing Mother’s Young Suicide by Jeremy Gavron

The legacy of a mother and her suicide reveals the story of both a woman and a social movement.

woman on the edge

Jeremy Gavron grew up with the faintest of impressions of his mother, who died when he was four years old, in 1965. He didn’t know that her death was a suicide until he was 16, and only decades later did he embark upon an exploration of her life and reasons for ending it. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a record of his examination and tentative conclusions.

Gavron’s mother, Hannah, is a tantalizing character. A talented, magnetic youth, she excelled in acting, equestrian sports and poetry; had an affair with the headmaster of her boarding school; married at 18; earned a doctorate in sociology while raising two young sons; and wrote a feminist text that would be published shortly after her death. In an echo of Sylvia Plath’s suicide two years earlier, she gassed herself in a flat just one street over from Plath’s. And, like Ted Hughes, Gavron’s father all but erased her presence from the lives of her two children.

In chasing this shadowy figure, Gavron corresponds and visits with Hannah’s friends, colleagues and family, and studies letters, diaries and photographs left behind. Along the way, the reader is exposed to English cultural history, particularly in Gavron’s investigations of Hannah’s book The Captive Wife, a qualitative study of young homebound mothers. As he concludes, there can be no thorough comprehension of a suicide or of a mother he doesn’t remember. A Woman on the Edge of Time ends with Gavron’s attempted “narrative verdict,” which though incomplete does offer him some closure.

This review originally ran in the September 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 gurns.

Red Dirt Women: At Home on the Oklahoma Plains by Susan Kates

The reasons so many pioneer women did not desert Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl days are the same reasons Kates was able to find an unlikely peace there, and cannot be succinctly rationalized or explained–except perhaps in this collection of sensitive, thoughtful, grounded musings.

red dirt women

Red Dirt Women is a collection of essays examining the Oklahoma plains and its people, particularly its women, by a transplant who has found home there. Susan Kates is an Ohio native, and professor at the University of Oklahoma. As she relates in these stories, her transition to a dusty otherworld was not always smooth, but over time the Oklahoma landscape and population opened up to her. One message of her collection as a whole is that this place and people are richer than the stereotypes of bonnets and cowboy hats suggest. Kates’s essays vary slightly in their form, but run toward profiles of people and culture. The women she describes include barrel racers, a Vietnamese jeweler, a hippie preschool teacher, gamblers, a birdwatcher, and roller derby players. A brief foreword by Rilla Askew recommends the journey Kates portrays within.

This is just a stub: my full review of Red Dirt Women was published in the fall issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link. Or, don’t hesitate to run out to find a copy of the book itself: I recommend it.

Rating: 8 Queens.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem’s straight-talking memoir is rich with personal anecdote, political history and a fervent love for living on the go.


Gloria Steinem, founder of New York and Ms. magazines and many women’s organizations and a noted leader of the women’s movement, shares her stories from along the way in My Life on the Road. This simply stated memoir recounts Steinem’s childhood, her organizing and activism from her youth into the present, with commentary on the social and political events of those decades. But it is also explicitly a story of life lived on the move. As she sees it in hindsight, Steinem inherited a love for constant motion from her father, who lived for most of her life out of his car, with little Gloria keeping him company for her first 10 years. As a young woman not ready to settle down to marriage and motherhood, and then as an organizer, she kept moving. One chapter is dedicated to her choice to travel communally rather than use an automobile of her own, because it offers increased opportunities for contact.

In stating her goals for this book, Steinem cites storytelling as a central drive. Much is told in short vignettes, stories from those she’s met in her travels or lessons learned on her way. There are more than a few instances of Steinem making assumptions about people (Harley riders, cab drivers), only to have them proven wrong–emphasizing the idea that every person is more than he or she appears.

Steinem hopes to encourage her readers to hit the road, too. She is clearly deeply passionate about the advantages of travel: for perspective, for personal development and for plain enjoyment. She recommends that politicians travel the country and the world: “I called big-city contributors from on-the-road places, so I could say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like out here.'”

My Life on the Road is not a history of the women’s movement, although of course it contains many references to that history, as well as to the U.S. political climate and events of the second half of the 20th century. Instead, Steinem’s memoir is a glimpse into one remarkable woman’s life and philosophies of the road. It includes profiles of Steinem’s immediate family and friends like Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller and Florynce Kennedy, and briefly addresses the conflict between Steinem and Betty Friedan. Steinem’s writing style is personal, warm, approachable and straightforward. Her fans will be satisfied by this personal view, one that combines a love for people and places and stories and change with a love for movements–in both senses.

This review originally ran in the October 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 stories.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

A pioneering journalist’s compelling life story, evocatively told.

mary mcgrory

John Norris’s Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism is a well-researched and engaging biography of a fascinating figure, as well as an accessible view of some five decades of U.S. political history.

Mary McGrory had been a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star for more than a decade when her editor offered her the chance to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Her first political assignment became the beginning of an influential career: she would go on to cover 12 presidential elections, and everything between. Boston Irish Catholic, with a strong impulse to volunteerism and charity, very proper and private in her personal life, Mary happily smoked and drank with the heartiest of her male colleagues. She flirted and made the men carry her bags, but “perhaps more than any other journalist in American history, she pushed her editors (and they were invariably men) to come to terms with the fact that women had something worthwhile to say.” Not an impartial journalist, even as she worked to push Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race, she practically hired Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager herself. She never liked Nixon; dated Jack Kennedy before he was married (or president); was propositioned by Lyndon Johnson. Despite such drama, however, her greatest accomplishments were journalistic, as her exhaustive list of awards indicates.

Even with such absorbing material, Norris (The Disaster Gypsies) earns his reader’s respect with careful attention to detail and a precarious but precise balance between his primary, individual subject and the context of U.S. and world history. Mary McGrory is a striking story, meticulously and entertainingly portrayed.

Come back on Wednesday for my interview with John Norris.

This review originally ran in the September 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 Christmas parties.
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