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.

Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper

Among the central concerns of Truth Serum lie questions of truth and memory. This is a memoir-in-essays of Cooper’s coming-of-age in Hollywood from the 1950s onward, including his identity as a gay man in the early days of the AIDS virus. I found several elements I appreciated from Maps to Anywhere: lyric language and a profound attention paid to the world. I was reminded of Mark Doty in the moments that Cooper leans in, seeming to slow down time, to examine what’s around him, that the rest of us might have called the everyday. Maps to Anywhere, as I remember it*, had some longer essays but more short ones, several of which qualified as prose poems; by comparison, the essays in this collection are on balance longer, and while the language is undeniably lovely, few of these shapeshift toward poetic form. These essays more frequently offer clear narrative structure.

One shorter one I’d seen before was “The Fine Art of Sighing,” about the sighs of three family members. I’m pretty sure* this one reappears in Short Takes (ed. Judith Kitchen), and/or I’ve read it for class. I also really appreciated the opening piece, “Where to Begin,” which is very much about that problem of creating art: that the biggest question is not what to put in, but what to leave out. Else we’ll end up trying to paint, or write, the whole world, and be defeated before we begin. I loved “Burl’s” for its epiphany of gender fluidity. “Against Gravity,” about weightlifters and men and mortality, was a lovely longer meditation… I really enjoyed how it ranged and returned. “If and When” is a beautiful, tearing-open essay about discovering the narrator’s HIV status, and his partner’s. (I am reminded of an essay Cooper contributed to… some essay collection, about handling the public’s response to his revealing private information, this information in particular.) It’s a simply gorgeous and wrenching portrayal, and I think it’s a generosity. “Tone Poem” answers my statement above, about there being less poetry in this collection than in Maps. It’s not so much a poem itself, though, I argue, as it is about poetry, about finding something beautiful in the mundane. “Train of Thought” was the essay I thought might be a poem: it explores the etymology of that phrase, ‘train of thought,’ and the music and language of trains.

In one seminal dream from my childhood I was on a train with a woman who was dressed in an enormous satin skirt. I was sitting on her lap and we ladled cupfuls of cool water into each other’s mouths. Her petticoats crackled whenever I lifted the cup to her lips. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “To the city,” she said, “where the rustling of a woman’s skirt sounds the same as the rain.”

Which I misread, initially, as ‘the same as a train.’ This attention to language and sound, and a final memory about a boy who memorizes numbers, made me feel a little floated above the world. Lovely.

Finally, I was reminded of Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Most obviously, both essay collections handle the narrators’ coming-of-age and coming to terms with being gay men. But that’s not all, and I hope I’m not guilty of that kind of simplification. I’m thinking more about the ordering of essays in both collections, where they proceed more or less chronologically, and with an overarching opening up from the immediately personal (and confusion about the subject at hand) to the outward-facing, the public issues involved with being a gay man (for example) in the 1980s as an unknown virus blooms.

Another lovely one from Cooper, although I missed the poetry in Maps and hope to get back into that book one day, too.


Rating: 8 plums.

*I owe y’all an update on this at some future date, but I’m about to be undertaking some travel and have been packing all my books to go into storage… so the other books I’ve mentioned here are not at hand as they’d usually be. I already miss my library!

If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

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.

A Song for the River by Philip Connors

Today a simple repost of my review from back in June. Philip Connors’s A Song for the River was released yesterday, and you should get yourself a copy.

Connors writes,

On one quiet stretch of water I looked up at the tiered mesas above us and felt it might be true that my life was both a fire and a river, depending on the moment and the vantage from which it was viewed–and never more like a river than in moments like this.

My review, again, is here. Thank you.

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.
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