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.

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.

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.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan

This book came recommended by one of my favorite faithful readers here at the blog, so I’m sorry to say I’m not an unqualified fan.

Adrift is a memoir of survival. Steven Callahan is a lifelong sailor, and from boyhood had wanted to sail across the Atlantic, which he eventually managed to do in his late twenties in a 21-foot sailboat of his own design and build. Her name is Napoleon Solo, and with a friend, Callahan sails her from New England to old England. Here the friend flies home and Callahan putters south with another short-term crew member; they part at the Spanish island of Tenerife. Callahan sets out alone for Antigua, and it is in this second attempted Atlantic crossing that things go wrong. The subtitle gives the briefest summary. Callahan spends the 76 days in an inflatable raft with few and meager tools, whose accelerating failures require increasingly creative solutions, even as the man’s body and mind self-cannibalize and break down.

For one thing, this book is interesting in that it is both suspenseful and riveting, and spoiled from the beginning: that Callahan got to write the book (never mind that subtitle) gives away the ending. In fact, the subtitle’s specificity gives away yet more. As I read the log, I see we’re in day 41 and know we’re nowhere near done. I was nevertheless absorbed by the story. It’s hard to say to what extent I enjoyed this read; I was often frustrated, but always reluctant to close the book and walk away.

I think I might have been more able to enjoy the story if I’d better understood the practical aspects of it. Sometimes Callahan throws out terms or processes unconcernedly that are meaningless to me. Sometimes he tries to explain but entirely passes me by – which may be as much on me as it is on him; certainly I don’t know my way around a boat, and mechanical intelligence is not a strength of mine. He includes some diagrams and step-by-step explications that so entirely passed me by that I started skipping them, as trying and failing to understand only irritated me. That said, giving up on the details still left me able to follow the life-and-death struggle.

Callahan conceives of himself as operating in three parts: physical, emotional, and rational. Especially as he starts to really lose it (with fatigue, starvation and dehydration, frustration, sleep deprivation, and the general crazy-making of his situation), these parts become a chorus of arguing voices in his head. There is a philosophical, if not meta-physical, thread to the story: will to live versus peace with death, and how people suffer and work through experiences like this. I suspect such a story is one of the hardest things to write, to communicate such profundities… and so if I say he didn’t do an entirely convincing job of it, I mean that as mild criticism. Certainly I’ve never lived through anything like this, nor tried to write it, and I can’t imagine I’d do any better.

The story was undoubtedly compelling. I didn’t want to stop reading. And yet I felt a certain impatience, too. It’s strange to say, but the events of these 76 days, while they included much variation, were also much of the same over and over. Much minutia of patching holes and reconfiguring a speargun, but on the other hand, just the ocean: “that torn blue desert,” he calls it, with dorados and flying fish and triggerfish and calm weather or angry weather, hot days and cold nights. Possibly this could have been done in fewer than 238 pages to better effect. (That’s a major decision to be made with a book like this: degree of detail; pacing.) Maybe I’m not the ideal reader of this book, or not at the ideal time. When I think about survival-in-nature stories, I think of Krakauer first, of course; Into Thin Air remains the pinnacle for me, in memory, with Into the Wild a close second. (Both of these, apparently, pre-blog. And what would I think of them if I reread them now?) Stories this elemental must be among the hardest to get right. Isn’t this kind of survival narrative the definition of ineffable?

Interesting in its own ways, and demands to be finished (no question of a did-not-finish here), but not something I loved reading.


Rating: 7 eyes.

Dog Years by Mark Doty

Love for a wordless creatures, once it takes hold, is an enchantment… This is why I shouldn’t be writing anything to do with the two dogs who have been such presences for sixteen years of my life. How on earth could I stand at the requisite distance to say anything that might matter?

How indeed?

I love Doty, as you know, and this book is an excellent example of some of the qualities of his work that I love best. He is thoughtful, meandering, wise, self-deprecating, shows his thinking transparently on the page, and has the most precise and loving eye for beauty; he turns most every observation of the world into ekphrasis somehow, by which I mean that he turns the same active, joyful, inquisitive observation to the Massachusetts shoreline or a NYC sidewalk that he turns to a museum-quality painting.

This review is a trigger warning of sorts. I love Doty, and I love this book, and I’m glad I read it, but it was also painful as hell. Dog Years is about beloved pet dogs who die (as they do), and it’s about 9/11, and it’s about death and loss. It is also absolutely relevant that I read this during the pandemic of the spring of 2020, and everything feels a bit more raw these days, the angst a bit closer to the surface than usual; and I have in no way recovered from my dear Ritchey dying more than a year and a half ago now, and my dear Hops is not even 12 yet but he shows his age. This book was beautiful and transcendent and really hard on me. I mean it as a compliment – this book comes with a warning because it’s so well done.

Because, you know, a book about a beloved pet dog dying could easily be (and they usually are) insipid, overly sentimental, a cheap shot. And I think telling the story of 9/11 (or Katrina, I think about that one a lot too) is awfully hard to do in a way that’s not going to sound like anybody could have told it. (This is true of the pandemic of 2020, too. Who will tell that story well? Will it be Doty? I’d buy that book. See also Paul Lisicky’s excellent recent release, Later. A little awkward: Paul Lisicky appears in Dog Years as Doty’s husband, which is no longer the case.) In other words, Doty has undertaken an ambitious book, which aims to do a couple of things at once that look nearly impossible to do well, even individually. But of course he’s knocked it out of the park. (It is a sign of my faith in him that I undertook to read a book about dogs dying. Whew.)

The dogs in question are Arden, a black long-haired retriever, and Beau, a golden retriever(ish). They are very specific beasts, individuals, as dogs are. Arden belonged to Mark Doty and his partner, Wally, in Provincetown, Mass., where Wally sickened and eventually died of AIDS, but not before Mark brought home Beau to join the family as well. “My friends think I’ve lost my mind: You’re taking care of a man who can’t get out of bed and you’re adopting a golden retriever? They do have a point, but there’s a certain dimension of experience at which the addition of any other potential stress simply doesn’t matter anymore.” (That is a golden retriever puppy, I would add.) Widowed, Mark (and Arden and Beau) will eventually form a new family with Paul, and it is in this shape that they make their way to the end of both dogs’ lives, eventually, after much travel and moving around – including living in New York City in September of 2011… I have seen Doty handle grief and loss before (although I’ve not yet read Heaven’s Coast, so there is still that), most recently of course with What Is the Grass, where death forms one of the five sources of Whitman’s genius. And Doty’s, I’d say. The way that these strands are intertwined is lovely and perfect.

When the towers fall, the enormity of all that loss and death and threat to the world is too much to conceive. “With the world in such a state, isn’t it arrogance or blind self-absorption to write about your dogs?” But Doty knows that “we use the singular to approach the numberless,” and this echoes one of the lines I most obsess over in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, about “the strangeness and singularity of things…” (There is again an echo of the thread in Still Life that is about reflection, in all its senses: “We know ourselves by how we’re known, our measure taken by the gaze of the outsider looking in.”) The singular losses of Arden and Beau offer Doty a way to write about 9/11 and about topics larger than them. The unique to communicate the universal, and the personal to illuminate the public.

For me, what is perhaps the crux of this book came early. “To attach, to attach passionately to the individual, which is always doomed to vanish–does that make one wise, or make one a fool?” This is a more personal review than usual, but here we are. This is something I’ve been wrestling with, the enormity of loving again after the pain of loss, and I can’t quite believe that either way, the yes or the no, is the right thing. But I always feel I’m in good hands with this writer. Maybe I’ll figure something out if I keep reading.

Of course you known as well that I love Doty’s detailed lists of things, his descriptions (ahem) and the simple fact of his attention turned to all the humble things… the soup Arden smells on that sidewalk. “Of Franco’s retail experiment, there remained for several years an odd little lamp beside his old shop door marked with a thirtiesish design that would have held no meaning if you didn’t know what it had illuminated–but now that’s gone, too.” Things and meaning and the spaces they held, left behind.

Oh! I nearly forgot to mention structure, which absolutely needs mentioning here. Longer, numbered (untitled) chapters do the work of memoir, of memory, not entirely chronological but at least following life in some form; some of them take the form more of essay than of strict narrative, like in chapter three, when he lists and details seven “aspects to our delight” in dogs. Between these are spliced shorter pieces headed Entr’acte (an interval between two acts of a play or opera; a piece of music or a dance performed during an entr’acte), titled and not numbered. These generally take the present tense, and range as widely in content and theme as the rest of the book… and wouldn’t you know, my MFA thesis took the same structure, longer memoiristic essays with short lyric pieces in between… There is also a good bit of Emily Dickinson in this book, and I think my new approach to poetry is just to let Mark Doty tell me about it.

This is a writer I return to for guidance, and this book is an exemplar of what I appreciate about him, but (if you love a dog) it may hurt you, too.

Rambling review brought to you by the pandemic and my difficulty focusing, and the pain that this beautiful book brought me.


Rating: 9 obstreperous things.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family by Bettye Kearse

A descendant of enslaved Africans and a president tells her family’s story with pain and dignity.


Bettye Kearse grew up hearing a line of advice that had been handed down in her family through generations: “Always remember–you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” In The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, she works to explore this statement and its implications for her life.

West African griots (masculine) and griottes (feminine) have, for many centuries, been caretakers of the oral traditions of their families and communities. It is a role that is passed down and serves an important function in, for example, enslaved families, where literacy was illegal and “even their pockets were not their own.” Bettye’s mother was the seventh griotte in her family, tracing back to a girl who was kidnapped from what is now Ghana and renamed Mandy on the shore of Virginia, where she would be treated as a possession of James Madison, Sr., and bear him a daughter. As this book opens, Bettye’s mother delivers to her the box of records and memorabilia that generations of “Other Madisons” have compiled. This spurs the author on her own path to become a griotte, to retell the story of her family.

The Other Madisons includes a family tree documenting Kearse’s links back to Mandy and to the Maddisons (with two Ds), then Madison, Sr., whose son James Madison, Jr. would be a U.S. president. Her family has long felt proud of the Madison name, but for Kearse, the connection is a reminder of rape.

Kearse’s research, and that of the griots who came before her, is impressive. In search of deep truths, she travels from her home in Boston to Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, New York City and Madison’s plantation in Virginia, walking in her ancestors’ footprints and grasping ever more deeply the magnitude of the tragedy of slavery. While there is surprisingly solid evidence (slave records being notoriously poor) to support much of the lineage back to Mandy, Kearse is unable to prove a genetic link to James Madison. She accepts this, but it doesn’t change her sense of the relationship. For a family that relies on the griotte‘s oral history to know its own past, the oral history’s confirmation of the Madison connection is enough.

The Other Madisons, as a thorough history of one family, may offer answers for other descendants of enslaved people as well. It is part personal quest, as Kearse works to understand and reconcile her own origins, and a carefully researched and documented correction to the American historical record.


This review originally ran in the March 3, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 steps.

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World by Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky’s memoir of early ’90s Provincetown illuminates his own coming of age and portrays gay romance under the shadow of AIDS in lyrical, thoughtful prose.

In his searing, lovely memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky (The Narrow Door; Lawnboy) looks back at Provincetown, Mass., 1991-1994. It’s a place for a young gay man to find a community; a haven for artists; a belated coming of age; the height of the AIDS epidemic; a place known simply, in the author’s mind, as Town. It is “the edge of the world” both geographically and metaphorically. “Town a lyric bubble outside past and future. Town a dream that rips up all your intuitions about narrative.”

Paul is in his early 30s when he moves to Provincetown as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, after years of graduate school. Early pages express his difficulty in leaving his mother, breaking up an interdependence. In Town, he finds a community where it feels safe to be openly gay, where sex is readily available. “I’m a good ten years behind them, a hormonal teenager in adult skin.” This is a revelation, but with a heavy-looming shadow. Young men are dropping all around him; Town is also a place to die. “AIDS takes hold of a life, with all of its ideals and aspirations, and throws it to the pavement like a jar.” Even as Paul’s life blossoms, sex and death are interwoven. Later realizes that they will never be separated again.

This is not a memoir purely of loss and mourning, although those themes are always present. Young Paul wants a boyfriend, enjoys flings and explorations, settles down and breaks up. He sees sex and death and politics all around him, the patterns of the summer people (“summer is as wonderful as it is awful”), economic and cultural shifts. The literary life of Provincetown serves as background for his life there, taken as a beautiful given; careful readers will recognize other famous writers even when they are noted only by first name.

Lisicky’s prose showcases his precise ear for language and eye for descriptive detail. “If horniness weren’t narrowing my perception, I’d be able to step back and see how cinematic it is to see these bodies moving–it is like a scene out of Fellini if Fellini had been queer. No wonder the moon likes it here.” Under such loving observation, Town is both microcosm and macrocosm. Later is a personal memoir but also a witness to the way in which the gay male experience is forever, irreversibly changed by disease. “Tender boat, still afloat, even though it’s springing leaks…. As easy to tear open as skin.” This is a book of yearning, of love and sorrow and wanting and, yes, hope: deeply vulnerable and attuned to the divine. To be read for historical context or simply for its stunning truth and beauty.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ice cream cones.

Maximum Shelf: Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 22, 2020.


Jennifer Finney Boylan tells her life story with both sweetness and fierceness in Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs. A coming-of-age story, a tale of finding and owning of self, and an elegy to a series of delightful and frustrating mutts, this is an occasionally heartbreaking but ultimately feel-good memoir about life and love.

Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, about her trans experience, was the first bestselling book by a transgender American author. Good Boy differs in several particulars: for one, there are dogs. “This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them, and the way that love helps us understand the people we have been.” It follows the path of Boylan’s life, from a confused and troubled boyhood through various teen and young adult phases, to dating and marriage, and finally to the decision to transition and the recent happy years as wife and mother to two young adults. Through these years and epochs, seven dogs in particular helped Boylan mark time and observe change, and learn to love.

First came Playboy, “a resentful hoodlum who loved no one except my father.” He chases and attacks motorcycles and is happy to raise a leg or squat indoors. “My father thought this was kind of funny, but then he was never the person who had to clean it up.” (That person was Boylan’s mother, and she would continue the unenviable task of cleaning up for several dog lifetimes to come.)

Then there was Penny, aka Sausage. What eventually turned out to be a thyroid problem caused this Dalmatian puppy to grow enormously fat, but the young Boylan (at this point known as Jimmy) carries her around “like an unusually heavy rag doll.” Boylan loves her, despite the dog’s indifference. “I figured, if I kept being sweet to Penny all the time, eventually her heart would open, and she would love me as I loved her. No one told me this is never how it works.”

Matt the Mutt humps everything and everyone, human and non, and knocks people down as they enter the house. Despite being neutered, Matt has lots of sex with Sausage, while James–now in college–mostly avoids it, even though he has opportunities with female classmates.

Next comes Brown, whose perfectly plain (if descriptive) name the Boylans hoped would match a personality boringly normal and sane, as none of their dogs had been to date. But all Brown wants to do is eat her own paws, and so she must spend her days in the Cone of Shame, meant to protect her from herself. “Was Brown not so unlike me, driven to the ends of the earth simply because she could not quite do the thing that she was destined to do?”

Alongside the lives of these dogs, young Boylan wrestles with deeply hidden anxieties–about how well he belongs in “his” body, in an all-boys school, in the world he’s been assigned. James’s mother is a martyr to dog poop, and his father battles cancer. On his deathbed, Boylan Sr. tells his son, “Be the man.” That, of course, is the task James most struggles with.

Boylan describes herself as a gender immigrant, as having a life divided into more or less equal thirds: boyhood, manhood, womanhood. (Boylan makes clear that while some trans people would not use such terms, she does see the earlier parts of her life as belonging to a person others perceived as a boy and, later, a man.) Good Boy is in part a contemplation of these themes: What does it mean to be a man? Is it tied to one’s ability to change the oil in the car, build things, woo women?

In adulthood, Boylan meets the woman she will marry, and they receive from their best man and childhood friend a dog that he can no longer care for. Alex is Boylan’s “guardian angel” and a “unique scholar,” apparently the first well-behaved dog to belong to a Boylan, but one who never gets over the loss of his first owner.

Happily married James adopts a “golden retriever” puppy that turns out to be anything but. This vaguely yellow mutt, Lucy, serves as witness to the beginnings of Boylan’s transition, finding herself and becoming Jenny. Initially distressed by the sight of her owner in dress, heels and wig, Lucy eventually counsels Jenny (in imagined dialogue) that, rather than losing everything, “Some things you will keep.”

Finally, Ranger is the dog of Boylan’s happy, settled life, a loyal black lab with a troublesome inability to avoid porcupines. In these later years, the author reflects on how well her conservative mother had handled her coming out, and Boylan herself must consider how to be the best mother she can be when one of her own children has news to share. Happily, well-adjusted Ranger is there to counsel the whole family as Boylan’s children grow up.

The mature woman who has penned Good Boy has much to reflect upon and lessons to share, many of them couched in the lives of good (and troubled) dogs. “There’d been this puppy I’d loved when I was eleven, but in time I’d turned my back on her, thrown my dog out of bed because her gelatinous sadness was a merciless chain tying me to the person I no longer wished to be.” Boylan’s dogs have taught her about love, and how its unconditional nature flows between humans and dogs. Good Boy is a story, first and foremost, about love, its many forms and the many directions in which we point it and receive it, and about how certain details, like gender, really matter very little in the end. If you have a family–and a dog–that love you, that’s the vital thing.


Rating: 6 cello suites.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Jennifer Boylan.

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.
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