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Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Just a week ago I gave you this book’s beginning and told you I was excited about it. It turned out to be everything I’d hoped.

Fierce Attachments is about Vivian Gornick’s mother and their relationship. It is told in two threads: the narrator’s memory of the events of her childhood in a tenement in the Bronx, and the narrative present, in which she and her mother walk together in Manhattan (where the latter lives) and throughout the city. The second thread features a daughter in her fifties and a mother in her seventies, finally eighty years old. The two threads eventually meet, as the remembered events follow a young Vivian growing up: from child to teenager, to college student, through marriage and divorce, into middle age and the walks in Manhattan. It is a very natural-feeling structure and one that makes great sense. It allows the reader to follow the heart of this book: neither the events of past or present, nor the story of one woman or the other, but rather, the story of their evolving relationship over decades, all its pain and small healings. It is also therefore about memory. The walks, which are also talks, allow Vivian and her mother to remember together, to create these stories.

In last week’s book beginning, I observed that the opening scene–a single paragraph–was given in present tense. All the narrative present events (walking in the city) are also given in present tense; but an event from the past doesn’t take the present tense again until page 91, nearly halfway through this book (at 204 pages an oddly quick read, for one so deep). It does not happen again until the past stories catch up with, merge with the present, when the mother turns eighty in the final pages and the two women find a small space in which to ease their combativeness. I had to flip back through the book to make these observations; I didn’t take notes as I went through, and in fact would have told you that more of the book took the present tense than I’ve found when I checked. I guess that makes the point that the past, rendered with lots of feeling and details, can feel pretty immediate.

There is much to admire here. I loved getting a feeling for Gornick’s inner life, as one lover calls it, her development as a writer, and the sad, conflicting story of going to City College and moving away–figuratively–from her mother, when she starts using complicated sentences and words the older woman does not understand. I appreciated the string of men she allies with, and her efforts to understand them, their places in her life and what they’ve had in common. Whatever her mother may think, Gornick uses beautiful sentences. And there is no arguing with the richness of her material: that tenement upbringing, the colorful women and sensory texture and exciting events. But for me what is most crystalline here is the relationship that is her main focus. The rendering of its difficulties.

And I see I’m writing this review prematurely, that I have not yet grasped what makes that rendering so clear. I think it has something to do with dialogue, and more to do with voice: that Vivian and her mother both get such clear voices, and not only them but many other, lesser characters as well. And perspective, the blending of what Sue William Silverman and Suzanne Paola call the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience”: the young Vivian, living in the past as it happened, and the writer Vivian walking with her mother and writing this book, and the way the two brush up against one another and eventually merge. The clear search for meaning, the honest, present wondering on the page: the classic assay.

I have a lot more to learn here; I’ll be back to Fierce Attachments soon, I expect. For now, please discover it for yourself, if you have any interest at all in the love and anguish of parent-child relationships, or admire creative nonfiction.


Rating: 8 corners.

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman is an established memoirist with Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (among other books, including poetry). This is the first of hers I’ve read, though.

Her title is intended as an answer to accusations that memoirs during the “memoir craze” of recent decades, and particularly those by women or other marginalized demographics that she refers to as the “other,” are confessional-in-a-bad-way, or sensational, or oversharing, or navel-gazing. With this title, Silverman reclaims the term and redefines it. Confessions are good, are therapeutic and cathartic, and lead to healing for the confessor and opportunities for fellow sufferers to begin their own healings. It’s a positive sentiment, although in this telling it occasionally carries a bit more touchy-feeliness than I might like.

I love the balance Silverman strikes between general philosophies of writing and nuts-and-bolts strategies. Each chapter concludes with a series of writing prompts or exercises. The craft books I’ve read for school (now in my third semester) have been successful reads, for me, at a lower rate than the rest of my reading. I don’t know if I’m pickier about craft books, just tend to like them less as a category, or am having trouble selecting the right ones. But my complaints often center on this balance issue: a writer holding forth about Writing (capital W) because he likes the sound of his writing, versus the practical how-to. I was pleased, early in Fearless Confessions, at the balance, which feels just right to this Goldilocks.

There is, though, a touch more cheerleading and rah-rah than I might like, just a hint of a tone that could be patronizing. Silverman has a tendency to wrap up chapters or concepts with “now go forth and do it, you’ll be great!” statements. Some of this is because there is an emphasis on trauma writing, Silverman’s own experience and (arguably) her specialty: the uncovering of a source of shame (incest, sexual abuse, sex addiction) which becomes an empowering and healing experience, and an aid to others. It makes sense to me that writers dealing with these kinds of issues deserve and need a certain amount of cheerleading. But I think Silverman has a lot to offer those of us who are doing different work, less revealing-of-trauma, and her tone came off just a touch strong for me, personally, and perhaps for other writers like me.

It also sometimes felt a bit more beginner than I needed, like in the first appendix, a discussion of the subgenres of creative nonfiction, which I found a little stark in its delineations–although a good primer it would be. Other appendices include a reading list (long, and by subject–I’ll be returning to that), and a handful of craft essays and examples of creative nonfiction essays. These were valuable inclusions that broadened the book and diluted Silverman’s peppy teacher’s tone.

I hear myself waffling as I write this review, and I guess that ambivalence is the story of my reading experience: great content, but often delivered in a way I found just slightly frustrating. And there was great content! I was really excited by Silverman’s concepts of highlighting, with different color highlighters, different plot elements or characters in a memoirist’s story to serve different plots. Or her idea of erasing the parts that don’t serve whichever story is being told: where a fiction writer builds plot, a nonfictionist sculpts one by erasure. These metaphors worked really well for me, and are perhaps the best expressions I have read of concepts I’ve been trying to articulate and wrap myself around.

I think I came to this one at a little the wrong time, and it would have suited me earlier in my studies. I’m glad I read it, but I found myself sometimes a tad impatient with the tone. I think I’ll be returning to this book, and going back to the writing prompts and exercises Silverman offers. I do recommend Fearless Confessions, just with a little patience, if indeed your tastes tend to follow mine, or if your background in creative nonfiction is already established. Or, to put it another way: an excellent introduction to writers new to memoir.


Rating: 7 pairs of red shoes.

book beginnings on Friday: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve featured a book beginning here (over a year), but I wanted to share these opening lines because I find them a fine example.

First: I knew before I even got to Gornick’s text that I had misjudged her. I think I’d been cool on this book because I did not enjoy Gornick’s craft book, The Situation and the Story. But as I opened Fierce Attachments to Jonathan Lethem’s glowing introduction, I knew this was different, and I felt I’d been wrong to wait so long.

Gornick’s opening lines are,

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette.

I love the immediacy of this scene, the way Gornick places us there in the very moment, in present tense. Even that first sentence, “I’m eight years old,” is such a choice on the part of the writer. It does what we are sometimes afraid to do: just comes out and gives up a piece of setting-information (age, in this case) outright. It’s simple, but that present tense makes it snappy somehow. That sentence says scene, bam. And I’m on board.

Thanks for stopping by for a book beginning. I’ll be back to reviews next week.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley

I appreciated Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, and so I was interested when I learned he’d written a memoir of a difficult-to-write-about family member.

The first paragraph of Hemley’s prologue introduces five characters in a nuclear family. Father Cecil, who died when Robin (the youngest child) was seven. Brother Jonny, who “used to be good at everything, from languages to sports to the sciences,” but as an adult specializes in Orthodox Judaism (he and Robin are not close). The eldest, sister Nola, who “was good at everything, too, art and language, but especially things of the spirit.” Mother Elaine, writer and teacher, who is good at surviving. And here Robin introduces himself, as larcenous. Throughout this book, he is tormented by the thought of the stories, secrets, feelings and anguishes he’s stealing from his family members, particularly Elaine and Nola. Brilliant, spiritual, disturbed Nola, who always heard voices and saw fairies and angels and communicated with God, was treated for the last several years of her life for schizophrenia, in and out of mental institutions until she died when she was twenty-five years old, and Robin was fifteen.

This is a memoir filled with documents. The Hemleys are a writing family, and Robin mines Nola’s unpublished autobiography, her drawings, his own and his mother’s short stories, letters sent among the family, court documents, and more. Nola’s writing in particular appears peppered with struck-through text and additions, mostly the work of their mother as editor. These edits are not redacted; the reader gets both versions at once, often unsure of whether a change is Nola’s or Elaine’s. It is disconcerting, and entirely appropriate.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is well-named. It is not an easy read. Just over 300 pages feels longer, as Hemley navigates the pain and distress of layers of family trauma–his father’s death and the deaths of several school-age friends; moves to ill-suited towns; a permissive, struggling mother; everyday sibling discord, and Nola’s increasing difficulties with a world she characterizes as “a strange and unbearable monster.” This is Nola’s book, but it follows side-threads, too, as when eleven-year-old Robin goes to live for part of a school year with elderly relatives in Florida (“By any yardstick other than a conventional one, I was essentially an elderly person… I really liked being old”). Later, he finds middle school frightening and chooses instead to attend day school at the psychiatric hospital where Nola is an inpatient. The Children’s Ward is a comfortable enough home for Robin, until he finds out they might not let him out again. Years after Nola’s death, when Robin is a graduate student, he has a girlfriend who suffers a psychotic break echoing his sister’s. Obviously, these threads are part of Nola’s story, her mystery, as well.

Not an easy read at all, as the book’s progress follows Nola’s descent into a misery she will not escape from. I do not recommend staying up late into the night to finish reading this as a winter storm rolls in. I found it quite upsetting, in fact. There’s no question that Hemley achieves emotional engagement, a representation of some of the agony his family has experienced. It’s a complicated achievement, all these layers of family trauma–often still with hope strung through them, at least while Nola retains it–and the writerly impulses of a family committed to communication and the written word, to education, and to some version of truth, however complicated. [Elaine’s technique is to write the family stories as fiction. Hemley’s essay “Truths We Could Live With,” appearing in Joy Castro’s (ed.) Family Troubles, and assigned by Jeremy Jones for my recent residency, discusses the difficulties he’s had with this practice. You can read an excerpt here.] A major thread of Nola follows the back-and-forth communications of mother and son, as Robin researches his family history for this book, and Elaine both helps (consulting, remembering, mailing him copious documents) and worries over the pain this will cause her, and Robin worries in turn.

So, a rich and complicated story. And cerebral: the Hemleys are a heavily educated, intellectual and mystic family, as well. (Cecil was co-founder of Noonday Press, and with Elaine translated and edited I.B. Singer’s work.) Almost every page is dense with philosophy (Nola’s grad-school discipline), religion, theory: faith, art, and madness indeed. I was having trouble getting through it, until I decided to let Nola’s concepts in particular sort of wash over me, and stop trying to understand them. (Much easier this way.) This book is an accomplishment worthy of study, but it will cost you something in the reading, so I recommend it with that qualification. Maybe stick to the daylight, too.


Rating: 7 Blakean drawings.

Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland by Jeremy B. Jones

Disclosure: I read this book in preparation to meet its author at school in a few weeks, where he is guest faculty for the upcoming semester. There is some chance that he will be my advisor for this semester.


I bought Bearwallow more than a year ago, when I was researching MFA programs I might want to attend, and he came up as past guest faculty at WVWC, where I did end up going. I thought it would be good to get to know their faculty better by reading books like this one, but I didn’t get around to it until we got word that he was actually on his way back to serve as guest faculty again. I’m pleased I finally found time for this memoir, which does have something to teach me. And I’m looking forward to meeting Jeremy, not least because I learned in these pages that he is an avid cyclist! (Road, not mountain, but close enough. I remember roads.)

In the timeline of Bearwallow, its narrator is a young man recently returned to the shadow of Bearwallow Mountain where he grew up. Jeremy wanted to leave Appalachia, and he and his wife Sarah lived for a time in Honduras, where they taught young children English. But he kept feeling struck by those mountains’ familiarity, their relationship to his own mountains; and he ended up coming home to teach the children of his own old neighborhood. There, he teaches ESL (English as second language) to the children of immigrants. As he considers language, mountains, and our relationships to place, he watches developers parcel out the top of Bearwallow and plan for it to change. The book is about Jeremy’s life (still a short one in the book’s timeline), his family history, his region’s history, the significance of change and growth, and what place means to people. (You can see why I like this book.)

This is a young man’s memoir, which is a tricky undertaking. But Jones handles it well. For one thing, his story is not chiefly or firstly about him. He opens with the story of one of his forefathers, a Dutchman named Abraham who helped to settle the region where Jeremy would grow up. He always grounds his own experiences in their larger settings: the mountains of North Carolina and Honduras; a family history; the challenges of immigrants and immigration; a young person’s dual drive to leave home and to return to it. He also frequently references his own youth, acknowledging the uncertainties of anything he can know about himself as a man in his 20s. In fact, this book ends when the narrator and wife go off to graduate school, leaving again and only perhaps to return (as we, outside the book, know he did, at least to the region if not the town and neighborhood).

I found the narrator easy to like. He is humble, though not self-deprecatory. He has an open mind and questions his own decisions and impressions. I also liked the kind of musing he does. People and place, the dubious demands of family and inheritance, and the complexities of a place like Appalachia, all speak to me. I appreciated Jones’s use of scenes to transition into memory, or historic topics: scenes and scenery as smooth transitional material between more abstract subjects, and of course for their added interest and characterization.

This is an enjoyable, easy read, but it’s also got something to offer the writing student. In fact, its ease is one of those deceptive qualities: apparently effortless, so that the style fades into invisibility, but that’s some of the hardest prose to write. Again, on a personal level, I look forward to meeting Jeremy as a fellow cyclist (and I think of my mother, a fellow teacher of English as foreign language). Recommended.


Rating: 8 lots.

Street Shadows by Jerald Walker

Before he wrote The World in Flames, Jerald Walker wrote this memoir-in-essays focused on a later part of his life, when he was navigating a growth from a series of performed roles, most dramatically that of a Chicago inner-city gangster, to college professor and married father of two. This book only touches upon that supremely weird upbringing (black child of blind black parents in a white supremacist doomsday cult, whew), concentrating instead on the period from young adulthood into, say, early middle age. Central to this arc, unsurprisingly, is his evolution of understanding race, which remains incomplete for the narrator at the time in which he’s writing.

The essays included here are both narratives from a life and traditional essays that explore questions in the narrator’s mind. I noted their organization, which generally alternates between the more distant past (a youth filled with mistakes) and the apparent present (or “narrative present”–not without its ongoing mistakes, but with an emphasis on self-awareness and attempts to understand and improve). The next step that seems natural to me, which I have not (yet) taken, would be to examine each essay for its content in terms of narrative vs. traditional assay/thinking on the page. I have a hunch there may be an organizational trick on that level, too.

I found these essays thought-provoking, engaging, and easy-to-read, a trifecta much harder than it looks. There was something a little effortful for me, though, that I’m having trouble articulating. It’s like I can catch just a glimpse of the writer in the background, building his work, on purpose. The essays that most blow me away have a feeling of effortlessness to me, like there’s no writer at all–a narrator, but no writer, no craftsman. Think of E.B. White, or Eula Biss, or Joan Didion. I’ll be hard at work trying to figure out what makes the difference I’m talking about. And for the record, I think it’s a matter of taste: I know readers who prefer the more crafted-feeling essay to the more obscurely drawn one (I’m thinking of Eula Biss’s subtle through-lines).

Feel free to ignore the above confused paragraph, though, and take this recommendation: Street Shadows is a remarkable work on several levels, including its organization, its storytelling style, and the intense and important subject matter Walker is moved to address.


Rating: 8 photographs taped to the door.

Mean by Myriam Gurba

This memoir is remarkable for its unflinching candor, for its humor in the face of tragedy and absurdity, and for its adventurous style.

Myriam Gurba’s Mean is a memoir of growing up queer, mixed-race, Chicana and female in Santa Maria, Calif., in the 1980s and ’90s. It is also a crime report, and a fantasy featuring ghosts, saints and martyrs. Race, class, sex, sexuality and sexual assault intersect in Gurba’s own life and in the news, especially when the man who attacked her goes on to kill a woman in her community. Surprisingly, though, this is also a book capable of making readers laugh out loud.

The first chapter, “Wisdom,” introduces a murder. Then Gurba flashes back to a childhood that confuses English with Spanish, because “I assumed we all had the same words.” She takes readers from that childhood, with her growing grasp of the messy concepts of white and Mexican (her parents are one of each), as she matures into a young woman dealing with questions of body and sexuality common to Western teens plus some exclusive to this particular slice of culture. The reader follows Gurba to college in Berkeley and beyond, as she continues to navigate family and other relationships.

Gurba approaches her grave subjects with acerbic humor and compassion, in a style all her own. She plays with form: “I hate found poems,” she writes, before presenting her own carefully shaped, visual found poem. Court transcripts and college course records offer various frames for considering a history that is both personal and broad, cultural and political. Formal play is not the point, however; Gurba makes the form follow her unusual story. Unsurprisingly, because she is an artist and a writer, she is concerned with words, appearances and how we make meaning. She is interested in race and class as they show up in food and pop culture; where modern sexual exploration meets Anne Frank; immigration and the visual arts, and more.

The title is important. “Being mean isn’t for everybody. It’s best practiced by those who understand it as an art form. These virtuosos live closer to the divine. They’re queers.” Meanness is a weapon, a defense mechanism and a reaction; it is also part of Gurba’s art. And yet her story and her storytelling voice are also loving and generous. The complexity of this voice contributes to the appeal of her memoir, which is compelling, suspenseful, both knowable as the girl next door and mysterious. Mean is a multifaceted book for many kinds of readers.


This review originally ran in the October 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 Jell-O parfaits.
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