Browsing Category

Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Lauren Rheaume reviews Mary Laura Philpott

May 6, 2019

I Miss You When I Blink
Mary Laura Philpott
288 pages
Atria Books, $26.00

Mary Laura Philpott’s I Miss You When I Blink is not a self-help book, but there are so many gems about how to live one’s life in this memoir-in-essays collection that I’d like to bestow this honorary genre upon it as well. It’s funny, poignant, thought-provoking, and also a page-turner to boot. It’s easy to follow Philpott on her journey, dipping into her childhood and college years, to her twenties and thirties, and to her current world as a freelance writer, cartoonist, wife, mother, and self-admitted Type-A person.

In the book’s titular essay, Philpott reveals the meaning behind the phrase. Her six-year-old son was singing to himself, coming up with rhyming sounds for works that ended in -ink, and “I miss you when I blink” halted Philpott’s struggle to come up with tantalizing copy to describe luggage. She adopts this “go-to chorus” because it “helps her slow down and absorb each instant instead of rushing,” especially during those tiny adult identity crises. All throughout our lives we’re going through small life transitions: a new job, a new role as a parent of a teenager instead of a middle-schooler, a new phase in which you’ve outgrown friendships or relationships. Because “so many ways of being are being pitched to us—particularly to women—as either-or choices,” career or family, “a domestic goddess that cans her own strawberry jam, or a trainwreck that flaunts the wine in her coffee mug . . . pious or profane,” it’s helpful to pause and remember who she is, who she’s been.

Concepts of selfhood, identity, and the “blink” echo throughout the book as we learn about the cast of characters in Philpott’s life. In her essay “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Philpott recounts her time learning guitar and her love of “trying on a different persona from time to time.” Specifically, she describes Halloween costumes she’s had over the years, and the “thrill to look at the mirror, blink your eyes and see the glittery eyelids of a different person looking back. It makes you think Who are you?—which is a useful question to ask yourself from time to time.” I love that Philpott has these pauses in her life—the moments where she stretches herself, interrogates herself, thinks. No matter how many times I read about how fast life moves by, especially American life, with our constant rushing and working, I still need reminders like this to look at myself and my life and make sure I’m living it the way I want to. 

Philpott also describes her encounters with depression across several essays, notably in one entitled “Ungrateful Bitch.” She explores the times in her life when she missed feeling known and times when she wanted to be “unwitnessed,” especially when she was despairing but could point to no real cause. I found it profoundly moving when she plainly writes, “Unfortunately, having a fine life doesn’t exempt anyone from existential angst.” How helpful it was to read this line, how it reminded me of my own feelings of guilt when feeling down; I felt a softening toward myself. In this chapter, she reckons with the fact that her depression doesn’t have any inciting incident she can point to, no concrete trauma, but that it’s there nonetheless, and possibly even more frustrating because of it. Quotes like “One person’s more-sad doesn’t cancel out another person’s less-sad” make clear something I’ve tried myself to put into words for years. 

It’s her voice that I find most powerful in this book, and her ability to laugh at herself, her foibles, her life. Her writing is funny. Entire essays made me guffaw on every other page. In the final essay, when she’s describing the lessons she’s learned in her role as an interviewer on television, she says that during filming, “you must hold the electrified posture of a startled ballerina if you want to look like you’re sitting up straight.” In “This is Not My Cat,” Philpott meditates on a recipe for “Hot Buttered Crackers.” She asks, “Why does this require a recipe? Is it gross?”

She also meditates on past conversations with other adult women, her hunger for meaningful discussion palpable but futile. Philpott writes, “I couldn’t pretend to give a shit about chicken salad any more than I could find the right moment to jump in and add to the conversation or change the subject.” I’ve been there, and I love that Philpott found a way to render this with humor and earnestness in equal measure. 

Her humanity reminds me of my own, but by reading this book, I realized I might not be as Type A as I’ve originally thought. In “The Perfect Murder Weapon,” Philpott writes, “If success came in a snortable form, I’d sniff it up each nostril and rub the residue on my gums.” She jokes that despite having no murderous intentions, she still finds herself, after having watched some killer drama on TV, re-plotting a flawless murder, deeply committed to finding a way to get it perfect. She writes, “My name is Mary Laura, and I’m addicted to getting things right.” There’s a small chance that Philpott is exaggerating here, but it made me appreciate my ability to relax, take life as it comes, and even my capacity to let myself make mistakes. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say this book can teach you how to live. In her essay “The Joy of Quitting,” she writes, “Deciding what you won’t have in your life is as important as deciding what you will have.” It’s a profound interrogation of the self and the mutability of it, how quickly we can change, even without realizing it. Reading it made me feel more at home with myself, and reminded me to ask questions I don’t often think about in my daily life: Who are you?

Lauren Rheaume is an essayist and the HR & Operations manager at GrubStreet. She’s been published at Boston Accent and GrubWrites. You can find her on Twitter and IG at @laurenxelissa and online at https://lauren-rheaume.com/.

Book Reviews

Gretchen Lida reviews Randon Billings Noble

April 2, 2019

Be With Me Always
Randon Billings Noble
186 pages
University of Nebraska Press, $13.89

Writer and equestrian-extraordinaire Gretchen Lida reviews Be with Me Always, an essay collection with some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking juxtapositions between illness and literature, love and loss, by Randon Billings Noble.

In “Camouflet,” one of the essays in Randon Billings Noble’s new collection Be with Me Always, she quotes Lauren Elkin’s definition of a flâneur as “a figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention.” He idles, and observes, he is an outsider. I, along with many nonfiction writers, was baptized in the idea of the flâneur: Montaigne in his tower, Benjamin among his city, even Emily Dickinson in her room; they all live in this intersection of observer, thinker, writer.

Noble is the flâneuse and her essays luxuriate in slow, careful observations, unwinding the themes of love, literature, and the body like a Renaissance garden. A rejection from a crappy boyfriend parallels the wives of Henry the VIII in “Sparkling Future.” The onset of depression after the birth of her twins in “Leaving the Island” takes on a Jungian mask in the shape of Robinson Crusoe. The essay “What of the Raven, What of the Dove?” chronicles Noble’s experience with illness through a copy of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, which she takes with her to examine a growth on her neck. The birds and the language of mothers haunt the essay with mortality, legacy, illness, and love.

Continue Reading

Book Reviews

Kelsey Hoff reviews Esmé Weijun Wang

April 2, 2019

The Collected Schizophrenias
Esmé Weijun Wang
224 pages
Graywolf Press, $16.00

Poet and mental health advocate Kelsey Hoff dives into the nonfiction genre through her review of Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias.

The Collected Schizophrenias, a series of distinct essays by Esmé Weijun Wang, traces her experience with a rare condition beginning right before starting college at Yale and moves throughout her adulthood as she tries to find the language to articulate her subjective experience with illness. For instance, “Diagnosis” and “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed” illuminate clinical frameworks for understanding schizophrenia and its variations within the systems of medical research and practice in the United States, whereas other essays such as “High Functioning” and “Perdition Days” sketch out her specific symptoms alongside their various medical explanations and treatments.

Wang’s research crosses all kinds of boundaries, as mental illness does—an individual shard of reality piercing through all kinds of media and documentation—to take into account the sum and the parts of her own mental health while also accounting for other diagnoses of schizophrenia. Specifically, Wang’s primary diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, which is just one of the many variations of schizophrenia alluded to by the title. As she explains, “the schizophrenias encompass a range of psychotic disorders, and it is a genus that I choose to identify with as a woman whose diagnosis is unfamiliar to most—the shaggy, sharp-toothed thing, and not the wolf” (12). Wang’s creative skill shines through in passages like this one to bridge gaps in understanding and bring untidy concepts to life while expressing the emotional pain of living with these cognitive dissonances. In one deft metaphor, she expresses the loneliness of being so misunderstood as an individual while reaching out to embrace others who have experienced this kind of misidentification. Continue Reading

Book Reviews

Cheryl Fitzgerald Reviews Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

November 16, 2018

Fear Icons
Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel
160 pages
21st Century Essays, Mad Creek Books, $13.96

Photo by author

Fear Icons, by Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel, examines how fear is created and soothed in modern society by adopting the personal essay form to explore the lives of public and historical figures. Her approach is encapsulated by a Goethe quote she uses, “we can only portray rather than explain.” In other words, rather than a theoretical analysis of the people and things that cause fear, Schlegel employs a variety of creative portrayals including drawings, letters, and diary entries, intermixed with references and quotes from literature and feminism. As a result, we have a collection of 20 essays that move lyrically and creatively among a wide range of subject material, touching on everything from Bin Laden to Facebook, while connecting these seemingly disparate ideas into a central thesis of the role fear plays in our daily lives.

For example, her essay “Trump” is arranged as a series of diary entries beginning prior to the election and ending on election night. She struggles with her six-year-old son’s honest reaction that he “hates him” and with the inadequacy of language to describe her feelings. She states, “What can I say when I don’t believe that love will keep us safe? How can I talk about how much I hate this man without making more hate? . . . What language can disrupt the language of fear without repeating its error?” The theme of “language” continually reappears throughout this essay, as Schlegel discusses the language of oppression, the language of love, the language of the “literary mothers” who have come before her, and, when all else fails, the scream. Continue Reading

Book Reviews

Cheryl Fitzgerald Reviews Sarah Fawn Montgomery

September 18, 2018

Mental Health Narrative(s): A Review of
Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir

 

Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir
Sarah Fawn Montgomery
296 pages
Mad Creek Books, $23.95
September 21, 2018

When I started reading Quite Mad by Sarah Fawn Montgomery, my collar suddenly felt tighter, my chest tightening as her chest tightens. “I can’t do this. Her anxiety is making my anxiety act up,” I wrote my editor. But unlike many things that give me anxiety, I didn’t abandon ship. Taking my hand and leading me past the anxiety, Montgomery’s beautiful, lyrical writing kept pulling me in. And therein lies the magic of Quite Mad. The narrative, often uncomfortable, draws the reader in through Montgomery’s beautifully crafted writing. This memoir is a mostly linear, very personal story of the struggle to accept one’s mental illness, intermixed with data and research on the current state of psychiatry, the medical establishment, pharmacology and patient treatment

This is a story of narratives. Montgomery’s own narrative is comprised of parents who take in more and more children, her diagnosis, her attempts to keep it all together through graduate school and as a professor, her trials with medication and their side effects, and her struggles with her husband. Moreover, the memoir explores the current societal narrative of the mentally ill population as people who must be medicated in order to be “normal” with a specific focus on the current and historical intersections of women and mental health. A narrative of wandering wombs, witches, the dangers of sexuality, and hysteria; of madness used as a label to silence women because “it is easier to blame their sanity than their circumstance.”

While deftly written, Montgomery’s inability to see the truth of what was happening, at the time it was happening and the need to blame herself, can be painful. In the same way that we want to shout at characters to avoid the haunted house, I want to call out to Montgomery. Every time she ignores her symptoms, side effects and gut instinct and instead chooses to believe her doctor, her husband, her parents, her friends, I want to go back in time and tell her to believe herself. In the memoir, she writes “My doubt . . . is a sign that my anxiety is worsening. Clearly, I need this new medication. I believe them . . . I continue to take Celexa each night, my hair coming out in handfuls.” As the reader, I want to be her friend. Her advocate.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Like the academic she is, Montgomery does not present information she does not have. Unlike many other autobiographical stories, she doesnot fill in or estimate in places where she does not fully remember events. Stories are presented raw, as remembered—with blunt apologies for missing pieces—because her “anxiety has altered recollection to an Impressionist painting where images defy conventional lines.” Interestingly enough, this Impressionist take on memory makes it easier to visualize and feel her stories because it can be linked to the same way many of us recall our memories: a jumble of pieces, out of sync with time and mixed with stories we’ve heard and the dreams we’ve had. The missing pieces create a sense of realness and while verbatim conversations may be lacking, her research is not. The book is filled with research and data, cleverly connected to the stories being told in each section. When she is first prescribed Xanax, not only does she describe the personal effects but also presents details on the history of the prescription, the number of prescriptions written, as well as the gendered narrative of the prescription for “crazy women (who) ignore womanly hygiene, wifely duties, motherly roles, and domestic space.” Personal experience flows easily into researched data, thereby creating a complete narrative.

Patients deserve to tell their own narratives from their own points of view as they make sense of their pain and symptoms as opposed to upholding the commonplace narrative “edited by doctors,” imposed by society, and dictated by pharmaceutical companies, which serves as Montgomery’s mission in her memoir. We see her rage over medications that don’t work, doctors who don’t listen, and parents who ignore, against a cultural backdrop of women who are dismissed; we also see the joy of finding a therapist who listens. Quite Mad describes a medical and psychiatric establishment that doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked, for the patients it seeks to serve vis-à-vis Montgomery’s personal experience struggling to navigate this world.


Cheryl Fitzgerald has recently graduated with her Master’s in Public Health, and is looking for a career that will let her use her writing abilities. She is considering PhD programs, and is interested in the ways societal aspects such as history, politics, and education impact health.

 

Book Reviews

Tim Parfitt Reviews The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt

September 17, 2018

Truth, Tyranny, and Avenues of Escape

 

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth
Ken Krimstein
Bloomsbury Publishing
September 25, 2018
240 pages, paperback

Those wishing to know more about the pivotal twentieth-century philosopher Hannah Arendt but who may be a little intimidated by her famous tomes (which sport such approachable titles like The Banality of Evil and The Origins of Totalitarianism) should check out The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein. Krimstein, a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, has delivered a captivating graphic biography of Arendt’s life, one that puts key thrilling episodes of Arendt’s life in broader historical context, one in which her ideas and passions are convincingly rendered and readers get to see her political theories grow out of both love and in reaction to unspeakable horrors.

Her fierce intellectualism got her into hot water in her hometown, but was more welcome at university, where she enrolled in classes taught by Martin Heidegger, titan of twentieth- century philosophy and future Nazi sympathizer. Heidegger and Arendt became romantically entangled in what is one of the many aspects of Arendt’s life that resist tidy interpretation. Krimstein wonderfully animates scenes of public intellectual discourse, like at the Café Romanisches, where theorists, painters and composers drank, rubbed elbows, argued, and dreamt up artistic movements. Asterisks in the margins assist the curious reader absorb the importance of those present. Arendt’s most literal escape occurs when she flees Berlin and the closing vice of the Nazi’s final solution. Under the cover of night, under fake aliases, and using forged documents, she makes it first to France, then Spain, and then eventually New York City. We witness as friends perish, including her good friend, the essayist Walter Benjamin, who commits suicide on the Spanish border, unaware his visa would be approved the very next day.

After the war Arendt’s antifascist, anticommunist philosophy make her a postwar darling in the United States. Success does not dull her mind, though, and despite becoming a best-selling author and the first female professor at Princeton, she grew more and more disillusioned with the male-dominated discourse and the quintessentially male need to explain instead of understand. A surprise third-act reunion with Heidegger manages to be thrilling and sad, sentimental and politically consequential. Her clear-eyed coverage of the Eichmann trial in The Banality of Evil, coming so soon after the Holocaust, led some in the Jewish community to label her a traitor. Early in the book, Krimstein illustrates how Arendt would face similar criticism her whole life. In a single large panel, a childhood Arendt is surrounded by all the ways in which she was both “too much” and “not enough.” Too feminine, not feminine enough. Too Jewish, not Jewish enough. Arendt never was bashful, though, and one of the great joys of Three Escapes is watching her continually and delightfully blaze her own path. Writing and thinking are two activities especially hard to dramatize, but Krimstein’s evocative illustrations conjure Arendt’s mind and ever-present cigarette, and bring to life the communities of artists and thinkers from which Arendt, survivor, thinker, emerged.



Timothy Parfitt is a Chicago-based essayist and translator. His writing has appeared in Deadspin, ThreadNewcity, Chicagoist, Timeout Chicago, and Wassup.

Book Reviews

Negesti Kaudo reviews Hanif Abdurraqib

July 22, 2018

Just a Kid from Columbus

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
Hanif Abdurraqib
280 pages, Two Dollar Radio, $16.99, November 14, 2017

I’ve had They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us in my backpack for about a month. Its pages are filled with underlines, the ARC papers are being used as a bookmark, and this morning, I found a bit of chocolate stuck between the pages. There are two reasons I wanted to read this book: 1) Hanif Abdurraqib is a proud native of my hometown, Columbus, Ohio; and 2) this summer at the Poetry Foundation, he asked the audience to gather in an intimate circle around him as he read an essay from this book called “On Future and Working through What Hurts,” which parallels the death of his mother, ambition, and the cycle of rapper Future’s career. It was a vulnerable and important moment. Needless to say, I was here for it. What readers should know before indulging in his essay collection, is that Abdurraqib is a man of many layers: a pop culture enthusiast, a scene kid at heart; a poet, a music critic, an avid twitter user; and above all things, a Muslim black man. I say this because his essays are grounded in these intersecting identities. Each essay complicates itself, fusing together personal essay and cultural criticism to create hybrid prose infused with what Abdurraqib is best known for: poetics. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is written in six parts: sections of various essays, and single pages with a piece of prose—an essay or prose poem, depending on how one interacts with genre. Continue Reading