Browsing Category

Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Timothy Parfitt reviews Rachel Z. Arndt’s book, Beyond Measure

October 30, 2019

 

Beyond Measure
Rachel Z. Arndt
Sarabande, $15.95
190 pages

 

It might be fitting, given Beyond Measure’s subject matter, to critique it by ascribing a point value (ignoring for a moment that Punctuate. doesn’t employ a Pitchfork-style rating system). For Rachel Z. Arndt’s debut essay collection concerns itself with measurement: how we as modern citizens quantify our own desires, how society determines our worth, how numbers do and don’t capture the nuances of lived experience. Oh, how we burden our measurements with so much meaning.

The collection kicks off with “Sleep,” which covers Arndt’s sleep studies she had to undergo to “prove” her narcolepsy to doctors and insurance companies. Except that in Arndt’s experience, the results of these studies never settled anything. If the results did not mirror her experience, does the fault then lie with the tests, or with her perception? This question provides the springboard for an incisive and frequently profound collection of essays, one that pulls apart how modern personae depend on frequent self-measurement using evolving and sometimes suspect criteria. In this way, much of the collection acts as a riff on Eulas Biss’s classic “Pain Scale,” another essay concerned with how we quantify and communicate individual experiences.

In “Elliptical,” Arndt elevates the well-covered subject of exercise by probing its contradictions of utility and progress. Gyms offer machines to keep oneself in place while promising individualized progress. “We measure ourselves so we can compare who we are now not with other people but with previous and future versions of ourselves.” This sentence goes to the heart of what Arndt finds fascinating about the landscapes of gyms, where rows of machines make the user both the worker and the product. In her hands, the drab gym becomes a post-modern dance in which personal meaning is only available through endless measuring.

Arndt builds and deploys her sentences with great care, and many unfold in surprising ways. Consider how she describes her experience taking Xyrem, a narcolepsy medication that moonlights as GHB, colloquially known as the club and date rape drug:

The lack of control while under its effects seemed sickeningly fitting, as if the only way to treat a disorder is with more disorder, entry against entropy, all control wrested from the patient’s hands and given over to pharmaceuticals that tempt with the sweet waft of warm chocolate chip cookies.

As the clauses progress, Arndt captures the bind narcolepsy puts her in, one in which pharmaceuticals promise both relief and also a further loss of control.

The best essays use the rituals and yardsticks of today to probe existential and eternal questions. In “Match,” Arndt deftly articulates the ways in which the merry-go-round of available options can often ultimately compound loneliness. The measurement in this case is one of comparing every current or potential mate against the theoretical ones offered up by gamified apps. But for me, not all of the essays wrenched insight and texture out of their subjects. Arndt’s essay on Bed, Bath and Beyond, for example, attempts to tease out the narrator’s feelings about becoming an adult by analyzing her habit of endlessly exchanging cooking and houseware. There’s no shortage of wit at play, but Arndt couldn’t quite manage to make her toothbrush purchasing decisions interesting to me.

As a whole, Beyond Measure pulls off the surprisingly powerful trick of articulating and then undermining our current metrics for living. Without a point or star value to lean on, I’ll simply say that days after finishing it, Arndt’s collection of essays has me reassessing the world through her eyes.

 

________________
Timothy Parfitt is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Contrary, X-R-A-Y, riverbabble, Thread and Newcity.

Book Reviews

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen Reviews Dani Shapiro’s book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

July 18, 2019

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Dani Shapiro
Knopf, $24.95
272 pages

In her fifth memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Dani Shapiro is prompted by her husband’s interest in genealogy and takes a DNA test. The results delivered the shock of her life. 

Shapiro discovers that Paul, the Orthodox Jewish man who raised her, to whom she felt connected on a neshama, or soul, level is not her biological father. Belonging to a prominent Jewish family played such a major part in her identity that Shapiro begins to feel conflicted. Is her father still her father? Which of her qualities were inherited through her genes and which are a result of her nurturing father, his hug she waited for each day as a child? I was fascinated by this soulful detective story as Shapiro explores the existential quandary, “Who am I?” 

Shapiro is a mother to a college-age son, Jacob, and worries how the results of her DNA test will impact him, the next generation. How will he react when he learns he has a new grandfather who’s not Paul? “Does this mean maybe I won’t end up bald?” Jacob asks. I thought this response to her disclosure was surprising and comical, but as a parent myself, I related to Shapiro’s worry. My father died when my daughter was one year old, and when she asks me about him, I feel the weight of responding, the weight of holding the family narrative. 

As signaled by the word “paternity,” listed second in the subtitle, the exploration of Shapiro’s profound and loving connection to Paul, who died when she was 23 years old, holds a place of prominence.  Inheritance is dedicated to him, and one of the epigraphs includes the first two lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem“The Colossus,” written by Plath about her father. I imagine that many readers will find themselves searching for their own fathers—whether they’re alive or deceased, biological or soul fathers—as I did in the beautifully written passages. I was moved to tears by a scene in Chapter 25 when Shapiro visits Rabbi Lookstein. “We thought your father was a hero,” he says, and I felt the acute depth of the Rabbi’s grief and Shapiro’s loss. “Who was I without my history?” she asks, bereft. 

In the final chapter of Part II, Shapiro’s 93-year-old Aunt Shirley claimed my heart as much as the character of Paul had when Shapiro goes to visit her. Shapiro’s many books are proudly displayed in Aunt Shirley’s room and Shapiro worries if her aunt will get rid of them when she tells her aunt about the DNA results. Her aunt’s response, however, validates her existence. “You’re not an accident of history, Dani,” says Shirley. “You are an agent to help my brother express the finest kind of love.” Love infuses the pages of Inheritance: for Paul; for the teachers and spiritual leaders Shapiro seeks for help; for fellow writers and their work; for her husband and son, and lastly, for herself, as she questions, “Why am I here? How shall I live?”

Like the best memoirs, Shapiro’s story evokes universal themes and questions that a reader will relate to through the lens of their own lives. In Part III, for example, Shapiro wants to believe her parents hadn’t betrayed her by not disclosing to her that she was donor-conceived. Every child, by middle age, must reckon with their parents’ actions or inactions, in order to grow. It was only when I became a mother that I realized how challenging it must have been for my own mother to raise four children with an emotionally distant father. The memoirist documents change and the space of the page gives them an opportunity to remind themselves of their arc, their struggles, and where or how to move forward. 

As Shapiro winds her way to greater acceptance, a voyage as twined as a DNA helix, she offers the reader a personal understanding of Judaism and her Jewish identity. The book’s affirming final scene gives us the word hineni (“Here I am.”) It’s confirmation that her Jewish identity is intact, despite that fact that her biological dad isn’t Jewish. I enjoyed learning side by side with Shapiro, but it was my sympathy for her character that made me feel most connected to Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. Who among us hasn’t yearned for the finest kind of love? 

___________________
Bio: Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is a co-founder of the nonfiction reading series Tell-All. Her writing has appeared in HeadspaceBREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Hippocampus and the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Poem Village. Connect @kpnwriter.

Book Reviews

Delia Rainey writes a hybrid personal essay and book review on Sarah Cannon’s The Shame of Losing

July 3, 2019

The Shame of Losing
Sarah Cannon
160 pages
Red Hen Press, $16.95

I sit next to my mom in a hospital conference room. There are gray walls and a long gray table, where we are all sitting, eating catered deli sandwiches. Each seat is occupied by an older woman in her sixties or seventies. My mom, with her brown curlicue hair and colorful T-shirt, seems to be the youngest caregiver here. In another room, the survivors of stroke, brain injury, and aphasia also sit and eat sandwiches, catching up or playing checkers. They are husbands, fathers, grandparents. In the caretaker room, the women chat about mundane aspects of their lives: a bad knee, a bothersome mother-in-law, the local news. One woman swivels her attention over to my mom: “We haven’t seen you here in awhile. How are you doing? How is your husband? Have you been taking time for yourself?” As my mom opens her mouth to speak, the women sit around her nodding, their eyes squinting in knowing empathy. 

Traumatic brain injury is not a very understood or visible disability in our world. My family’s story is very different from Sarah Cannon’s, which she recounts in her new memoir The Shame of Losing. But every family has an important narrative found in a book of letters, notebooks, internal and external hardship. While many stories stay private, rarely spoken about outside of support groups, Sarah Cannon lets us in. She gives us permission to read her candid journal entries following her husband’s arboriculture accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury.  In about 150 pages, The Shame of Losing compiles scenes from Cannon’s life in dynamic parts. As we read, we process these events with her. She reclaims the genre of diaristic emotional scrawl while also recalling her experience. The act of writing this book can be interpreted as an attempt of self-healing. 

Cannon brings the issue of our fragile bodies, our fragile lives, up to a personal microscope. However, this memoir does more than just highlight the aftereffects of a workplace injury. Cannon wonders throughout: do people really change over the course of their lives? Sometimes Cannon thinks, yes, we do, and “other times, I think our core is our core.” 

The Shame of Losing begins immediately in the moments before the accident. Cannon recalls herself as a suburban mother volunteering at a local arts center on October 30th, 2007. She received a frantic call from her husband’s arborist coworker, trying to explain the accident, caused by a fallen tree branch: “his cheekbones are sideways.” Throughout Losing,  “sideways” becomes Cannon’s least favorite word. She goes on to describe the feeling of entering the Level 1 trauma center for serious injuries: “sitting there alone, I felt abandoned by the world.” There is a sideways nature to the experience of grief. Nothing seems straightforward anymore, no part of our day can ever be predicted. Cannon sees her husband Matt in the hospital bed, his “skull crumpled, a blown-out eye, busted eye sockets, and a collapsed nose.” This is physical evidence of a much more invisible injury, an invisible story. 

 As readers of Cannon’s writing, we must always be prepared for a drastic change in tone and time. In this memoir, Cannon also writes about her happy Seattle childhood in poetic prose; her young love and marriage to Matt; and rearing two children together. These sections seem like diversions or distractions, but they lay real context: life was simple once. One moment, Matt and Sarah are in an airplane dealing with a fussy toddler and infant, and in the next, Sarah navigates the ICU: “I clenched my stomach in preparation for something I didn’t understand.” A journal entry from November 2007 switches to a letter to Matt that she will never send: “Hey, remember when we were first dating and. . . .” Then, we read a script for a fake suburban drama, starring Sarah, explaining to the neighbors how Matt lost his sense of smell. Mundane details shock and stir: winter air and the appearance of Christmas lights upon coming home from 42 days in the hospital. Forms shift again, when we are presented with an auto-fiction short story Cannon wrote, titled: ‘Man in the Woods with a Headache.’ By collaging notebooks, letters, screenplay, and short story, Cannon redefines the typical ingredients for a grief memoir. 

I recognized my own lonely experiences in The Shame of Losing. Cannon discusses how many of her friends kept a distance after the accident, or simply lost interest. She reflects on the old Matt, and how the “cute OT girls” would never “know my husband was once a helicopter pilot and that we used to call him a human compass.” One of the hardest parts of traumatic brain injury is letting go of our old lives and the person from “before.” Cannon wonders, and so do I, how do we mourn someone who is still here? A spritely, handy husband morphs into a loner with “brain drain.” As one year goes by, “Matt has fooled everyone that he’s okay.” But the healing of traumatic brain injury is a lifelong process. In a therapy session, Matt discloses that he doesn’t know how to feel love. In a metaphor that swims throughout the book like the word “sideways,” he describes that he’s in the desert. He’s so thirsty, and he knows there’s water somewhere, but he can’t drink it. 

A major strength of this memoir is Cannon’s passionate release of her voice, her shame. She speaks to us like we are confidantes over the phone late at night. We get to hear about the tedious woes of Workers Compensation, piles of paperwork, and pinching pennies. We nod our heads as Cannon complains about the easiness of other people’s problems and her jealousy of them. We listen as she screams in the hospital: “Get me the eff out of here!” In The Shame of Losing, we see a woman who is not a perfect mother, not a perfect wife. The family unravels even as they try to move on, going on vacations, watching their kids in school talent shows.

In my favorite moments, Cannon describes small, insignificant memories of solitude. She bites off a corner of one of Matt’s Oxy pills, and drives around aimlessly, listening to Frank Ocean. She goes to the grocery store after the kids go to sleep and lovingly picks out a tub of sour cream. She drives to the hospital, just one more time, trying to reclaim a ghost. 

Seemingly stitched together with journal pages, The Shame of Losing disclosed so much, yet many details were kept. This is only the tip of an iceberg of Sarah Cannon’s truth. I hope that with books like The Shame of Losing, the public will become more familiar with the impact and realities that traumatic brain injury has on families. Sarah Cannon is not a celebrity or a famous author. This is her first book. Through the genre of nonfiction, the stories of regular people gain power. 

Back in the conference room with my mother, I get up to leave, throwing away our paper plates, meeting up again with my dad. We leave out the back door of the hospital, back to a world that can never nod its head and understand.  I leave you with Cannon’s advice: “The best thing a supporter can do is understand the strangling effect the culture’s insistence on “getting over it” can have on mental health. It’s OK to be sad, and grief is ongoing. Have faith in your truth. Accept that there are no real answers. Healing can happen, if you want it.” 

_____________________
Bio: Delia Rainey is a musician and writer from the Midwest. She currently studies nonfiction in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. Her prose and poems have been featured in Hooligan Magazine, DIAGRAM, Peach Mag, and many others. Ghost City Press released her mini chapbook Private Again in August 2018. She tweets often: @hellodeliaaaaa.

Book Reviews

Kat Read reviews Kristi Coulter’s collection: Nothing Good Can Come from This

May 28, 2019

Writer Kat Read discusses drinking and the essay form in her review of Kristi Coulter’s collection Nothing Good Can Come from This. 

I didn’t read Kristi Coulter’s essay “Enjoli” when it was first published in the summer of 2016. I didn’t read it that fall, when my first marriage was falling apart and I started mixing a jumbo negroni for myself every night after work. I didn’t read it in 2017, or in 2018 either, when I was living alone while my husband Will stayed in Canada processing his green card application, and I’d pour myself a cool refreshing gin and tonic at 12:01pm most Saturdays. 

All those times, I probably should have read “Enjoli,” included in Nothing Good Can Come from This, because in the essay, Coulter recalls the ways drinking alcohol dulls the daily indignities (and even violence) that comes with the territory of living in a female body–or as she puts it, “Booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other kinds of noise.” I winced while reading it, thinking of the times I have walked into my apartment after a difficult day in the world and made myself a martini without even taking off my shoes.

Beyond “Enjoli,” Coulter’s sparkling collection contains twenty-two additional essays that are oriented around the theme of Coulter’s decision to stop drinking alcohol. One could argue that alcohol is the topic of every essay, but it really serves as the starting point through which Coulter shares her experiences with the reader. She dives deep into issues like body image, sex, and work, all the while surfacing back to her relationship with alcohol. Reading the collection as a whole, one begins to understand the monumentality of Coulter’s decision not to drink. The essays unfold in a harrowing and even joy-filled tumble, an accounting for the tendrils of alcohol use and abuse that wrapped themselves around different parts of her life. 

By employing the form of an essay collection, Coulter doesn’t limit herself to one narrative arc; rather, she leads the reader down a number of interconnected paths, doubling back in time, examining and re-examining topics, all while deepening the reader’s understanding of her story. The result is an intensely compelling and cohesive journey through Coulter’s experience. 

Moreover, Coulter is playful with the essay form itself. She has essays structured as quizzes (“Do You Have A Drinking Problem?”), Q&As (“How To Be A Moderate Drinker”), and poems (“Permission, After Mary Oliver”). Perhaps the most striking example of these is “A Life in Liquids,” in which Coulter breaks down her life into epochs of alcohol; “Jug Wine,” “Gin and Tonic” and “Some Kind of Punch;” and later, non-alcoholic indulgences like “Juniper Syrup and Soda,” “Lemon Custard Ice Cream,” and finally, “Sweat.” 

Each section is studded with details. In the section “Long Island Iced Tea, 1986,” Coulter recounts the words of a bartender offering her the drink when she was in high school: “It has everything in it but doesn’t taste like any of it.” I shuddered when I read that line and the oblivion of taste and other senses it implied.

            Though the subject matter is serious, Coulter’s prose glimmers with conversational wit. Her exasperation at the pitiful non-alcoholic options in restaurants is hysterical: “A smoothie is a meal!” she exclaims in “Desire Lines.” After a Botox treatment leaves her looking “less enraged” in “Shadow Life,” she “practiced some stern glares in the hotel room mirror” to ensure she can still frighten men if necessary. Over the course of several essays, she describes her passion for running; still, when she describes it as her “running career” in “Going Long,” she catches herself: “it’s more like a running internship.” Her writing has the kind of delightful and occasionally self-deprecating energy that makes me think, “I want this person to be my friend.” 

In this collection of superb essays, the one that stuck with me the most was “Fascination.” In a subversion of the usual narrative arc of alcohol use leading to what she refers to as “extramarital trouble,” the married Coulter describes developing an intense emotional connection with an also-married coworker that began after she stopped drinking. She describes breathless conversations, intense gazes, and erotic dreams. Her language is clear and vibrant; of their weekly meetings at a café, she writes, “A better woman would have stopped wearing three-inch heels to coffee, but I had no interest in being a better woman.”

Eventually, the other man decided to step back before their friendship escalated into an affair. When she describes telling her husband about the relationship, it is with an ache that is palpable: she had fallen in love with this other man and remained deeply in love with her husband. The experience, though painful, had delivered her to a dazzling understanding: “A life where falling in love was impossible was not what I was going for.” 

It made me think of my own marriage and the pain I have inflicted and experienced in order to build a life with Will. I thought of my divorce from my first husband, of the evenings I sat alone, numbing myself so I didn’t have to face the agony of wanting something different. And then I thought of the months I spent apart from Will, of the time I spent longing for him, waiting for my life to begin with my fingers wrapped around a glass. Reading Coulter’s words shifted my perception: she made me realize that the pain was a teacher, telling me not only what Will means to me, but also illustrating my own capacity for connecting to another human. This is Coulter’s achievement: she has used a series of essays, divergent yet interconnected, to triangulate around a series of deep truths:

There are things that are so precious that we cannot begin to measure their worth.

There are emotions that should not be dulled, no matter how painful.

And: how raw and beautiful it is just to feel.

_________________________

Bio: Kat Read is a writer and fundraiser at GrubStreet in Boston, MA. Her essays have appeared in the Brevity Blog and Coastin’. You can find her online at www.kataread.com and on Twitter @KatARead.

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