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Book Reviews

Cheryl Fitzgerald Reviews Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

November 16, 2018

Fear Icons
Kisha Lewwellyn 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.

The remaining essays work in a similar manner, creatively employing wordplay and metaphors while remaining accessible to readers. Dolly Parton’s voice “is a honey she knows how to pour,” and while watching her son play, Schlegel writes, “I become a quiet telescope. I watch him move the light.” These essays are thought-provoking as they probe serious subject matter, but Schlegel doesn’t use difficult vocabulary to make the visuals more intense. Instead, readers are impacted by the meaning of her thoughts, ideas, and the feelings behind them. For example, rather than create a generic exploration of the impact the Newtown shooting had, the essay “Gun” chronicles various inklings of fear and anxiety that Schlegel experiences in the days after the shooting. While watching her son play he is so alive that she “turned away so I wouldn’t think of dead children while looking at my living child” and later in a darkened movie theater she “turned back to the screen only to feel the small tick of nerves behind my ears. I felt a vibration and suddenly believed that someone nearby was getting ready to stand up and do something.”

Her vivid descriptions allow readers to connect to Schlegel by reminding them of similar experiences of imagining the worst. How many of us have walked just a little bit faster when it felt like someone was too close, or have planned out exactly how to respond to an active shooter or other tragic situation? By reaching out to a larger, more general population rather than ivory tower academics repeating the same tired phrases to each other, Schlegel aims to encourage Americans from every part of the country to investigate, examine, and discuss their own feelings through the wealth of avenues available to them. Overall, Fear Icons is a timely, thorough, and understandable exploration of both Schlegel’s personal feelings and the larger impact of fear on our society.

Cheryl Fitzgerald is a Master’s in Public Health graduate seeking a career that will allow her to use her writing skills. Currently considering PhD programs, she is interested in how history, politics, and education create an impact on public health.

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

Book Reviews

Review by S. Ferdowsi of Sick: A Memoir

May 24, 2018

Sick: A Memoir
Porochista Khakpour
276 pages, paperback, $10.90
Harper Perennial
June, 2018

In Sick, Porochista Khakpour explores the entanglements of immigration and illness, addiction and ability, in a memoir that spans her early childhood to the near present. Only a toddler when she immigrated from Iran with her parents amidst the Iran-Iraq War, she settled in California before moving to New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Germany during her adulthood; Khakpour’s first book of nonfiction covers expansive terrain in terms of physical landscape, but also turns inward as she recounts how she navigated and suffered (or, rather, navigates and suffers, in the present tense) from a wide spectrum of symptoms, health conditions and healthcare politics until, after years of misdiagnoses, she tested positive for late-stage Lyme disease. In prose that’s wrapped close to the body, Khakpour describes this complicated disease—how it is spread through tick bites and how it affects each individual differently, thereby making it difficult to research and treat—and vividly illustrates how it impacted her relationships with her parents, friends, partners and writing projects

While Khakpour does not shy away from detailing how Lyme disease is oftentimes a lived and agonizing reality, Sick employs Lyme disease—and chronic illness, more broadly—as a metaphor representing immigration and diaspora. Consequently, an ongoing theme of the book is interrogating the connection between not feeling a full sense of belonging to a home (whether this home is an individual identity or an entire nation) with the experience of illness. During one particularly bad bout of sickness, when her diagnosis was continually characterized as solely psychological as opposed to physical or infectious, Khakpour returns to her parents’ home in California and thinks: “Every part of my body felt like its wiring was all wrong, I felt like a foreigner in a hostile country, never adjusting or accepting […] I couldn’t quite fight it, but I could not be at peace with it either.” Continue Reading

Book Reviews

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms

April 25, 2018

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
Edited and with an introduction by Kim Adrian
Foreword by Brenda Miller
Postscript by Cheyenne Nimes
276 pages, paperback, $24.95
University of Nebraska Press
April, 2018

Shell Games

When you think about the “essay,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you associate the form with early essayists—Montaigne, Lamb, Woolf—or you may think about Baldwin and Didion, whose works incisively and artistically depict the perils and peculiarities of American life. While all these essayists covered subject matter that varied in scope, their essays all employ a similar long-form style in an attempt to mimic the movements of thoughts in the mind while also translating them vis-à-vis the voice on the page. But what happens when writers play with form? What essays may they then create? In the anthology The Shell Game, published by University of Nebraska Press, Kim Adrian has curated a selection of thirty essays that adopt different forms in order to present new ideas, compose startling images, and provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between form and content.

In the forward, Brenda Miller outlines the basis of The Shell Game by describing a hermit crab:

A hermit crab is a strange animal, born without the armor to protect its soft, exposed abdomen. And so it spends its life occupying the empty, often beautiful, shells left by snails or other mollusks. It reanimates these shells, making of them a strange new hybrid creature.

As a result, a “hermit crab essay” is an essay that occupies an alternative form, which makes manifest what is vulnerable through a structure that is wholly unique and hybrid in nature. The Shell Game does not disappoint: essayists adopt—or is it adapt?—an online dating profile, a Rubik’s Cube, crossword puzzle clues, captions, alphabetical lists, multiple choice tests, rejection letters among other “shells” to demonstrate the inextricable link between form and content.

More specifically, the essays reveal how prompts, fill-in-the-blanks, and other preformed structures can push or nudge writers into discovering entirely new meanings and the ways in which creation emerges from particular contexts. In “Ok, Cupid,” Sarah McColl writes, “Built-in constraints have interesting effects,” which is what we see as she composes a personal essay through answering the questions commonly asked on online dating profiles. The interesting effects continue in “Rubik’s Cube, Six Twisted Paragraphs,” wherein Kathryn A. Kopple melds the history of the Rubik’s Cube and Cubism with the story of her father. She creates the form of the Rubik’s Cube by writing in six blocks of square text that work at interlocking the two threads in more and more complex ways as the essay progresses.

Yet what makes these essays so compelling, however, is not only that they comply with their chosen form but also that they include moments where they transgress. For example, the theme of fatherhood continues in Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” which employs alphabetical entries and an objective tone usually found in encyclopedias. But by the letter “I,” the objective, third-person breaks down and begins to reveal a first-person account of the speaker’s relationship with his father. Moreover, the satisfaction of “We Regret to Inform You” by Brenda Miller comes at the end when a series of life events composed as rejection letters finally resolve into an acceptance (of self).

While I have highlighted only a few essays in the anthology, there are so many others that are sure to catch your eye. Footnotes, science logs, parables, and government documents expand and collapse as the various essayists use form to construct (and reconstruct) meaning. Ultimately, The Shell Game may serve to expand what readers may think of when they think of the essay. Among the grocery lists and Post-It notes, comic sketches and sermons, and the other ephemera of our everyday lives, essayistic elements exist—searching for their shells.


S. Ferdowsi is assistant managing editor for Punctuate. She is currently completing her graduate thesis in Nonfiction in the MFA writing program at Columbia College Chicago. Her writing aims to explore identity, culture, and the politics of/as prose.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Reviews

Timothy Parfitt Reviews Writers Who Love Too Much

February 15, 2018

A Look Back at a New Narrative

Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 

Nightboat511 pages, $24.95 

Edited by Dodie Bellamy & Kevin Killian 

New Narrative, a late twentieth-century art movement that fused queer praxis, radical  politics, and daring writing, is now on arguably on its third or fourth “wave,” but I had not encountered it until recently. Now the similarly uninitiated can thank Nightboat for publishing the delightful and overdue anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997. As editors Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian explain in their introduction, the movement reshaped narrative into “a system of writing designed to be optimally responsive to cultural and political change.” Indeed the personal essays, auto-fiction, interviews, and criticism in this collection explode notions of “good” writing and art in order to build something true to modern lived experience.

Take Robert Glück’s “Sanchez and a Day,” in which a narrator and his dog must evade a truck of threatening homophones.  Glück’s complex layering of memory and sensation sets up a left turn towards intimate (and overtly political) direct address: “I had angry dreams. Even in my erotic fantasies I couldn’t banish a violence that twisted the plot away from pleasure to confusion and fear. And what I resolved was this: that I would gear my writing to tell you about incidents like the one at Sanchez and Day, to put them to you as real questions that need answers, and that these questions, along with my understanding and my practice, would grow more energetic and precise.” The questions raised by Glück dictate the mode of writing, regardless of inherited notions of taste and “show, don’t tell.” As a reader, there’s some whiplash when the artful anecdote goes from consumable experience to a shared, solvable problem.

In Dodie Bellamy’s “Dear Gail,” the narrator describes her future lover’s eye contact as a “missile dying for a target.” That phrase could be used to describe many of the characters who knock around this collection. Indeed much of the writing, which first grew out of a free poetry workshop in San Francisco in the late seventies, uses desire as the lens through which the view the self, taking more narrative cues from pornos than from what’s traditionally considered literary canon. In Dennis Cooper’s “Square One,” a skin flick idol is held up as divine harbinger of grace and loss. “The actor’s beauty is God. Their sex is heaven . . . Never again will his face be as gripped by what’s deep inside him but slipping from his possession.” Eros and politics are forever intersecting, whether in excerpts by better-known figures like Eileen Myles’ (Chelsea Girls) and Chris Kraus (I Love Dick), or those by cult favorites like Lawrence Braithwaite. In the Braithwaite’s Wigger, language, desire, and racism push language to its breaking point: “He’d tug at the crotch of his slacks / rub his big belly—have his hand up by his chest (it looked like a thermal-photo) as Brian swayed, paced and gestured in his boxers / telling him about his plans to annihilate a body w/ the seduction of words and weapons / /”

Power dictates how stories get told, so it’s worth examining how narrative builds and reflects our understandings of the world. Writers Who Love Too Much offers an array of off ramps away from pre-made conclusions and towards  more  nontraditional (aka dangerous) modes of meaning-making. It can be hard to unlearn inherited notions of right and wrong.  By making the “wrong” parts of personal experience (politics, kitsch, desire) so central to their work, the writers of New Narrative have complicated and broadened conceptions of what the modern nonfiction essay can do.


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