Tag Archives: memoir

Book Review: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 16 October 2017.

In Unbelievable, Katy Tur had me at her dedication. Rather than “For Mom” or “For Pooky-Bear,” it’s “For the love of God.”

Amen, sister.

In life, timing is everything, for good or ill. (“If I hadn’t decided to turn right at the corner just then, I never would have [met my soulmate] [been hit by that dump truck].”) Tur was a young NBC foreign correspondent living the life in London and spending romantic weekends in Paris, when a quick trip back to the States just happened to coincide with NBC’s decision to put someone on Donald Trump’s improbable (“ridiculous,” “hilarious”) presidential campaign.

Learning she was about to be tapped to follow him full-time, she called a veteran of earlier campaigns for advice. He told her to accept. “If you hate it, at least it will be short.”

Sure, it was funny at the time.

Trump’s bizarre love-hate relationship with Tur reared its head at the first campaign event she covered, just two weeks after his entry into the race. In the rain in a donor’s back yard in Bedford, New Hampshire, she was startled to hear him call her out, mid-speech, with a telling complaint, “I mean, Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me.”

Tur covered Trump longer than any other reporter, despite never having done political reportage before; without wanting to, she became part of the story she was covering. By not backing down in the face of personal attacks from her assigned candidate, or from the resulting death threats from his followers, she earned the respect of her colleagues, her own hashtag (#ImwithTur), and equal footing with her hero, Andrea Mitchell, as one of the indomitable “road warriors” of the campaign.

Plus, unlike most of the seasoned political reporters she found herself among, Tur, living as she was on a steady diet of packed and screaming Trump rallies across the U.S., never discounted the candidate’s chances of winning.

Tur takes an inspired approach to telling a story that we just finished living through — at least from our view in front of the stage. She slingshots back and forth between accounts from the long campaign (“May 23, 2015: 535 Days Until Election Day”) to the minute-by-minute ticking clock of Election Day itself. The stomach-clenching suspense is unexpected.

Along the way, she fills in the backstory of her from-birth training as a newshound and pulls the curtain back on the less-than-glamorous life of a press-corps journalist.

For those who still experience the election of 2016 as a raw, open wound, Tur’s intimate recounting may need to be read through splayed fingers. The rest of us just want video of the drunk Trump press corps’ early-morning election-day plane ride, with CNN’s Jeremy Diamond attempting to sled in the aisle during take-off, and Jim Acosta and Tur taking selfies with a passed-out Mark Halperin.

The author’s storytelling is earthy and accessible, and — as in the chapter, “Pop the Trunk. I’m Going to Run for It,” about dragging a couch-sized suitcase a mile through the snow to LaGuardia to beg her way onto an already-closed flight to Iowa — helps us to laugh through some of the otherwise truly chilling episodes she recounts of Trump’s whipping up his crowds against the “lying, disgusting” media, which often included his pointing out “back there…little Katy.”

In one telling episode, at a rally just days before Christmas in 2015, Tur spends a lovely, impromptu half-hour in the ladies room with a hair dresser and Trump supporter who offers to help her get her hair TV-ready. During the rally, Trump ruminates on the idea that Vladimir Putin kills reporters, and considers whether he might do the same. “I hate them, but I would never kill them.”

As usual, Trump’s press corps is corralled together behind barricades, as Tur observes, “caged in the center of the arena like a modern-day Roman Colosseum.” She notes the poinsettias, the wreaths, the holiday sweaters, “and the crowd is cheering about the idea of killing journalists…[T]o the lady who curled my hair in the bathroom, who is now somewhere in the crowd that is laughing at the idea of Trump killing me: Thanks, my hair looks great.”

Tur proved her mettle during a long and painful campaign, surviving that and much more — not the least of which was Trump’s grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her, apparently because he liked her relatively softball coverage of him moments before on “Morning Joe.”


Book Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 June 2017.

Make no mistake: Ironic title and intentionally supercilious cover photo aside, this book is the opening salvo in Al Franken’s run for the presidency in 2020. At least that’s what any marginally astute reader would take away from this funny, insightful walk through Franken’s life to this point.

On the other hand, perhaps he really means it when he tells People magazine and other media outlets (fake or otherwise) that the answer to such a concept is, emphatically, “no.” Still, there’s that book-jacket bio that reads, in part, “Senator Franken graduated from Harvard College and received his doctorate in right-wing megalomania studies from Trump University.”

That’s practically enough to get him drafted right there.

If Franken’s isn’t one of the first names Democrats have blurted out in considering who can possibly carry the banner forward in these troubled times, perhaps it’s because he’s been keeping his head down and working for the good folks of Minnesota rather than making speeches for the cameras. (Most of his time in the senatorial spotlight so far has been an outcome of his seat on the Judiciary Committee.)

Along the way, he’s racked up an impressive scorecard of legislative wins, or, if not wins, then valiant attempts to hold the Democratic line.

As most people know, Franken came into the American consciousness through 15 years of writing for, and eventually performing on, Saturday Night Live. He reminds us that he was with the show from its debut episode, meaning that he and longtime writing partner Tom Davis are responsible for some of the most iconic moments of comedy that Americans of a certain age still cherish.

Franken and Davis formed their writing partnership while students at a private boys’ prep school near Franken’s home in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. From high school on, virtually every job they held involved writing and performing comedy. Franken met his future wife, Franni, the first week of their freshman year in college, and they’ve been together ever since.

But readers of this book are probably most interested in a pretty basic set of questions: “SNL to the Senate? Really? How does that happen?”

There were many mileposts along that road, but Franken really got his political blood up in 1994, when Newt Gingrich swept in with a brand of take-no-prisoners partisanship that, from Franken’s perspective, led Congress to its current, fully Balkanized state.

(It was Gingrich who insisted Republicans stop bringing their families with them to DC, which is why members now fly in on Monday and out on Thursday. Staying in town and socializing among congressional families used to be how members got to know each other outside of politics and allowed them to form actual friendships. That’s a faint memory now.)

With Gingrich came the rest of the right-wing echo chamber, led by Rush Limbaugh. When Franken’s editor suggested he write a book about politics, the result was Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, and its companion, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

What finally put him on the path to candidacy, though, was the tragic death of his friend Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, and a boast from the Republican who won that seat, Norm Coleman, that he was a “99 percent improvement” over Wellstone.

Franken’s experiences on the campaign trail were brutal and personally painful — there’s nothing quite like having every joke a comedian has ever written be purposely taken out of context by the Republican DeHumorizer™ and used against him — and resulted in a microscopic winning margin of 313 votes (after which he had to survive eight months of recounts and court battles before finally being allowed to take the oath of office).

And while it’s perhaps understandable that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leaders Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer weren’t initially thrilled at his candidacy (even asking him to suggest other people to run), it’s bewildering that then-rock-star candidate and later president Barack Obama — who certainly understood how much he needed another Democratic senator and could’ve used his star power to dazzling effect — treated Franken as though he didn’t exist.

After his historically slender and drawn-out victory, Franken then had to prove to his colleagues that he wasn’t just The Funny Guy. For that, he adopted “the Hillary model…Be a workhorse, not a showhorse.”

Now a two-term senator, Franken talks with relative candor about his experiences, though he remains mindful of the decorum demanded by the Senate, to the point of using euphemisms anytime he’d prefer good ol’ Anglo-Saxon vulgarity.

It’s refreshing to hear how he and other senators look for common ground from which to build something like consensus, and just plain interesting to understand how he stays on the polite side of folks like Mitch McConnell.

For Democrats, Franken hits all the high notes: the healthcare fight, campaign finance reform, climate change, education, minority protections, fierce support for the troops and veterans accompanied by a healthy concern over military engagement, the post-November 8th Twilight Zone, even net neutrality.

Plus, this guy is whip smart, does all the homework, and makes it his raison d’etre to skewer ill-prepared, uninformed, or lying witnesses who come before him in committee. Exhibit A: Betsy DeVos.

Among many plum anecdotes, my favorite moment is when Franken suggests to Chuck Grassley that he smile more. If only he’d said it on the floor of the Senate.

But nothing beats the flat-out fun of the Ted Cruz chapter, entitled “Sophistry.” Bully for Franken for making it clear that, however disastrous things may seem right now, Cruz will never be a more acceptable answer.

Franken is at his most affecting when he focuses on stories about the people he knows, cares about, and represents. Certainly, he seems sincere in wanting the best for the people he represents. Come 2020, America, that could be you.

A Reader’s Reader

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
                                                          —Jorge Luis Borges

The following column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 May 2017.

Tom Shroder, Jenny Yacovissi, and Michael Dirda at the 2017 Washington Writers Conference.

I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.

As part of preparing for the panel, I read two of Michael’s several books: his most recent, Browsings, and his memoir of the first third of his life through college, An Open Book.

One thing that both books drove home for me is what a sweeping diversity of books Dirda reads and loves. You will not find a more erudite critic of the highest of high-brow literature, and yet he is an unapologetic fan of sci-fi, horror, and other sub-genres of pulp fiction. He is a walking object lesson in the value of having wide, all-embracing tastes in reading.

An Open Book ripples out from a central image of toddler Michael crawling into his mother’s lap as she sat on the floor each night to read to him, and expands in concentric circles from home to neighborhood to city and beyond. What I loved most about the memoir was how closely he was able to map favorite, memorable books to when he discovered them, practically year by year, and describe what they meant to him then and now, as though he had just read them. In some cases, he had just read them, because not only is he a prolific reader, he’s a prolific re-reader.

For someone like me, who thinks she reads a lot, attempting to comprehend the breadth of Dirda’s lifetime of reading is humbling. (As I said during our panel session, “I read Michael Dirda when I have delusions of adequacy, and that snaps me right out of it.”) At the end of the book, he includes two lists of the “major” books he’d read by age sixteen and by the end of high school—meaning not including the dime-store stuff—many of which I still have never read.

But reviewing those lists did prompt me to think about the books that forged my love of reading. Those early ones were T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and, yes, I fell in love with the wildly politically incorrect Mr. Rochester), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I loved Greek mythology, and I’m pretty certain that I had read The Illiad and The Odyssey by early high school. Memorizing poetry was a favorite pastime, and I remember reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” for my sixth grade class. (They didn’t appreciate that nearly as much as when I recited the well-known limerick about the pelican, after which the teacher told me to sit down. I said, “But I’m not done,” and she replied, “Oh, yes, you are.”)

Dirda recounts how it bothered his hard-working, mechanically inclined father that his one son was such a bookworm. These days we tend to worry that kids aren’t reading enough, given all the electronic competition and our decreasing attention spans. Yet I just spent all of today at the magnificent Gaithersburg Book Festival, where each year the children’s authors are mobbed. Watching that recurring scene—children clutching books in their arms, dancing a little in line as their excitement threatens to spew like over-carbonated soda—always makes me hopeful that we continue to raise generations of avid readers.

I’m with them. Reading both An Open Book and Browsings made me eager to double-down on my reading intake, though with a full-time job and lots of other commitments, it’s hard to see where it fits in. I know I’ll never catch up to Michael Dirda’s reading accomplishments, but I can certainly give them a run for the money.

A friend of mine once observed of me, sadly, that she worries that I’ll end up as a hermit, shut into my house and surrounded by nothing but books. I’m sure I got a dreamy look about me as I sighed and said, “And that’s how I’ll know I’m in heaven.”

Happy reading!

Let the Book Speak for Itself

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on March 20, 2017.

In my last Late Last Night Books posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.

Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.

That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.

Vance is the product of a strong and insular culture that is familiar to the heartland of middle America but which feels like foreign territory to the outlying populations on the east and west coasts of the U.S. Vance’s introduction does an excellent job of sketching out the bigger-picture issues that he’s spent a lot of time considering, based on his own experiences: that of the firmly embedded, cohesive/corrosive, and almost unchanged culture of the Scots-Irish of Greater Appalachia, a huge, sweeping region that ignores the traditional ideas of a north-south cultural divide. The migration of large Appalachian populations en masse to places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have in effect transplanted that insular culture along with its attendant strengths and weaknesses.

Though the author grew up in Middletown, Ohio, in what had been a solidly middle-class town supported by the local steel factory, Vance’s heart and soul resided in the holler of Jackson, Kentucky, the locus of his extended and fractious family. His fondest early memories of feeling grounded and secure came from spending time with his beloved grandmother, Bonnie Blanton Vance—Mamaw—at the home of her mother, Mamaw Blanton, in Jackson. Vance’s stories of the Blanton family, in particular of the men, would make for some wonderful fiction, while at the same time they illuminate a society steeped in clan loyalty so deep it embraced “honor” killings, the most famous of which was the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

In Middletown, where Vance was surrounded by family and neighbors who had all migrated from the general vicinity of northern Kentucky, things were less stable. His troubled mother, who had grown up in a chaotic household when Jim and Bonnie Vance were going through a brutally tumultuous period in their marriage, was nevertheless an excellent student in school and described by several as brilliant. She also dropped out before graduation—pregnant—and later succumbed to drug addiction, continually upending her children’s lives with an ever-changing cast of stand-in fathers and endless drama.

Vance makes it abundantly clear that he owes any success he’s had in life to his beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw (Jim Vance), who provided a bedrock of stability that he otherwise completely lacked, and instilled in him the absolute necessity of education. His readers can’t argue that living with Mamaw during his critical adolescent years were the difference between failure and success for Vance, but it’s interesting to consider that Mamaw and Papaw, to an outsider’s viewpoint (say, to someone from Child Services), might have looked like frighteningly inappropriate caregivers for a child. His grandparents didn’t even live together, the f-bomb was one of Mamaw’s favorite parts of speech, and a Marine recruiter once told Vance, “Those drill instructors are mean. But not like that grandma of yours.”

It’s important to realize that if the courts had been aware of the custody agreement worked out informally between his mother and grandmother, Vance would never have been allowed to live with Mamaw. It was fine by the courts for Vance to remain with his unstable mother, but if he didn’t want that, he’d have had to go into the foster care system; his grandmother would not have been seen as an acceptable guardian.

Vance is adept in helping us to see through his eyes a culture that few outsiders understand but nonetheless feel entitled to caricature and dismiss in ways that would be outrageous were they applied to other cultural or racial minorities. He very thoughtfully uses his personal experience to consider the larger issues that dog the poor whites who remain in Appalachia, as well as those who seemingly “made it out” only to find themselves trapped in the ever-rustier Rust Belt of post-manufacturing America.

Peeling back the causes and effects of enduring, multi-generational poverty—much like any complex issue with endless nuances and variables—is a thorny problem with no quick or easy answers. Hillbilly Elegy is a sincerely offered, deeply personal attempt at considering some of those thorny problems, and it deserves rational consideration and discussion.

Jenny’s Spring 2017 Calendar: Join Me at GBF!

Hope you’ll join me for one or all of these upcoming events:

Inspirational Women in Literature virtual conference, Saturday, March 18th from 9-6. These are some high-powered women! I’ll be speaking at 9:40 about some the strong women who inspired me to write. Contact me for login information.

Maryland Writers’ Association 2017 Writers Conference, Saturday, March 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Annapolis, MD from 8-7. I’ll be presenting “From Family to Fiction” at 11:00, and I’m thrilled to be following the always-inspirational Austin Camacho, though he’s a tough act to follow.

Kensington Day of the Book, Sunday, April 23rd on Howard Avenue in downtown Kensington from 11-4. It will be tough to beat the beautiful weather we had last year, but this is a vibrant and growing book festival with lots to see and do no matter what the weather holds. It’s great for families! Plus, I’ll be sure to have good chocolate!

Books Alive! 2017 Washington Writers Conference, Friday and Saturday, April 28th-29th at the College Park Marriott Conference Center (Friday from 6-8:30 pm and Saturday 8-5). I’m chairing this conference, which is one reason I’d love to see everyone there, but I’m also on a panel with luminaries Michael Dirda, long-time book critic at the Washington Post, and Tom Shroder, author, ghostwriter, and former editor of the Washington Post magazine. We’ll be talking about “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction, and Family History” at 2:50 pm with Chloe Miller, memoir writing instructor at Politics and Prose.

Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 20th on the City Hall green in downtown Gaithersburg from 10-6. This is one of the largest book festivals in the DMV and draws nationally and internationally known authors. I’ll be moderating the Historical Mysteries panel with authors David O. Stewart and Burt Solomon at 11:15 in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and signing books from Politics and Prose after that.

Book Review: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 November 2016.


The title of this book could have been The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of, but irony is probably the more effective strategy. Like me, there will be others who will pick it up thinking, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who is the most famous writer who ever lived?” followed immediately by, “Who [the heck] is MacKinlay Kantor?”

Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner: these are the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors immediately preceding Kantor’s award in 1956 for his seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Here was a writer with a 30+ year career, more than 40 books, and innumerable stories to his credit; a Medal of Freedom recipient who, as a war correspondent, documented the liberation of Buchenwald; and the toast of the literary world for years. What caused Kantor to fall so completely off the literary map?

His grandson Tom Shroder sets out to answer that question in this new biography/memoir. Shroder is best known to Washingtonians as the longtime editor of the Washington Post Magazine, where his behind-the-scenes stewardship left an indelible mark. (As one example, he encouraged the late, great Richard Thompson to create a comic strip; the result was the sublime “Cul de Sac.”)

The author of several nonfiction books and editor of many others, Shroder has been a writer his entire career. Yet his own grandfather’s writing career was of no particular interest to him until he started this book project. By his own admission, Shroder had previously read none of the Kantor oeuvre — despite owning signed first editions — and paid scant attention to his own family history until many of its original witnesses had died.

“If only I could ask my mother,” he notes wistfully more than once, and kicks himself over his tardy interest.

Thus, despite having spent significant time with his grandfather, Shroder needed to answer the question, “Who was MacKinlay Kantor?” as much for himself as for us. The book is something of a detective story, with the author sleuthing out the details of his once-famous relative’s public and private life, in many cases drawing parallels to his own.

Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. That first name never stuck, and he later changed the spelling of his middle name to make it seem more Scottish. He was known to all as Mack.

His mother, a strong, intelligent woman named Effie McKinlay Kantor, was unaccountably drawn once and forever to a charming, handsome, self-absorbed con artist, John Kantor, who bilked many people out of their life savings, forced Effie’s father to cover his early bad debts, and apparently enjoyed toying with his children’s emotions.

Amazingly, it was Kantor who divorced Effie, leaving her as a single mother to Mack and his older sister, Virginia. The three lived through many painfully lean years. Mack got his start as a writer when Effie was offered a job as editor of the Webster City Daily News, and she brought her 17-year-old son on board with her. Together, they wrote the entire paper every day.

As a young married man, Mack suffered more years of grinding poverty along with his wife, Irene Layne, and their kids, Layne (Shroder’s mother) and Tim, even after Mack became a published novelist.

His first big-ticket novel was the Civil War story Long Remember, and it finally pulled the family out of the poorhouse. In addition to his biggest artistic and commercial success, Andersonville, which came when he was 50, his novel Glory for Me — improbably written in blank verse — was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the finest films ever made.

It’s hard to point to where Kantor began his slide into becoming a bombastic, overbearing alcoholic who spent money like it was water. Shroder describes his own early fascination with the limos and fawning waiters that surrounded any New York outing with Mack, but which were leavened by the embarrassment of the loud, ugly public scenes that inevitably resulted after his grandfather consumed too many cocktails.

Shroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him.

Some of what he found would have been available to any biographer who had undertaken the effort — most notably, 158 boxes of artifacts in the Library of Congress, which Kantor had painstakingly annotated as part of donating them, at the library’s request. Other details, like so many families’ historical records, had been stored for years in various basements, unexplored and always one move or sewer backup away from the dumpster.

After years of being somewhat dismissive of his grandfather, Shroder was genuinely surprised to grasp just how famous Mack really was. Yes, he truly was buddies with Ernest Hemingway. He held the interest of the cultured and successful writer Peggy Pulitzer — nee Margaret Leech, author of Reveille in Washington — with whom he conducted a long-running affair. He was a bona-fide celebrity.

Sadly, MacKinlay Kantor outlived his success. His writing, always a bit ornate and old-fashioned, fell out of favor, and the paychecks stopped rolling in. He became a walking object lesson in how ephemeral and poisonous fame can be, and in the dangers of believing one’s own press.

It’s still unclear, though, why he seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on 9/20/2016.

On a recent trip to Florida, my husband, some friends, and I took a short boat ride out to an uninhabited barrier island. We hiked out to the beach, and they pulled up a seat while I continued on to hunt shells. I was perhaps a quarter mile away when I decided to take a quick dip to cool off. As I turned to go back to shore, a searing pain burned through my foot. I stumbled out of the water, fell onto the sand, and watched as blood pumped with every heartbeat from the top of my foot. The pain threatened to cause a blackout.

Here are the things that went through my mind as I sat there:screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-02-45-pm

  • I can’t put any weight on my foot.
  • I have no way to stop the bleeding.
  • I am completely alone on this beach.
  • I wonder how I can use this in a story.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a perfect example of writer’s brain. For all I knew, I was in the midst of a life-threatening situation with no obvious resolution, but that was no reason to delay imagining the fictional possibilities. I could immediately envision all the ways this could segue into great literature:

Thriller: Suddenly, a diver in black emerges from the ocean, brandishing his spear gun as two SUVs careen over the dunes to converge on our heroine, who produces a set of throwing stars to take out the diver and the armed thugs emerging from the SUVs.

Fantasy: Suddenly, Neptune arises from the waves, wielding his trident and riding on the back of a giant seahorse. He nods to our heroine. “Come. You are the Chosen One.”

Horror: Suddenly, razor-like spines erupt from the puncture wound as hard scales begin to form around it, radiating out to envelop our heroine’s foot, her leg, as she watches, transfixed. The transformation has begun.

Romance: Suddenly, a tall, broad-shouldered young man appears, as though from nowhere, his biceps flexing and hypnotic eyes narrowing in concern as he kneels and tenderly lifts our heroine’s foot to examine the wound. “You’re safe now. I’m a world-renown orthopedic surgeon, recently widowed—but not so recently that I can’t consider dating again, as long as it’s the right woman.”

Okay, so first drafts are rarely brilliant, but you get the idea.

Every life experience, whether it’s yours or theirs, is fair game for a writer. A favorite writer T-shirt warns, “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.” A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she was thrilled to finally have a working washing machine again, but that we should look forward to reading her Tales from the Laundromat. Ditto for some painfully interesting online dating stories. No experience ever goes to waste when you’re a writer. There is literary gold wherever you turn.

It’s one thing, though, to use a single incident as a germ of an idea or a plot point for a story, especially when it’s not particularly personal. (The fact that I was the one bleeding into the sand was not a critical story element; it could have been anybody. Unfortunately, it was not.) What happens, though, when a writer decides to mine that literary gold from someone else’s personal experience? Even in memoir, the “story” does not belong solely to the writer; it inevitably involves other people’s stories, too. So the question becomes, “Whose story is it to tell?” As someone who has plumbed her own ancestral (and more recent family) stories as a basis for fiction, I’ve wrestled with this question extensively.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-04-33-pmTwo book reviews I recently wrote for the Washington Independent Review of Books got me thinking more about this. Riverine, A Memoir from Anywhere but Here is author Angela Palm’s debut. It may seem odd for a relatively young writer to start off with a memoir, but she uses it to work through a set of issues that she’s carried around for a long time. I loved the fact that, for the most part, her story read like a novel; it felt like a first-person fictional narrative, without the self-absorption of many memoirs. While the story was deeply personal, it also opened up at least two other people’s deeply personal stories. In her case, she had their full support and permission, but this is an ethical issue that any writer should consider carefully.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-03-21-pmThe second book, Commonwealth, is the latest novel from one of my all-time favorite authors, Ann Patchett. (For thoughts on the joys and sorrows of getting to review favorite authors, see my previous posting in LLNB. At least I’m two for three in the “joy” column now.) This novel has a distinctly different feel and tone to it than her earlier novels, in which she’s pretty unsentimental with her characters. The difference here is that this story is extensively autobiographical—though a reader unfamiliar with Patchett’s non-fiction might not know that—and considers the question of “whose story is it to tell?” head on. And on the heels of Riverine, the memoir that reads like a novel, I started to wonder, “How far from truth do you have to stray in order to consider something fiction?” More headache-inducing is the fact that Commonwealth describes a writer appropriating two entire families’ intertwined and painful life stories and passing it off as fiction, in a book called Commonwealth. It’s seriously meta, if you know the backstory. I loved it. As I noted in my review, “one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness” for writing this book.

We can be grateful that Palm and Patchett decided these were their stories to tell; both are beautifully done, and I highly recommend them.

Postscript: In case you’re interested, I didn’t bleed out on the beach. It took a chain of about twenty Good Samaritans handing me off from one to another (Wave Runner to boat to golf cart to ambulance) to get me to a hospital and figure out how to reunite me with my husband and friends. True story: the guy who put me on his Wave Runner was named Gary Cooper. Who can make this stuff up?

The injury: two major puncture wounds that are still healing more than a month later. The presumed culprit: a stingray. But the wound in the first picture I took looks exactly like a classic vampire bite. Oh, the possibilities . . .

Book Review: Riverine, A Memoir from Anywhere but Here

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 September 2016.

RIVERINE, A MEMOIR FROM ANYWHERE BUT HERE, Angela Palm, Graywolf Press, 222 pp.

Though the reader does not know it until much later, Angela Palm’s memoir is neatly summarized in her dedication: “To Corey, who was there, and Mike, who is here.” Certainly, any memoir starts with “there” and works its way to “here”; the unexpected dimension in Riverine is the forceful presence of what might have been.

Much of Palm’s memoir reads like a novel. Her writing is strong, quiet, and richly observed, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re reading a first-person fictional narrative. In fiction, though, we demand a chain of evidence, a rational explanation of cause and effect, some defensible basis for our willing suspension of disbelief. What makes truth stranger than fiction is that truth — life — simply happens, with no particular rhyme or reason, no discernable explanation of why, no matter how much we try to divine one.

Palm grew up in the in-between: between towns in an empty spot on the map; between water and dependably dry land; between privileged suburbia and poor rural shacks. Living on the banks of Illinois’ Kankakee River as her family did — in fact, in the middle of its natural course, the river having been artificially straightened in the 1800s — meant that floodwaters, sandbags, and a regular battle between man and nature were woven into the fabric of her childhood.

Looming larger than the river was the presence of her neighbor, Corey, whose bedroom faced hers and whose movements she tracked from her earliest memories, as one who has found her north star. Corey, four years older, was her babysitter, her protector, her best friend, and the object of her longing.

Palm is expert at making us feel the claustrophobia of her childhood, the desperate sense of being trapped in an existence that could not possibly be her own, with people who seemed wholly foreign to her. But while her family circumstances were strained both economically and emotionally, she had a level of stability that Corey never did.

“This is what I remember him being told: get out, shut up, go away, your sister is dead, your father is a lie. Growing children, like transplanting spliced plants, is a delicate endeavor.” Even so, he was kind-hearted and generous to both Palm and her little brother, Marcus, even after Corey began doing stints in reform school and juvenile hall — punished for the types of infractions that richer, better-connected teen boys skate past with few consequences. The one instance in which Palm and Corey pursue an intimate encounter, he respects her “no” immediately, admitting he had promised her father to leave her alone.

Corey slips further away from Palm, but the gut-punch comes from the crime he commits at age 19 that puts him in prison for life. Finding a path through to a life other than the one Palm spends years imagining is a long journey that takes her into and out of different jobs, hobbies, and scholarly pursuits, like criminal justice studies and a brush with law school.

Mike, the Mike of the dedication, turns out to be the antidote to a long string of stand-in boyfriends, and it’s clear that he is — finally, after Corey — someone who fits her. Palm’s acknowledgement of herself as a writer comes late, after the birth of her second child and a close-your-eyes-and-jump move to Vermont. With the support of Mike, she finally declares with confidence, “I’m a writer!” after a funny/fraught encounter with a Canadian customs agent.

Riverine is an effort for Palm to make sense of her past, to find answers to questions that have haunted her, like why her mother understands her so little, and why she could not douse the torch she carried for a boy she’d known forever.

Palm was 15 when Corey was sent to prison for life, and 31 when she finally goes to see him there. That visit helps the author, and now her readers, find at least a few answers, but not without opening the painful contemplation of “if only.”

Winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Riverine is an impressive debut — intelligent, tender, forthright, insightful. It may have taken teasing to get her to own the title (“My husband put on my sunglasses and pretended to toss his hair. ‘Uh, I’m a writer? Um…’”), but this is one writer we’ll be eager to hear from again.