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What We’re Reading: Riverine

2016 September 22
by Liz Lampman

What We're Readingbooks1-1-9cad1de360026716Riverine by Angela Palm (Graywolf Press, 2016) 

I picked up Riverine and found more of myself than I’d bargained for. A child with a racing mind and rabidly romantic devotion to her first ever friend. Land with an impossible need to continue in and of itself, despite human tampering. All that, and a language with the kind of focus and endurance that sometimes leads to hope. “Like rivers,” Palm writes, “people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” In this memoir, rife with subtly repeated images and motifs, Angela Palm inspects the branches of her life and her trajectory away from suffocation.

Raised in rural Indiana, in a tiny township, Palm’s early years were marked by domestic unrest, the Farmer’s Almanac, and the boy next door. In her memoir, she goes back to the beginning, and follows from there the trails that have lead to her adulthood as writer, mother, wife, and homecoming love.

Though we experience the span of her life, Palm’s childhood and adolescent persona feels especially accessible to me. There’s a poignancy to the point of view in these early chapters that feels immediate and familiar—as if the naiveté of my own childhood has bloomed again before my eyes, coloring the world with both curiosity and suspicion. Perhaps I feel at home with Palm’s voice here because of our Scorpio kinship? Or, more likely, the internal dialogue in Part I, “Fields,” is so brooding and obsessive that it could captivate any audience. Palm perfectly dissects the myth-building and meaning-making involved in childhood thinking, not ignoring but instead highlighting the mundane artifacts of life and their power to shape the mind. For instance, she illustrates the lewd illustration on her father’s cap which would inform her idea of womanhood and female attractiveness. From the discussion of the cap, Palm seamlessly branches into a rich characterization of her mother and thus propels the memoir with powerful and earned energy.

In fact, part of the appeal of Riverine is the way the memoirist includes the material world in the development of her story. Palm laces history into both time and landscape in a way that makes this book decidedly real. After pointing to the blank yellow on the map where she was raised, she recalls the riverbed’s first inhabitants, the Potawatomi, who were exiled by the Indian Removal Act. She continues, throughout the book, to contextualize her own existence in space with history—how the Kankakee River was re-routed in the 1800s, leaving behind the floodplain of her childhood house. Later, she recalls Monica Lewinsky and the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 and 1997; both mile-markers in her adolescence with significant impacts on national discourse as well as her local economy.

If you’re on the fence about memoirs, then consider this: Riverine is a smart book. Would you care to learn a bit about thermodynamics and entropy? What about bifurcation and the splitting and re-planting of hostas? Or Badlands, the 1973 Terrence Malick film? Palm is unreserved in her roaming and generous as she shares how the mind makes sense of life’s strange echoes of itself. What’s more, she’s funny.

I likened dead Papa Lou to Jesus and Santa, to Danny Boy and Fido. This bothered me because I preferred to pee alone, and now there were two invisible persons, one invisible God, and two dead dogs following me into the bathroom. It was getting crowded.

As non-fiction requires, Palm shows her flaws unabashedly. This is a person you want to know, or maybe you feel like you come to know her, to love her even. This is a beautiful story of coping, survival. “I have taken meditation everywhere and sprinkled its soft gray middle across the land like salt.” And this is the diction and the imagery that Palm rewards you with for reading her memoir. Finally, that person who has interrogated the earth for its patterns and the heart for its ability to remember, she tells the most satisfying story of unrequited love that I’ve ever encountered. Love and a river that also rises and falls, robs and renews.


What are the landscapes that have made you who you are as a writer? as a reader?



What We’re Reading: Wondering Who You Are

2015 October 29

What We're Reading

WWYA-coverWondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea (Tin House Books, 2015)

In 2000, Richard Bandy was diagnosed with a rare and serious form of appendix cancer. An elective form of risky and then-experimental surgical chemotherapy worked, but complications that followed the procedure resulted in an anoxic brain injury. The brain injury caused him to lose not only his memory but also all traits of his former personality. The outgoing, driven, masculine (and sometime violently angry) man was replaced with a quiet, emotional, and passive one. The author of Wondering Who You Are is Sonya Lea, Richard Bandy’s wife. Lea’s unsettling and raw memoir blends medical drama, personal narrative, and the story of a long — and ultimately enduring — marriage.

Bandy and Lea married and had a family while they were both young. Although they loved each other deeply, their marriage was not always an easy one. Lea struggled with alcoholism for several years, and Bandy struggled with an anger that at times became physical. But, despite their lows, the two always found their way back to each other; it’s clear through her telling that they shared a profound love. However, following her husband’s brain injury, Lea finds herself thrust into an incredibly difficult scenario: her husband is alive, but he’s not the same man to whom she was married. Over the course of several years following the brain injury — and with much rehab, therapy, and neurological care — Bandy eventually regains enough skill to fully function, and he is eventually able to return to work. Despite that, he never recovers many memories, and his personality remains vastly different.

Of course, this situation raises fascinating questions: who are we without our history? What happens to our identities when we lose our historical moorings? Lea spends the bulk of the memoir facing these questions along with her husband — although they’re each forced to face these questions in their own, much different ways. In some aspects, Bandy’s injury has insulated him from the gravity of the situation: he grieves, but he is also unable to live in anything but the present. Lea, on the other hand, understandably dwells in the past, desperate to bring her husband as she knew him back. She writes,

I see that Richard isn’t scared of our situation. The sadness he occasionally feels is because he’s concerned about my suffering. I’m the one who is terrified of losing my identity. Especially the “us” that I think I remember. While I’m making dinner, crying to my friends, listening to my husband snore, I slowly wake up to the truth that I have no idea what makes me “me.” And the thing about truth is that it dismantles even as it inhabits.

As time goes on and it becomes obvious that her husband will never be the same man he was before his brain injury, Lea becomes cognizant of the shift she’s undergoing. Bandy’s not the only one who has lost something; Lea, too, grieves for the man, the memories, and the shared identity that the two have lost. She grapples with the way she now feels for her husband; initially, his new personality is deeply unsettling. She is unhappy with his maddening passivity, unhappy with what she feels is the loss of his masculinity, and unhappy with the loss of intimacy between them. She has to decide whether she can continue to view him as a “complex, intimate partner.” In an attempt to rediscover their love, the two travel together, relocate frequently, even invite a third party into their marriage. Although the path back to happiness is winding, the risks they take together eventually do serve to reawaken Lea’s love — or, more accurately, they allow Lea to begin to accept her husband for who he is now: “Sometimes things are mysterious in our relationships, and then we get to see our beloved, and it cracks the heart wide open.”

As she fills in Richard’s memory with the history of their marriage, she admits that she could downplay their more unpleasant chapters, but that to do so would dishonor their truth. The same can be said for this book. There are many unsettling — even angering — moments, and as a reader, I had to be conscious to set aside my own identity and judgments and remind myself that she was telling her story as it unfolded for her and her husband. She shares with her readers intimate thoughts, emotional conversations, and the most private scenes of her relationship with Richard. These are daunting subjects to write about, and I commend her for a willingness to write candidly about the intimacy within a marriage — the book is a page-turner because of this approach.

Lea’s stark, intense, and beautiful writing, combined with her unsettling but compelling subject matter, means that Wondering Who You Are is a memoir that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Have you read any books that you enjoyed but were unsettled by? If so, were you able to separate yourself from the book and understand what it is was that made the book difficult for you? Did needing that introspection add to your opinion of the book or detract from it?


What We’re Reading: We Know How This Ends

2015 July 9
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What We're Reading



We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

In 2010 Bruce Kramer was, as he describes it, “reborn in diagnosis.” He had been chalking up physical symptoms (a floppy foot, loss of coordination, fatigue, falls) to aging and a pinched nerve, but an appointment with a neurologist confirmed that it was much more serious: ALS. His book, We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying (co-authored with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer), is a thoughtful, contemplative memoir about relationships, time, happiness, and finding ways to be alive while racing towards death.

ALS is a fast moving, progressive disease for which there is no cure. Everything Kramer had taken for granted about his future goes into a tailspin the moment after a brusque doctor gives him his diagnosis.

In the car, wondering if I can drive. Winter is coming, the hoarfrost coats the few trees lining the parking lot, but the sun illuminates the next few minutes, the day yet to come, life as we know it melting in its weak light. Ev looks at me. She is crushed … And then she quietly says, “Couldn’t they have at least given us a goddamn pamphlet?”

Prior to his diagnosis, Kramer led a very active and full life, both personally and professionally: He took long bike rides with his wife, Ev; went on frequent overseas trips; and was the Dean of St. Thomas University. The nature of ALS would not allow him much time to wallow in despair about the monumental changes that were forthcoming; most sufferers pass away from complications three to five years after being diagnosed. Symptoms that were initially bothersome soon became major challenges.

It’s the unrelenting swiftness of ALS from which this book was born. Essentially, ALS puts the aging process into overdrive. As Kramer acknowledges, we all know that aging and death will come. Yet, most of us march into the future with only an abstract fear of death and, as Kramer puts it, “dis ease.” He uses the term dis ease to describe any difficult event that massively reshapes a person’s future:

Dis ease had always been with me, lying in depths of collective human need, illuminating life’s inevitable sharp edges, its dangerous borders, its precarious balance between good living and catastrophic existence. … Dis ease is true love, soaring in the stratosphere, yet plummeting to earth in betrayal unforeseen. Dis ease is the newborn child … vandalized by the reality of overwhelming disability. … There is not a person who does not know dis ease, boiling in the pit of their gut, on the tip of their tongue, in their muscle memory, in the discord between the life they know and the life they fear.

As Kramer sees it, dis ease need not be a physical ailment, per se, but a significant job loss, the death or illness of a loved one, or the end of an important relationship. His conceptualization of the phenomena that is dis ease is what drives the book — and what makes it much more than an autobiographical account of his experience with ALS. The book becomes, largely, a philosophical and thoughtful account of how Kramer was able to change his perception in an effort to find joy and meaning within the context of his new reality. It isn’t all joyfulness on his part, of course (“I’m no saint and I am pissed” he writes in a blog post); however, the book is laden with meaningful passages about his faith, his family, his friends, his physical experiences in a changing body (skydiving!), and most importantly, love.

 … I have sought to be engaged fully with life as I knew it. Now, it seems more important to engage with life as it is. I hope this means more time with loved ones, both friends and family; more evenings with Ev listening to the local classical station, drinking in each other’s presence and knowing full well it will never be enough; more yoga…more joyful loving visits with Hypatia and Athena, family meals … deep sleep at night … I hope this means more time to think, to listen, to perceive that in the silence is life and death and life again.

Kramer met MPR broadcast journalist Cathy Wurzer in 2008 for a radio piece on Kramer’s work with a local Indonesian gamelan group. They reconnected through mutual friends following his diagnosis, and MPR decided to do a recurring segment featuring Kramer and Wurzer discussing his life with ALS. The two developed a close friendship during the last several years of Kramer’s life. Wurzer prefaces each chapter with brief anecdotes or stories about the dis ease she was facing in her own life during the years she was interviewing Kramer (namely her father’s progressive dementia and eventual death from lymphoma). Her contributions run parallel to Kramer’s, and they provide a helpful framework for the rest of the book. She writes beautifully (“We know how this ends. It ends with sadness that is achingly beautiful and pure love for a life lived full and well.”), and the deep respect towards and connection she felt with Kramer is very apparent in her contributions.

We Know How This Ends is a beautiful book that is vastly more than a memoir about coping with disease. It’s a book about finding meaning and joy in life while being open to our dis ease, no matter the gravity of our external circumstances — because, as Kramer points out, our external circumstances will, at times, be grave. In the end, the lesson here is remarkably simple: we need to seek out ways to find love and peace, if not happiness, in our lives as they are — not as they “should be,” and certainly not as we assumed they would be — by being present, by being open, and by giving, accepting, and recognizing love.

Have you read a book lately that changed your perspective on how you live, or how you view your life? What was it about the book that you found so affecting?


*Cathy Wurzer and Bruce Kramer’s wife, Ev Emerson, will appear at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble on July 27 to discuss We Know How This Ends. Find event details here.


What We’re Reading: The Beautiful Unseen

2015 April 30
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22557363The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting by Kyle Boelte (Soft Skull Press, 2015)

Kyle Boelte’s remarkable debut, The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting, is a memoir about suicide and memory masterfully woven through a contemplative survey of San Francisco’s fog. Boelte’s subject matter is difficult, but his beautiful and accessible writing style result in a nuanced meditation about the inherent transience of memory and the universal struggle to accept this realization. The book balances scientific, historical, and environmental anecdotes about fog with Boelte’s struggle to remember his brother’s short life and death. As it does so, the memoir serves to examine the impermanence of both fog and memory and the way that each of these forces influence the human experience.

Kyle Boelte was 13 when his older brother, Kris, hung himself in the basement of the family home. Kris was 16 years old. Boelte’s haunting telling of the details — while difficult to read — serve as an impetus for the rest of book. The scene of the suicide is written in the form of a tense play-by-play:

You are in the basement listening to the Offspring and I am on the bus. You are moving boxes around the basement. You are measuring distances. I am laughing at a joke on the bus. … I open the front door and call out to you. “Hey Kris,” I say, but you do not answer. … Mom is at work and Dad is at work and you are in the basement. … I am thirteen and do not yet know the limits of memory and so have not looked closely at you. …And you are fading. Mom comes home and Dad comes home. … We are there in the house with you but you are not there with us. … Dad’s steps on the stairs are slow and deliberate. … Now he is in the basement. He is screaming now. The world is crumbling in on us. The rafters are being pulled down by your weight. … You have faded.

At the time of this memoir, Boelte is in his 30s, living in San Francisco, and trying to come to terms not only with his brother’s death but with the fact that his memories of Kris are starting to fade. He’s all but forgotten Kris’s voice; he’s relying more on other people’s stories of his brother; he’s even convinced that many of his own memories might now be at least partially fabricated:

I have a memory, a wisp of a memory, of Kris warning me. … In the memory, he says that he is going to do something. The vagueness of his words is ripe with meaning. Going to do something. As a teenager, I felt guilty about this memory. I thought … that I was guilty in some way. This wisp of a memory is so thin I now sometimes wonder if it is even real. Did I feel guilty because of the memory or was the memory created by guilt?

This stage of Boelte’s grief runs alongside (or perhaps manifests itself in the form of) a fixation on San Francisco’s famous fog. Boelte finds himself poring over scientific studies about fog prediction, weather events, historical accounts of accidents caused by fog, and the economic effects of the fog. He seeks the fog out in the form of long walks, runs, and bike rides through the city.

Fog, in this memoir, seems to serve as a stand-in for the memories of Kris that Boelte knows he is losing. Throughout the book, he hunts down fog, tries to run fast enough or climb high enough to be within it; he tries to watch for the exact moment a cloud starts to form into fog. He often misses the fog entirely in his race towards it, or finds himself only able to reach the very edges of it, forced to stand on the outside and look into that which he cannot enter as it fades from sight. The same fate has started to befall the memories of his brother; he catches wisps of them but rarely the whole memory: “Still you are fading, falling, drowning out of sight. Photographs collected in boxes and binders. Stories told by Mom and Dad over lunch. Memories holding on by a sliver.”

It’s no wonder the book is filled with many scrap-book-like mementos: song lyrics, news articles, letters from Kris’s girlfriend, transcripts of family videos, the death certificate. These concrete things are what Kyle has left, and it seems he’s learning how important they are, as these are the things that make up the skeleton of memory. Memories — like the fog that Boelte chases —won’t last forever despite how desperately we try to hold onto them. The memoir climbs towards this realization until the affecting final scene, where Kyle has again hiked into the fog, this time with his partner, Julia. He’s grasping at the fog, trying to press on, desperate to get closer despite the fact that the hike is becoming dangerous due to limited visibility:

I want to walk over to Noe Peak … We’d need to climb down the trail to the south and then cross Scenic Drive, past the drivers struggling to see beyond the hoods of their cars. …
I take a step toward the path but you hold my hand firmly and stand your ground. I look back at you, your hair blowing wildly in the wind, your eyes meeting mine. And I know.
I have seen enough. I have stood directly in the wind. … This is enough, I think.

It seems Boelte knows — or is learning — that he can no longer chase what will eventually escape him, and the harder he tries the more he is ultimately sacrificing in the present. The whole memoir seems to have been building to this moment, and with it comes a beautiful sense of release.

The Beautiful Unseen is a book about suicide and realities of impermanence, but it’s also a book about coping, loving, and moving forward through the fog of grief. It’s about finding happiness while living alongside a pain that will lift, but never dissipate. This is a book that is real and raw and personal, but it’s also beautiful, moving, and absolutely worth a read.

Have you read a book or memoir that had multiple or dissimilar themes? What connections did you find between the themes, and how did the author merge them to create a cohesive book?