Photo: Nicolas Decoopman

Women We Read This Week

Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s Rare Bird

I consumed this book over a two-day period, damn near canceling plans so that my reading of it would continue without interruption. Anna Whiston-Donaldson offers up this memoir, equally exquisite and heart wrenching, as a tribute to 12-year-old Jack, the son she lost in a flood on September 8, 2011.

I found the author first through her blog, An Inch of Gray, where she wrote about the night in question:

“…this was the broken woman who had told her kids to go ahead and play in the rain. Who had warned her kids about lightning and salmonella and sexual abuse and pornography and STDs and bullying and collapsing tunnels of sand and snow, but who had never given the creek one single thought.”

The horror, disbelief and regret are all palpable, any parent’s worst nightmare, and she writes about it all with remarkable candor.

I don’t know how I know, standing at the water’s edge, that Jack is gone forever. How does one shift gears so suddenly, from brightly calling out your kid’s name on a carefree afternoon, to realizing with horror that he is dead or dying? I imagine Mack trucks would make a noise if they tried to shift gears so abruptly, but for me it is a silent scream, a terrible knowing that slams physically down on my body. I don’t know how I know at that second that Jack will die, but I do.

The memoir contains the anguish you would expect to find in a book about a boy falling into a tiny-creek-turned-raging-river, a book about his family having to go on without him. But what’s unexpected is how much Rare Bird also dishes up hope, faith, gratitude, miracles and inspiration. —Melanie

Michelle Herman’s “Gone” in Creative Nonfiction

This weekend, I finally managed to read my subscription of Creative Nonfiction. Winter 2015’s theme was “Lost Truths & Family Legends,” so I was interested to see what kind of juicy tales I might stumble across to warrant Lee Gutkind’s admission that he doesn’t “mean to get our writers in hot water with their families” in his editor’s note.

With such an introduction, I was a little surprised and very pleased to find the first essay in the bunch, Michelle Herman’s “Gone,” to revolve much less around digging up dirt on her subjects than shedding a warm light upon them, instead.

Herman’s father has passed away, leaving instructions following his death. In working to follow these instructions and help her mother, Herman discovers more about him and crafts a powerful character sketch for the reader:

I found the ankle bracelet he gave to my mother in 1947, when they were first dating (it featured two tiny collected gold hearts, one inscribed Morty and one inscribed Sheila). I found many drafts of his own writing—he’d wanted to be a writer, and there were manuscripts of two novels, a memoir, and a screenplay even my mother hadn’t known he’d written…

With rich detail, Herman catalogues what her father had saved throughout his life, and how. Both personal and universal, this glimpse into the stuff he had deemed most important charmed me more than anything else.

It can be so easy to write about the death of a loved one and come off as hackneyed or overly sentimental. But Herman does none of these things. “Gone” is not about a family legend, but it does speak to loss, and to how the things we keep reflect the truth of what we leave behind.

Sara Button

Ann Bauer’s “Are the Virtues of Higher Education a Lesson in False Advertising?” in Dame Magazine

Here’s another voice in the chorus speaking up about higher education’s reliance on adjunct employees; this is a great personal essay. Bauer blends research with her own experience as an adjunct (one who left to find consistent work with a salary at a marketing agency) in this biting indictment on both the academy’s problems and the problem with academic piousness.

Bauer begins with a locker room scene where she runs into a former editorial colleague who is finishing a Ph.D. and looking for work in academia. Bauer, upon disclosing that she’s been in advertising for years, bristles when the former acquaintance admits that she “could never do that. I guess I’m just too much of a socialist,” before asking, “How can you devote your life to something so mercenary? I need a career that makes a contribution, helps people, does some actual good.”

We quickly see that Bauer is not unfamiliar with such responses, so she sets off, in the locker room and in this essay, to illuminate the darker side higher education. She is sharply critical, but also understanding. She, too, earned an MFA and points out that, “It was generally accepted in our program that most of us would go on to teach.” She reflects on her teaching experience and past students with a mix of fondness and clarity, noting that she knew students would leave the program “overburdened and underprepared.”

Of my 30 students that term, I felt only two had the raw skills a competitive writer needs. The other 28 would have been better suited to other careers. But I wasn’t allowed to say this. When they came to my office seeking advice, it was my job to encourage them. The college was very proud of its creative writing program and it had nine adjuncts just like me—MFA graduates who’d published minor books—on their staff.

Bauer’s conclusion mirrors her introduction: she will continue to have this conversation with “highly educated” people who praise higher education and vilify the private sector, and she finds their perspectives representative of academe’s “brilliant and widely accepted but flawed public relations campaign.” –Sarah J.

Heather Havrilesky’s “Like a prayer” on Aeon

I found this piece after a day of chasing a 9-month-old around a tiny cabin, saying, “We can’t eat that, nope, can’t eat that, honey, can’t eat that…” YES, I thought, something funny. I love Heather Havrilesky and wanted to see what she’d do with a subject as lofty and potentially sentimental as prayer. Here’s the answer:

My soul – if I have one, which is still up for debate – is an angry misfit type of soul. It’s not a soul that likes cashew cheese or people who talk about their spirit animals.

But the piece isn’t just easy snark. It looks at the history of prayer and the newfangled ways people interpret prayer outside of the confines of organized religion (Example: “Sigfried Gold, a self-described ‘born-again atheist’ who made up a prayer for his family to say every day, to a deity he created himself: a ‘15-ft-tall goddess he named “Ms X” after Malcolm X’.”) In searching for her own morning prayer, Havrilesky navigates between the squeamishness and genuine longing of those of us who fear finding ourselves in communion with “wind chimes and scented candles and middle-aged men in linen pants” and yet also “want to feel like we’re in touch with something bigger than our own fluctuating moods and needs, and that we’re pointed in the right direction.” Sarah


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