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fam

 

I saw my father twice.

1. In Virginia, just before he closed his apartment door after claiming his wife was at the grocery store, and didn’t allow guests unless she was home.

2. In court, just before the judge ejected my brother and me from the room because we giggled while the bailiff cuffed him.

 

About the first time.

When my mother drove my brother and me from our South Texas home to visit our birthplace, Alexandria, Virginia. We were five or so, had been gone for two years, and we begged our mother to take us to him. She knew. Somehow she knew. That he lived with a woman who wasn’t the mother of his children. Not us or the two before us. My mother and I stood in the shadows while my brother stepped forward to knock. The door opened, slowly, creaking with apprehension, as if for the past five years our father had been eyeing the peephole, expecting us. His voice quivered as he spoke. As he claimed he couldn’t let anyone in until his wife returned from the grocery store. Then he closed the door.

About the second time.

Snorkeling_young_woman

The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.  —Charles Darwin, “Voyage of The Beagle”

 

After my father died, we left New Jersey with its death and dying and cold winters and fled to Southern California. We were the three of us in a station wagon—my mother, my sister, and I, and it was a simple case of “should we turn left or right?” Which, I’ve come to realize, is the way most of life works.

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I have never come extremely close to dying—let me just say that up front. I have been very sick and in very bad situations, but my body has never begun the process of actually, physically failing.

King How Animals coverStorm Warning was a beautiful thoroughbred with a challenging personality. So many things spooked the horse: umbrellas, bicycles, small dogs, ponies, even people who removed an item of clothing while riding him. Storm, as he was called, was just a bit neurotic. But he lucked out in one way: he enjoyed a fifteen-year close relationship with Mary Stapleton, who happens to be a psychologist. Acutely attuned to people’s fears and anxieties, Mary transferred her insights and calming abilities to the horse. Even as Mary and Storm competed in the dressage ring, they worked together on Storm’s fears. In Mary’s words, Storm “learned to jump and face all of his terrors with great courage.”

Cover_HoldingSilvanFirst off, let me say I think it’s fabulous that you’re publishing a memoir about your son.  Even though it’s a sad topic and, given a choice, you probably would have given up your writing life altogether for Silvan to be healthy,  I’m glad this book is in the world. Holding Silvan is a great title, by the way.

Thanks.  I needed to hear that. In fact, this is something I literally repeat inside my head: “It‘s good that I’m publishing this book.” Otherwise, I feel nothing but anxiety.

 

Anxiety? I didn’t know you suffered from that.

I didn’t either. But it must be pretty common before the publication of any book, let alone a first book like this.

My father died on November 12, 2012. The date matters. My mind clenches the details, hugging tight the hairpin curves of my memory. I am the cartographer of this map. November 12, 2012.

Though it was a heart attack that ultimately killed him, my father was facing terminal cancer, and so our grief had been underway for weeks before his death. As the grim test results piled up, I shuttled my father to and from doctor’s appointments, picked up his medicines, stocked his fridge with the foods he needed to cleanse and strengthen his body. I did this mostly on autopilot and very little sleep. When I did occasionally break down—in the car, in my office behind closed doors—the ferocity of my keening frightened me. The pitch of it. The way it overtook and then left me, a funnel cloud suddenly curling back into the sky.

There is a sense of chaos involved in the act of falling in love, a lack of control, and quite possibly a hint of something tragic, a chance to be hurt. This applies to the slim but haunting novel My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) by Jac Jemc. In marriage there is the possibility of intimacy, a merging of spirit and life, but the reality can be a dense caryatid carved out of lies, mysteries, and selfish acts.

My Only Wife is about an unnamed couple, a husband who has fallen and surrendered, and a deceptive, passionate and quirky wife. The way Jemc renders their story is painful in its depiction of beauty and love, vicious in its evocation of what a broken heart feels like—the eternal echo of a call left unanswered.

The apocalypse comes in many forms. Oh sure, there is acid rain and there is drought, the crops dry up and the world moves on, but what happens when you’re alone with your wife or husband? Nature takes over, as it always does, and always will. And what becomes of the children? In Matt Bell’s haunting portrayal of twenty-six moments in the afterbirth of a world gone wrong, Cataclysm Baby (Mudluscious Press), we get to see how those days and nights roll on, when the waters are poisoned and furtive slick flesh seeks out a moment of passionate respite in many a dark and restless night.

1.

I’ve only been lost once in my life and I didn’t know I was missing.

I was five, and we were on a family trip to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. The day is a chaotic blur in my memory, my parents juggling me, a three-year-old, and an eighteen-month-old through an amusement park full of noisy Muppet distractions. We paused for lunch in a picnic area and when I finished eating, I darted away, yelling behind me that I was going to climb into the ball pit.

What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

“I WILL CROSS- STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNING. I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.”

The debut novel by Amelia Gray, entitled THREATS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is an unsettling and hypnotic story of loss, disintegration and the ways that love both builds and destroys us, anchors us, and alternately, lets us drift away. This is not conventional storytelling, but if you’ve read Gray’s work already (Museum of the Weird and AM/PM) then this will come as no surprise. To call this a detective story would be limiting. You have to jump in with both feet into the freezing waters, no easing a toe beneath the surface to see if the water is indeed water, to see if everything is safe. Nothing is safe, or reliable, and often others don’t have our best interests at heart.

She was every greeting card illustrator’s vision of the angelic blonde child: milk-pale skin and eyes as blue as polished slate, perfect ringlets of a blonde so blonde it was nearly white. She was the girl that girls like me—fat and loud, with our bowl haircuts and our Goodwill dresses—should have envied. But she was too sweet; not that kind of tactical sweetness that pretty girls learn early on, but a quiet decency that many adults would’ve done well to acquire.

Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors was the winner of the Drue Heinz Literary Prize for 2011, showcasing a collection of short stories that speaks to us about love, need, and irreversible actions. What is necessary, what behaviors do we implore when seeking freedom, family or peace? When you are in love with a man and a woman, how do you decide between the two, amidst puppies and wives and a bed filled with the ghosts of your lovemaking? Would you be willing to deal drugs, to sell a large quantity of pot in order to keep your family intact, to chase that plastic package into a dark river, riddled with fear? A mother caught in a steam room masturbating her way into another world, another life, the one she wishes she had lived, cannot overshadow her own daughter’s questionable love for a teacher, a coach, an older man. Lost in the jungle, one woman finds that her sexuality knows no boundaries, instead captivated by the slick dark flesh of men and women alike, trying hard to leave behind the civilized world, in order to embrace her true self. A queer zoo, Bob Barker, and a AAA travel guide eager to get off the beaten path, round out this body of work, the stories in this slim bound volume heartbreaking, alluring, exotic, and lush.

There is a place with roller coasters and wave swingers surrounded by champagne vineyards.

It is a two hours’ drive.We leave first thing in the morning because my daughters buckled themselves into the car soon after the break of dawn like precocious, barrette-wearing roosters.I hop behind the driver’s seat with a bottle of water and a disc of complied songs about summertime.The empty two-lane roads trace the swerve of the first track:Surfin’ U.S.A.

Through pasture and low forest, the white sun burns off the fog and the sheep would own the land if they could pull their faces out of the grass for even a second.The boulangeries in the unassuming villes have already sold out of pain au chocolat.My wife remarks that several weird, distant cousins live in a town we pass, but when, for God’s sake, would we ever find the time to visit them.In the backseat, the girls mouth the refrain “inside, outside, U.S.A.”

I think that with very important things we do not overcome our obstacles. We look at them fixedly for as long as is necessary until, if they are due to the powers of allusion, they disappear. – Simone Weil, from her letters

 

In the opening sequence of the latest X-Men movie, a young boy, Erik, is asked to move a coin across a table before the count of three or his mother will be shot. It is Poland, 1944, and Erik’s mother, emaciated and terrified and brutalized, tries to calm her son as he attempts to save her life. The ruthless Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon speaking in German!) begins the countdown. Erik concentrates, his face contorted, fingers trembling, watching the gun, then the unmoving coin, glancing over his shoulder at his mother, who tries in vain to reassure him (“everything is okay,” she repeats, mother to the last, knowing that they’ll both lose this battle). Erik tries desperately to use an extraordinary and unexplainable gift that the Nazis discovered during the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, when he bent an iron gate as his parents were being dragged away. He cannot do it; the stress is too great. He fails the test and Shaw shoots his mother in the heart.