The 21st Century Mind: Review of the Essay Collection,”The Word Pretty” by Elisa Gabbert

The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert (Black Ocean, 2018)

☆☆☆☆☆/ 5 stars

“The essay needn’t be faithful to the path of the thinking, but the form can reveal how thinking happens, like when a song gets stuck in your head and only later do you realize why you thought of it, that you had read or heard a word from the third verse. There’s magic there—the mind doesn’t always show its work. Why should prose?” -Elisa Gabbert, “The Art of the Paragraph,” The Word Pretty

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Elisa Gabbert’s work first appeared to me in the form of her first poetry collection, The French Exit (Birds, LLC., 2010) which I had to purchase as one of three collections for a poetry class earlier this semester. In the second week of classes we were asked to go home and read all three collections and bring back our favorites to read for the class the following week. I perused the pages of the other two required collections, relatively unmoved, but when I opened Gabbert’s collection I was taken aback; a storm of pages turning and pen marks flying ensued. The collection is filled with self-deprecating humor regarding sadness and life, a language I speak fluently and resonated with me. So, when I learned that Gabbert would be visiting my university in February, but for her creative nonfiction work in the essays of The Word Pretty, I immediately headed to the web to order one of the last two available on Amazon.

The Word Pretty is a brilliant collection, the style of which I can’t help but compare to my favorite book of essays ever, Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew Bose. Gabbert, like Bose, has written essays for the modern world. She muses on the linguistic significance of the emoji, the variations on the catharsis of crying, the definition of poetry, why one reads novels, the word pretty, and more. Gabbert, though presenting essays full of research, fact and opinion alike, offers-up essays full literary mastery, images, and ideas that will resonate with the modern woman or man.

Gabbert’s structuring of her essays and the book as a whole is masterful. I must now then contend that Gabbert’s true brilliance is revealed in something in the collection which at first I was unsure of: her recycling of ideas and specific references in separate essays, highlighted by the chosen structure of the collection. For example, there are a several successive essays in the collection that reference the variations on translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or toward the end of the collection she quotes John Berger’s Ways of Seeing two separate times. On a surface level I have to acknowledge that to some this may appear lazy, a recycling of ideas with little effort; however, I think this is where the genius lies. Gabbert has mimicked what it is like to think and learn—one gathers information and continuously returns to it, musing on it in different ways, seeing how it applies to the world around them. She revealed how thinking happens. She muses on the same ideas, but in fresh ways each time.

This week, I had the pleasure of meeting Gabbert and hearing her read from The Word Pretty(as well as The French Exit, and L’Heure Bleue Or The Judy Poemswhen she came to speak to my poetry class that has been studying her work). I must say hearing her read from the collection and explain some of it, only solidified my appreciation for what she does in this collection. Gabbert has revealed herself as a modern writer for a modern audience, musing on what it means to live and think in the 21stcentury.


A Voice for You: A Review of “I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir” by Reema Zaman

(This book was sent to me courtesy of Amberjack Publishing…thank you!)

I Am Yours by Reema Zaman (Amberjack, 2019)

☆☆☆☆☆/ 5 stars

“I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir” Reema Zaman, Amberjack, 2019; Photo by: Laci Durham

I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir follows Reema Zaman on her journey through the first thirty years of her life. Her journey begins in Bangladesh, but is then sent abroad to Hawaii, on to Thailand, and finally to the continental US. As the reader moves through the book, they are confronted with what it means to be a woman as the writer finds her voice quieted by societal expectations of women time and time again. She recognizes herself as an object of sexual prize in Thailand and the US and as a mere background character in her native country of Bangladesh. Zaman leads the reader through her trials with emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of others, and destructive behaviors bread from these circumstances at the hands of herself.

This, though, is a story of triumph as Zaman comes to find the powerful voice within herself and the courage to share it.

From the first line of this book I was hooked, eager to turn each new page which I found to be filled with both heartbreak and triumph. I found myself tearing up on more than one occasion, filled with amazement that someone could put into words what it feels like to be without them. Zaman poured herself into each piece of this memoir and it shows. Each word is masterfully selected, intentional, and moving. The structure is intelligent: told in four acts, with a guiding word for each chapter.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
“I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir” Reema Zaman, Amberjack, 2019; Photo by: Laci Durham

There is a line from the book that reads: “Language births art, literature, dance, theater, and bedtime stories.” This simple line I found to be a metaphor for what Zaman does in this book: she crafts a narrative that is deeply personal like bedtime stories, but universal like the art language breeds. This is Zaman’s greatest accomplishment: she has made a memoir of herself for others; she has poured out her soul and dedicated it to those who cannot do the same.

This is a book that deserves to be read if only for Zaman’s masterful literary technique, but if you choose to peruse its pages and go on one woman’s journey to find her voice, you will find something far larger and more powerful than you could ever expect.

Starting Little Fires Everywhere: A Review

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Penguin Press, 2017: ☆☆☆☆(4/5 stars)

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, Penguin Press, 2017. 

“One had followed the rules and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.” -Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere 

I want to begin by saying: this novel started off slow, and when I say slow, I mean s l o w. In fact, when I was about forty percent through the novel I was on the brink of closing it for good and moving on to a faithful Ali Smith beckoning me from my bedside table. But I persisted, thinking there must be a reason the reviews are so good, right? My persistence paid off, as when I hit the dead center of the novel, it picked up to a pace that left me consumed and unable to flip its blue cover closed for any length of time. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, proved to be a masterful novel, full of unexpected turns, but most of all storytelling which revealed Ng to be a novelist who has a clear grasp on a fresh narrative form all her own.

This novel follows a community outside of Cleveland, Ohio, Shaker Heights, named the first “successful planned community in the United States.” The community, as the book unfolds, is revealed to hold a desire of achieving a certain utopian dream full of perfect neighborhoods, perfect schools, perfect parents, and perfect children, ideals represented by the Richardson family the central focus of the novel. The Richardson’s family of six is seemingly perfect: the father is a lawyer, the mother a local journalist, the oldest daughter a star of the high school’s plays, the oldest son a successful athlete with a devastating smile, and the younger son a bookish and brilliant aspiring songwriter. Though, it is with the strong-willed, Doc Marten-wearing youngest Daughter, Isabelle, or Izzy,  that the picture perfect family becomes a bit more complicated. Izzy proves to be a girl on a mission to challenge what the rules really are, spurred on by her mother’s constant criticism of her every move, culminating in an assumption that when the Richardson family’s home goes up in flames, with little fires everywhere, she is to blame.

Across town, the Richardson’s hold a small duplex property which they have recently rented out to Mia and Pearl Warren, a mother and daughter pair who showed up to Shaker Heights in a VW Rabbit filled with all their worldly possessions. Mia is an eccentric photographer with a secret, and Pearl is a brilliant bookish girl who immediately draws the younger son of the Richardson’s, Moody, in with intrigue (or infatuation).

The novel follows the two families, the picture-perfect and the unique, as their lives intertwine, particularly after a controversial custody-battle rocks the aspiring utopia to its very core. Throughout the course of the novel, life-changing secrets are uncovered, relationships blossom, conflicts of interests surface, and the lines of right and wrong are blurred by the smoke of these little fires everywhere.

First, for my criticisms of this novel. As I said at the opening, this book started off slowly, and frankly, I felt like the first half contained a lot of what I can only call lazy writing. The beginning hardly caught my attention, as the entirety of the synopsis was essentially the first chapter just lengthened to fill seven pages with simple descriptions and cliché fillers. Such writing continues throughout much of the first fifty percent of the novel. One of the most memorable moments of this writing comes when the second son realizes his infatuation with Pearl, and Ng writes: “his life had been divided into a before and an after, and he would always be comparing the two.” This line, though endearing, and does help to some extent in Moody’s characterization, harkens back to any John Green novel or coming of age film– the bookish boy who feels stifled by his own family, finds a sort of manic pixie stereotype, with an artist mom and smarts, to become infatuated with. Or another example, a moment with Mia as she realizes Pearl’s movement into normal adolescence, and thinks to herself: “this is what teens do.” Again, this achieves some effect, but it also is painfully cliché, and Mia is not a character who tends toward the cliché. Sometimes in writing, it is helpful to state the obvious and point the reader toward what they are “supposed” to see, but such tactics prove unneeded in the latter half of the novel where Ng shows herself to be a talented writer who does not need clichés to aid in her narrative or to fill awkward spaces to achieve effect. I found these moments, looking back on the novel, to be a contributing factor in the slow beginning, and a minor disappointment at the space wasted in these clichés in which I could have (and should have) been reading Ng’s adept writing.

Now, for the positive. As already alluded to, Ng is masterful in the latter half of the novel. The way the narrative picks up once you hit a certain point is exhilarating. The story takes on a form in the latter half wherein all of the characters and their lives are interconnected, weaving a web of what I have now realized were little fires, burning bright, and coming together as one all-consuming fire of the narrative. Ng achieves this effect through an almost Woolfian style, jumping from character to character within the space of a few lines, to tell the story of each person, their feelings, their thoughts, their actions, and how they contribute to the larger fire. Though not venturing into the free and direct discourse of Mrs. Dalloway, the quintessential jumping narrative (to put Woolf’s narrative style in my own words), she still accomplishes the task of such a difficult narrative style flawlessly. She examines the lives of each main character, includes thoughts of secondary characters, and equates them all into a larger narrative that leaves the reader feeling as though they have examined the inter-workings of and come to understand the community of Shaker Heights in a way none of its people might.  Ng also touches the topics of mother-daughter relationships, the desire for perfection, the idea of rules, and/or ideals being good in theory but problematic in practice, and the overall pain and joy of being. Ng’s narrative style proves to be fresh, almost experimental but still comprehensible, and highly effective.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Ng is a refreshing voice, needed in contemporary literature. I would just encourage any reader of this novel to fight through the beginning if it is found to be as slow as I found it, because it is worth discovering the result of starting Little Fires Everywhere.