Archives for posts with tag: Nonfiction

I’m excited to share that I have piece up at the Kenyon Review online (and my face on the homepage!)

I am unspeakably honored to be included.



Give it a read if you have a few minutes.



Minneapolis is full of hipsters. Uptown in particular. Tattoos and skinny jeans abound. Boys with beards ride bikes on our major roads even in the depths of winter. There is a smell that follows behind some of them. Less cigarette smoke, more unwashed hat.

Since we bought a house outside of Uptown, since we grew up a little, I forgot how it felt to be among these people. One sunny afternoon back, I felt uncool in all the ways. Hipster girls with bouffant dues looked at me like the fat kid in middle school. Suburb boys glazed over us like suburb boys do. Maybe I over read it all. After a beer and a half, it didn’t matter.


I watched a man older than my father but younger than my grandfather walk to the bathroom. The man was short but sturdy. The kind of man who may have been a farmer. Or maybe his father was a farmer or his father’s father, just like the rest of us. The bathrooms beside the vintage skee-ball machines were labeled “Anna” and “Otto”. He looked at Otto at walked to Anna. Looking back and forth he paused. He chose Anna.

Atta, boy, I thought.

A piece of mine was accepted by The Iowa Review. THE Iowa Review.


We arrived home today – after week long Midwest holiday-adventure of 1400 miles and two extended families – to a pile of bills and circular adds and holiday cards and two beautiful contributor copies of the Winter 13/14 issue of The Iowa Review. I felt humbled. And energized.

Give my little essay a read. Buy the issue. Pick it up in a bookstore. Steal your teacher’s copy. Whatever.

I’m really not sure what made me pick up this book – the sparse style, the width, the beautiful cover art, the title – but I’m glad I did.

let's take

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a memoir of friendship and grief. More friendship than grief until the last forty pages. Specifically, Caldwell has written the story of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story). By the hundredth page it’s clear Caldwell can’t bring herself to write of her friend’s death. Maybe if she doesn’t put it on the page it won’t be true. It’s easier to focus their love of dogs and rowing and writing. Anything but death.

When she finally gets around to writing about Caroline’s death (“Grief is fundamentally a selfish business.”) she does so as eloquently as writer before her. If found Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking useful/enjoyable you’ll like this.

Near the end of the book, after Caroline’s death, Caldwell’s dog is attacked by two pit bulls. She survives, don’t worry. But all I could think was how would I save my sweet little poodle? She pulled me back in. When the grief has pulled me down a sudden urgency returned to the narrative. Like a gulp of fresh air after staying under water too long. That’s the real joy of memoirs. Sometimes life gives us these plot points that wouldn’t seem believable in a novel.

I love nonfiction.

This weekend I’m attending the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Leadership Summit. If you haven’t heard of this group look it up it’s kind of amazing.

The panel I attended this morning was titled “Creative Journey: Telling Your Story After War”. While I was stoked to hear these writers and journalists speak, I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of the room thought. These kids are studying medicine and law and business. What do they care about writing?

Yet they seem to care or at least they pretend quite well:


And I hope they do. Seriously. This is a good place to start. More though, I am reminded that I need to keep writing (or start again). I know I can do better than platitudes. I know that I love nonfiction and particularly beautiful nonfiction that doesn’t rely on action to sustain narrative. And I want to sustain that idea – defend nonfiction’s honor, as it were.  I think I forgot that for a bit.

All I have to do now is figure out how to get back on the wagon.

I beg to disagree.


I eagerly await each year’s Best American Essay’s collection. A handy little survey of my favorite genre. Even when folks moaned about David Brooks being granted the guest editor position this year I still had hope. He wouldn’t be writing the essays; he would simply pull them together. He would pile the years nonfiction gems into a little heap and alphabetize them. That’s it, right? Oh how wrong I was.

This year’s collection was a disaster. No exciting experimentation with form or style. Hell there wasn’t even much exciting content. These felt like near academic essays and let’s not even discuss why only six of the twenty-four essays were written by women.  These do not represent the best work American essayists have to offer. It’s too bad the great writing that happened this year didn’t get the chance to be honored in this esteemed collection.

I’m disappointed Mr. Atwan.

After hearing about this book on NPR and seeing it on even the smallest bookshelves, I gave in and read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

The book is about Henrietta Lacks, her family ,and the immortality of her cervical cancer cells (HeLa). Skloot has done some of the most intense research I’ve ever read. She artfully weaves in her research methods with the research itself. It’s a compelling read. Not the most poetic book but I doubt the fact checkers would let much poetry stay.

If this is a subject that interests you – cell cultures, patient rights, the roots of cancer research – then you should definitely read this book. If not, you still might want to read it. I’m usually not interested in the bureaucracy of medicine but this book pulled me along. The Lacks family is as  compelling a subject as any reader/writer could hope. Henrietta’s story is simply heartbreaking. If you’ve been picking it up and putting it back down like I did, go ahead and buy it, if only to talk about it with the rest of the world.

Growing up, I thought I was an anxious person. I was shy and deathly afraid of heights. Turns out I’m just normal and anxiety is a normal part of the human condition. Who knew?! Daniel Smith’s anxiety, however, is outside that normal range. In his memoir Monkey Mind Smith tells how his extreme anxiety impacted his family, friends, school, employment, travels and condiment choosing abilities.


Overall I liked the book. Smith has a strong voice and keen sense of humor. If you know anyone with real anxiety issues (or perhaps that someone is you), give this book a try. It’s got the right amount of heart and a nice sense of confession, as all memoirs should. The downside for me came in the scientific/diagnostic asides. Smith doesn’t seem to trust that we, his dear readers, are smart enough to understand the basics of psychological care. I hate when writers talk down to me. I know it’s a fine line to walk but I’d rather close a book feeling like I learned something instead of feeling like I just slept through a Freshman Psych class.

When I sat down to write about my time in the Army I thought I understood memoirs and I knew I needed to read more books about war. I think/hope the best works about Iraq and Afganistan are yet to be written but Sebastian Junger’s War and David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers have set a high bar. I learned a lot from them but that’s another post.

Turns out I didn’t know as much about memoirs as I thought.

I know even less about the AK-47.

First of all, writing a book is hard. They are long and keeping track of characters is more complicated than you’d think. Second, and perhaps most obvious, straight chronology can be boring as shit. Today I had the kind of epiphany you can only have when you drink an iced Americano after not having caffeine for a week. Here it is: I have to start my story from the middle – a hook, if you will. Genius, right?! No, I know, but sometimes these ideas have to arise organically in order for me to understand them. Maybe that’s just me.

We listened to Sarah Silverman’s memoir while driving to and from the North Shore last week.

She’s far kinder than this cover photo implies. As a traditional memoir should, Silverman discusses her childhood, her beginnings in comedy, and life as an actress/writer. I pushed this book to the back of my to-read list because I thought it was going to be satire. Far from it, my friends (hint: she really was a bedwetter). Even the dog was too entertained to sleep:

Silverman is a compassionate person who just happens to have a raunchy sense of humor. Maybe it’s that crudeness that actually gives life to the compassion. She has an eye for the human experience and a way of talking about depression that is more inclusive than I’ve ever heard. I laughed out loud. I winced at the embarrassing moments. You can’t ask for much more from an audiobook. I’ve said it before, the audiobook is the way to go with celebrity memoirs. Silverman’s intonation and voice-work pulls the whole piece together. Read it. Really.

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