Essays and Memoirs
Mrs. Wright's Bookshop Print E-mail

bookshop(New Letters Volume 74, No. 3. Summer 2008. First-place tie with Kim Addonizio in New Letters’ Readers Award for the Essay, 2007-2008.)

It was over, Mrs. Wright’s reign. I heard the bell clang above the front door, just before Mrs. Auburn, the principled clerk, called my name at the top of the stairs. In the basement, I’d been unpacking boxes, Bantam paperbacks, this batch, the four J. D. Salinger books, two covers white, one gold, and one that dark existential red, the title in gold letters, our big seller. I hurried up the steps from paperbacks to hardbacks, and there was Mrs. Wright, earlier than usual, keeping her word. The windowed door was shut, and the sign’s OPEN side now faced in. Her Chrysler idled out front. It must have been late morning, and late in the summer, too, near Labor Day.

Is the Unexamined Life Worth Voting For? The Memoirs of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama Print E-mail

stateelecredblue512( / Shorts October 12, 2007)

"Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that [President Bush] did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound."

—"Getting Iraq Wrong" Michael Ignatieff The New York Times Magazine August 5, 2007

The Woman on the Corner Print E-mail

GP Me(originally published / Shorts July 2007)


In the last year of his life, Grandpa Wallin quit driving. For years he had tooled his big Plymouth over the beveled streets, the grey, rough asphalt dark from rain or silvered by the sun. When my brothers and I rode in the back seat, he’d crab, for God’s sake, stop all that commotion. On Sundays he used to ride with us to our ritual breakfasts, a family outing so Grandma didn’t have to cook. One day, we were half way out the door and he said he didn’t feel well and was staying home. He wasn’t sickly. A retired newspaper ad salesman of 53 years, he seemed even at home to be at work, putting on a white shirt every day and sitting in his chair, reading. He seemed as stolid as ever to my nine-year-old mind. He might have been tired, though I don’t remember him napping except, maybe, when the book got dull and it rested on his stomach. (The man checked out four or five books a week from the library, Zane Grey and Frank Yerby, and read religiously.)

The Age of Memoir Print E-mail

Leger_Woman_with_Book(Review Americana, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2007)

For the past year, I've been monitoring the New York Times' nonfiction paperback bestsellers, and I find that 80 percent (12 of 15) are either memoirs or autobiographies. It's true that because I write critically about memoir as well as teach and write the form, I'm partial. But memoir's popularity still astounds me. It's the literary form of our time. Why?

Americans are an impatient lot. We don't want to wait until we're old and grey to discover what has mattered to us. The memoir has evolved so that octogenarian or college student can use the form to examine the emotional truths of their lives. Unlike autobiography, memoir doesn't require swaths of time to pass before a writer attends to an illness, a joy, a tragedy. If you haven't already, read Joan Didion's sudden memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, the immediate telling of her husband's death in 2004.

Mother In Her Casket Print E-mail

Mom Early 1940sPotomac Review Issue 39 Spring/Summer 2005)

Because the casket will be closed for the funeral, I want to view the disease-ravaged body of my mother as soon as the embalmer gets her ready. Five months from diagnosis to death. My brother Jeff and I were with her at the onset of the fast-metastasizing cancer but not at its end. We called every Sunday and she said, “I’m doing OK. You don’t need to come. Let’s wait and see.” The doctor’s phone message was abrupt, jarring. The plane flight, numbing.

Laid out, sunk in the plush bed, she seems trapped under gravity’s anvil. The burial dress my brother selected—white shirt, grey skirt, grey tweed jacket—is too big for her. Her hair done, her cheeks cotton-puffy, her glasses (why must she be buried wearing her glasses?) magnifying the willfulness of her eyes, as if she is holding them shut. Her hands are withered to bone, a blotchy yellowish-white. The left one is smattered with bruises from the chemo injections and bloodlettings she endured. A drooping mouth, flecks of dandruff, a strand of hair on her jacket—phantom life arrested in her skeletal agony.

The Other Man Print E-mail

Improv_30(Written Spring 2003)

In the top-spinning passage of 30 years—after the sink of high school, one matchstick marriage, and two suddenly grown-and-gone children—I have kept few gifts. Giving up stuff to kids or AmVets just happens, and most of what isn’t given up is misplaced or lost, another sort of unloading. One piece I cannot lose—the maroon scarf that Roxanne knitted and sent me to California with, after I had dropped out of college during the Vietnam War and my draft number came up. I can’t get rid of that scarf, its slapdash clump laying in my closet all these years, sentenced to the pile of its tossing. My fingers still love to lace and heft and tug its six-foot long mesh, purl-knit, purl-knit, a shovel-full of cloth. The scarf feels defiantly alive: its mesh breathes; its weave has yet to unravel; its tensile wholeness might still coil to warm one neck as easily as it might hang another from the rafters.

I was twenty, Roxanne thirty-two. Students at the University of Missouri, we met one night, leaving the palatial library at closing time.

My Father, Bounding Down the Stairs Print E-mail

avery_selfportrait.1941(Written Summer 2002)

In Des Peres, a comfy St. Louis suburb where my family lived when I was a teenager, Saturday afternoons about two my father would, following his nap, suddenly bound down the stairs. From second story to first hung a stairway (for his stair-assault) in the middle of the house, leading up to three bedrooms and two baths. Above a plant garden Mother tended with high-intensity light, the staircase seemed to float like a cataract, its thick maple steps, wrapped with plush carpet, bolted onto ruler-thin, wrought-iron black railings. The effect of his flurry was noisily musical, a run on the xylophone, fingers danced across a counter. You heard then felt before seeing the rumble of my Swede/Czech heavy-set father barreling down those nine steps. Brúm-brum-brum-brum-brúm-brum-brum-brum-brúm, and he’d be down, bicycling cartoon feet, all-hands-on-deck hurry-up, each step taken with no-hands fearlessness in two seconds flat. Like an iron-wired marionette, the hanging stairway quivered in his wake.

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