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Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart

Source: Gift from LibraryThing SantaThing
Paperback, 240 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart is part travel, cultural immersion, and marital memoir.  El Salvador, the country of her husband’s birth, is seismologically and politically volatile, much like a marriage can be as we seek similarities and rarely understand the differences between us when we first begin a life together.  Kephart speaks of her husband’s country as someone who has never traveled to Central America before and only knows about the country from the horrific political turmoil and devastating earthquakes she has seen on the news.  She begins the novel very much on the outside of her husband’s life before he went to the United States for college and married her, living a suburban, quiet, American life.

“When I married my husband, I married into all of this.  I married a legacy, traditions, danger.  I married a man who is not at home unless he’s standing in the shadows of his grandfather’s land or asserting the privileges of a jeep on jungle roads.  My husband isn’t home here, where we together live, and yet years would go by before I could begin to understand, before my imagination would let me close to where he’d come from.”  (page 10-11)

For a woman that has lived a very privileged American life — for that’s what she says — her experiences traveling were limited to very advanced economies, rather than the more emerging markets in Central America, which have had a harder time coming together and staying together socially and politically.  Speaking only English, as many Americans do, arriving in a country where Spanish is spoken in rapid, unending bursts with little time to pause and translate, Kephart illustrates her loneliness and her separateness when she perches in a tree and merely watches from afar as her husband reconnects with his home and his family.  This separateness is partly her own making because of her almost desperate need to be part of his family in all ways, but also her desire to pull him back into the world of their American life so that she can be more comfortable.

However, this is not just a memoir about a marriage; it is also a memoir about coming to love a country and a culture that at first seems so foreign and incomprehensible to her.  As she sets out to tell her son about his father’s life before America and his heritage, Kephart learns that there is love in the strangest of places — places that were once alien, places that made her feel separate and foreign herself.

What’s beautiful about the memoir is that it doesn’t focus on the rifts or the arguments or the silences these differences between her and her husband may have caused, it is focused on a woman immersing herself in the culture, a history, a people and its coffee.  Through its history — political and otherwise — Kephart paints a picture of a country that struggles with its own land and its own people to find itself.  El Salvador comes alive in her hands, becomes a living, breathing being with its beauty and darkness, and while there are frightening times of civil unrest and bandits, Kephart is huddled in the family bubble — cradled in their acceptance of her.

“It was an accident, Bill’s falling in love with me.  It was a risk, binding himself up in a marriage to an American girl, a suburban girl so entirely naive that she thought she’d be somehow big enough to hold him.”  (page 127)

Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart is about love and learning to love even the strangest parts of ourselves and our spouses, it’s a love that embraces everything despite our initial fears and misgivings and misunderstandings.  Love should be big enough not only to conquer all, but also to breed acceptance for what we do not understand or know about ourselves and those we love.  Love is an expansion of who and what we are; it is the exploration and embracing of what is outside of us and bringing that into ourselves.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, published in June 2009, and a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, released in March 2010.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. She teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mailbox Monday #258

Mailbox Monday, created by Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page, has gone through a few incarnations from a permanent home with Marcia to a tour of other blogs.

Now, it has its own permanent home at its own blog.

To check out what everyone has received over the last week, visit the blog and check out the links.  Leave yours too.

Also, each week, Leslie, Vicki, and I will share the Books that Caught Our Eye from everyone’s weekly links.

Here’s what I received:

1.  Going Over by Beth Kephart from Chronicle Books for review before the April 1 publication.

In the early 1980s Ada and Stefan are young, would-be lovers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall–Ada lives with her mother and grandmother and paints graffiti on the Wall, and Stefan lives with his grandmother in the East and dreams of escaping to the West.

 

2.  The Rebel Pirate by Donna Thorland for review in March.

1775, Boston Harbor. James Sparhawk, Master and Commander in the British Navy, knows trouble when he sees it. The ship he’s boarded is carrying ammunition and gold…into a country on the knife’s edge of war. Sparhawk’s duty is clear: confiscate the cargo, impound the vessel and seize the crew. But when one of the ship’s boys turns out to be a lovely girl, with a loaded pistol and dead-shot aim, Sparhawk finds himself held hostage aboard a Rebel privateer.

Sarah Ward never set out to break the law. Before Boston became a powder keg, she was poised to escape the stigma of being a notorious pirate’s daughter by wedding Micah Wild, one of Salem’s most successful merchants. Then a Patriot mob destroyed her fortune and Wild played her false by marrying her best friend and smuggling a chest of Rebel gold aboard her family’s ship.

What did you receive?

Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased for Kindle
eBook, about 34 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time by Beth Kephart illustrates how the death of the person we’re closest to — oftentimes our mother — sends us out into the world, looking for answers or at least some hope.  Letting go is never about forgetting, while our loved ones may not physically be present any more and all we have is memory — a tricky thing indeed — we have the ability to seek out meaning and hope in the miracles around us.  Anyone who has read Kephart’s books before knows that she loves birds and what they can mean and represent in all their incarnations, but this obsession with birds clearly began with the loss of her mother.

“I work in a square room, watch the world (a garden like an archipelago, a museum of flowering trees) through two wide windows.  I work early in the day, a bare bulb turned on, and I work alone.  But in the months after my mother passed away, much too early, the finches came.  They were still wearing their winter coats.  They favored the crack of dawn.  They held themselves up with the acrobatics of their wings, touched their beaks to my wide windows, and hammered.”

Kephart ties together the memories of her mother’s accident and misdiagnosed and re-diagnosed illness — without naming it because it is unnecessary to do so — with the passionate love of birds held by Genevieve Estelle Jones and Katrina van Grouw.  Like these early scientists, Kephart is exploring the enigma of birds — not so much how they continue to fly and what their eggs and nests look like — but how those former dinosaurs continue to capture the imagination and offer solace to those not too busy to pause.

Readers could imagine glorious photos or illustrations of birds sweeping across the pages, along with Kephart’s words as she remembers the best parts of her mother and the best parts of herself.  Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time by Beth Kephart strives to give all those who grieve the hope that there is peace, a peace that we can live with and thrive with, as long as we remember to breathe and be alive.

***This ebook memoir was published by the new venture SheBooks, which published short ebooks for women, by women.  Check out what Beth Kephart had to say.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. In the fall of 2009, Kephart will teach the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.  Check out her blog.

Mailbox Monday #256

Mailbox Monday, created by Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page, has gone through a few incarnations from a permanent home with Marcia to a tour of other blogs.

Now, it has its own permanent home at its own blog.

To check out what everyone has received over the last week, visit the blog and check out the links.  Leave yours too.

Also, each week, Leslie, Vicki, and I will share the Books that Caught Our Eye from everyone’s weekly links.

Here’s what I received:

1. Nest. Flight. Sky: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time by Beth Kephart, purchased for Kindle with my Amazon gift card from Anna.

In Nest. Flight. Sky: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time, award-winning memoirist Beth Kephart returns to the form for the first time in years to reckon with the loss of her mother and a slow-growing but soon inescapable obsession with birds and flight. Kephart finds herself drawn to the startle of the winter finch, the quick pulse of hummingbirds, and the hungry circling of hawks. She discovers birds in the stories she tells and the novels she writes. She hunts for nests, she waits for song, she seeks the stories of bird artists, she waits. Nest. Flight. Sky. is about the love that endures and the hope that saves us. It’s about the gift of feathers.

2.  When the Cypress Whispers by Yvette Manessis Corporon for review from Harper.

On a beautiful Greek island, myths, magic, and a colorful cast of characters come together in When the Cypress Whispers, Yvette Manessis Corporon’s lushly atmospheric story about past and present, family and fate, love and dreams that poignantly captures the deep bond between an American woman and her Greek grandmother.

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Daphne aspires to the American Dream, yet feels as if she’s been sleepwalking through life. Caught between her family’s old-world traditions and the demands of a modern career, she cannot seem to find her place.

Only her beloved grandmother on Erikousa, a magical island off the coast of Greece, knows her heart. Daphne’s fondest memories are of times spent in the kitchen with Yia-yia, cooking and learning about the ancient myths. It was the thought of Yia-yia that consoled Daphne in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death.

What did you get in your mailbox? 

Also be sure to check the Mailbox Monday blog for the Books That Caught Our Eye feature and let us know what caught your attention.

The Best of 2013 List…

In Descending Order (links to the reviews included):
  1. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
  2. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
  3. Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy
  4. Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
  5. The Time Between by Karen White
  6. Survival Skills: Stories by Jean Ryan
  7. Unexplained Fevers by Jeannine Hall Gailey
  8. Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
  9. Solving the World’s Problems by Robert Lee Brewer
  10. The Scabbard of Her Throat by Bernadette Geyer
  11. The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis
  12. Six Sisters’ Stuff: Family Recipes, Fun Crafts, and So Much More
Here are my honorable mentions for this year, in descending order (links to the reviews included):
  1. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
  2. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart
  3. Joyland by Stephen King
  4. Seduction by M.J. Rose
  5. Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen
What books made your list of favorites this year?

Mailbox Monday #250

Mailbox Monday (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch.  December’s host is Rose City Reader.

***The Mailbox Monday poll found that most bloggers preferred the Mailbox Monday blog to be the permanent home for the meme beginning in January.***

The meme allows bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received:

1.  The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston came unexpectedly from the publisher.

In her small Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana. She has never spoken, and her silence as well as the magic she can’t quite control make her a mystery. Concerned for her safety, her mother quickly arranges a marriage with Cai Bevan, the widower from the far hills who knows nothing of the rumours that swirl around her. After their wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving, but she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the rugged mountains that surround it, while slowly Cai himself begins to win her heart. It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village. A dark force is at work there—a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana, even at the expense of those closest to her. Forced to defend her home, her love, and herself from all comers, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything.

2.  Return to Tradd Street by Karen White for review from the publisher.

Melanie is only going through the motions of living since refusing Jack’s marriage proposal. She misses him desperately, but her broken heart is the least of her problems. Despite an insistence that she can raise their child alone, Melanie is completely unprepared for motherhood, and she struggles to complete renovations on her house on Tradd Street before the baby arrives.

When Melanie is roused one night by the sound of a ghostly infant crying, she chooses to ignore it. She simply does not have the energy to deal with one more crisis. That is, until the remains of a newborn buried in an old christening gown are found hidden in the foundation of her house.

3.  Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson from the publisher for a TLC Book Tour in January.

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

4.  Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber for review for a TLC Book Tour in January.

Linda Bamber has combined her love of fiction from the past with her propensity to shake things up, taking what she likes and gleefully sharing it with us. As entertaining and contemporary as these stories are, they also remind us what we, too, love about the classic texts she takes apart and reassembles. Bamber’s tales, like the best translations, exist independently while reminding us not to forget the plays and novels they treat. Alternating between admiration and attitude, the stories layer their plots with commentary, history, and politics, pausing as they build only to make room for the sanity and wit of the authorial voice. Emotional and genuine, these stories are also playful, inventive, and hilariously funny. From her long study of the Bard, Bamber has absorbed some of Shakespeare’s own empathy, understanding, and expressive flair. It is not too much to say that her work takes its place in the same literary sphere as the works it engages.

5.  Pieces of the Heart by Karen White from my SantaThing at LibraryThing.

To escape the stress from her all-consuming job as an accountant, Caroline Collier joins her overbearing mother at the family’s vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina. But the serene beauty of Lake Ophelia cannot heal Caroline’s heart, which is still broken by the loss of her younger brother, who died when she was seventeen. And the tension between her and her mother still simmers. Only their neighbors, the husband and daughter of one of Caroline’s childhood friends, seem able to penetrate her cool reserve, giving Caroline the courage to face her biggest fears-and dive headfirst into life.

6.  The Color of Light by Karen White from my SantaThing at LibraryThing.

With a lyrical Southern voice, White delivers an emotionally moving novel of a woman in search of a new beginning and a man haunted by the past.At thirty-two, pregnant and recently divorced, Jillian Parrish and her seven-year-old daughter find refuge and solace on Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Jillian had experienced her best childhood memories here-until her best friend Lauren Mills disappeared, never to be found. At the time, Linc Rising, Lauren’s boyfriend and Jillian’s confidant, had been a suspect in Lauren’s disappearance. Now he’s back on Pawleys Island-renovating the old Mills house. And as ghosts of the past are resurrected, and Jillian’s daughter begins having eerie conversations with an imaginary friend named Lauren, Jillian and Linc will uncover the truth about Lauren’s disappearance and about the feelings they have buried for sixteen years.

7.  Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart from my SantaThing at LibraryThing.

When Beth Kephart met and fell in love with the artist who would become her husband, she had little knowledge of the place he came from—an exotic coffee farm high in the jungle hills of El Salvador, a place of terrifying myths and even more frightening realities, of civil war and devastating earthquakes. Yet, marriage, she finds, means taking in not only the stranger who is one’s lover but also a stranger’s history—in this case, a country, language, people, and culture utterly foreign to a young American woman. Kephart’s transcendently lyrical prose (often compared to the work of Annie Dillard) has already made her a National Book Award finalist. In each of her memoirs she has written about love, using her own life to seek out universal truths.

8.   Books and Reading: A Book of Quotations edited by Bill Bradfield from my SantaThing from LibraryThing.

Over 450 memorable quotes about books and reading from writers, political figures, and celebrities. With provocative declarations from John Keats, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, James Thurber, and Oprah Winfrey, among others. A handy aid for speech writers and public speakers, this entertaining collection will delight anyone who loves books.

9.  The Descent by Alma Katsu for review from the publisher.

Lanore McIlvrae has been on the run from Adair for hundreds of years, dismayed by his mysterious powers and afraid of his temper. She betrayed Adair’s trust and imprisoned him behind a stone wall to save Jonathan, the love of her life. When Adair was freed 200 years later, she was sure that he would find her and make her existence a living hell. But things turned out far different than she’d imagined.

Four years later, Lanore has tracked Adair to his mystical island home, where he has been living in self-imposed exile, to ask for a favor. She wants Adair to send her to the hereafter so she may beg the Queen of the Underworld to release Jonathan, whom she has been keeping as her consort. Will Lanore honor her promise to Adair to return? Or is her intention to reunite with Jonathan at any cost?

What did you receive?

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 120 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart is a well imagined autobiography of the Schuylkill River (Hidden Creek) near Philadelphia told from the point of view of the river.  A hopeful river intrigued by the humans that come upon her, collecting those forgotten items, and enjoying the natural wonders of frozen surfaces and fishing.  Coupled with the poetic narrative are notes on the time period and the major events near and around the river, including the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  As the industrial revolution takes hold, the river finds that the humans who have been intrigued by her beauty and hidden secrets and those that have piqued her interest are busy moving through their lives with little thought to her, dumping their waste, chemicals, animal parts, and more into her flowing waters.

“Imagine taking a needle to the point of blood on your palm.  Imagine drawing that needle around and around, leaning in on it, forcing an edge, rearing at the creases and the lifelines, the ridges and slightest hills that forecast your happiness.  Imagine the skin giving way.

That’s skating.”  (Page 32)

There are moments of fear, curiosity, and hatred.  “How is it that I became the quickest route to your confession–the door you close to those parts of yourself that you hope no one will see?  Call me what you’ve made me, which is a grave.”  (page 87)  She’s a river (dare I call her Flo) who ages beyond her years thanks to the careless dumping and even direct interference as dams are built to harness power.  Kephart melds her prose with photography, poetry, and factual notations.  There’s a sense of nostalgia in Flow that breathes life into history, ensuring readers sense the culture of the time period, the struggles of the people, and their dreams.  The river just wants to live, but she remains curious about her own environment, curious about how the people use and abuse her, and disheartened when it seems as though she has been forgotten or replaced.

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart is a historical look at the river and Philadelphia, handled with a careful and creative hand.  The river comes alive, just like Philadelphia’s people and her history.  Readers will learn a great deal about the river, the industrial revolution, and our nation’s history.  The Schuylkill River is no longer the hidden gem of Pennsylvania.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog.  Here’s my most recent interview with her too.

My other Beth Kephart reviews:

Winners

I’ve been remiss in congratulating some winners, here’s the latest batch:

 

Lisa Gardner Beach Back Winner was Carolyn, who said, “I like to read suspense novels and thrillers.”

 

 

 

 

 

The winner of Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust by Leanne Lieberman was Anita Yancey, who said, “It sounds like a great story, and I’m glad there is some humor in it. I would love to read the book and find out what decision Lauren makes.”

 

 

 

And to the winner of Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, Ellie!  She said, “Goodness, this is fascinating. I would write about my family so that further generations could benefit from the knowledge.”

Interview with Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth, & Giveaway

It has been several weeks since I posted my review of Beth Kephart’s August release, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about those wise words.  My review of the book heaped on the praise, and I think that I’ve merely joined a widening group of reviewers who are in love with this writing reference/memoir — from other bloggers like Florinda and Patty to her former student, Stephanie Trott, the New York Journal of Books, and Booklist.  And let’s not forget the elite list the book landed on in O Magazine, alongside another of my favorites, Stephen King.

Kephart is on the touring circuit for her book and she’s made a splash with the launch event at the Free Library of Philadelphia to a discussion on WHYY; both of which you can listen to via podcast.

In addition to all of this talk about her book and her extremely busy schedule, she took a few minutes between the end of her corporate work and her dinner to answer some interview questions about her book and about writing memoir. I’m forever grateful.  Please give her a warm welcome:

Do you recommend changing friend/family names in memoir? By the same token, should an author consider a pen name when writing memoir? Why or why not?

Although I try never to say never, I advocate against changing names. It is a slippery slope. A name changes, a detail changes, a scene changes, a year changes, and then…we have fiction. Yes, I recognize the importance of protecting others. But if the story is so dicey that people will be upset if their real names are used, should you be telling the story? For truly, at the end of the day—name changed or not changed—the person who is being written about is going to recognize herself/himself. And so, most likely, will the neighbor.

In the book, you talk about asking your students to take photos and then write about something in the background, rather than the foreground. Should students apply this to their own memoir writing by not writing about the first most obvious memory or issue they think of and seek the memories or ideas just at the periphery?

A great question. I believe that we often write our very best when we don’t take the straight on path toward a story. Approach the memoir from multiple angles. Value the oblique. Dwell in the unexpected tangent. See what happens.

As a follow-up to that question, how would you advise a student who also dabbles in photography, but prefers to fill the frame with their chosen subject (i.e. a niece’s face, a tree, et. al.) so that nothing, if just a bit of sky is visible in the background?

Well, there you go. Another great question. But, Serena, even with a macro lens there is something just beyond the image’s true focus. There is something unintentional, in other words. What is it? Why is it there?

When you began your writing of memoirs, what types of fears did you suppress in order to send out that first manuscript? Did you think it was polished enough and how did you know? Was it a different type of fear because it was memoir and more personal, rather than separateness that fiction affords sometimes or do you find that the anxieties are similar?

I was a completely naïve first-time writer, with no connections, no expectations, no real sense of the writing life. Remember, this was the pre-blogging era. This was me—a full-time mother and freelance business writer with no writing friends, no book groups, no teacher until I went to Spoleto on a family vacation and met Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons. I did not know what I was in for, and so I meandered toward dangers I did not even foresee. I believed I’d written a story that only a handful of friends might read. When Television came knocking, Radio, Prizes, Off Broadway (I capitalize, for I grew to fear these things), I was both unprepared and anxious (and to most things I also said no). I’ve written history, poetry, fable, and young adult literature since. There are anxieties bound up in every genre.

What vulnerabilities do you see showcased in memoir that are not observed in poetry or fiction?

The best memoirs are born of absolute vulnerability. It is the writer saying not, This happened to me, but, This happened to me and I need to know what it means. The search for meaning is the human being at her most vulnerable. We search for meaning in fiction and poetry, too. All good writing comes from this raw place.

What poets/poems or fiction have taught you techniques or styles that would work well in memoir? Please feel free to share any examples.

I could go on and on in answer to this question. But, simply: Gerald Stern, the poet, teaches what the conversational sounds like, even within the space of a monologuing poem. Michael Ondaatje and Alice McDermott teach the power of honesty, no matter the form. I never think about technique. I think about impact.

Finally, what would you have done for a career had you not taught and written books?

Well, I smile, for I guess I am living that career. I’ve had my own business since I was twenty-five, writing annual reports, histories, books, and employee magazines/newsletters for companies and not-for-profits. It consumes upwards of eighty hours each week. Writing and teaching are what I do on the side.

What are your thoughts on memoirs — the writing and reading of them?

If you want to learn more, there’s also this great interview Kephart does with herself. And this interview with Priscilla Gilman and another chance to win the book.

For one lucky reader interested in writing memoir or otherwise, please comment about what your memoir would be and why.

You’ll be entered to win a copy of Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth.

This giveaway is international. Deadline to enter is Aug. 30, 2013 at 11:59 PM EST.

Mailbox Monday #231

Mailbox Monday (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch.  August’s host is Bermudaonion The Reading Fever.

The meme allows bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received/bought:

1.  Lake Como by Anita Hughes from the author for review this month.

Hallie Elliot has a perfect life. She is an up-and-coming interior designer in one of San Francisco’s most sought after firms, and has just recently become engaged to Peter, a brilliant young journalist. But when she stumbles upon Peter and her boss in what seems to be a compromising position, her trust in her perfect life is shaken.

So Hallie escapes to Lake Como, Italy to spend time with her half-sister, Portia Tesoro, an Italian blueblood dealing with the scandal of a public estrangement from her cheating husband. While staying in the Tesoro villa, Hallie falls in love with the splendor and beauty of Lake Como, and finds work designing the lakeside estate of a reclusive American tech mogul. The caretaker of this beautiful estate is a handsome man named Angus, and Hallie finds herself drawn to his charm and kindness, despite hints of a dark secret in his past.

2.  Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart, which I purchased from an Amazon third-party.

From acclaimed writer Beth Kephart, author of A Slant of Sun, comes a short, imaginative telling of the life of the Schuylkill River, which has served as the source of Philadelphia’s water, power, industry, and beauty for the city’s entire life.  Before that, it fed the indigenous people who preceded William Penn, and has since time immemorial shape our region.

3.  The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which I purchased at the library.

Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

4.  Joyland by Stephen King, which I purchased from the library.

Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.

What did you receive?

Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased from Hooray for Books
Paperback, 252 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

The best teachers are those that give of themselves freely to their students and their craft, and with reference books available on various ways to write, what to write, and when to write, many will glance at yet another writing reference and dismiss it out of hand. What does that mean? That those people are fools — for Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart, released today, is not a reference, it is a memoir about writing memoir (marking a 6th memoir from her). It is a reference guide written from the perspective of a teacher and writer on how to approach a genre riddled with scandal and debunked by naysayers.  Not only does she peel back the layers that can and should be part of memoir creation, but she also peels back her own experiences and perspective to shed light on the hard work memoirists should expect of themselves.

“Teaching memoir is teaching vulnerability is teaching voice is teaching self.”  (page xii)

“Some of the best memoirs are built not from sensate titillations but from the contemplation of universal questions within a framed perspective.” (page 10)

She shares her favorite places, her favorite music, her favorite memoirs, and her students’ work, and she begs that anyone interested in writing memoir do it because the story must be told and is relate-able to someone outside the self.  Writing the genre requires the writer to be as honest with herself as she can be and to fill the gaps in memory with facts from documents or cross-referencing conversations and moments with those that share the memory.  Reading this reference memoir is like getting to know Kephart on a personal level, but it’s also about getting to know the writer inside you — the one that wants to write the book but doesn’t know where to start.  Although this advice is geared toward those who wish to write their own personal histories, there is sage advice for other writers — fiction writers struggling with what tense to put their book in, for example.

On Mark Richard’s memoir House of Prayer No. 2, she says, “He does it because, in this case, the you is more intimate, more forgiving, more moving than the I ever will be.  It enables Richard to say things about himself and his ungodly circumstance that would be otherwise unthinkable.”  (page 46)

Readers and writers will love the explanations, which are peppered with examples from other writers’ memoirs to demonstrate why certain forms and styles are selected, because at Kephart’s core is a dedicated teacher.  It is these dedicated people who write the best reference books because they put more of themselves and more of their passions into writing them, making them innately more engaging and interesting than other reference guides that merely spout out bullet point advice and little else.  Kephart not only references the memoirs she loves, pulling apart the choices authors made in creating them, but also the ways in which she gets students (and now the readers of her book) to think about memoir and their own lives.  Writing exercises that not only focus on early memories, but also the backgrounds of photos (which can be like those fuzzy memories that have little detail) and poems (from some of my favorites like Ted Kooser).

“A way of eating passes away with your mother.  How you held the sugar on your tongue.  How you stirred the crumbled cheese into the oiled broth.  How you savored the sweet grit of flour in the gravy pot, and the thick pink of the beef, and the heated pear with its nutmeg top, and the brownies with the confectioner’s crust.  You will dig through the freezer at your father’s house, mad for one last frozen roll of checkerboard cookie dough, one Tupperware of thick red sauce, one crystallized slice of eggplant parmesan.  You will burn your fingers with the cold.  Your mother’s cooking will be gone.”  (page 92)

But at all costs, she reminds us that “writing is a privilege,” and that privilege should NEVER be taken lightly.  Effectively, she dispels the myths about memoir, explains what memoir is not, and ensures readers and writers look deeper than the memories and events in their lives to uncover the recurring themes, which could provide insight to others and generate empathy, if not understanding and connection.  More importantly, she reminds readers that memoirs by-and-large leave huge chunks of people’s lives off the page, despite the journaling, writing, and researching done into every aspect.  Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart is an intelligent, passionate reference that not only guides writers on how to tackle memoir writing, but also inspires them to read the memoirs of others and to learn from, as well as advising them on how to live with openness and curiosity.

***I don’t have too many writing reference books because I only keep the ones that speak to me and offer the best advice, and each of those is chock full of sticky flags, and Kephart’s book is going on that shelf.***

Also, check out how this book made me almost cry when reading it.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. In the fall of 2009, Kephart will teach the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.

On Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart — I’m Still Reading…

I have not finished reading Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart, and I’ll likely not have it completely read until next week.  But I wanted to share something that has never happened before — at least not to me — when reading a book of writing advice/tips.  I nearly cried; yes, cried!

I’m nearing page 100, and there’s a chapter about food and taste.  Kephart talks about how “a way of eating passes with your mother” following the death of her mother — a series of passages that are written beautifully and with deep honesty.  It is not my mother or her cooking that Kephart reminded me of, but that of my nana — funny, as I just shared a book with Kephart in which I talk a little bit about her.  Her cooking was the stuff of legend and unfortunately with her passing 15 years ago — can it be that long — at the age of 82, she took many of her cooking secrets with her.

How did she make that shake-and-bake stuff on chicken — only ever on chicken — taste so much better than when I make it straight from the box?  How did she get those mashed potatoes so buttery and creamy, there wasn’t a lump to be had or a spoonful that didn’t taste heavenly?  And most of all, how did she get those apple pies to not only be equal parts sweet and — not tart — but just a tad spicy, while ensuring the apples were al dente in a thick, creamy apple-y sauce that made your heart melt?  These are things I can never learn, nor can my mother, but these are the foods that rushed into my mind when I read Kephart’s passages.

Creamy seems to be a recurring theme with the foods I remember her making, and perhaps that’s because of her easy-going way with things, no matter how hard they seemed — even as death neared.  Most of all, I miss nana’s quiet support and encouragement, even when my cooking attempts as a young teen went very wrong and my writing attempts were even worse.  I’ve tried many times to recreate her mashed potatoes, her brownies, her oatmeal cookies, but only my attempts at banana muffins — the one recipe we worked on many times together — comes even close to tasting and being as moist as hers.

Perhaps this is what memoir means…and should be.