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?


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.

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.

Mailbox Monday #229

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.  July’s host is Book Obsessed.

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 snagged at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Va.:

1.  Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart

Writing memoir is a deeply personal, and consequential, undertaking. As the acclaimed author of five memoirs spanning significant turning points in her life, Beth Kephart has been both blessed and bruised by the genre. In Handling the Truth, she thinks out loud about the form—on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, on the thin line between remembering and imagining, and, finally, on the rights of memoirists. Drawing on proven writing lessons and classic examples, on the work of her students and on her own memories of weather, landscape, color, and love, Kephart probes the wrenching and essential questions that lie at the heart of memoir.

2.  Imperfect Circle by Debbie Levy

Danielle Snyder’s summer job as a babysitter takes a tragic turn when Humphrey, the five-year-old boy she’s watching, runs in front of oncoming traffic to chase down his football. Immediately Danielle is caught up in the machinery of tragedy: police investigations, neighborhood squabbling, and, when the driver of the car that struck Humphrey turns out to be an undocumented alien, outsiders use the accident to further a politically charged immigration debate. Wanting only to mourn Humphrey, the sweet kid she had a surprisingly strong friendship with, Danielle tries to avoid the world around her. Through a new relationship with Justin, a boy she meets at the park, she begins to work through her grief, but as details of the accident emerge, much is not as it seems. It’s time for Danielle to face reality, but when the truth brings so much pain, can she find a way to do right by Humphrey’s memory and forgive herself for his death?

3.  Love the Beastie by Henrik Drescher for Wiggles, which she picked over a monkey puppet — completely amazing both her parents.

Be kind to your pets! That’s the message of Love the Beastie.  Gross, outrageous, but pure fun in a book, Love the Beastie is a pull and poke, spin and play, and cuddle and kiss Valentine for kids and especially kids with pets. Meet Paul and Judy. And meet their pet, Beastie. Paul and Judy used to be so mean to Beastie. They pulled Beastie’s hair, tickled Beastie’s feet. So, Beastie feastied! Good thing Paul and Judy learned their lesson (stuck inside the belly of the Beastie).

Also, the kind Beth Kephart brought me a book from her collection:

4.  Undercover, which she signed.

Like a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, Elisa ghostwrites love notes for the boys in her school. But when Elisa falls for Theo Moses, things change fast. Theo asks for verses to court the lovely Lila—a girl known for her beauty, her popularity, and a cutting ability to remind Elisa that she has none of these. At home, Elisa’s father, the one person she feels understands her, has left on an extended business trip. As the days grow shorter, Elisa worries that the increasingly urgent letters she sends her father won’t bring him home. Like the undercover agent she feels she has become, Elisa retreats to a pond in the woods, where her talent for ice-skating gives her the confidence to come out from under cover and take center stage. But when Lila becomes jealous of Theo’s friendship with Elisa, her revenge nearly destroys Elisa’s ice-skating dreams and her plan to reunite her family.

What did you receive?

Hooray! An Event of Successful Fiction and Memoir

IMG_2731Yesterday, we headed down to Alexandria, Va., to attend an event at Hooray for Books with Beth Kephart, whose writing cannot be praised enough, and Debbie Levy, who is as charming in person as I expected.  It has been many years since I’ve been there, but I’ve always loved the waterfront, the Torpedo Factory, and many other things about the shops and restaurants there.  While I did notice some changes, including the movement of Hannelore’s where I got my wedding dress to a side street off of King Street, much of the atmosphere remains the same.  What did we do after the event? We went to our favorite pub, Murphy’s, though after the nauseated morning I had, I did not dare have the Guinness I would have love to have.  And then we took Wiggles around to check out the sights she has never seen.  (pictured here is my favorite tree down by the water).

Due to construction on the lovely George Washington Parkway, I was late to the event and I hate being late!  I abhor it.  My husband kindly dropped me off as he sought parking.  I walked in and was told there were still seats, which was good, though I would have stood for this one.  And stupidly, I became too absorbed in the conversation to take too many photos.  There was talk about memoir and its differences from fiction and autobiography, and how there is still a need for imagination in memoir, but not in making up facts.  We all know those memoirists that have been caught bending or blatantly making up facts — they are not Beth Kephart or Debbie Levy (below Beth on the left and Debbie on the far right).


There were books galore to be had at the bookstore, and when my husband finally arrived with Wiggles, they sat for a few minutes while the audience — and myself — were engaged in a writing exercise about what friends from our school days would remember about us and what we’d like them to remember — thanks to Debbie Levy.  Earlier we had engaged in a different writing exercise about a first person account of an object, which Beth Kephart dreamt up.  I did share the poem, I will share here at the behest of Beth and Debbie, though I feel it is unfinished.

Ghost in a Book

She was a bean pole
books hanging from her nose,
from her hands,
in her bag.
Looking down, but
always -- inwardly -- out
to a horizon
beyond four walls,
small town, gossip.
Ready to spring --
jump forward, move
and leave us
wondering if she was here.

I’ve honestly written more poetry than fiction and essay and have never written memoir or nonfiction. It was good to stretch my writing in these exercises, and it was fun to see what others came up with. Some of them were funny and sarcastic, while others were serious. This was a great event for more than one reason — writing exercises, readings, questions and answers — but most of all the genuine awe and support the writers showed for one another, culminating in each buying books from the other’s stacks and signing books to their friends and loved ones. I loved how they bounced questions off of one another and how they interacted. It was like watching two colleagues who have known one another longer than I suspect Beth and Debbie have.

I’ll leave you with my favorite photo from yesterday — thanks to my husband who took the photo — of three lovely ladies.