September 30, 2008

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Review)

Posted in Book, Nonfiction, Review at 10:05 pm by Laura

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
A Memoir
by Elizabeth McCracken

This book will break your heart and piece it back together again. Its central calamity is confessed in the early pages, yet you are compelled forward by the quality of the narrative. If I had it to read again for the first time, I would set aside a long afternoon or evening and read it from cover to cover.

“A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is stillborn. You don’t have to tell me how sad that is: it happened to me and my husband, our baby, a son. . . A baby is born in this book, too. That is to say, a healthy baby, our second child.”

As I was reading this memoir, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Both books are small gems, hard diamonds that cut through the unimportant dross of life with their testimony of grief and loss. Both women wonder if their losses could have been averted. Didion imagines other paths she and her husband could have taken and wonders if they had, whether he would still be alive, whether her daughter would not have taken ill. McCracken thinks back to critical decisions she and her husband made, such as the decision to be cared for in a rural setting by a midwife, instead of by a doctor nearer to a city hospital.

McCracken describes with the skill of an expert tour guide the dark places of grief to which her soul has traveled. In one chilling passage she illuminates a picture of a woman clutching her child’s dead body to her and offering to show her lovely baby to passersby. Elizabeth found herself, after the loss of the baby called Pudding, as off-putting to many people as that gothic portrait. Friends and acquaintances would act as if nothing had happened because they were uncomfortable.

Reading McCracken’s book could help someone be a compassionate friend to a loved one who has experienced a similar loss. There is no surefire answer as to what to say or how to say it, but McCracken writes that it’s okay to say you have no words.

“I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on but that death goes on, too, that a person who is dead is a long, long story. You move on from it, but the death will never disappear from view. Your friends may say, “Time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t, but eventually you’ll feel better. You’ll be yourself again. Your child will still be dead. The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

Thank you to Little Brown for the review copy.

September 7, 2008

Note to Self by Samara O’Shea (Review)

Posted in Book, Nonfiction, Review at 12:30 pm by Laura

Note to Self: On Keeping a Journal and Other Dangerous Pursuits
by Samara O’Shea

“. . . a journal isn’t a road map. It can’t be. A journal, rather, is the path of pebbles you leave behind you, so you have the security of knowing you can always return to where you’ve been.” (pg. xviii)

Samara O’Shea has made her journals the repository of her life, as you would a trusted lifelong friend to whom you can tell anything. In this well-structured, tempting little book, she delineates many ways to use your journal as a vessel for memory, self-therapy, and exploration.


“The journal is the (much cheaper) therapist, who isn’t hired to tell you what to do but rather to guide you into speaking and speaking (writing and writing) until at last you hear yourself. It’s only when you recognize your own problems that you can come to your own solutions.” (pg. xv)

Functioning partly as a memoir, partly as inspiration, Note to Self contains illustrative diary entries from the usual suspects (Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath), but also less obvious choices (John Wilkes Booth, Thomas Paine, Tennessee Williams, Joyce Carol Oates). O’Shea also liberally shares her own candid entries in each chapter. You can read the book cover-to-cover, jump to a particular chapter based on topic, or happily dip in at random, enjoying the serendipity.

The physical book is an attractive size and is visually pleasing. The cover features an intertwined floral design set off by a brown cloth “spine” and overlaid by a wrap-around “label,” giving it the appearance of dimension and texture.

One of the strengths of the book is the sheer variety of possible functions of journaling it addresses — everything from how to begin, exploring your spirituality, developing your sense of self, setting goals to move you toward your life’s vocation or avocation, and deciding whether to journal (blog) online.

O’Shea doesn’t exhort her readers to do things, instead, she illustrates the possibilities open to us and makes suggestions: Add poetry, lyrics, or quotes that move you. Use your journal as a place to write a letter to someone that you may never send. Get angry. Write prayers and meditations. Use a word, an emotion, or a question as a beginning prompt to get you going. If the discipline of writing daily isn’t for you, write a specialty journal on travel, books, dreams, restaurants, or even dates.


“Writing solidifies thought, which can be unnerving, but it also gives you a sense of control. Maybe the risky notion just needs to be written to be released. Perhaps seeing it will enable you to recognize its ridiculousness, or maybe you’ll have to write it many times for that to take place. Writing also makes thoughts easier to deal with or at least to acknowledge, which is the first step in just about anything.” (pg. 9)

Some of O’Shea’s subject matter might not be for everyone. She matter-of-factly writes of a brief period of casual drug use and shares explicit details of her sex life at length. That aside, Note to Self would make a good text for a journal writing workshop or writing seminar, or a gift to a friend.

I’m grateful for the experience of reading the book because it got me journaling again for the first time in a very long time.

[Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes. I don’t think receiving a copy at no cost has influenced my opinion of the book; it made me more likely to bend over backwards to be completely genuine in my opinion of it However, I did bump it up the “to be read” pile and was more inclined to write about it than I might have been if it was a library book or personal purchase.]