Best of the Net 2017 Creative Nonfiction Nominees

In the final installment of our Best of the Net 2017 nominees, we are pleased to nominate the following pieces and writers for their work to be included in the Best of the Net Anthology, a project of Sundress Publications.

Sara Alaica, nominated for her creative nonfiction piece “The Iron Gates” TTR 2.4

015-3494126652-O-Sara Alaica is a citizen of the world and a nomad. Her work focuses on her experiences growing up in Serbia and living abroad in Asia, Europe, and the US. Her work has been featured in Vela and Cleaver, among others, and her first book, Kula, a Serbian-language novel, was published in Belgrade in 2014. She is currently working on her second novel set in Yugoslavia during the 1960s. She blogs at


Haili Jones Graff, nominated for her creative nonfiction piece “A Salvage-Yard Reunion” TTR 2.4

HailiJonesGraffHaili Jones Graff is a writer, editor, and performer living in Portland, Oregon. She is a contributor to Bitch magazine, and her more literary writing has appeared in The Notebook: A Progressive Journal for Women & Girls with Rural and Small-Town Roots and online at Luna LunaThe Manifest-Station, and Hip Mama. She also performs with Mortified Portland.


Bohemian Birthright


by Elizabeth Glass

My grandmother was not a giving person. She didn’t bake cookies or come to visit. She didn’t give personally chosen gifts. She especially didn’t give hugs or love. My cousin Jane and I had lunch when we were about thirty, fifteen years ago, at The Grape Leaf in our hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I got a call from my mom and when getting off the phone, I said, “I love you” to her. A strange look crossed Jane’s face. “I’ve always been jealous with how easily you love each other.” I didn’t understand. My mom, dad, sisters, and I said “I love you” all the time, and we meant it. My sister Callie even has to kiss my mom’s cheek when she leaves, and if she forgets, she’ll drive back to kiss it. That’s a bit weird, but with all our oddities, insecurities, and craziness, I’ve never questioned whether my parents or sisters loved me—liked me, maybe—loved me, never.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My mother has never said ‘I love you’ to me and her mother—Grandma—has never said it to her.”

I remember sitting with my eyes wide, not knowing what to say. Then I realized it meant something else, too. “Has Grandma every said it to you?” I asked.


There was a niggling in my mind, but I was quiet. I was sure Grandma, my dad’s mom, had said it to me, but wasn’t certain.

When I was in college I wrote Grandma long rambling letters—more like journal entries—about what was going on, what I hoped for my life, my thoughts on religion, and whatever I happened to be thinking right then. She never wrote back, but when I saw her she always told me how much it meant to her to get the letters, so I kept sending them. After college “real life” started, but I would climb onto the roof of my apartment, sit at the kitchen table of the rented house in Ohio, or at the desk of the job I had for fifteen years and pen her letters faithfully. They were sent less frequently the older I got, and the more pressing and fast-paced my life became, but I always sent them. Through the years, I went to visit Grandma when my mom reminded me it had been months since my last visit. Grandma would pat the seat closest to her for me to sit in. I always noticed, but didn’t know if it meant anything. I had always said, “I love you” when leaving, both because I meant it, but also because that’s what my family says when parting. Sitting with Jane, I tried to think back, remember if Grandma spoke back after I said it. I didn’t know then, but I do know that the next time I saw her she said it and it stopped me short. It hit me because it was the first time; it was because it was familiar.

I was five when I ran away to Grandma’s house. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong since it was only a couple blocks away and we went there all the time, but it made my mom crazy with worry. That was during what Mom called her “dutiful daughter-in-law” period, when she thought a grandmother wanted to see her grandchildren so she took us to visit regularly. It was Fess, my step-grandfather, her husband, who spent most of the time with us. He was the athletic director of The American Turner’s Athletic Club and taught us how to do simple gymnastics—somersaults and cartwheels. I grew tired of the lessons after a while and sought out my grandmother who was sitting in the living room, smoking, looking out the large picture window that covered most of the wall across from the couch. Even at five, I could feel the longing she had. I didn’t know that word, but I knew the feeling—that there’s something more, something beyond doing somersaults in the basement, more than collecting cicada shells, than having a sister who I knew didn’t always like me. I sat with Grandma and we watched the world go by, knowing we should be out there in it instead of in that house. I picture her in a smart traveling hat, but it was more likely her nurse’s cap.

I’m not sure when she retired—she didn’t have to work, but she wasn’t one to rely on a man’s income. She and my grandfather divorced when my dad was a baby. She married a man named Leo and they divorced when my aunt was a baby. By the time Fess came along, she had two children and wasn’t going to count on him to ensure she could keep herself and the kids housed, clothed, and fed. He was also twenty years her senior, so she knew he couldn’t do that forever, even if they did stay married. They did, until he died when I was about eight. I bet she thought my mother foolish for not working while raising my sisters and me. My parents were married until my dad died, but I suspect in the 1970s Grandma watched my mom with the same knowing look as she looked outside the window. Grandma knew that when she moved beyond that windowed room, it would be on her terms, not her husband’s. She would have been right in many ways to look at my mom in that light. Mom wasn’t prepared to carry on financially when Dad died in 2000. Grandma, on the other hand, worked until she retired, and then she began traveling. She bought a house with my aunt and uncle. Even though when my cousins were little, she wasn’t grandmotherly toward them, either. I learned as an adult that Grandma didn’t hold my youngest cousin until she was nine months old. Not once. And they lived in the same house.

I don’t know if it was my letters, my sitting on the couch gazing out the picture window with her, or simply because I was oldest, but when I got married in 1990, she gave me her nice set of china. She did it dismissively—that she didn’t need it anymore since she didn’t entertain—but the look in her eyes when she said that her grandmother brought them from Bohemia let me know how important they were to her. Mom and I took the boxes out to the car and when we got to Mom’s house we took out the plates that were stamped “Bohemia”—a country no longer in existence—on the bottom. Mom showed me that if china is exceptionally nice, you can see the shadow of your hand through it, and we could through Grandma’s plates: china that was mine now. Something in the way Grandma gave them to me also let me know not to tell my cousins or sisters that she had done so. Jane confirmed that when we ate lunch at The Grape Leaf all that time later, years after my divorce, when she said Grandma hadn’t acknowledged her marriage. She didn’t my sisters or other cousins, either. I didn’t tell Jane I was given the dishes, but Mom mentioned before that my aunt didn’t know what happened to Grandma’s fine china. Mom listened, but didn’t say a word. If Grandma hadn’t told her, neither would my mom.


When Grandma was a young woman in the 1920s, she dressed as a “flapper,” went to speakeasies, and drank throughout Prohibition. My great-uncle Bye was a bootlegger during that time. I wish I had listened to the tales of my great-aunt Mary and Grandma going out, sneaking around, and being girlish, and of my bootlegging great-uncle. I don’t even have any pictures of them from then. I don’t know if Grandma didn’t have any or if my aunt has them or got rid of them. The irony that my grandmother liked to drink and smoke most of her days and lived with my Mormon aunt and uncle has not been lost on me. I am sure when they bought the house together it was laid out clearly that she would keep her vices in spite of religious objections.

I wonder if Grandma saw me in herself. I’m sure at least some of the letters I wrote her over the years, especially the long ones written in college, were penned after drinks. I wonder if the girl who went to the speakeasies, worked when married, and got divorces when such things were unheard of liked the drinking granddaughter who dreamed of being a writer. I may have gotten her wild side, but I forgive easily and convey my love with hugs and saying “I love you” to relatives often. Any time anyone in my family holds a grudge, we call them “Elsie,” my grandmother’s name. I don’t hold grudges, though my sister Callie does, to the point that my mom calls her “Little Elsie.” I was more like my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt Mary, than Grandma. Both had the wildness, but Aunt Mary was giving, forgiving, and demonstrative. Dad always joked that Grandma had not liked Aunt Mary so long she forgot why she was mad at her. Aunt Mary would try to get Grandma’s dander up when they’d both come for Christmas dinner. She would talk to Grandma, ask her questions, and force her to either rudely ignore Aunt Mary or answer her, both of which irked Grandma to no end. When we asked Aunt Mary why Grandma was mad at her, sometimes she said it was too long a story, but I don’t know if there was a specific answer. Mom said that she thinks Grandma just didn’t like people, Aunt Mary included. My sister Callie, from the days of our childhood when I looked out the picture window with Grandma, hasn’t liked me much. She is always mad at me, and I couldn’t tell you why. She talks horribly about me and doesn’t include me in things like her kids’ birthday gatherings. She’s always angry when we first get together, but within moments, she’s forgotten she doesn’t like me and we’re instantly close. I’m grateful she’s not like Grandma to that degree, but as soon as we aren’t together anymore, she becomes “Little Elsie” and doesn’t like me again. It’s been that way our whole lives. I think Grandma was probably unforgiving and spiteful toward Aunt Mary her entire life, too.

Grandma was in and out of the hospital for a couple years, but when she was ninety-eight, they found dark spots on her lungs. That’s what the doctors called them: not cancer, dark spots. To confirm it was cancer would require tests Grandma didn’t want. I went to see her several times during those last days. In the next-to-the-last one, my mom and I went. My aunt and uncle were there already. They said Grandma hadn’t been eating, that she hadn’t eaten in two days. I was appalled no one in my family had tried to feed her, that the nurses weren’t feeding her. The hospital staff brought her dinner and I cut up the meat, hid it in mashed potatoes, and fed her bites of it. She didn’t want to eat, but she did for me. I thought no one would feed her, so I did. In our strange land of love, she ate for me and I tried to keep her alive by feeding her. I teased that her thickened milk tasted like a milkshake and she drank it all. My mom and I were talking recently when it occurred to me for the first time Grandma had given up by then, that she didn’t want to go on. She was in pain and ready to go. Nobody was feeding her because she didn’t want to keep living, because she didn’t want to eat so she’d go sooner, not because my relatives or the staff were cruel or lazy. Mom said it was hard to watch, me feeding Grandma, Grandma eating for me, laughing together about the “milkshake.” Mom said it was a private, intimate, loving moment, something Grandma didn’t have, and it was playing out right there with my aunt, uncle, and mother, and they found it difficult to see so turned away.

Two nights later we were told if we wanted to say goodbye we needed go see Grandma. My sisters Callie and Kristin met me at the hospital. We talked to Grandma and to my aunt and uncle. She patted on the side of the bed, and took my hand in hers and looked into my eyes. She held my hands with strength I didn’t think she would have still had. We held eye contact for a long time, I told her that I loved her and she could go if she wanted, and then kissed her forehead. When we were leaving, the three of us stood at the end of her bed. Kristin, then Callie, then I said “I love you.” She said, “I love you.” We all were crying when we left. I cried because I knew I’d not see her again. Kristin and Callie said at the same moment, “That’s the first time she’s ever said ‘I love you’ to me. I said, “Really? She’s always said it to me.” There are a few single moments I wish I could change in my life and that is one. I wish I hadn’t said it, but I had. I couldn’t change that, couldn’t take it back.

Kristin and I are very close, and a year ago I told her I wished I had never said that. She was stirring queso in a crock pot. She took out the spoon and slammed down the crock pot lid. “Well, you did,” she said. My hope that it would take the sting away by mentioning it years later didn’t work; I only made it worse by bringing it up again.

My cousin Jane and I started corresponding recently after having lost touch a decade ago. I have promised myself I won’t let her know Grandma told me “I love you,” or that I inherited the china, even if she asks. I won’t tell her that the china sits in boxes in my mom’s attic, though Grandma would surely prefer I—the drinking swearing granddaughter—use it daily, risk breaking it, rather than it be encased in cardboard. She knew this was something I was capable of, like showing my emotions as she was unable to. I also won’t ask Jane if Grandma ever told my aunt, her daughter, she loved her. I don’t want to know in case she didn’t. I want to remember Grandma as the one who loved, however parsimoniously that might have been. She may have seemed as hard as the bone china she gave to me, but I bet she knew I was the one capable of seeing the silhouette of love through her the way I could see the shadow of my hand through the plates.


Me 7-2015-fixedElizabeth Glass is a PhD student in Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville. She has received an Emerging Artist Award in Nonfiction from the Kentucky Arts Council and a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Redivider, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, and Appalachian Heritage. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

On Emotional Resonance

Twitter Postby Alysia Sawchyn

I am not a crier.

This is not to say I have never cried, but that I do so very rarely. My consistently dry eyes are the stuff of legend, part of family history: “Even as a baby, you hardly cried,” my mother says.


The first creative writing class I took in college was in fiction. My teacher was acerbic and pointed, with long, dark hair and a gaunt face to match. He announced on the first day that if we earned As or Bs on our first stories for workshop, he would ask why we were in his course and not in the next of the sequence. If we did not like it, we could leave. Though his pedagogy was not the most nurturing, I crawled out a better writer. My prose was tighter, plot lines and images less cliché.

His first lesson for us baby writers: The most important characteristic of a piece of writing is that it be entertaining. The reader must enjoy the experience. This, he said, was our primary responsibility.


My lack out of outward expression extends beyond my interactions with others to my response to art of all kinds. I find this surprising because, though I engage deeply with characters, though I feel such emotions, those feelings rarely manifest.

The first book that brought me to tears was The Good Earth, a novel by Pearl S. Buck about a family in early 20th century China. It was a scene somewhere in the middle that did it:

A man, alongside others, robs a wealthy man’s house and comes away with jewels. Most he sells to buy land, but his wife, his hardworking and plain wife, asks if she can keep two pearls for herself. She does not set them into jewelry. Instead, she keeps them hidden away to look at and hold in her hands from time to time, a small luxury. As their family becomes wealthier, she does not work any less hard. Eventually, they are so wealthy that the man takes a concubine. To woo this new woman, he asks his wife for her pearls. She hands them over without complaint.


What my first creative writing professor did not cover (or if he did, I do not remember it) is that in addition to entertainment and escapism, we also read to identify. We read to find ourselves outside of ourselves. Finding glimpses of our character or experiences in the pages of books means that we are not unique, and thus, not alone.

It is only by reading, sometimes, that I am able to understand myself. The words on the page thrum chords inside my chest that sound like memory, that resonate like a tuning fork, and I say, quietly, “Oh.” This echoing feeling is one of the reasons why I write, why I try so hard to tell the truth about myself and my experiences, perilous and frightening though they may be. If I hadn’t known of others’ suffering when I was younger, if I hadn’t been able to find myself in the pages of books and read my way out of girlhood, I doubt I would’ve survived my teenage years or known that they were something that necessitated survival. For example: I learned from Sula how to feel abandoned and how to take that inside myself and churn back out equal parts rage and love. This combination led to an interesting adolescence, but it was better than the alternative disappearing.


There is something about suffering, about sacrifice, that affects me deeply. I notice this most often in female characters—Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, JoAnn Beard’s narrator in relation to her husband in “The Fourth State of Matter,” Marina in Let Me Explain You Something, are just a few more exampleseven when it is not the main concern of the writing. Perhaps I notice this because I am a woman. Or perhaps it is because of my mother. She gave up her family and country when she moved to America to attend graduate school with my father. She had a child she didn’t really want, but one whose birth convinced her family to speak to her again. This daughter, this mixed blessing, was consistently embarrassed by her mother for the first ten years of her life.

It’s likely my mother did not know about the heavy, leaden child-shame I carried, of being different, of having a different mother. It is my hope she did not because the reasons for it were petty, were couched in a child’s constant fear of rejection by other children:

  • My mother is beautiful with short, asymmetrical hair.
  • My mother and I have different last names.
  • My mother has arthritis that leaves her fingers permanently bent at the tip, that forces her to point with her middle finger.
  • My mother must always repeat her first name when introducing herself.


It is not easy to write prose or shape characters to be so realistic they are entertaining or identifiable. The creation of these requires pulling from life and experience, regardless of genre. Perhaps writing is selfish. We catch and translate the small, unguarded actions, voices, and expressions (invariably distorting something in the process), eliciting pleasure in their shaping into lines and curves across white space. If we are lucky, we gain materially from these secrets, becoming professional hunters of vulnerable moments.


I also cried while reading “Into the Country.” It is an essay about faking, then learning, to love bird watching, innocuously placed—the third piece in the second section—in the collection Southside Buddhist. The tuning fork sounded.

I am a vagrant. I have lived in a dozen cities, met hundreds of people, and never until the middle of a page, in an innocuous line of dialogue, had a met a woman, a parent, either real or imagined, who had the same name as my own mother. At the time, I assumed that this was the mother-in-the-book’s real name, but have since discovered that writers tweak in memoirs to protect the ones we love the most.

What is important is not the name.

This is a large, beautiful world, and surely there are thousands, maybe millions, of other women on this earth who share the same name as my mother. Many of them are likely mothers, too.

What is important is that I had forgotten until that moment how badly as a child I wanted to have a mother who was like my friends’, how badly I wanted to belong.


I recently read an essay from a collection of Buddhist writings—“The Art of Awareness” by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche—that posited the following argument: Art is most effective, is most true to itself, when it is conceptualized by its creator as “an offering to the observer, rather than a statement of our ego’s own splendor.” I wrote it on a sticky note and taped it to my laptop.

Of course, the book was a gift from my mother.

Here: I will show you my life so that you can see yours more clearly. I will give you my family so you can love yours more.

Version 2


Alysia Sawchyn is a writer currently living in Tampa, Florida. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review and Midwestern Gothic. She is the managing editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, and you can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther. 

Bibliomemoirs for Bibliophiles: Writing the Immersion Memoir

Twitter post-2


By Marina DelVecchio

While memoir is defined as “an account of one’s personal life and experiences,” immersion memoir is writing about the self in the context of an external element. According to Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “the immersion memoirist takes on some outward task or journey in order to put his/her life in perspective…The immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” In this case, the particular vehicle or external element is literature. By embedding literary analysis and storylines from our favorite books into our own memoir, we can win favor with publishers, add flavor and depth to our own unique stories, and show how literature and life quite often reflect one another in terms of the universal experiences we share.

I became acquainted with immersion memoir and its ability to let the light seep onto the page while writing of my own story of growing up in Greece, overwhelmed with homelessness, abuse, and my mother’s prostitution; many editors have noted its dark subject matter. She Writes Press Editor Brooke Warner might categorize mine a “misery memoir.” In revisiting my work, I noticed a recurring theme—which also happens to be my teaching philosophy—interwoven throughout narrative: how to lean on books for survival. The earlier drafts of my memoir included snippets of books and poems I’ve read and felt connected to, and I began to become aware of memoirs that did the same. Before I knew it, I had a collection of memoirs centered on literature, and I knew this was the way to go with mine. I thought back to the first book that ever gripped me, the one that stood out to me as a reflection of my own childhood and coming of age narrative, and that’s when Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre became part of my own memoir. In revising, I focused on the analogous experiences in women’s lives when dealing with poverty and isolation as presented in Jane Eyre. I drew on parallels between Jane and me and also between the two of us and her creator, Charlotte Brontë, and was able to approach my experiences from a more detached authorial place.

Immersion memoir requires writing about the self within a wider landscape, a literary one that allows memoirist to control the discussion of self. Debra Anne Davis’ “Betrayed by the Angel” from the 2004 Harvard Review is an excellent example. In this essay, Davis recounts how being brought up to be a nice, quiet girl led to her inability to fight back when she was sexually accosted in her own apartment. She begins her narrative with a third grade bully jabbing her left arm with his sharp pencil. When she told her teacher, Davis recalls that her voice wasn’t loud enough because she didn’t really want to get Hank, the boy, into trouble. She was a nice girl, taught not to be rude. At the age of 25, when a man pushes his way into her apartment, this politeness prevents her from fighting back. Just as she hadn’t been loud enough when accusing Hank of stabbing her with his pencil every day during third grade, Davis doesn’t push the door against her rapist hard enough. She doesn’t shove him off her with enough force, and when her rapist is insulted by her rudeness, the “angel” comes out. She flatters him, even flirts with him for her survival, hoping that he won’t hurt her more. And when he gets 35 years in jail for raping her, the angel inside her thinks that’s too much. While describing the rape scene in graphic and harrowing detail, Davis also embeds excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s famous 1931 essay “Professions for Women,” which introduces the reader to the dangers of the angel that lives inside women and teaches them to be polite, charming, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing. Davis acknowledges she was all these things while being assaulted in her own home. Killing the angel, according to Woolf, is an act of self-defense.

Although by title the two essays appear different in context, they argue the same: the necessary suppression of the expectation of behavior that encourages silence and self-sacrifice of women. Woolf argues she needed to kill her angel in order to critique books written by men, while Davis reflects on the friendly, helpful behavior of her angel toward the rapist that accosted her. The quotes from Woolf threaded throughout Davis’s rape narrative allow readers a reprieve from the disturbing details, enables Davis to act as moderator between her narrative and Woolf’s, and elucidates the text’s power to inspire and convey lessons not easily taught.

From a distance, the memoirist can explore her subjectivity without seeming egotistical or self-indulgent, and thereby placing herself in danger of losing the audience’s attention and respect. Plunging one’s own anxieties and misfortunes within the scope of a larger landscape allows the audience to remain engaged in the story and empathize with the writer. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Julia Powell’s Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them accomplish this task with skill and humor. Rebecca Mead also emphasizes this in her own bibliomemoir, which is a memoir centered on one’s love of books or a particular book that has influenced the life and writing of the memoirist.

Mead says, “when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them.”

In My Life in Middlemarch, Mead examines themes of love, marriage, independence, and female aspirations and failures in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A woman in mid-life, she reflects on the novel as a means of thinking about the choices she has made. Part biography, part memoir, and part literary criticism, Mead demonstrates literature as mirror that reflects ourselves back to us. A major theme in Middlemarch, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” revolves around questions of identity, yearnings, and female potential, and was obvious, according to Mead, in Eliot’s personal choice to turn down marriage proposals in lieu of writing and working. “What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?” Mead asks as it relates to both George Eliot and herself.

Absorbed in literature and self-evaluation, these memoirs represent a growing niche in the publishing industry. In many ways, this genre’s success is largely due to writers’ tendency to distance the narrative from their ego as they explore and engross themselves in the books they love. From this perspective, writers are freed to merge their own experiences with those of the characters depicted in literature, creating a balance between the two.

In other words, while the stories told in memoirs are usually one-sided, immersing a childhood yoked with trauma in a discussion of literature becomes multidimensional, a different kind of story altogether, a more palatable one, perhaps.

Marina DelVecchio currently teaches writing, literature, and Women’s Studies as a full-time professor at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. Her essays appear on the Huffington Post, Her Circle Ezine, The New Agenda, and BlogHer. She has also been published in print by Cengage Learning’s anthology on Media and Violence against Women (2013) and She Writes’ collection of essays on miscarriages titled Three Minus One (2014). Marina has worked as a contributing women’s literature reviewer for Her Circle Ezine and the San Francisco Book Review, and assistant editor of poetry and non-fiction for the QU Literary Magazine.

Works Cited

Davis, Debra Anne. “Betrayed by the Angel.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions. Ed. Susan Shaw and Janet Lee. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.

Hemley, Robin. A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. London: Georgia UP, 2012. Print.

Mead. Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. Print.

Feeding Frenzy: Eating and Drinking with Literary Greats

By Teresa C. Macdonald

On a recent sub-zero day, my back sore from shoveling a pile of wet cement-like slush, I lay on the floor and, examined the ceiling with an ice pack under my spine. In need of a good mental exercise, I pondered the question: Which of the literary greats would I invite to dinner tonight given their culinary proclivities and mine?

In an effort to attract good karma, I considered both the living and deceased as I attempted to balance my intended guest’s likes, dislikes, and allergies. I compiled a mental list of authors and their food and beverage favorites and then placed them into sub-categories: culinary tradition, writing genre, childhood favorites. I reordered the list by things I like and things I’d like to try: Hemingway and mojitos, Dorothy Parker and whiskey, Willa Cather and sweet kolaches, Jonathan Franzen and pasta (tossed with kale and garlic), Daniel Handler and carrots, Oscar Wilde and the beguiling anise flavored absinthe. In a frenzy, I understood why the topic yields volumes of blog articles, column inches, and cookbooks.

The cold, foul weather dictated a good, warm meal, and as simple as that, my mind locked on J.D. Salinger and his love of roast beef. Roast beef with carrots and steaming mounds of mashed potatoes. Roast beef served with red wine, Claret. While his seat at my table would mostly likely remain empty (given his reclusive nature) I’d still make certain to pour us both an extra glass of Claret to honor his personal favorite meal.

Claret, in the wine world, is another name for a Bordeaux wine that refers to the wines transparent nature. It was termed in the late 1300s when the French shipped their wine to England for consumption by the English. In fact, Chaucer even refers Claret in the “Merchants Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. This nomenclature continues today and I just so happen to have a bottle of Bell Wine Cellars Claret in my cellar. Yummy.

With my thoughts now locked on England, I thought Gin would be a natural pre-dinner cocktail choice: London Dry Gin (Bombay Sapphire that is). While there are three main styles of Gin, London Dry Gin is known for its purity of flavor, given the lack of added sugars and citrus profile. F. Scott Fitzgerald was famous for his preference for this distilled spirit served gimlet style. He might add some excitement to the evening.

But no, my mood called for something more precise and linear, a Martini. Anne Sexton then could enjoy a cold jigger, too. Martinis are a fantastic compliment to Borscht. Nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer day than an ice-cold martini served with a cold summer Borscht. Cold weather be damned, Allen Ginsberg loved this soup. While my recipe probably does not compare to that of his mother’s, the sour, sweetness of the soup dabbed with sour cream is expertly cleansed by the proof of the gin: juniper gives it extra herbal depth.

So Borscht and Martinis and roast beef with carrots and mashed potatoes and Claret and perhaps some mixed nuts thrown in, what next? Dessert.

Earlier in the week, while vertical, I had attended a horizontal tasting of Madeira from the Rare Wine Co.’s Historic Series. The Boston Bual would be the perfect compliment to George Orwell’s favorite, Plum Pudding. Ah, but the recipe for Plum Pudding takes weeks if not months for the fruit to soak up all the essential cognac. Walt Whitman loved coffee cake… …Emily Dickenson loved coconut cake…Steven King eats a slice of cheesecake daily. Jack Kerouac liked his apple pie. Well, I do too when it’s topped with Calvados infused whipped cream. Agatha Christie and Devonshire cream? I can lap the stuff up, especially with a good scone and cup of black tea. I decided to resort to my default dessert: brownies. I could finally pull out Elizabeth Bishop’s brownie recipe that’s somewhere in my “recipes to try” pile. Along the lines of some of my grandmother’s recipes—with mentions of pinches, dashes, and you’ll know whens—I could fudge the missing measurements and cooking times if I kept a clear head. I’d serve this with a Brachetto d’Aqui.

Brachetto d’Aqui is an Italian red wine that’s fun, affordable, and it’s ALWAYS a crowd pleaser.

Named for the grape varietal, Brachetto, it’s grown in the northern Piedmont region of Italy. This frizzante style wine bursts with sweet strawberry and raspberry flavors that heighten the fruit flavors found in chocolate. But more specifically the wine softens the feel of the chocolate tannins.

What a fine last minute dinner party. I imagine that we’ll get along smashingly, even if the lopsided menu resembles a potluck and more people drop in. Afterall, we have so much in common. We’re writers and we like the same things.

Sustenance. It’s the stuff of settlement, wars, trade routes, passion, and vice. My fascination with the nip and nibble preferences of my literary heroes is not so I can imitate their vices to project greatness. I’m interested because, in addition to knowing their work, I want to know them as people. I picture them at my table slurping soup, spilling Claret on the carpet, staining my linen with lipstick and au jus, smoking cigarettes, and even breaking my Riedel in a sincere effort to help wash up. And in knowing them, I’m that much closer to understanding how to channel the act of living and the frenzy of my own inner genius.

Teresa C. Macdonald is a writer of fiction and a connoisseur of good food and fine wine. She grew up in Bryn Mawr, PA, and received a BA in English at Franklin & Marshall College, a MS in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University, and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is a Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, and has her Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. When she isn’t demystifying the grape for wine enthusiasts, she can be found playing ball with her sidekick, Fig, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

What We Plan to Read for 2016

What We Plan to Read for 2016

Books to Read in 2016
Books to Read in 2016

I started 2016 with an extensive list of “must-read” books (>200) in an Excel spreadsheet (a little obsessive?) and with multicolored trees of unread hardbacks and paperbacks growing out of shelves and counters around my home and in my office.

In the last two weeks I’ve consumed Tiny Beautiful Things and The Art of Memoir, nonfiction by Cheryl Strayed and Mary Karr; Everything I Never Told You, a novel by Christine Ng; and I’ve centered myself with Talisman, Lisa Krueger’s stunning poetry collection. Next up, I plan to attack Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica for the first time and to both start and finish (this time) the remarkable tomes of Bob Shacocochis and David Foster Wallace, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul and Infinite Jest.

And yet, like most other readers and writers, I am always looking for who and what to read next and I depend on my smart, well-read reader and writer friends to keep me informed. Here’s what a few of my TTR associates are planning to read in the coming months.

Laura Jean Schneider, Assistant Editor

I have The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill, who was an acquired taste for me. I actually stopped halfway through a short story collection of hers. But once I picked it up, and finished it, I was amazed at how she uses language. I also have Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus. I’m interested in women writing from and about the West. Joy Williams’ The Visiting Privilege is going to make me explode with joy, and I’m afraid to start it since I know that it then the end is in sight. Love Joy Williams. Trying to read women authors more and more. Loving it!

Ani Kazarian, Art Editor

On my shelf I have Tolstoy’s War and Peace–I have the Constance Garnett translation and the newer Anthony Briggs translation. I will read both (ideally), but I think I’ll be starting with Garnett’s translation. It feels silly to explain why I’m eager to read War and Peace: I imagine anyone reading this right now has already read it or is just as eager to read it. Still, this holds first place on my shelf for 2016 because Tolstoy is the best writer I have encountered. When I read Anna Karenina I thought, Now this is literature.

Anthony Martin, Reader

There are three books I am looking forward to:

On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates. What is it about boxing that draws, in particular, writers to the ring? And how is it that someone who has never boxed a round could write such a renowned and respected collection of essays on the sport? As a boxer myself, I cannot wait to learn about the psychological and human aspects that give boxing such depth.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. I discovered Jean Rhys in the archives of the Art of Fiction series, published by Paris Review:…. Apart from this engaging interview, I know little of the author. Still, a few writers have recommended this book to me—this is typically all I need.

Kinda Sorta American Dream by Steve Karas. I just received Steve’s collection of short stories yesterday. I have kept up with Steve’s short prose publications, which I’ve enjoyed immensely, and appreciate his generosity and engagement on Twitter. If my instinct is at all accurate, this collection will be heartfelt, humorous, and profound, much like Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Adam Collins, Assistant Editor

I find myself slacking on my reading as of late, so I have two methods to help me get through more books in the next year. My friends and I put together a book club in November 2015. I just finished our book, The Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne. It was really suspenseful and a quick read.

Besides the club, I want to try a reading challenge I saw on Facebook (original site:

Here are some of the titles I’ll be reading to meet the challenge:

America Pacifica by Anna North (A book previously abandoned.)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (A book that was banned at some point.)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (A book I should have read in school.)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (A book that intimidates me because it’s so long!)

The Evening Hour by Carter Sickels (A book I’ve been meaning to read, because it’s written by someone I met in Portland and about a town in my home state of West Virginia.)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (A book I’ve read at least once.)

Alisha Erin Hillam, Assistant Editor

I tend to read widely (112 books last year) and randomly. I keep a running list of books I want to read, and order or borrow from the library whatever suits my mood. That said, here are some of the books I see on my horizon this year:

In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction edited by Lee Gutkind

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

The Best Early Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Bryant Mangum

My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things by Joseph Skibell

Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

And because I love to bury myself in regionalism, I will be page-turning on all things New England, including:

Lexington and Concord: The Beginning of the War of the American Revolution by Arthur Bernon Tourtellot

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

Our Town by Thorton Wilder

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Paul Gardner, Reader

As sort of a palate cleanse I like to start the year off with something short and lean (and often a bit noir-ish or pulpy) or nonfiction / essay / historical. I’ve started Fat City by Leonard Gardner, a 1969 novel that’s lean like the welterweight scrappers of Central California it depicts.  I’ll likely follow with Lafayette In The Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, who, if you couldn’t tell by the title, is a cheeky and witty historical author that explores the nuances of history and how it can reflect in our modern consciousness. In March I look forward to The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder, whose novel U.S.! is a favorite of mine. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño is a challenge off in the distance, and The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner has also been sitting near the top of my pile for a year now.

Now, comment below, or on Twitter and Facebook to tell us what’s on your shelf for 2016!

What Comes Next and How to Write About It



What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas  (Scribner, 2015)

Book review by Joanne Nelson

Reading Abigail Thomas’s most recent memoir is like sinking into a comfy old couch with a chatty, somewhat unkempt friend on a warm but rainy day; the room’s all rummage sale knick knacky, and the coffee comes with milk. Abby would be out of half-and-half, but meaning to pick some up. There’s a lot of nodding, some laughing, and a desire, on my part, to tidy up.

As in her previous two memoirs, Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life, Thomas’s style in What Comes Next and How to Like It is intimate and plainspoken—just what you want in a pal. In Safekeeping, a poignant, stripped to the bone look at difficult years of growth, Thomas explores her early adult relationships and motherhood. In A Three Dog Life, she shares another journey; that of negotiating life after her third husband is struck by a car.

Nine years have passed since the publication of A Three Dog Life. Thomas now lives in a large, rambling house with her three dogs—all of whom are elderly, loving, and troublesome. Her four children—grown, mostly loving, occasionally troublesome—have blessed her with plenty of grandchildren to visit and cook for. The structural frame of short chapters, alternating tenses, and the weave of past and present in this newest offering will be familiar to readers of Safekeeping.

Strong emotion is less evident in this memoir than in her previous two; trauma is not—that certainly exists—but just less attachment to and exploration of a given crisis, as if a pragmatism has been added along with the candles on her cake of years. Admittedly, it could also be my emotional attachments to Friend Abby’s difficulties that have changed over time. After all, I’ve also aged in this near decade; my children have also grown up. Perhaps we’ve both gained some wisdom—or at least perspective—on the transitory nature of even the worst of troubles.

Thomas seems well aware of the circular nature of life’s constant disruptions. She believes that “if it isn’t life and death, it isn’t life and death,” and focuses only briefly on any given predicament. She uses these pages to explore her own adaptability to the betrayals, losses, and the increasingly irresistible desire “to turn into a solid,” to nap, that come as she crosses into her eighth decade of life.

What Comes Next begins with Thomas waiting for paint to dry. Mostly she is content and views each moment “as a big La-Z-Boy, or perhaps a hammock.” Painting on glass is what she does instead of “not-writing.” This newfound love of painting busies her, children and grandchildren visit, friends take her out, and there is time galore for those naps. However, more goes on behind the scenes than the easy narrative flow might suggest. Thomas’s existence in her comfortably messy home with a yard gone to the dogs is anything but serene.

Her waiting conjures memories of a story she tried and failed to write about her best friend, Chuck, and her youngest daughter, Catherine. The many years she tried to accurately portray the colors of their complicated history—just as she has tried to portray the correct shade in the painting’s sun or sky.

Years of self-discovery Thomas acknowledges as, “…a long time to get nowhere.”

Still, Thomas muses, “Nothing is wasted when you are a writer.” She recognizes the “need to take the long way round,” to have waited a long time for the structure and words to come out right.

And then she gets on with the telling. The timelines are unclear—a common structural technique of Thomas’s—her memory is poor she admits.

We learn about Chuck. He and Thomas worked together at a publishing company. They become best friends despite significant differences in age (he 27, she 37), marital status (he married, she twice divorced), and number of children (Chuck none, Thomas four). They had been friends for three years the first time he met Catherine, the first time Chuck had come to Thomas’s apartment—no one can remember why; she was roasting a chicken. Thomas carefully describes this first introduction; she notes how her friend and daughter sit together on the couch playing a game while she fixes dinner. “Now and then I looked at them thinking How nice….Her hair was tangled in the back.”

Thomas excels at evoking emotion with a slant telling, the short sentences emphasizing what will become important. The simple “Their heads touching” creating an affecting moment for the reader far more clear than any explanation might. Thomas completes the scene with another short, poignant memory of the evening that establishes the connection of mother and daughter. Before Chuck arrives Catherine surprises her mother with a dish of peaches and cream she prepared by herself. As Thomas eats the treat Catherine comments, “When I grow up, I want to be just like you.” Thomas says, “my heart filled with gratitude.”

Thomas and Chuck’s platonic friendship flourishes. They laugh together, go to publishing parties, learn about each other’s families. Chuck and his wife begin to have children, Thomas dates and eventually remarries, her children begin to have children. Catherine grows from childhood to adolescence, begins and ends college, enters young adulthood, and makes her way in the working world, starting at the same literary agency where Thomas had once worked and where Chuck is now a partner.

Thomas is thrilled. “It was lovely for me that she was there,” Thomas says. “It was a little like being back myself. I imagined Catherine and Chuck laughing over the same kinds of things he and I had laughed at. Sometimes I would take the subway down and have lunch with the two of them.”

But after five years Catherine suddenly leaves the job she seems to love and begins avoiding her mother. Catherine gives no explanation. Thomas worries and can only assume the change has something to do with the recent death of her ex-husband and her daughter’s father. “She wouldn’t answer my calls; every room I was in was a room she wanted to get out of. I thought I was failing her in her grief.”

Over and over Thomas turns to Chuck with her concerns about Catherine and over and over he assures her that she is not to blame. Finally, Chuck invites Thomas to lunch. They meet at a nice place—cloth napkins, ice water. Chuck reveals that he has separated from his wife and admits to an affair that has been over for a while. He speaks carefully, is considerate of all involved, does not name names. Thomas is surprised—how could she not have known!—but tries to be supportive, to provide counsel about the importance of taking good care of his children. She cries remembering her own mistakes, how she’d once heard her older son comforting the then five-year-old Catherine.

It’s not until the bill is paid and she is about to leave that Thomas looks carefully at Chuck, listens as he, barely able to speak, says “Abigail,” and understands that the affair was with Catherine.

“Oh my God,” she says.

“It couldn’t have been anybody else’s daughter,” Chuck tells her.

Now we have one heck of a plot—the easy makings of a movie or book on family destruction. Thomas’s initial relief that “Catherine and I were not estranged” fades and her ongoing pain about the revelation confuses her. Two people she loves loved each other. It shouldn’t be any of her business—she’s all for love after all. And yet. Her daughter fell in love, lost her love, got fired from her job. Her best friend fell in love, lost his wife and his love. And neither told her.

It takes Thomas a while to realize the extent of her anger—and it’s her own anger she most fears. She doesn’t like the way it circles around and materializes long after the original events are over, “like grief.” Her distress materializes in short bursts against the backdrop of other events (Thomas’s husband is hit by a car and sustains brain damage—the primary subject of A Three Dog Life) but never completely abates.

Years after Chuck’s confession, Thomas writes about a visit from a now-married Catherine and her young children. The tension between the two women and the hurt Thomas conceals even from herself continues to leak out in their behavior and language. They dance around parenting issues and house rules while at Grandma’s. Catherine threatens to leave and admits she hasn’t felt welcome in Thomas’s home for a long time. “And suddenly I realize how upset I am,” Thomas says, “and that I have probably been angry for years. How could she have done this thing with Chuck? Is a question I have never asked myself, or her.”

After Thomas finally cops to her continuing resentment, she and Catherine, in the confines of a car—that classic spot of confidence and heart-felt conversations—strip back the layers of damage and remorse that have been left to harm whatever comes next. “Ten minutes later,” according to Thomas, “she is my daughter again, and I am her mother. We are balloons floating in the blue sky.”

Thomas’s responses and quick subject switches can seem a glossing over of painful events. Or perhaps the brief examinations and one-liners (It’s too late for either of us to make another old friend.”) that cover a multitude of moods and timelines simply exemplify how we change with age. With time and the branching of the family tree comes complications and heartaches for an ever-expanding nest of loved ones. For Thomas those heartaches include Catherine’s diagnosis of breast cancer and the possible repercussions for Catherine and her young family. Complications include Thomas’s admission of alcoholism and her ongoing worries about ageing and death. Through it all dogs need tending and naps get taken.

I don’t know if What Comes Next gives us a clear answer about how to like it. Possibilities exist. Chuck suggests “you need to clear a path. What you need is a new approach.” Or perhaps the answer’s been clear throughout the memoir—you need to take more naps. Maybe the answer is simply in the pragmatic crafting of the narrative—time speeds up, things happen quickly, and one way or another messes get resolved.

 Joanne Nelson, an educator and writer living in Hartland, Wisconsin, is the nonfiction editor for the Tishman Review.