Two Book Reviews: Devotion; Slow Motion, both by Dani Shapiro

DevotionSlow Motion

You’re getting a two-fer with today’s review, mainly because these books are so connected (and yet, not) and because I read them back to back.

Dani Shapiro has been on my want-to-read list for awhile. She shows up regularly on lists of recommended memoirs and we have slightly more than a baker’s dozen of writing friends in common via Facebook.

I wasn’t sure how to approach Devotion (2010) and Slow Motion (1998), both memoirs. Do I read them chronologically? In the order that they were due back at the library?  For whatever reason, Devotion was calling out to me. I’ve become more cognizant of how books choose us at the right time and perhaps for reasons we might not realize (I know that sounds kind of woo-woo and whatever, but I’ve seen this happen in my literary life more times than not). Devotion it was.

Of the two, Devotion turned out to be the book that I related to most closely.  In it, Dani is a mother and happily married wife in her mid-40s and struggling to understand the “what’s the meaning of it all?” questions that tend to swaddle us when we hit midlife.

“It wasn’t getting easier because it isn’t supposed to get easier. Midlife was a bitch, and my educated guess was that the climb only got steeper from here. Carl Jung put it perfectly: “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life,” he wrote. “Worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.” (pg. 182) 

As Dani reflects on her son’s rare illness (he had infantile seizures) and the horrific car accident that took the life of her father and left her mother with extensive injuries, Dani writes about exploring aspects of meditation and Buddhism in a quest to find inner peace. combined with her childhood upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish home and how that influence fits with the person she’s grown up to be and come to believe.

“I believe that there is something connecting us … Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.An animating presence.” (Devotion, pg. 205-206) 

Connection is a strong theme throughout Devotion: connection to one’s faith (both in childhood and as an adult), connection to a place and the symbolism of home, connection to relatives we may have once been close with and now never see or talk to because of physical or emotional distance. Ms. Shapiro writes about getting into a cab in New York and discovering that her driver was a cousin she hadn’t had contact with in many years.

“We lapsed into silence. Small talk seemed out of the question. Our common ground was an empty landscape, littered with misunderstanding and loss that had nothing to do with either of us…I thought about my grandfather – buried along with his two sons in the Brooklyn cemetery – and wondered what he would make of his ten grandchildren, who had scattered far and wide, creating their own tribes like the children of Genesis. Some of us had prospered, and some of were struggling …My grandfather’s patriarchal spell did not extend itself into my generation. There was nothing keeping us together. Had it been inevitable that we lose track of one another? That our children would be strangers?” (pg. 62)

I completely get this. One of my mother’s cousins passed away last week. As I was explaining that branch of the family tree to my children and telling them stories of playing in Philadelphia rowhouse basements with my second cousins during long-ago family gatherings, I felt like I was talking about someone else’s life. I realized that they wouldn’t know these cousins – or the cousins’ kids –  if they were playing in our own basement that very minute. Neither would I.

That’s nobody’s fault, of course. No blame cast. It’s the way things are, have been, always will be. My grandfather’s patriarchal spell did not extend itself into my generation.

Still, all kinds of hazy memories have risen to the surface in the past, begging additional questions.

“Why do we remember the particular things we do? Great pain certainly carves its own neurological path. But why random, ordinary moments? …. I knew what all of us were thinking. What would our children remember? The oldest among them – Jacob – was nine. What ordinary moments had imprinted themselves on him at this point? And what painful ones? …. Who the hell knew? It was all in there, conscious or unconscious. What rose to the surface – and why?” (pg. 132)

Slow MotionGreat pain and its neurological path. In Dani’s story, it was her tumultuous relationship with a high-profile married lawyer (who also happened to be the stepfather of her college roommate) combined with the aftermath of a car crash that would take the life of her father and leave her mother with 80 broken bones and fractures.

We learn about the fatal crash and the love affair with “Lenny Klein” (an alias) in Devotion, but it is in Slow Motion - an immediate, less introspective memoir than Devotion – where we get the full backstory.

In that sense, Slow Motion serves its purpose. Because Devotion is so reflective and thoughtful and this one has a “just the facts” feel, I’m not sure I would have liked Slow Motion as a stand-alone read (and may not have even read Devotion). Dani comes across as unlikable in Slow Motion‘s pages as she describes her cocaine abuse and jet-setting trips on the Concorde with Lenny (who doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever) and decision to drop out of college.

The takeaway for me of reading both memoirs back to back was seeing an individual’s growth from one era to another. Most of us have made a bad decision or two, and most of us are different people in our mid-40s than we were at age 20. (Sometimes.)  From a literary perspective, it’s also interesting to see the evolution in Dani Shapiro’s writing from 1998 and 2010. In Devotion, it’s much more refined, poetic, and personal; Slow Motion is heavy, cathartic, brash.

‘I feel no connection to the kid I was,’ Michael suddenly said. I had never heard him say anything like this before. ‘I’m a completely different person.’

‘Me too,’ said our friend.

I understood feeling like a completely different person. I had been a late bloomer too, and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here. But no connection?  I looked at my friend across the table. I could still see the seventh grader I had once known, alive inside him. Could he see that in me? Was there – surely there must be – a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves? ….

Nope, no connection. Completely different person. I could see that it would be desirable, maybe even preferable, to disavow pieces of the past – all the uncomfortable, unexplainable, embarrassing bits. But I knew better. I had experienced my own memory as a living thing, a palpable presence in my body. I had felt my past unfurl inside me as if it had a mind of its own. These layers of ourselves are  always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge. The cooking of an egg. An overheard argument. A walk in the woods. The black-necked cranes of Bhutan. A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view. (Devotion, pg. 132-134)



The Sunday Salon: Currently

The Sunday Salon

Time and Place: 2:10 p.m., in our family room.

Eating and Drinking: Nothing right now. Cooked brunch for the family: omelet with goat cheese, hash browns, and veggie bacon.  I’ve been awake since 4:15 a.m. (tug of war with the covers and Husband; I let the husband win and I decided to get up) so brunch feels like it should’ve been dinner.

DevotionReading: This morning I finished Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro, which I enjoyed and thought was well written. Dani Shapiro has been an author I’ve been meaning to read for awhile, and I think this book found me at the right time. I have her earlier memoir Slow Motion (1998) out from the library and I think I will start that later today.

Watching: The Yankees’ game. Earlier, The Husband, a longtime James Garner fan, was watching a 1978 episode of “The Rockford Files” via Netflix on his iPad. He’s decided to do a mini-Rockford Files marathon this afternoon in honor of James Garner’s passing. After the Yankees.

QuietListening: Finished listening to the audiobook of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and started Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. This will probably last me this week and next. I’m not too far into this – only to page 16 (I have a copy on my Kindle).

Buying: Groceries at ALDI, right after I hit publish on this post. Typical Sunday afternoon errand.

Wanting: Summer camp to be over. My girl is not an outdoorsy kind of kid and she’s having a tough time at camp. We thought this would be a good experience – new activities like fishing and archery to try, some friends she already knew from school and the chance to meet other kids from other schools – but she is unhappy. She only has four more weeks and she gets a break for our Philadelphia trip in August when One Direction invades my hometown to sing a few songs for us, so the end is in sight.

Loving: The picture-perfect, fantastic, mid-70 degree weather we had in Pittsburgh this week. More of the same, please. Also? The blueberries appearing in our backyard. (We have five blueberry bushes.) I’ve had fresh-from-the-garden blueberries on my yogurt every morning for breakfast. Doesn’t get more locally-sourced than that.

Blueberry bush 2014

This week’s blueberry harvest:

Blueberries 7-2014

Hope you’re having a great Sunday!


Weekend Cooking: Conflict Kitchen

Conflict Kitchen

I’ve been spending my lunch hour in Venezuela.

Or, rather, as close to Venezuela as one can get without leaving the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which is where Conflict Kitchen has set up shop. You can find Conflict Kitchen on scenic Schenley Plaza, right in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Judging by the lunchtime crowds (there were 14 people ahead of me in a fast-moving line on Friday, including four of my coworkers) and a recent Pittsburgh Magazine blog post naming it one of The 8 Best (Not) Restaurants in Pittsburgh, I’m not alone in my love for this place.

The concept is fantastic: Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Each Conflict Kitchen iteration is augmented by events, performances, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. The restaurant rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events. (From the Conflict Kitchen “About” page on its website.) 

This week was a spectacular one weather-wise in Pittsburgh: mid-70s most days, a light breeze, no humidity, just absolutely perfect. Truly, it doesn’t get better than this, in July or otherwise. Feeling adventurous, I checked out the menu online and decided to take a short stroll across Schenley Plaza for lunch.

I was undecided between the tequenos (crispy -fried pastry wrapped queso blanco served with guasacaca, a fresh avocado salsa); the cheese empanada, the ceviche salad, or the arepas domino. I settled on the domino.

Conflict Kitchen - arepas domino

It’s a griddled corn cake (two patties) stuffed with queso cheese and black beans.


For $3.50.

Trust me on this: you cannot get lunch in the “Burgh for the likes of $3.50. And this works just fine for me as lunch when I haven’t brown-bagged my own. If I was especially hungry, I might add a second domino to my order or perhaps a tequeno (assuming I can get my hands on one, that is; they’ve been sold out of the damn things almost every day this week when I’ve gotten there).

I’m completely sold on Conflict Kitchen now. (‘m a bit late to the party, as usual; friends have said that the Cuban and Afghan incarnations were very good, too.) The service is pleasant and efficient; on the day when 14 of us were in line, a gentleman came out and took our orders, brought them back to the kitchen, and they were in progress before we got to the front. Conflict Kitchen knows their clientele is mostly a working crowd on their lunch hour – mixed in with the Pitt and CMU students, of course – and does a good job catering to both.

Venezuelan food is nowhere in my culinary repertoire – I’m pretty certain I’d never eaten anything from there until Tuesday – and Venezuela’s politics and why we’re in conflict with them did not even enter into my mind until this week. I mean, it simply didn’t.  I like to think of myself as a fairly educated person, but the reality is I’m a suburban wife and mom of two kids who works full-time. Not that that’s an excuse – it’s not meant to be – it’s just not where my day-to-day focus is.

But for a few minutes in line at lunch, while reading Conflict Kitchen’s handout accompanying my arepas, I can learn something I didn’t know about the Venezuelan people and their culture, their perception of Americans and our government, the influence of oil, and the internal polarization of their country.

And come September, spend my lunch hour in another country doing the same thing.

Note: This post was NOT solicited, sponsored, endorsed, or affiliated in any way by Conflict Kitchen. It represents only my thoughts and opinions. All arepas consumed were paid for out of my and The Husband’s paychecks. 

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) Weekend Cooking - Newreviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

READIN’AT: Mornings Like This: Found Poems, by Annie Dillard

Mornings Like This

Mornings Like This: Found Poems by Annie Dillard
Harper Collins 
75 pages

All right. Here’s what’s meant by the notion of “found poems.”

Imagine being at a flea market or perusing a library shelf, and you come across obscure or little known books. You know, like M.G.J. Minnaert’s The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air (published in 1893), or Aspects of the Tongue, by Robert Froriep, who is not, as one may assume from the title, Miley Cyrus’ new biographer. (The folks publishing this tome in 1828 probably didn’t have such tongue twerking in mind.)

As a whole, these books – while probably useful back in the day – may not be too appealing today. But there may be a nugget or two of literary greatness to be mined.

That’s where the idea of “found poetry” comes in. It’s taking phrases from existing work and mashing them together to make something completely new. Passages from a dull textbook become a poem with a totally different meaning, if you will.

I like the idea of the concept.  I mean, I think I do. It sounds like something I would like. As is usually the case with me and poetry (especially lately; the poetry I’m reading isn’t always agreeing with me) I wasn’t entirely sold on this collection. I’ve read Annie Dillard previously – I liked The Maytrees – so perhaps it really is just me. Some of these poems felt like they were over my head. The meaning seemed vague. Maybe those are the ones that are “just jokes,” as Ms. Dillard writes in her author’s introduction.

In their entirety, the poems “The Writing Life,” (“Bring in an eggbeater.” “Break apart stones to see if they contain fossils.”); “I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken,” and “A Letter to Theo” are probably my favorites. The last two are based on original letters from Vincent van Gogh, letters 1873-1890, edited by I. Stone, translated by Johanna van Gogh.

There are also some memorable lines and images in these poems, and maybe that is our takeaway from Mornings Like This. Maybe Dillard’s purpose here really was that simple: to give us a few beautiful lines of poetry to ponder.

“So much is wrong, but not my hills.” (from “Mornings Like This,” a poem which feels so very Pittsburgh.)

“Give me time enough in this place/And I will surely make a beautiful thing.” (“Mornings Like This”)

“Think over what you have accomplished. Was it all that you wished? Has this story been told before?” (“Junior High School English”)

“I think of innumerable things; steal out/Westward at sunset, take oar, and row/In the dark or moonlight. In the evening I scribble/A little; all this mixed with reading./ I have a piano, but seldom play./ Books are becoming everything to me.” (“From a Letter Home”)

“To better my life – don’t you think I eagerly desire it? Cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good? Do you think we too shall be at the evening of our life?” (“A Letter to Theo”)

Annie Dillard grew up in the Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh and is the author of the books An American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and The Writing Life, among several others. Visit her website here.

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” my weekly blog column focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works and the writers who call this awesome city home. Look for READIN’AT every Thursday in this space. 


Me and Chris Bohjalian in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Chris Bohjalian returns to Vermont as the setting for his 17th novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, and I return to the Book section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today with my review

When 11th-grader Emily Shepard says her world is ending, she’s not simply being a dramatic teenager. She’s alone, living in the shadowy aftermath of the fictional Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant meltdown, located in Vermont’s picturesque Northeast Kingdom.

By Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday ($25.95)

Emily’s father, an alcoholic who was reportedly drunk on the job, is responsible for the deadly disaster. Both of Emily’s parents are presumed to be among the fatalities. With her dead father the target of the community’s vitriol, Emily runs away to reinvent herself as Abby Bliss, a new identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.   Read more:

As always, my thanks to both the Post-Gazette for this opportunity and to Chris Bohjalian for sharing the review so widely on social media.






READIN’AT: Creative Nonfiction (Issue 48): Lust, Lies and Bad Behavior: True Stories of Southern Sin

Creative Nonfiction - Issue 48
One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” my weekly blog column focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works and the writers who call this awesome city home. Look for READIN’AT every Thursday in this space. 

Recently I’ve been reading back issues of Creative Nonfiction, which has quickly become one of my favorite literary journals. It has a national circulation and was founded here in Pittsburgh by Lee Gutkind, who continues at the helm as its esteemed editor. Each issue has a thought-provoking theme, and Spring 2013 was on the concept of “Southern Sin.”

I love Southern literature. Ever since being introduced to Flannery O’Connor’s work in college, I’ve gravitated to this genre. This issue reminded me why I liked this writing so much. I mean, c’mon … the characters in Southern novels and whatnot are simply not to be believed. Here in this issue of Creative Nonfiction, it gets real – because these people are real and as the publication’s tagline says, these are “true stories, well told.”

Indeed. That they are.

Several essays in the “Lust, Lies, and Bad Behavior: True Stories of Southern Sin” issue that stood out to me were:

  • Rachel Michelle Hanson’s “Prism,” which recounts the juxtaposition between an employer’s daughter killed in a dating violence incident and some similarities in the author’s family dynamics;
  • Sonja Livingston’s historical look at “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie,” a tragic story of forbidden love;
  • “The Renters,” by poet Chelsea Rathburn, about the author’s financial decision to rent a room in her home to a pair of adulterers in the aftermath of her newly-finalized divorce;
  • “Shacked Up” by Mary Helen Kennerly, about the emotions of telling (and not telling) one’s parents about the decision to move in with a significant other.
  • Michael Copperman’s heartwrenching piece “Harm,” recounting an incident from his days of teaching in the rural public schools of the Mississippi Delta.

Chelsea Rathburn’s piece is my favorite in this issue for its pitch-perfect blend of humor and sadness combined with the parallels of the adulterers and a woman moving forward from a marriage that didn’t work out.

A sinfully delicious literary delight, this issue of Creative Nonfiction.


The Sunday Salon: Go Fourth and Read

The Sunday Salon

It has been a spectacularly gorgeous Fourth of July weekend here in Pittsburgh, one that lent itself to some quality time spent reading on the deck … which is exactly where I’ve been most of the last three days. Part of me feels a bit guilty for not partaking in all that Pittsburgh had to offer during this weekend (the regatta, fireworks, etc.) but the reality is that we don’t particularly like huge crowds and the kids are outside and active all day during the week with their day camp. Reading on the deck and watching baseball games suits us just fine.

The Signature of All Things

Last night I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. I haven’t read anything of hers before (I never bought into the whole Eat, Pray, Love hype) and frankly, Signature just wasn’t on my radar until I heard that a) there was a Philadelphia aspect to this one and b) Elizabeth Gilbert will be part of the upcoming Monday Night Lectures series with Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures this season. I’m on the fence about whether to get tickets for Elizabeth Gilbert, but in the meantime, I’m trying to read as many of the PAL authors as I can.

Big Book Summer Reading ChallengeThis is a chunkster and thus qualifies as my book of choice for the 2014 Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book. I love this reading challenge and I try to participate every summer. It’s easy; all you have to do is commit to reading one book of at least 400 pages. There’s still plenty of summer left to participate, as this one goes to Labor Day. (This post counts as my official “I’m signing up to participate.”)

Some other reading recaps from the week:

My audiobook of the week was French Lessons by Ellen Sussman, a new writer friend of mine. If you happen to find yourself on a beach this week and in need of a light, fun, escapism, sexytimes sort of read, French Lessons is it. I’ll admit, this strayed a bit into the romance/chick lit realm for my typical taste, but whether it was the fact that I was just getting back from vacation, this was a fun listen during my daily commute to and from work.

On Friday, I finished reading Paul Monette’s extraordinary memoir Borrowed Time, which I reviewed here yesterday. This is likely going to be one of the best books I will read this year. It left me speechless.

And speaking of this year, can you believe we’re already halfway through 2014? As of June 30, I’ve read 33 books this year, with exactly 1/3 of those being audiobooks. My goal is 75 books total by the end of the year, so I’m pleased with that.  Interestingly, this happens to be exactly where I was this time last year. I’ve read more female authors (23) than male (10), which is typical for me.

Of the books I’ve read, 10 were fiction; nine were memoirs; six were nonfiction; three were short story collections and three were poetry. The other two were historical fiction. My average rating for a book is 3.6.

My picks, then, for The Best Books I’ve Read During the First Half of 2014:

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Stories by Maile Meloy
Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer
Transatlantic, by Colum McCann
Perfect, by Rachel Joyce
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (to be published 7/8/2014)

Nest. Flight. Sky, by Beth Kephart
Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan
In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler
Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to send out get-well wishes to one of my very favorite authors,  Colum McCann. It’s a holiday weekend, so some may have missed the news that Colum McCann was attacked in New Haven, Connecticut while trying to assist a woman involved in an apparent domestic violence incident. (“An Author Known For Empathy Has None for His Attacker,” NYT, July 3, 2014). I was horrified to hear this (although not surprised to hear that he intervened, because that’s the sort of person Mr. McCann seems to be). I’m glad to hear that it seems that Mr. McCann is going be all right, as this could have been much, much worse. Not that I think he reads this blog or anything (but, hey, you never know) but I hope Mr. McCann makes a full recovery and that his attacker is caught and brought to justice for both incidents.

I also hope that the woman involved in the incident seeks support, for on Independence Day and every day, everyone deserves to be free from that type of abuse in their lives. Next time there might not be someone to come help.

Hope all of you who were celebrating had a happy – and safe – Fourth of July.