Beautiful Book You Must Read: Holding Silvan, A Brief Life

It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because Knausgård manages to elevate the domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.

But last week I halted everything to devour a memoir called Holding Silvan: A Brief Life by my new friend Monica Wesolowska. 


In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is determined to have massive brain damage—so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.

It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:

“During the part when Silvan is actively dying—if that’s not an oxymoron—I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and hold. This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”

I did—I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement—I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.

I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon, and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.

Happy, poignant reading,


If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this and this out.



Are you a Maxed Out, American Mom on the Brink?

After I wrote my last post, about not wasting my life, it seemed like everything I read—like this blog post and this blog post—reflected the state I was in. And then I discovered a terrific book by a local writer named Katrina Alcorn that REALLY spoke to me. It’s called Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink and I can’t recall a time I have been so simultaneously wrapped up in a narrative (I could not put it down) and validated by what I was reading. Alcorn describes the several-year span when she and her husband attempted to work demanding, full-time jobs (the kind with conference calls at all hours, off-the-hook clients, and heavy travel) and parent three kids. In the course of running this rat race, Alcorn stops seeing her friends, stops exercising, fights with her husband, gets very little sleep, and seems to always be getting sick—but she works through it anyway. And then the crippling panic attacks start. Talk about wasting your life.

Maxed Out, in the midst of the kitchen clutter.

Maxed Out, in the midst of the kitchen clutter.

Despite the fact that I have only a moderately-demanding job, and only one kid, I nonetheless saw so much of myself in Katrina Alcorn. I of course connected with the anxiety, but also with the sensation of always wanting to meet some demand that just can’t be met: a cleaner house, a better book proposal, a smoother commute, less stressful mornings, a faster track to career success. In fact, as I was reading, I could see nearly every one of my mom friends in Katrina Alcorn (even the stay-at-home ones, because, let’s face it, running after your kids all day is a different kind of rat race). And what’s more, I could see my dad friends, too, and my friends who don’t have kids. The book, which couples a memoir-style-narrative with short essays about the realities of being a working mom in American society, ends up being a call to action not just for working moms to have more freedoms and time off, but for all Americans to work more reasonable and flexible schedules. I recommended the book to about ten people in two days—one of them a friend without kids, one my incredibly hardworking cousin who’s single, and one my own husband.

And now, I recommend it to you. Walk, don’t run, to your nearest library or independent bookstore and pick up Maxed Out.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out Alcorn’s blog here.

Some Plugs, Some Whatnot

Happy Wednesday, pals.

Yesterday I got a newsletter from Meghan Ward over at Writerland that I had to pass on:

My colleague here at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, Diana Kapp, is making and selling beautiful, unique necklaces for just $15 and donating ALL of the profits to help build schools for girls in Afghanistan.  Buy a necklace, and ALL PROFITS  go to Afghan Connection.

"Feel Teal" necklace

“Feel Teal” necklace

Here’s the link to Diana’s etsy page, where you can read more about Jewels for Schools and buy a necklace! It’s a great cause, and the necklaces are super cool, too.

In other news, I just finished Popcorn blogger Tara Conklin’s debut novel The House Girl. I have to give it a plug. Read my Goodreads review, here. It’s a beautiful and extremely well-crafted novel with two likeable and believable heroines, and I recommend it highly.

Now I’m reading Kimber Simpkins’s memoir Full. So many good books, these days.

What are YOU reading?

Check out Tupelo Press

I just wanted to give a little plug for Tupelo Press, a small poetry press that’s doing a couple of very cool projects. My friend Mike Dockins is participating in the 30/30 Project, short for 30 poems in 30 days. It’s been fun for me to bop in and out and see what Mike and others are writing; a poem every day is no small feat!

There’s also a collaborative poem-writing project called The Million Line Poem, which I think anyone can contribute to (though I can’t quite figure out how). In any event, it’s a neat project.

Thanks, Tupelo!


Plug: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland

I was asked to join a book group, and the first selection was the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. I had read her Pulitzer-Prize winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, last year, and liked it well enough—but I don’t recall feeling that it was the best choice for the Pulitzer or that she was soon to become one of my favorite writers. But, wow, The Lowland—this is a beautiful book.

Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter

Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter

The novel follows the lives of two brothers raised in Calcutta, one of whom stays in India while the other goes off to the States to study. Their paths diverge in stark ways, until one brother’s choices throw his wife into the life of the other. Back in Rhode Island, basically estranged from their families, Subhash and Gauri live with their daughter Bela carrying deep secrets that threaten everything: their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with their careers.

The novel spans about seventy years, and Lahiri deals with this by playing with time. Some passages snail along; then, there will be a ten-year gap between chapters. She compresses three—no, four—generations into under four hundred pages. At the end of those 340 pages, I felt sure I could have read another hundred.

In the book group, reactions were somewhat mixed. Some felt Lahiri had not developed certain characters or scenes well enough. But for me the book was almost perfect. It managed to be technically excellent—so I was reading it thinking, wow, that sentence is exactly what it should be—and also emotionally knifing. I kept rereading passages not because I was confused about what had happened but because I wanted to feel, again, the immense pain and tragedy she manages to render in a few short sentences. The book’s themes are relevant and important to me: it’s about motherhood and parenting, about being a parent—and a child; and about career and women’s difficult choices around career. It’s a book about revolution and tradition and the bonds of family.

Here’s a teaser:

He was never invited into the room. For some months he received no indication of Bela’s progress. Sitting in the waiting area, with a view of the door Bela and Dr. Grant were on the other side of, made him feel worse. He used the hour to buy groceries for the week. He timed the appointments, and waited for her in the parking lot, in the car. When it was over she sat beside him, shutting the door.

How did it go today, Bela?


It’s still a help to you?

She shrugged.

Would you like to go to a restaurant for dinner?

I’m not hungry.

Would you like to write her a letter? Try to speak to her on the phone?

She shook her head. It was lowered, her brow furrowed. Her shoulders were hunched, pressed toward one another, as tears fell.

See also:

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Lowland on Fresh Air

Review of The Lowland on NY Times

Review on The Guardian (spoiler alert!)

I Knew You’d Be Lovely

Thank you, Google Images

Thank you, Google Images

I just finished Alethea Black’s sweet book of short stories I Knew You’d Be Lovely. Alethea Black was in my brother’s class in high school, and I knew her younger sister. Because I grew up in a small town, the Black family was sort of on my radar–and who can forget a name like Alethea?–so it was with great curiosity that I picked up the book at a yard sale wondering if it was the same woman I knew (of). I had no idea she was a writer; I always feel like writers from my hometown, from college, are on my radar somehow, but she was not.

In any event, the stories are colorful and fun to read. There are surprises and good characters. Like all collections, some stories are stronger than others, and I found as the book progressed that I began to care more about the characters and find more interest and likeability in their quirks. Many of the stories are set outside of Boston, where we grew up, and my tenth-grade Chemistry teacher even makes an appearance (which completely freaked me out). So for me there was this fun sense of connection with a place I know intimately–and thus, with the writer herself.

I’d happily read a novel, if Black publishes one.


Hi everyone,

I just wanted to make a plug for what’s happening over on popcorntheblog these days. Last week Tara Conklin posted a beautiful essay called Keep Writing that you’ve got to check out. And today I am blogging about Magical Realism and the History of Fiction (which is wayyyy more interesting than it sounds!). Reading recommendations included (George Saunders and Karen Russell, anyone?).

Have a wonderful week.


Plug: This American Life’s Harper High School series

I’ve rekindled my love for the great storytelling that takes place on This American Life, and recently listened to parts one and two of the episodes about Harper High School. TAL spent five months at this Chicago school, where last year, 29 current and recent students were shot. As TAL explains, “We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances” (

The episodes are not easy to listen to, but I suggest you do. They’re timely, for one thing, and for me they really helped explain how difficult it is for kids living in poverty to make any other choice than to be in a gang and get involved in gang life. In fact, you’ll learn in the first episode that kids don’t choose to be in gangs: the choice is made for them.

Give it a listen.

Plug: Gone Girl

I spent the weekend completely ensconced in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which had been recommended to me by, among others, my pal Katie Williams (who brought the book to my house! As a present!).

Blurry photo taken with my new iPhone

Blurry photo taken with my new iPhone

I was so ensconced that at separate points both my husband and my kid attempted to distract me (L. shoved another book in my face and demanded that I read; B. just said “Hi” over and over again until I looked up) in a vain attempt to get me to pay attention to them instead. It didn’t really work. I found the novel, a murder mystery with two very unreliable narrators, to be a total page-turner.

Of course I had to think about my statement last entry that above all these days I need to connect with and feel sympathy for a novel’s characters. Because somehow, in Gone Girl, Flynn gets you to simultaneously root for and hate both the main characters, Nick and Amy. And I thought it was brilliant.

I won’t say any more, lest I ruin it.

One caveat: my mom, who reads a lot of murder mysteries (Ruth Rendell etc.) declared that she “hated” this book. She found it predictable and boring. And I thought, since she’s my mom and all, that I should inform you.

Happy reading!