Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative is both memoir and guidebook, and a meditation on what life writing does for us and the importance of it to women and underrepresented groups.
Febos is the author of several works of memoir and autobiographical fiction, and although I haven’t read her before, she’s extremely popular and highly praised. I can see why: the subject matter of her stories is incredibly raw while her writing is highly technically, stylistically polished — it’s a really impressive juxtaposition. She worked as a dominatrix and through a heroin addiction and an abusive relationship, so her memoir threads are emotionally charged, to say the least. It makes a strong backdrop for pulling out what’s meaningful — if squirmingly uncomfortable — from others’ stories.
One chapter titled “In praise of navel gazing” drives home the importance of excavating painful, traumatic events, from their need to be told, to connect with others who have experienced similar, and also for the health of the writer, with social psychology studies and experiments supporting the health effects of life writing exercises even after very short periods of doing them: “Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.”
She also completely eviscerates the argument that confessional women’s memoirs don’t deserve the same respect and acclaim as men’s memoirs which cover similar “navel-gazing” ground: she says men can write about their daddy issues “incessantly” and there are even masterpieces among these, but “women and people of all marginalized identities” are discouraged from writing them and the broader reading public from reading them.
This meant so much to me, and her writing around this topic is worth the price of admission on its own.
She also ties in the social justice movement and identifies a link between the “resistance” against certain types of memoir and their significance in this genre, and the inherent political nature of many of these topics.
This will have massive appeal to anyone who might feel like their story isn’t worth telling or that no one would want to read their memoir, and gives a little shot of bravery if you’re hovering on the edge of whether to reveal something or not.
Some favorite lines (of many; Febos’ writing clearly deserves its accolades):
On the page, I undergo a change of heart, I return to the past and make something new from it. I forgive myself and am freed from old harms, I return to love and am blessed with more than enough to give away.
I had to walk back through my most mystifying choices and excavate events for which I had been numb on the first go-around.
published March 15 by Catapult
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Colette Brooks’ Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory is a compelling, if at times confusing, collection of snapshot-style stories of some major American events with an emphasis on ephemeral moments.
Moving through chapters divided into the themes of shooters, soldiers, secrets, statistics, and snapshots, Brooks teases apart elements of headline-grabbing stories (Adam and Nancy Lanza, the Apache Baghdad airstrike video released by WikiLeaks) and the more mundane, while tying topics into a uniquely American framework involving war, weaponry, and collective national ideas of identity and memory.
Although the events are large-scale (US military presence in Japan in the Second World War), some of the players are smaller (from the author’s family) and it leads to a really interesting style of sort of-memoir, although kind of an unsatisfying one since the stories aren’t whole. Still, I loved seeing where each section was going, some stories were very moving, and I liked this sad but never maudlin, determinedly realistic but dreamily musing look at how time runs together and the special significance of small moments in a bigger picture.
It doesn’t feel like it has a big loud message to impart though, it’s a quieter, meandering type of thing. But if you like that, as well as a text packed with lots of accessible data and interesting trivia, it’s a great snapshot in its own right.
Although neither of these are memoir per se, they tie memoir-ish elements into bigger questions around storytelling, memory, how we frame events in a narrative, and what stories are important to tell. Divergent takes on this topic always feel so worthwhile. published February 8 by Catapult
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I received advance copies courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.