Lunch at “La Rampa”

I’ve had my eye on this place for years. It’s at the end of Via Garibaldi, up by the gardens in Venice. Just outside the restaurant is a fruit and vegetable stand, actually a floating market with their goods displayed on the deck of a boat. I would guess that’s the rampa. You naturally think, inside the trattoria, fresh is a virtual certainty.

We were able to get a reservation for lunch at 1:00 p.m. This was midweek, in November, last weeks of the Biennalle. I was surprised. We arrived at 12:30, thinking we would eat early and get to garden exhibits. When we got there, the place was packed. Old local men standing in the front of the restaurant drinking their mid-day glasses of white wine. In the back, diners. No way I can seat you until 1:00, the proprietor said. We went across the street and had our own glass of mid-day white wine.

At 1:00 the restaurant was even fuller, people crushed together, wanting their table, people in back finishing their lunch, trying to get to the front to pay.

So: you see a crowd. Good. You see locals, even better.

We ate well, two primi, the spaghetti neri and spaghetti with tuna and peas. First rate grub. That’s what I want and like. Polenta with baccalà and a scallopine Veneziane. Both terrific. House wine. No dessert.

A criticism. One dish came out. A few minutes later, the second. A few minutes later, the third. Finally the fourth. That was bad. The first dish was done by the time the fourth arrived.

Everything took forever.

It’s a wild place. There’s lots of yelling and commotion on the part of the servers and cooks. Frenetic lunch. If that’s your thing and you’re not in a hurry, you’ll be really happy.

I was happy. The people I was with were not. So: don’t go to lunch with those three if you have your sights set on Trattoria alla Rampa. Go and enjoy the noise, the sound and the fury, and the really good food. And be prepared for chaos.

East Winds: A Review

The allure of travel is complex. It is an escape from routine. It enlarges our understanding of a greater world. And, we hope, travel provides an opportunity for soul searching and self discovery. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love comes to mind. In her deeply engaging memoir, East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon with Marriage, Rachel Rueckert explores these themes.  The result is a richly satisfying read.

East Winds provides an account of a year-long trip around the world, a trip Rueckert initially plans to take by herself. She works two years in Boston, as part of Teach for America, saving money for the trip. Then a husband comes along. There is courtship, then a traditional Mormon wedding. Two weeks later, they leave for South America. Her trip is now their trip. “I had fallen in love fair and square,” she remarks, suggesting a solid foundation for this relationship. Nevertheless, with marriage come questions. 

And so begin two narrative threads she weaves together–part travelogue, with detailed accounts of their experiences in South America, Asia, and Europe; and part memoir, a searching analysis of her personal and family history, along with her faith tradition and its conception of marriage. The goal, as Rueckert states in her title, is to understand marriage, though “reckon” expresses a wider scope and deeper sense of urgency.  “I’d never done well with permanent,” she announces early on. “Husband represented a commitment toward the stereotypical package I’d spent most of my millennial life resisting: Mormon, Married, Mother. The End.”

Permanence is the problem. She is the child of a broken home (her parents divorced when she was thirteen). At fifteen, she moves from her mother’s house to her father’s. She works. She studies. She does not prepare for a traditional Mormon marriage. Once she is married, Rueckert tries to reconcile the family story she knows with the Mormon concept of “sealing,” the bonding of two people for all of eternity. Earthly bonds, she knows, will break. “Leave or get left,” she thinks. In her personal history, leave is dominant, and comes with a burden of guilt. “​​Though I’d stuck it out plenty in my life—school, jobs no matter how difficult, my complicated commitment to religion, my relationship with Austin—I imagined none of these added enough evidence to redeem me from my original sin of leaving my mother, or the haunt of her leaving me.”

About marriage, at virtually every stop and stay there is something to learn. In Peru a new friend Patrick introduces her to the concept of “trial marriage,” which can last 3-5 years, during which a woman’s “capabilities” (cooking, cleaning, sex, compatibility) are tested. Anan, a new friend in Thailand, explains marriage traditions of the Lahu tribe. In some of her most gorgeous writing Rueckert describes the clothing, the colors and ceremonies, and their significance. The Lahu marry young–girls at age eleven or twelve, boys age thirteen or fourteen. There is a sacred space where couples dance at the New Year. “There,” Anan explains, “you can change wives if you end up dancing with someone new.” 

In India, their longest stay (two months), she wonders about Hindu marriage and learns from her new friend Chaitra (the name means “beginning”) about the rite of passage. A traditional marriage is arranged. Compatibility is determined by horoscope. At one stage in the two-hour wedding ceremony, the groom pretends to walk away, “resisting the call of marriage in favor of another, more alluring path.”

In these moments Rueckert shifts from travelogue to memoir mode: recalling a year-long relationship in which she thought she had found “the one”; remembering, on a trip during her undergraduate years,  what the Buddhist monks and nuns told her about marriage (monks: “avoiding marriage and family was the quickest way to nirvana, a release from suffering,” nuns: “marriage is when all your troubles start, the beginning of all suffering). She recalls the feeling an engagement ring on her finger (“The silver ring with a blue topaz stone felt unnatural on my left hand as I sat near the back of a Boston University classroom”), senses the reactions of her classmates when she announces, after Teaching for America, her plan was to get married (“the frozen smiles of surprise when I named a date”).  

Travel presents challenges, reveals character, and tests a relationship. On multiple occasions, in train stations, on trails, in refuges, exhaustion and stress build and detonate. After some very difficult moments at a train station, Rueckert and her husband, consumed by the conflict, participate in a lantern festival. The ritual serves as a moment of reconciliation for them, beautifully rendered in her prose: “Austin and I walked with our krathong through the unfamiliar Chiang Mai streets lined with lush trees and vivid flowers. Plumeria wafted like ripe peaches as eager kids lit off the first sky lanterns, unable to wait until pitch black. Rows of tea lights flickered in front of buildings and temples.” Their new friend Nita tells them, “Candles light the way when we do not see a path but want good to come.”

Not to be missed in this wonderful book is Rueckert’s account of their 500-mile walk to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrims are many, the writing lush, her reflection and meditations deep. At one point along the trail, she uses the term a “person ago”– 

“This is fun,” I’d said to [Austin] a few hours earlier, dizzy from the austere vista. That already felt like another person ago. Was this fun? And if not, what else could it be? (my emphasis)

We are many things, past selves, current and future selves. Identity has many faces. Nothing challenges our sense of self quite like marriage. The shift from I/me/my to we/us/our is bound to be fraught. 

In three short sections of this book, there are catalogs, long lists of people, impressions, vignettes, details. In the dedication of the book she lists women with male-centric traditions pressing unbearably down upon them. A sample:

[For] The sixteen-year-old who felt concerned about where to attend college, only to be told by her boyfriend, “It doesn’t matter where you go. You’ll only need your degree if your husband dies.”

[For] The girl who received dishes, pans, and towels for holidays (while her brother received stereos and skis),

[For] The young woman who was encouraged to wear makeup because “the frosted cookies are always the first to go.”

[For] The twenty-something, struggling with eating disorders and depression

[For] The woman who was told that if she wore her Army Class A uniform to church, she would never “attract” a husband because he would feel like he wasn’t the boss in the relationship.

[For] The woman who stayed in an abusive marriage because leaders told her that once you choose your love, you love your choice—no matter what.

At midpoint Rueckert lists tidbits of advice given at her wedding. A sample :

“Remember, SEX IS FOR BABIES.”

“Sometimes it is more important to be married than right.”

“Learn to sacrifice and put your spouse first.”

“Always hold hands even when you don’t want to.”

“Never give up and never surrender.”

“Don’t do it.”

“Enjoy it all!”

“Name the first one Calvin!”

“Swallow your pride and fix things to get past the ugly parts and grow together . . . cuz it’s for eternity baby, no goin’ back!!!”

And near the end the book, she records snapshots from the sometimes ravishing, frequently challenging walk to Compostela:

The noise of plastic bags rustling in the morning before anyone dared to flip on the lights.

The stench of still-warm shoes lining albergue entrances.

The middle-school teacher snoring on his back, mouth agape, 

What it felt like to pull on dirty, crusty underwear again after a lukewarm shower. 

How locals left bakeries with newspaper parcels cradled under their arms. 

​​How Suzy walked beside me, pacing her steps so her shadow would shade my feet. 

The pleasure of stopping for two breakfasts per day. 

The elderly village women in long dresses who set aside brooms to lean across their individual balconies, gossiping in quick, hushed Spanish. 

What it felt like to pull up a chair next to perfect strangers at dinner without feeling awkward.

The effect of these lists is to bookend the travelogue/memoir’s content, to trace the arc of this important discussion, toward a tentative grasp of what marriage entails: “A daily negotiation, a daily act of faith—a faith different from my tenuous relationship with God, where I’d wrongly internalized that doubt had no place.”  

Doubt has a place in this marriage. Freedom has a space. Rachel Rueckert gives the reader a thoughtful reckoning.

Published by BCC Press

Savage City: A Review

Anyone looking at the current state of affairs in the US–the violence, racism, poverty, and corruption–will ask, How did we get here? The answer presented in Donald Levin’s Savage City is that we’ve always been here.

Levin takes the reader to Detroit in the Spring of 1932. The Great Depression is in full swing, as is the Great Migration. Competing forces in organized crime–the Purple Gang, the Sicilian mob–are vying for control of the city’s vice economy. The Black Legion, a white nationalist spinoff of the Klu Klux Klan, is intent upon taking the country back from Blacks, Jews, and Communists. On March 7, 1932, in a hunger march from Detroit to the Ford Rouge plant, demonstrators will be met by armed goons and police, led by Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s enforcer. There’s plenty of death in the streets of this novel.


Divine Aphasia: A review

In 1973 Clifford Geertz introduced the term “thick description” to ethnographic studies, recognizing that “culture is a knotty and often mysterious thing, made up of layers upon layers of intertwined symbols and signs.” The researcher produces detail-rich accounts of his or her research, identifies patterns and relationships and contexts for meaning.  

It is this penetrating cast of mind that Nancy Owen Nelson brings to her memoir, Divine Aphasia, a detail-rich memoir that, at its heart, is about patterns, relationships, and contexts of meaning.  I would also liken her work in this book to an archeological dig, as she searches and asserts the meaning of her lived experience over the past decades.


A review of Deer Season

What happened to Peggy Ahern? This question arises early in Erin Flanagan’s new novel Deer Season and captivates the community of Gunnthrum, Nebraska, the small farm town where this story takes place.  Bored and rebellious, with dreams of the big world beyond Gunnthrum, the high school senior regularly sneaks out of the house at night to join the revels up at Castle Farm, a rundown farmhouse where booze and drugs and sex provide young locals with an escape. One night Peggy doesn’t come home. 


A review of Seven Springs

In her new memoir Seven Springs Ellen Blum Barish explores big questions about what makes a life. She does so in two compelling narrative threads: one examining a car accident that occurred when she was a girl, and the aftermath of that experience; the other delving into the underpinnings of her faith life, and how that faith informs her relationships and her place in the world. 

Barish weaves these two threads together, taking the reader to the scene of the accident, to neighborhoods and locations where we meet friends and family, to class reunions and visits with her parents of over two decades. “I had come so close to the sharp edge of death,” she writes, without ever unpacking that experience. Over the years, what happened to her, to her friends, and how her family handled that scrape with death lies buried “under a blanket of quiet.” Similarly her curiosity about God is buried “under shame and fear.” 

This “psychospiritual-archeological dig,” as Barish calls it, reveals the usefulness of a faith tradition. Judaism as she comes to know it is practical. But come to know it she must. Her parents are not practicing Jews. As a child, when she asks her father if they believe in God, he tells her to go ask her mother. Her mother’s answer–she says she doesn’t know–leads Barish to a position of unbelief that lasts into her adulthood. 

When she becomes a mother, she engages the tradition. The fruit of that study informs this memoir. “Judaism,” Barish observes, “is by its very nature an ongoing conversation.” That conversation, which she joins and shares, enriches this absorbing story.

A review of Get Thee to a Bakery

Thank you, Liane Kupferberg Carter for this lovely review of Get Thee to a Bakery. An excerpt:

“Rick Bailey sounds like an ideal travel companion. He’s endlessly curious, astute, and hilarious. All these traits are on dazzling display in his new book, “Get Thee to a Bakery,” a delightful blend of memoir, travelogue and creative nonfiction. This is the perfect book for armchair travelers, which, thanks to the pandemic, most of us currently are. ”

Read the whole review here:

Spectrum of Flight, a review

Spectrum of Flight, David Hanlon’s new collection of poems, invites the reader to occupy an interior world—of pain, of struggle, of a search for a way to rise. These poems are intensely personal, some of them raw, many of them agonizing, as the speaker turns himself inside out, asking how a gay man can live in a straight world. Not just live in that world, but thrive, prevail, be free, be completely himself. Taken together these poems body forth a painful life story.

In roughly chronological in order, the over-arching narrative takes place in settings you might expect—in public and private places where identity takes shape: the home, the street, in classrooms and stores, where awareness of the body and desire gradually dawn on one. In the first poem of the collection a dead animal is the focus. The speaker, just seven or eight years old, sees a dead fox by the side of the road. Described as “the embodiment of abandon,” he sees himself in it: “because I too only came out in the dark,” “because I too had been gutted,” “because it was stillness after chaos.” In a poem entitled “Swimming Lessons” he is taunted, told he is gay. He writes, “they bully me / they think they know / the damage—they don’t.” In response the poet sounds a positive note in this poem, an expression of strength in the face of this adversity. He wonders “what they would say now / if I told them how lucky I feel / that I became / A strong swimmer.”

Early in the collection, early in this narrative of confusion and suffering, that positive note is a rare affirmation of self. More commonly the reader senses disintegration and struggle to forge an identity in the face persecution and derision.

In many of these poems predator images recur. The poet describes “lion-boys.” Here, for example: “the lion-boys think I run like a girl / I feel their clawed-grip tighten / tear my safety net to shreds.” In the poem “If only my body was made of stone” we hear a teenage boy described as a lion safe in his den, shouting from an upstairs window, “fucking gay boy.” Again and again, Hanlon’s sense of isolation is captured in a line like this: Them / in their maned coalition / boys / Them / in their feathered congregation / girls / Me / a neither.”

Hanlon’s prosody challenges the reader. There are poems with a flowing poetic line, sentences with syntactic completeness, that he pauses, interrupts with a slash. Here, for example:

I remember
being a teenager in that sportswear store with my younger brother /
too scared to ask / the sporty / muscle-manly assistant
for the Adidas cap I wanted / on the top shelf behind the counter /

And here, lines even more disrupted, from “Inhaling the Sky”:

Battered / weary-bodied
toothpick bones / clipped wings
alarm / flapping
unceasing mind-chatters
warm-buzz / anxious bees
fist pummel
collapsing into a ruinous truth

Then, as if to represent further the disjunction, the fracture of a self in a society that rejects him, Hanlon’s words appear on the page in a kaleidoscopic fashion, as something like shrapnel:

The violence in many of these poems is unrelieved. In the final poem, “Revive Yourself,” however, there is this positive note: “Remember,” Hanlon writes. Remember the pain, but remember too the possibility, “when you were a child / and you ran toward everything.”

It is an uplifting conclusion to this collection, suggesting flight not as fleeing from but as rising above.

Spectrum of Flight is published by Animal Heart Press.
It’s also available at Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, and other stores.
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28065 Nights, a review

Sometimes I look down at my hands and I see yours kneading the dough. I would choose this if I had a choice.

The prose poems in Kate Manning’s collection, 28065 Nights, written for her deceased grandmother, Wanda Faye Henson, are rich and evocative snapshots. The title refers to how much love accumulates in 76 years on this earth. How much love? A whole lot. 

Titles are invitations. Scan the table of contents in this collection–“Your Death Explained in Birds,” “How to Use Vanilla,” “How I Measure Your Body,” “I Haven’t Eaten Fried Bologna Since You Died,” “I Sniff Your Socks,” “I Wore Your Pink Shirt Today”–and you’ll want to dive in.

In “I Was Afraid It Would Be Empty” Manning describes a notebook she gave her grandmother as a Mother’s Day gift, with a request that she write about her life, so that the stories of her grandmother’s youth, which Manning had heard recited, could be captured and collected. Finding the notebook after her grandmother’s death, Manning observes that it was blank, that “the first page was torn away.” And so begins, in real time, the task of writing down the stories her grandmother could not find the words for.

Some of the stories are funny, like how her granny’s panties saved her; some difficult, like the memory of a lost baby and Manning’s realization that she never asked her grandmother the baby’s name (Thomas Anthony). Throughout there are references to objects charged with meaning and her grandmother’s body of work. “Your body of work is other people’s bodies: children who made children who are still making more children. You built these bodies with bread and beans…your body replicates itself in brand new bodies–your nose, your feet, your rogue blond head in a family of brown.”

The theme of how one life echoes another plays out. Also the theme of renewal. Manning holds a newborn nephew at her grandmother’s funeral, “my body swaying to keep from falling, his body so small and so new.” These are loving acts, loving words. Reader, you will be touched.    

Published by River Glass Books.

The Missing Girl, a review

Jacqueline Doyle’s collection of stories The Missing Girl is beautifully written. And it is, in its own way, a harrowing look at what happens to girls–girls who go missing, girls who become women, girls who become women and are haunted by their memories of what happened, or what might have happened to them, when they were girls.

There is in many of the stories in this short collection an air of inevitability. The boys and men are predators. They are treacherous, they are duplicitous. The women, most of them just girls, have unstable identities, with names like Eula, and Early (“I just bet the boys have called you pretty, Early”), and Molly (who plans to change her name because “she has bigger things in mind”), and Nola (who prefers names associated with gemstones, like Sapphire, Ruby, Topaz, and Amber). These women will be brutalized by boys and men, and will have to reckon with the consequences, if they live to do so. Violence will happen. Like Beryl in “You Never Know,” they live close to danger, in the vicinity of disaster.

Along with inevitability, there is an air of uncertainty in many of these stories.  What really happened? Who did what? Who said what? Is that what he–or I–really said?  In “Hula,” the narrator, named Lucy, tries to sort out what actually happened in a bar in Hawaii.  “He says his name is Philip and he tells you he’s from New Jersey.” That’s what he says, but is it really true? He says he likes 25-year-old blondes. “Already you’re grossed out, thinking it’s loud in the bar, maybe that’s not what he said.” And later, when he says something infantile and coarse, “you think he says [that], but you must have misheard him.”  When she tells him her name, she’s not sure he’s heard. Lucy. Nothing is lucid, or clear, in these stories where men and girls smash together. Nothing except the cost, in unspeakable hurt.  

Eight stories, four from the female characters’ point of view, three from the male point of view, one that’s a combination. Doyle has an unfailing ear for these characters’ voices, for their yearning (“she was used to wanting things she knew she wasn’t going to get”), for their stumbling toward violence (“once you start lying you don’t know what’s going to come out”).  

This is flash fiction at is best, not a wasted word or extraneous detail. These are stories that will leave a mark.         

Half, a review

Sharon Harrigan’s Half (University of Illinois Press) is the story of twins, Artis and Paula, born into a blue collar family in Michigan. They are raised by a domineering father whose nickname is Moose (he tells the girls that living in Alaska he rode moose, “steering with the antlers”) and a submissive mother who runs a daycare center out of their house (a house that “reeked of warm milk and pureed peas, diaper rash and ear infections”). As the girls come of age, Harrigan explores the issues of identity, gender, and power in a narrative that is deft, entertaining, and satisfying on a number of levels.

The girls tell their story in one voice. “We” is the dominant point of view. The reader is taken into the mysterious interior world of twins, one of the attractions of this novel. They are essentially two halves of the same person. But each, being only a half, raises the question, Do they ever become whole in the course of the novel? Do they have a life and identity, one apart from the other?

And, similarly, do they have a life and identity apart from their family? In Moose, Harrigan presents a character who personifies male power and brutality. The girls think: “We knew to keep our family secrets.” While their father tells them: “If you tell what happens in this house, you’ll be taken away and never see your mom again.” There is love in this home, but it is love that crushes. In the course of the novel Artis and Paula learn and acquire power from their father while they also become aware of power they discover in themselves, power that is singularly female in nature–the other half of the human creature.  

The story begins in the future, Christmas 2030, at Moose’s funeral. In the minutes after the church service, one of the father’s friends, named Wild Pete, says to the girls, “You’re the ones who killed him.” That charge launches this compelling story.  For the reader, the rewards that lie ahead are rich. Sharon Harrigan has written a wonderful novel.  

What It Might Feel Like to Hope, a review

Dorene O’Brien’s collection of short stories, What It Might Feel like to Hope, surprises and delights the reader on every page. Eleven stories, whose titles are irresistible invitations–”Eight Blind Dates Later,” “Tom Hanks Wants a Story,” “Pocket Philosopher”–take the reader into the lives of characters on the threshold of change.


In “Turn of the Wind” a scientist specializing in crystallography, facing the onset of dementia, leaves the lab and builds weathervanes for a hobby. A weathervane, he says, “is a story on a stick,” it “offers beauty without the hope of anything more.”  Faith, the main character in “Falling Forward,” takes responsibility for her dysfunctional neighbor, Ed, “a creased and rumpled man with doom etched on his face.” She is alone, and he is alone but for a lizard named Little Richard who figures prominently in the story’s climax, which holds out the promise of “falling forward into a new life.”   

In “Honesty Above All Else,” along with the title of the story, O’Brien deploys a skilled writer’s second device for grabbing the reader, a smart first sentence: “I’ve never told anyone this story, and I’m only telling you now because Mrs. O’Leary is dead.” These first sentences aren’t just springboards; they’re catapults.  Like this, in “A Short Distance Behind Us”: “Braelynn and I have been operating at the intersection of I love you and Fuck off for the last year.”  And like this, in “Reaping: “Her hair was pulled up into a plastic bag, and red dye trickled down her face and neck as she stood on the front porch trembling.” And here, in “Little Birds”: “May told Dina to take the chair, or she’d regret it for the rest of her life.”  

Five of these stories are first person narrative, five are third person, and one, the Tom Hanks piece, subtitled “An Anatomy of a Tale” (it might also be subtitled “What It Might Feel like to Write”) is at times first, second, and third.  

Technically accomplished, emotionally taut, always captivating, these vivid stories are little worlds of conflict, pain, beauty, and hope. They are richly imagined and deeply satisfying.  Dorene O’Brien has written a truly beautiful book.