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Books in Brief | Kate Tuttle

Booze and sex and becoming a poet


Confessions From a Writing Life

By Kim Addonizio

Penguin, 224 pp., paperback, $16

St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” the fourth-century work considered the first autobiography in the Western world, chronicles the author’s conversion to Christianity only after describing, in what can only be called loving detail, all the sins, excesses, and debauchery that came before. In poet Kim Addonizio’s unflinching, often hilarious “confessions,” the excesses and debauchery are not prelude but process, not a state from which to be saved but a series of experiences and memories to save, and savor. In this memoir-in-essays, Addonizio wields a sharp eye and a sharper pen. “Writers plunder, excavate, and strip-mine without regard for the consequences to others,” she writes. “They suck their loved ones dry of vital fluids, revealing their deepest fears and yearnings.”


She doesn’t spare herself, whether considering her literary ambition (in poetry, she wryly notes, this comes down to having “tens, and perhaps even dozens of readers”) or her sexual adventures. Addonizio can be tender, too, especially when writing about her aging mother. In one essay, their journey from the nursing home to get a flu shot turns into a harrowing saga, each achingly painful step marking the body’s decline, each memory of a distant, neglectful mother fading to uncover “a messier story,” one in which the two were close, a mother singing Irish lullabies to her child, a grown child now protecting her formerly fiercely independent mother. Much as it revels in the poet’s life as a fun-loving bad girl, this stunning book is at its most gorgeous when it reveals its author’s great big heart.


Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the

Great White North

By Blair Braverman

Ecco, 274 pp., $25.99

Growing up in California, Blair Braverman clung to an idiosyncratic self-image: This Golden State girl was “meant to be a polar explorer.” Her love for Norway began when she was 10 and the family followed her father’s sabbatical to Oslo, and persisted through a complicated, often uncomfortable year spent as an exchange student in Lillehammer. But both of those cities are too civilized — the Norway of “minimalist furniture and the Nobel Peace Prize” — not the wild, frozen north of Braverman’s dreams, “the Norway of witchcraft, storytelling, and incest.”


It’s in this harsher Norway that the memoir is mostly set, while Braverman lives and works with the shopkeeper of a tiny northern village, helping him restore his time-capsule of a general store into a museum of sorts. “Even on his best days, he was the most doleful person I had ever seen,” she writes of the shopkeeper, Arild, “with a hanging head and enormous eyes, bright white lashes like a cow’s, delicate feathers of hair that looked as if they had turned from blond to white with very little fanfare.” The author skips back and forth in time, with accounts of her learning to care for and eventually run sled dogs providing thrilling moments, but it’s her portrait of this friend and father figure that lends a warm glow to this thoughtful meditation on a lifelong attraction to the cold.

WILL & I: A Memoir

By Clay Byars

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $14

Forming an identity is hard work; somewhat complicated when one is an identical twin; excruciatingly difficult when the body of one’s childhood is devastated just as adulthood begins. For Clay Byars, it happened when he and his twin brother, Will, were just 20. A car accident during parents’ weekend at their college left him with nerve damage in his shoulder and a useless arm; surgery to correct the problem resulted in complications, which led to a stroke, which left him paralyzed, only able to move his eyes.


In this dazzling, beautiful memoir, Byars writes of his long, slow rehabilitation, learning to walk and talk again — both imperfectly, as it turns out — and of the process of building a life after very nearly dying. This is a quiet, thoughtful book that unfolds in acutely perceptive detail: his twin brother reprogramming his computerized “voice” to insult the doctors, his caregiver diving into a swimming pool to save him, his grueling work with a singing coach to regain fluent speech. Living on his own years after the stroke, he writes, he isn’t particularly lonely, but when friends say he should try to date, to put himself out there, he is struck by the problem that “the only self I can put out there isn’t me — is, in fact, hiding me, behind an idea that equates the body with the person.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.