What to Read When You Are Struggling with What to Tell


I suffered torments of preemptive fear and shame while writing For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. A collection about people I have known and been, it includes heaps of trash-picked electronics, flying crockery, collapsing lungs, collapsing marriages, a collapsing country, phone sex, multilingual sex, public acts of adultery, nine consecutive orgasms, a very slight mistranslation of the Russian word for ‘cunt’ (for the sake of a rhyme), thirty-one abortions, and a pre-owned diaphragm given as a gift—much of this not traceable directly to the narrator, although unreliability is perhaps her most reliable quality. Yegads, I thought as I wrote, what if someone reads this?

Hopscotching across genres as I read (the same way I write), I made an informal study of intimacy and risk on the page. Approaches, I found, are stunningly varied (see the list below) but categories are few: cruelty and pain, inflicted and suffered; the body, its functions and parts; failings, foibles, foolishness. Throw in all else that is curtained off or unknown, including for no clear reason, and the bases are covered.


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
West’s stylish account of traveling the fault line between Christianity and Islam in Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II also speaks volumes, mainly through silence, about love and marriage. West’s traumatic years of seclusion and shame as mistress to H.G. Wells, who was unshakably wedded throughout, go unmentioned, but West nonetheless wants it known that she has moved on and is now a happily married woman. (Never mind later reports of no sex in the marriage, lots outside of it, and one mistress who asked to attend her husband’s funeral.) The husband, at West’s side throughout the book’s eleven-hundred-plus pages, remains a cipher, faceless, unnamed. He is a charming polyglot banker; this is all we know and all we need to know. Too important to omit, he is also too extraneous to flesh out.


Her Purse Smelled Like Juicy Fruit by Carl Wilson
This is Carl Wilson’s lament, in linocuts and language, for his mother Louise. In many of his prints, her face is obscured. He doesn’t know her birth year, how many siblings she had, what her father did, or what year she came north in the Great Emigration. He never saw her cry, although  he later learns that she did so daily for years when he was a child. What he knows for sure is that his mother loved him more than she loved herself, and that her purse was redolent of Juicy Fruit gum, a smell that still resurrects her. Intimate not-knowing is Wilson’s gift to the reader.


Becoming by Michelle Obama
This memoir embodies what is irresistible about Michelle Obama—her ability to share of herself with utter dignity. Her restraint makes tiny revelations powerful: witness wry remarks about boyfriend Barack’s sartorial taste (one ensemble is “straight out of the Miami Vice costume closet”) and his lack of promise as a provider (“Don’t look down,” he advises early in their courtship when she glimpses a hole rusted through the floor of his car). And then there’s the time in 2009 when she defies the experts in the West Wing by throwing a Halloween party at the White House. (“Bad optics during a recession,” warns Axelrod.) The place teems with children, a one-thousand-pound pumpkin dominates the lawn, and the hostess wears cat ears and leopard print. “As far as I was concerned,” she writes, “the optics were just right.”


Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson
Does Joyce Johnson, Kerouac’s girlfriend when On the Road hit the shelves, even know what she’s revealing in Minor Characters? A disconsolate Kerouac sits in a diner with nowhere to go: sleeping with the second of his two hostesses following a stretch of exclusivity with the first has gotten him kicked out of his free crash pad. To the rescue comes Allen Ginsberg, arranging a last-minute blind date. Joyce hops the subway downtown; Jack sups heartily; Joyce gets the check; Jack, ever ready to pay in kind, invites himself over. A sucker for bohemian glam could miss the clues. The young Joyce doesn’t seem to grasp her function in the Ginsberg setup, but memoir’s real subject is the older self who has things figured out.


Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker
In Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, which consists of two-hundred-odd hip, ravishing, wrenching sonnets, plus some villanelles, rondeaux, and a sestina or two (say the prosodists), Marilyn Hacker recounts a brief love between an older woman who seems to be her, and the younger woman who is her elusive object of desire. In lines thick with longing and lust—“I’d like to throw my laundry in with yours./I’d like to put my face between your legs[,]” Hacker writes as she loves, unabashed: “…hand brushing yours, down some dark but well-known/street. When I kiss you, I don’t care who sees.”


Metamemoirs by Perry Glasser
Perry Glasser’s moving Metamemoirs, about women he has loved, is polished yet unvarnished, laced with irony yet full of heart. Highlights include his in-laws’ kitchen, where “…something with the aroma of boiled socks was always on the stove…”; a video store clerk with odd scars on her hands who won’t give him the time of day because she’s saving herself for her ex-husband, in prison for lunging at her with a knife (the divorce was a mistake, she tells Glasser); and an exquisite, ninety-minute blowjob that achieves completion just as the author’s first ex-wife and eight-year-old daughter pull into the driveway unannounced. Glasser wrote this book after his second marriage ended. Sometimes you tell all because you have nothing left to lose.


It’s Me, Eddie: A Fictional Memoir by Eduard Limonov, translated by S.L. Campbell
This novel about a Soviet immigrant on welfare in 1970s New York upturns notions of what Russian literature should be. When hellfire-and-brimstone prophet Solzhenitsyn comes on TV, Eddie couples with his sexy wife, ass to screen  (“out of mischief,” the author explains), but one look at the Nobel laureate’s face, and orgasm eludes our hero. Sometime later, one dark night on a playground, he experiences tenderness with a man he nonetheless decides must be a thug (he’s black, after all), and  “becomes a woman,” discovering the taste of semen and the pleasure of being filled. (Historical note: Limonov left the USSR back when leaving was forever, but headed east again post-collapse, first consorting with strongmen in the former Yugoslavia, then attempting, in Russia, to become one.)


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
When I heard Morgan Jerkins present This Will Be My Undoing, I wanted her to go on and on. She waxed eloquent on dating while black and female; having her labia surgically reduced (they spilled out of her clothes and twisted painfully as she walked); the intersection between her porn preferences and race; and what she says to white people who claim not to see her as black. “Where do you get such guts?,” I asked afterward. “You only get one debut,” the twenty-something author admonished me gently. “I don’t want to have any regrets.” Point taken.


Inside/Out by Joseph Osmundson
In Inside/Out, shit plays an outsized role. Osmundson’s boyfriend insists that the author arrive douched and “ready.” For Osmundson, this “arrive clean” requirement demotes him to hookup, like the Grindr boys who often drop by. Setting a high standard for frankness, the story is itself a purgative.


Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow
Abuse, deprivation, and self-knowledge born of the search to understand his sexual orientation loom large in Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. But the most searing and original passages depict the relentless hazing violence he undergoes, perpetrates and instigates while rising up through his fraternity at Grambling State, a historically black university. Finally grasping the damage he’s inflicting—on new recruits, those he incites, and himself—he turns away in shame and disgust.


Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim
In Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, ruthless humiliation and violence are tools of the trade that keep the whores in line and turning a profit. Yet a childhood memory shows a softer side: seeing his father figure of the moment beat his kitten’s brains out “[Because] the cat, being a baby cat, did its business on the kitchen floor,” the future author and eponymous flesh peddler sits on the back stoop and cries until he pukes.


Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
In Cockroaches, Scholastique Mukasonga writes with surprising lyricism about growing up in Rwanda at mid-century, when the Tutsi were already being spat upon, dispossessed, and exiled. A longtime resident of France by the time of the 1994 genocide, she likens writing this book to digging a “paper grave” for the twenty-seven family members she lost. Meticulously reconstructing their last moments, she spares no detail of the dismemberment and slaughter, perhaps as penance for being a continent away when the bloodletting took place.


The Patagonian Hare by Claude Lanzmann, translated by Frank Wynne
Claude Lanzmann, director of the monumental Shoah, forged a new art form in the 70s, making heroic and ingenious use of flattery, lies, and ambush to record revealing interviews with reticent German war criminals living in comfortable retirement, and gently, relentlessly coaxing survivors, also on film, to travel back in memory past all endurance, up to the threshold of the gas chamber and beyond. But in his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, jarring outbursts lay bare a peculiar misogyny, both Jewish and anti-Semitic—call it misogyjuive—that confuses distaste for abuse with distaste for sex. There are certain prudish Jewish women, says Lanzmann—he includes his mother among them—who, unduly influenced by the holy texts or by tradition, do not always bend to male desires. This refusal to submit upends what he sees as normal male-female dynamics. Pauvre type: elsewhere in the book he paints himself as a lady-killer, or tries to, but here he betrays that perhaps he doesn’t really have a way with the ladies—a terrible failing in a Frenchman.


Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz by Olga Lengyel
[M]y fault, mea maxima culpa!… I am, in part, responsible for the destruction of my own parents and my two young sons…” Thus begins Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel. During selection at Auschwitz, Lengyel lies about her older son’s age to keep her boys together, and asks if their grandmother can switch lines to accompany and care for them. “Certainly!,” says the officer. They go left; she goes right. She survives; they do not. As a camp nurse, she learns that birthing mothers and newborns are gassed, except in cases of stillbirth, when the mothers are spared. The infirmary staff thus works to save the mothers, asphyxiating the newborns so that they appear stillborn: “…[T]he Germans succeeded in making murderers out of… us,” she writes. “To this day, the picture of those murdered babies haunts me…  The only meager consolation is that by those murders we saved the mothers.” There is only thing to do with such a story: set it down with maximum simplicity; then disseminate.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Laura Esther Wolfson’s debut memoir, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, out now from University of Iowa Press!  – Ed.

For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors by Laura Esther Wolfson
Laura Esther Wolfson’s literary debut draws on years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered. In prose spangled with pathos and dusted with humor, Wolfson transports us to Paris, the Republic of Georgia, upstate New York, the Upper West Side, and the corridors of the United Nations, telling stories that skewer, transform, and inspire.

Laura Esther Wolfson wrote For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction), and is a MacDowell Fellow. Her work has won the Notting Hill Essay Prize, appeared in Swedish and Spanish translation, received five ‘notables’ in The Best American Essays, and appeared in Lit Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, The Sun, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. Thirty years as a translator/interpreter of Russian and French inform every word she writes. Visit her website, lauraestherwolfson.com, and find her on Twitter @EstherLaura. More from this author →