What to Read When You Want to See the Beauty Inside the Ugly


Ugly things, beautifully rendered. The worst times of our lives. Events that change us forever. These are the stories that draw me in, inspire me—whatever their form, whether short fiction, novel, essay, or memoir. I seek out books that confront The Dark! Dark! Dark!—There’s no way out! But there IS a way out! parts of our lives. I live for books that turn my whole view of this world upside down. I love books that expose all of our complex flaws and contradictions—the paradoxes inside our veins. I love reading about my fellow humans and their life experiences that are simultaneously so different and so viscerally similar to my own.

My debut memoir, What a Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath is the intimate story of a woman’s traumatic past catching up with her, an honest, from-the-gut account of that woman’s journey to regain her power and confidence—a journey continuing to this day. It’s a story proving that sometimes we have to excavate the ugliest parts of our past in order to find peace, in order to finally see the beauty in today.

As I was writing this book and shared with more and more women what it’s about, I can’t count how many said, “Yeah, something like that happened to me, too.” And they would share their own story and that simple act of sharing would unburden them, I believe. This was before the #MeToo movement began. Now, this story is more relevant than ever. It’s important to speak out, to let others know they’re not alone, to let everyone know there are many ways to heal. By sharing our stories—whatever those stories may be—we render ourselves vulnerable, and I believe there’s a lot of personal power in that kind of vulnerability.

I didn’t grasp the thematic links to the books listed below until I started writing about them, lining them up, placing them alongside one another. Only then did I recognize how thematically similar they are to my own story. This exercise has proven to me once again that self-awareness is a tricky thing.

Here are a few of the voices that have astounded me.


My Persian Paradox by Shabnam Curtis
Shabnam Curtis’s stunning memoir exposes a horrifying Iranian legal system unapologetically engineered to oppress women. Early in the book she reveals her affair with a married man she called Captain. Three weeks after he left Iran in 2000, she learned she was pregnant. An illegitimate child in Iran cannot receive a birth certificate, has no legal status—literally does not legally exist. And yet abortion is illegal. Shabnam takes the reader, breathless, through her dilemma, sharing choices she had to make that still haunt her to this day. She also masterfully details her childhood and coming of age in Iran, all against the backdrop of upheaval when the Shah left Iran, followed by the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism taking hold. The reader experiences her turbulent young life and in the process learns so much about Iranian history, Iranian politics, and Iranian culture. Her story made me aware of my own ignorance and left me hungering to address that ignorance by reading more books by Iranian authors. Her cinematically rendered story is bleak and beautiful all at once and her life’s journey ultimately culminates in grace, love, and peace.


The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
The Child Finder introduces us to Naomi, a private investigator who possesses an uncanny talent for finding the lost and missing. Naomi searches for Madison Culver, a girl who disappeared three years earlier. The novel takes the reader along for Naomi’s pursuit, a journey that ultimately helps Naomi unlock the dark secrets of her own life. Early in the book, Naomi muses: “It was the contradiction of her life, Naomi knew, that she was suspicious and trusting, afraid and fearless—and most importantly, often at the same time.” The story itself is remarkable but what’s even more astounding is how Denfeld renders horror and atrocity with so much depth and compassion. Perhaps she’s able to accomplish this due to her own life’s journey—her career as an investigator in death-penalty cases, or her life as a loving foster mom, or existing as such a loving and generous literary citizen. However she does it—read this book. The Child Finder is proof that if we take the time to look, we will see the humanity in everyone.


The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
It’s my dream in life to be able to write like Jo Ann Beard. Her autobiographical essays confront the defining moments of our lives with power, guts, humor, and joyous truth. The essays in this collection are pointed and self-aware, following Beard from infancy to marriage and beyond. Every single one of them dizzied me, but perhaps my favorite in this collection is “The Fourth State of Matter” about the 1991 massacre at The University of Iowa, a piece which originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1996. In this essay she magically renders the stuff of nightmares from a place of both quiet detachment and grace. Every sentence in this collection astonishes me.


Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
Growing up in the 1970s I felt like an outsider, always self-conscious of my inherent weirdness and family flaws. Cripplingly shy, I still always tried desperately to fit in, to assimilate—and yet I was also drawn to fellow outsiders and two of my closest friends in elementary school were recent Vietnamese immigrants. So perhaps this is some of what explains why Bich Minh Nguyen’s beautifully written memoir resonated with me. Her story begins with her family’s migration out of Saigon in 1975 and follows Nguyen as she comes of age in the 1970s/early 1980s Midwest. Her story is about her Vietnamese refugee family attempting to navigate US culture, so it’s necessarily also a story of the exploration of identity, of growing up as an outsider. With stunning prose, Nguyen captures the experience of cultures clashing, frequently exploring this friction through food, contrasting the experience of Pringles versus chao gio, SpaghettiOs versus green sticky rice cakes. The prose is warm and tender, embracing the reader from page one.


The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
The Sarah Book is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. And I mean ever. It begins with this observation: “There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.” It’s the story of a good man with a good heart who finds himself fucking up over and over, sabotaging his marriage, hurting his family, destroying his own essence. It seems impossible but the story isn’t just heartbreaking, it’s also unspeakably beautiful, sometimes even funny at the same time. With every sentence, every paragraph, McClanahan punches you in the gut—in the best way a writer can. His style is honest and pure, electric and textured. But I feel I have to warn you: you’re not going to be able to put this book down.


It Chooses You by Miranda July
It’s summer 2009 and Miranda July is a screenwriter with a procrastination problem. She looks forward to Tuesdays because Tuesday is the day the PennySaver booklet gets delivered. Rather than writing, she reads it cover to cover. Then she decides to pick up the phone, to ask about the black leather jacket being offered for $10. “The implied rule of the classifieds is you can call the phone number only to talk about the item for sale. But the other rule, always, is that this is a free country, and I was trying hard to feel my freedom. This might be my only chance to feel free all day.” And so she breaks the implied rule and asks the man selling the black leather jacket for $10 if she can also interview him. About his life, about his hopes, about his fears. About everything. And so it begins. Written only as Miranda July can, the book blends intimate snippets of recorded interviews, a narrative demonstrating July’s sharp wit and keen observation of the human condition, and photographs. Her interactions are intimate and moving and seem to stand alone on their own. But July sneaks up on the reader with a narrative arc that has been there all along, and the adventures with Pam (photo albums, $10 each), and Matilda & Domingo (Care Bears $2-$4) and the other lovable human oddities she encounters turn out to shape her screenplay, and July herself, in surprising ways.


Potted Meat by Steven Dunn
When telling all my friends they had to read this book, I tried my best to describe it: “It’s a novel, but a novel kind of in the form of flash fiction.” And I wasn’t wrong—just clumsy in my characterization. Stated more artfully, Steven Dunn uses fragments to create a narrative and it’s inside the silence between these fragments that Dunn delivers unspoken terror. The story is set in southern West Virginia and follows a young boy into adolescence, bringing the reader inside the boy’s struggles with poverty, abusive parents, alcohol, and simmering racial tension. It’s a book filled with ugliness, sadness, hatred, truth, hope, and love.


Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann
I first saw Sara Lippmann read at an AWP 2013 offsite event on a snowy Boston night. The jam-packed room fell silent, hanging on her every word and though it seems physically impossible, I’m pretty sure I held my breath the entire time she stood behind the microphone. Her words were visceral, grabbing everyone in that room by the throat. So it came as no surprise to find that Sara Lippmann’s debut collection delivers fearless stories full of her sharp wit, venturing into all of the gorgeous ugliness that defines the human condition. Her characters long for a connection beyond what’s available to them in their carefully curated lives. Inside this collection you’ll encounter grieving mothers, restless teens, a father who falls for a drug-addled babysitter, and so many more beautifully flawed characters who long for more love and depth and meaning in their lives—just like every single one of us.


Rift by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan
Flash fiction aficionados Fish and Vaughan team up in Rift to deliver the absolute best of the form. Broken into four sections—Fault, Tremor, Breach, Cataclysm— these two writers explore the mysticism of childhood, the loneliness inside a marriage, how it feels to walk around in circles, and all the tiny pieces of life we don’t often stop to notice. Fish flexes in “A Room with Many Small Beds,” teasing the reader with her opening line: “I am eight years old and this is the year I learn to float.” Vaughan sneaks up on you, juxtaposing the casual, the mundane—with horror. In “Too Much Oxygen” he writes of the 70s: “The Waltons. Gas lines. Leisure Suits. This was the summer I was raped.” Each piece cuts deep with razor-sharp prose and the voices of Fish and Vaughan harmonize to perfection. Every single one of these tiny stories will leave you breathless.


Scrap Metal Sky by Erika Brumett

“You have to read this book—it’s amazing,” said my dear friend, the writer Len Kuntz.

“Len, you say that about every book,” I said, probably rolling my eyes.

“No I mean it. You have to get it.”

And so I did. I devoured it in one sitting, on a four-hour bus ride from DC to Manhattan, pausing only to text Len: OMFG. Reading Brumett. You were right.

Scrap Metal Sky is written in poetic prose, telling the story of Lux and his little girl Sadie in vignettes with alternating points of view. Lux and Sadie live among rust and weeds in their scrap yard as Lux ekes out a living selling “treasure” and driving local drunks around town in his “limousine.” Lux, haunted by the death of Sadie’s junkie mother, does his best to preserve Sadie’s innocence and to show her all the beauty inside the dreary ugliness of their lives. Largely he succeeds, as we learn from Sadie’s voice: “Life was clouds over the scrap yard, then sudden sun. Life was mealtime and bedtime, Spaghetti-O’s and Lux in the wooden rocker reading her to sleep. Life was oneness, just the two of them. It was stability then change. Fixity then flux. It was endless and boundless and good.” Scrap Metal Sky is a stunning novel about finding beauty in the most unlikely places.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Karen’s debut memoir, What a Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath, forthcoming June 11 from Rare Bird Books!  – Ed.

What a Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath by Karen Stefano
On a summer night in 1984, nineteen-year-old UC Berkeley sophomore Karen Thomas leaves her uniformed patrol job and walks home alone in darkness. At the threshold of her apartment a man assaults her at knife point. After a soul-chilling struggle, she manages to escape. Though she is left traumatized by her assault and the subsequent trial of her attacker, she herself goes on to become a criminal defense lawyer, defending those accused of crimes as heinous as the one committed against her. Fast forward to 2014, thirty years after her assault, when her life, once again, appears to be crumbling. As she stumbles her way through the days navigating a dying marriage, devastating financial loss, and an elderly mother slipping into dementia, she becomes fascinated by her own anxiety and PTSD. Why does the body remember what the mind tries so desperately to forget? Her questions prompt a delayed obsession with her assailant: What became of him? What is he doing now? She begins a quest of excavation, determined to track him down. What she discovers is life altering.

Karen Stefano is the author of the forthcoming memoir, What A Body Remembers (Rare Bird Books 2019). She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, California Lawyer, Psychology Today, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com. More from this author →