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Lives, in Pieces

A recommended reading list by the author of The Old Moon in Her Arms

Book Cover the Old Moon in Her Arms

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The way memories appear fascinates me. A family photo, a gesture, a snippet of a tune or a whiff of cologne can unlock a world in a flash. Whenever I mine the past for stories, they come in pieces, wisps of recollections I try to translate into words. I gather them, then work to discover why these memories matter, to find the “so what” in the “what.”

It might be my background as a poet that draws me to the fragment in writing. When I gathered information about the lives of five generations of my Ininiwak and Métis ancestors, I found snippets, shreds, lists and drawings in explorers’ journals, community newsletters, church records, and historical documents. The result, Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, reads like a travelogue in bricolage, my attempt to recreate a sense of the lives of my grandmothers along the Red River. For my recent book, The Old Moon in Her Arms, I aimed to crystalize pivotal moments of my childhood, youth and old age in short non-linear prose. It seems more reflective of how my memory works. 

It might be my background as a poet that draws me to the fragment in writing.

For years, authors of nonfiction and fiction have been weaving literary gold out of fragments. I agree with Octavio Paz who wrote in Alternating Current, that the “most perfect and vivid expression of our time, in philosophy as well as in literature and in art, is the fragment.” The following books, created in whole or in part out of fragments, are among many whose vivid expression created worlds that drew me in.  


Book Cover Remnants

Remnants, by Celine Huyghebaert (translated by Aleshia Jensen)

As she attempts to come to terms with the loss of her father, Huyghebaert conducts survey interviews with those who’d known her father, creates scripts of conversations, documents her dreams, writes an inventory of “things that left no trace,” analyzes her father’s handwriting, and more. Photographs add to the power of this book. Listed as autofiction, Remnants is a frank and sharp excavation of complicated grief. 


Book Cover landbridge

Landbridge: life in fragments, by Y-Dang Troeung

This allusive work, written in what Y-Dang Troeung calls “a perforated language of cracks and breaks” combines theory, autobiography, family and Cambodian history to create a landbridge, a way to connect disparate cultures and perspectives. A highly respected academic and a brilliant writer, Troeung worked on this hybrid collection until her untimely death. Drawings, photographs, letters to her young son combine here with revelatory prose to create a ground-breaking and deeply memorable work.

Book Cover Unearthing

Unearthing, by Kyo Maclear 

Think of our stories as seasons, changing in quality and expression: this is the premise of Maclear’s extraordinary Unearthing. She uses 24 sekki (Japanese "small seasons") as a frame for her lyrical memoir in which Maclear unearths information that fractures her understanding of her family background. As the keeper of those stories, she invites the reader into often haiku-like moments of observation and insight. The book glints with both delicacy and intensity, each piece  a facet reflecting the implications of her search. Ink drawings and an herbarium of writers’ flowers add to this book’s artistry.  

Book Cover By the Book

By the Book, by Diane Schoemperlen

Although Schoemperlen’s book was published a decade ago, it remains a ground-breaking example of what an inventive, quicksilver mind can create and in so doing, cause readers to rethink our notions of how to build narrative. When images, quotations and text play together on the page the results generate textures mere words can’t replicate. Schoemperlen is a visual artist, deft with illustration and collage, and she is witty. Listed as short fiction, I read it as a kind of found poetry, what happens when visuals, objets trouvés, and old texts are assembled in ways to spark new connections. 

Book Cover Tiny Ruins

Tiny Ruins, by Nicole Haldoupis 

Alana’s life is glimpsed in snapshots, scenes like small windows that reveal the character’s encounters with friends, lovers and family as she tries to come into her own. What seem like tenuous connections between discrete episodes has the effect of heightening a reader’s attention, ample proof—should we need it— that less can be more, that gaps aren’t absence. Skillfully honed language makes this coming out story indelible. 

Book Cover A History of My Brief Body

A History of My Brief Body, by Billy Ray Belcourt

Belcourt’s radical ("to the root") miscellany includes scenes of their boyhood, of encounters and collisions, of the razor-edged nature of living as a queer NDN in a world hostile to their existence. Belcourt, award-winning poet and academic, says their field of study is NDN freedom. This hybrid work is a wake-up call, a hymn to rage, and its precisely crafted short pieces create the kinds of depth charges we need to inspire change. Settlers have too often “feasted on (Indigenous) misery,” and Belcourt is done with it. 

Book Cover Monsters Martyrs Marionettes

Monsters, Martyrs and Marionettes, by Adrienne Gruber 

Most mothers I know recall their infants’ early weeks in a blur, a slip of a memory here and there, nights that fuse with days, flashes of joy, the pong of a full diaper, bone-deep fatigue. Some choose to downplay or to romanticize the physical and emotional toll on their being: birthing and tending to a tiny human can be a difficult but wondrous thing. Gruber’s candid and often-visceral accounts of birth and motherhood—in essays variously fractal, splintered and novel — are necessary antidotes to any soft-focus rhapsodizing of a madonna and child. These fragments pierce, in all the best ways.


Book Cover On Beauty

On Beauty, by rob mclennan

Forthcoming in summer 2024, On Beauty, is a melange of vignettes by the prolific Mclennan, close-ups of lives in poetic prose, interspersed with notes on beauty. Grief and loss, our quotidian joys and disappointments, the objects around us that hum with memory and meaning—all are gathered here in brief and vivid sketches, affecting and textured. Here, truths, told slant, illuminate and linger.

Book Cover the Old Moon in Her Arms

Learn More about The Old Moon in Her Arms: Women I Have Known and Been:

A powerful, lyrical collection of essays from the award-winning author of Following the River, exploring the pivotal moments in her life, and how art and nature have shaped her.

Like both memory and the moon, what's written here aims to shed what light it can, bringing it home to now.

How does a woman compose a life? The Old Moon in Her Arms is a hybrid book of fragments, pivotal moments and images in the phases of a woman's life, turning points rendered in Lorri Neilsen Glenn's lyrical prose.

Like the shifting images in a kaleidoscope, these glimpses into the life of an ordinary woman lay bare the ways family, landscape, loss, and a lifelong pursuit of knowledge have forced the author in her later years to examine what really matters. Here, readers bear witness to the making of a daughter, a student, a wife, a friend, a teacher, a mother, a feminist, an award-winning scholar and writer. Neilsen Glenn's artistry weaves personal history, philosophy, pop culture, and contemporary thought to examine moments and people who've inhabited her life. "Over time and circumstance," she says, "haven't we all been various?"

Guiding her exploration are the Cree concept of wahkohtowin, the kinship in all of creation, and the elliptical path of the moon.

This hybrid collection of singular moments celebrates connection, wonder and endless curiosity.

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