Book Review: Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

Abandon Me (Memoirs) by Melissa Febos

Raw. Vulnerable. Intelligent. Insightful.

Didn’t I use these same words for her first book Whip Smart? Yes, and Febos has built upon that first book by offering us another look into her life in a way that is just as honest. Her gift with words and stories takes us into the darkness of an obsessive love. In Abandon Me, Febos creates a work that we can relate on one level or another. Who hasn’t lost/ found something magical through such an absorbing love? I’ve drowned and learned to breath underwater for another’s attentions even as my friends were throwing me a lifeline.

Febos has a fearless look at herself and it’s done with insight and intimacy. At times, it makes me want to put the book down and say, hush, hush, it’s okay. (Yes, my reviews are personal responses, not academic studies: I’m okay with that.)

The line between love and obsession here is woven within a framework taken from many sources. She writes about her struggles using psychology, historic and current culture, literature, music, and other influences such as Bowie, Jung, and Borges to understand her actions within a broader context. So well read she is that it comes naturally and it is easy to understand her references. There is fluency to her thoughts and how she expresses these links and echoes. The layers bring out universal truths lying within a complex lover relationship, her childhood, and a birth father that she builds a connection with throughout the book. As such, her essays are poetic and intelligent.
They are also heartfelt.

“If we break up,” I said slowly, “Everything you’ve give me will be ruined, transformed into shrouds of miserly.” I smiled.

Of her birth father: I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was Jon. She had known of him, her mother had spoken of him, yet they had never met.

Febos writes of finding him, her first impressions and how over time, she came to know or at least accept him as a flawed man and was okay with that. She developed a genuine compassion for him in her essays.

Mostly though, Abandon Me describes the stages of Febos’ flawed obsession with a lover. One that asked of her to make peace with a temper and mind that subtly controlled her: I didn’t care if I was right or wrong. I’m sorry, I whispered.

In this memoir, Febos once again takes us deep into her emotional struggles, seeing how desperately she wanted that love and how she was willing, or rather for a long time, unable, to say anything but yes to her lover, needing that connection, woken up by it in ways she’d not known. It’s addictive that love, that obsessive need and intense connection, especially for those who’d not yet known any other like it. The sensuality, the raw emotion, the incredible highs and lows, it’s all part of it. And when Febos writes, looking can by the truest kind of love, I thought of how she has looked so keenly at her own actions and emotions. I sense a deepest kind of love of self: She’s taken us with her, into dark times, compulsions, anger, loss, fire, passion, and come out the other side with a hard-won love for her own flawed vulnerable and heartfelt self. It’s quite a gift.




Review: Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane by Nin Andrews

Wandering through the basement of the college library, I was looking for prose poetry collections. I didn’t know who or what exactly but I wanted to see what others were doing with the form. The title Midlife Crisis grabbed me and I smiled. Took it out and opened it. Yes. This was a funny book.

The Truth about Penis Envy was the first title I came to. “If Dick really wanted to know, Jane didn’t like his penis. And she sure didn’t want one of her own.”

Yes, the are many Dick jokes, such as the introduction that there was a “Dick sleeping in her bed, a Dick in the White House, and the god of all Dicks was in the heavens above.”

Oh, yes, such a great start. Andrews isn’t afraid to tackle politics, religions, and gender stereotypes of America’s suburbia. She is exactly what I needed in my search for quirky prose poems. This collection is a wonderfully absurd look at the lives of Dick and Jane in bland white Middle American suburbia. It’s not my background but I get it enough to find it hilarious and also moving, pretty touching really.

She’s written a memoir in a sense, a life story expanded from the first grade books of See Spot Run.

Under Creation Stories, she wrote; “of course Dick knows his story. How once upon a time there was an American Dream, and as part of the dram, Dick was created.” The second paragraph on the same page turns darkly funny though. “Each night, while he slept, Jane’s breasts turned into laboratory rats and gnawed tiny homes in Dick’s heart.”

Midlife Crisis has three sections with a hundred compelling and telling titles for each one-page piece. Instructions for a Little Dick on how to Become a Big Dick gives a list of fifteen actions to take, such as Beat Things, Kick Things, Suck Things, Fuck Things, and Kill Things. On the opposite page, we read how Jane also likes things, “especially new things” and that “her therapist suggested Jane was trying to buy a new Jane. But who would new Jane be?”

Midlife Crisis is full of short paragraphs, or list-like questions, some written like an interview, as well the prose of dreams, nightmares, and descriptions of incidents like visiting that therapist. The pages flow easily and effortlessly building a insightful look into what if Dick and Jane had lived into middle age. Yes, there are many plays on words, on sexual double entendres and although the language is simple and straightforward, that light touch builds into a collection quite heart breaking.

I found it silly, laughing out loud, and also certain pieces made me catch my breath, striking home. Andrews combined forms, tone and language with depth – and beautifully. The story of a regular couple of kids from Ohio and look at them now. I felt for them both, even knowing this is a story of the characters from a children’s’ book, yes, it was that insightful. Hilarious, engaging, and striking.

What do I take from this as a writer and reader? The playful use of titles, sections, and form kept the flow of the story moving in a compelling way. It built a tension and depth while making me laugh and think. The thematic narrative arc set the tempo and held all the thoughts and what-if scenarios together. Andrew’s use of simple and witty language, playful, inventive, creative came across as light but she wrote with poignancy.

Midlife Crisis is a wonderful collection of funny, moving stories of Dick and Jane in a unique snapshot rapid-fire format. I’m glad I found it.

Midlife Crisis by Nin Andrews

Del Sol Press, 2005. Short fiction/ Prose poetry/ poetry. $15.95

Midlife Crisis


Book Review: The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondaatje

What is it about this book that is so timeless? The Collected Works of Billy The Kid takes us inside the life, thoughts, desires, rationalisations and memories of this iconic character from the American West on the 1880s.

It’s called a novel on the cover but Ondaatje plays with structure by mixing poetry, prose, photographs and historical accounts. Ondaatje flows between forms to create an in-depth collection. Ondaatje does this so easily, so beautifully that I kept turning pages, and on my second cup of coffee, I was still in bed reading while it rained outside.

Ondaatje researched The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, turned to photographs, dime novels, contemporary newspapers and accounts from all those who came across him. What he gives us is a narrative, a memoir in a sense, one that shifts perspectives and forms, interior and exterior worlds, and all in a concise precise lyrical language. It’s amazing. I loved how each page took me to a new experience or incidence. Part myth, fiction, history and storytelling, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is restrained but energetic.

He captures the language of the 1880s in the syntax and choice of words. Poems are often short and immersive.

MMMMMMMM mm thinking

moving across the world on horses

body split at the edge of their necks

neck sweat eating at my jeans

moving across the world on horses


Each poem or prose stands alone on the page. There is a lot of white space. They are tidily written, aligned at the top and left. He adds photographs. The style of a dime novel. Newspaper cuttings. He plays within the poems, one echoes nicely from the first stanza to the last one that is written in reverse of the first and is as stirring in both.

Garrett was “the ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a Doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope” and “everything equiped to be that rare thing” Ondaatje finished the two page portrait the writing sane assassin five times with no punctuation and ending with sane.

Is it possible to understand the violence of Billy the Kid, one so young, and where did the need or ability to kill come from. “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup – ” Billy and Brewer watched a friend murdered horrifically from a nearby hillside, one that stuck with the boy of eighteen.

Or so says Billy half way into the collection.

With the gentle yet graphic build up of Billy’s story in part written from his perspective and at other times from the women and friends around, I’m there. I trust Ondaatje completely. He writes with such empathy and the internal worlds are fascinating and lyrical. It’s an addictive journey. I couldn’t put the book down. The pauses between moments build up the tension and the desire to know more kept me there. The bite-sized stories, the form, isn’t just a recent invention, which is what I’d thought, it’s timeless. This book is from 1970. So what is it that carries so well? Ondaatje plays with form to suit the needs of each piece. It makes sense to write in broken and disjointed poems for Billy’s emotions as when he takes a woman to bed in the middle of a storm, or to write a simple shorter prose piece about the setting of the barn at the Chissums’ while waiting out a fever with the farm animals and rats.

What am I left with? As with all these reviews of mine, they are more of a personal response. Think of me as a hungry reader and writer looking for permission to write as my instinct demands, always reading as much as possible to find others who have played and experimented in ways, tones, forms and language. This book then is perfect for me right now. Why?

The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is immersive. The language is lyrical, poetic, and detailed and not just for understanding that era. Mixing up structure and form gives an added depth to the content and is not just for show. The emotional strength of the poetry is fed by those changes in form, rhythms and syntax. The combination of styles here works so well that the story affected me deeply. Ondaatje is such a master with words. There is no doubting him. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid kept me turning pages, taking notes, pausing to breathe in an image. I was invested, engaged, and curious. At times I had to put the book down and stare out the window. What more could I ask for as a writer or reader?

 The Collected Works of Billy The Kid

Michael Ondaatje

(Vintage Books, 1970. $11)



The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

“I believe in art the way other people believe in god.”

Lidia Yuknavitch, what can I say about her writing to inspire others to read her novels, memoirs and the essays, including the Misfit Manifesto? I only just came across her and am amazed to find out how much she has published, where she teaches and the life she has lead. How did I not discover her earlier?

Yuknavitch writes with confidence. The Chronology of Water is provocative and evocative, told with authority. Her style is a unique and playful use of space with broken up lines and pages, with sentences running on, or short and sharp; she uses all kinds of form to bring us along. We trust her. We follow her words, they move so easily across memories and empathy for the woman she was, for the people in her life, our hearts open up.

In this memoir, Yuknavitch talks of “when you swim back through your life” and how we all need to find our own tribe and family. Her advice is to “make up stories until you find one that you can live with. Make up stories as if your life depended on it.”

Sentences such as these hold me weeks after reading the memoir. Her knowledge and advice comes from direct experiences of how there is no One Way to find a life that works for you – we all do it differently, and with this she offers us validation. To be true to ourselves.
How though? Well, her writing is as she admits “weird” and to call her books experimental and innovative doesn’t explain her own relationship with stories. She is indeed a “language bandit” and to call her otherwise implies she does this to get attention instead of being a reflex for her. Yuknavitch knows how to use structure, forms, conventions, look at her teaching and educational background and there’s no disputing the fact, she knows literature intimately. When she writes however, what comes out is fluid, unique, raw and poetic. She knows her craft.

At times The Chronology of Water is incredibly immersive and it’s her use of language and sentences that brings the reader deeply and unapologetically into the moment. The messy and emotional and visceral moment.

“Look, I’m not trying to creep you out. Or shock you. I’m trying to be precise. I’m just saying maybe healing looks different for women like me.”

When you pick up her book, be warned, you’re going swimming, going deep, you have to trust her. It’s not always pretty – didn’t I say that about her novel The Smallbacks of Children? Probably, I have a feeling I’ll warn you each time I recommend her books to you. A disclaimer of sorts. I’m okay with that.

The structure is simple in a way, easy to grasp hold of with five sections, each named with a role in swimming and drowning. Pay attention to the section names. The chapter titles are also pretty telling and often funny in a warped and honest way. Your Tax Dollars at Work follows her time on a clean-up crew after a DUI. Another chapter, About Hair and Skin, talks of how she’s collected snippets of hair, “When I get the chance to own hair of someone important to me, I leap forward a little too zealously.” By the end of that short little chapter, how hair is used to cover shame or to remind her of love, you are fully with her when she writes of smelling her mother’s hair and crying.

For me, her work, The Chronology of Water and others, validates my own inclinations, rhythms and how memories and fiction form on the page. The narrative maps in my stories are echoes of writers such as Yuknavitch who gives me permission to write in a style that is true to me instead of staying within conventions for the wrong reasons.

It’s quite a rush to read her memoir, a headrush, bloodrush, taking you into your body, so read it fast, be thorough, scribble notes, and then put it aside. You’ll be back. Each time you come back to it you’ll notice something new, a new image or lyricism or thought that passed you by the last reading.

“This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through. I’m not speaking out of my asshole when I say this. Come in. The water will hold you.”



The Chronology of Water

Lidia Yuknavitch

Hawthorne Book and Literary Arts,

Portland, OR

201 314 pp $16.95


Review: The Smallbacks of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

A review of Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel The Small Backs of Children.


“I see the stories of women but they are always stuck insides the stories of men.”

Yuknavitch breaks that state immediately with the opening page: Disambiguation, a word that refers to mythology as well as to “a woman who is the source of inspiration.”

Art and mythology fill these stories that are dark and compelling, stories written from the body, within the language of the body. There is nothing nice, normal, or easy. The situation starts with a photograph taken of a girl as her family and home explodes behind her in Bosnia. That’s the easiest part of the novel. Trust me.

The plot follows the desire to find and adopt that child. However, the multiple characters involved in that motivation come from such creative, messed up, raw, disturbed and disturbing lives that is not as easy as hoped.
Yuknavitch breaks other rules and expectations with confidence, telling me to trust her. She knows the forms, the usual arc of a novel, the forms and choses, consciously choses otherwise. There is a reason, I trusted her from the start.  Each character is called after creative roles such as the Poet, Playwright, Photographer, Filmmaker and Writer. Chapters shift perspective, tense, and even form. There are poems, plays, split pages with parallel stories of the same experience, one person’s view on the left, the other on the right. You, the reader, have to pay attention. Read carefully. Take breaks. Devour the words slowly. Other times, when Yuknavitch knows the essence is so important, she paces the reader, one sentence per page, pause, absorb, turn the page, read, absorb.
The sexuality is raw, unashamed, violent and detailed with the stickiness, stench, and sweat of passion shared, taken, and truly in all of Yuknavitch’s work “desire is larger than god.”

The painter talks of “passion, chaos, death” within his art, using his bodily fluids as much as the paints themselves.

The performance artist, another of this extended family of friends, writes in jagged and fragmented sentences, suiting her internal processes in the past and present situation. When she receives a letter, her emotional state is disjointed, stunned and in shock. The sentences are short, abrupt, the verbs and adjectives, her use of language captures that state completely. “Her chest hollows. Her hair. Her hands. Nothing. Useless. Thoughtless.”

There’s nothing expected in this book, not in the development of events, the characters’ perspectives and histories, or the ending. You’ll be taken along and even if this is a world beyond yours, you’ll trust Yuknavitch as she writes with authority, compassion, insight and intelligence. Her stories take us to the “belly of things” – basements, dungeons, violent sex, desires, and borders of all kinds. You’ll follow her willingly.

She asks, “where do any of us come from? Is it a country? A mother? Or is it perhaps an image, a song, a story inside which we feel…named?”

Yes. All of the above.  For as she says, “art, she is in me.”


HarperCollins Publishers, NY


224 pp. $24.99




Review: Whip Smart by Melissa Febos

Whip Smart

 A Memoir

A unique growing up story, Febos writes of her desires, addictions, and work as a dominatrix in New York City. She’d craved nothing beyond a taste for power, attention, control, and felt like she was hardwired to take risks. “I had no idea what I wanted. Character-building life experience?” She was a high achieving college student, an addict, and “cultural anthropologist”, or so she told herself at the time. Her writer’s mind has grappled with that darkness and drive that few live with and she’s unsparingly honest in her reflections. “I used to feel that I didn’t deserve to be an addict – my childhood hadn’t been fucked up enough.” You have to admire her honesty. I do.

Whip Smart stands out for other reasons too, it’s her intelligence, insights, and the world she takes the reader deep within. Seductive, frightening for some, familiar to others, Febos is unflinching. There are clear almost clinical descriptions of the work done, the torture, tools of the trade, and even the boredom that made her switch it up as time wore on, taking more risks, shedding more of her self-imposed boundaries.

“I have always loved having secrets.” No shit. Febos lived it to extremes and then tells us all about them in fairly detached yet empathic manner. She forgives and understands herself. There must be a great sense of peace there.

The structure is simple, Whip Smart is chronological with memories of family and childhood slipping into her years at the dungeon, all easily flowing from one time frame to another. The language is straight forward with no loss of clarity for lyricism. She keeps it real. The men, her clients, and their needs are told explicitly and in detail. Her reactions to them as well. “As I stood there in the smell, looking down at him, my stomach lurched. I didn’t vomit, but that lurching motion continued, spreading through my body, jolting my vision with ripples.”

Why are her actions so resonant for me? It’s not a culture I know directly but many of my friends have been sex workers. It’s more that her impulses and the rationalisations speak to my interior life. The need to take risks, to stay awake, to be independent and self-sufficient. So, yes, her story is reminiscent of my own twenties, leaving London and hitching across the States alone.

And her descriptions of addictions and drugs stay realistic, at times brutal, and at others she simply tells of the rush that comes. “A speedball hits you like a huge, warm wave. The back of your neck throbs, your ears ring, and everything inside of you muffles while everything outside of you sharpens.”

There are no obvious reasons that drove her so far into living on the edge, the multiplicity of how she presented herself and how she perceived herself. There are so many layers in Whip Smart. Febos has a strong compassionate voice, one that recognises her own actions for the lies we tell ourselves to keep stepping forward, as well as her need and fight to get sober, the moments of clarity that hit her, and the challenge to stay true to being a good person, in actions and inside herself. “What traumas had I suffered that led me there? I surmised that it didn’t really matter, just as it hadn’t mattered why I became an addict, or whether I was born one or not. It just was, and where it would lead now mattered more.”
The trick in reading unflinching memoirs like this is to remember we don’t know Febos. There is so much more to her than this story, these details. We don’t know the writer, not really. There are boundaries and limits to what Febos wrote and we have to respect those so if ever you meet her, see the rest of her, listen to her now, and don’t get lost in a well written and compassionate memoir. Or rather, I should remember this. It’s always easy to get lost in that written intimacy.

All in all, Whip Smart is a powerful book, well told, and her experiences are intriguing, unsettling and inspiring. Whatever your own path is, Febos’ tale will help you find self-acceptance and peace, hopefully. Probably.




Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press, NY

2010 278 pp ($24.99)


The Importance of Book Reviews

After about ten reviews, Amazon starts including books in their suggestions “also bought” and “you might like” lists.

After more reviews, Amazon is more likely to spotlight the book. This creates a massive increase in visibility and sales. We all want that, right?

Reviews and sales go hand in hand.
The problem for my own books is that most are sold by word of mouth, at events and the such. Then emails and FB posts/ messages tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Then that’s it. Which is wonderful to hear. Please though, can you take a moment and go on Amazon and click on Van Life or any of my books and leave a review. It only takes a moment. I need your help to find the recognition that is beyond winning best fiction with NM/AZ Book Awards in 2012 and 2016, plus being a finalist in 2014 for another. Great Northwest Book Contest awarded Van Life Grand Winner for best nonfiction.
Until I have some reviews though, Amazon ignores these books, which will stay under the radar and only appear if readers are actively searching for my name. The awards don’t help except reassure me that I didn’t waste my time putting it out there.
Seriously, I’d like to find more readers. Whether you liked the book or not, a review will get it noticed. After ten reviews then the sales hikes, the promotion by Amazon, it grows tremendously. But only after review start coming in.
So, yes, please take a moment and leave a customer review. It will make a difference.

Thank you. Thank you.

Yes, thank you.