Book Review: Moira Egan’s Hot Flash Sonnets

Hot-FLash-Final-CoverMoira Egan writes the conversational, wry poems in Hot Flash Sonnets from an age where “this turning fifty thing is looming large,” where menopause is the treacherous bridge between the prime of life and old age. “I’ve yet to find the cream that tackles wrinkles / and at the same time vanquishes my pimples,” she writes. Yet underneath this tongue-in-cheek humor runs the current of real loss.

From the outset, Egan’s speaker negotiates a line between “insider” and “outsider,” oscillating between in-the-know sass and bewilderment. The collection opens with the lines, “Our mothers never told us there’d be days / (and weeks and months and years) like this; you think / they took a vow of silence?” Between jokes about mood swings and descriptions of hot flashes, she muses on the humiliating need for personal lubricant and the small daily failures of her body, each an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. Not only is her body failing her, but society—including mothers, friends, and doctors—has failed her by inadequately preparing her for this stage of life. “[W]hy don’t they tell us it gets worse?” she asks plaintively.

Poems titled “Insomnia” and “Mood Swing” are interspersed as a running thread throughout the collection, mirroring the intrusion/recurrence of these two menopausal symptoms in the speaker’s new reality, her changed daily life. Each take on these themes builds a different metaphor, without becoming heavy-handed. Egan compares her menopausal self to a storm; to the sweat that breaks over you as you step out of a cool marble palazzo into the sun or eat spicy vindaloo; to an angry cat awakened from a nap, ordinarily sweet but made “monstrous.”

Despite poem titles like “I Can’t Do That Anymore,” “Things That Disappear,” or “And Into Ashes All My Lust?”, this collection is not devoid of hope. Egan deftly avoids the contrary traps of slick cuteness and self-pitying despair. Instead, the poems are light and smart; cynical at times, but in an honest, rather than overbearing, manner. Her speaker is self-aware in a way that comes off as snarky, rather than navel-gazing—“I’m trying (pass the wine) not to be cynical. / Tomorrow (promise) I’ll hit the elliptical.” The speaker combats despondency with wry humor: “I focus on my third-eye chakra, deep- / ly indigo, shaped almost like a tear, / in fact, shaped very like the ones I’ll shed / if I don’t get some rest soon.”

Comparisons may be odious, but it’s hard not to compare this collection to Marilyn Hacker’s conversational-yet-virtuosic sonnets, which manage to combine the profound and profane, the exalted and the everyday, in a single breath. Deeply grounded in the body, these poems mourn the body’s failings, attempt to cope with its changes, and confront the loss of youth, while also celebrating that youth: “these desert days leave me wildly nostalgic / for blissful nights when we were twenty-one / and whipped the K-Y Jelly out for fun.”

And speaking of lubricant (there’s a sentence you don’t often get to write in a review!), Egan’s frank discussion of the body extends to its failings, as in the poem “Femystique®,” which discusses a product that’s the female equivalent of Viagra. Female desire, a topic largely drowned out by its male counterpart in our culture, is too often branded as mysterious (as in the name of this titular feminine product)—incomprehensible, complex, mystical, perhaps even mythical. But Egan writes subtly yet frankly about the “promise to swap (noun) want for (verb) want,” interweaving her admission of aging with an admonition not to let branding (“the sleek pink tube and Sixties font”) define herself, at any stage of life.

Egan tosses in a fair share of Italian, French, and German words, but never as ornaments. Each instance is used in a manner appropriate to each poem: for example, the exclamation “E poi, all’imporivviso, / la tempesta!” right before a bolt of lightning—the Italian words fit perfectly in this moment of operatic drama. I do wonder whether including Greek words—not phonetic, but written in the Greek alphabet—is really necessary. Egan only does this once, but the inclusion of foreign characters was off-putting to me. With Romance languages or transliterations, I can at least sound out the words and/or “gist” the meaning, whether or not I speak the language; the Greek was all Greek, to me.

The most impressively acrobatic poem in the collection, “Forgetfulness,” is a jaw-dropping feat of formal verse-writing. Each line of this sonnet defines a term listed in a column to the right side of the poem, and those terms follow their own ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme, as well. Nor are these easy rhymes like “love” and “above”; no, Egan rhymed words like “Mnemosyne” (“Goddess of Memory”) with “ontology” (“how it’s supposed to be”), or “Radziwill” (“pretty actress sister of Jackie O”) with “xanthophyll” (“leaves’ autumnal colors, brown & yellow”). The inventiveness of poems like this one show us (rather than, as the aphorism goes, telling us) that, despite it all, the speaker is a quick-witted, lively, and creative powerhouse. And perhaps this is what Egan is showing not only the reader—not even primarily the reader—but herself. Throughout this collection, the speaker relies on her ability to create art as a means of affirming her essential identity in the midst of crisis.

Online Editor’s note: Moira’s “Dryness Sonnet” appeared in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. Moira also worked with Clarinda Harriss to compile Hot Sonnets, an anthology of modern sonnetry.

Dear Elvira: Bad Writing and Every Beholder’s Eye

Elvira Rivers

Elvira Rivers

Before we bade adieu to audacity (the theme of our Summer 2012 issue) and began to entertain doubt (the theme of our Winter 2013 issue), I slipped in something that any literary review of repute requires: an advice column, complete with a fictional columnist. If you haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce Elvira Rivers, whose brief bio appears below, and promptly present the current query.

Dear Elvira,

At a recent book bash, I became increasingly incensed by a bunch of editors carrying on about bad writing. Who do these elitists think they are, making pronouncements about what constitutes a crappy manuscript? I’m becoming convinced that all they want is to prevent people like me, who won’t waste time obtaining an MFA, from joining their exclusive club. You seem like a sensible sort. Wouldn’t you agree that bad writing lies entirely in the eye of the beholder?



Dear Fred,

I am sensible, so I do agree. Bad writing lies in the eye of the beholder. Every beholder. Smack-dab in the eye, making it as easy for even an editor to spot as, say, bad paving.

You see, while I reside in a picturesque place, the road that takes me to and fro is far from pleasing. And the imperfections there are painfully apparent to me even though I never wasted time obtaining a civil engineering degree or even accruing the minimum qualifications required to apply for a flagger position on a respectable road crew. And they are obvious to everyone else in the environs except, apparently, the poor paver.

What often jumps out first in both bad writing and paving is a lack of proper preparation. If a surface is cracked or offers inadequate structural support and our writer refuses to lift a finger (or move a mouse) to correct this, defects will inevitably emerge through the best-constructed overlay and consequent deformations can cause catastrophic failure.

If said writer isn’t ready in terms of craft, obtaining an MFA couldn’t hurt; however, if the shortfall concerns subject matter, graduate school rarely helps. An MFA hailing from, say, Chappaqua who decides to write stories about, say, meth labs in rural Michigan is at a distinct disadvantage to, say, Bonnie Jo Campbell, the author of the award-winning American Salvagewho’s lived in the Kalamazoo area all her life. (And, incidentally, has an MFA in creative writing, as well as a BA in philosophy and an MA in mathematics.)

And, while some would say that writing only about what one knows would merely result in a surfeit of stories about English professors seducing MFA students, those someones rarely insist that writers of such limited experience are as assiduous in filling the cracks in their knowledge as, say, Ian McEwan, who–at the height of his career–spent two entire years–as a matter of course–diligently work-shadowing a neurosurgeon before starting his critically acclaimed novel Saturday. (And, yes, he also has the equivalent of an MFA.)

Bad paving, bad driving, Oella Ave

Bad writing is as easy to spot as bad paving and bad driving on Oella Avenue (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Now, put a bad driver on that precarious pavement and there’s sure to be some serious trouble. You see, my particular road is narrow, sometimes turning into a single lane, with steep climbs and descents and sudden sharp turns. Inexperienced or impaired drivers readily put everything in their path in peril, as do those overconfident ones who show no consideration for objects or persons.

I regularly see the former on my street, their shaky hands at the wheel, wandering across lanes, running out of road and rolling down embankments. The latter I remember from my Boston and Cambridge days, their tall trucks stuck under overpasses on Storrow and Memorial Drives along the Charles River, where large signs say, “CLEARANCE 11FT 0IN.” They’re the same ones that I now observe attempting impossible turns into access roads and ending up wedged between street signs and utility poles, their goods, alas, undelivered.

In bad writing, it’s equally easy to see when an author is out of control. Some use the excuse of automatic writing, citing Jack Kerouac’s notion of “first thought, best thought” and his refusal to revise. (And add that Kerouac was a college dropout.) But a closer look at good writers shows, more often than not, that’s a carefully crafted illusion. In her memoir, Joyce Johnson–who definitely did know Jack–revealed that he revised regularly and rigorously. Which is why his seminal novel On the Road didn’t end up in a ditch.

Similarly, it’s hard to miss the sort of bad writing that occurs when an over-confidant author under-delivers, almost by design. I’m not referring so much to brash early efforts such as A Clockwork Orange that acclaimed authors later repudiate as to works penned at any point in a career that show little regard for readers because, one can only assume, such authors feel that they are so patently brilliant that they deserve a pass. Consider McEwan, whom I normally admire. With Sweet Tooth, he correctly calculated that the clumsy contrivances used in lieu of more potent prose wouldn’t be called out by more than one or so critics the way that they would’ve been were he someone of lesser repute.

Bear in mind that at the beginning of each work–no matter how outré–the author enters into a contract with the reader to render certain goods, the literary equivalent of kitchen cabinets. When that author has the arrogance to violate that agreement through artifices such as dei ex machina, contrived epiphanies or trick endings, the reader has the right to feel cheated. Not that I don’t delight in surprises. But they only constitute good writing when, as occurs with minor masterpieces such as George Saunders’ “Puppy” and Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party,” the reader is complicit every single step of the way.

Speaking of good writing, I maintain that the transportation analogy also works there. It’s as hard to miss as trains rumbling along the track across the river, parallel to my ruined road. In a Poets & Writers piece, a literary agent seconds what another has put in his Publishers Marketplace profile: that what he looks for is a book that makes him miss his train stop. (Actually, it’s “subway stop,” but that’s more or less along the same lines.)

Sincerely yours,


PS I could’ve added bad weather, which typically comes from getting too much of an otherwise good thing, to the bad paving and driving but then it would’ve been necessary to address overwriting, which would’ve been a bit excessive here. Fortunately, that and other cases are covered by the likes of David Sedaris, George Saunders and Margaret Atwood in the video Bad Writing, which can be purchased for a pittance on Amazon.

About Elvira

Elvira Rivers, une femme d’un certain age, was born on a certain date in a certain place. Her father was the storied Tony Thames-Avon, a British actor and playwright, her mother the celebrated Latvian beauty Daiļa Daugava-Gauja. When Thames-Avon-Daugava-Gauja met Percy Pocomoke-Patuxent, she made surname consolidation a condition of marriage. The Rivers were inseparable until their divorce two years later.

Elvira went on to cure the common cold, design couturier gowns and write The Great Latvian Novel, while Percy vacillated between painting and poetry, then poetry and prose. He eventually acquired a Harvard MBA and left to run the London office of the venerable Boston investment bank Duck & Cover. Back in the USA, he was convicted on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy and is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

To encourage her former husband to return to the literature and art he so loved once, Elvira sent him frequent letters. After finding herself uncharacteristically incapable of making ends meet–her nest egg had suffered substantial cracks during the 2008 crash–she approached Little Patuxent Review about writing a column helping creative types such as Percy better navigate life’s unruly waters. She has been with us ever since.

Note: Elvira is not related to the late mother of our online editor even thought her first name and the middle name of that witty woman are identical. She is also not connected to the winking woman shot by Ewing Galloway, though the resemblance is remarkable.

Concerning Craft: Jennifer McGaha

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Jennifer McGaha

Jennifer McGaha

Please meet Jennifer McGaha, a western North Carolina native who writes about Appalachia.

Her stories have appeared in LUMINA, Blue Mesa Review, The Portland Review, Still and New Southerner. She teaches in the Great Smokies Writing Program at University of North Carolina Ashville and at Brevard College, where she serves as the creative nonfiction editor for Pisgah Review. She enjoys mountain biking, hiking and running with her five dogs.

Jennifer’s story “Deviance” was first published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. We invite you to read the story here and consider what she’s shared with us about the writing of that piece:

I come from a family of great storytellers. When I think about what to write, I gravitate toward stories that I have heard over and over at family gatherings or that come up when I’m out with friends and we’re on our second round of margaritas. “Deviance” is one of those stories.

In it, I am 24 years old and working as part of a research team studying the availability of services for mentally disturbed adolescents. My boss, who has become a friend, keeps a fifth of vodka in her desk and tells me that she hired me because I confessed in my interview that I was fascinated by deviance. I am newly married–for the second time–and pregnant. When I am seven months into my pregnancy, my boss sends me out to interview a 16-year-old kid whose dad is on death row. Halfway through the interview, the kid propositions me.

I began “Deviance” by free writing about that experience. When I asked myself what the story was really about, it quickly became clear that it was about the fact that I have always been drawn to the darker sides of people’s personalities—my own, the men that I have dated and others. Once I realized that, I let the form move in an organic way, which was how the flashbacks came to be.

Flashbacks mimic the way that we experience things in real time—not chronologically but in relation to all our other experiences. In this piece, the flashbacks evolved as a way of talking about how my past experiences affected my responses to this boy. For example, I am looking at this kid but remembering a similar boy from my not-so-distant past, a boy I dated in high school.

Through this process of writing and remembering, it also became clear to me that the story was also about a time in my life when I made a choice about the kind of a person that I wanted to be, the kind of mother that I was going to be. By juxtaposing certain memories with the narrative, I hoped that the reader could see this as well.

In oral storytelling, there are often moments when the narrator slows down or moves outside of the immediate action and leaves the listener suspended just long enough to feel a certain tension. This strategic use of the pause, a technique that we easily recognize when we hear it, has a counterpart in the written word. In writing, pauses create space for the narrator to think, reflect and feel.

In “Deviance,” I created tension during my interview with this wayward boy by interrupting dialogue with observations. Here is an example:

Ryan took a step toward me, and I realized he had said something.

“What?” I asked.

“Do you want to meet up with me later?” he repeated.

I looked hard at him to be sure I had understood correctly. His tone was casual, but his expression was not.

“I can’t do that,” I said.

 “Why not?” he asked.

He moved closer, his eyes never leaving mine. My baby kicked my ribs.

“Do you want to finish this another time?” I asked.

“Why not?” he asked. “Why can’t you go out with me?  I won’t tell anyone.”

With his left hand, he reached out and caught the billowing hem of my top. His eyes were piercing and raw.

“I can’t,” I said, pulling away. “There are rules against that.”

“So?” he said.

The baby kicking my ribs and Ryan grabbing my shirt hem interrupt the dialogue just long enough for the reader to feel the tension that the narrator feels. Something is not right here. Something just below the surface is dangerous. And maybe it is the boy who is dangerous, or maybe there is some greater, less tangible danger present.

Finally, I wanted the ending to bring the reader back to the conflict within the narrator. I remembered that when I quit the job just before my son was born, I told my boss that I wanted to stay at home so I could perform domestic tasks such as matching my husband’s socks. This illustrated my earnestness and naïveté.

I interrupted it with a flashback that reflected that tug between my younger, more careless self and the part of me that wanted to be a responsible wife and mother:

“You want to match your husband’s socks?” Sylvia asked.

It sounded strange, even to me. I stared over her head to the pink magnolia tree outside the window. One by one, the blossoms were unfolding and scattering onto the ground below. A delicate, pink blanket covered the grass.

My husband, David, and I had dated for a while when I was in high school, but things didn’t work out, and a few years later I married a man I had known for only three months, a man who was affectionate and passionate one minute, relentlessly brutal the next. That marriage lasted less than a year, and then my baby and I were back at home, living with my parents. David and I hadn’t spoken in two years when I called him one night.

“David?” I asked when he answered.

“Hey, Jennifer,” he said.

Later that night, at his apartment, David sat in an armchair, and I sat on the sofa across from him, my infant daughter stretched across my lap. We talked as if no time had passed, as if this happened every day, a divorced woman with a baby coming back to visit a guy she dated in high school. Later, David walked me outside. It was January, and the wind cut through the trees. Snow drifted past the streetlights. Snuggling my daughter against his black leather jacket, David rocked from foot to foot while I searched through my purse for my keys. And when I took her from his arms, she was warm, her tiny hands balled into fists against her cheeks, and she smelled like Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and leather. Two years later, David and I were married.

“Yes,” I said, looking directly at Sylvia now. “Yes. I want to match my husband’s socks.”

And then Sylvia finally uttered the word her mouth had been forming.

“Oh,” she said, nodding rapidly as if to silence me. “Oh.”

There is no strong resolution here, just the suggestion that my love for these two people—and, implicitly, for my unborn son—will be the guiding force in this next stage of my life. The result is a piece that may pose more questions than it answers.

As a writer, I struggle with the impulse to assign meaning or bring resolution to everything that happens. In several versions, I included a paragraph about my infant son at the beginning. It was full of motherly love and illustrated that I turned out to be a decent parent. I wanted to wrap it up from the beginning, to let the reader know how things turned out. However, this was not the right place for that paragraph.

And maybe that is what separates art from its scholarly cousins. In academia, postulation is a means to an end. In art, the questions themselves are worthy.

Note: If you enjoyed Jennifer’s story and want to read more prose and poetry from our Audacity issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Book Review: Michael Kimball’s Big Ray

Michael Kimball, Big Ray

Michael Kimball’s new novel

You know you ought to look away. The Brahma bull is jack-knifing like a crazed 18-wheeler. Any moment now, it will throw the rider up into the air like just another clod of dirt. Then as he lies flat on his back, trying to remember how to breathe, it will bear down on him with 1200 pounds of unthinking rage and crush him. You tell your eyes to shut, but they stay open, as frozen as the hapless rider.

That’s the experience Big Ray, Michael Kimball’s latest novel, brings to the reader. Only this time, the bull is the author’s father, 500-plus pounds of unreflective rage. And it is in the role of the imperiled observer that Kimball enjoys his greatest success. Take the following, for example:

My father used to do this thing when we were in public and he didn’t want to be seen yelling at me or hitting me. He would put his arm around me and rest his hand on my shoulder in a way that must have looked affectionate to anybody who saw it. Then he would grip some muscle in my shoulder so hard that it would make me seize up.

The details of obesity also are horrifying and finely observed, as in:

Really fat people move in different ways than people who are not really fat. For instance, my father had to stand up in stages. Since he didn’t really fit most chairs or on most couches, he often sat on the floor. To get up, he needed to hold on to something he could push or pull–a door, a chair, or another piece of furniture. Then he would roll over onto his side and up onto his knees while pushing or pulling his upper body up. From his knees, he would get one foot flat on the ground and then the other foot. Then he would straighten his legs up. Once his legs were under him, he could raise his upper body until he was standing upright. Once he was standing, he didn’t move for a while. He had to rest and catch his breath.

If the novel has a weakness, it lies in how these richly observed passages sometimes are compromised by sentences that repeat the conclusion the reader has undoubtedly already drawn. For example, after describing how his father taught him to play poker while using the child’s piggy bank money–and winning it all away from the child–the author adds, “I learned how much I liked gambling and how much I didn’t like my father.” In another passage, the author muses, “Sometimes, I try to figure out how different I might have been if my father had been nicer to me. Would I try as hard as I do? Would I be happier than I am?” While Kimball’s interest in these questions is understandable, they interrupt the flow of the novel and seem more appropriate for the analyst’s couch.

On other occasions, however, Kimball combines photographic childhood detail with the stepped-back observations of the adult in a riveting way, as in the following passage:

Once, my mother and sister and I were all sitting at a picnic table–with the summer food all lined up in the middle–and we were waiting for my father before we started eating. He sat down on one end and the whole picnic table tipped–the food all sliding toward him and onto the ground before he could stand back up. What I’m trying to say is this: All three of us together wasn’t [sic] enough against my father.

But the compelling nature of the character is never in doubt. Big Ray crashes through the 182 pages of this slim volume, pushing everything else to the side to make way for his bulk. One week later, this reviewer was still having nightmares about him.

Online editor’s note:

Michael Kimball

Michael Kimball (Photo: Rachel Bradley)

Michael Kimball was born in Lansing, Michigan, studied at Michigan State University and New York University and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

In addition to Big Ray, Michael has authored the novels Us, Dear Everybody and The Way the Family Got Away. His books have been translated into a dozen languages, including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean and Greek. His shorter works have appeared in Bomb and New York TyrantHe is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple documentaries, the 510 Readings and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.

Big Ray was named an Oprah Book of the Week, featured in The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and the like and excerpted in The Collagist. Michael provided a context for Big Ray in the Huffington Post piece “Obesity Book: The Underrepresentation of Overweight Characters” and showed another aspect of his succinct writing style in “Audacious Ideas: Postcard Life Stories,” posted here.

A Tribute to Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton lived in Columbia, Maryland, where Little Patuxent Review is published. In 1979, Lucille became the second woman and first African-American to serve as Poet Laureate of Maryland. In 1988, she was a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry finalist for Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems. In 2000, she received the National Book Foundation Poetry Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. In 2007, she was the first African-American woman to be awarded the Poetry Foundation Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her body of work. Along the way, she even shared an Emmy Award as co-writer of the TV special Free to Be…You and Me. Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010 after waging a prolonged battle with cancer.

There’s a lot to say about Lucille, but her poetry speaks for itself. And now that I’ve gone gray and put on pounds, certain poems, in particular, speak to me. Here’s one where, as Margalit Fox noted in The New York Times, the historical and personal converge:

homage to my hips
Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

But you can’t fully appreciate this poem until you see Lucille read it, so here she is:


Yesterday, Little Patuxent Review people–Editor Laura Shovan and Contributing Editors Linda Joy Burke and Susan Thornton Hobby–got together with poets Virginia Crawford and Edgar Silex as well as Lucille’s youngest daughter, Alexia Clifton, to stage a tribute to the poet and person that they knew and loved. The event not only included readings from the newly released The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 but also a few on-the-spot poems that some audience members had created in response to Lucille’s poems.

The event was held during the 2012 Baltimore Book Festival in the CityLit tent and was included as part of the 100 Thousand Poets for Change annual global initiative. Here’s a quick look, thanks to photos taken by Laura and daughter Julia as well as Sam Schmitt:

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According to Laura, “It was a great panel discussion. Many people approached me about how much they enjoyed it. Even my mother, who does not read poetry, was so fascinated that she came home and read Lucille’s Collected Poems for about an hour.”

Note: Lucille Clifton was featured in our Summer 2008 Childhood issue. We introduced you to our partner for the Clifton event in “Meet the Neighbors: CityLit Project.” You can catch Won’t You Celebrate With Me? Honoring the Life and Poetic Legacy of Lucille Cliftona photography exhibit, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Dear Elvira: Regarding [Literary] Diets and Cats

Elvira Rivers

Elvira Rivers

Before we bid adieu to audacity (the theme of our Summer 2012 issue) and begin to entertain doubt (the theme of our Winter 2013 issue), I’ve slipped in something any literary review of repute requires: an advice column, complete with a fictional columnist. So without further ado, allow me to introduce Elvira Rivers, whose brief bio appears below, and share her response to our first query.

Dear Elvira,

My precious pup Pudgie was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome and put on a strict diet. In a matter of months, he not only lost a substantial amount of weight but also regained his masculine swagger. I attempted to emulate his regimen, but to no avail. I’m a literary publisher and avid reader and have neither the time nor the temperament for calorie-counting. Are there any relevant books you could recommend?

Best regards,


PS I’m also attempting to write a novel but find I can’t maintain concentration. Perhaps you could suggest some nutritional supplement that might be beneficial in this regard.

Dear Ted,

In keeping with the time-honored principle formulated by William of Ockham, I always recommend beginning with the simplest solution, obtained in the simplest manner.

Thus, for starters, I offer a single paragraph from Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington, written in the voice of one Agnes Hawkins. Mrs. Hawkins is not only well-versed in your métier, having worked at postwar London publishing houses where people are entirely mad, but also shares your predicament, having put on pounds. True to form, she figures out how to reduce her girth as efficaciously as she learns to reduce hack Hector Bartlett, a “pisseur de copie,” to the ridiculous. This is what occurs after she considers her role at MacIntosh & Tooley and takes a look at herself in her nightdress:

From that night I decided to eat and drink half. Only half of everything I normally ate, in any circumstances. And I decided to tell nobody at all about my plan. Just to say, if pressed, that I’d had enough. And just to consume half, or perhaps even a quarter, until I reached a reasonable weight and size. And I started next morning eating less, drinking less.

While Mrs. Hawkins succeeds swimmingly with the diet that she devised and I whole-heartedly recommend, I must add that Spark, though ending up in the same place–Florence, Italy–failed to achieve the same outcome. Shortly before death at age 88, she had recovered from a nervous breakdown brought on by reliance on diet pills and cups of strong coffee in place of regular meals. Would that writers took a fraction of the care in considering their own actions that they routinely lavish on those of their characters!

Moving on to your other concern, let me start by saying that the only supplement I recommend without reservation is The Times Literary Supplement and again turn to Mrs. Hawkins. Here, with apologies to Pudgie, is how it goes when a retired brigadier general claims he couldn’t possibly write a book because his concentration is so poor:

“For concentration,” I said, “you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?”

“Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.”

So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of the cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

Three years later, the military man sends Mrs. Hawkins a copy of his published war memoirs, complete with a photo of him at his desk with a large alley cat called “Grumpy” sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. The inscription thanks Mrs. Hawkins for her advice, without which, the author openly acknowledges, the book would not have been written.

In an aside to her readers, Mrs. Hawkins allows:

The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.

So, based on the sound advice regarding diets and cats that I have provided, I fully expect that in due time you will send me something similar to the brigadier general’s as a memento. I look forward to seeing 50 percent of you depicted on the dust jacket, together with a half-full plate of a photogenic culinary delicacy and, at safe distance, a serene cat lounging under a light. Naturally, inside content of some literary value would be a boon.

Sincerely yours,


PS If you hold out hope of my actually reading your novel, please ensure that it is available in some standard downloadable format accessible to my tablet.

About Elvira

Elvira Rivers, une femme d’un certain age, was born on a certain date in a certain place. Her father was the storied Tony Thames-Avon, a British actor and playwright, her mother the celebrated Latvian beauty Daiļa Daugava-Gauja. When Thames-Avon-Daugava-Gauja met Percy Pocomoke-Patuxent, she made surname consolidation a condition of marriage. The Rivers were inseparable until their divorce two years later.

Elvira went on to cure the common cold, design couturier gowns and write The Great Latvian Novel, while Percy vacillated between painting and poetry, then poetry and prose. He eventually acquired a Harvard MBA and left to run the London office of the venerable Boston investment bank Duck & Cover. Back in the USA, he was convicted on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy and is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

To encourage her former husband to return to the literature and art he so loved once, Elvira sent him frequent letters. After finding herself uncharacteristically incapable of making ends meet–her nest egg had suffered substantial cracks during the 2008 crash–she approached Little Patuxent Review about writing a column helping creative types such as Percy better navigate life’s unruly waters. She has been with us ever since.

Note: Elvira is not related to the late mother of our online editor even thought her first name and the middle name of that witty woman are identical. She is also not connected to the winking woman shot by Ewing Galloway, though the resemblance is remarkable.

Concerning Craft: Shirley Brewer

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Shirley J. Brewer. Shirley is a Baltimore, MD poet and educator. Her work has appeared in The Cortland ReviewThe Innisfree Poetry JournalPearl, The Comstock Review, Loch Raven Review and Passager. Her chapbook A Little Breast Music was published in 2008. A second poetry book, After Words, will be out in 2013.

We published her “Fairy Tale, Interrupted” in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. Here she is reading that poem and one other at our launch event:

And here’s what she says went into the writing of “Fairy Tale, Interrupted”:

Fairy tales have always fascinated me. The lure of a prince on horseback emerging from a forest captured my imagination. In second grade, I began writing my own, bringing them to school. My teacher encouraged me. My fairy tales, alas, came to an unhappy end. When I reached high-school age, I tossed them. A decision I now regret.

The first movies I recall seeing were Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I loved Cinderella. Befriended by a fairy godmother, she makes it to the ball, meets her prince. Despite setbacks, the proverbial happy ending prevails. As children, we revel in joyful conclusions. We want life to work out. Magic-wand intervention helps. Cinderella continued to mesmerize me. In 1998, I attended a poetry workshop in Ireland and returned with one souvenir: a glass slipper on a glass base. In 2000, I studied poetry in Italy and brought back a Cinderella CD in Italian.

I wrote “Fairy Tale, Interrupted” in Kendra Kopelke’s Lyric Spirit class at the University of Baltimore. I wanted to explore Cinderella as an un-fairy tale. The poem is only 15 lines, written in five tercets. Each stanza ends with a rhyming word: “stair,” “air,” “hair,” “impaired,” “where.” I don’t recall orchestrating the rhymes. The poem seemed to want to go in that direction. I liked referring to Cinderella as “the babe.” It seems deliciously disrespectful, especially for a writer who worshipped the classic tale. In the third stanza, the speaker admonishes Cinderella, calls her a “little twit.” The only time I’ve ever used “twit” in a poem, and it felt exactly right. In the fourth stanza, the speaker dares to curse Cinderella. This is a darker version of the story. The glass slipper, carriage, fancy gown are mocked as superficial. Even the fairy godmother is extraneous. What’s important is staying with the prince. The poem addresses the importance of learning to prioritize and listening to one’s inner voice.

If I explore my perspective of the Cinderella story, I must acknowledge my experience with time and clocks. As a two-year-old, I appeared on the front page of the Rochester Times-Unionin my crib, holding a clock–reminding readers to turn back their clocks that fall. Must have been an omen. For years, I struggled with time, developed a reputation for being late–to school, work, appointments. I always seemed to be in my own dreamy time zone. I came to dislike clocks and their brutal numerical insistence. I’m happy to report that I’ve vastly improved my punctuality these days. I was even 45 minutes early for the LPR Audacity issue launch event!

In the poem, the speaker–okay, it’s me–gets to chastise Cinderella for paying too much attention to the clock. Damn the clock! I say to her, to myself, to the readers. What’s important will be found when we ignore the o’clock-ness of our lives. When I write, I lose myself in time over and over, and it feels wonderful, wonderful.

Sure, my way might ruin the tale, cutting out a thrilling part. Who wouldn’t miss the antics of obnoxious stepsisters trying to jam unsightly feet into a dainty glass slipper? But c’mon over. I have that slipper I purchased in Ireland. We can admire it, listen to Cinderella in Italian, talk about the poetry process and explore the forest of our psyches. Never, ever–not even once–will we pay any attention to the clock.

Recently, Shirley started a new venture, The Poet’s Coach, where her coming to terms with time should come in handy. Check our Announcements page for details.

Note: If you like fairy tales, you might want to read my essay “Fairy Tales, Full Circle.”