Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: November 2015

The latest from Kathy Flann, Kate Livie, and Nancy Murray.

Get a Grip
Kathy Flann (Texas Review Press)

There’s something about Flann’s characters that stays with you. The protagonists in her short stories range across the spectrum of age, social class, and life experience, so it may seem puzzling to feel so connected to them. But perhaps it’s because Flann, a creative writing professor at Goucher College, expertly illustrates the yearning for change and control that we all experience. Though you don’t know exactly what it’s like to be an Estonian teenager journeying from your blighted neighborhood to a college interview with your brother, maybe, like him, you’ve also craved a future rich with opportunity. And even if you’ve never been an unmarried, 40-year-old woman devouring your birthday cake by yourself, perhaps you, too, have ached for love and a purpose in life. Most of these narratives play out in partly real, partly imagined Baltimore neighborhoods that are so authentic you’ll feel as if you could run into any of the characters at the grocery store or the airport. Best of all are Flann’s unresolved endings. With each, she takes you to the precipice, and leaves it up to you to decide which way life will turn.

Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future
Kate Livie (The History Press)

It’s easy to forget, as we’re slurping down these delicious bivalves, how much they’re entwined in our history as a state, region, and country. The earliest English settlers wrote about how they encountered the opalescent shells over an open fire, as Native Americans prepared a meal. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore made their livings by harvesting oysters, so much so they nearly destroyed them. Oysters were in such demand that they were given the moniker “white gold” and became the frequent target of pirates, who would steal catches off boats. There was even an Oyster Navy patrolling the Chesapeake. Livie, the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, skillfully recounts this history and the science behind these fascinating creatures, weaving historical accounts with anecdotes and engaging tidbits. The information couldn’t be more timely, with oyster aquaculture booming and reminding us all how much we owe to these pearly beauts.

One Child for Another
Nancy Murray (11th Hour Press)

Memoir is both the easiest and hardest genre of literature to write. Easiest, because we are showcasing our own histories, what we know best. Hardest, because it can be difficult to face and chronicle our most miserable moments, to detail our failures and disappointments, to admit that yes, life is flawed. In her debut book, Murray, a graduate of the University of Baltimore’s MFA program, treads that ground with grace and sincerity, creating a poignant example of what memoirs can achieve. She details how she became pregnant as a teenager in the 1970s and her decision to give up her child for adoption. She relates the story with remarkable detail and candor—from her description of the outfit she wore as she journeyed to a home for unwed mothers to the excruciating, emotional pain of creating a new life she knew could not be a part of her own. Murray’s story is one of surviving abuse, sacrifice, and ultimately, resilience, told with such honesty that you’ll feel as if you are experiencing it with her. You won’t want to put it down.

Read an interview with writer Nancy Murray.