Review: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs
Beth Ann Fennelly
W.W. Norton & Company
111 pages | Memoir | $22.95
Short forms are all the rage, lately, with the profusion of prose poems and flash fiction staking (small) claims on the pages of literary journals. Add to this genre-fluidity the “micro-memoir,” another short form employed virtuosically by Beth Ann Fennelly in her new collection Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. These pieces range from a sentence or two, to several pages in length. Many are lighthearted. Some are lists. A few are prose poems in spirit: see “A Reckoning of Kisses” and, especially, “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical.” This is not a bad thing. Fennelly is staking a claim here by writing however she damn well pleases.
A poet by trade, Fennelly serves as the poet laureate of Mississippi, but she’s also written fiction along with her husband, the novelist, Tom Franklin. The narrative slant of even the briefest of these micro-memoirs sends their stories reverberating further than their words. For instance, take this economical recounting of life among the long married, part of a series that runs throughout the book:
Married Love, II
There will come a day—let it be many years from now—when our kids realize no married couple ever needed to retreat at high noon behind the locked bedroom door to discuss taxes.
A rare honesty and self-deprecation weaves through these pages, often with humorous results. No spoilers here, but don’t miss the fun of “Why I’m So Well Read” and “One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes,” the latter an oddball encounter just weird enough to ring true. Pull up a chair, Fennelly seems to offer, have I got one for you.
Her truth telling lands solid punches, too, when addressing more serious territory. Those who have had difficult relationships with aging parents will relate to her recounting of time spent with her father, in particular “Sweet Nothing.” The sudden loss of her sister, as detailed in “Grief Vacation” is heartwrenching. Quiet fury rages through “Goner.” At three pages, one of the longest memoirs in the book, it grapples with sexual abuse in Fennelly’s childhood church. She’s left the church, but it hasn’t left her. Catholicism’s ritual and language are a recurring theme.
As ever, Fennelly writes about motherhood with beautiful ferocity (notably in her 2004 poetry collection Tender Hooks). She returns to the subject here, refracting it through its complexity in the bold “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As A Synonym For ‘Weak,’” and this humorous piece:
When They Grow Up
My oldest child will hate me because I wrote an entire book about her. My middle child will hate me because I wrote hardly a word about him. But the baby; ah, the baby. When I write about him, I call it fiction, and I’m always sure to mention he has a big penis.
In midlife many of us have lost people we love and those we don’t. Children, if we have them, are growing or grown. We’ve lusted, and loved, and occasionally regretted it. Those who’ve not gotten there yet will appreciate Fennelly’s take on what’s to come. Heating & Cooling is an economical accounting of midlife that works by illuminating points on this timeline brightly enough to let the reader stitch together the whole.
We are thrilled to welcome Beth Ann Fennelly to Charlotte Lit December 1 and 2.
Fennelly, the Poet Laureate of Mississippi, is the featured poet on our upcoming 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters. December 1, she’ll read from and discuss her work at our poster release party, at Resident Culture Brewing Company, 7 to 9 pm. Park Road Books will be on hand with Fennelly’s books for sale.
If you’d like to try your hand at the micro-memoir form, Fennelly teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit the following day, December 2, from 10 am to 1 pm. Spaces are filling quickly for “Build Me a Hummingbird of Words: Tiny Texts.” Register at charlottelit.org/workshops.
Credits: Photo of Beth Ann Fennelly by Jon Cancelino