Short stories pack a hefty punch

Micro-memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly elevate moments of daily life

The first piece in Mississippi author Beth Ann Fennelly’s new collection, “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-memoirs,” is “Married Love.” A mere six sentences, it begins, “In every book my husband’s written, a character named Colin suffers a horrible death.” Fennelly then explains that her last boyfriend before meeting her husband was a Scottish architect named Colin, which, she wryly surmises, makes her husband feel inadequate since he “cannot build a tall building of many stories.” She ends with “He can only build a story, and then push Colin out of it.”

This final sentence is part pun, part punch line. The piece’s overall playfulness and short length, however, don’t detract from memoir’s inherent tasks: to reveal and to emotionally engage. It is the first of many times that Fennelly delivers, in pieces ranging from one sentence to five pages, an honest reckoning of her own identity. “Heating & Cooling” is a powerful display of the micro-memoir form as Fennelly crystallizes everyday life experiences into vivid, and sometimes gut-wrenching, moments.

In recent years, the boundaries of fiction, nonfiction and poetry have blurred. The hybrid micro-memoir provides the economy and focus of poetry, the introspection and sometimes confession of memoir, and the tension of fiction. The dozen and a half literary journals that Fennelly acknowledges for having originally published many of the micro-memoirs in “Heating & Cooling” confirm the form’s — and Fennelly’s — stature in the literary world. Best known for her three poetry collections, she also has written a book of epistolary nonfiction and co-written a novel with author Tom Franklin, her husband.

Fennelly’s candid portrayal of her marriage is the most charming thematic thread in “Heating & Cooling.” Beyond the first, four additional “Married Love” micro-memoirs follow the couple’s relationship as they have matured. There’s a funny piece, one of the best in the book, about a lost erotic photo and a $50 bill. And there’s another that shows the simple yet telling ritual of them turning on each other’s seat warmers after getting into the minivan, that beloved emblem of parenting.

Motherhood’s hardships and rewards have been a focus in much of Fennelly’s earlier work, and this collection is no different. The sassy “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘(Vagina)’ as a Synonym for `Weak’” describes the intense journey and pain of childbirth: “I understood I would come back from there with the baby, or I wouldn’t come back at all.” Another, “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical,” reads like a lyric poem as it juxtaposes the inevitable distancing of her now teenage daughter with memories of the visceral pleasures of feeding her as a baby. And while “Daughter, They’ll Use Even Your Own Gaze to Wound You” tells of three unsettling exploitative episodes that educated a younger Fennelly about “what women know,” its title conveys a mother’s anger and anxiety.

Fennelly’s own mother is first introduced in a scene where a doctor draws on her chest to mark where he will cut for what we later learn is a double mastectomy. However, Fennelly avoids conceding her mother to the all-too-familiar cancer narrative full of medical tragedy. Instead, the poignant “Disharmony” considers her mother’s sexuality, and “Proof,” with a tinge of sarcasm, questions her mother’s motives in keeping every memento from Fennelly’s childhood.

The questioning is harsher for her father, who Fennelly remembers once forced her to walk two miles in a blizzard to attend mass. She decides to tell her father, on his death bed, that she loves him to spare her future self — “whom I did love,” she asserts — any guilt. With intact social codes about how we treat our parents and the dying, such truth-telling might give pause to some readers. Nevertheless, it is Fennelly’s chiseled perspective at its best.

Death does not spare Fennelly further loss. Her older sister dies too young. “Safety Scissors” remembers her then 4-year-old sister’s jealous scissor attack on Fennelly’s hair. Powerless, she allowed it. In perhaps the most gripping and surprising ending of the collection, she states, “Even then I had an instinct for self-preservation. And you see, I was right. I am alive, and she isn’t.” This piece exemplifies why micro-memoir is sometimes called “flash” nonfiction, not just for its brevity but for its profound gleam of understanding.

As might be expected in any collection, “Heating & Cooling” includes a few micro-memoirs that are pithy but not as engaging as others, but Fennelly has honed a tool set for maximizing the form. One such tool is pairing hard-working titles with sparse text. “Returning from Spring Break, Junior Year at Notre Dame” is followed by one almost sentence: “Swapped the rosary on my bedpost for Mardi Gras beads.” The image tells the story, but the omission of the subject I — memoir’s reliable narrator — reinforces the identity shifting that comes with questioning faith. Other writers who work within the form include Anne Carson, whose “Small Talks” are lovely but less accessible micro-memoirs (or prose poems, depending on whom you ask). “Heating & Cooling” is just so readable, so fun.

Though there is nothing ordinary about her talent, all in all, Fennelly’s life is perfectly ordinary. Wife, mother, daughter, writer, she is also a runner, a reluctant small-talker, a lover of libraries, a devoted neighbor and teacher, and, according to one source, a baker of the best snickerdoodles ever. And though “Heating & Cooling” offers micro-memoirs in a book that itself fits atop the stretch of a single hand, there is nothing small about it.

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