HEATING & COOLING: 52 Micro-Memoirs. By Beth Ann Fennelly. Norton. 112 pages. $22.95.
“As we lower onto the December-cold pleather seats of the minivan, we knock hands: both of us reaching to turn on the other’s seat warmer first,” recalls Beth Ann Fennelly, in “Married Love, III” (quoted in its entirely), one of the 52 micro-memoirs included in "Heating & Cooling."
With the concision of poetry, the scope of fiction and the potency of a well-told memoir, "Heating & Cooling" imparts tremendous joy, heartache and surprise in about 100 pages. Poet laureate of Mississippi, Fennelly has written three collections of poetry, one memoir and a novel (co-authored with husband Tom Franklin). Her new collection of micro-memoirs thoughtfully bridges aspects of each of the genres in which Fennelly has previously published.
The promise of memoir is to offer both remembrance and revelation, to trace the narrative arc of a life and, in the best examples, to extract some understanding and wisdom that reflects our shared human experience. "Heating & Cooling" delivers powerfully on this promise in epigrammatic pieces as short as a single 10-word sentence and in essays never longer than six pages. What emerges are moments — the unforgettable ruminations of a writer, reader, runner, teacher, mourner, mother, student, wife, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, lover, observer and truth-teller — that have shaped a life, its many lessons and a perceptive self-awareness of both.
While these memoirs are not presented in chronological or thematic order (because memory doesn’t function that way), in traversing them with Fennelly as our companionable guide, we are afforded an intimate vantage point of her experiences. Some are charmingly idiosyncratic while others are strikingly universal. Therein is the strength of her collection: its remarkable potential to reveal both artist and audience in a series of affecting glimpses.
In these pages, we confront vasectomy, mastectomy, good humor, impossible grief, misplaced erotica, the best snickerdoodles ever, the biggest bladder you’ve never seen, a pilfered copy of "The Brothers Karamazov," Otis Redding’s taps player, the possibility of a “Publish Me” font, 13 kisses and a cameo appearance by Vince Vaughn (“Yes, that Vince Vaughn”) as the author’s fourth-grade classmate.
"Heating & Cooling" is as inspiring as it is inspired, a memoir that deftly outmaneuvers the intimidation that can accompany the task of memoir writing or reading.
Fennelly masterfully illuminates the small but deeply felt snapshots that are the foundations of the self she knows and shares. In doing so, she has given potential memoir writers an instructive model for an alternative to epic tomes of grand lives. In the minutia of our lives, our hearts still beat clearly, as Fennelly demonstrates. "Heating & Cooling" offer 52 examples of how to craft even the briefest of recollections with an undeniable sense of self.
Fennelly also has given uninitiated memoir readers a welcoming new point of entrance into the genre. For both of these gifts, to writers and to readers, we can be grateful to this immensely talented writer.
Aficionados of acknowledgements sections will be rewarded in this volume as well. In the parlance of modern cinema, the section closes with a post-credits appearance by Fennelly’s mother, heretofore a frequent and compelling presence throughout the collection. Effectively a micro-memoir unto itself, the book’s final paragraph makes it well worthwhile to turn every page and stay attentively in your seat until the very end.
Reviewer Jonathan Haupt is executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and a member of the board of governors of the South Carolina Academy of Authors.