Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs
by Beth Ann Fennelly
W.W. Norton & Company, 2017; 108 pp
Reviewed by Abby Burns
Once, a manicurist offered to give Fennelly a topcoat with glitter, saying, “We’ve noticed you like attention,” and Fennelly proceeded to write the moment into one of her micro-memoirs. The piece, titled “Why I’m Switching Salons,” is just one example of Fennelly’s easy control over self-deprecating humor, her ability to spin the smallest details into a full portrait of who she is. Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs is deceptively simple. In 52 vignettes, ranging from one sentence to six pages, Fennelly offers brief glimpses into her life, using her skill as a poet to compress full scenes into their most pertinent and memorable details. Her prose delights through its quirky turns of language: she writes of “drops of days,” and “hair long enough… it rivered in naked curves.” But perhaps what sets this collection apart are the ways in which she embeds small tragedies within moments of humor, simultaneously punching the reader in the gut and offering us a release from excessive melancholy. In “Safety Scissors,” she writes:
Watch what you say about younger sisters within older sisters’ earshot. You know, things like, “What beautiful curls the little one has! And what long eyelashes!”
Forty years later I can still feel the yank on my scalp as my four-year-old sister pulled my curls so she could shear them….
She was going to do it whether I liked it or not, so I sat still. Even then, I had an instinct for self-preservation. And you see, I was right. I am alive, and she isn’t.
In one of Fennelly’s riskier moves, she chooses to address the reader directly and, in the process, she comments on the practice of reading memoir, of consuming other people’s memories the way we would fiction or poetry. At times, this move works well, like when she goes on a short diatribe about suddenly remembering a long-forgotten moment:
And now I’ve handed you the orange. I’m sorry but now it’s your orange, too. You’ve just read of a woman remembering an orange thrown through a window, without knowing why she remembers this. You will either remember reading this and know why you remember reading this, or you will remember reading this and not know why you remember reading this, or you not remember reading this, possibly forever.
This passage speaks both to the seemingly frivolous nature of memory, but also to how readers take up pieces of their writers: the orange now belongs as much to us as it does Fennelly. Other moments like this, however, fall flat. After Fennelly describes how one of her priests had been sent to jail for sexually assaulting the young boys of his congregation, she challenges the reader’s potential incredulity, writing, “You can look all of this up, if you care to… Call this fiction: I dare you.” The moment feels overly defensive in a way that is incongruent with Fennelly’s easy confidence elsewhere.
All in all, Heating and Cooling is an endearing read. A new form of memoir that reflects life as it is lived: in its barest details.