JE: A few words about Stacey Levine: Brilliant. Surprising. Unsettling. One of a kind. Check out her novel, Frances Johnson!

Says The Believer: “This is a comedy of manners, and there is an inkling of Austen in Levine’s delicate and deadpan assault on our culture s heterosexist, heterogeneous dictates. But the feel of the novel is more fanciful than programmatic. Each sentence operates in the same manner as the overarching narrative: shifting shape, defying expectation . . .” –Jason McBride, THE BELIEVER

On top of all that, Stacey is an absolute doll!


I was amazed when, as an undergraduate, I read Brazilian author Clarice Lispector‘s short story collection Family Ties. The book showed me how fiction can dig into the quiet, disturbing crevasses of human experience and illuminate the parts of life that are impossible to describe in straightforward language.

At the time, I was also reading American masters like Wharton and Hawthorne, whose contained styles did not prepare me for the shock of Lispector’s long, rhythmic sentences full of repetition and the ferocity of her take on the human condition. (Lispector wrote from about 1943 until close to her death in 1977).  Even in translation, her writing is as disturbing, beautiful, and complex as life really is:

“[The girls in the orphanage] had concealed from the nuns in charge the death of one of their companions. They kept her body in a cupboard until Sister went out, and then they played with the dead girl, bathing her and feeding her little tidbits, and they punished her only to be able to kiss and comfort her afterward.”

Lispector’s translators have tried to replicate her lyricism and syncopated phrasing in English. In Portuguese, her work must be incandescent. In stories like “Preciousness,” “The Smallest Woman in the World,” and others, the narratives often launch from small, everyday occurrences, like a spilled bag of groceries or a trip to the zoo. I was excited to see that Lispector doesn’t really emphasize plot or even character, but instead puts forward her finely-wrought observations and questions about existence. And her staggering sentences intensely-packed metaphors.  “The Buffalo” describes a lovesick woman watching animals at the zoo:

“But the giraffe was a virgin with newly shorn braids. With the innocence of that which is large and light and without guilt. The woman in the brown coat looked away—sick, so sick. Unable—confronted with that lovely giraffe standing before her, that silent wingless bird—unable to find within herself the critical point of her illness, the sickest point, the point of hatred, she who had gone to the zoological gardens in order to be sick.”

Back then, I read these sentences repeatedly and they got into me as sound and inspiration. The stories contain unique music and made me want to write.

Lispector also wrote The Passion According to G.H. , a novel in which, gloriously, the major plot point is that a woman closes an apartment door on a cockroach and kills it. But she’s at her best in the short story form. I can sometimes hear her sentences ringing while I’m writing sentences. I’ve thought about her stories a lot, not only because I’m impressionable, but because her work is world-class literature that withstands the test of time.


It wasn’t until I was about 23 years old that I was able to face my family with the fact that I no longer believed in the Mormon religion. And even then I didn’t really face them. They found out in bits and pieces. The most obvious sign was the divorce, which I never told my parents about directly. They heard about it from my younger siblings. Through my siblings they also learned of my tattoo (oh my!) and my drinking (this hasn’t been verified, but I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it by now). And of course the whole living in sin with my boyfriend for the past two years probably tipped them off as well.

At first they would try to get me to come back around. They’d question me about my beliefs and ask when I had been to church last. When I avoided their questioning or outright changed the subject they’d get upset, angry even.

But then they just backed off. I don’t know what it was that made them stop asking – perhaps the realization that I wasn’t going to change my mind based on their prompting – but they did. And now they’ve taken on a new tack: Acceptance. Well, sort of.

When I see them now, which isn’t often, my parents will gingerly ask me about my boyfriend and whether we have plans to get married. We don’t. Conversation over. If my tattoo is showing, my mom will complement me on it, even though I know she doesn’t approve of it. I’m always tempted to remind her of what she used to tell me when I was a teenager and I’d ask to get a tattoo or a belly button ring, which was, “You can do whatever you want when you turn 18, but not until then.” I never do say this. Instead, I just reach back and pull down my t-shirt so it’s covered again, and try to act as though she hasn’t said anything at all.

I often wish I had a better relationship with my parents (and my siblings for that matter), but when the opportunity to forgive presents itself, I find myself acting like a bratty teenager. I’ve spent many of the past ten years trapped among guilt, self-loathing and regret as I worked my way out of a religion in which I’m not sure I ever believed. My parents seem to have forgiven me, or at least are willing to look past my breach of trust, for leaving the church. But somehow I still haven’t been able to forgive them for judging me so harshly in the first place.

I’ve begun trying to make amends, but years of bitterness and hateful words have made it a difficult path. I find myself constantly having to bite my tongue when I’m with my parents so there won’t be any flare ups. In the past I’ve been able to spend no more than a few hours among my family members without a huge fight breaking out. But my last visit with them was actually somewhat pleasant, aside from the constant praise from my dad, and one particular sibling, that I’ve really grown up. Apparently acting civil toward people you can barely stand is a sign of maturity.

I don’t know how long the civility will last though. Each perceived wrong brings back the bitterness. Things like when my sister Katijona calls me to ask if I’ll be visiting this weekend for Peter’s baptism. I told her I didn’t even know about it so, no, I wouldn’t be there. Four days really isn’t enough time to plan for a trip to Utah. I couldn’t stop myself wondering if my parents didn’t invite me for fear that I’d turn another child against the church. After all, Katijona, of whom I’ve written before, remains unbaptized (which, of course, is my fault) and shows no signs of accepting Mormonism. When we spoke yesterday, she told me that the bishop asked her if she’d like to get baptized along with Peter this weekend. Her response? “I barely even come to this church, why would I want to get baptized?” Ha!

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be proud that this 13-year-old girl has more gumption and resolve than I did at age 23. This is the thing that drives a wedge between my parents and I. But how can I not want to give her a big hug and tell her I’m OK with her decision?

I fear my parents (and some of my siblings) will be at odds with me for many years to come.