The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel

A unique, quirky work, Dawn Raffel’s memoir of sorts is a quick and easy read. Basically, it’s made up of flash nonfiction, which I’ve never seen before. Each piece is about an object. Raffel may include backstory on how the piece was acquired or what it reminds her of. There are even some objects that remind her of other objects, or missing objects. While this description may not interest you, I was surprised by how quickly the story of objects turns into the story of who Raffel is. Thus, readers begin to think of their own objects and who they are.

the secret life of objects
Published by Jaded Ibis Press, 2012

There seems to be a sort of timeline in the book. Early flash pieces are about objects her grandparents used to own. She moves into things from her parents, then friends, then objects she’s had since her children were babies. In the end, Raffel’s parents are deceased, so some of the objects come from their house. Others may argue there isn’t a clear progression, but what I noticed made the book seem to have a plot, which I enjoyed. The book read in an orderly fashion.

The pieces aren’t repetitive. Some of them are connected, such as “a prayer book, inscribed to [her father] on his Bar Mitzvah by his paternal grandparents” and her mother’s Bible, “small, white, leather-bound, gilded at the edges.” These two books may seem simple, but they provide opportunity for Raffel to discuss her parents’ faith. While her father “would cheerfully describe himself as a born-again atheist,” and Raffel didn’t even know her father had been religious, let alone had a Bar Mitzvah, her mother wouldn’t leave home without her Bible, even for one night.

Other flash nonfiction pieces begin to paint a picture of Raffel’s relatives over the course of the book. For example, Grandpa Raffel. He gives the author a vase that he had bought from a man during the Depression. Even though Grandpa Raffel was poor, the man was suffering because his wife had committed suicide and needed money. Later, we learn Grandpa Raffel owns a furniture store. He’s Jewish, but he puts up a small China Christmas tree merely as “a business decision” because “customers expect it.” The stories we learn about her grandparents help readers make sense of what Dawn Raffel’s parents chose to do in their lives, and then we have more context for the author and her own children.

secret life of objects in color
This is the cover of the full-color edition. Jaded Ibis Press does B&W, color, and digital versions of all books.

Even several stories about vases isn’t boring. Readers get the story of a vase given to Raffel by her 101-year-old grandfather, a vase from a college boyfriend, and a vase that was had been part of a pair (she left the second vase behind) that she took from her deceased mother’s home. Though each flash piece is short by design, readers are encouraged to consider their own objects and ask questions. Do I keep things from old boyfriends? Do I have anything that’s very old? What would I keep from my parents’ house when they pass on? If you are a fan of graphic novels, these are questions that overwhelm Roz Chast when she discovers her parents have never thrown anything away.

The only part I found odd about The Secret Life of Objects were the drawings included with some flash pieces. They were made by Raffel’s son Sean Evers, whom I believe is now in his early 20s, but still they look like children’s drawings. If Evers did draw them as a boy, that would be good to know. Otherwise, I would have taken great pleasure in see photos of each object instead. See examples of the drawings below. Also, you can see about how long each flash piece is (usually one paragraph to 2-3 pages).

A quick, satisfying read, I highly recommend The Secret Life of Objects.

QUESTION:

What is one object you feel tells a story about who you are? Let me know in the comments!


*Note: I was supposed to read What Begins with Bird by Noy Holland, but her work was so experimental that I couldn’t follow any of it. The next oldest book I owned after that was As If a Bird Flew By Me by Sara Greenslit. It’s from the same publisher and also too experimental. Then I tried Fra Keeler by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi — different publisher, but also too experimental. Due the creative writing programs I attended, I frequently encountered avant garde books and writers. I was smitten with them and their work for a while, but as I’ve aged, I’ve realized that while some people like to play with language, I’m not the kind of reader who will sit through a whole book made up of sentences that don’t communicate anything. I do like writers who play with language — Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jaimy Gordon — whose work is still extremely challenging, but teach you how to read their work instead of avant garde authors who expect you to read how they write without concern for how readers do that.

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34 comments

  1. I think that’s a really interesting way to reflect on one’s own life. I can see how you found it engaging. Our things have histories. They tell stories. And I think listening to/reading those stories does give insight into the person…

  2. Hi there–thank you for the review, which popped up on my Talkwalker. You are exactly right that I wanted to encourage readers to think about their own objects. The drawings were created by my son when he was 11 years old. They were intended to look like a child’s drawings, but I agree with you there–it could have been made clearer. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    Dawn

  3. I can see how this book would be really interesting-so many times objects really are a starting off point for stories about our lives, and it sounds like this author pulled it off! The picture thing does sound a bit weird though…nice that the author clarified in the comments!!!!

  4. I love objects as a way to talk about wider subjects. I read a book about objects from Shakespeare’s day, where the author used them to discuss aspects of the play and how they reflected the society of the time – fascinating, and again each “story” was short, though not as short as these, I think.

    Hmm… I’m intrigued to think what my objects say about me now. In answer to your question, I’m looking at a photo I have on display of the cats when they were kittens, in a purple frame. It’s nothing special to look at and probably people visiting wouldn’t notice it or wouldn’t think about it if they did. But the photo was taken by my sister and she bought me the frame for it, so when I look at it I see her, not the cats. She died not long afterwards, so that object is way more precious to me than it looks… 🙂

  5. Quick fictions about objects seems an interesting way to build up a memoir. I think all the time about including little (non-sequential) family stories into what I write so that you will gradually build up a picture of me. I’m a hoarder, mostly of books, but also of objects. I had my grandfather’s cufflinks in the bottom of my sock drawer and was able to give them to my (adult) son to wear to a formal dance/dinner.

    • I like when you describe specific objects in your travelogues, even the size of the refrigerator. You could start including other objects, maybe things from home that you’ve thought of recently? That would be interesting.

  6. This idea is really cool! And it makes me think it would also be cool to read a book in which the objects surrounding a character are the ones telling the story. Maybe there’s already a book out there like that?

    I’ve been trying to think about your question… maybe my notebook that lists all the books I’ve read since grade 8? Or my box of secrets in the basement – things I’ve kept locked up in the box since I graduated from high school. Even I can’t remember everything that’s in there! Or my shirt that says “Books Make Me Happy”, or my Nova Scotia mug. Take your pick. 🙂

    What object would you pick?

    • I’ve had an African violent for years–long since before I met my husband. Of course, now that I’m bringing it up, I’m doubting myself. I also have this weird pin that looks like a little doll made out of thread. I think it was my mom’s, but I don’t know. I’ve always had it.

  7. This sounds fascinating to read and I’m glad the author popped by to explain the drawings. My books are my “object” – a lifetime of collecting them. Is that allowed??

    And I love your PS. So many books OFF that TBR, right? That’s good! I just threw one off mine and off my 20BooksOfSummer!

    • A former version of me would see it as a waste of money because I bought the books. However, current me is happy I supported small presses and also content to acknowledge that I was trying to read what other people said was good. It’s important for me to recognize the kinds of books that speak to me and have for a long time. I loved African American lit as an undergrad, but got swept up in experimental lit because that’s what all the “cool kids” were doing at my college. Now I’m very much back to reading, and sometimes teaching, Black lit.

  8. Confession: I read your opening paragraph and immediately went to see if this book was at my library. Why? Because this sounds like something I’d love. Hell, even something I might be inspired to write! Flash non-fiction is totally something which clicks with me. Then after reading your review, well, creepy childish drawings asides, I am all in.

    I’m glad that you found this book in your hands. It sounds like a bit of an exhausting journey DNFing so many books on the way here. This is like a fun collection of mini-reviews. Which made me realize: Do you ever write a review for a book you’ve DNF’d? I do, but rarely do other people I know… why or why not?

    Oh man. What object tells a story about who I am? It’s either the marimba collecting dust in the basement or it’s an engraved jewelry box which belonged to my sister. Those stories? I’m not in the right headspace to craft them. But now I am inspired…

    • I do write reviews for books I don’t finish, but the ones I mentioned were put aside so early that there was nothing to review. They are all so experimental as to not make sense on the sentence level. Now, some people love this kind of work, and I know many of them. I wanted to be like the cool kids, so I bought experimental books at festivals of experimental lit. Reading them 7 years later, I’m definitely a different person. One thing I realized the other day, which I admit I am embarrassed to realized I didn’t notice back when I was in grad school, is how experimental lit is pretty much made up of all white, able-bodied, thin people…As I mentioned in another comment, my interest as an undergrad was African American/African lit, history, and film. The creative writing department, though, was all white, so we were never assigned books by people of color. That same department today is now made up of 4 white men, which seems willfully ignorant. When I went for my MFA, I learned that entire department was made up almost entirely of white writers, too. It’s all a learning experience on a journey of reading and writing.

      I think flash non-fiction is an amazing idea that, even if you weren’t thinking about polishing and publishing, could be an amazing nightly journal exercise. Write about an object you encountered that day, for example. Dawn Raffel’s book is available on Kindle for a couple of dollars if your library doesn’t have it.

      • We all live and learn when it comes to reading. Plus, it’s easy to get caught up in trends when you’re in school. I found that I was trying to be something I wasn’t often when I went to conventions with the other percussionists at school. I often spent money I shouldn’t have on all sorts of instruments and music.

        Sigh. I’m so sad to say that I’m not surprised you had a department built of all white male professors. It’s hard to stretch yourself when the only people you’re learning from have all had the same expreiences, and probably all are passionate about similar literature and authors. How did you find a focus/interest in African American/African literature in such an environment?

        My library did not have it. But I soon will! Mwahaha. Perhaps this will become a nightly journaling option for me. Who knows?

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