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.
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.
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.
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.