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Debut author's memoir explores complex relationship with glamorous mother

Kirkus Reviews
"Saturday's Child" by Deborah Burns

Debut author Deborah Burns recalls growing up in the shadow of her glamorous mother in her memoir, "Saturday's Child."

The book opens with a description of a recurring nightmare, which the author experienced sporadically over many years following her mother’s death. In it, she fails to call her ill mother, as she’s unable to remember her telephone number. Wracked with guilt, she asks herself, “How could I be such a terrible daughter?” Throughout her relationship with her mom, Burns says, she was always in “chasing mode, in longing pursuit of something fleeting.” Dotty, the author’s parent, was a “spectacular woman everyone thought was a movie star”; she was frequently compared to Rita Hayworth. The memoir reveals that Dotty married into the Canzoneri family, who owned an exclusive country club that was frequented by members of the New York criminal underworld. Dotty dazzled the clientele, and her lifelong passion for socializing resulted in her daughter often being sidelined. The memoir’s title is a reference to the fact that on Saturdays, the author and her mother would spend time together, shopping and having ice cream. Burns addresses how she coped with always playing “second fiddle” to her mom while also feeling “desperate to be loved by her.” She’s a devilishly sharp writer who achieves a masterful balance of psychological excavation and sumptuous description. Here’s her acerbic accounting of her maternal grandfather: “he was a man with no family at all — as if he too had sprouted fully formed, miserable and alone after he ate whoever made him.” However, when it comes to her mother, she rarely moves beyond her image of her as a “goddess.” When describing Dotty’s lifestyle, Burns vividly evokes the glamour of mid-20th-century American high society; for instance, she recalls how her mom “dressed in full regalia for all her public travels … with fitted knee-length pencil skirts and high patent leather heels.” But the most affecting aspect of this memoir is how the author is liberated by confronting her idealized perception of her parent while remaining tender to her memory. (Illustrated with black-and-white family photographs.)

"Saturday's Child" is a profound, searching remembrance that explores a complex family bond.

(Burns will sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble Arboretum, 10000 Research Blvd. #158.)

The layers of the African American experience

Winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, "When You Learn the Alphabet" by Kendra Allen moves across genres — blended poetry and prose, memoir, journal, academic and personal essay — to speak of life as a young African-American woman.

“People who love me but not my skin tell me at least I’m a pretty dark-skinned girl, an insult as salutation,” Allen writes of the layers of her experience and the larger African American experience, from surface appearances (“they do not see caramel, yella bones, creole, good hair, bad hair. … They don’t see chocolate, bleaching creams, sunscreens, brown skin, light skin, they just see African”) to family dynamics to the power of words. A standout piece on the last matter is her essay “How to Workshop N-Words,” which should be required reading for writing instructors everywhere: She writes of the self-satisfaction of nonblack professors assigning texts by black writers who “taught them something about their whiteness” and the inevitable moment in which the N-word arises. “It just doesn’t sound good,” she writes. Collective conditioning, collective guilt, respectability politics, institutional racism: Though only 10 pages long, the essay packs a lot of punch into a short space, and with luck it will produce at least some of the desired effect of lessening the use of a word that, Allen writes, produces “an instantly unstable, volatile feeling.” The author turns the lens on herself when examining the fraught place of gayness in the African American community, confessing to comfortable accession to “straight privilege” and challenging those who “have used God as a rationalization for their made up minds all their lives.” Some of the pieces are less consequential, among them a notebook-ish account of a visit to Paris, but most are memorable indeed: “We all stay broken," she writes in one essay, “and are all good at breaking.”

"When You Learn the Alphabet" is a promising debut from a writer with much to say.

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