Book Review Feature: Mine

Sarah Viren’s Award-Winning Essays

Alisa Valdes
4 min read
Mine cover
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Last month, a beautiful collection of essays published by University of New Mexico Press was long-listed for the prestigious PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The book Mine, by journalist, translator and teacher Sara Viren, has already won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and was included among Lit Hub’s Favorite Books of 2018. Naturally, I had to read it.

Though much attention is given in Albuquerque to poets, and in Santa Fe to novelists, hardly any attention is given at all in our region to the art of literary nonfiction. Other cities, such as Dallas and Boston, seem to celebrate their literary nonfiction writers, but not us. I think this is because the existing corporate journalism universe here (such as it is) can be pretty traditional on the whole, and has not been much inclined to dabble in the art of literary nonfiction at all. Kudos to UNM Press for publishing this book, then, as it contains some of the best such writing I’ve seen in a very long time.

Take, for instance, the bravado with which the book opens, in an essay entitled “My Murderer’s Futon.” What a title! “The futon was cheaply made,” the essay begins. “Faux-brass knobs accented its armrests, and its lacquered wood finish had begun to chip away. Its metal rib cage pushed through a thin white mattress, kneading my back while I slept at night.”

From there, Viren goes on to recount how she ended up in possession of furniture belonging to a “billion-dollar real estate heir,” accused, but not convicted, of murder. “In fact my calling his futon a murderer’s futon is quite possibly slander, at least legally speaking. Still, that is what I called it: my murderer’s futon.” Turns out, the writer had moved into an apartment in a building where this other person, Robert Durst, had once lived, and he left behind some furniture, furniture she needed, and took.

This and the rest of the essays in this book go down easy as a cold drink on a hot day, yet speak to complex emotional truths that might, poured out by less agile writers, be difficult to swallow. This simplification of the obtuse, this clear, clean writing, these are admirable traits shared by writers who, like Viren, cut their teeth working in newspapers before switching to books. Think Mark Twain, Isabel Allende. And, no, it is not exaggeration to consider adding Viren to that crowd.

The connecting thread among all the essays in
Mine seems to be the concept of ownership. What does it mean to own a thing? How do things come into our ownership? What happens when we realize we do not own the things we believed we owned? What can be owned? And by whom?

Viren explores many subjects from her own life. Sexuality, motherhood, religion, stories. Always, her openings are jarring, surprising and seductive, spiked with a winking humor.

Take, for example, the opening lines from the essay “My Namesake”: “In the holy books of the Torah, drunks, whores, stutterer prophets, hardened pharaohs, masturbators, sinners who boil baby goats in their mother’s milk, greedy stepfathers, back-stabbing brothers, and slave drivers all bedevil God’s newly grafted universe, but Sara is the one who laughs at the Creator himself.”

This is good stuff. Interesting true stories, spun into compelling, poetic prose narratives.

Note: On Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7pm, Viren, a professor at Arizona State University, will be in Albuquerque to speak about the book, at Zimmerman Library on the University of New Mexico campus. Joining her in the discussion will be fellow author Sherrie Flick, who will discuss her short-story collection
Thank Your Lucky Stars. We’ve made the choice to list this event a week in advance, to give people time to pick up the Alibi and see it.

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