Book Review: KNOCK WOOD by Jennifer Militello

This is a poet’s memoir, both literally and stylistically. Knock Wood is Jennifer Militello’s first book of not-poetry, after three critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry collections. It begins with Militello reflecting on a “knock on wood” that was, unluckily, actually a knock on a surface that wasn’t wood. From there, the memoir blooms out into everything she believes was touched by that ill luck knock, from an uncle’s death three years before to a crumbling marriage to an arrest for theft to an aunt’s suicide attempt and mental illness.

Knock Wood is full of revelatory, quotable gorgeousness, and it’s surprisingly easy to read given its time-warping experimental format. (The lightning-fast 144-page length helps, too.) I enjoyed it very much, with one significant reservation: Militello consistently treats disability and fatness as grotesque. I still recommend this book, but I want to arm readers with that knowledge going in so that they’re not so unpleasantly caught off guard by it as I was.

You can read my full review below.


Knock Wood Cover
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.

Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: August 13, 2019
  • length: 144 pages

I don’t want to remember. Memory is the bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back. I don’t know what species it is. It is the kind that has berries you can’t eat. Bird berries, my mother used to call them. Red and round and smooth. Now I tell my daughter, don’t eat them. They’ll make you sick.

–from Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello*

Knock Wood asks you to take a leap of faith. Its opening scene, in which Jennifer Militello describes an ill-fated knock on wood on an airplane to London in 2016, is extremely idiosyncratic, almost a parody of the mannerisms of creative nonfiction. Militello recounts reading “a Murakami novel about an uncle with cancer,”* knocking on wood (which turns out to be plastic or metal, something not-wood), and then suddenly realizing that this unlucky knock caused the death of her uncle three years before.

It’s a leap, and for a couple of pages, I held my breath, wondering if I was going to be stuck reading something painfully strained and false for the duration of this memoir, Militello’s first book of prose after three books of poetry.

Luckily, I wasn’t stuck: in fact, I was gripped before the first chapter had even ended, when a description of a hide being tanned sent deep shivers down my spine.

It’s not a chronological or even fully comprehensible memoir. It’s a deeply intuitive experience, like literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder or, to a lesser extent, much of Annie Dillard’s work. Knock Wood is a memoir held together by déjà vu.

It reminded me of the way that a particular formation of clouds transports me back to summer camp every time I see it. I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing those clouds while I was actually at camp; I have no idea why the link is so strong, but it is. Militello moved me from memory to disparate memory in the same way: it didn’t make sense if I stopped to think about it, but it definitely felt right.

Militello spends a lot of time with the monstrous and chilling, the pulsing and bleeding, the ghostly and the all-too-embodied. This is mostly a good and interesting thing, but it leads me to my one, very serious criticism of Knock Wood: Militello’s dehumanizing treatment of disabled and fat bodies.

Much of this memoir revolves around Militello’s aunt Kathy, who was a model until severe mental illness struck. Over and over, Militello equates Kathy’s illness with ugliness and repulsiveness. Kathy is at first described as an elegant, slim, suicidal woman in a houndstooth coat. After treatment and medication, she becomes a breathless fat monster in tacky clothes one size (or more) too small.

There are plenty of ways to write about physical transformation that aren’t nearly so judgmental and cruel. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s a lazy reflection of a widespread belief that I find infinitely more monstrous than mental illness or fatness could ever be: that it is better to die beautiful than live to become undesirable.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago, and it very nearly killed me. I refused to take my medication, because antipsychotic drugs (along with many other types of medication for mental illness) cause weight gain, and I refused–refused–to be fat, for fear I would become exactly the kind of object of pity and scorn that Militello paints here.

Eventually I did take my meds. Eventually I did become fat. I wore clothes that were too small. I have a double chin. I sweat easily. The hair on my face grows in oddly. And yet my life is still worth living! Imagine that.

That Militello leans so much on the same tired, insulting tropes of the grotesque in a memoir that is otherwise so gorgeous, humble, and insightful feels like a slap in the face.

This book was well worth reading, and Militello is a tremendously gifted nonfiction writer. Her words will be reverberating with me for some time. But some of the words she invokes are powerful for all the wrong reasons. ★★★★☆

Knock Wood hits stores and your favorite online retailers tomorrow, August 13th.

* Please note that all quotes in this review come from an ARC, which is an uncorrected proof. Quotes may appear differently in the final version.

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I received a copy of Knock Wood from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Holiday Weekend Bookbag, 5.27.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Holiday Weekend Bookbag is a weekly semi-annual (?) feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received recently. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

As you might have guessed from the totally-awesome-and-not-desperate title of this week’s Bookbag, I’ve been busy and forgetful and not great about posting things on the blog lately. The free time I have had has been spent on a marathon rewatch of the Twilight movies, which is not a course of action I recommend, exactly, but it sure is mesmerizing!

Luckily I still have a few books to chat about this weekend. Let’s dive in!


Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Knock Wood Cover
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.

the premise: From the back of the ARC I received from Dzanc Books this week:

“In Knock Wood, the first nonfiction collection by award-winning poet Jennifer Militello, a knock on wood to ward off illness sets in motion a chain of events and memories that call into question the very structure of time.

Anchored by a wooden ring, Militello explores her life through the lens of three intertwined elements: the story of a mentally ill aunt in an abusive marriage; a high school romance with a boy who eventually dies of a heroin overdose; and an extra-marital affair characterized by an otherworldly connection. Cause and effect reverse as significant events–an arrest for a felony committed in high school, a trip by train to meet an illicit lover, and a suicide attempt on those same New York tracks–seem to influence each other outside of time and space. As Militello delicately threads each memory to the next, she explores the themes of family damage and the precarious ties of love.”

Knock Wood will be released on August 13th, 2019 and is available for preorder.

why I’m excited: Dzanc Books sent me this ARC because they saw my glowing review of The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang, another nonfiction collection that plays around with memory and time. I’ve been on a nonfiction kick lately and I always love when poets turn to prose (why do poets always seem to be so much better at prose than prose writers are at poetry?). At 144 pages, it’s short and sweet and I’m looking forward to digging in.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Farm Cover
cover description: There are three stylized silhouettes of pregnant bellies in pastel colors layered on top of each other.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money—more than you’ve ever dreamed of—to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your überwealthy clients.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter’s well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on delivery—or worse.”

why I’m excited: I recently found out that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had their third baby (and now a soon-to-be-born fourth) via a surrogate. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it must be like to be a surrogate for people that wealthy: would it be like a fun 9-month vacation from the real world, or something a little more sinister? The Farm looks like it explores exactly that line of thought, so of course I had to buy it as soon as I heard about it this week. I love coincidences like that.

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Belles Cover
cover description: a Black girl in a fancy dress and makeup with flowers in her hair looks over her shoulder fiercely.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision. 

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.”

why I’m excited: This book got so much buzz last year that I’m surprised I didn’t pick it up sooner. (Books published by Disney tend to be like that. I assume this one is well on its way to being a TV series on Freeform.) I’m a sucker for palace intrigue novels and any novel with the word “opulent” in the description, so I assume I’m going to have a lot of fun with this one.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!