Within the frenetic tempo of Carly Israel’s memoir, there are letters of gratitude for things one would expect—doctors, family members—and some they would not—bullies, cruel teachers. These letters act as the sinew of the book, connecting vignettes; brief moments that echo the disjointed rhythm of two lives lived second to second. First: her own, growing up an addict. Then: her child’s, born with a rare, potentially fatal disease. Mother, child, and letters blend together into an unerring refrain: gratitude. As Israel says herself, she learned to “see gratitude in any situation,” even nearly dying, through self-reflection and pain.
The reflective tone of Israel’s writing, her use of metaphor, and the impressionistic nature of vignettes leave the book feeling flighty, sometimes vague, but this is often to the narrative’s favor, underpinning moments of confusion, helplessness, and self-destruction with the beauty and grace Israel has come to apply with her mantra of “gratitude.” The letters scattered throughout the book ground the loftier aspects of the narration, allowing Israel to round out a painful or joyous moment with a direct address. Though the letters can feel indulgent, they allow a sincerity of access that feels absent elsewhere. Even as Israel discusses the intimate details of her path to sobriety and the frantic search for a diagnosis for her child, there is the distant construction of the writing, the pieces of her life neatly organized for impact. The letters, however, offer a blunter lens. In these, Israel is clearest, both in what she reveals of herself and the addressee of the letter.
In one, Israel recounts her own humiliation at the hands of a former teacher. It is a few paragraphs at the end of a vignette built around Israel’s struggle with sobriety in high school, and desire to be wanted. She wallows in an unaffectionate relationship, only sober to please a boyfriend she has no interest in, and inevitably returns to drinking in favor of the emotional emptiness of feeling unloved. Then, a letter about feeling isolated and dehumanized in front of classmates, highlighting how power structures are blind to the complications of lived experiences, and how she built pedagogy in opposition to that. It is when the conceit of her memoir allows Israel to be both reflective and forward-thinking that the sincerity of her message is sharpest. These reflections are sometimes painful, or embarrassing, but they always bring a depth of nuance to the broader strokes of the vignettes.
I found myself wishing the titles of each section did more to bring depth or structure to the narrative. Some are straightforward, like “A Message that Changed Everything,” others vague, “The Chasm,” “Batman Page,” or trite, “Where Shit Meets Fan,” but they rarely play into each other, or iterate on previous themes to connect the narrative as a whole. Set against a memoir like Carmen Maria Machado’s “In The Dream House,” where form and function blend to create reflection upon reflected moment, “Seconds and Inches” can feel stilted. Each section leads along a sequential path through her life, but rarely interact past their thematic ties. However, the book’s interest is less in structural conceits, than its message of gratitude, and that is where much of its effort lies.
Gratitude underlies the entirety of Seconds and Inches, each bad choice, destructive spiral, tense hospital stay, buoyed by Israel’s desire to find chance at growth and promise for the future. There were times, given our current moment, with mass protests against police brutality, rampant disenfranchisement, and a pandemic, that I struggled to engage with the concept of gratitude. What, truly, could be found to be grateful for in these circumstances? But, I took a step back, returning to Israel’s own definition of that gratitude as an attempt “to let others know that they mattered, that their kindness made a difference.” This book is, at its core, an effort to be thankful for the grace of other people, the chance to learn, grow, and give back, even after a life full of mistakes. It is a powerful reminder of the need for faith in humanity, even in our darkest moments. To that end, Israel’s memoir is a necessary reflection on what it means to be grateful to the impact others have on our lives.
Publication: Jaded Ibis Press
Publication date: September 7, 2020
Reviewed by Dan Mazzacane