Student Picks: Ware and Sheffield


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I heard about this book nearly two years ago on NPR, and immediately wanted to read it. But two years fly by when one’s having fun in one’s MFA program, and I couldn’t fit it in amongst each semester’s reading lists and essays, let alone during the frenzy of my final semester. Finally, with my full thesis completed and mailed, it was time to wait. I got this book on a Wednesday evening and finished it less than 48 hours later.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware begins with Nora, an introverted, reclusive writer living in a small flat in London, getting invited to a bachelorette/hen party weekend for her best friend from primary and secondary school. But she hasn’t seen the friend in about ten years and doesn’t understand why she’s been invited. She’s persuaded to go, and ends up in the middle of a mystery – a mystery she can’t remember as she recovers from a head wound in the hospital.

Ware weaves the tale in first person, alternating between Nora in the hospital and (via memory flashes as she pieces things together) an ominous glass house in the middle of a forest. I was hoping this book would last a little longer, but the characters and suspense propelled me through the 308 pages faster than I anticipated. It’s a thoughtful, brutal study in how to write a smart, well-crafted story with mystery and intrigue that keeps those pages turning.


Dominique Heuermann-- “Tonight, I feel like my whole body is made out of memories. I’m a mix tape, a cassette that’s been rewound so many times you can hear the fingerprints smudged on the tape.”

Music is an essential part of the human experience. In my lifetime I have made countless mixed tapes and CDs, all labeled for specific moods and events, boyfriends, and road trips. Reading Sheffield’s ode to his wife through music,  Love is a Mixed Tape, is a heartbreaking trip, but one you will thoroughly enjoy.

Sheffield’s take on music memory and the way in which we all reach back in one way or another when confronted with a song from our past is masterfully done. By running through the playlists of the mixed tapes left behind by his late wife, we get glimpses of quiet moments, explosive memories, and the painful parts of letting go and moving on.

Sheffield’s profound musical wisdom and lyric application to life’s dilemmas and routine problems, such as his wondering why no one writes about the men that turn into husbands except for Carly Simon, or how Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” defined for him what it meant to have the responsibility of “the kind of love you can’t leave until you die.” I have always connected to music in this way, where the message outweighs the melodies. What instantly pulled me into Sheffield’s storyline was the fact that each chapter is a mixed tape. A time capsule of events centered around music and the choice to feel. Perhaps in my own memoirs I’ll discuss why I can’t stand listening to Alice in Chains, the reason ‘80s love song radio shows make me break out in a sweat, or why hearing Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s version of “Time to Say Goodbye” will always make me weep. Musical muscle memory, what a bitch.  

67 North Main Street

by Dominique Heuermann

There’s this house, actually, it's more like a mini-mansion with five bedrooms and four bathrooms. Each bathroom has a vintage clawfoot tub with Victorian brass feet. I know, I’m drooling too. It’s located in upstate New York, a place I have never been, but a place that I wouldn’t mind living. It has four seasons a year. That’s right, four. That is three more seasons than I get to experience on Hawaii, my island in the sun. Not one or two with intermittent cold spells that make people reach for a light sweater, but four whole entire seasons! Glorious falls and winters in all the spectacular, color changing and snow blanketing glory anyone could ever imagine. And the house? It was built in 1865, the former house of business tycoons by the name of Hale, who made their money in the dry goods market and coal mines. Having no children, the brothers then left the house to their widowed, childless sister. It’s literally known as the Hale House. There’s no tragic history associated with it as far as I can tell, so no danger of weeping spirits haunting the hallways after midnight, but who knows? Family secrets have a way of peeking out behind doors when you least expect them.

I really want it. I don’t know what appeals to me more; The large wrap around porch, the original wood fire burning stoves, or the acres of land behind it. Did I mention the inlaid all-wood flooring dating from circa 1900? Oh yeah, it’s the real deal. I want it…and yet it’s been sitting unsold for over 800 days. Should that worry me? Should it also worry me that there are only 1600 people that live in the town where the house is located? I don’t think I care about that to be honest, as long as there’s a Target or Walmart within driving distance. I’d be too busy working the three acres surrounding the property to care that I had no one stopping by my door to evangelize me or sell me the latest vacuum. I would plant my vegetable garden and fruit trees next to my chicken coop and watch the sun set while I drank a glass of sweet tea.

 My springs would be spent planting tomatoes and cucumbers for my summer harvests. My summers would be spent planting pumpkins for the fall and canning tomato sauces, salsas, and pickles. I wouldn’t care about the lack of neighbors because I’d have too many treasures from my trees to can and make into jams, jellies, and sauces. The house would become a sanctuary and a haven. With five bedrooms I’m sure it could house others who feel the need to run away as well.

It’s a bargain, too! Only $199,999! Hell, that’s less than half what we paid for our 3-bedroom townhouse which barely fits our family of five. Did I mention our housing association that likes to fine people for things as ridiculous as having tint on your garage windows, growing unauthorized flowers, or keeping a pair of shoes on your porch? They’re the gestapo of housing authorities all for the low, low price of $350 a month. That’s on top of your pricey mortgage or rent. The Hale House has no housing association. It has breezes through tall grass which bend the wild flowers allowed to flourish around fences. It has no authority to answer to except me and Mother Nature, and I’m sure she’d agree shoes belong on the porch.

The winters would be cold and isolating. I could revel in quiet solitude next to a roaring blaze in my wood burning fire places. I’d even take up drinking tea, or bourbon, whatever one drinks on cold winter mornings to shake the chill out of your bones. The Hales wouldn’t judge me, in fact, I’m sure they would toast to my good health as long as I keep the fires burning, the wood flooring intact, and the claw footed bath tubs clean. What a small price to pay for seasons, solitude, and sanctuary.

I’ve been stalking the online listing for this house for months now, plotting my escape from my citified existence to plant sunflowers and pumpkins, o feed chickens at dawn and tuck them in at sunset. I’m packed and ready, the Hale’s are waiting to welcome me home.

The Dress

by Dominique Heuermann


The dress was a sexy jet-black velvet, cinched in all the right places, meant to make you look like a sex kitten, a vixen. She didn’t dare ask what size it was or if they even carried hers. Running her fingers along the neckline, down the sides, along each perfectly hemmed cinch, she felt the crush of that soft, luscious fabric bend to the pressure of her touch. When she pictured herself holding a cocktail in that dress, hand to her chest laughing with radiant red lips that demanded attention, it seemed like a scene from a movie. A woman walked by giving her and the dress in her hand a questioning glace. Instantly, the perfect scenario of red lipped laughter and sex kitten status melted into one of shame. Images of her body bulging unflatteringly made her burn red with humiliation. She sighed with self-loathing and walked from the store empty handed. So many attempts at better diets, exercise, with various levels of failure and success. It didn’t help that she had always been skinny and fit…until she had children.

You’re no sex kitten, she told herself, you’re all cow.

At 37, with more desire to know herself and the limits of her body, she was stuck with one that needed quite a bit of fine tuning. Flabby arms, cellulite, fatty, stuffed trunks for legs, and a mid-section that could do with a bit of crossfit. She had a pretty face and nice eyes, but it was difficult to be satisfied with any part of herself.

I just don’t add up she would say to herself in the mirror.

It didn’t matter that her husband loved her bits and beauty equally. It didn’t matter that she was called beautiful by those who knew her. She thought they were only being polite anyway. Whatever she was missing was all summed up in that dress. That dress represented confidence.

Confidence, what an elusive concept.

Her confidence had eroded the very first time a boy at school called her ‘big’ because of her height, and then again when a girl in ninth grade called her a sasquatch. The P.E. locker room became a battleground to keep any last shred of self-esteem. At 19, diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, she found out her body was its own worst enemy. It would be in a constant state of hormonal imbalance and weight gain. With her first pregnancy at 22, when her doctor called her “hugely fat” after gaining 80 pounds, despite carefully watching her diet, confidence slipped away even more. Her second pregnancy, a year after the first, saw her gaining even more weight and taking twice as long to lose it. By the third and last pregnancy, she just couldn’t shake the extra pounds. Her children were now 15, 13, and 8, the years had gone by but the weight remained. It not only weighed down her body, but it weighed down her soul.

I’ll never be the person I was before, she cried into her journal, she’s gone and been replaced with the person who ate her.

During a particularly grueling self-hate session on the treadmill, mind focused on calories burned and the calories consumed, she failed to notice her 15-year old watching her from the doorway. When she eventually looked up and caught her eye, her daughter looked sad and confused.

“Why do you look so angry when you work out?” her daughter asked.

“I’m mad at myself.” She replied.

“Why? What did you do?”

Her words turned to bile in her throat. What was she going to say? How could she say she was angry with her body, when her daughter’s own body mimicked hers? She wouldn’t start that downward spiral in the one she loved the most. She refused to do that, so she lied.

“I’m angry the dress I want isn’t on sale anymore, and I should have bought it when I saw it.”

“The black velvet one?”

“Yeah. It’s ok though. It might not be the right kind of dress for me anyway.”

“Why not? You would look like one of those old movie stars, but with better hips and boobs.”

“And here I was thinking I would look like Miss Piggy.”

“Who’s Miss Piggy?”

“Never mind.”

The next day, she made a straight path past the pin-up mannequins and vintage dresses, back to that black velvet sex kitten dress and plucked it from its spot on the rack. A salesperson approached her and she didn’t hesitate to ask for her size, which she was told they most definitely had. In the dressing room, she kept her back to the mirror while she wiggled into the soft velvet. Pulling up the side zipper, she breathed in shakily. Here we go, sex kitten or Miss Piggy?

She turned around slowly and realized she didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror staring back at her. Her daughter was right. Gone were the worrisome spots of cellulite and fat trunk legs. Gone was a middle in need of crossfit. The woman in the mirror was her, only better. Better with age, better with maturity, better with appreciation for who she had become.

As she was handing the salesperson her credit card, her phone buzzed with a text message.

“Mom, did you get the dress?”

“Yes,” she texted back. “Now I’m off to find some red lipstick.”