Jen Ashburn's Reading Recommendation:
I recently read History of My Breath by Kristin Kovacic (Red Mountain Press, 2018), an essay collection that brings a frank and intimate voice to topics ranging from the search for extraterrestrial life to the quest for a perfect in-season cassoulet. Of course, the essays aren’t really about space aliens and rural French cuisine. Rather, they investigate life’s perennial themes—chiefly, the nature of human relationships against an ever-looming mortality—through Kovacic’s curiosities and experiences. These are interesting enough, but it’s Kovacic’s ability to connect disparate threads in a genuine way that makes this collection so compelling.
As a case in point, “Interrupted Journey” entwines a 1960s alien abduction memoir with the city of Pittsburgh’s struggle to desegregate its school system. Kovacic tells us about her interactions with her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Kaufman, while simultaneously chronicling a racially motivated boycott of a nearby junior high school. In Mrs. Kaufman’s class, the “smart girls,” as they’re called, attend special after-school sessions where they’re introduced to their teacher’s fascination with aliens and given homework to shine flashlights into the night sky to beckon aliens to earth. In the makeshift school for the boycotting students, children are taught by volunteers in an open-air classroom, then at a local bar, and then in private homes.
By positioning these narratives side by side, Kovacic seems to be asking, “Which is more absurd?” Discussing the normalcy she felt in her classroom, she writes, “Mrs. Kaufman was our one-and-only teacher. We were Mrs. Kaufman’s one-and-only class. We were not out on the street getting lectured by a mad mother in curlers; we were not going to school in a saloon.”
Yet Kovacic does much more than point out absurdities. She also gives us the perspective of time. In “Interrupted Journey,” we see her later navigate the educational landscape as a parent and teacher. We see what has changed, and what has in many ways remained the same. In other essays, Kovacic links past, present and future with generational ties, from her father’s childhood in Yugoslavia, to her travels in France with and without her children, to her concerns about parenting. In “The Sound of Us” she writes, “I could do this better… And my parents could have done better, too. There are several key sentences, in the proper tone, I wish they had spoken to me, but that supposes I would have listened. It also supposes that family is a performance—something you do—rather than something you are.”
The closing essay, “On Irony,” ties together Kovacic’s work as a teacher, her breast cancer diagnosis, the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and practicing for an “active shooter” scenario—a chaotic mix made orderly through section headings that define some element of irony. Number five is “The direct opposite of irony is sincerity,” which, in a nutshell, is why I admire this collection. Kovacic explores the breath and breadth of her life with candor. The irony exists, and there are certainly some you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up moments, but the heart of this book lies in Kovacic’s willingness to examine life as it is, with all its complications.
Jen Ashburn is the author of the poetry book The Light on the Wall (Main Street Rag, 2016), and has work published in numerous venues, including The Writer’s Almanac, Pedestal and Whiskey Island. Her creative nonfiction essay Borax and Cornmeal was published in issue 286 of The Fiddlehead. She holds an MFA from Chatham University, and lives in Pittsburgh, PA.