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‘Origins of the Universe’ Asks a Lot of Interesting Questions

From Chicago Review of Books…

Chicago Review of Books

9781938103919_ba724The essay is the scientific method of literature. The scientist creates a hypothesis and then continually tries to disprove it. The essayist calls on facts and research, but opens that data up to the organic uncertainties of experience and personality. Like the scientist, the essayist circles in to discover her subject, and for Carole Firstman, the subject is only the Origins of the Universe and What It All Means.

Firstman is aware of the grandiose claim of her subject matter, which is also the title of her memoir in essays. The words come directly from her father, a biology professor, free love practitioner, and somewhat absent parent. Firstman diagnoses him as both brilliant and mildly autistic. His often-repeated promise to explain the meaning of life on earth is both intriguing and infuriating, and these two forces pull each essay along. While her father studies scorpions to prove theories of evolution, Firstman…

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Review of Sarah Tomlinson’s “Good Girl”

My review of Sarah Tomlinson’s memoir “Good Girl” is live at Colorado Review.

Sarah Tomlinson’s debut memoir, Good Girl, is about her complicated relationship with her narcissistic, often absent father. From the outside, Tomlinson had a picturesque childhood. Born in 1976, she was a bright, precocious child who grew up with her mom, stepfather, and little brother on a hundred-acre rural enclave in Freedom, Maine. Still, she longed for her birth father, an acid-dropping, mystically “enlightened” itinerant taxi-driver her mother had divorced because he was a compulsive gambler. As a young girl, Tomlinson looked forward to her father’s sporadic visits. She often stood alone by the window for hours, waiting and waiting for her father to arrive. Most of the time he failed to show. She reflects on the speculative calculations she performed as she stared toward the empty road:

As I waited for him to arrive, I rested my fingertips on the wood of the windowsill, staving off my fear of disappointment by redoing the numbers in my mind. At two, when he had still not come, I held onto the logic of my math problem: if he left at eleven, he’d be there by two thirty. But no, just to be safe, maybe he hit traffic, or got his cab serviced, or grabbed a fish sandwich on Route 1.

Tomlinson’s story tumbles forth with the rapid urgency of a young woman searching for meaning and perhaps a bit of insight amid the chaos of unexpected wounds created by her neglectful, self-centered father. As a teenager she was smart and ambitious, seeking more than her small high school and her bohemian home life could offer. At age fifteen she left for Bard College at Simon’s Rock before going on to earn a graduate degree and establishing herself as a journalist, music critic, and ghost writer. Throughout her travels to Boston, Portland (Oregon), and Los Angeles, she struggled to negotiate work, love, and friendship. With intelligent and courageous writing, Sarah Tomlinson refuses to dilute the painful realities of her life—the trauma of a school shooting, the social lubricant of drugs and alcohol, the choice of unavailable men. Tomlinson examines her life through a dual lens: one tinted by her inner child’s belief that her personal value is rooted in external validation and the other a clear lens of the grown writer who recognizes her personal value rooted inside herself.

For an author, father-daughter memoirs can be tricky business. Confronting fathers directly and publicly is not easy. To write about a father is to sit in judgment upon him. Not only do cultural norms dictate that such judgments are a no-no, but an author-daughter still hopeful of paternal reconciliation has personal, after-publication fallout to consider. She might ask herself what she’s trying to work out on the page, how her story reveals insights about herself, what readers might gain from those insights, and whether her private-made-public revelations might affect her relationship with her still-living father. Not an easy list of considerations.

Although the absentee father-daughter conflict is a familiar theme in the larger landscape of memoirs, what is unique and perhaps most engaging in Good Girl is Tomlinson’s honest depiction of how her father’s unavailability shaded almost every aspect of her childhood, teenage, and young adult life. Tomlinson’s prose is strongest when she dives into close observation of her father’s everyday behavior. With subtle humor she captures his delusional revelry and childlike exuberance as he visits her two-story Boston apartment for the first time:

He was halfway across the warped kitchen floor when he stopped, transfixed by the view of the treetops and sky straight ahead. He put both hands out as if to steady himself on a surfboard, bent his knees slightly as if testing the give.

“Far out,” he said.

At its heart, this book is a coming-of-age story about the emotional cavern created by her father’s absence. Tomlinson strives to work around, if not repair, the internal damage her father did. On one level, she continually tries to deepen her connection with him—she really does want to have a relationship with her father, shortcomings and all. On another level, she comes to realize that in order to protect the newfound sense of wholeness she’s strived so hard to achieve, she must keep her father at arm’s length.

Good books sometimes remind us of things we already know on some level. We know that people are complicated; we know that daughters can love fathers despite their shortcomings; we know that a wounded heart can crawl back to its source of pain time and again; and we know that there may or may not be an adequate response to a child’s call for parental attention. In the end, Tomlinson finds no tidy solutions. She does, however, leave readers with the glimmer of hope that some sort of peace is possible, even if it means we continue to love unconditionally the people who have disappointed us.


The Origins of the Universe and What it All Means by Carole Firstman

A review of my book from Vulpes Libris. Thanks!

Vulpes Libris

universeWe humans are good at figuring things out. We’ve figured out why apples fall down instead of up. We’ve figured out that objects are made up of tiny particles, bound together by forces so strong that to break those bonds unleashes energy of a great and terrible kind. We’ve figured out that even the deadliest animals on the planet contain secrets we can use to cure diseases.

We can figure all these things out, but there are mysteries that resist even our intelligence and inventiveness. One of those mysteries is what makes our parents tick.

In The Origins of the Universe and What it All Means, Firstman, herself the offspring of a scientist and a college professor documents her own inability to fathom the intricacies of the parent-child relationship. There’s a rich irony in that lack of correlation between the formal knowledge and skills we develop over a lifetime and…

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UC Merced’s Annual Creative Writing Conference

What: UC Merced’s Annual Creative Writing Conference
When: Saturday, April 9, 2016, 9:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (includes free lunch)
Where: Kolligian Library and COB classrooms (more information on exact location later)

The UC Merced Annual Creative Writing Conference provides an opportunity for creative writers of all levels of experience and ability to meet, practice working on their craft, receive feedback from creative writing faculty as well as peers, and share work in a brief reading near the end of the conference (this last part is optional). We will have guest readers as well. They are Rachel Starnes and Carole Firstman, whose memoirs are coming out this summer. Check them out at an Student writers and faculty from Merced College and Modesto Junior College will join us.

Each student writer will have a chance to participate in a workshop of his or her choice. Available workshops include poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and playwriting.

General Schedule:
8:30 a.m.-9:00 a.m. Begin to gather in COB. Coffee and breakfast pastries provided
9:00 a.m.-9:30 a.m.: introduction to the event
9:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: participate in a workshop of your choice
12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m.: Kolligian Library Green Room (KL 355): free lunch, plus extra time to work on revising the draft you produced during the workshop
1:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m.: A chance to read your work to the everyone involved in the conference (again, this is optional)
2:00-3:30 p.m.: guest readers and exit survey (event feedback)

For more information on the event, please contact Merritt Writing Program faculty member and conference coordinator Andrea Mele at

Book Boutique–Sunday, May 17

“Buy Local” from authors who live and work in the Visalia area. We’ll be set up like a miniature festival with kiosks of a dozen authors and two artists. There will be refreshments and plenty of comfy places to sit while perusing the books you might like. In addition to supporting local writers, you will be able to chat with them about their work and get your books personally signed. There will be drawings for door prizes. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon?


Hello and welcome to my website! I’m so glad you are here. Please check back because I’ll have some blog posts up soon that you won’t want to miss. In this forum I’ll talk about lots of things: writing, traveling, and well… I’ll probably discuss issues of general existential angst. I mean, who doesn’t suffer existential angst from time to time? It’s the basis of  lots of great literature. Surely there’s more to be said. Anyway, I’m super stoked that you’re here. If you’re inclined, leave a comment. 🙂