Anxious Attachments has been long-listed for the PEN America Literary Award in the Art of the Essay. These essays explore the writer’s personal struggles—from quitting heroin to caring for premature infants to tending to the dying—and become a lens through which she allows readers to see our shared social and political lives. As a larger narrative, the book is about the power of compassion and our ability to revise who we are, what we believe, and what our story is.
Of the collection, writer Aisha Sabatini Sloan says, “Alvarado’s gorgeous essays evoke the fluidity and awe of an underwater journey. She offers us a tour of grief—its causes, its cultural conditions, its grasp. In delineating, with devotion, with humor, losses that are at once ordinary and extraordinary, material and supernatural, she offers the reader a chance to better see what’s right in front of them.”
About the Author: Beth Alvarado is the author of four books:
Anxious Attachments, Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, and Not a Matter of Love and other stories. Beth lived in the Sonoran Borderlands for much of her life and now resides in Oregon. Her essays and stories have been published in many fine journals including Guernica, The Sun, River Teeth, Cimarron Review, ThirdCoast, The Southern Review, Sonora Review, and Ploughshares. Three of her essays have been chosen as Notable by Best American Essays. Her fourth book, Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in September 2019.
Please look for Anxious Attachments at your local bookstore, on Autumn House’s website, autumnhouse.org, or through our distributor The University of Chicago Press.
Reviews of Anxious Attachments
Melanie Bishop, March 2019, New York Journal of Books:
“I cannot tell my mother how much I love her. Instead, I am cheerful. Because my mother does not want me to see her naked, I tell her I will wear dark glasses when I bathe her. ‘I’ll wear dark glasses and shake my head like Stevie Wonder,’ I tell her, ‘then you can pretend I’m blind.’
Such scenes are abundant in this book, filled with beautiful human attempts to connect, to protect, to do right by our loved ones. . .
Alvarado includes the references to current events, politics, social issues, and science, not because she’s trying to make these personal essays about more than herself, but because they are about more than herself. Going from the intensely personal to the political, the social, the scientific, is what makes these essays universal. . .
Readers come away from these essays more educated, informed, and justifiably outraged that drinking water in Tucson was poisoned by trichloroethylene (TCE). But they also come away having fallen in love with Fernando, who died six years ago, and to whom the book is dedicated. And having fallen in love with Alvarado, too, and with their solid but unlikely union of 40 years that sounds about as glorious and real as love gets. . .
These tender portraits of Fernando as both a husband and a father endear him to the reader. Alvarado bemoans in the book that she doesn’t remember enough about him, fears that in avoiding the excruciating pain of grief, she will “erase him,” but instead, with every picture she paints, she immortalizes him. This whole book is a love song to Fernando.”
Ellen Santasiero, May 2019, from High Desert Journal
In this collection, [Alvarado] puts before the reader 14 essays that span five decades of life and loss in the Sonoran borderlands and the Oregon high desert.
I love many things about the essays, but a few things stand out in particular. First, Alvarado’s frequent references to mystery, whether through folk tales, stories of otherworldliness, or, most especially, dreams. These mysteries and Alvarado’s imaginative engagement with them give her—and readers—a world full of meaning and redemption from and for a dangerous world that is never very far away. To wit, the Tucson of her young adulthood, we learn, is a town “ringed by missiles where planes like dark predators were circling overhead.”
The major sources of meaning and redemption in this collection, however, are the family intimacies Alvarado writes of again and again. Love between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings. These relationships constitute order, sense, and beauty in a world of addiction, mental illness, poisoned drinking water, cancer, perpetrators, and forest fire, and are revealed through closely observed details such as Alvarado remembering her husband tenderly touching her bottom lip before kissing her. . .
Anxious Attachments is a longitudinal study of the way life insists upon itself in terrible circumstances and places. Tillie Olsen wrote, “… and when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total?” Alvarado has had time for such remembering and estimating, and fortunately for us, she still does.
Brigitte Lewis, May 2019, from Entropy Magazine:
Anxious Attachments by Beth Alvarado contains fourteen essays that, no matter where they take place—Arizona, Oregon, Prague, Mexico—are deeply rooted in a distinct sense of surroundings and the people dearest to the author. Many of the essays reside at junctures of living and dying. Many of the essays show the body and the land shape shifting into situations sometimes downright hostile to survival. Many are akin to coming-of-age stories in that they are coming-to-different-ages stories, and describe what it is like to both experience and witness others growing up, growing older, and taking care of those we call family. . .
Spanning a breadth of time—from age 19 to her early sixties—Alvarado’s essays compile a picture of life lived in relationship to other people. Dealing with subject matter such as heroin addiction, premature birth, and caregiving at the end of life alongside topics such as the rise in forest fires, environmental pollution, and the prison-industrial complex, the collection offers a personal-political reading experience. Alvarado zooms in close to her own experiences. Just as the circles of a rock thrown into a pond grow ever-widening, these essays broaden to illuminate the connections between an individual life and the implications of one’s individual decisions within a larger context: place, family, society-at-large.
In turn, the larger contexts inform the self. In the first essay “In a Town Ringed by Missiles,” the author writes, “I saw myself as someone who was a risk-taker. I wasn’t afraid of anything. But then I got pregnant. Suddenly, I was someone who would poison her own child, someone who was not powerful but powerless, even over her own impulses.” Calling on Piaget’s theory of cognitive dissonance, the author intones that she was forced to reckon with her self-identity. Nineteen, addicted to heroin, and pregnant, Alvarado chose relationships, family, the rocky path toward becoming powerful. She chose motherhood, marriage, writing.
And it is apparent throughout the collection—through craft and content—that Alvarado’s reckoning continues through the very act of writing. In the essay “Notes From Prague,” she writes, “I don’t know if life has a shape or if I write to give it shape. I want to take things I’ve felt deeply and make of them moments the reader can enter. Memory as a place…” It is evident that the essays were written over a handful of years, tied as they are to events that unfold over the course of as many years. Over time, Alvarado remains deeply connected to the act of writing as sense making. She wrests life into meaningful narrative, it would seem, for both herself and for her readers.
Speaking about what some might call superstition in the home of her in-laws (two egg yolks meant twins, a dropped fork means company is coming), Alvarado realized at a young age that something ineffable lies beneath the everyday. “This was when I began to see that there was another world beneath this one…” she writes, “…a world where you made sense of the disparate pieces of reality by weaving them together into a story…” Perhaps, it was that Alvarado had the eyes to see the story that lies beneath. Perhaps, she held an inherent willingness to manifest everyday experiences into extraordinary experiences through the structure of a narrative arc. In other words, to the author, events mean something. Events are not isolated nor are they isolating. In Alvarado’s world, events such as the birth of her twin grandchildren during the 2016 election, for example, are experientially, metaphorically, and temporally connected. Again, the personal extends to the political as the writer makes sense of the chaos both of said births and of the last presidential election.
In “Days of the Dead,” Alvarado writes, “If I believe in your words, I believe in your reality, and it will become a part of mine, the cells in my brain imprinted, physically changed by what I’ve heard.” This belief—that we are changed by words—is the nervous system that runs through the collection. It is not enough to simply record what has happened. It is not enough to simply read the experiences of one woman going through the ordinary devotions of raising children, caring for the sick and aging, and burying the dead. If we readers let ourselves, we will be changed by the words we have read, words that—through their mere attention—make sacred the mundane. If we readers let ourselves be, we will be changed for the better.
Irene Cooper, June 2019, from utterance: a journal:
“14 Ways of Seeing in the Dark”
There are a lot of containers in Beth Alvarado’s latest collection of essays, Anxious Attachments. From the closet in her mother-in-law’s house where the author, as a new mother, retires to cry, to the titular city in “A Town Ringed by Missiles,” Alvarado shows us boxes as though she were inviting us into the darkroom to watch the images bloom. Even the body is a box—an incubator of babies, repository of industrial chemicals, a reliquary of memory—at times closed and unknowable, at other times splayed open for any gamer or OB-GYN nurse to see.
I quit doing drugs, but I didn’t look like anybody’s mother.
Nor do the contrasting birth stories of her two children in the title essay, “Anxious Attachments,” resemble the stuff of rose-colored maternal myth. When the doctor at her daughter’s birth attempts without explanation to insert a wired electrode into her vagina as she’s strapped into the stirrups, Alvarado gave her a swift kick in the chest that knocked her almost all the way back to the wall. Rather than reactive, the violence reads as a thoughtful, if exasperated, response to not being listened to, to repeatedly being shut out of her own experience. Throughout the collection, Alvarado strives to listen, and deeply, to herself particularly as she navigates motherhood, marriage, extended family, teaching, and her creative imperative. She writes,
It is interesting to me now, nearly forty years later, that almost all of the scars on my body run along the base of my neck, thin white lines, and that one of my lessons in life, it seems to me, is to learn to connect the mind and body, to allow myself to feel. Perhaps that is true for anyone who has ever been an addict.
“Water in the Desert” starts here:
On the way home from the doctor, after the initial diagnosis, Fernando had asked me if I was OK. I wasn’t. I wanted him to stay home with me, but instead he dropped me off at the house, where I tried to grade papers while he went back to work. Later, as we were falling asleep. He said that all that afternoon, when a customer would say, ‘Thank you,’ or ‘Have a nice day,’ he’d think, ‘I have cancer.’
As a girl, I learned from my mother, who lost her first husband in the Korean War, to encyst sorrow and bury it deep within, so this is not an essay about grief. It is an essay about water.
When their children are young, Beth and Fernando move from a “small, square house” (whose original mortgage agreement, before the author sabotages it, states that only white people can live there) to a home on the north side of Tucson, prone to flooding and also hospitable to peach trees and a thriving vegetable garden.
In the middle of the night we could hear the trains and, maybe because we had small children, I would wake up worrying about derailments and toxic spills. I was not religious, but I had an apocalyptic imagination. I grew a garden in the backyard because I wanted to be able to feed my family when civilization ended.
The epigraph to “Water in the Desert” from Craig Childs’ The Secret knowledge of Water, says, “It is not only drought that makes this a desert; it is all the water that cannot be seen.” The water that cannot be seen below Tucson contained catastrophic levels of TCE, or trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent used by the aviation industry locally from 1952 until the ‘80’s. It had made the tap water in Fernando’s childhood home effervesce. Decades later, when he is diagnosed with cancer, the exposure to TCE is not considered relevant to his condition, only his hepatitis C, despite rampant reports of cancer among Tucson residents in the affected area. Alvarado writes,
But you can’t document that which you refuse to see. Or, as they say in Spanish: No hay nadie tan sordo que él que no escucha. There is no one so deaf as he who will not listen.
Seamlessly woven into the horrors of chemical exposure, and indeed, throughout the light and dark of the rest of the collection, is Alvarado’s exceptional lyricism, expressed in her own words or deftly mined from an expansive intellectual Rolodex of literature. In “Water in the Desert,” we read from The Song of Songs, …one of the few books of the Bible that might have been written by a woman:
My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, / to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies. / I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.
In Anxious Attachments, we hear both the cacophony of the large Mexican American family Alvarado marries into, and the sacred silences of the marriage itself. The book is dedicated to Fernando, and he is everywhere present. Fernando maybe most perfectly illustrates the push and pull of attachment and separation, intimacy and encroachment, and the concept and realities of containment and freedom when he returns home early on in their marriage and turns on the radio, turns on the television, and tries to take a nap in an attempt to reproduce the bizarre serenity of the noisy household. And, too, there’s quiet, as husband and wife trade plenty of hushed pillow talk, even after his death.
In other essays, memory swaps space with reportage and theory to corral to cogency current events including gun violence and borderland child incarceration, or else expose their inability to be so artfully contained. With deep intelligence, a full heart, and prose that alternately beckons like your one truthful best friend and devastates like the monsoons that sweep her beloved Tucson, Arizona, Alvarado’s Anxious Attachments opens the door to illuminate layer upon layer of gorgeous shifting landscape, interior and otherwise.
Reviews of Anthropologies
Anthropologies: University of Iowa Press, 2011
About Anthropologies: A vivid archive of memories, Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies layers scenes, portraits, dreams, and narratives in a dynamic cross-cultural mosaic. Bringing her lyrical tenor to bear on stories as diverse as harboring teen runaways, gunfights with federales, and improbable love, Alvarado unveils the ways in which seemingly separate moments coalesce to forge a communal truth.
Megan Kimble, September 2011, Sonora Review: The beginning of Anthropologies feels like something you’ve remembered before—a frail mother recounts stories for a middle-aged daughter. But then, the daughter is 18, and she wears bell bottoms and a black tee shirt and argues with the mother about a boyfriend. The argument ends and it is Colorado in 1968, and the windows fog as a young girl dries dishes with a young mother, and suddenly you aren’t remembering—you are living in a world so specific and complete you can’t have passed through it before.
Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies is a pile of perfectly ordered snapshots, so quickly and quietly stacked that soon the remembering becomes a world unto itself. Alvarado is the daughter of Margaret, the niece of Dorothy, the younger sibling to a half-brother and half-sister born of a father who died in Saipan and a mother too early a widow. Margaret meets her second husband en route to a bridge game in Puget Sound, and Alvarado’s childhood ends when the family moves from Grand Junction to Tucson. “My father was a solitary man,” Alvarado says of her father.“How I hated him,” Aunt Dorothy says of her father, Alvarado’s grandfather.
So is the fabric of a family created, through memories stacked one on top of each other. Through the first section of Anthropologies, Notes on Silence, Alvarado remembers what she learned of her family as a child—the origins of the couple that would become her grandparents, become her parents, and the memories are associative, leaping from quiet deathbed memories to the bubbled promised of courtship.
While vivid, the moments in Notes on Silence, aptly titled, are quiet and dependant on Alvarado’s telling of them. It isn’t until the second section, Notes on Travel, that these moments begin to exist of their own agency—as experiences we inhabit ourselves rather than memories possessed by a narrator. Notes on Travel begins as Alvarado meets Fernando, the man who will become her husband, but for now he’s just the waiter at an awkward formal dinner when she’s an awkward teenager. She’s 18, then, and travels to west Tucson, Hispanic Tucson, to live with Fernando and his family, and she could well have traveled to a different country.
She watches her mother-in-law pat tortillas on a stove. She takes an “old round green bus down South Sixth Avenue,” passing “the carniceria and the tortilleria and the storefronts painted bright yellow or orange or pink with blue letters and black wrought-iron bars over the windows, and the music of Spanish… all around.” She absorbs the stories of this new landscape, with its thick layers of memory and history, and these stories alter her, change her own memories and her relationship to her own history. “I wanted to escape my parents’ life, to enter another country, but I hadn’t expected to find there barefoot children hopping from spot of shade to spot of shade as they followed their mother to the grocery,” she writes.
This world, the world between cultures, is the most firmly rooted in place—Tucson, in the 1970s and today—and it becomes, for me, the most vivid. Alvarado explores the intersection of Anglo and Hispanic cultures within this grounding, in relationships with new relatives, or thirty years into a marriage with Fernando, or quick experiences of a mixed-race son and daughter.
Anthropologies is sparse yet complete, a narrative forged out of fragments. The book explores memory and race and relationships, but after awhile, anthropologies is not just about this exploration—it is a memoir, after all, a story of a life, and Alvarado has funny friends and endearing moments. (“The fall picnic. We are standing in front of the salads. Cre-a-tive Wri-ting? the Japanese doctoral student in engineering asks me, spooning rice onto his paper plate, what is this? Cre-a-tive Wri-ting?”)
“Maybe my grandmother simply entered a room in another woman’s past and it felt like home,” writes Alvarado—and maybe that’s what she’s doing here, building rooms, and they start to feel like home.
From Publishers Weekly: Sparked by her mother’s deterioration into old age, Alvarado (Not a Matter of Love) has written a three-part memoir about her family life that approaches prose poetry. It is searing at moments, especially when she discusses her life as a junkie, but the narrative then becomes dreamy, even vague. Despite the loose structure—not even chronological order is respected—vivid portraits of her parents, children, in-laws, and especially, her husband ring true and sharp. A section focusing on her leaving her white, suburban upbringing to marry her Mexican husband and move into the home of his immigrant parents is particularly striking. Coming from a university press, this book risks being overlooked. However, readers should seek it out for Alvarado’s distinctive and compelling writing. (Sept.)
From Kirkus Reviews: Alvarado (Not a Matter of Love, 2006) follows her debut short-story collection with a memoir that also explores the intersection of Hispanic and Anglo cultures in the western United States. This highly personal work weaves together stories of her parents’ lives as well as her own experiences with love, familial attachment, heroin addiction, motherhood, travel and her writing. “I have autobiography anxiety,” she writes, explaining that she felt “no tenderness” for the self recorded in her adolescent journal. This may explain, to some degree, the wild deviation Alvarado takes from typical autobiographies. With no quotation marks and chapters averaging one page, she writes only in the present tense, from her perspective as a girl up to now, in her mid-50s. This somewhat jarring structure imbues the book with a strong, immediate voice, and it’s easy to imagine it read aloud as something akin to spoken-word poetry. Her overlapping of the past and present illuminates her legacy and the connections between herself and, respectively, her mother and daughter. In examining her own secrets, she recognizes that, even if she doesn’t know what they are, her children also have secrets. She wonders if they tried to confide in her and she failed. “Maybe,” she writes, “like my mother, I shut my eyes, my ears, my heart.” But her memoir stands as a striking rebuttal to that fear. She lays bare in these pages the many stories and details of her life and identity. Devoid of self-pity or nostalgia, Alvarado’s voice is bell-clear.
Reviews of Not a Matter of Love New Rivers Press, Fall 2006
From Front Porch Journal 4: From a bird’s-eye-view, Alvarado’s stories are. . .montage. In ‘Phoenix,’ as in several other stories, the point of view shifts between mother and child. Perspectives mesh. The characters’ interior lives–as when Gloria and Danika drive to Phoenix, discussing and avoiding topics of sex and love–are equally weighted. Where, the reader might initially ask, is the eye, the focus, to land? But this roving point of view becomes Alvarado’s strength rather than her weakness. [Her] fluid structure successfully and unpretentiously mimics life; the result is evocative. . . .
Alvarado’s storylines are cleanly crafted and unambiguous, her details raw. In ‘Limbo,’ Alvarado tells the tale of a Hispanic mother whose only son, Rey, is killed in a shootout. In the story’s opening, an anonymous woman phones the mother, Lena, and says, ‘I have your son’s liver.’ The claim, like the circumstances of Rey’s demise, remains impossible to verify, though Alvarado reconstructs the shooting for the reader from Lena’s perspective. Alvarado writes, “Whenever Lena imagines the night of Rey’s death, she imagines it as a story. . .” Soon, Alvarado deftly places us in scene with Rey and his compatriot Eddie, sans Lena.
Finally, though Alvarado’s stories also touch on romance, her characters are rarely romantic. In “What Lydia Thinks of Roses,” we witness a day in the life of the teenaged Lydia Montoya. The characters are staunchly prosaic, as when, midway into the story, “Tiffany looked at Lydia and tossed her hair. Lydia wanted to ask her why she thought it was such an honor to suck a guy’s dick.” In the story’s climax, Lydia destroys the roses she receives from her idiotic-though-well-intentioned-trophy boyfriend Carlos, of whom she says, “No girl had been able to keep him faithful, so he was a challenge and she, Lydia Montoya, loved a challenge. She wanted to win the prize, not be the prize.”
Aptly, the collection’s epigraph is a quote from feminist Adrienne Rich, and Alvarado’s female characters, like Ms. Montoya, refuse to defer to their male counterparts. But the male characters are not all like Carlos; they, too–such as the possibly schizophrenic Van in “Can You Hear Me?”–are composed of equal parts toughness and vulnerability.
Toward the end of the title story, “Not a Matter of Love,” the protagonist, Jackie, “could suddenly see herself from her mother’s point of view. All those years of raising her daughter to become someone else, a woman who would graduate cum laude from law school, or at least marry well, and there was instead an angry girl in baggy blue jeans and an old black sweater, a skinny girl who made jewelry in a bead shop and took Spanish and design classes at the junior college.” Once again, Alvarado plays with point of view, blurring its literary meaning, and, instead, calling to mind its practical, day-in, day-out gist. . . . In this way, [her] fictions are, in a manner reminiscent of Alice Munro, subtly metafictional. But Alvarado’s collages are all her own, made from the rough ocotillo and saguaro-peppered stuff of the American Southwest. ~ Link to the rest of the review by Rebecca Hall in Front Porch, Texas State University at San Marcos
From Tucson Weekly: Alvarado’s great strength is exploring the intricate mazes of her characters’ hearts. In “What Lydia Thinks of Roses,” we meet a high school woman whose determination to rise above a boyfriend. . .is both believable and steady. Alvarado’s measured development of Lydia leads us to first understand her as a character who struggles with that all-consuming fire many teenage girls feel: the desire to please the boy, but feel confident as well. . . . Whether describing a young boy whose sister has been shot and whose parents are separated or revealing two mothers who share children and had their turn with the same husband, Alvarado is able to straddle tension in the hearts of her characters, presenting to us a world with a tapestry as rich as any that great short story writers have given. ~ Link to the rest of the review by Luke Reynolds in Tucson Weekly, Dec. 14 2006
From Booklist: Family is at the center of the stories in this debut collection set in the Southwest: contemporary biracial families, Latino, Anglo, Indian; parents, children, step-children; their strength and their fragility across generations. . . . Love, jealousy, grief, betrayal, and guilt drive the action and reveal universal truths.
–Hazel Rochman, American Library Association