Book Bag: ‘A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’ by MB Caschetta; ‘The Dug-Up Gun Museum’ by Matt Donovan

Staff Writer
Published: 10/28/2022 2:47:57 PM
Modified: 10/28/2022 2:47:43 PM
A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

By MB Caschetta

Engine Books

Back in 2014, Northampton author Mary Beth Caschetta published her debut novel, “Miracle Girls,” for which she’d drawn on some of her own history: growing up in western New York State in a conservative Italian-American family that had its share of dysfunction, and in which she usually felt like an outsider.

“Miracle Girls” earned some fine reviews, including one from People magazine that called it “darkly beautiful,” and a few years later the author, who goes by MB Caschetta in her writing, also published a collection of well-regarded short stories, “Pretend I’m Your Friend.”

Now Caschetta, using a different format, has released what might be her strongest work to date. “A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment” is a collection of autobiographical essays that serve both as a memoir and an observation of touchstones from the eras of her life, from the AIDS crisis to the advent of gay marriage to the ravages of COVID-19.

There’s lots humor here, and that’s a good thing, because Caschetta recounts plenty of emotional pain and depression, too. Born in the mid 1960s, she was the youngest of her family, with three older brothers who alternately teased and tormented her, a mother who was desperate for a girly daughter, and a father, a doctor, who alternated between indifference and cruelty.

“Dad comes by his difficult personality honestly,” she writes. “His father was even meaner … He’s not the kind of Dad to inspire beautiful memories.”

Caschetta’s mother, meantime, is determined to turn her introspective, book-loving daughter into a cheerleader, especially since her sons all play youth football. “My resolve and apathy are no match for her sandpaper determination, which she works until there’s no visible line separating her desires from mine,” Caschetta writes.

By high school, Caschetta has become that model daughter and cheerleader her mom wants, at least on the surface, and the Vaseline she puts on her teeth when she waves her pom-poms helps her to “smile, smile, smile.”

“Everything is great,” she says, “except for the suicide journals.”

In fact, Caschetta will come out as a lesbian in college, a decision that scandalizes her family but gives her a deeper appreciation for gay men suffering during the AIDS crisis. In New York City in the late 1980s into the 1990s, she becomes an activist, joining groups like ACT UP, and she works as a medical editor for an AIDS newsletter; that leads in turn to a career as a freelance medical writer.

There’s a certain irony to some of that work, she notes: “It’s hard for me to say precisely how I’ve arrived at the ridiculous juncture of spending my days writing copy for a global erectile dysfunction account, but here I am, a lesbian with vast scientific knowledge about hard-ons.”

She also writes poignantly and comically about the search for love, including a weekend spent in Vermont trying to learn to snowboard to please an athletic girlfriend. She reads from a magazine that tells her the most common snowboard injury is “Broken wrists and knees.”

The second most common injury? “Broken necks.”

In “Italian Bride,” Caschetta contrasts her mother’s hope, years ago, of her daughter being married to a man in a big church wedding with her union to her wife, playwright and advice columnist Meryl Cohn, in May 2004 on Cape Cod. Cohn and Caschetta were one of the first female couples to be married in the first state to legalize gay marriage.

Perhaps the strongest essay is “What Gets Passed On,” a piece Caschetta originally published in the New York Times “Modern Love” column, in which she describes how her father, shortly before he died, specifically left her out of his will: “I leave no bequest for my daughter for reasons known to her,” he wrote.

This after she felt she’d patched up relations with her father and her family reasonably well over the years, Caschetta says, and had told her father she loved him during their last face-to-face encounter — when he’d told her he loved her, too.

The collection concludes with the author’s description of battling debilitating symptoms from Long COVID; considering this and her other struggles in life, Caschetta reflects on the things she’s fortunate to have, such as a loving partner and financial security.

“For the most part,” she says, “I manage my illness by learning to accept the limits of what I can and cannot do.” It’s a good observation for a collection that ultimately is about finding connection and redemption.

There will be a virtual launch party, hosted by Broadside Bookshop in Northampton at 7 p.m. on Nov. 15, for MB Caschetta’s new book. Visit broadsidebooks.com and click on the event listing at the top of the page to join.

The Dug-Up Gun Museum

By Matt Donovan

BOA Editions, Ltd.

In his new volume of poetry, Matt Donovan has traveled across the country, from Wyoming to NRA headquarters in Virginia to Sandy Hook, Connecticut to try and come to grips with how the nation’s debate over guns drives political divisions and inflames questions about race, power and democracy.

Donovan, the director of The Boutelle-Day Poetry Center at Smith College, has won a number of awards for his work, including a Pushcart Prize and a Whiting Award. He takes the title of his new collection from a museum in Cody, Wyoming that, according to its website, has over 1,000 guns and weapons from the 19th century through World War II — “Fun for the whole family,” as the website puts it.

It’s a sobering read, mostly of longer poems, that looks at how we’ve become largely desensitized to gun violence, a theme perfectly captured in the prose poem “Planet Fitness,” which begins with the line “I’m watching police shoot an unarmed Black man while I run on a treadmill.”

“Solipsism: A Story” profiles an unnamed man in Cody who never goes anywhere without packing heat: “I’d more likely leave my house without my pants than without my gun.” That same guy later says to the poet, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve been telling folks I met some guy / who doesn’t own a gun, an unarmed dad, & no one can believe it.”

Donovan talks to police about the difference between hollow point and round nose bullets, hangs out at a paintball facility with a Normandy invasion theme (“It’s just a game, I was told by many players fighting on the side of the Nazis”), and visits parents who lost children in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

“Guy with a Gun,” a long prose poem about Sandy Hook’s aftermath, seems especially timely, given the recent court decision that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones must pay $965 million in damages to families of victims from the shooting for falsely claiming it was a hoax.

The poem is a portrait of a former middle school teacher in that same district — his son survived the Sandy Hook shooting — who began carrying a .45 when his wife received online threats after she spoke out about the massacre. The teacher mistakenly brought his gun to school one day, was arrested, and lost his job.

That guy, Donovan writes, didn’t know at the time that “one day he’d find himself standing in a shaded corner of his yard, unemployed, listening to afternoon traffic push past, telling his story to some guy who, for whatever it’s worth, didn’t know what words to say.”

Matt Donovan will read from “The Dug-Up Gun Museum” Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. in the Leo Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. Livestreams will be available on Facebook and YouTube.


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