The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet

"[Adrian's] glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. "
Shelf Awareness
the twenty-seventh letter
of the alphabet
Publisher: University of Nebraska | Released: October 1, 2018 | Paperback 304 pp.
An intimate portrait of the chaos and confusion of a mother's mental illness and a deep meditation on storytelling itself, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet chronicles a daughter's struggle to face the Medusa of generational trauma without turning to stone. In this uniquely structured memoir, Kim Adrian tries to make peace with a troubled childhood by cataloguing memories, anecdotes, and bits of family lore in the form of a glossary. But within this strategic reckoning of the past, the unruly present carves an unpredictable path.
• Part of the American Lives series, edited by Tobias Wolff
• Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist
» read excerpt published in Agni   +/-
Adamant

“I just remember the Dairy Queen,” says Tracy. She and I try to talk every weekend, long distance: Boston to Chicago. Through the lace shawl I’ve draped over our bedroom window, the sun scatters irregular polka dots across the bed I share with my husband.

“What do you mean the Dairy Queen?”

“Before we went to the bakery on Sunday mornings, Dad and I used to stop to get ice cream. That’s why it took so long.”

“It did take a long time.”

“Oreo Blizzards. I just remember those. I don’t know how you keep all that other crap in your head. All those memories.”

“I don’t know how you don’t.”

It’s something we often discuss, my sister and I—the different ways we remember our childhoods. “There are worse,” says Tracy, and she would know, having taught social studies in a Chicago city high school for nearly two decades, to students who have crack addicts for mothers and convicts for fathers, kids who get pregnant or shot dead before they’re halfway through freshman year. But I, for whatever reason, have always been clear about this: that time, those years—our childhoods—sucked. On this, I am adamant.

Of course, we had very different childhoods, as siblings invariably do. For example, Tracy was my father’s favorite. I was my mother’s. Tracy was barely a year old at the time of our mother’s first suicide attempt, while I was three and saw the blood, the razor blade, and the paramedics firsthand. Tracy wasn’t quite two when our mother left us, and when she returned, Tracy was four, while I was already six. Beyond that, our natural temperaments are in many ways almost opposite. Those temperaments were often parsed by our mother, who liked to say that Tracy was athletic and I was artistic, Tracy good at math, I at English, Tracy practical and happy-go-lucky, I dreamy and oversensitive. Tracy, she often said, was easygoing but I was incredibly stubborn. If Tracy wanted a lollipop, she’d joke, you could promise to get it for her the next day and never hear about it again. But I have always had (as my mother still occasionally puts it) “the memory of an elephant.”

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reviews
"A feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, but in many ways also continuing. She gives it meaning without having answers to all the questions she still asks herself. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. Her glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. Memoir readers should not miss this singular offering." Shelf Awareness

"A story with a shadow half. This ambitious memoir glints with poetry and wisdom...aching, endless, unresolved, and extremely compelling... The glossary is a clever choice of form. Like mental illness, a glossary impedes forward momentum (if one is compelled to flip forward and back), but it also provides a logic that real life doesn’t offer... The structure allows different truths to exist at once... Adrian’s novelistic attention to scene works...her prose is lyrical and funny, often in the same moment." —The Los Angeles Review of Books

"Details, with precision, sensitivity, and lyricism, the specialized language of a childhood and adulthood with an alcoholic father and a mother with a catalog of emotional problems. The form imposes a semblance of order, is an attempt at understanding, and blazes with harrowing moments (the three-year-old Adrian seeing her mother’s first suicide attempt, “the blood, the razor blade”; the incest and physical abuse her mother suffered; the lifelong tug and push between daughter and mother). The book is an intimate and searching accumulation of the moments, tender and brutal, that heap together and create a life." The Boston Globe

"Adrian uses a highly unconventional form to mirror her confusion over how to connect her wide-ranging, frequently painful memories of what she and her sister endured living with a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic and violent father... Despite the heartbreaking pain of the stories Adrian shares, she remains clear-eyed about what she remembers, providing minute details in ways that bring her scenes to life while also creating deep connections between the reader and her childhood self... Despite everything, Adrian still loves her parents. By sharing her conflicted feelings in such an intimate way, she helps the reader see not only that love, but its indelible impact on the identity of a woman still wrangling with how to define it." —Hippocampus

"Adrian’s unique approach to narrating a story that resists order is to transform it into glossary entries. The story is told through an alphabetical list of terms—from Abecedarian to Zigzag—in which she jigsaws together the bits and pieces of her experiences in order to create this beautiful reckoning. Some of the entries are long and provide pages of narrative, others are brief like a punch." Signature Reads

“A stunning merger of form and content; a remarkable portrait-becomes-self-portrait; and something like a master class in complicity.” —David Shields, author of Reality Hunger

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a revelation. By structuring the book in the unconventional form of a glossary, Kim Adrian allows the reader into the very intimate mechanics of her memory. Each page I read pulled me deeper under the book’s peculiar spell. Through Adrian’s rigorous attention to detail I found myself drawn into her perspective, both as a child and a grown woman, hungry to make sense of this troubled family, and this vibrantly unstable mother.” —Alysia Abbott, author of Fairlyand: a Memoir of My Father

“A vivid, vibrant glossary of a life. Adrian’s sharp prose and unique form combine to illustrate how powerfully our childhoods reverberate throughout our lives.” —Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire

“This is desperately serious work, an exacting memoir that excavates, with compassion for all involved, the harrowingly repetitive patterns of abuse as well as moments of something like hope, crushable and delicate, thwarted, and yet renewable. An agonized, beautiful, unflinching account.” —Lee Upton, author of Visitations: Stories

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