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The Secret Life of Objects

THE SECRET LIFE OF OBJECTS was on the Wall Street Journal's bestseller list and was also on Oprah's summer reading list. Some reviews:

"Her gift for capturing the nugget of a relationship in a single backward glance works beautifully in this illustrated memoir.—The Chicago Tribune

"A lean, brilliant, playful memoir"—The San Francisco Chronicle

"You may never look at that lamp the same way again after reading this evocative memoir told through physical objects."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"A unique, evocative memoir...written with all the wild bloom of imagination that fiction brings to the table."—The Quivering Pen

"This endearing memoir takes an assortment of otherwise ordinary possessions and turns it into a series of delicate, resonant stories"—More magazine

Our objects tells the story of the people we've loved, the places we've been, and the lives we've lived.


Dawn Raffel, author of two story collections and the novel "Carrying the Body," has an exquisitely refined sense of distillation. She renders the life span of an intense father-daughter relationship, rich with unspoken love and ambiguity, in several elegiac pages in "Beyond All Blessing and Song, Praise and Consolation," a story in her second collection, "Further Adventures in the Restless Universe."

She maintains this sense of luminous refinement in her first nonfiction book, "The Secret Life of Objects." Her gift for capturing the nugget of a relationship in a single backward glance works beautifully in this illustrated memoir. She structures it as a series of miniature essays, a personal catalog of mementos, talismans and heirlooms, all made meaningful by the passing of time. The book is itself a beautiful object, with a striking cover (three vividly colored birds and a yellow vase) and charming drawings by her son, Sean Evers.

I read "The Secret Life of Objects" as I was wrapping up a spring cleaning in which I'd uncovered archaeological layers of my own history, including my grandmother's sterling silver baby spoon (in a pattern known as Rambler Rose), a starburst paperweight purchased on a romantic trip to Sicily 10 years ago and my son's first baseball glove. So I was primed for Raffel's artful transformations — objects as portals into the mysteries of generational ties, of marriage, friendship and loss.

Raffel opens her memoir with "The Mug," a literary portrait of a blue mug decorated with an image of a Picasso bird from the Milwaukee Art Museum, where her mother had served as a docent. She took it from her mother's house after her sudden death. Back home in New Jersey, she drinks from it every morning. This mug, she writes, is "a clay-based receptacle for stimulant, for memory, for story, for tonic for aloneness." It also serves as a maternal connection: "My mother was visual. I am not. It took me years to notice that next to that triumphant, fractured blue bird, Picasso had painted a smaller bird, close enough to feel the larger's heat."

She ponders the reminders of the elder generation she has in her home — the black and white china cat that belonged to her grandmother Raffel, the blue vase with the lady painted on it that belonged to her grandfather Raffel, who lived to 102 ("It all went by so fast," he said, not long before he drew his final breath"), the Bulova watch owned by her maternal grandfather Bert Bern, who lived with her grandmother Elsie in a tiny Chicago apartment, sold Florsheim shoes, and was "sometimes mistaken for Mayor Daley."

She writes movingly of her father's prayer book, found in his private drawer shortly after his death; her mother's nesting bowls, bought in the last days of her life; and the moonstone ring her husband bought in India in 1981 with the thought of giving it to the woman he would marry.

In some cases she writes of things associated with a sometimes despairing young adulthood. The teacup she purchased on a whirlwind trip to London to visit a friend as a college junior, where she was miserably cold and cramped; the record album that brings to mind the college dorm mate who gave her record collection away — Raffel chose Otis Redding — and tried to commit suicide the following week.

I never saw or heard from her again," Raffel writes. "For months I was haunted by the fact I'd had no clue what was going on in her life, inside her head, on the other side of the thin wall."

She is tender in one evocative paragraph-long section, describing "The Lock" — a golden ringlet that came from her son Brendan's first haircut, and Brendan's penchant for saving his jewel-like baby teeth in a box. "Why do we cling to the body's pieces, as if they can tell us who we are, and what was lost, and how time passed?"

The final chapter, "The Dictionary," brings her back to her mother, who took her to Chicago before she started college to shop at Brentano's for Webster's Second College Edition New World Dictionary of the American Language. Years later, she writes wryly, it is "a relic of a world from which everyone roughly my age lives in exile."

Raffel's tone throughout is nostalgic, even mournful at times, but the ultimate effect of her collection is to remind us of the countless ways in which objects can trigger the expansive dream of memory. We all have these precious mugs and teacups, these priceless books and rings.


"It only took me a few pages to realize that what I held in my hands was a unique, evocative memoir….written with all the wild bloom of imagination that fiction brings to the table." —David Abrams, The Quivering Pen


"Too sublime for manufactured unburdenings, Objects indulges neither degradations nor posturing: from a keen, knowing distance, Raffel casts comic passages of female friendship ("The Teacup," "The View"), concise observations ("The Frogs," "My Grandmother Bern's Recipes"), and cross-generational gems ("The Florsheim Dog," "The Lamps"), her son's penciled illustrations adding another layer by extending the line. Just eleven when he designed the vivid cover art for Further Adventures (roundball planets aligned in an almost musically-notated galaxy of stars), Sean's drawings in Objects essentialize his mother's lasting cares, art as an eternal medium of representation and exchange, the memoir ultimately takingå its completed shape through a remarkable balance of form and content."—Nathan Huffstutter, The Nervous Breakdown (see link in right hand column for full review)


"The Secret Life of Objects is deceptively inviting, and the writing is quiet in a way that almost comforts the reader, but it is not safe. I finished reading the book four or five days ago and I still find myself thinking about the objects—the mug, the frogs, the dress, the daughter vase, etc. The book possesses the reader in a way." —Michael Kimball, The Faster Times (see link on right for full article)


"Long ago, in my snowy city, Dawn Raffel read from her then-new novel in a Walnut Street bookstore. No, Dawn did not read from her book. She evoked it, reciting the words without ever once consulting the bound pages before her. It was extraordinary. A writer in tune with the rhythms of her story. A book night I will always remember.


Just as I will always remember my own sweet yesterday afternoon as I read Dawn's new book, The Secret Life of Objects, to myself. This enchanting Jaded Ibis Press production, illustrated by Dawn's son, Sean Evers, is a suite of miniature essays about things—found things, lost things, remembered and misremembered things. The rocking chair. The lock of hair. The nesting bowls. The moonstone ring. The glass angel. The father's hat. It is an exploration of attachments, a series of prose poems, a little bit of memoir as well as commentary on memoir. It's an archeological dig, of sorts. It's scrapbook and philosophy.


And it is so easy to love. Its sweet brevity. It's uncoiled profundity. It's kindness toward others.


Secret Life is an original book, destined, I think, for classic status. It's a perfect teaching book; I know precisely how I'll use it next spring at Penn. For now I share the essay that hit me hardest. It's a paragraph, only, three sentences.


It is the right enough:


The Frogs


My husband saw me looking in the window of a store at five wooden Balinese frogs, each playing a musical instrument. A week later, on our anniversary, those frogs were on our bed. This is why we're married."

—Beth Kephart, Beth Kephart Books


"Sometimes things shatter," Dawn Raffel writes in The Secret Life of Objects. "More often they just fade." But in this evocative memoir, moments from the past do not fade—they breathe on the page, rendering a striking portrait of a woman through her connections to the people she's loved, the places she been, what's been lost, and what remains. In clear, beautiful prose, Raffel reveals the haunting qualities of the objects we gather, as well as the sustaining and elusive nature of memory itself.
—Samuel Ligon, author of Drift and Swerve


"Dawn Raffel puts memories, people and secrets together like perfectly set gems in these shimmering stories, which are a delight to read. Every detail is exquisite, every character beautifully observed, and every object becomes sacred in her kind, capable hands. I savored every word.
—Priscilla Warner, author of Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life






"The stories in Dawn Raffel's astonishing Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (Dzanc) as as sharp and bright as stars." —Elissa Schappell



"Raffel's work sits comfortably with that of authors like Amy Hempel and Diane Williams: Her prose is intense enough to make even everyday topics seem fire-hot."


THE DAILY BEAST (5 Must-Read Story Collections)
"The 21 stories in Raffel's slim second collection (after In the Year of Long Division and the novel Carrying the Body) reflect the disconnects, interruptions, and riddles in a contemporary woman's hectic life.
Raffel nails the age-old struggle between a mother and adult daughter as they make their way awkwardly through a brief getaway, and the equally complex mix of responsibility and fierce love a mother feels while tending her 7-year-old son. In the brave and touching story "The Air and its Relatives," a distant father's closeness to his daughter comes through reading together—a physics text called The Restless Universe—and patiently teaching her to drive.
The opening one-pager ("Near Taurus") encapsulates what might have been between a boy and girl who have gone to the reservoir to gaze at the stars. "He died, that boy. Light years! And here I am: a mother, witness, raiser of a boy." The final story, "Beyond All Blessing and Song, Praise and Consolation," titled for a line in the mourner's Kaddish, distills sadness into an ending both poetic and pure."—Jane Ciabattari


"The short stories in Dawn Raffel's new collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (Dzanc Books) are gently interlaced--the same scarf from one story is purchased in another, for instance--yet rife with the author's deft, lyrical prose. They strikingly explore how small moments can influence personal and familial identity." —Mallory Rice


"Sharp, spare stories about women at, or approaching, the end of their ropes." —Sara Nelson
(a reading guide can be found on


MORE Magazine
"Highly imaginative stories filled with sly wit..."—Carmela Ciuraru


"In her elegant second collection (after the novel Carrying the Body), Raffel finds lyrical appeasement in the everyday concerns of raising children, being a dutiful daughter and wife, and simply enduring one's family. The mother of a seven-year-old son in "Her Purchase" is viewed as a master of the child's universe, teaching him everything he knows, exhausted by his constant asking of questions, yet amazed, too, that she can still cherish his happiness. Raffel employs mannered dialogue to artful effect throughout, such as the phone conversation between two sisters in "The Interruption," in which one attempts to tell the story of how their great-aunt came from Poland to Chicago, but spirals into a halfhearted musing on frustrations in love. The mother-daughter getaway depicted in "North of the Middle" allows the pair to dissect their frozen relationship in conversations that underscore their inability to communicate. "The Air and Its Relatives" is a marvelous glimpse at the evolution of a father-daughter relationship through snapshots of his teaching her to drive and other telling flashbacks. Raffel's stripped-to-the-bone prose is a model of economy and grace."


"With 21 stories in just under 100 pages, and in prose as lean and demanding as poetry, Raffel's slender second collection of short fiction holds a surprising amount of compassion and wisdom between its covers. Like those of Lydia Davis or Mary Robison, Raffel's playful metaphors and vivid snapshots of domestic life offer joy and insight. Her characters, mostly disillusioned or fearful mothers and daughters, are ever hopeful in their daily endeavors to communicate with those they love most--their families. A woman takes her seven-year-old son on a museum tour, fighting to strike a balance between motherly instruction and allowing her son to discover things for himself. Unable to sleep, a man implores his dozing wife to confess the true account of a drowned woman she often repeats. A mother finds it easier to teach her son words in other languages than to keep her promise to tell him a bedtime story. These reflective, well-tempered fictions are bursting with energy, requiring readers to look more closely at the world around them."—Jonathan Fullmer


"Dawn Raffel poetically explores the intricacies of domestic relationships in her new short fiction collection, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe. These stories are as lyrically impressive as they are moving, and Raffel's respect for her readers' intelligence to put together the stories' puzzle pieces works to great advantage."—David Gutowski


"Dawn Raffel's fiction is superbly her own. Generally classified as an experimentalist and sometimes considered a minimalist even though her work postdates the literary minimalism of the 1980s, her stories' mysterious borders and elusive dialogue offer compelling new insights into the American family, the negotiations and manipulations family—the American family in particular—makes and endures. Thus she might be thematically allied to Ben Marcus—and tonally to Amy Hempel and formally to Lydia Davis and Lydia Millett—but the center of her work is, shall we say, Raffelian, essentially domestic, edged with barely controlled frenzy—a kind of mad housewifery—yet beautifully controlled and tightly focused."
—Kelly Cherry


"When Michael Kimbell said that "nobody is writing sentences" like Dawn Raffel's sentences, he was not exaggerating. Her lines, her stories, are spiky things that don't sit easily in the hand. I felt a peculiar sort of stress as I read Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, newly published by Dzanc Books; I was confronted with how the stories resist simple narrative and scene and dialogue, while at the same time luring me in with their intoxicating mood, the emotive power behind miscommunication, and the uncertain standing her characters--like us readers--have in the world. There is something precise and potent in Raffel's brief tales of family, lovers, and attempts to connect (twenty-one stories are collected in this 100-page book); each tale is a portal to the tender points that serve as a harmonic to our everyday talk and our deep memory." —Anna Clark


"Memory distorts time in an unusual and dizzying universe of poetic, familial prose which will whisk you away..."  —Melissa Lee-Houghton


"Reality may be an adventure in Raffel's cleverly and artfully crafted new collection, and as she writes it, is always an adventure worth taking." —Sara C. Rauch


"A slim collection of enigmatic and elliptical short stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (Dzanc Books) is a striking work of fiction, and, truthfully, the only way to do it justice is to quote from it, so stunning are its sentences, so clear and concise, and so carefully crafted. To wit: "He is looking, she is thinking, at a woman getting drenched" and "The windshield is salted with droppings and grit" and "There was more of her broken" and on and on I could go."—Geoffrey Brown


"Read this book for amazement."


"Less has never been more than in Dawn Raffel's 'Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.' These spare, high-intensity stories of brave people at the end of their ropes are not only models of writerly integrity, but monuments of the spirit asserting itself out of the depths of silence."
—David Gates


Readers have come to expect from Dawn Raffel's prose nothing less than the syllable-by-syllable perfections of purest poetry and the boldest wisdom a human heart can hold. Her new collection of pithy, exquisite fictions about the timeless crises of mothers, daughters, and wives is breathtaking and haunting in its majestic exactitudes. –Gary Lutz


"Dawn Raffel's stories are like prismatic drops of rain, hanging from the edge of a roof or sliding down a windshield, reflecting an entire world within. The language of motherhood, of adulthood, of childhood — the language of family and individual — has never been like this. Sly and probing, with the sting of precision and pain."
—Susan Straight

"In Dawn Raffel's Further Adventures in the Restless Universe the oppressive truth of our mortality unsettles but does not vanquish the spirit. The woman as drudge may be "a failure at folding," but she is a rare songmaker whose dialogues with a son, a sister — the usual figures from the family romance — make for a musical and philosophical call and response. The son proposes one way to keep birds from crashing into fatally clear windows is to "open the windows all over the world." These stories promise more life. Take them to heart!"
—Christine Schutt

Photo by Claire Holt