Review by Lara Lillibridge
Brenda Kelley Kim, a freelance writer and weekly columnist, writes with a down-to-earth style that makes you want to pour a cup of coffee and settle in for the afternoon. Her first book, Sink or Swim, is a series of short essays on managing the chaos of life as a woman and a mother.
Each essay starts with an epigraph that serves as a jumping off point; then she expands on each subject in a truly delightful way. Her topics include cooking, shopping, friendships between women, stereotypes, dogs, travel, and work, among others. She writes about being diagnosed with cancer and having major surgery with as light of a touch as she discusses throwing a party to celebrate a new couch. Often self-deprecating but never self-pitying, Kelley Kim speaks to all the moments that make a life meaningful, both the dramatic and the zany.
I was hooked from the first chapter, which is about organization: “Apparently, if you put your socks in the drawer the right way, they are happy. As we all know, if the socks are happy, everyone is happy” (4). I know this to be true. I have always said that I can’t put my laundry away because it is afraid of the dark. Kim was speaking my language.
In chapter three, Kim writes about the importance of friendship, especially to mothers: “We’d meet…and for an hour or so we were all dressed and out the house which, when you have small children, is sometimes the only win you’re going to have on any given day” (19). This brought me back to my own days with toddlers, when putting on jeans instead of sweatpants was a noteworthy occasion. That common experience of motherhood makes this book engaging, as each story reminds me of one of my own, making reading the book feel like a conversation between new friends.
Kelley Kim’s humor shines through on every page of Sink or Swim, and I dried out my highlighter from overuse marking the lines I loved.
On money: “I could pretty much squeeze a dime until Roosevelt screams…” (23)
On pets: “A hamster is nothing but a rat with good hair, and I am not having that in my house.” (27). While she not be a rodent-lover, she has a deep affinity for dogs, even the ones that make you, “swear off owning any dog that didn’t come from a toy store or a taxidermist…” (80)
On aging: “Yes, I’m a redhead. I was born one, and I will die one. What happens in the meantime is a magical combination of a brilliant hairdresser and my own stubborn refusal to go gentle into that snow-capped winter.” (31)
On driving: “I’m told in some states people actually signal before they change lanes.” (52)
On Pinterest: “Can someone please create a board on Pinterest and call it, ‘Things I Suck At’ and pin some pictures of a forgotten pizza box in an oven?” (67)
On raising a child: “I had to make sure I didn’t kill it, lose it, or otherwise screw it up and that is a lot to do.” (97)
Kelley Kim weaves the water metaphor from her title throughout all of her chapters in a way that never feels contrived. Instead, the metaphor smoothly connects each story to the next, ending neatly in the final chapter:
It wasn’t my last time being in the deep end, but that’s because like my friend pointed out, there’s a high tide twice a day. There could be a deep end just around the corner, but there could also be a good friend to lead you to shore, a fun song to remember while you tread water and finally, sand between your toes when you get back to shore. (106)
So many of us feel like failures or disasters or like we are in over our heads as we make our way through parenting. Trying to retain our own identity as women in addition to being mothers is a balancing act that often feels like it goes against how society defines women. Sink or Swim captures that struggle in an entertaining and uplifting way.
Sink or Swim: Tales from the Deep End of Everywhere
by Brenda Kelley Kim
Create Space, 2016, $14.99 [paper] ISBN 9781532743078
Lara Lillibridge recently won both Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. Lara’s memoir will debut in fall of 2017 with SkyHorse Publishing. Some of her work can be found on her website: http://www.laralillibridge.com/.