This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow.
Having spent years as a nonfiction buyer, I’ve read a multitude of books by journalists across a vast range of topics. I imagine it must be a challenge to take the skills one uses to write a newspaper article, a radio story, a magazine feature, or (increasingly) a subscription newsletter under a tight deadline and recalibrate them to the differing needs of a cohesive, years-in-the-making book.
I’ve come to recognize and appreciate, and sometimes lament, how tricks of the journalism trade can be utilized in a book. So, hardened and word-weary reader that I am, I was delighted to find myself astonished at how completely Kat Chow had me committed to the project of reading her book from the first page. (Why don’t other journalists write such compelling ledes? A problem for another time.)
That first page establishes many of the elements of Chow’s memoir: the family dynamic in her childhood home, an effort to imagine and understand her parents’ lives that is hindered by confused family lore, and a deep questioning of how those who come before us make us who we are and what we owe to them after they’ve gone. As Chow makes clear from the first sentence: this is a ghost story.
If the first page sets the table, then the rest of the book is particularly adept at keeping the many plates spinning. Rather than force everything into a linear narrative, Seeing Ghosts is comprised of chapters of varying lengths, with many focusing on one distinct memory or discovery, such as the pet names used on cards passed between her parents or the notable grave markers in a Connecticut cemetery.
One of the real marvels of Chow’s skill as a writer is her ability to lay in the developments in her and her family’s lives over the course of the story, expertly guiding the narrative. Really, Seeing Ghosts is always fully and openheartedly doing two things at once; it is deftly guided and also meandering, it is self-possessed while self-interrogating, and it is grieving a loss and honoring a legacy. Seeing Ghosts is engaging, moving, and wise.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month