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Books by Debra Monroe
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Debra Monroe has always written about the so-called source of trouble: “that one incident you zero down to and everything bad that happens after it happens because of it.” The illusion that every problem has a clear-cut cause and still undiscovered solution is her gateway drug. It Takes a Worried Woman explores the outer edges of her faith that all past hardship could have been prevented and all future hardship might still be. 


Yet one person’s trouble is often an eddy in the outflow of history, and this book becomes a meditation on the price of effort exerted against unyielding circumstance. Lyrical, deft, trenchant, at times darkly funny, these essays are preoccupied with sexism, with dwindling access to the natural world, with national headlines now suddenly turning too germane. The limits of problem-solving become paralyzingly clear. While depicting the search for a shape-shifting familiar old enough to be her mother, the ubiquitous pressure to marry, childcare as a game of risk, or violent extremism, Debra Monroe assesses problems that might be solved, problems that may never be, and all the ways that trouble is big but new strategies, fresh patience, and endurance are eventually enough.

"If humanity’s defining feature is consciousness, then worry is its sidekick. Debra Monroe’s It Takes a Worried Woman embraces this most human activity and rides with it across worlds: worry can be “precaution,” generator of “outlandish solutions.” It even marks those places—brutal politics, racial violence, gender violence—where no worry should need to exist, yet does. At one point Monroe describes her life as “like a house you’d built yourself out of odds and ends creaking and shaking and shuddering at every unexpected gust.” I give Monroe the great compliment of wanting to sit in this house with her, endlessly, reveling in this voice."

          Susanne Paola Antonetta, author, The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here

"I have admired Debra Monroe’s voice for a long time – still, these essays are a revelation. That she manages to meld thoughts and images of motherhood, nature, and contemporary politics is impressive; that she does it with such heart and soul is extraordinary."

          — Sara Nelson, bestselling author of So Many Books, So Little Time

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This vibrant anthology showcases forty-eight stellar essays by widely known writers—Jesmyn Ward, David Sedaris, Sandra Cisneros, Zadie Smith, David Shields, Alexander Chee—and writers who should be widely known. It features not only narrative essays but also lyric essays, experimental essays, researched essays, and more. “Context creates truth,” Monroe writes, “and context is the crosscurrent of impressions or viewpoints acquired by research but mostly by living: one life intersecting with other lives, other experiences, and other bodies of knowledge.”


Monroe’s introduction, her headnotes to individual essays, and her writing prompts help working writers bypass inhibitions as they approach daunting subjects in fresh ways. This anthology delivers a pedagogy designed to “trick both writer and reader away from truisms and clichés.” It reflects Monroe’s storied teaching career in which she has shepherded dozens of students toward distinguished writing careers and received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching.

"The elegant, insightful introductory words make sense of nonfiction designations we now have. This anthology, which includes some of my favorite writers, is a huge service to the literary world."

          — Jo Ann Beard, author of Boys of My Youth and Festival Days

"The inclusion of younger writers such as Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, and Natalie Diaz make this standout."
         — Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity

nonfiction anthlogy
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A funny, smart, and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when one woman changes social classes almost too quickly.


A misfit in Spooner, Wisconsin with its farms, bars, and strip joints, Debra Monroe leaves to earn a degree, then another, another, and builds a career. Fearless yet naive, she vaults over class barriers into new milieus but never quite leaves her past behind. When it comes to men, she’s still blue-collar. Negotiating the dating world, Monroe pays careful attention to what love and sex mean to a woman ambivalent about her newfound status as “liberated.” Both the story of her steady rise into the professional class and a parallel history of unsuitable exes, this memoir reminds us how accidental even a good life can be. If Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” Monroe takes this advice a step further and nods at the people she might have become but didn’t. Funny, poignant, and wise, My Unsentimental Education explores the confusion that ensues when a working-class girl ends up far from where she began.

"Blunt, salty. . .a heady rush of adventure, optimism, and fearlessness."

          — Houston Chronicle

"It is above all a love story with poetry and fiction. . .a delight to read."

          — Kathleen Rooney, Chicago Tribune


"What carries the book is Monroe’s nonstop, but somehow often unexpected humor."

          — Texas Observer

my unsentimental education
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As this memoir begins, Debra Monroe is mired in debt and on the verge of a second divorce. She pulls up in front of a tumbledown cabin a few miles outside a tiny town in Texas. Its isolation—miles from her teaching job in a neighboring city—feels right. A few years later, she files papers to adopt a child. Meanwhile, she doubles the size of her house, building the add-on from scratch, working alongside carpenters, plumbers and electricians, none of whom seems to have worked for a woman before. Under the gaze of a small town where even a mother with a career is rare, let alone a white mother who’s adopted the only black baby in town, Monroe and her daughter become the objects of steady speculation.


Townspeople see this motherhood as curious, revolutionary, but Monroe sees it as a sacred responsibility. Meanwhile, Marie is sick and getting sicker. As Monroe attends to each new facet of her daughter’s care, she feels lightheaded and weak. She suffers from a critical, misdiagnosed illness and comes to know the rigors of life against the grain. Confronting her past in order to make a better life for her daughter, Monroe rebuilds not only a half-ruined cabin in the woods but—in this candid, funny, transcendent book—her fundamental sense of what it takes to make a family.

"Infused with humor and compassion, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking."

          — Chitra Divakaruni, Houston Chronicle

"Monroe doesn’t waste time justifying her family—her care and clear-eyed focus on her daughter make their own argument.  It’s clear this is the life she chose. 'The sprawling mess of life is why we need our stories,” she writes, “a fleeting sense of order so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter' .”

          — Amy Benfer, Salon

The Year’s Best Reading in 2010

  • Top Ten List. The Barnes & Noble Review.

Recommended Reading, July 2010

  • O: the Oprah Magazine.

Required Reading, May 2010

  • Vanity Fair.

Best Southern Books of 2010

  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Best Books in 2010

  • San Antonio Express-News.

outskirts of normal
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Delia Arco—mother, neighbor, mentor, and force of nature—ekes out a living as a social worker in Port Town, Texas, where she counsels teenagers as outcast as she once was. In a landscape filled with rumors and refinery smoke, Delia loves her baby daughter and rations out the rest of her attention to teenagers under her supervision, to a hodgepodge of neighbors, and to two men who can’t fathom her self-protective detachment: her sometimes lover and her occasionally rehabilitated ex-lover. Enter Dannie Lampass, whose parents were brutally murdered. Convinced that Delia was sent by God to replace her mother, Dannie insinuates herself into Delia’s life, and Delia struggles to help, all the while hoping to understand her own mother’s seedy life and puzzling death. Delia searches furiously for the mother in herself, only to find she must forgive the mother she never knew. A story about absence and its repercussions—the staggering effort it takes to ride out the aftermath when an essential piece of happiness has been removed—Shambles depicts the trivial and profound rearrangements by which survivors build a life from scraps of the past and steer toward that moment when, as Delia says, “for the first time, I felt fixed, not transient, invited.”

"This is big-time storytelling, full of sass and danger."

          — Jonis Agee, author of Love on Indigo Road


"Reading Monroe is like reading Chekhov. Luminous and passionate. . . Monroe at her edgiest and wisest."

          — John Dufresne, author of Louisiana Power & Light


"The prose is effortless, sharp, electrifying.  Shambles is about the tenuous connections we forge, the brief shimmer of kindness, the simplest acts that bind us to each other."

          — Carrie Fountain, Texas Observer

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Debra Monroe tells the funny, poignant story of a woman’s quest for a physical and emotional home. The protagonist, Maidie Bonasso, is on the road, moving from state to state, from job to job, from one circle of intimates another, seeking new options and a new community. By now, Maidie’s mother has been missing for twenty years. When Maidie first left home in the name of self-improvement—looking for a perfect life in yet undiscovered location—she left behind her father, her two sisters who married indistinguishable husbands in a double ceremony, and an ex-stepmother. She also has one ex-husband in Nebraska, another in Virginia, as well as a host of former neighbors and co-workers who occupy her memory like a Greek chorus. Her psychic baggage could fill a moving van. Just when Maidie is ready to wrench herself free from her latest gig—her job as curator of The Museum of Domestic History and Home Economy—and leave behind an apparently devoted new boyfriend and a tribe of quirky, persnickety, yet loyal new friends, she receives a phone call that sends her on yet another journey, offering her the chance to reject or embrace her disconnected, interrupted past. In Newfangled, a woman who’s afraid of knowing anyone very well for very long suddenly finds herself imagining what life would be like if she were to take a chance, to stay.

"Intelligent and deliciously wacky."

          —Publisher’s Weekly

"Newfangled is wonderful. It’s ambitious. Giving Maidie a master’s in sociology (“sociability,” she wryly notes), allows Monroe to stuff her novel with arcane knowledge and crisp insights. Maidie is living where the old-fashioned and the newfangled collide. What’s a hard-boiled 35-year-old woman to do?  Newfangled offers tentative answers, and every page is smart."
          —Maggie Galehouse, Washington Post

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In this lavishly praised collection of stories, Debra Monroe takes us into the lives of women striving for love and emotional fulfillment amidst a topography of glacial winds and stormy, unpredictable men. Monroe’s stories and novellas are linked by the lives of six characters who inhabit the cold, unforgiving terrain of rural Wisconsin. As these characters pass in and out of each other’s lives, what persists is a state of mind in which—as one character thinks—“it was possible, inevitable, that love would streak from the sky and warm me all the way to the soles of my cold feet.” These tales run a gamut of moods and textures, ranging from the nostalgic “The World’s Great Love Novels,” in which the young narrator notices the extreme compromises adults make in the name of love; to the gritty and hard-edged “Crossroads Cafe,” in which a waitress searches for tenderness, though nothing in her life so far suggests that tenderness is available; to the ruefully funny “Royal Blues,” in which the wife of a musician copes with her husband’s spiraling coke habit, understanding that it’s not human connection but the search for human connection that keeps wildness and desolation at bay. Reeling and dipping with the cadences of conversation as found poetry and extemporized, homespun philosophies, these stories read like surreal confessions, dispatches from the battlefield of life.

"Debra Monroe enters the often icy territory of love. You can’t help but disappear into these idiosyncratic landscapes."

          — Elaina Richardson, Elle


"This wonderfully rich fiction bills itself as a short story collection but turns into a near-novel before our eyes. Smart and rueful, it manages to be specific to a wild, cold state yet true to the general human condition."

          — Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

"Monroe’s stories are full of a rare charm and intelligence... A harmonious, elegant work of art."

          — Evelin Sullivan, San Francisco Chronicle

wild cold state
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This award-winning debut collection features ten stories set in the plains of the Midwest and the honky-tonks of the South. This is a world where happiness is half heartache, dreams dwindle, and infidelity becomes just another way to extend the family. In “My Sister Had Seven Husbands,” Nadine is dogged by her ever-expanding brood of children, her mother’s born-again neuroses, her husband’s wandering eye, and her sister’s never-ending quest for a perfect husband. In “A Pious Wish,” Candy Fae Caine is caught in a succession of “Freudian half-slips” and compulsive infidelities, and lives her life in search of respectability, art, and love. In “Enough,” Roxanne’s friends tell her to forget about the husband who left and the boyfriend who cheats by looking for “a man who treats you good but not so good you get bored.” In “The Widower’s Psalm,” Sherm slowly understands he’ll never be a good enough husband for his wife, Linda—whose name was painted on the town water tower by her old lover, now dead—because he can’t compete with a ghost. Characters search in vain for “the one incident you zero down to as the source of trouble, and everything bad that happens after it happens because of it.” Witty and sly, exciting and powerful, these are stories about people who “only in the drama of hindsight shove premonition into place.” Illuminated in these affecting, self-revealing stories is the measure of hope and healing that lies in every heart, no matter the trespass.

"Terse but witty tales… Self-revealing characters who unfold their make-do philosophies of life."

          —Publisher’s Weekly


"Monroe’s voice, with its quirky leaps from the colloquial into poetry, can go the distance; the resulting joys and heartaches are moving."

          —Kirkus Reviews

source of trouble
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