Book Review

Kristine Langley Mahler, a married, thirty-eight year old mother of daughters, has reached a point of reckoning. She has worked as an administrative assistant at a university though her young adulthood, a job she describes as “golden handcuffs of half-time job with benefits.” Now it’s time for change. This lyrical memoir chronicles her journey.

Kristine Langley Mahler has published numerous short lyrical essays which have appeared in literary magazines such as Diagram, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and Brevity, and published an essay collection, Curing Season: Artifacts (West Virginia University Press, 2022). A Calendar Is a Snakeskin: 12 Ghostmonths is her first book-length work. Still writing in the style of experimental memoir, Mahler links lyrical, flash nonfiction essays as she reconciles her past, present, and future. Or as Mahler writes, “I wanted to know what I had done wrong, what I was doing wrong, what I might do wrong if I did not change.”

Mahler organizes her quest into three parts (because everyone knows ghosts arrive in threes): Ghostwatch (the gathering of talismans for the quest); Ghostchoke (the facing of family ghosts, anxiety, and depression); and Ghostheart (location of the path forward). Instead of the Holy Grail, the one true ring that rules them all, or ruby slippers, Mahler’s symbolic objects consist of a tarot deck, assorted talismans, and The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need, by Chani Nichols. Through the treatment of signs as truth, we experience her optimism, her belief in a golden compass for actualization: “Fear needs to be met with trust because the universe will bring us into the places we need to trust.”

The opening essay neatly sets up Mahler’s premise through two bear encounters. The first bear appears at Yellowstone. Terror overcomes Mahler who, in the face of all training, flees. From that moment on, the bear assumes the starring role in Mahler’s chase nightmares. Nineteen years later, she sees a bear in New Mexico. This time she is utterly calm, unconcerned—after all, she’s been dreaming about this rematch for years. Mahler sees the bear as a sign that she’s ready to root and resolve her scattered, fearful past.

A publishing date of October 31, 2023, makes A Calendar Is a Snakeskin a Scorpio, a sign infamous for ambition. The book crackles with enterprise, as Mahler takes on the subject of her Nodal Return, which astrologer Chani Nicholas describes as “when the points of striving (North Node) and release (South Node) circle back to their starting places and reaffirm whatever we are in the journey of seeking and purifying.” Mahler is a Cancer. This conflict between intuitive Cancer and barbarous Scorpio propels the essays forward (or so claims this reviewer, a Libra sun, Cancer moon, and Pisces rising.)

Beware as you read: ghosts lurk everywhere. Mahler’s faces hauntings, such as a time her siblings made a plan to live near one another without her, excluding her from what she thought was a common wish to be included in their plans to raise their children together. Connections often shimmer like a Star Trek away team working to beam back to the ship. The metaphysical ghostbusting takes on the quality of a family holiday: a sort of hardwired generalized anxiety we’ll never fully understand.

Mahler’s lyrical prose works as an effective mirror to her life journey; she has moved so many times, her spectral trails have crossed into knots. Mahler writes, “all the attention in the world will not change the phantom ache of resolved emotions, the anguish of a solution,” which isn’t to say that we can’t progress. Given this outlook, Mahler’s method aligns with her message: if we continue forging through the mucky parts, by whatever means necessary, we can find a way forward.

The best way to read A Calendar Is a Snakeskin is to allow oneself to unmoor, palm the milky quartz and embrace the subtle discombobulation. Mahler time travels at will in her prose, sometimes sentence by sentence, but she always guides the reader back to the yellow brick road.

In the third section, the essays compress, building energy through a series of intense animal encounters—a woodpecker, an eagle, a blue jay, and yes, snakes as Mahler prepares for reentry. We know how the book will end because she told us earlier: “the ending of every essay is the same ending of every heavily weighted moment: a return to routine with the incredulity that life goes on . . .”

And so Mahler’s quest ends exactly the way she foretold. I won’t tell you which tarot card Mahler encounters last. I’ll only mention that the ending provides a lovely edifice of her dismantling. I look forward to seeing what Mahler builds next.

About the Reviewer

Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her book reviews have appeared in Brevity, The Cleveland Review of Books and The Rumpus. She is an Assistant Professor of Magazine Media in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Links to her work can be found here.