South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby

A selective survey of Southern literature and its value to the South and the world.

south toward home

In her introduction to South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, Margaret Eby points out that “there is no popular category known as Northern literature.” The South and its literary products have been admired and maligned; it is a region and a body of work that are considered sometimes inspired and sometimes devoid of culture and intelligence. But for a Southerner, it is simply (or complexly) home. Raised in Alabama, Eby undertakes a tour of the literary sites that speak to her, acknowledging that the authors whose legacies she ponders make a less than comprehensive list.

Eby visits the well-preserved homes of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, along with the sadly less appreciated (or appreciative) areas in which Richard Wright and Harry Crews grew up. She contemplates the complicated relationship of Harper Lee with her birthplace; John Kennedy Toole’s mysterious life story; and the recent marks left by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown in Faulkner’s hometown. In making a physical journey, Eby breathes the air of these literary greats, and takes the time to share their histories in coming to tentative conclusions about what their work contributes. She also includes a list of recommended reading. As its title (a reference to Willie Morris’s North Toward Home) suggests, this study pursues a sense of Southern identity through its literature, and along the way helps to elucidate what makes Faulkner’s challenging writing so rewarding and why Toole’s New Orleans lives and breathes. South Toward Home is a thoughtful, well-informed evocation of both South and home.

This review originally ran in the September 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 peacock feathers.

The Living by Annie Dillard (audio)

the livingMy difficulty and back-and-forth feelings about Annie Dillard continue with this epic story of pioneer families in my place of residence, Bellingham, Washington.

The Living spans more or less the second half of the 19th century, and it expands to fill all those years and all that space. It is a big story, with lots of characters – several families, over generations – and I’m not sure it ever chooses one or several to center around. This is not a book that benefited from my regrettable new habit of taking months to finish an audiobook: I flailed a little in trying to finish, and I confess a feeling of relief now that it’s over.

There were certainly strengths. Dillard is an inspired writer, some of the time, and there were certainly passages I paused to appreciate, and will share with you here, in a little while. The stories were often moving – individual episodes, that is, within the larger saga – and the characters were often compelling, interesting, diverting people I wanted to get to know better – but again, only for a moment, and then we’d zoom out and on to a different character who was less intriguing. These were all small pieces of a whole that, as a whole, failed to capture my attention. There were moments of glittering, evocative, engaging story or character, but then we returned to a larger, sweeping view that repeatedly challenged me to continue to care. Again, this might work better with a quicker reading. It certainly didn’t work for me in the way I experienced the book.

Witness these shining moments of writing, though…

She lay under mats in the bottom of a canoe once, during the Indian troubles, and Rooney told the Haidas she was clams. Lived in five or six different places, including a stockade. She felt her freedom, reared two boys to manhood, busted open this wilderness by the sea, buried the men on their lands. She saw a white horse roll in wild strawberries and stand up red. She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well-hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of god’s wild breath on her face.

Great imagery there, and a strong retrospective view of the gravity of this woman’s life and what she’s seen.

He had long ago concluded that he possessed only one small and finite brain, and he had fixed a habit of determining most carefully with what he would fill it.

A funny and wise moment.

She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. She read books as one would breathe ether, to sink in and die.

And, who among us doesn’t love such a quotation?

But the whole thing might have worked better if presented as a series of vignettes; the parts of it that I loved were relatively few and brief, with a great deal to be slogged through in between. Dillard created some likeable characters, but it’s almost as if she didn’t like them very much, herself. She asked some interesting questions about humankind and the broader sense of what we’re doing here, but she spent so much time setting them up as sort of clinical questions that she forgot to make me care about them, or about the little creatures involved.

I’m sorry to say this one didn’t work for me, especially (by coincidence) as it came up against Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, an infinitely better, more compelling story with its own momentum.

This review was short because I’m a little sick of The Living and very glad to be quit of it. I’m sorry. You can find better reviews elsewhere; me, I’m looking forward now, not back.

Rating: 6 deaths.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

big rock candy mountainThe Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of a family, struggling to make a life in the early days of the twentieth century and bouncing around the American West.

Elsa Norgaard is eighteen years old when she leaves her family’s farm in Minnesota to head west, offended that her father and her best friend plan to wed. She takes the train to her uncle’s grocery in a pioneer town in North Dakota, a journey that makes her feel free but also makes her physically ill. In Hardanger, she meets the charismatic Bo Mason, who runs a blind pig (illegal whiskey joint) and is seemingly talented at everything: baseball, shooting, style. His wild nature and occasional violence frighten her, but she is drawn to his charm and his dreams and promises. They marry, and move.

Bo and Elsa have two sons, Chester (Chet) and Bruce, before we see them next. Already a pattern has been established: Bo, the eternal optimist and occasional romantic, chases his fortune. He pursues chances to get rich quick, to settle his family in the good life they deserve. He believes the developing West offers enormous opportunities for the brave and restless. The title The Big Rock Candy Mountain refers to a hobo folk song of the 1920’s which describes a paradise, where “there’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too” and “the jails are made of tin.” (Stegner refers to the song elsewhere, as in the title of an essay collection, Where the Blue Sings to the Lemonade Springs). One of Bo’s tragic flaws is his stubborn belief in the truth of that paradise, if he could just uproot his family one more time and find it.

He has others. He falters in his sense of responsibility to family, leans perhaps too hard on his constant wife Elsa, and is abusive toward his sons – particularly Bruce, the younger, who is a sensitive boy. A violent event related to Bruce’s toilet training sends Bo away, for years. But Elsa brings her sons back to him when he homesteads in Saskatchewan. Over the years Bo runs a hotel; a cafe; another blind pig; tries farming wheat, bootlegs whiskey on the back roads, and opens a casino. He and his family live in small towns in the Dakotas and Washington, in Canada, for a spell back in Elsa’s hometown of Indian Falls, Minnesota, and later in Salt Lake City, Reno, Tahoe. As an adult, Bruce will reflect,

Since I was born we’ve lived in two nations, ten states, fifty different houses. Sooner or later we’re going to have to take out naturalization papers.

The story is told from all four perspectives – Bo’s, Elsa’s, Chet’s and Bruce’s – at different points, and spans some thirty years. It’s a big story, a saga even, and runs nearly 600 pages. I have been sticking to shorter books than this lately, but I nevertheless found this a relatively quick read, because it has such momentum. Each of these characters is complex and compelling, and the expansive drama of their family life is engrossing, and keeps the pages turning. It references a larger story, of the development of the United States: Prohibition and expansion, cultural evolution.

I read this book in a few days, as I also neared the end of listening to Annie Dillard’s The Living (almost as long, over 400 pages). The latter took me much, much longer, and that review will come up soon; but it made for an interesting parallel. Both cover the frontier days of similar locations (The Living is concentrated on northwest Washington state, which is a small part of the larger setting of Big Rock Candy), and span decades of family life. I shan’t review Dillard here, but I will say that Stegner came out ahead, in terms of sympathetic, engaging characters and story. I found The Living more effortful.

Stegner is a fine storyteller. This novel evokes the mountains and the plains, the droughts and sun and rain and blizzards that the Masons live through, and the cultural challenges; but I think most of all it evokes character, the complicated nature of men and women doing their best, trying and failing and occasionally succeeding at business and relationships. It is an autobiographical novel, I have read, with Bruce as Stegner and Bo as Stegner’s difficult father. Indeed, Bruce’s reflections as a young adult upon his family and the hardship of almost entirely hating his father, the question of where home lies for an itinerant man, family, nation, are some of the best, most eloquent, and memorable parts of the book. The narrative of the Mason family story is an outstanding yarn, a tragedy and a tale of adventure, among other things. I loved the whole thing, but Bruce’s ruminations were my favorite part.

Rating: 8 cases of whiskey.

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser

A novel about two young art students, the thrills they enjoy and the wounds they inflict on themselves and each other.

paulina and fran

Rachel B. Glaser (Pee on Water; MOODS) focuses on two memorable, magnetic characters in Paulina & Fran, a novel of the challenges in friendship and love, beginning in a New England art school.

Paulina is flamboyant, wildly sexual and capable of great cruelty toward her friends. She attacks the world with a confident demeanor but is secretly plagued by an inability to get what she wants, because she doesn’t know what that is. Fran is more self-contained, a talented painter but lacking commitment, easily swayed by the love and approval of others. On a school trip, the two are drawn together, owing in part to their lack of other social options, but the bond they form is remarkably powerful, even hypnotic, on both sides. The mesmerizing spell is broken when Fran ends up dating Paulina’s ex-boyfriend, setting into motion a series of mutually destructive events that follow the two women–and collaterally the helpless boyfriend–well past graduation.

Paulina can be repellently vicious, while Fran is merely lost; both will occasionally try the reader’s patience, but both are finally sympathetic. These are finely detailed, compelling, complex young adults facing archetypical trials: work and art; sex, devotion, obsession and betrayal; the cavernous future; and how to be oneself and be a friend. Their journey is often funny and sometimes horrifying, filled with pretentious art “crits” (critiques), thrift store fashion and homemade hair products. Paulina & Fran is both a glittering, raucous ride and a thoughtful depiction of life: painful and ecstatic.

This review originally ran in the September 8, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 crits.

Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes by Bernie Krause

An engaging introduction to the science of soundscape ecology, from a pioneer of the field.

voices of the wild

With Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes, Bernie Krause shares his delight in the sounds of the natural world and makes an impassioned case for the importance of such acoustics.

Krause is a soundscape ecologist who’s been recording the noises of natural settings for nearly 50 years. As a pioneer in his field, he’s acquired his knowledge the hard way, beginning with the technological challenges of recording with equipment designed for indoor use, and has seen changes as the field has grown. For example, the scientific establishment’s emphasis on single-species recording is giving way to Krause’s preference for capturing an entire biome.

Voices of the Wild is designed to educate laypeople on the existence and significance of soundscapes, and how to undertake amateur recordings. Krause introduces the terms “geophony” (non-biological sounds, as of wind and water), “biophony” (non-human biological sounds, like bird- and whalesong) and “anthropophony” (human-created sounds, from speech to traffic). He makes predictions about the future of soundscape ecology, including technologies that will change the field and its impact on various disciplines, from architecture (interior soundscapes have implications on education and psychology) to biology (in which soundscapes inform our understanding of biodiversity), and many more. The field has enormous scientific and cultural relevance, for example in comparing the therapeutic value of biophonies to that of music: the former “may be more beneficial, perhaps because they are culture neutral.” Accompanied by recordings available online, Voices of the Wild offers a mildly academic but fascinating look at a little-known but potentially influential field.

This review originally ran in the September 4, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 orcas.

While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change by M Jackson

A scientist’s personal reflections on climate change and personal loss.

while glaciers slept

“I cannot untangle in my mind the scientific study of climate change and the death of my parents.” M Jackson is a scientist, National Geographic Expert and glacier specialist, but her memoir While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change rarely takes a scientific perspective and never claims objectivity. Rather, Jackson tells the story of losing both her parents when she was a young woman just embarking on life, and the trauma and extended grieving process that resulted.

Following a brief, lovely foreword by Bill McKibben, Jackson poetically conflates her loss with the slow and still mysterious effects of anthropogenic climate change. Her scientific background and explorations of fascinating places–Denali and Chena Hot Springs in Alaska, Zambia with the Peace Corps–inform her writing and yield striking images, as she runs on spongy Alaskan tundra or contemplates cryoconite holes atop glaciers. But it is the personal side of her narrative that allows Jackson to address society’s psychological difficulties with climate change.

Each chapter of While Glaciers Slept is a finely braided essay, considering an aspect of her parents’ lives or deaths alongside a facet of climate change’s challenges. Jackson mourns her mother with the help of Joan Didion’s writing; windmills offer possible “undulating answers” and comfort her on her drive home upon learning that her father is dying. She employs a disordered chronology that slightly disorients her reader, just as Jackson was disoriented. The effect is an evocative, lyrical work of musing and allegory rather than a scientific treatise.

This review originally ran in the September, 4, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 check marks in a dictionary.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Dan Marshall

Following yesterday’s review of Home is Burning, here’s Dan Marshall: Self-Deprecation and Happiness.

Dan Marshall grew up in a nice home with nice parents in Salt Lake City, Utah, before attending UC Berkeley. After college, Marshall went to work at a strategic communications public relations firm in Los Angeles. At 25, he left work and returned to Salt Lake City to take care of his sick parents. While caring for them, he started writing detailed accounts about many of their weird, sad, funny adventures. Home is Burning is his first book. He is currently working on adapting it into a screenplay.

Your Facebook notes and blog posts fed into what became the book. What does the writing process look like when you have all that material to start with?

photo: Sharon Suh

photo: Sharon Suh

It was a fairly unique process. The blog was mainly shorter posts: funny conversations, short stories and a lot of lists. When I decided to write the book, I aggregated all the blog posts, and then read through them. The blog was a lot cruder than the book (if you can believe it), and was focused more on trying to make people laugh than on the sentimental moments from the story. So a lot had to change.

The blog also didn’t really have a theme other than, “S**t is bad.” So in reviewing all the material (about 900 pages worth), I had to figure out first what I was trying to say with all this writing–what theme or message I was trying to get across. I started to realize that it’s really a story about a selfish, spoiled kid finally facing something real, and thus being forced to sort of grow up. Once I realized that, it was a little easier to know what should stay from the blog and what should go. So I started trimming it down, cutting parts that didn’t push the story forward or relate to the theme, and adding a few parts that helped to fill in some of the gaps that I didn’t cover in the blog.

Overall, it was a tedious process.

Was writing this book terribly painful, or cathartic?

Certain things–like when my dad announced his desire to die, the Abby break-up, my dad’s eventual death–are always painful to relive and write about. I usually had to take a lot of walks while working on those sections to calm myself down.

Also, the voice I write in is rather dark and sad. So, getting into that morbid headspace is always painful. Whenever I was jumping into a rewrite or going through the book again, I would tell myself, “Okay, you’re going to be sad and feel like shit for a couple of months,” then start writing.

However, writing the book was also really cathartic, especially when I discovered the themes of the book. It was like, “Wow, that was horrible, but I learned a lot.” You learn more from pain than pleasure, so I think writing the book made me wiser. I’m a lot smarter than my friends with living parents.

This is going to sound sappy, but the book was also an opportunity to hang out with my dad again. I could bring him back to life and relive some happy memories. So, that aspect of it brought me a lot of joy. Then, each time I’d finish writing, I’d miss my dad even more. So, I’d fall into a bit of a depression for a few weeks. Nothing that a few burritos can’t cure, though.

Are you this amazingly self-deprecating in real life?

I start everyday by looking in the mirror and booing. Just kidding. I don’t do that.

But I do have a genuine hatred for myself that runs deep. I feel like a little self-hatred is healthy, but I probably overdo it. I’m pretty hard on myself, which is funny on the page, but sort of a drag to live with. I feel really worn down by myself all the time. Sometimes I want to yell, “Leave me alone!” at myself.

I think self-deprecating humor is a defense mechanism because I figure if I think the worst about myself, then I can’t be shocked by anything bad anyone says about me. I do need to work on being nicer to myself. Whenever I’m going on a self-deprecating tangent, my mom always says, “Stop saying so many mean and hurtful things about someone I love.” I should follow her advice.

You share an awful lot of painful personal detail here, both your own and others’. How do you decide where to draw the line? Do you draw a line? Was your family involved in those decisions?

In writing this, I made a commitment to revealing everything and being as open and honest about the experience and my life as possible. I don’t think it’d be that entertaining to read if I were holding back.

Also, I wanted people to know what it was actually like to care for a person with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s such a horrible disease, and I think if people were aware of what actually goes into caring for someone with the illness, then more people would donate money toward trying to solve the ALS puzzle. You wouldn’t think it, but like 60% of the care you do for someone who is bedridden is bathroom stuff. So I figured I needed to address all that to give readers the full experience.

When it comes to stuff about me, nothing is off-limits. When it comes to stuff about others, I try to be a little more selective. It’s so hard to have some a**hole write about you, so if someone asks me to take something out of the book, I usually do. But I do try to push it. I often ask, “How much can I reveal about this person and still have them love me?” It varies from person to person. My brother Greg is a writer, so he’s basically okay with anything about him.

My sisters and mom, however, were a little taken aback when they first read the book. My mom’s initial reaction was, “F**k you Danny and f**k your book.” She’s since forgiven me and has been incredibly supportive of the book.

Generally, though, my family has been really good sports about this. They realize that this is a story about our dad more than anything. And they realize that I’m as hard on myself as I am them.

You relate some shocked reactions to your off-color and morbid sense of humor generally. What reactions do you anticipate to the book?

I think the book will get a mixed reaction. Some people will probably really enjoy it. And some people will absolutely hate it. I find that people over 80 tend to not get my sense of humor, so I doubt I’ll be asked to do readings at retirement communities or in Florida.

I’m prepared for all of my Mormon friends to hate me when the book comes out. In fact, I probably won’t be allowed in the state of Utah anymore. I always get a little nervous when a Mormon friend tells me they’ve pre-ordered the book. I try to be especially nice to them so we can hopefully remain friends. I actually really love Mormons now. I didn’t for a long time, but I realized through this that they’re also just trying to get through life.

But I hope people see what I was going for. I know it’s crass, and crude, and contains South Park humor, but I hope they see past all the language and realize that at the core of it, this is a story about a guy learning to love his family and learning how to grow up.

As a screenwriter, can you tell us what rating this book will receive onscreen?

It will receive an R-rating for sure.

What’s next?

I try to keep busy because I’m not good at having hobbies so I get really anxious and bored when I’m not working. I’m working on the Home Is Burning adaptation for New Line Cinema now. Miles Teller is attached to play me and Jonathan Levine is directing.

I have a few other film projects I’m working on. One is a script called F**k Me, I’m Paralyzed (inspired by a true story) about a friend helping his paralyzed friend try to get laid for the first time since his accident. We’re hoping to film in early 2016.

I’m also planning on writing another book that focuses on what life has been like after my dad passed, sort of an exploration about how to deal with moving on from loss and rebuilding yourself–trying to find happiness without the people who made you happy.

This interview originally ran on September 2, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


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