The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury

A pensive, meandering memoir of searching–for the source of both a river and the author’s life.

fish ladder

In The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, a memoir of two concurrent paths, Katharine Norbury aims to find a river’s source and to discover her own. She is mourning a recent miscarriage and the loss of her father, taking solace with her mother and her daughter, Evie. Norbury was adopted, and all she knows of the woman who abandoned her at a convent is a name. Neil M. Gunn’s novel The Well at the World’s End inspires her to walk a waterway from the sea to the source, as does Gunn’s protagonist. But Norbury’s journey is clearly also metaphorical, a search for herself and her roots.

The route she chooses is not specific: with Evie, she walks parts of several waterways, eventually setting more precise goals along the way, and reaching for Gunn’s work when her plans falter. Her expedition to find her biological family proves to be more challenging, intersecting her pathway upriver, from the location she has discovered is her birthplace.

Norbury’s seeking is set in Britain, and The Fish Ladder doubles as an amateur naturalist study of the country’s flora and fauna. She shares her insecurities and questions alongside Celtic folk tales about salmon traveling upriver to the places of their birth. Her story wanders, but in the end makes emotional and profound ventures into landscape, the importance of place and the very real connections between physical and interior voyages.


This review originally ran in the August 25, 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: 5 pieces of chocolate.

Teaser Tuesdays: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

my life on the road

I was intimidated to read this book by Steinem – my first of hers – because she is such an accomplished, impressive woman. But I shouldn’t have been. She is warm and approachable on the page. Her story is not only of interest and worth reading (which of course I knew going in), but also well and simply told.

The book is a series of stories, and for today’s teaser, I’ve chosen one very short one for you.

On another campus, some women tell me about men who leave their own underwear on the floor and don’t feel compelled to pick it up – or even notice what they’ve done. By now, the shouts and laughter have become quite rowdy, and I’ve begun to worry about a silent young Japanese woman in the front row. Perhaps we are offending her.

As if summoned by my thought, she stands and turns to face all five hundred or so women. “When my husband leaves his underwear on the floor,” she says quietly, “I find it useful to nail it to the floor.”

Amid laughter and cheers, this shy young woman seems surprised to find herself laughing, too. She tells the group this is the first time she has ever said anything in public.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: We Were Brothers by Barry Moser

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

we were brothers

A thoughtful memoir with beautiful illustrations by the author begins with this paragraph.

I have a family photogrpah that was taken on a Christmas Eve sometime in the early 1960’s. We are in my aunt’s living room. Two generations pose in front of a fireplace that, as far as I know, never entertained an actual fire. Above the garlanded mantel hangs a portrait of my aunt’s late husband that I painted when I was in high school. The people in the picture are my mother’s people: her husband, sisters, and brother are there, as well as my brother and me. Most of us lived cheek to jowl on a short stretch of Chattanooga country road.

Idyllic? Don’t get too comfortable. This is the story of a troubled brotherhood; but it is told lovingly, if sadly. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Wondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea

A woman’s thoughtful account of life after her husband’s traumatic brain injury.

wondering

When Sonya Lea’s husband, Richard, had surgery to treat his rare appendiceal cancer, they knew there were risks. But they had not considered that Richard would wake up with no memory of his 23 years of marriage and two young adult children, or of his own personality and past. Sonya considers their shared history and difficult recovery in her memoir, Wondering Who You Are.

The details of Richard’s medical story are inarguably painful but often sweet. Sonya’s changed husband is empathetic, guileless and highly motivated to learn. Alternating chapters cover the trauma of his surgery and aftermath, and the story of their teenage romance and decades of marriage, until the timelines merge into one: Sonya’s quest for the husband she lost and her eventual acceptance of the one she’s found. This powerful, gut-wrenching narrative negotiates spirituality, hope and despair, sexual experimentation and a dedicated caregiver’s tireless research and advocacy. Sonya and Richard’s family story wanders geographically as well, from Kentucky to Ontario, Banff, Memphis, Seattle, California, France, India and more. Through assorted, arduous adventures, they learn again to rely on one another, to persist and to accept.

Sonya Lea is a fascinating narrator, by turns vulnerable and fierce, patient and maddened, always devoted. Her writing is contemplative and lovely, and contains just enough scientific detail. The result is a lyrical, intensely candid meditation on memory, identity and the stories we create for ourselves–and a love letter to both the new and old versions of Richard.


This review originally ran in the July 28, 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: 9 journal entries.

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

dakotaContinuing in my series of not-new-but-still-important creative nonfiction readings (see The Kiss and The Liars’ Club)… Kathleen Norris’s essay collection, Dakota, is brilliant. I see somewhat where it is dated, discussing for example economic depression and agricultural crisis – because, if anything, things are worse now. But her astute ideas and conclusions are brilliant and in many ways timeless.

You saw my teaser earlier this week, so you know I am impressed. Norris, a poet, of course writes beautifully; it’s worth reading her words for their language alone. But I was really drawn in by the ideas behind them. As her subtitle notes, she is concerned with spirituality and geography. As you might have noted by now about me, I am not attracted to spiritual musings, but I was won over by the geography (in so many senses) and the sense of place which is at the heart of this collection. And I found myself on board for a certain amount of spirituality as well.

My favorite parts of the book were those that characterize place: the physical, biological, climactic characteristics that make “Dakota,” the unique region of both western North and South Dakota that Norris calls home, as well as the cultural and human characteristics of this scarcely populated area. I love thinking about and learning what is definitive about place, in both those senses: the natural, physical, extra-human as well as the human, and the idea of their interconnectedness. (Dakota would doubtless look a little different without people – Las Vegas certainly would – but there is no possibility, I think, of people without place.)

“The Holy Use of Gossip” taught me how gossip can be a good thing, or rather, taught me to recognize as “gossip” (originating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from God + sibling) the talking about each other we do in my close group of friends: when we share with each other that one of us is having a bad day, has suffered a loss, needs our help. This is well-intentioned and positive sharing that I’m glad we do. “Gatsby on the Plains” explores how community can lift its members up, or cut itself off from help: Norris writes that

…disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.

Intermittent “Weather Reports” read like short, poetic journal entries of real, specific days, in between more formal essays. They are often not strictly reports on the weather, unless we expand our definitions of weather, which we may well be intended to do.

She writes a good bit about community, how it is formed and how it can be both good and bad for itself. Norris came (back) to Dakota as an adult: her grandparents were of that place, and when she inherited their home there, she and her husband moved in. She is both from there (because the communities knew her grandparents) and not (because she grew up elsewhere, and came in as a traveled, educated, artistic outsider), which made for some interesting challenges for her and her new neighbors. Her 2001 introduction to this edition of the 1993 book discusses her adopted community’s reaction to her work, her publicization of Dakota: in a word, there was both pride and anxiety, but the fact that she stuck around eventually earned her a more thorough local membership.

On the subject of community, I am intrigued by her repeated conflation of the desert, the plains, and even the ocean that once covered this region, with the monastery. She spends quite a few pages throughout comparing the sense of quiet, of great distances increasing mutual support, and contrasting some of the ways in which these communities work. For example, I appreciated the idea (in “Where I Am” – naturally one of my favorite essays) that the monastery is different from small plains towns in that the former has a formal text or rulebook that they agree to live by: in the case of Norris’s central example, Saint Benedict’s Rule, which guides Benedictine monasteries. The small towns often find conflict because they are not all working from one central, agreed upon set of rules or values or ethics.

As an artist, Norris finds that she benefits immensely from the immensity of space in the plains. And she’s got some great stories to tell about sharing art and poetry with her new communities.

I find that prairie people are receptive to a broad range of contemporary poetry, although they’d be unlikely to cross town to attend a poetry reading at a college, were there a college in the vicinity. Their appreciation of the poems I’ve read aloud – from a broad spectrum of contemporary American poets – has given me a new understanding of the communal role of poets, a role poets have mostly abandoned by closeting themselves in academia. Surprises await poets who venture out into the larger community.

I love this idea, that poets (and by extension, many formally educated or academic folks) have quarantined themselves with those like them, and are both failing to share what they have and – more so – failing to learn from others, by locking the doors to the ivory tower.

In a strange counterpoint to this sentiment, though, I found Norris occasionally off-puttingly snobbish about the reading of books: that more prairie people should do it, that they shouldn’t consider themselves well-educated or wise without doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong: clearly I love reading books and find a great deal of value in doing so, and I think books have a lot to offer everyone and everyone should read more. But I also think that people can be very intelligent, wise, and valuable without formal reading; I think that the same prescriptions don’t work for all of us, and I think it’s a shame if she’s found (for example) a great oral storytelling tradition and then laments the lack of book reading. It makes her sound snotty in a way that the rest of the book does not. I like her better than this.

I think it’s just a moment of weakness or misstep, though, because in fact she returns to this subject with more sensitivity in “Status: Or, Should Farmers Read Plato?”

I know as well as anyone that a lot of book learning doesn’t make a person wise (sometimes it simply legitimizes stupidity), but I can’t help but connect the fact that so many Dakotans have been denied access to their culture with the fact that they don’t trust that their own stories are worth much.

The fact of their inhibited access to their own culture and stories is perhaps the best argument for lack of book-reading as a major problem. And she goes on to contemplate what difference it makes to a pig farmer to miss out on Plato, and what Tolstoy and the Brontes can bring to a small-town waitress. I like the nuanced discussion there.

Dakota gets more and more spiritual in its subject matter as it progresses, so that I struggled more toward the end. Discussion of monastic retreats, and Norris’s relationship with the religious communities of Dakota, were often interesting to me; they are in some ways further discussion of community ideals, and I am more or less on board with the spirituality of nature, of relating to wind and sky and plant life. But occasionally there was too much God for my personal tastes. When I encounter the idea of monasteries, and other writers’ productive experiences there, I have found myself tempted sometimes to consider the same; but then I realize what I really need is to just go camping alone.

I found a lot to love and a lot to continue to consider here: about place, about inheritance, about storytelling and relating to one another, about community and about definitions of spirituality. I love Norris’s writing. Although I struggled here and there, or perhaps because I did, this beautiful and thought-provoking book will stay with me and, I think, continue to guide me.


Rating: 8 readings.

The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba by Brin-Jonathan Butler

An amateur boxer’s love affair with Cuba.

domino

Brin-Jonathan Butler first traveled to Cuba as a teenager, hoping “to find a boxing trainer and to meet the guy from The Old Man and the Sea.” He accomplished both goals and over the years that followed made repeated trips, seeking Cuban boxing, baseball and literary heroes, as well as the mysteries of the sequestered island. Eventually, Butler’s fixation on Cuba inspired a forthcoming documentary, Split Decision, about Cuban athletes’ difficult choices between staying and leaving. In The Domino Diaries, he confesses that the project was partly an excuse to stay, having become “homesick for a place [he] wasn’t born to.” His memoir further unravels the relationship he’s formed with this nation.

His escapades make for fine writing and include a tryst with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter and an interview with boxing legend TeĆ³filo Stevenson that results in Butler’s being banned from Cuba. The Domino Diaries is a memoir of boxing heroes and political strife, a study of Castro’s legacies and Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis, and an ode to the grace, joy and sadness of Cuban culture; it is also the personal story of Butler’s own traumas and his mother’s escape from Hungarian communist rule. These threads necessitate some meandering, but the resulting musing tone Butler employs is elegiac and quite effective. Rather than an exhaustive survey of the large and thorny topic of Cuba’s economy, politics and culture, Butler’s memoir is a rambling exploration, appealingly written in a distinctive voice and peppered with wisdoms phrased with lovely wit.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 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 cigars.

Teaser Tuesdays: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

dakotaWarning: rave review coming. Dakota is an amazing feat of essays exploring ethics, community, a sense of place and belonging and the meaning of home, geography, the unique features of the western Dakotas, and yes, spirituality (a subject usually sure to turn me away). This teaser post is just that, a preview of what I love about this book. For example,

The word ‘geography’ derives from the Greek words for earth and writing, and writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.

or, quoting Benedictine monk Terrence Kardong,

We have become as indigenous as the cottonwood trees… If you take us somewhere else, we lose our character, our history – maybe our soul.

I would love to share the entire 16 pages of “Where I Am,” which include the factoid that

the absolutely temperature range record for the Western Hemisphere [was] set in 1936 when a town in western North Dakota registered temperatures from 60 degrees below zero to 121 above within the same year.

or “Rain,” a single-page poetry-in-prose listing of the types of rain experienced there. Mind-blowing, right?

I am very impressed, and hope you’ll go looking for your copy of Dakota, too. My review is coming.

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