Teaser Tuesdays: Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

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

I am pleased to have found the time, finally, to pick up more work by Terry Tempest Williams. Refuge is her well-regarded memoir of her mother’s life and death within the region of Great Salt Lake, in Utah.

Today I chose a few lines that not only tell succinctly what this book is about, but speak to me personally as I work through my own relationship to place.

Most of the women in my family are dead. Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family. The losses I encountered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as Great Salt Lake was rising helped me to face the losses within my family. When most people had given up on the Refuge, saying the birds were gone, I was drawn further into its essence. In the same way that when someone is dying many retreat, I chose to stay.

I am, of course, very excited about this book, as Terry Tempest Williams consistently impresses me. I am also already planning to reread one I loved as a kid: Pieces of White Shell. So look out for that one to come.

Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir by Susanne Antonetta

Body Toxic is a striking book, both in the story it has to tell and in the manner in which it’s told. I am impressed, and challenged. It’s complicated.

body toxicSusanne Antonetta grew up in New Jersey, in the Pine Barrens region, a bogland unique in several senses: culturally isolated, and environmentally contaminated on a shocking, unimaginable scale. She and other members of her family have suffered from a list of medical complaints: asthma, endometriosis, a double uterus, growths on the liver, allergies, tumors and cysts, sterility, seizures, manic depression, various cancers; an extremely rare quadruple pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. The families she is descended from include Italian immigrants and those from Barbados, who nevertheless self-identify as English. Both sides of her family exhibit a predilection for silence, non-communication or the glossing over of undesirable details. The legacies Antonetta has inherited, then, are many and complex: cultural (in terms of countries of origin, and the culture of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and immediate family cultures), environmental and medical (oh, the prodigious and horrifying list), and psychological (mental illness and perspective on the world). Oh, and Susanne Antonetta is not her real name, but an “alter ego”: “I’ve used five or six different pseudonyms in my life. The name I’m using now is not my name but the name of a recovered female relative, a lost woman, and as a recovered woman she’s just a skeleton that must be fleshed out by the same process of fantasizing and filling in that I resist.” Indeed, identity – multiple identities, our attempts to define ourselves and others’ attempts to define us – is another theme throughout.

And that is the complexity of this book, that so much is going on. The story is itself obviously gripping, and brimming with evocative and provocative anecdote. Indeed, Antonetta tells us, “I wrote a piece about the miscarriage and an editor sent it back, calling it ‘raw.’ He suggested I lose the death or the multiple pregnancy, or both… The poem of this body is a bad poem, trite.” The enormous irony, of course, being that she can’t “lose” the death or the multiple pregnancy, or countless other maladies, complaints. All this material aside, though, Body Toxic shines entirely for another reason too: the writing is bold and nuanced, presses and pulls back, reflecting a little the manic depression (or, these days, bipolar disorder) that also waxes and wanes throughout Antonetta’s story. It is, of course, poetic: the author is an acclaimed poet as well, under the name Suzanne Paola.

There are so many threads. Business and government disposed of chemical and radiation waste in Antonetta’s childhood beaches and bogs, through a combination of ignorant, unethical and criminal irresponsibility. (Thus Rachel Carson is named by comparison.) Antonetta’s extended family makes a series of decisions about how to live in this environment, in which they were underinformed but also trusting, stubborn, or willfully ignored the signs. (They mostly still won’t talk about the negative effects.) The family incubates a sexist tradition, favoring the eldest, male grandchild, repeatedly reminding Antonetta explicitly and implicitly of her “place.” She explores her identity as woman: “I spent a lot of my eleventh and twelfth years pining for my menstruation to begin. I can’t remember why”; and later in her inability to reproduce, and what this means for the family at large. (When her family visits relatives back in the Italian community of her father’s origin, his cousin tells him, “You have big children, but I have grandchildren.” There is an implied failure there, which Antonetta ascribes to environmental poisoning, but the family seems to ascribe to Antonetta herself.) There is the fallibility of memory, a theme so common to memoir but one I never tire of, because it – like memory – is different in each interpretation: each memoirist has something new to say. In this case, Antonetta did a lot of drugs, presumably compounding the muddiness of some of her early memories; luckily she was an avid journaler, which allows her to interrogate those documents, artifacts of a young woman she barely knows, itself an interesting and fruitful technique. And then there are all those identities. I love the idea of her father constantly referencing “my daughter” when speaking to her: she finally lets his declarations about that daughter stand, having realized that her father’s daughter is a different person from herself.

I could keep going. This was the challenge and the allure of this book, and the reason I will not quickly forget it: many threads, many layers, told in an ever-evolving voice, ebbing and flowing. The meandering structure made me work to pull it all together, but it was worth it.

I am taking a writing class from the author (under another name, that of the poet, Suzanne Paola) in the coming months, which is why I came to this book in the first place, and now I am both more excited than ever, and intimidated. I recommend Body Toxic for a reading experience to get lost in; for a richly fertile field of topics for discussion with family, book clubs, community groups; for the study of craft; and for the story it (quite disturbingly) tells about the New Jersey Pine Barrens, immigrant experiences, and one woman’s outlandish life.

Rating: 8 newspaper clippings.

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

An occasionally bumbling Brit moves into the Mississippi Delta and delivers a romping survey of the surroundings.

dispatches from pluto

Richard Grant (Crazy River) is “a misfit Englishman with a U.S. passport and a taste for remote places,” a writer and professional peripatetic when he encounters an old plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. Later he will ask, “What sort of idiot goes on a picnic and ends up buying a house?” He then explains.

In Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard moves, with his girlfriend, from New York City to a spot even the locals find remote. They struggle with home improvements, an enormous vegetable garden and the moral problem they encounter in hunting for their meat. After some hilarious hiccups along the way, they take pleasure in living in large part off the land. Perhaps more challenging are questions of culture: the liberal newcomers are sensitive to their conservative religious neighbors, who are surely suspicious in turn. But from the beginning they manage to bond like family.

Grant narrates the next year with reflection and humor, from electoral politics and absurd local news to learning how to hunt and party like a Deltan. The myriad forms and intensities of racism and racial tension develop into a theme, as Grant pursues diverse friends and acquaintances. But he finds beauty as well as complexity, and concludes, “I had done the thing that modern life conspires against. I had fully inhabited the present without distraction.” Dispatches from Pluto offers a lovely, appreciative and entertaining tour of the strange and rich Mississippi Delta.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the October 27, 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 armadillos.

book beginnings on Friday: Body Toxic by Susanne Antonetta

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.

This memoir by a local author and professor at my local university comes highly recommended, and at a glance the subject looks fascinating, too. (Sometimes – I might even say often – excellent writing carries a subject I’m not consumed with; but better to have both.)body toxic A brief blurb reads, “For readers of Refuge, A Civil Action and Silent Spring, comes a harrowing story of a family, a body, and a place: an immigrant family in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, a hauntingly beautiful, hauntingly compromised landscape.” Who is not intrigued? And those titles cited for comparison: wow!

It begins:

In nineteen question-mark question-mark my silent grandfather came to the United States.

He left the hot chatty island of Barbados and because he existed in silence no one knows when he came.

Simple, but a lot has already been communicated; and I love the “hot chatty island.” I am optimistic.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem’s straight-talking memoir is rich with personal anecdote, political history and a fervent love for living on the go.


Gloria Steinem, founder of New York and Ms. magazines and many women’s organizations and a noted leader of the women’s movement, shares her stories from along the way in My Life on the Road. This simply stated memoir recounts Steinem’s childhood, her organizing and activism from her youth into the present, with commentary on the social and political events of those decades. But it is also explicitly a story of life lived on the move. As she sees it in hindsight, Steinem inherited a love for constant motion from her father, who lived for most of her life out of his car, with little Gloria keeping him company for her first 10 years. As a young woman not ready to settle down to marriage and motherhood, and then as an organizer, she kept moving. One chapter is dedicated to her choice to travel communally rather than use an automobile of her own, because it offers increased opportunities for contact.

In stating her goals for this book, Steinem cites storytelling as a central drive. Much is told in short vignettes, stories from those she’s met in her travels or lessons learned on her way. There are more than a few instances of Steinem making assumptions about people (Harley riders, cab drivers), only to have them proven wrong–emphasizing the idea that every person is more than he or she appears.

Steinem hopes to encourage her readers to hit the road, too. She is clearly deeply passionate about the advantages of travel: for perspective, for personal development and for plain enjoyment. She recommends that politicians travel the country and the world: “I called big-city contributors from on-the-road places, so I could say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like out here.'”

My Life on the Road is not a history of the women’s movement, although of course it contains many references to that history, as well as to the U.S. political climate and events of the second half of the 20th century. Instead, Steinem’s memoir is a glimpse into one remarkable woman’s life and philosophies of the road. It includes profiles of Steinem’s immediate family and friends like Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller and Florynce Kennedy, and briefly addresses the conflict between Steinem and Betty Friedan. Steinem’s writing style is personal, warm, approachable and straightforward. Her fans will be satisfied by this personal view, one that combines a love for people and places and stories and change with a love for movements–in both senses.

This review originally ran in the October 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 stories.

We Were Brothers by Barry Moser

This reflective memoir of brotherhood, the evils of racism and sibling spats is as finely illustrated as it is well told, and will please diverse readers.

we were brothers

Book designer and illustrator Barry Moser and his brother, Tommy, grew up in the Tennessee country surrounding Chattanooga in the Jim Crow era. As boys, they were never close, and shared more physical conflict than anything else. As men, they grew further apart, disagreeing about everything from food to politics, as Barry renounced the racism they were raised with and Tommy did not. Only near the very end of Tommy’s life did they begin to communicate meaningfully and build the beginning of a relationship that would be cut short. We Were Brothers is Barry’s memoir of regret and remembrance.

The story of these two young men, and the times in which they lived, is plainly depicted. Moser’s narrative tone is straightforward in its observations from the perspective of small children, but the wisdom of the older man shines quietly through. For example, he wonders at his mother’s friendship with a black neighbor, who was accepted in many ways almost as family, but still expected to act differently in front of certain company; the family’s ingrained racism is inexplicable in this context, but never questioned. The young boys have a playmate who is black: he is mistreated in ways that do not resonate with the childhood Barry, but in adulthood he cannot remember that boy without tears.

After many disagreements and fistfights, the brothers go their separate ways, with Tommy joining the military while Barry went to college. Barry came to view the anti-Vietnam War movement with sympathy, reassessed his family’s racist views and left the South, while Tommy stayed. In his late 50s, Barry takes a phone call from his estranged brother that ends in racial epithets. Barry hangs up on Tommy, and their discord appears permanent. But then they begin writing letters, in which each man shares his hurts and disappointments. The first few letters, reproduced in the book, seem promising of a new era of openness, understanding and allowance for past mistakes. And then Tommy dies.

Moser’s deceptively simple story is accompanied by his own extraordinarily lovely drawings of the characters and places in question, so that the reader gains a visual glimpse into the people he evokes. We Were Brothers skillfully displays an introspective quality as the older man looks back with regret over a relationship he never had, and with appreciation for one briefly shared. Moser’s understated style only reinforces that musing tone. In the end, even as the painful brotherhood he recalls echoes the evils of a racist time and place, Moser’s calmly gentle, elegiac storytelling voice paints a picture that is loving as well as remorseful.

This review originally ran in the October 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 wished-for letters.

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South by Rick Bragg

Extraordinary, brief, true stories of the Deep South that are funny, haunting and redolent.

my southern journey

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South showcases the singular voice, humor and perspective of Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’), in short, entertaining stories. As he introduces it, “this book is a collection of Southern stories, but it is not a litany of pig pickins and frat parties and cutthroat beauty contests.” Rather, these are fervent, funny, heartfelt memories of places and cultures that need remembering.

Bragg shares his experience of the Deep South, from his family home in northern Alabama to Florida, Louisiana and the Alabama coast. Readers quickly become acquainted (or reacquainted) with his large and lively family, as Bragg brings immediacy and intimacy to his setting and cast of characters. His mouthwatering descriptions of the food of his homeland–centered on various forms of pork but with a heavy emphasis on Gulf Coast seafood as well–are flavorful and evocative. He occasionally claims that “I can’t write well enough to tell you how good it was,” a risky writerly trick that Bragg easily pulls off. He considers the red dirt of northeastern Alabama as both physical and symbolic. Bragg’s tone is self-effacing and often hilarious, which belies his ability to approach serious issues, like his treatment of overfishing and the Deepwater oil spill.

In exploring family, a sense of place or home, and the distinctive details of Southern food and culture, Bragg exhibits an exquisitely nuanced, clever voice, partly disguised by a down-home accent. Readers will laugh, and cry, and yearn to head South.

This review originally ran in the September 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: 9 paper bags of cracklin’s.

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