Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents by Bob Morris

A son’s memoir of love and endings, despite his shortcomings and mistakes.

bobby wonderful

Bob Morris (Assisted Loving; Crispin the Terrible) loved his parents very much, even if he was not always the ideal son. His older brother, Jeff, played that role; Bob was less reliable.

When his mother died, her last garbled word was his name: Bobby. As his father died several years later, he cried out: “Wonderful!” As Morris relives and reconsiders those difficult experiences–caring for each of his parents (more or less), witnessing and helping to make decisions about the ends their lives–he pairs those final words to make the title of his searingly candid memoir, Bobby Wonderful.

Morris is on a much-needed vacation in Scotland, tasting whiskies and forgetting his cares, when he gets the call to come home for his mother’s last days. His first reaction is resentment; the scarf he brings her as a souvenir is a knockoff of the first one he considered. Still, he was there, with Jeff. In the years that follow, Morris helps his father learn to date again and encourages his independence, in part because Morris is busy trying to enjoy his own life. When his father attempts suicide, though, Morris is forced to face uncomfortable questions about his father’s end-of-life wishes, his own devotion and what it means to be a good son.

Morris’s struggles are sensitively told, deeply moving and highly relevant in a world where more and more people face situations like his. Bobby Wonderful is a gift of a book: an often funny but also perfectly serious contemplation of living and dying well.

This review originally ran in the June 12, 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 performances.

Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.


Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.

This review originally ran in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 bidons.

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss

A journey to find a famous grave and an exploration of the meanings of environment and home.

finding abbey

After the death of environmental writer Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang; Desert Solitaire), four of his friends took his body to the desert near Albuquerque, N.Mex., and illegally buried him in a hidden location. For decades since, the mystery of his final resting place has tantalized Abbey’s fans and followers. Writer Sean Prentiss set out to track down his hero, as related in the thoughtful Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave.

Prentiss calls on Abbey’s close friends Jack Loeffler, Ken Sleight, David Peterson and Doug Peacock, several of whom inspired characters in Abbey’s fiction. He visits locations that Abbey called home over decades of peripatetic soul-searching. Prentiss does his own exploring, too. Though newly settled in the Midwest for a university job, Prentiss feels enticed by Abbey’s desert Southwest, a region he has also lived and traveled in. As much as he seeks a literal gravesite, or communion with a complicated man, Prentiss equally seeks a home for himself.

Prentiss questions whether he really wants to find the object of his search. “Answers don’t solve questions. Only searching does.” His tone is wondering, and his quest is both personal (where will Prentiss call home?) and universal (what does a sense of place mean to anyone?). His goal might be disrespectful, considering the continued efforts of the Abbey camp to keep the grave’s location a secret, but Prentiss navigates this potential difficulty with sensitivity. While it offers no revelations, Finding Abbey is philosophical, poetic, a creative biography and a loving, evocative celebration of a controversial life.

This review originally ran in the May 15, 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 cans of beer.

Creative Nonfiction: The Memoir Issue

Full disclosure: I am a fan of the folks over at Creative Nonfiction. I’ve taken one of their classes (and think I’ll do another this winter), and I attended their conference in Pittsburgh last month (also excellent!). This post is about the magazine, which comes out quarterly. Summer 2015 is “The Memoir Issue,” fatter than usual at just over 100 pages, and filled with memoir stories and essays about the genre. I read it from cover to cover, but wanted to share a few of my favorite pieces.

cnf memoirLee Gutkind’s “From the Editor” column asks, “What’s the (Personal) Story?” It’s brief, but a fine backdrop to creative nonfiction and the rise of the memoir. If you ever get a chance to hear Lee speak, expect to be entertained; I enjoyed his energy at the conference, where he helped us all wake up first thing in the morning with his extraordinary energy and enthusiasm. Next, Robert Atwan contributes an essay called “Of Memory and Memoir,” in which he argues that we’d benefit from a better understanding of how memory works (and doesn’t work), in a world where the memoir is so popular and ubiquitous. I think this is an interesting challenge; memoir is often, and appropriately I think, concerned with the line between truth and perspective, and the failure to remember perfectly. I don’t know if we can expect to solve the mystery of our imperfect memories, but Atwan does well to consider the problem.

And then there are the memoir essays themselves, of which I had a few favorites. “Do No Harm” by Kelly Fig Smith won the magazine’s prize, and naturally makes my list. She tells the story of a terrible tragedy that hits her family, and the hospital experience that came with it; it’s about perspective and compassion, I think. “Steps” by Scott Loring Sanders recounts the hike shared by a newly sober father, a young son, and their two dogs; it’s about mistakes and rehabilitation. Gina Warren’s “Girl on Fire” observes the difficulties of caregiving. The final essay, “The Grief Scale,” is by Suzanne Roberts, who wrote Almost Somewhere, a book I rated 6 small but important steps. This essay is better, I think. I like how she circles back at the end to reference the story she thought she was writing, was trying to write; but what we are treated to is instead the story that flows out of her, about being griped at on an airplane, and losing or fearing to lose our loved ones. I found it very effective.

Finally, “The Perils of Perfect Memory” by Daphne Strassmann questions our new reliance on social media and its effects on memory and memoir. Were we better off keeping our memories to ourselves, letting them brew and cure inside us before releasing them on the world? And in “Pushing the Boundaries,” Rolf Potts offers a different format, of found texts assembled in a piece he calls “Age, Formative,” which is powerfully disturbing.

These are just a few of the pieces I found most intriguing; the whole issue is definitely worth taking in. You can view parts of it or buy it here.

The Elements of Style (fourth edition) by William Strunk and E.B. White

Who can confidently say what ignites the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised.

styleI am fairly confident I was asked to use this book in school at some point; but I am quite sure I never read it cover to cover before this. And I’m afraid I can’t recall where I saw it recommended. But I’m very glad I checked it out from my local library, and I think I will go ahead and buy a copy too.

I read the fourth edition, which has four authors. Roger Angell writes the foreword, describing his stepfather E.B. White’s working style. White wrote the introduction for the 1979 edition. The original text was by William Strunk, unaccompanied; Strunk’s student White reworked his professor’s text after the latter’s death, adding a few paragraphs and updating some of the references. An afterword by Charles Osgood wraps things up in the style of the whole book and his three colleagues: brief, succinct, and sparkling.

This is a shockingly enjoyable little book considering that it is “just” a style guide that offers advice about… the overuse of adjectives (especially in dialog), passive voice, brevity, clarity, and the joining of dependent and independent clauses. The Strunk-and-White text is what it exhorts us to be: brief, clear, humble but stylish. I was absolutely charmed throughout.

This is a very small book. Even with its four authors in this edition, it requires the glossary and index to clear 100 pages, and is pocket-sized. However, even being so tiny, it was the first book I’ve read in a long time that required two separate quarter-page bookmarks that I filled with my notes. Thus this long review. Strunk would almost certainly wish for greater brevity, but I’ve included lots of quotations for you to enjoy.

The Elements of Style got me reflecting. I think it’s beautiful that there is such a thing as style in writing; I think it’s lovely that a place like Shelf Awareness needs and has a “house style,” a set of decisions made in advance and for consistency about how we will all write (or, more so, be edited). I love that writing allows for variation within the realm of strict correctness, and that even though this complicates things it also allows for added artistry in what is truly the art of communication.

I thought of my high school English teacher more than once as Strunk discussed style, vs. the clear-cut rules of grammar. Mrs. Smith agreed that we should all learn the (rather more boring) proper, correct, and formal way to write before we began experimenting; the breaking of rules is for the gifted who have earned that right by putting in their time with less exciting work. I will never forget her fine example (and think of her every time I encounter it): Hemingway writes in The Sun Also Rises that Robert Cohn “was married by” the first woman who came along, and this use of the passive voice is both purposeful and effective. Until her students become the next Hemingway, however, Mrs. Smith instructed that we should strive for active over passive verbs. This is the same principle with which Strunk writes,

“But,” you may ask, “what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?” Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness – the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit.

Let me continue: I marked no end of droll phrasings and thought I’d share a few.

White shares a memory of his Professor Strunk:

He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I remember a day in class when he leaned far forward, in his characteristic pose – the pose of a man about to impart a secret – and croaked, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!”

(Strunk was so economical with his words, White tells us, that he had to re-lengthen his speech by repetitions.)

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Or, on the question of shall vs. will:

A swimmer in distress cries, “I shall drown; no one will save me!” A suicide puts it the other way: “I will drown; no one shall save me!” In relaxed speech, however, the words shall and will are seldom used precisely; our ear guides us or fails to guide us, as the case may be, and we are quite likely to drown when we want to survive and survive when we want to drown.

This is not the only time he considers grammar a matter of life and death.

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expected to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity and be clear!

The tragedies, indeed! I love the tone. And how lovely are these thoughts about the art of writing in general:

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.


Writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.

I think I will need to put that up on the bulletin board over my desk.

Some of Strunk’s usage preferences are either not ones I share, or are dated in their particulars and thus less helpful. But the bulk of the advice he gives is both correct and delightfully expressed. Also, it bears noting that his tips are meant to apply to more formal or academic writing; he repeatedly allows that certain forms (a love letter is one example he uses more than once, which is again charming) will take different usage.

As entertaining as The Elements of Style is to read, its utility is alive and well: I found a revelation in rule #11 on page 75, regarding verbs and adverbs in dialog. Something that has always bothered me in my reading, but that I couldn’t have articulated, has been made plain to me and now I will be able to criticize more clearly when I encounter it (and, I hope, avoid it in my own writing). Thank you, Professor Strunk.

Rating: 8 split infinitives.

Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times by Stephen J. Lyons

An admiring profile of the successful, low-impact communities in a little-known region of the Midwest.


Stephen J. Lyons (A View from the Inland Northwest) muses on a remarkable region of the U.S. in Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. “The Driftless” spans a small area of southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota. A distinctly unglaciated history defines certain geographic parts, and a network of streams provides variant topography. In these pages, Lyons explores that landscape and the cultural experimentation born there.

The remote hills and valleys of the Driftless are uncharacteristic of the Midwest, and these steeper slopes have sheltered alternative lifestyles for decades, from the back-to-the-landers who arrived in the 1970s to naturalists, traditional and organic farmers, artists, musicians and other singular souls living there today. Over several years, Lyons visits various Driftless communities, chatting with their leaders as well as others encountered by chance. He surveys farming and dairy cooperatives, families living off the grid, small business owners, food co-ops, a Zen monastery and successful planned communities. For example, Lyons outlines the history of Seed Savers Exchange, located near Decorah, Iowa, which curates a collection of more than 20,000 seed varietals from around the world in the public domain. The region attracts those interested in getting back to basics, hoping to build communities.

Going Driftless comprises a series of sketches of people, places and organizations, and steers clear of judgment or conclusion in favor of quiet contemplation. Lyons gently suggests near the book’s end that these unobtrusive lifestyles have something to offer in unstable times.

This review originally ran in the May 12, 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 apples.

A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson

A celebration of biology and the joy of discovery–and a reminder to tread lightly.

Dave Goulson follows A Sting in the Tale, about his years studying bumblebees, with A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm. In 2003, Goulson purchased a 33-acre property with a decaying farmhouse and barn, and turned it into a private nature reserve; here he describes the multitude of wildlife he shares those acres with. His goal is to celebrate the wonder of the natural world–especially insects, which make up roughly two-thirds of known life on Earth.

Goulson charmingly depicts the mating practices of dance flies and the many butterfly species he sees on his daily run, and elucidates the habits of the famously cannibalistic female mantis with added knowledge gained through his own studies. A Buzz in the Meadow is both a descriptive work and a call to arms, a reminder that all species are precious and necessary, even the tiny ones. Goulson repeatedly states that conservationists should look beyond large and charismatic creatures like whales and tigers; he perhaps overstates that “the extinction of the giant panda… would not have any knock-on consequences. There would perhaps be a tiny bit more bamboo in a forest in China,” but his point is well taken–that insects make up the majority of life and play an outsized role in the interconnectivity of biological systems worldwide. Goulson’s tone is personal, even humorously self-effacing, but clearly expert. A Buzz in the Meadow accessibly presents natural science and gracefully offers an earnest wake-up call to conservation.

This review originally ran in the April 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: 6 dormice.

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