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.

book beginnings on Friday: Things That Are by Amy Leach

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.

I am fairly certain that it was Hali Felt, author of the outstanding Soundings, that recommended this book. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and am so glad now that I have finally gotten around to reading it.

THINGS THAT ARE by Amy Leach.Things That Are is already sort of blowing my mind, and feels right up my alley: fanciful, dreamy, but also very rooted in the real world; whimsically lovely writing. I’ve only just begun, so stay tuned for the review: we’ll see if it sticks. But for now, wow. It begins with a chapter called Donkey Derby:

Usually all we have to do when we go a-conquering is build a boat, find a benefactress, recruit a ribald crew, and wear radiant glinting helmets. With these four easy steps my kind has conquered far-away lands, and seas and moons and molecules.

And I have the impression she will mine all those fields, that is, far-away lands, seas, moons and molecules (and maybe some of the implications of going a-conquering, too). Let us hope.

Red Dirt Women: At Home on the Oklahoma Plains by Susan Kates

The reasons so many pioneer women did not desert Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl days are the same reasons Kates was able to find an unlikely peace there, and cannot be succinctly rationalized or explained–except perhaps in this collection of sensitive, thoughtful, grounded musings.

red dirt women

Red Dirt Women is a collection of essays examining the Oklahoma plains and its people, particularly its women, by a transplant who has found home there. Susan Kates is an Ohio native, and professor at the University of Oklahoma. As she relates in these stories, her transition to a dusty otherworld was not always smooth, but over time the Oklahoma landscape and population opened up to her. One message of her collection as a whole is that this place and people are richer than the stereotypes of bonnets and cowboy hats suggest. Kates’s essays vary slightly in their form, but run toward profiles of people and culture. The women she describes include barrel racers, a Vietnamese jeweler, a hippie preschool teacher, gamblers, a birdwatcher, and roller derby players. A brief foreword by Rilla Askew recommends the journey Kates portrays within.

This is just a stub: my full review of Red Dirt Women was published in the fall issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link. Or, don’t hesitate to run out to find a copy of the book itself: I recommend it.

Rating: 8 Queens.

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.

guest review: “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” by Norman Maclean, from Tassava

Tassava is back: earlier this week we heard from him about “A River Runs Through It.” Today, the final story in Maclean’s earth-shaking collection of three.

More Maclean…

Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.

Bill Bell Heads Back Out by R. Williams

Bill Bell Heads Back Out, by R. Williams

He says this story is “shorter than but at least as good as” the title piece, “A River Runs Through It,” which sort of blows my mind – tell us more, Tassava!! Maybe I should go back for a reread, because I remember liking the other two stories but feeling that the longer one was superior. Also, I’m curious to hear what didn’t work for you about “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim,'” which I remember thinking well of – perhaps even over this one! – for its detailed descriptions of the logging lifestyle and the conflict with Jim. I’d like to better understand. And I can’t wait to hear about still more Maclean to come!

Creative Nonfiction, issue 57: Making a Living

I had a dream that the next issue came and I had not yet reviewed this one. It was stressful. So, I’d better get to it…

CNF-57-Cover-WebcropThe “Making a Living”-themed issue of Creative Nonfiction is as good as ever. (You can read my review of the previous issue here.) And as ever, I have a few favorites. First of all, Ned Stuckey-French’s opening essay “Required Reading” tells of his reliance on Studs Terkel’s Working to inform his work as a union organizer: a communist college graduate, he’d faked a resume that made him look like an appropriate hire as a hospital janitor, leaving off his studies at Harvard and Brown. Terkel’s interviews with “real” working people helped the young activist place himself somewhat within a world of blue-collar workers, where he didn’t really belong. It’s an essay about disillusionment, the value of reading & writing, and yes, work.

Jennifer Niesslein explores why we write for free (some of us; many of us) in “The Price of Writing.” This is a complicated one, of course, and I think it’s important to note that the ability to write for free is a luxury afforded by some financial security. The writer she quotes as saying “I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent” (Nate Thayer, in New York magazine) has a fine point. Niesslein responds that “it can’t be about the money, at least not entirely.” I guess the implication is that if it’s going to be entirely about the money, then you need a day job.

But those are just the introductory pieces, responding to the theme in their own ways. Of the essays about making a living, I think my favorite has to be Kevin Haworth’s “Vivaldi,” which links the musicians who played in the orchestras at Auschwitz to the writer’s son, a passionate budding violinist for whom, happily, music will not be a matter of life and death. It is a powerful piece because of the high stakes of the historical thread, and the emotions in the current one, not to mention the larger issues that will continue to link the two. I also really appreciated Beth Tillman’s “Unleaving,” in which she discusses her career as an estate planning attorney, chosen because of her lifelong anxiety about death. I like the slightly different format she uses, and I empathize with her interest in end-of-life issues, and the day-to-day difficulties she relates.

I also continue to be distracted by both the story and the style of “No Exit,” by Karen Gentry. I will just share what Lee Gutkind wrote in his “What’s the Story?” editor’s column:

…Karen Gentry takes a temp job at a company that helps fired executives find new jobs. Part of her job involves giving Meyers-Briggs tests, and the story tells us a great deal about the corporate world and the way people in it can be reduced to types. But that’s also not at all what the story is about. (To tell you more would be to ruin it.)

I’ll leave it at that, as he did. It is a very fine essay.

Finally, “Tiny Truths” is always a treat: tweets using the tag #cnftweet will be considered for this ongoing contest, which features the best 140-character true stories on a revolving basis. I like that they choose not the flowery, poetic ones – that attempt too much language – but the ones that tell devastating or funny stories very, very simply.

Creative Nonfiction is always filled with greatness. You can read some of the content, or better yet, buy this issue here – or by all means consider a subscription. I don’t do much magazine reading because I’m so busy with BOOKS but this one is always worth my time, a gift in the mailbox.


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