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.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 56: Waiting

You can read my review of the previous issue here.

waiting“True stories, well told.” In this issue, they are stories concerned with waiting, whatever that might mean to the writer. (A few craft-related essays are also included.) Unsurprisingly, I am very impressed with the stories CNF chose to publish.

There’s not much not to love here, beginning with Editor Lee Gutkind’s opening piece about all the waiting that goes on in his and my line of work; Dinty W. Moore’s ponderings on the genre name “creative nonfiction” (I am an unrepentant Moore fan); and the essay “Waiting and Wading through Story” by Maggie Messitt, about immersion research and storytelling and the lessons she’s learned from other writers. But I was really blown away by this issue’s winning essay: I agree wholeheartedly with their choice of Joe Fassler’s “Wait Times” as winner of the Best Essay Prize. If you read nothing else in this magazine, please go read this story. It is heartrending and thought-provoking and disturbing, and I’ve thought about it at least daily for more than a week since reading it. It’s about a medical emergency experienced by his wife.

I found Judith Kitchen’s “Any Given Day” harder to love, and I’m sorry to say that, because I’ve heard such wonderful things about her (and have her Half in Shade waiting on my TBR shelf), not least from Gutkind in his opening piece. She died last fall of cancer, and this piece is in part about that ending. But the form of it – loose, amorphous, wandering – didn’t quite work for me. Just a personal reaction; perhaps you’ll find it mindblowing, and I’d love to hear if you do. Certainly she is a fine artist. But this piece didn’t work for me quite so well.

“Lost and Found” by Josephine Fitzpatrick was more a straightforward narrative piece, and call me simple-minded but that struck me more forcefully. Fitzpatrick’s brother went missing in Vietnam when they were both teenagers, and this is the story of waiting for him to come home or for his story to be somehow resolved, for many decades. It is of course touching and thoughtful and, I think, potentially helpful for others suffering from “ambiguous loss” (see also Sonya Lea’s outstanding Wondering Who You Are). Mylène Dressler’s “End Over End”, about coming to surfing as a mature adult and finding the stoke, finds a good balance between cerebral wanderings and narrative.

Following essays and stories about waiting, Sangamithra Iyer’s “The Story Behind the Story,” about searching for her grandfather’s history as civil servant turned activist in Burma, is a touching and instructive piece, not least in its realization that “not getting the story was part of my story, too… the loss of memories, the erasure of our histories, is part of the narrative of many of us children of the diaspora.” I love this concept.

Rachel Beanland’s “Required Reading” was another revelation, about handling the loss of her father by reading numerous memoirs of others’ losses. This strategy was deemed strange or not shared by others but made sense to her, helped her, and this makes sense to me, too. Look, I just said something similar, above, about “Lost and Found” and Wondering Who You Are. This is a short but powerful essay and it contains lots of titles and snippet-quotations that I’m marking for later.

I always look forward with intrigued anticipation to “Pushing the Boundaries,” the section of each issue that includes an “experiment in nonfiction.” This time it is Nathan Elliot’s “An Honest Application,” a response to the part of an immigration application that asks him to justify and place a value on the marriage that hopes to qualify him for permanent Canadian residence. His actual written response is short and simple, but it is accompanied by lengthy footnotes that include all the emotion and indignation he couldn’t put in his application. It is genius – I loved it – and I love as well the story of love that he has to tell.

There were others, but these are my favorites. You can view these pieces and more, or buy the whole issue (do that!) here.

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

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.

red dirt women

My first review for Concho River Review is of this slim collection of stories about Oklahoma’s diverse and powerful women. It is a fine and auspicious beginning book, and in that spirit, today’s book beginning:

In her chronicle of life in Kenya – one of the great grasslands of the world – Isak Dinesen explains that it is impossible to live any place for a time and remain unaltered by one’s surroundings. “It does not even make much difference,” she says, “whether you have more good or bad things to say of it, it draws your mind to it, by a mental law of gravitation.”

You know I am a little obsessed by a sense of place, and that is very much at the heart of this collection, as this Ohio native comes to feel at home on Oklahoma’s dusty plains. Good stuff. I am glad to be able to recommend this book to you. Happy weekend, friends.

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.

Teaser Tuesdays: Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

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

mary mcgrory

I am reading a delightful biography of a groundbreaking newspaperwoman, who wrote book reviews (ahem!) before her political coverage began; she would cover 12 political campaigns (and everything in between) in her lengthy and influential career. I am reminded somewhat of Newspaper Titan. But John Norris can tell it better than I can, of course.

In many ways, Mary was as much an anolmaly at the end of her career as she was at its beginning. When she broke through, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, she was the lone female reporter in the room. On the campaign trail, she was one woman surrounded by a hundred men. By the end of her career, she was working in an environment where there were more and more women, most female reporters were married, and employers like the Post provided maternity leave and benefits. To this new generation of women, Mary was a throwback: the woman who took on McCarthy and Nixon; the pioneer who was forced to decide between career and love; a beloved relic from an earlier era who drank with the Kennedys and crafted handwritten thank-you notes. Mary had gone an entire career without ever being the norm.

Stay tuned for my review of the book, followed by my interview with the author.

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.


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.

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