more on Rick Bragg

I am struggling to respond to the book I just finished, so I wrote a letter instead.

Mr. Rick Bragg,

I make a very small living as a book reviewer these days, but reading your books I am no kind of book reviewer, because I don’t know how to write about what you do when you write about your life.

Of course I believe that the best books for us find us at the right times, and yours have found me at the time when they can hit me the hardest. I am having a crisis of identity and place, having moved from my hometown of 32 1/2 years in Texas to a small town on the Canadian border of Washington state, which I have found largely unworkable. Your writing about places I have never lived and know only a little or not at all – Miami, New Orleans, rural Alabama – makes me feel homesick. Your writing about being a displaced Southerner at Harvard, or in New York City, resonates with me, although I am not the same as you. I’m from a big city – the fourth largest in the country – and have moved to a small one; but your displacements feels familiar all the same.

You are, of course, one of the finest writers about food that I’ve encountered. At the risk of offending, I will say I don’t eat pork, because I don’t like pork; but your descriptions of cracklin’s (etc.) still make me wish I were there and not here.

I am not one of those “who went to speech school to get rid of their accents,” in part because I don’t have much of an accent, being from a city, but what I have I will keep – although I was at one point one of those, as you observe, who fear “they sound slow, or at least unsophisticated, to outsiders.” When I interviewed for a big-time academic job in the North, I worried about saying y’all. I shouldn’t have. I don’t apologize, any more.

Houston is many things, big and diverse, containing multitudes, and that is my single favorite thing about the place; this also means that Houston can be a bit schizophrenic, even self-loathing. You write that Atlanta “tears down its history with wrecking balls, and builds something bland and homogenized in its place.” Houston has done too much of that, although it’s done lots of other things with its history, as well.

This wasn’t supposed to be about me, but that’s the work your writing does. I see a lot of myself and my own experience, even where I see all sorts of adventures that are unknown to me. That’s a piece of work, in itself.

You’ve made a big difference to me. Keep up the good work. I wish you and yours all the best; you feel like friends to me now.

Thank you.


Tomorrow I’ll try again to write a book review.

on Rick Bragg

Sometimes it happens this way. I decide I need to read a book – not put it on the TBR shelf to grow musty for two to five years to never, but really read it – and (as in this case) I put myself on the local library’s hold list for it. It comes my turn, and I go to the library and pick it up off a special shelf where it’s been filed under my name. I take it home, and I go back to reading the books I’ve been assigned, for work, for a living. I read another 6, 8, 10 books; some of them are really good, and I get involved and distracted. I interview a few authors, which is often, not always, engrossing. I go online to renew this book that I haven’t made time for yet, and find that – of course – someone else is on the hold list, behind me in line. I have to turn it in in four days. If you have forgotten this about me, I am a librarian. I’m no longer employed as such, but that blood pumps through me still.

So I put down the book I had just begun reading, for work, with a deadline. That book, by the way, offered an epigraph by the author of this book. And I pick up All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg.

Bragg blew my mind with My Southern Journey (which will publish in two weeks or so; look out for my review then), and although I’d heard his name before, I never knew that he would be a writer to reach into me in such a way, to pull on me and make me nostalgic for a place that is not my home: foreign language words like fernweh, sehnsucht, saudade seem to touch on it. Bragg’s travels capture me; how will I ever go back to that other book, let alone my life, when this is done?

the TBR shelves: a lifestyle

Friends, I am a full-time reader-writer these days, having moved cross-country and left my day job behind. I read & review books & do author interviews for a living, and pursue my own, creative writing where I can. Let me repeat: I read books for a living.

I’ve written about this before, but I say again, I read for lots of reasons. I read for work, obviously, and am happy that what I get to read for work is mostly stuff I’m really interested in. But I also want to read all the good creative nonfiction and memoir out there, to train myself on it; I want to read all the good writing about sense of place, and people’s relationship to place; I want to catch up on everything ever written by Hemingway, Abbey, Maclean, and Dillard; I want to read more Stegner and Snyder. For fun I’d definitely spend more time with King and Burke. I want to read all the books on this and other lists. There are always more classics on my wish list – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Nabokov. I’m sure I’m forgetting all sorts of things, too.

Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve also got a couple of shelves devoted to books I already own and hope to someday find time for. Sometimes I weed these. When we moved from Houston to Bellingham, I was pretty ruthless; but I still moved probably 50 or 60 “to-be-read” (or TBR) books. Where do they come from?? I was just wondering this, so here’s a blog post.

My TBR shelves, in pictures (click to enlarge):



These are recommendations (and gifts – Fil) from friends, on cycling and nature and Texas and Mexico; biographies of Melvil Dewey, Howard Hughes, and Zelda Fitgerald (if there’s a theme there, it might be mental illness); nature writing, much of it recommended by other nature writers; a hefty pile of Sharon Kay Penman; and several galleys I missed the chance to review for Shelf Awareness, but still hope to read (a smokejumper’s memoir; a readalike for Gus Lee’s Honor and Duty). Books about writing, or books that showcase the kind of writing I aspire to. There’s a different edition of A Sand County Almanac, from my dad. They’ve come from the discards pile at libraries I’ve worked at, as gifts, as galleys from publishers, and more than I like to admit I’ve bought and paid for, and may never find time to read. I’ve read 80-something books this year, and 18 of them were purely my choice, unassigned. I already quit my day job. What gives?

coffee helps me read and write

Realizing the obvious: as a creative person, I have good days and bad ones. When I get discouraged, I get very discouraged, and feel unable to do the writing & editing I know I need to do; I want to give it all up. As my friend Liz says, though, some days we just need to lie fallow (and give ourselves permission to do so).

I don’t want to dwell on that negative side today, though: I want to talk about the other days, the hyperproductive ones, when I can write 3 book reviews, do an author interview, schedule 4 blog posts and finish an essay I’d been working on. That happens sometimes, too! And you know what those productive days have in common? Coffee.

Shelf Awareness shared with me the other day an article called 12 Literary Coffee Mugs All Book Nerds Need in Their Lives. I am tickled by the concept, naturally. Go ahead, click the link, and see the bookish, readerly coffee mugs on offer there. I have made my own collection, though, and naturally think mine are a better set of choices: readerly and writerly as well.

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a little humor - and truth

a little humor – and truth

a Sugar reference

a Sugar reference

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

What about you, dear readers? Coffee or tea? In what mug? Does it matter?

class: Foundations of Creative Nonfiction – B

I took a class from Creative Nonfiction this spring, for 10 weeks from January through March. Foundations of Creative Nonfiction is taught in two sections, A and B, and the difference is in the readings assigned, so that neither is a prereq; rather, it’s basically an opportunity to expand into 20 weeks by taking both, and get more reading-and-discussing out of it. Also, presumably, different instructors. My instructor for this section was Meghan O’Gieblyn.

Let’s see, how to begin? Like many online classes, this one involved reading 3-5 short pieces per week and commenting on them in discussion forums. Meghan posted her written lectures (3-5 pages) for each week, as well as two examples of the writing form in question, and often a few more optional readings. My classmates and I were to post a comment on the week’s readings, and reply to one another’s comments as well. Then there were writing assignments: short, optional ones, and three longer (3,500 word) pieces. These, too, the instructor as well as my classmates responded to.

Now, I got my master’s degree almost entirely through this very format. The difference here is that my classmates and I are here even more by choice: we paid for this class, and it gets us nowhere in terms of a degree or class credit; it’s purely for personal enrichment. (If any of my classmates got a pay raise or a new job out of this, I didn’t hear of it.) If anything, one might expect the discussion to be slightly elevated over my (rather disappointing) graduate school experience. And… I guess it was, a little, but the drawbacks were the same. For one thing, I think online discussions are unavoidably more stilted than live, in-person ones. There’s little chance to speak off the cuff in an online forum; there’s a chance for editing and deleting. Some classmates cited technical difficulties interrupting their comments, too. It’s always rewarding to hear from other human beings about anything you’re reading, writing, or otherwise interesting, so that benefit was present. But I remain unsold on the digital format: if real people are available, in person, in real life, I think they will always be preferable.

I did get a lot out of this class, of course. I got a lot of readings and lectures (all of which I’ve saved for future reference). I got feedback on several short and the three long writing pieces I did. I gained only a little help with the concept of getting my work properly published; but that still feels awfully remote anyway. And to be fair, if it felt closer, the opportunity was present to ask those questions.

Instructor Meghan was excellent: responsive, kind, and full of specific, detailed criticism and advice. Overall, the class may not have been utterly world-changing, but it was worth the time, although I think an in-person class would be better. And if you consider CNF for an online class like this, I’d highly recommend Meghan.

movie: The Secret to a Happy Ending

From the band’s website:

This is a film about the redemptive power of rock and roll; it’s about the American South, where rock was born; it’s about a band straddling the borders of rock, punk and country; it’s about making art, making love and making a living; it’s about the Drive-By Truckers. This film documents the band and their fans as they explore tales of human weakness and redemption. With unparalleled access, this documentary encompasses three critical years of touring and recording as the band struggles to overcome trauma and survives a near breakup, in a persistent search for a happy ending.

secret to a happy endingThe Drive-by Truckers are one of my favorite bands and one that has had an impact on my life and how I look at my world. It is a love I share with the Husband. We saw this movie in a theatre when it came out to town, back in Houston. We bought a copy of it on DVD, too, and now I am in this writing class and working on a long essay about the Truckers and what they mean to me; so as research, we watched the movie again at home.

Obviously and basically, I love the movie because it is a distillation of the band. The filmmaker was lucky to have the Truckers’ cooperation, and followed them to several shows, recording live footage; and interviewed all the band members repeatedly, as well as some of their families. Cultural authorities like a university professor (and obvious DBT fan) and music writer get screen time as well. This is a fan’s documentary, and I think fans can’t help but be pleased by it. Non-fans are liable to become fans… but then, I’m biased.

I like that the movie captures a moment in the life span of this long-lived band, reviewing the early years (including the band Adam’s House Cat, where the two lead men, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, originally played together) and then getting into a few difficult years, when bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell divorced, and Isbell left the band. (He’s had an impressive solo career since. Look him up.) One of the things I’ve come to love about DBT is how many layers there are to love, investigate, and appreciate – like the people involved. The story of Shonna and Isbell breaking up is maybe none of my business; but you can bet all the band’s fans followed it and had feelings about it, nonetheless. For the record, I blame no one and wish them both the best.

It’s a hell of a good movie, and even if you’re not a Truckers fan, I think it’s a fine documentary about rock-and-roll (and other things too). It pulls my heartstrings.

Rating: 9 songs.

I hope this is not too off topic, but I want to share a short piece that didn’t make it into my longer essay about the Truckers and their impact on me.

I have a large tattoo covering my right arm and shoulder: a tree and its surroundings and inhabitants: fallen logs, grasses and flowers and mushrooms, a bunny rabbit, a snake, a squirrel, a turtle, a weasel, a fat yellow songbird. On the front of my shoulder, the tree’s branches part around a Cooley bird. Around the back of my shoulder, wrapping onto my back, a black owl with red eyes flies away, departing. It’s the same owl that my husband Chris has tattooed on his left bicep, flying above a leafless tree on a burnt yellow desert and under a spooky moon that looks down with knowing eyes and a slight smirk.

These tattoos borrow images from Wes Freed, a Virginia-based artist who has drawn all the art for all the Drive-by Truckers’ albums, posters, website art, promotional material, backdrops, and etc. since time immemorial (or at least the Southern Rock Opera album of 2004). He is the band’s brand. In a documentary about the Truckers called The Secret to a Happy Ending (whose cover art he also created), he says: “It’s always about the music. The music is the most important thing. But there’s so much going on with the records. It’s cool to be able to have the opportunity to illustrate the songs. That’s cool.” Wes Freed. I love that his named is a sentence: Wes Freed; or else a description: Wes, Freed. And the songs are themselves filled with dark and toothsome images. I did my own (very poor) copy of Freed’s illustration of “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a song based on true current events in which a Tennessee preacher’s wife kills her husband: in court, her lawyers then displayed “them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear,” as evidence of how abused she had been before she just snapped. Freed portrays a woman in a see-through negligee and high-heeled pumps, blue hair piled and stacked high, holding a shotgun whose smoke swirls around to caress her against an enormous yellow moon. A monkey in a fez cavorts behind her. I’ve looked and looked for Freed’s illustration of this song on the internet, but it seems to have disappeared; all I have is my poor imitation.

Thanks for reading.


Friends, I have been busy. Busy reading books – my only employment these days, for the wonderful folks at both Shelf Awareness and ForeWord – but busy with a few other tasks as well. I don’t want to go into the real estate deals just yet; call me superstitious. For now, let me just say that things are going swimmingly for us, and we expect to be leaving Houston in early November for a new home in the beautiful north.

Our trip recently was excellent: productive, business-wise, but also enjoyable. Parents, small breweries, and the great outdoors. For your viewing pleasure, here are Husband and Pops on Fragrance Lake in Larrabee State Park. (Click to enlarge.)


Thank you for bearing with me during these hectic times. More books to follow…


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