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residency report

I’m sorry I missed y’all last Friday, friends. It has been madness. There are some changes underway in my personal life; but also, as you know, I’m just reentering the world again following my second residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative writing.

Thus begins my second semester in the nonfiction track. At the beginning of this month, I spent 10 days attending seminars on subjects including poetry as protest; the life and work of James Wright; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; writer’s block; acquiring an agent; the sonnet; and the lyric essay. I workshopped my peers’ work and heard them critique my own. I got to meet and hear from Jason Howard, Yuri Herrera, Rachael Peckham, Rahul Mehta, Jon Corcoran and Rodney Jones; and I enjoyed again the company and the work of Jessie Van Eerden, Eric Waggoner, Mary Carroll-Hackett, Kim Kupperman, Doug Van Gundy, Katie Fallon, Mesha Maren and more. My classmates are a wild, talented, weird, supportive bunch. These are the best times ever; also the most exhausting.

This semester, I’ll be working with Kim Dana Kupperman, author of I Just Lately Started Buying Wings and The Last of Her. (Also the editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person and founder of Welcome Table Press.) I’m reading another 20-25 books and writing many pages myself. And in this moment, frankly, I’m a bit overwhelmed. So I’m going back to my books. Thanks for being patient with me.

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth

This disillusioned environmentalist’s thoughtful, poetic call to a different approach to action and way of thinking is both sobering and refreshing.


Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake; Beast), co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project writers’ network, has published impassioned essays, poetry and literature with an environmentalist perspective for decades. That perspective is changing, however, as environmental degradation continues and the green movement tends toward high-tech strategies and “sustainability” that Kingsnorth finds uninspired. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays is his answer to a changing world. These collected works are nearly all previously published, but together they offer a new outlook. Kingsnorth is grieving, angry and disillusioned, and his essays are by turns reflective and resolute.

“The story winding itself through this book is the breaking of the link between people and places, between the past and the present, between instinct and reason, and all the consequences that have ensued and will ensue.” As a writer, Kingsnorth is concerned with the ability of stories to change how we live, and with the ability to change our stories. “We imagine what it would be like to be this character, to live in this time, to be in this situation, and if we can’t do that well, our books won’t work. If we can do that well, why can’t we make the same imaginative leap and take ourselves out of our humanity?” One theme is a need for humans to see themselves as a single part of a larger system, rather than the controlling or most important factor. “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it,” but, Kingsnorth argues, we should.

His writing can be fanciful and joyous as well as tormented. Kingsnorth writes with undeniable love: for the planet, for locations and histories, and for people. Confessions is centered in his native England but voices global concerns. Essays handle the role of technology in culture; the importance of people’s ties to place; the difficulty of embracing immigration and immigrants without losing local cultures; and the reasons for the decline of the environmental movement. While Kingsnorth writes with persuasive logic and authority on a variety of topics, he is perhaps most lyrically impressive when rooted in the local, physical world, for example when scything his hayfields in rural Ireland, or searching for carved green men in ancient Norman churches. Given his passion for place, this is unsurprising.

Neatly organized into three sections–Collapse, Withdrawal and Connection–and with an informing introduction and call-to-action epilogue, this collection serves well as an introduction to Kingsnorth’s philosophy and writing style. It also allows his more seasoned readers to chart his changing views. The overall effect is necessarily grim, but often remarkably uplifting as well. In a world on the brink of collapse, Kingsnorth offers humor, compassion, humility and wisdom.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bison.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.

best of semester 1

Today I am traveling north and east to West Virginia for the residency that begins my second semester in WVWC’s MFA program. All semester, I’ve been posting reviews of the books I read for school (along with the odd Shelf Awareness review). So, you’ve been seeing these books as they come; but I wanted to make a note, for your information and my own records, of what I loved most this semester. As always, these are only my personal reactions.

The best (and most useful to me) craft books I read were

I had less success with The Art of Subtext, The Situation and the Story, and The Art of Attention (which I did not finish and therefore did not review). In fact, I’m beginning to fear that Graywolf’s The Art of series is not for me (recall also The Art of History), which is a shame, because I’m generally a fan of Graywolf Press, and I love the idea of these succinct pocket-sized craft books.

The memoirs/essay collections I loved most, and found most useful, were

I hadn’t realized until I made this list that five of these six books were written by women. Interesting, and perhaps not surprising.

What I am able to take from these talented writers and make my own is another question. Having reviewed books for a number of years now (see my first review for Shelf Awareness!), I feel fairly comfortable pointing to what I appreciate, and articulating why. (Most of the time.) But making it my own, that’s a newer challenge I’m still working to master.

And so, into semester 2.

The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

This psychological thriller takes a pleasantly average woman to lovely Hawaii, where she is charmed, then devastated.

“We came here to escape.” From the outside, it might look like a dream: moving the family to Hawaii, career advancement, surf and sand for the kids. Nancy and Chuck and their teenaged twin sons, Cam and Jed, set up house in Kona. The boys are “stoked” at the opportunity, but Nancy isn’t. She is furious that Chuck cheated on her back in San Diego, and exasperated with her boring, predictable self. She hopes that Hawaii will be a new beginning. She starts eating healthier, sits in a different bleacher row at the boys’ water polo games, switches the towels around, puts the mugs in the cabinet facing up instead of down. She starts going to morning yoga classes on the beach, and that’s where she meets Ana.

In The Goddesses, Swan Huntley (We Could Be Beautiful) builds a complete inner world for Nancy. She narrates the story, sharing her feelings and reactions with the reader: her fascination with the beautiful, confident, charismatic Ana; her frustration with bumbling Chuck; her pride in her developing shoulder muscles and newfound strength. Yoga and Kona, the farmer’s market and the freedom of knowing no one, and especially her growing friendship with Ana, make Nancy optimistic about the future and her ability to reinvent herself. Even her marriage with Chuck sees some healthy rejuvenation. But the Nancy relating this story has the wisdom of hindsight, and can’t help but sneak in the odd, sinister comment about what that future holds.

Ana helps Nancy trade in her minivan for a BMW convertible. They spend their days lolling in Ana’s Jacuzzi, at her little pink house on the beach. Nancy–or Nan, as Ana calls her, the same three letters forming both names–starts to stay out some evenings, leaving her husband and sons to prepare their own dinners, because her new friend needs her. The reader, prodded by the warning tone in Nancy’s narrative voice, can’t tell what’s coming, only that “Nan” is a bit too easily taken in, Ana a bit too needy.

The Goddesses is a novel of lush green foliage, brightly colored hibiscus, new beginnings and old mistakes: hope and betrayal twined together. Huntley’s prose is clipped, declarative: “Our cars arrived. We’d had them shipped.” Her characters are adequately developed, her setting evocative, but it is the stealthily twisting plot that makes this novel sparkle. She offers an earnest, likable protagonist in Nancy, then plunges her into psychological challenges she never saw coming. Even in paradise, beautiful exteriors are not necessarily to be trusted.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Buddhas.
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