The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump

A shadow of tragedy hangs over this lovely, lyric memoir of Tutsi childhood in Rwanda, but the author’s love for her strong mother remains central.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (Our Lady of the Nile; Cockroaches) is a loving tribute to a strong mother and a striking work of memoir.

Mukasonga and her family lived as exiles in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide of the Tutsi. This time in her life, when they were all together and alive, was short, but Mukasonga has vivid memories, especially of her mother, Stefania, a leader in the makeshift village where they were regularly terrorized by Hutu soldiers. In an earlier memoir, Cockroaches, Mukasonga depicted the horrific end of her family. Here, she focuses on her mother: Stefania is a hard worker, always with her hoe in hand; a healer with a medicinal garden of grasses, tubers, roots and tree leaves; a “highly respected matchmaker”; and a dedicated, ever-vigilant protector of her children. Saving them was her “one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving.” She is not a hero with a single dimension, though. In Mukasonga’s warm telling, Stefania has personality, a sense of humor and a deep love for her family.

The book opens and closes with dreamlike sequences. At the beginning, in the narrator’s memory, Stefania reminds her children of their duty to their mother upon her death. At the end, Mukasonga describes a dream about her mother’s uncared-for dead body and those of so many Tutsi. This sets the tone for the rest of the memoir, which often feels dreamy as it turns to childhood memories. Extraordinarily, this story is at times horrifying in its content and at other times playful; lyric in its style and tender in its handling of the central character. While the reader’s knowledge of the genocide to come hangs over the narrative, the everyday events often retain a quotidian feeling; Stefania and her neighbors worry over their children but also laugh and celebrate and arrange marriages. As a literary work, this establishes a rare balance. Jordan Stump’s translation from the French beautifully conveys this sense of both tragedy and day-to-day joy.

The Barefoot Woman is also an essential record of traditions and a way of life that are in danger of disappearing. It describes the inzu Stefania builds, with great effort, in exile: a traditional straw-dome house “that was as vital to her as water to a fish.” The importance of keeping a fire going, and why a mother would borrow fire from a neighbor rather than use a match. The significance of sorghum, “a true Rwandan” crop, and why Stefania insisted on a cow, the traditional gift for her son’s marriage pact, even in the inhospitable new place where cows were no longer a part of their everyday lives.

This is an adoring, gorgeously rendered memorial to a mother and testimony to a people.


This review originally ran in the November 19, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 little loaves of bread.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands ed. by Huw Lewis-Jones

This delightful, engrossing exploration is for every reader who’s ever admired a book or a map, let alone both.

In The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, historian Huw Lewis-Jones offers a collection of essays by authors, illustrators and designers as they ruminate on processes of reading, writing and creating, as well as the link between map and story. They consider maps in two and three dimensions, sketches, stories and outlines that live only in the writer’s mind, and argue that creating maps, like creating stories, is essentially an act of compression, a set of choices about what to leave out.

Contributors include Robert Macfarlane, David Mitchell, Lev Grossman, Joanne Harris, Philip Pullman and the graphic artists for the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies. Literary references in this gorgeously designed, detailed coffee-table book begin with Kerouac, Tolkien, Twain and Thoreau, and visit Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows and so many more.


This review originally ran in the November 6, 2018 gift 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: 8 archipelagos.

Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper

Among the central concerns of Truth Serum lie questions of truth and memory. This is a memoir-in-essays of Cooper’s coming-of-age in Hollywood from the 1950s onward, including his identity as a gay man in the early days of the AIDS virus. I found several elements I appreciated from Maps to Anywhere: lyric language and a profound attention paid to the world. I was reminded of Mark Doty in the moments that Cooper leans in, seeming to slow down time, to examine what’s around him, that the rest of us might have called the everyday. Maps to Anywhere, as I remember it*, had some longer essays but more short ones, several of which qualified as prose poems; by comparison, the essays in this collection are on balance longer, and while the language is undeniably lovely, few of these shapeshift toward poetic form. These essays more frequently offer clear narrative structure.

One shorter one I’d seen before was “The Fine Art of Sighing,” about the sighs of three family members. I’m pretty sure* this one reappears in Short Takes (ed. Judith Kitchen), and/or I’ve read it for class. I also really appreciated the opening piece, “Where to Begin,” which is very much about that problem of creating art: that the biggest question is not what to put in, but what to leave out. Else we’ll end up trying to paint, or write, the whole world, and be defeated before we begin. I loved “Burl’s” for its epiphany of gender fluidity. “Against Gravity,” about weightlifters and men and mortality, was a lovely longer meditation… I really enjoyed how it ranged and returned. “If and When” is a beautiful, tearing-open essay about discovering the narrator’s HIV status, and his partner’s. (I am reminded of an essay Cooper contributed to… some essay collection, about handling the public’s response to his revealing private information, this information in particular.) It’s a simply gorgeous and wrenching portrayal, and I think it’s a generosity. “Tone Poem” answers my statement above, about there being less poetry in this collection than in Maps. It’s not so much a poem itself, though, I argue, as it is about poetry, about finding something beautiful in the mundane. “Train of Thought” was the essay I thought might be a poem: it explores the etymology of that phrase, ‘train of thought,’ and the music and language of trains.

In one seminal dream from my childhood I was on a train with a woman who was dressed in an enormous satin skirt. I was sitting on her lap and we ladled cupfuls of cool water into each other’s mouths. Her petticoats crackled whenever I lifted the cup to her lips. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “To the city,” she said, “where the rustling of a woman’s skirt sounds the same as the rain.”

Which I misread, initially, as ‘the same as a train.’ This attention to language and sound, and a final memory about a boy who memorizes numbers, made me feel a little floated above the world. Lovely.

Finally, I was reminded of Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Most obviously, both essay collections handle the narrators’ coming-of-age and coming to terms with being gay men. But that’s not all, and I hope I’m not guilty of that kind of simplification. I’m thinking more about the ordering of essays in both collections, where they proceed more or less chronologically, and with an overarching opening up from the immediately personal (and confusion about the subject at hand) to the outward-facing, the public issues involved with being a gay man (for example) in the 1980s as an unknown virus blooms.

Another lovely one from Cooper, although I missed the poetry in Maps and hope to get back into that book one day, too.


Rating: 8 plums.

*I owe y’all an update on this at some future date, but I’m about to be undertaking some travel and have been packing all my books to go into storage… so the other books I’ve mentioned here are not at hand as they’d usually be. I already miss my library!

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

the next big adventure

Edited to add: there’s a new website afoot at foxylikeaturtle.com.


Everyone wants the familiar. (Yes, people often say the opposite, that they crave the new and long for adventure and novelty. They really don’t. What we call adventure is the process of meeting the new and turning it into the known as fast as possible. We want to name the unnamed and touch the untouched so that they are no longer unnamed and untouched. No longer strange. Then we can go tell people all about what we’ve found.)

–“Here Be Monsters,” Violation, Sallie Tisdale

I guess this is the best way to share my news: below please find the first short essay of my thesis.

Foxy

I bought a van, y’all. Her name is Foxy. She began as a 1995 Chevy G20, then underwent a conversion to become a model called Gladiator. This process installed a bed, shelves and storage and additional lighting, two big comfortable captain’s chairs, and privacy shades. The interior is all polished wood-grain and leather. There’s a television, the first that I have owned; luckily, it doesn’t work. She was named Foxy by Cody and Marie, who lived in her and traveled the country for most of a year, before they sold her to another couple, Kyle and Portia. Kyle and I started our new jobs at a small-town Texas brewery together, on the same day, and we’ve become good friends. He says when they went to look at the van they knew it was meant to be, because Cody and Marie are a tall skinny white guy with glasses and a short brown girl, like Kyle and Portia. “Her name is Foxy and she loves adventure,” Cody said. And now it’s my turn. Although I am neither a tall skinny white guy with glasses nor a short brown girl, I hope she’ll treat me as well as she did them.

I am a single woman living alone with two little dogs, and I already have a serviceable Honda to drive to work and back again. I’ve never before owned two vehicles, let alone one old enough to drink. Why do I need a van? It’s a contradiction: I want a house with a yard I can fill with bird feeders and a bird bath where the hummingbirds will come to know me and visit me from one year to the next. I want stability, and a home of my own, a backyard in which to plant anew. Texas bluebonnets, forget-me-nots. Why then would I take off? I’m still struggling to explain this to myself, but I feel inside me, in the homing parts, that I can get to a place of verdant possibilities—a stable and still place to grow—only through movement.

My little rental house, my part-time brewery job, the young man I keep company with some of the time: none of these is enough to keep me in place. One year ago, I left my husband and a well-established home. My freedom and my relative homelessness have not come cheaply, and have not always been joyful. And yet here I go again: pulling up roots, because sometimes they feel like chains. Not stability, but a holding back.

Foxy is like a turtle: she is slow and steady, ready, I hope, to win the race by feats of endurance. She carries her home on her back. And she is the animal of my heart. I’ve collected turtles—not live ones—since I was a little girl, since I can’t remember when. In high school I had forty or fifty of them, one of those shortcut gifts people learn to buy. At some point I downsized this collection, culling the stuffed turtles, the chipped or cheap ones; I’m down to a dozen or so of my favorite specimens. But more downsizing will be necessary. Foxy offers approximately seventy square feet of living space; what of my life will fit?

Turtles are one of the few animals with multiple collective nouns. Such fun, collective nouns: a murder of crows, a crash of rhinoceroses, a business of ferrets. Turtles make up a bale, a turn, a nest, or a dole. I am building a nest of turtles, or a nest for myself within the turtle that is Foxy.

As the year closes, then, I’m giving up my rental and moving into a twenty-four-year-old Chevy van. I’ll drive west to a desert I love; east to the Gulf oysters I’ve missed so much; north to a litany of national parks and breweries and friends’ driveways; south to the troubled border. Here comes the next exhilarating, terrifying thing. Her name is Foxy, and she loves adventure.

Today, the last day of November, I am out of the little house and on the road. I am also returning to West Virginia, in a little under a month, for my final residency there. I will give a thesis reading, teach a graduate seminar, and graduate (pending my final thesis deposit at the beginning of February). And I will be living out of a van. So, lots of big changes around here.

What does this mean for the blog? I’m not entirely sure yet. Many aspects of my life are up in the air, and I want to honor the process and follow it. But I can’t imagine not reading books and responding to them, so I think we’re safe in some ways, at least. Posts will continue on the normal schedule through the end of this calendar year, and after that – well, we’ll learn together, won’t we.

Thanks always, friends, for being understanding and flexible with me as I grow. Drop me a comment, please, and tell me what you’d like to see happen to pagesofjulia.

“House of Flowers” and “A Diamond Guitar” by Truman Capote

I am just finishing up this volume of Capote’s, which includes Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three short stories (the third is “A Christmas Memory“). I am rewarding myself with just a little bit of a break from school.

Short, easy, sweet reading. “House of Flowers” felt familiar to me; I think I must have encountered it somewhere before, because I recognized the memorably named Royal Bonaparte and the protagonist, Ottilie. Strangely, they don’t get developed very much as characters; there’s not much personality, aside from Ottilie’s vanity and Royal’s strange confidence and eventual diffidence. The friends from the city, Baby and Rosita, have a bit more personality. But mainly this is a story of types, or of the mysterious quality and damage of love (or of “love”). I liked it, though, with its bright colors and clear movements. It’s telling that the title of the story names not an emotion or a person or an event, but a place: the “house of flowers” that Royal brings his bride home to, where “wisteria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door.” “It’s like you picked a wagon of flowers and built a house with them,” Ottilie tells her friends when they come looking for her. “It’s cool inside and smells so sweet.”

And this is a sweet story, but not because all its contents are sweet. It has the Capote way of showing sadness and wrong, but with flowers. I don’t know how else to put it. I find it curious to think about Capote, after moving as a child from Louisiana to Alabama to New York and Connecticut and as a young adult, back to Alabama, writing about a young woman looked down upon as a native of the Haitian mountains. I wonder how much he really knew about what he was writing about.

“A Diamond Guitar” feels like a simpler story, or one I know better, although I can’t say why. I know love and friendship between women (as in “House”) better than I know prison and male friendship, as here. But the older man and his friendship with a younger man, and a not-entirely-successful jailbreak – maybe it’s Shawshank Redemption I’m thinking about, or Cool Hand Luke, or something. This felt in a way sweet and simple and predictable, but so feelingly told… as in the older man’s recollection that his friend still has so much growing up to do.

Both stories were easy to read and to feel. Both are about emotion. Both, I’m sure, can be read much more deeply than this; on the surface they seem simple and straightforward, but I don’t mean that negatively. I enjoyed falling into these worlds, and that’s the thing about short stories done right. So much in a few pages.

Thanks, Capote, for the break.


Rating: 7 yellow cats.

Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale

This was a real treat, and an interesting balance between the experience of Many Circles – mind-bending, challenging, slow work – and If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which I read with pleasure in one big gulp. Violation was different from each of those, but fell just between them in its pacing. I was engaged and felt a sense of momentum throughout, but also had to stop and sit with what I was learning, or to react.

These essays span thirty years of Sallie Tisdale’s writing career, and are presented in the order in which they were published, with the final essay previously unpublished. Some of them were in progress for years before publication, but still a chronological order of a sort. While subject matters range quite a bit – elephants, flies, abortion clinics and cancer hospitals, sports, childhood and motherhood – they clearly track the evolution of one mind. Tisdale is a Buddhist, although that doesn’t come up as an explicit fact til late in the collection. She is an artist, passionate, but practically minded. She is concerned with the body, and with feminism, in different ways. I enjoyed very much getting to know her in these essays; but I also have an impression of her as a very private person, and in some ways don’t think I really got to know her very well at all.

The introduction gave me my first moment of aha! simpatico joy: “Long before I knew how to describe it, I liked ambivalence. Certainty has always seemed a bit dishonest to me.” This is so much what I feel, and it’s perhaps something I’m still working on describing, myself. It was my first, early signal that I would get along with this writer.

I really enjoy her style. She is the essayist’s essayist, or these are examples of the classical essay-as-assay: the mind wanders on the page. She is curious. She brings in a huge amount of outside research, sometimes, as when she writes about elephants and moray eels. She reminds me of Annie Dillard in the combination of immediate personal experience with science, but without the raving exuberance that Dillard often brings. Instead, Tisdale remains calm. On the other hand, the title essay is about the memoirist’s famous problem: family responses to one’s work. The nature of memory, and the question of what is ours to write about. More purely personal essays like this one require little or no research.

These essays are concerned with art and creativity, yearning, body image, and what boys and girls were allowed to do (and still are and are not allowed to do)… so many things, but not all at once. They take on really different things. And while most are alike in basic structure – discrete essays, with narrative journeys and mountains to climb and points unto themselves – one of the ones that most struck me was the segmented essay “Scars,” published in 2003, about raising a son. I loved the wordplay (of each segment’s title) and the enormous scope in a small package (just over 7 pages total). It spans a lot of time: sections are labeled with years from 1982 to 1997, and a brief note at the end says that the first section, in its original draft, was one of the first essays Tisdale wrote. I really appreciated seeing the bones of this one a little bit. And then, immediately following, comes “On Being Text,” about what it’s felt like as a writer to be included in anthologies that teach literature or writing: to read what’s said about her and about her methods and intentions. (It’s not all good.) This juxtaposition helped me again to appreciate the range in this collection.

But definitely some of my favorite essays were the two about elephants, “The Only Harmless Great Thing” and “The Birth.” The first, early in the collection (1989), is over 40 pages long, and brings in an enormous amount of scientific and historical information about elephants and zoos, and calls as well on literature and myth. It’s also personal: the narrator feels lucky to have gained back-room access to the elephants at Portland’s Washington Park Zoo. The elephants are magic, and she writes about them beautifully. This was an essay I snuggled into, fascinated and comforted by these strange creatures so loved and respected.

And then “The Birth” (2003), under ten pages, and tender and very much in-the-moment; it handles the same setting and the same (elephant and human) characters, but easily stands alone from the earlier essay too. “Elephants are so outside the size of things.” They “held up the world.” As she later does with the moray eel, Tisdale insists upon a distance from these animals: she acknowledges the temptation to feel close, to anthropomorphize, but holds herself to appreciating their otherness too. These essays are dreamy.

Tisdale is curious, thoughtful, considerate, and honest. I’m so glad that she allows this curiosity and careful consideration to range over the wide, wide world. (I didn’t even get into the lengthy treatise, “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” about much-maligned insects and Buddhism.) This was a treat, and I highly recommend it for curious readers of all kinds.


Rating: 8 sheep bot flies.
%d bloggers like this: