Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

another bullshitI read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City for class, and I’m glad: glad I read it, and glad I had a class to guide me through it. I think I got more out of it this way. It would have been a little opaque to me on my own.

Nick Flynn’s father Jonathan was mostly absent in his son’s youth, although sort of a towering absence. Nick met the father he scarcely knew when Nick was working at a homeless shelter in Boston, where Jonathan became a client. This is Nick’s memoir of his father’s troubled, mysterious life and ugly effects on those around him – his wives and children – and Nick’s search for answers. (If this sounds familiar to you, you may have seen the movie made from this story, Being Flynn, which starred Robert De Niro but didn’t do terribly well.)

As illuminated by my professor, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City pulls heavily from the themes and style of absurdist theatre and theatre generally. Nearly every chapter involves some form of stage setting, awareness of audience, or other element of performance. King Lear and Beckett’s Endgame are particularly present. I know almost nothing about absurdist theatre, and would certainly have missed this subtext without help; and it really did help me to see some of what Flynn was up to.

It is an unusually, but very carefully composed book. Chapters vary in format. Some are written as short plays; some take different hermit crab forms. One of my favorites is a list of “thirteen random facts.” An illustration or two and one very important diagram come in. Despite the differences in form, there is a fairly straightforward narrative at work: the life of a father as seen (therefore, in pieces) by his son, and the life of the son, at first as it applies to the father’s story but in bursts beyond as well. This narrative is not strictly chronological, but any disjoints in its telling only reflect the way it was lived, the way information about Jonathan came to Nick, in dribs and drabs and jolts.

Readers new to the varied forms Flynn uses may find them a little distracting, but I don’t think they’ll pose a real challenge. The scrapbook-feel echoes the subject matter, echoes real life. And despite looking at a glance like it was thrown together – indeed, like real life – there is extraordinary artistry and intention at play here. Look for recurrent images throughout, like the donut, and the life raft, which sometimes takes the donut-echoing shape of a lifesaver. Look for theatricality, framed stages, costumes and sets. And the question of caring about appearances, or designing appearances.

Obviously, Nick Flynn tells painful and personal stories in this book, raising some of the classic questions of the memoir genre: how much to share, how much is too much, and what reader response is appropriate. Flynn struggles with these questions, especially in the final section called “aftermath (one year later): questions often asked, and some possible answers.” I was reminded of a Bernard Cooper essay I read – I forget its title, but it was in The Business of Memory, a collection edited by Charles Baxter. It dealt with Cooper’s surprise at reader reactions, and his inability to control what those readers take away from his work, and what they are curious about. It might seem like some of these issues are obvious ones, but there’s no accounting for people, always and in all directions, and the possibilities fascinate me.

I found this a brave, complex and moving book, and I recommend it. For a little taste, here is the obituary written for Jonathan Flynn, nearly ten years after the book’s publication. As Brevity notes, it is unattributed but presumably written by Nick.

I look forward to finding time for a reread, for further study.


Rating: 9 circles.

A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install

This exceptionally charming novel addresses human relationships by way of a one-of-a-kind robot.

robot in the garden

Deborah Install’s first novel, A Robot in the Garden, is a delightful romp and an emotional journey, both hilarious and poignant.

Ben is idle, unemployed, still living in his childhood home in a small town in England, and grieving his parents’ death. He is a constant source of frustration to his wife, Amy. When a robot appears in their back garden, Amy is exasperated, as usual: she tells Ben to get rid of it. Ben is intrigued. The robot, Tang, is decrepit but apparently well-made, and has more personality than the androids the neighbors keep around to do laundry and house chores. Tang is also obstinate, willful and possibly broken beyond repair, but Ben suspects that there is something special about this creature. Together they undertake a riotous expedition, seeking a fix for Tang–and perhaps for Ben as well. On the way, the odd pair encounters bizarre situations, including android sex workers and a radioactive wiener dog, and make new friends. Mulish but endearing, Tang throws tantrums and wins Ben’s heart, and stirs him to reexamine his relationships with the people in his life.

Both Ben and Tang are well-developed, imperfect but lovable characters, and Install has an expert ear for tone and mood. Her dialogue is masterful–Tang’s singular voice develops throughout the novel as he does, and the silliness of this eccentric story provides a refreshing counterpoint to sentimentality. A Robot in the Garden is zany and heartfelt, endlessly funny and often absurd, but speaks directly to the central challenges of the human experience.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the May 20, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 Premium seats.

The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang

In celebrating a father’s traditional Hmong song poetry, this memoir records the painful history of a loving family and a people.

song poet

In The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang related her family’s immigrant experience. With The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, she focuses on the life and art of Bee Yang: “my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of tradition Hmong song poetry.” The storytelling and emotional communication of that art form was a defining element of Bee’s contribution to his family and his culture, from their home in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and, finally, in the United States. When his mother died, Bee stopped singing, and Yang considers the significance of that silence as well.

As its title suggests, The Song Poet is lyrical and beautifully composed, with themes of loss and love, realistic and raw, but enriched by gentle metaphor. It is divided into “Side A” and “Side B,” the first told in Bee’s first-person perspective and the second in Yang’s. These points of view offer immersion in a Hmong culture that values family, and shares a complex system of spiritual celebrations and a way of life centered on the day-to-day necessity of growing and harvesting food. War and violence drive the family to Minnesota, where Bee and his wife do hard, dangerous labor, and are poorly equipped culturally to battle racism and exploitation. But they retain their reverence of family and tradition. The Song Poet is a message of love and thanks to a father who sacrificed for his children’s future, and a memorial to his art.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 flip-flops.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

mindful writerI always enjoy reading Dinty W. Moore. This is a re-release of a 2012 book, with a new introduction and writing prompts. I love its super-brief-chapter format, and its wisdom.

What a strange world where people will snicker at you for wanting to work on your writing for four hours but will often be totally accepting if you tell them you are planning to spend an entire day watching football on television.

Ah, Dinty. Truth.

Bonus: this observation follows a perceptive Harry Crews quotation. I still want to get around to reading Harry Crews.

This is a slim little book, but a powerful one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

In this phenomenal exploration of U.S. National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams turns her smart, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future and how we relate to one another.

hour of land

Celebrated conservationist Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge; When Women Were Birds) commemorates the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. In 12 chapters, she explores 12 parks, their histories and futures. Ecology forms a natural overarching theme, but Williams’s topics are variously personal, global and political. The places she visits range from Alaska to Maine to south Texas, while her subjects span still broader ground: biodiversity and water shortages; suicide and hopelessness; continuing unrest in U.S. relations with Native Americans; climate change; political prisoners from around the globe; and the legacy of the Civil War. Her writing is poetic, passionate and unexpected.

In each chapter, Williams describes a visit to a specific national park, and then investigates the place and her experience there, sometimes directly through narrative storytelling and sometimes metaphorically. She begins with Grand Teton National Park, where her family has often returned over the decades and generations. The history of that park’s founding and the establishment of the Parks system melds with her family story: “Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside.” With her father, who spent his career laying pipe for industry and development, and a park superintendent, she tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Together they birdwatch and debate the balance between fossil fuel extraction and conservation. In Acadia National Park, Williams muses that parks may be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” She finds Gettysburg National Battlefield representative of sustained resentments, pain and violence, and at Effigy Mounds National Monument, she encounters cultural heritage and controversy. To escape the pain of Gettysburg and Effigy Mounds, she heads into the desert, to Big Bend National Park.

Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska offers escape from a personal tragedy; Gulf Islands National Seashore, in Florida and Mississippi, reveals that the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remain, stinking and stinging. Williams visits the exhibit by artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the recently established Cesar E. Chavez National Monument; and, of course, her home landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In Glacier National Park, where the Tempest family tries to celebrate a birthday by retracing old steps, they are instead nearly killed by in a forest fire that sweeps over the chalet where they lodge. In these travels, Williams finds beauty and distress over the future, and opines, “We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are.”

By turns sad, despairing, and hopeful, even thrilled in the presence of natural beauty, The Hour of Land is emotive, intelligent and well traveled. It is only right that Williams should celebrate the Park Service’s centennial with such a remarkable collection of wisdom and scintillating lines.


This review originally ran in the May 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 long views.

author interview: Fernanda Santos: Reporting from the Heart

photo: Nick Oza

photo: Nick Oza

Fernanda Santos covers Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times. Her experience as a journalist is broad, crossing two continents, several languages and a range of subjects. Her first book, The Fire Line (Flatiron Books), is about the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill, Ariz., wildfire that killed 19 members of the firefighting team the Granite Mountain Hotshots. My review is here.

How was writing this book different from newspaper work?

I wanted to write a book because I couldn’t answer the questions that I wanted answered in newspaper stories. I knew that somebody would write about this fire, and I would have tortured myself for the rest of my life for not having had the courage to write it. I called a colleague in New York, and he said, look at every chapter as a story. Can you write a 4,000-, 5,000-word story? And I said yes, I can write that. He said they just all have to connect in the end. And it seemed so simple.

On one hand, it was that simple. But on the other hand, it’s very different than writing a newspaper story. I had complete control over it. In newspapers, the editors get hold of your text and shape it, or send it back to you and ask for more of this or that, because they want to drive a specific point. With the book, I kept waiting for the moment when the editors would get my chapters and start telling me where to go and what to do next, and it never came. When I was halfway through, I sent it to Colin Dickerman, my editor at Flatiron. I didn’t even know if I’d written something that resembled a book. And he said, there’s a lot of great material here, great reporting, but it’s a little confusing. Why don’t you do an outline? And I thought, oh! I guess that would help! With the outline, everything was easier. I set deadlines for each chapter. I only had a certain amount of book leave, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the job that I really love. So I assigned myself these stories, like my friend told me, and pursued the deadlines as if an editor was there to enforce them. And all of a sudden it flowed, just naturally evolved from one chapter to the next. A lot of the skills I used were developed over those years writing newspaper stories.

How did you gain access to these men’s families, and their trust?

I approached it very differently than I would if I were to just write a story about the deaths. I was not looking for a quote, or a quick couple of lines to throw in a story to define a character. I really wanted to understand who these men were, and I figured the best way to do that was if I got to meet their families. I had a friend in common with the wife of Andrew Ashcraft. I asked this friend to reach out to her, and we met. Then she referred me to her mother-in-law, who was close to another mother, who was close to another family, and the word started to get around. I guess they liked me. They said I had a lot of patience, and I was very interested in learning their stories.

I wrote letters to other families. I explained what the book was about, why I wanted to talk to them, and I said that although I had their addresses, I had not gone knocking on their doors because I didn’t want to add to their anguish. I wanted to leave them in control. I wanted them to reach out to me, and say if, when and where. And before I realized it, I had met everybody.

I also went to the fire academy in Prescott, where a lot of the Hotshots trained, and some of them taught; one of them, Eric Marsh, helped found the academy. I did the basic training, and then another course, and I’m actually going back to a third. I wanted to understand the world they inhabited, because wildland firefighting is a very small world, very tight. Once I went through the academy I could understand better what former members of the crew and families of the men had told me.

fire lineI love that you explore so many facets of this story: firefighting techniques, the history of fire management in the United States, the science of weather forecasting.

I realized early on I had to explain three things. Readers had to understand what wildland fire is, what it is like to fight a wildfire. They had to understand the very specific conditions of the vegetation in that part of the state, which obviously connects to the bigger issues of the drying of the west, climate change, the warming of the planet. And they needed to understand the characteristics of the storm that hit the fire, that hooked the flames and turned them around on the men. So I spent a lot of time in the National Weather Service office here in Phoenix, and the office in Flagstaff. I hung out with meteorologists, asking questions. They referred me to some texts. And I had two very thick fire policy books that I read, which were very helpful. I met several times with the author of those books, Stephen Pyne. In fact, he read my manuscript to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself.

It was in some ways a relief, when the emotional side of things became hard to deal with–you know, spending six hours with a widow, talking about a husband and a life that in many ways resemble my own. These guys were younger than my husband, but we like to do a lot of the same things these guys liked to do with their wives; we have a child, a lot of them had kids–so you understand the broad outlines of a life at home. Emotionally, that is very hard. There were times that I really looked forward to sitting down with a meteorologist and talking about science. It gave me a break, and recharged me so I could go back and sit down with another family for hours and talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. My husband says that I report with my heart first, which is why sometimes I come home a total wreck. I hope that’s what comes through.

Was it easy to return to your work for the Times?

It was not easy. I went from an environment where I was in complete control, and I took the story as far as I wanted to take it, to an environment where I have limits to the stories I write, the amount of time I can spend, even the way I write them. I remember telling my editor after one frustrating story, how is that I can write a book and I can’t write a story? And he said you can write both, but you can’t write a story as if you are writing a book.

I miss my book. It’s very weird, but I miss the intimate connection that I had with that story.

This was very rewarding, then.

It’s interesting. I’m from Brazil. I came here as an adult, I’d never written a story in English, I went to graduate school, I’ve been at the Times 10 years, and now I’ve written a book about wildfires. A very American story, in some ways. It was such an empowering experience for me, as a person. We know all the conventions, the boxes people try to fit us into. You’re a woman, you’re an immigrant, you’re a Latina; therefore you’re expected to know about immigrants, Latinos, parenting. Not about firefighters, a real man’s world. Because English is not my first language, how dare I write a book? Those were the things in my head. What are you thinking? Why did you get yourself into this? I had all these battles with myself, and I obviously overcame them, because I wrote the book. To me, that was such a priceless experience. My daughter is six, and I’ve been talking to her about what people say you can and can’t do, what girls can’t do. And in Latin culture we’re very respectful to authority. So I’m telling her, sometimes you have to break the rules. Sometimes you have to try something that people think you’re never going to be able to do, so you can prove to them that you can. It really taught me a lot about how far I can go.


This interview originally ran in the May 10, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Journey to Texas, 1833 by Detlef Dunt; trans. by Anders Saustrup, ed. by James C. Kearney & Geir Bentzen

Detlef Thomas Friedrich Jordt was born in the Holstein region of Germany in 1793, and in 1833 immigrated to Texas. He was motivated by a letter from an earlier immigrant, Friedrich Ernst. Although the two were not acquainted, the letter had circulated widely in the region, with an explicit message: that others should join Ernst in a land of promise and opportunity. Jordt’s own experience led him to publish in 1834 a book titled Reise nach Texas, under the pseudonym Detlef Dunt. The first English translation of this travelogue/travel guide was published in 2015 as Journey to Texas, 1833.

This is a varied and informative compilation, including not only Jordt’s original text but significant supplementary material. A translation of Reise nach Texas was found among the papers of the late Anders Saustrup, a recognized scholar of German immigration to Texas. James C. Kearney and Geir Bentzen then took on the project. Their introduction covers Jordt’s family history; the social, political and economic circumstances in Germany that pushed so many to emigrate; the significance of the Ernst letter; and commentary on Jordt’s writing. The translation of Reise nach Texas makes up a little more than half of the volume…

This is just a stub: my full review of Journey to Texas was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link.

I’d just like to add that this was an extra fun read for me personally, because I know quite well the area that’s covered in these pages. For many years my parents owned a ranch just a few miles from where Dunt/Jordt is believed to be buried. It felt a little like coming home.


Rating: 6 small towns I used to ride my bike through.
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