Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (audio)

I raced through book two of this series (book one here). Boy, that last one was a long review, wasn’t it? I’ll try and be more brief this time. To start with: I’m definitely hooked on The Expanse.

Caliban’s War keeps Holden and his deeply likeable crew at its center, while Detective Miller is nearly absent, having flown off to Venus with the protomolecule version of Julie Mao. Tor’s article on this volume (which, again, I found an excellent guide) says that “Holden is the through line, but only in a way that centers things for the reader. He’s really a vehicle for everyone else,” which I think is nicely put. A few new characters enter the spotlight. Prax, or Dr. Praxidike Meng, whose daughter has been kidnapped, is a meek botanist big on brains and short on street smarts. I occasionally found him maddening, but he makes an interesting contribution to the little family that is Holden’s crew. He also, through the crisis of his missing child and her link to the protomolecule, provides the novel its central one-off storyline. Chrisjen Avasarala is a UN (Earth) politician, and a delightfully nuanced character with all the backstory required to make her interesting and believable; she could carry a whole book on her own. And Sergeant Bobbie Draper of Mars is like a female Jack Reacher: huge, badass, clever and loveable (as long as she’s on your side). Avasarala recruits Bobbie, and the two of them work together to try and avert disaster in the tenuous cold war between Earth, Mars and the Outer Belt following the events of book one.

Whew.

Although Wikipedia calls Holden, Prax, Avasarala, and Bobbie the four main characters of this book, I think that sells Holden’s crew short. His love affair with Naomi is progressing, with its issues. Alex is offscreen for part of the story, and receives somewhat less character development, but Amos is coming right along. The friend who turned me on to this series calls him a psychopath, but I think that’s not the least bit fair. He cries for children in danger. I love Amos. And the family togetherness of the crew of the Rocinante (Holden named it) is a sweet point – approaching saccharine, actually, but I seem to have a high tolerance for that, once I’ve bought in. And I’ve definitely bought in here.

My endorsement of this series continues. It’s sci fi for people who care more about people than the science. It’s right up my alley, action-packed but also all about character development and human conflict and feelings. On to the next one.


Rating: 8 children.

Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Disclosure: Katie Fallon was my first semester advisor at WVWC, and is a friend.


I have been looking forward to reading Vulture for years! I read Katie’s Cerulean Blues first, because Vulture was still awaiting publication; but if I’m honest, the bigger bird is the one I’m more naturally drawn to, and I know the turkey vulture was Ed Abbey’s favorite bird and all. I was really looking forward to this one.

And it had all the pleasant notes offered by familiarity, because by now I’ve heard Katie read from it a few times, so certain passages felt like old friends; and the personal content was familiar as well, because I know Katie personally (the names of her three daughters, for example, although only the first two come along within the timeline of this book). Reading this therefore felt a little like coming home, and you know how I like to feel at home in a book.

This is a book about vultures: the world over, but in particular the turkey vulture, which is Katie’s own favorite. It is also a personal memoir, about the author’s own life and coming-to-terms. As she considers the vulture’s place in mythology and historical relationships – often including associations with women and with motherhood – and observes vulture mothers caring for their young, she experiences her own much-desired first pregnancy. The places she goes in her own life, both geographically and emotionally, mirror the places she takes her reader in relationship to her subject. Along with her husband Jesse (a veterinarian specializing in birds), she travels to real-world locations in search of vultures: Hinckley, Ohio, for their “Return of the Buzzards” celebration; Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary; the Grand Canyon; India’s Hill of the Sacred Eagles; Gettysburg; and more. She also visits with an impressive array of vulture experts worldwide. This may be a beginner’s or introductory version of the vulture’s story, but it is also an authoritative and detailed one.

The book hits what I feel is a perfect balance between personal content (Katie’s life, family, and personal reasons for vulture adoration) and scientific. I remember Katie telling the story of (gulp) reading online reviews, the user-generated kind on Amazon and Goodreads and whatnot, and being bemused to see that everyone with negative feedback either found it had too much science or too much personal: in other words, they wanted an absolute, a commitment to one side or the other of that spectrum. This was funny to me because I thought her balancing of these two elements was perhaps the book’s most graceful accomplishment. Can’t please them all, can we.

For a final element, she adds a touch of speculation about the vulture’s inner life. Each chapter opens with a brief, italicized (and illustrated) paragraph featuring an imagined vulture at the center of the book. I found these so lovely, and a beautiful contribution. (Somewhere out there another reviewer is complaining that they ruined everything, I’m sure.) Katie occasionally anthropomorphizes within her chapters, too, but always with self-awareness and some hesitation: here is what she might be feeling, Katie might muse, even while acknowledging that birds are not people and this speculation is perhaps silly – but also natural, I think. Don’t we all anthropomorphize the animals we love best?

I’d like to close this review with a snippet of the final italicized from-a-vulture’s-eyes section.

She knew the seasons in her bones. She felt the length of days, the sun’s movements, the changes in the winds. Knew the smells of mud, gasoline, fish, rot. Knew palms, aspens, oceans, deserts. All were reborn in her, all connected. She held the whole world in her eyes.

Recommended.


Rating: 7 backpacks.

Little personal crossover: I’ve been keeping notes on a few birds over at my van-travel blog.

Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning by Victoria Shorr

Well-researched, perceptive writing results in a gripping triptych of the inner lives of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Joan of Arc.

In Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning, Victoria Shorr’s (Backlands) remarkable literary voice illuminates the lives of three famous women. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Joan of Arc are each seen standing at respective thresholds in these well-researched fictionalizations, their extraordinary lives given immediacy and power and even–despite what we already know–suspense.

At 27, Jane Austen is practically an old maid by her society’s standards. Along with her unmarried sister and parents (who have given up home and livelihood for one of their sons), Jane travels from one relative’s home to another, essentially homeless, and without hope of the one salvation expected for a woman of her class: marriage. Her witty writings have entertained only her immediate family. And then, a near miracle: the younger brother of dear friends proposes. Jane agonizes through the night, but decides she cannot marry for less than love, like the best of her heroines. Instead she carries on a life of privation, quiet embarrassments and the masterful writing of the classics we love her for today.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was 16 when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley on a street corner at 4 a.m., to run away to a life of adventure and art and pain. We meet her on a beach at 24, after the deaths of two children, pacing the shore where Shelley has sailed away. He was due back days ago, and now Mary reviews her choices. Might she have been happy if she’d never met Shelley?

Readers find Joan of Arc on the platform beneath the stake where she is to be burned, in the moment when terror strikes her and she renounces her saints and her cause, hoping to avoid death. Over the next week in prison, she relives her triumphs and her faith, then dies at the stake after all. It is a brief interlude in her life, but an enormous one for the reader, who feels in this extended flashback all the intensity she’s lived. Would her life have been better if she had stayed home to mind her sheep in Lorraine? If she’d turned back from Reims, and not pushed, prideful, for Paris? Shorr sets up an interesting interplay between Joan of Arc, the confident hero, and Girl X, as the woman who renounced her beliefs on the platform thinks of herself. The dialogue between the two carries on until the end, when Joan burns.

Each of these women faces a choice early in her narrative; then the consequences unfold. Shorr’s prose is incisive, thoughtful and personal, deeply exploring the interior lives of her characters. Fans of Austen, Shelley and Joan, as well as fans of rich inner lives in historical fiction, will be riveted.


This review originally ran in the February 1, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 spurs to action.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest. Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, investigates a very specific slice of history all but erased by prejudice and the passing of time.

The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents, but Ryan cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.

The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront lead to what Ryan calls “the great erasure” of queer community and history.

When Brooklyn Was Queer considers the lives and contributions of well-known artists like Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote, and numerous lesser-known performers, businesspeople and blue-collar workers. Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research. During many of the years covered here, homosexuality as a concept was unknown: a man could have sex with men but be “normal,” or he could be a “pervert,” based solely on appearance or mannerism. Vocabularies for such identities were at first nonexistent and varied over time. And much of the information collected about queer people in history is deeply problematic, recorded by hostile and prejudiced organizations, and presumably with limited cooperation by the people being studied. Finally, Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color.

Only in his introduction and epilogue does Ryan share his personal connection to these stories, his own history in Brooklyn and his heartfelt desire for this history to be told. While the rest of his book takes the style of traditional history writings (no “I” pronoun), he reaches out in the final lines: “I look forward to having a future where we can also have a past, and I look forward to creating it with you.” Having been engrossed in these pages, his reader feels that same connection and hopefulness.


This review originally ran in the January 31, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 windows.

A Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner (audio)

To write about this essay collection, I must first tell you about the format.

From my research, it looks to me like the collection exists only on audio, and only on audiocassette. I bought the set of two cassette tapes some years ago, and have had them all this time, waiting for a way to listen to them. The only cassette player I could locate in my friends-and-family circle was a desktop item my father dug out of the attic for me; but its volume only goes so high, and Stegner came out of the machine so low that I could only hear him if I pressed my ear against the tape player, which I quickly tired of. (Thanks anyway, though, Pops.)

Then finally a friend bought me this outstanding gift: a cassette-to-MP3 converter! Who knew! Thank you so much, Margaret; it was a shame to use it for just the two tapes, but hopefully the guy I passed it on to gets some use out of it with his old rock tapes. Anyway, I was finally, after years of ownership, ready to listen to my Stegner as I drove north across west Texas.

And it is Stegner himself reading, which I think is a nice bonus, although he does have a bit of a somnolent monotone. The essays are not titled; he simply rolls from one into another, so that I was rarely clear on when one ended and another began, although changes of subject serve as loose guides. It’s an intriguing problem, the format of these essays and their absence from the world otherwise. I am a bit interested in transcribing them myself for posterity, if I could find the appropriate person to work with on that project. Hmm.

Now on to the essays, yes? I enjoyed listening. Stegner has a lot to offer: he has known several corners of this country very well at several times in particular, and he specializes in detail and color (literally and figuratively, as in “local color”). He can be relied upon for commentary about conservation issues, and although his positions sound a little obvious in 2019, coming from 1989. His storytelling style is soothing, especially read aloud in that drowsy voice of his. I do wish I had these on paper to read and look at; as it was, I had to let the stories and reflections wash over me, which was pleasurable, but leaves me with less to say for this review.

I made a few short recordings of lines that appealed to me. I have no idea what essays they are from.

The Wasatch in Utah… taught me the feel of safety… A man can tuck back in against mountains, the way Hemingway used to tuck back into the corner stool at Sloppy Joe’s, his back covered and all danger in front of him.

(Guess why I like that one. That would be Sloppy Joe’s in Key West; I’ve been there.)

We manage to breed saints, brutes, barbarians, and mudheads in all sorts of topographies and climates, but what country does to our way of seeing is another matter, at least for me. By and larger I do not know what I like, I like what I know.

I wish I had the line that came just before, too: his point was that topographies and climates don’t make people who are smart or stupid, moral or evil. It’s a point that’s important to me. People judged for their geographies is becoming a pet peeve of mine. And that last line: “I do not know what I like but I like what I know.” It makes sense somehow.

Every night in season [the frogs] conducted love concerts that could drown out conversation even inside the house. Stamp on the patio bricks and they fell silent so suddenly from such a crescendo of noise that the silence rang like quinine in the ears, the sort of silence I’ve heard nowhere else except in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

Silence rang like quinine! What an unexpected simile; and I’m not sure exactly what it means, not knowing what quinine sounds like in one’s ears; this is a line that I think would get picked apart by certain creative writing professors I’ve known, but I appreciate it. I don’t know what quinine rings like, but the surprise pleases me, and I’m willing to take it on faith that that was some silence, whew. Now, the Amazon jungle as a place of silence I trust a little less: I imagine a jungle being rather a noisy place, what with all the life going on there, the peeps and rustles and dripping that surely must be going on. But perhaps Stegner has been to the Amazon. I have not.

There were other startling lines, and worthwhile observations. I wish I could share the text of these essays with you. Barring that, take my word for it, unless you have a tape deck and $16.48 (which will buy you the tapes right now on that other Amazon; more from AbeBooks).

Even with all the hassles it took me to listen to A Sense of Place: worth it.


Rating: 7 names.

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.
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