shorter prose: essays, etc.

I took myself away recently for a solo writer’s retreat to a cabin in the woods, on a lake, in the mountains. No phone or internet. Husband dropped me off with the two little dogs and the gear I’d need for two nights. Forty-five minutes after he left the cabin lost power, which put a damper on my reading & writing abilities; but it came back on at 1:37am. I know, because I had left all the lights switched on.

I took lots of work with me. One book completed that needed a review; the second, completed in those first minutes without power, needed a review. The next one, of which I read the half by candlelight that first night, which needed a review and prep for an author interview; four more books in reserve. Seventeen essays, 5 book excerpts, 2 lectures, 2 short stories, 1 piece of longform journalism, and 7 poems. Twenty classmates’ responses to an essay I’d submitted for workshop, representing a range of ideas for expansion and revision. One class assignment, and a broad and vast mandate to create more new work. My only other goals were to feed myself and the dogs, and take us all to go to the bathroom as necessary. I would not get through it all, of course. I had brought so much so that I could pick and choose, and not get bored. On day two, I resisted the urge to go back to the candlelit book of that first night, in favor of all those essays and other writings.

And so here we are. I will not subject you to my reviews of 17 essays, 5 book excerpts, 2 lectures, 2 short stories, 1 piece of longform journalism, and 7 poems; frankly (for this purpose, happily) they were not all worth it. There were some special ones, though. Rebecca Lee’s “The Banks of the Vistula” was shocking, invigorating, and persistent: after several days, I can’t stop thinking about it. Simultaneously, it was beautiful, and it bothers me.

The excerpt from Virginia Holman’s Rescuing Patty Hearst was likewise tantalizing, especially since my copy, for whatever reason, ends mid-sentence: that will bear further review.

Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which I remember reading – can it have been in middle school? – but don’t much remember, was as wonderful as I suspected, filled to brimming, every line, with humor and of course stinging satire. Montaigne was too densely written; I’m not up for this. Robert Louis Stevenson, rendered here as Robert Lewis Stevenson (and what’s up with that?) is reliable: “An Apology for Idlers” was good and “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places” was outstanding. RLS has this to offer my retreat weekend: “There is no country without some amenity–let [her] only look for it in the right spirit, and [she] will surely find.”

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was… what? disturbing? I will need some help with this one. Brenda Miller’s “36 Holes” is beautiful, a very different sort of form and one that appeals to me: meditative, wandering, but cohesive; I will reread this. As a fan of the semicolon and general geek, I very much appreciated learning more from Paul Collins in “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?“, which yields such quotations as this one from the Times of London:

The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation.

(That must be why I like it so much.) And,

The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

which is less an argument for support, but a great sentence.

One of the best things* I read over the weekend was “Some Holy Ghost,” by David K. Wheeler. Full disclosure: I work with Dave; he’s my editor at Shelf Awareness. But the essay was objectively wonderful, I insist. I love everything about this piece: the structure, wherein he walks around the Art Institute of Chicago meditating on large questions while looking at paintings with specific bearing on those questions; the perfection of his phrases (Dave is also, perhaps foremost, a poet); and the themes and the job he does with them. This is an essay about religion, a subject that usually makes me twitchy, but his thoughts are accessible and revelatory.

The longform journalism is The Bones of Marianna, by David Kushner. It tells the story of a reform school in Florida, the mysteries and pain surrounding its history, and the efforts of citizens and forensic archaeologists to uncover the past. This is a riveting story, and it’s beautifully presented at the link above. Kushner’s telling is more straightforwardly journalistic than creative; I miss the voice I came to know in Alligator Candy (review to come), but this is a good read – just different.

I did not get around to the poems, so those will wait for another day.

*It will be the subject of another post on another day, but I’ll just say here that I can’t stop raving about Lily and the Octopus, a debut novel by Steven Rowley which blew me away. (This is the one begun by candlelit, and finished the second night.) It’s a startling, original piece of work and I highly recommend it.

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