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Glorybound by Jessie van Eerden

Disclosure: Jessie is the director of the MFA program I am enrolled in.


And it’s so hard for me to separate this book from the Jessie I know. I felt like I heard the lines read aloud in her measured, careful tones, with attention for each sound within them. Impartial I guess I am not, but I’ll tell you my opinion anyway, that this is a beautiful book.

Aimee and Crystal Lemley are holding it together, a decade after their father Cord, preacher at the Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle, predicted the end of times and then left town after times didn’t end. Their hometown of Cuzzert, West Virginia, population 335, is the kind of place where people stop over and then keep going. The girls take care of their mother Dotte and keep faith to the vows they made when Cord left: Crystal does not speak, and Aimee is celibate. They intend to be woman-prophets–by the rules of Glorybound, they will be able to prophesy but not to lead from up front.

Then a new teacher comes to town, from a volunteer program, sent from Chicago. His name is Aubrey Falls–Aimee calls him “sweet Aubrey Falls,” like an epithet. Aubrey finds the missing patriarch preacher Cord, and hopes to reunite him with his daughters. He uproots the past, which had come to feel well-buried in the drought-ridden, crusted-over, slow-moving Cuzzert; he raises questions and disrupts the Lemleys’ stasis. Unwitting, he becomes part of a swell of change.

This story, in its framing elements–setting in time and place and culture, religious backdrop and markers–is foreign to me. In fact, the Lemleys’ lives and understandings of the world are so caught up in their church that I would normally steer clear of them. In this way I’m like Aubrey. But like Aubrey, I was pulled along by the charm and charisma of Aimee and Crystal and the whole dysfunctional town. I guess in part I trusted in Jessie, whose work I knew to be luminous; but this book is luminous from its first lines, shines from within in a way that marks it as special, so I don’t think it mattered that I knew Jessie was an amazing writer beforehand, at all.

There is a magic beneath the words on the page, which glow and sing with music. These characters are all a mess and not quite decipherable, but they also feel perfectly portrayed, as in perfectly represented in all their weirdness; authentic. Think of entering a dark movie theatre and being transported, coming out with that dazed surprise at the world you live in, after all.

I realize I’m being a bit mystic and vague in my praise–perhaps the tone of this book has rubbed off on me. Here are a few of Glorybound‘s nameable strengths: exquisite detail and description, for example, of the dresses Aimee wears; lyric language, with a clear attention paid to every syllable; characterization through silences, diversions, and body language; tone and atmosphere. I would like to say that the West Virginia portrayed here is a true West Virginia, but that’s something I don’t know from personal experience so much as trust from what I know of Jessie and her background. (She made a lovely contribution to my birth/place project.) As a through-line, for those looking more closely for craft elements, I love the recurring quiet importance of clothing: Aimee’s dresses, Crystal’s worn work clothes, Aubrey’s discomfort with what to wear, Dotte’s seamstress work, the dresses worn by other women, the work of doing laundry. Every word counts.

Jessie has since had two more books published, her second novel My Radio Radio and most recently a collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping. I will read them all.


Rating: 9 pieces of wash on the line.

Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland by Jeremy B. Jones

Disclosure: I read this book in preparation to meet its author at school in a few weeks, where he is guest faculty for the upcoming semester. There is some chance that he will be my advisor for this semester.


I bought Bearwallow more than a year ago, when I was researching MFA programs I might want to attend, and he came up as past guest faculty at WVWC, where I did end up going. I thought it would be good to get to know their faculty better by reading books like this one, but I didn’t get around to it until we got word that he was actually on his way back to serve as guest faculty again. I’m pleased I finally found time for this memoir, which does have something to teach me. And I’m looking forward to meeting Jeremy, not least because I learned in these pages that he is an avid cyclist! (Road, not mountain, but close enough. I remember roads.)

In the timeline of Bearwallow, its narrator is a young man recently returned to the shadow of Bearwallow Mountain where he grew up. Jeremy wanted to leave Appalachia, and he and his wife Sarah lived for a time in Honduras, where they taught young children English. But he kept feeling struck by those mountains’ familiarity, their relationship to his own mountains; and he ended up coming home to teach the children of his own old neighborhood. There, he teaches ESL (English as second language) to the children of immigrants. As he considers language, mountains, and our relationships to place, he watches developers parcel out the top of Bearwallow and plan for it to change. The book is about Jeremy’s life (still a short one in the book’s timeline), his family history, his region’s history, the significance of change and growth, and what place means to people. (You can see why I like this book.)

This is a young man’s memoir, which is a tricky undertaking. But Jones handles it well. For one thing, his story is not chiefly or firstly about him. He opens with the story of one of his forefathers, a Dutchman named Abraham who helped to settle the region where Jeremy would grow up. He always grounds his own experiences in their larger settings: the mountains of Virginia and Honduras; a family history; the challenges of immigrants and immigration; a young person’s dual drive to leave home and to return to it. He also frequently references his own youth, acknowledging the uncertainties of anything he can know about himself as a man in his 20s. In fact, this book ends when the narrator and wife go off to graduate school, leaving again and only perhaps to return (as we, outside the book, know he did, at least to the region if not the town and neighborhood).

I found the narrator easy to like. He is humble, though not self-deprecatory. He has an open mind and questions his own decisions and impressions. I also liked the kind of musing he does. People and place, the dubious demands of family and inheritance, and the complexities of a place like Appalachia, all speak to me. I appreciated Jones’s use of scenes to transition into memory, or historic topics: scenes and scenery as smooth transitional material between more abstract subjects, and of course for their added interest and characterization.

This is an enjoyable, easy read, but it’s also got something to offer the writing student. In fact, its ease is one of those deceptive qualities: apparently effortless, so that the style fades into invisibility, but that’s some of the hardest prose to write. Again, on a personal level, I look forward to meeting Jeremy as a fellow cyclist (and I think of my mother, a fellow teacher of English as foreign language). Recommended.


Rating: 7 lots.

The Stampographer by Vincent Sardon

This iconoclastic French artist’s work with rubber stamps is for fans of fart jokes, the f-bomb and political satire.

The Stampographer is a different kind of coffee-table book. Vincent Sardon makes rubber stamps because “the stamp is never neutral”; it generally appears as a tool of bureaucracy, but here subverts authority to play with taboo. The book’s endpapers are filled with repeating middle fingers, its pages with insults, erotic and violent images, the profane and the vulgar. In an interview (the volume’s only text), Sardon denies any such political motive: “My work simply reflects the world, which seems to have been created by an absolute moron.”

These are evocative images and complex references to art and history, showcasing Sardon’s dark, satiric, antagonistic sense of humor. He considers his stamps “both tools and works of art,” and sells them only to amateurs, not artists, from a private gallery in Paris. Readers not local to Paris are lucky to get a glimpse of his work in this unrivaled art book.


This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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: 7 turd blossoms.

This Book Is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions by Kelli Anderson

This is a work of art, teaching tool, pop-up toy and book that will delight playful lifetime learners.

This Book Is a Planetarium–as well as a musical instrument, a decoder ring, a spiralgraph and more. With a smartphone or small LED light, the galaxy comes to your living room. Graphic designer Kelli Anderson exults in the science and the art in the everyday, here playing with the powers of paper. This short but engrossing large-format book is at once an art object and a collection of teaching tools. Each page pops up and moves, dynamically demonstrating lessons from physics, geometry and astronomy. Brief explanations in small print further expand the didactic element. While the text is written for adults, not children, a little grown-up assistance (and supervision of removable parts) could make this an educational toy for all ages. Sensory play involving touch and sound as well as sight is too often left to the kids, but This Book Is a Planetarium is a physical object and absorbing interactive experience for all curious and young-at-heart readers.


This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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: 7 strings.

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.

The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay by Carl H. Klaus

The final craft book I read this semester was one of the better ones. Carl Klaus examines that much-discussed issue for the personal essayist (or writer of creative nonfiction), the “I,” the narrator, the first-person mediator of experience and reflection. He notes that for an essay to be “personal,” there must be a person at its center; or at least a persona. This book has four parts (evocations of consciousness; evocations of personality; personae and culture; personae and personal experience) and two to three chapters per part. He discusses problems such as how “never to be yourself and yet always” (a Virginia Woolf line), or the introduction of malady into personal essays (a recent change). Each essay addresses one or more essayists in particular, so it’s a very hands-on study, with textual examples, unlike those craft books I struggle with, that speak in more general terms.

This is also a work of fine writing, and worthy of annotating in itself, something decidedly not true of all craft books. Each essay takes a subject (singular and chameleon “I”; discontinuity) and Klaus then styles the essay after its subject, so the essay on discontinuity is disjointed, and his essay on Montaigne imitates Montaigne’s language. The subjects themselves are worth studying but the form is at least as interesting. I think the individual essays are most useful when the reader is familiar with an essay’s subject (i.e. I’d read Orwell but not Elia/Lamb and found the former essay more useful); but overall, Klaus gives a very good discussion of voice and persona.


Rating: 8 five-hundred-word essays.

annotation: “At the Dam,” by Joan Didion

This is a first: because of one commenter’s interest in my original post on The White Album, I’m just going ahead and publishing the craft annotation I wrote for school on “At the Dam.” You’ll have to let me know if this is interesting or the opposite. Call it an experiment.

10/14/2017
Annotation 14: Finding the Star Map (or central image)

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

“At the Dam” is an essay less than four pages long, which describes Hoover Dam and its ongoing fascination for the narrator. Its very short length and the scale of its subject (literally, in terms of the dam, and figuratively, in terms of its large pull on Didion) make it an interesting study for me, especially because it deals with place. I found that my reactions to the essays of The White Album varied widely: some interested and involved me more than others. This essay inspired my imagination.

Only five paragraphs: and what work do they do? The first paragraph begins, “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Didion goes on to say where she sees the dam appear in that “inner eye”: Los Angeles, New York, while driving; and what it looks like: pristine, gleaming white, vertiginous, shadowed, ominous; its setting: harsh rusts and taupes and mauves. She hears its turbines (a sound as yet undescribed). She wonders how much water is being released (a fascination more generally revealed in an earlier essay in this collection, “Holy Water”). This is all good setting of the scene and the stakes, and includes images.

The second paragraph juxtaposes two ways of thinking about the dam: she compares it to the Mindanao Trench or the stars (baffling enormity), then calls dams “commonplace.” She places the Hoover Dam in history. It “made the Southwest plausible… convey[ed], in the innocent time of its construction, the notion that mankind’s brightest promise lay in American engineering.” This is a short paragraph, but important in that it provides these choices of context. The dam is as vast and inexplicable as the stars; it is familiar; it embodies the American dream, its promise and hubris. This last holds extra significance, because the essence of “America” (here meaning the United States) is one of Didion’s themes in this collection.

Paragraph three develops this idea, “that sense of being a monument to a faith since misplaced.” Images include a memorial plaque, a model city, “a toy triangular grid of green lawns and trim bungalows,” bronze sculptures, “Winged Victories guard[ing] the flagpole,” the flag. My favorite is an empty Pepsi-Cola can: how American, and how expressive of disappointment and disillusionment. Someone has littered at this failed American monument, which however still works, in the practical sense.

The fourth paragraph begins, “But history does not explain it all,” and so Didion will have to keep trying. The practical work of the dam–its capturing and transforming of energy into a form more useful to our human society–does not explain it either. She describes touring the dam with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation, and I pause to look this up: it’s the federal institution that manages water and power in the west. In this paragraph, Didion allows “Reclamation” to stand in for the man himself, a metonymy with religious overtones: “‘Touch it,’ the Reclamation said, and I did.” (A typo for “the Reclamation man”? I like it this way.) In this paragraph she describes the physical features of the dam, its workings, and the area around it, emphasizing its weirdness. Sexual overtones, parts where visitors do not go, alien, complete and beautiful, unpeopled; cranes move as if on their own, machinery roars and hums and vibrates. She finishes with the odd statement that the peculiar moment was “so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.” This one made me stop to think.

The fifth and final paragraph makes a final attempt to grasp something “beyond energy, beyond history.” Didion again juxtaposes everyday Americana with the alien world of the dam. And then she fixes on an image: “the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left.” This, she decides, stands in for the dam, “a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.” In five paragraphs, she has stated her fascination (obsession, even?) with the Hoover Dam, explored its significances (history, energy, sheer scale) without finding its true significance to her, and then found it at last.

In reading this essay, my personal background inspired an initial gut reaction: Edward Abbey and my father agree that big dams like this are bad for the natural world. But on closer reading, I think that a) Didion doesn’t necessarily deny that truth and b) it doesn’t matter; she is not making a value judgment, but an observation of the dam’s power over her. That dynamo free of man (more metonymy–I’d prefer humankind) is impressive whether we agree with its rightness or not.

“At the Dam” has inspired me to write an essay modeled on hers about a place that matters to me, although I haven’t figured out yet what that place is. I’m okay with this. I’m working on the essay in my head without knowing what it’s about yet, and sometimes they come out this way: I work on them for six bike rides and then come home and the thing bursts out fully formed like Athena (but a lumpy and misshapen Athena that requires editing, of course). I want to model an essay on the form and structure–and length–of hers, and I hope to find its star map. I’ll be on the lookout for such a place in my own personal history; I’m sure it exists.

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