Dog Years by Mark Doty

Love for a wordless creatures, once it takes hold, is an enchantment… This is why I shouldn’t be writing anything to do with the two dogs who have been such presences for sixteen years of my life. How on earth could I stand at the requisite distance to say anything that might matter?

How indeed?

I love Doty, as you know, and this book is an excellent example of some of the qualities of his work that I love best. He is thoughtful, meandering, wise, self-deprecating, shows his thinking transparently on the page, and has the most precise and loving eye for beauty; he turns most every observation of the world into ekphrasis somehow, by which I mean that he turns the same active, joyful, inquisitive observation to the Massachusetts shoreline or a NYC sidewalk that he turns to a museum-quality painting.

This review is a trigger warning of sorts. I love Doty, and I love this book, and I’m glad I read it, but it was also painful as hell. Dog Years is about beloved pet dogs who die (as they do), and it’s about 9/11, and it’s about death and loss. It is also absolutely relevant that I read this during the pandemic of the spring of 2020, and everything feels a bit more raw these days, the angst a bit closer to the surface than usual; and I have in no way recovered from my dear Ritchey dying more than a year and a half ago now, and my dear Hops is not even 12 yet but he shows his age. This book was beautiful and transcendent and really hard on me. I mean it as a compliment – this book comes with a warning because it’s so well done.

Because, you know, a book about a beloved pet dog dying could easily be (and they usually are) insipid, overly sentimental, a cheap shot. And I think telling the story of 9/11 (or Katrina, I think about that one a lot too) is awfully hard to do in a way that’s not going to sound like anybody could have told it. (This is true of the pandemic of 2020, too. Who will tell that story well? Will it be Doty? I’d buy that book. See also Paul Lisicky’s excellent recent release, Later. A little awkward: Paul Lisicky appears in Dog Years as Doty’s husband, which is no longer the case.) In other words, Doty has undertaken an ambitious book, which aims to do a couple of things at once that look nearly impossible to do well, even individually. But of course he’s knocked it out of the park. (It is a sign of my faith in him that I undertook to read a book about dogs dying. Whew.)

The dogs in question are Arden, a black long-haired retriever, and Beau, a golden retriever(ish). They are very specific beasts, individuals, as dogs are. Arden belonged to Mark Doty and his partner, Wally, in Provincetown, Mass., where Wally sickened and eventually died of AIDS, but not before Mark brought home Beau to join the family as well. “My friends think I’ve lost my mind: You’re taking care of a man who can’t get out of bed and you’re adopting a golden retriever? They do have a point, but there’s a certain dimension of experience at which the addition of any other potential stress simply doesn’t matter anymore.” (That is a golden retriever puppy, I would add.) Widowed, Mark (and Arden and Beau) will eventually form a new family with Paul, and it is in this shape that they make their way to the end of both dogs’ lives, eventually, after much travel and moving around – including living in New York City in September of 2011… I have seen Doty handle grief and loss before (although I’ve not yet read Heaven’s Coast, so there is still that), most recently of course with What Is the Grass, where death forms one of the five sources of Whitman’s genius. And Doty’s, I’d say. The way that these strands are intertwined is lovely and perfect.

When the towers fall, the enormity of all that loss and death and threat to the world is too much to conceive. “With the world in such a state, isn’t it arrogance or blind self-absorption to write about your dogs?” But Doty knows that “we use the singular to approach the numberless,” and this echoes one of the lines I most obsess over in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, about “the strangeness and singularity of things…” (There is again an echo of the thread in Still Life that is about reflection, in all its senses: “We know ourselves by how we’re known, our measure taken by the gaze of the outsider looking in.”) The singular losses of Arden and Beau offer Doty a way to write about 9/11 and about topics larger than them. The unique to communicate the universal, and the personal to illuminate the public.

For me, what is perhaps the crux of this book came early. “To attach, to attach passionately to the individual, which is always doomed to vanish–does that make one wise, or make one a fool?” This is a more personal review than usual, but here we are. This is something I’ve been wrestling with, the enormity of loving again after the pain of loss, and I can’t quite believe that either way, the yes or the no, is the right thing. But I always feel I’m in good hands with this writer. Maybe I’ll figure something out if I keep reading.

Of course you known as well that I love Doty’s detailed lists of things, his descriptions (ahem) and the simple fact of his attention turned to all the humble things… the soup Arden smells on that sidewalk. “Of Franco’s retail experiment, there remained for several years an odd little lamp beside his old shop door marked with a thirtiesish design that would have held no meaning if you didn’t know what it had illuminated–but now that’s gone, too.” Things and meaning and the spaces they held, left behind.

Oh! I nearly forgot to mention structure, which absolutely needs mentioning here. Longer, numbered (untitled) chapters do the work of memoir, of memory, not entirely chronological but at least following life in some form; some of them take the form more of essay than of strict narrative, like in chapter three, when he lists and details seven “aspects to our delight” in dogs. Between these are spliced shorter pieces headed Entr’acte (an interval between two acts of a play or opera; a piece of music or a dance performed during an entr’acte), titled and not numbered. These generally take the present tense, and range as widely in content and theme as the rest of the book… and wouldn’t you know, my MFA thesis took the same structure, longer memoiristic essays with short lyric pieces in between… There is also a good bit of Emily Dickinson in this book, and I think my new approach to poetry is just to let Mark Doty tell me about it.

This is a writer I return to for guidance, and this book is an exemplar of what I appreciate about him, but (if you love a dog) it may hurt you, too.

Rambling review brought to you by the pandemic and my difficulty focusing, and the pain that this beautiful book brought me.


Rating: 9 obstreperous things.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

In this enchanting alternate history, a Sin Eater consumes the misdeeds of others, and may have a chance to right some wrongs.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater opens with a 14-year-old girl named May being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, in an alternate version of Elizabethan England. The royal family of Angland is entangled in court intrigue and murders, including of babes, to secure favored heirs to the throne, even considering marriage to the hated Northern lords. Common people work hard for a meager living; some starve unless given special permission from the queen to beg in the street. The penalties for petty crimes are high: vagrants have a hole “burned through the gristle of [the] ear with a hot iron as thick as a man’s thumb.” The penalty for a second offense is death.

In this cruel world, below even dung men and woad dyers in the social order, lies a cursed role: that of the Sin Eater. “It’s always women who eat sins, since it was Eve who first ate a sin: the Forbidden Fruit.” Marked by the iron collar locked around her neck and her tattooed tongue, she may be neither seen nor heard. She is called to deathbeds to hear the Recitation, a confession of sins; she translates these sins into foods, which the family will prepare for the Eating. By taking the sins of others into herself, the Sin Eater absolves the deceased. Every child in the street knows the basics. “Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. Barley for curses.” When a deer’s heart appears on a noblewoman’s coffin, the city’s older Sin Eater will not eat it, for the terrible sin it refers to was never confessed. She is tortured and killed, leaving May on her own to wrestle with a deadly royal plot.

Recently orphaned and terribly talkative, May is now forbidden to speak. Her apprenticeship as Sin Eater was both silent and short; she’s still learning which foods match the more esoteric crimes. In her favor, May discovers the strange power of the Sin Eater: afraid to touch her, people move out of her way, granting her access to prison cells and royal bedchambers. Chance introduces her to a group of fellow misfits, including a disfigured man, a leper and a roguish theater player. But she must solve the royal mystery alone and, just maybe, create a new fate for herself.

Sin Eater is a fully fleshed work of speculative fiction, abundant with the fine details of Elizabethan life and, of course, food. May is a damaged and sympathetic heroine, at once intelligent and innocent. This is an opulently imagined debut, horrific and weirdly beautiful, filled with earnest feeling as well as cruelty. Set aside time to read this engrossing novel in one go.


This review originally ran in the March 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 small loaves of bread.

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden

I had my composition students read this excellent article by Jemele Hill at The Atlantic, as we discussed issues in higher education and the rhetorical tools that make for good argument. I felt the memorable book title mentioned, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, rang a bell. I was motivated enough to go looking for a copy; I ended up getting it through interlibrary loan (ILL) at the college library, which fit neatly into our library instruction period – I got to show the students how to make the request, and I brought it to class when it arrived, so we could see how far it had traveled (just down the highway from Morgantown’s West Virginia University) and how long I’d get to keep it (sixteen weeks!). After all that, I was interested enough to read it, too.

William C. Rhoden’s deliberately provocative title comes from a racist comment made by a white fan at a Lakers game, and refers to the problematic relationship between Black labor and white profits. There’s a paradox at work here: the highest-paid Black athletes in professional sports pull truly unimaginable sums of money, but they still lack power over their own circumstances in some vital ways, and the owners, coaches, and powers-that-be in sports are still overwhelming white. It might seem counterintuitive to call someone a ‘slave’ who makes tens of millions, but Rhoden has some strong arguments to make about power dynamics. His book is partly a history of Black American athletes since the beginning of commercial sports in this country, and even before that. It is also partly a call to action: Black athletes have contributed for too long to the enrichment of white authority figures.

Because I’ve been trying to teach my students the strategies of argument this semester, I thought of this book in those terms. Rhoden has a strong thesis; we know from the outset his position on the question of Black athletes in the contemporary American sports scene. He offers substantial and substantive evidence, throughout history and in examining several perspectives (athletes, agents, parents, coaches, owners). Some of my students balk at arguments that voice a strong opinion; they have gotten it into their heads somewhere that ‘neutrality’ is desirable, but I argue that neutrality is first of all dishonest, and secondly, how will you ever convince anyone of anything if you are afraid to take a stand? Yes, Rhoden’s stance is clear from the start. And it’s worth noting that, as his audience in this instance, I was prepared to follow him: I was predisposed in his favor. But I think I can still say that his evidence, and the means and organization of his audience, were well-designed.

I learned a lot of history from this book. Major Taylor I knew, of course, but I did not know Isaac Murphy (horse jockey), Moses Fleetwood Walker (baseball), or Jack Johnson (boxer from Galveston). I knew Jackie Robinson, but not Curt Flood or Rube Foster. Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolf were vaguely familiar at best. A number of individual stories, these and many more, I found fascinating, so involving that I was in danger of heading down a rabbithole until Rhoden brought me back to the larger picture. Also, I learned in this book that the alley-oop originated not in basketball but in football!

Chapters are named for the dilemmas he identifies as running through history: the dilemma of illusion, the dilemma of physical bondage, of exclusion, of inclusion without power, of neutrality, of the double burden (being both Black and female), etc. He coins the term “Jockey Syndrome,” for what happens when those in power change the rules in order “to maintain control in the face of a perceived challenge to white supremacy.” As the term suggests, this began with horse racing. When I read about this concept, I immediately thought about the unspoken ‘rule’ and general resistance against the jump shot, early in basketball history, and the NBA’s official rule against the slam dunk in the 60s and 70s. (Tell me that wasn’t racist.) He comments meaningfully on the “Conveyor Belt” that carries young Black talent from lower-income or at-risk areas through college and into professional sports, all the while impressing upon them that they should feel grateful for the opportunity, and meanwhile capitalizing on their skills. He decries Michael Jordan’s neutrality on social and political issues – race issues – as a lost opportunity. “Black athletes like Jordan have abdicated their responsibility to the community with an apathy that borders on treason.” He criticizes Bob Johnson, founder of BET (later owner of the Charlotte Bobcats), for using race and Black culture to make his billions but failing to deliver much in return.

At the center of the problem he identifies is the relationship of Black Americans to the larger American culture and socioeconomic systems in which they live. It’s vital that he takes this longer-term historical perspective, beginning with slavery and following through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and whatever we’re going to call this present ugliness we’re living. Had the first Black owner of a major sports team come a generation earlier, Rhoden argues, the community would have celebrated; it would have meant the beginning of substantive change in power structures. But the success of integration, he writes, has led to the disintegration of Black communities and a certain sense of solidarity. What we have in place of a more segregated but more self-sufficient Black community is the Bob Johnson model. For example, the integration of Southern minor-league baseball meant the dissolution of the Negro Leagues. “A pattern was set: A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration.” Johnson’s mentality, “of using backness as a way to get a piece of the pie without necessarily feeling any reciprocal responsibility to sustain black institutions… was the natural outcome of a half-finished mission.” That half-finished mission was integration, perfectly represented by highly-paid but powerless professional athletes. In other words, Rhoden’s argument about Black athletes is about something much larger than sports.

Rhoden has been a sports journalist since I was born, credited with elegantly handling the intersection of race, sports, and social history. This book was proposed in 1996 and published in 2006, and feels a bit dated already, in some of its details; but the essence of the problems he identifies has absolutely not changed. It’s an important argument; these are important conversations to have. Recommended.


Rating: 8 dollars.

Maximum Shelf: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 4, 2020.


Kawai Strong Washburn’s entrancing first novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, spans years and crosses over to the mainland and back again, following the Flores family–Malia and her husband, Augie; their sons, Dean and Nainoa; their daughter, Kaui–and the myths and gods of Hawai’i.

In Honoka’a in 1995, Malia remembers, “The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken–the hot rain forests and breathing green reefs crushed under the haole commerce of beach resorts, skyscrapers–and that was when the land had begun calling.” She addresses one of her children: “When I close my eyes we’re all still alive…” and she thinks back to the night “when your father and I were naked in his pickup truck, Waipi’o Valley, and we witnessed the night marchers.”

The night marchers are the first sign of magic in a story that plays with the concept throughout. What is magic and what is imagination; what is myth and what truth; which are the forces for good? Where does modern medicine meet the inexplicable, and what alchemy results?

When middle child Nainoa (“Noa”) is seven years old, he falls overboard in the waters off Kona and is surrounded by sharks. But instead of attacking, they carry him carefully back to the boat unharmed. This event is hailed as legend, a miracle, mark of the gods; in the years that follow, Noa’s strangeness will help to bring his family partly out of the economic depression brought on by the fall of the sugarcane industry, but his gifts are dubious and unreliable. His siblings have talents of their own to offer, but are alienated by the obvious specialness of Noa, the chosen one.

The novel’s perspective shifts, chapter by chapter, from Malia’s to each of her children; Augie’s voice will be heard only at the very end of this astonishing debut. Noa’s chapters are precise and observant, Kaui’s and Dean’s variously disgruntled and colorful and more vernacular, Malia’s reveal a close attention to larger meanings. Washburn’s prose style shifts with these voices, but throughout he showcases lush description and stark contrasts. In Kaui’s voice, “We set our toes and fingertips on razored bits of stone and slipped ourselves into the veined cracks of sheer walls of limestone or granite or basalt, all of it ceilinged by a thunder-brained sky.”

All three children travel to the mainland in search of education and opportunity. In Spokane, basketball star Dean has earned a full scholarship but grapples with the pressures of school and sport. In San Diego, Kaui discovers drugs and free climbing and falls in love with a woman who does not want what Kaui wants. After Stanford, Noa moves to Portland, where he saves lives as an EMT. He has a good partner and loves her daughter, but still struggles with his gift. Perhaps his lifesaving ability is not what it seems. Despite the family’s constant focus on Noa, the chapters that cover their separate lives offer refreshing views of Kaui and Dean, who are intriguing, flawed, engaging characters unto themselves. Their parents may center on Noa, but the novel resists doing so.

Amid various crises, each adult child will cycle back to the islands they call home. Noa, as always, leads the way, but Dean and Kaui have roles to fulfill within the family and on the islands, too. Their parents’ needs are both burden and gift. Malia continues to question the apparent favor bestowed upon her middle child: “If you were more of the gods than of us–if you were something new, if you were supposed to remake the islands, if you were all the old kings moving through the body of one small boy–then of course I could not be the one to guide you to your full potential. My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl.” Each character is torn by the need to belong to a place and a people, the need to rescue and be rescued, to persist.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a gorgeous, rich, multifaceted novel. As it shifts between the mindsets of Malia and her three children, it poses questions behind their stories, interrogates joy and love and faith and loss, rage and redemption, the price and reward of returning home. This is a story about a small number of central characters and their often sad and painful daily lives, and also about more universal struggles. It’s about past, present and future Hawai’i, including the racial tensions between native Hawai’ians and the haoles that have changed their world so much. It’s about family, hope and risk.

Memorable characters, richly evoked settings, heartbreaking realism and alluring myth combine in a magical, expertly plotted, completely absorbing novel. Washburn takes his readers into a world that is both known and entirely new.


Rating: 8 owl feathers.

Come back Monday for my interview with Kawai.

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family by Bettye Kearse

A descendant of enslaved Africans and a president tells her family’s story with pain and dignity.


Bettye Kearse grew up hearing a line of advice that had been handed down in her family through generations: “Always remember–you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” In The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, she works to explore this statement and its implications for her life.

West African griots (masculine) and griottes (feminine) have, for many centuries, been caretakers of the oral traditions of their families and communities. It is a role that is passed down and serves an important function in, for example, enslaved families, where literacy was illegal and “even their pockets were not their own.” Bettye’s mother was the seventh griotte in her family, tracing back to a girl who was kidnapped from what is now Ghana and renamed Mandy on the shore of Virginia, where she would be treated as a possession of James Madison, Sr., and bear him a daughter. As this book opens, Bettye’s mother delivers to her the box of records and memorabilia that generations of “Other Madisons” have compiled. This spurs the author on her own path to become a griotte, to retell the story of her family.

The Other Madisons includes a family tree documenting Kearse’s links back to Mandy and to the Maddisons (with two Ds), then Madison, Sr., whose son James Madison, Jr. would be a U.S. president. Her family has long felt proud of the Madison name, but for Kearse, the connection is a reminder of rape.

Kearse’s research, and that of the griots who came before her, is impressive. In search of deep truths, she travels from her home in Boston to Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, New York City and Madison’s plantation in Virginia, walking in her ancestors’ footprints and grasping ever more deeply the magnitude of the tragedy of slavery. While there is surprisingly solid evidence (slave records being notoriously poor) to support much of the lineage back to Mandy, Kearse is unable to prove a genetic link to James Madison. She accepts this, but it doesn’t change her sense of the relationship. For a family that relies on the griotte‘s oral history to know its own past, the oral history’s confirmation of the Madison connection is enough.

The Other Madisons, as a thorough history of one family, may offer answers for other descendants of enslaved people as well. It is part personal quest, as Kearse works to understand and reconcile her own origins, and a carefully researched and documented correction to the American historical record.


This review originally ran in the March 3, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 steps.

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World by Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky’s memoir of early ’90s Provincetown illuminates his own coming of age and portrays gay romance under the shadow of AIDS in lyrical, thoughtful prose.

In his searing, lovely memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky (The Narrow Door; Lawnboy) looks back at Provincetown, Mass., 1991-1994. It’s a place for a young gay man to find a community; a haven for artists; a belated coming of age; the height of the AIDS epidemic; a place known simply, in the author’s mind, as Town. It is “the edge of the world” both geographically and metaphorically. “Town a lyric bubble outside past and future. Town a dream that rips up all your intuitions about narrative.”

Paul is in his early 30s when he moves to Provincetown as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, after years of graduate school. Early pages express his difficulty in leaving his mother, breaking up an interdependence. In Town, he finds a community where it feels safe to be openly gay, where sex is readily available. “I’m a good ten years behind them, a hormonal teenager in adult skin.” This is a revelation, but with a heavy-looming shadow. Young men are dropping all around him; Town is also a place to die. “AIDS takes hold of a life, with all of its ideals and aspirations, and throws it to the pavement like a jar.” Even as Paul’s life blossoms, sex and death are interwoven. Later realizes that they will never be separated again.

This is not a memoir purely of loss and mourning, although those themes are always present. Young Paul wants a boyfriend, enjoys flings and explorations, settles down and breaks up. He sees sex and death and politics all around him, the patterns of the summer people (“summer is as wonderful as it is awful”), economic and cultural shifts. The literary life of Provincetown serves as background for his life there, taken as a beautiful given; careful readers will recognize other famous writers even when they are noted only by first name.

Lisicky’s prose showcases his precise ear for language and eye for descriptive detail. “If horniness weren’t narrowing my perception, I’d be able to step back and see how cinematic it is to see these bodies moving–it is like a scene out of Fellini if Fellini had been queer. No wonder the moon likes it here.” Under such loving observation, Town is both microcosm and macrocosm. Later is a personal memoir but also a witness to the way in which the gay male experience is forever, irreversibly changed by disease. “Tender boat, still afloat, even though it’s springing leaks…. As easy to tear open as skin.” This is a book of yearning, of love and sorrow and wanting and, yes, hope: deeply vulnerable and attuned to the divine. To be read for historical context or simply for its stunning truth and beauty.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ice cream cones.
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