The Wild Boy by Paolo Cognetti

Best book of the year to date.


A city dweller returns to the mountains of his youth, and his gorgeous, reflective memoir is full of nature and humanity.

Having just turned 30, Paolo Cognetti (The Eight Mountains) felt restless and unfulfilled in the city of Milan. He missed his childhood summers–the first 20 years of his life–spent in the Italian Alps. Inspired by Thoreau’s Walden and the principled quest of Chris McCandless (subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild), he rented a renovated but rustic cabin alone in a village of ruins in a high alpine valley and undertook to learn what the mountains had to teach, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” After years of frustration, he hoped to write again.

The Wild Boy is a memoir of three seasons spent in that cabin, or, more accurately, spent hiking and exploring the mountains he remembered from when he was a boy–that wild boy he hopes to find again. The account opens briefly in winter, for background, as Cognetti makes his decision and locates his mountain home. Spring, summer and fall form the bulk of the story, which ends when he heads back down the mountain again: “I already knew all the dreams that I would have that winter.”

In the interim, Cognetti gets to know the local flora and fauna; briefly attempts a vegetable garden; studies other writers’ words; travels far and wide on foot; and makes new friends, human and otherwise. Thoreau writes of the pleasures of solitude, but this narrator finds he desires companionship–if they are the right companions. Two men in particular make strong impressions. His landlord, Remigio, is a creature of the mountains, with whom Cognetti literally makes hay. They share few life experiences, but quickly become fast friends, and Remigio turns out to suffer from writer’s block as well: “This was the story I had strayed into, hoping to find how to write again.” The other is an alpine shepherd named Gabriele, with whom Cognetti shares meals and wine. Gabriele will give him a gift at the end of their season together that Cognetti didn’t know he needed.

The Wild Boy has a lovely and profound story to tell about connections to land and history and one another. In seeking simplicity and a new start in his life, Cognetti rediscovers timeless truths about the human condition. In addition to the strength of its contents, this is a stunningly beautiful book. It is a slim volume whose simply titled chapters (Snow, Hay, Vegetable Garden, Neighbors) carry significant wisdom and weight. Cognetti’s prose is incandescent when writing about nature, about human history, about friendship and, perhaps most of all, about words: “That was why he had become such a voracious reader. He was looking for the words that would allow him to speak about himself.” For any reader who has wondered about the next step, loved a mountain or a book, struggled with writer’s block or stared in wonder into a forest, this astonishing memoir is necessary.


This review originally ran in the June 6, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 10 words.

Galley Love of the Week: Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Be among the first to read Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Fourteen years after her friend Mark raped her, Jeannie Vanasco (The Glass Eye) asks him if he’ll talk to her about it. The result is Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, a nuanced effort to come to terms with Vanasco’s own trauma; her decision to include Mark’s voice in her memoir is only one of its surprising elements. Editor Masie Cochran says, “To me, the idea was devastating and captivating. Why are we not talking about these things? Jeannie destroys simplistic, binary ways of thinking about victimhood and perpetrators. She invites–demands, really–all of us all to be more rigorous in our cultural investigation and self-excavation.” This book is self-aware, scrupulously questioning every assumption at every turn. Courageous, smart and painstaking, it’s some of the most compelling writing you’ll encounter.

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. View this edition here.

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger

Heart-racing action and a twisty-turny plot star in this thriller of multigenerational cops and murders.

Cristina Alger (The Banker’s Wife, This Was Not the Plan) crafts a gripping story of suspense with Girls Like Us. Fans of murder mysteries packed with action and plot twists will be satisfied by this edge-of-the-seat adventure into seedy Suffolk County.

FBI Agent Nell Flynn has returned home to the unbeautiful end of Long Island to sprinkle her father’s ashes, close up his house and move on. It’s her first time back in 10 years. She’s on leave from the Bureau following a traumatic on-the-job shooting, recovering from injuries both physical and emotional. Her father, homicide detective Marty Flynn, had some good buddies on the force, and it’s nice to see them again, but Suffolk County doesn’t hold many pleasant memories. Then Marty’s last partner, Lee Davis, with whom Nell went to high school, asks for her help on one last case. Two young women have been murdered: “working girls,” the cops call them; one of them was undocumented. These are the kinds of lives the department doesn’t really value. In their details, though, these murders take Nell back to the murder of her mother when Nell was seven years old.

Is there a serial killer at work in Suffolk County? Is there a link to Nell’s past? What exactly was her father’s involvement? Was his death really an accident–and was she wrong to alibi him on the night of her mother’s death? As clues mount up and point in different directions, Nell is less and less sure of who she can trust. Her wounds are not at all well healed, but she may be the only one who can prevent more deaths.

Girls Like Us is a little weak on certain details–the way a deadbolt works, the difference between prostitution and pandering charges, how a field agent might tell a suspect was dead. But its plot drives with such momentum that these details may be overlooked. With violent action and split-second turns, this is not a book to put down easily: plan accordingly. Alger’s thriller is emphatically plot-driven, but her characters hold their own, from Lee, who doesn’t quite fit in on the force, to the guys Marty Flynn was closest to in the department and the retired cop who runs the local bar.

As an added complication, the new murders and that of Nell’s mother may be class-based, as the rich summer people of the Hamptons meet the working-class section of Long Island, where Nell and the Suffolk County Police Department guys are from. Nell is a quintessential damaged cop, even if she is FBI: ignoring her own injuries, pushing too hard, taking foolhardy risks, with a strong sense of right and wrong (as her father seemed to have). Her personality serves as backbone to the electric plot of Girls Like Us, and the reader trusts that she will follow through to the truth, no matter how much it hurts.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 deadbolts.

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, and now book five, Nemesis Games.

Reviewing the end of that last (book four) review I wrote, I am happy to report that we did indeed get Jefferson Mays back as narrator, and Avasarala and Bobbie Draper. Of all people, Clarissa Mao returns as well. Our four central characters, the ‘family’ of Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex, get split up in this story, which is excruciating for each of them (some more than others), and each on their separate adventures gets substantial backstory development. Bobbie doesn’t get backstory so much as she gets screentime in which to be a friend and developing character, particularly to Alex. I love it, put simply. I don’t want to say much more, plot-wise, but don’t think I have to. It’s my impression here that the hard sci-fi stuff falls away perhaps more than ever, and the people – their relationships, personalities, and interpersonal dynamics – step forward. Which of course is what I’m here for.

The Tor.com article is called “Team Dynamics”, which is telling. I appreciate this line: “The book is about whether or not the characters can successfully come back to each other when the world as they know it is ending and make the crew — and the family they’ve built — whole again.” That built family is the heart of what I love about this series, and I agree with Tor’s Renay Williams that splitting them up for this episode was a wise move; each gets to stand alone in the spotlight in a way that’s helpful to their development, and that question of the coming-together-again feels absolutely highest-stakes to the reader. The question is foreshadowed early in the book, when Naomi argues to Jim that they have to take on more crew; he is resistant because adding to the family, he fears, will loosen its bonds. Mild spoiler alert: he ends up having to take on new crew anyway, temporarily, when his goes absent. Another mild spoiler: Bobbie’s looking like a good candidate for addition to the family, which has me totally stoked for book six.

Williams has a good point (though she doesn’t state it in these terms) that the book barely passes the Bechdel test. [To review, the Bechdel test asks three things of a story: that it 1) has women in it who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than men.] While I think Corey does well with interesting, badass female characters (something I understand is often absent from sci fi), they tend to relate here only to other men. Avasarala and Draper are an exception, although they certainly don’t have an emotional relationship. I’m heartened by character development in general, though, and have high hopes for more.

Just a word here in defense of Amos, who gets accused (within the books, and by the friend who introduced me to this series) of being something like a sociopath, of having no empathy, of using Holden as a sort of external conscience. (Naomi uses a term like that, or maybe precisely that: external conscience.) While Amos sometimes struggles with seeing why something is ‘wrong,’ and finds it easy to use violence to solve problems, I think the idea that he is without conscience is unfair. We’ve seen him time and time again step up for justice: he has a serious soft spot, if not a trigger, where the idea of exploited and injured children is concerned. He can be sort of a vigilante. He doesn’t care about established law & order, certainly, but he knows what he thinks is right. There’s a moment where he decides to do what we might agree is the ‘right’ thing in this book, not because he feels it’s right (he tells us), but rather because he figures it’s what Holden would do. That would seem to support Naomi’s idea that Holden serves as auxiliary conscience. Except that Holden’s not there, and Amos figures out what Holden would do, which shows that he can guess what Holden would do, which means he can see the arguments in favor of right and wrong among the choices available to him. I say this refutes the idea that he is without conscience, so there. Amos is a weirdo (aren’t we all), with maybe a looser grasp of morality than some have (but that whole thing is relative, anyway), but I say Amos is fine. I trust him.

I’m totally hooked. I look forward to more: more tough decisions and strain on relationships, more backstories and developments, more challenges and adventures. This series has everything I need; I just need more.


Rating: 8 years.

“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

In preparation for an upcoming visit to Kentucky, and because he appears everywhere around me and I have not devoted the time yet: Wendell Berry.

More than a year ago, my father bought me a copy of the new collection, The World-Ending Fire, selected and with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (who I do appreciate). I regret that I have not made time for it yet; and it’s currently boxed up in a storage unit (along with so many other excellent books) and unavailable to me. But Pops still set me up with some reading, beginning with an email explaining his selections, and outlining some of Berry’s major themes: sense of place; tragedies of American history; the urban-rural divide; humility; soil; honest work; naturalism; spirituality. Then he had me read Kingsnorth’s introduction to the new collection, and one noteworthy Berry essay: “A Native Hill.”

As an overall, obviously I appreciate Wendell Berry. All the right ingredients are there: strong attachment to place, defense of the land, argument against larger society, thoughtful, lovely prose. I had always assumed I would appreciate Berry. Also, I’ve heard that he can be difficult, and dated. Kingsnorth notes in his introduction that Berry’s writing technology of choice is, firmly, the pencil: I have no problem with tried and true technologies (recall Boyle). But I am a bit pricklier about gender and race, for example. Berry (like so many) uses “man” to stand for all humanity. And he is still using “Negro” in this essay, which admittedly was published in 1968. But one notices these things, in 2019.

This reading didn’t surprise me much, then. I found a few things to quibble with, which I will lay out below. But overall, I’m going to keep reading and appreciating this man, while reserving the right to quibble.

Here are a series of quotations I marked as I read, which I’m going to let stand as my review.

Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or the use of such love?

Way to jump right in and steal my heart. Why, indeed? You, faithful blog reader (thank goodness for you), know how much place matters to me as a reader and as a writer. It consumes my thoughts and dreams.

About the truism that “you can’t go home again”:

But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home–the place, the countryside–was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was not a reason in the world I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

Well lucky you, Berry, but you do realize not everyone has the luxury of this experience? The places that are left untouched from our childhoods are fewer and fewer. Mine is not still there pretty much as I left it, at all. Dog help us, they tore down Fitzgerald’s.

What… made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

Again, lucky you. And hey, I am lucky that my parents will almost certainly leave me some piece of land, but it’s not square miles, and it’s not something I was born to; it’s something they bought later in their lives and that I admire but do not feel especially close to; it’s not where I grew up. (Not for lack of effort, on my part or theirs, to make this place feel like home.) Some of these ideals are easy to live when you’re born with the right set of circumstances, hmm? And what would you say to someone whose inheritance, birth, and intimacy lay with the heart of New York City?

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.

and

In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.

These I feel, too, with regards to Texas.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

Because of the quotation directly above: no place we love will ever be perfect. Kentucky and Texas have their share of sins, but if one of you lives in a place that never did harm, throw your stones now.

A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.

By contrast, a road:

Its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge.

I appreciated his medium-deep dive here into paths, trails, roads, bridges, what they mean physically and metaphorically. Trails matter to me; and they make an excellent metaphor.

The pristine America that the first white men saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea.

I worry about this, as another form of deifying the past, or in this case the Native Americans. Were they really doing this world no harm? I admit to the same prejudice Berry shows here, thinking that no, they did no harm. But now I wonder if that’s true? It reeks of romanticizing what we don’t understand.

It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

A lovely line; I think we all know what it is to walk knee-deep in an absence of some kind; also, I’m almost certain this line was referenced by Matt Ferrence, which endears it to me again.

Near its end, this essay reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders, specifically the hawk that closes “Buckeye.” The final section of Berry’s essay offers a series of short, nearly prose-poetry segments. Third from last of these is an event that proves, for Berry, that nature knows not only peace by joy. It stars a great blue heron (parallel to Sanders’s red-tailed hawk), a bird that is important to me personally: it’s probably the first bird I learned to identify on my own, an easy one, since it’s both large and distinctive; and they have been present in many of the places I’ve traveled in this country, remote and far-flung, as well as in the urban setting of my hometown of Houston, where I used to see them fishing in the early mornings along the bayou in the Texas Medical Center as I walked from car or train station to work. This bird Berry describes as measured, deliberate, stately, “like a dignitary,” stately again – I agree on all counts – and then he sees it turn a loop-the-loop in the air, exultant, “a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me.” This transcendent moment – and Berry’s powerful prose – affected me deeply.

And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

Wow.

I do recommend this essay by Berry, and I will be reading more of him – though I may have to dig through that storage unit to do so.

I could not close without referring you, as Pops referred me, to “The Peace of Wild Things”. I had encountered this poem before, but Pops points out that it’s published the same year as “A Native Hill,” and condenses and distills much of the essay’s feeling. It’s worth another look, no matter how familiar you are.


Rating: 8 threads of light and sound.

shorts by Cather; Sandor; Wheeler; Irving; Chesnutt; Maren; and Bourne of National Geographic (and links followed, etc.)

Whew, a long one today – sorry, folks, but I’ve been reading.

Because I’m not busy enough (ha) I’ve been reading a few short prose pieces here and there. Some of the following come from the Library of America’s Story of the Week (an email you can sign up for for free, if you have tons of free time or are a glutton like me). One I found languishing in a file on my computer. The internet, and friends’ referrals, account for the rest.


Willa Cather’s “A Death in the Desert” was a Story of the Week, viewable here. I found it a moving story, but much more so with the context included, about Cather’s devotion to a composer who died young. As the Library of America points out, the fact that this story was published in three versions, each subsequently edited and shortened, makes it an excellent opportunity to study editing for length (if you were to go find all three). There’s something Victorian in the manners and fainting emotions in the story that is less compelling and relateable for me personally, though. I’m glad to have learned a bit more about Cather, but it’s not my favorite thing I’ve read this month.


Marjorie Sandor’s “Rhapsody in Green,” however, blows my mind. (This was the one found on my hard drive. Originally published by The Georgia Review and viewable here, if you sign up for a free account.) It is a very brief lyric essay about, yes, the color green. Sandor evokes so much via this color, and her search for an unachievable shade: color, we might think, is a visual element, but she uses touch, smell, and taste as well. On its face about this color she can’t find, this essay is also a glancing view of the narrator’s life story, at least in a few relationships and geographical locations. There are four references (in less than three pages) to a time “I fell in love when I shouldn’t have.” It is a brave and risky move to so emphasize an event that she never explains further. As we writing students say, this one would have been destroyed in workshop. But I love it, this level of tantalization, and her bold implication that no, we don’t need to know any more about it than that. There are also two references to “a/my friend who puts up with such eccentricities.” I love this epithet, this characterization, and in both cases – this, and the “fell in love when I shouldn’t have” – I appreciate the use of an intentional echo to good effect. Also, nothing I’ve said here begins to get at the loveliness, the lyricism and sensual intimacy, of Sandor’s writing. Do go check this one out.


Disclosure: Dave Wheeler is my editor at Shelf Awareness, and a friend.

I have done a poor job of keeping up with Dave’s work, and recently returned to see what I’d missed, particularly in his essays, which impress me so. I am gradually catching up now – you can see his published essays here (and more in other links on that page). And I love a lot of what Dave writes: I appreciate the short, dreamy, feeling quality of “Science for Boys”, and the inquiring mind exposed in “Death and Its Museum”. But I think my favorite essays of those I’ve read so far deal with art, and how Dave takes it in. “Two Men Kissing” and “Some Holy Ghost” each offers so much, and I’ve forwarded them to many friends.

Today, I am very pleased by “A Moment Spins on the Axis of You: The Fourth Dimension of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrors'”. Here Dave encounters Kasuma’s installation, in particular, and the grand scale of its claimed subject. But even more than the named artwork, he considers what it means to wait – for art, for anything – and what contribution waiting, or time, or the audience experience, may offer. I appreciate his voice: he speaks with authority about his own experiences, but with a humbleness as regards the world of art criticism; he can be playful even as we feel he is serious. And of course I recognize myself when he writes, “As a lifelong reader, I have cultivated a sharp sense of when I can quit a book without worrying that I have missed something of importance. As a wide-eyed novice to visual arts, I am less assured.” I think I feel something like the same thing when I try to see my own reactions to visual art: I don’t even know what I don’t know.

Perhaps recognizing myself in Dave is part of recognizing Dave, someone I know personally and enjoy talking to, however infrequently we get around to it. And maybe that enjoyment is inextricable from my appreciating his writing. Maybe you want to help me test this: go check out Dave’s work and let me know what you think.

Good, right?


Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, another Story of the Week, was engaging enough in its descriptive power; I was interested in getting a better grasp on one of those legends that’s in our collective consciousness whether we’ve read it or not (I don’t believe I had). The misogyny in the treatment of Dame Van Winkle, and the cursory treatment of all the women in the story (none of whom, if memory serves, had names), rankled. I’m not sorry I took the time, but it wasn’t a highlight, or anything.


Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”, on the other hand, was both lovely and harrowing. (I went ahead and followed this link to a Wiley Cash article in Salon, where he argues for Chesnutt as genius, and I don’t disagree.) If you want to feel gutted by our national heritage where race is concerned – well, none of us does, but I feel it’s important we don’t look away, either – give this short story a try. It has a surface on which it can act as a sweetly sad and simple tale, but its depths are significant.


Disclosure: Mesha Maren regularly serves as guest faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College in my alma mater MFA program. I consider her a friend.

I was deeply impressed with Mesha’s recent essay in Oxford American, titled “West Virginia in Transition”. She moved away as a young, closeted, queer woman, and upon moving back, she investigates the experiences of her counterparts: queer youth growing up twenty years later in her own hometown. She muses on the ways in which their lives are different and the ways in which they’re similar. It’s a story that’s important to me, because both queer communities and Appalachian ones are much on my mind. I’m glad topics like this are getting bandwidth. But also, as anyone who knows Mesha’s work will expect, it’s a gorgeously written story. “The way these ridges and hollows both cradle and cleave.” Beautifully done, and highly recommended.


Finally, my father sent me a link to this story from National Geographic: “Clotilda, ‘last American slave ship,’ discovered in Alabama.” Joel K. Bourne, Jr. brings us up to date on the recent confirmation that Clotilda has been identified where she was burned and scuttled in the Mississippi Delta after a voyage spurred by a wealthy white man’s bet that he could import slaves from Africa more than 50 years after such imports became illegal. In 1860, 109 men, women, and children survived the voyage into Mobile and were then sold into slavery. Part of what’s unique about this group of abducted Africans is that late date: Clotilda’s survivors lived long enough in some cases to be interviewed on film. They founded Africatown on the edge of Mobile, and their some of descendants live there today. When I passed through Mobile this spring, I missed Africatown. But, unknowing, I stayed in Meaher State Park, which is named after a wealthy white family, including the man who made the bet.

I found this article, accompanied by pictures and video, moving. I think it’s an important story to read and consider today. I also followed several links, like this one offering a list of destinations to visit for African American history and culture. I found a few of these on my travels this year; I’ve added to rest to my itinerary.


There is always something to keep our minds busy. I just feel lucky to have the time to follow these leads. What have you read lately?

Cygnet by Season Butler

An island of elderly separatists and one teenaged girl face essential human angst in this remarkable debut novel.

Cygnet is a powerful, poignant, smart debut novel by Season Butler. Her protagonist, known only as Kid, lives on an island otherwise populated entirely by elderly separatists. Ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire, Swan Island’s inhabitants call themselves Swans, and they want nothing to do with the rest of the world, which they call the Bad Place. Seventeen-year-old Kid has no business there, but her parents abandoned her with her grandmother, who has since died. Now she works part time for one of the residents, digitizing and editing photographs, home videos and the woman’s children’s diaries: “I’ve given her real breasts, grateful children, a husband whose eyes never wandered…. I’ll be up here forever, fixing Mrs. Tyburn’s memory.” She spends her lunch breaks with an Alzheimer’s patient, who has no memories to fix.

Swan Island is slowly crumbling into the sea, with Kid’s grandmother’s house set to go first: her backyard shrinks by the day, and Kid hates and fears the ocean, its relentless “waves that never tire of the same old dance moves. The cliff and the ocean, a mosh pit of two.” The Swans are always going on about how you can view the sea from anywhere on their island; she doesn’t see the appeal. With few exceptions, the Swans are cruelly frank about their displeasure at her presence, her very existence. She is desperate for her parents to return for her, but over the course of the story, the reader understands how unlikely this is. Memories and flashbacks touch briefly on their drug addiction and neglect, and hint at past traumas.

Cygnet covers a brief period of time on Swan, in Kid’s first-person voice. Her thoughts are true to those of an unhappy teenager: “I’m such an idiot” is a refrain; she disparages her own strange stream of consciousness. The prose style ranges widely from this (realistic) awkwardness to inspired lyricism. For such a young person, Kid has a surprisingly clear and sympathetic view of the Swans, appreciates their beauty and their choice to segregate from the Bad Place. She wishes her choices were so clear. On her 18th birthday, she bakes herself a birthday cake, using her mother’s remembered instructions; it comes out with a “perfect crumb” but she finds she’s no longer hungry: “I… take it outside, plate and all, and throw it off the stupid cliff.”

At the intersection of teen angst and sobering end-of-life realities, Cygnet contains some powerfully depressing material. But Kid’s disarming voice and unlikely will to push forward save this novel from doom and gloom. Kid and the Swans have more in common than they think–age and youth being more alike than either perhaps accepts–and Butler’s conception of this particular world-within-a-world is easy to lose oneself in. With the house literally falling out from under her, Kid will have to face her own future, create it for herself. By the end, this feels like a situation we all have in common.


This review originally ran in the May 23, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nickels.
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