The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands ed. by Huw Lewis-Jones

This delightful, engrossing exploration is for every reader who’s ever admired a book or a map, let alone both.

In The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, historian Huw Lewis-Jones offers a collection of essays by authors, illustrators and designers as they ruminate on processes of reading, writing and creating, as well as the link between map and story. They consider maps in two and three dimensions, sketches, stories and outlines that live only in the writer’s mind, and argue that creating maps, like creating stories, is essentially an act of compression, a set of choices about what to leave out.

Contributors include Robert Macfarlane, David Mitchell, Lev Grossman, Joanne Harris, Philip Pullman and the graphic artists for the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies. Literary references in this gorgeously designed, detailed coffee-table book begin with Kerouac, Tolkien, Twain and Thoreau, and visit Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows and so many more.


This review originally ran in the November 6, 2018 gift 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: 8 archipelagos.

Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper

Among the central concerns of Truth Serum lie questions of truth and memory. This is a memoir-in-essays of Cooper’s coming-of-age in Hollywood from the 1950s onward, including his identity as a gay man in the early days of the AIDS virus. I found several elements I appreciated from Maps to Anywhere: lyric language and a profound attention paid to the world. I was reminded of Mark Doty in the moments that Cooper leans in, seeming to slow down time, to examine what’s around him, that the rest of us might have called the everyday. Maps to Anywhere, as I remember it*, had some longer essays but more short ones, several of which qualified as prose poems; by comparison, the essays in this collection are on balance longer, and while the language is undeniably lovely, few of these shapeshift toward poetic form. These essays more frequently offer clear narrative structure.

One shorter one I’d seen before was “The Fine Art of Sighing,” about the sighs of three family members. I’m pretty sure* this one reappears in Short Takes (ed. Judith Kitchen), and/or I’ve read it for class. I also really appreciated the opening piece, “Where to Begin,” which is very much about that problem of creating art: that the biggest question is not what to put in, but what to leave out. Else we’ll end up trying to paint, or write, the whole world, and be defeated before we begin. I loved “Burl’s” for its epiphany of gender fluidity. “Against Gravity,” about weightlifters and men and mortality, was a lovely longer meditation… I really enjoyed how it ranged and returned. “If and When” is a beautiful, tearing-open essay about discovering the narrator’s HIV status, and his partner’s. (I am reminded of an essay Cooper contributed to… some essay collection, about handling the public’s response to his revealing private information, this information in particular.) It’s a simply gorgeous and wrenching portrayal, and I think it’s a generosity. “Tone Poem” answers my statement above, about there being less poetry in this collection than in Maps. It’s not so much a poem itself, though, I argue, as it is about poetry, about finding something beautiful in the mundane. “Train of Thought” was the essay I thought might be a poem: it explores the etymology of that phrase, ‘train of thought,’ and the music and language of trains.

In one seminal dream from my childhood I was on a train with a woman who was dressed in an enormous satin skirt. I was sitting on her lap and we ladled cupfuls of cool water into each other’s mouths. Her petticoats crackled whenever I lifted the cup to her lips. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “To the city,” she said, “where the rustling of a woman’s skirt sounds the same as the rain.”

Which I misread, initially, as ‘the same as a train.’ This attention to language and sound, and a final memory about a boy who memorizes numbers, made me feel a little floated above the world. Lovely.

Finally, I was reminded of Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Most obviously, both essay collections handle the narrators’ coming-of-age and coming to terms with being gay men. But that’s not all, and I hope I’m not guilty of that kind of simplification. I’m thinking more about the ordering of essays in both collections, where they proceed more or less chronologically, and with an overarching opening up from the immediately personal (and confusion about the subject at hand) to the outward-facing, the public issues involved with being a gay man (for example) in the 1980s as an unknown virus blooms.

Another lovely one from Cooper, although I missed the poetry in Maps and hope to get back into that book one day, too.


Rating: 8 plums.

*I owe y’all an update on this at some future date, but I’m about to be undertaking some travel and have been packing all my books to go into storage… so the other books I’ve mentioned here are not at hand as they’d usually be. I already miss my library!

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

“House of Flowers” and “A Diamond Guitar” by Truman Capote

I am just finishing up this volume of Capote’s, which includes Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three short stories (the third is “A Christmas Memory“). I am rewarding myself with just a little bit of a break from school.

Short, easy, sweet reading. “House of Flowers” felt familiar to me; I think I must have encountered it somewhere before, because I recognized the memorably named Royal Bonaparte and the protagonist, Ottilie. Strangely, they don’t get developed very much as characters; there’s not much personality, aside from Ottilie’s vanity and Royal’s strange confidence and eventual diffidence. The friends from the city, Baby and Rosita, have a bit more personality. But mainly this is a story of types, or of the mysterious quality and damage of love (or of “love”). I liked it, though, with its bright colors and clear movements. It’s telling that the title of the story names not an emotion or a person or an event, but a place: the “house of flowers” that Royal brings his bride home to, where “wisteria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door.” “It’s like you picked a wagon of flowers and built a house with them,” Ottilie tells her friends when they come looking for her. “It’s cool inside and smells so sweet.”

And this is a sweet story, but not because all its contents are sweet. It has the Capote way of showing sadness and wrong, but with flowers. I don’t know how else to put it. I find it curious to think about Capote, after moving as a child from Louisiana to Alabama to New York and Connecticut and as a young adult, back to Alabama, writing about a young woman looked down upon as a native of the Haitian mountains. I wonder how much he really knew about what he was writing about.

“A Diamond Guitar” feels like a simpler story, or one I know better, although I can’t say why. I know love and friendship between women (as in “House”) better than I know prison and male friendship, as here. But the older man and his friendship with a younger man, and a not-entirely-successful jailbreak – maybe it’s Shawshank Redemption I’m thinking about, or Cool Hand Luke, or something. This felt in a way sweet and simple and predictable, but so feelingly told… as in the older man’s recollection that his friend still has so much growing up to do.

Both stories were easy to read and to feel. Both are about emotion. Both, I’m sure, can be read much more deeply than this; on the surface they seem simple and straightforward, but I don’t mean that negatively. I enjoyed falling into these worlds, and that’s the thing about short stories done right. So much in a few pages.

Thanks, Capote, for the break.


Rating: 7 yellow cats.

Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale

This was a real treat, and an interesting balance between the experience of Many Circles – mind-bending, challenging, slow work – and If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which I read with pleasure in one big gulp. Violation was different from each of those, but fell just between them in its pacing. I was engaged and felt a sense of momentum throughout, but also had to stop and sit with what I was learning, or to react.

These essays span thirty years of Sallie Tisdale’s writing career, and are presented in the order in which they were published, with the final essay previously unpublished. Some of them were in progress for years before publication, but still a chronological order of a sort. While subject matters range quite a bit – elephants, flies, abortion clinics and cancer hospitals, sports, childhood and motherhood – they clearly track the evolution of one mind. Tisdale is a Buddhist, although that doesn’t come up as an explicit fact til late in the collection. She is an artist, passionate, but practically minded. She is concerned with the body, and with feminism, in different ways. I enjoyed very much getting to know her in these essays; but I also have an impression of her as a very private person, and in some ways don’t think I really got to know her very well at all.

The introduction gave me my first moment of aha! simpatico joy: “Long before I knew how to describe it, I liked ambivalence. Certainty has always seemed a bit dishonest to me.” This is so much what I feel, and it’s perhaps something I’m still working on describing, myself. It was my first, early signal that I would get along with this writer.

I really enjoy her style. She is the essayist’s essayist, or these are examples of the classical essay-as-assay: the mind wanders on the page. She is curious. She brings in a huge amount of outside research, sometimes, as when she writes about elephants and moray eels. She reminds me of Annie Dillard in the combination of immediate personal experience with science, but without the raving exuberance that Dillard often brings. Instead, Tisdale remains calm. On the other hand, the title essay is about the memoirist’s famous problem: family responses to one’s work. The nature of memory, and the question of what is ours to write about. More purely personal essays like this one require little or no research.

These essays are concerned with art and creativity, yearning, body image, and what boys and girls were allowed to do (and still are and are not allowed to do)… so many things, but not all at once. They take on really different things. And while most are alike in basic structure – discrete essays, with narrative journeys and mountains to climb and points unto themselves – one of the ones that most struck me was the segmented essay “Scars,” published in 2003, about raising a son. I loved the wordplay (of each segment’s title) and the enormous scope in a small package (just over 7 pages total). It spans a lot of time: sections are labeled with years from 1982 to 1997, and a brief note at the end says that the first section, in its original draft, was one of the first essays Tisdale wrote. I really appreciated seeing the bones of this one a little bit. And then, immediately following, comes “On Being Text,” about what it’s felt like as a writer to be included in anthologies that teach literature or writing: to read what’s said about her and about her methods and intentions. (It’s not all good.) This juxtaposition helped me again to appreciate the range in this collection.

But definitely some of my favorite essays were the two about elephants, “The Only Harmless Great Thing” and “The Birth.” The first, early in the collection (1989), is over 40 pages long, and brings in an enormous amount of scientific and historical information about elephants and zoos, and calls as well on literature and myth. It’s also personal: the narrator feels lucky to have gained back-room access to the elephants at Portland’s Washington Park Zoo. The elephants are magic, and she writes about them beautifully. This was an essay I snuggled into, fascinated and comforted by these strange creatures so loved and respected.

And then “The Birth” (2003), under ten pages, and tender and very much in-the-moment; it handles the same setting and the same (elephant and human) characters, but easily stands alone from the earlier essay too. “Elephants are so outside the size of things.” They “held up the world.” As she later does with the moray eel, Tisdale insists upon a distance from these animals: she acknowledges the temptation to feel close, to anthropomorphize, but holds herself to appreciating their otherness too. These essays are dreamy.

Tisdale is curious, thoughtful, considerate, and honest. I’m so glad that she allows this curiosity and careful consideration to range over the wide, wide world. (I didn’t even get into the lengthy treatise, “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” about much-maligned insects and Buddhism.) This was a treat, and I highly recommend it for curious readers of all kinds.


Rating: 8 sheep bot flies.

Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land by Helen Thompson and Casey Dunn

A gorgeous display of modernist architecture and interior design that’s particularly Texan.

Author Helen Thompson and photographer Casey Dunn, the team that created Marfa Modern, offer another stunning display of Texas architecture and design with Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land. Multipage spreads of beautiful photographs depict 19 houses, inside and out, along with Thompson’s discussion of their individual histories. A foreword by architect Lawrence W. Speck and Thompson’s introduction put this project in perspective. Older and newer structures alike fit into a tradition that is particularly Texan, where modernism–as defined by glass, steel, load-bearing columns and open floor plans–intersects with what is special about the Lone Star State. Texas’s climate, topography, local materials and culture all play a role in the design of these homes, which are as attuned to their natural settings as anything by Frank Lloyd Wright. A house in Wimberley highlights sliding doors at both ends which, opened, transform the house into “a big, happy breezeway.” Another in Mill Spring showcases glass walls that open to the air, allowing residents to rely solely on natural ventilation “except in extreme conditions.”

Sites range geographically across the state (with a focus on Austin, Dallas and the scenic hill country of central Texas), and there is a definite emphasis on interior design alongside architecture: at least half the photographs display indoor spaces, and captions are devoted to the designers of rugs, furniture and knick-knacks. Fans of architecture, design and Texas will appreciate this beautifully presented art book, and its insight into a singular modernist tradition.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 loggias.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

Eula Biss, who I adore for Notes From No Man’s Land, with her second nonfiction work: On Immunity.

The precipitating event here is Biss’s becoming a mother. She has a new baby to worry about, decisions to make about vaccinations, and the H1N1 flu strain is spreading frighteningly. She’s surrounded by other mothers who have a wide range of feelings about vaccines and immunizations. In danger after giving birth, Biss is given a transfusion of blood from a public blood bank. These events and opinions swirl in her head, and because she’s Eula Biss, she does research. She reads widely, from antiquity through present-day research articles and conspiracy theories; she interviews doctors, including her father, an oncologist. In fact this is a family affair, calling not only on the father (a sympathetic, sweetly caring, somewhat fatalistic man) but Biss’s mother, a poet, and sister, a Kant scholar and professor of ethics. Biss’s son turns out to battle significant allergies; she and her husband have to decide whether to have him undergo surgery, as well as simple vaccines.

Obviously, the timely subject is the “anti-vaxxers” movement (a term Biss never uses), with their claims that vaccines can cause autism, among other things (the autism claim in particular unsupported by any scientific evidence, although as she points out, a theory once voiced can never be retracted). Vaccination and variolation go back a ways, though, and part of what Biss undertakes here is a social history from the beginnings of germ theory and the Jenner vaccine through the present. Because she is a literary mind, she is also concerned with myth, literary history, and linguistics: in the first few pages, she searches for synonyms for protect and comes to shield, shelter, secure, and then inoculate. The very first page deals with “the first story I ever heard about immunity”: that of Achilles. She ranges across Voltaire’s Candide, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the latter carrying a lot of weight especially late in the book. In other words, it’s the kind of essaying I love: multidisciplinary examination of an important topic of our time and of all times.

There is a central ethical question here, as Biss interrogates the idea of ‘herd immunity’ (unfortunately, as she points out, sounds awfully close to ‘herd mentality’ with its negative association). If only most of us get immunized, a few of us can get away with skipping it; but the threshold for safety within that model is detectable only when we’ve passed it. And the few who skip vaccines, and get away with it, thereby relying on the many who did their civic duty: well, there’s something a little selfish about that, right? Biss has said in an interview (crediting her sister with the idea) that this is much like traffic laws. One or two people can blow through stop signs and get away with it if most of us are obeying the law. But if enough of us disregard that stop sign, soon there will be carnage, and some innocent rule followers will be hurt as well. I’m also thinking about mountain bike trails, because it just won’t stop raining here where I live. Sure, the trails will recover if a few people ride them wet. But only because most of us don’t. Which actually makes the few who ride ruts into the mud really selfish, in my opinion. Out there having their fun while I stay home and wait less and less patiently for the right conditions.

This is also about the extent to which each of us is an individual, and in turn part of something larger, like it or not. The immune system was not introduced as a concept until fairly recently, in the 1970s. Biss muses on the blur between the natural body and the body politic, the ways in which we are undeniably individual (I can clearly see where my body ends) and undeniably united (as in shared risk).

This book is full of metaphor: the original use of ‘inoculation’ as a metaphor for grafting, “as apples are cultivated by grafting a stem from one tree onto the roots of another,” because the initial inoculation was variolation, the skin slit and infectious material placed inside. “It was a metaphor for grafting a disease, which would bear its own fruit, to the rootstock of the body.” Later, “Vaccinating in advance of the flu, critics suggest, was a foolish preemptive strike. But preemption in war has different effects than preemption in health care–rather than generating ongoing conflict, like our preemptive strike against Iraq, preventive health care can make further health care unnecessary.”

These are some of the many beauties of On Immunity. I learned a lot. And I appreciate the ways in which it is like Notes From No Man’s Land. Both deal with what it means to be a citizen, and what damage fear can do. (Also, it will perhaps not surprise you to learn that racism has played a role in the history of immunization.) But, I don’t know, this one did not blow me to pieces like the earlier book did. For one thing, the organization of this book is very different from that last one. On Immunity reads like a single, long narrative. Page breaks are merely breaks; the thread (or various braided threads) connects each smoothly. This is not an essay collection but a long essay in (untitled) chapters. Notes is properly a collection, with an organizing scheme, meaningfully titled chapters, and an order to them.

It has been a good two and a half years since I read that one (and went back and reread a short section a little more recently), but what I recall is incandescent line-by-line writing, fascinatingly complex structure, and great subtlety. This one, On Immunity, is a good book in many ways. But none of these three elements struck me. The writing is always graceful and clear and communicative and often clever, but it did not ring for me like poetry. The structure – well, there is still a structure, a braid, and a range. There are recurring characters (the family members). But I missed a table of contents that could almost be read itself like a song. And the subject matter is faced much more head-on. Not a criticism; but a very different kind of book.

Here is a subtlety I did appreciate, though. For Biss’s subtitle, An Inoculation, I will let her tell it. (From the same Barnes and Noble interview, linked above.)

The subtitle actually started out as a little joke to myself. I didn’t intend for it to remain as the subtitle. But once that subtitle stuck I did start to think of certain aspects of the book that I was uncomfortable with as working like an inoculation works. One of the things I was reluctant to do in this book was repeat fears of vaccination and risk spreading them further, because many of the fears of vaccination that I write about in this book were fears that I didn’t know about and didn’t have until other mothers shared them with me. I felt a little bit infected by fears I hadn’t had before, and I didn’t want to participate in doing that more.

So when I started thinking about the book as an inoculation, I saw the possibility that it could work the way a vaccine works. A vaccine introduces a small amount or a tempered version of the virus into the body — just enough to that the body is able to recognize it and deal with it when it encounters it again in the future. So I was thinking that maybe the book would work like this. If I introduced these fears to readers who may not have encountered them yet, perhaps I could introduce them in a way that would better equip those readers to deal with those fears the next time they ran into them.

I’ll end there: with a lovely metaphor for the fine work of this fine book.


Rating: 8 risks.
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