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guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

movie: Twelfth Night (1996)

Last week I reviewed the play. But wait, there’s more! My required reading for residency also included a viewing of the movie, from 1996, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring such names at Helena Bonham-Carter, Richard E. Grant, and Ben Kingsley.

For me, this film contributed to the play as printed on paper in its music, its scenery (shot in Cornwall) and, as always with Shakespearean productions, the lively acting. As much as I love the written word, Shakespeare’s comedy always benefits for me from performance–maybe this is definitive of theatre. Of course as well the lack of stage direction leaves the filling out of the drama to the producers (actors etc.). And Twelfth Night is somewhat special in including lyrics, which only improve when set to music. Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as the twins, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, make a perfect pair: I’m impressed at the likeness, and wonder if every production gets so lucky. (I so wish I could go to Houston for the Festival!)

While Shakespeare never feels particularly dated to me–I would not be the first to call him timeless–this movie somewhere feels more placed in time, despite being set in a different time than when it was filmed. Perhaps the pacing felt a little slow? I’ll always recommend seeing this stuff performed, though.


Rating: 7 scenes in a barn.

residency report

I’m sorry I missed y’all last Friday, friends. It has been madness. There are some changes underway in my personal life; but also, as you know, I’m just reentering the world again following my second residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative writing.

Thus begins my second semester in the nonfiction track. At the beginning of this month, I spent 10 days attending seminars on subjects including poetry as protest; the life and work of James Wright; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; writer’s block; acquiring an agent; the sonnet; and the lyric essay. I workshopped my peers’ work and heard them critique my own. I got to meet and hear from Jason Howard, Yuri Herrera, Rachael Peckham, Rahul Mehta, Jon Corcoran and Rodney Jones; and I enjoyed again the company and the work of Jessie Van Eerden, Eric Waggoner, Mary Carroll-Hackett, Kim Kupperman, Doug Van Gundy, Katie Fallon, Mesha Maren and more. My classmates are a wild, talented, weird, supportive bunch. These are the best times ever; also the most exhausting.

This semester, I’ll be working with Kim Dana Kupperman, author of I Just Lately Started Buying Wings and The Last of Her. (Also the editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person and founder of Welcome Table Press.) I’m reading another 20-25 books and writing many pages myself. And in this moment, frankly, I’m a bit overwhelmed. So I’m going back to my books. Thanks for being patient with me.

best of semester 1

Today I am traveling north and east to West Virginia for the residency that begins my second semester in WVWC’s MFA program. All semester, I’ve been posting reviews of the books I read for school (along with the odd Shelf Awareness review). So, you’ve been seeing these books as they come; but I wanted to make a note, for your information and my own records, of what I loved most this semester. As always, these are only my personal reactions.

The best (and most useful to me) craft books I read were

I had less success with The Art of Subtext, The Situation and the Story, and The Art of Attention (which I did not finish and therefore did not review). In fact, I’m beginning to fear that Graywolf’s The Art of series is not for me (recall also The Art of History), which is a shame, because I’m generally a fan of Graywolf Press, and I love the idea of these succinct pocket-sized craft books.

The memoirs/essay collections I loved most, and found most useful, were

I hadn’t realized until I made this list that five of these six books were written by women. Interesting, and perhaps not surprising.

What I am able to take from these talented writers and make my own is another question. Having reviewed books for a number of years now (see my first review for Shelf Awareness!), I feel fairly comfortable pointing to what I appreciate, and articulating why. (Most of the time.) But making it my own, that’s a newer challenge I’m still working to master.

And so, into semester 2.

notes on podcasts & a DNF

I’ve started a new job, part-time on the weekends, serving beer in the taproom of a craft brewery a few towns over. It’s great! but I have a good bit of a commute again now. I haven’t listened to an audiobook since school started in January, because I haven’t wanted to crowd my brain any more than it already is (or get my stories crossed). So Liz has recommended a few podcasts for me. She is super into the podcasts, so I know she restrained herself, by starting me off with just six. On my last few drives to and from the brewery, I have really enjoyed listening. I’m going to try to stick to just a few sentences per story here…

Another Round, Episode 85: The Same Stuff as Stars (with Amanda Nguyen).

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton discuss rape culture and outer space with Amanda Nguyen, a college student who has founded an advocacy organization for rape survivors, written new legislation and gotten it passed in Massachusetts, and is studying to be an astronaut (wow). All three women have engaging voices & personalities here, and the story is obviously layered and impactful.

Criminal, Episode 63: Rochester, 1991.

Kim Dadou served 17 years for the murder of her boyfriend, who beat her within an inch of her life, which life she was defending when he died; now she’s an advocate for domestic assault victims. Excellent intimate tone and a narrative that is horrific but compelling. Listener is left rooting for Kim, naturally.

Death, Sex & Money, I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn’t.

When a woman he’d slept with called to say she was pregnant, Tony became a father to a little girl he loved deeply–until he found out she wasn’t his after all. He and the biological father discuss their experiences. They are disarming, honest, vulnerable.

Embedded, Police Videos: Flagstaff.

A 2014 video shot from a police officer’s eyeglasses shows his death by shooting, perhaps the first of its kind and a major internet sensation. Kelly McEvers delves into this video and its meaning to various viewers, in particular the families of the officer and the shooter. I appreciate Kelly’s personal approach–sharing her own reactions–and the variety of perspectives she finds.

Death, Sex & Money, Live from the Internet: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires & You.

(This is the podcast that got Liz & I started on this exchange, because I’m an Isbell fan. I remember listening to the first Death, Sex and Money show with Isbell back in 2014.) Live-recorded call-in show with Anna Sales taking questions for Jason & Amanda about addiction, relationships, and their art. These are two wise, thoughtful, compassionate and smart individuals, and I could listen to them all day (and have).

Other Liz-recommended podcasts I’ve got queued up include Revisionist History, Planet Money, and Radiolab, so stay tuned. And, this one did not come from Liz, but about a year ago I really enjoyed Love + Radio‘s Choir Boy, an interview with a bike-racer-turned-bank-robber. What a weird story, truly stranger than fiction.

In other news, briefly: I had a strong negative reaction to Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention (from Graywolf’s The Art of series). I guess the good news is this book seems to be aimed exclusively at poets, and I am not one. Revell seems to me to be more interested in showing off his vocabulary and convoluted constructions than communicating; I found him deliberately opaque; and a central thesis seems to be that the “craft” of writing is neither teachable nor worthy of teaching—so why this book? Anyway, moving on.

2016: A Year in Review

This is a traditional annual post; you can see my past few years in review here: 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.


This is an interesting review, since things will be changing quite a bit in 2016. Actually, I can see them changing as I look back, too. Of the 121 books I read in 2016:

  • 54% were nonfiction (50% last year)
  • 54% were written by male authors (not the same 54%, though!); 40% were by women, with a handful being collections or by authors of unknown genders. (last year, 51% were by men)
  • of the 55 novels I read, 27% were historical fiction, 18% were contemporary, and 11% were thrillers. Other categories included short stories, noir, classics and mysteries. (Last year 24% were historical fiction, 19% were mysteries, and a whopping 40% I classified as “misc fiction.” This year I tried to do away with that nebulous “misc,” and you see contemporary fiction showing up as a big one.)
  • only 5 books out of 121 were audiobooks (about the same percentage from last year)
  • 80% of the books I read, I read for paid reviews. another 11% I owned, and just a handful were borrowed or gifted to me, or taken from the library. (Last year, 12% of the books I read came from the library, 9% I owned, and 79% were for assigned reviews. I borrowed one.)
  • I read 121 books this year, compared to 150 last year.

For the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see yesterday’s post, best of 2016.

So, what’s changed? I read fewer books this year by a noticeable margin. That’s a little misleading, though, since I also reviewed 8 lit journals (and read more that I didn’t bother to write up), as well as some miscellaneous essays, short stories and poems; and perhaps most significantly, I did more of my own writing, including taking two university courses in creative writing. My energies were a little divided. And gosh knows that’s the trend that we’ll see continue in 2017. My tastes in terms of fiction vs. nonfiction haven’t changed: I lean slightly towards nonfiction, as I should since that’s what I’m trying to write. The steady decline in audiobooks & books from the library reflects the shift I made two years ago toward more and more paid reviews.

I expect you’ll see me read even fewer books in 2017, but hopefully with greater focus. I’ll still be reviewing for the Shelf, but far less often. What else the future holds I can’t see from here; but I hope you’ll stick around with me so we can find out together.

I know we will all be glad to see the back side of 2016 tomorrow night. I wish you the happiest of new years.

best of 2016: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up tomorrow. But first… I always like to list my favorite books I’ve read in the closing year. As in the past, these are not necessarily new publications, although several are. Without further ado:

I rated just one book with a 10, so the best book that I read in 2016 was

I gave several a rating of 9:

There were, happily, as ever, lots of 8’s. Special mentions go to:

I also voted this year for The National Book Critics Circle Awards. Five for fiction: Smoke, Lily and the Octopus, The Wangs vs. the World, A Robot in the Garden, and The Throwback Special; and five for nonfiction: Joe Gould’s Teeth, Bellevue, Detroit Hustle, Gods, Wasps & Stranglers… and, for that final slot, I struggled between four titles and settled on The Song Poet. (Runners up were The Girls in My Town, Every Last Tie, and The Narrow Door.) I skipped the categories for poetry, criticism, biography, and autobiography, where I didn’t feel I’d read much.

Finally, I wouldn’t want you to miss Shelf Awareness’s best of list. You’ll notice one nonfiction and four fiction titles that cross over from that list to this blog post (or vice versa).

It’s been another amazing year, and I can’t wait to see what 2017 holds. Thanks for coming around again, friends.

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