A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another book that came to me at just the right time thanks to Jessie van Eerden. I know of Rebecca Solnit, of course, but I think this is the first of her writing that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it in several aspects: its subject matter is very much in line with that of my thesis (that I’m currently writing); its structure is of interest and also has something to offer my own; the writing is lovely; the content it approaches is wide-ranging, and (as Jessie said early in this semester as we did a manuscript review), “I like to learn stuff.”

That said, it’s not an easy book to sum up. These collected essays are connected, but far from telling a narrative. Solnit is exploring the idea of getting lost and what it has to offer us; and that is ‘getting lost’ in several senses, geographic (I got off the trail and I was lost) and metaphoric (after my mother died I was lost, or I lost several years). Also the sense in which we lose both things and people: lose your keys, lose your mother (to death), lose a boyfriend (when you break up). She sees value in getting lost – sometimes it’s how we find ourselves – and notes that we don’t get lost much anymore. Late in the book, she looks at old maps with their ‘Terra Incognita,’ and observes that we don’t have terra incognita on our maps anymore. We know it all! Right? (Of course, we’ve thought we knew it all before, and been proven wrong.)

I’m using the sense of place tag here although it’s not quite right, which is perhaps a design flaw in my tag. By ‘sense of place,’ I have tended to mean a strong attachment to a certain place; so Jesse Donaldson’s writing about Kentucky, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Mary Karr’s southeast Texas. That is not what I found with Solnit, so much as a strong feeling about the importance of wandering, losing and finding oneself, in place and in other senses. Place plays an important role here. This book feels like it fits that tag, even though it doesn’t fit the tag as I originally conceived it. (This blog will be eight years old next month. Expect some scope creep.)

Structure-wise: there is a chapter-title refrain, with the heading The Blue of Distance (italicized, where the others aren’t) taking every other place between differently-titled essays. These are not the same essay over and over, but they all meditate on blue and its role in our observation of distance, beginning with the literal meaning (that is, that the sky and deep water both look blue for scientifically observable reasons) and moving through less-literal ones. Distance, it seems, is an inextricable part of one’s ability to get lost. My 600-square-foot house would be much harder to get lost in (tell that to my geriatric dog) than a 20-something room mansion would be. I really appreciated this design, the repeated title for very different essays; it was a succinct cue to the way in which they’re linked.

Another item I found interesting to note was Solnit’s references, the other thinkers she turns to. Some were perhaps unsurprising, as writers cite other writers: Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad. These are joined by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobbie Gentry, Yves Klein, Plato, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alfred Hitchcock (among many others). A huge number of minds contributed to Solnit’s own thought processes here – which are of course her own – and I was fascinated by the twists and turns. Again (and again), this is something I need in my own writing and that appeals to me. I can’t wait to tell Jessie how right-on she was with assigning me this book.

Obviously this Field Guide‘s usefulness to me is just beginning. You will like it, too, if you like far-ranging considerations of the human condition and where each of us as an individual might be or should be headed, if we’re thinking about it. I found it an engaging and curiously winding path, and I recommend it.


Rating: 8 shades of blue.

movie: Confirmation (2016)

I only found out that this movie existed thanks to my current favorite podcast, Another Round, so thanks to Heben and Tracy for that! And so timely now.

I read Anita Hill’s memoir, Speaking Truth to Power, more than five years ago. It was a powerful experience: she did a beautiful job telling her story, and it’s a hell of a story to begin with. I was nine years old when Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings took place. I don’t remember them as something I directly experienced; my knowledge of these events comes from hearing other people (like my parents) talk about them, and from reading her book.

This movie is an excellent follow-up as well. If you’re looking for an education about what happened, I suggest Hill’s book for its level of detail. But if you’re looking to grasp the feeling, the emotional truth of this time period, the movie does a good job. Hill, Thomas, and Joe Biden are all played by actors who come remarkably close to their roles not only in physical appearance but in movements, speech patterns, and mannerisms. The feelings (on one side) of shock and concern and ill-boding about what will come of all this, and (on the other side) of indignation and impatience and real threat unlooked for, are well captured. Again, as someone who doesn’t remember viewing the confirmation hearings when they happened, I spent some time pausing this movie to pull up old video from the real events, comparing both the wording and the delivery. It’s pretty spot on.

All of which means it was hard to watch. I guess there may be people out there who question the truth of Hill’s allegations, but I can hardly imagine who they might be. Not women, for one thing, because all of us women who have lived and worked in the world know that these things happen, and we know well why a woman might not speak up when it happens, as Hill’s critics kept harping on about. It should go without saying, but: I am horrified that we are seeing these events play out again twenty-freaking-seven years later with Brett Kavanaugh. Horrified.

You can read Anita Hill’s own words on this subject in an article for the New York Times: “How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right.”

Weirdly, though, I found the movie less difficult to watch than Anita Hill’s book was to read. You’d think the movie would be more visceral because of its visual and aural elements. But Hill’s writing admirably matches her speaking: calm, measured tone, far from devoid of emotion but thoughtful and thorough. Like the lawyer she is, she is careful with fact and clear about where she speculates. She relies on the strengths of her arguments and the truth. I found this careful telling even more moving than the movie.

In a nutshell? A recommendation for this movie, and an even stronger one for Hill’s book. And a sound shame-on-you for our country still struggling to treat women with respect, like as if we were real human beings, and for punishing and not believing us when we speak up. I hope someday the cases of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford will cause history students to gasp in disbelief, rather than nodding their heads in recognition of the same old story.


Rating: 8 cases.

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

While visiting my parents in Bellingham, we picked up this sweet, raucous outdoor play: Marian retells the Robin Hood story from a differently-gendered perspective. It was great fun. The evening was perfect, quickly cooling as the sun went down (not quite in our eyes) until we were all wearing our fleece jackets. We sat on concrete stadium-style benches in Marine Heritage Park, a downtown park with a sizable homeless/loitering population that, I think, events like this hope to reclaim in some way, or, they hope to help renovate the park’s reputation. (It was fine.) The set was simple – the troupe lugged it there, up and down a hill, by hand – but perfect. As I’ve written before, the set shouldn’t carry a play’s weight; elaborate sets and costumes can be great, but the acting and the play itself should do the heavy lifting.

The story opens in the usual spot, at an archery contest with grumpy Prince John presiding and Robin Hood in disguise. Except that Robin Hood is Maid Marian, already in disguise: that’s right, Marian is Robin Hood, yielding lots of costume/disguise changes and two-people-never-seen-in-the-same-place stuff. Marian/Robin should be our protagonist, but that role is shared by a character named Alanna, a lady-in-waiting, who does a certain amount of audience-facing narration, and (slight spoiler) ends up joining the Merry Men early in the play. Few of the Merry Men, in fact, are men at all.

Gender-bending is a theme, and while gender-bending is as old as gender conceptions (and absolutely Shakespearean), there were some modern twists here, including one of the Merry Men requesting they/them pronouns and a change to the group’s title to ‘Merry Men and Much.’ (All well-received.) Also, the script was an interesting mix of an older, more formal diction and a modern slangy one, which I think is always a good tool: once you’ve primed your audience to expect that period-style talk, the modern usages become totally hilarious in context. There was lots of physical humor as well, and no small amount of romance. We the audience were in stitches.

This production was more amateur than some: a few actors stumbled over a few lines, and the sound system (or the microphones? during costume changes?) cut in and out a bit. No problem. As I’ve written more than once, I love to see passionately produced and talented amateur theatre, even if there are a few glitches as here; and there is no question that this play was produced with passion and talent. I had a fabulous time; I was super disappointed when the play ended and wanted it to go on for hours.

Thanks, Sylvia Center folks, for romance and hilarity and poignancy. Hooray for Marian and her Merry People.


Rating: 9 arrows for joy.

On Homesickness: A Plea by Jesse Donaldson

Our temples are made of logs in Kentucky so be careful with the flame.

This is a book very much after my own heart, even though its narrator doesn’t care much for the city that has my heart; we both share a love for home, even though our homes are different.

On Homesickness is a collection of fragments, none longer than one page, and that’s an important design feature, because each spread follows a pattern. The left-hand page names a Kentucky country, its date of establishment, and a small representation of its shape on a map. The right-hand page offers a fragment, sometimes expressly referring to the corresponding county but more often not. It’s possible that fragments and counties match up better than I know, and a Kentuckian might know better, but I’m not really all that concerned. These super-short pieces of prose make a neatly paced, lyric form for what is essentially a wandering wanting. Donaldson yearns for his home and can’t figure out how to get there. Meanwhile we learn as well that he and his beloved partner have a pretty good life in Oregon, a place he finds beautiful but not quite home. His partner is uninclined to pick up and move to Kentucky. Donaldson flubs a job interview that might have moved his family home; his wife gets pregnant, and in a lovely piece near the end, “…I realize that for our daughter, this place will be home. And I want her to love it like I did mine.”

That is the narrative arc, such as it is (and it ends beautifully), but the narrative bones of this book are spare. Along the way, Donaldson also mines Kentucky history, myth, and cultural references (that Colonel’s sour mash), creating as much mood as story. Again, yearning is absolutely the dominant feeling, coming across loud and clear. Also very present is the unnamed partner, the wife in Oregon. This is a love story as much for a woman as for a place. “A place can’t love me. Not like you.”

I find this book interesting for its form, its bravery in sparsity and what it communicates so succinctly. Its themes are so much my own that it aches a little, and I recognized almost every line as I read. Even the references felt uncannily personal (Janus, Cleanth Brooks, Houston). Is that because I’m so truly the right reader for this book? Or because it’s designed to appeal to every reader in this personal way? Probably a little of both. Either way, a good study in minimalist, lyric prose; mood over plot; and a decent way to learn about Kentucky, not from an academic historian but from a lover. I liked it very much.


Rating: 8 love stumps.

Bonus material/synchronicity: I was originally sent this book in galley form for a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t get around to it. I kept the book, though, because I thought I might be interested someday. When I worked with Jeremy Jones last semester, I learned that his “In Place” series from WVU‘s Vandalia Press had debuted with this book as its first release. Meant to be. Part of me wishes I’d gotten to it sooner (and written that review for the Shelf!), but part of me thinks I found it at the right time.

reread: Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

In my defense, it’s been more than four years since I listened to this audiobook for the first time (and reviewed it here): I had forgotten what happened, and got to find it new again. I seem to have reached the stage of forgetfulness in which I can enjoy a thriller/murder mystery novel a second time, with the same fresh eyes. Hooray! That always looked like one of the best features of aging. (Perhaps my brain’s just saturated.)

I recently took a road trip with a friend, and he wanted to listen to a book, and I figured Reacher would work for him, so here we are with an unplanned reread. I’ll keep this brief, because I think my earlier comments remain true. I was deeply concerned this time around with the erroneous use of the 50/50 coin toss idea. Reacher (and therefore Child) is usually so smart! But the many scenarios where the coin toss idea is used here are all binary choices, having two options; rarely do they hold even odds. Ugh.

On the other hand, I still love the sexiness, the cleverness, and the depth of the Susan Turner character (Reacher’s romantic alliance in this episode). I still love the formula, and formula it most certainly is; but having acknowledged that, what’s the problem? It works for me every time.

The extent to which I’d forgotten this plot excites me. It’s got me thinking about all the Martha Grimes books I enjoyed in my teens and early 20s: those should all be new to me now, too!

On that note, Happy Friday, y’all. I hope you have a weekend as awesome as a Lee Child novel (but with less violence).


Rating: I’ll stick with those 7 cars.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the Trojan War by one of the women on the side of defeat is essential, and essentially human.

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War told by the victors, and by men. At long last, another perspective is offered, in Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was queen of a city near Troy and, after it fell to the Greeks, she was given as prize of honor to Achilles. After Apollo compelled him to forfeit a concubine, Agamemnon took Briseis for his own. This indignity inspires Achilles’s famous sulk, which begins the Iliad.

In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, The Silence of the Girls is a much-needed retelling. Where men sing of honor and glory, women experience a different war. They are controlled by men: by their fathers and husbands, and then by their captors. Briseis is beautiful and royal; she hates her new status as concubine, but sees the far worse treatment of the “common women” who sleep under the Greeks’ huts, with their dogs, and are used by any man who pleases. She is clever and gives nuanced portraits of many characters in the Greek encampment below Troy’s walls. She is proud, angered by the indignities of slavery. One of the book’s themes is the question of authorship: she knows that it is Achilles’s story that the world will hear, but she searches for her own within narratives of men and war.

Strong, beautiful Achilles is cold, but stops short of cruelty. Gentle Patroclus eventually befriends Briseis. Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nestor are profiled; but equally important are the other slave women. Briseis has friends, allies and antagonists among them, but always considers their struggles. For example, Ajax’s concubine is one of several women who recommend pregnancy above all other strategies. Briseis does not love her captors. But one of her revelations involves how the Trojans will survive, in the end: the sons of the Greeks will remember the Trojan lullabies their captive mothers sang to them.

The Silence of the Girls, like the classic it’s modeled on, is an epic. Briseis’s uncertain situation brings tension and momentum. At just 300 pages, this novel feels much bigger than it is, but is never heavy. Even with the atrocities, violence and loss it portrays, the protagonist’s thoughtful, compassionate point of view emphasizes humanity. It would be too much to say she weighs both sides of an issue evenly; she is loyal to her family and angry with her captors, but she also sees the tragedy in ranks of young Greek boys killed.

This mature, reflective narrative manages the cataloging of Homer’s telling (how many tripods offered, how many bowls of wine mixed), but with a grace and an interest in individual people that is fresh and novel. Barker uses metaphor and animal imagery deftly. Her prose flows easily, like storytelling between friends. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for any devoted fan of the Iliad, but equally accessible to those new to the Trojan story; indeed, The Silence of the Girls might make the perfect entry.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 waves.

movie: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Recommended by the fabulously talented Jessie van Eerden. Writing my thesis with her this semester is a dream.

However, first thoughts on this movie were “wow, this is weird, why am I watching this?” and then I got into the groove. For one thing, it’s an interesting work of narrative nonfiction. Ostensibly, director Agnès Varda is concerned with an external subject: the longstanding tradition of gleaning, or collecting the leftovers of a harvest. She enters this subject via art – the paintings of Millet and Breton – but among and in between this external material, Varda looks back at herself. The moments that become personal make the whole thing work, for me. Which is not to say that I wish the whole thing had been personal, or I spent the rest of the movie waiting to learn more about our narrator, you understand. I’m just voicing again my preference for a present narrator. I appreciate external material that is commented upon by a personal voice. In fact, I pretty much require it, as a personal preference. Perhaps this is on my mind now because I’m working on my thesis, that book-length project “of publishable quality”… and I am appreciating that Jessie shares my feeling of being an essayist, of commenting on outside material from a personal perspective, rather than simply airing all my own thoughts and feelings. Personal essay, not memoir, if you will.

And that is what I’m getting out of this movie: the narrative stance. As well as the subject matter: not gleaning in particular, but the entry through art into a larger subject (I am writing about the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, and Dominique de Menil, among others), as well as its metaphoric possibility. I really lit up when Varda noted the new, metaphoric uses of ‘gleaning’:

On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been. From Japan, I brought back in my case souvenirs I had gleaned.

She does a lot of using one hand to film the other hand, which is an interesting statement about art, right? (All that commentary about the memoir as navel-gazing!)

The Gleaners and I is a piece of art, concerned in part with art – the original paintings as inspiration; the artists Varda meets who create out of the refuse they scavenge – as well as several meanings of gleaning. The people in the French countryside consider gleaning in its old sense, bending down to pick up leftover crops lying on the ground after a harvest. Some see a difference between this act and picking, which is picking fruit or nuts or whatever off of trees, vs. bending to take off the ground. Then there is urban scavenging, dumpster diving and combing through curb leavings. And finally that metaphoric sense, in which I watch this movie and take with me – figuratively – the parts that are of most value to me.

Varda interviews a “painter and retriever” who picks up other people’s discards from the curbs to make art, not unlike a dear friend of mine: he says, “what’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” (I also love that he points out that the city council puts out maps of where this not-junk is going to be, and Varda responds that really, aren’t the maps so that the people can put out their junk? And he sort of chuckles and says yes, well, I read the maps in my own way.)

I’m really fascinated though at the assumption throughout – never challenged! – that this food is all “wasted” if people don’t eat it. One guy did say about unharvested grapes that otherwise “the wild boars and the birds will get them.” So… how is that a waste? No human got it, but it didn’t go to waste. Even the fruit that rots on the ground contributes to a system. Even if we’re compelled to make it about us: dirt is necessary for people to live, for everything to live, and rotting grapes help make dirt. I wrote to my artist-scavenger friend about this movie, and he responded: “There is an edict in the Old Testament about leaving behind a percent of crops for the animals. Old wisdom makes sense sometimes.” This seemed like a gaping hole to me. After all, we didn’t invent grapes. They grew on their own, for their own purposes: the purpose of the grape, and the bird and the wild boar. Shades of Amy Leach here…

The film is in French, with subtitles, and it’s dated. (It was released in 2000, but the narrative voice is very much “what is this new millennium nonsense” – filmed in the 90s, of course.) It’s also arty, a little slow-paced and introspective, which could contribute to its being a little less than accessible – it worked that way for me, early on. It had a little bit of the tone of Sherman’s March, but not nearly so off-putting for this viewer!

All in all, I was a touch slow to get involved but Varda’s Gleaners ended up being fascinating, thought-provoking, and memorable. It’s been haunting my thoughts. There’s a lot going on here, and I do recommend it, if you’re at all interested in… trash, food, the end of the world, reuse, art, or narrative perspectives. So, good for all thinking souls.


Rating: 8 cages interesting like boats, like violins.
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