Fourth Genre, volume 18, number 1 (spring 2016)


I began this issue of Fourth Genre feeling a little underwhelmed. But I finished impressed, and intrigued. My personal reactions to these essays ranged widely. Some of them just let me down. I read a prizewinning essay that struck me as more interesting in its clever format than in its content; and I felt the same about several of the essays that followed. I gave up on an essay that felt increasingly weighted down by academic, philosophical wordiness. I was frustrated by another that characterized travelers as trying in vain to make themselves more interesting: this writer recommends “an hour-long excursion to the public library” and the purchasing of souvenirs “in your own living room, never having changed out of your pajamas” over real-world experiences. Now, I heartily recommend visiting your public library regularly. But I felt that this writer missed an important point, that some of of us have profound experiences by visiting in person places outside of our daily geographic routine. Of course, this is merely a personal reaction, as they all are.

Some left me a little ambivalent. “Recapitulation Theory” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson struck me. I’m not sure it holds together as a whole for me; but at many points throughout I was fascinated (and not least by the narrator’s role as librarian). The contributor bios indicate that this is part of a larger project, which makes perfect sense. I appreciated the tortoise trivia, and the emotion, in Lawrence Lenhart’s “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go: A Carapace in 37 Parts”; but I regretted the on-the-page formatting of text wrapped around carapaces and scutes. I found it distracting – it made reading more challenging – and didn’t feel it added anything that more traditional block formatting of graphics wouldn’t have accomplished.

On the other hand, I found some gems. “Sixteen Forecasts” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade was another playfully formatted essay but one I enjoyed more. And I am intrigued by the two authors: how did they put this together? I want to know. “Light” by Kathryn U. Hulings is a powerfully feeling narrative about the trauma of a suffering, self-destructive loved one. Mimi Dixon’s “Anesthesia” is, again, a more traditionally formatted essay but one with more to say. Rachael Perry’s “The Sand Dunes: An Elegy” is scarcely a page long, but deeply lovely and evocative. Jane Bernstein’s “The Incident in My Park” is an electric, disturbing story – that is, a narrative. Not that it’s done entirely straightforwardly. There are time jumps; there is musing. But perhaps what I’m finding here is a preference for narratives (a la Creative Nonfiction). With “Brother Sammy,” Deborah Thompson is a little more subtle in building the narrative that frames her reflections, but in this lovely, short essay, she made me think, and this was another successful piece for me.

And then came the highlights of the journal, beginning with “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter” by Katherine E. Standefer. She uses a decidedly nontraditional format, something I quibbled with earlier in the journal; but this one worked so cleanly for me. I was aware of the form (footnotes, in this case, and with the relationships between source and note often unclear), but it didn’t get in the way of what I was reading: a personal history in snippets, engrossing and moving throughout. And then! “Animalis” is followed by Standefer’s essay about the essay, “Breaking the Body: On the Writing of ‘Animalis’.” This was the perfect choice for a piece about the piece, both because of its unusual form and because of the story of how it came to be: in a word, slowly. I was captivated! And the loveliness of her lines crosses over to the craft piece, in which she writes

The reference list of our bodies? It is both broken and gorgeous. The shards, glinting light, became the essay’s wrestle.


I learned that an unruly essay, controlled by the reins of voice, will hold its readers and deliver them somewhere new.

Things continued to solidify for me, to make sense and to make enjoyable reading, as the journal proceeded with craft essays. After Standefer’s essay and commentary came Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas with “The Peach Orchard” and “On ‘The Peach Orchard’,” which totally drew me in as well: she writes about La Violencia in Colombia in very complex ways using several narratives. I was impressed, and her commentary was equally engrossing. Dawn S. Davies writes “Disquiet and the Lyric Essay” in which we learn a lot about the writer (voice!) as well as consider some questions about what makes an essay ‘lyric.’ The book reviews that follow struck me more as responses to books than reviews of them (although I enjoyed the playful review of Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy). In an “Inter-Review” with Wendy S. Walters (in which they discuss each other’s new books), Michael Martone says he

think(s) of publishing as more like political organizing than the gatekeeping of taste and promoting something as “good” or “bad.”

which I found an interesting thought.

All in all, I found immersion in this lit journal a thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating, somewhat challenging reading experience. It’s yielded more reading: I have a play, a song, an essay and a blog post now queued up from references in this issue. I enjoyed some of the writing very much, and some of it wasn’t for me; but that’s the world, and that’s okay. It seems that Fourth Genre appreciates nontraditional formats almost for their own sake, and I’m not sure my tastes run in quite the same way, but there is much here to like. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Rating: 7 hermit crabs.

a few notes on driving cross-country

First, some statistics.

  • miles driven: 2999.5
  • state lines crossed: 6
  • passengers: 2 human, 2 canine
  • cargo: some 600-1,000 lbs., including
    • 1 large ceramic sculpture;
    • camping gear;
    • bedding;
    • household spillables & flammables, 1 propane tank, 2 fire extinguishers, 1 CO2 canister, guns & ammo*;
    • 1 crate of books;
    • 2 bicycles;
    • 2 suitcases per person;
    • 1 dog bed;
    • two buckets of dog food**
  • days, total: 14
  • nights, total: 13
  • nights in hotels: 4
  • mountain bike rides: 6
  • books read: 6

Glitches (inexhaustive):

  1. Moving truck broke down before it was able to load our household goods, which were then moved to storage and did not leave our town of origin for 7 days, at which time we had been on the road for 12 days. At time of writing, we are still camping out in our new home with a mattress on the floor and a patio set of table and 4 chairs. We do now have wifi.
  2. House came with stove and refrigerator, no washer/dryer. Washing machine finally delivered 2 days after purchase–did not work. Washer #2 so far seems operational.
  3. Husband woke up grumpy§ and immediately angry that one outlet, then another, then a third would not power his laptop. (He works from home.) I drove him to the local library to work from there; ran an errand, and came home to begin work myself, only to find that he has taken my laptop power cord with him to the library. Text Husband to inquire why he has taken my power cord. Long pause. “So that’s why it wasn’t working.” Turns out the outlets in our house are fine.

Funny observation:

  1. If you go to sit with the dogs in the back bedroom so they won’t bark so much while the man is here to install internet & cable, leaving Husband to deal with installation, Husband may be asked to provide answers to security questions on your shared account. One of these answers will make perfect, intuitive sense to you. One will make no sense at all. No matter: these are the answers to your security questions.

Or, in photos (as always, click to enlarge):

mountain biking with Husband and friend Pete: Redmond, OR

mountain biking with Husband and friend Pete: Redmond, OR

Snake River: Twin Falls, ID

Snake River: Twin Falls, ID

riding Porcupine Rim: Moab, UT

riding Porcupine Rim: Moab, UT

dogs, book, coffee on porch: Durango, CO

dogs, book, coffee on porch: Durango, CO

Turret Arch, looking from North Window: Arches National Park

Turret Arch, looking from North Window: Arches National Park

old dog happy in Guadalupe River: New Braunfels, TX

old dog happy in Guadalupe River: New Braunfels, TX

Quibbles aside, I recognize how extraordinarily lucky I am to have been able to make this move at all, let alone to make it in the way we did: hiring movers to take the bulk of our stuff so we could drive, slowly, just the loving four of us (Husband + dogs), to see the country on the way. Soon, we will have couches and beds and pots and pans and bookshelves again. We love our new hometown. Life is good.

*in other words, everything the movers won’t move.
**the old dog is on a prescription diet.
†thanks to friends & family!
‡including audiobooks and lit journals.
§this is standard.

Teaser Tuesdays: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


Usually I choose these teaser quotations carefully because I have something to say about the lines in question; but this time I just flipped, looking (still) for interesting snippets.


From page 47,

Jenny opens the truck door. On the dashboard is a Styrofoam cup filled with lemonade. She gets into the passenger seat. She takes the cup in her left hand and gulps. Cool, sharp on the roof of her mouth. She waits for the sugar to push through her veins. She sees the forest beyond the white rim of her cup. She closes her eyes. The hatchet is still in her right hand, hanging out the door.

Because I do not know this character yet, I wonder: is the hatchet a sinister detail, or an everyday one? And how about the cool, sharp lemonade, and the forest beyond… I appreciate these simple, declarative sentences and the artfulness they subtly contain. I’ll be looking forward to this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Make Me by Lee Child

make-meWhen my grandmother was visiting Bellingham, in the final days of my residence there, we took a walk through the new location of the local indy bookstore. I was excited at the prospect of having time to choose a book to read on our big drive south, a book just for me and just for fun; so I bought myself a paperback copy of Lee Child’s latest. I read this book in a day and a half, in Durango, Colorado and on the road from there to Santa Fe. It was a deeply pleasurable time.

It’s been a while since I read any Lee Child, and Reacher was just as I remembered him. The formula is perhaps getting a little see-through at this point; but I love it no less.

Reacher gets off the train in the little town of Mother’s Rest, in the middle of nowhere. (I suspect Mother’s Rest is in Kansas, although it is never stated, and it is, of course, a fictional place.) When he steps off the train, he is greeted by a woman clearly waiting for someone, and disappointed Reacher isn’t that someone. He’s really just curious about the name of the town, though none of the locals can or will explain it to him. Instead, he finds them oddly surly, even antagonistic. What’s going on in Mother’s Rest? And what happened to the man Reacher was mistaken for at the train depot?

The locals are up to something, of course, and of course Reacher is the man to figure out what. Following the formula, he teams up with an attractive and highly competent woman, beats up on the baddies, and untangles the plot. He is at once a do-gooder, motivated to defend the world’s innocents, and an isolationist, apt to keep moving unless dragged into things by outside forces–like the bad guys trying to mess with him. The tagline for this novel’s title: “But as always, Reacher’s rule is: If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”

Like I said, the formula is clear to me. But this fast-paced, involved and involving, smart plot; Reacher’s big, handsome, smart (if a little fantastic) superhero powers; and the detailed, fully-formed world of Mother’s Rest are totally compelling. I scarcely put this book down, and was so sorry when it was over. On the other hand: in my paperback copy, Make Me was followed by a Reacher short story “Small Wars,” and then by an excerpt from the next Reacher novel, Night School, due for publication just next month. Lee Child really knows what he’s doing, cranking them out like this, and keeping us teased along the way. And, happily, the quality does not decline. My fandom is again confirmed.

To review: more of the same Reacher, except different in its particulars, so Child’s fans are never bored. You could start here or anywhere in the series, as they all jump around in time. But beware that once you start, you may not want to stop.

Rating: 8 hogs.

book beginnings on Friday: Make Me by Lee Child

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Hooray! We’re back to Reacher again!


The big move south yielded the possibility of spare moments of reading time just for me, and I was delighted to pick up the latest Lee Child (note that he has another out just next month!). It begins:

Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house.

If this were not a Reacher novel, I might imagine that this burial strategy was merely practical, even possibly respectful, a la Gilbert Grape. But because this is a Reacher novel, of course, I suspect more nefarious dealings. I also like that Child gets us right into the action: in three sentences we assume we are deep into a murder case. And, action!

The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle

With Brian Doyle’s reliable good humor, this collection reveres human efforts and love in situations both moving and laughable.

mighty currawongs

The Mighty Currawongs and Other Stories by Brian Doyle (Martin Marten) roams broadly in subject matter, but always offers joyful, whimsical wordplay and an abiding love for life’s absurd and profound moments. These short stories–almost all under 10 pages–deal specifically with human experiences and relationships, rather than embracing the wider natural world of Doyle’s novels, but the same voice and fanciful tone appear clearly.

A Boston basketball league plays through hilarity and scuffles, and finds a player who deepens the game. A likable archbishop loses his faith; a grandfather teaches his grandson to play chess; a tailor offers a young newspaperman sartorial and other advice. Through these everyday incidents, Doyle’s approach to the world is poignant (as in a veteran’s memories of the Vietnam War) but steadfastly hopeful. Indeed, the only criticism of his work might be for his unrelenting optimism, expressed by consistently likable, essentially good characters. But with his mastery of language and eye for detail, Doyle’s characters always feel authentic, and their ups and downs are realistically proportioned. His gift for finding the sublime in even the small and dirty details is alive and gleaming in this short story collection.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 30, 2016 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: 8 halves of the door.

Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, trans. by Anthea Bell

This clever, stylish novel in translation follows a German man’s quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village.

cabo de gata

In this slim, unassuming novel, Eugen Ruge (In Times of Fading Light) experiments with form and style, setting a plot of quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village. Cabo de Gata is almost minimalist in its events, but expert detail fills out a story larger than its circumstances. In Anthea Bell’s translation from the German, the unnamed narrator’s voice suits him perfectly.

In Berlin in the years just after the Wall came down, Ruge’s narrator feels stuck. He has a good-enough if meaningless job; his ex-girlfriend calls only to ask him to help care for her daughter; he suspects the punks in the ground-floor apartment stole his bicycle. He sees the rest of his life rolling out in front of him in mind-numbing routine, doomed “like the undead” to empty repetition. And so he leaves.

Indecision about where to travel pleases rather than alarms him: he seeks the unknown, “for the sake of experiment,” because he is also an aspiring novelist. He chiefly wants someplace quiet and warm, and so flees to Cabo de Gata, a town in Andalusia promised by the travel guides to offer “a breath of Africa.” The nearly abandoned fishing village turns out surprisingly to be terribly cold, the inhabitants gruff and standoffish; his writing comes out bitter. He is a curious, contradictory character, perhaps not entirely reliable: he is not superstitious, he announces, and then proceeds to find signs in hermit crabs and his dead mother in a stray cat. Intermittently obsessive, he fills his days as much with invented tasks and rules as he does with writing the intended novel.

It may sound absurdist, but Ruge’s quietly affecting story is more understated than it is bizarre. The narrator has his quirks, such as a fondness for humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Jimi Hendrix taught it to me in his famous appearance at Woodstock”). But he is essentially involved in a search both existential and humdrum: where to go from here.

The narrator tells his story from a distance, from a much later time in which he hints that he has been very successful, and he pointedly chooses not to consult notes or check his facts (“I could Google it,” he writes, but he doesn’t). This meta-view offers another layer for the discerning reader to dissect. On the surface the odd story of a troubled man haunting a Spanish ghost town, Cabo de Gata also poses questions about life’s directions and perspectives.

This review originally ran in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 candles.
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