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.

my favorite craft books

As we approach the time of year when I usually do lists, I was inspired to add this one, when a dear friend from my MFA program asked me for craft book recommendations in particular. (Abby is usually a fiction writer but is entering her cross-genre semester in nonfiction, so a special emphasis there.) Another dear friend from my MFA program, Okey, used to enjoy this blog and said he especially looked here for craft recommendations. (We lost Okey after this past summer’s residency, unexpectedly, and we are all still reeling. If you haven’t already, please consider this scholarship in his name. It’s a great cause in the name of diversity and inclusivity.)

So. Here’s a list in two tiers, followed by a link to all the craft books I’ve read. Keep in mind that these are the books that have worked best for me, and your mileage may vary. I put a * next to the ones for nonfiction in particular, for Abby and for anyone else who may be interested.

Very favorites, in no particular order:

Well loved, in no particular order:

And, click here to see all books with this tag, which will include titles not listed here.

Thanks for stopping by, as always. Was this list helpful for you? Is there another list you’d like to see me work on? (In the past I’ve done movies, children’s books, audio favorites, science books, LGBTQ…) Let me know, and maybe I’ll put one together!

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.

Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent

A reclusive young widow in the wintry mountains of Pennsylvania and a mysterious stranger from Uzbekistan guard the secrets of their pasts in a present that is still filled with danger.

Kathleen works in a small store at the edge of a state park in Pennsylvania’s Blue Ridge Mountains, frying burgers and onion rings for hikers and hunters, keeping to herself. She was widowed at 22 by a car wreck that left her badly injured, but she insists that she does not have a limp. She wants only to be left alone. But then a stranger appears out of the harsh snow of mountain winter, wearing dress shoes and a disarming expression; his native country is Uzbekistan, and he gives no good reason why he should be lurking out-of-season at the hostel next to Kathleen’s store. Despite her instincts, she indulges him with conversation and, eventually, a cautious friendship.

Sarah St. Vincent’s first novel, Ways to Hide in Winter, tells the story of these two people, each skittish in their own way, as they avert their eyes from the past. Kathleen keeps her world small: she cares for her grandmother, occasionally visits with an old school friend, warily guards a bad habit or two. The stranger–who has a name, but it’s rarely used; Kathleen calls him simply “the stranger”–speaks haltingly of a family and career back home, but there is clearly more that he’s not telling.

This is a story of secrets. Ways to Hide in Winter is told in Kathleen’s first-person perspective, so that the reader discovers the stranger’s secrets as Kathleen does herself; her own are as carefully doled out. It gradually becomes clear that Kathleen is protecting even herself from a past trauma. The stranger confesses to a crime committed back home, but this confession may not be what it seems. As the action of this gripping novel unfolds, then, the mystery of two personal histories races against the present: What will be revealed, and will it be in time to save the protagonists?

This novel of suspense has many strengths. Kathleen offers depths of emotional truth and texture. Other characters are portrayed at a certain remove, according to the narrator’s personality, but they open up by turns as she experiences them. Kathleen is thoughtful, as when she considers the morality of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wonders about Uzbekistan. The setting in rural Pennsylvania mountains is harshly beautiful and handsomely evoked. And, warning: this is a book to keep one up late into the night, its considerable momentum pulling the reader toward its finale. Ways to Hide in Winter is an impressive, compelling first novel, with characters that will be missed after its conclusion.


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


Rating: 8 chess pieces.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

vocabulary lessons: Many Circles by Albert Goldbarth

It has been a long time since I’ve done a vocabulary lessons post, but here we are. I had to share this one because Goldbarth made me look up more words than usual! Here they are in context: words new to me, words vaguely familiar but that I couldn’t quite place, and one I’ve looked up at least four times in six months but just can’t seem to learn.

“We say it like anyone else – in part because our death is bonded into us meiotically, from before there was marrow or myelin, and we know it, even as infants our scream is for more than the teat.”

In a list of junktique objects: “The thimbling netsukes.”

Of da Vinci, quoting in part another writer: “‘Qualities which seem mutually exclusive are combined in him’ most miscibly: ‘the world revealed itself in all its inexhaustiable riches.'”

“There, on the beach, and fitting [Rachel Carson’s] morning’s diligence to the shape of the chambered nautilus, the Spirula, the knobbed whelk, the moon snail making its gelid way, the lightning whelk, the tulip shell, the pink conch, the horse conch, the embryo of the nudibranch, the umbilicus-shell of the Sundial of Taiwan.”

“I sing of the ‘spirals at the Maltese temple of Tarxien’ and ‘those on a stele from one of the Shaft Graces as Mycenaue, c. 1650 B.C.'”

“The green spring wound in the cotyledons.”

“I sing for his phylacteries.”

“A bud vase sprouts a jonquil.”

“Our sleek weed-whackers take us just so far, and not a single deviant, thunder-roughed, heirophantic molecule over the line.”

“Desiderio Kansal remembered climbing the pyramid steps to the temple of Kulkulcan and, by his candleflicker, witnessing Augustus in a hieratic mutter in front of an earthen vessel, ‘the kind the ancient ones used in burning incense before their gods.'”

“Even the desktop humidor is expansive, it could coddle a couple of preemies, and its lid is ivory and cloisonné fretted into a Byzantine pattern.” (I know for certain I looked this up twice just in the course of reading Useful Phrases for Immigrants. The other source I can’t recall.)

“In a world in which the smoking of even cigarettes by the distaff sex was rigorously taboo (and, under New York’s ‘Sullivan Ordinance,’ illegal) Amy Lowell was famous for publicly and profusely puffing away on her trademark Manila cigars.”

“…his eyes switch from a lovely bronze-and-polished-rosewood orrery on his desk, to the study door.”

“The question deliquesces away at the edges of thought, leaving only a residue that frustrates us.”

A fitting place to end, that question deliquescing! And if that doesn’t give you a taste of Goldbarth’s often exhausting style, I don’t know what does! These lines, of course, were often a little obtuse or complicated (and not just in their vocabulary); he’s not nearly so bad as this seems out of context. He’s wonderful, but not easy.

What have you read recently that’s challenged you?

Many Circles: New and Selected Essays by Albert Goldbarth

My word. This is a complicated one.

I admire Albert Goldbarth very much. I’ve read his essay “Fuller” several times now, but I think that’s the only work of his that I’d read before this book. As an overall impression, I am deeply impressed, and challenged. These essays are beautiful and complicated. They are braids of many strands, often organized around an abstract concept, and Goldbarth makes it his job to help us see the connections, which can as well be pretty abstract. In other words, classic essayistic thinking-on-the-page. I’m thinking of the masterful braiding in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I so love, but even more complexly. And long: these essays are 20, 30, 40 and 50 pages long, which can make their braiding quite an organizational feat, and a feat for the reader as well.

They tend to focus on dualities or multiplicities, and profiles of people in history as well as in the present. The amount of information presented in each–scientific, historical–is boggling, and yet each essay makes sense in the end almost despite itself. I want to call the subject matter often obscure, but that’s an issue for each reader to decide, isn’t it; I am not the most well-read person I know, but I am not the least, either, and I certainly found some of the historical figures new to me. (I was fine with Yeats, and Einstein, and the Greek myths, of course; but the archaeologists John Lloyd Stephens* and Augustus Le Plongeon? Millionaire astronomer Pecival Lowell?) Goldbarth himself: extremely well-read and wide-ranging. Reading him is an education.** And I really, really enjoyed reading these essays and learning so much; but they must be taken slowly, to follow and parse all those threads.

Goldbarth is a poet to boot, and adds lyricism and whimsy in where we least expect it, expanding the ways in which he makes connections–imagistic and figurative ones, and wordplay–which make his work so much more beautiful but also that much more complex to follow in his meanings. His images and sentences as well as his essays are surprising, gorgeous, complicated, and rich.

I find his clearest obsession to be the concept of a “sympathy of souls” (the title of an earlier essay collection, many of whose essays reappear here), the interlinking of concepts and images, yes, but also of people. My two favorite examples of this type of essay are “Fuller,” which I’ve read repeatedly and finally begin to grasp, and “After Yitzl.”

The first links Marie Curie with the dancer Loie Fuller. They were contemporaries, and the historical record shows that they met; but much of their touching, close relationship as Goldbarth writes it here is born in his imagination. It’s a stunning piece, first in its portrayal of Marie and Pierre Curie’s passion for their research (and the starry brightness it yielded), and then in its, yes, sympathy between the two women. The narrator’s present life and relationship with his wife sneak in, too. I admired in many essays that the narrator was present as a writer and researcher: this line of poetry he was struggling with and its relationship to the apparently unconnected essay draft, etc.

“After Yitzl” is also a sort of dream sequence, which opens this collection and the earlier Sympathy of Souls. It is about the narrator’s ancestor, his ancestral connections to Jewish immigrants to the United States. It’s brief, and lovely, and as much imagination as anything else, but also research-heavy…

And then there are the longer essays: “Many Circles,” “Worlds,” and “Ellen’s,” which I could read a dozen times and still not grasp all of. It’s about the narrator’s friend Ellen, who is both a genius and mentally ill, and her deep relationship with James Joyce; it’s about Leonardo da Vinci, Dorothy in Oz, and spirals in architecture and nature and imagination. Whew.

Do I recommend this collection? Wholeheartedly, I do; but be ready for a challenge and some slow page-turning, and take notes. I’ll be studying this one for a long time.


Rating: 9 thimbling netsukes, if you’re up for the challenge.

*But then it turned out I did know the archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens: when Goldbarth got to the part about his two-volume work Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, I looked up and yes, spotted those two volumes on my to-be-read shelf. (Thank you Fil for that perfectly appropriate gift.)


**Stay tuned for a vocabulary lessons post to come on Friday.

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