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Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley

I appreciated Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, and so I was interested when I learned he’d written a memoir of a difficult-to-write-about family member.

The first paragraph of Hemley’s prologue introduces five characters in a nuclear family. Father Cecil, who died when Robin (the youngest child) was seven. Brother Jonny, who “used to be good at everything, from languages to sports to the sciences,” but as an adult specializes in Orthodox Judaism (he and Robin are not close). The eldest, sister Nola, who “was good at everything, too, art and language, but especially things of the spirit.” Mother Elaine, writer and teacher, who is good at surviving. And here Robin introduces himself, as larcenous. Throughout this book, he is tormented by the thought of the stories, secrets, feelings and anguishes he’s stealing from his family members, particularly Elaine and Nola. Brilliant, spiritual, disturbed Nola, who always heard voices and saw fairies and angels and communicated with God, was treated for the last several years of her life for schizophrenia, in and out of mental institutions until she died when she was twenty-five years old, and Robin was fifteen.

This is a memoir filled with documents. The Hemleys are a writing family, and Robin mines Nola’s unpublished autobiography, her drawings, his own and his mother’s short stories, letters sent among the family, court documents, and more. Nola’s writing in particular appears peppered with struck-through text and additions, mostly the work of their mother as editor. These edits are not redacted; the reader gets both versions at once, often unsure of whether a change is Nola’s or Elaine’s. It is disconcerting, and entirely appropriate.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is well-named. It is not an easy read. Just over 300 pages feels longer, as Hemley navigates the pain and distress of layers of family trauma–his father’s death and the deaths of several school-age friends; moves to ill-suited towns; a permissive, struggling mother; everyday sibling discord, and Nola’s increasing difficulties with a world she characterizes as “a strange and unbearable monster.” This is Nola’s book, but it follows side-threads, too, as when eleven-year-old Robin goes to live for part of a school year with elderly relatives in Florida (“By any yardstick other than a conventional one, I was essentially an elderly person… I really liked being old”). Later, he finds middle school frightening and chooses instead to attend day school at the psychiatric hospital where Nola is an inpatient. The Children’s Ward is a comfortable enough home for Robin, until he finds out they might not let him out again. Years after Nola’s death, when Robin is a graduate student, he has a girlfriend who suffers a psychotic break echoing his sister’s. Obviously, these threads are part of Nola’s story, her mystery, as well.

Not an easy read at all, as the book’s progress follows Nola’s descent into a misery she will not escape from. I do not recommend staying up late into the night to finish reading this as a winter storm rolls in. I found it quite upsetting, in fact. There’s no question that Hemley achieves emotional engagement, a representation of some of the agony his family has experienced. It’s a complicated achievement, all these layers of family trauma–often still with hope strung through them, at least while Nola retains it–and the writerly impulses of a family committed to communication and the written word, to education, and to some version of truth, however complicated. [Elaine’s technique is to write the family stories as fiction. Hemley’s essay “Truths We Could Live With,” appearing in Joy Castro’s (ed.) Family Troubles, and assigned by Jeremy Jones for my recent residency, discusses the difficulties he’s had with this practice. You can read an excerpt here.] A major thread of Nola follows the back-and-forth communications of mother and son, as Robin researches his family history for this book, and Elaine both helps (consulting, remembering, mailing him copious documents) and worries over the pain this will cause her, and Robin worries in turn.

So, a rich and complicated story. And cerebral: the Hemleys are a heavily educated, intellectual and mystic family, as well. (Cecil was co-founder of Noonday Press, and with Elaine translated and edited I.B. Singer’s work.) Almost every page is dense with philosophy (Nola’s grad-school discipline), religion, theory: faith, art, and madness indeed. I was having trouble getting through it, until I decided to let Nola’s concepts in particular sort of wash over me, and stop trying to understand them. (Much easier this way.) This book is an accomplishment worthy of study, but it will cost you something in the reading, so I recommend it with that qualification. Maybe stick to the daylight, too.


Rating: 7 Blakean drawings.

“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard

At the gracious request of Uriah Pariah, here is a my response to an essay I admire greatly, and more and more every time I read it. “The Fourth State of Matter” appears in Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth, and you can read it here.


NOTE: This review includes spoilers, and I feel strongly about the reader’s first experience with this essay being a blind read. If you don’t know what it’s about, please STOP now and go read it yourself first before continuing with my lesser words.


I think this post has to include the story of how I came to this essay in the first place. It was assigned reading in Suzanne Paola’s Intro to Creative Nonfiction Writing class at Western Washington University, an undergrad course I took in my early 30s a few years ago, surrounded by people not old enough to legally purchase beer (itself a weird time). Suzanne is a gift to the world and to this art form, but that’s another story. I read the essay she’d assigned without knowing anything about it. So my experience was innocent, like most of the readers (I assume) who first encountered it in The New Yorker in 1996. I have since been assigned the same essay several times, and have read it additional times for “pleasure” (though that’s not quite the right word) and study. I’ll never have that first read again, but it still gets better every time. I wish the same for you.

So, on first read, this is what presented itself to me: the narrator has an old dog, a collie, who is nearing death, in the most sympathetic, almost apologetic fashion. Jo Ann sleeps in fits and starts, between cleaning up after the collie’s incontinence. She has squirrels in her spare bedroom, and her husband has just left her. It’s a rough time. Then we go to work with Jo Ann, and meet her quite likable colleague, Chris. They are quite different–he is a space physicist, she is the managing editor of the space physics journal and vague on the science–but have a genial relationship, so comfortable that I instantly relate, even envy them a little.

This essay is a braid, and a very fine example of that form, but sort of subtle too, because the various braids (and there are several: dying dog, squirrels, estranged husband, work relationships with Chris and others) all come from the same timeline, the present tense of the essay. It’s not clear at first whether they will work as braided fibers or a single story, although I think they come out in a braid, and like the finest such essays, they are tied up together at the end, so that there is a moment of reveal: the reader’s aha, when she sees how tragically these narrative threads are all in fact one.

Because what this essay is “really” about is the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, when a graduate student killed five and maimed a sixth before shooting himself. Jo Ann knew the shooter and several of his victims, including her dear friend Chris.

This “real” material comes on slowly, then suddenly. There are foreshadowing moments of darkness, but when the first bullet flies the reader still feels a shock. It felt very realistic to me in this way: it felt like the faculty and students on campus might have felt that day.

Jo Ann goes home in shock. She takes care of the collie dog. She has already had an old friend take care of the squirrels in the spare bedroom. She is surrounded by friends who want to help her, although they don’t know how; her estranged ex-husband (not a sympathetic character) comes around and bumbles some more. Again, the telling feels like what she might have experienced in the living of it. The essay ends on a heartbreakingly beautiful elegiac note, and we are bereft: that this fine piece of art is over, and that lives have been lost, along with the squirrels and the not-quite-yet-dead-but-still-dying beloved dog.

One of the things that struck me most on my first reading was how much the dog affected me. Because, be clear, five people were murdered and followed by one suicide, then another; an additional victim was left paralyzed; a major university was deeply wounded. But the dog. My own old dog has been getting older and less cogent for years now–he’s still going, amazingly, but even when I first read this essay, I could feel his mortality. When we discussed “The Fourth State of Matter” in that undergraduate class, I was a little surprised to learn that nearly everyone had this story, though, about a beloved old dog, dead or dying. Of course, I quickly saw what nonsense it was to think that I had a monopoly on this. It’s a pretty universal feeling. We love our dogs.

Also, though, the essay starts with the dog. Beard’s first line reads, “The collie wakes me about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.” My personal impression of this essay is that the collie dog–who goes unnamed, lending her even more of the universal, the ur-dog, the archetypical beloved–stands in for everything else that is lost. The youth and innocent partying of the squirrels, the broken love of the husband, the lives (Chris, who Jo Ann was close to, but also Bob, who she disliked and fought with constantly)–all of this, for me, is contained in the dog. For me, it’s a near-perfect essay, if not perfect. I haven’t even mentioned all the single lines that are crystalline, funny and perfect, as well. Go read it, again.

There have been criticisms. For one thing, Beard plays loose with the facts in characterizing the shooter, Gang Lu, attributing thoughts and feelings to him, supplying some of the content of letters he left behind explaining his actions. On first reading, I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe enough of those letters (for example) had been released to the public to allow her to know what she claims to know in this essay, but that is not the case. I’m so much on board with this essay that I no longer care. Funny, I’m a stickler for truth in nonfiction, until my heart has been won, and then I don’t care anymore. (See also Albert Goldbarth’s “Fuller.”)

Then there is the question of how we write about violence, about trauma, and about other people’s losses. This was the subject of Katie Fallon’s seminar at my recent residency, for which I was most recently assigned this essay, among other lovely pieces of writing. The class was divided, although “The Fourth State of Matter” was not at the center of our discussion–we mostly focused on Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” another piece I dearly love, although my peers are not all in agreement about it. We wonder, with pieces like these, about exploiting trauma, about glorifying violence, about whether to number the gunman in the death count, about when a story is “ours” to write about. We all have different reactions to these questions, and that’s not really what this blog post is meant to be about, but I will say about “The Fourth State of Matter” that I think Beard stays well on the side of writing about her own personal experience of this tragedy. She may not be all in the clear on the question of fact-in-nonfiction, but I think she’s fairly safe on exploiting violence. Again, because she makes it about a dog, some squirrels, and a dear friend. Or, as the original commenter put it when he requested this post: “it’s the fact that it was her story to tell, and a true one at that, that lends it its ultimate power.” That’s why nonfiction, my friend.

Uriah Pariah, thank you for asking me to write this. Hope it’s been helpful.

I already said it when putting together my best-of-2017 post:


Rating: 10 faces of love.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

My mistake is also my good fortune. Travel to West Virginia was supposed to go smoothly from the San Antonio airport, through Dulles, to Rochester; but of course I ended up delayed, rerouted through O’Hare, with a half-day to kill at the airport before ever leaving Texas. I had packed more books in my checked bag, but ended up running out of available-at-hand reading material in Chicago. So I bought a book at an airport newsstand. Bad news: long travel day. Bad news: so many books at home (and in that checked bag) that I wanted or needed to read. Good news: a delicious, un-looked-for chance to read a new-ish Harry Bosch mystery.

Remember when I got to read genre mysteries for fun? Whew, it’s been a while (a little over three years). The Wrong Side of Goodbye finds LAPD’s Detective Harry Bosch retired from the force–forced into retirement, in fact, under a dark cloud (which will surprise no one who knows his genre-typical troubles with authority, despite also being an authority). He’s got a PI license, and has been moonlighting–unpaid–with the small-town San Fernando police force, in an “island city” in the middle of LA. His job with the SFPD is to examine cold cases, which is right up his alley. In the opening pages, Bosch has just received a pair of assignments. A multi-billionaire octogenarian hires him, with the utmost secrecy and confidence, to track down an heir who may or may not exist. And San Fernando is plagued by a serial rapist who appears to be escalating. With the help of Mickey Haller (whose fame began with Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer), Bosch tracks both cases. The first will take him into his own memories and traumas of the Vietnam War, and the second will take him into grave danger. But Bosch hasn’t lost his touch, no matter what the LAPD may think.

Classic, and good for the fans. Bosch’s daughter Maddie has grown up and is attending college. Bosch and Haller have a solid working relationship and more. Bosch retains his old skills. This was a nostalgia read for me. I found the same old, good old hero I remember. As I reflect, I’m not sure he shows the evolution of age that perhaps he should at this point in the series. Maddie has grown up, but Bosch feels the same. His professional status has changed, but I don’t detect much of a nod to aging, physically or in terms of his outlook on the world. This may be an element of unrealism in a mostly realistic series. But this is escapist reading for me, too, so I’m unbothered. If I find Bosch just as I left him, that’s okay with me. This is the Bosch I missed.

The mystery part of the book is as good as ever. I love this stuff, and I’m so grateful to Michael Connelly and to that newsstand at O’Hare for bringing me this joy. It was a rare pleasure. And now back to my studies.


Rating: 7 pre-rolled joints.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A Brothers Grimm fairy tale recast in 1980s London features a single mother fighting against long odds for her place in the world.

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The Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” features a wicked stepmother. A pious wife desperately wants a child; her wish is granted, but she dies just after giving birth to a son. Her husband buries her under a juniper tree and remarries, but his new wife, favoring her own daughter, cooks her stepson into a stew and feeds it to his father. Her daughter buries the boy’s bones under the juniper tree with his mother. He is reincarnated as a bird, who sings to the townspeople about his murder.

Barbara Comyns’s The Juniper Tree, originally published in 1985, bears an epigraph from the fairy tale: “My mother she killed me, my father he ate me,” but from there diverges sharply from the original. In 1980s London, Bella Winter has had a run of bad luck. Her pretty face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident. She has only recently escaped a manipulative relationship with a selfish man and withdrawn from her unloving mother. She has a young daughter of mixed race she calls Marline, born out of wedlock and fathered by a man whose name she didn’t catch. In the opening pages, she is jobless and homeless, but she is resourceful and unsentimental, and soon finds a home and vocation in a small antiques shop. The friendship of an upper-class couple, Bernard and Gertrude, completes her happiness, and she spends long, sweet afternoons with Gertrude sitting under the juniper tree in the couple’s garden. She even sees a fragile reunion with her mother. This contentment is shattered, however, when Gertrude’s longed-for pregnancy ends in both birth and death. Bella plays an increasingly large role in helping Bernard run his household with the baby, Johnny, and Marline becomes like a sister to the boy. When Bernard convinces Bella to marry him, however, her life takes a turn toward the Brothers Grimm.

Bella is a remarkable narrator and protagonist. Practical, independent, resilient, she builds a neat life for herself and her daughter, meeting all their needs and bothering no one. The friendship of the wealthier couple, which brings her such joy, turns out to be a curse, and Bella the tragic hero. Comyns turns the fairy tale on its head and complicates it with class and racial tensions, mental illness and the timeless struggle of a young woman to chart her own course. This is a richer, more relevant, modern rendering of the classic, heartbreaking in its fine attention to detail and its realistic, hardy heroine. While no knowledge of “The Juniper Tree” is necessary to appreciate this version, those familiar with the original will appreciate many subtle references. This edition includes a brief, helpful introduction by critic Sadie Stein, offering context within Comyns’s body of work. The Juniper Tree is a poignant, quietly disturbing novel for fans of strong female protagonists and dark fairy tales, and anyone who roots for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 magpies.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


This book was assigned for Eric Waggoner’s seminar on “prose technique” at this week’s residency. By the time this review posts, the seminar will have happened, but I’m writing beforehand. This review is time-traveling to the future.

Line by Line is a handy reference tool, but no kind of book to read cover-to-cover, and I’m a bit surprised that Eric assigned it as he did. I read the preface and flipped through the rest, interested to see how it handled, for example, the singular “they” pronoun as used by people who don’t ascribe to the gender binary, including a few of my favorite classmates (much discussion of the problem of “he” versus “he or she” versus a singular “they,” but no direct address of the binary-gender problem itself). I skimmed for examples (mostly colorful ones, and from real writing found in real life). It’s got a decent glossary of questionable usage (like affect/effect), although I was surprised to see “hopefully” included (should mean “in a hopeful manner,” rather than “it is hoped that”) and not “momentarily” (the same strict grammarians, I believe, would reserve this for “taking place for only a moment,” and not for something to happen just a mere moment in the future). Which just goes to show that any book like this can only do part of the job, and only from one grammarian’s perspective–obviously. On the one hand, then, why try? No, we do need books like this. But we need to know they are only ever a starting point.

As for readability, why on earth Line by Line when we have Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?? “Omit needless words,” they famously wrote; and that perfect sentence is oft repeated but not always obeyed. My favorite part of Strunk & White’s “little book” is how pleasant it is to read, cover to cover. This one, I will keep handy for consultation, especially for Eric’s seminar, but it will never win my heart like that other one did.


Rating: 5 future references.
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