Queen of the Fall by Sonja Livingston

queen-of-the-fallThis is a memoir in the form of collected essays about girls, their experiences and generally a girl’s coming-of-age in New York state in the 1980s and ’90s. The whole book accumulates into something greater than its parts, which is a trick I love. Livingston’s writing is beautiful on the language level as well as in subjects and connections drawn. Her essays include lots of braided pieces, and a fairly heavy emphasis on having babies: avoiding having them too young and yearning for them later.

Livingston’s life is told not as a cohesive story, but in a series of observations and reflections – and anecdotes, but the autobiographical anecdotes feel in service to the reflections, not the other way around. The essays move well beyond Livingston’s autobiography, including studies of women distant to her own experiences: characters from Hollywood movies, television shows, history, the Bible. (Susan B. Anthony, the Virgin Mary, Ally McBeal.) There are also lots of girls and women she does know: her sisters, her mother, a niece; a bride from her childhood neighborhood, Judith Kitchen (briefly, Livingston’s writing instructor), girls she served as a school counselor, a woman she meets at a laundromat. As the subtitle points out, female characters are the unifying theme of this book. There are three sections, unnamed but with epigraphs at their start. They essays they include appear to be in chronological order, although this book in no way feels like a start-to-finish sort of narrative.

I’ve observed examples elsewhere (essays by Jessie Van Eerden and Rebecca McClanahan, Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) of an author using a single image, object, phrase (etc.), or a structure, to help apparently disconnected stories hold together and achieve a single effect. I’m particularly interested in this book for the way it holds together without quite such an easily identified unifier. To put it another way: Livingston does not quite promise (or deliver) a book “about” herself, her own life, her mother, or anything so straightforward. Instead she muses on “girls and goddesses,” and while I think this book is about herself and her mother and the women in her community, she has plenty of room to roam away from those topics; and the essays that roam still feel like they fit. This is the trick I want for myself: to write about more than just the one thing and still achieve a cohesive collection.

A lovely book to read simply for the experience; also thought-provoking; also plenty to think about from a craft perspective. Win-win-win.


Rating: 8 olive trees.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

two-or-three-things-i-knowThis is a lovely, very brief but powerfully feeling memoir by the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, which I have not read.

It offers a look at the author’s life, and of the women in her extended family: chronological, but otherwise loosely attached to events, more musing and reflective than reportorial. Allison jumps in and out of time, so although events take place in chronological order, it’s not a straightforward start-to-finish narrative. She also includes family photos, and thus reminds me of Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade. (This one came first.) Allison is concerned with the challenges these women have faced, and how they’ve handled them, with attention to place, culture, feminism and lesbianism; but family relationships are central. Her second-person address repeats “Let me tell you a story…” and weaves in the title line. This through-line provides another unifying tactic, like those I saw in essays by Van Eerden and McClanahan (here). Like Queen of the Fall (review coming up on Friday), Allison also offers some thoughts, and inspires some thinking, on women’s experiences and place in the world. Specifically in this book, that is the world of poverty-stricken Greenville, South Carolina.

At under 100 pages, this is a super-quick read; maybe too quick. I flashed through it in an evening and am left unsure of what I learned, although I enjoyed the experience. The good news is that a reread would be quick to do, too.


Rating: 7 quarter-miles.

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson by Brian Doyle

With enthusiasm and verve, in the style his fans love, Brian Doyle re-creates a novel Robert Louis Stevenson intended to write.

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In a novel with layers of authors, Brian Doyle (The Mighty Currawongs; Martin Marten) honors the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is firmly based in fact: Robert Louis Stevenson boarded for some months at the home of Mrs. Carson in San Francisco while waiting to marry his love, Fanny. He conceived of a novel based on the tales of his landlady’s husband, but never wrote it. Doyle imagines what stories Mr. Carson might have told, and the style in which Stevenson might have written them. Doyle calls upon other published accounts of Carson’s and Stevenson’s acquaintances, including Mark Twain and scientist Alfred Russel Wallace.

In Doyle’s imagination, Stevenson sits by the fire with Mr. Carson as the latter recounts his voyages around the world as a seaman and his experience as a Union solider in the Civil War. This talented storyteller takes Stevenson (and Doyle’s reader) through the jungles of Borneo, over the rocky hills of Irish islands, from coast to coast of Canada in winter, to Australia’s Sydney Harbor and to the battlefield at Gettysburg. Mrs. Carson turns out to be as fine a narrator as her husband, and both have a knack for ending on a cliffhanger just as dinner is ready. As he recounts the Carsons’ feats, Stevenson also explores the sights, smells and steep hills of 1880 San Francisco, and touches on his romance with Fanny Osbourne, herself a worthy, headstrong character.

Doyle’s characteristic prose style is effusive, wry, highly descriptive and always passionate about his subjects. Throughout this story of stories runs a thread of commentary on the value and nuances of the storytelling art. Stevenson constantly refers to his ambition and makes notes for future works: “Hyde would be a lovely name for a character,” he muses, and imagines a novel in which a “sudden shocking kidnapping would set the prose to sprinting.” In several passages, Doyle-as-Stevenson extols the power of storytelling, the universal need for tales of adventure, the urgency of getting them out–he even worries what the “disconsolate reviewers” might say. Readers hungry for more stories-upon-stories will delight in Doyle’s “Afterword” and “Thanks & Notes,” which are filled with recommendations for further reading (what he calls “homework”).

Stevenson’s rollicking zest for adventure blends happily and seamlessly with Doyle’s unrestrained love of words and life. Adventures offers daring exploits, romance and emotional highs and lows, but perhaps most of all, a celebration of stories. Doyle’s signature style expresses this joyousness perfectly.


This review originally ran in the March 2, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 stories, of course.

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

the-pine-barrensThe Pine Barrens came to my MFA reading list from my advisor Katie Fallon, and I can’t recall her justification, I just took it. It was a good tip. I’m a fan of McPhee now. I knew his name but don’t believe I’d read any of his work before.

I would call this a collection of related essays about the region of New Jersey called the Pine Barrens. I don’t known a ton about New Jersey, and had not heard of this place before. It’s a vast region in the southern part of the state that is thickly forested and very thinly populated; it is distinctive in climate, flora and fauna, and human culture, not very well known and subject to unfair stereotypes.* In these ways, it reminded me a little of the Driftless region I read about in this book, which is a less artful piece of literature than McPhee’s, but a similarly fascinating profile, I think. I am trying to say that peculiar places, especially when they come with peculiar peoples, are very interesting to me. (As much as I love nature, and nature writing, I admit to a weakness for people.) So, I enjoyed the subject of this book very much.

And also the writing. McPhee has certain qualities in common with Joseph Mitchell (see Up in the Old Hotel): neutral, journalistic, mostly absent from his own story. His descriptions are matter-of-fact and seemingly unadorned, although they are also often lovely images: they only seem straightforward. As a classmate of mine once said, easy-to-read writing that flows effortlessly is deceptively hard to write. He has an eye for just the right characterizing line of dialog:

“Horace’s mother and mine used to make their own yeast, too–out of potato water and hops. Modern women aren’t up to that.”

“They give you cold beans,” Horace Adams said.

Something about those cold beans really tickled me. Or this line:

He is about fifty, and he has a manner that suggests that he is not afraid to work and not afraid not to work.

The backwoods, simpler-times feel of the Pine Barrens and the pineys struck me somehow as… not bucolic, but pleasantly green and calm and quiet. McPhee felt for me like Mitchell but a little more foreign, because my personal experiences are a little closer to Mitchell’s urban setting than to this one. Both writers use language and sentences that feel simple rather than poetic or flowery, although both their language and their sentences are more complicated than they first appear. McPhee ties in research and outside sources with the immediate scenes he describes (visiting a piney cabin to ask for water, talking with its inhabitants) neatly; one flows into the other without much transition needed. It’s a smoothly flowing piece of narrative even though it covers a lot of ground.

I fear it is the work of some close reading indeed to figure out how to make such lovely work seem so effortless, but I’ll try.

In related news, thanks, Tassava, for sending me the link to this inteview with McPhee by The Paris Review. He sent it (unknowing) mere hours after I finished reading this, my first McPhee. It’s a great read – long, but juicy with gems, both funny lines and helpful thoughts for writers. What a joy.


Rating: 8 jugs.

*This book was first published in 1967, and my impression of the Pine Barrens is mostly based on this dated account. How remote and untouched is the region still today? I am not the one to say. Wikipedia calls it “largely undisturbed.” But there is also a website, www.njpinebarrens.com, which begs the question…

The Last of Her: A Forensic Memoir by Kim Dana Kupperman

“Have a good life,” my mother wrote in March 1989, at the bottom of page four of her nineteen-page suicide letter.

This is a really good beginning, in that it certainly grabs my attention.

the-last-of-herThe Last of Her is Kim Dana Kupperman’s investigation into her mother: who she was, who she wasn’t, why she went. Full disclosure: Kim is a visiting faculty member in my MFA program, and one I’m looking forward to working with.

This mother, Dolores, was a serial liar. She told many, many stories of her own personal history, leaving a real challenge for her only daughter in tracking that history. Kim was 29 when her mother killed herself, apparently to escape being busted for insurance fraud. It took some decades before she was ready to do the work that this book communicates: the research, the travel and the reconsidering of past crimes. Those are literal/legal crimes (Dolores was a junkie, a con artist, an identity thief, and apparently guilty though never convicted of assaulting a [pregnant] romantic rival with a hammer) as well as psychic ones, including mistreating and manipulating her daughter. The adult Kim eventually finds sympathy for this flawed and damaged woman, but it is quite an (understandable) journey to get there.

As a piece of creative nonfiction, The Last of Her is intriguing. The Preface deals heavily in birds, as Kim sketches the trauma of her mother’s suicide and then describes visiting the gravesites of family members she never knew. A few more birds season the rest of the story, although they do not end up playing as large a role as I expected. This lent a feeling, for me, of something larger and less knowable than human nature; not supernatural, but something of the mystery of the natural world, which is often absent (or mere scenery) in human stories.

This is also very much a memoir, not of Kim’s life or Dolores’s, or Kim’s memories of Dolores (although there is some of each), but of Kim’s study of her mother years after her death. In other words, this is the story of her research, including her reading of her father’s giant “Secret File” about Dolores and the custody battle she lost. I am drawn to this kind of story: the story of finding the story, that transparency. Kim’s tone keeps some distance, almost austerely observing the 20-something daughter to which this thing happened. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, on the sentence level (of course). I will also say that the chapter headings (quotations from a wide range of literature) quite baffle me; I need a guide to those.

This is a memoir about a sensational event that never approaches sensationalism, expertly crafted like a long poem, with precise emotional tone. A good study. Keep your eyes open as well for Kim’s (earlier) essay collection, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, and the work of Welcome Table Press, where she is founding editor.


Rating: 7 phones hung up.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

the-art-of-subtextCharles Baxter is the editor of Graywolf Press’s The Art of series as well as the author of this installment. This is the second in the series that I’ve read (see The Art of History), and I’ll be reading two more this semester (Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir).

The first thing to note about this book of writing craft advice is that it is strongly geared toward fiction. Where the others tend to cross genres (well, I suppose the Memoir one won’t), Baxter refers to fiction throughout, and takes his examples from the fiction of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Edward P. Jones and others. While this made for interesting reading, it did not suit my personal needs as a nonfiction writer very well. (I was disappointed, especially as excerpts from Baxter-edited The Business of Memory have appealed to me.) I was drawn to the topic of subtext because I aim for subtext, or subtle themes, in my own writing. Subtext means something a little different to Baxter in this book.

He calls it in his introduction “the unspoken soul-matter,” and divides his thoughts into 6 sections. “Staging” refers to dramatic placement of characters in scene (as in stage directions). “The subterranean” refers to the difference between what characters truly want, and what they say they want. This is an interesting concept to ponder for characters in nonfiction as well, although all of Baxter’s examples come from fiction. “Unheard melodies” inspects how fictional characters fail to pay attention: think about short attention spans and the way we “uh-huh” each other without really listening. This kind of ignored dialog, he argues, is a great place for subtext. “Inflections” and tonal shifts mark a movement from the literal to the suggestive; and he makes the point here that tone is sometimes everything. Example: the phrase “you’re really something” could be spoken in disgust or adulation. On the page, the reader needs tonal cues.

“Creating a scene” refers to the way that phrase is used in everyday life and not by writers: that is, not writing “a scene” (action taking place in time and space) but in the sense that arguing in public is called “making a scene.” Baxter asserts that fiction writers must have their characters make scenes in order to get their conflicts out into the open, or in other words, to pose the central conflict of their plot. Finally, he writes about “loss of face,” or the use (or choice not to use) characters’ literal faces to communicate through gesture or appearance. He makes a curious argument that the description of faces has fallen away in modern fiction writing, which is another interesting claim to investigate, although not one I’m particularly invested in at this time. (Please report back.)

My single favorite line of this book, and one I can easily take into my own work:

In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.

That one I will carry forward and ponder. Within it there may be an opportunity to ponder the differences (for craft purposes) between fiction and nonfiction in general.

In short, an involving little book of lit crit focusing on fiction, and thus not outside my interests; but not terribly useful for my own writing. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 6 Chekhov stories.

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

A narrator who belongs in a fairy tale becomes lost among the indifferent streets of Dublin in this quirky, imaginative debut novel.

eggshells

Caitriona Lally’s first novel, Eggshells, portrays an unbalanced but charming narrator stuck in an overwhelmingly complex Dublin, searching clumsily for home. In the opening pages, Vivian settles into the house she’s recently inherited from her great-aunt Maud, who “kept chairs the way some people keep cats.” This dusty, cluttered house suits the eccentric inheritor, who avoids mirrors and hygiene, preferring to cultivate her own “earthy tang.” Vivian believes that she is a changeling, fallen out of a world of fairies and elves and into this one by accident. Her daily chore is to find a magical door through which to reenter her rightful place in that other world.

Unsurprisingly, Vivian’s obsessions and whimsies make modern Dublin’s other residents uneasy. She has few contacts: her nosy neighbors, given to shaking their heads; a flummoxed social worker; and an impatient older sister: “her world is full of children and doings and action verbs, but I’m uncomfortable with verbs; they expect too much.” The sisters share the same name, Vivian, although sharing is not the right word: the older sister comfortably inhabits the name, while Lally’s protagonist is forever displaced, lacking an identity of her own.

Vivian walks the city and takes buses and cabs, exploring streets with promising names (Poppintree, Lockkeeper’s Walk, Ferrymans Crossing, All Hallows Lane) and performing tricks and charms–circling a particular pole three times, whispering to herself, and otherwise alarming passersby. She maps these routes and analyzes the shapes she’s walked, looking for meaning. She advertises her search for a friend named Penelope (“Pennies Need Not Apply”). Vivian is, in her awkward way, a giver: she leaves cryptic but (she believes) encouraging notes in books that she donates to charity shops, and €5 notes in the pockets of cardigans on sale in thrift stores. She makes lists in her notebook–names of birds, favorite sweets, museum artifacts–anywhere she might find weird words and possible anagrams. Vivian’s fascination with wordplay echoes Lally’s knack for language, and this emphasis is one of the great charms of Eggshells, a sweetly off-kilter novel about loneliness, communication and finding one’s place in the world.

Vivian stumbles, and may never find the portal to the place she yearns for. But she makes shaky progress: acquiring a pet goldfish, throwing a dinner party of sorts, finding a new friend with traumas and eccentricities of her own. Eggshells is ultimately a funny, occasionally grim story centering on a sympathetic character who is either disturbed or a changeling from a fanciful world: it is for the reader to decide.


This review originally ran in the February 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 goldfish.
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