Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

My buddy Vince lent me his copy of this very slim collection (just three essays, under 70 pages), saying he’d found it very comforting early in the pandemic and social isolation, and pointing out that the essays refer to Dillard’s time in the Pacific Northwest, when isolation was a bit of a theme for her.

My relationship with Dillard’s writing has been complicated since the beginning, when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and loved it, but not without qualification. We’ve had our ups and downs. When I found out that the rose-printing, bloody-pawed cat at the beginning of that book was a fiction, my trust was broken, and it turns out that I’m still dealing with that.

The three essays that make up Holy the Firm feel representative of Dillard’s work, although perhaps a bit at the abstract end of the spectrum, with fewer (as I told Vince) sticks and bugs than I prefer. It’s the minutia, the close attention to sticks and bugs, that I loved most about Pilgrim. And I am not the intended audience for musings on God, religion, or the church. I found myself often screwing up my face, a bit impatient with her (and when she describes her cat’s behaviors, I’m still hung up on the made-up cat, and unable to buy in). Put briefly, I’m sure this brief collection has a lot to offer the right reader, but it wasn’t for me on the whole.

There were, however, some lovely lines.

The earth is a mineral speckle planted in trees.

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools–that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here…

Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved.

On the other hand, I was suspicious of Dillard’s claim that “No drugs ease the pain of third-degree burns, because burns destroy skin: the drugs simply leak into the sheets.” (Indeed, a few websites indicate otherwise.) I’m not sure I believe in the burning moth in the first essay; I’m suspicious of the story of Julie Norwich (and offended by some of Dillard’s gendered expectations for her). This author and I may not be made for each other. We may have different priorities; we certainly have different rules for what constitutes nonfiction. But I still get to keep what I loved about Pilgrim. It’s nice that books work that way.

My favorite passage in the whole book was the one about buying communion wine.

How can I buy the communion wine? Who am I to buy the communion wine? Someone has to buy the communion wine… Shouldn’t I be wearing robes and, especially, a mask? Shouldn’t I make the communion wine? Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy? There are no holy grapes, there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us…

I’m out on the road again walking, and toting a backload of God.

In the end, I’m left with a sense of dissatisfaction with the essays as a whole, and a sense of grumpiness toward Dillard. But in the details, in individual lines, I definitely found moments to love. Perhaps more than ever, keep in mind that your reaction to this book will be different than my own – recall Vince’s recommendation and appreciation. To each her own.

Rating: 5 accidents.

The Living by Annie Dillard (audio)

the livingMy difficulty and back-and-forth feelings about Annie Dillard continue with this epic story of pioneer families in my place of residence, Bellingham, Washington.

The Living spans more or less the second half of the 19th century, and it expands to fill all those years and all that space. It is a big story, with lots of characters – several families, over generations – and I’m not sure it ever chooses one or several to center around. This is not a book that benefited from my regrettable new habit of taking months to finish an audiobook: I flailed a little in trying to finish, and I confess a feeling of relief now that it’s over.

There were certainly strengths. Dillard is an inspired writer, some of the time, and there were certainly passages I paused to appreciate, and will share with you here, in a little while. The stories were often moving – individual episodes, that is, within the larger saga – and the characters were often compelling, interesting, diverting people I wanted to get to know better – but again, only for a moment, and then we’d zoom out and on to a different character who was less intriguing. These were all small pieces of a whole that, as a whole, failed to capture my attention. There were moments of glittering, evocative, engaging story or character, but then we returned to a larger, sweeping view that repeatedly challenged me to continue to care. Again, this might work better with a quicker reading. It certainly didn’t work for me in the way I experienced the book.

Witness these shining moments of writing, though…

She lay under mats in the bottom of a canoe once, during the Indian troubles, and Rooney told the Haidas she was clams. Lived in five or six different places, including a stockade. She felt her freedom, reared two boys to manhood, busted open this wilderness by the sea, buried the men on their lands. She saw a white horse roll in wild strawberries and stand up red. She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well-hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of god’s wild breath on her face.

Great imagery there, and a strong retrospective view of the gravity of this woman’s life and what she’s seen.

He had long ago concluded that he possessed only one small and finite brain, and he had fixed a habit of determining most carefully with what he would fill it.

A funny and wise moment.

She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. She read books as one would breathe ether, to sink in and die.

And, who among us doesn’t love such a quotation?

But the whole thing might have worked better if presented as a series of vignettes; the parts of it that I loved were relatively few and brief, with a great deal to be slogged through in between. Dillard created some likeable characters, but it’s almost as if she didn’t like them very much, herself. She asked some interesting questions about humankind and the broader sense of what we’re doing here, but she spent so much time setting them up as sort of clinical questions that she forgot to make me care about them, or about the little creatures involved.

I’m sorry to say this one didn’t work for me, especially (by coincidence) as it came up against Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, an infinitely better, more compelling story with its own momentum.

This review was short because I’m a little sick of The Living and very glad to be quit of it. I’m sorry. You can find better reviews elsewhere; me, I’m looking forward now, not back.

Rating: 6 deaths.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (audio)

From Dillard’s website:

The Boston Globe called it “a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task.

Recalling how I felt about Strunk & White, and my admiration for Dillard, this is promising.

writing lifeThe Writing Life is brief, and very enjoyable. Her voice as read by Tavia Gilbert feels just right for Dillard’s tone, which is knowing, wry, funny, and serious, by turns and often simultaneously (as I believe I noted in my recent teaser).

As fine as this audio version was, however, it left me wishing I’d had more time to peruse and mull. I have already ordered a print version to keep. For one thing: the format is a series of essays, and this format was a little lost on me in audio form. The transitions felt abrupt sometimes. (Perhaps I could have been paying closer attention to signals of transition. A failure of the medium, or of mine? No matter, the point is it didn’t work perfectly for me.) But I let go and just listened. Don’t be fooled by the title: this is neither the story of Dillard’s life as a writer, nor an instruction on how to live it, ourselves. It’s a bunch of musings and meditations. There are pieces of advice, and stories too, mixed in. But it’s a buffet, lots of things at once. It was fabulously enjoyable when allowed to wash over me. Next time, I will study it more closely, in print.

For the Bellingham local in me – and I recommend it to my father for this reason – there are a few wonderful references to this place, including the inspired story of the Bellingham-based stunt pilot. (Other reviewers seem to find this the best chapter of the book. It was certainly among them.) For the place-obsessed me, there were excellent reflections on various places, including islands in the Puget Sound; Roanoke, Virginia; and Cape Cod. About writing, I enjoyed hearing Dillard’s ideas about where to write (“appealing workplaces are to be avoided”) and how to write: I loved the idea that, paradoxically, writers need to live less in order to create the time and isolation necessarily to write about that life which they have somewhat backed away from. There is less firm advice than encouragement – mixed in with discouragement, but of a collegial type.

Reviews out there in the world are mixed, and seem (according to my brief survey) to base their criticism on the idea that this book is made up of wonderful parts, mixed in with less wonderful parts, that fail to make a single, wonderful whole. I guess that might be born out by my struggles with the audio form. But actually, a bunch of wonderful parts is no failure at all, and I was left feeling enchanted. For that matter, I recall that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had uneven effects on me, too – I can hardly believe that I gave it only 6 mushrooms, because I remember it so strongly and positively, but that shows how much I struggled with some parts of it, too. But really, I say again, we could do worse than many thought-provoking and wondersome components, which is what I found here.

It’s Annie Dillard, y’all. It’s good reading. The audio is good listening, although you may struggle to find it cohesive in that form. But that is the big criticism of this book anyway. So read, or listen, don’t worry about cohesion, and enjoy. I did.

Rating: 8 moths to a candle flame.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

writing life

Annie Dillard is wonderful. I am glad to be back with her funny, wise but slight self-deprecating voice – and about writing this time! Wonderful. Check out these words of “comfort” to writers disappointed with their slow pace of production.

It takes years to write a book. Between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it still with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books? Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. He claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a 12-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assassins, saints, big people and little people show up from time to time in large populations. Out of a human population of four and a half billion, perhaps 20 people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc du Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.

This, I feel, is a great example of her voice: funny and filled with factoids while simultaneously being entirely serious, and empathetic. Of course I am enjoying this audio edition. Strangely, since I mention voice, the voice doing the reading is not Dillard’s. I guess I don’t know what her literal voice sounds like, but the reader here is suiting me fine.

“Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard (from Teaching a Stone to Talk)

I began by thinking I could review this essay, but I can’t. Annie Dillard and the force of these words here are too much for my limited powers of communication. Read this and wonder.

(As usual from that excellent source of excellent things, Liz.)

remarkable bits from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Correct: we are still not done with Annie Dillard. I may have to make her a tag as I have done for Abbey and Hemingway. (…Haven Kimmel, Norman Maclean…)

EDIT: here we are.

On top of my reviews, I felt the need to share some of my favorite lines and passages with just a few notes. Enjoy.

There are seven or eight categories of phenomena in the world that are worth talking about, and one of them is the weather.

One wonders very much what else would make her list!!

I want to think about trees. Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide. This sycamore above me, below me, by Tinker Creek, is a case in point; the sight of it crowds my brain with an assortment of diverting thoughts, all as present to me as these slivers of pressure from grass on my elbow’s skin.

I loved this because I, too, love trees; and this is a well-articulated (but still rather charmingly airy, too) explanation why. Also, I enjoy Dillard’s use of the semi-colon, my personal favorite punctuation mark. (Yes. I’m a librarian and a reader and writer. I have a favorite punctuation mark.)

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek.

“It never stops.” Golly, I hope she’s right. Climate change has us receiving too much rain here and not enough rain there; the forests are burning; the glaciers are melting; I fear the creeks are stopping (and starting up elsewhere). But in 1974, I can understand this thinking.

I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany.

This, too, is charming: a nerdy confirmation of the power of trees and other green things (and non-green things as well).

John Cowper Powys said, “We have no reason for denying to the world of plants a certain slow, dim, vague, large, leisurely semi-consciousness.” He may not be right, but I like his adjectives. The patch of bluets in the grass may not be long on brains, but they might be, at least in a very small way, awake.

Who is Dillard to say that he may not be right? Goodness, with all the time travel and metaphoric “patting the puppy” she gushes and coos, why not let trees have a certain semi-consciousness? And those complaints aside, does anyone else hear the Ents walking through those lines? Lovely.

All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts wending their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood, the streaming red dots in the goldfish’s tail.

And that blows my mind: a scientific, tiny-scale, real-life confirmation, like a metaphor but grounded in reality on the molecular level, of our intricate connection as living, breathing, animal things to living, breathing green things. I love that.

vocabulary lessons: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard had me quite active with my note-taking for later looking up. I have included only the highlights here for you.

anchorite: “An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold.”

discalced: “[The effort to] gag the commentator, to hush the voice of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing… marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod.”

spate: “I live for… the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

oriflamme: “The flight [of a flock of starlings] extended like a fluttering banner, an unfurled oriflamme…”

sonant and surd: “The wind shrieks and hisses down the valley, sonant and surd…”

scry: “…I had better be scrying the signs.”

eidetic: “…we have feelings, a memory for information and an eidetic memory for the imagery of our own pasts.”

obelisk: “We run around under these obelisk-creatures, teetering on our soft, small feet.” (She’s referring to trees.) and, 20 pages later: “A tree stands… mute and rigid as an obelisk.”

pavane: “An even frailer, dimmer movement, a pavane, is being performed deep under me now.”

neutrinos: “I imagine neutrinos passing through [a bird’s] feathers and into its heart and lungs…”

racemes: “Long racemes of white flowers hung from the locust trees.”

a two-for-one, etiolated and lambent: “The leaf was so thin and etiolated it was translucent, but at the same time it was lambent, minutely, with a kind of pale and sufficient light.”

eutrophic: “The duck pond is a small eutrophic pond on cleared land…”

phylactery: “…the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget.”

cofferdam: “…pouring wet plaster into the cofferdam…”

stet: “If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet’.”

shmoo: “Generally, whenever he was out of water he assumed the shape of a shmoo…” (referring to a muskrat).

enow: “The Lucas place is paradise enow.”

lorn: “A bobwhite who is still calling in summer is lorn…”

See other “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, part the second

pilgrimattinkercreekI’m afraid I am continuing with my mixed feelings here, as in my first review. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for me, comes in sections, or in three parts. As I wrote, the early bits were difficult for me, a little too metaphysical and spiritual. And then, remember how I said that chapter 7 blew me away? Well, chapter 8 is even better.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Intricacy,” and addresses the amazing, extraordinary intricacy, complexity, tiny detail and huge scale and huge scale of tininess in the natural world. Dillard relates statistics that are mind-boggling: “the average size of all living animals, including man, is almost that of a housefly.” “There are… two hundred twenty-eight separate and distinct muscles in the head of an ordinary caterpillar.” “Six million leaves on a big elm.” She writes about the Henle’s loop in the human kidney, the lower lip of the dragonfly nymph. Tiny, infinitely complex things that make our world so strange. She uses this phenomenon to explore the idea of a creator – and here Dillard and I will disagree a little, but that’s okay. “Look… at practically anything… and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.” She takes the strange and prolific nature of our world to be proof of a creator – “no claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe” – and I don’t. It’s all right, though; this book is plenty safe for atheists; she’s not preaching. She’s just exploring. And I love the science, all that tiny tiny trivia, the explanations of the human kidney and the aquatic horsehair worm.

Next is chapter 9, “Flood,” and here I am going chapter by chapter – that’s how good this book is. “Flood” addresses Hurricane Agnes, and hurricanes are something we’re increasingly familiar with, not only in Houston but in New York City these days as well. (Which leads me to point out that Dillard is blissfully unaware of climate change and ecological collapse; happy her in 1974.) There is more of what I love in Dillard: detail, observation, science, and a glorious, joyful celebration of the world.

And then it falls off again, descending (or ascending, depending on your feelings) into the spiritual once again. My level of detail falls off here, too, because what can I say? I paid less attention when she zoomed back out into the mistiness. The last few pages of this book were an effort, and I didn’t retain anything I can tell you about now.

Verdict? Rather a difficult one. Liz said, great, I’ll just read those middle chapters! But of course that’s no way to go unless you know your tastes are mine.

I am glad I read this book; it yielded some inspirational moments and great quotations (as you will see). But those came overwhelmingly from the middle portion of the book. Others, I have no doubt, will swoon over the “patting the puppy” and the tree with the lights in it. Discover for yourself; but I do think it’s worth the effort, in the end. If I were to do it again, I would just read the middle parts. Rather like Walden, then, in my final conclusions – just as I thought at the beginning.

Rating: in an attempt to be fair, 6 mushrooms.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, part the first

Clearly I will need to publish this review in two parts, for the sake of your patience with my long-windedness. Actually I fear three posts. This is a fascinating book about which I have mixed feelings and many tangential thoughts; also at about halfway through, I’ve filled three bookmark slips of paper with notes rather than the average one-or-less-per-book, so there you are. This is my review of roughly half the book.

pilgrimattinkercreekDespite a promising beginning, I am not sure that I love Annie Dillard as much as do many of my favorite authors. Odd, that. In fact, I enjoyed Christine Byl’s Dirt Work far more. And she hasn’t won any Pulitzers (yet).

For one thing, there is too much theology for my taste, and too much metaphysical rambling metaphor: seeing visions, entering the past and seeing the future. Too much philosophy, man’s (“man”! too much “man”! 1974 this was published, by a woman, and still the universal creature is “man” rather than person or even woman for goodness’ sake) …man’s self-consciousness, relativism… and not enough just being. I’d rather spend more time in the picture and less time examining the frame and the picture-maker, if the picture is our world.

Wikipedia brought some interesting thoughts to mind. [I take Wikipedia with salt; but I still find it a useful starting point for general knowledge.] For example: “The author has described [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek] as a ‘book of theology’, and she rejects the label of nature writer.” What is up with people “rejecting the label of nature writer”? Edward Abbey did, too, which rejection I think in turn his readers reject. Of course, Dillard’s point – that this is more theology than nature writing – helps explain part of my problem with it. But then, there is excellent nature writing within it: I love the finely detailed discussion of insect habits. Oh, and while we’re mentioning him: “Edward Abbey in particular deemed [Dillard] Thoreau’s ‘true heir’.” Both these quotations from Wikipedia come sans specific reference, although there’s a solid-looking reference list at the end of the article. So, take that with salt, as I said.

Dillard did remind me of Thoreau, which is both a compliment (obviously) and a qualification, for me personally, as I struggled a little with Walden, too. Walden was apparently the subject of Dillard’s master’s thesis, so we can expect some parallels there. I would call these two books a readalike pair, and recommend the one if you liked the other.

Now, on the Annie Dillard Wikipedia page, I found more useful phrases: “one critic… call[ed] her ‘one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century'” for her apt descriptions of the natural world (I imagine that critic had the mating practices of the praying mantis in mind!), which I find delightful, and true in a most positive sense. And “In The New York Times, Eudora Welty said the work was ‘admirable writing’ that reveals ‘a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled… [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare,’ but ‘I honestly don’t know what [Dillard] is talking about at… times,'” which is, again, a great way to put it, and I couldn’t agree with you more on all counts, Ms. Welty. Both these quotations are attributed, by the way: the first, to Dillard’s website, and the second, to the NYT review in question. Not attributed, however, is the assertion that “In 1971 she read an old writer’s nature book and thought, ‘I can do better than this.'” This would seem to belie the phrasing of the Wikipedia Pilgrim article that she “rejected the label of nature writer.”

But oh, then I got to chapter 7, “Spring.” I am entranced! She writes about learning languages and yearning to decode birdsong, about the mockingbird that sings from 2am til 11pm in her chimney in springtime; about newts, to whom “no one pays the least attention… except children”; more about trees (I love it); and then the part about the duck pond, which is hilarious, wise, and again hilarious. This is where we meet the plankton about whom she is rather passionate, and she studies them under the microscope.

I don’t really look forward to these microscopic forays: I have been almost knocked off my kitchen chair on several occasions when, as I was following with strained eyes the tiny career of a monostyla rotifer, an enormous red roundworm whipped into the scene, blocking everything, and writhing in huge, flapping convulsions that seemed to sweep my face and fill the kitchen.

Rather, she does it as a “moral exercise”, because “if I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer.” In chapter 7, I love this woman and this book. It was in chapter 7 that I got up from my lunch – during my lunch break, I walked away from lunch – to find Liz, who was on duty at the reference desk, to read her a page aloud. (That was the page about the duck pond and the frogs.) So along with my complaints, there is much to love in this book. Take for example the section on the mating habits of the praying mantis: Dillard portrays these practices as horrifying, hilarious, and disturbingly like our own; it is a feat. I think I like her best when she digs into the science and minutia of the natural world, and exclaims in joy, fear, disturbance, or wonder at it. In other words, when she is a nature writer (wink).

Stay tuned for my review, part the second, and we will all find out together what my final feelings for Dillard will be.

book beginnings on Friday: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

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.


I have come across Annie Dillard’s name in enough nature writings I’ve enjoyed – fiction and non – that it’s definitely time to find her myself. I’ve started with her Pulitzer Prize-winner, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’m including the whole first paragraph here because I felt it necessary:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.

Evocative, isn’t it, the idea of this woman naked, painted in bloody cat prints like roses? Poetic, a little shocking. I like this as a beginning; it certainly gets one’s attention. This is, incidentally, the image referenced in my recent (new favorite) read, Dirt Work: Christine Byl called this a “lyric” defining “wild”. So that’s an auspicious start. Stay tuned.

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