podcast: S-Town

S-Town is an American investigative journalism podcast hosted by Brian Reed and created by the producers of Serial and This American Life. All seven chapters were released on March 28, 2017.

I have been hearing about this podcast for years, and I’m sorry it took me so long. As soon as I started it I was hooked, riveted, couldn’t stop. So beware.

S-Town is the polite abbreviation for Shittown, which is the moniker given Woodstock, Alabama by a colorful character who is from there. John B. McLemore contacts Brian Reed by email, and the two end up emailing and talking on the phone for some time – at least many months, maybe a year or more – before Reed is convinced to go down and meet the man in person. John B’s original story for Brian is about a murder that has been covered up by corrupt Bibb County, which he would like the journalist to investigate. Well, this is an early spoiler but a mild one: the alleged murder never actually took place. But by the time Reed figures that out, he’s met John B, who is an addicting character. Wildly eccentric, genius, and yet somehow also an everyman. S-Town thinks it’s about a murder, for a minute, but really it’s about John B himself.

Or is it? I coach my students to pay close attention to titles, and this podcast is titled after the town itself; or rather, John B’s colorful description of the town. Maybe the show is about John B’s worldview. The man himself; the town; John B’s philosophies; Brian Reed’s unresolved feelings about these subjects; the final disposition of the man at the center of things.

To quote the Vox article that is linked later in this review:

John is all of the following: a queer liberal conspiracist who socializes with neighborhood racists; a manic depressive consumed by predictions of cataclysmic global catastrophe; an off-the-grid hoarder of gold who takes in stray dogs; a genius with a photographic memory who’s spent his whole life caring for his mother while designing a massive and elaborate hedge maze in his backyard; and one of the most skilled antique clock restorers in the world.

I feel that, on one level, S-Town is an example of the best of what creative nonfiction can do. It focuses on a man who is, at least in some ways, just a regular dude from a backwater town in a part of the country that we are accustomed to looking down on. It turns out that the everyman is remarkable, however: he is inarguably hyperintelligent; he’s also eccentric, disturbed, deeply troubled. (He actually reminds me so vividly of someone I have known intimately for much of my life that I was often freaked out by the similarities, so much that I don’t think I can name that person here, although those close to me will recognize who I mean.) He’s endlessly fascinating. Reed gives the impression of simply capturing the outpouring of weirdness from John B and passing it on to us – artfully composed, but otherwise authentic. Look how crazy real life can be! Fact is stranger than fiction, and all that; the best stories occur in nonfiction because we wouldn’t find them believable in fiction, I often feel.

Of course, there is a little bit of a falsehood there. All narratives are mediated in some ways. No story could tell everything about a man, and this one is limited by time (seven episodes averaging just under an hour apiece), and by Brian Reed’s limited access to John B. (The subject here is extremely forthcoming, but who can ever share all of himself; and they only know each other for so long.) Any narrative necessarily shapes its subject, no matter how honest it tries to be. But I find this piece of creative nonfiction – the seven episodes as a whole – an extraordinary example of craft and art, and an exemplar of the power of creative nonfiction at its best.

It’s also been the subject of some controversy. I’ve tried to keep the rest of this review pretty nearly spoiler-free, but if you want to appreciate the podcast as intended, stop reading now and go listen to it first.


There have been complaints (and lawsuits) over Reed’s use of personal information. Did he exploit John B? Has he aired more personal business than the subject intended? John B is not here to speak for himself, which makes these questions harder to answer. But I think… if Reed has exposed a lot of John B’s innards, that’s just what journalists do. John B contacted a journalist, knowingly invited Reed into his life, and then granted him enormous access to himself, his home, his mind, and his writings. And John B was a smart man. If it’s a bit off-putting to see so much personal stuff exposed – and I do find it a bit uncomfortable – well, what else did we expect? It is certainly great storytelling. We can’t know what John B would have thought of the final product. But he doesn’t strike me as a man worried about outward appearances. Sometimes journalism, and creative nonfiction, can be a little unsavory, folks. (Perhaps this is why I’m pretty much a nonpracticing nonfictionist at this point.) But S-Town no more so than the rest of it. If anything, I think Reed did a decent job of resisting the temptation to view Woodstock with disdain or even the curiosity of a visitor to the zoo; I think he tried for nuance.

Rather unusually, I’m writing this review more than a week after finishing the podcast – I generally like to get to things much more quickly – and so I can tell you it’s sticking with me, as fascination and as a bit of a puzzle. I’m not ready to indict Brian Reed or the podcast, but I don’t feel excellent about the whole thing, either. For a few other perspectives, many of them less complimentary than mine, check out Medium (with spoilers!); even better, I think, is Vox‘s coverage (also with spoilers). The latter does a very good job of explaining what is outstanding and what is troubling about S-Town, in my estimation. But best of all would be to go listen to it yourself.

John B will be with me for some time.


Rating: 9 drops of mercury.

“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

From the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine, sent to me by the infallible Liz, a transcendent essay by Ann Patchett. Now, I’m not sure if this is for real or how stable it is, but at least for now this link will let you read it for free, which you definitely should do. And it’s worth whatever they want you to pay for it, in any case.

“These Precious Days” is a lengthy essay, but it is riveting at every point. I had to put it down and walk away just to give my mind and my emotions a break, and to stretch it out – it is that strong and beautiful an experience. And it was hard to figure out where to take that break, because it wants to flow right through from start to finish.

There is a story running through this piece, and it is a story of a friendship, formed and forged during extraordinary times. As Patchett reminds us, she is a novelist, with a real interest in how stories are structured, where they begin and where they end. So it is with purpose that she gives us the story’s chosen beginning: it’s almost bedtime, Patchett has just finished a novel, and she needs something short to read before bed. From the umpteen books that naturally surround Ann Patchett, she chooses a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. She is surprised to find it “a very good book,” and this sets her off on a journey where she gets to know Tom Hanks a little, interviews him for a television show, meets his assistant, sees him a few more times. This leads to Tom Hanks narrating the audiobook of The Dutch House, among other things. I’m not going to say any more about what happens. Trust me, you won’t be able to walk away from this one (unless you force yourself to do so with great effort, as I did, mostly for the pleasure of returning to it).

One thing I love about this essay is how it performs as a braided essay, barely. Patchett stays in a single narrative for the most part, telling the story of the developing friendship in the extraordinary times. After her introductory story about Tom Hanks (who is not the new friend, but reappears occasionally), she stays in this main thread so much of the time, and tells it so beautifully (and it is such an absorbing story) that I forget about the other thread – that there is a meta-thread in this essay about story, and about the shape and the shaping of this story. Those few and brief moments when she reminds us of the other topic are all the more effective for their scarcity. We are reminded that the narrator’s character is a novelist, and that the need she feels to shape narrative can’t be divorced from the life she’s living, where she has a dear new friend who is in danger. It’s extremely skillful writing, and I loved several facets of it: that weaving of threads (just barely, just a touch of one for seasoning in the main dish), the expertly paced storytelling, the appreciation for so-called coincidence, the delightful characters (of whom the author’s husband is a secondary example, but one I really liked), and the self-aware voice of Patchett herself. I’m left with the impression that Patchett is like Tom Hanks in a way (or my impression of Tom Hanks): despite being famous, they’re both also very decent and nice, more than one might expect. She’s allowed us intimately in here in a way that I think will appeal to many readers as it did to me.

Now’s a good time for me to confess that I’ve read none of Patchett’s fiction. (I think I’ve read a column or two, within the world of her bookstore advocacy.) I know her by reputation as a fine novelist and an important advocate of independent bookstores. I can now see that she is absolutely gifted and I need to read more of her work.

I can’t remember the last time an essay so bewitched and transported me. I insist you seek this one out. Thanks a million times as usual, Liz. (How’d I do?)

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Liz sent me a clipping from The New York Times Book Review recommending this book, which turned out to be a happy synchronicity in two ways: one, I had had the book on my shelves for years, still bearing a sticker from the library where I worked when I first met Liz. Two, I stuck that clipping, that slip of paper, in the book as a reminder, and the book turns out to be in some ways about little slips of paper, which I had learned by the time I found the clipping in its pages again. Good work as ever, Liz.

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a fine example of creative nonfiction writing of the less-personal kind: not memoir, but history; but history told with a novelist’s eye. This Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is for word-fans, of course – that OED mention has pulled them in – but also for readers who enjoy an absorbing historical narrative.

The Professor, here, is the Scottish Dr. James Murray, teacher and philologist who was eventually recruited to take on a formidable role: the editorship of a project of such enormity that most thought it could not be done. Here, Winchester backs up to give us a quick history of lexicography (Samuel Johnson figures centrally). The new project attempted something unprecedented: to define every word in the English language, not only those deemed “difficult” or somehow deserving of promotion; to describe rather than prescribe how they were used; and to record the history of each word, using quotations from written material, including the identification of each word’s first entry in written history. The philologists and word-nerds who undertook this goal repeatedly declared that they thought it would take a handful of volumes or a handful of years; it would take more than seventy years to publish its first “complete” version in twelve volumes, which of course needed immediate supplementing and updating. Dr. Murray was the editor and boss of this project, which would become the OED, in one of its earliest incarnations (the one that stuck).

That’s the title’s Professor. And then there was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American who spent his childhood in Ceylon with missionary parents, then trained as a medical doctor at Yale, served as a surgeon for the Union army in the American Civil War, and was later institutionalized for his delusions. Enjoying a little freedom in London in 1872, those delusions convinced him that he was pursuing one of the bad men who abducted and molested him at night, which is how he came to shoot and kill an impoverished local brewery worked named George Merrett, who left behind a pregnant wife and seven small children. For this, Minor would be “detained in safe custody… until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” He spent nearly the next fifty years of his life in an asylum in Broadmoor, just outside of London, “a certified criminal lunatic.”

Winchester offers that Minor’s life was saved, in a sense, when he came across an advertisement from Murray, seeking volunteers to read… well, everything, and search out the quotations needed to write what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor happily had some spending money (his family was well-off, and he drew a pension from his military service), and the good graces of the asylum leadership at Broadmoor let him build a prodigious library of rare and old books. Aside from these he had nothing but time, and created his own system of indexing that changed the way he was able to serve Murray and the OED. Over decades, he would serve as one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the project, sending in tens of thousands of little slips of paper with words and quoted texts carefully penned. He and Murray would build a friendship, and together they built a book. It is Winchester’s conclusion that while Merrett’s murder was tragic, and Minor’s life another tragedy, they were both necessary to contribute to something of a miracle in lexicography.

Liz’s clipping from the NYTBR (by Charlie Savage) calls The Professor and the Madman a “mashup of erudition and melodrama,” and I think that is a fine description. There is plenty of hearty history and lexicographic detail here, which I loved. There is also a definitely flair for the dramatic, and there were a few points where I didn’t love Winchester’s editorial tone. (A laugh at the expense of one dictionary reader and then “one of the women readers” – why that detail? – or a snobbish note about a slum. He could be a bit creepy about the naked girls on the Ceylon beaches. I didn’t care for the way he characterizes the stepmother as “so often the cause of problems for male children.”) There’s no question that this is a novelistic history, in the spirit of Erik Larson or Jon Krakauer – who were among my first experiences with creative nonfiction. By novelistic I mean that the storytelling is clearly meant to be entertaining: an eye for the colorful detail, a leaning into suspense, even a bit of a red herring here or there. It’s great fun. When Samuel Johnson is “damned” as “a wretched etymologist,” I cackled.

Chapters open with dictionary definitions of a word that will figure in that chapter’s narrative. This was a fun way to keep the OED in our sights and a little history in our perspective. There were a number of words and phrases in the text that I had to go look up, too: manqué, astrakhan, vade mecum, pudicity, rebatos, Rhinegrave, perukes, nostalgie de la boue, tocsin, rebarbative, swingeing… and you know I always enjoy that part of my reading, too. (Haven’t convinced my students yet that it’s fun to learn new words, but I’m working on it.) So again, is this a book for word-nerds and OED fans? Emphatically yes; but not only for them (us). It’s also just a ripping tale, a bit sensational and pathos-ridden. If you like dramatic historical fiction, this one is for you, too.

Not perfect, no, but enormous fun.


Rating: 7 catchwords.

Gambusia geigei” at Kestrel

I had a brief (flash) piece of my own creative nonfiction writing published over at Kestrel recently, and I want to thank those fine folks for their support! You can subscribe to Kestrel in print here.

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

I had not thought of Gary Paulsen in years, until I saw the Shelf Awareness review of this new book. (Hat tip to my colleague Jen Forbus for that review.) Paulsen might have been the first author I really fixated on; I remember setting out to own all his books, and while I didn’t get very far (maybe six or eight of them), I’m pretty sure I wrote “Julie’s Gary Paulsen library” or some such inside the cover of each one, and had them set up on their own little shelf. Early signs of something, there. My favorite was Hatchet, of course, and its sequel; and I vividly remember a scene from the beginning of another book where the narrator watches a… chipmunk? eating another creature, blood down its front… what book was that?

Anyway – when I saw that he’s returned with a memoir of his own childhood, I was sold. And let me tell you. This book had me entranced from the opening lines. I wept.

Gone to the Woods has an innocence and a simplicity built into its writing style and the value system, I think, of its narrator. This makes it accessible to younger readers, but not at all to them alone. I think this is a memoir for everyone. Paulsen tells his story in the third person, calling his protagonist only ‘the boy,’ although the name ‘Gary’ is used once or twice by other characters. This helps to give the boy an elemental quality, like he’s sort of an archetypal boy, although his story is very specific. When the book opens, he is five years old, living in Chicago with his mother in 1944. She has a factory job, and coming from a small farm in northern Minnesota, is “not even remotely prepared to resist the temptations of the big city.” She lives in the bars and does not parent her small son, who she’s trained to perform for the men who try to win her favor. Grandmother hears of this lifestyle and is “critical, then concerned, and finally… past horrified and well into scandalized.” Her solution colors the boy’s method of problem-solving for life: “If it doesn’t work Here, go over There.”

The first adventure of the book, then, is the five-year-old boy’s solo journey by train from Chicago to International Falls, Minnesota. This takes several days and involves a train absolutely jam-packed with severely injured soldiers, smelling of and oozing pain and death, so that the boy is physically ill from it all – because didn’t I say, his father, who he’s never met, is a soldier off in the war. The boy becomes stuck in a train toilet, among other things, and observes out the train window the woods that will become his sanctuary. By the time he arrives at his aunt and uncle’s farm he is wrung out with exhaustion, trauma, and confusion. But the farm will be a perfect place for him, the first place he feels he belongs, is valued, is taught. He’s given his own room and bed. It’s lovely. Then it’s taken away from him.

I’ll stop summarizing here. The boy’s upbringing is one trauma after another, including a few years on the streets of American-occupied Manila, and a continuing absence of parental concern. I appreciate that the narrator is slow to judge his parents, and I think it would have been easy (narratively speaking) to be ugly about the mother’s drinking and many boyfriends, for example, but neither the young boy nor the adult man who writes these lines takes that easy road. (At least until the teenager’s perspective, at which point he thinks of both parents as vipers. But this is about the damage they do to him, rather than some puritanical judgment of mom’s moral choices.) He is an unjudgmental creature in general. Paulsen is wonderfully good at the innocent child’s perspective, elements of which are present in the teenager too.

Trauma after trauma, but with a few bright points, like the aunt and uncle in the Minnesota woods, and a saintly librarian when he is thirteen years old who makes him a gift of notebook and pencil, for whom this book might be considered a gift in return. And the woods and rivers and streams, which are always a bright point. From age five, the boy learns that the woods will allow him to take care of himself, even when he lives in a city again, keeping to the alleys and nights to avoid bullies, and escaping to the stream where he can fish for food or shoot squirrels and rabbits when his parents fail to provide for him. Even in Manila, a city of a certain sort of trauma (truly, the violence and death this child witnesses by his sixth birthday is unfathomable), he finds beauty and human kindness.

At times the events were hard for me to take in, and I wondered if younger readers were really the right audience for this. But on reflection, I think Paulsen offers just enough. I think children might take away what they need from this book – I’m no proponent of censoring life’s pains from kids – and it’s the adult mind and perspective that makes it even harder to read, if that makes sense.

The story is harrowing but also lovely, always riveting, and an important testimonial from a generation that we will eventually lose access to. It is excruciatingly beautiful in how it’s told. The immediacy of traveling with the boy is heart-rending and direct. I can’t imagine how this book could be improved upon.


Rating: 10 willow branches.

A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears by Bjorn Dihle

A lifelong Alaskan inspires awe with his beautifully written, expert portrait of the grizzly bear.

Bjorn Dihle was born and raised in the outdoors of Alaska, where he has worked for years as a brown (or grizzly) bear viewing guide. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears is his lovely, thoughtful study on the relationship between humans and this evocative, storied species.

“There have been times I almost hated bears,” he writes. “Like most feelings of hostility, mine were rooted in fear. Yet, there is no place I love more than grizzly country, and no animal has intrigued and challenged me more than the bear.” Moving around in time, Dihle tells his own stories of encounters, from the first brown bear he ever saw–a carcass in a salmon stream when the author was four or five years old–through early trailside meetings and learning how to relate to bears, into his career seeking them out, especially on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. “There’s no way to make bears safe,” Dihle acknowledges, which is surely part of their appeal. But there are measures, such as Larry Aumiller’s “concept of habituation, which he defined as taking away the fight-or-flight response in a bear, that’s key for developing trust between our two species.”

A Shape in the Dark is an appealing, accessible memoir and a history of the interplay of bears and humans in the American West. Dihle intersperses his own and his friends’ bear encounters with those of Grizzly Adams and Teddy Roosevelt, outlining the evolution of attitudes and policy toward grizzlies. In considering the writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, he reviews the history of wilderness thinking beyond bears, with a ruminative style and personal perspective. He writes of famous and less famous maulings, the complexities of bear hunting, the role of grizzly bears in native cultures and the impact of climate change on Alaska and its greatest predator.

Dihle’s title hints at something elemental about our fears and the way he handles them: “After a while, much like our ancestors who’d built fires to keep away the monsters, I opened my laptop and stared at the lit-up screen, hoping the words would come.” As his subtitle suggests, Dihle deals with life and death in balanced proportions, portraying the deaths of bears and humans with similar reverence.

Quiet, meditative, wise, well informed, A Shape in the Dark is memoir, history and philosophy in one: “everything leaves a trail, whether it’s imprinted in the land, in the narratives we tell, or even in our blood.” Dihle’s love for his subject is contagious and beautifully conveyed.


This review originally ran in the February 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wigeons.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle

Collected essays arguing for nature as a unified matrix serve as an excellent introduction to the work of this veteran writer, or a continuing pleasure for readers in the know.

After decades of writing and naturalist study, Robert Michael Pyle (Wintergreen; Where Bigfoot Walks) thoughtfully collects essays on a theme in Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays. He conceives of a single, interconnected whole, not a binary of natural and non-natural worlds, but an organism of which humans are an inextricable (if often unaware) part. He explores the “extinction of experience” that threatens our future, defines his religion as “Alltheism” (with nods to Darwin, Muir and Kurt Cobain) and envisions wilderness as a continuum, with some version of the wild existing in every vacant lot and on every street corner. The introduction, “Pyrex, Postcards, and Panzers,” makes the point nicely: it took both pretty pictures and tanks to teach the author about the interrelatedness of the natural world–which is to say, simply, the world.

With 24 books to his credit and having studied, written, lived and taught all over the world, Pyle has a broad and rich body of work to draw on for this collection, first conceived of (by this title) in the late 1960s. Nature Matrix as published in 2020 may contain different essays than 1970’s would have, but the principle remains faithful. These 15 essays (ranging back to 1969, five of them previously unpublished) cover classic Pyle territory: butterflies, conservation, quiet appreciation of the outdoors.

Also included are a profile of John Jacob Astor I and arguments for reading hardcopy books rather than screens and for Bright Lights, Big City as an “elegant ethology of one species of upright hominoid ape under the influence of one species of plant in the contemporary canyonlands.” Nabokov is a recurring character (for his literary and visual arts and his lepidoptery), alongside “the High Line Canal, an irrigation ditch coursing the altitudinal contours across the landscapes of Greater Denver, carrying Platte River water from its mouth at the edge of the Rockies out onto the plains near the present Denver International Airport,” where the author as a child first learned to observe and love the details of the natural world.

Pyle’s voice varies from cantankerous to droll, awe-filled to academic; his characters and fascinations are equally wide-ranging. After all this, “In some ways am I right back where I started: fascinated by a stump on the corner.” It is the persistent note of wonder as much as his impressive depth of knowledge and passion that makes Nature Matrix a remarkable addition to Pyle’s life’s work.


This review originally ran in the August 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 twitchers.

The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart by Brian Doyle

I am back again with another Doyle, different this time but totally recognizably him.

Here are the classic Doyle elements of celebration and beauty, but amid so much pain and loss… and I have to admit, the loss of Doyle himself felt very present for me here. I continue to feel it as a significant loss to this world, both because we will get no more of his transcendent writing, and because he just seems to be the most beautiful, loving, joyful, talented person, and we don’t have enough of those; it still hurts me that we’ve lost him. And that was right under the surface of all of these essays for me, in a way that was less true of Chicago, because that book was fiction rather than nonfiction, and also because it is not quite so explicitly about life and death in the way that The Wet Engine is, so the pain was closer to the surface for me, if that tracks.

The wet engine is the heart, often but not always the human heart, and the reason Doyle focuses here is that one heart that is important to him is in danger. His son Liam (age nine at the time of writing) was born with three chambers in his heart rather than four. He had to have several open-heart surgeries when he was an infant, and so his father learned about how hearts work and he got to know some cardiologists and surgeons. And because this father was Brian Doyle, he also did some meditating on the metaphoric meanings of heart, on all the language we use (heartbreak, heartsick, hearts swelling and leaping and failing, hearts held in hands and worn on sleeves), and on mysticism and miracle and mystery and magic. He also does research: Liam’s doctor, Dr. Dave, is profiled in considerable detail, as is Dr. Dave’s wife, Linda, and his mother, Hope. (It is through Hope that we find ourselves in an internment camp – really, a concentration camp – for Japanese Americans during World War II, in Topaz, Utah. Hope was interned there as a teenager with her family for nearly three years; she graduated from high school there. “No, I am not bitter, she says. No. Bitter is no place to be. But I do not forget.”) Shorter profiles explore other doctors and pioneers in medicine and cardiology from around the world, from the early days of the science through the present (like Dr. Dave’s colleague Hagop Hovaguimian, who can never stop working because too many people need his help). The people who people this book come not only from throughout history but from all over the world, which is frequently fun and which reinforces the feeling of enormous scope that Doyle achieves. “The doctor to my left is from Australia. He speaks Australian, a smiling sunny language which takes me a minute to get the pace and rhythm of, but then we get along swell…”

The Wet Engine is a collection of linked essays that explore these and other topics: the humans involved with hearts and their stories; the nature and power of stories; the language and metaphor and soul of the heart, and its place in our mythologies; the science of the hearts of humans and other species; Liam’s own life story, and Doyle’s navigation of it as Liam’s father. Everywhere of course is Doyle’s distinctive voice and style, made up of long lists and emotional appeals and exuberance and vulnerability. There is also God here, and my regular readers know I don’t spend a lot of time reading about God, but Doyle can get away with anything: the tone of reverence is entirely appropriate here, and his explorations (“God is not a person. God is not an idea. God is the engine. God is the beat. We are distracted by the word God…”) I can easily follow. (Also I am reminded of Amy Leach.) And I appreciate that Doyle doesn’t choose just one religious or spiritual angle of approach, but that he’s interested in holiness in a multitude of traditions.

I think what I love most about this book is that it feels like it includes all the disciplines of study. There is theology, and hard science – medicine, zoology, even botany – history, social justice, the arts – music, and his own literary genius, including some superlative descriptive work and expressions of gratitude and pain. I’m pretty interested in interdisciplinarity these days, and I’m assigning my students readings that do this work, including a short passage from The Wet Engine. (Synchronicity: I’d just given them a Joseph Mitchell essay called “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” and then read that Hope was interned at that camp with Shirley Temple’s gardener. What?? The world is a mystery.) And all of this in Doyle’s own wild style.

I cried a lot, but it’s such a beautiful, instructive book. At scarcely over 100 pages, it is one that would bear lots of study. Again I rave.


Special recognition to Matt Ferrence for making me aware of this book a few years ago, when he assigned “Joyas Volardores,” the sixth essay, for an MFA residency. That one still stands out. Thanks, Matt.


Rating: 9 knobby knees.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.
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