did not finish: Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams

I stopped at page 238 of 314, in my galley copy, but that’s three quarters of the book, and I feel warranted to share my reactions. This was to have been a Shelf Awareness review, but I had too many concerns about this book. And you must know how it pains me to criticize a writer I love; but I have to say honestly that this book does not live up to her best work.

Erosion: Essays of Undoing is a collection of Williams’s work in the last few years, in the disturbing times of Trump, concerned in particular with the decimation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments (but of course all of the disturbing trends we’re seeing). In the spirit and style of Williams as many of us have come to know and love her, she reacts: with pain, with home, with spirituality, with connection, with often lovely writing. But in many ways, Erosion falls short.

For one thing, there are several ways to put together an essay collection, and this one feels clearly like a gathering up of published work of the last several years, putting them into a certain order and stapling them at the corners. There is an enormous amount of redundant information here: in particular, the signing of the two National Monuments into existence by Obama and their undoing by Trump are explicated a number of times in very few pages, and in similar wording. This feels really lazy. I just recently put together my MFA thesis, sort of a memoir-in-essays, and those essays started out with quite a bit of redundancy; I spent months reworking them to be sure they flowed smoothly and didn’t restate; my thesis advisor worked me pretty hard, because we had high standards for that product, which is just a little ol’ MFA thesis that maybe no one will ever read. I certainly intend to hold Williams to the same standard. I think it shows a lack of respect for her readership to throw this collection together like this. The inclusion of several poems, and an interview with Tim DeChristopher, could certainly have worked in a more carefully put together book, but here they feel haphazardly inserted, as if trying to make a certain page count.

The Williams style can be a little vague and mystical; I have a lower tolerance for (shall we say) the woo-woo than some readers, but in the past she’s made it work for me – beautifully, in fact – in the right proportions and with the right subject matter. In those successful books, she earns it with a careful attention to her surroundings, a quiet, humble voice that I read as an authority on her subjects. Here, that signature style failed to perform. I think it’s in part because this book is much more polemic, timely, policy-related; the vagueness doesn’t resonate as wisdom but rather feels like a shortcoming. I marked the line “Scientists credit the ESA for saving 227 species from going extinct,” wondering which scientists and when they said it; but with no bibliography or footnotes, I regret that this author loses some credibility.

An essay about her losing her job was revealing in a few ways. To sum up: in an act of civil disobedience, Williams purchased at auction the oil and gas leasing rights to a plot of public land. Shortly thereafter she was fired from her longtime position at the University of Utah, which she feels was politically motivated (and it makes a lot of sense to me that it was), although that is denied. The university, she says, claims “I was making too much money for doing too little compared to teaching fellows who were teaching several classes a semester, something like that.” It’s the “something like that” that got under my skin; it felt dismissive of the teaching fellows, and dismissive of the concern that the university may need to spend its limited funds (or didn’t you know that education funding is decimated these days, Terry?) on teaching hours rather than the author’s pet project (which I’m sure is a fine one, certainly). She goes on to claim that being asked to teach out of a classroom with four walls, and have field trips approved rather than happen at her whim, felt like a “straitjacket.” This strikes me as a bit shrill, and feels like the voice of privilege: a longstanding professor who is used to going outside the rulebook is appalled that she is being asked to at least start from a classroom. It’s a the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me sort of attitude which I think makes her case much less sympathetic.

From here we learn that, having lost her job, the narrator is interested in selling more articles and essays for publication to make a little income while she figures things out; and this was an aha! moment for me. Aha! Terry Tempest Williams sees that, with her name, she can sell a book of collected essays, a few poems, and an interview, many (all?) of them previously published, without massaging them into place or editing them at all. I see the book in my hands taking shape.

I can see now that Williams’s oldest books have worked best for me, and more recently they fall a little short. You know that my admiration for Pieces of White Shell continues. I had begun to think that maybe my criticism of this book came from my recent time in a writing program, that I was too quick to see where sentences, paragraphs, whole essays needed further editing. But I taught from Pieces of White Shell within the last year, and I’ve read and admired other books recently; it’s not like I’m impossible to please. I’m even forgiving of a few weak lines here and there, because none of us is perfect (although not all of us have access to the editing teams at FSG’s Sarah Crichton Books, either).

There’s something else I noted here that I don’t think counts as a vote against Williams, but it’s something I want to remember for clarification’s sake: I (and perhaps others) had been thinking of Williams as an environmental writer for the U.S., but that’s not right. She’s really about her own region, and not the rest of the country. I think this accounts for part of my concern with The Hour of Land, that she was so hard on Gettysburg and mostly stuck to the west. It’s normal, I believe, for us to have regional loyalties; no one can know a place as big as this country as well as they can know their own backyard. But be clear: Williams is not here for the Pacific Northwest, or Appalachia, or the Midwest or the South or, or – she’s here for the desert Southwest, her homeland and her love. Nothing wrong with that. But I need to remember it and not get confused.

I know I’ve been harsh here. Maybe it’s hard to be let down by an author I’ve admired; maybe I’m harder on her than a new reader would be, because I’m holding her to the high standard of her earlier work as it affected me. It’s hard to see our heroes fall. But this book struck me as lazy, and Williams’s narrative voice as increasingly self-referential and unaware of privilege. I’m disappointed.

On the other hand, of course, her heart is still very much in the right place as far as I’m concerned (although our regional focuses are different), and I have a sense of nostalgia for a voice I recognize. I only wish I didn’t feel like she were phoning it in.


Rating: 5 pronghorns.

did not finish: Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story by Marie Arana

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s edition.


This was to be a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t find enough to appreciate. Silver, Sword & Stone attempts a hugely ambitious project: a history of Latin America (South and Central) across much of human settlement, from pre-European contact through the present. Marie Arana wisely acknowledges that such a comprehensive history is too big a goal (certainly, to achieve in these 366 pages, plus notes), but still she takes on a lot. In her interpretation, three elements make up the chief themes and through-lines for this history. Silver stands in for mineral exploitation of the land and its indigenous peoples: silver, gold, tin, copper, and other metals. Sword represents violence, or rule by the powerful. And Stone is religion. I read parts one and two, so I can’t tell you much about Stone.

There were a few reasons that I quit. For one thing, the writing: Arana has a great fondness for adjectives, sticking one to just about every noun; she is not quite so thorough with adverbs, but it was enough to irk. Many of these modifiers are superlatives: benighted, saintly, and (one of her favorites) brutal. Not only manifest, but ‘very manifest.’ Feeble, irrepressibly genial, hellish, cataclysmic, dire. When everything is absolutely the most ever, the effect of all of it dims. Also, the section on Sword, or the violence that has plagued so much of Latin American history, feels like a judgment on the people of this massive region – both pre- and post-European contact: they are just inclined to violence, to brutal acts, to power and subjugation by force. It made me a little uncomfortable because it’s a negative stereotype that’s too often used against people of Latin American descent (native and white/European, and the inevitable mix of the two). I am also a little uncomfortable arguing against the conclusions here, especially because Arana is herself of Latin American descent, and I am not, and I usually try not to correct people about their own in-group conclusions. This is part of why I didn’t write a review for the Shelf. But here on my blog, I can only say, some of these broad-stroke statements made me uncomfortable.

On the plus side, I appreciate Arana’s strategy for bringing immediacy to this historical work. Each section stars a modern-day Latin American whose experiences represent and make specific some of the broader story she tells. Silver: Leonor Gonzáles picks through rocks on a high Andean peak in Peru, searching for gold, scrabbling a hard living as have generations before her. Sword: Carlos Buergos had a rough childhood in Cuba, was sent by Castro to fight in Angola for the Communists, then imprisoned for butchering horse meat and trying to escape, then sent to Florida as an undesirable. Stone: a priest, although of course I did not read that far. It’s a good plan, and fairly well executed here. Arana’s use of these contemporary characters indeed gives context and immediacy. The history bits can get a little general. She has something of a tendency to repeat herself, restating and rephrasing certain points, sometimes offering different (contradictory) numbers in the second go-round; but these are hopefully errors that will be caught in a final round of edits. Recall, this is a pre-pub reader’s edition. This one had more errors (grammar, usage, punctuation as well as factual contradictions) than I’m accustomed to seeing, but one is supposed to trust that all gets corrected in the final copy.

I think there’s a lot of good research to appreciate here – my copy has nearly 100 pages of notes. Arana has done some good work of interpretation, and she makes some strong arguments about recurring threads in Latin American history. Her use of representative contemporary stories to illuminate larger themes is a wise strategy. But there were some stylistic issues that I couldn’t get past. If anyone gets through the final published version, I would love to hear about it. But this one’s not for me at this time.


(I read two-thirds, so I’ll go for it)
Rating: 4 brutalities.

did not finish: Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways by Riley Hanick

I’m sure this is a good book, but not for me at this time.

The idea is definitely intriguing: three creations, linked by place and certain themes. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Jackson Pollock’s Mural; and Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system. Riley Hanick is in Iowa. Just four years after Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock’s mural for her Manhattan townhome (where “the narrow width of [her] hallway would have made [proper viewing of the painting] impossible”), she gave it to the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Later, Kerouac’s first draft of On the Road, on a single long scroll of paper, will be on display in the same museum. This museum will flood, and the art will itself end up on the road, in transit.

An interesting concept, to weave these three threads together, three movements. Jeremy recommended it to me in part because I was writing about Houston’s Menil Collection, and traveling home to visit it (after Hurricane Harvey, no less, with notes on what precautions the Menil took). This was a wise recommendation for obvious reasons. But as it turns out… Hanick’s style is sketched, abstract, sometimes taking the form of very short chunks, and conflating his two Jacks until I was often unsure of whom we were talking about. His pronouns run from ‘he’ to ‘they’ to ‘we’ to ‘I’ and I was frequently lost. It was nearly 100 pages in when he first quoted Gertrude Stein, and I thought, aha! that is my problem here: there is too much of the Stein here.

As I put this book down, I remain slightly interested, and in another world, one where I have lots of free reading time, I’d fantasize about picking it back up again. But in this life, when I have too much reading to do that will help me (as a student, as a writer, as a book reviewer) and that I can understand, Three Kinds of Motion is not for me.


I’m forgoing the rating this time.

notes on podcasts & a DNF

I’ve started a new job, part-time on the weekends, serving beer in the taproom of a craft brewery a few towns over. It’s great! but I have a good bit of a commute again now. I haven’t listened to an audiobook since school started in January, because I haven’t wanted to crowd my brain any more than it already is (or get my stories crossed). So Liz has recommended a few podcasts for me. She is super into the podcasts, so I know she restrained herself, by starting me off with just six. On my last few drives to and from the brewery, I have really enjoyed listening. I’m going to try to stick to just a few sentences per story here…

Another Round, Episode 85: The Same Stuff as Stars (with Amanda Nguyen).

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton discuss rape culture and outer space with Amanda Nguyen, a college student who has founded an advocacy organization for rape survivors, written new legislation and gotten it passed in Massachusetts, and is studying to be an astronaut (wow). All three women have engaging voices & personalities here, and the story is obviously layered and impactful.

Criminal, Episode 63: Rochester, 1991.

Kim Dadou served 17 years for the murder of her boyfriend, who beat her within an inch of her life, which life she was defending when he died; now she’s an advocate for domestic assault victims. Excellent intimate tone and a narrative that is horrific but compelling. Listener is left rooting for Kim, naturally.

Death, Sex & Money, I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn’t.

When a woman he’d slept with called to say she was pregnant, Tony became a father to a little girl he loved deeply–until he found out she wasn’t his after all. He and the biological father discuss their experiences. They are disarming, honest, vulnerable.

Embedded, Police Videos: Flagstaff.

A 2014 video shot from a police officer’s eyeglasses shows his death by shooting, perhaps the first of its kind and a major internet sensation. Kelly McEvers delves into this video and its meaning to various viewers, in particular the families of the officer and the shooter. I appreciate Kelly’s personal approach–sharing her own reactions–and the variety of perspectives she finds.

Death, Sex & Money, Live from the Internet: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires & You.

(This is the podcast that got Liz & I started on this exchange, because I’m an Isbell fan. I remember listening to the first Death, Sex and Money show with Isbell back in 2014.) Live-recorded call-in show with Anna Sales taking questions for Jason & Amanda about addiction, relationships, and their art. These are two wise, thoughtful, compassionate and smart individuals, and I could listen to them all day (and have).

Other Liz-recommended podcasts I’ve got queued up include Revisionist History, Planet Money, and Radiolab, so stay tuned. And, this one did not come from Liz, but about a year ago I really enjoyed Love + Radio‘s Choir Boy, an interview with a bike-racer-turned-bank-robber. What a weird story, truly stranger than fiction.

In other news, briefly: I had a strong negative reaction to Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention (from Graywolf’s The Art of series). I guess the good news is this book seems to be aimed exclusively at poets, and I am not one. Revell seems to me to be more interested in showing off his vocabulary and convoluted constructions than communicating; I found him deliberately opaque; and a central thesis seems to be that the “craft” of writing is neither teachable nor worthy of teaching—so why this book? Anyway, moving on.

selections from Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World ed. by Frank Stewart & Trevor Carolan

cascadiaI just read a few pieces from this collection, so I won’t finish with a final rating, but I think it’s recommendable overall for readers interested in a sense of place in this place in particular; nature & ecology; First Nations peoples; or Emily Carr.

The table of contents is organized by category: essays, oratory, poetry, memoir. Unusually, the order of the table of contents is not the same as the order in the book itself. I picked out a few things I wanted to read: essays “In the Shadow of Red Cedar” by Wade Davis, “Reinhabitation” by Gary Snyder, and “Nature’s Apprentice” by Rex Weyler; Barry Lopez’s fiction “In the Great Bend of the Souris River”; and all three pieces of memoir, “The Laughing One: Word Sketches from Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr, “The Sasquatch at Home” by Eden Robinson, and “Lew Welch: An Appreciation” by Maxine Hong Kingston. Emily Carr’s sketches appear throughout, illustrating not only her own writing but all of Cascadia.

The work of Barry Lopez and Maxine Hong Kingston were among my favorites; Eden Robinson’s story about her mother and Elvis was curious and enjoyable. But by far the standout for me was Emily Carr, a woman I know best from a work of fiction: Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. I marveled here at her skill with words as well as pencil and paintbrush. She recounts experiences as a teen visiting a mission school and other native communities, and the wisdom and humor as well as observations she expresses are impressive. I marked several startling phrases.

The house was of wood, unpainted. There were no blinds or curtains. It looked, as we paddled up to it, as it if were stuffed with black.

It must have hurt the Indians dreadfully to have the things they had always believed trampled on and torn from their hugging. Down deep we all hug something. The great forest hugs its silence. The sea and the air hug the spilled cries of sea-birds. The forest hugs only silence; its birds and even its beasts are mute.

The old man sawed as if aeons of time were before him, and as if all the years behind him had been leisurely and all the years in front of him would be equally so. There was strength still in his back and limbs but his teeth were all worn to the gums. The shock of hair that fell to his shoulders was grizzled. Life had sweetened the old man. He was luscious with time like the end berries of the strawberry season.

Luscious with time like a strawberry. I tell you. And this woman is famous for her paintings! (Etc.)

From Barry Lopez’s story, in which the narrator pours his passion into working with wood, reading wood, and using that work to read his world, comes a metaphor:

Nothing solid, I learned, can ever be built without shims.

I’ve just taken a quick overview of what this book has to offer; but I can see that it addresses the politics, history, cultures and ecology of the region of Cascadia (“a great arc from Southeast Alaska to Cape Mendocino, California”) through a variety of lenses and voices. And with some lovely words in between.

did not finish: Ripper by Isabel Allende (audio)

ripperAll right, I give up, a little bit, on Allende. The Japanese Lover was stronger on language than on character, and Maya’s Notebook even more so. Not since Inés of My Soul have I been bowled over by the whole package of story, character and language.

Ripper starts out intriguingly, as noted. But I only made it about 10% through the book before finding myself frustrated by the characters. The voluptuous, beautiful blonde with a heart of gold who is blind to people’s flaws; the materialistic rich guy she dates; the obnoxious teen (really, I find this one a lot. I know they can be difficult – I was – but they have to be more complex than this); etc. And then the unrealistic details (which I noted in Maya’s Notebook), as when our teenaged sleuth demands all the details of an ongoing murder investigation, because “it’s public record”: not so.* This kind of disregard for facts, in an otherwise realistic setting, bugs me; and combined with the flat characters, I couldn’t keep going.

Allende is one of the best when it comes to description and language. But that’s not always enough, for me at least. I’ll hold out for her next critically acclaimed work before I come back.


Unrated.

*I felt like I knew this from watching crime shows on television. Obviously not a strong source, so I found some stronger ones, below. The gist of it is, specific details of a crime whose investigation is ongoing are exempt from public records legislation, where the release of those details might jeopardize the investigation. For example, the details of specifically what was done to a murder victim might be held back so that the police can distinguish real confessions from fake ones. This is classic crime fiction stuff, but also fact. “Most states exempt from disclosure law enforcement investigatory records,” from the Connecticut General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research, reporting on states’ laws. The LA Times refers to “investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law.” “Specified facts from investigatory or security records, without disclosure of the records themselves, must be disclosed unless disclosure would endanger the successful completion of an investigation, or related investigation, or endanger a person involved in the investigation. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 6254(f)(1), (f)(2) and (f)(3),” from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Information that may jeopardize an investigation, related investigation or law enforcement proceeding” are exempt from public records access, according to the LAPD. “Law enforcement investigative files may be withheld, but not the basic facts.” Californians Aware, The Center for Public Forum Rights. Etc.

did not finish: Wall, Watchtower and Pencil Stub: Writing During World War II by John R. Carpenter

When is it fair to criticize a galley for its mistakes?

Full disclosure: I was sent a pre-publication galley copy of this book. The errors I am about to complain about may be corrected in the final published product. However, I am doubtful. This is a well-finished, glossy-covered galley, and my observation is that such copies rarely undergo massive revamps, which is what this one would need to satisfy my complaints. [Even when I have received unfinished copies, including typed manuscripts on loose pages, I’ve found far fewer errors than this.] I have found the odd typo in ARCs and galleys I’ve been sent, or the odd note clearly intended for someone in the editorial process (“need caption here” or “photo credit?”). What I see here looks to me like more of a consistent stylistic choice. Still, it’s only fair to point out that the final publication will be different from this one in some ways. I definitely like the concept, so I hope corrections are made… many of them.


pencil stubI read through the preamble, the preface, and chapter 1, which concludes on page 15, and I couldn’t take any more. I found distracting multiple uses of a comma to connect two independent clauses, as in:

The outcome is no longer in doubt, the names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

Correct grammar would demand either a semicolon or a conjunction to connect these two clauses, or alternatively, they could be two sentences entirely.

The outcome is no longer in doubt; the names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

The outcome is no longer in doubt, because the names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

The outcome is no longer in doubt. The names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

A few more:

Hillary was a pilot, in the first chapters of the book he presents himself as arrogant and immature.

Hillary did not survive the war – he died in January 1943 – but he was unequivocal, his whole act of writing and his book were an act of communication with his readers: a call to end delusions.

Again, I read 15 pages, and these are just a few examples I chose out of many.

Other usage oddities:

It could have ended entirely different.

(Differently, I’m sure he means…)

The realization by a civilian he could be treated as an insentient thing often came suddenly.

This is the only one that strikes me as possibly a simple mistake, the omission of a word that would have made the sentence flow easily and understandably, so the reader could pay attention to content and put away her red pen.

I feel like I read this concept somewhere, or maybe I made it up, but it seems a good rule of thumb to me that a galley should not be judged negatively on the basis of a few errors throughout, that one assumes will be corrected in final publication. However, at the point where those errors are prolific enough to be distracting, they must be addressed. After all, publishers send out galleys to promote the upcoming book, don’t they? It would seem to be very counter to that cause to send out a copy so full of errors that I can no longer pay attention to the purpose of the book. That was the case here, and I couldn’t continue.

For those interested in the quite attractive topic of “writing during WWII,” you might still want to check out the final version of this book. But maybe browse its pages first to see if this consistent misuse of commas is corrected. Or maybe you’re less sensitive than I am…

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