If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

Many Circles: New and Selected Essays by Albert Goldbarth

My word. This is a complicated one.

I admire Albert Goldbarth very much. I’ve read his essay “Fuller” several times now, but I think that’s the only work of his that I’d read before this book. As an overall impression, I am deeply impressed, and challenged. These essays are beautiful and complicated. They are braids of many strands, often organized around an abstract concept, and Goldbarth makes it his job to help us see the connections, which can as well be pretty abstract. In other words, classic essayistic thinking-on-the-page. I’m thinking of the masterful braiding in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I so love, but even more complexly. And long: these essays are 20, 30, 40 and 50 pages long, which can make their braiding quite an organizational feat, and a feat for the reader as well.

They tend to focus on dualities or multiplicities, and profiles of people in history as well as in the present. The amount of information presented in each–scientific, historical–is boggling, and yet each essay makes sense in the end almost despite itself. I want to call the subject matter often obscure, but that’s an issue for each reader to decide, isn’t it; I am not the most well-read person I know, but I am not the least, either, and I certainly found some of the historical figures new to me. (I was fine with Yeats, and Einstein, and the Greek myths, of course; but the archaeologists John Lloyd Stephens* and Augustus Le Plongeon? Millionaire astronomer Pecival Lowell?) Goldbarth himself: extremely well-read and wide-ranging. Reading him is an education.** And I really, really enjoyed reading these essays and learning so much; but they must be taken slowly, to follow and parse all those threads.

Goldbarth is a poet to boot, and adds lyricism and whimsy in where we least expect it, expanding the ways in which he makes connections–imagistic and figurative ones, and wordplay–which make his work so much more beautiful but also that much more complex to follow in his meanings. His images and sentences as well as his essays are surprising, gorgeous, complicated, and rich.

I find his clearest obsession to be the concept of a “sympathy of souls” (the title of an earlier essay collection, many of whose essays reappear here), the interlinking of concepts and images, yes, but also of people. My two favorite examples of this type of essay are “Fuller,” which I’ve read repeatedly and finally begin to grasp, and “After Yitzl.”

The first links Marie Curie with the dancer Loie Fuller. They were contemporaries, and the historical record shows that they met; but much of their touching, close relationship as Goldbarth writes it here is born in his imagination. It’s a stunning piece, first in its portrayal of Marie and Pierre Curie’s passion for their research (and the starry brightness it yielded), and then in its, yes, sympathy between the two women. The narrator’s present life and relationship with his wife sneak in, too. I admired in many essays that the narrator was present as a writer and researcher: this line of poetry he was struggling with and its relationship to the apparently unconnected essay draft, etc.

“After Yitzl” is also a sort of dream sequence, which opens this collection and the earlier Sympathy of Souls. It is about the narrator’s ancestor, his ancestral connections to Jewish immigrants to the United States. It’s brief, and lovely, and as much imagination as anything else, but also research-heavy…

And then there are the longer essays: “Many Circles,” “Worlds,” and “Ellen’s,” which I could read a dozen times and still not grasp all of. It’s about the narrator’s friend Ellen, who is both a genius and mentally ill, and her deep relationship with James Joyce; it’s about Leonardo da Vinci, Dorothy in Oz, and spirals in architecture and nature and imagination. Whew.

Do I recommend this collection? Wholeheartedly, I do; but be ready for a challenge and some slow page-turning, and take notes. I’ll be studying this one for a long time.


Rating: 9 thimbling netsukes, if you’re up for the challenge.

*But then it turned out I did know the archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens: when Goldbarth got to the part about his two-volume work Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, I looked up and yes, spotted those two volumes on my to-be-read shelf. (Thank you Fil for that perfectly appropriate gift.)


**Stay tuned for a vocabulary lessons post to come on Friday.

guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura

I felt I might be tested on the things I saw.

Lia Purpura’s On Looking is an collection of essays that are unrelated, but for their preoccupation with looking and seeing. It’s an interesting look at collecting essays: some of these do not make obvious their obsession, except by proximity with the others. It’s an effect that builds. I like it.

Purpura’s language is lyric, which is often difficult to make clear meaning of – words go together that we don’t expect, which slows down this literal-minded reader. There is undeniable music and rhythm to the language, but also meaning available, if one slows down.

The opening essay, “Autopsy Report,” I’ve read before. It’s beautiful. It is absolutely about looking – a fine way to begin this collection – about really seeing when so many would turn away. (Some readers may wish to turn away. It gives the fine details of bodies literally split open.) This is definitely one of my favorites of the book, and a representative sample, although I suppose it is also clearer in its language than some that follow, and therefore a bit more accessible.

Another favorite was “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie,” which identifies itself as a list essay.

(A list, after all, is an incantation. In a list of likenesses, each element, each peculiarity gathers, leans into and flicks on the light in the room of the next one. The elements loop and knot forth like a net, band as a colony of frost or coral reaching, suggesting not so much a progression as a collective tendency toward. And taken together, the elements offer the assurance of a stance: here is a way to speak of this lightest, barely perceptible–in this case–space. From here I can count and collect that which stirs, and has always stirred me.)

A list inches one closer. Hints along.

Recognize my lists-and-things obsession here, which is of course related to a looking-and-seeing obsession. What follows is a series of spaces and things considered for whether they can count or cannot count as sugar eggs. Sugar eggs for the narrator are sacred spaces… “a space that makes a place for thought, an air considerably pure in which objects–say, sugar bushes, sugar trees–grown precise in their stilled distance.” The specialness of sugar eggs is hard to pin down: Purpura has spent a beautiful essay working on it, and I’m not sure I can sum it up. I’m not even sure I entirely understand it; but I had a lovely time following her parsing of what does and does not qualify.

Another favorite essay was “Coming to See,” which turns out to be a memorial. It’s a series of fragments, about looking through a window and wanting a better, clearer frame for the view (subjects I have played with too); only on the essay’s third page do we learn that the narrator has a friend who is dying. This friend is scarcely mentioned throughout, but it becomes clear that she is what the narrator’s anxiety of seeing is all about. Again, the memorial is something I’ve attempted, but it’s hard to get it right. This is an unusual, touching take on it. By almost entirely eliding the true subject, Purpura gets at the emotional heart without predictable sentimentality or cliché.

There is more, much more; it is so dense. From here I will give you a few favorite lines.

The epigraph, by Goethe:

Every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception.

From “The Pin”:

But while we stayed, we stayed because we were protected by a curiosity so certain of its task, that things–boots, mail, pots, our bodies–offered themselves, first tentatively and then with urgency, as if for us alone, solicitous as all objects of adoration, as all objects in stories lure us, irresistible and catalytic.

All objects in stories lure us. My thesis, if you will.

And finally, from “On Looking Away: A Panoramic,”

I believe in the circle.

It’s funny the things that resonate with us. Another reader would have read this book and marked entirely different lines, I’m sure.

Perhaps this book should be read alongside Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, for its attention to attention. And in fact perhaps that comparison is useful: I had to read Doty’s book twice (and repeatedly after that) to begin to get it. These are dense, rich texts, about abstract things even while they’re about very literal, physical things as well.

Worth your time.


Rating: 8 ships in bottles.

The Prairie in Her Eyes by Ann Daum

This is an extraordinary book, one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far. I took it slowly, out of pure pleasure. Thanks once more to Jessie.

Ann Daum is from a farm-and-ranch in South Dakota’s White River Valley. She left to go to college, but returned every harvest season, and came back after college. She grew up as a ranch hand; her father was the farmer, but her sister and she were ‘cattlemen’ and handlers of horses. As her parents age, and circumstances work against cattle ranching, that part of the family business shrinks and crumbles; they sell off much of their four thousand acres. But Ann’s horse breeding operation does well, and she continues on the family property.

Against this backdrop, The Prairie in Her Eyes is an essay collection and something of a memoir-in-essays. It begins with Ann listening to sandhill cranes passing over her family’s homeplace, in an essay titled “The Habit of Return,” and ends with “The Last Crane,” in which she watches the last sandhill of the season worry itself along. In between, essays consider the history of South Dakota and its farming and ranching cultures; the region’s wildlife; “Silence and Spaces” and “Predators and Prey,” and more. I admire Daum’s titles, which often cue me to follow her subtle braid, as in the essay “Fences,” which deals with boundaries of different sorts, and the variety of effects of literal fences in her region of South Dakota, for good and for ill, and the evolution within her own life of how she sees fences, which is a matter of both her own growth and of changes in the place itself.

Some of this content is hard to take. An account of a difficult foaling had me in tears; the animals (not people!) who hurt and died wrenched me. There is human trauma, as well, that can be difficult to read; interestingly, the human trauma is written about with some distance, less graphically, while the animals’ is more viscerally portrayed. But it’s shown with so much love and grace, and beautiful prose. I’d recommend this book 1,000 times.

These lines open “Silence and Spaces”:

Rain never falls in the South Dakota of my childhood. Wind blows down the valley with the force of locomotives, clouds pile on the horizon, thunder growls from the west. Once, sometimes twice, a summer, lightning sparks prairie fires that crackle and spit, swallow brown summer grasses without tasting. The flames cough embers up like glowing stars and the smoke hangs in cloud. But there is no rain.

This paragraph is about the weather. Fairly dramatic weather, sure. It’s about a lack: no rain. Weather, and an absence. It does not sound like a good recipe for gripping prose. But the fires swallow brown grasses without tasting? Amazing.

Obviously the themes and subject matter of this book spoke to me. It’s about home, what it means to be attached to a place, and how complicated, multifaceted, and imperfect our connections are. I love how deeply the flora, fauna, and history (natural and otherwise) of her region have contributed to making Daum who she is. At the pinnacle of this concept is the essay “Why We Return – The Prairie in Her Eyes,” in which an old woman comes to visit the Daum family property. This woman had never lived there; she’d never seen it before; but her parents had homesteaded there, and an older sibling had been born there. Just like the cranes in “The Habit of Return” (and, obviously, Daum herself), she felt the pull of the place, even though she’d never set foot. “Gertie grew up missing a place she never knew.”

I’m enchanted. I’ll be referring back to this one.


Readalikes: Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Evelyn Funda’s Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament.


Rating: 9 fading trails.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another book that came to me at just the right time thanks to Jessie van Eerden. I know of Rebecca Solnit, of course, but I think this is the first of her writing that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it in several aspects: its subject matter is very much in line with that of my thesis (that I’m currently writing); its structure is of interest and also has something to offer my own; the writing is lovely; the content it approaches is wide-ranging, and (as Jessie said early in this semester as we did a manuscript review), “I like to learn stuff.”

That said, it’s not an easy book to sum up. These collected essays are connected, but far from telling a narrative. Solnit is exploring the idea of getting lost and what it has to offer us; and that is ‘getting lost’ in several senses, geographic (I got off the trail and I was lost) and metaphoric (after my mother died I was lost, or I lost several years). Also the sense in which we lose both things and people: lose your keys, lose your mother (to death), lose a boyfriend (when you break up). She sees value in getting lost – sometimes it’s how we find ourselves – and notes that we don’t get lost much anymore. Late in the book, she looks at old maps with their ‘Terra Incognita,’ and observes that we don’t have terra incognita on our maps anymore. We know it all! Right? (Of course, we’ve thought we knew it all before, and been proven wrong.)

I’m using the sense of place tag here although it’s not quite right, which is perhaps a design flaw in my tag. By ‘sense of place,’ I have tended to mean a strong attachment to a certain place; so Jesse Donaldson’s writing about Kentucky, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Mary Karr’s southeast Texas. That is not what I found with Solnit, so much as a strong feeling about the importance of wandering, losing and finding oneself, in place and in other senses. Place plays an important role here. This book feels like it fits that tag, even though it doesn’t fit the tag as I originally conceived it. (This blog will be eight years old next month. Expect some scope creep.)

Structure-wise: there is a chapter-title refrain, with the heading The Blue of Distance (italicized, where the others aren’t) taking every other place between differently-titled essays. These are not the same essay over and over, but they all meditate on blue and its role in our observation of distance, beginning with the literal meaning (that is, that the sky and deep water both look blue for scientifically observable reasons) and moving through less-literal ones. Distance, it seems, is an inextricable part of one’s ability to get lost. My 600-square-foot house would be much harder to get lost in (tell that to my geriatric dog) than a 20-something room mansion would be. I really appreciated this design, the repeated title for very different essays; it was a succinct cue to the way in which they’re linked.

Another item I found interesting to note was Solnit’s references, the other thinkers she turns to. Some were perhaps unsurprising, as writers cite other writers: Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad. These are joined by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobbie Gentry, Yves Klein, Plato, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alfred Hitchcock (among many others). A huge number of minds contributed to Solnit’s own thought processes here – which are of course her own – and I was fascinated by the twists and turns. Again (and again), this is something I need in my own writing and that appeals to me. I can’t wait to tell Jessie how right-on she was with assigning me this book.

Obviously this Field Guide‘s usefulness to me is just beginning. You will like it, too, if you like far-ranging considerations of the human condition and where each of us as an individual might be or should be headed, if we’re thinking about it. I found it an engaging and curiously winding path, and I recommend it.


Rating: 8 shades of blue.

The Body: An Essay by Jenny Boully

The Body is an essay in footnotes. Footnotes to a body text which is absent. Just the footnotes.

Pages are often more blank than not, with a line demarcating the footnote section of the page, and then (in rather small font) the text below. Some footnotes are nothing more than Ibid., with a page number. Does this sound infuriating? Yes.

Some of the footnotes are long enough and weird enough to get lost in, themselves; when I consider them poetry and dwell in the moment, there is something to be enjoyed. But overall, not a concept that works for me. Other, better-known writers and readers than I have found much to value here. A meditation on the concept of absence, loss or disappearance, etc. But it was too weird for this reader. I was here for the body, if you will, and not its leavings.

For me a fail, but I’m certainly interested to know if you are differently minded. If any of my readers have enjoyed this book? Please explain.


Rating: 4 quotations.
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