Curious Atoms: A History with Physics by Susanne Paola Antonetta

Full disclosure: the author was a professor and mentor of mine at Western Washington University.

Curious Atoms is an essay chapbook, 50-some pages in length, dealing with physics and the author’s own life experiences: part memoir and part science, told by a serious reader of physics but with no formal training in the hard sciences (as far as I can tell). “A History with Physics” feels like an apt subtitle.

There is a certain density to this subject matter. For one thing, admittedly I neither much understand nor much care about the theoretical physics discussed here; I had to let it go by, try to meet it where I found it and move on. But it didn’t hinder my appreciation for the writing, because a great writer can carry us through any subject. (Although I might have gotten more out of this had I been more comfortable with quantum whatnots.) The physics might challenge you as it did me. The personal material is heavy in a different way; Antonetta delves into her experience with bipolar disorder, with mental health and treatment, stigma, medication, and more. She’s also a deeply intelligent and well-read narrator, ranging widely. It’s not an easy read in a few ways, but a rewarding one. I love that wide-ranging headiness, and I loved feeling like I could hear the voice again of a woman I got to hear speak in a classroom a few days a week – that was a real privilege.

Here are a few lovely, thought-provoking, representative lines.

To bring to the lyric the mind and body that I have, and speak from the lyric soul, I cannot. I’m not sure what of mine can be called mine, body or mind; the lyric, with textbook definition of “the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker,” wants a warm hand, not mineral. I am not an individual, quite, but a chemo-dual.

That “our bodies of difference,” as Stephen Kuusisto writes, “offer crucial ways of knowing” I do believe. I can only give the cellular knowing of my chemical history, with the punctuation of what I suppose I really am, unmixed: hysteria under the bed, glitter. I can talk about 1970s psychiatry, the time I first encountered as a girl patients preyed on sexually, the awful, always visible electroshock machine, used as treatment and threat, its aftermath a gelled amnesia. I do not think, however, that such memoirizing would get to the question.

Gifted memoirist writes that memoirizing is not the solution. Note the interest in the idea of dualism or multiplicity, as in the multiverse, as in bipolar, as in the highs and lows of minds and lives.

Better still – I apologize that this review is half quoted text, but David Lazar’s brief introduction is too perfect to pass up. I think he describes the collection perfectly, and I couldn’t agree with his final statement more.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s essays are full of erudition and stunning self-appraisals, hair-pin turns between metaphysics and splintered pieces of autobiography, dark energy and light asides, tossed off like hand grenades. These essays are sculpted – I’m tempted to say forged (so necessary is each sentence, even each word one feels). Yet in the midst of work so exorbitantly cooked, the raw springs of the felt occasion drive the essayist through her thought-projects. I loved being in the company of this mind.

You can view the entire chapbook here, and you really should.


Rating: 8 sides.

Stratford Festival on Film presents King Lear (2015); and my weekly update

I tried to watch NT Live’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’m far more enamored of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and this tragedy/history (with lots of battles and allegiances that I do not find compelling), with which I’m not previously familiar, just didn’t work for me. If you expect a different outcome, by all means give it a look here. I’m sure it’s a fine performance, and Ralph Fiennes looks to be a passionate Antony (who incongruously drinks St. Pauli Girl), and Sophie Okonedo is a powerful Cleopatra. But I couldn’t get into it, and sometimes it works out that way. I’m pretty excited about the next few shows, though! Check those out here.

Antony and Cleopatra: certainly gorgeous.

Happily, my father had just passed on some additional Shakespeare opportunities via Bard on the Beach – truly a wealth of options. I had planned on the Stratford (Ontario) Festival’s production of King Lear until a friend of mine posted up the access to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of same – starring James Earl Jones! It’s a strange, Shakespeare-rich pandemic we are living through. I was a little tempted to try to watch both, sort of side-by-side, a few minutes at a time, but questioned whether I had five and a half hours of Lear in me.

Stratford’s Lear and Cordelia

Well, I just couldn’t choose, and so I began with the first half-hour of New York and then the first half hour of Stratford. After that sampling, my judgment was: James Earl Jones is an excellent Lear; Colm Feore was an equally excellent Lear, but the rest of the cast at Stratford won by a landslide. (The latter’s 2015 production date, compared with 1974 in New York, didn’t hurt – the more modern was understandably much more slick and visually appealing, and the sound quality much superior.) I settled in to watch the Stratford production. But I couldn’t leave Jones, either, and so every time Lear had a compelling scene I switched over to see Jones’s version of it. I ended up watching about four and a half hours of Lear after all.

New York’s Lear and Cordelia

…Which puts the lie to my statement that I find Shakespeare’s tragedies less appealing. This is really an outstanding play, and one I hadn’t revisited in many years. It seems questionable, but I remember studying this one in middle school, and watching a film version? I don’t know. I love that this play has it all: comedy, treachery the wise fool, and truly a quintessential tragedy of hubris and temporary blindness (as well as literal blindness). The father/child relationship is explored in several different plotlines, which I found a pleasing but not overdone parallel. It’s also the play that yields such famous Shakespeare lines as

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

That way madness lies

I am a man more sinned against than sinning

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.

As well as the quotable

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

I was deeply pleased with the play itself. But also the acting – I was thoroughly absorbed in Feore’s Lear, the compelling Goneril and Regan, and the scheming Edmund. Even Cordelia, who can be a bit prim, was played feelingly by Sara Farb. Albany, Cornwell, and Kent – all memorable roles. The fool was masterful. By contrast, I found the New York company a bit under-dramatic; maybe it was the theatrical fashion of 1974 to downplay the drama. (The Stratford cast was much more white, and I appreciated the diversity in New York’s, but my feeling about the acting remains.) I except Jones from that criticism, of course; he was passionate and resounding, as he is at his best. The two Lears were quite different but both lovely; I loved being able to see them side-by-side. I do recommend this way of immersing yourself in the play, if you’ve the time and inclination! And hey, as usual your mileage may vary as to the relative strengths of each show. Try ’em both. I’m very pleased with how I spent my Saturday night.

In other news, Pops sent me this essay from Orion: “Losers Keepers” by Robert Michael Pyle. I love Bob Pyle, and I love an objects focus (as you may have noticed). This is a beautiful short meditation on objects, loss, and the temporary nature of people and things; he explores the sort of materialism that causes us to love our old and battered possessions even if we maybe don’t entirely fit the standard definitions of materialism. I found the final line spellbinding, and I really enjoyed what felt like revisiting an old friend with this quick read. Thanks, Pops.

Also this week, I attended a Patterson Hood concert on the evening before my birthday (thank you, thank you), livestreamed from his attic. It was very special – he read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, and played some deep cuts, and said we should all #runwithMaud, and generally treated us to what felt like a really intimate, personal evening. I loved being able to see this show in my PJs with my dog in my lap, as a special birthday treat.

Patterson Hood in my living room

In other news I’ve been painting and making some solar prints, reading a lot and sort of bouncing off the walls – after a week of up-and-down weather it snowed for two days this weekend, just in case this wasn’t already an exceptionally weird time to be alive. Hops and I will be looking for some good hikes once things clear up again. I’m getting to know my Kindle well. I poked into a few new television series but rejected each of them. I really wish there were more of The Wire. Let’s see… I worked two jigsaw puzzles and I won’t be doing any more of those; I’m too obsessive. In the absence of gym or lap pool, I’ve been doing exercise videos when the weather turns crappy, and Hops gives me the most withering, disgusted looks – I should document his reaction to my workouts for you all! Okay, back to books on Wednesday (and back to NT Live this weekend!). Thanks for bearing with me, all.

The Hero by Lee Child (audio)

Not a Jack Reacher novella, but an essay. Lee Child (as himself, for the first time in my reading experience) explores the concept of “the hero,” as archetype and as cultural tradition, in this hour-and-change. It opens with the history of opium, or rather of humans’ relationship to opium, in its various forms, as revealed by the archaeological record. This brings us to the book’s subject via that coined name for an opium derivative: heroin, as relates to hero. Etymology as guiding principle! I love it! Some of the reviews on Goodreads are laughably harsh, but that’s an issue of people not appreciating etymology or failing to grasp the concept of “essay” (and to be fair, some of these poor souls thought they were getting a Reacher novella. Which actually I did as well, but I transition between Reacher and the essayistic form more easily than some).

From opium and heroin we move through archaeology and the history and development of human societies (comparison of homo sapiens to homo neanderthalensis), including the move from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, always with a focus on the developing importance of storytelling. Storytelling, Child writes, is a survival mechanism, part of evolution. “Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories… somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.” Stories are instructive, he explains, and developed from the first use of language which was strictly nonfiction. There was no evolutionary advantage to claiming that there was a predator over the next rise, or prey or berries to be had around the next bend of the river, if it wasn’t true. The move to fiction was a big jump, and had to serve other purposes. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening, and instructing. The girl who met a tiger and ran fast and got away; later, the girl who met a tiger but she carried an axe and successfully fought it off.

Which brings me to a feature of this essay that I appreciate: that it centers women. Child tracks his own link to early homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens through the female line. As his own mother had no female child, he considers that line to have died out. Women tend to be the storytellers, and the early protagonists, in the histories he tells. It’s refreshing, when history is so often male-centered.

Another central feature is the importance of language, etymologies, and the joys and rigors of linguistics. (Child’s daughter Ruth is a linguist.) Words matter; and they tell stories. Rivals were originally in competition for rivers or for riverfront real estate. Heroin is named for the concept of the hero.

Reacher’s usual confidence in making logical connections and claiming theories is recognizable here as Child’s own. I’m not an academic in the field of human evolution as told through the archaeological record, nor am I a linguist; I have the sense that he sets forth some theories that are perhaps less than orthodox, but he does so with great assurance. It’s a style of writing that works well for me. This is Reacher as an academic. Jeff Harding’s narration feels spot-on.

A contemplation of language, story, and the archetypal (and ever-evolving) hero in human history: if this stuff sounds like your cuppa, and especially if you like Reacher too, do yourself a favor and check out this novella-length essay. It’s engrossing. (Also, there’s a nice, representative sample available here. Or another here.) Or if you just want a laugh, go check out those Goodreads reviews. Not every book for every reader…


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.

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, because I was a preexisting Kingsnorth fan.


If I read nothing for a year and if I wrote nothing for a year, would I, could I, begin to clear away the scaffolding which language, written language, conceptual, abstract language, has built up around my poor right brain? Could I fend off the assault which logic, reason, empiricism, analysis has been raining on my inner poet all my adult life? Could I silence the watcher? Could I split the gauze?

(I would quote the entire first two pages to you if I could.)

Savage Gods is a raw piece of questioning nonfiction, an honest and open view into the soul of a writer at a loss for words and mission. Paul Kingsnorth has moved with his family to a home in rural Ireland, where he hopes to finally feel at home in a place, to finally belong. This plan has failed, and he is compelled to contemplate all the ways in which plans fail, and people–especially writers–especially Paul–fail to fit in, even when they think that’s what they really want. This wandering, seeking style of writing is one I especially love, and my feeling of kinship for Kingsnorth made it especially poignant to read these struggles. Also, let it be said that although he feels his words abandoning him, he’s written another remarkably articulate, lovely, moving book.

Kingsnorth pulls in the outside voices of D. H. Lawrence, Annie Dillard, Milan Kundera, a mythologist from Botswana named Colin Campbell, a Zen teacher named Charlotte Joko Beck, poets R. S. Thomas and W. S. Graham, cultural ecologist David Abram, American Indian activist Russell Means, Mark Boyle*, Bruce Springsteen, gods Loki and Buddha and Freya, and many, many more. He spends time with the tension between poets Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, which serves as metaphor for a tension within himself. “My inner Kavanagh is bloody-minded and self-destructive. It wants to strip away the world’s delusions and my own, detach from all notions, be joyful, have fun and do good work and screw the rest. My inner Yeats wants to go hunting for wandering Aengus in the Burren at dusk, prefers the inner flame to the outer ashes and is constantly disappointed that his imagined world is nothing like the real one.” I love the recruitment of other voices, all of these in conversation with Kingsnorth’s fine, inquiring, discerning mind, but it is still his voice that sits center stage.

Having moved to a small rural holding in Ireland, Kingsnorth thought he knew what he was doing, thought he was moving in the direction of his goals: to settle, to be rooted, to be self-sufficient, to be involved with the land, “to be closer to nature and further from the Machine,” to learn new skills, to be the best parent possible, and to write “truer books than I had ever written before.” Instead, he finds his relationship with the thing he does best–words, language, writing–troubled. He worries if language is not in fact part of the problem.

I would love to have access to a searchable electronic version of this book, and some statistics, because I suspect there are far more (literal) question marks in this than in most nonfiction books of similar length. (Not long, scarcely over 100 pages.) The narrator is constantly questioning; the mood of the book is best described as lost. Here, I took a short survey for you from over several pages:

But lessons don’t work like that, do they?… Can you have a concrete cottage?… I knew this, so why didn’t I know it?… What does that incident carry for me?… What would that be like? And could I have it?… What does a writer do when his words stop working?… Can you write from silence?

This is one of those wonderful works of nonfiction in which basically nothing happens but still it leaves my head spinning for days. It’s a beautiful, all-encompassing book, and it captures quite well the sense of nihilism and despair that can come of considering the state of our world; but it captures as well the thrush’s song, which is both joy and pressure: “My kids would just have heard him, reacted, and moved on, but I stood there listening rapt while, at the same time, berating myself for not having the kind of spontaneous experience of the thrush’s song that I wanted to have and I felt I ought to be able to have, especially if I was going to write books with thrushes’ songs in them.” I feel it deeply. I will follow this writer anywhere; I hope he is able to keep working, keep “wrangling that beast and then going down to make dinner for the kids.”


Rating: 8 red-tailed bumbles.

*Boyle wrote in The Way Home of meeting Paul at the pub for conversations of significance, and Paul reciprocates here, which I find strangely thrilling.

Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South by M. Randal O’Wain

Disclosure: Matt O’Wain is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


I was the son who left, after all, the boy who packed a bag and tramped back and forth across the country in place of stability, but what grounded my wanderlust was the belief that I was never too far from my childhood home, my loving parents. And though I had no right to lament the loss of [that childhood home], the act of boxing it all up or throwing it all out or driving it to Goodwill made me keenly aware that the home I’d been fleeing was the very foundation that allowed me to run.

M. Randal O’Wain’s first book is the essay collection Meander Belt, subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South.” But to me, it is at least as much about home, the competing human urges to settle and to flee, and a sense of belonging.

I said the competing human urges; but within this narrator, the clear winner is the urge to run. O’Wain is originally from Memphis, where his father Chris works as a carpenter and his mother Linda collects the detritus of other lives off curbs. She is a survivor of childhood polio, and sensitive about her distinctive gait. He is a man who values hard work, preferably the manual kind, and while he loves his sensitive younger son, he doesn’t understand him. Matt (as the young narrator is called) doesn’t see a place for himself in the world he’s born into. He idolizes his father, and his older brother, also named Chris, who follows neatly in the older man’s footsteps and fits into his value system: goes to work as a mechanic, steadily builds toward a home and a family, falls asleep alongside their father in front of the television in the evenings. But Matt, from a young age, feels driven to run. At sixteen, he runs away to Montreal; at eighteen, he moves with his band to Olympia, Washington. He has just moved to Oakland, California when his father dies. He has just (finally, improbably) settled down in southern West Virginia when his brother dies.

These are the losses that give Meander Belt its subtitle, and offer the essay collection a certain shape, but I don’t feel they define it. This is a mostly-chronologic memoir-in-essays, and it ranges beyond family and beyond home. The opening essay is an inspired choice: “Mirrored Mezzanine” briefly, beautifully shows the love of a young child for his father, whom he does not understand. “The Junk Trade” explores trauma, sex, and work. With “Thirteenth Street and Failing,” O’Wain considers death. In “Halfway Between,” he recognizes the importance of place and what we lose in the compromise that is growing up. “Memento Mori Part One” (of three) takes up nearly a third of the book; the other seventeen essays vary in length but none compare to this, the long story of a father’s decline and death. Subtitled “Calls in the Night,” one of the movements it charts is ironically a growing closeness between father and the son who moved away.

After three mementos mori, the collection sees O’Wain’s adult life settle in some ways, and several essays tend to sum up, where many earlier essays stuck more closely to narrative storytelling. The essays marking brother Chris’s death, and a new love with Mesha Maren (she of Sugar Run), fit this more expository model. This is not a criticism, though; as the subtitle promised, coming-of-age is the book’s work, and it feels appropriate to see O’Wain’s later years laid out only in service to the whole, if that makes sense. Also, let me note that the essays take various forms throughout; some are segmented with numbered sections, and “How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate” uses the second person.

I appreciate these essays because they are both narrative and essayistic, meaning that they search, seek, question, assay. I trust the narrator because he is so honest about his confusion, the ways in which he’s lost in the world, the ways he is surprised by life. This is a narrative voice with a grasp of the difference between the man or boy these events happened to and the writer telling them now, but even now, he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. I also appreciate a writer equally pleased to bring in the voices of Virginia Woolf, DC Comics, and Leonard Cohen to help him see his own life. These reference points serve as cultural markers but also as conversationalists as O’Wain interrogates the past.

I’m very pleased I got to read an advanced copy of this collection, which will be published October 1; look for my interview with O’Wain coming up at Shelf Awareness (and eventually here as well). Meander Belt is thoughtful, brave, and unflinching, and I think it’s a book for every reader who cares about real lives, whether they have much in common with O’Wain’s background or not.

Preorder here.


Rating: 8 cigarettes.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.

residency readings

Again! I know! I’m graduated; but I’m still back. This summer I’m honored to be serving as residency assistant for the usual residency period. This gets me in to all the seminars, so I’m doing all the reading as usual. Also as usual, you can view seminar descriptions here. Note that not all seminars assign readings at all; there may be others there you find interesting even though they’re not mentioned here.

Also note that this post is written as if residency is in the future, even though it’s past by the time this publishes – such is my review backlog these days!

I thought I’d just cover what are, for me, the highlights.

Savannah Sipple, who will teach on “Right to Discover: Conventions in Queer Writing in Appalachia and Beyond,” assigned three online pieces: “To Suffer or To Disappear,” “Who Cares What Straight People Think?,” and this essay by Carter Sickels. I appreciated hearing from Sickels again (he has also served as guest faculty at Wesleyan, but before my time), and his story was moving. The other two pieces both address the great success of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which I have not read but which I know is much loved by my Shelf editor Dave, who is a serious reader and writer, and a gay man; these perspectives are complicating and therefore interesting. I’m certainly interested to hear from Sipple on this topic.

For Jon Corcoran’s seminar on “The Analytical Hybrid: Using Notes, Texts, and Poetry to Push Your Narrative Toward a Deeper Truth,” I read excerpts from Rachel Hadas’s Strange Relation, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. I felt warmly toward Didion, pleased to recognize something I appreciated at the time. But the Hadas memoir and Goldman novel were the real winners here: I have added both of these books to my hopeful-someday list. I was sorry when each excerpt ended.

Devon McNamara’s assigned reading for “Utterly Present,” her cross-genre generative session, included an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, which I was not particularly happy to see again (mercifully it was short). But it also included a short story called “Foster” by Claire Keegan which blew me away. Read this one immediately: here. Of the two assigned poems there was also one standout: “The Same City” by Terrance Hayes. Whew.

Cynthia McCloud is graduating this residency, and for her graduate seminar, “Ordering Your Private World: Discovering the Structure That Fits Your Project,” she began with a couple of chapters assigned from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. I need to thank Jeremy Jones again for that recommendation; the whole book was outstanding, and I’ve so enjoyed rereading these pages (but my favorite essay in the book, one of my favorite essays of all time, is still “Frame of Reference“). It was a real treat to see both “Progression” and “Structure” again. Thanks, Cynthia! She also asked us to read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which will come in its own review on Wednesday: in a nutshell, I was moved by this minimalist (and for good reasons) memoir. Finally, Cynthia had us listen to a podcast: “The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley” from Cocaine and Rhinestones (found here). I like dark and gritty crime stories and I like country music, so I liked this podcast – that is, aside from the goriest of details. (I thought the warnings about how bad it was were slightly exaggerated. Only slightly.) She recommended reading Fun Home, but I don’t have a copy of that with me, and decided not to bother with the reread (though it’s a very good book). I’m very interested in the topic of Cynthia’s seminar, and pleased with all her readings, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Richard Schmitt always assigns enjoyable readings. This time he’s teaching “Stereotypes: An Aspect of Characterization,” which sounds like ‘stereotypes but in a good way’ in his description. Okay. Here he’s assigned a series of short stories and novel excerpts (one of which he totally assigned us to read very recently – okay, it was two years ago, summer 2017 – don’t ask how long I just spent tracking down that fact in my hard drive). It was a good packet, but some pieces stood out more than others. “Sunday in the Park” by Bel Kaufman was memorable, even accounting for the fact that it’s the repeat from ’17. Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is sort of a favorite of mine. The rest each had some sparkle, and I can see why they were included.

And finally, best for last (this is the order they came in!), Jessie’s seminar: “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life.” For one thing, I think this is a topic I’m going to love. For another, she assigned two of my all-time favorite books: a chapter from Amy Leach’s Things That Are, and the entirety of Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Swoon. Finally, she gave us a short piece by Robert Vivian called “Hearing Trains” that was lovely but, for this reader, probably overshadowed by the other two stars.

I’m so very much looking forward to this residency. For a change, I have extra mental space: no deadlines pressing down (except for the odd book review!), no workshop to attend or prep for, no pressure to “do” school at all – but rather the privilege of attending seminars as I desire. And there is some richness here. I am lucky, lucky.

“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

In preparation for an upcoming visit to Kentucky, and because he appears everywhere around me and I have not devoted the time yet: Wendell Berry.

More than a year ago, my father bought me a copy of the new collection, The World-Ending Fire, selected and with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (who I do appreciate). I regret that I have not made time for it yet; and it’s currently boxed up in a storage unit (along with so many other excellent books) and unavailable to me. But Pops still set me up with some reading, beginning with an email explaining his selections, and outlining some of Berry’s major themes: sense of place; tragedies of American history; the urban-rural divide; humility; soil; honest work; naturalism; spirituality. Then he had me read Kingsnorth’s introduction to the new collection, and one noteworthy Berry essay: “A Native Hill.”

As an overall, obviously I appreciate Wendell Berry. All the right ingredients are there: strong attachment to place, defense of the land, argument against larger society, thoughtful, lovely prose. I had always assumed I would appreciate Berry. Also, I’ve heard that he can be difficult, and dated. Kingsnorth notes in his introduction that Berry’s writing technology of choice is, firmly, the pencil: I have no problem with tried and true technologies (recall Boyle). But I am a bit pricklier about gender and race, for example. Berry (like so many) uses “man” to stand for all humanity. And he is still using “Negro” in this essay, which admittedly was published in 1968. But one notices these things, in 2019.

This reading didn’t surprise me much, then. I found a few things to quibble with, which I will lay out below. But overall, I’m going to keep reading and appreciating this man, while reserving the right to quibble.

Here are a series of quotations I marked as I read, which I’m going to let stand as my review.

Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or the use of such love?

Way to jump right in and steal my heart. Why, indeed? You, faithful blog reader (thank goodness for you), know how much place matters to me as a reader and as a writer. It consumes my thoughts and dreams.

About the truism that “you can’t go home again”:

But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home–the place, the countryside–was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was not a reason in the world I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

Well lucky you, Berry, but you do realize not everyone has the luxury of this experience? The places that are left untouched from our childhoods are fewer and fewer. Mine is not still there pretty much as I left it, at all. Dog help us, they tore down Fitzgerald’s.

What… made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

Again, lucky you. And hey, I am lucky that my parents will almost certainly leave me some piece of land, but it’s not square miles, and it’s not something I was born to; it’s something they bought later in their lives and that I admire but do not feel especially close to; it’s not where I grew up. (Not for lack of effort, on my part or theirs, to make this place feel like home.) Some of these ideals are easy to live when you’re born with the right set of circumstances, hmm? And what would you say to someone whose inheritance, birth, and intimacy lay with the heart of New York City?

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.

and

In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.

These I feel, too, with regards to Texas.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

Because of the quotation directly above: no place we love will ever be perfect. Kentucky and Texas have their share of sins, but if one of you lives in a place that never did harm, throw your stones now.

A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.

By contrast, a road:

Its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge.

I appreciated his medium-deep dive here into paths, trails, roads, bridges, what they mean physically and metaphorically. Trails matter to me; and they make an excellent metaphor.

The pristine America that the first white men saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea.

I worry about this, as another form of deifying the past, or in this case the Native Americans. Were they really doing this world no harm? I admit to the same prejudice Berry shows here, thinking that no, they did no harm. But now I wonder if that’s true? It reeks of romanticizing what we don’t understand.

It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

A lovely line; I think we all know what it is to walk knee-deep in an absence of some kind; also, I’m almost certain this line was referenced by Matt Ferrence, which endears it to me again.

Near its end, this essay reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders, specifically the hawk that closes “Buckeye.” The final section of Berry’s essay offers a series of short, nearly prose-poetry segments. Third from last of these is an event that proves, for Berry, that nature knows not only peace by joy. It stars a great blue heron (parallel to Sanders’s red-tailed hawk), a bird that is important to me personally: it’s probably the first bird I learned to identify on my own, an easy one, since it’s both large and distinctive; and they have been present in many of the places I’ve traveled in this country, remote and far-flung, as well as in the urban setting of my hometown of Houston, where I used to see them fishing in the early mornings along the bayou in the Texas Medical Center as I walked from car or train station to work. This bird Berry describes as measured, deliberate, stately, “like a dignitary,” stately again – I agree on all counts – and then he sees it turn a loop-the-loop in the air, exultant, “a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me.” This transcendent moment – and Berry’s powerful prose – affected me deeply.

And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

Wow.

I do recommend this essay by Berry, and I will be reading more of him – though I may have to dig through that storage unit to do so.

I could not close without referring you, as Pops referred me, to “The Peace of Wild Things”. I had encountered this poem before, but Pops points out that it’s published the same year as “A Native Hill,” and condenses and distills much of the essay’s feeling. It’s worth another look, no matter how familiar you are.


Rating: 8 threads of light and sound.

shorts by Cather; Sandor; Wheeler; Irving; Chesnutt; Maren; and Bourne of National Geographic (and links followed, etc.)

Whew, a long one today – sorry, folks, but I’ve been reading.

Because I’m not busy enough (ha) I’ve been reading a few short prose pieces here and there. Some of the following come from the Library of America’s Story of the Week (an email you can sign up for for free, if you have tons of free time or are a glutton like me). One I found languishing in a file on my computer. The internet, and friends’ referrals, account for the rest.


Willa Cather’s “A Death in the Desert” was a Story of the Week, viewable here. I found it a moving story, but much more so with the context included, about Cather’s devotion to a composer who died young. As the Library of America points out, the fact that this story was published in three versions, each subsequently edited and shortened, makes it an excellent opportunity to study editing for length (if you were to go find all three). There’s something Victorian in the manners and fainting emotions in the story that is less compelling and relateable for me personally, though. I’m glad to have learned a bit more about Cather, but it’s not my favorite thing I’ve read this month.


Marjorie Sandor’s “Rhapsody in Green,” however, blows my mind. (This was the one found on my hard drive. Originally published by The Georgia Review and viewable here, if you sign up for a free account.) It is a very brief lyric essay about, yes, the color green. Sandor evokes so much via this color, and her search for an unachievable shade: color, we might think, is a visual element, but she uses touch, smell, and taste as well. On its face about this color she can’t find, this essay is also a glancing view of the narrator’s life story, at least in a few relationships and geographical locations. There are four references (in less than three pages) to a time “I fell in love when I shouldn’t have.” It is a brave and risky move to so emphasize an event that she never explains further. As we writing students say, this one would have been destroyed in workshop. But I love it, this level of tantalization, and her bold implication that no, we don’t need to know any more about it than that. There are also two references to “a/my friend who puts up with such eccentricities.” I love this epithet, this characterization, and in both cases – this, and the “fell in love when I shouldn’t have” – I appreciate the use of an intentional echo to good effect. Also, nothing I’ve said here begins to get at the loveliness, the lyricism and sensual intimacy, of Sandor’s writing. Do go check this one out.


Disclosure: Dave Wheeler is my editor at Shelf Awareness, and a friend.

I have done a poor job of keeping up with Dave’s work, and recently returned to see what I’d missed, particularly in his essays, which impress me so. I am gradually catching up now – you can see his published essays here (and more in other links on that page). And I love a lot of what Dave writes: I appreciate the short, dreamy, feeling quality of “Science for Boys”, and the inquiring mind exposed in “Death and Its Museum”. But I think my favorite essays of those I’ve read so far deal with art, and how Dave takes it in. “Two Men Kissing” and “Some Holy Ghost” each offers so much, and I’ve forwarded them to many friends.

Today, I am very pleased by “A Moment Spins on the Axis of You: The Fourth Dimension of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrors'”. Here Dave encounters Kasuma’s installation, in particular, and the grand scale of its claimed subject. But even more than the named artwork, he considers what it means to wait – for art, for anything – and what contribution waiting, or time, or the audience experience, may offer. I appreciate his voice: he speaks with authority about his own experiences, but with a humbleness as regards the world of art criticism; he can be playful even as we feel he is serious. And of course I recognize myself when he writes, “As a lifelong reader, I have cultivated a sharp sense of when I can quit a book without worrying that I have missed something of importance. As a wide-eyed novice to visual arts, I am less assured.” I think I feel something like the same thing when I try to see my own reactions to visual art: I don’t even know what I don’t know.

Perhaps recognizing myself in Dave is part of recognizing Dave, someone I know personally and enjoy talking to, however infrequently we get around to it. And maybe that enjoyment is inextricable from my appreciating his writing. Maybe you want to help me test this: go check out Dave’s work and let me know what you think.

Good, right?


Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, another Story of the Week, was engaging enough in its descriptive power; I was interested in getting a better grasp on one of those legends that’s in our collective consciousness whether we’ve read it or not (I don’t believe I had). The misogyny in the treatment of Dame Van Winkle, and the cursory treatment of all the women in the story (none of whom, if memory serves, had names), rankled. I’m not sorry I took the time, but it wasn’t a highlight, or anything.


Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”, on the other hand, was both lovely and harrowing. (I went ahead and followed this link to a Wiley Cash article in Salon, where he argues for Chesnutt as genius, and I don’t disagree.) If you want to feel gutted by our national heritage where race is concerned – well, none of us does, but I feel it’s important we don’t look away, either – give this short story a try. It has a surface on which it can act as a sweetly sad and simple tale, but its depths are significant.


Disclosure: Mesha Maren regularly serves as guest faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College in my alma mater MFA program. I consider her a friend.

I was deeply impressed with Mesha’s recent essay in Oxford American, titled “West Virginia in Transition”. She moved away as a young, closeted, queer woman, and upon moving back, she investigates the experiences of her counterparts: queer youth growing up twenty years later in her own hometown. She muses on the ways in which their lives are different and the ways in which they’re similar. It’s a story that’s important to me, because both queer communities and Appalachian ones are much on my mind. I’m glad topics like this are getting bandwidth. But also, as anyone who knows Mesha’s work will expect, it’s a gorgeously written story. “The way these ridges and hollows both cradle and cleave.” Beautifully done, and highly recommended.


Finally, my father sent me a link to this story from National Geographic: “Clotilda, ‘last American slave ship,’ discovered in Alabama.” Joel K. Bourne, Jr. brings us up to date on the recent confirmation that Clotilda has been identified where she was burned and scuttled in the Mississippi Delta after a voyage spurred by a wealthy white man’s bet that he could import slaves from Africa more than 50 years after such imports became illegal. In 1860, 109 men, women, and children survived the voyage into Mobile and were then sold into slavery. Part of what’s unique about this group of abducted Africans is that late date: Clotilda’s survivors lived long enough in some cases to be interviewed on film. They founded Africatown on the edge of Mobile, and their some of descendants live there today. When I passed through Mobile this spring, I missed Africatown. But, unknowing, I stayed in Meaher State Park, which is named after a wealthy white family, including the man who made the bet.

I found this article, accompanied by pictures and video, moving. I think it’s an important story to read and consider today. I also followed several links, like this one offering a list of destinations to visit for African American history and culture. I found a few of these on my travels this year; I’ve added to rest to my itinerary.


There is always something to keep our minds busy. I just feel lucky to have the time to follow these leads. What have you read lately?