The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

I first read Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” for school, just a year (or so) ago, during one of my post-bacc courses at Western Washington University. I was floored. If you are unfamiliar, I strongly recommend that you read nothing about the essay, but dive in blindly as I did. You can read it here.

Or you could read this book, a collection of autobiographical essays including that one – which floored me again, even when I knew what was coming, and read differently this time around, of course. It is one of the best, but by no means head-and-shoulders from the rest of the essays. I took pleasure in this read, which wanders through Beard’s childhood and adulthood, jumping in time while focusing on certain characters here and there. I am coming to appreciate a certain balance in my reading for school, which I found here and which is sort of rare: I enjoyed reading this book, even while I was able to keep my eye on the craft side of things, recognizing the beauty in how it was done.

I feel like Beard has a certain tone in common with Haven Kimmel. They both tell childhood stories with the perspective of the time – that is, a child’s perspective – in a way that can be so funny. Beard is a little more self-effacing and wry, and occasionally somber, where Kimmel almost never breaks the construct of that humorous, wondrous sense of discovery and exclamation. But there is a sense of the absurd to the child’s POV, a sort of “oh my gosh, I had no idea the world had this in it!!!” that is just joyful and playful and funny and fun, that they both hit, in slightly different ways. I love that. Part of this, too, is that Beard often writes (especially, I think, earlier in the book) in the present tense, as if these things are just happening now, which gives that feeling of immediacy.

Overall, she shifts quite a bit between tenses and perspectives. She can be very conversational, as when she digresses to give background information and then comes back to the action at hand with a sort of “but anyway, I was telling you about…” kind of phrasing. She also refers to the writing of this book as it’s happening, especially in the final, title essay “The Boys of My Youth,” which shows her struggling to put the thing together, calling an old friend to consult on the details even as she’s sharing those details with us in the essay. I enjoy that transparency to the writing (as a writer, obviously, but also as a reader). As I’ve just finished this book, I have a feeling that it progresses from an innocent early childhood (the preface is a pre-verbal memory) to a more jaded adulthood (we finish with a divorced woman leery of new relationships). Looking again, the essays do progress in chronology; but within each there are huge jumps in time, so we see previews and flashbacks, too. It’s an interesting structure: subtle, but effective. A memoir in essays, and not the first of those I’ve read this semester, which is no mistake; it’s probably the kind I’m writing. Of special interest to me is the essay “Cousins,” a profile of Beard and her cousin Wendell, close friends, told in a series of anecdotes spread over many years, and out of chronological order.

One potentially troubling thing needs noting: Beard is comfortable with a certain amount of imagining in her nonfiction. Probably more comfortable than I am. I remember this objection being raised to “The Fourth State of Matter,” when I hadn’t caught it myself; she includes scenes where she was not present, but I guess I’d assumed she came by the information from other sources, where a closer look shows that to be in some cases impossible. I noticed it even more here, like when she describes in great detail a scene involving her mother and aunt, which took place before the author was born. I don’t know. The generous part of me wants to believe this scene was described to her (in detail! repeatedly!) and she filled in only some minor details (what color pants; what the sky looked like, because she came to know that same sky). But I’m not sure that’s true, and my personal code for nonfiction makes me a little uncomfortable with the possibility that she put her mother and aunt in that flat-bottomed boat, recklessly imagining. Discovering that Annie Dillard had no cat, as described in the opening paragraphs of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, made me crazy. If she made up a whole cat of whole cloth, what else has she fabricated?! Here, I guess I’m feeling a bit more forgiving, perhaps because it’s a bit more obvious that Beard was not there when her mother was in that boat, pregnant with baby Jo Ann. (Dillard gives no clue that there is no cat.) But it’s not going to be my way.

This is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read this semester. Easy-reading, entertaining, lovely, finely crafted but accessible.


Rating: 8 bananas.

The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World by Kathleen Dean Moore

pine-island-paradoxThis is a complexly put together collection. These are essays, both personal/memoir and nature writing, based on islands, organized by disconnections (see the subtitle): human/nature, near/far, sacred/mundane. Back-of-book blurbs variously characterize these essays as being about nature; ecology; family; and philosophy. But I think they are about connections/disconnections and most of all about boundaries. Where does island end and sea begin, for example, if the tides change? Moore uses lovely, musical language; precise, apt images; and communicates emotion and intellectual difficulties nicely. From a craft perspective, this is a dense book; but it is easy to read for the simple experience.

It is Moore’s thesis, stated in her prologue, that our Western understanding of the world is based on divisions, on separating things and experiences out into categories. (She is a philosophy professor.) She sets out to take apart three of those separations: human/nature, near/far, and sacred/mundane. These are the three sections of the book; but also, each is set or at least organized around a specific island. After beginning and ending her prologue with the concept of geography, or mapmaking, she begins each main section with a page-and-a-half titled “Geography,” in which she describes these islands: Pine Island well off the Pacific coast of Alaska; a gravel island in the Willamette River in Oregon (near Moore’s home); and a volcanic sea stack off the Oregon coast. All of these organizational tools, taken in with her title, subtitle and explicit plans laid out in the prologue, combine to form complex but clear structure, focus and themes. Connections and disconnections; islands; boundaries; and the paradoxes implied. An important sub-theme involves Moore’s close relationship with her family: husband, two children, and eventually a daughter-in-law, who is called her third child in her acknowledgements. This is just another form of connection, so a sub-theme rather than an additional or secondary one.

Some of you will recall that less than a year ago I lived in the Pacific Northwest, too. I recognized much of what Moore described: the wet drippingness of the world for so many months, relief at seeing the sun, the importance of salmon. Some of this was hard for me to read: that pervasive wet really got under my skin (maybe even a little literally). I had some strong reactions to some of what I read here, which is a good thing: Robin Hemley wrote, “You should always be prepared to argue with a good book.”

This is not my new favorite piece of writing: there are a few places where I’d have enjoyed seeing things done a little differently. But it was very moving many times over; many individual essays were fantastic; I think (as a personal preference) I’d rather there had been a little more subtlety to the overall message. This was a bit too much explicit “I am writing this to make you care more about the natural world,” especially in the prologue. But again, that’s a personal reaction, and there’s no arguing Moore’s skill with words (musical language), images, her expertise and her use of emotion (nor do I doubt her sincerity). And if she inspired me to some argument, that’s useful, too.


Rating: 8 wet words.

MFA readings: a selection

Perhaps predictably, my rate of reading & writing for school threatens to outpace my work on this blog; and school is my priority, of course. Here I thought I’d just offer a quick rundown of what I’ve been reading lately and how it struck me. (Titles are bolded.) There may be more selection or digest-style posts to come.

My program director, Jessie Van Eerden (a most impressive woman & writer), put together a packet of portrait essays for a seminar she’s taught in the past, and shared this packet & her notes with me. I had a variety of reactions to these essays, which is totally okay: some will be more useful to my studies than others, and these reactions are all subjective.

I was most intrigued by

  • “Tracks and Ties” by Andre Dubus III;
  • “A Mickey Mantle Koan” by David James Duncan;
  • “Interstellar” by Rebecca McClanahan;
  • “The Passions of Lalla” by Michael Ondaatje; and
  • “A Good Day” by Jessie van Eerden,

and did some close readings especially of “A Good Day” and “Interstellar,” two profiles of the authors’ mother and sister respectively that include some autobiographical detail as well, and take certain organizing principles to help them tell the story of a whole person or a whole life in just a few pages: what a skill. I feel like maybe I’ve read “A Mickey Mantle Koan” before. It examines a beloved brother through a single object, one he never held in his hands, and integrates the language of both baseball and Buddhism, and lets the author do some more existential musing as well: ambitious, but executed. “Tracks and Ties” is another hyper-compressed profile, and “The Passions of Lalla” is especially interesting because it tells the life story of a person the author (apparently) never knew, through research, family mythologies and speculation. I hope to find time to go back to that one.

Of “Bessie Harvey’s Visions” by Will Woolfitt, Jessie writes, “Technically, this is a poem, but Woolfitt first wrote it as a lyric essay (same material sans line breaks).” I enjoyed reading it, and found the imagery and atmosphere involving, but I couldn’t see so clearly how to make this experience useful to my own writing.

Similarly, I was engaged by three longer profile essays –

  • “Present Waking Life: Becoming John Ashbery” by Larissa MacFarquhar;
  • “Notes on Pierre Bonnard and My Mother’s Ninetieth Birthday” by Mary Gordon; and
  • “Fuller” by Albert Goldbarth,

at least two of which have in common that they conflate or compare/contrast two very different subjects: Gordon swims between the art of Pierre Bonnard and her mother, as Goldbarth floats between Marie Curie and the dancer Loie Fuller. MacFarquhar more subtly lets her own character (herself) enter her examination of the poet John Ashbery. These again are worthy of study but didn’t feel right for my uses at this time.

By contrast, there were two essays in this packet that I just failed to enter at all. “The Shape of a Pocket” by John Berger and “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” by Anne Carson felt too cerebral, too much work to wade through. This is not where I’m interested in going. In the latter case, the problem may be that I’m not drawn to the question of how these women “tell God”: and is Carson’s failure to bring me in despite my feelings about the subject matter her shortcoming, or a simple, blameless lack of connection? I may not be the right person to answer that last one.


up-in-the-old-hotelAs a separate project, I read essays from Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, a big fat book I’ve had on my shelf for years. Saint Mazie and Joe Gould’s Teeth both refer to Mitchell’s work. He is famous for his decades of work for The New Yorker, and his portrait essays in particular.

I enjoyed every word I read–including the Mazie portrait, which I recognized from its reflection in Attenberg’s novel–but I settled on the title essay, “Up in the Old Hotel,” for my craft annotation. All of the essays I read showcased a seemingly neutral and nearly invisible narrator, and let the subjects portray themselves by use of dialog and speech, as well as physical descriptions, anecdotes and settings. The “Old Hotel” was remarkable because it told a lot more story than some of the straight portraits did; and its subject is not a person (although the central character Louie is very central) but a building, the old hotel. I focused in particular on the middle 12 pages of the piece, which offer a nearly uninterrupted monologue given by Louie, with minimal paragraph breaks and a wildly digressive style. Writers are warned against such techniques; but they work beautifully here. I think that’s because Louie’s voice is so strong and engaging; his style is so conversational that the reader buys into the delivery method completely; and because of Mitchell’s few but very strategic interruptions (Louie stops to make change, answer a customer’s question).

I recommend reading Mitchell if you get a chance.


the-situation-and-the-story
Finally, for craft, I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. This one didn’t work for me: in a word I’d say her succinct introduction and conclusion do the work her book wants to do, while the fatty middle part (two sections, on the essay and the memoir) read to me like wandering lit crit, and had little to offer me in thinking about my own work. Gornick has received plenty of positive response for this book, but my reaction was tepid. Her analysis of a number of essays and memoirs would have been more interesting to me if we had more reading in common, of course. But I am reminded of Christopher Bram’s The Art of History, which spent a lot of time giving negative or positive reviews that I did not always agree with, and which seemed so subjective that I was a little turned off. Yes, I see the irony as I give this negative, subjective review. But note that I am not here to sell you writing advice. By this point in the lifetime of pagesofjulia, I figure my readers know what we’re doing here together. (Thanks for sticking around.) If you loved The Situation and the Story or found it very useful for your writing, I’d love to hear your explanation of that experience. Not to argue, but to learn.

That’s my long post for today–now back to the program!

two listening opportunities

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit)

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit)

One of my favorite things I’ve read for the start of school coming up is an essay by Scott Russell Sanders titled “Buckeye.” Terrain.org offers a full-text version here, and I hope you’ll go read it and enjoy it, too. It’s short. Or, perhaps even better: on that same page, you can click to hear Sanders himself read it aloud for you. It’s a little under 20 minutes that way.

I am also still a little entranced over his essay “The Inheritance of Tools,” which I have not been able to find in a free full-text form that is not cluttered with one professor or another’s question-and-answer. (Best not to color your first reading, you know.) If you can track it down, do. I guess I might be in the market for one of his collections one of these days.

Amy Leach (photo credit)

Amy Leach (photo credit)

While I’m thinking of excellent essays read aloud by the author, I can’t help but mention Amy Leach, again. You recall that I loved her book Things That Are. I’ll just remind you again that you can hear her read “God” to a bluegrass accompaniment here. Under 5 minutes, that one.

Enjoy.

And while we’re here: any read-by-the-author clips you love and would like to share? Reading one’s work is such a different skill, I think, than writing it. I think immediately of Barbara Kingsolver, whose Flight Behavior and The Lacuna were such breathtaking performances, completely aside from the excellent books.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 58: Weather (winter 2016)

You can buy issue 58 here.

You can buy issue 58 here.

I always find something to appreciate from Creative Nonfiction. And in this issue, I confess, I had the added thrill of seeing several essays I got to read as submissions, that made it all the way to publication. Being a reader for CNF has been an incredible learning experience for me.

In this weather-themed issue, I really enjoyed Joe Fassler’s interview with Al Roker (Fassler wrote the essay “Wait Times” that I found so mesmerizing). Andrew Revkin’s essay about climate change, on the other hand, though much praised by editor Lee Gutkind, failed to grasp me: I found it overlong and less-than-gripping, and I guess also I found his opinions hard to access.

Interestingly, among the essays in the magazine’s main section, I was more excited about Ashley Hay’s “The Bus Stop” and Tim Bascom’s “My First Baptist Winter” than I was about the prize-winning “Recorded Lightning” by Amaris Ketcham: I enjoyed Ketcham’s writing very much, but the lightning-shaped text formatting which I think ‘made it’ for some readers only distracted me. Beatrice Lazarus’s “The Snow” was another interesting reading experience. I found the writing sometimes lovely and sometimes awkward, and the story’s steering between extreme weather and human violence took me a minute to grab onto. There is no question these are all impressive essays, but as usual, some worked better for me, personally, than did others.

Sejal H. Patel’s “Writers at Work” piece, called “Think Different,” lets Patel and five other memoirists discuss the impact of technologies on how we access and write about our memories. How does Google Earth, for example, help or confuse our recollections of the houses we grew up in? (Much more on this topic lies within The House That Made Me, which I recommend if this subject interests you.)

This issue of CNF is not the one I’ve enjoyed most, but there’s no shortage of thoughts provoked. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 7 tornadoes.

Bayou Magazine, issue 65 (fall 2016)

bayou mag 65Bayou, from the University of New Orleans, is one of the briefer lit journals, which I confess leaves me sort of relieved: easier to get through in a sitting. In turn I’ll pass that brevity on to you.

Three essays grace these pages. “Holiday” by Ann Hillesland is, again, brief (a theme!), and takes a look at a movie that interested the writer when she was a teen, its commentary on her life; she comments in turn. I am sympathetic with this kind of writing, as a book reviewer. “Lifeline” by Patricia Feeney recalls Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini, for its elegiac look at a rather unloveable family member. In ten pages, it manages a great deal of pulled-back perspective and passage of time; there’s a lot of movement.

My favorite was “The Mending Wall,” by Andrew Bertaina, who is undertaking something like what I hope to undertake in writing about my own mother: seeking the parts we can by definition never know. It also yielded the remarkable lines,

Perhaps you cannot mend things when you are still broken. I will never understand love or people: we are collections of moments, of opinions, of thoughts, not whole.

Overall, these pieces feel a tad less polished than the essays that appear in The Believer or Oxford American, which is not all bad: I’ve written before about the value of amateur art, the feeling of community and of real people efforting, and of movement and progress: we start here, and we improve. It can’t all be Broadway and the NBA; it is heartening to see community theatre and Division III college ball. Also, there has to be somewhere for us amateurs to submit to. I hope this doesn’t sound like faint praise: I enjoyed my time spent with Bayou, and you’ll see more of it here.


Rating: 7 showtimes.

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

In a collection of prose, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet ruminates joyfully on art and nature.

upstream

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver should also be known for her prose: thoughtful, joyful and wise, always sparkling with characteristic energy. Upstream collects previously published essays and one new piece, skillfully grouped to chart a philosophical journey and “felt experience” much like that which she attributes to Walt Whitman.

Oliver revisits her childhood, and early instances of the sense of wonder so integral to her poetry, which she has often found in nature. The essay “My Friend Walt Whitman” speaks of a youthful and persistent literary affinity. Others explore natural places and creatures–spider, puppy, bear, bird–and the pleasures of artistic work. The middle of the collection contains slightly longer pieces of literary criticism–rediscovery of and praise for Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman and William Wordsworth. Poets and the natural world mingle as Oliver invokes Percy Bysshe Shelley while hunting for turtle eggs. Finally, the previously unpublished essay, “Provincetown,” honors the Massachusetts fishing town where Oliver lived for many years. Brief but redolent, this love letter to a place in the passage of time tends to look backward, as do several of the essays immediately preceding it, so that the collection moves toward retrospection.

Upstream serves as an excellent, accessible introduction to Oliver’s work, and despite its largely previously published contents, will satisfy her fans with its fresh arrangement and feeling of movement. These meditations are evocative, lovely and of course poetic, charming in small pieces and as a whole.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rumors of total welcome.
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