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“A Sketch of the Past” by Virginia Woolf

This essay, which I read from the collection Moments of Being, consists of nearly 100 pages of Woolf’s recollections of childhood, recorded journal-entry-style in 1939-40. It introduces Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” and of “non-being,” the latter being the cotton wool in between the important stuff of life/memory. Interesting for organization (or lack thereof); for the layering of time, then and now; and for Woolf’s list-making. It was also unfinished at the time of her death, and somewhat lacking in narrative structure. The editors of this collection make some points about it not being up to VW’s standards for publication, but as this is the first I’ve read of her work, I can’t comment on how not-up-to-standards I find it.

“A Sketch of the Past” is a series of memories of Woolf’s childhood, related when the author is nearly sixty. She begins by worrying over the format of these memoirs, then throwing up her hands to begin with “the first memory.” The form ends up being a sort of journal, with dated entries and a few comments on current events (the coming war). This layered-time effect allows commentary on both the past and the writing-present.

Woolf’s “moments of being” stand in contrast to what she calls “moments of non-being.” I understand these to be the memorable or remembered moments versus those not remembered, or not memorable–which are not necessarily the same thing. Woolf asks, “Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember? … Often… I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private shorthand — ‘non-being.’ Every day includes much more non-being than being.” She likens non-being to cotton wool, or the everyday padding of what is remembered (or, what she wants to write about). She then goes on to call her moments of being “scaffolding in the background” of the real work of her storytelling: these are people, or characters. (The idea of moments of being, or characters, as the central work of storytelling is another concept for potential annotation.) “A Sketch of the Past” proceeds to study characters: Woolf’s mother, father, and a few siblings.

For school, I wrote an annotation on Woolf’s list-making. Several lengthy lists help to accrue either scenes, descriptions or themes in Woolf’s remembering. Certainly, details are part of how she enlivens her storytelling (the flowers on the mother’s dress and the yellow blinds in the nursery, both on the essay’s first page). Sometimes it is the solitary nature of a detail that gives it its power, as with Mr Wolstenholme, who “when he ate plum tart he spurted the juice through his nose so that it made a purple stain on his grey moustache”–it is the nature of this man that “he had only one characteristic,” she says, even as she names others. This cue to the singularity of this detail, along with its vibrant colors and specificity, strengthens it. But when such details are presented in list form, I find them compelling in new ways, greater than the sum of the listed parts.

At the sentence and paragraph level (or list level!) I found things to admire here. But a somewhat archaic style and lack of narrative arc, a certain rambling quality, made this essay hard for me to engage with. I’m not especially excited about this author, lauded though she be.

Final verdict? I am new to Woolf but at this point I find her inarguably skilled, but not terribly to my tastes at present.


Rating: 6 anemones.

guest review: Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

Here’s Pops (with a few of my comments throughout).

I recently finished this one, convinced by the title itself as well as your suggestion. In a voice familiar from your description in reviewing Writing From the Center (published just after this book), this is a collection of eight essays evoking the title’s theme, but linked by very personal stories grounded in Midwest roots in two linked places: his Northeast Ohio childhood & southern Indiana adulthood. Narrative lines here intertwine with those in essays published elsewhere, including “Buckeye.”

Generally your observations from Writing, tinged with ambivalence, apply here: variation in pacing & appeal; often intimate & reflective, sometimes tryingly so; repetitive, yet often just overlapping in thought; little here is profound, yet much resonates; and yes, a few essays stand out among the others. Why such disquiet in reading Sanders? Here’s one idea: he writes, with virtually no filters, of deeply personal thoughts & feelings; every detail cannot be as primary to me as it is to him. To glean from what he offers, one need be patient, appreciate such candor & courage, and have an affinity for his life’s odyssey. In the end, he won me over.

His book’s theme of committing heart & soul to a deeply-known place is familiar: Gary Snyder often used the title’s very words (though not mentioned as such by Sanders.) Wendell Berry has invoked Snyder’s words while advising, “stop somewhere, just stop.” Both writers’ sentiments are mentioned in these essays by other references. Stegner’s framing of “boomers & stickers” lurks in the background as I read here. Similarly, surely, for many other writers; Sanders savors recruiting a good number to his cause.

I want to comment briefly on four of these eight essays by reference first to a recent Sanders book. Earth Works (2012) is another gathering of selected essays; in that, it is more like Writing than the theme-based Staying Put, but with many more essays than Writing, of course spanning more of his life’s work. I will be seeking out this latest collection next. I find the essay form fits Sanders well; and a reader can take one at a time, at whatever pace necessary – a good way to digest Sanders.

I had noted two essays in Staying Put that I particularly liked; if I were to stretch that to four, it would match the same four selected in Earth Works (credit to me? or the editor? or both?).

You’re saying, I think, that four were selected from Staying for inclusion in Earth? And that they’re your favorite four from this collection?

In my list, “After the Flood” first stands out for its poignant child’s-eye witnessing of environmental tragedy, one of many life events that recur in his writings due to their persistent impact.

“Settling Down” (which is curiously – and appropriately – re-titled “Staying Put” in the collection) is where he explicitly expounds on the book’s theme, with consideration from multiple perspectives and assistance from those other noted writers.

“Wayland” is a wonderful survey of seven important boyhood lessons, each elicited by a specific physical childhood place as he visits each in adulthood, on a single walk and all within a quarter mile radius. (Teaser, but not spoiler, the seven lessons are: death, life, beasts, food, mind, sex & God.)

“House and Home” is a literal interpretation of the formulation place=home=house, as he describes connections to his house: physical, organic, spiritual, familial. For many, this would seem superficial, overly materialistic; he makes it quite something otherwise.

In contrast, my sentiments lean more towards a fifth essay, “The Force of Moving Water.” On a grand scale, he considers the physical place defined by the Ohio River watershed, which encompasses and connects his heritage in both Ohio & Indiana. (It also includes WV Wesleyan College, on the Buckhannon River, tributary of the Monongahela River, which feeds the Ohio.)

I am delighted to know that WVWC makes an appearance in this collection!

This essay suggests (confirmed so far in my reading of Sanders here & elsewhere) his persistence in using water as metaphor as well as essential element in knowing any place. Whether implicit or oblique, water, streams, watersheds arise for him in many contexts.

This doesn’t surprise me, Pops, given what I think is your special interest in watersheds generally.

I particularly appreciate his thorough study of the Ohio watershed, this recognition of understanding watershed as a vital dimension of “wide & deep” consideration of place. And it is a splendid demonstration of Sanders’ seriousness meditating on place, from myriad vantage points.

The other three Staying Put essays are: “Earth’s Body,” wherein he cogitates on his tortured obsession with both God and relentless bouts of depression. “Ground Notes,” which borders too closely on old-school “what is reality” rumination. “Telling the Holy” is a useful consideration of the power of stories, myth, religion; spiritual, primordial & necessary. (I should probably read that one again.)

Is he a “nature writer”? In the preface to Earth Works he provides a helpful answer:

I am sometimes asked if I am a “nature” writer, as if paying attention to our membership in the web of life were a specialized interest, like following sports or fashion or cuisine. What I am is an Earth writer: I’m interested in life on this planet—all life. Since I know most about my own species, I think mostly about human affairs, but I do so while seeking to understand how our kind arises from and affects the living world.

Sanders has numerous essays in Orion magazine; several are available online here; I read three of them:

“Stillness” – absorbed in self again: a wide-ranging tussle with privilege, conscience, God, spirituality, human scourge, family; emerging with optimism.

“Mind in the Forest” (also in Earth Works) – a writing retreat meditating in an Oregon old-growth research forest.

“Breaking the Spell of Money” – a largely predictable, thoroughly moral argument against capitalism from a well-meaning artist, self-declared “not an economist.” Enough said?

These last two essays convince me I like the younger, self-absorbed Sanders; the elder, in presuming to analyze the world for causes & solutions (especially economics!), disappoints too much.

Thanks, Pops, for as always a thoughtful and very thorough critique. I would like to read this one someday, although I don’t know if this is the semester. Your comments about the essay form are well taken–that some of us are suited to one format over another. He is maybe best suited to the essay, and best taken this way, too!

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth

This disillusioned environmentalist’s thoughtful, poetic call to a different approach to action and way of thinking is both sobering and refreshing.


Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake; Beast), co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project writers’ network, has published impassioned essays, poetry and literature with an environmentalist perspective for decades. That perspective is changing, however, as environmental degradation continues and the green movement tends toward high-tech strategies and “sustainability” that Kingsnorth finds uninspired. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays is his answer to a changing world. These collected works are nearly all previously published, but together they offer a new outlook. Kingsnorth is grieving, angry and disillusioned, and his essays are by turns reflective and resolute.

“The story winding itself through this book is the breaking of the link between people and places, between the past and the present, between instinct and reason, and all the consequences that have ensued and will ensue.” As a writer, Kingsnorth is concerned with the ability of stories to change how we live, and with the ability to change our stories. “We imagine what it would be like to be this character, to live in this time, to be in this situation, and if we can’t do that well, our books won’t work. If we can do that well, why can’t we make the same imaginative leap and take ourselves out of our humanity?” One theme is a need for humans to see themselves as a single part of a larger system, rather than the controlling or most important factor. “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it,” but, Kingsnorth argues, we should.

His writing can be fanciful and joyous as well as tormented. Kingsnorth writes with undeniable love: for the planet, for locations and histories, and for people. Confessions is centered in his native England but voices global concerns. Essays handle the role of technology in culture; the importance of people’s ties to place; the difficulty of embracing immigration and immigrants without losing local cultures; and the reasons for the decline of the environmental movement. While Kingsnorth writes with persuasive logic and authority on a variety of topics, he is perhaps most lyrically impressive when rooted in the local, physical world, for example when scything his hayfields in rural Ireland, or searching for carved green men in ancient Norman churches. Given his passion for place, this is unsurprising.

Neatly organized into three sections–Collapse, Withdrawal and Connection–and with an informing introduction and call-to-action epilogue, this collection serves well as an introduction to Kingsnorth’s philosophy and writing style. It also allows his more seasoned readers to chart his changing views. The overall effect is necessarily grim, but often remarkably uplifting as well. In a world on the brink of collapse, Kingsnorth offers humor, compassion, humility and wisdom.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bison.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence by Kim Dana Kupperman

Where I recall feeling both impressed and flummoxed by The Last of Her, this earlier essay collection feels more accessible to me. The Last of Her is a story about Kim’s mother (or about Kim’s investigating her mother), a single cohesive storyline – not that there aren’t other storylines as well! But I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a collection that ranges widely in subject. Allowing each essay to tackle its own beast has a different result. Somehow I felt more comfortable with this book, more like I was able to grasp the whole. All of this sounds more like a criticism of The Last of Her than I want it to be; I enjoyed reading that book and am wowed by the writing and the organization within; it’s just that I didn’t finish feeling like I understood everything that went on. I enjoyed both reading experiences, but felt more settled, contained within this one. I wonder if reading them in the order they were published – this one first – would have helped.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a lovely series of meditations. I want to call it comforting, which is a strange adjective to choose, since many of its subjects are uncomfortable or painful ones: deaths of family members, romantic and marital strife, domestic violence, nuclear fallout (literally), personal uncertainties. But Kim Kupperman’s approach to these is so easy to relate to, so honest and open, and so thoughtful. She made me feel supported as (I felt) we entered these tough places together.

I read the title essay, a very short one at just two pages, a year or so ago, when I was considering attending WVWC’s MFA program. (One of the toughest pieces of advice I got in considering programs was to read the work of faculty members. If each program has an average of 8 faculty and they’ve published an average of 3 books each, and I’m starting with a long list of 15 schools, I’m supposed to read 360 books? So a nice short essay here and there…) It stuck with me. First, the lovely title, “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings”… it has such a dreamy sound, so many figurative possibilities; but it turns out it’s a direct quotation, spoken by a woman applying the prosaic, literal meaning. She’s just recently started buying chicken wings; she used to stick to breasts and short thighs. This turn, from lyric to literal, is the kind of surprise I savor.

Not that the symbolic wing is ignored, though. In this collection, I found that wings were a major theme: “Wings over Moscow,” most obviously, deals with a number of wings (airplanes, birds), but other essays as well see dropped wings, grounded airplanes, a father compared to Daedalus, “the maker of wings.” In the closing essay, Kim’s mother leaves secret treasures for her young daughter to discover: a list of these items includes a moth wing, and a blackbird feather. Secrets or silence (as in the subtitle) form another leitmotif. Likewise the body, meaning the physical: Kim’s own, and the bodies of three immediate family members (mother, father, brother) she cared for after death. Lovers, and the women and children she tries to help at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. When she seeks her grandmother’s mysterious personal history,

I sense in this silence my grandmother’s decision to sever herself from a body politic she adored but could not bear. Perhaps it is from her that I inherited this yearning to return, which might explain why, when she died, I wanted so badly to go back to her homeland. I was coming into my body–breasts budding, hips widening–as her physical familiarity and its comfort ceased to exist.

Note the two different uses of ‘body,’ and think about the meanings of ‘bear,’ as in the “body politic she adored but could not bear”: think about a woman bearing children, which this grandmother did, by definition.

This kind of recurring theme or image defines the book as a whole, as well as nearly every individual essay. This is the kind of trick I am strongly drawn to (I’m remembering Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land). There is much to praise here, in sentence-level writing, as Kim shifts from the starkly sensual to the lyrical and back again. She has a razor-sharp eye for detail, an uncanny gift for noticing and recalling the physical world, something I’m not so great at. But what I’m most excited about, most wonder at, is the tying together of theme and image within and across essays. It never feels forced: these are the things that make sense together, and also they match.

Kim Kupperman clearly has several strengths. I think she must see the essay form as flexible and beautiful and serious. She observes the world with great attention. She is thoughtful, and opens herself to criticism (for example in the hospital scene when her father is dying and his survivors are fighting). She has an ear for language and an eye for parallels. I can’t wait to get to know her better: her writing, her editing (I’m looking forward to her small press’s anthology You), and hopefully her teaching.


Rating: 9 segments of orange.

Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders

I already admired Scott Russell Sanders for two essays I’d previously read a la carte: “Buckeye” and “The Inheritance of Tools.” Among other things, I love that both these essays do concentrate on “things,” that is, concrete physical objects that hold meaning. Also, his prose is lovely; he is thoughtful, and methodical in recording his thought processes; and he is concerned with the significance of place, and people’s ties to place. This last I mostly knew by reputation before reading this collection.

Sanders was already well-established and prolific when he released this essay collection, which has sort of a retrospective gaze. Essays focus on place, and the need for people (and writers) to be centered in place, and the author’s own underrated place, the Midwest. There is also some focus on humans’ role in a larger network of biological relationships, and a writer’s life and work, including literary studies. The opening essay “Buckeye” is the clear standout; I also really enjoyed “Writing from the Center” and “Letter to a Reader,” which come at the end. Some of the middle of the book faded out a little for me, though.

Writing from the Center moved a little slowly for me, in fact. There is much to praise here, but it’s quiet and ruminative, and I sometimes struggled to stay engaged, especially because many of the essays seemed to hit the same notes (same subjects, same points, same rhythms) again and again. There is an accumulative effect that is worthwhile, though. Sanders’s prose is quiet, straightforward, articulate but unadorned.

Of course I share Sanders’s concern with place and with staying put (Staying Put is another title of his I need to look into, in fact). It’s a little odd that I didn’t find this one more compelling, as I appreciated his points so much. He can do some extraordinarily beautiful writing. I loved this line:

A few turkey vultures perch on one of the crossbeams, their wings splayed to catch the early sun, like a row of black shirts hung out to dry.

I saw parallels from Kathleen Dean Moore’s “Stalking Seals” through Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” through the otters in Sanders’s “Voyageurs.” And I made notes of the best points about place: these may be jumping-off points for my own writing.

I may have just been in a reading funk when I hit this book. But I think it’s also true that the pacing and the prose are measured and meditative, and that several of these essays address the same points. This may be a liability when putting together a collection of related works.

The next two books I read for school electrified me, by contrast. Those reviews are up soon: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.


Rating: 7 quasars.

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.
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