Firebird by Mark Doty

It has taken me far too long to branch out in the world of Doty, having read Still Life With Oysters and Lemon at least six times by now. Well, I’ve got three more of his memoirs on my shelf and will rectify this. I may even venture into his poetry. Who knows.

Firebird is the second of his three memoirs (which list excludes Still Life), and focuses on his childhood: in an nutshell, a gay kid’s coming-of-age in a turbulent and troubled family that moved around a lot. From Tennessee to Tucson, Florida to California and back again, Mark’s family followed his father’s profession as an Army engineer. His mother eventually slides into alcoholism. His older sister leaves home in her teens to escape her own difficulties with their parents; she will wind up a single mother of three and later go to prison. Mark, after a traumatic haircut against his will, attempts suicide and confesses for the first time, to a nurse at the hospital, that he is gay. These are the troubled-family highlights, but Firebird does not rely on its sensational headlines for effect. It’s as much about art and beauty, the way these can overhaul pain and save his life, as it is about any particular painful story.

Doty excels at calling forth the beauty of the desert around Tucson, which his mother so loves, a Georgia O’Keefe landscape of color and contrast; her art–his mother’s–which brought her to life, and the entrance into a world of art that she gave him.
I was pleased to see so many echoes between this book and Still Life. I love the way Doty questions, turns back on himself: “Does he mean… Or no–does he meant it this way… But there are two lenses… Is that the point?” And his focus on “the resonant object,” which I absolutely recognize. The book’s prelude, “Perspective Box,” feels pulled directly out of that other book I have so loved. Firebird is as full of things as I could want; it fits right into what I love about his art.

I can’t wait to read more.


Rating: 8 complicated, studded walls.

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.

The Ghost Clause by Howard Norman

This smart, literary novel of human relationships–and a ghost–in a small town in Vermont is heart-wrenching, heart-warming and life-sustaining.

Muriel and Zachary are newlyweds living in their newly purchased old farmhouse in small-town Vermont. She has just defended her dissertation on translations of Mukei Korin’s erotic Japanese poems; that she brings this work home is a boon for their marriage. He is a private detective investigating the disappearance of a local girl who’s been missing for months now. They bought the farmhouse from semi-famous painter Lorca, a recent widow whose husband, Simon, had a heart attack and tipped overboard on a ferry en route to Nova Scotia.

The first surprise of Howard Norman’s (The Northern Lights, What Is Left the Daughter) riveting novel The Ghost Clause is that their stories are told in the voice of Simon’s ghost. The title refers to a section in Vermont real estate contracts that allows a buyer to return a house to its seller if there turns out to be a ghost in residence.

Simon still occupies the farmhouse, and feels very involved in the lives taking place there now. He appreciates that Lorca still visits, too. He observes Muriel and Zachary in their daily activities (often including their prodigious lovemaking), reads Muriel’s academic work and Zachary’s case notes, and sits in on their conversations around the clock; this gives him a near-omniscient perspective. He causes few problems, except that he keeps setting off the MOTION IN LIBRARY alarm on the home security system, which might drive his cohabitants nuts. He spends a lot of time reading Thomas Hardy; Muriel owns plenty.

Supremely enjoyable, The Ghost Clause is about the intersections of lives. At its center are two marriages–one new, one a bit older and recently rent by death–but it features many other town residents as well, and is ultimately about human relationships and families, and how we try to make it all work. Beyond this rich daily-life material lie extra layers: Korin, the poet Muriel studies, is fictional, so the erotic poems in the novel (and the difficulties of their translations, and the modernist issue of their parentheticals) are Norman’s invention. The missing-child investigation that threatens to consume Zachary for more than half the book is a thorough, often disturbing diversion. Finely detailed in its particulars and simultaneously revealing of grand-scale humanity, The Ghost Clause is both poignant and frequently gut-laugh-funny.

Norman’s prose is inspired; Simon’s narration is adorned with lyric moments (remember, he was a novelist in life): “A hammock of moon was traveling pale in hazy light,” Norman (or Simon) writes of an evening at home with Lorca when they were still alive together; there is more poetry here than Korin’s. Simon observes, “Scholarship as a form of courtship, it seemed to me.” The charm of local culture is part of the appeal, too. Muriel notes after a party that “People stayed kind of late, for Vermont.”

The Ghost Clause is one of the best kind of novels, excelling in every way: it’s delightful at line level, humorous, absorbing in individual stories and wise on a higher plane. A book for any reader who cares about people.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 crabapple trees.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (audio)

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

My mother gave me this audiobook for my birthday. With her own print copy ready, we set out to read together. She had already very much enjoyed the audiobook. Now I’ve finished, and she hasn’t yet, so we haven’t done our final debrief together; but we have discussed as we’ve leapfrogged down the middle.

A Tale for the Time Being is unusual in a few delightful, fresh ways. The opening voice is that of Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. (In this time-obsessed novel, you can bet her name is a meaningful homonym.) Nao is Japanese but has lived most of her life in Sunnyvale, California, and the recent move to Tokyo has been very hard on her. She is the victim of criminal bullying at school, and has decided to end her life, but before she does, she wants to record the amazing life of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and radical anarchist feminist. She sets out to do this in a diary. The diary is being read by Ruth, a novelist living on Canada’s west coast on a remote island with her husband Oliver and their cat, named Schrodinger but more commonly called Pest, or Pesto. (Ruth’s life matches that of author Ruth Ozeki suspiciously closely.) Ruth found the diary and a few other artifacts, well-wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted ziploc bag, on a beach near her home: the beach near Jap Ranch, as she calls it, her own Japanese heritage giving her the right and motivating her to remember the mistreatment of her people during World War II in these parts. (Oliver, who is of German heritage, cannot call it Jap Ranch.)

The story is told in alternating sections, in Ruth’s present and in Nao’s diary-recorded recent past, and then supplemented by other artifacts: documents found with the diary, and Ruth’s email correspondance as she begins searching for Nao in the present. There are several voices, then. And in several senses: there is the narrative first-person voice of Nao in her diary; Ruth’s perspective, told in third person; and then there are the voices as recorded in this audiobook. The author reads her book herself, which I love, and she does a lovely job of performing her set of characters. Oliver is stoic, a man of intellect and not emotion. Ruth is pensive; their neighbor Muriel is a bit nasal-y, and a bit annoying anyway. Nao is whimsical and impatient, sometimes immature and sometimes resignedly dour: a teenager indeed. The audio performance is absolutely perfect. It’s always comforting knowing we’re hearing the voices the author does.

The story expands and swells like a less well-packaged diary would have done in the ocean waters… We learn about Nao’s family, her depressed and defeated father, her no-nonsense mother, the deeply loveable Jiko, and more. It turns out that there is a thread of suicidal thoughts in her family: her father makes several suicide attempts, which they do not talk about; and his uncle, Nao’s great-uncle, died as a kamikaze pilot in WWII. Call that a reluctant suicide, perhaps. Three generations, then, dealing with tendencies to suicide in very different ways and originating in very different places. Meanwhile, Ruth’s family includes a now-dead mother who had Alzheimer’s but experienced a relatively sweet decline; Oliver is a decidedly quirky but, I felt, very likeable guy. He is a self-taught naturalist seeking to replant a preserve on their island so as to weather climate change. Even Pesto the cat plays an important role.

As the title indicates, this is a story about time, about moments, about whether we control the past or the future or even the present. As in the quotation that heads this review, the phrase “time being” takes on a new meaning here, in Nao’s dreamlike, imaginative ruminations. Ruth and Nao are both distant and very close together; the question of how far or near takes on a mystical quality, as Ruth worries if she is going crazy (or developing her mother’s disease – a worry I’ve seen in people I know too). Under Oliver’s wise guidance, even quantum physics comes into play late in the book, where I got quite lost but I think (hope) that I followed the ideas, the feeling of mystery and wonder.

Ruth Ozeki is a remarkable writer. This tale is multi-layered: mental health, the bendiness of time and space, linguistics (Japanese and English and also French, the bendiness of language, too), literature, and the love and personalities of animals… there is something here for everyone. For example, I thought of my father every time Oliver worries over the trees he’s planted in the preserve. Technically, the species he’s chosen violate the covenant of the trust because they are not native to the region; but he’s planted them for the climate-changing future, when species move north, and he’s put great thought into his choices, and the idea of destroying them is indeed heart-breaking. This issue is glancing within the book, but clearly opens up into something large and thought-provoking and timely – qualities that apply to every aspect of A Tale for the Time Being. Add to all of this Ozeki’s pitch-perfect performance, and I can scarcely recommend this audiobook highly enough.

And speaking of bendiness, consider the similarities between the author Ruth and the character Ruth. Of course I have 100 questions about their boundary lines. And what of Nao’s washed-up diary? What is its real-world equivalent? There are some mind-expanding puzzles here to be sure. It’s delicious.

Note: Ozeki (as herself) comments at the end that the print version includes footnotes, illustrations, annotations, and appendices. She appreciates the audio version very much for some reasons – she writes for musicality and sound, and loves its immediacy – and the print for others. Hopefully my mother, who is finishing the print version now, will have some thoughts to share with us about those differences. I suspect audio first, followed by print, is the right order.

If you love cats, trees, or people; if you’re interested in history and legacy, the power of words, or the questions posed by the passing of time – then this delightful, expansive novel is for you.


Rating: 9 crows.

Appalachia North: A Memoir by Matthew Ferrence

Disclosure: Matt Ferrence was visiting faculty at this past winter’s residency at WVWC, and we really hit it off; I think he’s great, and he gifted me my copy of Blue Highways.


A shorter review now, with more to follow, because Still: the Journal has agreed to published my book review *and* an interview with Ferrence in their October issue. Hooray! For now, a teaser.

Building a literature based only on darkness is just another way to shackle ourselves to decline. Instead, we are who we are, and that’s the sound of red-winged blackbirds chirping in the blowing reeds alongside restoration wetlands, a dark plain bird with a hidden flash of brilliance, the real marker of hope.

You know I’m on an extended trip right now. I’ve been keeping track of birds, among other things. In the mid-east-coast area, I started to see red-winged blackbirds, which I don’t recall ever having seen before. They are a delight, that shock of bright red underlined by bright yellow on black-black background. I saw just a few, and then lots of them, diving and swooping and chattering at one another, plentiful as grackles. I looked them up, and see that they live where I’m from, too. How come I never saw a red-winged blackbird before?

This book is a little like that, for me. The recognition of something I didn’t know I needed, although it seems thoroughly obvious now I’ve seen it. And it’s from where I’m from, too. The synchronicities like this kept stacking up. Matt’s parents and my dad all love Wendell Berry, although his took it a step further and farmed on the farm they purchased when he was young, while we kept our city home even after purchasing a ranch when I was young. We’ve struggled with similar questions about where we’re from. My brain injury and his brain tumor are different, but also alike. Even the Facebook surveys we each put out about our home places, Pennsylvania or Northern Appalachia, and Texas. I can’t tell you how many times I scribbled “me too” in these margins. I don’t usually scribble anything in the margins at all, but when Matt sent me Blue Highways, I learned something.

Okay, then.

This book is that blend that I love best in nonfiction: both memoir and outward-looking examination of something larger than the self. Ferrence grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. He didn’t know it yet, but he was born and raised in Northern Appalachia. At forty, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Appalachia is a much-maligned and little-understood region of this country, at least from the outside. Northern Appalachia is less understood, and (as Ferrence has it) exiled from both Appalachia and the U.S. He examines the geology and geography of sedimentary rock, mountains, and his own brain through many layers of metaphor. He pulls in plenty of outside voices: writers he admires (Abbey, Dillard, Sanders), and some he takes issue with. That’s another duality I deeply appreciate, that balance between one’s own voice and the voices that have informed it.

That’s all I want to say, in advance of Still‘s October issue – I will repost my longer review, and interview with Matt, when they’re available. For now, please know that this book caught me in that perfect place: both personally resonant in all the deepest ways, and an intellectual and artistic accomplishment I admire and would like to emulate. This is one of the most highly recommended books of 2019. And I don’t care who you are and where you’re from: you have something to learn from Appalachia North. Get out and get you a copy today. You’re welcome.


Rating: 9 collection points.

How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea by Jonathan Gornall

A father ill-suited to DIY projects builds a boat for his daughter, and in the process writes a charming, heartfelt love letter to both boat and child.

Jonathan Gornall has been boat- and water-obsessed for many decades, but he is the first to admit that, as a longtime chair-bound freelance journalist, his DIY skills are nil. The idea of him building anything from scratch is unlikely. But Gornall is also giddy with joy at becoming a father again at age 58. As he seeks a project sufficient to show his new daughter his love and hope for her life, the idea feels natural, even obvious: he will build her a boat.

How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea is a love letter to that small child, Phoebe. It is a memoir of a life on and off of water and a study of the history, art and science of boatbuilding. Gornall is determined not only to build a seaworthy craft by hand and from scratch, he also feels that it must be clinker-built, the traditional type of planked wooden boat favored by the Vikings and early Anglo-Saxons, dating to the second century. Of course, he acknowledges, there is “no boatbuilding technique so respectably ancient, so historically resonant, so seductively beautiful, and so bloody difficult.” With his wife’s cautious support, Gornall sets himself a deadline: he will build Phoebe a boat within a year.

The pages of this book span slightly more than that year, following Gornall’s inspiration for his project through its conclusion, as well as revisiting the life that has led to this point. He considers his first sea voyage (in utero, with an unwed mother who consistently claims he’s ruined her life), his first experiences with boats (at boarding school) and his significant time on the ocean. Gornall has twice attempted to row across the Atlantic, with enormous press and personal pressure, and twice failed: these disappointments weigh heavily on the older man’s mind and contribute to the urgency to get this boating effort right. Along the way, he consults local boatbuilding experts in the historic tradition, as well as books in the canon: four authors he calls his League of Dead Experts.

Gornall’s tone is drily funny and always self-deprecating when it comes to the project at hand. His research, however, is as serious as his journalistic background would suggest. The writer’s love for style is evident: each chapter is headed by an epigraph, equally likely to come from one of the Dead Experts or from The Wind in the Willows or Winnie-the-Pooh. The result is a deeply moving intersection of the personal–Gornall’s absolute devotion to his daughter–with the practical. This is not quite a how-to manual, but readers with aspirations to fashion their own clinker-built boat would have a headstart upon reading. By the end, this self-described “soft-handed, deskbound modern man with few tools, limited practical abilities, and an ignominious record of DIY disaster” has achieved something truly remarkable, and possibly moved his reader to tears. If the boat is a gift to Phoebe, this book is another.


This review originally ran in the April 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 saws.

Fulton Theatre presents Next to Normal (2019)

I feel so glad and so lucky that I found a charming little theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and this play to attend. It was a phenomenal performance and experience all around. This is the best part of traveling: finding gems like this.

First of all, the space and background: let me set the stage, if you will. The Fulton Theatre is a grand, historic old opera house, of a certain type. The main theatre space is opulent, extravagant: ornate carvings, gilt, red velvet. My date and I snuck in to see this space after our play was over; but Next to Normal was performed upstairs, in the “studio.” It reminded me very much of the iDiOm/Sylvia, with spare furnishings and rows of chairs set up on the floor for the audience. I was a little disappointed not to see the big grand theatre in action, of course, but I admit seeing this smaller, simpler space was a comfort, because it reminded me of another theatre I’ve really appreciated (I’m still remembering Clown Bar fondly).

the lovely Fulton Opera House (photo credit)

So, a small space, unassuming, and with moderately minimal props and backdrop, and a small cast of just six. I have seen a larger cast play in small space – Clown Bar was one of those exceptions – but generally a smaller space does mean fewer players. They did indulge in costume changes, though.

Now on to the play, itself.

Next to Normal was written by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), and I appreciate it very much as a play, to begin with. The topics it deals with are not small undertakings. Family dysfunction and severe mental illness are difficult to approach in any art form, I think. Here we have a mother, Diane, who is ill – how ill becomes gradually clear, but she clearly struggles to get out of bed and deal with her daily life within the home, let alone outside it. Her husband, Dan, means well, but he’s ill-equipped to help his wife with her outsized problems. There are two children who are affected in different ways. And there’s a big reveal part-way through, which I won’t spoil for you here, but it’s important.

Did I mention yet that this play was a musical? A rock musical, that is. It sounded weird coming in (doesn’t it sound weird?) – a rock musical about mental illness and family dysfunction.

The high-school-aged daughter gets her first boyfriend, and Diane has a psychiatrist, and then another (both played by the same actor); and that’s the whole cast: mom, dad, two kids, boyfriend, psych. In two acts, Diane gets sicker. She is prescribed lots of drugs; she experiences hallucinations; she attempts to kill herself; she is hospitalized, and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The nuclear family learns some things about themselves individually, about each other, and about how they work together. The ending is surprisingly hopeful, but feels earned.

My one real concern that I want to voice is something that often concerns me in conversations about mental illness. There seem to be two well-intentioned stories we tell ourselves/each other: that it’s okay to take drugs, to get the help one needs; and that one is stronger if one can be okay without drugs. I think it’s tricky to navigate these two messages, either one of which can be potentially damaging. On the one hand, there’s an argument that we’re too pill-happy in this culture, and that we start our kids on drugs too young. On the other hand, the feeling that you’re stronger if you can “do it” without drugs is really problematic for those people who suffer from conditions that require medication, as some do. The narrative of this play came down a little bit on the side of praising and admiring the drug-free path. And if that works for the fictional Diane, of course I am so happy for her. But that kind of praise can be discouraging, even damaging, for patients who need drugs to be okay. I just wanted to voice that because it occurred to me as I watched the play unfold. And as I’m writing this, I guess I need to observe how personal this material felt. Without violating anyone’s privacy, I thought of some loved ones who have struggled or are currently struggling in ways I recognized here. It was sobering and hard to watch, of course, but it also felt good to have certain people seen. Art is powerful. I’m glad that art addresses such topics as these – even the really hard ones – because the hardest parts of life deserve to have this light shined upon them.

Also, can we talk about the extraordinary image, above? Click through to the larger version. That woman with her blurred-out face, the suburban ideal in her torso, and the pills spilling out from her lower extremities. The sense of time passing all around her. That’s an ideal of accompanying art.

Even with this serious and disturbing material, Next to Normal is remarkably also very funny, and so heartwarming, even through the challenges. And played by such gifted actors – I could feel their passion and power. I paused to admire, at intermission, how odd it is that I can be simultaneously aware that this is “just” a play, and also so invested in these characters who are fiction, and I know that, and yet they make me laugh and cry, and I just want for Diane to be okay and for her daughter Natalie to feel loved and to know it’s okay, she doesn’t have to be perfect to make up for everything… I want Dan to know it’s not his job to fix his wife. Gosh, but I love the theatre.

The thing that was most surprising and impressive about this play I’ve saved for last. Listen to this: the actor who played Dan was unavailable at the last minute, and so they called upon an actor with twenty-four hours’ notice to step in. Jeffrey Coon did not have time to learn his lines; he played the role with a bound script in one hand, flipping through its pages as he went. But he knew the scenes! And he knew the music! He played the physical role perfectly, including interactions with other actors; he knew his blocking. And recall this is a musical: when he glanced down at that playbook for his lines, he was often not speaking but singing them. He knew the songs, musically, just needed the words as he went. Because Dan is some kind of businessman, often carrying a briefcase, he was able to make that bound script often serve as a prop, so that it sometimes disappeared and we could forget about it altogether. I have NEVER seen this before. And I cannot imagine it’s ever done this well: Coon’s acting as Dan was superb, spot-on emotionally and in key with his fellow players. His singing was impressive – great voice, but also timing and feeling. I cannot communicate here how impressed I was with this performance. I didn’t know it could work this well. I can only assume this guy (who works for the Fulton as his day job as well) is a professional ideal. My admiration for this art form has just been raised another ten notches, watching this man slide into this slot so smoothly. During final curtain calls, the other actors made a point to celebrate him, too, so that I could see they shared my feelings about his incredible performance.

I feel again like the luckiest woman alive, when I get to travel through a small city and find a shining experience like this one. I’m going to treasure Next to Normal, the Fulton Theatre, and Jeffrey Coon’s performance for some time.


Rating: 9 pills.
%d bloggers like this: