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No Heroes by Chris Offutt

No matter how you leave the hills–the army, prison, marriage, a job–when you move back after twenty years, the whole county is carefully watching. They want to see the changes that the outside world put on you. They are curious to know if you’re lost your laughter. They are worried that perhaps you’ve gotten above your raisings.

This is beginning of No Heroes. Only the prologue retains this second-person perspective, which I think would have gotten difficult for the length of the book, but it’s a perfect intro: it brings immediacy, in that you are the one facing these challenges; and it offers a dreamy, literary take on Chris Offutt’s rough-edged subject and setting. This prologue takes the form of an instruction manual (“to do this, do this”): how to return home, if home is this specific place. It concludes:

You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home. This dirt is yours.

It’s a perfect beginning.

This book is a close cousin to Jeremy Jones’s Bearwallow, which comes as no surprise because Jeremy recommended it to me.

It’s a fine book. In blurbs on the back, Offutt’s style is compared to that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver: strong words, but I can see the comparison. Offutt tends toward short, declarative sentences, except when he doesn’t (like Hemingway, a man perfectly comfortable with long, convoluted sentences and full-blooming metaphor when he feels like it, despite a reputation to the contrary). That is, the prose is mostly simply put together, undemonstrative, but he also knows how to turn a surprising or beautiful phrase at the moment we least expect it; the rarity of such lines adds to their impact.

Offutt’s story, like Jones’s, is of going away and coming back. Both men are from Appalachia. Offutt is from the hills of northeast Kentucky, where he went to elementary school, high school and college within ten miles, and only realized later how unusual this was. As a troubled twenty-year-old, he’d left the hills. He returns as a forty-year-old, having collected an education, written books, married and had two boys, lived and experienced lots of places. He’s back to teach at his alma mater, a humble school where he had worked maintenance while a student, a paradoxical foot-in-two-worlds experience that his cohorts on both ends–work and school–had struggled to accept. “It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college,” Offutt writes, but that criticism sounds less nuanced in isolation than it does on the page, in the midst of his obviously tortured love for this place.

In the course of No Heroes, he navigates his return to this place, whose dirt and leaves and birds he passionately loves. His parents still live here, but his love for them is less easy. His wife, Rita, and their two sons have some trouble adjusting to a place that is not theirs. Offutt came home hoping to be a hero to students like the one he was: talented but without role models, ready to slip into crime more easily than into art. The title foreshadows the end of that plot line, of course.

But there is another plot line! And it’s a doozy, complicating the story of the homesick Appalachian who has made good and therefore alienated himself. Offutt’s in-laws are finally ready to let him tell their stories. Both are Polish Jews and survivors of a string of Hitler’s concentration camps. You think you’re homesick? The narratives of Arthur and Irene humble us all. The flashback parts are different from the whole of the book: Arthur and Irene’s chapters are told in their own voices (Offutt recorded their interviews), and his own chapters told in his own voice; occasional scenes give dialog representing the interviews themselves. While a bit jarring at times (watch those chapter titles and they will guide you; I have trouble focusing on titles, for no good reason), even this effect–the jarring in and out of a painful past–suits the subject matter. It is Arthur’s admonishment about telling the complicated story, that even victims have flaws, that titles the book: “Remember, Sonny, no heroes.”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very rooted in a beloved place, and contains two stories equally well-told. For parents, for Appalachians, for anyone facing the tension of succeeding out of the bounds of their upbringing, for the homesick, this is an engaging memoir.

Rating: 8 “crimson maple leaves with green veins that pulsed in mourning for the branch they’d left.”

part two of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

Following up on part one.

Thanks for bearing with my lengthy review. I’m picking back up with a brief (!) list of a few of my favorite essays, in order of appearance in this collection.

  • “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair,” about being an alternate juror in a small-time drug-dealing case starring a confidential informer
  • “The Inheritance of Tools,” previously mentioned, about his late father’s legacy in the form of tools, literal and figurative
  • “Staying Put,” about attaching oneself to place, weathering the storm
  • “Letter to a Reader,” a life history, as man and as writer
  • “Buckeye,” my longtime favorite of his, more father’s legacy in objects
  • “The Common Life,” about what is basic and good in life, like making bread with loved ones
  • “Mountain Music,” about a fight with his teenage son that opens his eyes to a mistake he’s made (and inspires an essay collection)
  • “Silence,” an interesting one to appeal to me because it references faith and religion, topics that usually make me twitchy; about the Quakers’ silent worship
  • “A Private History of Awe,” about the things he finds moving in the world
  • “Buffalo Eddy,” a visit to a sacred place that inspires related musings, in a structure I appreciate: linking of concepts reminiscent of Eula Biss
  • “Mind in the Forest,” similar contemplation based in place.

There were other essays that gave me trouble, too. “The Uses of Muscle” makes some efforts (“I have a much greater appreciation now for the bodily strength of women”) but ultimately returns repeatedly to ideas of men using their muscles, or not, and the societal concerns with each possibility: “Fortunately for the peace of society, many boys play sports…” “How might boys and young men–or, for that matter, men of any age–use their muscles for something besides recreation or mischief?” You know this made me grumble. “Honoring the Ordinary” responded to certain critiques of the memoir genre in a manner I found a little broad and simplistic, but I should forgive this because Sanders’s audience for such writing was presumably a mainstream less tuned in than I am to this topic. But then the notes say that it was composed for a conference on the art of the memoir, so, hm. (On the other hand, both the early “The Singular First Person” and the later “Letter to a Reader” do a better job with this subject, in my opinion.)

If I nitpick, it is only because this essay collection engaged me so. The overall impression is excellent; if there are essays here I need to interrogate, it’s only because the whole is so impressive that I hold Sanders to a high standard. From another writer, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds” would have turned me away entirely, and I wouldn’t have finished the book.

Do I still have your attention? May I share a few favorite lines, for final good measure?

From “The Inheritance of Tools”:

I look at my claw hammer, the distillation of a hundred generations of carpenters, and consider that it holds up well beside those other classics–Greek vases, Gregorian chants, Don Quixote, barbed fish hooks, candles, spoons.

I ardently love a list, and Sanders is good at them. He chooses his items for alliteration, juxtaposition, sounds, and themes, with both poetry and meaning-making in few syllables. This concept of classics is one of the finest lists in this collection.

From “Staying Put”:

How can you value other places if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge.

From “Wayland”:

There is more to be seen at any crossroads than one can see in a lifetime of looking.

This for me recalls Annie Dillard, or Terry Tempest Williams, down on hands and knees, really looking into the grass where a casual looker would say there was nothing.

My encounters in Wayland shaped me first as I lived through them, then again as I recalled them during my visit, and now as I write them down.

In “Honoring the Ordinary,” I was struck by a concept which matches one from Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Referencing his own earlier book, A Private History of Awe, Sanders writes,

I wished to honor ordinary experience, not by making it seem exotic, but by peeling away the rind of familiarity that keeps us from seeing the true power and beauty and wonder and terror of it.

Doty writes:

These [still life] paintings reside in domestic, physical, fleshly space… it is so startling… that everything in this up-close, bodily space is delineated with such clarity. We’re accustomed to not seeing what is so near to us; we do not need to look at things that are at hand, because they are at hand every day. That is what makes home so safe and so appealing, that we do not need to look at it. Novelty recedes, in the face of the daily, and we’re free to relax, to drift, to focus inward. But in still life the familiar is limned with an almost hallucinatory clarity, nothing glanced over or elided, nothing subordinate to the impression of the whole.

(Bold emphasis is mine, italics are his.) When I come across the corresponding line in Sanders, then, I’m struck not only by the sentiment, such a neat parallel to Doty’s, but also by the turn of phrase, the rind of familiarity, so evocative of Doty’s beloved lemons and their luxuriant, sensual peels.

From “Buffalo Eddy”:

We cannot know what moved those vanished artists to carve their language into stone, but I imagine it is akin to the impulse that will move Bill to write a poem about our visit to Buffalo Eddy and will prompt me to write this essay. Such writing is like breathing, an exhaling that follows inhaling, as natural as that.

That is as lovely and natural an ending as any for my thoughts here. Forgive my quibbles. Sanders is on the whole an essayist to admire and emulate. I appreciate his subject matter and the frank, humble, wondering nature of his prose: a man after E.B. White, even, with perhaps more gravity and less humorous witticism. I’m a fan.

Rating: 7 crows.

part one of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

For other Sanders work, see Pops’s review of Staying Put and my review of Writing From the Center.

At this point in my semester, I’m beginning to work on a first draft of the third semester project in my MFA program: a critical essay, or longform investigation of the strategies of writers I admire that might inform my own work. (For more about the critical essay, you can take a look at pages 42-44 of the student handbook here, and follow this tag.) My essay topic is the use of stuff, things, or material objects (new tag!) as a way in to a subject or a character. With this topic in mind, I approached this most recent (2012) collection of Scott Russell Sanders’s work especially interested in a few essays in particular. I’d intended to only sample from the rest; but I couldn’t put it down.

Earth Works is a must-have collection for the Sanders fan. He carefully selected the 30 essays here, including nine that have never before been collected. I’ve read some of these before, but remained mesmerized by both content and style regardless of my familiarity. Sort of like with that Beard essay I so revere, “Buckeye” remains a feat to appreciate on every reading, even six or eight readings in.

A brief preface places these essays in some context in Sanders’s life and aims, and then they unfurl, in mostly chronological order by date of composition (some exceptions for the sake of juxtaposing topics), and with few revisions to their original published form (“for better or worse”). I really appreciate that the first essay, composed in 1987, is “The Singular First Person”: it lays out Sanders’s perspective about the personal essay, its form and purposes. It’s a smart way to start, because it offers some idea of what he thinks he’s up to, and therefore some promise of what is to come. A humble man speculates on what he finds in the world, in the hopes of asking big questions: “Who am I? What sense can I make of this inner tumult? How should I live? Does the universe have a purpose? Do we? What finally and deeply matters? What is true, and how can we know?” (From a later essay, “Letter to a Reader.”) Sanders is concerned with nature and the natural world, but resists the term “nature writer” (as did Edward Abbey), because he is most concerned with interconnectedness: human beings with one another, with the natural world of which we are mere part. He wonders about spirituality, about our place in the cosmos, about the sadness of consumerism and war, the destruction of the Earth; but he has a great love for the world, too, and allows that to shine through.

This reading, my deepest exploration of his work, confirms for me that Sanders is one of my favorite essayists. He marries content that is meaningful and sympathetic to me with style that is both lovely to read, and nearly invisible. As I’ve said before, the best writing often doesn’t even feel crafted, but that’s when you know it was hardest to craft. These essays are good examples of that idea.

I came for three essays in particular, as I said. “The Inheritance of Tools” uses stuff or things to get at a character: Sanders recalls his father through the tools that father passed on to him, along with the knowledge of how to use them; this essay is a way of processing his grief on his father’s death. “Under the Influence” is about the same father, but in this essay, the father is an alcoholic, who causes his family great pain. The two fit interestingly together because they’re about the same man from two very different perspectives. Finally, “Buckeye” continues the grieving for the beloved father, through a series of objects, beginning with the title buckeyes but traveling through other material things. Because all three attempt to profile a parent, and deal with the relationship between writer and parent, and because two of them do so through objects, they offer a number of things to me. For the purpose of the critical essay, I’ve also got my hands on a talk Sanders gave in 1990 at the University of Iowa, about the crafting of “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Under the Influence.”

As I said, these were not the only standout essays for me, and I kept reading for the pleasure of it beyond the three essays I’d intended to study. It wasn’t all good times, either, though. An early (1984) essay, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds,” made me angry. Sanders means well, and he is good to the women in his life (wife and daughter) in many ways. He considers himself a feminist. This essay means well, too, but it makes some major blunders, when he concludes that his own upbringing in relatively impoverished, working-class conditions make the challenges he’s faced the same as those faced by women. I am taken back to an excellent article I read years ago, titled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” The idea here is that you can be really poor and still enjoy privilege as a white person, because at least your race isn’t contributing to the limitations or constraints you face. The same principle could be applied to Sanders’s arguments. You might have been poor, you might have been limited, but you didn’t face the glass ceiling, the sexual harassment, the wage gap, the rape culture, or the insidious, invisible assumptions of incompetence that women did and do face. Concluding that you thoroughly understand the predicament of women when you don’t is arguably more problematic than not attempting to understand in the first place; congratulating oneself and turning away is troubling, because it makes you something of a false ally. His blindness to this problem gave me a lot of trouble. The HuffPost article was published in 2014, and Sanders’s essay, again, in 1984. But since he’s reprinted it in 2012 without feeling a need for further comment, I think he still needs to go read the HuffPost piece.

I won’t forget the blind spots exposed in this essay. But it’s to the great credit of the rest of this book that I still love it. Because there is indeed much to love here, not least the previously uncollected work near the end–I really enjoyed seeing Sanders articulate his appreciation for Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry, among others. I had already sent a copy of this book to my father before I got to these essays, but they made me glad again that I’d sent it to him.

Come back to me next Wednesday and I’ll do more raving, and slightly more quibbling, with this long and rich book.

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Just a week ago I gave you this book’s beginning and told you I was excited about it. It turned out to be everything I’d hoped.

Fierce Attachments is about Vivian Gornick’s mother and their relationship. It is told in two threads: the narrator’s memory of the events of her childhood in a tenement in the Bronx, and the narrative present, in which she and her mother walk together in Manhattan (where the latter lives) and throughout the city. The second thread features a daughter in her fifties and a mother in her seventies, finally eighty years old. The two threads eventually meet, as the remembered events follow a young Vivian growing up: from child to teenager, to college student, through marriage and divorce, into middle age and the walks in Manhattan. It is a very natural-feeling structure and one that makes great sense. It allows the reader to follow the heart of this book: neither the events of past or present, nor the story of one woman or the other, but rather, the story of their evolving relationship over decades, all its pain and small healings. It is also therefore about memory. The walks, which are also talks, allow Vivian and her mother to remember together, to create these stories.

In last week’s book beginning, I observed that the opening scene–a single paragraph–was given in present tense. All the narrative present events (walking in the city) are also given in present tense; but an event from the past doesn’t take the present tense again until page 91, nearly halfway through this book (at 204 pages an oddly quick read, for one so deep). It does not happen again until the past stories catch up with, merge with the present, when the mother turns eighty in the final pages and the two women find a small space in which to ease their combativeness. I had to flip back through the book to make these observations; I didn’t take notes as I went through, and in fact would have told you that more of the book took the present tense than I’ve found when I checked. I guess that makes the point that the past, rendered with lots of feeling and details, can feel pretty immediate.

There is much to admire here. I loved getting a feeling for Gornick’s inner life, as one lover calls it, her development as a writer, and the sad, conflicting story of going to City College and moving away–figuratively–from her mother, when she starts using complicated sentences and words the older woman does not understand. I appreciated the string of men she allies with, and her efforts to understand them, their places in her life and what they’ve had in common. Whatever her mother may think, Gornick uses beautiful sentences. And there is no arguing with the richness of her material: that tenement upbringing, the colorful women and sensory texture and exciting events. But for me what is most crystalline here is the relationship that is her main focus. The rendering of its difficulties.

And I see I’m writing this review prematurely, that I have not yet grasped what makes that rendering so clear. I think it has something to do with dialogue, and more to do with voice: that Vivian and her mother both get such clear voices, and not only them but many other, lesser characters as well. And perspective, the blending of what Sue William Silverman and Suzanne Paola call the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience”: the young Vivian, living in the past as it happened, and the writer Vivian walking with her mother and writing this book, and the way the two brush up against one another and eventually merge. The clear search for meaning, the honest, present wondering on the page: the classic assay.

I have a lot more to learn here; I’ll be back to Fierce Attachments soon, I expect. For now, please discover it for yourself, if you have any interest at all in the love and anguish of parent-child relationships, or admire creative nonfiction.

Rating: 8 corners.

book beginnings on Friday: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve featured a book beginning here (over a year), but I wanted to share these opening lines because I find them a fine example.

First: I knew before I even got to Gornick’s text that I had misjudged her. I think I’d been cool on this book because I did not enjoy Gornick’s craft book, The Situation and the Story. But as I opened Fierce Attachments to Jonathan Lethem’s glowing introduction, I knew this was different, and I felt I’d been wrong to wait so long.

Gornick’s opening lines are,

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette.

I love the immediacy of this scene, the way Gornick places us there in the very moment, in present tense. Even that first sentence, “I’m eight years old,” is such a choice on the part of the writer. It does what we are sometimes afraid to do: just comes out and gives up a piece of setting-information (age, in this case) outright. It’s simple, but that present tense makes it snappy somehow. That sentence says scene, bam. And I’m on board.

Thanks for stopping by for a book beginning. I’ll be back to reviews next week.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley

I appreciated Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, and so I was interested when I learned he’d written a memoir of a difficult-to-write-about family member.

The first paragraph of Hemley’s prologue introduces five characters in a nuclear family. Father Cecil, who died when Robin (the youngest child) was seven. Brother Jonny, who “used to be good at everything, from languages to sports to the sciences,” but as an adult specializes in Orthodox Judaism (he and Robin are not close). The eldest, sister Nola, who “was good at everything, too, art and language, but especially things of the spirit.” Mother Elaine, writer and teacher, who is good at surviving. And here Robin introduces himself, as larcenous. Throughout this book, he is tormented by the thought of the stories, secrets, feelings and anguishes he’s stealing from his family members, particularly Elaine and Nola. Brilliant, spiritual, disturbed Nola, who always heard voices and saw fairies and angels and communicated with God, was treated for the last several years of her life for schizophrenia, in and out of mental institutions until she died when she was twenty-five years old, and Robin was fifteen.

This is a memoir filled with documents. The Hemleys are a writing family, and Robin mines Nola’s unpublished autobiography, her drawings, his own and his mother’s short stories, letters sent among the family, court documents, and more. Nola’s writing in particular appears peppered with struck-through text and additions, mostly the work of their mother as editor. These edits are not redacted; the reader gets both versions at once, often unsure of whether a change is Nola’s or Elaine’s. It is disconcerting, and entirely appropriate.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is well-named. It is not an easy read. Just over 300 pages feels longer, as Hemley navigates the pain and distress of layers of family trauma–his father’s death and the deaths of several school-age friends; moves to ill-suited towns; a permissive, struggling mother; everyday sibling discord, and Nola’s increasing difficulties with a world she characterizes as “a strange and unbearable monster.” This is Nola’s book, but it follows side-threads, too, as when eleven-year-old Robin goes to live for part of a school year with elderly relatives in Florida (“By any yardstick other than a conventional one, I was essentially an elderly person… I really liked being old”). Later, he finds middle school frightening and chooses instead to attend day school at the psychiatric hospital where Nola is an inpatient. The Children’s Ward is a comfortable enough home for Robin, until he finds out they might not let him out again. Years after Nola’s death, when Robin is a graduate student, he has a girlfriend who suffers a psychotic break echoing his sister’s. Obviously, these threads are part of Nola’s story, her mystery, as well.

Not an easy read at all, as the book’s progress follows Nola’s descent into a misery she will not escape from. I do not recommend staying up late into the night to finish reading this as a winter storm rolls in. I found it quite upsetting, in fact. There’s no question that Hemley achieves emotional engagement, a representation of some of the agony his family has experienced. It’s a complicated achievement, all these layers of family trauma–often still with hope strung through them, at least while Nola retains it–and the writerly impulses of a family committed to communication and the written word, to education, and to some version of truth, however complicated. [Elaine’s technique is to write the family stories as fiction. Hemley’s essay “Truths We Could Live With,” appearing in Joy Castro’s (ed.) Family Troubles, and assigned by Jeremy Jones for my recent residency, discusses the difficulties he’s had with this practice. You can read an excerpt here.] A major thread of Nola follows the back-and-forth communications of mother and son, as Robin researches his family history for this book, and Elaine both helps (consulting, remembering, mailing him copious documents) and worries over the pain this will cause her, and Robin worries in turn.

So, a rich and complicated story. And cerebral: the Hemleys are a heavily educated, intellectual and mystic family, as well. (Cecil was co-founder of Noonday Press, and with Elaine translated and edited I.B. Singer’s work.) Almost every page is dense with philosophy (Nola’s grad-school discipline), religion, theory: faith, art, and madness indeed. I was having trouble getting through it, until I decided to let Nola’s concepts in particular sort of wash over me, and stop trying to understand them. (Much easier this way.) This book is an accomplishment worthy of study, but it will cost you something in the reading, so I recommend it with that qualification. Maybe stick to the daylight, too.

Rating: 7 Blakean drawings.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman

A loving daughter’s memoir of her father portrays the literary mind of Clifton Fadiman through his passionate oenophilia.

Before Anne Fadiman was known for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and At Large and At Small, she was an “oakling,” withering (according to an adage she quotes) in the shadow of an oak. Her father, Clifton Fadiman, enjoyed a long, successful career as a reader, book reviewer and wordsmith. He worked for Simon & Schuster, the New Yorker and the radio quiz show Information Please, and produced numerous collections of essays, criticism and anecdotes, children’s literature, translations and anthologies. Most of all, however, he loved wine.

Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautifully composed memoir of her father’s life, viewed through the lens of his oenophilia. She recalls discovering his essay “Brief History of a Love Affair” at age 10, and being disappointed that it did not describe love for a woman. She should not have been surprised, as even at that age she knew the names of the Premier Cru Bordeaux and which were the Great Years (capitalized as such). Clifton’s passion for wine was prodigious, and it was his daughter’s shame and consternation that her palate never came to appreciate any of its forms. This memoir is in part the story of that struggle–her repeated attempts to love wine, and all the fine bottles wasted on her. Near the end, she embarks on a study of taste buds, supertasters and the possible scientific explanation for her (as she feels it) failure to live up to a legacy.

While she does not shrink from Clifton’s flaws–a condescending attitude toward women, profound insecurity–this portrait is deeply loving. Fadiman seeks to reveal a complex and multi-talented man, and to celebrate his contributions to literature. She also seeks contact with a father she clearly misses. Upon discovering the careful handwritten record of his wine purchases: “He liked thinking about a bottle waiting for decades in a hushed, dark place until a hand reached in, and the corkscrew did its work, and the wine came to life again, a life that had deepened while it bided its time. Opening the Cellar Book was like that.” She calls it “the most serious book he ever wrote, the most heartfelt, the most honest.” Finding him again in his Cellar Book, as well as in his copious writings, brings Fadiman great pleasure, and will edify and entertain readers. Along the way, she touches upon a century of U.S. cultural history, to which her father contributed.

Fadiman’s prose is clear and precise, and while not overtly poetic, perfectly composed as to rhythm and sound. As in her past work, she writes with equal skill of her own memories, family history, science and the finer points of wine appreciation (which she knows by heart and inheritance, if not by personal experience). The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautiful remembrance and a loving and well-deserved tribute to a literary figure–and to the joy of imbibing.

This review originally ran in the October 26, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 papillae.


I had a moment of joyful recognition when I discovered on page 5 that Anne’s father Clifton Fadiman was the author of the children’s book Wally the Wordworm which I remember enjoying as a child.

My review of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was one of three brief pieces I sent in to Shelf Awareness when I applied to write for them. The beloved editor who hired me there has retired, but she is still reading and reviewing, and she changed my life in wonderful ways, as did Anne Fadiman’s writings.

Circles and synchronicity, friends.

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