If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

The Rope Swing: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran

Disclosure: this author, Jonathan Corcoran, is a repeating visiting faculty member at my MFA program, and one of my favorite people. I always aspire to tell you exactly what I think of a book, but I can’t claim objectivity here because I think Jon is wonderful.


That said, The Rope Swing is also a wonderful book. This is a collection of linked stories, sharing not characters, so much (although there are some glancing exceptions), but setting and theme. Most of the stories take place in a small town in West Virginia; the last two take place in New York City, where a native of the small town has resettled. Some of the stories are told in first person, some in third, and the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” is told in first-personal plural, using the ‘we’ pronoun. I appreciate this choice. This first story is really about setting the scene and the tone for the rest of the book: we are in a small town that is seeing a twilight of sorts, on the day the last passenger train leaves town. It is a mood of elegy, and with some conflicted feelings about the place. The use of a collective pronoun is perfect, because this story focuses on no person in particular, but on the town and its inhabitants collectively. In this story we see a few characters very briefly who will star in their own stories later; but this collection doesn’t follow anyone in particular. The title story, “The Rope Swing,” is referred to in a later story, but it’s a quick glance.

The theme-thread that unites these stories is the experience of LGBTQ characters in this particular setting. There are a few characters that the town acknowledges as a little different, like the florist, who was “funny, we knew, in a light green shirt and a darker green ties the color of a rose stem, but he was also harmless.” Others have a harder time, like the young man who leaves for New York City.

The strengths of the collection are as broad as these characters. Having heard Jon read a few times, I was not the least bit surprised to find lovely writing at the sentence level; he has clearly paid close attention to sound and rhythm and word choice. The small actions and attentions of his characters portray lots of personality economically. About a woman who has inherited the house of a close friend, who had in turn inherited it from his parents:

She had thrown everything out of the refrigerator. She didn’t care if the jam was good for another year; that jam didn’t belong to her. In this way, she had claimed dominion over an appliance.

The place as character is one of my favorite features of the book; I love a strong sense of place, as you know, but also it’s just so beautifully done here. The book opens, “We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime.” Such a simple sentence, but it has a definite beat and lilt to it. And what follows is description; but description with momentum and pull, easy to read and easy to see and feel. Perhaps the key is that all the details–“young leaves of the maples and sycamores,” “rivers of meltwater sprint[ing] down the cliff faces”–are experienced by the ‘we,’ seen and heard and felt and thought and remembered, rather than just delivered to us as exposition.

This author knows how to use metaphor, as in this lovely image, when a grieving woman looks up at a tree:

But then, there was the thing she hadn’t noticed before: the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

But it’s not heavy-handed. My quick impression is that this is not a book that relies much on metaphor, but rather, it tells the world as seen and experienced, and leaves it to the reader to make meaning. That may be a deceptive impression. If I were to go back over these stories looking for literary devices or tricks like metaphor, I might find many. But their subtlety only speaks of their power.

I appreciate, too, how these stories are organized. As I work, this semester, to write a thesis in the form of an essay collection, I’m thinking a lot about organization. I have the impression that these stories come chronologically, although that feeling is somewhat loose, since we don’t follow a single character. The timeline feels organic, though. And most impressively (as I struggle through my own work!), there is a definite feeling of accretion: each story references oh-so-subtly what’s come before, builds on the details of the town or a single image from three stories ago, to increase its impact.

Clearly, a fine example of many skills: sentence-level writing, characterization, setting, subtlety in theme, organization and structure. I’m deeply impressed, and that’s not something I would say just because I like Jon. As a bonus, this is a region, and particularly a set of experiences within a region, that’s not been written about enough. Do check out The Rope Swing. It’s well worth your time.


Rating: 9 mottled leaves of the philodendron plant.

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

A concise, friendly, illustrated guide to gender-neutral pronouns written by a likable pair of friends.

The coauthors of A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns are friends. Archie Bongiovanni identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns; Tristan Jimerson (he/him) knew them before they came out as nonbinary, so Bongiovanni asked him to help communicate with a mainstream population who might have trouble with the concept. Bongiovanni and Jimerson make a jolly, jokey team in this graphic how-to manual, with Bongiovanni’s illustrations, but despite their often playful tone, they take this topic seriously. They agree that being told one’s pronouns don’t matter is “basically telling you that you don’t matter.”

A Quick & Easy Guide addresses what a pronoun is; why people might want to use gender-neutral pronouns; how to ask for and give one’s pronouns; how to change one’s language and how to handle mistakes; and how to integrate these lessons into professional and retail settings. It’s written both for a general readership that may be confused by they/them pronouns, and (in a special section by Bongiovanni) for nonbinary folks. It even includes sample scripts and signs to post in places of business.

This is a short, easy-to-read, affordable guide, because the authors hope it will be widely distributed and handed out on the street. It meets its goals neatly: just the facts, but in a friendly, approachable tone, enhanced by the true friendship of its authors. A Quick & Easy Guide is for everyone, because as Bongiovanni and Jimerson point out, we encounter nonbinary folks every day, whether we know it or not.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 arrows of good intent.

movie: Milk (2008)

While I recognize it’s risky to learn history from a biopic, I really appreciated all I learned about Harvey Milk and his fine work in this movie, which was visually pleasing and well-done–through heart-wrenching–as well as educational. I do recommend it.

Milk begins with Harvey Milk’s fortieth birthday in New York, then quickly follows him to San Francisco, where he gets involved with politics, and through to his end by assassination. Sean Penn plays a beautiful Milk, and his partners played by James Franco and Diego Luna make striking, attractive characters as well. I found the acting all-around admirable. I loved the characters of Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg; and I appreciated the way Dan White was handled. He comes off not as a straight villain, but as a flawed, a troubled human being. His actions are hard to stomach. But I appreciate the nuance with which he was handled in this film.

San Francisco and the Castro feel real to me (and what do I know about how authentic they are here; but I bought it). The styles felt right for the time (same caveat). In other words, I was convinced and in fact spellbound by the whole thing; and that’s before saying that obviously I find Harvey Milk’s life and work inspirational, and his demise saddening. I would watch this movie again. You should watch it, too.


Rating: 8 votes.

guest review: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, from Pops

Pops has been making his way through my backlist. See, while we’re at it, his comments on Dream Team. Here, he’s sent a full discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces, which I reviewed here (see his comments there, too). Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Thanks for yet another good recommendation, although belatedly honored.

Ehrlich’s work is as special as you describe, although you commended it with one more cowboy than I might have, likely accounted for by personal taste and happenstance, that nebulous coincidence of reading the right book at the right time (or not).

Two other, little things I noticed. One is her occasional unabashed use of urban references in metaphors or similes describing wild and natural (albeit inhabited) places. This is not so typical in literary works about the wild, but it works well here supporting her personal story as a ‘straddler,’ as she once refers to herself, shifting between places.

The other is a brief mention in her chapter “To Live in Two Worlds,” a title with meaning for her book’s personal backstory, but also for the chapter’s subject describing the parallel Wyoming culture of native Indian tribes. She attends two tribal events; one is the annual Crow Fair, where an Indian friend remarks on tribal mythology about a ‘berdache’ (p.123), a French word which she parenthetically defines as transvestite.

I have read that the American Indian or First Nation usage of a French word derives from French voyageurs, the French trappers in early North American history who were the first European contacts with many native tribes, who then adopted many French terms in their learning of English. The voyageurs encountered the cultural fact of native gender ambiguity, and recognizing a common social reference, contributed their word to an emerging hybrid language of native, English and French words.

From multiple references I have read, Wiktionary seems to get it right: berdache is “a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities which are not exclusively those of their biological sex.” An added comment there goes beyond what I have seen elsewhere: “Considered offensive by many Native American communities because of its pejorative and non-American etymology, berdache began to fall out of use in the 1990s; two-spirit and various tribe-specific terms are now used instead.” The latter is wonderfully explicated here by a gay blogger in Montana.

Nevertheless, I find the history fascinating, including that last reference with very helpful context: the contemporaneous accounts, from both Indians and early explorers, suggest both surprising awareness and a more tolerant acceptance of a cultural and social issue that US culture still wrestles with today.

In reading northwest history I have seen berdache, as a word and cultural phenomenon, repeated in things I’ve read lately. Notable are two excellent works of creative non-fiction history, Jack Nisbet’s Sources of the River and Peter Stark’s Astoria. The narrative lines of the two books briefly but importantly overlap, and a berdache is, remarkably, at the center of that historical confluence.

Nisbet’s work references contemporaneous journals of Scot-Canadian David Thompson, who led (and amazingly, accurately mapped) the first European expedition from Columbia River headwaters in Canada to its mouth near Portland, Oregon, in 1811 immediately after Lewis & Clark journeyed overland to the mouth. In his journeys through true wilderness, meeting some tribal parties who have never seen a white person, Thomson first hears tales of a berdache, then meets the person named Qánqon – twice! First is early in the trip, near the headwaters; second is later, at the mouth.

Astoria describes a complicated American expedition of the same period (they and Thompson were vaguely mutually aware), which involved two groups, overland and by sea, converging on the mouth of the river. All three parties converge in the summer of 1811 at the Astorian camp near present-day Portland – and, defying odds, the mysterious Qánqon also arrives, with a companion, to make it four. This motley combination clashes to provide a bit of historical human drama and political intrigue. And it all makes for wonderful reading.

So that’s what I know about berdache. And thanks to Ehrlich for providing yet another reference to an interesting historical thread.

What a turn this review took! I did not remember the term berdache at all, so there you have it. (Also, that was five years and how many hundreds of books ago? Probably nearing a thousand?) Also, although we all know I do not have time for more titles added to my list, I love a review that comes with additional reading recommendations. Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Quick list of LGBTQ reads

A graduate of my MFA program asked on a private forum,

Does anyone have suggestions of short stories, essays, and poems I could use in a Gender and Lit class that could introduce my students to LGBTQ lit and how it resists stereotypes and challenges the gender binary?

and I wanted to put together a quick list in response. But first, let me say: I think it’s interesting to consider who is qualified to answer this question. Part of me feels the need to disclose that I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community in the sense that I’m straight and cis-gendered. My colleagues & classmates who are members of this community by identity might have more authority in answering this request than I have. On the other hand, I hope that we can all recognize the reading that a) appears well-crafted and b) answers a certain need. I’m an LGBTQ ally. I try to recognize the nuances of (for example) stereotypes, as posed by the person who posted this request. I’m not perfect, but I’ve made an effort to be an informed reader of this and many other kinds of literature. Best efforts, then, with a stated sensitivity to the privilege with which I enter this work.

Here are the top nine books that I thought of. The original poster asked for shorter works, so my response is imperfect, but these are what I have to offer. (Two collections offer easy excerpting; more effort would be required to excerpt the longer full works, but it might be worth it.)

book list:

Others responded to this request with titles like Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, a collection from Appalachia, and with some connections to my MFA program, edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray–I own this book but haven’t cracked it yet, I’m afraid–and Andrea Gibson’s poem “Your Life.” Further:

Danez Smith and Qwo-Li Driskill and Ocean Vuong are poets that intermingled their race and their lgbt identity in their poems. Janet Mock. I mean technically a lot of the Harlem renaissance poets were always merging their otherness with their racial identity and their sexual identity. Such as Langston Hughes. Audrey Lorde’s Zami actually creates this almost mythos surrounding blackness and coming into this womanly identity and loving women. Leslie Feinburg is a bit heavy but ze is a prominent figure in the lgbt community. Allison Bechdel is a graphic novelist but graphic novels are still solid and easy to pick up on as a narrative.

Music is fun too! Rappers reclaim particular words and terms… Again still a bit heavy but Brockhampton and The Internet are fun and sometimes soft lyrical gay sounds. Where Mykki Blanco is… all weird trance-y edm bopping type sounds that scopes in on… the black lgbt club scene and their lingo and it’s just fun. I dunno if those are also lyrical structures to be explored. I think they are important but that’s just… how I perceive music as a social device. Especially in the black community.

And I just want to say, especially in response to that last post, that I think interdisciplinarity is a really important strategy in education. I think I would have been more engaged in high school if I’d better understood the ways in which science, art, literature, history, social movements, etc. happened in tandem, rather than in separate classrooms. Maybe it’s my interest in humans, but I think understanding that all these “subjects” are a part of human history and human experience, would have made each more interesting to me than they were at the time. Figuring out the interconnectedness on my own, later, was itself a fascinating process, but I might have been more excited about school at the time if interdiscplinarity had been made a bit more clear to me then. So, I support the inclusion of music in this class!

Well, that was a longer post than I intended; I hope it was helpful (to the original asker, or to anyone), and I’m very interested in what others may have to offer as well. Comment below!

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

two-or-three-things-i-knowThis is a lovely, very brief but powerfully feeling memoir by the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, which I have not read.

It offers a look at the author’s life, and of the women in her extended family: chronological, but otherwise loosely attached to events, more musing and reflective than reportorial. Allison jumps in and out of time, so although events take place in chronological order, it’s not a straightforward start-to-finish narrative. She also includes family photos, and thus reminds me of Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade. (This one came first.) Allison is concerned with the challenges these women have faced, and how they’ve handled them, with attention to place, culture, feminism and lesbianism; but family relationships are central. Her second-person address repeats “Let me tell you a story…” and weaves in the title line. This through-line provides another unifying tactic, like those I saw in essays by Van Eerden and McClanahan (here). Like Queen of the Fall (review coming up on Friday), Allison also offers some thoughts, and inspires some thinking, on women’s experiences and place in the world. Specifically in this book, that is the world of poverty-stricken Greenville, South Carolina.

At under 100 pages, this is a super-quick read; maybe too quick. I flashed through it in an evening and am left unsure of what I learned, although I enjoyed the experience. The good news is that a reread would be quick to do, too.


Rating: 7 quarter-miles.
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