Oxford American, issue 99: Kentucky Music Issue (winter 2017)

You can see further details or purchase this issue here, and I do recommend it.

I’m amazed, again, at my enjoyment of this magazine, especially in its Southern Music issues, this one about Kentucky – and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many names I knew, both in contributing writers (a few associated with West Virginia Wesleyan) and in musicians. I shouldn’t put these mags off so long; I enjoy them so much.

I am reminded of past OA music issues, of course, and of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. The liner notes, so to speak, in this music issue for the accompanying album of 27 tracks often expand into mini-essays not only describing the music but arguing for its place in history, its importance, its context… as when I read Poetics, I find myself recognizing something I’d been missing: music written of as the art form it can be. I haven’t found enough of this in the world, I guess. Also, of course, OA‘s concentration on the American South overlaps with my own concerns, and our musical tastes so far line up nicely too.

I am also astonished to see the same themes that plague my own mind and life keep recurring… it was one thing to find the theme of home-seeking in Matt Ferrence’s Appalachia North, which I am reading now, a book I chose for its relevance to my own obsessions. But the same themes turn up in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m listening to on audio now (birthday present from my mom, thanks Mom)… and the music of Kentucky often as not approaches them too. Look at Harry Dean Stanton explicating “Cancion Mixteca”:

I see it as, when you’re truly at home there’s no more suffering… crying to get back to where you come from.

Maybe this is what’s so haunting and impossible about our (apparently universal) yearning for home: that we’re trying to get to place with no suffering, where everything is resolved. Talk about setting yourself up to be disappointed.

Or this:

Inoculated with a love of and fascination with her homeplace, Rachel Grimes became a student of its history.

Again I’m thinking of Appalachia North, Matt Ferrence’s research-rich investigation of his own home: work I aspire to do for mine. Partly I self-select (consciously and not) to expose myself to the media that I am likely to appreciate, of course. But doesn’t it also seem like we encounter things in groups or bunches? A new topic is suddenly all around us. I remember the first time I heard of the concept of a murder ballad. It was from a woman from Kentucky (of course), a fellow student in my MFA program. I was intrigued by the concept; and suddenly murder ballads were all around me. Again from this Kentucky album & magazine: the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which I can’t say for sure isn’t the first one I ever heard, sung by Amanda Jo on the dorm steps at dusk in West Virginia’s July, backlit by fireflies.

Perhaps I most loved the brief notes on each song included with the cd that comes with this magazine, those succinct reasons why King Kong’s “Me Hungry,” Freakwater’s “My Old Drunk Friend,” and Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “I’m Going to Organize, Baby Mine” join Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers and Les McCann. Reading these paragraphs and listening to the songs and making my own observations about the music and meaning is always the most special treat of an OA music issue. But there was so much I loved here: Jason Howard*’s “If God Had a Name,” about Joan Osborne’s influence on his own life and spirituality (I love the song, too). Jeffrey A. Keith’s study of the Appalshop*. John Thomason on John Prine’s Paradise. Ashley Bloom’s lovely essay “Fire in My Bones” on religion and reclaiming her body. Crystal Wilkinson’s story “Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal,” a piercing piece of fiction to cleanse the palate, except it’s more flavorful than any palate cleanser. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Death Rattle” was a remarkable piece of investigation, even anthropology. And of course, Silas House*’s gorgeous feature, quoted below. So much astonishingly lovely writing, throughout.

Zandria F. Robinson’s feature, “Border Wars,” confounded me some; sometimes I didn’t know what her sentences meant, although they were always lovely. I found myself both nodding emphatically along, and also sometimes disagreeing. It was an engaging piece of writing, and I guess any differences I felt with her drive home the point about shifting borders and differing definitions, and how they can divide us. If I didn’t always agree, I certainly respected and admired.

David Ramsey’s “Tuned Up in the Spirit,” about the Old Regular Baptists and their line-called music, gave me a little trouble as well. It was a bit too many pages of religion (perhaps without quite enough music) for my tastes. And when he notes that the Old Regulars forbid woman from leading songs, preaching, or taking part in church business, and then moves right along, I think, only a man could brush past that.

Here are a few of the lines I marked, usually in noticing how they speak to my own home-seeking.

This faculty, to be attuned to one’s surroundings and the ways in which they’re unique, to be rooted in the local, to be of a certain place – no matter if one permanently leaves it, like Richard Hell, or stays forever, like Rachel Grimes – is an elemental theme running through [this issue].

From Deputy Editor Maxwell George’s introduction to “The Music of Kentucky.”

Ronni Lundy quotes Dwight Yoakum:

…you have to break the ties to be yourself, and then you see how much those ties meant to you, so you try to put them back. Only you can’t really do it. You can’t do either all the way. But that’s where the story is, right? That place in the middle, isn’t that where it’s art?

This quotation means a great deal to Lundy, too – it gives her the title of her piece on Yoakum, “That Place in the Middle.”

From House’s inspired essay “Watershed,” on the Phipps Family:

There are many Appalachias, but this one is much like most of the rural places in the region: a wound, a poem, a contradiction – none of them easily defined, all of them complex, taut with history and culture that most people never bother to study or understand before passing judgment. Like most places in American, it’s a place of poverty and wealth, of education and ignorance…

And of course, you know what I’m going to say next, that all of this is true of most places in America. A wound, a poem, a contradiction. (I wish I’d written that.)

John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about the jawbone as a musical instrument, and its roots in slavery:

Slaveholders could forbid them the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, everything. They might even embargo wire and string. But it’s not as easy to take away denuded animal bones. And while those were ready to hand, so was rhythm. That’s how hard it is to kill music.

That’s how hard it is to kill art.

In other words, forget it.

Forget it. This stuff is gold. Get all the Oxford American music issues you can.

Rating: 9 stays out of a man’s shirt collar.

*Recognize these names? From Hillbilly.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 58: Weather (winter 2016)

You can buy issue 58 here.

You can buy issue 58 here.

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7 tornadoes.

Bayou Magazine, issue 65 (fall 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7 showtimes.

Oxford American, issue 87: Texas Music Issue (winter 2014)

oxford-american-texasThey’ve done it again. This is my favorite magazine.

Actually, lest you think me totally partisan, the Georgia Music Issue might have been even better. Let’s start with the included musical cds, which make this very fine magazine even more desirable. I’m really enjoying the Texas cd, which includes tracks by Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Rick Trevino, The Texas Tornados, Bob Wills, Freddy Fender, Kimmie Rhodes with Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark and Janis Joplin (whew). But I do notice that there’s not much here that bucks a traditional idea of Texas music – that is, country and Tejano. Contributions by Ornette Coleman and Spoon take a few steps off that path. But I thought the Georgia cd did a much better job of showing the wild variety available in a state prone to stereotypes. And it’s not because Texas doesn’t have the diversity available. Likewise, the text accompaniments to these musical tracks were a frank disappointment after reading the Georgia version. Rick Clark’s text is a just a little more basic, which is not to say I would have been let down, if only I hadn’t read that other one, in which each Georgia track was brought to life with storytelling unto itself that made me need to go back and listen again. Here, I’m listening again and again because the music is good, but not because a whole narrative world was opened to me. Perhaps tellingly, the write-up of the Texas cd is located at the back of the mag, not at the front.

But there’s something there, too: the cd and liner notes read a little better, feel a little fuller, after taking in the magazine as a whole. Joe Ely, Doug Sahm and others get attention in shorter articles, while features include Margaret Moser’s groupie diary (which I really enjoyed) and pieces on Guy Clark, Paul English (Willie’s drummer and bodyguard/door guy/gunslinger) and DJ Screw. The latter finally provided what I was looking for: a feeling that Texas music is as broad as its state lines suggest. I especially liked Amanda Petrusich’s commentary on the extreme localness of Screw’s reign – and here I am being partisan – in Houston’s rap scene, shortly before the internet blew the world wide open and, as she says, offered

more opportunity for cross-pollination, but less opportunity for the kind of place-specific identity-making that Screw wrought for Houston. The membranes are too permeable now.

Other highlights, for me, included the quirky perspective in Rachel Monroe’s “That Drifting Place,” where she examines Roy Orbison through the lens (excuse the pun) of his iconic dark glasses. “Texas Calling”, by Joe Ely as told to Alex Rawls, was a fun one to read: a bunch of recollections about playing with the Clash – with no real plot to hold them together, but it felt all the more like realistic recollecting that way. A very short piece of fiction by Bret Anthony Johnson provided an interesting departure – I don’t recall any fiction in the Georgia Music Issue. And I was thrilled to read Aaron Alford’s interview with Amanda Shires. She says,

When I bring people there [West Texas], they find it very odd, but they eventually love it. It’s unique in the way that it looks, and the people are so hospitable there, friendly. You have to be if you’re in a place that has a lot of prairie dogs.

Which is perfect, of course, and funny, and I can just hear it in her sweet drawl.

All in all? A different piece of work than the Georgia version was. Another very fine cd, more good writing, and again I learned a lot. Keep ’em coming.

Rating: 8 outlaws.

Fourth Genre, volume 18, number 1 (spring 2016)


I began this issue of Fourth Genre feeling a little underwhelmed. But I finished impressed, and intrigued. My personal reactions to these essays ranged widely. Some of them just let me down. I read a prizewinning essay that struck me as more interesting in its clever format than in its content; and I felt the same about several of the essays that followed. I gave up on an essay that felt increasingly weighted down by academic, philosophical wordiness. I was frustrated by another that characterized travelers as trying in vain to make themselves more interesting: this writer recommends “an hour-long excursion to the public library” and the purchasing of souvenirs “in your own living room, never having changed out of your pajamas” over real-world experiences. Now, I heartily recommend visiting your public library regularly. But I felt that this writer missed an important point, that some of of us have profound experiences by visiting in person places outside of our daily geographic routine. Of course, this is merely a personal reaction, as they all are.

Some left me a little ambivalent. “Recapitulation Theory” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson struck me. I’m not sure it holds together as a whole for me; but at many points throughout I was fascinated (and not least by the narrator’s role as librarian). The contributor bios indicate that this is part of a larger project, which makes perfect sense. I appreciated the tortoise trivia, and the emotion, in Lawrence Lenhart’s “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go: A Carapace in 37 Parts”; but I regretted the on-the-page formatting of text wrapped around carapaces and scutes. I found it distracting – it made reading more challenging – and didn’t feel it added anything that more traditional block formatting of graphics wouldn’t have accomplished.

On the other hand, I found some gems. “Sixteen Forecasts” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade was another playfully formatted essay but one I enjoyed more. And I am intrigued by the two authors: how did they put this together? I want to know. “Light” by Kathryn U. Hulings is a powerfully feeling narrative about the trauma of a suffering, self-destructive loved one. Mimi Dixon’s “Anesthesia” is, again, a more traditionally formatted essay but one with more to say. Rachael Perry’s “The Sand Dunes: An Elegy” is scarcely a page long, but deeply lovely and evocative. Jane Bernstein’s “The Incident in My Park” is an electric, disturbing story – that is, a narrative. Not that it’s done entirely straightforwardly. There are time jumps; there is musing. But perhaps what I’m finding here is a preference for narratives (a la Creative Nonfiction). With “Brother Sammy,” Deborah Thompson is a little more subtle in building the narrative that frames her reflections, but in this lovely, short essay, she made me think, and this was another successful piece for me.

And then came the highlights of the journal, beginning with “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter” by Katherine E. Standefer. She uses a decidedly nontraditional format, something I quibbled with earlier in the journal; but this one worked so cleanly for me. I was aware of the form (footnotes, in this case, and with the relationships between source and note often unclear), but it didn’t get in the way of what I was reading: a personal history in snippets, engrossing and moving throughout. And then! “Animalis” is followed by Standefer’s essay about the essay, “Breaking the Body: On the Writing of ‘Animalis’.” This was the perfect choice for a piece about the piece, both because of its unusual form and because of the story of how it came to be: in a word, slowly. I was captivated! And the loveliness of her lines crosses over to the craft piece, in which she writes

The reference list of our bodies? It is both broken and gorgeous. The shards, glinting light, became the essay’s wrestle.


I learned that an unruly essay, controlled by the reins of voice, will hold its readers and deliver them somewhere new.

Things continued to solidify for me, to make sense and to make enjoyable reading, as the journal proceeded with craft essays. After Standefer’s essay and commentary came Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas with “The Peach Orchard” and “On ‘The Peach Orchard’,” which totally drew me in as well: she writes about La Violencia in Colombia in very complex ways using several narratives. I was impressed, and her commentary was equally engrossing. Dawn S. Davies writes “Disquiet and the Lyric Essay” in which we learn a lot about the writer (voice!) as well as consider some questions about what makes an essay ‘lyric.’ The book reviews that follow struck me more as responses to books than reviews of them (although I enjoyed the playful review of Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy). In an “Inter-Review” with Wendy S. Walters (in which they discuss each other’s new books), Michael Martone says he

think(s) of publishing as more like political organizing than the gatekeeping of taste and promoting something as “good” or “bad.”

which I found an interesting thought.

All in all, I found immersion in this lit journal a thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating, somewhat challenging reading experience. It’s yielded more reading: I have a play, a song, an essay and a blog post now queued up from references in this issue. I enjoyed some of the writing very much, and some of it wasn’t for me; but that’s the world, and that’s okay. It seems that Fourth Genre appreciates nontraditional formats almost for their own sake, and I’m not sure my tastes run in quite the same way, but there is much here to like. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Rating: 7 hermit crabs.

Oxford American, issue 91: Georgia Music Issue (winter 2015)

When I bought this magazine (I think it was at Elliot Bay in Seattle), my thinking went like this: lit mags; Oxford American for sure; ooh, this one has a cd; ooh, Southern music; sold. (The cover indicates that this is a “Southern music” issue. I was slow to find the Georgia-specific bit, but not disappointed.) I don’t know if it was before or after I bought it that I found the Drive-by Truckers track on the cd, but either way. I already owned this track, naturally!, but it was a good sign.

ox-am-winter-15It took me many months to get around to opening this slick cover, but I always knew I was in for a treat. The first content is a write-up of the 25-track cd: a few paragraphs for each, introducing (or reviewing) artist & song, and its place in Georgia music history. I put on the cd (see major digression below) and was blown away, over and over. Just to show how things circle back: track 3 is Larry Jon Wilson’s “Ohoopee River Bottomland,” recorded in the making of Heartworn Highways. When Husband and I saw the movie, this was one of the tracks we came away remembering. And now, thanks to Oxford American, we own that one, too.

Digression: I got into a little debate recently with Husband and Mom about the word ‘album.’ As my memory has it, they both maintained that ‘album’ refers rightly to a vinyl record, and that we misuse it for compact discs (or whatever) in the same way that we say we ‘dial’ and ‘hang up’ telephones that no longer do such things. I argued that ‘album’ refers to a collection of works, put into an order and released as a single piece, and that it correctly refers to vinyl, cds, cassette tapes, or what-have-you. (For what it’s worth, Merriam-Webster and the Google base page agree with me.) At any rate, this discussion had me thinking about how an ‘album’ (in whatever form) used to be reliably received in the way it was released: you played a record straight through, the songs in their intended order, and the same with a cassette tape. With a cd, you could skip, go straight to the hit single you wanted. And now, in the era of iTunes (which is, at least, what Husband and I use), we dump the cd into the program and put it into a mass shuffle. These days I rarely listen to an album as a single unit with all its tracks in order. I reliably skip the ‘secret songs’ (remember those?) because all that silence makes no sense out of context; so I hit ‘forward.’ What place does a concept album even have in this medium? Of course, I realize there are folks out there who listen to music in all sorts of ways: some remain loyal to vinyl, some to cassette tapes, some to Pandora or even (I guess?) FM radio. But for me, when I opened this magazine and put this album on – in order – it was a revelation, an important reminder to take an album as it comes to me before hitting ‘shuffle all.’ (Digression complete.)

The point is that this musical collection and accompanying text was an extra-special treat and an education for me. Happily, as I post this, you can still buy this issue of the mag – and its included cd – here. DO IT. And enjoy the work of James Brown, the Truckers, OutKast, Otis Redding, Ma Rainey, Gram Parsons, Indigo Girls, Elf Power, the Allman Brothers, and more. Killer Mike’s untitled track 8 is one I really like.

I was so overcome by admiration for this album and the careful storytelling that came with it, that I took a little break before entering the rest of the magazine. In all, it took me a full week to read; but it was a week of enjoyable, thoughtful moments.

The whole issue is devoted exclusively to Georgia music, and I found this immersion really stimulating. I learned a lot more about the artists featured on that cd (and went back for another listen with better context), and about so many more. Blind Willie McTell, Johnny Mercer, Black Tusk, Hermon Hitson, Benjamin, the Rock*A*Teens, Little Richard, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Bessie Jones, Dave Prater, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Ray Stevens, Fletcher Henderson, the Dungeon Family, Sharon Jones, the story of Cabbagetown (referenced in the great Truckers’ song, “The Living Bubba”), and the collecting and archival work of Lance and April Ledbetter: the list goes on. I learned more about Killer Mike, listened to some more tracks, and ordered some albums. Kiese Laymon’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” hit me hard, both as a piece of communication and information, and as a piece of art. It took me a minute to figure out where I’d read this essay before: it also appears in The Fire This Time. I may have benefited from two readings, and you will too. Of course I can’t fail to mention the essay written by Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) about Vic Chesnutt. Patterson never fails to impress, whether writing words to music or words on the page.

I even loved several of the included poems (always a little harder for me, as you know): particularly A.E. Stallings’s “The Summer Archivist” and Chelsea Rathburn’s “Elegy for an Accordian.” (The latter is spelled that way in this issue, which is not the typical spelling of ‘accordion,’ but is this an artistic vision, or a sic?)

I wasn’t always thrilled with the design decision to sometimes start the next article one column over, on the same page, from the end of the last; I felt that this distracted from the firm feeling of finish I wanted, that moment of pausing to reflect. For example, Elyssa East’s “Nudie and the Cosmic American” about Gram Parsons and Nudie Cohn ends on page 39 and, I felt, deserved a full top, but instead flows right into Greg Reish’s article about the Skillet Lickers.

There is no arguing with the breadth and immensity of this issue’s content. I’m amazed at the range of experts, and the music of their voices in writing. I had to stop and consider several insights and thoughtful issues. Take these lines about the ways in which physical infrastructure and environmental racism have impacted a music scene.

Today, there is little to be found of Atlanta’s colorful r&b scene. The construction of three interstate freeways in the late 1960s permanently splintered many of the city’s thriving black neighborhoods, which were further decimated by the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Georgia Dome, and Turner Field. Mercedes-Benz Stadium–future home of the Falcons–has cut off access to downtown Atlanta via Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the west side, which is predominantly populated by African Americans. You can still walk by the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue, with its vintage marquees, though the historic venue is merely a shell of its former self.

(from “With All Their Heart and Soul” by Brian Poust)

Simply put, again, I learned a lot. And the writing was, if not always then nearly always, extraordinary.

But I’m supposed to be reading these lit journals, at least in part, to study their forms and contents from an artistic perspective, and not only enjoying the reading experience. Obviously, when I forget to read as a writer, the work is effective. This was thought-provoking and beautifully crafted reading. That said, I did notice a few times when the writing got a little uneven. Overall, though, this is a deeply impressive issue of Oxford American, and the first thing I did when I finished reading it cover-to-cover, before writing this, was to buy a two-year subscription. (I am expecting this year’s music issue to come!!) Obviously recommended.

Rating: 9 shape notes.

Harvard Review, number 46 (2014)

My resolution to read a lit journal every Tuesday has gone a little bumpily so far. It’s a busy life. But I try!

harvard-review-46The Harvard Review is one of the fatter lit journals I’ve got on the shelf, at 236 pages, so I took a survey of its contents rather than reading every word. I made sure not to miss any essays or visual art; and I read the longish short story (they’re calling it a novella) by Ann Pancake.

I started with the editor’s note at the front, which I appreciated for its brevity and content – Christina Thompson is not an editor who runs on to hear her own words. She noted the odd synchronicity of two essay submissions (both included in this issue) that visit the fish collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology; likewise two essays about psychoanalysis; the pleasure of publishing young writers; Pancake’s novella; and the departure of the Review‘s managing editor.

Among my favorite pieces was one of the ichthyological essays, “Remembering That Life” by Hannah Hindley, a braided essay circling the short life of a goldfish named Ishmael and a larger tragedy in the author’s world. I loved how widely it ranged, and yet how cohesive it finished. Next, Karen E. Bender’s “Two Entrances,” about her decades-long relationship with her psychoanalyst, sort of entranced me: it’s about that relationship and the services rendered, and about the questions we ask of relationships generally, I think. I enjoyed the window into Bender’s difficulties with anxiety as well as the interpersonal issues. I am always drawn to stories about people relating to people.

The partner piece to Bender’s, perhaps (though not intended as such by either writer), is Eli Mandel’s “Analysand,” also about his psychoanalysis, which however goes rather differently; the patient (or analysand) has a very different set of problems, related to how he expresses himself or recognizes himself, and that comes through in this written piece in a clever way.

Adam Fuss’s visual arts submissions, his ‘photograms,’ were intriguing to me, and I think came out the best of all the visual art in this issue (subjective!) in black-and-white. There were definitely some paintings that I think were probably poorly served by black-and-white; I wonder if the artists were aware… I am always on thin ice when considering visual arts, so, grains of salt. But I enjoyed studying Fuss’s work.

And finally, best for last: Ann Pancake’s long short story “In Such Light” was absolutely captivating, and my favorite of this issue (with Bender’s essay in second place). I’ve only heard of Ann Pancake recently, from my new writing friends at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her writing is solidly rooted in her place, which is West Virginia. This story follows Janie, who is struggling with the transition from high school to college, dissatisfied with her small-town life, and unsure about where to place her dreams. I love the details of life in her place, and the difficulties and rewards of her close relationship with mentally disabled Uncle Bobby. The story is tense throughout, and completely immersive; I felt like I was coming up for air at the end. What a talent.

Pancake’s story was perhaps the only thing I read (and I didn’t read the whole journal) that didn’t feel rooted in Harvard and its region. So one observation about the Harvard Review is that it has a moderate-to-strong regional focus, but not exclusively. That said, you may have to be Ann Pancake to break out of the East Coast thing.

Great reading, no question.

Rating: 8 themed pairs.

Granta, issue 133: What Have We Done (autumn 2015)

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was.

So begins Barry Lopez’s short essay on how to really observe, entitled “The Invitation.”

granta 133
This is only one of the fine pieces I read in Granta‘s issue 133, titled “What Have We Done.” Ann Beattie’s short fiction “Lady Neptune” was haunting and vibrant, and a collection of photographs by Helge Skodvin of taxidermists interacting with their work was weirdly intriguing. (I found Audrey Niffenegger’s introduction to those photos less dynamic.) “The Hand’s Breadth Murders,” one of the longer pieces, by Adam Nicolson and with photos by Gus Palmer, really captured my interest: it’s an investigative story about the murders in the MaramureČ™ province of Romania over teeny-tiny parcels of land. These killings have increased dramatically since the revolution of 1989 and the land claims cases that followed. It’s a complicated story: pick up your copy of Granta 133 here to learn more.

I also enjoyed the disturbing short story “George and Elizabeth” by Ben Marcus very much – it’s left me wondering. And “Fragments” from the notebooks of Roger Deakin, introduced by Robert Macfarlane. Check out Deakin’s words on trees:

We live in symbiotic association with trees – they are an intimate part of all our lives. We eat of them, open and shut them to go in and out of our houses and bedrooms. We play cricket with them, we sail the seas with them and row boat races with them. We eat our daily bread on them, we warm ourselves before them at the hearth, we sit on them, play croquet with them, canoe rivers in them, grow runner beans up them, build sheds and shacks out of them, sit underneath their shade in summer, reading books or picnicking, read them every morning on the train to work or borrow them from the library.

In between these pieces I enjoyed are others, that you might like even better.

I knew Granta by reputation, of course, but now I’ve confirmed that this is a journal of high quality. It won’t be easy to get into, naturally: this issue includes a number of “names.” But I’ll keep reading.

Rating: 8 details.

The Believer, issue 113: Chippy (fall 2015)

A little background: I’m working on developing as a reader and a writer, and approaching another graduate degree, this time in creative writing. As part of that process, I’m trying to read more literary journals. This is something we’re told to do if we want to get published by those journals, both to familiarize ourselves with what individual publications like and seek, and to support them. Over the course of six months or so, I’ve done a decent job of acquiring a bunch of print issues, but not such a great job of reading them. This summer, my resolution is to read a journal every Tuesday.

I don’t expect I’ll be writing about every one, but those I appreciate should certainly get a little space here at pagesofjulia. And that’s why I’m writing about The Believer today.

believer113The format is a little different. The table of contents is on the back cover, rather than in the first few pages. One element, the interview with Sheila Nevins (of HBO Documentary Films), is presented in pieces – “microinterviews” – spread throughout the issue. There are very few ads, and The Believer is printed on heavier, off-white paper, with nearly cardstock-weight covers. I’m sorry I don’t know the terms for these paper characteristics, but it’s got a nice feel in the hand. Oh, wait, here it is (from the website):

Each issue is perfect-bound and 128 pages, printed by friendly Canadians on recycled, acid-free, heavy-stock paper and suitable for archiving, framing in a very thick frame, or reading in the tub.

And despite the title, it’s got nothing to do with religion, or anything like that.

Also from the website, The Believer is

a bimonthly literature, arts, and culture magazine. In each issue, readers will find journalism and essays that are frequently very long, book reviews that are not necessarily timely, and interviews that are intimate, frank, and also very long.

In other words, overwhelmingly nonfictional and unafraid to go on a bit. I found the writing consistently very fine, and the widely-ranging subjects consistently fascinating. This is, in short, a magazine I want to read regularly. I am less sure that there is a place for my own writing on these pages (and if that’s self-centered, recall my original motivation in reading lit mags regularly), but that’s okay. I like finding good reading – obviously.

As to timing, I will note that the website still shows this issue, from Fall 2015, as the current issue. So I wonder a bit about their bimonthly-ness.

The highlights of issue 113, for me, included:

  • Kea Krause’s “What’s Left Behind,” about the nasty environmental disaster of a flooded copper mine on the edge of Butte, Montana. This piece made me think of Robert Michael Pyle, and hope that they know about one another.
  • Daniel Handler’s “What the Swedes Read,” a column in which he’ll read one book by each Nobel Laureate – this time, The Sovereign Sun by Odysseus Elytis, trans. by Kimon Friar. Handler’s often confused reading of these allusive poems, with frequent research digressions (“Out of my way, poem! I’m trying to understand you! Surely my loopy research was a disservice to poem and reader alike.”), really spoke to me and summed up some of my problems with poetry.
  • Ross Simonini’s interview with Miranda July finally got me really intrigued by this woman I’ve heard about here and there: now I want to check out her novel, The First Bad Man. Also, I was wowed by Simonini’s question, when July mentions that some of her early work embarrasses her: “Embarrassing because it wasn’t done well, or because it revealed something?” That is an exemplary interviewer: quick on his feet with an insightful question I wish I’d asked.

I’m excited to have discovered The Believer. I hope the missing issues of 2016 turn up, and I hope I can find the time to make this part of my regular reading.

Rating: 8 articles long enough to get lost in.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 57: Making a Living (fall 2015)

I had a dream that the next issue came and I had not yet reviewed this one. It was stressful. So, I’d better get to it…

CNF-57-Cover-WebcropThe “Making a Living”-themed issue of Creative Nonfiction is as good as ever. (You can read my review of the previous issue here.) And as ever, I have a few favorites. First of all, Ned Stuckey-French’s opening essay “Required Reading” tells of his reliance on Studs Terkel’s Working to inform his work as a union organizer: a communist college graduate, he’d faked a resume that made him look like an appropriate hire as a hospital janitor, leaving off his studies at Harvard and Brown. Terkel’s interviews with “real” working people helped the young activist place himself somewhat within a world of blue-collar workers, where he didn’t really belong. It’s an essay about disillusionment, the value of reading & writing, and yes, work.

Jennifer Niesslein explores why we write for free (some of us; many of us) in “The Price of Writing.” This is a complicated one, of course, and I think it’s important to note that the ability to write for free is a luxury afforded by some financial security. The writer she quotes as saying “I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent” (Nate Thayer, in New York magazine) has a fine point. Niesslein responds that “it can’t be about the money, at least not entirely.” I guess the implication is that if it’s going to be entirely about the money, then you need a day job.

But those are just the introductory pieces, responding to the theme in their own ways. Of the essays about making a living, I think my favorite has to be Kevin Haworth’s “Vivaldi,” which links the musicians who played in the orchestras at Auschwitz to the writer’s son, a passionate budding violinist for whom, happily, music will not be a matter of life and death. It is a powerful piece because of the high stakes of the historical thread, and the emotions in the current one, not to mention the larger issues that will continue to link the two. I also really appreciated Beth Tillman’s “Unleaving,” in which she discusses her career as an estate planning attorney, chosen because of her lifelong anxiety about death. I like the slightly different format she uses, and I empathize with her interest in end-of-life issues, and the day-to-day difficulties she relates.

I also continue to be distracted by both the story and the style of “No Exit,” by Karen Gentry. I will just share what Lee Gutkind wrote in his “What’s the Story?” editor’s column:

…Karen Gentry takes a temp job at a company that helps fired executives find new jobs. Part of her job involves giving Meyers-Briggs tests, and the story tells us a great deal about the corporate world and the way people in it can be reduced to types. But that’s also not at all what the story is about. (To tell you more would be to ruin it.)

I’ll leave it at that, as he did. It is a very fine essay.

Finally, “Tiny Truths” is always a treat: tweets using the tag #cnftweet will be considered for this ongoing contest, which features the best 140-character true stories on a revolving basis. I like that they choose not the flowery, poetic ones – that attempt too much language – but the ones that tell devastating or funny stories very, very simply.

Creative Nonfiction is always filled with greatness. You can read some of the content, or better yet, buy this issue here – or by all means consider a subscription. I don’t do much magazine reading because I’m so busy with BOOKS but this one is always worth my time, a gift in the mailbox.

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