reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

You’ll recall that I really loved this book when I read it in 2013. (First review here.) I reread it recently as part of my first semester reading list (see new tag here, many entries to come!). Students’ reading lists are individual, created by the student and faculty advisor together, so Katie Fallon and I came up with my list as a team.

couchI loved this book again. Havel Kimmel’s mother is far from perfect; she struggles to hold herself together and care for her children and family in a way that her society deems correct; she appears ill-kempt. But in the course of this book, in Kimmel’s youth, she also learns how to drive a car (and buys herself one), enrolls in college and goes on to graduate school, gets a job as a teacher, and goes through a divorce. She struggles, but she keeps it together, accomplishes these large goals, and as this book’s existence shows, her youngest daughter loves her very much through it all. In other words, she’s our favorite kind of hero: challenged, imperfect, but eventually victorious against long odds.

So, a great story. But more than a great story, because Kimmel also presents it cleverly, with enormous humor (even when terrible things happen, like fifth-grade Kimmel’s double compound fracture with shattered bone extruding through the skin) and the kind of detail that makes the whole thing alive to her readers without ever feeling overloaded with descriptions. How does she do it? This is what I’m here to learn on this read. Because my stories are only as great as they are – I can’t control that part – but I can control how I tell them.

I’m still learning this kind of reading, how to read for the craft, to take it apart and see how it works. But here are some things I see:

  • Kimmel’s book is about her mother. The title and Preface make that clear. But many chapters hardly mention her, or don’t mention her at all. Much of Kimmel’s story characterizes mom Delonda without even touching on her. Who she married, what her children and family do when she’s not around, where she isn’t – all these things serve the development of Delonda, which I think is really cool.
  • Kimmel is hilarious. (Here, I don’t have much hope for myself; I’m afraid I’m missing that funny bone…) In the incident I mentioned above, the double compound fracture etc., she uses a totally hilarious doctor to add much of the humor in that scene. Was her doctor really that hilarious? I don’t know. Maybe she was gifted a comic doctor; or maybe she knew how to write his dialog to play that up.
  • Her POV rarely departs from that of the child she was in each scene. She stays in the past tense, but her conclusions, what she sees and what it means to her, stay in character. This often yields humor, because her audience knows more than her narrator does. It can yield poignancy in a way that is just honest without being precious. And it plays up the few moments when adult Kimmel comments on her past: these are rare enough that we pay extra attention.
  • A few chapters take unusual formats. There are lists; a transcript of an audio recording; rules of a game she plays with her friends. This kind of formal play (that is, playing with form) can be dangerous – it can distract, or call attention to itself, as in ‘look how clever I am’ – but I think it serves her well here. For one thing, it’s used sparingly. For another, the formats really do feel like they contribute to the narrative she wants to tell. I think a transcript of an audio recording is a great idea, because it’s in the moment. It’s real.
  • I spent some time focusing on the short chapter “Brother” that biographies her much older, and therefore mostly absent brother Dan. It’s a little bit of a departure from the rest of the book, in tone as well as subject, and I found it a charming encapsulated profile.

This is just the beginning of what I have to learn from Kimmel. Exciting, right? If you haven’t read her work yet, you obviously have my recommendation. I love everything she’s written, in fact, as you can see here.

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.


Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas

safekeepingThis book has been recommended to me several times, and now I can see why. It’s a memoir, covering most of Thomas’s life and emphasizing her three marriages and children, especially her second husband who died years after their divorce. But it’s a memoir in fragments. It doesn’t try to be comprehensive, which is a wise choice, since we can never tell all of a life, perhaps least of all our own (hmm). Instead, she gives us a number of crystalline scenes or anecdotes, which together paint a picture, necessarily incomplete but rich.

Thomas’s language is rich, too, lyrical and tangible in its sensory detail, but also rooted in the dirty and the everyday. These details can be sublime, but often aren’t the ones we’d think of when seeking the sublime: “Watermelon rind. Styrofoam. Broken clocks and chair legs.” Mattress shopping, table settings, sawdust on a rug. Chapters shift perspective, using first, second and third person POVs. In the second person, Thomas directly addresses her late second husband. I found it interesting to examine her choice of POV throughout the book and its effect: that second-person addressed to a specific person feels the most intimate, especially since the reader knows that that specific person is absent. Third person feels most remote, and she often uses it when (I interpret) she needs distance from her subject.

Safekeeping is a slim book, easy to read in one sense: you could flash right through it and walk away with a sense of Thomas’s personal history. There is plenty to sink into, though, too, and those may be the best kind.


Rating: 8 apple cakes.

Bonus: here’s a look at my semester’s reading, now that I have it all compiled. Hints of what’s to come!

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.

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Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan Céspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2017 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: 8 red gladiolas.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Again for school, I am reading Katie Fallon’s first memoir (she has Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird forthcoming from University Press of New England in March 2017). I look forward to meeting her in just ten days or so! This is not an assigned book; I’m reading it by choice to get to know her a little better.

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Her opening lines read,

I stepped onto the tarmac in Bucaramanga, a city of more than five hundred thousand people in northeastern Colombia, and blinked in the fierce October sun. Black vultures lazily circled in the clear blue sky overhead, and swallows chittered to each other as they cut and dove above the Avianca jets idling on the runway.

I like that birds appear in the first two lines, since it is a bird that brings Fallon to these pages. The cerulean warbler does not appear so quickly; that’s a large part of the point of the book. I also enjoy the very full picture she paints in these few lines. Glad to be here with her.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton

This personal history of Canada’s craft beer movement, from a distinctive and accomplished participant, amuses as well as instructs.

brewing-revolution

Books on craft beer and the craft beer movement abound, and readers may feel underwhelmed at the prospect of another. But Frank Appleton’s memoir, Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement, is different. For one, his focus is on British Columbia, rather than the much-discussed scene in the United States. And Appleton’s unapologetic, lively personality communicates a story both personal and national, even global, in scope. Brewing Revolution also expands into an impassioned indictment of mass-market adjunct lagers, as well as a manual for the next generation of brewers.

Appleton, a native of Manchester, England, applied his studies in microbiology to food science and later, after immigrating to Vancouver, B.C., to brewing. His science background, appetite for innovation and uncompromising insistence on quality in food and drink led him through an unplanned but inspired career. He began in one of Canada’s “Big Three” brewing conglomerates, where he developed a scorn for adjunct ingredients (or “added junk”) like corn, rice and corn syrup, where traditional, quality brews use only malted grains like barley.

Retiring in frustration to a cabin in the woods, he learns that an article he’d written comparing adjunct lagers with “tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger,” and calling for a do-it-yourself response, has drawn the attention of an ambitious pub owner. From there, Appleton’s career as a consultant begins. After helping to open the first craft brewery in Canada–which required lobbying for a change in legislation–he consults on the design and launches of dozens of new breweries in Canada, several in the United States and one in France. Along the way, he trains new brewers, invents new equipment and creatively tackles problems in brewing-related architecture, physics, sanitation, welding, human resources and more.

While Appleton is occasionally acerbic in railing against brewing practices and certain former employers, he stops short of bitterness. This distinctive voice may be off-putting for some, but his readers will likely share his disdain for adjuncts and his passion for the details of malt, hops, yeast and water. Enjoying the irreverence of Appleton’s fervent campaigning, craft beer fans will find his character amusing, quirky and sympathetic.

Brewing Revolution tells the story of a country’s craft beer movement and of the author’s life work, but it doesn’t stop there. In his enthusiasm, Appleton can’t help but offer troubleshooting advice for ambitious brewers, and a healthy review of brewing techniques, including the niceties of equipment, yeast cultivation and malting. Humorous asides include Appleton’s dodging of U.S. customs agents and his exasperation with the hired help in Lyon, France. As a history of a movement and a personal memoir brimming with zeal, Brewing Revolution is educational, entertaining and, perhaps most of all, thirst-inducing.


This review originally ran in the November 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 liters.

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Extra-long review for an extra-interesting work; thanks for hanging in there.


My buddy Tassava sent me this book.

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I featured its book beginning, so we all know that it begins in Guantánamo. That fact is perhaps a little misleading, though. Let me explain.

drawing-bloodDrawing Blood is a memoir by Molly Crabapple, a visual artist who has created posters, comics, illustrations and murals; her favorite medium is ink, and she tends toward highly detailed, lush, saturated work. Among her influences are Where’s Waldo? and Toulouse-Latrec. (My attempt to encapsulate, not hers; and encapsulation will always fall short, anyway.)

This is her life story: from childhood, which she rather hated for its helplessness, to world travel, various forms of naked modeling and activism for sex workers, a long struggle to make it as an artist, a political awakening, and a more or less successful (and ongoing) artistic career. She has done a laundry list of strange, improbable and brave things, from living on a bunk in Paris’s storied Shakespeare & Company bookstore, to organizing and event promotion in New York City’s elitist art scene (she founded Dr. Sketchy’s), to covering Occupy Wall Street, London and Greece street protests, and, yes, Guantánamo, with her pen and ink: that is, as a journalist as well as a visual artist. Part of my criticism with her opening lines is just this: she’s done so much odd and impressive stuff that she didn’t need the sensationalism. Also, by the time she makes it to Guantánamo in her book’s final 20 pages, we can feel the story wrapping up. (She’s still a young woman. I just mean that the book wraps up. Her life is going strong.) The Guantánamo storyline is just a snippet at the end; the meat of the thing happens elsewhere, so I felt the opening lines were misleading in a few ways. And ultimately, they sell short what all else she has to say.

That was a long tangent. Let me start over: I really enjoyed this book. Molly Crabapple (a chosen name, not the one she was born with) is a large personality. She had big ideas from a young age. She traveled Paris, Spain and Morocco alone as a teenager. Her emotions loom large, resulting in entanglements and the inevitable hurt feelings; but she lives, sucks all the marrow of life, et cetera. Once we got out of that odd and contextless glass cage at Guantánamo, I remained spellbound for the book’s entire length.

Tassava did not have an entirely positive experience, though. He writes,

Molly Crabapple’s memoir of living on the rough edges of American society in the early 21st century is full of engrossing stories of sex work and social protest, of pointed critiques of the haves by a have-not, and of incredible drawings, both journalistic and artistic. But I (admittedly, a fairly square, middle-aged white guy) thought that the memoir was overall too eager to shock and to scold and too reticent to draw satisfying conclusions about her own life at the micro level and about America as the macro level. Perhaps I am sinning by critiquing the book I wanted or expected to read instead of the book as written. But I don’t think that Drawing Blood delivers on her promise, or her capacity, to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.

As I see it, some of Crabapple’s central points include… the difficulties of being a woman, including the enormous extent to which our bodies precede us and we struggle to be heard over them; the difficulties of making it as an artist without funds, expanded to the difficulties of making it as anything without funds; global economic injustice; and the beauty of art and love. I found her most articulate on the issues that were specific and personal – for example, how women are treated by men, based on her own experiences – and a little less so on the economy of Greece in 2011. By which I mean, she’s only human. And she articulates the difficulty of documenting Greek financial breakdown as an individual woman from the United States: she sees her shortcoming there, which for me to some extent excuses it. (She’s trying harder to understand these things than many of us are.) This memoir does use shock value to get our attention, to a degree. But I think Tassava is wise to acknowledge that mileage may vary: we are all shockable to different degrees, and I suspect I found a few of these details less shocking than he did (others maybe more so, who knows). To be clear, Crabapple has sexual affairs with both men and women, not all of them monogamous. There is no graphic description of the sex she has. There is plenty of discussion of the work of sex workers, and burlesque performances, some of which is described rather more graphically. Frankly, the only place where I felt she used sensationalism to her detriment was as mentioned, by opening with Guantánamo Bay.

In a word, I sort of feel like Tassava and I read the same book and reacted to it in two different ways – rather than feeling that we read two different books, which sometimes happens when two people disagree in their reactions. The only place he lost me a little is in regards to Crabapple’s promise “to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.” I guess I didn’t perceive that as a promise at all. I thought this was a memoir: one woman’s life story, with commentary on what she sees around her. Maybe it’s just that I sympathize with her inability to draw conclusions. I, too, find it easier to see what’s wrong than how to make it right.

And now I’ve ignored the visual aspect of this book for far too long. The text memoir is accompanied by Crabapple’s illustrations, some journalistic, as Tassava noted (illustrating what happened, rather than photographing it, which in some cases is impractical or disallowed, ahem Guantánamo), and much of it artistic. Unsurprisingly, since she’s now largely “made it” as an artist, her work is lovely: expert, detailed, realistic and stylized to different degrees, and clearly expressive of a personal style. Before her political interests took her farther out into a high-stakes real world, her subject matter tended toward the Victorian, fantastic, pin-up, or p0rn-ish. I freakin’ love it. (In fact, I’ve already purchased a print of one of the illustrations featured in this book. You can consider doing so here.) It bears noting that the illustrations here are necessarily smaller and thus have less room for fine detail than the large, intricate pieces that form her later work. What I found in the book served to tease me: I hope one day I get the chance to see some of her grander scale original art someday.

Tassava would like to note that he also loved the art: “Every illustration was great, and I too would love to see her work up close.”

I’ve also failed to note one of the more surprising achievements of this book: for all that Crabapple defines herself as a visual artist, her prose writing is startlingly crystalline, exact, probing and lyrical. “His letters were as fine as spiders. They looked like they might crawl away.” “The bar was blood dark, the walls covered with graffiti and band stickers glazed with beer.” “When I hung the drawings, they seemed like crude little things, staring back at me from the gallery’s walls. Feather-clad homunculi, malformed but proud.” “My step-mother saw me get off the school bus one day and described me as a little black smudge against the bucolic forest leaves.”

A fascinating strange story, an important if imperfect critique of one woman’s life and of the larger world: Drawing Blood is an honest effort gorgeously rendered. This book and its author are not perfect. Who is? I finished this book feeling like I’d made a friend, something only possible with human beings, not saints. The Molly Crabapple I felt like I came to know off these pages is vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal and loving, smart and stylish. I love her, and I love this book.


Rating: 8 nibs.
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