Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This stunning memoir with photos is a love letter from one sister to another, a celebration of language and a story of devotion and disaster.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick is a startling memoir, stylistically as well as in its content and in the unusual mind it reveals.

Amy and Zoe are very close. This is the defining feature of their young childhood and arguably beyond. The sisters grow up in Tulsa, Okla., where their mother worries over all the possible disasters in the world and their father teaches college. Then the younger sister, Zoe, has her first seizure, and their lives become dominated by seizures, hospitals, surgeries; the girls are both home-schooled from then on. A tutor, Sasha, comes in the afternoons to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian–the girls’ choices. Amy loves numbers and letters; she is entranced by the Cyrillic alphabet. Partly out of devotion to Sasha, she throws herself into this study with all her considerable will.

Zoe’s health continues up and down, while Amy’s academic achievements soar. She enters college at age 15, moving into the Honors House dorm, and this separation from her sister is both catastrophic and necessary. “Something new has begun to be erected between them, something like a wall, and on Zoe’s side it must stay safe, and on Amy’s side it can’t. Amy is responsible for repelling her sister as her sister tries to scale this wall.”

This memoir is told in a close third person from Amy’s perspective–that of Croft’s persona–and interspliced with photographs captioned by an ongoing direct address, apparently from Amy to Zoe in a later time. The snippets of text under these photographs offer meditations on words, clearly one of Amy’s passions: “For dozens of centuries, the word leave meant stay…. And a scruple was at first a pebble you couldn’t quite shake from your shoe.” The words accompanying the photos form a separate narrative thread, so that the book can be read cover to cover, or as two discrete stories. Amy is a photographer from a young age, and her younger sister is her chief subject, in ways that Amy does not yet understand.

Disjointed, sometimes heavy with foreshadowing, lush with a love for words and language, the dual narrative of Amy and Zoe’s intertwined lives and shared pain seems the right artistic choice for this twisting dual story. Among other threads or themes is the difficulty of translation, in its literal and more metaphoric meanings. “When you consider the plenitude of any word’s experience you might think all words are untranslatable.”

Homesick is astonishing in its emotional reach, its evocation of a child’s discovery and a young adult’s suffering and all the wonder of words. What is translatable is perfectly communicated here.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 letters.

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, because I was a preexisting Kingsnorth fan.


If I read nothing for a year and if I wrote nothing for a year, would I, could I, begin to clear away the scaffolding which language, written language, conceptual, abstract language, has built up around my poor right brain? Could I fend off the assault which logic, reason, empiricism, analysis has been raining on my inner poet all my adult life? Could I silence the watcher? Could I split the gauze?

(I would quote the entire first two pages to you if I could.)

Savage Gods is a raw piece of questioning nonfiction, an honest and open view into the soul of a writer at a loss for words and mission. Paul Kingsnorth has moved with his family to a home in rural Ireland, where he hopes to finally feel at home in a place, to finally belong. This plan has failed, and he is compelled to contemplate all the ways in which plans fail, and people–especially writers–especially Paul–fail to fit in, even when they think that’s what they really want. This wandering, seeking style of writing is one I especially love, and my feeling of kinship for Kingsnorth made it especially poignant to read these struggles. Also, let it be said that although he feels his words abandoning him, he’s written another remarkably articulate, lovely, moving book.

Kingsnorth pulls in the outside voices of D. H. Lawrence, Annie Dillard, Milan Kundera, a mythologist from Botswana named Colin Campbell, a Zen teacher named Charlotte Joko Beck, poets R. S. Thomas and W. S. Graham, cultural ecologist David Abram, American Indian activist Russell Means, Mark Boyle*, Bruce Springsteen, gods Loki and Buddha and Freya, and many, many more. He spends time with the tension between poets Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, which serves as metaphor for a tension within himself. “My inner Kavanagh is bloody-minded and self-destructive. It wants to strip away the world’s delusions and my own, detach from all notions, be joyful, have fun and do good work and screw the rest. My inner Yeats wants to go hunting for wandering Aengus in the Burren at dusk, prefers the inner flame to the outer ashes and is constantly disappointed that his imagined world is nothing like the real one.” I love the recruitment of other voices, all of these in conversation with Kingsnorth’s fine, inquiring, discerning mind, but it is still his voice that sits center stage.

Having moved to a small rural holding in Ireland, Kingsnorth thought he knew what he was doing, thought he was moving in the direction of his goals: to settle, to be rooted, to be self-sufficient, to be involved with the land, “to be closer to nature and further from the Machine,” to learn new skills, to be the best parent possible, and to write “truer books than I had ever written before.” Instead, he finds his relationship with the thing he does best–words, language, writing–troubled. He worries if language is not in fact part of the problem.

I would love to have access to a searchable electronic version of this book, and some statistics, because I suspect there are far more (literal) question marks in this than in most nonfiction books of similar length. (Not long, scarcely over 100 pages.) The narrator is constantly questioning; the mood of the book is best described as lost. Here, I took a short survey for you from over several pages:

But lessons don’t work like that, do they?… Can you have a concrete cottage?… I knew this, so why didn’t I know it?… What does that incident carry for me?… What would that be like? And could I have it?… What does a writer do when his words stop working?… Can you write from silence?

This is one of those wonderful works of nonfiction in which basically nothing happens but still it leaves my head spinning for days. It’s a beautiful, all-encompassing book, and it captures quite well the sense of nihilism and despair that can come of considering the state of our world; but it captures as well the thrush’s song, which is both joy and pressure: “My kids would just have heard him, reacted, and moved on, but I stood there listening rapt while, at the same time, berating myself for not having the kind of spontaneous experience of the thrush’s song that I wanted to have and I felt I ought to be able to have, especially if I was going to write books with thrushes’ songs in them.” I feel it deeply. I will follow this writer anywhere; I hope he is able to keep working, keep “wrangling that beast and then going down to make dinner for the kids.”


Rating: 8 red-tailed bumbles.

*Boyle wrote in The Way Home of meeting Paul at the pub for conversations of significance, and Paul reciprocates here, which I find strangely thrilling.

Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South by M. Randal O’Wain

Disclosure: Matt O’Wain is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


I was the son who left, after all, the boy who packed a bag and tramped back and forth across the country in place of stability, but what grounded my wanderlust was the belief that I was never too far from my childhood home, my loving parents. And though I had no right to lament the loss of [that childhood home], the act of boxing it all up or throwing it all out or driving it to Goodwill made me keenly aware that the home I’d been fleeing was the very foundation that allowed me to run.

M. Randal O’Wain’s first book is the essay collection Meander Belt, subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South.” But to me, it is at least as much about home, the competing human urges to settle and to flee, and a sense of belonging.

I said the competing human urges; but within this narrator, the clear winner is the urge to run. O’Wain is originally from Memphis, where his father Chris works as a carpenter and his mother Linda collects the detritus of other lives off curbs. She is a survivor of childhood polio, and sensitive about her distinctive gait. He is a man who values hard work, preferably the manual kind, and while he loves his sensitive younger son, he doesn’t understand him. Matt (as the young narrator is called) doesn’t see a place for himself in the world he’s born into. He idolizes his father, and his older brother, also named Chris, who follows neatly in the older man’s footsteps and fits into his value system: goes to work as a mechanic, steadily builds toward a home and a family, falls asleep alongside their father in front of the television in the evenings. But Matt, from a young age, feels driven to run. At sixteen, he runs away to Montreal; at eighteen, he moves with his band to Olympia, Washington. He has just moved to Oakland, California when his father dies. He has just (finally, improbably) settled down in southern West Virginia when his brother dies.

These are the losses that give Meander Belt its subtitle, and offer the essay collection a certain shape, but I don’t feel they define it. This is a mostly-chronologic memoir-in-essays, and it ranges beyond family and beyond home. The opening essay is an inspired choice: “Mirrored Mezzanine” briefly, beautifully shows the love of a young child for his father, whom he does not understand. “The Junk Trade” explores trauma, sex, and work. With “Thirteenth Street and Failing,” O’Wain considers death. In “Halfway Between,” he recognizes the importance of place and what we lose in the compromise that is growing up. “Memento Mori Part One” (of three) takes up nearly a third of the book; the other seventeen essays vary in length but none compare to this, the long story of a father’s decline and death. Subtitled “Calls in the Night,” one of the movements it charts is ironically a growing closeness between father and the son who moved away.

After three mementos mori, the collection sees O’Wain’s adult life settle in some ways, and several essays tend to sum up, where many earlier essays stuck more closely to narrative storytelling. The essays marking brother Chris’s death, and a new love with Mesha Maren (she of Sugar Run), fit this more expository model. This is not a criticism, though; as the subtitle promised, coming-of-age is the book’s work, and it feels appropriate to see O’Wain’s later years laid out only in service to the whole, if that makes sense. Also, let me note that the essays take various forms throughout; some are segmented with numbered sections, and “How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate” uses the second person.

I appreciate these essays because they are both narrative and essayistic, meaning that they search, seek, question, assay. I trust the narrator because he is so honest about his confusion, the ways in which he’s lost in the world, the ways he is surprised by life. This is a narrative voice with a grasp of the difference between the man or boy these events happened to and the writer telling them now, but even now, he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. I also appreciate a writer equally pleased to bring in the voices of Virginia Woolf, DC Comics, and Leonard Cohen to help him see his own life. These reference points serve as cultural markers but also as conversationalists as O’Wain interrogates the past.

I’m very pleased I got to read an advanced copy of this collection, which will be published October 1; look for my interview with O’Wain coming up at Shelf Awareness (and eventually here as well). Meander Belt is thoughtful, brave, and unflinching, and I think it’s a book for every reader who cares about real lives, whether they have much in common with O’Wain’s background or not.

Preorder here.


Rating: 8 cigarettes.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, trans. by Jeremy Leggatt

Jean-Dominique Bauby was in his early 40s and enjoying a career as editor in chief at French Elle magazine when he suffered a stroke and woke up, post-coma, with “locked-in syndrome”: he can only move one eye, and jiggle his head around a little. He writes this memoir – short at 132 pages, but still, extraordinary – by blinking his left eye at a friend who runs through the alphabet with him for every character in this book. That, alone, is astonishing.

But it’s also quite a good book. Chapters are short, episodic; language is often lovely, and not just descriptive. Where I expect someone in Bauby’s position to be bitter and melancholic, he is often nearly joyful, waxing about how he can go anywhere, taste anything in his mind.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.

In his imagination, he interacts playfully with the Empress Eugénie (his hospital’s patroness, who died in 1920); travels to New York, Hong Kong, Saint Petersburg; eats apricot pie, Alsatian sausage, or “a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter.” (He is fed through a stomach tube.) He is also often very blue, as in the chapter ‘Sunday’ about how excruciating that day can be when he has no visitors and his hospital carers are indifferent to their job. But we don’t blame him, do we.

Bauby has both a sense of humor and a sense of the sublime. He tells us that in using the alphabet process wherein a guest runs through letters (not in ABC order, but in order of their frequency of use in French), some are inclined to wait for him to conclude each word himself: “unwilling to chance the smallest error, they will never take it upon themselves to provide the ‘room’ that follows ‘mush.'” Others jump to conclusions, in a hurry for the next word. “Yet I understood the poetry of such mind games one day when, attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune).” Lovely. Or: before the stroke, Bauby had been contemplating writing a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo (fine book, that); now he finds it ironic that he is living the life of the character Grandpapa Noirtier, who also had locked-in syndrome. “As a punishment, I would have preferred to be transformed into M. Danglars, Franz d’Epinay, the Abbé Faria, or, at the very least, to copy out one thousand times: ‘I must not tamper with masterpieces.'” This is a narrator I like very much.

Lest that go too far, he’s not perfect, either. His relationship with his children and their mother, now that his world has so changed, is complicated by the fact that he had recently left them for another woman when he had his stroke.

This is a memoir with a heartbreaking human story at its core. Nothing much happens during the course of these pages – what has happened has already happened when it begins, although we do get a brief flashback version of the stroke itself, just at the end. (I suspect this question of sequence and not-happening will be Cynthia’s focus, in her upcoming seminar.) But the thoughts and feelings of this locked-in man are worthy of our attention, told as they are with careful focus, humor and humility, and a concern for language. Recommended.


Rating: 7 lucky days.

The Wild Boy by Paolo Cognetti

Best book of the year to date.


A city dweller returns to the mountains of his youth, and his gorgeous, reflective memoir is full of nature and humanity.

Having just turned 30, Paolo Cognetti (The Eight Mountains) felt restless and unfulfilled in the city of Milan. He missed his childhood summers–the first 20 years of his life–spent in the Italian Alps. Inspired by Thoreau’s Walden and the principled quest of Chris McCandless (subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild), he rented a renovated but rustic cabin alone in a village of ruins in a high alpine valley and undertook to learn what the mountains had to teach, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” After years of frustration, he hoped to write again.

The Wild Boy is a memoir of three seasons spent in that cabin, or, more accurately, spent hiking and exploring the mountains he remembered from when he was a boy–that wild boy he hopes to find again. The account opens briefly in winter, for background, as Cognetti makes his decision and locates his mountain home. Spring, summer and fall form the bulk of the story, which ends when he heads back down the mountain again: “I already knew all the dreams that I would have that winter.”

In the interim, Cognetti gets to know the local flora and fauna; briefly attempts a vegetable garden; studies other writers’ words; travels far and wide on foot; and makes new friends, human and otherwise. Thoreau writes of the pleasures of solitude, but this narrator finds he desires companionship–if they are the right companions. Two men in particular make strong impressions. His landlord, Remigio, is a creature of the mountains, with whom Cognetti literally makes hay. They share few life experiences, but quickly become fast friends, and Remigio turns out to suffer from writer’s block as well: “This was the story I had strayed into, hoping to find how to write again.” The other is an alpine shepherd named Gabriele, with whom Cognetti shares meals and wine. Gabriele will give him a gift at the end of their season together that Cognetti didn’t know he needed.

The Wild Boy has a lovely and profound story to tell about connections to land and history and one another. In seeking simplicity and a new start in his life, Cognetti rediscovers timeless truths about the human condition. In addition to the strength of its contents, this is a stunningly beautiful book. It is a slim volume whose simply titled chapters (Snow, Hay, Vegetable Garden, Neighbors) carry significant wisdom and weight. Cognetti’s prose is incandescent when writing about nature, about human history, about friendship and, perhaps most of all, about words: “That was why he had become such a voracious reader. He was looking for the words that would allow him to speak about himself.” For any reader who has wondered about the next step, loved a mountain or a book, struggled with writer’s block or stared in wonder into a forest, this astonishing memoir is necessary.


This review originally ran in the June 6, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 10 words.

Appalachia North: A Memoir by Matthew Ferrence

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


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

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

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

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

Okay, then.

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

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


Rating: 9 collection points.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Rating: 8 saws.
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