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.

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

Well, huh. This one didn’t age well. I thought a book about a much-loved dog, which has come to me so highly recommended, would be an obvious pleasure. I felt my first misgivings when reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s praise-packed introduction, in which she “derives much satisfaction” from a certain dog-shit-versus-cyclist episode.

The book is a cataloging of the life of Tulip, a not particularly well-behaved German shepherd. And it’s true that Ackerley has a knack for description and an ability to make me laugh at some of his characterizations and turns of phrase. But I ended up resenting his small victories of this sort, because in between he kept pissing me off. For one thing, his repeated statements about class were very off-putting. Now, I can allow the strong correlation between class and education in 1940s England, but that doesn’t mean he had to be so hateful about it. He makes some nasty comments about women-in-general, too, but my favorite is when he manages to combine the two: “Women are dangerous, especially women of the working class. It is always a mistake to ruffle them.”

I found this narrator to be highly unlikeable. He thinks his dog should shit where it pleases, including in the doorway of the local green-grocer’s shop (this precipitates his comment about working-class women), and you’re an asshole if you think otherwise. He thinks his dog Tulip should get to do absolutely anything she wants, and you’re an asshole if you think otherwise. He wants to have it both ways: his dog is a creature of nature and should be allowed to behave “naturally” wherever she wants (free-bleeding on a city bus, pooping in the grocery), but she’s also a much-loved pet who sleeps in his bed with him. I think you have to pick one, myself. I guess this makes me what Thomas calls a “dog fascist”…

And then there’s Tulip’s sex life. I was surprised (especially after Thomas’s introduction sums up the book very differently) to find that fully two-thirds of the book are occupied with this topic. Tulip is ‘unaltered’ – not fixed – and so she goes into heat twice a year. Ackerley is much worked up about this: he pities her unfulfilled needs, he wants her needs fulfilled (wants her to have sex and be a mommy), has trouble having her needs fulfilled, doesn’t want her needs fulfilled, cries and wails… he admires her beautiful swollen vulva and its pretty pink. It all got to feel very Freudian and weird to me, by page 100 or so of this. Also, the snobbery about breed: he wants her litter to be “pure,” wants her bred with nothing less beautiful than herself, and goes on about the evils of ‘mongrels.’ Again, I know that this was rather typical of Ackerley’s time (and class), but it reads poorly now. Of course, Tulip prefers a mutt (because she understands inbreeding much better than her upper-class human). Oh! and he intends to drown all of her female pups (females being undesirable, don’t you know), but finds himself regrettably unable to do this “reasonable thing.” Woe is him. Anybody still like this guy? No.

There were a few moments of humor here, but I spent most of my time angry. The best thing about this book was perhaps that it was short.


Rating: 3 dead puppies on your head, mister.

My Years with Townes Van Zandt: Music, Genius, and Rage by Harold F. Eggers Jr. with L. E. McCullough

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by its publicist in exchange for my honest review.


Over four months ago, a publicist wrote to me offering a copy of this memoir about Townes Van Zandt. Only in the last week or so when I finally got around to opening it did I realize the honor I’d received. I’m really grateful I got to read this one; and I’m honored that I was asked. Thanks, Jennifer.

Townes Van Zandt was a tortured genius and one of the finest troubadours this country has known. Harold F. Eggers Jr. was Townes’s road manager, business partner, and much more, for some twenty years. His memoir here (cowritten with L. E. McCullough, who has the writing experience) is very much about telling Townes’s story, but Eggers’s own life is well-represented, as well. I respect the format very much. The remarkable life of Townes Van Zandt clearly inspired the writing, and that’s the name that draws readers to the book. But Eggers has lived, as well, and I’m glad he’s present.

The book opens with the early years Eggers and Townes spent together, and then flashes back to a very brief telling of Eggers’s childhood and his service in Vietnam before he went to work for Townes (thanks to his big brother Kevin Eggers, who had previously worked with Townes and set up his veteran younger brother with a job to help him out). His tour in Vietnam plays a role in the rest of the story; Eggers credits the things he saw there with his ability to adapt to this wildness of sharing a hotel room with Townes, and believes his thrill-seeking and attraction to danger was about chasing something he’d seen in war. As a parallel, Townes had tried to enlist in the armed forces but been turned away because of the electroshock therapy he’d received as a teenager (also an enormous event in Townes’s life which would follow him forever). As Eggers tells it, Townes’s disappointment cast a long shadow.

There is everything here that a Townes fan wants: insider information, jokes and stories, and that enormous and overarching sadness that we feel in his songs. (Well, almost everything. We still don’t know much about Townes’s early life, pre-shock therapy, because he didn’t remember it, himself. This is a painful hole in the record, in my opinion. But Eggers couldn’t resolve it, and he’s right not to try. I sure wish someone had approached Townes’s parents while they were alive…) It’s a thorough telling of Townes’s final twenty years or so, as seen by Eggers, who does not claim to know what he wasn’t there to see; but the two men spent a lot of time together when on tour, often living as roommates even off the road. Eggers quotes Guy Clark: “Harold, how can you stay in the same room with Townes Van Zandt? You have been doign this for years, man. I’m his friend, too, but it would wear me out. How do you put up with it?” After years of reflection, Eggers is ready to say that growing up in a large family and later his military service gave him “the ability to routinize almost any sort of irrational behavior.” Eggers has his tricks: when Townes pitches fits in public and is on the brink of getting them arrested, Eggers tells him he needs to get onstage right now; this always works. He sees Townes sabotage recording sessions and huge live shows, and wishes the musicians in the studio only knew how to manage Townes the way he does.

As told here, the two have a symbiotic relationship. Eggers babysits and manages Townes, enabling the career he was able to have, however wracked and traumatized. But Townes helps Eggers mange his own demons, too. There’s a huge amount of love here. At the beginning and the end and in between, Eggers relates that Townes wanted this book to exist, and wanted to be sure it told the whole story, and not just the pretty stuff. “Tell the truth, no matter what… do not whitewash anything. Let all the ghosts and demons have their say.” Although Eggers’s love for Townes rings loud, I think he’s honored his friend’s wish, too.

This is one of the ways I want to contrast this book with another. Without Getting Killed or Caught, a recent biography of Guy Clark, was a rich source of information about Guy, one of Townes’s best friends. But it was too saccharine in its praise, didn’t let all the ghosts and demons have their say. Eggers did, and I appreciate him for that.

The style of My Years with Townes Van Zandt is straightforward, the writing style of a man with a story to tell, rather than that of a writer of craft and artistry. No complaints; Eggers’s voice comes through clearly, and I can feel his personality, and I hung on every word. But it’s a straight relating, and not a crafted piece of creative nonfiction. I’m a little surprised, since there was a ghostwriter involved, that it didn’t get a little more polish. But I’m not sorry.

One final detail before I tell you what an important read this is. Several appendices offer a thorough discography (and then some) and Eggers’s recording philosophy, for recording live shows (which have yielded such discography). The student of Townes’s music will be well-served: I know some of what I’m shopping for next.

For the Townes fan? An absolutely essential volume to keep and study. For the reader not so sure about Townes? An important look into the music industry of the 1970s-90s, at counterculture and American roots music, and at an artist you will soon become a fan of. Don’t miss this one.


Rating: for the sake of 8 songs.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence ed. by Michele Filgate

Diverse writers answer the title’s prompt with essays that are cutting, furious, delicate, generous and everything in between.

Literary Hub contributing editor Michele Filgate thought she was writing an essay about her stepfather’s abuse, but it turned out she was really writing about the relationship with her mother that allowed such abuse to continue. After years of work, her essay was eventually published by Longreads under the title “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” Readers and writers responded strongly, and Filgate’s piece now leads this astonishing anthology.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence follows that essay with a breathtaking range of responses. Filgate writes, “Mothers are idealized as protectors: a person who is caring and giving and who builds a person up rather than knocking them down. But very few of us can say that our mothers check all of these boxes. In many ways, a mother is set up to fail.” And while many of the essayists featured here reproach mothers who have hurt them, there are also apologies, confessions and unsolved mysteries. These essays bring many perspectives and deal in self-awareness, too.

In “Thesmophoria,” Melissa Febos considers her close relationship with her psychotherapist mother by recalling myths, chiefly that of Persephone and Demeter. “We often love the things that abduct us.” Brandon Taylor wrestles with the pain his mother has caused: “It’s strange, really, that to grasp that which has hurt you, you must trust it not to hurt you when you let it inhabit you”–or when you write about it.

Alexander Chee hides the abuse he’s suffered from his mother because of the tragedy they’ve endured together: “This is how we got each other through.” Dylan Landis seeks to understand her mother better through an old apartment building, and a possible former lover. Amid the layered traumas of race, nation and gender, Kiese Laymon asks his mother: “Can we please get better at loving each other in America?” Carmen Maria Machado finds her own conflicted feelings about parenthood linked to her mother’s harsh treatment. And AndrĂ© Aciman considers his deaf mother’s language, separate from words, and what it taught him.

Leslie Jamison closes the anthology with an essay exploring her mother through the eyes of an outsider to the family unit: her mother’s first husband’s unpublished novel about their marriage. It is a fitting conclusion, with that surprise perspective and a careful, loving attention to the woman who came before the mother.

These collected essays are variously rich, tender, angry, despairing and clinical. The result, greater than the sum of parts, is part paean and part denunciation, intelligent, heartfelt and wise. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a shrewd, glinting collection of beauty and pain: a gift for mothers and their children.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 myths.

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.
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