reread: Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

My father was right to recommend this reread (re-listen) after finishing The Plover. I didn’t even necessarily remember Declan, hero of the latter novel, from Mink River. And while he was definitely present here, and a colorful character, and recognizable from his later role, I was struck by the knowledge that there were many such colorful characters, whose lives might have been pursued in a sequel. And I was struck with grief all over again that we have lost the brilliant, generous, loving, exuberant voice of Brian Doyle too soon from this world. I wanted him to write so many more books.

He was still living when I read (listened to) this book the first time. This time, I felt saddened at many turns, ironically, in appreciating the delightful high spirits and joy and wisdom in his every line. Gosh, but I’m devastated at this loss, all over again and over and over.

But the book itself: still a wonder and a joy to experience. I fell in again with the inhabitants of Neawanaka, particularly the families of Worried Man and Maplehead and Cedar, No Horses and Owen and Daniel; Declan and Grace, of course; and others: Nicholas, Michael and Sarah, and the budding romance (as I see it) between Stella and the doctor. I ached for Moses the crow and the nun, his rescuer and dear friend. I remember listening to this novel for the first time, working out at the YMCA in Bellingham, Washington. It’s funny how memory can transport us into the past. People talk about smell being such a powerful mnemonic, but for me it’s never been as strong as songs and stories, the listened-to. Hearing Worried Man and Cedar share a beer at lunch again took me back to the abductor and adductor machines and sweat, just like that.

As for writing about the book itself, I think I did a pretty good job the first time around, and will let that stand. I will say, about the audio version, it was outstanding a second time; but I wish I had the words in front of me to consult and quote from. So I’ll be finding myself a print copy as well. Consider that the highest of praise.

We miss you, Brian.


Rating: still those 8 bottles.

I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton

Legendary teenaged serial killers, the era of Trump and three dysfunctional artists combine in a phantasmagoric road trip across the United States in this strange, lively novel.

Roy Scranton (Learning to Die in the Anthropocene) flings an exceptionally odd, of-the-moment novel at Trump’s America with I Heart Oklahoma!, a fever-dream road trip featuring three shapeshifting central characters. Jim is a nonconformist bad-boy filmmaker out to record contemporary Americana with the help of his regular cameraperson, Remy. He hires Suzie to write his script, two pages a day as they drive the country in a lime-green 1971 Plymouth: “You could cram a Girl Scout troop in that trunk,” Jim brags, and only a few pages into his story, the reader believes he just might. Suzie is skeptical of the whole thing, and pretty repelled by Jim personally, but she needs the money, and wasn’t doing much else with her New York City apartment but feeding Steve the Cat. “She doesn’t take reality as it comes, but pumps it through a machine in her head that spits it out as stories she can control.” She sublets, and the eccentric threesome hits the road.

Early on, the novel reads as a coherent story: tensions hover at barely manageable levels between the prickly, offensive Jim, impatient Suzie and Remy, who aims to please and therefore displeases Suzie, who wants an ally against their shared boss, and maybe wants to sleep with Remy. Sex and violence are constant undercurrents in the Plymouth as in the country and culture they navigate, making fun and satirizing, for example in a memorable scene starring Suzie in a wedding dress moving in slow motion through the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. After one member of the team abandons the others, the narrative turns decidedly hallucinatory. The main characters morph into simulacra named Jack, Jane and Jesse (and eventually Jesse II), with Remy/Jesse’s pronouns turning gender-neutral. They are joined by Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Caitlyn Jenner, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and others. Among the book’s recurring cultural reference points are Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather (who inspired Natural Born Killers).

Under the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Tom Waits, Walt Whitman and others (according to his acknowledgements), Scranton loops and wheels through states of varying lucidity, sometimes employing a stream-of-consciousness prose style and sometimes more straightforward storytelling. “Bleach sun shuddering humid over endless yellow-sprouting cornfields, low green rows of soy, off-white box architecture, strip malls and highways, highways and parking lots, parking lots brilliant with the shine of two hundred sixty million gas-powered combustion-engine personal-transit devices….” This novel of sex, violence, apathy, despair and art offers a bizarre, lightning-paced excursion through the present. For those readers on board with its wild, winding style, I Heart Oklahoma! incisively parodies a weird time to be alive.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 seemingly drug-addled meanderings.

(Not for me personally.)

residency readings

Again! I know! I’m graduated; but I’m still back. This summer I’m honored to be serving as residency assistant for the usual residency period. This gets me in to all the seminars, so I’m doing all the reading as usual. Also as usual, you can view seminar descriptions here. Note that not all seminars assign readings at all; there may be others there you find interesting even though they’re not mentioned here.

Also note that this post is written as if residency is in the future, even though it’s past by the time this publishes – such is my review backlog these days!

I thought I’d just cover what are, for me, the highlights.

Savannah Sipple, who will teach on “Right to Discover: Conventions in Queer Writing in Appalachia and Beyond,” assigned three online pieces: “To Suffer or To Disappear,” “Who Cares What Straight People Think?,” and this essay by Carter Sickels. I appreciated hearing from Sickels again (he has also served as guest faculty at Wesleyan, but before my time), and his story was moving. The other two pieces both address the great success of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which I have not read but which I know is much loved by my Shelf editor Dave, who is a serious reader and writer, and a gay man; these perspectives are complicating and therefore interesting. I’m certainly interested to hear from Sipple on this topic.

For Jon Corcoran’s seminar on “The Analytical Hybrid: Using Notes, Texts, and Poetry to Push Your Narrative Toward a Deeper Truth,” I read excerpts from Rachel Hadas’s Strange Relation, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. I felt warmly toward Didion, pleased to recognize something I appreciated at the time. But the Hadas memoir and Goldman novel were the real winners here: I have added both of these books to my hopeful-someday list. I was sorry when each excerpt ended.

Devon McNamara’s assigned reading for “Utterly Present,” her cross-genre generative session, included an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, which I was not particularly happy to see again (mercifully it was short). But it also included a short story called “Foster” by Claire Keegan which blew me away. Read this one immediately: here. Of the two assigned poems there was also one standout: “The Same City” by Terrance Hayes. Whew.

Cynthia McCloud is graduating this residency, and for her graduate seminar, “Ordering Your Private World: Discovering the Structure That Fits Your Project,” she began with a couple of chapters assigned from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. I need to thank Jeremy Jones again for that recommendation; the whole book was outstanding, and I’ve so enjoyed rereading these pages (but my favorite essay in the book, one of my favorite essays of all time, is still “Frame of Reference“). It was a real treat to see both “Progression” and “Structure” again. Thanks, Cynthia! She also asked us to read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which will come in its own review on Wednesday: in a nutshell, I was moved by this minimalist (and for good reasons) memoir. Finally, Cynthia had us listen to a podcast: “The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley” from Cocaine and Rhinestones (found here). I like dark and gritty crime stories and I like country music, so I liked this podcast – that is, aside from the goriest of details. (I thought the warnings about how bad it was were slightly exaggerated. Only slightly.) She recommended reading Fun Home, but I don’t have a copy of that with me, and decided not to bother with the reread (though it’s a very good book). I’m very interested in the topic of Cynthia’s seminar, and pleased with all her readings, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Richard Schmitt always assigns enjoyable readings. This time he’s teaching “Stereotypes: An Aspect of Characterization,” which sounds like ‘stereotypes but in a good way’ in his description. Okay. Here he’s assigned a series of short stories and novel excerpts (one of which he totally assigned us to read very recently – okay, it was two years ago, summer 2017 – don’t ask how long I just spent tracking down that fact in my hard drive). It was a good packet, but some pieces stood out more than others. “Sunday in the Park” by Bel Kaufman was memorable, even accounting for the fact that it’s the repeat from ’17. Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is sort of a favorite of mine. The rest each had some sparkle, and I can see why they were included.

And finally, best for last (this is the order they came in!), Jessie’s seminar: “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life.” For one thing, I think this is a topic I’m going to love. For another, she assigned two of my all-time favorite books: a chapter from Amy Leach’s Things That Are, and the entirety of Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Swoon. Finally, she gave us a short piece by Robert Vivian called “Hearing Trains” that was lovely but, for this reader, probably overshadowed by the other two stars.

I’m so very much looking forward to this residency. For a change, I have extra mental space: no deadlines pressing down (except for the odd book review!), no workshop to attend or prep for, no pressure to “do” school at all – but rather the privilege of attending seminars as I desire. And there is some richness here. I am lucky, lucky.

The Ghost Clause by Howard Norman

This smart, literary novel of human relationships–and a ghost–in a small town in Vermont is heart-wrenching, heart-warming and life-sustaining.

Muriel and Zachary are newlyweds living in their newly purchased old farmhouse in small-town Vermont. She has just defended her dissertation on translations of Mukei Korin’s erotic Japanese poems; that she brings this work home is a boon for their marriage. He is a private detective investigating the disappearance of a local girl who’s been missing for months now. They bought the farmhouse from semi-famous painter Lorca, a recent widow whose husband, Simon, had a heart attack and tipped overboard on a ferry en route to Nova Scotia.

The first surprise of Howard Norman’s (The Northern Lights, What Is Left the Daughter) riveting novel The Ghost Clause is that their stories are told in the voice of Simon’s ghost. The title refers to a section in Vermont real estate contracts that allows a buyer to return a house to its seller if there turns out to be a ghost in residence.

Simon still occupies the farmhouse, and feels very involved in the lives taking place there now. He appreciates that Lorca still visits, too. He observes Muriel and Zachary in their daily activities (often including their prodigious lovemaking), reads Muriel’s academic work and Zachary’s case notes, and sits in on their conversations around the clock; this gives him a near-omniscient perspective. He causes few problems, except that he keeps setting off the MOTION IN LIBRARY alarm on the home security system, which might drive his cohabitants nuts. He spends a lot of time reading Thomas Hardy; Muriel owns plenty.

Supremely enjoyable, The Ghost Clause is about the intersections of lives. At its center are two marriages–one new, one a bit older and recently rent by death–but it features many other town residents as well, and is ultimately about human relationships and families, and how we try to make it all work. Beyond this rich daily-life material lie extra layers: Korin, the poet Muriel studies, is fictional, so the erotic poems in the novel (and the difficulties of their translations, and the modernist issue of their parentheticals) are Norman’s invention. The missing-child investigation that threatens to consume Zachary for more than half the book is a thorough, often disturbing diversion. Finely detailed in its particulars and simultaneously revealing of grand-scale humanity, The Ghost Clause is both poignant and frequently gut-laugh-funny.

Norman’s prose is inspired; Simon’s narration is adorned with lyric moments (remember, he was a novelist in life): “A hammock of moon was traveling pale in hazy light,” Norman (or Simon) writes of an evening at home with Lorca when they were still alive together; there is more poetry here than Korin’s. Simon observes, “Scholarship as a form of courtship, it seemed to me.” The charm of local culture is part of the appeal, too. Muriel notes after a party that “People stayed kind of late, for Vermont.”

The Ghost Clause is one of the best kind of novels, excelling in every way: it’s delightful at line level, humorous, absorbing in individual stories and wise on a higher plane. A book for any reader who cares about people.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 crabapple trees.

Cygnet by Season Butler

An island of elderly separatists and one teenaged girl face essential human angst in this remarkable debut novel.

Cygnet is a powerful, poignant, smart debut novel by Season Butler. Her protagonist, known only as Kid, lives on an island otherwise populated entirely by elderly separatists. Ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire, Swan Island’s inhabitants call themselves Swans, and they want nothing to do with the rest of the world, which they call the Bad Place. Seventeen-year-old Kid has no business there, but her parents abandoned her with her grandmother, who has since died. Now she works part time for one of the residents, digitizing and editing photographs, home videos and the woman’s children’s diaries: “I’ve given her real breasts, grateful children, a husband whose eyes never wandered…. I’ll be up here forever, fixing Mrs. Tyburn’s memory.” She spends her lunch breaks with an Alzheimer’s patient, who has no memories to fix.

Swan Island is slowly crumbling into the sea, with Kid’s grandmother’s house set to go first: her backyard shrinks by the day, and Kid hates and fears the ocean, its relentless “waves that never tire of the same old dance moves. The cliff and the ocean, a mosh pit of two.” The Swans are always going on about how you can view the sea from anywhere on their island; she doesn’t see the appeal. With few exceptions, the Swans are cruelly frank about their displeasure at her presence, her very existence. She is desperate for her parents to return for her, but over the course of the story, the reader understands how unlikely this is. Memories and flashbacks touch briefly on their drug addiction and neglect, and hint at past traumas.

Cygnet covers a brief period of time on Swan, in Kid’s first-person voice. Her thoughts are true to those of an unhappy teenager: “I’m such an idiot” is a refrain; she disparages her own strange stream of consciousness. The prose style ranges widely from this (realistic) awkwardness to inspired lyricism. For such a young person, Kid has a surprisingly clear and sympathetic view of the Swans, appreciates their beauty and their choice to segregate from the Bad Place. She wishes her choices were so clear. On her 18th birthday, she bakes herself a birthday cake, using her mother’s remembered instructions; it comes out with a “perfect crumb” but she finds she’s no longer hungry: “I… take it outside, plate and all, and throw it off the stupid cliff.”

At the intersection of teen angst and sobering end-of-life realities, Cygnet contains some powerfully depressing material. But Kid’s disarming voice and unlikely will to push forward save this novel from doom and gloom. Kid and the Swans have more in common than they think–age and youth being more alike than either perhaps accepts–and Butler’s conception of this particular world-within-a-world is easy to lose oneself in. With the house literally falling out from under her, Kid will have to face her own future, create it for herself. By the end, this feels like a situation we all have in common.


This review originally ran in the May 23, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nickels.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (audio)

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

My mother gave me this audiobook for my birthday. With her own print copy ready, we set out to read together. She had already very much enjoyed the audiobook. Now I’ve finished, and she hasn’t yet, so we haven’t done our final debrief together; but we have discussed as we’ve leapfrogged down the middle.

A Tale for the Time Being is unusual in a few delightful, fresh ways. The opening voice is that of Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. (In this time-obsessed novel, you can bet her name is a meaningful homonym.) Nao is Japanese but has lived most of her life in Sunnyvale, California, and the recent move to Tokyo has been very hard on her. She is the victim of criminal bullying at school, and has decided to end her life, but before she does, she wants to record the amazing life of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and radical anarchist feminist. She sets out to do this in a diary. The diary is being read by Ruth, a novelist living on Canada’s west coast on a remote island with her husband Oliver and their cat, named Schrodinger but more commonly called Pest, or Pesto. (Ruth’s life matches that of author Ruth Ozeki suspiciously closely.) Ruth found the diary and a few other artifacts, well-wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted ziploc bag, on a beach near her home: the beach near Jap Ranch, as she calls it, her own Japanese heritage giving her the right and motivating her to remember the mistreatment of her people during World War II in these parts. (Oliver, who is of German heritage, cannot call it Jap Ranch.)

The story is told in alternating sections, in Ruth’s present and in Nao’s diary-recorded recent past, and then supplemented by other artifacts: documents found with the diary, and Ruth’s email correspondance as she begins searching for Nao in the present. There are several voices, then. And in several senses: there is the narrative first-person voice of Nao in her diary; Ruth’s perspective, told in third person; and then there are the voices as recorded in this audiobook. The author reads her book herself, which I love, and she does a lovely job of performing her set of characters. Oliver is stoic, a man of intellect and not emotion. Ruth is pensive; their neighbor Muriel is a bit nasal-y, and a bit annoying anyway. Nao is whimsical and impatient, sometimes immature and sometimes resignedly dour: a teenager indeed. The audio performance is absolutely perfect. It’s always comforting knowing we’re hearing the voices the author does.

The story expands and swells like a less well-packaged diary would have done in the ocean waters… We learn about Nao’s family, her depressed and defeated father, her no-nonsense mother, the deeply loveable Jiko, and more. It turns out that there is a thread of suicidal thoughts in her family: her father makes several suicide attempts, which they do not talk about; and his uncle, Nao’s great-uncle, died as a kamikaze pilot in WWII. Call that a reluctant suicide, perhaps. Three generations, then, dealing with tendencies to suicide in very different ways and originating in very different places. Meanwhile, Ruth’s family includes a now-dead mother who had Alzheimer’s but experienced a relatively sweet decline; Oliver is a decidedly quirky but, I felt, very likeable guy. He is a self-taught naturalist seeking to replant a preserve on their island so as to weather climate change. Even Pesto the cat plays an important role.

As the title indicates, this is a story about time, about moments, about whether we control the past or the future or even the present. As in the quotation that heads this review, the phrase “time being” takes on a new meaning here, in Nao’s dreamlike, imaginative ruminations. Ruth and Nao are both distant and very close together; the question of how far or near takes on a mystical quality, as Ruth worries if she is going crazy (or developing her mother’s disease – a worry I’ve seen in people I know too). Under Oliver’s wise guidance, even quantum physics comes into play late in the book, where I got quite lost but I think (hope) that I followed the ideas, the feeling of mystery and wonder.

Ruth Ozeki is a remarkable writer. This tale is multi-layered: mental health, the bendiness of time and space, linguistics (Japanese and English and also French, the bendiness of language, too), literature, and the love and personalities of animals… there is something here for everyone. For example, I thought of my father every time Oliver worries over the trees he’s planted in the preserve. Technically, the species he’s chosen violate the covenant of the trust because they are not native to the region; but he’s planted them for the climate-changing future, when species move north, and he’s put great thought into his choices, and the idea of destroying them is indeed heart-breaking. This issue is glancing within the book, but clearly opens up into something large and thought-provoking and timely – qualities that apply to every aspect of A Tale for the Time Being. Add to all of this Ozeki’s pitch-perfect performance, and I can scarcely recommend this audiobook highly enough.

And speaking of bendiness, consider the similarities between the author Ruth and the character Ruth. Of course I have 100 questions about their boundary lines. And what of Nao’s washed-up diary? What is its real-world equivalent? There are some mind-expanding puzzles here to be sure. It’s delicious.

Note: Ozeki (as herself) comments at the end that the print version includes footnotes, illustrations, annotations, and appendices. She appreciates the audio version very much for some reasons – she writes for musicality and sound, and loves its immediacy – and the print for others. Hopefully my mother, who is finishing the print version now, will have some thoughts to share with us about those differences. I suspect audio first, followed by print, is the right order.

If you love cats, trees, or people; if you’re interested in history and legacy, the power of words, or the questions posed by the passing of time – then this delightful, expansive novel is for you.


Rating: 9 crows.

The Plover by Brian Doyle (audio)

And no thinking on this trip, either, he said to the gull floating over the stern. No recriminations and ruminations. No logs and journals and literary pretensions neither. Thinking can only, like the boat, proceed forward.

Thank goodness for Brian Doyle. I had been in a bit of a blue funk and looked for something cheerful to pick me up; a Brian Doyle novel was just the thing, I thought, and I was right.

Based on Martin Marten and Mink River, I foolishly thought the plover in this story would be an actual plover – a bird. Ha! No, the Plover is a boat. (And to be fair, the protagonist of Mink River turned out to be a crow.) Classically, for Doyle, we open with epigraphs: from Robert Louis Stevenson, George Harrison, and Annie Dillard. (Perfect.) Then we plunge right in and meet our protagonist, an eccentric fellow (aren’t they all) named Declan O’Donnell. An Irishman (read here with an accent) who hails from the Oregon coast and a fractured family, he’s invested himself totally in a small trawler he calls the Plover for perfect reasons. He’s “edited” her by, among other things, fitting a small mast and sails; and he heads off from Oregon, intending “west and then west.”

Declan is explicitly trying to escape humankind and all their “emotional complications… expectations and illusions… analysis and explications.” But of course, he is immediately joined (page 1) by a gull, to whom he holds forth at length: we already suspect he enjoys having the company. And the comedy of the book is in all the passengers he takes on: the narrative tells us that the census reaches over one thousand, if we count barnacles, but it also at one point reaches seven human beings. Declan is in fact a more social creature than he aspires to be, and that’s the central storyline here: Macmillan’s blurb calls it “the story of a cold man melting,” and I think that’s not too far off, although I might amend to call it the melting of a man who tried to be cold. Declan has had some trauma in his life, and his reaction is to try and shut himself off. He fails, and that’s one of the joys of this book.

There are so many joys, although also much trauma. Declan’s best friend, Piko, is one of Doyle’s exuberant characters – “he had legally changed his name for a while to an adjective, he played the fl├╝gelhorn in a jazz band that deliberately played only such events as weddings between Lutherans and Presbyterians and baptisms of babies named for animals, and he had once flensed a whale by himself, over the course of three weeks, on the beach, living in a tiny blue tent about the high tide line. He was one of those guys who seemed electrified by everyone and everything, the kind of guy who totally lit up when he saw a sparrow-hawk helicoptering over a corn shock, the kind of guy who liked every kid he ever met and every kid liked him… But he had been wounded by a storm, this guy, his little daughter hit by a bus driver when she was five years old waiting for the kindergarten bus, and his light was dimmed.” Pippa, the daughter, cannot move except for a possibly meaningless fluttering of her hands; she cannot speak except to make possibly meaningless squeaks and coos that sound like bird sounds. But she has a rich inner life. (Spoiler: Piko and Pippa will become passengers and crew on the Plover.) Both Piko and Pippa are very Doylesque characters: peculiar, delightful, brimming, wounded. There are more of these in the book – a Doyle novel is made of such characters. Again: just what I needed.

So Declan explores the world, becoming increasingly reluctant to set foot on land. He cares for his boat and weathers storms. He picks up passengers and rails against their very presence, but still they come on. He and his growing crew-family have a conflict with another ship and its ill-intending captain, but everything comes out well in the end. As the small, green, red-sailed Plover swells in population, tensions rise, but so does the incidence of miracles. Doyle is unafraid to take his whimsical characters to the brink of death and then snatch them, in unlikely fashion, back. Once you’ve made peace with this inclination (and I have), it’s great fun.

Declan is a devoted reader of the Irish author and orator Edmund Burke, who is much quoted here, along with a reference or two to Robert Louis Stevenson (upon whom Doyle would base a later book). Through these outside voices, through Declan’s own and the wise voices of his friends and comrades (including one very quirky minister for fisheries and marine resources and foreign affairs), The Plover is a novel of philosophy as well as the story of one plucky little boat and its captain.

David Drummond’s reading feels perfect to me. I love the many different voices, accents, rhythms he plays. Pippa’s exuberance, Declan’s grumpy Irish lilt, the minister’s volubility and interesting speech patterns, and so much more. (Somebody should write a paper on the minister’s word coinages.) A good narrator makes all the difference, and I’m so glad we got a good one here.

Doyle’s usual strengths are all present. Characters and story are brimming and bubbling with good cheer even in the face of significant and imaginative tragedy. Sentences are often long, convoluted, and performative of their content. Details are numerous and precise and bizarre. Nothing has changed; this man is a near-perfect novelist, for this reader. I’m still so sad he’s gone.


Rating: 8 crucial silences between notes.
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