• click for details

Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland by Jeremy B. Jones

Disclosure: I read this book in preparation to meet its author at school in a few weeks, where he is guest faculty for the upcoming semester. There is some chance that he will be my advisor for this semester.


I bought Bearwallow more than a year ago, when I was researching MFA programs I might want to attend, and he came up as past guest faculty at WVWC, where I did end up going. I thought it would be good to get to know their faculty better by reading books like this one, but I didn’t get around to it until we got word that he was actually on his way back to serve as guest faculty again. I’m pleased I finally found time for this memoir, which does have something to teach me. And I’m looking forward to meeting Jeremy, not least because I learned in these pages that he is an avid cyclist! (Road, not mountain, but close enough. I remember roads.)

In the timeline of Bearwallow, its narrator is a young man recently returned to the shadow of Bearwallow Mountain where he grew up. Jeremy wanted to leave Appalachia, and he and his wife Sarah lived for a time in Honduras, where they taught young children English. But he kept feeling struck by those mountains’ familiarity, their relationship to his own mountains; and he ended up coming home to teach the children of his own old neighborhood. There, he teaches ESL (English as second language) to the children of immigrants. As he considers language, mountains, and our relationships to place, he watches developers parcel out the top of Bearwallow and plan for it to change. The book is about Jeremy’s life (still a short one in the book’s timeline), his family history, his region’s history, the significance of change and growth, and what place means to people. (You can see why I like this book.)

This is a young man’s memoir, which is a tricky undertaking. But Jones handles it well. For one thing, his story is not chiefly or firstly about him. He opens with the story of one of his forefathers, a Dutchman named Abraham who helped to settle the region where Jeremy would grow up. He always grounds his own experiences in their larger settings: the mountains of Virginia and Honduras; a family history; the challenges of immigrants and immigration; a young person’s dual drive to leave home and to return to it. He also frequently references his own youth, acknowledging the uncertainties of anything he can know about himself as a man in his 20s. In fact, this book ends when the narrator and wife go off to graduate school, leaving again and only perhaps to return (as we, outside the book, know he did, at least to the region if not the town and neighborhood).

I found the narrator easy to like. He is humble, though not self-deprecatory. He has an open mind and questions his own decisions and impressions. I also liked the kind of musing he does. People and place, the dubious demands of family and inheritance, and the complexities of a place like Appalachia, all speak to me. I appreciated Jones’s use of scenes to transition into memory, or historic topics: scenes and scenery as smooth transitional material between more abstract subjects, and of course for their added interest and characterization.

This is an enjoyable, easy read, but it’s also got something to offer the writing student. In fact, its ease is one of those deceptive qualities: apparently effortless, so that the style fades into invisibility, but that’s some of the hardest prose to write. Again, on a personal level, I look forward to meeting Jeremy as a fellow cyclist (and I think of my mother, a fellow teacher of English as foreign language). Recommended.


Rating: 7 lots.

This Book Is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions by Kelli Anderson

This is a work of art, teaching tool, pop-up toy and book that will delight playful lifetime learners.

This Book Is a Planetarium–as well as a musical instrument, a decoder ring, a spiralgraph and more. With a smartphone or small LED light, the galaxy comes to your living room. Graphic designer Kelli Anderson exults in the science and the art in the everyday, here playing with the powers of paper. This short but engrossing large-format book is at once an art object and a collection of teaching tools. Each page pops up and moves, dynamically demonstrating lessons from physics, geometry and astronomy. Brief explanations in small print further expand the didactic element. While the text is written for adults, not children, a little grown-up assistance (and supervision of removable parts) could make this an educational toy for all ages. Sensory play involving touch and sound as well as sight is too often left to the kids, but This Book Is a Planetarium is a physical object and absorbing interactive experience for all curious and young-at-heart readers.


This review originally ran in the November 21, 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 fun!


Rating: 7 strings.

The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay by Carl H. Klaus

The final craft book I read this semester was one of the better ones. Carl Klaus examines that much-discussed issue for the personal essayist (or writer of creative nonfiction), the “I,” the narrator, the first-person mediator of experience and reflection. He notes that for an essay to be “personal,” there must be a person at its center; or at least a persona. This book has four parts (evocations of consciousness; evocations of personality; personae and culture; personae and personal experience) and two to three chapters per part. He discusses problems such as how “never to be yourself and yet always” (a Virginia Woolf line), or the introduction of malady into personal essays (a recent change). Each essay addresses one or more essayists in particular, so it’s a very hands-on study, with textual examples, unlike those craft books I struggle with, that speak in more general terms.

This is also a work of fine writing, and worthy of annotating in itself, something decidedly not true of all craft books. Each essay takes a subject (singular and chameleon “I”; discontinuity) and Klaus then styles the essay after its subject, so the essay on discontinuity is disjointed, and his essay on Montaigne imitates Montaigne’s language. The subjects themselves are worth studying but the form is at least as interesting. I think the individual essays are most useful when the reader is familiar with an essay’s subject (i.e. I’d read Orwell but not Elia/Lamb and found the former essay more useful); but overall, Klaus gives a very good discussion of voice and persona.


Rating: 8 five-hundred-word essays.

annotation: “At the Dam,” by Joan Didion

This is a first: because of one commenter’s interest in my original post on The White Album, I’m just going ahead and publishing the craft annotation I wrote for school on “At the Dam.” You’ll have to let me know if this is interesting or the opposite. Call it an experiment.

10/14/2017
Annotation 14: Finding the Star Map (or central image)

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

“At the Dam” is an essay less than four pages long, which describes Hoover Dam and its ongoing fascination for the narrator. Its very short length and the scale of its subject (literally, in terms of the dam, and figuratively, in terms of its large pull on Didion) make it an interesting study for me, especially because it deals with place. I found that my reactions to the essays of The White Album varied widely: some interested and involved me more than others. This essay inspired my imagination.

Only five paragraphs: and what work do they do? The first paragraph begins, “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Didion goes on to say where she sees the dam appear in that “inner eye”: Los Angeles, New York, while driving; and what it looks like: pristine, gleaming white, vertiginous, shadowed, ominous; its setting: harsh rusts and taupes and mauves. She hears its turbines (a sound as yet undescribed). She wonders how much water is being released (a fascination more generally revealed in an earlier essay in this collection, “Holy Water”). This is all good setting of the scene and the stakes, and includes images.

The second paragraph juxtaposes two ways of thinking about the dam: she compares it to the Mindanao Trench or the stars (baffling enormity), then calls dams “commonplace.” She places the Hoover Dam in history. It “made the Southwest plausible… convey[ed], in the innocent time of its construction, the notion that mankind’s brightest promise lay in American engineering.” This is a short paragraph, but important in that it provides these choices of context. The dam is as vast and inexplicable as the stars; it is familiar; it embodies the American dream, its promise and hubris. This last holds extra significance, because the essence of “America” (here meaning the United States) is one of Didion’s themes in this collection.

Paragraph three develops this idea, “that sense of being a monument to a faith since misplaced.” Images include a memorial plaque, a model city, “a toy triangular grid of green lawns and trim bungalows,” bronze sculptures, “Winged Victories guard[ing] the flagpole,” the flag. My favorite is an empty Pepsi-Cola can: how American, and how expressive of disappointment and disillusionment. Someone has littered at this failed American monument, which however still works, in the practical sense.

The fourth paragraph begins, “But history does not explain it all,” and so Didion will have to keep trying. The practical work of the dam–its capturing and transforming of energy into a form more useful to our human society–does not explain it either. She describes touring the dam with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation, and I pause to look this up: it’s the federal institution that manages water and power in the west. In this paragraph, Didion allows “Reclamation” to stand in for the man himself, a metonymy with religious overtones: “‘Touch it,’ the Reclamation said, and I did.” (A typo for “the Reclamation man”? I like it this way.) In this paragraph she describes the physical features of the dam, its workings, and the area around it, emphasizing its weirdness. Sexual overtones, parts where visitors do not go, alien, complete and beautiful, unpeopled; cranes move as if on their own, machinery roars and hums and vibrates. She finishes with the odd statement that the peculiar moment was “so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.” This one made me stop to think.

The fifth and final paragraph makes a final attempt to grasp something “beyond energy, beyond history.” Didion again juxtaposes everyday Americana with the alien world of the dam. And then she fixes on an image: “the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left.” This, she decides, stands in for the dam, “a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.” In five paragraphs, she has stated her fascination (obsession, even?) with the Hoover Dam, explored its significances (history, energy, sheer scale) without finding its true significance to her, and then found it at last.

In reading this essay, my personal background inspired an initial gut reaction: Edward Abbey and my father agree that big dams like this are bad for the natural world. But on closer reading, I think that a) Didion doesn’t necessarily deny that truth and b) it doesn’t matter; she is not making a value judgment, but an observation of the dam’s power over her. That dynamo free of man (more metonymy–I’d prefer humankind) is impressive whether we agree with its rightness or not.

“At the Dam” has inspired me to write an essay modeled on hers about a place that matters to me, although I haven’t figured out yet what that place is. I’m okay with this. I’m working on the essay in my head without knowing what it’s about yet, and sometimes they come out this way: I work on them for six bike rides and then come home and the thing bursts out fully formed like Athena (but a lumpy and misshapen Athena that requires editing, of course). I want to model an essay on the form and structure–and length–of hers, and I hope to find its star map. I’ll be on the lookout for such a place in my own personal history; I’m sure it exists.

Street Shadows by Jerald Walker

Before he wrote The World in Flames, Jerald Walker wrote this memoir-in-essays focused on a later part of his life, when he was navigating a growth from a series of performed roles, most dramatically that of a Chicago inner-city gangster, to college professor and married father of two. This book only touches upon that supremely weird upbringing (black child of blind black parents in a white supremacist doomsday cult, whew), concentrating instead on the period from young adulthood into, say, early middle age. Central to this arc, unsurprisingly, is his evolution of understanding race, which remains incomplete for the narrator at the time in which he’s writing.

The essays included here are both narratives from a life and traditional essays that explore questions in the narrator’s mind. I noted their organization, which generally alternates between the more distant past (a youth filled with mistakes) and the apparent present (or “narrative present”–not without its ongoing mistakes, but with an emphasis on self-awareness and attempts to understand and improve). The next step that seems natural to me, which I have not (yet) taken, would be to examine each essay for its content in terms of narrative vs. traditional assay/thinking on the page. I have a hunch there may be an organizational trick on that level, too.

I found these essays thought-provoking, engaging, and easy-to-read, a trifecta much harder than it looks. There was something a little effortful for me, though, that I’m having trouble articulating. It’s like I can catch just a glimpse of the writer in the background, building his work, on purpose. The essays that most blow me away have a feeling of effortlessness to me, like there’s no writer at all–a narrator, but no writer, no craftsman. Think of E.B. White, or Eula Biss, or Joan Didion. I’ll be hard at work trying to figure out what makes the difference I’m talking about. And for the record, I think it’s a matter of taste: I know readers who prefer the more crafted-feeling essay to the more obscurely drawn one (I’m thinking of Eula Biss’s subtle through-lines).

Feel free to ignore the above confused paragraph, though, and take this recommendation: Street Shadows is a remarkable work on several levels, including its organization, its storytelling style, and the intense and important subject matter Walker is moved to address.


Rating: 8 photographs taped to the door.

Mean by Myriam Gurba

This memoir is remarkable for its unflinching candor, for its humor in the face of tragedy and absurdity, and for its adventurous style.

Myriam Gurba’s Mean is a memoir of growing up queer, mixed-race, Chicana and female in Santa Maria, Calif., in the 1980s and ’90s. It is also a crime report, and a fantasy featuring ghosts, saints and martyrs. Race, class, sex, sexuality and sexual assault intersect in Gurba’s own life and in the news, especially when the man who attacked her goes on to kill a woman in her community. Surprisingly, though, this is also a book capable of making readers laugh out loud.

The first chapter, “Wisdom,” introduces a murder. Then Gurba flashes back to a childhood that confuses English with Spanish, because “I assumed we all had the same words.” She takes readers from that childhood, with her growing grasp of the messy concepts of white and Mexican (her parents are one of each), as she matures into a young woman dealing with questions of body and sexuality common to Western teens plus some exclusive to this particular slice of culture. The reader follows Gurba to college in Berkeley and beyond, as she continues to navigate family and other relationships.

Gurba approaches her grave subjects with acerbic humor and compassion, in a style all her own. She plays with form: “I hate found poems,” she writes, before presenting her own carefully shaped, visual found poem. Court transcripts and college course records offer various frames for considering a history that is both personal and broad, cultural and political. Formal play is not the point, however; Gurba makes the form follow her unusual story. Unsurprisingly, because she is an artist and a writer, she is concerned with words, appearances and how we make meaning. She is interested in race and class as they show up in food and pop culture; where modern sexual exploration meets Anne Frank; immigration and the visual arts, and more.

The title is important. “Being mean isn’t for everybody. It’s best practiced by those who understand it as an art form. These virtuosos live closer to the divine. They’re queers.” Meanness is a weapon, a defense mechanism and a reaction; it is also part of Gurba’s art. And yet her story and her storytelling voice are also loving and generous. The complexity of this voice contributes to the appeal of her memoir, which is compelling, suspenseful, both knowable as the girl next door and mysterious. Mean is a multifaceted book for many kinds of readers.


This review originally ran in the October 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 Jell-O parfaits.

The White Album by Joan Didion

The essays in this collection range over diverse subjects, but as a whole are concerned with American culture, and the Sixties (as Didion capitalizes). Frequent topics include travel, especially air travel, and crime. She always pays close attention to place.

Some essays have aged better than others, but all display Didion’s close focus, instinct for detail, and precise syntax. She also has a knack for surprising endings; it would be interesting to study her for her endings alone. I think she’s very good at time and place, that is, setting us in a recognizable time and place with cultural markers. (This may be an unexpected comparison, but she reminds me of Stephen King in this way: think about 11/22/63.) My advisor Kim points out that she uses clothing and architecture to great effect, and I think that’s part of it.

I am especially interested in the title essay and “At the Dam.” “The White Album” begins with the memorable line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” [Somewhere I have a list of such assertions–that narrative is life–and I think the late, great Brian Doyle figures heavily on it. I wish I had a transcript of an interview he gave onstage for a certain radio show in Bellingham.] This segmented essay, in 37 pages and 15 numbered sections, ranges through the United States (and particularly California) of the Sixties, name-dropping if you will: Huey Newton, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Charles Manson, and more, linking these cultural markers with Didion’s own personal experiences. “At the Dam” is a mere five paragraphs long, but offers an incisive study of a place, the Hoover Dam: its history, its engineering, its cultural relevance, its place in a larger physical and metaphysical world. It makes one of those surprising shifts in scope at the end that gives it a profundity, as if the Hoover Dam needed emphasis.

I’ll be reading more Didion. She is an impressive and craft-y essayist, in that her work feels both crafted–put together–and naturally occurring. She is a master of detail and cultural markers. I’ve got a lot to learn from her, and she is an easy, enjoyable read, to boot.


Rating: 7 lifeguards.
%d bloggers like this: