The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

the-pine-barrensThe Pine Barrens came to my MFA reading list from my advisor Katie Fallon, and I can’t recall her justification, I just took it. It was a good tip. I’m a fan of McPhee now. I knew his name but don’t believe I’d read any of his work before.

I would call this a collection of related essays about the region of New Jersey called the Pine Barrens. I don’t known a ton about New Jersey, and had not heard of this place before. It’s a vast region in the southern part of the state that is thickly forested and very thinly populated; it is distinctive in climate, flora and fauna, and human culture, not very well known and subject to unfair stereotypes.* In these ways, it reminded me a little of the Driftless region I read about in this book, which is a less artful piece of literature than McPhee’s, but a similarly fascinating profile, I think. I am trying to say that peculiar places, especially when they come with peculiar peoples, are very interesting to me. (As much as I love nature, and nature writing, I admit to a weakness for people.) So, I enjoyed the subject of this book very much.

And also the writing. McPhee has certain qualities in common with Joseph Mitchell (see Up in the Old Hotel): neutral, journalistic, mostly absent from his own story. His descriptions are matter-of-fact and seemingly unadorned, although they are also often lovely images: they only seem straightforward. As a classmate of mine once said, easy-to-read writing that flows effortlessly is deceptively hard to write. He has an eye for just the right characterizing line of dialog:

“Horace’s mother and mine used to make their own yeast, too–out of potato water and hops. Modern women aren’t up to that.”

“They give you cold beans,” Horace Adams said.

Something about those cold beans really tickled me. Or this line:

He is about fifty, and he has a manner that suggests that he is not afraid to work and not afraid not to work.

The backwoods, simpler-times feel of the Pine Barrens and the pineys struck me somehow as… not bucolic, but pleasantly green and calm and quiet. McPhee felt for me like Mitchell but a little more foreign, because my personal experiences are a little closer to Mitchell’s urban setting than to this one. Both writers use language and sentences that feel simple rather than poetic or flowery, although both their language and their sentences are more complicated than they first appear. McPhee ties in research and outside sources with the immediate scenes he describes (visiting a piney cabin to ask for water, talking with its inhabitants) neatly; one flows into the other without much transition needed. It’s a smoothly flowing piece of narrative even though it covers a lot of ground.

I fear it is the work of some close reading indeed to figure out how to make such lovely work seem so effortless, but I’ll try.

In related news, thanks, Tassava, for sending me the link to this inteview with McPhee by The Paris Review. He sent it (unknowing) mere hours after I finished reading this, my first McPhee. It’s a great read – long, but juicy with gems, both funny lines and helpful thoughts for writers. What a joy.


Rating: 8 jugs.

*This book was first published in 1967, and my impression of the Pine Barrens is mostly based on this dated account. How remote and untouched is the region still today? I am not the one to say. Wikipedia calls it “largely undisturbed.” But there is also a website, www.njpinebarrens.com, which begs the question…

The Last of Her: A Forensic Memoir by Kim Dana Kupperman

“Have a good life,” my mother wrote in March 1989, at the bottom of page four of her nineteen-page suicide letter.

This is a really good beginning, in that it certainly grabs my attention.

the-last-of-herThe Last of Her is Kim Dana Kupperman’s investigation into her mother: who she was, who she wasn’t, why she went. Full disclosure: Kim is a visiting faculty member in my MFA program, and one I’m looking forward to working with.

This mother, Dolores, was a serial liar. She told many, many stories of her own personal history, leaving a real challenge for her only daughter in tracking that history. Kim was 29 when her mother killed herself, apparently to escape being busted for insurance fraud. It took some decades before she was ready to do the work that this book communicates: the research, the travel and the reconsidering of past crimes. Those are literal/legal crimes (Dolores was a junkie, a con artist, an identity thief, and apparently guilty though never convicted of assaulting a [pregnant] romantic rival with a hammer) as well as psychic ones, including mistreating and manipulating her daughter. The adult Kim eventually finds sympathy for this flawed and damaged woman, but it is quite an (understandable) journey to get there.

As a piece of creative nonfiction, The Last of Her is intriguing. The Preface deals heavily in birds, as Kim sketches the trauma of her mother’s suicide and then describes visiting the gravesites of family members she never knew. A few more birds season the rest of the story, although they do not end up playing as large a role as I expected. This lent a feeling, for me, of something larger and less knowable than human nature; not supernatural, of course, but something of the mystery of the natural world, which is often absent (or mere scenery) in human stories.

This is also very much a memoir, not of Kim’s life or Dolores’s, or Kim’s memories of Dolores (although there is some of each), but of Kim’s study of her mother years after her death. In others, this is the story of her research, including her reading of her father’s giant “Secret File” about Dolores and the custody battle she lost. I am drawn to this kind of story: the story of finding the story, that transparency. Kim’s tone keeps some distance, almost austerely observing the 20-something daughter to which this thing happened. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, on the sentence level (of course). I will also say that the chapter headings (quotations from a wide range of literature) quite baffle me; I need a guide to those.

This is a memoir about a sensational event that never approaches sensationalism, expertly crafted like a long poem, with precise emotional tone. A good study. Keep your eyes open as well for Kim’s (earlier) essay collection, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, and the work of Welcome Table Press, where she is founding editor.


Rating: 7 phones hung up.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

the-art-of-subtextCharles Baxter is the editor of Graywolf Press’s The Art of series as well as the author of this installment. This is the second in the series that I’ve read (see The Art of History), and I’ll be reading two more this semester (Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir).

The first thing to note about this book of writing craft advice is that it is strongly geared toward fiction. Where the others tend to cross genres (well, I suppose the Memoir one won’t), Baxter refers to fiction throughout, and takes his examples from the fiction of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Edward P. Jones and others. While this made for interesting reading, it did not suit my personal needs as a nonfiction writer very well. (I was disappointed, especially as excerpts from Baxter-edited The Business of Memory have appealed to me.) I was drawn to the topic of subtext because I aim for subtext, or subtle themes, in my own writing. Subtext means something a little different to Baxter in this book.

He calls it in his introduction “the unspoken soul-matter,” and divides his thoughts into 6 sections. “Staging” refers to dramatic placement of characters in scene (as in stage directions). “The subterranean” refers to the difference between what characters truly want, and what they say they want. This is an interesting concept to ponder for characters in nonfiction as well, although all of Baxter’s examples come from fiction. “Unheard melodies” inspects how fictional characters fail to pay attention: think about short attention spans and the way we “uh-huh” each other without really listening. This kind of ignored dialog, he argues, is a great place for subtext. “Inflections” and tonal shifts mark a movement from the literal to the suggestive; and he makes the point here that tone is sometimes everything. Example: the phrase “you’re really something” could be spoken in disgust or adulation. On the page, the reader needs tonal cues.

“Creating a scene” refers to the way that phrase is used in everyday life and not by writers: that is, not writing “a scene” (action taking place in time and space) but in the sense that arguing in public is called “making a scene.” Baxter asserts that fiction writers must have their characters make scenes in order to get their conflicts out into the open, or in other words, to pose the central conflict of their plot. Finally, he writes about “loss of face,” or the use (or choice not to use) characters’ literal faces to communicate through gesture or appearance. He makes a curious argument that the description of faces has fallen away in modern fiction writing, which is another interesting claim to investigate, although not one I’m particularly invested in at this time. (Please report back.)

My single favorite line of this book, and one I can easily take into my own work:

In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.

That one I will carry forward and ponder. Within it there may be an opportunity to ponder the differences (for craft purposes) between fiction and nonfiction in general.

In short, an involving little book of lit crit focusing on fiction, and thus not outside my interests; but not terribly useful for my own writing. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 6 Chekhov stories.

MFA readings: a selection

Perhaps predictably, my rate of reading & writing for school threatens to outpace my work on this blog; and school is my priority, of course. Here I thought I’d just offer a quick rundown of what I’ve been reading lately and how it struck me. (Titles are bolded.) There may be more selection or digest-style posts to come.

My program director, Jessie Van Eerden (a most impressive woman & writer), put together a packet of portrait essays for a seminar she’s taught in the past, and shared this packet & her notes with me. I had a variety of reactions to these essays, which is totally okay: some will be more useful to my studies than others, and these reactions are all subjective.

I was most intrigued by

  • “Tracks and Ties” by Andre Dubus III;
  • “A Mickey Mantle Koan” by David James Duncan;
  • “Interstellar” by Rebecca McClanahan;
  • “The Passions of Lalla” by Michael Ondaatje; and
  • “A Good Day” by Jessie van Eerden,

and did some close readings especially of “A Good Day” and “Interstellar,” two profiles of the authors’ mother and sister respectively that include some autobiographical detail as well, and take certain organizing principles to help them tell the story of a whole person or a whole life in just a few pages: what a skill. I feel like maybe I’ve read “A Mickey Mantle Koan” before. It examines a beloved brother through a single object, one he never held in his hands, and integrates the language of both baseball and Buddhism, and lets the author do some more existential musing as well: ambitious, but executed. “Tracks and Ties” is another hyper-compressed profile, and “The Passions of Lalla” is especially interesting because it tells the life story of a person the author (apparently) never knew, through research, family mythologies and speculation. I hope to find time to go back to that one.

Of “Bessie Harvey’s Visions” by Will Woolfitt, Jessie writes, “Technically, this is a poem, but Woolfitt first wrote it as a lyric essay (same material sans line breaks).” I enjoyed reading it, and found the imagery and atmosphere involving, but I couldn’t see so clearly how to make this experience useful to my own writing.

Similarly, I was engaged by three longer profile essays –

  • “Present Waking Life: Becoming John Ashbery” by Larissa MacFarquhar;
  • “Notes on Pierre Bonnard and My Mother’s Ninetieth Birthday” by Mary Gordon; and
  • “Fuller” by Albert Goldbarth,

at least two of which have in common that they conflate or compare/contrast two very different subjects: Gordon swims between the art of Pierre Bonnard and her mother, as Goldbarth floats between Marie Curie and the dancer Loie Fuller. MacFarquhar more subtly lets her own character (herself) enter her examination of the poet John Ashbery. These again are worthy of study but didn’t feel right for my uses at this time.

By contrast, there were two essays in this packet that I just failed to enter at all. “The Shape of a Pocket” by John Berger and “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” by Anne Carson felt too cerebral, too much work to wade through. This is not where I’m interested in going. In the latter case, the problem may be that I’m not drawn to the question of how these women “tell God”: and is Carson’s failure to bring me in despite my feelings about the subject matter her shortcoming, or a simple, blameless lack of connection? I may not be the right person to answer that last one.


up-in-the-old-hotelAs a separate project, I read essays from Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, a big fat book I’ve had on my shelf for years. Saint Mazie and Joe Gould’s Teeth both refer to Mitchell’s work. He is famous for his decades of work for The New Yorker, and his portrait essays in particular.

I enjoyed every word I read–including the Mazie portrait, which I recognized from its reflection in Attenberg’s novel–but I settled on the title essay, “Up in the Old Hotel,” for my craft annotation. All of the essays I read showcased a seemingly neutral and nearly invisible narrator, and let the subjects portray themselves by use of dialog and speech, as well as physical descriptions, anecdotes and settings. The “Old Hotel” was remarkable because it told a lot more story than some of the straight portraits did; and its subject is not a person (although the central character Louie is very central) but a building, the old hotel. I focused in particular on the middle 12 pages of the piece, which offer a nearly uninterrupted monologue given by Louie, with minimal paragraph breaks and a wildly digressive style. Writers are warned against such techniques; but they work beautifully here. I think that’s because Louie’s voice is so strong and engaging; his style is so conversational that the reader buys into the delivery method completely; and because of Mitchell’s few but very strategic interruptions (Louie stops to make change, answer a customer’s question).

I recommend reading Mitchell if you get a chance.


the-situation-and-the-story
Finally, for craft, I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. This one didn’t work for me: in a word I’d say her succinct introduction and conclusion do the work her book wants to do, while the fatty middle part (two sections, on the essay and the memoir) read to me like wandering lit crit, and had little to offer me in thinking about my own work. Gornick has received plenty of positive response for this book, but my reaction was tepid. Her analysis of a number of essays and memoirs would have been more interesting to me if we had more reading in common, of course. But I am reminded of Christopher Bram’s The Art of History, which spent a lot of time giving negative or positive reviews that I did not always agree with, and which seemed so subjective that I was a little turned off. Yes, I see the irony as I give this negative, subjective review. But note that I am not here to sell you writing advice. By this point in the lifetime of pagesofjulia, I figure my readers know what we’re doing here together. (Thanks for sticking around.) If you loved The Situation and the Story or found it very useful for your writing, I’d love to hear your explanation of that experience. Not to argue, but to learn.

That’s my long post for today–now back to the program!

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

A journalist with trauma of her own exchanges a torrent of letters with a serial killer in this absorbing, suspenseful memoir.

the-spider-and-the-fly

Claudia Rowe is a careworn reporter in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when a local man confesses to the rape and murder of a series of missing women. The case has journalistic potential, but there is more to the story. As Rowe and killer Kendall Francois communicate in letters and phone calls and during prison visits, the journalist’s life goes into a tailspin. Her boyfriend leaves, taking their dog; she moves to the woods and lives in a barn like a hermit. As her obsession with Francois grows, Rowe delves into her own past, a troubled childhood and damaged relationships leading to what she sees as a lifelong fascination with brutality.

Chasing violence and fear has led her to a serial killer who can seem like a big teddy bear as well as a disturbed predator. Rowe yearns to understand where a man like this comes from, how a murderer is made, and the intricacies of race and class in Poughkeepsie and beyond. She puzzles over Francois’s family home, so stuffed with rot and detritus and denial that decomposing bodies went unnoticed. What she learns is that Francois may not be a riddle she can solve.

The Spider and the Fly is a work of personal exploration, as much about Rowe’s growth as an individual as it is about Francois’s crimes. The reflective tone and dogged probing into the ugliest of human behaviors enrich this blend of true crime, memoir and suspense. Looking into darkness, Rowe gains some understanding and some release.


This review originally ran in the February 7, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cans of grapefruit juice.

notes on podcasts & a DNF

I’ve started a new job, part-time on the weekends, serving beer in the taproom of a craft brewery a few towns over. It’s great! but I have a good bit of a commute again now. I haven’t listened to an audiobook since school started in January, because I haven’t wanted to crowd my brain any more than it already is (or get my stories crossed). So Liz has recommended a few podcasts for me. She is super into the podcasts, so I know she restrained herself, by starting me off with just six. On my last few drives to and from the brewery, I have really enjoyed listening. I’m going to try to stick to just a few sentences per story here…

Another Round, Episode 85: The Same Stuff as Stars (with Amanda Nguyen).

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton discuss rape culture and outer space with Amanda Nguyen, a college student who has founded an advocacy organization for rape survivors, written new legislation and gotten it passed in Massachusetts, and is studying to be an astronaut (wow). All three women have engaging voices & personalities here, and the story is obviously layered and impactful.

Criminal, Episode 63: Rochester, 1991.

Kim Dadou served 17 years for the murder of her boyfriend, who beat her within an inch of her life, which life she was defending when he died; now she’s an advocate for domestic assault victims. Excellent intimate tone and a narrative that is horrific but compelling. Listener is left rooting for Kim, naturally.

Death, Sex & Money, I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn’t.

When a woman he’d slept with called to say she was pregnant, Tony became a father to a little girl he loved deeply–until he found out she wasn’t his after all. He and the biological father discuss their experiences. They are disarming, honest, vulnerable.

Embedded, Police Videos: Flagstaff.

A 2014 video shot from a police officer’s eyeglasses shows his death by shooting, perhaps the first of its kind and a major internet sensation. Kelly McEvers delves into this video and its meaning to various viewers, in particular the families of the officer and the shooter. I appreciate Kelly’s personal approach–sharing her own reactions–and the variety of perspectives she finds.

Death, Sex & Money, Live from the Internet: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires & You.

(This is the podcast that got Liz & I started on this exchange, because I’m an Isbell fan. I remember listening to the first Death, Sex and Money show with Isbell back in 2014.) Live-recorded call-in show with Anna Sales taking questions for Jason & Amanda about addiction, relationships, and their art. These are two wise, thoughtful, compassionate and smart individuals, and I could listen to them all day (and have).

Other Liz-recommended podcasts I’ve got queued up include Revisionist History, Planet Money, and Radiolab, so stay tuned. And, this one did not come from Liz, but about a year ago I really enjoyed Love + Radio‘s Choir Boy, an interview with a bike-racer-turned-bank-robber. What a weird story, truly stranger than fiction.

In other news, briefly: I had a strong negative reaction to Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention (from Graywolf’s The Art of series). I guess the good news is this book seems to be aimed exclusively at poets, and I am not one. Revell seems to me to be more interested in showing off his vocabulary and convoluted constructions than communicating; I found him deliberately opaque; and a central thesis seems to be that the “craft” of writing is neither teachable nor worthy of teaching—so why this book? Anyway, moving on.

reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.


Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.
%d bloggers like this: