book beginnings on Friday: Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am very interested to be diving into my first Mary Oliver with an essay collection. I know her by reputation, naturally.

upstream

It starts in lovely form:

One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people–a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes. Hello Tom, hello Andy. Hello Archibald Violet, and Clarissa Bluebell. Hello Lilian Willow, and Noah, the oak tree I have hugged and kissed every first day of spring for the last thirty years. And in reply its thousands of leaves tremble! What a life is ours! Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the

middle of the night and
sing?

I see here trees; poetry; playfulness; and a spirit of celebration, which I do associate with Oliver. Feeling positive: happy Friday.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

Poems and essays by a range of writers address race in the United States.

the fire this time

Responding to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and so many others, the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement and a feeling that not much has changed, Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones; Men We Reaped) felt moved to build a collection of words to counter the pain and injustice she saw. Essays and poems, many of them solicited by Ward, make up The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Its title, of course, answers James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, which addressed the same questions of being black in the United States.

Led by Ward’s powerful introduction, contributions from Natasha Trethewey, Isabel Wilkerson, Edwidge Danticat and more consider past, present and future–Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. Honorée Jeffers writes in defense of Phillis Wheatley’s husband, a man apparently wrongfully denigrated, and honors Wheatley’s legacy while questioning the way it’s been written by others. Kevin Young muses on Rachel Dolezal’s interpretation of race. Garnette Cadogan writes movingly of what it looks like to walk through U.S. cities as a black man. And Ward offers an essay on her own ethnic heritage.

These powerful words from a range of sources vary in specific subject matter, but all make the same vital demands: for black citizens to have true equality. The entries in the collection are a little uneven, but each is stirring in its way, and the finest among them offer poetry as well as truth.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 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: 8 names.

Teaser Tuesdays, hemingWay of the day and synchronicity: Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, ed. by Donald Sturrock

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

hembut2
Imagine my thrill to see Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway walking alongside one another, pictured in my galley copy of Love from Boy, a collection of previously unpublished letters from the beloved children’s author to his mother.

love from boy

I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to see the photo! (It’ll be worth it.)

The caption reads,

Wing Commander Roald Dahl and his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, in London, 1944. Roald got to meet many of the great and good in the literary world while he was in Washington. He thought Hemingway ‘a strange and secret man’ for whom he felt ‘overwhelming love and respect.’

For me, this was another moment of chimes sounding, so to speak. I hadn’t realized these two had any contact; I guess I hadn’t thought much about their contemporaneity. What fun to find that Dahl – one of my favorite authors when I was a kid – shared my appreciation for Papa’s work. Strange and secret man, indeed.

I was also interested to see Hemingway looking quite short and fat, next to the tall, thin Dahl. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Hem: mostly the flattering ones he liked released; fewer in which he appears fatter and wearing his glasses (which he generally avoided being photographed in). While he is a perfectly distinguished-looking man here, in a suit and tie and those offending spectacles, both hands in pockets, striding purposefully across a street, beard clearly dark-going-to-gray (even in black and white) – I suspect this is not a photograph he liked. This one, taken during his third marriage, to Martha Gellhorn, hearkens to a slightly older Hemingway.

I love that there is always more to know.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

New research on the Patty Hearst case reveals a story as compelling and confounding as ever.

american heiress

Jeffrey Toobin (The Run of His Life) brings context, nuance and new sources to a dramatic story in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst by the radical group self-styled as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a media sensation. A nation watched with shock as the victim joined her captors in bank robberies and other crimes. Decades later, Toobin helpfully sets this salacious story against its backdrop: the influence of the Hearst name; the fledgling nature of televised media, particularly live news feeds; and the cultural upheavals underway via the radical political left, especially in the San Francisco area where Hearst lived. Surreally, a bumbling, incompetent SLA plagued by internal strife managed to elude federal investigators for many months. Jim Jones, Bill Walton and Ronald Reagan make cameo appearances.

American Heiress avoids firm conclusions about Hearst’s level of agency in her own crimes. As Toobin observes, the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” was not yet in use at the time, but psychological coercion was the focus of Hearst’s criminal defense. With the information uncovered, Toobin can reveal only a woman making the best of circumstances, “a clear thinker, if not a deep one.”

While most older readers will have preconceptions about the events, Toobin’s ample research and new sources offer a fresh version. An author’s note states that Hearst declined to comment, and explains the research methods. This history satisfies with its level of detail and emotional distance from a subject who remains mysterious.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2016 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 shots fired.

Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

guest review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, from Pops

Pops sent me this guest review – unexpected, unsolicited, but very welcome – with the note, “you will likely find it easy to tie this into your own readings.” Certainly; but he had no idea how timely, as I’ve just recently reviewed Jesmyn Ward’s forthcoming The Fire This Time, a collected of essays and poems Ward solicited from today’s minds, to answer Baldwin’s 1963 book. I read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It On the Mountain, and so have some idea of his voice & power, but I hadn’t read this title, so it’s excellent to have Pops’s perfectly-timed review. Synchronicity, we’ll call it.
the fire next time

I recently finished James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which is a strange bird in form as it consists of two essays that are pretty different: a short personal letter to his 14 yr-old namesake nephew, and a much longer autobiographical, contemplative ramble, a sort of musing, largely about religion. My book’s dust cover says it “caused a great stir upon publication in 1963 and landed its author on the cover of Time [magazine]” – while he was on a Civil Rights speaking tour of the US south. (He lived mostly in France beginning in 1948 at age 24.) In 1963 Baldwin was an established author, an “accepted” spokesman for the Black experience. His call in these two essays for integration & reconciliation during the outbreak of angry & nationalist activism is the likely source of that “great stir.” Indeed, the great value in reading these today is in appreciating the issues of that pivotal time in our history.

The short piece has a long title: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of Emancipation.” This is the one recently associated with the book title, compared to numerous other public letters by Black authors to the next generation. (This is a comparison where context is again important, as we are challenged to appreciate the Black Lives Matter movement as it matures.)

Baldwin describes his great-grandfather’s “terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” This begins a two track theme: an unbridled (almost bitter?) depiction of the oppression & tragedy of racism, with also a sober appreciation of the need for reconciliation & even love. On the former: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Yet, after more of such clarity, he says, “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them… and accept them with love.” In spite of all, he advocates for integration, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

With this in mind, he closes by reminding young James that he is prepared for the future: “you come from sturdy, peasant stock… [who] in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable & monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” This of course ties us back to the essay title; but oh, there is much more.

The words Baldwin quotes in italics are from a traditional spiritual. In fact, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, when MLK Jr. says “in the words of the old Negro spiritual…” he is referencing the same source, a spiritual now generally known under the title “Free at Last!” but also appearing under different titles and with varying lyrics. Here is the pertinent section of an “accepted” version that agrees with Baldwin’s quotation:

Free at last, free at last,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.
The very time I thought I was lost,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,
This is religion, I do know,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
For I never felt such a love before,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.

Further, MLK delivered his speech on Aug 28, 1963; Baldwin’s essays were published in book form in 1963 but had earlier been published in The New Yorker in 1962. Did MLK have occasion to read Baldwin during those turbulent months? Though I find no record in a quick search, it is quite likely; they ended close friends and Baldwin was widely read in the movement. In any event, I am quite satisfied & comforted just thinking in terms of “like minds.” And this is not the last time Baldwin invokes religious and musical references, both an essential part of the Civil Rights movement.

The second & longer (~90 page) essay is the autobiographical “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” the main title taken from a hymn quoted after the title page. It begins with the author at age 14 (same as nephew James, above) and describes how his abusive stepfather drives him to join a Pentecostal church, where he is successful as a preacher. In long and rambling paragraphs, suitable for exploring those “regions in his mind,” he relates his mixed experience with religion – and racism – up through adulthood, concluding, “the Christian world has revealed itself as morally bankrupt and politically unstable.”

His narrative path arrives at his moment of writing as he tells of his recent audience with Elijah Muhammad, which opens a lengthy account of his perspective on the Nation of Islam and racism as seeks a path to reconciliation, consistent with the first essay. As he does for young James, here again he closes with a measure of hope and a call for action, as he considers the prospect for continued racial strife: “at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well if this is so, then one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate… I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”

His final line provides a caution for those who hesitate at key moments in history, and the title for the book, as he quotes a spiritual, a “slave song” called “O Mary Don’t You Weep”: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in the song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm

This memoir of a difficult upbringing in the heartland deals also with broader questions of place and free will.

riverine

Vermont editor Angela Palm grew up in a struggling rural Indiana community on the banks of the Kankakee. The river had been straightened to yield farmland, but it frequently flooded back to its original shape, turning each house into an island. Palm’s greatest happiness lay in her love for the boy next door; she fell asleep each night watching him through their bedroom windows. She dreamt of escaping her troubled home life, even without a clear idea of what escape might mean. And then the boy next door was sentenced to life in prison for a horrible crime.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here is Palm’s exploration of her roots and her journey away from them. By a complicated and sometimes messy route, she escaped rural Indiana, but the separation remains incomplete. Even with a family and creative life of her own, far from her hometown, she is pulled back, perhaps most of all by that boy next door, Corey.

Three parts form Riverine: Water, Fields and Mountains. In a blend of storytelling chapters and braided essays, Palm takes the reader chronologically through those environments of her life. Without clear plans, she nevertheless strives for a future free of obligation to her past, while also looking back, trying to understand its causes and effects. As a criminal justice student, for example, she contemplates theories for explaining criminal actions: behavioral, psychological, economic and policing theories, the broken windows theory and the biological theory of deviance. These she experimentally applies to Corey’s crime. Along the way, she repeatedly asks herself “how I loved a person who could do this and why I didn’t see it coming… why I still feel the loss of you in my life.”

Palm’s memoir is not only the story of her life and the divergent parallel life Corey has led, but also an examination of how place forms a person. “The need to look at other landscapes for clues about what already lies within us is real.” Much of her figurative journey away from the gritty setting of her youth has taken place through literal travel and relocation. Tellingly, Riverine begins with a child studying a map. Palm recognizes in herself “a fascination with selvage, run-down places and meaningful interactions with strangers… scarred lands and depressed buildings.” She seeks out abandoned spaces, looking for insight in damage.

Her writing is easy to read, compelling and draws the reader in with its momentum. Riverine is about self-determination, the origin of deviance, and places, particularly the liminal ones. “Fringe investigation was the science of my neighborhood and of my art.” Palm’s story is yet unfinished, but her memoir has an admirable structure and art of its own.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 broken windows.
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