Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

In a collection of prose, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet ruminates joyfully on art and nature.


Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver should also be known for her prose: thoughtful, joyful and wise, always sparkling with characteristic energy. Upstream collects previously published essays and one new piece, skillfully grouped to chart a philosophical journey and “felt experience” much like that which she attributes to Walt Whitman.

Oliver revisits her childhood, and early instances of the sense of wonder so integral to her poetry, which she has often found in nature. The essay “My Friend Walt Whitman” speaks of a youthful and persistent literary affinity. Others explore natural places and creatures–spider, puppy, bear, bird–and the pleasures of artistic work. The middle of the collection contains slightly longer pieces of literary criticism–rediscovery of and praise for Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman and William Wordsworth. Poets and the natural world mingle as Oliver invokes Percy Bysshe Shelley while hunting for turtle eggs. Finally, the previously unpublished essay, “Provincetown,” honors the Massachusetts fishing town where Oliver lived for many years. Brief but redolent, this love letter to a place in the passage of time tends to look backward, as do several of the essays immediately preceding it, so that the collection moves toward retrospection.

Upstream serves as an excellent, accessible introduction to Oliver’s work, and despite its largely previously published contents, will satisfy her fans with its fresh arrangement and feeling of movement. These meditations are evocative, lovely and of course poetic, charming in small pieces and as a whole.

This review originally ran in the October 25, 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 rumors of total welcome.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston

John Preston energetically recounts extraordinary crimes of British political high society.

very english

Novelist John Preston turns to nonfiction with A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament. In this thrilling story, a member of Parliament almost gets away with murder.

Jeremy Thorpe was an MP for the Liberal Party in the 1960s and ’70s, became his party’s leader and looked poised to lead a coalition government. His charisma enchanted everyone he met. But he had secrets. When the battle to legalize homosexuality was being fought, Thorpe had affairs with other men, harassed and abused them, and eventually–when one young man wouldn’t go quietly–conspired to have him killed. After years of posturing and payoffs, and a final dramatic scene of attempted murder worthy of fiction, Thorpe faced charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder at London’s Old Bailey.

Preston tells this salacious tale with a mostly straight face. The characters he portrays are often ridiculous: Thorpe’s relentless optimism and self-importance is countered by his victim Norman Scott’s sad struggles with mental illness, and the worshipful devotions of Thorpe’s friend and helper, David Holmes. Preston’s central source, Peter Bessell, is a fellow MP and fervent friend deeply mired in Thorpe’s intrigues. Bessell is perhaps the most vulnerable character in this drama: a bit absurd, but earnest, he is powerless to resist Thorpe’s magnetism. A Very English Scandal is a story of human weaknesses and outrageous spectacle. Preston’s play-by-play will captivate readers of true crime, British upper-crust history and classic tragedy alike.

This review originally ran in the October 25, 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: 6 letters.

book beginnings on Friday: Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook

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.


For one of Shelf Awareness’s upcoming gift editions, I am reading a big, hefty coffee-table book on one of my favorite topics.

Cycling has always been the sport for me. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was attracted by its sense of style: things like Fausto Coppi’s sunglasses, Jacques Anquetil’s jerseys and the beautiful graphics on a piece of Campagnolo kit have provided a regular source of inspiration in my work.

But there’s much more to it than that.

I am initially a little amused that Smith finds it obvious that he’d be attracted by cycling’s style, because I don’t think that’s a terribly common reaction today to Lycra-clad roadies on the streets of U.S. cities and towns. I know what he means, of course. And I think his tastes are more understandable in the era he’s referring to, and the more so because he’s British.

I like the way this beginning finishes up with a teaser, too. Aren’t we all anxious to hear what ‘more’ there is to come?

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

Teaser Tuesdays, in praise of words: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers by Mike Shanahan

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


If you’ll excuse me for reprising the book from last Friday’s book beginning, I couldn’t resist these lines about how the name of the Ficus benjamina came to be.


Linnaeus gave the name Ficus carica to the common domesticated fig species after Caria – a region of ancient Anatolia in what is now Turkey. The scientific name he gave the other fig of my childhood, Ficus benjamina, has a more convoluted origin. Cut the tree and white latex will bleed out. Various other species also produce this particular kind of sticky fluid, which people have used for centuries to make perfumes, incense, medicines and other products. This substance is known as gum benzoin, from an Italian interpretation of a Javan word that is Arabic in origin. English tongues mangled the word some more to form ‘gum benjamin.’ So over time, the benzoin trees ended up being called benjamin trees, hence the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina). I prefer its better-known name – the weeping fig – which it got because, when it sheds its leaves, they fall like green tears to the ground.

Whew! and, isn’t it extraordinary, the journey that term has made through languages and geography to bring a standard “ficus” tree to us? I love language.

The rest of the book is excellent, too.

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

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

This fascinating history of New York’s famous public hospital provides a microcosm of national and worldwide medical history.


Bellevue is one of the oldest and most famous names in United States hospitals, known for housing violent criminals and mental health patients, the homeless and sufferers of rare and exotic diseases. The incredible, multi-layered history told by David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital covers medical and general history both national and global. This thorough narrative is wide-ranging and endlessly gripping.

The institution began in 1736 as an almshouse, where the indigent were housed and given rudimentary medical care. From these earliest days, “Bel-Vue” had a reputation for dealing with society’s unwanted. And as Oshinsky shows, in its many incarnations, this reputation is intact. The flipside is that this public hospital has always attracted service-minded professionals pursuing innovation. Before modern considerations of medical ethics, this often meant experimenting on Bellevue’s impoverished patients and their diverse range of ailments: in exchange for charity medical aid, the thinking went, they offered themselves for clinical trials–as painful and medieval as they could be at times. Nevertheless, the hospital became central over the years in battling the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the “Great Influenza” of the 1910s, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy. Bellevue would see hospitals shift from being considered a last resort, only for those too poor to afford a private doctor’s home visits, to becoming the best medical care available (the development of anesthesia, germ theory and infection control being crucial).

The hospital has enjoyed affiliations with several medical schools, among the U.S.’s earliest and best, including its continuing relationship with New York University. NYU students get training in a premier teaching hospital that still treats an enormous and diverse patient population, while Bellevue gets talented, passionate residents and interns, many of whom remain and make their careers there. The history of Bellevue reflects social struggles, as women, Jews and African Americans gradually gained access to the medical profession, and anti-immigrant vitriol was aimed in turn at Irish, Italian and Jewish populations, among others, as waves of struggling immigrants contributed to Bellevue’s patient population. Bellevue successfully treated New York’s sole Ebola patient in 2014. Its tenuous funding situation (mostly public, and always under attack), high standards of care and public service mission continue.

Bellevue’s beauty and staggering scope lies in these historic, social and interdisciplinary connections. William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Mingus and Lead Belly passed through Bellevue’s history; its physicians have traveled the world and played roles in the scientific advances that have shaped modern medicine. Bellevue hosted the invention of forensic medicine, and major developments in medical photography, child psychiatry and AIDS treatments. Oshinsky (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Polio: An American Story) generally adheres to an impersonal, journalistic style, but his moving portrayal can’t hide his admiration for this longstanding institution. Bellevue is that rare, page-turning history: engaging, smart, clearly written and of broad general interest.

This review originally ran in the October 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 five-gallon containers of fuel.

book beginnings on Friday: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

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.


Finally we receive mail at the new address! Which means books! Up next on my reading schedule, thanks to US Postal, is this short profile (if you will) of the much-discussed fig.

It begins:

The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I love the colors, and the immediacy! That’s a good start.

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

Fourth Genre, volume 18, number 1 (spring 2016)


I began this issue of Fourth Genre feeling a little underwhelmed. But I finished impressed, and intrigued. My personal reactions to these essays ranged widely. Some of them just let me down. I read a prizewinning essay that struck me as more interesting in its clever format than in its content; and I felt the same about several of the essays that followed. I gave up on an essay that felt increasingly weighted down by academic, philosophical wordiness. I was frustrated by another that characterized travelers as trying in vain to make themselves more interesting: this writer recommends “an hour-long excursion to the public library” and the purchasing of souvenirs “in your own living room, never having changed out of your pajamas” over real-world experiences. Now, I heartily recommend visiting your public library regularly. But I felt that this writer missed an important point, that some of of us have profound experiences by visiting in person places outside of our daily geographic routine. Of course, this is merely a personal reaction, as they all are.

Some left me a little ambivalent. “Recapitulation Theory” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson struck me. I’m not sure it holds together as a whole for me; but at many points throughout I was fascinated (and not least by the narrator’s role as librarian). The contributor bios indicate that this is part of a larger project, which makes perfect sense. I appreciated the tortoise trivia, and the emotion, in Lawrence Lenhart’s “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go: A Carapace in 37 Parts”; but I regretted the on-the-page formatting of text wrapped around carapaces and scutes. I found it distracting – it made reading more challenging – and didn’t feel it added anything that more traditional block formatting of graphics wouldn’t have accomplished.

On the other hand, I found some gems. “Sixteen Forecasts” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade was another playfully formatted essay but one I enjoyed more. And I am intrigued by the two authors: how did they put this together? I want to know. “Light” by Kathryn U. Hulings is a powerfully feeling narrative about the trauma of a suffering, self-destructive loved one. Mimi Dixon’s “Anesthesia” is, again, a more traditionally formatted essay but one with more to say. Rachael Perry’s “The Sand Dunes: An Elegy” is scarcely a page long, but deeply lovely and evocative. Jane Bernstein’s “The Incident in My Park” is an electric, disturbing story – that is, a narrative. Not that it’s done entirely straightforwardly. There are time jumps; there is musing. But perhaps what I’m finding here is a preference for narratives (a la Creative Nonfiction). With “Brother Sammy,” Deborah Thompson is a little more subtle in building the narrative that frames her reflections, but in this lovely, short essay, she made me think, and this was another successful piece for me.

And then came the highlights of the journal, beginning with “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter” by Katherine E. Standefer. She uses a decidedly nontraditional format, something I quibbled with earlier in the journal; but this one worked so cleanly for me. I was aware of the form (footnotes, in this case, and with the relationships between source and note often unclear), but it didn’t get in the way of what I was reading: a personal history in snippets, engrossing and moving throughout. And then! “Animalis” is followed by Standefer’s essay about the essay, “Breaking the Body: On the Writing of ‘Animalis’.” This was the perfect choice for a piece about the piece, both because of its unusual form and because of the story of how it came to be: in a word, slowly. I was captivated! And the loveliness of her lines crosses over to the craft piece, in which she writes

The reference list of our bodies? It is both broken and gorgeous. The shards, glinting light, became the essay’s wrestle.


I learned that an unruly essay, controlled by the reins of voice, will hold its readers and deliver them somewhere new.

Things continued to solidify for me, to make sense and to make enjoyable reading, as the journal proceeded with craft essays. After Standefer’s essay and commentary came Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas with “The Peach Orchard” and “On ‘The Peach Orchard’,” which totally drew me in as well: she writes about La Violencia in Colombia in very complex ways using several narratives. I was impressed, and her commentary was equally engrossing. Dawn S. Davies writes “Disquiet and the Lyric Essay” in which we learn a lot about the writer (voice!) as well as consider some questions about what makes an essay ‘lyric.’ The book reviews that follow struck me more as responses to books than reviews of them (although I enjoyed the playful review of Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy). In an “Inter-Review” with Wendy S. Walters (in which they discuss each other’s new books), Michael Martone says he

think(s) of publishing as more like political organizing than the gatekeeping of taste and promoting something as “good” or “bad.”

which I found an interesting thought.

All in all, I found immersion in this lit journal a thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating, somewhat challenging reading experience. It’s yielded more reading: I have a play, a song, an essay and a blog post now queued up from references in this issue. I enjoyed some of the writing very much, and some of it wasn’t for me; but that’s the world, and that’s okay. It seems that Fourth Genre appreciates nontraditional formats almost for their own sake, and I’m not sure my tastes run in quite the same way, but there is much here to like. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Rating: 7 hermit crabs.
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