“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

In preparation for an upcoming visit to Kentucky, and because he appears everywhere around me and I have not devoted the time yet: Wendell Berry.

More than a year ago, my father bought me a copy of the new collection, The World-Ending Fire, selected and with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (who I do appreciate). I regret that I have not made time for it yet; and it’s currently boxed up in a storage unit (along with so many other excellent books) and unavailable to me. But Pops still set me up with some reading, beginning with an email explaining his selections, and outlining some of Berry’s major themes: sense of place; tragedies of American history; the urban-rural divide; humility; soil; honest work; naturalism; spirituality. Then he had me read Kingsnorth’s introduction to the new collection, and one noteworthy Berry essay: “A Native Hill.”

As an overall, obviously I appreciate Wendell Berry. All the right ingredients are there: strong attachment to place, defense of the land, argument against larger society, thoughtful, lovely prose. I had always assumed I would appreciate Berry. Also, I’ve heard that he can be difficult, and dated. Kingsnorth notes in his introduction that Berry’s writing technology of choice is, firmly, the pencil: I have no problem with tried and true technologies (recall Boyle). But I am a bit pricklier about gender and race, for example. Berry (like so many) uses “man” to stand for all humanity. And he is still using “Negro” in this essay, which admittedly was published in 1968. But one notices these things, in 2019.

This reading didn’t surprise me much, then. I found a few things to quibble with, which I will lay out below. But overall, I’m going to keep reading and appreciating this man, while reserving the right to quibble.

Here are a series of quotations I marked as I read, which I’m going to let stand as my review.

Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or the use of such love?

Way to jump right in and steal my heart. Why, indeed? You, faithful blog reader (thank goodness for you), know how much place matters to me as a reader and as a writer. It consumes my thoughts and dreams.

About the truism that “you can’t go home again”:

But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home–the place, the countryside–was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was not a reason in the world I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

Well lucky you, Berry, but you do realize not everyone has the luxury of this experience? The places that are left untouched from our childhoods are fewer and fewer. Mine is not still there pretty much as I left it, at all. Dog help us, they tore down Fitzgerald’s.

What… made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

Again, lucky you. And hey, I am lucky that my parents will almost certainly leave me some piece of land, but it’s not square miles, and it’s not something I was born to; it’s something they bought later in their lives and that I admire but do not feel especially close to; it’s not where I grew up. (Not for lack of effort, on my part or theirs, to make this place feel like home.) Some of these ideals are easy to live when you’re born with the right set of circumstances, hmm? And what would you say to someone whose inheritance, birth, and intimacy lay with the heart of New York City?

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.

and

In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.

These I feel, too, with regards to Texas.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

Because of the quotation directly above: no place we love will ever be perfect. Kentucky and Texas have their share of sins, but if one of you lives in a place that never did harm, throw your stones now.

A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.

By contrast, a road:

Its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge.

I appreciated his medium-deep dive here into paths, trails, roads, bridges, what they mean physically and metaphorically. Trails matter to me; and they make an excellent metaphor.

The pristine America that the first white men saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea.

I worry about this, as another form of deifying the past, or in this case the Native Americans. Were they really doing this world no harm? I admit to the same prejudice Berry shows here, thinking that no, they did no harm. But now I wonder if that’s true? It reeks of romanticizing what we don’t understand.

It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

A lovely line; I think we all know what it is to walk knee-deep in an absence of some kind; also, I’m almost certain this line was referenced by Matt Ferrence, which endears it to me again.

Near its end, this essay reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders, specifically the hawk that closes “Buckeye.” The final section of Berry’s essay offers a series of short, nearly prose-poetry segments. Third from last of these is an event that proves, for Berry, that nature knows not only peace by joy. It stars a great blue heron (parallel to Sanders’s red-tailed hawk), a bird that is important to me personally: it’s probably the first bird I learned to identify on my own, an easy one, since it’s both large and distinctive; and they have been present in many of the places I’ve traveled in this country, remote and far-flung, as well as in the urban setting of my hometown of Houston, where I used to see them fishing in the early mornings along the bayou in the Texas Medical Center as I walked from car or train station to work. This bird Berry describes as measured, deliberate, stately, “like a dignitary,” stately again – I agree on all counts – and then he sees it turn a loop-the-loop in the air, exultant, “a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me.” This transcendent moment – and Berry’s powerful prose – affected me deeply.

And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

Wow.

I do recommend this essay by Berry, and I will be reading more of him – though I may have to dig through that storage unit to do so.

I could not close without referring you, as Pops referred me, to “The Peace of Wild Things”. I had encountered this poem before, but Pops points out that it’s published the same year as “A Native Hill,” and condenses and distills much of the essay’s feeling. It’s worth another look, no matter how familiar you are.


Rating: 8 threads of light and sound.

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

This thoroughly researched examination of the domestic violence epidemic is chilling but deeply important and surprisingly accessible.


Journalist Rachel Louise Snyder used to think of domestic violence as “an unfortunate fate for the unlucky few,” a hardwiring gone wrong. But then an acquaintance offered a new perspective: that this is a social epidemic, one it is possible to prevent. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us is the product of copious, immersive research, an investigation into a universal and insidious violence and what can be done about it.

Snyder presents her findings in three parts, ordered as “The End,” “The Beginning” and finally “The Middle.” That is, she first studies what intimate partner violence looks like at its conclusion: homicide and regrets that various systems (judicial, law enforcement, advocacy, etc.) couldn’t do more. Next, she investigates the beginning of such violence. Abusers often come from abusive home environments and, along with their victims, grow up in a society that values stoicism, control and violence in men, submissiveness and emotional labor in women. “The Middle” examines how services are provided to victims of domestic violence, and what changes should be considered.

No Visible Bruises sounds like an appallingly dark read, and it’s true that the content is deeply disturbing. But by focusing on case studies–individuals’ stories–Snyder returns humanity to the horrifying larger issue. These cases (including familicides, or murders of entire families, as well as homicides, private terrorism and abuse of all stripes) are indeed awful stories, but told with such compassion and curiosity, they turn out remarkably accessible.

In repeatedly facing the stereotypes and assumptions she brought to her research topic, Snyder gains credibility with her reader. She applies extra attention to breaking down those myths she once believed: for example, that “if things were bad enough, victims would just leave.” Her years of research and immersion in the subject–riding along with law enforcement, shadowing advocates and interviewing survivors, families and abusers alike–lend her further authority. Snyder holds concern for abusers as well as their victims. She spends time with men involved in prevention campaigns, former abusers working to reset patterns and forge new ways to relate. She comes to see that shelters are not the answer, even while noting how much good they’ve done since the early days of recognizing domestic violence.

Perhaps most importantly, she gives context to the apparently senseless horror, placing domestic violence in relationship to issues of economics, education, employment, the criminal justice system and other, more “public” types of violence. The result is an impressive body of knowledge about domestic violence in the United State: what it looks like, its terrifying prevalence, what works and what doesn’t in trying to stem the tide. No Visible Bruises speaks with urgency about solving a problem that, however invisible, affects us all.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 calls.

Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road by Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose

Beautiful photos, enthusiastic essays and handy tips portray vanlife as desirable and attainable.

Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose are partners at the blog Vanlife Diaries, a community of and for nomadic types, where they promote relevant nonprofit organizations and meetups and other events, and vanlifers share their stories. A few years and a few hundred thousand followers later, Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road is available as a beautiful collection of photographs and essays, tips and tricks, celebrating this way of life and offering inspiration to those setting out.

Contents are organized by motivation to travel: for family, for love, for art, for nature and so on. Each section includes an essay by a featured vandweller, with helpful how-to pieces slotted throughout: guides to cooking in small spaces, traveling with pets, finding wifi and other finer points of life on the road. More than 200 accompanying photographs feature van set-ups and their human, canine and other inhabitants in breathtaking natural settings around the world. Even readers who thought they were immune to wanderlust can’t help but be swept away by such stunning images. And the more serious consumer of vanlife literature will be impressed by the balance of these impressive images with the kind of gritty, realistic details that rarely accompany Instagram versions of the trending lifestyle.

Vanlife Diaries is for anyone who’s ever considered nomadism as a means to reduce their carbon footprint, pursue nontraditional work or simply live more slowly and simply. With practical advice and inspirational full-color photos, this book has something to offer readers at every stage of the journey.


This review originally ran in the April 9, 2019 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 cast-iron skillets.

Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love by Naomi Wolf

**Please see the bottom of this post for why this book will not be published after all…**


Naomi Wolf examines poetry as social resistance and its ability to free its readers and its writers, the origins of homophobia and the battle against censorship in this gripping and vital history.

With Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, Naomi Wolf tackles the history of legislation against homosexuality in the United Kingdom through the poetry, essays and life of a man her readers have probably never heard of: John Addington Symonds. This book harnesses the electric power of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the righteous energy of first-wave feminism and the terror of criminalized identities, in a style accessible to general readers. As the fight for LGBTQ rights continues, this book is as relevant as it is compelling.

Symonds (1840-1893) had the bad luck to come of age as a gay man just as Great Britain’s legal system turned against men who loved men. He was a writer in a time of obscenity laws. And despite the grave danger–sodomy for a time was punishable by death–he kept writing. “This is one reason why Symonds’s story, in the context of the history of censorship and the history of homosexuality, is so remarkable. The man just would not be silenced.” On top of copious publications, Symonds left behind a trove of “secret poems,” and a memoir that would not be published until nearly 130 years after his death.

While Symonds is not Wolf’s central subject, he provides inspiration and continuity for a larger story, and his life provides the book’s timeline. It opens with Symonds’s youth and the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass. Then it follows London’s war against literal filth (human excrement in the streets, cholera, typhus) and the invention of the crime of obscenity (framed in parallel to that other filth, with its infectious properties), legislation of female bodies and what Wolf calls the laboratory of empire: Britain tried out increasingly stringent policies in its colonies before bringing them home. Wolf maps out the relationship between feminists’ campaigns for marital and property rights and the new idea that male-male love was “disgusting” or “unnatural”: “When women targeted the sexually abusive practices of heterosexual men, the outcome was a backlash by the heterosexual male establishment,” or distraction techniques directed at gay men.

Meanwhile, writers and artists sought each other out clandestinely, using coded language and referring to the ancient Greeks, as censorship laws “had an immediate dampening effect on literature.” Finally, Wolf tracks what she sees as a generational progression: Whitman influencing Symonds and then Oscar Wilde, who served two years’ hard labor for “gross indecency.” The book ends with Symonds’s death and his legacy, the writings he published in his lifetime and those he left behind for a future society ready to receive them.

Wolf’s style is easy to read, and her research is authoritative: this book is in part adapted from more academic work on the subject, and some of the most captivating scenes involve primary sources in the archives. Outrages is not only an important history with lessons for the present, but also an engagingly told story. The instructive life of Symonds is for any reader who cares about history, civil rights or the power of poetry.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 notations to OMIT.

…and, speaking of omissions! Between my review of this book and its publication, there has been some uproar. I decided to post this review as it originally ran, and then to include a few links for your further reading.

“Naomi Wolf’s Outrages Postponed, Recalled” (from Shelf Awareness)

“Naomi Wolf’s Career of Blunders Continues in ‘Outrages’” (from The New York Times)

As it turns out, this book will not be available anytime soon.

In a nutshell, Wolf was first caught in a simple error (live on BBC radio: you can listen here) that played an important role in her book; but as the Times writer goes on to say (quite a bit more vehemently than the BBC radio host, historian Matthew Sweet), Wolf has a history of playing fast and loose with the facts.

I’m taking this in as you are, folks. What a wild ride. Vigilance on all our parts; and it’s good to read the adjacent articles as they come out, especially if you’re going to allow a book to shape your worldview…

Appalachia North: A Memoir by Matthew Ferrence

Disclosure: Matt Ferrence was visiting faculty at this past winter’s residency at WVWC, and we really hit it off; I think he’s great, and he gifted me my copy of Blue Highways.


A shorter review now, with more to follow, because Still: the Journal has agreed to published my book review *and* an interview with Ferrence in their October issue. Hooray! For now, a teaser.

Building a literature based only on darkness is just another way to shackle ourselves to decline. Instead, we are who we are, and that’s the sound of red-winged blackbirds chirping in the blowing reeds alongside restoration wetlands, a dark plain bird with a hidden flash of brilliance, the real marker of hope.

You know I’m on an extended trip right now. I’ve been keeping track of birds, among other things. In the mid-east-coast area, I started to see red-winged blackbirds, which I don’t recall ever having seen before. They are a delight, that shock of bright red underlined by bright yellow on black-black background. I saw just a few, and then lots of them, diving and swooping and chattering at one another, plentiful as grackles. I looked them up, and see that they live where I’m from, too. How come I never saw a red-winged blackbird before?

This book is a little like that, for me. The recognition of something I didn’t know I needed, although it seems thoroughly obvious now I’ve seen it. And it’s from where I’m from, too. The synchronicities like this kept stacking up. Matt’s parents and my dad all love Wendell Berry, although his took it a step further and farmed on the farm they purchased when he was young, while we kept our city home even after purchasing a ranch when I was young. We’ve struggled with similar questions about where we’re from. My brain injury and his brain tumor are different, but also alike. Even the Facebook surveys we each put out about our home places, Pennsylvania or Northern Appalachia, and Texas. I can’t tell you how many times I scribbled “me too” in these margins. I don’t usually scribble anything in the margins at all, but when Matt sent me Blue Highways, I learned something.

Okay, then.

This book is that blend that I love best in nonfiction: both memoir and outward-looking examination of something larger than the self. Ferrence grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. He didn’t know it yet, but he was born and raised in Northern Appalachia. At forty, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Appalachia is a much-maligned and little-understood region of this country, at least from the outside. Northern Appalachia is less understood, and (as Ferrence has it) exiled from both Appalachia and the U.S. He examines the geology and geography of sedimentary rock, mountains, and his own brain through many layers of metaphor. He pulls in plenty of outside voices: writers he admires (Abbey, Dillard, Sanders), and some he takes issue with. That’s another duality I deeply appreciate, that balance between one’s own voice and the voices that have informed it.

That’s all I want to say, in advance of Still‘s October issue – I will repost my longer review, and interview with Matt, when they’re available. For now, please know that this book caught me in that perfect place: both personally resonant in all the deepest ways, and an intellectual and artistic accomplishment I admire and would like to emulate. This is one of the most highly recommended books of 2019. And I don’t care who you are and where you’re from: you have something to learn from Appalachia North. Get out and get you a copy today. You’re welcome.


Rating: 9 collection points.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter précis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

movie: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.
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