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.

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas

safekeepingThis book has been recommended to me several times, and now I can see why. It’s a memoir, covering most of Thomas’s life and emphasizing her three marriages and children, especially her second husband who died years after their divorce. But it’s a memoir in fragments. It doesn’t try to be comprehensive, which is a wise choice, since we can never tell all of a life, perhaps least of all our own (hmm). Instead, she gives us a number of crystalline scenes or anecdotes, which together paint a picture, necessarily incomplete but rich.

Thomas’s language is rich, too, lyrical and tangible in its sensory detail, but also rooted in the dirty and the everyday. These details can be sublime, but often aren’t the ones we’d think of when seeking the sublime: “Watermelon rind. Styrofoam. Broken clocks and chair legs.” Mattress shopping, table settings, sawdust on a rug. Chapters shift perspective, using first, second and third person POVs. In the second person, Thomas directly addresses her late second husband. I found it interesting to examine her choice of POV throughout the book and its effect: that second-person addressed to a specific person feels the most intimate, especially since the reader knows that that specific person is absent. Third person feels most remote, and she often uses it when (I interpret) she needs distance from her subject.

Safekeeping is a slim book, easy to read in one sense: you could flash right through it and walk away with a sense of Thomas’s personal history. There is plenty to sink into, though, too, and those may be the best kind.


Rating: 8 apple cakes.

Bonus: here’s a look at my semester’s reading, now that I have it all compiled. Hints of what’s to come!

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

A linguist argues for the legitimate and complicated contributions of the language he calls Black English.

talking-back

Linguistics professor John McWhorter (Words on the Move) has a message in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca: he exhorts his readers and the general public to recognize Black English (a term he prefers to African American Vernacular English or to Ebonics) as a language unto itself, not merely a mess of grammatical mistakes and slang: “a development that happens alongside the standard variety, not in opposition to it.”

McWhorter worries that academic linguists have relied too long on scholarly arguments in making this point. He does review some of those arguments–for example, Black English’s systematicity, meaning it has a grammar of its own–but then turns to global language patterns. Many cultures and language groups speak both a formal and a casual language in different settings, e.g., Standard Arabic and the local colloquial form (Egyptian Arabic, Syrian, etc.). While he acknowledges that racism partly underlies a general resistance to Black English as a legitimate language, he quickly moves on to what he sees as the larger problem: a misunderstanding of the value of diglossia, or speaking two languages. Along the way, McWhorter cites the relationship between modern Black English and the lingo of minstrel shows, makes the case for a recognizably black way of speaking (or “blaccent”) and examines usages such as “baby mama,” “who dat?” and what he perceives as two versions of the N-word.

Linguistics fans will be enthralled by McWhorter’s fascinating and logically presented study of two forms of English spoken in the United States.


This review originally ran in the January 24, 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: 6 vowels.

Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan C├ęspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 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: 8 red gladiolas.

Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich

This interdisciplinary study of death and how we can improve–not avoid–it is highly readable and timely.

modern-death

In Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life, Haider Warraich explores how human death has evolved over the course of history and offers recommendations for its future. A medical doctor, Warraich supplements his research with anecdotes from his personal experience, and draws on literature, theology, statistics and legal theory as well as the hard sciences. The resulting expert opinion is heartfelt, convincing and well informed.

Warraich begins with the mechanics of how cells die and the opportunities for analogy they offer: cells choose to die to promote the good of the organism; not dying on time is as bad as dying too soon. He recounts the medical advances that have increased human life spans astronomically in the last two centuries. Chiefly, people now die far less frequently from infection and simple injuries, instead living long enough to die of cancer and heart disease. Because of both medical and cultural shifts, more people die in hospitals or nursing homes than at home.

This is the story of how medicine learned to save and expand lives–especially through procedures like cardiopulmonary resuscitation–and then how medicine learned not to resuscitate. Warraich shows what modern death looks like, how it works, its achievements and shortcomings–and then investigates what a good death could look like, and how we can do better. Science has lengthened lives so successfully, delayed death so thoroughly, that our new problem often is not staying alive, but letting go.

In what comes to feel like the real heart of Modern Death, Warraich then studies the nuances of euthanasia, assisted suicides and the withdrawal of life support systems, and their legal histories in the United States and worldwide. He finds that these three categories of death are far less distinct than generally believed. Finally, he advocates strongly for patients’ control over their own ends of life and exhorts his readers–patients and physicians alike–to discuss death openly.

These conclusions form the book’s central purpose. Along the way, Warraich explores different cultures’ and religions’ approaches to death. He also discusses the philosophical and legal difficulties in defining death and life. Warraich’s chief goal is a better end-of-life experience for everyone.

If Modern Death occasionally uses a few more words than necessary, the inclusion of Warraich’s anecdotal experiences enliven what could have been a dry academic text. For readers interested in its thesis–that death is an important part of life, and medicine and society could do a better job of delivering this experience–it is a sincere and thorough examination of an often overlooked subject. Well served by Warraich’s professional expertise and earnest emphasis, this is an indispensable entry into the conversation about death.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cells.
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