The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s signature playful style, joyful humor and wise questioning of the universe delight and fascinate in these 23 essays, her second such collection.

With The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums, Amy Leach (Things That Are) takes her readers on a playful, rigorous, mind-bending romp through human nature, the natural world, spirituality and more. Her perfectly singular voice sings the most surprising notes in an imaginative blend of silliness and seriousness.

This sophomore collection of 23 essays opens with its title offering, in which the narrator welcomes all 20 quintillion animals to the Everybody Ensemble. How will they be arranged and organized? What songs will they perform? Leach glories in lists of the unlikely, the weird and the underappreciated: “speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices.” This embrace of enormous, diverse multiplicity serves as appropriate introduction to an ecstatic exploration of “everybodyism.”

Leach employs a huge range of rhetorical devices while retaining a sense of whimsy and plain fun. Her genius perhaps shows best in her selection of the singular, startlingly unexpected detail. Adept as she is at wordplay, Leach’s writing goes much deeper than that, wondering and speculating at larger questions. In “The Wanderer,” she considers how to critique the extravaganza show called Earth, “already in production for five million years now” but unfinished. The artist of this show has strengths (facility and versatility), but “imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash.” If only “we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what,” we could make sense of the effort. Don’t be misled by her joyful absurdity or wit with words: Leach is deadly serious in her questioning of the cosmos, Earth’s composer and whether “even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.”

“O Latitudo” ponders the imagined choice of a supervolcano: to erupt or to self-suppress, “consequently composing a gassy, burpy, muddy Ode to Joy.” “In Lieu of a Walrus” offers a list of writers to whom one might turn when the first-choice interlocuter is unavailable, including Hafiz, Ovid and God. “Green Man” honors the mesquite tree, loved by few, who has been given “the freedom to dig his own disputable way.” “Beasts in the Margins” considers the more incongruous illustrations of 14th-century books of psalms: “Who let the monsters into the psalter?” These and other essays range widely in subject matter but accrue to a meaningful whole. Leach is smart, effervescent, earnest and funny. Her voice is perfectly unmistakable, her themes expansive; her prose glitters. The Everybody Ensemble is a revelation.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 extracommercial tigers.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

This is Bessel van der Kolk’s treatise on the physical manifestations of trauma, and the enormous implications of trauma on our society. The Body Keeps the Score is for a mainstream audience, not a scientific one, but van der Kolk (a psychiatrist) does take the time to teach neuroanatomy and brain function – to a greater extent than this reader needed, so that I let some of it flow by, but no criticism there.

Van der Kolk also maintains a narrative voice throughout that I appreciate: he is always a character in the story of (re)discovering and studying trauma and seeking treatments for it. He begins with veterans returning from Vietnam, when he began work as a psychiatrist at the Boston VA in 1978. He then introduces us to the children he’s worked with who live with trauma of many kinds, and the adult survivors of childhood trauma; these adults, he shows, suffer differently than those who encounter trauma in adulthood (car crashes, violence, natural disasters) (and are different again from military vets). Throughout the book, he outlines what we know about how each of these groups’ brains operate, including the different between the rational and emotional parts of the brain. He moves us through time, outlining research studies and how we’ve learned what we know about trauma and its manifestations in mind and body. He points out that the words ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘gut-wrenching’ are not entirely metaphoric. Emotions, and reactions to trauma, play out physically. He also makes clear that traumatized people actually reexperience their traumas: that until the brain can integrate these events as memory, they remain present, and can take over the individuals’ present. Those suffering from these flashbacks are truly living their trauma again.

Van der Kolk feels strongly that developmental trauma, which takes place in childhood, is a “hidden epidemic” that exacts enormous costs on society, even just purely in the monetary sense (sufferers “end up filling our jails, our welfare rolls, and our medical clinics”). When he gives presentations on trauma and treatment, he writes, “participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy. I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.” I didn’t find the book very political at all, in fact, but maybe I just don’t think it’s radical to suggest we devote public resources to universal health care – including mental health care – and extend a little compassion and shared responsibility to others, especially kids, who are essentially defenseless. He notes that the trendier discussions of trauma tend to focus on military vets and survivors of splashy, violent single events, while the more everyday (child abuse, intimate partner violence, rape) don’t get as much attention, although they affect many more people.

He also devotes a healthy chunk of the book to treatment options, written (he says) both for trauma survivors and for their therapists. These include talk therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), yoga, rhythmic movement and theatre, neurofeedback (as from Bewilderment, in fact!), and more. “Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.” Van der Kolk stresses the importance of language throughout. (And I love the idea of Shakespeare in the Courts!) He does not love medication for trauma survivors; drugs can mask or deaden symptoms, but don’t address the root of the problem or begin to help the patient integrate trauma into memory, so as soon as they go off the meds, they’ll be in just the same position again. He also does not love the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which persists in excluding a diagnosis for Developmental Trauma Disorder despite decades of research and statistics and the support of expert practitioners. He includes as an appendix “Consensus Proposed Criteria for Developmental Trauma Disorder,” the inclusion of which in DSM would enable clearer diagnoses, better funding for research, insurance coverage, and more.

I find The Body Keeps the Score to be a very thorough explanation of extreme trauma, how it works on its sufferers, and what we might be doing about it – as individuals and as a society. It is coherent, credible, compassionate and evidence-based, and accessible to a regular sort of reader, like me. (Again, I let some of the hard science go by.) I think this is a book for everyone, especially the traumatized among us and those who love them – in other words, considering the prevalence of trauma in our world, everyone. I found it interesting reading, if sometimes dense, and sometimes difficult to read – I took this one a little slower than usual, but it was worth all my time. Recommended.


Rating: 7 drawings.

For a much more in-depth summary and review, check out this excellent article from Brain Pickings.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, trans. by Adrian Nathan West

Wide-ranging, mystical, crazed and inspired, this singular novel explores theoretical physics through a series of weird, engrossing human stories.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is an astonishing historical novel of physics, war, human weakness and quantum physics. In a lovely translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, the fictionalized histories of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and more come alive to disquiet and intrigue readers.

The book opens with Hermann Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine and the suicides of many Nazi leaders by cyanide in the final months of World War II. It gets only a little less grim from there. But even with such bleak subject matter, Labatut’s imaginative evocations of disturbed minds from the rarified ranks of mathematics and physics are thoroughly captivating and strangely lovely, joining science with mysticism in surprising ways. “In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.”

Labatut’s narrative travels in time and space, covering the development of pesticides, chemical weapons and Prussian blue pigment; painting, literature and opera; the existential angst of particle and quantum physics; eroticism and fever dreams. A young Heisenberg interrupts Schrödinger’s lecture to argue about the nature of subatomic particles. Later the reader sees Heisenberg feverish, ill, madly dreaming of spectral lines and harmonically bound electrons while reading Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian mystic Hafez. Schrödinger also raves, theorizing and obsessing over the adolescent daughter of his physician. Lesser-known scientific figures include Karl Schwarzschild, the soldier who first exactly solved Einstein’s equation of general relativity and died shortly after; Shinichi Mochizuki, who revolutionized mathematics and then withdrew from the field; Alexander Grothendieck, who fled society to live as a hermit and also gave up mathematics entirely; and the seventh duc de Broglie, a “timid prince” whose Nobel Prize did not help him stomach the infighting among scholars of theoretical physics. These are the figures and the stories that have shaped major advances in science in the modern era; they also verge on insanity.

This astonishing novel blends forms: lyrical, inventive and also rooted in history, concerned with the overlaps of genius and madness, innovation and destruction. “The physicist–like the poet–should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections…. That aspect of nature required a completely new language,” writes Labatut, and likewise he offers a new way of writing about science and history. The vision of reality painted by When We Cease to Understand the World is terrifying but finely wrought, and will live long in readers’ minds.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cats.

movie: Summer of Soul (2021)

I got to see this back at the Pickford in Bellingham with my parents, and it was a real treat.

All the voices I’ve been hearing about this movie, from friends and from reviews, have been unanimous, and I’m in agreement: this is a very special film, from a few angles. Summer of Soul is a documentary mining archival footage, never before seen, from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. The footage sat in storage for some 50 years; the same summer, Woodstock stole the spotlight, and this historic event (or events – the festival took place over six weekends) faded away like so much Black American history has. It’s thanks to Questlove, of the Roots, director of this film, that we’re learning about it now. The festival showcased jazz, funk, gospel, blues and soul, via names like Stevie Wonder, BB King, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, and many more. These performers played to tens of thousands in Harlem each weekend (an estimated 300,000 total). Here we see original footage spliced with recent interviews with performers and audience members, and other historical footage for context, so that the music is set against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the assassinations of the 1960s, and more.

The festival footage is entrancing, and the music is transcendent, and if the film had stuck to that content, it would have been worth seeing. But including the historical context lifts it up several levels, making it not only a joy to see but Important. The context is a little harder to watch – it’s serious, especially because it highlights how far we haven’t come. But the music remains an absolute joy, too. If there are moments that might make you cry (Jesse Jackson recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final moments to the crowd), the footage of the sublime musical performances rarely failed to make me smile wide, as the crowd did – I loved those shots of so many joyful people of all ages and appearances. Many of those interviewed, both musicians and audience, commented on how significant it was to look out at a crowd of that many Black people gathered together. (There were non-Black attendees, but very few.) I guess I was a little surprised that Harlemites would feel that way; but the gathering itself was unprecedented, wasn’t it. This felt like an important point, especially because so many mentioned it.

Depending on age and background, some viewers will find this film very educational; even those familiar with the time, place and milieu will find something enlightening, and the music is sure to blow every mind. It sent me out of that theatre feeling more full and nourished than I went in. It also comments on ever-relevant parts of our ongoing history as a nation. Very strongly recommended, for music fans and for us all.


Rating: 9 smiling faces.

Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers by Leanna Alderman and Eleanor Mahoney

Loaned by a friend who found out I’m into fire towers, this book has a particularly local focus, and I dug it. This project began when LeAnna Alderman, as a VISTA volunteer at Allegheny Mountain Radio, interviewed a retired fire lookout, and was so absorbed that she pursued more such interviews. She left the station before she could finish the collection, which was continued by Eleanor Mahoney (also a VISTA volunteer) until this book was built and eventually published some six years after Alderman’s first interview. It consists of three main sections: background on fire lookouts and fire suppression efforts in the US and in Appalachia, including the Depression and the CCC; information on each of the twelve towers in Pocahontas County; and best and finally, twelve interviews with retired towermen and one towerwoman, and their family members.

I think this slim book would serve as a good introduction to the idea of lookout towers; I didn’t need that introduction, but found it fascinating as a look at one small region’s relationship to the system. In comparison to the Gila out west (an example I know pretty well), this story involves considerably more emphasis on the Depression and the CCC, and tower use ended precipitously and much earlier in these parts. It was interesting to see the lookouts’ opinions of what came after (smoke spotting via aircraft! which was shortlived) – most were not impressed. And it was interesting to see a small community’s impression of the lookout system in general. As part of a larger network of forestry and roads/infrastructure operations, the lookout towers provided critically needed employment and developed a relationship with the forests, and an understanding of fire prevention a la Smokey the Bear. I did find it interesting that Above the Smoke didn’t deal with the idea that fire is both natural and necessary for healthy forests – a relatively recent idea in the officialdom of forestry (etc.), but important to Fire Season, for example.

I loved learning about a forgotten chunk of old growth: “The 140-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest located near the tower was named the Gaudineer Scenic Area. This tract was never logged because of discrepancies between competing land surveys – this tiny slice of old growth forest survived because it wasn’t on any company’s map!” (I like to think that there may have been some intention in this ‘error’.) And mention of the Thorny Mountain tower was noted – “Hopefully, one day, Thorny Mountain will reopen to the public.” Well, it has, although it’s awfully hard to book. I hope to snag a couple of nights there myself next year.

This book is short and modest in its scope. The interviews themselves remain faithfully in the vernacular, which I enjoyed. They provide a glimpse of life in a particular time and place, and I’m super grateful to the folks who collected these memories for us all. Thanks for the loan, DB.


Rating: 7 cans of peaches.

podcast: S-Town

S-Town is an American investigative journalism podcast hosted by Brian Reed and created by the producers of Serial and This American Life. All seven chapters were released on March 28, 2017.

I have been hearing about this podcast for years, and I’m sorry it took me so long. As soon as I started it I was hooked, riveted, couldn’t stop. So beware.

S-Town is the polite abbreviation for Shittown, which is the moniker given Woodstock, Alabama by a colorful character who is from there. John B. McLemore contacts Brian Reed by email, and the two end up emailing and talking on the phone for some time – at least many months, maybe a year or more – before Reed is convinced to go down and meet the man in person. John B’s original story for Brian is about a murder that has been covered up by corrupt Bibb County, which he would like the journalist to investigate. Well, this is an early spoiler but a mild one: the alleged murder never actually took place. But by the time Reed figures that out, he’s met John B, who is an addicting character. Wildly eccentric, genius, and yet somehow also an everyman. S-Town thinks it’s about a murder, for a minute, but really it’s about John B himself.

Or is it? I coach my students to pay close attention to titles, and this podcast is titled after the town itself; or rather, John B’s colorful description of the town. Maybe the show is about John B’s worldview. The man himself; the town; John B’s philosophies; Brian Reed’s unresolved feelings about these subjects; the final disposition of the man at the center of things.

To quote the Vox article that is linked later in this review:

John is all of the following: a queer liberal conspiracist who socializes with neighborhood racists; a manic depressive consumed by predictions of cataclysmic global catastrophe; an off-the-grid hoarder of gold who takes in stray dogs; a genius with a photographic memory who’s spent his whole life caring for his mother while designing a massive and elaborate hedge maze in his backyard; and one of the most skilled antique clock restorers in the world.

I feel that, on one level, S-Town is an example of the best of what creative nonfiction can do. It focuses on a man who is, at least in some ways, just a regular dude from a backwater town in a part of the country that we are accustomed to looking down on. It turns out that the everyman is remarkable, however: he is inarguably hyperintelligent; he’s also eccentric, disturbed, deeply troubled. (He actually reminds me so vividly of someone I have known intimately for much of my life that I was often freaked out by the similarities, so much that I don’t think I can name that person here, although those close to me will recognize who I mean.) He’s endlessly fascinating. Reed gives the impression of simply capturing the outpouring of weirdness from John B and passing it on to us – artfully composed, but otherwise authentic. Look how crazy real life can be! Fact is stranger than fiction, and all that; the best stories occur in nonfiction because we wouldn’t find them believable in fiction, I often feel.

Of course, there is a little bit of a falsehood there. All narratives are mediated in some ways. No story could tell everything about a man, and this one is limited by time (seven episodes averaging just under an hour apiece), and by Brian Reed’s limited access to John B. (The subject here is extremely forthcoming, but who can ever share all of himself; and they only know each other for so long.) Any narrative necessarily shapes its subject, no matter how honest it tries to be. But I find this piece of creative nonfiction – the seven episodes as a whole – an extraordinary example of craft and art, and an exemplar of the power of creative nonfiction at its best.

It’s also been the subject of some controversy. I’ve tried to keep the rest of this review pretty nearly spoiler-free, but if you want to appreciate the podcast as intended, stop reading now and go listen to it first.


There have been complaints (and lawsuits) over Reed’s use of personal information. Did he exploit John B? Has he aired more personal business than the subject intended? John B is not here to speak for himself, which makes these questions harder to answer. But I think… if Reed has exposed a lot of John B’s innards, that’s just what journalists do. John B contacted a journalist, knowingly invited Reed into his life, and then granted him enormous access to himself, his home, his mind, and his writings. And John B was a smart man. If it’s a bit off-putting to see so much personal stuff exposed – and I do find it a bit uncomfortable – well, what else did we expect? It is certainly great storytelling. We can’t know what John B would have thought of the final product. But he doesn’t strike me as a man worried about outward appearances. Sometimes journalism, and creative nonfiction, can be a little unsavory, folks. (Perhaps this is why I’m pretty much a nonpracticing nonfictionist at this point.) But S-Town no more so than the rest of it. If anything, I think Reed did a decent job of resisting the temptation to view Woodstock with disdain or even the curiosity of a visitor to the zoo; I think he tried for nuance.

Rather unusually, I’m writing this review more than a week after finishing the podcast – I generally like to get to things much more quickly – and so I can tell you it’s sticking with me, as fascination and as a bit of a puzzle. I’m not ready to indict Brian Reed or the podcast, but I don’t feel excellent about the whole thing, either. For a few other perspectives, many of them less complimentary than mine, check out Medium (with spoilers!); even better, I think, is Vox‘s coverage (also with spoilers). The latter does a very good job of explaining what is outstanding and what is troubling about S-Town, in my estimation. But best of all would be to go listen to it yourself.

John B will be with me for some time.


Rating: 9 drops of mercury.

“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

From the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine, sent to me by the infallible Liz, a transcendent essay by Ann Patchett. Now, I’m not sure if this is for real or how stable it is, but at least for now this link will let you read it for free, which you definitely should do. And it’s worth whatever they want you to pay for it, in any case.

“These Precious Days” is a lengthy essay, but it is riveting at every point. I had to put it down and walk away just to give my mind and my emotions a break, and to stretch it out – it is that strong and beautiful an experience. And it was hard to figure out where to take that break, because it wants to flow right through from start to finish.

There is a story running through this piece, and it is a story of a friendship, formed and forged during extraordinary times. As Patchett reminds us, she is a novelist, with a real interest in how stories are structured, where they begin and where they end. So it is with purpose that she gives us the story’s chosen beginning: it’s almost bedtime, Patchett has just finished a novel, and she needs something short to read before bed. From the umpteen books that naturally surround Ann Patchett, she chooses a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. She is surprised to find it “a very good book,” and this sets her off on a journey where she gets to know Tom Hanks a little, interviews him for a television show, meets his assistant, sees him a few more times. This leads to Tom Hanks narrating the audiobook of The Dutch House, among other things. I’m not going to say any more about what happens. Trust me, you won’t be able to walk away from this one (unless you force yourself to do so with great effort, as I did, mostly for the pleasure of returning to it).

One thing I love about this essay is how it performs as a braided essay, barely. Patchett stays in a single narrative for the most part, telling the story of the developing friendship in the extraordinary times. After her introductory story about Tom Hanks (who is not the new friend, but reappears occasionally), she stays in this main thread so much of the time, and tells it so beautifully (and it is such an absorbing story) that I forget about the other thread – that there is a meta-thread in this essay about story, and about the shape and the shaping of this story. Those few and brief moments when she reminds us of the other topic are all the more effective for their scarcity. We are reminded that the narrator’s character is a novelist, and that the need she feels to shape narrative can’t be divorced from the life she’s living, where she has a dear new friend who is in danger. It’s extremely skillful writing, and I loved several facets of it: that weaving of threads (just barely, just a touch of one for seasoning in the main dish), the expertly paced storytelling, the appreciation for so-called coincidence, the delightful characters (of whom the author’s husband is a secondary example, but one I really liked), and the self-aware voice of Patchett herself. I’m left with the impression that Patchett is like Tom Hanks in a way (or my impression of Tom Hanks): despite being famous, they’re both also very decent and nice, more than one might expect. She’s allowed us intimately in here in a way that I think will appeal to many readers as it did to me.

Now’s a good time for me to confess that I’ve read none of Patchett’s fiction. (I think I’ve read a column or two, within the world of her bookstore advocacy.) I know her by reputation as a fine novelist and an important advocate of independent bookstores. I can now see that she is absolutely gifted and I need to read more of her work.

I can’t remember the last time an essay so bewitched and transported me. I insist you seek this one out. Thanks a million times as usual, Liz. (How’d I do?)

movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State by Tyler Gillespie

Disclosure: I was sent a digital ARC of this book by the author in exchange for my honest review.


Tyler Gillespie’s essay collection The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State has just this week been released, and I’m happy to share it with you here. This book was indeed a good match for my reading tastes! It’s about a misunderstood or maligned place (Texas transplant to West Virginia here: I sympathize), and it’s about place, which I always gravitate towards. It’s a collection of essays that roam widely in theme, and I found Gillespie’s voice very appealing: he can be hilarious and self-deprecating, but also serious and earnest; he considers important questions, as in the painful experiences of the LGBTQ+ queer community in Orlando especially following the mass shooting at the Pulse Club in 2016.

One of the audience members near me asked her friend if the alligators were animatronic. The area’s theme parks seemed to make people question reality. Florida, in general, has a way of doing that.

Essays cover a range of topics: “Because Florida” jokes and “Florida Man”; hurricanes; Civil War reenactors (and the question of how ‘southern’ Florida really is); cattle ranchers; a gay resort/campground, which relates to aging issues for queer folks; alligators! and those who wrangle, wrestle, and love them; snakes, including breeding and smuggling and the escaped ones thriving in Florida; reptile people (that is, those who love them and attend reptile conventions); and the Joy Metropolitan Community Church, where queer Floridians find an open-minded home. “Joy MCC stood less than ten miles away from some of Orlando’s theme parks like The Holy Land Experience. Those attractions gave visitors pyrotechnic performances and larger-than-life experiences. People could escape their daily lives there, while Joy MCC–and places like it–let people come home. They gave Floridians a second chance to be who they already knew they were.”

There is opportunity for humor in some of these topics more than others. I appreciated Gillespie’s stark discomfort with the Civil War reenactors, his (perhaps surprising) affinity for the cattle ranchers (“Marcia’s food almost made me want to sign up to work as a cowboy-for-hire until I remembered the wild hogs and all the broken bones and who I generally am as a person”), and his relationship with his grandmother as it played out in hurricane prepping. He’s most concerned with human culture and history; the scope of this book does not extend very far into the natural world (except in its role as host to those alligators and snakes, etc.). He does evoke some of the landscape, though: “Sawgrass stretched for years, and gnats pestered us like siblings.” I guess I was a little surprised to find Florida characterized as a homophobic place, as my picture of Florida stereotypes involved large numbers of retirees and gay men; but there’s plenty of rural space there as everywhere, and it is the South. (Is it? There are a few perspectives, and again as a Texan, I sympathize – we run from Deep South to TexMex to the southwest. But I certainly thought of Florida as the South, however arguable that idea may be.) Which is to say, totally unsurprisingly, that I learned something from this book.

The best part, though, is definitely Gillespie’s voice. I feel like I made a friend reading this. That’s a way to say: the narrator is personable, intimate, funny, accessible, approachable. It’s pretty rare to feel this way after reading a book, and that’s okay, because not every book sets out to make its reader feel like a friend, but this one certainly accomplishes it. Perhaps the greatest victory Gillespie wins here in arguing for Florida as a real place (not a cartoon landscape) lies in his own relatability. Florida, like every other place you might name, is not any one thing. It contains the city and the country, a wide range of politics and educational and lifestyle backgrounds, and all kinds of different people. Summing up anyplace too easily would be a disservice, and Gillespie does his home state a service here by complicating it. He doesn’t argue that it’s perfect, or the best place, and he readily acknowledges its weirdness, but he makes it variable and diverse and flawed and weird and real. Somebody should commission a series of The Thing About books for the other 49 states, and keep going from there.

Thanks for thinking of me, Tyler.


Rating: 7 burgers.
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