On Homesickness: A Plea by Jesse Donaldson

Our temples are made of logs in Kentucky so be careful with the flame.

This is a book very much after my own heart, even though its narrator doesn’t care much for the city that has my heart; we both share a love for home, even though our homes are different.

On Homesickness is a collection of fragments, none longer than one page, and that’s an important design feature, because each spread follows a pattern. The left-hand page names a Kentucky country, its date of establishment, and a small representation of its shape on a map. The right-hand page offers a fragment, sometimes expressly referring to the corresponding county but more often not. It’s possible that fragments and counties match up better than I know, and a Kentuckian might know better, but I’m not really all that concerned. These super-short pieces of prose make a neatly paced, lyric form for what is essentially a wandering wanting. Donaldson yearns for his home and can’t figure out how to get there. Meanwhile we learn as well that he and his beloved partner have a pretty good life in Oregon, a place he finds beautiful but not quite home. His partner is uninclined to pick up and move to Kentucky. Donaldson flubs a job interview that might have moved his family home; his wife gets pregnant, and in a lovely piece near the end, “…I realize that for our daughter, this place will be home. And I want her to love it like I did mine.”

That is the narrative arc, such as it is (and it ends beautifully), but the narrative bones of this book are spare. Along the way, Donaldson also mines Kentucky history, myth, and cultural references (that Colonel’s sour mash), creating as much mood as story. Again, yearning is absolutely the dominant feeling, coming across loud and clear. Also very present is the unnamed partner, the wife in Oregon. This is a love story as much for a woman as for a place. “A place can’t love me. Not like you.”

I find this book interesting for its form, its bravery in sparsity and what it communicates so succinctly. Its themes are so much my own that it aches a little, and I recognized almost every line as I read. Even the references felt uncannily personal (Janus, Cleanth Brooks, Houston). Is that because I’m so truly the right reader for this book? Or because it’s designed to appeal to every reader in this personal way? Probably a little of both. Either way, a good study in minimalist, lyric prose; mood over plot; and a decent way to learn about Kentucky, not from an academic historian but from a lover. I liked it very much.


Rating: 8 love stumps.

Bonus material/synchronicity: I was originally sent this book in galley form for a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t get around to it. I kept the book, though, because I thought I might be interested someday. When I worked with Jeremy Jones last semester, I learned that his “In Place” series from WVU‘s Vandalia Press had debuted with this book as its first release. Meant to be. Part of me wishes I’d gotten to it sooner (and written that review for the Shelf!), but part of me thinks I found it at the right time.

movie: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Recommended by the fabulously talented Jessie van Eerden. Writing my thesis with her this semester is a dream.

However, first thoughts on this movie were “wow, this is weird, why am I watching this?” and then I got into the groove. For one thing, it’s an interesting work of narrative nonfiction. Ostensibly, director Agnès Varda is concerned with an external subject: the longstanding tradition of gleaning, or collecting the leftovers of a harvest. She enters this subject via art – the paintings of Millet and Breton – but among and in between this external material, Varda looks back at herself. The moments that become personal make the whole thing work, for me. Which is not to say that I wish the whole thing had been personal, or I spent the rest of the movie waiting to learn more about our narrator, you understand. I’m just voicing again my preference for a present narrator. I appreciate external material that is commented upon by a personal voice. In fact, I pretty much require it, as a personal preference. Perhaps this is on my mind now because I’m working on my thesis, that book-length project “of publishable quality”… and I am appreciating that Jessie shares my feeling of being an essayist, of commenting on outside material from a personal perspective, rather than simply airing all my own thoughts and feelings. Personal essay, not memoir, if you will.

And that is what I’m getting out of this movie: the narrative stance. As well as the subject matter: not gleaning in particular, but the entry through art into a larger subject (I am writing about the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, and Dominique de Menil, among others), as well as its metaphoric possibility. I really lit up when Varda noted the new, metaphoric uses of ‘gleaning’:

On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been. From Japan, I brought back in my case souvenirs I had gleaned.

She does a lot of using one hand to film the other hand, which is an interesting statement about art, right? (All that commentary about the memoir as navel-gazing!)

The Gleaners and I is a piece of art, concerned in part with art – the original paintings as inspiration; the artists Varda meets who create out of the refuse they scavenge – as well as several meanings of gleaning. The people in the French countryside consider gleaning in its old sense, bending down to pick up leftover crops lying on the ground after a harvest. Some see a difference between this act and picking, which is picking fruit or nuts or whatever off of trees, vs. bending to take off the ground. Then there is urban scavenging, dumpster diving and combing through curb leavings. And finally that metaphoric sense, in which I watch this movie and take with me – figuratively – the parts that are of most value to me.

Varda interviews a “painter and retriever” who picks up other people’s discards from the curbs to make art, not unlike a dear friend of mine: he says, “what’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” (I also love that he points out that the city council puts out maps of where this not-junk is going to be, and Varda responds that really, aren’t the maps so that the people can put out their junk? And he sort of chuckles and says yes, well, I read the maps in my own way.)

I’m really fascinated though at the assumption throughout – never challenged! – that this food is all “wasted” if people don’t eat it. One guy did say about unharvested grapes that otherwise “the wild boars and the birds will get them.” So… how is that a waste? No human got it, but it didn’t go to waste. Even the fruit that rots on the ground contributes to a system. Even if we’re compelled to make it about us: dirt is necessary for people to live, for everything to live, and rotting grapes help make dirt. I wrote to my artist-scavenger friend about this movie, and he responded: “There is an edict in the Old Testament about leaving behind a percent of crops for the animals. Old wisdom makes sense sometimes.” This seemed like a gaping hole to me. After all, we didn’t invent grapes. They grew on their own, for their own purposes: the purpose of the grape, and the bird and the wild boar. Shades of Amy Leach here…

The film is in French, with subtitles, and it’s dated. (It was released in 2000, but the narrative voice is very much “what is this new millennium nonsense” – filmed in the 90s, of course.) It’s also arty, a little slow-paced and introspective, which could contribute to its being a little less than accessible – it worked that way for me, early on. It had a little bit of the tone of Sherman’s March, but not nearly so off-putting for this viewer!

All in all, I was a touch slow to get involved but Varda’s Gleaners ended up being fascinating, thought-provoking, and memorable. It’s been haunting my thoughts. There’s a lot going on here, and I do recommend it, if you’re at all interested in… trash, food, the end of the world, reuse, art, or narrative perspectives. So, good for all thinking souls.


Rating: 8 cages interesting like boats, like violins.

A Song for the River by Philip Connors

Today a simple repost of my review from back in June. Philip Connors’s A Song for the River was released yesterday, and you should get yourself a copy.

Connors writes,

On one quiet stretch of water I looked up at the tiered mesas above us and felt it might be true that my life was both a fire and a river, depending on the moment and the vantage from which it was viewed–and never more like a river than in moments like this.

My review, again, is here. Thank you.

Hood by Alison Kinney

This is the third that I’ve read in the Object Lessons series (Sock, Souvenir).

Kinney examines the hood’s sinister appearances in history: worn by executioners, torturers, and (not by choice) their victims; worn by the Ku Klux Klan; given as an excuse for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This last – the hoodie – was, for me, the most obvious application of ‘hood’ and the one I was most expecting (to what extent this was suggested by the cover, I can’t say), and none of these focal points surprised me. I was a little surprised to learn that the executioner and the torturer did not wear hoods til pretty modern times – our attribution of the hood to the medieval bad guys is a modern error (or, perhaps, a calculated strategy). But I was more surprised that Kinney’s hood is so consistently an image of violence. She mentions the hoods worn by professors, judges, and academics – the honorable hood – but only as a point of contrast.

In the opening pages, Kinney lists the hood’s uses: by “judges, athletes, rappers, torturers, politicians, and toddlers… to attend school, commute… go to war or protests, take a hike, walk the dog, ride the Maid of the Mist, or visit our grannies in the woods… coaches, firefighters, fishers, boxers, beekeepers, and Mark Zuckerberg… skaters, cosplayers, fetishests, presidents, and the entire Knowles-Carter family.” She apologizes: “Sorry, but you’ll have to wait for the sequel to get car hoods, stove hoods, and Mount Hood.” This promise of exhaustivity is not carried through, however. I recall Sock, wherein Kim Adrian reached back to the origins – the invention of the sock. That part of the hood’s story is missing here. I guess Sock and Souvenir had conditioned me to expect a really broad, start-to-finish, far-reaching treatment, and that’s not what Hood does. Hood focuses on injustice, violence, death, and abuses of power. It’s an important story; I’m not necessarily against Kinney’s approach, but it’s not what I’d been expecting.

The other way in which this book differs from the others I’ve read is that Kinney, as narrator, as researcher, and as holder of opinions, was lacking from her narrative. It has long been a reading preference of mine to find the author in her work; in nonfiction, I find it essentially dishonest to act like an impartial observer or researcher, because there’s no such thing. In this book, in particular, because Kinney takes decided political stances on a variety of issues, I really felt the hole left by her absence. Let it be said that I agree with her politics. But I regret that she didn’t reveal something of herself in stating them. I think it would have strengthened the book.

I’m interested to learn that the Object Lessons series takes more varied forms than those I’ve already encountered. I think I prefer the other model: the exhaustive, whimsical, present-narrator one. But Hood has much to offer, including a strong indictment of capital punishment, a chilling glimpse into Abu Ghraib, and a discussion of the black bloc of protesters at the Seattle WTO meeting and beyond.


Rating: 7 images.

The Body: An Essay by Jenny Boully

The Body is an essay in footnotes. Footnotes to a body text which is absent. Just the footnotes.

Pages are often more blank than not, with a line demarcating the footnote section of the page, and then (in rather small font) the text below. Some footnotes are nothing more than Ibid., with a page number. Does this sound infuriating? Yes.

Some of the footnotes are long enough and weird enough to get lost in, themselves; when I consider them poetry and dwell in the moment, there is something to be enjoyed. But overall, not a concept that works for me. Other, better-known writers and readers than I have found much to value here. A meditation on the concept of absence, loss or disappearance, etc. But it was too weird for this reader. I was here for the body, if you will, and not its leavings.

For me a fail, but I’m certainly interested to know if you are differently minded. If any of my readers have enjoyed this book? Please explain.


Rating: 4 quotations.

Souvenir by Rolf Potts

Another from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series to follow Sock, which so delighted me.

And this book only deepens my feelings about objects, and about this series. Perhaps what I love most about Souvenir–even more than the enormous wealth of history, theory, and cultural trappings Potts has researched and illuminated for me–is its meta-ness, the fact that it’s about objects functioning wholly as objects, as ciphers or representatives of more. This little book has inspired me immensely.

Potts, a travel writer, brings his own souvenirs and their stories to this study. He begins by defining ‘souvenir’ for the book’s purposes: “objects that are collected for personal reasons during the course of a journey.” Academic researchers, he writes, have split souvenirs into five categories. “Piece-of-the-rock” items are physical fragments of the travel destination or experience itself: rocks, sticks, flowers; ticket stubs and emptied bottles that were purchased full. “Local products” are just that; and these first two categories pre-date a tourism industry creating them purpose-made. Next, “pictorial images” (postcards, posters); “markers” (“which includes T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other products branded to the location”); and “symbolic shorthand,” which refers to recognizable images: the Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, the Astrodome.

Potts moves through categories and experiences and controversies: for example, soldiers bringing home souvenirs of war (including body parts and stolen antiquities), or the commercialization of disaster (New York’s September 11 Museum did not receive federal funding, and so raised money by selling 9/11-themed umbrellas, key chains, tote bags, and cheese plates). He examines the concept of authenticity, and how we grade it. Is a terra-cotta jug equally authentic when made for a tourist market as when made for carrying water? What if the materials, methods and final product are identical but for intended use? In other words, what and who confers authenticity? He relates tales of villages that put on an act of “primitive” “authenticity” for the tourists (wearing traditional clothing and carrying spears for the photographs), then return to blue jeans and television sets once the tourists have moved on. Which of these more authentic: the appearance that agrees with a Westerner’s preconceived notion, or the way modern African villagers really live?

I really appreciated thinking about an object’s transition from souvenir to museum piece, from private and associative meanings to public and interpretive ones, in which (I offer) something is lost and something is gained. And you know I especially enjoyed the concept of Wunderkammern (German, ‘wonder chambers’), small museum-like rooms maintained by individuals. This puts a word to an idea I’ve been writing about, obsessing over, and building for myself over the last semester.

I get carried away listing the ideas that sparked my mind. Postcard as “part object, part information.” Attribution of authenticity as a form of cultural appropriation, with all the usual arguments to be made: that culture is nothing but an accumulation of appropriations. Different cultural definitions of what a souvenir is, is about, is for: that the Japanese fulfill established expectations with souvenirs, that they seek not creativity, not “authenticity” in the way that many Westerners define it, but the performance of a formula: green-tea-flavored sweets from Kyoto, apple-flavored pastries from Aomori. My imagination is alive.

For years, I brought a dear friend pieces of the natural landscape when I visited beaches all over the world: a shell from Scheveningen, sand from southern California, rocks from Bellingham Bay. I used to work with a woman who collected feminine hygiene products from various countries and cultures, marveling at the variety of ways we deal with menstrual blood. Knowing these friends’ preferences made them easy to “shop” for. When I collect souvenirs, for myself or for others like this, as gifts, I note (as Potts has), that in the end it’s about the story that the thing reminds me of, much more than it is about the thing itself. Certainly, we can do workaday shopping while traveling: at an outdoors shop in Ireland I bought a sleeping bag and some hiking pants that are just those utilitarian things, although I don’t forget where I got them, either. But these are not “pure” souvenirs. Pure souvenirs are about narrative. “Everyone who collects souvenirs ends up creating these object-narratives, which resonate with private meanings no written autobiography could ever achieve.”

I can already see that I’m in danger of investing in every book in this series.

Like Sock, Souvenir is a mixture of personal essay (Potts’s own travels, his own souvenirs and stories), history, anthropology, and so much more. The object-as-object subject here was especially close to my own heart, although I venture that Potts indulged in a little less poetry and whimsy than Adrian did. At any rate, I’m in love, and hungry for more. I can’t recommend highly enough these tiny little books that open enormous worlds, through everyday things.


Rating: 9 masks.

Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained by August Kleinzahler

I bought this book nearly two years ago, on the recommendation of my friend Doug.

Cutty, One Rock has four parts in this edition (three in the original). Generally, the book deals with Kleinzahler’s background–family, hometown and neighborhood–in a Mob-rough New Jersey; it deals with place, relationships with people, and eventually with art. His parents live a middle-to-upper-middle class life, concerned somewhat with appearances; his mother is devoted to Shakespeare. The back of the book calls them “both cultivated and deranged,” which I think is apt. Early in the book, these parents figure as central influences, central characters in the child’s upbringing, but stay tuned for another important family member to come later in the book.

The adult Kleinzahler is an expatriate Jerseyite living in California’s Bay Area, and the differences between these two places, the baggage he carries between them, is another central feature. Here he is describing the “swagger, a bluff air of menace that many of the males wear”:

Once, after leaving a restaurant in North Beach, here in San Francisco, I gave a panhandler a dollar, a middle-aged black guy with some amusing riff or other.

“Thanks, Jersey,” he said, to the great amusement of my companions.

“How did you know I was from Jersey?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?” he said.

The narrator does substantial traveling beyond these two points, east and west, and these other locations and the nature of travel itself offer another recurring thread. The essay “East/West Variations” opens:

There’s a window, thirty-six hours or so, not even, when traveling by air between places, places where you’ve lived for a long time. After you’ve landed and into the next day, perhaps the evening–then you begin to lose it. It goes very quickly, decaying like a tone in the air. But for a while, inside that window, you’re hyperawake.

He goes on to describe this “window,” which I couldn’t help but conflate with the window you look out of when traveling by air–which I was doing, as it happens, while reading this book. He concludes on the next page that “places are conditions of mind.” By the end of this wide-ranging essay (which catalogs several romantic interests and his hard-nosed mother’s reactions to these women), we deal directly with a parent’s mortality. It’s a hell of an undertaking, and I’m not sure I followed him everywhere he tried to take me, but I appreciate the ambitious handling of place and people, and their intersection.

Part three tackles the subject of poetry, and poets. Kleinzahler is a poet; but he’s a rough-and-tumble Jersey poet, with no patience for poetry readings or academia. He writes a particularly scathing send-up of Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems; a profile of Allen Ginsberg (reminding me, not for the first time, of Joseph Mitchell); and a lovely elegy of Thom Gunn. The Keillor criticism, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” is clever, and the Ginsberg profile is incisive; but I love Kleinzahler’s voice best when he writes with love, as he does of Gunn.

Kleinzahler is derisive toward intellectuals,

particularly university intellectuals, [who] indulge in pissing contests over how much they’ve read, quoting at length by heart and so on. No wonder they have no friend off-campus. Thom could more than hold his own if sucked into one or another of these contests, but it wasn’t his sport.

And it’s not Kleinzahler’s sport, either, but I do want to point out that he had me noting (and in some cases looking up) terms like diabase, tibouchina, carillon, cloaca, tatterdemalion (great fun, that one), superannuated, and–very happily–sprezzatura, which I remember from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, in which McPhee expresses a sense of total consternation at this untranslatable and mysterious term. So there, Kleinzahler.

While there are many fine essays here–like “The Bus,” about public transportation, class in cities, and the invisible weirdness of strip centers–this book held two exceptional highlights for me. One was the essay, in part two, “The Zam Zam Room.” It offers a profile of a bar, a dark and smoky bar with a characterful bartender/owner who professionally throws people out.

When David Letterman came to town to do a week of shows, his advance people phoned Bruno to see if he would throw Letterman out of the bar on the show. “No, I’m sorry, thank you,” Bruno said over the phone. “Who’s David Letterman?” he asked us. “I don’t know this person. Why do these people bother me? He must be some New York person.”

Perfect descriptions of place, local culture, and especially a singular personality, make for an essay I love–but if it’s also set in a bar, I’m really sold.

The finest thing in these pages, though, is part four. Where the first three parts contain three to four essays apiece, this is a single essay, which shares the book’s title, “Cutty, One Rock.” That’s what Kleinzahler’s older brother always ordered when he went out, which he did, just about all night and every night until he died young and tragic. I heard echoes and rhymes of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” loud and clear throughout. This deeply loving study of a loved brother, its close attention and reluctant acknowledgement of flaws, its worship–because the narrator was the much younger brother, always looking up–is so good it hurts. That’s them on the front cover.

This book is worth reading from cover to cover, but that final section really blew me apart. Booze; sense of place; difficult families and unbeautiful homes. Also, memoirs by poets. Good stuff. Thanks, Doug.


Rating: 8 dry martinis.
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