An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

What is Odysseus, in the end – the hero whose final act of vengeful violence is compared, by means of another memorable simile, to a bard stringing his lyre – but the poet of his own life?

This is the first book I read in 2022, and I feel sure it will make the year’s best-of list, so that’s an excellent start. Another happy synchronicity: I bought this book based off a review I read, but find that Mendelsohn is also the author of a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few years, from a grad school reading list I never got to: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. After this read, that one just moved up the list.

An Odyssey is a memoir focusing on a father/son relationship and a journey, both a literal one and the figurative path to greater understanding facilitated by a yet more famous Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay is eighty-one years old the spring he asks his son Dan if he can sit in on his undergraduate seminar course on Homer’s Odyssey. Dan says yes, and together with a small group of college freshmen, father and son explore a work of classic literature and, as Dan sees it, their own relationship. Just after the course ends, they go together on a Mediterranean cruise that follows Odysseus’s presumed route home from the Trojan War. A year later, Jay would be dead.

I bought this book because I read a lovely review of it (which I now cannot find. I thought it was Shelf Awareness but apparently not), but then it sat on my shelf for some time, I think because the concept sounded a little precious, a little pat. And it could have been, in the wrong hands, but Daniel Mendelsohn was the right writer for this story, and I’m so glad. For one, he has a deep expertise in Homer and indeed in the classics – as I briefly (in high school) aspired to do, he learned Greek and Latin sufficient to read Homer, Ovid and Virgil (etc.) in their original forms, just for a start. He is the kind of thoughtful, introspective student of relationships and families that I most appreciate as a writer. He has the nuance to handle such a premise – father and son study the Odyssey and take a trip together – with the subtlety it needs. Talk about a book matched to its reader: Homer, parent/child relationships, contemplative memoir… and a focus on teaching. The result is a beautiful book that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Here are a few lines that made me pause.

I was going to read Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the elaborately unspooling Histories of Herodotus, the tragedies constructed as beautifully as clocks, as implacably as traps…

How lovely – and makes me think of Amy Leach’s “Pea Madness.”

And so ring composition, which might at first glance appear to be a digression, reveals itself as an efficient means for a story to embrace the past and the present and sometimes even the future – since some ‘rings’ can loop forward, anticipating events that place after the conclusion of the main story. In this way a single narrative, even a single moment, can contain a character’s entire biography.

A single moment containing a character’s entire biography feels like why I read and write.

About competing literary interpretations,

Whatever else it may mean, the fact that both of these hostile camps could make use of the same examples to prove diametrically opposed interpretations suggests a truth about how all of us read and interpret literary texts – one that is, possibly, rooted in the mysteries of human nature itself. Where some people see chaos and incoherence, others will find sense and symmetry and wholeness.

Following a half-page discussion of the etymology of a certain word that I care about,

In time, this wistful word nostos, rooted so deeply in the Odyssey‘s themes, was eventually combined with another word in Greek’s vast vocabulary of pain, algos, to give us an elegantly simply way to talk about the bittersweet feeling we sometimes have for a special kind of troubling longing. Literally this word means ‘the pain associated with longing for home,’ but as we know, ‘home,’ particularly as we get older, can be a time as well as a place. The word is ‘nostalgia.’

This takes me immediately to a Jason Isbell song (forgive the whiplash), “Something to Love,” and the line “don’t quite recognize the world that you call home.” Naturally, this is a song about art and creativity, and it is sung in the voice of a parent speaking to his child. The idea that two people a generation apart – parent and child – necessarily come from different worlds, because of the way the world changes over time, has been a powerful one for me in the last decade or so.

Here’s another passage that gets to the heart of some of (again) my own thinking about parents.

If only they knew the real him, I thought. Glancing around at the others as they listened to Daddy, at the charmed smiles on Brendan’s and Ksenia’s faces, and then back at his face, relaxed and open, mellow with reminiscence, a face so different from the one he so often presented, at least to his family, I wondered suddenly whether there might be people, strangers he had met on business trips, say, bellhops or stewardesses or conference attendees, to whom he showed only this kindly face, and who, therefore, would be as astonished by the expression of contempt that we knew so well as we were by the rare glimpses of the other, softer side. How many sides did my father actually have, I asked myself, and which was the ‘real’ one? Perhaps this expansive and charming person, so different from the crabbed and coiled man whom only a month or two earlier, I ruefully thought, my Odyssey students had come to know, this song-singing old gentleman who could be so affable and entertaining with total strangers on a ship in the middle of the sea, was the person my father had always been meant to be. Or, perhaps, had always been, although only with those others, the bellhops and stewardesses. Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? ‘Who really knows his own begetting?’ Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.

On teaching:

It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way – because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death – good teaching is like good parenting.

This feels like a revelation but also something I recognize because I already understood it. It gets at why passion and excitement make for good teaching. And there’s a profundity to the idea that teaching is about what lives on beyond us. Although shortly after, he’ll make the point that teachers never know who they will reach with which lesson, because these things take years to reveal themselves; just as our own teachers rarely know who they have reached. I think again of Mrs. Smith, who introduced me in high school to Homer and Hemingway.

These moments go on and on. I love a book that offers both lovely lines and thought-provoking ideas.

The only critique I’d make of this exquisite work is some minimizing or simplification of women, especially by contrast to another recent read, Natalie Haynes’s excellent Pandora’s Jar, which was one of the best books I read in 2021, and helped inspire this read. (I regret that my weird reading-and-review schedule has reversed the order in which they appear here.) Haynes set out to address the roles and reputations of women in the Greek myths, and Mendelsohn concerns himself with fathers and sons, so, fair enough. But there were a few moments where I felt Mendelsohn missed a chance to see certain issues of gender, such that it felt like an oversight to me. It’s up for debate, of course, what agency Odysseus gets for his affairs with Calypso and Circe and his flirtations with Nausicaa and others (as opposed to the-gods-made-him-do-it), but to credit his “allegiance to his wife… withstand[ing] the seductive attentions of various goddesses and nymphs” seems a bit rich. I missed a more nuanced treatment of gender relations, both in Homer and in Mendelsohn’s own life. But perhaps this is unfair, considering his stated focus on male relationships.

I’ll be thinking about An Odyssey for a while.


Rating: 9 doors.

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.
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