reread: Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

My father was right to recommend this reread (re-listen) after finishing The Plover. I didn’t even necessarily remember Declan, hero of the latter novel, from Mink River. And while he was definitely present here, and a colorful character, and recognizable from his later role, I was struck by the knowledge that there were many such colorful characters, whose lives might have been pursued in a sequel. And I was struck with grief all over again that we have lost the brilliant, generous, loving, exuberant voice of Brian Doyle too soon from this world. I wanted him to write so many more books.

He was still living when I read (listened to) this book the first time. This time, I felt saddened at many turns, ironically, in appreciating the delightful high spirits and joy and wisdom in his every line. Gosh, but I’m devastated at this loss, all over again and over and over.

But the book itself: still a wonder and a joy to experience. I fell in again with the inhabitants of Neawanaka, particularly the families of Worried Man and Maplehead and Cedar, No Horses and Owen and Daniel; Declan and Grace, of course; and others: Nicholas, Michael and Sarah, and the budding romance (as I see it) between Stella and the doctor. I ached for Moses the crow and the nun, his rescuer and dear friend. I remember listening to this novel for the first time, working out at the YMCA in Bellingham, Washington. It’s funny how memory can transport us into the past. People talk about smell being such a powerful mnemonic, but for me it’s never been as strong as songs and stories, the listened-to. Hearing Worried Man and Cedar share a beer at lunch again took me back to the abductor and adductor machines and sweat, just like that.

As for writing about the book itself, I think I did a pretty good job the first time around, and will let that stand. I will say, about the audio version, it was outstanding a second time; but I wish I had the words in front of me to consult and quote from. So I’ll be finding myself a print copy as well. Consider that the highest of praise.

We miss you, Brian.


Rating: still those 8 bottles.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.

reread: Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

In my defense, it’s been more than four years since I listened to this audiobook for the first time (and reviewed it here): I had forgotten what happened, and got to find it new again. I seem to have reached the stage of forgetfulness in which I can enjoy a thriller/murder mystery novel a second time, with the same fresh eyes. Hooray! That always looked like one of the best features of aging. (Perhaps my brain’s just saturated.)

I recently took a road trip with a friend, and he wanted to listen to a book, and I figured Reacher would work for him, so here we are with an unplanned reread. I’ll keep this brief, because I think my earlier comments remain true. I was deeply concerned this time around with the erroneous use of the 50/50 coin toss idea. Reacher (and therefore Child) is usually so smart! But the many scenarios where the coin toss idea is used here are all binary choices, having two options; rarely do they hold even odds. Ugh.

On the other hand, I still love the sexiness, the cleverness, and the depth of the Susan Turner character (Reacher’s romantic alliance in this episode). I still love the formula, and formula it most certainly is; but having acknowledged that, what’s the problem? It works for me every time.

The extent to which I’d forgotten this plot excites me. It’s got me thinking about all the Martha Grimes books I enjoyed in my teens and early 20s: those should all be new to me now, too!

On that note, Happy Friday, y’all. I hope you have a weekend as awesome as a Lee Child novel (but with less violence).


Rating: I’ll stick with those 7 cars.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.


I annotated this book last semester for its use of objects. This time around, I’m interested in contrasting its strategy for using things with Terry Tempest Williams’s in Pieces of White Shell.

Where PoWS is a collection of essays or stories, SLWOL is a single essay, just seventy pages. Williams offers a collection of objects and devoted a chapter to each, where each object (or grouping of objects) allows her a way in to discuss the topics she needs to discuss. Doty’s work is initially ekphrastic: he is engaged in a lengthy, unhurried meditation on a single painting, and along the way meanders through a wide variety of places, buildings, objects, and other paintings. Doty refers to the habitual attendees of auctions, a tribe in which he includes himself, as “curators of objects, some of which would outlast us” (33); Williams is employed as museum curator during the narrative present of her book. Both books are concerned with material things, and use those things as a way in to larger topics, or allow them to stand in for less concrete concepts. But they do it both in very different ways and to very different effects, in part because the two writers are pursuing very different subjects.

Williams explores a body of knowledge and mythology that is outside herself (Navajo culture and myth, and a scientific approach–geography, biology–to a specific place) in order to better understand her world, including her Mormon background and her relationship with people and nature; she works to put forward a philosophy gleaned and developed from these sources. Doty wants to develop a worldview as well, of the dualities that engage his curiosity: intimacy versus independence, home versus travel. (He writes in The Art of Description about the usefulness of polarity: “the pull of forces in opposition to one another makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.”) He does this by examining the objects that draw his attention, and the nature of that attention. Thus, he’s not studying a still life painting so much as studying its effect on him, although a study of the painting is involved in a study of its effects.

In this way, Williams and Doty’s use of objects necessarily differs. Williams chooses the objects that head her chapters for their associative value. The Storyteller is a useful object because it opens the door to discuss storytellers she’s known, and the cultural value of storytelling. (The reader takes her word for it that these are also the objects actually on her desk, but whether chosen for the desk or for the book, still chosen.) Doty doesn’t choose objects so much as they choose him. He’s not using the painting, or the blue-and-white platter with antlered deer on it, or the peppermints, because of what they let him talk about. He is rather driven to use those objects because they have acted upon him, and it’s that acting-upon that he writes about in this book.

He also writes at several points about the narrative contained in objects: “I loved best the [auctions] that took place at people’s houses, for then the narrative of a life was most available” (31). The things he’s purchased “are informed for me, permanently, by the narrative of the auction, an experience of participation” (33). Obviously a nonfiction writer interested in composing a larger story through objects, perks up her ears at these mentions of narrative. However, I think perhaps Doty is even more interested in that “experience of participation.” Williams’s approach is more like narrative-through-representative-object (objects for their associative powers), where Doty’s is more the experience of interacting with objects, as the central narrative.

If there were a thesis question at the heart of this book, it might be, “Why do these things make me feel what they make me feel?” The title painting leads him into a lengthy discussion, revisited throughout the book, of how lemons represent intimacy. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten, myself, to a conclusion that lemons represent intimacy; but I’m deeply involved in Doty’s thought process. In the end, this book is not centrally about Doty’s life, any more than PoWS is about Williams’s. Rather, this book is about how Doty looks at (literal, material) things, and by extension how we all look at things.


Rating: upgraded to 9 quinces on this go-round.

reread: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Shortened version: it was excellent and moving, again. (Original review here.)

I will repeat myself (from Wednesday’s review of The Art of Memoir) that one of Mary Karr’s greatest strengths is her voice. Her personality sings or laughs or screams off the page, vernacular and colorful, wise and confused, approachable and authentic and believable. Her story is wild. If it weren’t told in such convincing fashion and with such human wonder by its narrator–in other words, if I tried to tell you here about some of the things that happened to young Mary, less artfully–you wouldn’t believe it. But in this memoir, you do.

Karr grew up in a little east Texas coastal refinery town (here under a fictional name), with a short spell spent in Colorado. Her family was troubled, and gave the neighbors some entertainment (or opportunity for self-righteous head-shaking). But this is not a simple story of hardship and woe. The Karrs are also fiercely loving and loyal, with a capacity for humor. Karr’s narrative voice seeks answers and knows how to criticize, but she loves her flawed people; she’s not out to get them. (This is one of the key tips of The Art of Memoir: write out of love, not hate. Additionally, though this sounds even harder, “as Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, ‘If you’re writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love.'”)

From a craft perspective, I suppose I will start by examining the rich inner world Karr relates here, as for example on pages 148-157. In this eventful chapter, Karr’s mother creates a massive bonfire of most of her children’s–that is, Mary and her sister’s–belongings, before threatening their lives with a butcher knife. This scene is described in great detail, meticulously, so that it takes pages for moments to pass. Alongside the scene we get little Mary’s coping mechanism: her imagination supplying parallel events to explain or counter those she is witnessing. There is a backwards-looking perspective provided by the adult Mary writing these lines, but also much of young Mary’s real-time daydreaming. There are flashbacks. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and she uses a similar strategy elsewhere, in other such horrifying, dramatic, traumatic scenes. I know one reader who finds the lengthy, meticulous description of trauma difficult; but I think it’s actually a remarkable way to put us in the scene, as well as paint the child’s surreal experience. (Also, it’s difficult. But there is no way to read about rape that is not difficult. It should be difficult.)

My remarks here just scratch the surface of what The Liars’ Club has to offer. I’m a little confounded by the reviewers who didn’t love this memoir. The “best” criticism I saw was by a reader who believes that memoirs should teach a high moral lesson or reveal an important, famous person’s life. This book perhaps does neither, but I disagree with the premise; and so, thankfully, does Mary Karr.


Rating: 8 electric can openers.

reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

You’ll recall that I really loved this book when I read it in 2013. (First review here.) I reread it recently as part of my first semester reading list (see new tag here, many entries to come!). Students’ reading lists are individual, created by the student and faculty advisor together, so Katie Fallon and I came up with my list as a team.

couchI loved this book again. Havel Kimmel’s mother is far from perfect; she struggles to hold herself together and care for her children and family in a way that her society deems correct; she appears ill-kempt. But in the course of this book, in Kimmel’s youth, she also learns how to drive a car (and buys herself one), enrolls in college and goes on to graduate school, gets a job as a teacher, and goes through a divorce. She struggles, but she keeps it together, accomplishes these large goals, and as this book’s existence shows, her youngest daughter loves her very much through it all. In other words, she’s our favorite kind of hero: challenged, imperfect, but eventually victorious against long odds.

So, a great story. But more than a great story, because Kimmel also presents it cleverly, with enormous humor (even when terrible things happen, like fifth-grade Kimmel’s double compound fracture with shattered bone extruding through the skin) and the kind of detail that makes the whole thing alive to her readers without ever feeling overloaded with descriptions. How does she do it? This is what I’m here to learn on this read. Because my stories are only as great as they are – I can’t control that part – but I can control how I tell them.

I’m still learning this kind of reading, how to read for the craft, to take it apart and see how it works. But here are some things I see:

  • Kimmel’s book is about her mother. The title and Preface make that clear. But many chapters hardly mention her, or don’t mention her at all. Much of Kimmel’s story characterizes mom Delonda without even touching on her. Who she married, what her children and family do when she’s not around, where she isn’t – all these things serve the development of Delonda, which I think is really cool.
  • Kimmel is hilarious. (Here, I don’t have much hope for myself; I’m afraid I’m missing that funny bone…) In the incident I mentioned above, the double compound fracture etc., she uses a totally hilarious doctor to add much of the humor in that scene. Was her doctor really that hilarious? I don’t know. Maybe she was gifted a comic doctor; or maybe she knew how to write his dialog to play that up.
  • Her POV rarely departs from that of the child she was in each scene. She stays in the past tense, but her conclusions, what she sees and what it means to her, stay in character. This often yields humor, because her audience knows more than her narrator does. It can yield poignancy in a way that is just honest without being precious. And it plays up the few moments when adult Kimmel comments on her past: these are rare enough that we pay extra attention.
  • A few chapters take unusual formats. There are lists; a transcript of an audio recording; rules of a game she plays with her friends. This kind of formal play (that is, playing with form) can be dangerous – it can distract, or call attention to itself, as in ‘look how clever I am’ – but I think it serves her well here. For one thing, it’s used sparingly. For another, the formats really do feel like they contribute to the narrative she wants to tell. I think a transcript of an audio recording is a great idea, because it’s in the moment. It’s real.
  • I spent some time focusing on the short chapter “Brother” that biographies her much older, and therefore mostly absent brother Dan. It’s a little bit of a departure from the rest of the book, in tone as well as subject, and I found it a charming encapsulated profile.

This is just the beginning of what I have to learn from Kimmel. Exciting, right? If you haven’t read her work yet, you obviously have my recommendation. I love everything she’s written, in fact, as you can see here.

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.


Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.

reread: Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

pieces of white shellThis memory from my childhood was every bit as good this time around. Terry Tempest Williams is a curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History in the early 1980’s, and in encountering Navajo people and their stories, she begins to learn her own natural history, her own and her (Mormon) culture’s connections to the earth, and how to find and tell stories herself. The tone is fanciful, but also grounded in the literal ground of her local environment in the Utah desert. In her first chapter, she shakes a small leather pouch out onto her desk and finds a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen; and the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez. These objects, collected during her communion with people and place, form the chapters of her book. I’m not sure whether to call these stories or essays; they are both. There is an element of dreaminess: she is sure she heard the drums of the Anasazi, and tells of transforming into Flea to hide out and listen to the stories the animals tell on Black Mountain. These are not literal truths in the scientific world as we understand it. Does that make these stories fiction? Allegory? Spiritual journeys? I’ll leave it to you. I am not a spiritual person by any standard definition, but Terry Tempest Williams holds me in thrall. This book is still the one of hers that touches me most deeply.

I don’t know how many times I read this book as a child, but it clearly made a deep impression on me. Several lines echoed like I just read them yesterday, or like I’d copied them into countless margins and scrawled them in notebooks over the years. “How could I tell him the mind creates those things that exist. I couldn’t, and so I concentrated on birdlife to avoid a confrontation.” “No one culture has dominion over birdsong. We all share the same sky.” “If we all live, and continue to increase as we have done, the earth will soon be too small to hold us, and there will be no room for the cornfields” (says Coyote in one of the Navajo stories). And new lines jumped out at me on this reading. Because I’m working on processing my relationship with place: “Sometimes you have to disclaim your country and inhabit another before you can return to your own.” “Each of us harbors a homeland. The stories that are rooted there push themselves up like native grasses and crack the sidewalks.” Like all the best books, then, I’m continuing to discover it.

The stories Williams tells in each chapter of this book are from her life, living and working at the very four corners of the four corners states. A Utah Mormon, she gets to know the Navajo and their stories, and sees certain similarities between these two cultures which share a place. She explores Navajo stories and the storytelling tradition, the animals and plants and places they interact with, and uses these to map her own life; she explores story as tool for communication, history-building, and wise and respectful relationships with our earth, and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. In reading these stories, as a child, I was enchanted by the stories of animals like Coyote, Bear, and Badger, and characters like Monster Slayer and Child-of-the-Waters, who were twin sons born to Sun and Changing Woman. I learned about the flora and fauna of New Mexico and Utah deserts (quite exotic to me then, and now). In rereading the same stories as an adult, I get more of Williams’s search for answers about the world, about her family, her homeland, its significance, and her spiritual and cross-cultural questions. It is a rich experience.

My mother asks if this is a children’s book. I did first find it as a child and loved it then, in elementary school. Its origins in my family are unknown; I feel like it just appeared on a bookshelf. Someone must have bought it – for me specifically, it seems likely. I am an only child. But we don’t know. Neither of my parents remembers it. As it turns out, Pieces of White Shell is not marketed as a children’s book. But Williams worked with children (as well as adults) when she wrote it, and in the stories she tells. It is certainly accessible to a child, in its tone of wonderment and simple joy and careful observation.

This was published in 1984, and Refuge in 1991, and I can see some of the evolution. In Pieces of White Shell, Williams is still getting to know her world; in the later work, she more confidently moves in it and speaks of it, although she has retained her capacity for wonder (still alive and well in her recent retelling, The Story of My Heart). Refuge is also necessarily much sadder, as it studies personal loss while Pieces of White Shell takes pleasure in discovery.

Terry Tempest Williams was and is a remarkable, completely singular voice. “You always hear wings,” her family tells her in an anecdote in her prologue. I marvel, and I continue to learn from this deceptively simple grouping of stories. She is better known for other works but this is still my gold standard.


Rating: 9 coyotes.
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