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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