The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape by Suzannah Lessard

This broad social-historical consideration of American landscapes will satisfy and challenge the most serious reader.

Suzannah Lessard (The Architect of Desire) offers a broad cultural examination of place in The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. The result is a work of great scope that’s grounded by an interest in landscapes, the forces that shape them and how they in turn reshape us. Lessard chases big mysteries. “Always behind my readings of landscapes are the questions, Where are we…? and What is our relationship to our surroundings now?”

Lessard begins with a close description of “the village” where she lives near Albany, N.Y. She then travels outward, to visit a nearby friend and consider suburbophobia, and therefore the history of the suburbs–as foil to the city, as military defense concept, as commercial center, as “edge city.” Having considered terms like sprawl, metropolitan area, edgeless or stealth city and more, Lessard uses “atopia” to refer to landscapes “where contemporary development, directly expressing contemporary times, was unrestrained.” She is also quite interested in “online” as a place, from its origins in Cold War strategy through the option it provides as escape from real places.

Lessard is at her best when handling the ways place and people interact (Disney’s attempt to build a history theme park just south of Washington, D.C.), and on shakier ground when handling larger issues (market forces versus governmental powers). One of her finest chapters considers a mall in King of Prussia, Pa., and the tensions and challenges facing shopping malls across the country.

As Lessard shows, Cold War policy, the Depression, the legacy of slavery, racist housing policies, nuclear armament and more have all played roles in the development of the suburb and the contemporary landscape. Mixed in with these references, Lessard often cites works of art–Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Han vases–as means to understand place.

Lessard can speak from a place of economic comfort that may grate some readers, but the value of her decades of research is undeniable. The Absent Hand is often dense, as Lessard draws upon centuries of human history to make her arguments. In this ambitious work, place is examined, deconstructed and incrementally illuminated, even as our landscape changes anew.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 paintings.

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest. Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, investigates a very specific slice of history all but erased by prejudice and the passing of time.

The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents, but Ryan cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.

The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront lead to what Ryan calls “the great erasure” of queer community and history.

When Brooklyn Was Queer considers the lives and contributions of well-known artists like Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote, and numerous lesser-known performers, businesspeople and blue-collar workers. Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research. During many of the years covered here, homosexuality as a concept was unknown: a man could have sex with men but be “normal,” or he could be a “pervert,” based solely on appearance or mannerism. Vocabularies for such identities were at first nonexistent and varied over time. And much of the information collected about queer people in history is deeply problematic, recorded by hostile and prejudiced organizations, and presumably with limited cooperation by the people being studied. Finally, Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color.

Only in his introduction and epilogue does Ryan share his personal connection to these stories, his own history in Brooklyn and his heartfelt desire for this history to be told. While the rest of his book takes the style of traditional history writings (no “I” pronoun), he reaches out in the final lines: “I look forward to having a future where we can also have a past, and I look forward to creating it with you.” Having been engrossed in these pages, his reader feels that same connection and hopefulness.


This review originally ran in the January 31, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 windows.

A Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner (audio)

To write about this essay collection, I must first tell you about the format.

From my research, it looks to me like the collection exists only on audio, and only on audiocassette. I bought the set of two cassette tapes some years ago, and have had them all this time, waiting for a way to listen to them. The only cassette player I could locate in my friends-and-family circle was a desktop item my father dug out of the attic for me; but its volume only goes so high, and Stegner came out of the machine so low that I could only hear him if I pressed my ear against the tape player, which I quickly tired of. (Thanks anyway, though, Pops.)

Then finally a friend bought me this outstanding gift: a cassette-to-MP3 converter! Who knew! Thank you so much, Margaret; it was a shame to use it for just the two tapes, but hopefully the guy I passed it on to gets some use out of it with his old rock tapes. Anyway, I was finally, after years of ownership, ready to listen to my Stegner as I drove north across west Texas.

And it is Stegner himself reading, which I think is a nice bonus, although he does have a bit of a somnolent monotone. The essays are not titled; he simply rolls from one into another, so that I was rarely clear on when one ended and another began, although changes of subject serve as loose guides. It’s an intriguing problem, the format of these essays and their absence from the world otherwise. I am a bit interested in transcribing them myself for posterity, if I could find the appropriate person to work with on that project. Hmm.

Now on to the essays, yes? I enjoyed listening. Stegner has a lot to offer: he has known several corners of this country very well at several times in particular, and he specializes in detail and color (literally and figuratively, as in “local color”). He can be relied upon for commentary about conservation issues, and although his positions sound a little obvious in 2019, coming from 1989. His storytelling style is soothing, especially read aloud in that drowsy voice of his. I do wish I had these on paper to read and look at; as it was, I had to let the stories and reflections wash over me, which was pleasurable, but leaves me with less to say for this review.

I made a few short recordings of lines that appealed to me. I have no idea what essays they are from.

The Wasatch in Utah… taught me the feel of safety… A man can tuck back in against mountains, the way Hemingway used to tuck back into the corner stool at Sloppy Joe’s, his back covered and all danger in front of him.

(Guess why I like that one. That would be Sloppy Joe’s in Key West; I’ve been there.)

We manage to breed saints, brutes, barbarians, and mudheads in all sorts of topographies and climates, but what country does to our way of seeing is another matter, at least for me. By and larger I do not know what I like, I like what I know.

I wish I had the line that came just before, too: his point was that topographies and climates don’t make people who are smart or stupid, moral or evil. It’s a point that’s important to me. People judged for their geographies is becoming a pet peeve of mine. And that last line: “I do not know what I like but I like what I know.” It makes sense somehow.

Every night in season [the frogs] conducted love concerts that could drown out conversation even inside the house. Stamp on the patio bricks and they fell silent so suddenly from such a crescendo of noise that the silence rang like quinine in the ears, the sort of silence I’ve heard nowhere else except in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

Silence rang like quinine! What an unexpected simile; and I’m not sure exactly what it means, not knowing what quinine sounds like in one’s ears; this is a line that I think would get picked apart by certain creative writing professors I’ve known, but I appreciate it. I don’t know what quinine rings like, but the surprise pleases me, and I’m willing to take it on faith that that was some silence, whew. Now, the Amazon jungle as a place of silence I trust a little less: I imagine a jungle being rather a noisy place, what with all the life going on there, the peeps and rustles and dripping that surely must be going on. But perhaps Stegner has been to the Amazon. I have not.

There were other startling lines, and worthwhile observations. I wish I could share the text of these essays with you. Barring that, take my word for it, unless you have a tape deck and $16.48 (which will buy you the tapes right now on that other Amazon; more from AbeBooks).

Even with all the hassles it took me to listen to A Sense of Place: worth it.


Rating: 7 names.

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.

The Prairie in Her Eyes by Ann Daum

This is an extraordinary book, one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far. I took it slowly, out of pure pleasure. Thanks once more to Jessie.

Ann Daum is from a farm-and-ranch in South Dakota’s White River Valley. She left to go to college, but returned every harvest season, and came back after college. She grew up as a ranch hand; her father was the farmer, but her sister and she were ‘cattlemen’ and handlers of horses. As her parents age, and circumstances work against cattle ranching, that part of the family business shrinks and crumbles; they sell off much of their four thousand acres. But Ann’s horse breeding operation does well, and she continues on the family property.

Against this backdrop, The Prairie in Her Eyes is an essay collection and something of a memoir-in-essays. It begins with Ann listening to sandhill cranes passing over her family’s homeplace, in an essay titled “The Habit of Return,” and ends with “The Last Crane,” in which she watches the last sandhill of the season worry itself along. In between, essays consider the history of South Dakota and its farming and ranching cultures; the region’s wildlife; “Silence and Spaces” and “Predators and Prey,” and more. I admire Daum’s titles, which often cue me to follow her subtle braid, as in the essay “Fences,” which deals with boundaries of different sorts, and the variety of effects of literal fences in her region of South Dakota, for good and for ill, and the evolution within her own life of how she sees fences, which is a matter of both her own growth and of changes in the place itself.

Some of this content is hard to take. An account of a difficult foaling had me in tears; the animals (not people!) who hurt and died wrenched me. There is human trauma, as well, that can be difficult to read; interestingly, the human trauma is written about with some distance, less graphically, while the animals’ is more viscerally portrayed. But it’s shown with so much love and grace, and beautiful prose. I’d recommend this book 1,000 times.

These lines open “Silence and Spaces”:

Rain never falls in the South Dakota of my childhood. Wind blows down the valley with the force of locomotives, clouds pile on the horizon, thunder growls from the west. Once, sometimes twice, a summer, lightning sparks prairie fires that crackle and spit, swallow brown summer grasses without tasting. The flames cough embers up like glowing stars and the smoke hangs in cloud. But there is no rain.

This paragraph is about the weather. Fairly dramatic weather, sure. It’s about a lack: no rain. Weather, and an absence. It does not sound like a good recipe for gripping prose. But the fires swallow brown grasses without tasting? Amazing.

Obviously the themes and subject matter of this book spoke to me. It’s about home, what it means to be attached to a place, and how complicated, multifaceted, and imperfect our connections are. I love how deeply the flora, fauna, and history (natural and otherwise) of her region have contributed to making Daum who she is. At the pinnacle of this concept is the essay “Why We Return – The Prairie in Her Eyes,” in which an old woman comes to visit the Daum family property. This woman had never lived there; she’d never seen it before; but her parents had homesteaded there, and an older sibling had been born there. Just like the cranes in “The Habit of Return” (and, obviously, Daum herself), she felt the pull of the place, even though she’d never set foot. “Gertie grew up missing a place she never knew.”

I’m enchanted. I’ll be referring back to this one.


Readalikes: Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Evelyn Funda’s Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament.


Rating: 9 fading trails.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another book that came to me at just the right time thanks to Jessie van Eerden. I know of Rebecca Solnit, of course, but I think this is the first of her writing that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it in several aspects: its subject matter is very much in line with that of my thesis (that I’m currently writing); its structure is of interest and also has something to offer my own; the writing is lovely; the content it approaches is wide-ranging, and (as Jessie said early in this semester as we did a manuscript review), “I like to learn stuff.”

That said, it’s not an easy book to sum up. These collected essays are connected, but far from telling a narrative. Solnit is exploring the idea of getting lost and what it has to offer us; and that is ‘getting lost’ in several senses, geographic (I got off the trail and I was lost) and metaphoric (after my mother died I was lost, or I lost several years). Also the sense in which we lose both things and people: lose your keys, lose your mother (to death), lose a boyfriend (when you break up). She sees value in getting lost – sometimes it’s how we find ourselves – and notes that we don’t get lost much anymore. Late in the book, she looks at old maps with their ‘Terra Incognita,’ and observes that we don’t have terra incognita on our maps anymore. We know it all! Right? (Of course, we’ve thought we knew it all before, and been proven wrong.)

I’m using the sense of place tag here although it’s not quite right, which is perhaps a design flaw in my tag. By ‘sense of place,’ I have tended to mean a strong attachment to a certain place; so Jesse Donaldson’s writing about Kentucky, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Mary Karr’s southeast Texas. That is not what I found with Solnit, so much as a strong feeling about the importance of wandering, losing and finding oneself, in place and in other senses. Place plays an important role here. This book feels like it fits that tag, even though it doesn’t fit the tag as I originally conceived it. (This blog will be eight years old next month. Expect some scope creep.)

Structure-wise: there is a chapter-title refrain, with the heading The Blue of Distance (italicized, where the others aren’t) taking every other place between differently-titled essays. These are not the same essay over and over, but they all meditate on blue and its role in our observation of distance, beginning with the literal meaning (that is, that the sky and deep water both look blue for scientifically observable reasons) and moving through less-literal ones. Distance, it seems, is an inextricable part of one’s ability to get lost. My 600-square-foot house would be much harder to get lost in (tell that to my geriatric dog) than a 20-something room mansion would be. I really appreciated this design, the repeated title for very different essays; it was a succinct cue to the way in which they’re linked.

Another item I found interesting to note was Solnit’s references, the other thinkers she turns to. Some were perhaps unsurprising, as writers cite other writers: Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad. These are joined by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobbie Gentry, Yves Klein, Plato, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alfred Hitchcock (among many others). A huge number of minds contributed to Solnit’s own thought processes here – which are of course her own – and I was fascinated by the twists and turns. Again (and again), this is something I need in my own writing and that appeals to me. I can’t wait to tell Jessie how right-on she was with assigning me this book.

Obviously this Field Guide‘s usefulness to me is just beginning. You will like it, too, if you like far-ranging considerations of the human condition and where each of us as an individual might be or should be headed, if we’re thinking about it. I found it an engaging and curiously winding path, and I recommend it.


Rating: 8 shades of blue.
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