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guest review: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, from Pops

Pops has been making his way through my backlist. See, while we’re at it, his comments on Dream Team. Here, he’s sent a full discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces, which I reviewed here (see his comments there, too). Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Thanks for yet another good recommendation, although belatedly honored.

Ehrlich’s work is as special as you describe, although you commended it with one more cowboy than I might have, likely accounted for by personal taste and happenstance, that nebulous coincidence of reading the right book at the right time (or not).

Two other, little things I noticed. One is her occasional unabashed use of urban references in metaphors or similes describing wild and natural (albeit inhabited) places. This is not so typical in literary works about the wild, but it works well here supporting her personal story as a ‘straddler,’ as she once refers to herself, shifting between places.

The other is a brief mention in her chapter “To Live in Two Worlds,” a title with meaning for her book’s personal backstory, but also for the chapter’s subject describing the parallel Wyoming culture of native Indian tribes. She attends two tribal events; one is the annual Crow Fair, where an Indian friend remarks on tribal mythology about a ‘berdache’ (p.123), a French word which she parenthetically defines as transvestite.

I have read that the American Indian or First Nation usage of a French word derives from French voyageurs, the French trappers in early North American history who were the first European contacts with many native tribes, who then adopted many French terms in their learning of English. The voyageurs encountered the cultural fact of native gender ambiguity, and recognizing a common social reference, contributed their word to an emerging hybrid language of native, English and French words.

From multiple references I have read, Wiktionary seems to get it right: berdache is “a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities which are not exclusively those of their biological sex.” An added comment there goes beyond what I have seen elsewhere: “Considered offensive by many Native American communities because of its pejorative and non-American etymology, berdache began to fall out of use in the 1990s; two-spirit and various tribe-specific terms are now used instead.” The latter is wonderfully explicated here by a gay blogger in Montana.

Nevertheless, I find the history fascinating, including that last reference with very helpful context: the contemporaneous accounts, from both Indians and early explorers, suggest both surprising awareness and a more tolerant acceptance of a cultural and social issue that US culture still wrestles with today.

In reading northwest history I have seen berdache, as a word and cultural phenomenon, repeated in things I’ve read lately. Notable are two excellent works of creative non-fiction history, Jack Nisbet’s Sources of the River and Peter Stark’s Astoria. The narrative lines of the two books briefly but importantly overlap, and a berdache is, remarkably, at the center of that historical confluence.

Nisbet’s work references contemporaneous journals of Scot-Canadian David Thompson, who led (and amazingly, accurately mapped) the first European expedition from Columbia River headwaters in Canada to its mouth near Portland, Oregon, in 1811 immediately after Lewis & Clark journeyed overland to the mouth. In his journeys through true wilderness, meeting some tribal parties who have never seen a white person, Thomson first hears tales of a berdache, then meets the person named Qánqon – twice! First is early in the trip, near the headwaters; second is later, at the mouth.

Astoria describes a complicated American expedition of the same period (they and Thompson were vaguely mutually aware), which involved two groups, overland and by sea, converging on the mouth of the river. All three parties converge in the summer of 1811 at the Astorian camp near present-day Portland – and, defying odds, the mysterious Qánqon also arrives, with a companion, to make it four. This motley combination clashes to provide a bit of historical human drama and political intrigue. And it all makes for wonderful reading.

So that’s what I know about berdache. And thanks to Ehrlich for providing yet another reference to an interesting historical thread.

What a turn this review took! I did not remember the term berdache at all, so there you have it. (Also, that was five years and how many hundreds of books ago? Probably nearing a thousand?) Also, although we all know I do not have time for more titles added to my list, I love a review that comes with additional reading recommendations. Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

No Heroes by Chris Offutt

No matter how you leave the hills–the army, prison, marriage, a job–when you move back after twenty years, the whole county is carefully watching. They want to see the changes that the outside world put on you. They are curious to know if you’re lost your laughter. They are worried that perhaps you’ve gotten above your raisings.

This is beginning of No Heroes. Only the prologue retains this second-person perspective, which I think would have gotten difficult for the length of the book, but it’s a perfect intro: it brings immediacy, in that you are the one facing these challenges; and it offers a dreamy, literary take on Chris Offutt’s rough-edged subject and setting. This prologue takes the form of an instruction manual (“to do this, do this”): how to return home, if home is this specific place. It concludes:

You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home. This dirt is yours.

It’s a perfect beginning.

This book is a close cousin to Jeremy Jones’s Bearwallow, which comes as no surprise because Jeremy recommended it to me.

It’s a fine book. In blurbs on the back, Offutt’s style is compared to that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver: strong words, but I can see the comparison. Offutt tends toward short, declarative sentences, except when he doesn’t (like Hemingway, a man perfectly comfortable with long, convoluted sentences and full-blooming metaphor when he feels like it, despite a reputation to the contrary). That is, the prose is mostly simply put together, undemonstrative, but he also knows how to turn a surprising or beautiful phrase at the moment we least expect it; the rarity of such lines adds to their impact.

Offutt’s story, like Jones’s, is of going away and coming back. Both men are from Appalachia. Offutt is from the hills of northeast Kentucky, where he went to elementary school, high school and college within ten miles, and only realized later how unusual this was. As a troubled twenty-year-old, he’d left the hills. He returns as a forty-year-old, having collected an education, written books, married and had two boys, lived and experienced lots of places. He’s back to teach at his alma mater, a humble school where he had worked maintenance while a student, a paradoxical foot-in-two-worlds experience that his cohorts on both ends–work and school–had struggled to accept. “It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college,” Offutt writes, but that criticism sounds less nuanced in isolation than it does on the page, in the midst of his obviously tortured love for this place.

In the course of No Heroes, he navigates his return to this place, whose dirt and leaves and birds he passionately loves. His parents still live here, but his love for them is less easy. His wife, Rita, and their two sons have some trouble adjusting to a place that is not theirs. Offutt came home hoping to be a hero to students like the one he was: talented but without role models, ready to slip into crime more easily than into art. The title foreshadows the end of that plot line, of course.

But there is another plot line! And it’s a doozy, complicating the story of the homesick Appalachian who has made good and therefore alienated himself. Offutt’s in-laws are finally ready to let him tell their stories. Both are Polish Jews and survivors of a string of Hitler’s concentration camps. You think you’re homesick? The narratives of Arthur and Irene humble us all. The flashback parts are different from the whole of the book: Arthur and Irene’s chapters are told in their own voices (Offutt recorded their interviews), and his own chapters told in his own voice; occasional scenes give dialog representing the interviews themselves. While a bit jarring at times (watch those chapter titles and they will guide you; I have trouble focusing on titles, for no good reason), even this effect–the jarring in and out of a painful past–suits the subject matter. It is Arthur’s admonishment about telling the complicated story, that even victims have flaws, that titles the book: “Remember, Sonny, no heroes.”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very rooted in a beloved place, and contains two stories equally well-told. For parents, for Appalachians, for anyone facing the tension of succeeding out of the bounds of their upbringing, for the homesick, this is an engaging memoir.


Rating: 8 “crimson maple leaves with green veins that pulsed in mourning for the branch they’d left.”

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

My mistake is also my good fortune. Travel to West Virginia was supposed to go smoothly from the San Antonio airport, through Dulles, to Rochester; but of course I ended up delayed, rerouted through O’Hare, with a half-day to kill at the airport before ever leaving Texas. I had packed more books in my checked bag, but ended up running out of available-at-hand reading material in Chicago. So I bought a book at an airport newsstand. Bad news: long travel day. Bad news: so many books at home (and in that checked bag) that I wanted or needed to read. Good news: a delicious, un-looked-for chance to read a new-ish Harry Bosch mystery.

Remember when I got to read genre mysteries for fun? Whew, it’s been a while (a little over three years). The Wrong Side of Goodbye finds LAPD’s Detective Harry Bosch retired from the force–forced into retirement, in fact, under a dark cloud (which will surprise no one who knows his genre-typical troubles with authority, despite also being an authority). He’s got a PI license, and has been moonlighting–unpaid–with the small-town San Fernando police force, in an “island city” in the middle of LA. His job with the SFPD is to examine cold cases, which is right up his alley. In the opening pages, Bosch has just received a pair of assignments. A multi-billionaire octogenarian hires him, with the utmost secrecy and confidence, to track down an heir who may or may not exist. And San Fernando is plagued by a serial rapist who appears to be escalating. With the help of Mickey Haller (whose fame began with Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer), Bosch tracks both cases. The first will take him into his own memories and traumas of the Vietnam War, and the second will take him into grave danger. But Bosch hasn’t lost his touch, no matter what the LAPD may think.

Classic, and good for the fans. Bosch’s daughter Maddie has grown up and is attending college. Bosch and Haller have a solid working relationship and more. Bosch retains his old skills. This was a nostalgia read for me. I found the same old, good old hero I remember. As I reflect, I’m not sure he shows the evolution of age that perhaps he should at this point in the series. Maddie has grown up, but Bosch feels the same. His professional status has changed, but I don’t detect much of a nod to aging, physically or in terms of his outlook on the world. This may be an element of unrealism in a mostly realistic series. But this is escapist reading for me, too, so I’m unbothered. If I find Bosch just as I left him, that’s okay with me. This is the Bosch I missed.

The mystery part of the book is as good as ever. I love this stuff, and I’m so grateful to Michael Connelly and to that newsstand at O’Hare for bringing me this joy. It was a rare pleasure. And now back to my studies.


Rating: 7 pre-rolled joints.

movie: The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period, beginning today with travel. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


Sorry to follow last week’s negative review with another.

I’ve heard about The Wild and Wonderful Whites for years now, and I know a lot of people who appreciate it. When I started school in West Virginia, folks from other places mention this movie as a way to know the place. As I was watching all those other Appalachia/Southern movies for school, a friend borrowed it for me, as an optional add-on to my education, I guess.

I think it’s a shame that this movie represents the state. This documentary of the apparently legendary White family records their lifestyle: petty crime and violence, drug and alcohol abuse, no great contribution to society–excepting of course the cultural value of the tap dancing. I don’t know. The film itself presents (we assume) reality, with little or no editorializing. But the response to the film feels to me like glorifying or celebrating a lifestyle that includes a certain amount of tragedy. I’m not a prude; I appreciate partying, and I don’t judge making babies out of wedlock, or anything like that. But the matriarch crying at the drug use at her birthday party, and the pillhead whose baby is taken from her in the maternity ward, are sad stories. Why are we laughing and joking about this? Also, West Virginia doesn’t deserve this as its theme song.


Rating: 4 Xan-bars for filmography, I guess.

movie: Sherman’s March (1986)

Sherman’s March is the third movie assigned for that one seminar (see also The True Meaning of Pictures and Deliverance).

I don’t know. Perhaps it will be illuminated for me in seminar; but this movie didn’t hold much value for me. Ross gets a grant to make a documentary about the lasting impact of General Sherman’s march across the South during the Civil War. He sets out with camera in hand to visit his family and meet women, traveling the Carolinas and Georgia. His love life is suffering, and everyone he meets is either a potential partner or a matchmaker. He lolls about, bemoaning his single fate and feeling sorry for himself. He occasionally opines about General Sherman or visits a monument. Look for lines like, “Why aren’t you in love with me?” and “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know her, Ross.” (Two and a half hours of this.)

Woe is Ross. The end.


Rating: 3 hours of my day lost.

movie: The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2002)

This movie was assigned viewing for school, for the same seminar on “the documentary imaginary” that assigned Deliverance. It won’t surprise you to know then that I was comparing them as I watched this one.

The True Meaning of Pictures is a documentary, examining the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams, and examining his portrayal of his home region of Appalachia. In a major departure from Deliverance, then, this movie explicitly questions how Appalachia is seen and viewed artistically, and asks if its portrayal is fair, or stereotypical, or exploitative. This is a nice answer to that other movie, and I’m so glad I watched them in this order.

Shelby Lee Adams is from Appalachia, so he “owns” it, it is his place. But the argument goes that he has chosen to photograph the stereotyped version of that place, a place he’s mostly left behind in his own day-to-day; and he has to some extent staged those images. Can you exploit the place you’re from? Or is what you see what you picture, and that’s that? The people whose lives he photographs (many of whom are close friends, who he stays with and visits for extended periods) generally appear (at least in this film) unbothered by the pictures he makes. The one woman interviewed here who was really offended by his work was the relative of one of his subjects. She had left her roots behind and didn’t like how he’d portrayed then. It makes an interesting juxtaposition, for me.

I enjoyed this documentary. I found it thoughtful, and informative. It offered me a view into a handful of people I found interesting to meet. I’m a little reluctant to make conclusions as to my own opinions about Appalachia and its portrayal; I’m an outsider to that region, which is an intriguing position to be in just now, studying it with a student body (and instructors) who are mostly insiders. I thought this movie was pretty fair in its examinations. But I’ll be interested to hear what my classmates think.

Next up is Sherman’s March, a 1986 documentary offering “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” So that sounds… interesting.


Rating: 8 holes in the screen door.
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