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A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

I’ve been hearing about this one for years, I think first in South Toward Home. While it was already on my semester reading list, I was prompted to put it next in line when I read in Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir: “[A Childhood] is underrated–virtually unknown–except among the aficionados of the form.” So there. (My reading of The Art of Memoir was interrupted, so its review will follow this one. Preview: I like it.)

This is a memoir of a very short period, when the author is five and six years old, with just a few oblique references to his later life. During these two years, the child Crews becomes aware of himself in the world; he suffers serious injury and illness; his mother leaves his ‘father’ with her two sons, and after a few reunions, splits from him forever; and Crews learns that this was not his biological father, but the brother of that man, who is dead. In his reflections, what motivates the writing of this book is that Crews is haunted by the absence of his late biological father, and by a lack of ties to his home place of rural Georgia.

Both story and prose are tough, muscular, macho, unadorned, laden with violence and hardship; there are lovely lines concealed within, but Crews is most concerned with chronicling his scars. It is a raw and affecting book, and attempting a ‘biography of a place’ through a memoir of just two years is an intriguing strategy. I am fascinated by this idea, that two years of a child’s life can serve to profile a place.

I really appreciate Crews’s voice. This element (combined, obviously, with place and class) reminded me again and again of Rick Bragg. Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown is on my reading list this semester as well; I hope I get to it in time. Of course I was also drawn (as with Sanders) to Crews’s preoccupation with place, where he’s from and what that means. Another kindred in this way, although his style (and the story he has to tell) differs greatly from my own. Crews is another author that plays with a fluid ‘truth’, which Mary Karr commented on as well: she forgives this favorite memoir because the more imaginative sections are obvious enough to pick out. Those are some of the sensational bits. But really, Crews lets his story stand for itself. His childhood will read as shocking to some of us; but it also reads as very real.


Rating: 8 slisures of grapefruit.

Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders

I already admired Scott Russell Sanders for two essays I’d previously read a la carte: “Buckeye” and “The Inheritance of Tools.” Among other things, I love that both these essays do concentrate on “things,” that is, concrete physical objects that hold meaning. Also, his prose is lovely; he is thoughtful, and methodical in recording his thought processes; and he is concerned with the significance of place, and people’s ties to place. This last I mostly knew by reputation before reading this collection.

Sanders was already well-established and prolific when he released this essay collection, which has sort of a retrospective gaze. Essays focus on place, and the need for people (and writers) to be centered in place, and the author’s own underrated place, the Midwest. There is also some focus on humans’ role in a larger network of biological relationships, and a writer’s life and work, including literary studies. The opening essay “Buckeye” is the clear standout; I also really enjoyed “Writing from the Center” and “Letter to a Reader,” which come at the end. Some of the middle of the book faded out a little for me, though.

Writing from the Center moved a little slowly for me, in fact. There is much to praise here, but it’s quiet and ruminative, and I sometimes struggled to stay engaged, especially because many of the essays seemed to hit the same notes (same subjects, same points, same rhythms) again and again. There is an accumulative effect that is worthwhile, though. Sanders’s prose is quiet, straightforward, articulate but unadorned.

Of course I share Sanders’s concern with place and with staying put (Staying Put is another title of his I need to look into, in fact). It’s a little odd that I didn’t find this one more compelling, as I appreciated his points so much. He can do some extraordinarily beautiful writing. I loved this line:

A few turkey vultures perch on one of the crossbeams, their wings splayed to catch the early sun, like a row of black shirts hung out to dry.

I saw parallels from Kathleen Dean Moore’s “Stalking Seals” through Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” through the otters in Sanders’s “Voyageurs.” And I made notes of the best points about place: these may be jumping-off points for my own writing.

I may have just been in a reading funk when I hit this book. But I think it’s also true that the pacing and the prose are measured and meditative, and that several of these essays address the same points. This may be a liability when putting together a collection of related works.

The next two books I read for school electrified me, by contrast. Those reviews are up soon: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.


Rating: 7 quasars.

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

This novel of love, grief and the cycles of life veils its profundity in deceptively simple everyday events.
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Andrew Krivák (The Sojourn) paints indelibly rich scenes and relationships with The Signal Flame, an astonishing novel set in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. A strong tie to that setting is one of the elements that binds together a community and a family struggling with loss and continued life.

The people in Dardan mourn patriarch Jozef Vinich. He is survived by his daughter, Hannah, and her son Bo; these three generations have been touched by war. Jozef lost fingers in World War I; Hannah’s husband survived World War II but returned in ignominy, a deserter later killed in a hunting accident; and Bo’s younger brother, Sam, has been missing in action in Vietnam for some months. As they grieve for Jozef and Sam, Hannah and Bo must also navigate a lingering feud with another local family, the management of a business and a farm, a natural disaster and a legacy Sam has left behind.

The town of Dardan and its inhabitants are eloquently portrayed, both in the everyday and exceptional. Krivák’s writing is beautiful, luscious but never overwrought; he recalls Norman Maclean in the understated loveliness and clarity of both language and meaning. He imbues his story with methodical pacing, a strong sense of place and a perfectly expressed sense of the quotidian: The Signal Flame takes place between Easter and Christmas of 1972, but encompasses a world of human experience. This is an extraordinary novel to be savored.


This review originally ran in the February 10, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 9 letters.

bonus cross-post: can you help? at definingplace.com

Friends, this week’s bonus post is just to send you over to another project I’ve been working on. My birth/place page is seeking contributors. Please take a look and see if you can help out. Thank you! And back to your Tuesday.

book beginnings on Friday: The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

A new novel for the weekend.

the-signal-flame

A fire in the great stone fireplace was as constant in the house as the lengthening days when Easter was early and spring was late. But on the morning after his grandfather died, Bo Konar took the logs and the log rack in the living room out to the barn, swept the bricks clean of ash, and dusted the andirons so that they looked like thin faceless centaurs of black.

These are good, if not simple, opening sentences. I lingered over the first one, its concept of the constancy of lengthening days when… there’s a lot to take in there. The second is much simpler, concrete and physical: logs, log rack, barn, bricks, ash, andirons–and then that fine simile, the faceless centaurs of black, which seem so appropriate to the grief we are witnessing. In just these two sentences, I felt like I was in the hands of a skilled writer with a story I would care about. So far, this is so.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Monsters in Appalachia: Stories by Sheryl Monks

Short stories defined by their location offer a complex Appalachia filled with both light and dark.

monsters-in-appalachia

Monsters in Appalachia presents the short stories of Sheryl Monks in a collection that ranges over a region but offers a cohesive vision. United by their sense of place, these stories are compassionate and impassioned, often disturbing and filled with energy.

The dangers of coal mining strike the young and the experienced alike. A 14-year-old girl is encouraged by her mother and aunt to pursue men, but resists. A man searches for a dog he believes holds the key to better luck. An exchange at a small-town grocery drives home class inequalities and double standards. Factory workers consider devising on-the-job accidents to collect disability. And in the final, titular story, an old man hunts and captures monsters while his wife prays for punishment for the couple’s sins.

The monsters are in fact many and various, figurative and surreally literal. Monks’s characters are plagued by poverty, abuse, limited education and a shortage of resources and options–upholding some of the stereotypes of Appalachia–but in their choices, they prove more than their typecasts. Dialect and place-specific details establish settings like the mountains of West Virginia, where a panicked mother “can’t spot a single star for the heavy swag of tree branches that flank the road as it winds itself around the mountain.” A stern, moody atmosphere is one of Monks’s strengths, although there are points of light in this dark collection. Monsters in Appalachia is often painful but always authentic, both muscular and sensitive.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 serpents.

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: An Illustrated Guide by Josh Katz

Regional linguistic patterns in the U.S. are explained with intelligence, whimsy and visual aids.

speaking american

In December 2013, the New York Times published an online dialect quiz that became the paper’s most-viewed page. Times graphics editor Josh Katz expands that quiz’s contents and the powerful response it elicited with Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: An Illustrated Guide.

This large-format book organizes United States dialect patterns by subject matter: how we live, what we eat, where we go and more. Two-page color-shaded maps visually communicate regional usages, like the predilection for “rummage sale” in southeastern Wisconsin, over “garage sale” and “yard sale.” Maps and text zoom in for unusual local outliers, like Pittsburgh’s distinctive use of “yins” for the plural “you.” Katz notes the rare case where gender is predictive of usage (women are more likely than men to say “bless you,” or anything at all, when someone sneezes) as well as the “linguistic fault line running from Texas up through Arkansas, then tracking the Ohio River… toward the Mason-Dixon line,” credited to white settlers’ expansion patterns. Besides seriously investigating the questions of sneaker vs. tennis shoe, doodle bug vs. roly-poly, semi vs. 18-wheeler and more, Katz clearly enjoys his subject: especially amusing are the “How to Pretend You’re From…” sections. For Nebraska, you might pick up some “pickles” at the store–not pickled cucumbers, but a form of legal gambling.

Offering some new material since the famous quiz and elucidating the original, Speaking American is a fascinating survey of U.S. dialects as well as a fun, humorous exploration of a nation.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 potato bugs.
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