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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Unusually, I was assigned a work of fiction for my study of nonfiction writing.

Set in Fingerbone, a little town in Idaho, this novel is told from the perspective of Ruth, and details her upbringing, along with her younger sister Lucille, by various female relatives. The town of Fingerbone and the surrounding environment, but most especially the lake, play important roles as characters in their own right. Themes overtly include transience and impermanence, and Robinson (who won a Pulitzer for Gilead) employs a subtly shifting narrative voice. A strong sense of place is another obvious feature and focus of this quiet but disquieting novel. Lovely sentence-level language and syntax set atmosphere as well.

I believe I was assigned this book for sense of place, firstly, and for narrative shifting. I was drawn instead to the recurring image and role of water, though, and of that lake in particular. It reminded me of The Chronology of Water and Notes From No Man’s Land for those recurring images that form a theme. I love this kind of imagistic theme, and the way it can provide emotional impact both so subtly and yet so strongly. I’m on the lookout for books that do this kind of work, so keep me in mind.


Rating: 7 mentions of Noah.

“Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

This essay appears in the Didion collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I actually accessed it online, and you can too: here.

From the Essays of E.B. White, particularly “Here Is New York” and “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” and a little bit from “On a Florida Key,” I got swept over to this essay, because I wanted to figure out how they did place so particularly. That is, the particularity of a place, but the fact too that it’s so personal, that even the one Florida Key in the one year when White was there is not the same for anyone else as it was for him. I annotated this essay for the place-details Didion uses, and her zooming in and out.

“Goodbye to All That” is about a time in Didion’s life when she had a relationship with a place. She moved to New York City in the mid-1950s, and away again in the mid-1960s; she writes here of New York “beginning” and “ending” for her. The story of the essay is of the way the specialness of the place ended for her, what she could see from one end of the experience that she couldn’t see from the other. It is a fine blend of particular details and of generalities, or philosophical statements, such as: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” Or, that New York is “a city for only the very young.” There is a definite “Paris is a moveable feast” tone: elegiac, loving of a particular experience indelibly aligned with time and place.

In just over ten pages, Didion memorializes the New York City she loved upon arrival. It is a lovely study of this place, peppered with anecdotes and scenes–parties, snips of dialog–as well as those generalized philosophies; and it retains a feeling of pulled-back nostalgia and reflection. Didion’s choice of details creates that place that is so particular and personal. “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already… and the warm air smelled of mildew…” The hotel room in the second paragraph super-cooled to thirty-five degrees, and the young Didion’s fear to call for help “because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come–was anyone ever so young?” (A lovely aside, addressing the reader there, and again maintaining a reflective distance in time.) The bridge viewed from the window. These details continue to make the place of this essay a specific place–the Triborough bridge, all the street names and addresses named as “the Nineties” and “the Eighties”–but they also give it sensory specificity: “I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume.”

I can’t wait to read more Didion. Up next is The White Album.


Rating: 9 new cabinets.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place is a medium-longform essay (81 pages), published here in book form, about Kincaid’s home island of Antigua. Kincaid uses a second-person address to a “you” that stands in for North American or European white people, the unpleasant tourists and descendants of colonialists she observes visiting Antigua. On the surface she is concerned with place–what is Antigua–but the essay is equally concerned with race, empire, and history, and unafraid of long parenthetical asides. I was assigned to read this for its help with writing about place, and so for me the final four-page section describing Antigua as physical place is perhaps most interesting, from a craft standpoint. (Or perhaps I should reconsider what it means that this physical description is the part that seems most place-based to me. What defines a place? Its physicality, or its people and its history?)

It’s also remarkable for Kincaid’s strong, strident voice, and for those long parentheticals. It should go without saying that A Small Place makes a fine introduction to Antigua itself, too.


Rating: 7 brand-new Japanese-made vehicles.

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.
the-signal-flame

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.

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