Appalachia North: A Memoir by Matthew Ferrence

Disclosure: Matt Ferrence was visiting faculty at this past winter’s residency at WVWC, and we really hit it off; I think he’s great, and he gifted me my copy of Blue Highways.


A shorter review now, with more to follow, because Still: the Journal has agreed to published my book review *and* an interview with Ferrence in their October issue. Hooray! For now, a teaser.

Building a literature based only on darkness is just another way to shackle ourselves to decline. Instead, we are who we are, and that’s the sound of red-winged blackbirds chirping in the blowing reeds alongside restoration wetlands, a dark plain bird with a hidden flash of brilliance, the real marker of hope.

You know I’m on an extended trip right now. I’ve been keeping track of birds, among other things. In the mid-east-coast area, I started to see red-winged blackbirds, which I don’t recall ever having seen before. They are a delight, that shock of bright red underlined by bright yellow on black-black background. I saw just a few, and then lots of them, diving and swooping and chattering at one another, plentiful as grackles. I looked them up, and see that they live where I’m from, too. How come I never saw a red-winged blackbird before?

This book is a little like that, for me. The recognition of something I didn’t know I needed, although it seems thoroughly obvious now I’ve seen it. And it’s from where I’m from, too. The synchronicities like this kept stacking up. Matt’s parents and my dad all love Wendell Berry, although his took it a step further and farmed on the farm they purchased when he was young, while we kept our city home even after purchasing a ranch when I was young. We’ve struggled with similar questions about where we’re from. My brain injury and his brain tumor are different, but also alike. Even the Facebook surveys we each put out about our home places, Pennsylvania or Northern Appalachia, and Texas. I can’t tell you how many times I scribbled “me too” in these margins. I don’t usually scribble anything in the margins at all, but when Matt sent me Blue Highways, I learned something.

Okay, then.

This book is that blend that I love best in nonfiction: both memoir and outward-looking examination of something larger than the self. Ferrence grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. He didn’t know it yet, but he was born and raised in Northern Appalachia. At forty, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Appalachia is a much-maligned and little-understood region of this country, at least from the outside. Northern Appalachia is less understood, and (as Ferrence has it) exiled from both Appalachia and the U.S. He examines the geology and geography of sedimentary rock, mountains, and his own brain through many layers of metaphor. He pulls in plenty of outside voices: writers he admires (Abbey, Dillard, Sanders), and some he takes issue with. That’s another duality I deeply appreciate, that balance between one’s own voice and the voices that have informed it.

That’s all I want to say, in advance of Still‘s October issue – I will repost my longer review, and interview with Matt, when they’re available. For now, please know that this book caught me in that perfect place: both personally resonant in all the deepest ways, and an intellectual and artistic accomplishment I admire and would like to emulate. This is one of the most highly recommended books of 2019. And I don’t care who you are and where you’re from: you have something to learn from Appalachia North. Get out and get you a copy today. You’re welcome.


Rating: 9 collection points.

Scott Russell Sanders in recent Orion, Brian Doyle, and considering death

A synchronicity: my father sent me a recently published essay by Scott Russell Sanders that coincides with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately.

The essay occurred in the Autumn 2018 issue of Orion, which you can purchase here, but cannot read without purchasing – sorry. It’s called “At the Gates of Deep Darkness,” and it is about the dire cancer diagnosis of Sanders’s son, Jesse, who is 40 and has young children. In it, Sanders tries to navigate grief, and the intersection of his religious upbringing with his devotion to science, his love for this world and his sadness & anger at Jesse’s coming end.

It’s an essay I appreciate in many ways: for its language, its attention to detail, its careful plotting of divergent beliefs and feelings, and its place within Sanders’s body of work. I enjoyed his listing of “great pioneers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson, as well as accomplished contemporaries such as Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Chet Raymo, John Elder, Kathleen Dean Moore, Pattiann Rogers, and David James Duncan” – what a list! – with whom he has some things in common. I really do recommend it.

But, separately, what is interesting about this as synchronicity is my recent reading of Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyous Voladoras,” which you can read here. It was assigned by Matt Ferrence* for his seminar, and when Matt and I got a chance to talk more later, he told me it’s an excerpt (?) or vastly shortened version (?) of Doyle’s book The Wet Engine, which I have not read but of course want to. It’s about the heart – the hummingbird heart, and Doyle’s own. The book makes it clear, though, that this interest in the heart was inspired by his very young son’s need for open heart surgery.

His son survived, and is now an adult, and Doyle has since died (in 2017). When my father sent me the Sanders essay, he said it “presents us, like Doyle does, with a thoughtful writer wrestling with faith in real time in public.” Pops means Doyle wrestling with his own mortality, as he did while dying very quickly of brain cancer. But fresh off “Joyous Voladoras,” I thought of the even closer parallel, of worrying for one’s child.

Grief, obviously, is one of those universal topics. Sanders acknowledges, “In sharing this personal story, I do not mean to impose my grief on readers, for we all have more than enough griefs to bear, both public and private.” Even grief for a child is common enough. But for artists such as Sanders or Doyle, there is still something to offer. Sanders continues, “I tell of Jesse’s cancer because it has made clear to me the persistence of those questions, intuitions, fears, and longings that inspired my early devotion to church-going and Bible-reading. I still puzzle over the sources of suffering; I still experience wonder and terror and awe; I still yearn for a sense of meaning; I still seek to understand the all-encompassing wholeness to which I belong.” And onward. This is why we read, and this is why we write.

Among the lines that I marked in Sanders’s essay:

My calling of Jesse’s name is timed to the rhythm of my footsteps, my breath, my heartbeat. A mother’s heartbeat is the first sound we hear. Once outside the womb, we respond to that rhythm in the beating of drums, in the bass notes of music, in the iambic pentameter of poetry.

The heartbeat, again, took me back to Doyle and the hummingbird heart, which comes to be everyone’s heart. The unique and the universal.

Do go read Doyle – it will take only minutes, and you’ll feel so much. And consider that issue of Orion, which I imagine contains other gems than this one. Consider too the full-length Doyle book, which I’ve added to my to-do list (Dog help me). Thanks for following me on this winding path today and always.



*Matt Ferrence was a guest faculty member at this most recent residency at my MFA program, at West Virginia Wesleyan College. We really hit it off and had several good conversations; I’m glad to know him and although I haven’t read it yet, I’m confident that I can recommend his book Appalachia North, forthcoming on February 1! (There will be a review here, eventually.)

follow-up to The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

This Wednesday I posted my review of Kim Adrian’s new memoir; but I have more to say.

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet came to me as one of a series of happy accidents, or coincidences – or synchronicity. At this point, I’m not sure I can call it coincidence; this is more like the result of a cultivated reading life, for which I’m grateful. Recall how I loved and raved about Adrian’s Sock. That review posted just as I headed off to residency, and I heard almost immediately from her publicist, offering me this memoir for review. Well, I say no to these offers 99% of the time, plus I was at residency (spread extra thin), and entering thesis semester. But I was intrigued. I looked up the book. I knew I liked the author; it was the right length. I pitched the review to Shelf Awareness, who accepted, making it worth my time in that (monetary) sense. So I said yes, send me that book.

And it was not only a wonderful book, as I’ve written, but turned out to be uncannily well-suited to my studies this semester – in other words, it serves all these functions for me: a review for the blog (as requested by a pleasant, not pushy, publicist), a review for the Shelf, and a nice tie into my schoolwork.

Adrian’s memoir features photographs – described, not included – which is also something I’m doing in my thesis. (My dear friend Delaney used photographs in her thesis last semester – included them, as in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know For Sure – and taught on “art and artifacts” for her graduate seminar.) She studies a difficult-to-pin-down mother figure, which was the original plan for my thesis – I’ve given up on that for now, but it’s still in the back of my head. Finally and best of all, she uses that strange but quite successful structure, the glossary, an alphabetically organized series of fragments. These entries rarely strike me as “narrative” on their own, but they definitely combine to tell the story, and in chronological order. My lightbulb realization, which seems so obvious in hindsight: these entries were not titled and then sorted; they were titled for their place, to serve the alphabetical structure.

I found this fruitful reading in several senses – and not least, it was gripping. I stayed up until 1am to finish it, which is something I’ve not done, I think, in several years. So it merited this second post and my firm endorsement.

Thank you, Kim Adrian, and thanks to her fine publicist, Carrie Adams, for doing the work of connecting the right reader with the right book.

Teaser Tuesdays, hemingWay of the day and synchronicity: Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, ed. by Donald Sturrock

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

hembut2
Imagine my thrill to see Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway walking alongside one another, pictured in my galley copy of Love from Boy, a collection of previously unpublished letters from the beloved children’s author to his mother.

love from boy

I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to see the photo! (It’ll be worth it.)

The caption reads,

Wing Commander Roald Dahl and his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, in London, 1944. Roald got to meet many of the great and good in the literary world while he was in Washington. He thought Hemingway ‘a strange and secret man’ for whom he felt ‘overwhelming love and respect.’

For me, this was another moment of chimes sounding, so to speak. I hadn’t realized these two had any contact; I guess I hadn’t thought much about their contemporaneity. What fun to find that Dahl – one of my favorite authors when I was a kid – shared my appreciation for Papa’s work. Strange and secret man, indeed.

I was also interested to see Hemingway looking quite short and fat, next to the tall, thin Dahl. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Hem: mostly the flattering ones he liked released; fewer in which he appears fatter and wearing his glasses (which he generally avoided being photographed in). While he is a perfectly distinguished-looking man here, in a suit and tie and those offending spectacles, both hands in pockets, striding purposefully across a street, beard clearly dark-going-to-gray (even in black and white) – I suspect this is not a photograph he liked. This one, taken during his third marriage, to Martha Gellhorn, hearkens to a slightly older Hemingway.

I love that there is always more to know.


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

Teaser Tuesdays: The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

I haven’t done a synchronicity post in a while, but here we are. Just the other day, on a mountain bike ride in Squamish, B.C., Husband and I had to stop to observe this guy (or girl?) sitting in a tree, watching us.

(click to enlarge)

Husband got up pretty close.

(click to enlarge)

My research when I got home tells me that this is a Barred Owl.

And then I started reading this book, The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds. From the chapter on Barred Owls, which is titled “Opportunistic”:

hidden lives of owls

Barred Owls are the opportunists of the owl world. Like coyotes, Glaucous Gulls, rats, and cockroaches, Barred Owls are not picky about what they consume.*

In other words, they are the scavengers, the ones happy to be near humans – the commensal species. I guess this explains the ease with which we encountered one, too: they are considered an invasive species around here by many scientists. It would have been much more remarkable to see a Northern Spotted Owl; but they prefer old growth, where the Barred Owl is easier to please.

I am always pleased when my reading aligns with my life.


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


*Note: the author states that she capitalizes all official bird names according to the customs of the International Ornithologists’ Union. In this teaser, it looks a little funny next to lower-case coyotes and rats; but I guess those aren’t the official names, anyway.

simpatico

Simpatico: not quite the same as synchronicity, although there is overlap. From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of SIMPATICO
1: agreeable, likable
2: being on the same wavelength: congenial, sympathetic

I am thinking of books that read alike (synchronicity) as well as readers who appreciate the same thing (simpatico: being on the same wavelength; sympathetic). Readers who read alike, if you will.

I was considering this concept while reading Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years the other day. I came across a passage about living and traveling in wilderness, and how Peacock felt it was similar to being in combat: “treading lightly and staying invisible.” How he prefers to bushwhack off established trails, himself. And how he empathizes with a grizzly bear fleeing a bigger grizzly:

The same thing used to happen to me back in Southeast Asia [during the Vietnam War]: whenever the shit really hit the fan, when it looked as if we were about to be overrun and it became a matter of everyone for himself, my first impulse, or perhaps instinct, was to slide off alone into the jungle and keep going until I found vegetation thick enough to hide in, a sanctuary where I could ride out the hunt for Americans. So I thought I knew what it might feel like to be outgunned by bigger bears.

Peacock’s thinking about wilderness got me thinking, and one of the first thoughts I had was, my dad needs to read this. I thought about the books I’ve insisted he read (rather than just recommended). There was Fire Season: I remember saying, look, dad, just go out and buy a hardback copy and read it, and if you don’t love it I’ll buy it off you. (He loved it.) I repeated it with Dirt Work, which also turned out well. I think I’m going to put Grizzly Years into the same category.

Pops and I are often simpatico in our reading. Not perfectly overlapping, of course – far from it – but I often find myself thinking, he needs to read this. And judging from the emails I get with assigned reading from him, I think he reacts similarly, similarly often.

The same day that I had these thoughts about Peacock’s writing, ForeWord Reviews shared the following article via social media: “When You Love A Book Because of Who It’s From”. I found the idea intriguing: that a recommendation from someone I love or respect could actually improve that book in my eyes. (As it turns out, the article is more about romantic love – that special someone and shared reading experiences. Not so personally applicable to me; Husband is not a reader and we have a beautiful and full life anyway; but I’m happy for the article’s author and her partner.) I have not experienced this first-hand. Recommended books sometimes work, and sometimes don’t, but these successes and failures don’t correlate with how much I love the recommender. (See: that one book recommended by my Grammy who I adore, that I could not read.) I do have trouble parting with a (physical) book that was a gift from a loved one. But as far as enjoying the insides? No, I think I’m pretty clinical about that stuff. The one exception is my Shelf Awareness editor, Marilyn, who sends me books to read with varying levels of confidence and is pretty much spot-on – she’s amazing – but then, that’s her profession. It’s less… emotional, on her part and mine.

What about you? Is your reading enjoyment colored by the person who recommended the book? Do you have a reading friend, or romantic partner, who is so simpatico that you can absolutely rely on his or her recommendations?

Stay tuned for my review of Grizzly Years, and hopefully Pops’s as well.

synchronicity: Teaser Tuesdays: The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

story

Is it a double-synchronicity if it’s a synchronicity about synchronicity?

Fair warning: I will be raving about this little book when it gets published and I’m allowed to do so. But for now… this is Brooke Williams, in one of his commentaries following a chapter of Jefferies’s 1883 work.

Jefferies was in conversation with me as I was in conversation with Jung. Jung also used “soul” and “psyche” interchangeably. The psyche, I’ve learned, is the complete human mind – conscious as well as unconscious. What intrigues me most is Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious – that part of the psyche every human shares, that evolved as our cells evolved, through natural selection, consisting of “mnemonic deposits accruing from the experience of our ancestors.”

Randomly discovering a book I’d never heard of and reading a passage about psyche and soul – concepts I’d been struggling to understand – was for me a “meaningful coincidence,” Jung’s definition for synchronicity.

Synchronicity is, according to Ira Progroff, “at the frontal edge of life where evolution is occurring.”

In parallel, you know I’ve used the word synchronicity here before. What you don’t know is that I had some trouble selecting the word I wanted to use to communicate the concept: of coincidence, but more than coincidence. Clearly (at least according to the definitions given above) I got it right. Thanks, Pops, for helping me to get it.

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

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