The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, trans. by Jeremy Leggatt

Jean-Dominique Bauby was in his early 40s and enjoying a career as editor in chief at French Elle magazine when he suffered a stroke and woke up, post-coma, with “locked-in syndrome”: he can only move one eye, and jiggle his head around a little. He writes this memoir – short at 132 pages, but still, extraordinary – by blinking his left eye at a friend who runs through the alphabet with him for every character in this book. That, alone, is astonishing.

But it’s also quite a good book. Chapters are short, episodic; language is often lovely, and not just descriptive. Where I expect someone in Bauby’s position to be bitter and melancholic, he is often nearly joyful, waxing about how he can go anywhere, taste anything in his mind.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.

In his imagination, he interacts playfully with the Empress Eugénie (his hospital’s patroness, who died in 1920); travels to New York, Hong Kong, Saint Petersburg; eats apricot pie, Alsatian sausage, or “a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter.” (He is fed through a stomach tube.) He is also often very blue, as in the chapter ‘Sunday’ about how excruciating that day can be when he has no visitors and his hospital carers are indifferent to their job. But we don’t blame him, do we.

Bauby has both a sense of humor and a sense of the sublime. He tells us that in using the alphabet process wherein a guest runs through letters (not in ABC order, but in order of their frequency of use in French), some are inclined to wait for him to conclude each word himself: “unwilling to chance the smallest error, they will never take it upon themselves to provide the ‘room’ that follows ‘mush.'” Others jump to conclusions, in a hurry for the next word. “Yet I understood the poetry of such mind games one day when, attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune).” Lovely. Or: before the stroke, Bauby had been contemplating writing a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo (fine book, that); now he finds it ironic that he is living the life of the character Grandpapa Noirtier, who also had locked-in syndrome. “As a punishment, I would have preferred to be transformed into M. Danglars, Franz d’Epinay, the Abbé Faria, or, at the very least, to copy out one thousand times: ‘I must not tamper with masterpieces.'” This is a narrator I like very much.

Lest that go too far, he’s not perfect, either. His relationship with his children and their mother, now that his world has so changed, is complicated by the fact that he had recently left them for another woman when he had his stroke.

This is a memoir with a heartbreaking human story at its core. Nothing much happens during the course of these pages – what has happened has already happened when it begins, although we do get a brief flashback version of the stroke itself, just at the end. (I suspect this question of sequence and not-happening will be Cynthia’s focus, in her upcoming seminar.) But the thoughts and feelings of this locked-in man are worthy of our attention, told as they are with careful focus, humor and humility, and a concern for language. Recommended.


Rating: 7 lucky days.

residency readings

Again! I know! I’m graduated; but I’m still back. This summer I’m honored to be serving as residency assistant for the usual residency period. This gets me in to all the seminars, so I’m doing all the reading as usual. Also as usual, you can view seminar descriptions here. Note that not all seminars assign readings at all; there may be others there you find interesting even though they’re not mentioned here.

Also note that this post is written as if residency is in the future, even though it’s past by the time this publishes – such is my review backlog these days!

I thought I’d just cover what are, for me, the highlights.

Savannah Sipple, who will teach on “Right to Discover: Conventions in Queer Writing in Appalachia and Beyond,” assigned three online pieces: “To Suffer or To Disappear,” “Who Cares What Straight People Think?,” and this essay by Carter Sickels. I appreciated hearing from Sickels again (he has also served as guest faculty at Wesleyan, but before my time), and his story was moving. The other two pieces both address the great success of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which I have not read but which I know is much loved by my Shelf editor Dave, who is a serious reader and writer, and a gay man; these perspectives are complicating and therefore interesting. I’m certainly interested to hear from Sipple on this topic.

For Jon Corcoran’s seminar on “The Analytical Hybrid: Using Notes, Texts, and Poetry to Push Your Narrative Toward a Deeper Truth,” I read excerpts from Rachel Hadas’s Strange Relation, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. I felt warmly toward Didion, pleased to recognize something I appreciated at the time. But the Hadas memoir and Goldman novel were the real winners here: I have added both of these books to my hopeful-someday list. I was sorry when each excerpt ended.

Devon McNamara’s assigned reading for “Utterly Present,” her cross-genre generative session, included an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, which I was not particularly happy to see again (mercifully it was short). But it also included a short story called “Foster” by Claire Keegan which blew me away. Read this one immediately: here. Of the two assigned poems there was also one standout: “The Same City” by Terrance Hayes. Whew.

Cynthia McCloud is graduating this residency, and for her graduate seminar, “Ordering Your Private World: Discovering the Structure That Fits Your Project,” she began with a couple of chapters assigned from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. I need to thank Jeremy Jones again for that recommendation; the whole book was outstanding, and I’ve so enjoyed rereading these pages (but my favorite essay in the book, one of my favorite essays of all time, is still “Frame of Reference“). It was a real treat to see both “Progression” and “Structure” again. Thanks, Cynthia! She also asked us to read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which will come in its own review on Wednesday: in a nutshell, I was moved by this minimalist (and for good reasons) memoir. Finally, Cynthia had us listen to a podcast: “The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley” from Cocaine and Rhinestones (found here). I like dark and gritty crime stories and I like country music, so I liked this podcast – that is, aside from the goriest of details. (I thought the warnings about how bad it was were slightly exaggerated. Only slightly.) She recommended reading Fun Home, but I don’t have a copy of that with me, and decided not to bother with the reread (though it’s a very good book). I’m very interested in the topic of Cynthia’s seminar, and pleased with all her readings, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Richard Schmitt always assigns enjoyable readings. This time he’s teaching “Stereotypes: An Aspect of Characterization,” which sounds like ‘stereotypes but in a good way’ in his description. Okay. Here he’s assigned a series of short stories and novel excerpts (one of which he totally assigned us to read very recently – okay, it was two years ago, summer 2017 – don’t ask how long I just spent tracking down that fact in my hard drive). It was a good packet, but some pieces stood out more than others. “Sunday in the Park” by Bel Kaufman was memorable, even accounting for the fact that it’s the repeat from ’17. Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is sort of a favorite of mine. The rest each had some sparkle, and I can see why they were included.

And finally, best for last (this is the order they came in!), Jessie’s seminar: “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life.” For one thing, I think this is a topic I’m going to love. For another, she assigned two of my all-time favorite books: a chapter from Amy Leach’s Things That Are, and the entirety of Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Swoon. Finally, she gave us a short piece by Robert Vivian called “Hearing Trains” that was lovely but, for this reader, probably overshadowed by the other two stars.

I’m so very much looking forward to this residency. For a change, I have extra mental space: no deadlines pressing down (except for the odd book review!), no workshop to attend or prep for, no pressure to “do” school at all – but rather the privilege of attending seminars as I desire. And there is some richness here. I am lucky, lucky.

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.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.


Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.

traveling

Happy holidays, y’all, and a reminder that I am off and traveling for school – for the last time, my fifth and final residency. I’ll be back in Texas the second week of January, to pick up my dog and my van and carry on down the road. And let you back in on my readings. Again, I’m super fortunate to keep my job reviewing for Shelf Awareness, so you’ll continue seeing those posts. And who knows what else the future holds!

As usual, I’ve got posts scheduled for you in my absence, but comment response time may be a bit slower than normal while I’m away. In fact, there may be a slower new-normal, as I live in a van from here on! Also as usual, thanks for your patience. I hope you have a lovely holiday season & a hopeful new year.

Writing the Personal Essay

Hey folks, another quick digression here (and bonus Saturday post!). I didn’t want anyone to miss a great opportunity. Creative Nonfiction‘s online classes are about to get a great boost, when Matt Randal O’Wain teaches an upcoming section of “Writing the Personal Essay.” Matt is a visiting faculty member with my MFA program this semester, which means I got to study with him at this recent residency, and I was really pleased to get to know him. He’s a great guy, personable and thoughtful and considerate and we share some interests; more importantly for these purposes, he’s also a well-read, thoughtful, insightful teacher. Register here! This Monday is your last day to get discounted registration for this course, and I have a coupon code to share with you to get an additional $50 off! I’m not sure I should post that here, but drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com and I will get you the code asap.

If you have any questions about CNF’s courses, or about Matt, also drop me a line or comment here and I’d be glad to share what I can.

Thanks for reading. Back to your weekend.

in loving memory

Please indulge me with today’s digression from our regularly scheduled broadcast.

Just a few days after returning from this summer’s residency at West Virginia Wesleyan, my classmates and our faculty members and I heard some terrible news. One of our own had died suddenly in the middle of the night of a heart attack. Okey was well-loved. We entered the program together, both of us nonfiction students, although he was set to graduate a semester later, because he took on a semester of cross-genre study in fiction. He was well on his way to completing an autobiographical novel. This semester was his critical essay semester, and he was excited to compose a play at the same time.

Okey

I wrote these words for a post at the MFA program’s blog:

My friend Okey was a caretaker. The first, last, and middle memories I have of him involve him inquiring into my various small troubles: he wanted to be sure I was safe, healthy, and had what I needed to be happy. He wanted to give advice and assistance where he could. He was concerned for me. He wanted pictures of any man I would consider dating; he wanted to know how my mother was doing. He had many fine qualities: he was funny, sassy, wise, and selfless. But what I remember most was his deep concern for me, and in this respect I know I was not special. He cared for the many people he loved in this way. He wanted to take care of us.

Others in this program have written about him finding a home here, support and community that he needed. I’m glad we had that to offer him, and I don’t doubt the truth of these statements. But I never much considered what we had to give to Okey; I always saw much more what he gave to us. Thank you, friend.

Okey James Napier, Jr.


I haven’t come up with anything better than this, although he deserves better. It’s been another month or so and I’m still having trouble articulating what we all lost. I still miss Okey. He was a fan and cheerleader of this blog. He was anxious to help me through any minor, personal troubles I encountered. He used to “stalk” my social media account (his word!) so he could ask after the people and issues in my life. We didn’t live near each other, so I didn’t realize, til he was gone, how big a role he played in my day-to-day life. I miss him terribly.

All of this is to say that there’s a plea in today’s post, y’all, and again thank you for listening. The MFA program has set up a scholarship in Okey’s honor, and as we are hoping to get it endowed, we have a fundraising goal. This is a scholarship in support of diversity and inclusion, causes Okey cared about greatly.

Okey’s drag persona, Ilene Over


I have never and would never ask you for money for myself, but this is a good cause for a program, and in honor of a person, I care for deeply. If you’re able to give anything at all, won’t you please consider giving here? And if you’d rather save the fees assessed by this web service, there is a way to give offline. Please drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com for those details.

Again, that’s the Okey Napier, Jr. Diversity & Inclusion MFA Scholarship at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and I appreciate you considering, and reading this post.

Hug your loved ones. Tell them you love them.

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