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Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.


The importance of this book to me can hardly be overstated, as I’ve read it many times since my childhood. It offers many possible annotation subjects: the dreamy quality of the stories Williams tells; the line between fact and fiction; the liberal use of other writers’ words to compile her own impressions; the interplay between Mormon and Navajo traditions; her study of storytelling as communication and education across generations. But here I am most interested in her use of objects as an organizing principle.

Williams’s chapters are organized by the items she keeps in a leather pouch on her desk at the Utah Museum of Natural History, where she works as museum curator. The prologue opens: “Out of my pouch falls a sprig of sage.” This prologue is different from the rest of the book in that it is set in Williams’s family home and tradition, while the rest of the book stays with the Navajo and her work life. Sage backgrounds her home. Chapter one, “Curator,” presents the pouch. Its first two paragraphs read,

I am a collector. On my desk sits a small leather pouch, weatherbeaten, full of mementos of the desert. I have carried it with me everywhere in Navajoland. It is my link with the Diné, as they call themselves. I am shy. The people are shy. The objects inside give us courage to speak.

I shake the objects out of their pouch and spread them across my desk. What stories they tell: a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen. Wait–something is missing. I shake the pouch four more times and from the bottom of the bag rolls out the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez.

This list of objects forms the rest of the chapter titles. The prologue is subtitled “A Sprig of Sage,” and the rest following chapter 1, “Curator,” proceed: “Rocks, Sand, and Seeds,” “Turquoise, Obsidian, and Coral,” etc. down the list. “Storyteller” is followed by “Home,” and then an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography. With just a few exceptions, the pouch’s contents neatly form the table of contents. As a writer who has always struggled with titles, this neatness appeals to me.

Within each chapter, the object or objects offer entry into stories, folklore, natural history, and personal musings. The connections between object and story are often tenuous: they make sense to Williams, and she is content to leave them sketched. My first impression is that she follows her mind where it wanders without much explicit mapping of those wanderings for her reader. Let me look closer at how each chapter title describes its contents.

The sprig of sage is the Utah landscape that Williams and her family and her Mormon culture belong to; it leads her to family stories. The rocks, sand, and seeds are the geography of Navajoland (the Colorado Plateau), and this chapter lets her tell the story of that land both through the science of geography and through Navajo mythology. Turquoise, obsidian, and coral are colors: of the desert, and of Navajo mythology again. Pieces of white shell are vestiges of the ocean that once covered Navajoland, and this leads her to an old world and old traditions, again accessed in part through myth. Yucca is soap, tradition, and the traditional ceremony surrounding a Navajo woman’s first menses.

A bouquet of feathers bound by yarn is classic Terry Tempest Williams: her obsession with birds, and their place in the myth and culture and ecology of the region. Here she tells stories of communing with a great horned owl, and of attending a powwow. Coyote fur is also obvious, allowing a way in to Coyote/Trickster stories. A bone from Black Mountain is a storytelling opportunity: Williams picks up a bone and dreams, imagines herself shrinking to Flea and listening in on the storytelling of the animals on the mountain. The chapter ends with a lesson about the nature of storytelling.

Deerskin begins the reentry of Williams’s own family, as her father’s and brothers’ hunting traditions meet the Navajo Deerhunting Way. Wool is a connection to the Navajos’ sheepherding tradition. A potshard and some corn pollen lets Williams imagine her way into the ancient world of the Anasazi, the Navajos’ precursors in the region. The Storyteller reminds her of two women in particular that she’s known; the reader recognizes that Williams is herself a storyteller, as well, with all the ritual and roles associated. The outlier final chapter, “Home,” re-grounds Williams back in the present, in her office at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

I can see now that these objects each lead Williams into history, myth, place, and culture, associatively. In fact, it’s a more consistent, standard strategy than it immediately appeared to me–almost a formula, but with a feeling more intuitive and natural than that implies.

Within chapters there is an organization to admire, too. Many chapters both start and end with an image, or with the object itself, circular. This keeps the reader grounded in the objects and the images and associations they call up. It is part of what makes my overall impression of this book as both simple and profound: the pattern brings the reader back around, always, so that she remembers the objects that brought us here. Williams deals in concepts that ask her reader to stop and think, but she grounds them in easily grasped things. The chapter titled “A Bouquet of Feathers Bound by Yarn” begins with the word “birds” and ends with “birds burst into song”; the title phrase occurs in both the next-to-first and next-to-last sentences.

As a writer intimidated by both titles and the conclusion and tying-up of essays, this structure appeals to me very much as a strategy to make my own work easier to organize. I appreciate that the effect on me as reader was not of a formula but of an artful form. I think there may be a shortcut here for me. In my critical essay, there are several aspects of Pieces of White Shell that I hope to mine for my own work: overall organization of a collection, the theming of individual chapters or essays, and things standing in for stories or concepts, as ways in.


Rating: 9 coyotes return.

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Just a week ago I gave you this book’s beginning and told you I was excited about it. It turned out to be everything I’d hoped.

Fierce Attachments is about Vivian Gornick’s mother and their relationship. It is told in two threads: the narrator’s memory of the events of her childhood in a tenement in the Bronx, and the narrative present, in which she and her mother walk together in Manhattan (where the latter lives) and throughout the city. The second thread features a daughter in her fifties and a mother in her seventies, finally eighty years old. The two threads eventually meet, as the remembered events follow a young Vivian growing up: from child to teenager, to college student, through marriage and divorce, into middle age and the walks in Manhattan. It is a very natural-feeling structure and one that makes great sense. It allows the reader to follow the heart of this book: neither the events of past or present, nor the story of one woman or the other, but rather, the story of their evolving relationship over decades, all its pain and small healings. It is also therefore about memory. The walks, which are also talks, allow Vivian and her mother to remember together, to create these stories.

In last week’s book beginning, I observed that the opening scene–a single paragraph–was given in present tense. All the narrative present events (walking in the city) are also given in present tense; but an event from the past doesn’t take the present tense again until page 91, nearly halfway through this book (at 204 pages an oddly quick read, for one so deep). It does not happen again until the past stories catch up with, merge with the present, when the mother turns eighty in the final pages and the two women find a small space in which to ease their combativeness. I had to flip back through the book to make these observations; I didn’t take notes as I went through, and in fact would have told you that more of the book took the present tense than I’ve found when I checked. I guess that makes the point that the past, rendered with lots of feeling and details, can feel pretty immediate.

There is much to admire here. I loved getting a feeling for Gornick’s inner life, as one lover calls it, her development as a writer, and the sad, conflicting story of going to City College and moving away–figuratively–from her mother, when she starts using complicated sentences and words the older woman does not understand. I appreciated the string of men she allies with, and her efforts to understand them, their places in her life and what they’ve had in common. Whatever her mother may think, Gornick uses beautiful sentences. And there is no arguing with the richness of her material: that tenement upbringing, the colorful women and sensory texture and exciting events. But for me what is most crystalline here is the relationship that is her main focus. The rendering of its difficulties.

And I see I’m writing this review prematurely, that I have not yet grasped what makes that rendering so clear. I think it has something to do with dialogue, and more to do with voice: that Vivian and her mother both get such clear voices, and not only them but many other, lesser characters as well. And perspective, the blending of what Sue William Silverman and Suzanne Paola call the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience”: the young Vivian, living in the past as it happened, and the writer Vivian walking with her mother and writing this book, and the way the two brush up against one another and eventually merge. The clear search for meaning, the honest, present wondering on the page: the classic assay.

I have a lot more to learn here; I’ll be back to Fierce Attachments soon, I expect. For now, please discover it for yourself, if you have any interest at all in the love and anguish of parent-child relationships, or admire creative nonfiction.


Rating: 8 corners.

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman is an established memoirist with Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (among other books, including poetry). This is the first of hers I’ve read, though.

Her title is intended as an answer to accusations that memoirs during the “memoir craze” of recent decades, and particularly those by women or other marginalized demographics that she refers to as the “other,” are confessional-in-a-bad-way, or sensational, or oversharing, or navel-gazing. With this title, Silverman reclaims the term and redefines it. Confessions are good, are therapeutic and cathartic, and lead to healing for the confessor and opportunities for fellow sufferers to begin their own healings. It’s a positive sentiment, although in this telling it occasionally carries a bit more touchy-feeliness than I might like.

I love the balance Silverman strikes between general philosophies of writing and nuts-and-bolts strategies. Each chapter concludes with a series of writing prompts or exercises. The craft books I’ve read for school (now in my third semester) have been successful reads, for me, at a lower rate than the rest of my reading. I don’t know if I’m pickier about craft books, just tend to like them less as a category, or am having trouble selecting the right ones. But my complaints often center on this balance issue: a writer holding forth about Writing (capital W) because he likes the sound of his writing, versus the practical how-to. I was pleased, early in Fearless Confessions, at the balance, which feels just right to this Goldilocks.

There is, though, a touch more cheerleading and rah-rah than I might like, just a hint of a tone that could be patronizing. Silverman has a tendency to wrap up chapters or concepts with “now go forth and do it, you’ll be great!” statements. Some of this is because there is an emphasis on trauma writing, Silverman’s own experience and (arguably) her specialty: the uncovering of a source of shame (incest, sexual abuse, sex addiction) which becomes an empowering and healing experience, and an aid to others. It makes sense to me that writers dealing with these kinds of issues deserve and need a certain amount of cheerleading. But I think Silverman has a lot to offer those of us who are doing different work, less revealing-of-trauma, and her tone came off just a touch strong for me, personally, and perhaps for other writers like me.

It also sometimes felt a bit more beginner than I needed, like in the first appendix, a discussion of the subgenres of creative nonfiction, which I found a little stark in its delineations–although a good primer it would be. Other appendices include a reading list (long, and by subject–I’ll be returning to that), and a handful of craft essays and examples of creative nonfiction essays. These were valuable inclusions that broadened the book and diluted Silverman’s peppy teacher’s tone.

I hear myself waffling as I write this review, and I guess that ambivalence is the story of my reading experience: great content, but often delivered in a way I found just slightly frustrating. And there was great content! I was really excited by Silverman’s concepts of highlighting, with different color highlighters, different plot elements or characters in a memoirist’s story to serve different plots. Or her idea of erasing the parts that don’t serve whichever story is being told: where a fiction writer builds plot, a nonfictionist sculpts one by erasure. These metaphors worked really well for me, and are perhaps the best expressions I have read of concepts I’ve been trying to articulate and wrap myself around.

I think I came to this one at a little the wrong time, and it would have suited me earlier in my studies. I’m glad I read it, but I found myself sometimes a tad impatient with the tone. I think I’ll be returning to this book, and going back to the writing prompts and exercises Silverman offers. I do recommend Fearless Confessions, just with a little patience, if indeed your tastes tend to follow mine, or if your background in creative nonfiction is already established. Or, to put it another way: an excellent introduction to writers new to memoir.


Rating: 7 pairs of red shoes.

book beginnings on Friday: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

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.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve featured a book beginning here (over a year), but I wanted to share these opening lines because I find them a fine example.

First: I knew before I even got to Gornick’s text that I had misjudged her. I think I’d been cool on this book because I did not enjoy Gornick’s craft book, The Situation and the Story. But as I opened Fierce Attachments to Jonathan Lethem’s glowing introduction, I knew this was different, and I felt I’d been wrong to wait so long.

Gornick’s opening lines are,

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette.

I love the immediacy of this scene, the way Gornick places us there in the very moment, in present tense. Even that first sentence, “I’m eight years old,” is such a choice on the part of the writer. It does what we are sometimes afraid to do: just comes out and gives up a piece of setting-information (age, in this case) outright. It’s simple, but that present tense makes it snappy somehow. That sentence says scene, bam. And I’m on board.

Thanks for stopping by for a book beginning. I’ll be back to reviews next week.

The Art of Description by Mark Doty

I have had a rough time with Graywolf Press’s The Art of series, which is a shame, because I am a fan of Graywolf Press generally. (I gave Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext and Christopher Bram’s The Art of History 6 widgets apiece, and DNF’d [did not finish] Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention.) But I gave this one a try because it’s Doty, and I am getting to be excited about Doty. (Stick around for a reread of Still Life With Oysters and Lemons.)

Okay, enough parentheticals. The Art of Description is both an enjoyable read and a useful craft book. I appreciate its balance of quotable moments, profound concepts, and nuts-and-bolts writing advice. I also appreciate its illumination of Doty’s working style, because I plan on focusing partly on his work for my critical essay this semester. He includes as well plenty of examples from other writers’ (mostly poets’) work, with close readings, and one large section of this slim book is an alphabetical list of elements of description, which I think must have been fun to put together.

I know many writers/fellow students who love Graywolf’s The Art of books, and I know that my past failure with some of them is merely personal. But here is one that is working for me, in the way that I believe these books are meant to work: it is small, short, pocket-sized, and packed with memorable lines and nuggets. I want to just leave a few of them here, for my use as much as for yours. (All bold emphases are mine. Italics are Doty’s.)

The parts of a narrative are contiguous, each connecting to the previous instant and the next, but the lyric moment is isolate.

People who have studied drawing know that you have little idea what’s in front of you in the visual landscape until you try to represent it. To some degree, the art of description is the art of perception; what is required, in order to say what you see, is enhanced attention to that looking, and the more you look, the more information you get.

I am reminded here of his detailed study of the color of the white asparagus in a (different) still life, in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Switching books on you for this next quotation.) It is blanched asparagus,

grown, that is, shallow trenches of sand, by which the body of the stalk is gradually covered, as it sprouts, so that the flesh will remain white. Though that term is far too simple for the actual color of these stalks: a pale lemony shade, tinged with a little green, shadowed on the underside, particularly where the curve of the bundle falls away, in its lower reaches, into darkness. The shade of these stalks–exactly right, as a look at a bundle of asparagus grown in this European style today confirms–is achieved through a mixture of ash, lead white, and a color called schiet geel, or shit yellow…

I think he’s practicing what he preaches in these lines: only by looking very closely with great attention at this painting could he see these colors, pick them apart; and then he takes what he’s seen back to real asparagus for comparison; and follows with research into the painting techniques of an earlier time (the shit yellow paint was made from buckthorn berries, “a laxative, thus lending the hue its tone”).

Okay, back to The Art of Description.

…the yoking of disparate elements makes more than a vivid account of perception; the best description is never merely decorative, but makes meaning in itself, building an argument about the nature of the real.

Polarity, the pull of forces in opposition to one another, makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.

If I were asked to say what distinguishes an artistic temperament from any other, I’d say that it’s a fundamental sense that the project of being alive is something peculiar, little understood. I’ve always felt amazed by–a bit envious of–people who take their lives for granted, who feel that of course this (this body, this community, this set of human laws and social expectations) is the way things should be, how could it be otherwise?

And on and on, but I fear copyright infringement.

As I deepen into Doty’s work, I’m observing and understanding better this writer’s appeal to me personally, so this craft book comes at the right time.


Rating: 8 breathless sonnets.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley

I appreciated Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, and so I was interested when I learned he’d written a memoir of a difficult-to-write-about family member.

The first paragraph of Hemley’s prologue introduces five characters in a nuclear family. Father Cecil, who died when Robin (the youngest child) was seven. Brother Jonny, who “used to be good at everything, from languages to sports to the sciences,” but as an adult specializes in Orthodox Judaism (he and Robin are not close). The eldest, sister Nola, who “was good at everything, too, art and language, but especially things of the spirit.” Mother Elaine, writer and teacher, who is good at surviving. And here Robin introduces himself, as larcenous. Throughout this book, he is tormented by the thought of the stories, secrets, feelings and anguishes he’s stealing from his family members, particularly Elaine and Nola. Brilliant, spiritual, disturbed Nola, who always heard voices and saw fairies and angels and communicated with God, was treated for the last several years of her life for schizophrenia, in and out of mental institutions until she died when she was twenty-five years old, and Robin was fifteen.

This is a memoir filled with documents. The Hemleys are a writing family, and Robin mines Nola’s unpublished autobiography, her drawings, his own and his mother’s short stories, letters sent among the family, court documents, and more. Nola’s writing in particular appears peppered with struck-through text and additions, mostly the work of their mother as editor. These edits are not redacted; the reader gets both versions at once, often unsure of whether a change is Nola’s or Elaine’s. It is disconcerting, and entirely appropriate.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is well-named. It is not an easy read. Just over 300 pages feels longer, as Hemley navigates the pain and distress of layers of family trauma–his father’s death and the deaths of several school-age friends; moves to ill-suited towns; a permissive, struggling mother; everyday sibling discord, and Nola’s increasing difficulties with a world she characterizes as “a strange and unbearable monster.” This is Nola’s book, but it follows side-threads, too, as when eleven-year-old Robin goes to live for part of a school year with elderly relatives in Florida (“By any yardstick other than a conventional one, I was essentially an elderly person… I really liked being old”). Later, he finds middle school frightening and chooses instead to attend day school at the psychiatric hospital where Nola is an inpatient. The Children’s Ward is a comfortable enough home for Robin, until he finds out they might not let him out again. Years after Nola’s death, when Robin is a graduate student, he has a girlfriend who suffers a psychotic break echoing his sister’s. Obviously, these threads are part of Nola’s story, her mystery, as well.

Not an easy read at all, as the book’s progress follows Nola’s descent into a misery she will not escape from. I do not recommend staying up late into the night to finish reading this as a winter storm rolls in. I found it quite upsetting, in fact. There’s no question that Hemley achieves emotional engagement, a representation of some of the agony his family has experienced. It’s a complicated achievement, all these layers of family trauma–often still with hope strung through them, at least while Nola retains it–and the writerly impulses of a family committed to communication and the written word, to education, and to some version of truth, however complicated. [Elaine’s technique is to write the family stories as fiction. Hemley’s essay “Truths We Could Live With,” appearing in Joy Castro’s (ed.) Family Troubles, and assigned by Jeremy Jones for my recent residency, discusses the difficulties he’s had with this practice. You can read an excerpt here.] A major thread of Nola follows the back-and-forth communications of mother and son, as Robin researches his family history for this book, and Elaine both helps (consulting, remembering, mailing him copious documents) and worries over the pain this will cause her, and Robin worries in turn.

So, a rich and complicated story. And cerebral: the Hemleys are a heavily educated, intellectual and mystic family, as well. (Cecil was co-founder of Noonday Press, and with Elaine translated and edited I.B. Singer’s work.) Almost every page is dense with philosophy (Nola’s grad-school discipline), religion, theory: faith, art, and madness indeed. I was having trouble getting through it, until I decided to let Nola’s concepts in particular sort of wash over me, and stop trying to understand them. (Much easier this way.) This book is an accomplishment worthy of study, but it will cost you something in the reading, so I recommend it with that qualification. Maybe stick to the daylight, too.


Rating: 7 Blakean drawings.

Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook

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


This book was assigned for Eric Waggoner’s seminar on “prose technique” at this week’s residency. By the time this review posts, the seminar will have happened, but I’m writing beforehand. This review is time-traveling to the future.

Line by Line is a handy reference tool, but no kind of book to read cover-to-cover, and I’m a bit surprised that Eric assigned it as he did. I read the preface and flipped through the rest, interested to see how it handled, for example, the singular “they” pronoun as used by people who don’t ascribe to the gender binary, including a few of my favorite classmates (much discussion of the problem of “he” versus “he or she” versus a singular “they,” but no direct address of the binary-gender problem itself). I skimmed for examples (mostly colorful ones, and from real writing found in real life). It’s got a decent glossary of questionable usage (like affect/effect), although I was surprised to see “hopefully” included (should mean “in a hopeful manner,” rather than “it is hoped that”) and not “momentarily” (the same strict grammarians, I believe, would reserve this for “taking place for only a moment,” and not for something to happen just a mere moment in the future). Which just goes to show that any book like this can only do part of the job, and only from one grammarian’s perspective–obviously. On the one hand, then, why try? No, we do need books like this. But we need to know they are only ever a starting point.

As for readability, why on earth Line by Line when we have Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?? “Omit needless words,” they famously wrote; and that perfect sentence is oft repeated but not always obeyed. My favorite part of Strunk & White’s “little book” is how pleasant it is to read, cover to cover. This one, I will keep handy for consultation, especially for Eric’s seminar, but it will never win my heart like that other one did.


Rating: 5 future references.
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