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.

On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura

I felt I might be tested on the things I saw.

Lia Purpura’s On Looking is an collection of essays that are unrelated, but for their preoccupation with looking and seeing. It’s an interesting look at collecting essays: some of these do not make obvious their obsession, except by proximity with the others. It’s an effect that builds. I like it.

Purpura’s language is lyric, which is often difficult to make clear meaning of – words go together that we don’t expect, which slows down this literal-minded reader. There is undeniable music and rhythm to the language, but also meaning available, if one slows down.

The opening essay, “Autopsy Report,” I’ve read before. It’s beautiful. It is absolutely about looking – a fine way to begin this collection – about really seeing when so many would turn away. (Some readers may wish to turn away. It gives the fine details of bodies literally split open.) This is definitely one of my favorites of the book, and a representative sample, although I suppose it is also clearer in its language than some that follow, and therefore a bit more accessible.

Another favorite was “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie,” which identifies itself as a list essay.

(A list, after all, is an incantation. In a list of likenesses, each element, each peculiarity gathers, leans into and flicks on the light in the room of the next one. The elements loop and knot forth like a net, band as a colony of frost or coral reaching, suggesting not so much a progression as a collective tendency toward. And taken together, the elements offer the assurance of a stance: here is a way to speak of this lightest, barely perceptible–in this case–space. From here I can count and collect that which stirs, and has always stirred me.)

A list inches one closer. Hints along.

Recognize my lists-and-things obsession here, which is of course related to a looking-and-seeing obsession. What follows is a series of spaces and things considered for whether they can count or cannot count as sugar eggs. Sugar eggs for the narrator are sacred spaces… “a space that makes a place for thought, an air considerably pure in which objects–say, sugar bushes, sugar trees–grown precise in their stilled distance.” The specialness of sugar eggs is hard to pin down: Purpura has spent a beautiful essay working on it, and I’m not sure I can sum it up. I’m not even sure I entirely understand it; but I had a lovely time following her parsing of what does and does not qualify.

Another favorite essay was “Coming to See,” which turns out to be a memorial. It’s a series of fragments, about looking through a window and wanting a better, clearer frame for the view (subjects I have played with too); only on the essay’s third page do we learn that the narrator has a friend who is dying. This friend is scarcely mentioned throughout, but it becomes clear that she is what the narrator’s anxiety of seeing is all about. Again, the memorial is something I’ve attempted, but it’s hard to get it right. This is an unusual, touching take on it. By almost entirely eliding the true subject, Purpura gets at the emotional heart without predictable sentimentality or cliché.

There is more, much more; it is so dense. From here I will give you a few favorite lines.

The epigraph, by Goethe:

Every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception.

From “The Pin”:

But while we stayed, we stayed because we were protected by a curiosity so certain of its task, that things–boots, mail, pots, our bodies–offered themselves, first tentatively and then with urgency, as if for us alone, solicitous as all objects of adoration, as all objects in stories lure us, irresistible and catalytic.

All objects in stories lure us. My thesis, if you will.

And finally, from “On Looking Away: A Panoramic,”

I believe in the circle.

It’s funny the things that resonate with us. Another reader would have read this book and marked entirely different lines, I’m sure.

Perhaps this book should be read alongside Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, for its attention to attention. And in fact perhaps that comparison is useful: I had to read Doty’s book twice (and repeatedly after that) to begin to get it. These are dense, rich texts, about abstract things even while they’re about very literal, physical things as well.

Worth your time.


Rating: 8 ships in bottles.

The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions by Maud Casey

In Chekhov’s famous letter to a friend, he wrote, “You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.”

I have been looking forward to Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery, because it sounds like it addresses something I like in the writing I admire, and something I hope to do myself. I have thought of it more as ambiguity, or subtlety, than mystery; but I think we’re talking about the same thing. As in that perfect Chekhov quotation above, it’s about posing interesting questions and exploring them, not about having all the answers. If we provide too many details, we take away the reader’s chance to use her own imagination or her own experiences to fill out the story, to make it her own. It is questions, not answers, that are a part of the universal experience, and that’s what makes really good literature so rewarding.

Casey’s focus is on fiction writing, but I didn’t find that it mattered much. She studies a number of novels and short stories (relatively few of which I’d read, but it was fine) for their mystery. She praises Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters, for example, for its offstage gestures: the protagonist makes reference to a castle, forests, high canopies, a river, none of which are explained. “The gesture toward everything that we don’t know about [that protagonist] doesn’t frustrate; rather, it intrigues.” And I found myself asking the question, why does this work when he does it? The rest of us would be scolded for the same: references to details nowhere in our own stories. But then comes the answer: “In every case… it’s useful to ask, What is the effect of the withholding? Does it yield something generative in relation to character? Or is it an effort to drum up surface-level suspense, whose effect may be experienced as exactly that, effortful, and cosmetic, rather than as true dramatic tension?” Twenty-six pages later, again: “It’s a question of effect. Is a bizarre character, and the mystery surrounding that character, being generated for look-at-me-Ma show, or is it doing something that leads to generative mystery?” (I confess I enjoyed “look-at-me-Ma show.”) See the repeated words: we are looking for effect; our goal is generative mystery. (That last is the phrase Jessie used in recommending this book.) The bulk of The Art of Mystery is devoted to explicating these concepts with lots of good examples (that make me want to read lots of books). For this review, I’m content to have named them.

Like so many significant lightbulb moments in studying the craft of writing, this one seems obvious in hindsight. The writer must know what she’s trying to do; she must work with intention; and she must consider the effect of the choices she makes. Mystery for its own sake is at best a cute trick, liable to frustrate the reader. Generative mystery has a job to do. Know which is which.


Rating: 7 cataracts.

The Prairie in Her Eyes by Ann Daum

This is an extraordinary book, one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far. I took it slowly, out of pure pleasure. Thanks once more to Jessie.

Ann Daum is from a farm-and-ranch in South Dakota’s White River Valley. She left to go to college, but returned every harvest season, and came back after college. She grew up as a ranch hand; her father was the farmer, but her sister and she were ‘cattlemen’ and handlers of horses. As her parents age, and circumstances work against cattle ranching, that part of the family business shrinks and crumbles; they sell off much of their four thousand acres. But Ann’s horse breeding operation does well, and she continues on the family property.

Against this backdrop, The Prairie in Her Eyes is an essay collection and something of a memoir-in-essays. It begins with Ann listening to sandhill cranes passing over her family’s homeplace, in an essay titled “The Habit of Return,” and ends with “The Last Crane,” in which she watches the last sandhill of the season worry itself along. In between, essays consider the history of South Dakota and its farming and ranching cultures; the region’s wildlife; “Silence and Spaces” and “Predators and Prey,” and more. I admire Daum’s titles, which often cue me to follow her subtle braid, as in the essay “Fences,” which deals with boundaries of different sorts, and the variety of effects of literal fences in her region of South Dakota, for good and for ill, and the evolution within her own life of how she sees fences, which is a matter of both her own growth and of changes in the place itself.

Some of this content is hard to take. An account of a difficult foaling had me in tears; the animals (not people!) who hurt and died wrenched me. There is human trauma, as well, that can be difficult to read; interestingly, the human trauma is written about with some distance, less graphically, while the animals’ is more viscerally portrayed. But it’s shown with so much love and grace, and beautiful prose. I’d recommend this book 1,000 times.

These lines open “Silence and Spaces”:

Rain never falls in the South Dakota of my childhood. Wind blows down the valley with the force of locomotives, clouds pile on the horizon, thunder growls from the west. Once, sometimes twice, a summer, lightning sparks prairie fires that crackle and spit, swallow brown summer grasses without tasting. The flames cough embers up like glowing stars and the smoke hangs in cloud. But there is no rain.

This paragraph is about the weather. Fairly dramatic weather, sure. It’s about a lack: no rain. Weather, and an absence. It does not sound like a good recipe for gripping prose. But the fires swallow brown grasses without tasting? Amazing.

Obviously the themes and subject matter of this book spoke to me. It’s about home, what it means to be attached to a place, and how complicated, multifaceted, and imperfect our connections are. I love how deeply the flora, fauna, and history (natural and otherwise) of her region have contributed to making Daum who she is. At the pinnacle of this concept is the essay “Why We Return – The Prairie in Her Eyes,” in which an old woman comes to visit the Daum family property. This woman had never lived there; she’d never seen it before; but her parents had homesteaded there, and an older sibling had been born there. Just like the cranes in “The Habit of Return” (and, obviously, Daum herself), she felt the pull of the place, even though she’d never set foot. “Gertie grew up missing a place she never knew.”

I’m enchanted. I’ll be referring back to this one.


Readalikes: Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Evelyn Funda’s Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament.


Rating: 9 fading trails.

The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

I continue to have mixed reactions to The Art of series from Graywolf (a publisher I love). (See History, Subtext, Description; I gave up on Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention without reviewing it.) Voigt’s The Art of Syntax was interesting, and not without its high points for me. But a very detailed focus on poetry made it, unsurprising, less accessible for this particular reader than it might have been.

Much of the book is devoted to metric feet and uses poetry terms that I am still learning. There is a glossary, to help us keep our trochees and tercets straight, our spondees and Pyrrhic feet, and I referred to it repeatedly, but I think I still need the beginner course. Voigt parses a number of specific poems (she also uses the verb ‘parse’ in a specific way I was not familiar with); and I enjoyed these: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”, Donald Justice’s “To the Hawks,” Philipi Larkin’s “Cut Grass,” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” among others. (I love the naturalist theme of those titles! although “the Hawks” are figurative ones.) But – and I suppose this betrays my interests – I wish I’d learned more about the words themselves and their meanings, and spent less time on feet and meter and syllables. My brain just doesn’t have great patience for counting these, which perhaps is why Jessie wanted me to read this book. Sigh. I don’t know that I got everything out of it that I should have. (I feel like a broken record when writing about poetry.)

I ended up being reminded of Suzanne Paola’s excellent teaching (at Western Washington University) on syntax and language (particularly Germanic vs. Latinate words – a topic Voigt touches on briefly). Suzanne was much more prose-focused, and made much more sense to me at the time. I wish I had access to some of her teaching. I do still have this link she shared with us, which I appreciate for its recognition of concepts as well as its terms naming them. A handful of these (like parataxis and hypotaxis) appeared in Voigt, like old friends.

In the end, the most useful nuts-and-bolt craft tip I distilled out of this book was: vary your sentence lengths! which, duh; but it bears reminding. Beyond that, the music in the line – rhythm and rhyme – is something I recognize and admire and want for my own work, but the minutia of it eludes me at this point. Whatever of it that I have now comes by instinct, not conscious design, and certainly not counting of feet. I shall keep on exposing myself to discussions like this and hope it sinks in. Another central idea of Voigt’s is the importance of surprise, not the surprise of content (which the reader will be aware of) but the surprise of word order or syntax, that the reader may remain unaware of as the source of that special something in a given line.

They are good lessons. Despite my continuing trouble with this series, I’m looking forward to Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery, so stay tuned for that review.


Rating: 6 perseverations.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another book that came to me at just the right time thanks to Jessie van Eerden. I know of Rebecca Solnit, of course, but I think this is the first of her writing that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it in several aspects: its subject matter is very much in line with that of my thesis (that I’m currently writing); its structure is of interest and also has something to offer my own; the writing is lovely; the content it approaches is wide-ranging, and (as Jessie said early in this semester as we did a manuscript review), “I like to learn stuff.”

That said, it’s not an easy book to sum up. These collected essays are connected, but far from telling a narrative. Solnit is exploring the idea of getting lost and what it has to offer us; and that is ‘getting lost’ in several senses, geographic (I got off the trail and I was lost) and metaphoric (after my mother died I was lost, or I lost several years). Also the sense in which we lose both things and people: lose your keys, lose your mother (to death), lose a boyfriend (when you break up). She sees value in getting lost – sometimes it’s how we find ourselves – and notes that we don’t get lost much anymore. Late in the book, she looks at old maps with their ‘Terra Incognita,’ and observes that we don’t have terra incognita on our maps anymore. We know it all! Right? (Of course, we’ve thought we knew it all before, and been proven wrong.)

I’m using the sense of place tag here although it’s not quite right, which is perhaps a design flaw in my tag. By ‘sense of place,’ I have tended to mean a strong attachment to a certain place; so Jesse Donaldson’s writing about Kentucky, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Mary Karr’s southeast Texas. That is not what I found with Solnit, so much as a strong feeling about the importance of wandering, losing and finding oneself, in place and in other senses. Place plays an important role here. This book feels like it fits that tag, even though it doesn’t fit the tag as I originally conceived it. (This blog will be eight years old next month. Expect some scope creep.)

Structure-wise: there is a chapter-title refrain, with the heading The Blue of Distance (italicized, where the others aren’t) taking every other place between differently-titled essays. These are not the same essay over and over, but they all meditate on blue and its role in our observation of distance, beginning with the literal meaning (that is, that the sky and deep water both look blue for scientifically observable reasons) and moving through less-literal ones. Distance, it seems, is an inextricable part of one’s ability to get lost. My 600-square-foot house would be much harder to get lost in (tell that to my geriatric dog) than a 20-something room mansion would be. I really appreciated this design, the repeated title for very different essays; it was a succinct cue to the way in which they’re linked.

Another item I found interesting to note was Solnit’s references, the other thinkers she turns to. Some were perhaps unsurprising, as writers cite other writers: Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad. These are joined by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobbie Gentry, Yves Klein, Plato, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alfred Hitchcock (among many others). A huge number of minds contributed to Solnit’s own thought processes here – which are of course her own – and I was fascinated by the twists and turns. Again (and again), this is something I need in my own writing and that appeals to me. I can’t wait to tell Jessie how right-on she was with assigning me this book.

Obviously this Field Guide‘s usefulness to me is just beginning. You will like it, too, if you like far-ranging considerations of the human condition and where each of us as an individual might be or should be headed, if we’re thinking about it. I found it an engaging and curiously winding path, and I recommend it.


Rating: 8 shades of blue.

On Homesickness: A Plea by Jesse Donaldson

Our temples are made of logs in Kentucky so be careful with the flame.

This is a book very much after my own heart, even though its narrator doesn’t care much for the city that has my heart; we both share a love for home, even though our homes are different.

On Homesickness is a collection of fragments, none longer than one page, and that’s an important design feature, because each spread follows a pattern. The left-hand page names a Kentucky country, its date of establishment, and a small representation of its shape on a map. The right-hand page offers a fragment, sometimes expressly referring to the corresponding county but more often not. It’s possible that fragments and counties match up better than I know, and a Kentuckian might know better, but I’m not really all that concerned. These super-short pieces of prose make a neatly paced, lyric form for what is essentially a wandering wanting. Donaldson yearns for his home and can’t figure out how to get there. Meanwhile we learn as well that he and his beloved partner have a pretty good life in Oregon, a place he finds beautiful but not quite home. His partner is uninclined to pick up and move to Kentucky. Donaldson flubs a job interview that might have moved his family home; his wife gets pregnant, and in a lovely piece near the end, “…I realize that for our daughter, this place will be home. And I want her to love it like I did mine.”

That is the narrative arc, such as it is (and it ends beautifully), but the narrative bones of this book are spare. Along the way, Donaldson also mines Kentucky history, myth, and cultural references (that Colonel’s sour mash), creating as much mood as story. Again, yearning is absolutely the dominant feeling, coming across loud and clear. Also very present is the unnamed partner, the wife in Oregon. This is a love story as much for a woman as for a place. “A place can’t love me. Not like you.”

I find this book interesting for its form, its bravery in sparsity and what it communicates so succinctly. Its themes are so much my own that it aches a little, and I recognized almost every line as I read. Even the references felt uncannily personal (Janus, Cleanth Brooks, Houston). Is that because I’m so truly the right reader for this book? Or because it’s designed to appeal to every reader in this personal way? Probably a little of both. Either way, a good study in minimalist, lyric prose; mood over plot; and a decent way to learn about Kentucky, not from an academic historian but from a lover. I liked it very much.


Rating: 8 love stumps.

Bonus material/synchronicity: I was originally sent this book in galley form for a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t get around to it. I kept the book, though, because I thought I might be interested someday. When I worked with Jeremy Jones last semester, I learned that his “In Place” series from WVU‘s Vandalia Press had debuted with this book as its first release. Meant to be. Part of me wishes I’d gotten to it sooner (and written that review for the Shelf!), but part of me thinks I found it at the right time.

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