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Renkl

 

The judges who gave Margaret Renkl the 2022 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay claimed that her weekly essays for the New York Times "offer a model for how to move through our world with insight and sensitivity" and called Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartbreak from the American South "a stellar collection that spans nature writing and cultural criticism, the present and the past." I'd read earlier PEN winners and finalists like Annie Dillard, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ann Patchett and saw a review comparing Renkl's "graceful sentences" to those of E. B. White. Renkl seemed like an essayist I should read.

 

Graceland, At Last gathers sixty essays from her op-ed column, arranged in separate sections (as she explains in her introduction) "on the flora, fauna, politics, and culture of the American South [. . .] but also on the imperiled environmental context in which the flora and fauna are trying to survive, the social justice issues raised by the politics of this region, and the rich artistic life of a widely varied culture." Each essay has a publication date, none in strictly chronological order. Though some are more narrative and personal and others more editorial and argumentative, all are thoughtful and interesting.

 

One essay that stayed with me—I dogeared a lot of pages—was "Hawk, Lizard, Mole, Human," the first essay in the opening section, "Flora & Fauna." It is divided into four short, titled parts, each focused on one of those beings. Below the title she writes in italics: "Because William Blake was right: 'Every thing that lives is holy'" and that theme is reinforced in her witnessing of the first three creatures and her reflections on their lives in the fourth section. It's the only segmented essay in the book; the rest are in familiar essay format. I took my time reading through the book, four or five essays a night, and found her to be good company, honest and thoughtful no matter her subject.

 

The book contains two pages of blurbs about her previous essay collection, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and the nature of them made it seem even more necessary for me to read it. Ann Patchett compared it to Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Agee's A Death in the Family as potentially "an American classic." People claimed it "has echoes of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life," the Times called it: "Equal parts Annie Dillard and Anne Lamont with a healthy sprinkle of Tennessee dry rub thrown in," and novelist Richard Powers called it "A compact glory, crosscutting between consummate family memoir and keenly observed backyard natural history." Blurbs are intended to encourage you to read the book. Her first book arrived in the mail before I finished her second book.

 

Most pieces in Late Migrations are dated, the collection moving chronologically from an account of Margaret's mother's birth in 1931—one of the occasional excerpts edited from transcripts of her brother Billy's interviews with their grandmother, each titled "In Which My Grandmother Tells . . ."—up through "Separation Anxiety," Margaret's account of preparing to drive her sons to their college dorms in 2018. Billy Renkl's artwork sometimes sections off his sister's essays. Some undated essays are taken from her New York Times column, but the dated essays always refer to moments in Renkl's personal history, births and deaths and family events. Much of the material is short, essentially "micro-nonfiction," only a few paragraphs or a single page or two long, expressing and inhabiting flashes of memory and observing the nature around her.

 

In "Prairie Lights: Eastern Colorado, 1980" she's traveled from her home in Alabama to her boyfriend's family reunion in the west and witnesses a meteor shower: "And, oh, the stars were like the stars in a fairy tale, a profligate pouring of stars that reached across the sky from the edge of the world to the edge of the world to the edge of the world. Even before the first meteor winked at the corner of my eye, I tilted my head back and felt the whole world spinning." The reader is continually, fully invited into the moment the writer relives.

 

In "Still" she tells us, "Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world." Throughout the book her reflections on family and personal history intersect with her reflections on nature and place. In "After the Fall" she realizes, "There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out in the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year's leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall."

 

 

Notes:

Renkl, Margaret, with art by Billy Renkl. Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.

 

Renkl, Margaret. Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartbreak from the American South. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2021.

 

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Puzzling

 

A few years ago, responding to my inactivity and slowing memory, my daughter sent me a book of mixed puzzles. Supposedly, doing puzzles helps your brain stay active and engaged. I obligingly worked my way through most of them.

 

I now have a first-thing-in-the-morning online routine: three different crossword puzzles, then two (or three) jigsaw puzzles, then the day's weather forecast, all before checking my email account and then—too often—Facebook. I claim knowing the weather helps me decide what to wear and it's remotely possible I'll have a personal email message or find an urgent Facebook post. I delete most of the messages out of a sense of tidiness and scroll quickly past most Facebook posts. I claim that this routine prepares me to start the working day, but other than editing and re-editing an entry to post on my blog on Friday morning or revising my check list of things I might be doing during the coming week or composing biweekly notes to record what I did or didn't do in terms of writing, editing, and reading, my concrete accomplishments in any week are likely to be various household chores and curbside errands.

 

Online jigsaw puzzles appeal to me, especially the plentiful array of nature scenes and historical sites available at Jigzone and Jigsaw Planet. Those sites give me a range of patterns to work with. The Jigzone puzzles range between 6 pieces and 247 pieces, in over a dozen shapes (zigzag, birds, polygons, stars, lizards, triangles—in one option you piece together a map of the United States); I almost always do the 48-piece Classic version. The Jigsaw Planet puzzles have eight shapes to choose from and generally range between 24 and 300 pieces; I mostly choose 24- or 30-piece puzzles in a fairly simple shape. Most of the puzzles I pick show places I've sometimes but most often never have been.

 

Crossword puzzles—AARP's The Daily Crossword, The Daily Word Search, and Scramble Words—appeal to me more. They involve words that call upon powers of memory and interpretation. The Scramble Words puzzle is a timed event in four rounds with three to five or six blank spaces to be filled with certain letters randomly presented below the puzzle. If one of the letters is an S, chances are good that one or more three-letter or four-letter singular words will add it to become a plural: tip, tips, pit, pits, port, ports, sport, lime, limes, guy, guys, dent, dents, gent, gents. I almost always make it through the third round, but I've only completed all four rounds three times. I can look up the words I've missed when the game ends, which usually makes me certain I would have guessed them if I'd had more time.

 

The Daily Word Search centers on the trivia theme of finding words about that day in history. Words are variously arranged in a puzzle grid, to be read up, down, forwards, backwards and diagonally. The words are listed beside the grid, two of them hidden for extra points. I generally try to find the hidden words before they're exposed but pay no attention to the score I rack up.

 

In The Daily Crossword the words are either horizontal or vertical, roughly 80 or so intersecting one another, with a numbered list of clues for up words and down words alongside the grid. You need to figure out what a clue is alluding to: a historical figure or event? a familiar expression? an alternative meaning? I avoid the more complicated crosswords—the Anagram Crossword, the Cryptic Cross, the Daily American Crossword (which took me over half-an-hour to complete yesterday)—and stick to the Daily Crossword, which I can now complete in six or seven minutes. My speed relies on how repetitive the words are. I can almost count on certain words showing up: Ella, elle, ella, ell, ells, els, Elton, Eddie, Reba, Alec, Alecs, Eric, Erics, area, arena, Erie, eerie, lama, llama, aper, icer, and how Shakespeare would write "never" or "ever" or "evening". The repetition makes the puzzle easier, of course.

 

As I confess to the frequency with which I work at crosswords and jigsaws, I'm aware of how insistently I opt for the less challenging approaches. More challenging versions take more time and the prude in me resists playing games that long. I suppose the question might arise as to whether the time I'm spending and the level of challenge at which I'm spending it is sufficient to keep my brain active and my memory operational. Maybe the more urgent question is whether this blog post is proof positive that the crosswords and jigsaws I've completed have helped keep me as intellectually proficient as I used to be.

 

No replies to the question are requested.

 

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Family Photos

 

A cousin recently sent me some family photographs. Seven of them were taken in her parents' basement family room in 1960, likely on the occasion of my maternal grandparents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Her father was their oldest child, my mother their second child, and two more uncles followed. My cousin was the youngest of three daughters; I was the oldest of all the grandchildren. The second uncle and his wife had two boys and two girls, the youngest boy the same age as my brother. The youngest uncle by then had been divorced and his two children no longer lived in our state; he and his third wife had yet to have their first child. Four of the photographs highlight individual families, another pictures the four siblings behind their parents, and another displays my grandparents and ten of their grandchildren. My grandmother's younger sister and her husband, a childless couple, also appear in a photograph.

 

In that photo of grandparents and grandchildren my brother and sister surround my oldest uncle's oldest two daughters in the back row; three of the second uncle's children are in the middle row; and the three youngest grandchildren—my adopted sister, one uncle's youngest son, and another uncle's youngest daughter, the one who sent me the photos—share the front row with their grandparents. The only grandchildren missing are those two living elsewhere and me, who graduated from high school that year and was on a road trip to California and Mexico with a high school friend.

 

I've opened and reopened those photos several times by now. Even at the first viewing I could identify by name every one of the people pictured. My grandmother would have been sixty on that occasion, my grandfather sixty-five. I especially like the picture of my mother and her brothers standing behind them—I can't recall ever seeing a similar photo. Unsurprisingly, my mother is the only one speaking while everyone else simply smiles cheerfully. In all the pictures, except for some closed eyes or distracted glances, almost everyone appears pleasantly genial.

 

I can't help reopening and enlarging the photo of my family. It's not ideal—my smiling mother's eyes are partially closed, my sister seems solemn, perhaps pretending to hide annoyance, my brother is pleasant and cheerful, my father looks weary but cooperative though his shins are showing, and my young adopted sister hunches down between my parents with a jolly, mischievous look. The photo likely captures the moment.

 

The images remind me of three photos from a family reunion ten years earlier, grouping people by generation or gender. Some children in the anniversary photos were then unborn. In the children's picture, my sister and I are surrounded by older grandchildren of more distant relatives and stand squinting at the photographer; two of my oldest uncle's daughters sit at our feet, the younger one bawling, the older one pretending not to notice. In the men's picture, below a crowded standing row, my father sits on the lawn gazing toward my young brother on his lap, my grandfather crouches near them, seemingly disinterested, and neither notices the photographer. In the women's picture, my mother kneels on the ground before five standing women, two of them her sisters-in-law, and looks solemnly away. These pictures often suggest relationships.

 

Sixty to seventy years have gone by since these pictures were taken. Much has happened in these families. Some of my cousins are parents and grandparents by now, their own photographic records probably extensive. Like me, many of them left our hometown for new lives elsewhere. The longer I look at their images the more I remember how many of them are no longer living. My grandparents, grand-aunt and grand-uncle are gone, my uncles are gone, an aunt is gone. Two cousins are gone. My parents are gone. My sister is gone. My brother is gone. Out of twenty-two people in those seven photos, fourteen are gone. Only eight are now alive in this new century, two aunts and six younger cousins. I know little of how their family histories continue.

 

Sue and I have been married almost forty years. This summer we expect to gather with Sue's siblings, their children and grandchildren and our children and grandchildren. We'll hope to take photos like those my cousin sent me, pictures of everyone in family groups and generation groups. I could send copies to all of those relatives so they could pass them on to their own descendants forty years later to give them the chance to think about who preceded them and possibly who is following them. Perhaps some of those grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) will want to record where everyone is right then, so that their own grandchildren will be able to consider it someday. They might like to know.

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Once a Juror

 

As instructed by phone the previous day, I arrive at the county courthouse just before 8:00 on Tuesday morning. I join a line of people at the screening entrance, lower my pandemic mask to compare my face to my driver's license image, spill my belt, wallet, keys, glasses, and watch into a deep tray, then pass through the x-ray, retrieve my belongings, and descend to the basement rooms where prospective jurors are gathering. We watch county officials explain the jury system in a video, and then potential members of four separate juries are called by name, summoned according to the rows in the courtroom where they will initially sit. When we line up, we are given numbered stickers to wear—I am Juror 28—and then escorted up to a first-floor courtroom.

 

The first 24 prospective jurors are seated in the two rows of the jury box and two temporary rows before it. The rest of us sit in the gallery. Our jury will serve in a criminal trial of an accused sexual abuser. The judge introduces both the prosecutor and the defense attorney and questions the primary jury prospects to determine who might be allowed to hear the case or might need to be dismissed. When prospects in the jury box are excused, jurors in the gallery, including Juror 28, are called up to replace them. The prosecutor and the defense attorney consult with the judge and thirteen of us—the thirteenth a potential replacement for someone who becomes unable to serve—are selected to serve on the official jury,

 

That afternoon, prosecution and defense present opening statements, and each juror receives a notebook to record observations and information. The first prosecution witness, a social psychologist who hasn't interviewed the alleged victim in the case, explains the nature of sexual abuse and its effects on children. The second witness, a young female police officer, testifies to recording the victim's accusations and his confirmation of her accuracy. The third witness, the victim, a man in his twenties, testifies in emotional detail to having been sexually exploited as a child by his stepfather, the defendant. Each testimony is subject to prosecution and defense questioning, then lengthened by prosecutor and defense attorney re-direct and rebuttal.

 

On Wednesday a sheriff's department detective reports on questioning the defendant and shows a video of their interview, the defendant terse and non-communicative on camera, mostly expressionless in the courtroom. The prosecution rests and the defense first calls the defendant's father-in-law, who is also the victim's grandfather, appearing under subpoena, and then the defendant's wife, who is also the victim's mother. Defense witnesses discredit the victim's testimony, the mother claiming the stepfather never had time alone with her son. The defense rests.

 

On Thursday we hear closing arguments by prosecutor, defender, and then prosecutor again, and go into our deliberation room to seek a unanimous verdict deciding the stepfather either guilty or not guilty, judging on a basis of reasonable doubt. A juror we all respect is randomly chosen to be Juror 13 and released. Juror 29, who has served on other past juries, becomes our foreperson. We discuss our reactions to the trial at length, most of us willing to be temporarily undecided, although two women on one side of the table are strongly pro-guilty and two women opposite them are adamantly pro-not guilty. We all suspect the stepfather is guilty but aren't confident that the evidence presented is sufficient to reasonably convict. Given the way the law works, we wrestle with the reasonableness of our doubts until ten of us cave in to the not-guilty duo and agree to a not-guilty verdict.

 

The judge is informed. We walk in, our foreperson hands our decision to someone who hands it to the judge who reads it aloud, makes us all say "Yes" to whether we all agree, thanks us, and dismisses us.

 

Later, the judge comes to the deliberation room to answer questions and we learn that the stepfather is a previously convicted sex offender in a different case. Some of us gasp or sigh or groan. The last woman to leave the room ahead of me mutters her distress. I say that, given what we've learned of that disturbingly dysfunctional family, it may be that he actually didn't abuse his stepson and that his stepson lied under oath. That might be uncertain consolation for having declared a convicted sex offender not guilty of sexual abuse in this case.

 

A guilty verdict depends on convincing, corroborating evidence. A verdict of not guilty is not equivalent to a verdict of innocence. You needn't prove innocence to be declared legally not guilty—they aren't the same thing. I wonder if, like me, my fellow jurors will long be haunted by their time dispensing justice.

 

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Kanjiroba Pilgrimage

 

I started reading William deBuys' books about the southwest around the time I enrolled in a writer's workshop he taught in Santa Fe. I had been working on early drafts of Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale and he gave me sound advice and a lot of encouragement on the book. When I read his books, I could tell that we had similar ideas about what we wanted to accomplish in our writing about place. Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (1985), River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life (1990, with photographer Alex Harris), and Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (1999, with photographer Joan Myers) were all thoroughly informative narratives of place. A Great Aridness (2011), in some ways a culmination of the earlier series of books, sweepingly surveys the effect of climate change on the American southwest. I suspect that some of my writing about place is much indebted to deBuys' books, especially Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, written while we lived there. During that period, I heard him read at The Tattered Cover Bookstore from The Walk (2007), his most powerfully personal book, and the next day I interviewed him for Fourth Genre.

 

In that interview, deBuys mentions having discovered "a certain paradox. The exploration of the familiar can lead you to surprising new places and new discoveries as easily as—or maybe more easily than—exploration of the unfamiliar. The familiar can take you into unusual personal territory faster and more deeply than the exploration of what you never encountered." The paradox arises from consideration of the opposite experience: "if I'm traveling in wilderness—that's what wilderness is, where it's really wild, where it's unfamiliar—I'm so fascinated by the newness that I don't go inside. There are so many connections to be made on the sensory surface of experience that you don't necessarily go as deeply into those senses." In his latest book he goes to somewhere unfamiliar.

 

I was unaware of how far he'd ventured from the southwest in his explorations and his writing until I discovered copies of his most recent books in a local library. The Last Unicorn records his search in mountainous areas of Laos for a saola, a rare, virtually undocumented horned animal. In The Trail to Kanjiroba he recounts his journey on a medical expedition to remote regions of Nepal, in the Himalaya. I started reading it on my twice-weekly library visits and, soon needing to dogear pages in chapter after chapter, I bought my own copy to read daily at home.

 

DeBuys tells us in his introduction that, like his books about climate change and the likely extinction of the saola, this one will "look into dilemmas posed by human transformation of the planet," but he expects The Trail to Kanjiroba to be "about preserving one's sense of joy. It is about finding grace amid the grief." The primary narrative of the book is a recounting of a "five-week, one-hundred-forty-mile medical expedition, in a remote corner of Nepal, hard against the border of Tibet, a land known as Upper Dolpo." The group he travels with, the Nomads Clinic, brings primary medical care to people who are remotely isolated from modern health care services. The route they travel takes them on a long circle, climbing to altitudes of seventeen thousand feet, where deBuys describes "turn[ing] in a slow circle, and in every direction I see the majesty of Tibet and the high Himalaya [. . .] All around me, brilliant in the light of the sun, I see the world resplendent." Kanjiroba, we learn, is "a massif cresting just shy of twenty-two thousand feet, a height taller than the highest points of Europe, Africa, and North America." They view it on their downward passage, its summit deep in clouds, aware that the glaciers of the Himalaya are shrinking and places that some people remember as having been ice-covered twenty years earlier are barren now.

 

At one point, deBuys wrestles with his awareness of both how magnificent the landscape is and how its remoteness doesn't isolate it from change. "Let's be real: we don't live in the gentle Holocene anymore. Alteration of the climate has delivered us to the Anthropocene, and the heat already loaded into the climate system guarantees increasing impacts for decades to come." He had been advised that "Everyday is a yatra"—a pilgrimage, and he accepts the possibility that the way past grief is to stay in motion, as the people he's been traveling with have been doing: "And always, all around us, the land presided. It contained our traveling and our living. It immersed us in an immense, austere beauty that was at once impermanent and eternal, thrilling and stern."

 

Notes:

 

deBuys, William. The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.

 

deBuys, William. The Trail to Kanjroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss. Oakland: Seven Stories Press, 2021.

 

Root, Robert. "Interview with William deBuys," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 10:2 (Fall 2008): 133-145.

 

SHELF LIFE: "Rediscovering Earth: A Conversation with William deBuys and Bill McKibben." April 21, 2022. A video recording at VaBook.org/watch.

 

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Hindsight and Foresight

 

Sometimes among the extraneous postings emerging on my laptop, one provokes my curiosity enough to send me searching for further information. Decades ago, I'd viewed the Hoover Dam and its creation Lake Mead and further upstream Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam, when the water in them was abundant. But times have changed in the 21st Century. Among several on the subject, an online article for Grist by Jake Bittle reported that recently at Lake Powell "water levels fell to their lowest threshold ever, since the lake was created by the damming of the Colorado in 1963 . . . forcing unprecedented water cuts in states like Arizona" and affecting the production of hydroelectric power. Bittle writes, "When Lake Powell is full, its surface sits some 3,700 feet above sea level," but at a low level of 3,525 feet this March, it is "now only a quarter full, and water levels are just 35 feet about the dead pool threshold for power generation." Power production there has dropped "consistently," as well as at nearby Hoover Dam, and "there's a 1 in 4 chance [the Glen Canyon Dam] won't produce power by 2024." If I lived in the Southwest, I'd be concerned, perhaps alarmed.

 

Exposure to current events often provokes memories of earlier reporting on the same or similar subjects. This news reminded me of a 20-year-old book review of mine published in the Spring 2001 issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. That book, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by author William deBuys and illustrator Joan Myers, explored the consequences of human efforts at irrigation and climate change in the arid southwest. I claimed that the authors "are, in Robert Coles' memorable phrase, 'doing documentary work' in the tradition of such exemplary verbal and visual texts as American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor (1939) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941). Combining thorough research with on-site observation and sharp, vivid images, they produce a haunting and compelling portrait of place." Salt Dreams concentrates on the Salton Sea, in the corner of California "abutting Mexico on the south and Arizona on the east." DeBuys writes that "here is the lowest of the low: Salton Sea, growing saltier by the day and stewing with the waste of the upstream world."

 

In an effort to make the Imperial Valley in that part of California more fertile and productive, dams and canals were built to divert the flow of the Colorado River. For the most part it succeeded, but it also created the Salton Sea, "what deBuys calls 'the most spectacularly bungled development scheme of the century, perhaps of all time.' Floodwaters overran inept diversion schemes and, guided by irrigation channels, emptied the Colorado River into the Salton Sink." The man-made lake—the world's largest—had no outlet, but entrepreneurs hoped to create a lucrative planned community, with marinas and country clubs, expecting that "determination and high finance [could] transform any terrain into a promised land of opportunity and profit." It didn't work out. "In the end, the Salton Sea became a receptacle for raw sewage flowing north from Mexico and agricultural run-off from the Imperial Valley, its size reduced by evaporation, its salinity ever increasing [. . .] a way station and refuge for birds which feed on contaminated fish and suffer recurring cycles of avian disease [. . .] an ecological disaster both nightmarish and irremediable."

 

Salt Dreams is a complicated book, one that "tells the story of this region, the lives of those who still live here, the environmental and social consequences of actions by governments and investors and exploiters and entrepreneurs." Joan Myers' "pictures of barren landscapes, encrusted shorelines, flooded ruins, and desert faces reward close viewing with multiple levels of detail." Reading my review again, much of the experience of the book comes back to me. It's still on a bookshelf in our guest room, beside several other books by deBuys.

 

I confess to having a rather Thoreauvian outlook on life and it affects what I choose to read. I discovered deBuys at a Santa Fe writer's workshop I attended and read him and many other southwestern nature writers when I lived in Colorado Those writers gave me a vivid sense of where they were, a present hindsight panorama. But the essayists and outdoor memoirists I've read recently have increasingly uneased me about the future of life on our planet: extinctions in Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Barbara Hurd's The Episodes, flooding in Elizabeth Rush's Rising, and others. It's likely those earlier authors provided awareness of where we've been heading, but the discouraging thing at the moment is that foresight currently offers little to be optimistic about in the coming age.

 

 

Notes:

Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.

Bittle, Jake. "Lake Powell water crisis is about to be an energy crisis," Grist, March 21, 2022

Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

deBuys, William, and Joan Myers. Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Lange, Dorothea, and Paul Taylor. American Exodus. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939.

Root, Robert. "Interview with William deBuys," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 10:2 (Fall 2008): 133-145.

Root, Robert L., Jr. Book Review: "Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by William deBuys and Joan Myers," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 3:1 (Spring 2001): 203-205.

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Reviewing

 

When, under Michael Steinberg's editorship, the first issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction appeared in Spring 1991, I served both as Interviews Editor—in that issue my interview was with essayist Scott Russell Sanders—and as one of its reviewers. I sometimes wrote full-length reviews of a single book and sometimes wrote short ones for the Reader-to-Reader: Capsule Reviews section. My first capsule subjects were The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Field of Vision by Lisa Knopp, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez, Thistle Journal and Other Essays by Daniel Minock, and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi by Reg Saner. The Spring 2008 issue published my last Fourth Genre review, of Deborah Tall's A Family of Strangers. By then I was chiefly Interviews and Roundtable Editor. My final interview was with Carl Klaus in the Spring 2012 issue, before an editorial change ended my involvement. Since 2014, I've occasionally written reviews online for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. The most recent one was about a new essay collection by Scott Russell Sanders.

 

I resist rummaging through cardboard boxes in our garage containing most of what I've ever published, but I recall writing reviews of stage productions or movies for my college newspaper as an undergraduate. As a high school teacher, I wrote 100-word reviews of television programs for the weekend edition of the Buffalo Evening News, an enterprise that taught me to write rough drafts of whatever length and tighten them up gradually in rewrite after rewrite. I'm confident one of those reviews was of a first season episode of Star Trek. I continued reviewing as a grad student and as a college professor. A good many of my current blog entries almost amount to reviews, usually in the context of what affected me in what I read or heard or saw.

 

Of course, I've also read or heard or viewed a great many reviews by other writers over the years. For an early academic book of mine, Working at Writing: Columnists and Critics Composing (when my scholarly and instructional interests were in rhetoric and composition), I interviewed drama critic Walter Kerr and film critics David Denby and Neil Gabler (as well as essayists Jim Fitzgerald and Kathleen Stocking and political columnists Richard Reeves and Tom Wicker) about their composing processes. I also watched Siskel and Ebert in their various television series. My newspaper reading usually skipped news, sports, and business sections but always opened to entertainment or book sections. My wife and I have subscribed for decades to weekly editions of The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, from which at breakfast each day I read reviews of books, films, plays, musical performances, and television programs.

 

Sometimes I find myself reading conflicting reviews of the same work, perhaps a positive one in The New Yorker, a negative one in the Times. Those occasions reinforce my awareness that, no matter how intelligent or well-educated or accomplished in their professions—(not all critics are literary people)—all reviewers read like individuals and their reviews attend to their priorities, if not flat out to their tastes or biases. I sometimes feel that the Times editors urge each reviewer to find something to complain about or disapprove of even in the most approving review but allow them to relent somewhat to end on a positive note.

 

I've mostly had the option of choosing what books (or recordings or films or plays) I want to review. That means I never have to let readers in on any works I was disappointed in or bored by or infuriated with. Since I mostly read books all the way through, I'm selective about what I intend to read and usually choose something by a writer I've liked in the past or on a subject I've wanted to know more about or in a literary form that promises clear communication. I seldom have to give up on what I'm reading and usually find myself personally invested in what I've chosen.

 

The writing that I do about another writer's work bridges the gap between what that writer is sharing and what I react to in what I read. What I write may start out as random commentary, a note to help me remember what the work was about, or a journal entry to explore my reactions further. If that doesn't seem sufficient, I'm likely to go back at what I've written, to clarify it further, to express it more accurately. Sometimes it ends up being much like a review, maybe something I could share as a blog post. It may even prompt someone else to read that other writer's work. I'd rather encourage more reading than discourage it.

 

 

Note: Twenty-three volumes of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction are available online at JSTOR <https://www.jstor.org/journal/fourthgenre> and Project Muse <https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/217>.

 

Reviews for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative are available online at https://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/keyword/book-review,

 

Root, Robert. Review of A Family of Strangers by Deborah Tall. Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 10:1 (Spring 2008): 175-178.

 

Root, Robert L., Jr. Reviews of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Field of Vision by Lisa Knopp, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez, Thistle Journal and Other Essays by Daniel Minock, and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi by Reg Saner. Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 1:1 (Spring 1999): 171-173.

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Aftershocks

 

In June 2019, when Michelle Tom, an Australian memoirist, emailed me to ask about an article of mine, "Beyond Linearity: Writing the Segmented Essay," I was both delighted and surprised. It had appeared in the journal Writing on the Edge and was twenty years old. I attached longer articles I'd published later on that non-linear theme to an online response I soon sent her. As I drafted it, I realized how much that article had set in motion a chain of articles and essays in my writing over the years, and I thought about the influences and motivations behind past writing decisions, the way one thing led to another. Michelle soon replied, explaining who else she'd read "to teach myself how to write in fragments/vignettes."

 

Over a year-and-a-half later she sent me her published book. Ten Thousand Aftershocks blends events in two narrative strands, one recounting a chaotic childhood and its impact on family relationships, the other recording recurring episodes leading up to a devastating earthquake and its aftermath in Christchurch, on New Zealand's southern island. The persistent aftershocks eventually impelled her to move with her husband and children away from family in New Zealand, where her brother and father are buried, across the Tasman Sea to eastern Australia to start life anew in Melbourne. She would return only intermittently when further family losses occurred. She draws parallels between her growing estrangement from her self-absorbed mother and seeking a more stable environment in another country.

 

The book opens with an introductory section titled "Aftershock" which presents two dictionary definitions of the term: "1: an aftereffect of a distressing or traumatic event," and "2: a minor shock following the main shock of an earthquake." A sentence dated July 2013 follows and declares: "We buried Meredith between two fault lines, and I wondered if she would ever rest in peace." Meredith was her sister. At once we are aware of the autobiographical dimension of the memoir and its metaphorical resonances.

 

Five narrative sections of the book following that opening are introduced by short passages describing progressive stages of an earthquake. Stage One informs us ominously, "Long before violence is unleashed, an earthquake initiates in secret. [. . .] immense seismic pressure accumulates in rocks for decades or even millennia, its latent potential for catastrophe unseen, and inevitable." It implicitly foreshadows traumatic moments not only in geology but also in family history. The chapters of each section all begin with dates that the events narrated took place and move back and forth in time, not following strict chronology yet establishing a developmental movement suggestive of those stages of an earthquake.

 

As in life, her memoir narrative concentrates attention on tensions and interactions among members of the family with only occasional but increasingly frequent reminders of the tensions rumbling below the surface of their island. Tremors and troubles occur throughout subsequent stages until, at Stage Four, the 6.3 earthquake occurs: "Rocks weakened by continued pressure and an influx of water no longer resist the strain from the fault, and a rupture occurs. An aggregation of elastic tension is finally released, and that energy, forced out through the landscape in seismic waves, results in violent shaking." Several chapters dated 22 February 2011 record the family's experience of the earthquake and let us live with them through the terror and persistent danger as they try to adjust to an unstable house and an altered landscape:

 

"Greg and I dived for the doorframe between the dining and living rooms, but Jack was thrown from his stool to the floor and froze in shock, on his knees. [. . .] The familiar sound of the earth wrenching itself back and forth gained volume beneath us, and every timber in the house screeched. Glass shattered, and I knew it was the sound of bottles crashing out of cabinets into a porcelain basin in the bathroom [. . .] The house bounced as if being catapulted off an enormous trampoline during a simultaneous and dynamic tug of war."

 

"Unpredictable by nature," she reports of the final stage, "aftershocks can be notable for their size and prevalence." They can "bring down already weakened structures." Aftershocks from the traumatic family life she and her siblings led include her sister's death from Melanoma, her brother's suicide, her father's death, and her never-to-be-resolved distance from her mother.

 

The aftereffects of what happens to us in our lives aren't always immediately obvious; we don't get over grief or terror once our situations have changed and we likely don't dwell on moments of accomplishment or triumph very long either. Daily living camouflages portents and foreshadowings as we move on, but the past will resonate within us much longer than we might consciously be aware. Ten Thousand Aftershocks is an observant reminder of that.

 

 

Note: Michelle Tom. Ten Thousand Aftershocks. Sydney, Australia: Fourth Estate, 2021.

 

Robert Root. "Collage, Montage, Mosaic, Vignette, Episode, Segment", The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008: 65-84.

 

Robert Root. "This Is What the Spaces Say", The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008: 85-94.

 

 

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Reinterpretation

 

 

We live in an age when our long familiar culture is undergoing reinterpretation. Much is hopeful, as we more fully recognize our fellow citizens as equals regardless of racial and cultural differences; much is alarming, as we realize how dangerous and foolish has been our belated understanding of human communities, of the nature of other species, and of impending changes to our planet. Everywhere now, we encounter literature and media much more attuned to raising our awareness of our commonality across the world. The near universal response to the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian president's refusal to let the world keep moving forward together demonstrate the difficulty in achieving long overdue humane resolutions to such conflicts.

 

One influence prompting reinterpretation, more inadvertent than intentional, comes from reading recent multicultural literature. Not long ago I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a historical novel focused on a Korean family in mid-20th century Japan, and two powerful graphic memoirs, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's depiction of life in politically oppressive Iran, and They Called Us Enemy, George Takei's account of the confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II. For me, those books set the stage for a stronger engagement with reinterpretation when I recently read The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir by Vietnamese author/illustrator Thi Bui. One of the strengths of the graphic memoir in recent years has been its ability to offer an almost cinematic representation of its author's history. Like those books by Satrapi and Takei, as well as Art Spiegelman's Maus and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Are You My Mother? and The Secret to Superhuman Strength, The Best We Could Do manages to simulstaneously present an insightful and intelligent family memoir and a suspenseful and moving account of troubling periods of political history. It helped alter what I took for granted about the history I had lived through.

 

Bui's memoir includes a brief illustrated timeline covering Vietnamese history from the beginning of Chinese rule in 111 BC to its eventual liberation in 1975, but the graphic narrative centers on 20th Century history, covering the country's inclusion in French Indochina, the Japanese occupation in World War II, the post-war return of the French and subsequent conflict with the Communist Viet Minh, the internecine warfare between North and South Vietnam elevated by the military presence and eventual retreat of American forces, and the final liberation and unification of Vietnam. Throughout this history, generations of the Bui family continue to adjust to military events and political changes, until finally, as refugees, they make a harrowing emigration by secretly sailing to Malaysia and eventually resettling in the United States.

 

The narrative moves both forward and backward in the lives of the characters. In early chapters set in the present Bui establishes family relationships and the various tensions that make her need to explore family history back to the period of her parents' birth and upbringing. She establishes the nature of the culture in which they lived and the conflicts that affected family decisions about their own lives and their children's lives. The movement back and forth in time gets the reader close to the characters, watching them interact with each other and with the culture they inhabit, and charts the impact of historical events upon them. Thi Bui is the essential narrator of the memoir but her parents each tell their own stories, allowing us to understand central characters across generations and sense the challenges of growing up in the times and the culture they did. The immersion in their private lives keeps readers absorbed in highly dramatic and sensitively intimate moments they all experience. The memoir makes it clear that, whatever the family complications may be, the challenge of adjusting to the world outside the family is unavoidable and stressful.

 

The way we react to what we read depends upon what we bring to the reading and the degree to which the text sets off reverberations in our consciousness, whether remote or intimate. Bui's book reverberated with my memories of the eras she portrays. I was, in every way, a distanced bystander to that history, my opposition to American engagement in Vietnam irrelevant and ineffectual, my attention focused primarily on American military, on literary and cinematic dramatizations of American perspectives. Bui presented a community perspective, a citizen perspective, a family perspective, an internal depiction of people trying to get on with their lives in the midst of politically imposed chaos and destruction. I didn't see events from their perspective 50 years ago.

 

This is an age of reinterpretation and I appreciate having my perspective widened, my understanding broadened. Still a bystander, my understanding of how all our lives are universally connected has been strengthened and given greater range by reading this book. I know I still have further to go.

 

 

Note: Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2018.

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Historically

 

I was either falling asleep or slowly waking up when I found myself thinking how isolated I have usually been from events that created what we call history. I was born just after American involvement in the Second World War began— my parents married on Valentine's Day 1942 and I was born nine months and two days later while my father was serving in the U. S. Marines. He was absent for the war's duration; I first met him, briefly, after I turned one, and I was three when he came home for good. The war had no other impact on me. Throughout the Korean war, I was in elementary school and, except for school air raid drills that taught us to cower in the halls or cower under our desks and glimpses of news programs my father watched or newspaper front pages I didn't read, I focused on tv westerns and superhero comic books. In the sixties I was aware of the Communist presence in Cuba and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King and the expansion of the Vietnam War, but I was either in college, concentrating on literature and creative writing, or later teaching high school English among older teachers who were WWII vets. I was relieved to have evaded the draft and though I urged students to avoid military service, I persistently stuck to the curriculum.

 

Race issues around the country had come up one day when college classmates and I drove into Rochester to tour riot sites, but I barely interacted with any African Americans except for a few older college students. What generated headlines and televised news could have happened anywhere in the world except where I was teaching or studying. I mimicked my parents' and grandparents' values and generally disapproved of war and racism just as I disapproved of murder and rape and crime in general. I felt that by being law-abiding and generally ethical, I was sufficient in my citizenship and in my—what can I call it?—righteousness.

 

No particular political or moral motivation justified my remoteness from the world's dilemmas. I was a small town-boy interested in books and at first radio programs and then television shows and continually movies, and I was continually preoccupied with personal interests—reading voluminously, constantly writing about something or other, living inside my own head rather than venturing out much into the world or taking up causes. Only occasionally did I acknowledge having an opinion about something, one I made up on the spot if asked about it since I probably didn't already have one handy. I primarily focused on my teaching and concentrated on classroom interactions with students (though I did occasionally reveal an opposition to the Vietnam conflict). I had a few friends for awhile, once in a while, people much like me—academic, aesthetic, personally responsible, though probably less self-absorbed. I mostly concentrated on the work I did professionally or the creative projects that preoccupied me—that is, when I worked professionally or was creatively preoccupied.

 

At the moment, I'm aware of how much the pandemic life I've been living is like my adolescent life and the habitual tendency toward self-isolation that followed it. And yet the world seems now more present in my life than it would have been decades ago. We can't seem to avoid encountering the most persistently intrusive elements of the times we live in. The library where I write has strict regulations about face masks and nobody enters without one. That's also true of the people delivering curbside orders to my open car trunk. For two years now I've parked weekly in the exact same spots in those stores' parking lots. Most of my communication with family and friends has been through the internet: online mail, online conversations, Facetime chatting, Zoom calls. It seems now as if my sense of isolation is less something I thoughtlessly accepted in myself and more something being imposed on me, on us, on everyone I know, something we can't avoid and are constantly being reminded of.

 

And then there's Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the almost universal disapproval of it, the Ukrainian flag posted everywhere, Ukraine's president's eloquent address to the world, the threat of nuclear war, as if the last two years hadn't had enough deaths across the planet. Now my grandchildren may be living through a time more fearsome and more ominously present on a wider scale than I was present for decades ago, when I was at their ages, during the last World War and through continual Asian "conflicts." It is less likely that they'll be able to ignore or overlook the current war as it escalates—less likely that they'll develop a sense of isolation from the events decimating the world.

 

 

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