WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS by Terry Tempest Williams

When I was visiting Longfellow Books in Portland, I had missed a visit from Terry Tempest Williams by a week. I was disappointed, because I had heard nothing but good things about Williams’ nonfiction writing style, her ability to capture nature and scholarship in meditative, poetic essays. She’s been on my to-read list for a long time, and it would have been cool to hear her talk about her new book, The Hour of Land, described as “a literary celebration of our national parks.” But the good news is that she had left other books behind, and one of them was the book I had heard hailed as a beautiful, indefinable, innovative work, a staple of what we currently understand as “creative nonfiction.” And indeed, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to adequately review When Women Were Birds. I suspect it’s going to take me several readings over the course of my life to feel like I can fully see all of the complexities and nuance of this book, to reduce it to its parts and explain how it functions. In the meantime, bear with me, because this book was so good.

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When Women Were Birds opens with the death of Williams’ mother. Before she died, she told Williams about a collection of journals she was passing on to Williams, but warned not to look at them until after she had passed. Upon her mother’s death, Williams turns to the journals, expecting to find her mother’s memories, intimate thoughts, and a narrative of her life. But that isn’t what happens–instead, the journals are completely blank, every single one. This revelation shocks Williams, and the entire book is her attempt to grapple with what the blank journals mean. It becomes a meditation on what it means to have a voice, specifically as a woman, and how that voice is shaped, oppressed, and harnessed throughout one’s life. In this examination emerges a memoir, both of Williams and her mother, strung together of reflections and moments that don’t follow a linear path, but rather bubble up like natural thought–the book itself reads like a journal.

And honestly, that’s pretty much all I can say about this book. Even writing a “plot summary” was a struggle. This book is a tangle of layers, themes, and experiences. It’s threaded with moments from Williams’ life that were completely familiar to me as a woman, as well as moments from her Mormon upbringing that were completely new to me. Williams dips into mythology and folklore, making pieces of this book read like literary criticism. She also writes about the natural world and the environmental politics that have become her life’s passion. This variety feels authentic to the concept of voice, which in this book becomes a metonymy for agency, personality, passions, and, sometimes, literal words, both written and spoken. Williams writes about how her voice was shaped as well as what it wants to say (or keep silent), and all of it takes place in conversation with her mother’s voice, which speaks even through the blank pages of the journals.

In the spirit of this book, I have written this review in a similar fashion, attempting to cobble together my thoughts and memories of it as they come. I read this book over the course of two days, and it was more of an experiential process than any book I’ve read in a long time. I feel a bit incoherent trying to capture that experience; I encourage you to simply try it out for yourself.

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H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald

Not to brag too much, but I had packed up this book for my vacation reading before I found out that I would be sharing it with President Obama. If one of his post-presidency projects is starting a national book club, let me use this moment to go ahead and offer up my services. (Seriously: I’m waiting by the phone). In the meantime, I hope that the President enjoyed this engrossing, warm, smart memoir as much as I did.

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H is for Hawk is a bit of a genre-blend (familiar readers will know how much that excited me), combining memoir, nature writing, and even literary criticism. In this book, Macdonald recounts her life in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death and traces through her grieving process. Macdonald had been training and hunting with hawks for much of her life (and had devoured literature on the subject even as a small child), but she had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being particularly wild. As she grappled with the shock of her father’s sudden passing, Macdonald found herself drawn to the goshawk as almost a premonition, something she simply knew she had to begin. As she writes:

“When I was small I’d loved falconry’s historical glamour. I treasured it in the same way children treasure the hope that they might be like the children in books: secretly magical, part of some deeper, mysterious world that makes them something out of the ordinary. But that was a long time ago. I did not feel like that any more. I was not training a hawk because I wanted to feel special […] I was training the hawk to make it all disappear.”

Macdonald’s book isn’t a simple retelling of her life, though. She weaves her narrative of grief and healing amidst beautiful nature writing. Her descriptions of the time spent with the hawk are crisp and fervent, wild and melancholy. The reader is granted entrance to a perspective both alien and instinctual as Macdonald brings her hawk into the narrative. Mabel the Goshawk (for it is falconry tradition to name your bird something fatuous and silly; it is believed you won’t be successful if you name your bird something too overweening, like Striker or Killer) is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in literature, and I do think it’s fair to call her a character in this story. Macdonald relays her personality accurately: her confusion, her sense of play, and even her occasional blood lust. As a reader, I felt tuned in to Mabel without ever feeling like I was reading a caricature, a cartoon animal with humanity pasted upon her. The relationship between Macdonald and Mabel is at times funny and touching and at times heartbreaking, and it is the heartbeat of the story.

Another element I wasn’t expecting from this book is Macdonald’s engagement with a piece of literature. She recalls encountering T. H. White’s The Goshawk as a child and being confused by its difference to her other books, instructional manuals and grandiloquent histories of falconry and hawk training. The Goshawk, instead, is the memoir of a complicated and troubled man, working through his demons in the course of (unsuccessfully) training a goshawk. While this angered Macdonald as a child, the book came back to her in her grieving, and H is for Hawk stays in conversation with The Goshawk throughout, adding further depth to this narrative. I wasn’t expecting this part of the book, and it was a wonderful surprise.

I was swept up by this book, by the pulse of the natural world that beats throughout, by the rawness of Macdonald’s emotions, by the connection that spanned between her and another soul that sought solace in the wilderness. It’s certainly sad, but it’s also hopeful and intelligent, and presidential approval or not, I highly recommend it.

THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson

One of the things I miss most about college is the opportunity to be in a room with someone–to hear them speak–about a subject that they have studied so thoroughly, have so many ideas about, and, most importantly, feel passionately connected to. I certainly enjoyed participating (enthusiastically) in discussions, but there was such joy in allowing someone to just render me awash in their expertise. It’s a feeling that made me voracious for knowledge, made me want to read everything. In case you haven’t guessed by now, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is the book form of such an experience, a nonfiction text unlike literally any I have ever read.

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The Argonauts is, as described by Google Books, a work of “autotheory,” perhaps the best singular word to pinpoint this genre-defying text. Nelson moves through memoir and critical theory with effortless fluidity to explore some big, fascinating questions. What does it mean to “be” (or not be) a gender? What does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be a queer family? Where are the lines between “normative” and “radical”? Can we escape such definitions, or, are we ever in such definitions? What does it mean to love? And, perhaps at the heart of the text, can words ever adequately help us move through these questions? To move away from the more abstract for a moment, this is a book about Nelson’s family: her relationship with her partner (who fluidly moves among genders within the text) and their children. Nelson interrogates the experience of putting their family together, detailing moments from falling in love (and exploring her sexuality) with her partner, to becoming the stepmother to her partner’s first child, to her own pregnancy and motherhood. Through it all, Nelson calls upon the scholars and writers that have helped her think about her life and these questions, creating a text that is difficult to categorize ABOUT the difficulty of categories. (If that sentence doesn’t tickle your nerd fancy, I don’t know what will.) As Nelson writes in the first few paragraphs of the book, “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained–inexpressibly!–in the expressed. […] Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.”

Like most successful memoirists, Nelson gazes unflinchingly into the inner life, examining her own sexuality, her feelings on motherhood, and her relationship to her partner. Nelson explores her emotions with depth and clarity, and the results are often surprisingly intimate. The thing that makes this book so unique, though, is the way Nelson buoys her emotional realities with scholarship and criticism. These elements blend together so fluidly, making the book one of the most honest portrayals of a mind at work I’ve ever seen on the page. Memories, experiences, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum from the things we’ve read and the external ideas we’re thinking about. Nelson perfectly captures this internal process: not so much a dialogue as a constant simmer, the words rolling and bubbling up. The text engages your mind in the same way; the experience was a complete pleasure. Nelson also plays with boundaries in the way she engages with the reader. She fluidly switches between first, second, and third person: sometimes she’s writing about her experiences from her point of view, sometimes she’s relaying scholarship to a more general audience, and sometimes she is writing directly to her partner. This only adds to the book’s feeling of a genuine thinking process, rather than a lecture or treatise: just as abstractions and concepts don’t exist in a vacuum separate from emotions, the act of thought isn’t usually directed towards one imagined recipient.

As someone who has always been interested in the blurring of boundaries, I am so glad to have read this book. Genre, gender, and sexuality all have their boundaries teased and tested, and the result is a provocative and thrilling work.

CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine

It’s another day, and there has been another black man killed by police officers. I did not intend for this review to coincide with Alton Sterling’s death, but here we are. Here I am hoping that literature can do something.

Citizen: An American Lyric is an award-winning book of poetry by Claudia Rankine that grapples with the experience of being black in America. Both in content and in form, this book defies boundaries. Rankine reaches into memory, criticism, popular culture, and history to navigate the day-to-day realities of inhabiting a black body, realities that, it seems, are always surrounded by these contexts. The subject matter ranges from micro-aggressions to historical violence, and Rankine uses poetry, artwork, and essays to move through these layers, making this book as multi-textual as it is multi-dimensional. The book is both thorough and deeply, achingly specific as the narrator of the poems reflects on what she experiences both in the news and in daily life. It’s eye-opening, sobering, and essential.

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Rankine’s poems are often unsettlingly intimate. Through many of them, she explores micro-aggressions, little moments in the daily life of the poem’s subject that add up, in the course of each turned page, to a hostile world: small instances of great violence, that probably went unnoticed by most observers. Rankine further emphasizes the intimacy of these moments by speaking in the second person. This rude comment, this condescending argument, this shove on the subway, is continuously directed at you, the reader. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s meant to be. It forces the reader to imagine navigating situations like this day after day, and it becomes exhausting not only in its pointed aggression but in its sheer volume. For readers like me, who do not experience this daily, it’s disturbing and enlightening. For other readers, it must be all too familiar.

Rankine also writes about broader culture and history. One essay/poem explores the coverage of Serena Williams, the way she is understood as a celebrity and an athlete compared to her peers. Other pieces explore police brutality. Of course, in the book, as in life, the broader subjects are inextricably intertwined with the personal, and the form of the book captures this theme so well. It’s a difficult book to define, to simplify. The images used throughout the book work in this aim, as well. The artwork and photographs found amidst the poems are striking and resonant. Perhaps the most obvious example is the image used on the cover, an art piece which becomes tragically layered in its relevance and importance. At the time of this book’s publication, I saw the cover and immediately assumed it was in reference to Trayvon Martin: actually, the photograph is of an art piece entitled In The Hood by David Hammons, created in 1993. Of all the themes and questions this art piece raises, it has clearly also touched on an image of prejudice and fear that has long been with us, one that remains with us still.

It’s been difficult to write this review, and it was difficult to read this book. I have to hope that by reading and sharing books like this, by trying to learn and understand, we can begin to increase our empathy; I have to hope we can begin to change the narrative found within these pages. Perhaps the most haunting poem of the book begins with a list of names:

“In Memory of Jordan Russel Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
In Memory of Michael Brown […]”

This list, devastatingly, goes on, but halfway through the page the names stop. As the text itself lightens like a wisp of smoke, Rankine has filled the bottom of the poem with ready-made “In Memory” tags; the poem anticipates the next names, just waiting to be written by the next headline.

In Memory of Alton Sterling. May we please, someday, stop filling in this page.

THE BOYS OF MY YOUTH by Jo Ann Beard

Scene One takes place in the living room of my college apartment. I’m enrolled in my first creative writing workshop, Intro to Creative Nonfiction, and I’ve set up at the little table my roommate and I use as a kitchen table (even though it’s in the living room). I have highlighters and a pen ready to go, and the photocopied, stapled pages of my reading assignment stacked before me: “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. I’m ready to take notes on her writing style, her rhetorical strategies, the way she’ll thread together pieces of her life into a narrative, one that will illuminate something for the reader, something for me. I’m ready to study her craft, as I have done with every other reading assignment for this course. But by the end of the essay, my highlighter is long abandoned, my pen useless. I’m actively sobbing, not just wet to the cheek but shoulders heaving, nose running, sobbing.

Scene Two takes place in a coffee shop, a little under a week ago. I’m finally reading the book from which this essay was photocopied, The Boys of My Youth. It’s been exactly as good as I’d thought it would be, elegant and heartbreaking in all the best ways. I’ve reached “The Fourth State of Matter,” and for a moment I pause, remembering my reaction last time. Last time, I tell myself, I was completely unprepared for the content of the essay. This time I know what’s coming. I’ll be able to keep it together. About halfway through the essay, though, I’m sobbing again. The actual kind again. This essay…there’s just nothing I can do about it.

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The Boys of My Youth is a collection of personal essays by Jo Ann Beard. As the title would suggest, the essays do explore past relationships, including a marriage that, throughout the course of the book, achingly disintegrates. But the scope is broader than just that. Beard writes about her mother, cousins, coworkers, even beloved old toys. The theme that links them all seems to be love, or more specifically, the moment (or moments) when a great love changes, when something makes it turn, move, grow into something else. The result is often devastating, but Beard writes with such clarity that the book never reads as weepy (my reaction to one essay aside). If anything, there is a lot of hope in these essays, for as Beard examines these pieces of her life, they are made present again. The act of studying them allows them to persist, allows the lost loves of Beard’s life to be changed, rather than to disappear forever.

One thing that Beard is particularly good at is writing from her perspective as a toddler. She is able to perfectly inhabit her childlike sensibility, and at the same time, communicate the child logic in a way that makes piercing sense. Often, a writer is able to inhabit the voice of the version of themselves they were within the story and then reflect on their past self with their current perspective; Beard is somehow able to do both in the same moment. The best example of this is in her essay “Bulldozing the Baby,” which is about a baby doll named Hal that she’d had as a companion. After a scene in which Beard had put Hal in the bathtub, Beard’s mother hangs him on the clothesline while Beard plays in the sandbox:

“‘I am not hurting him,’ my mother said dangerously as she pinned him up there. I better not pull a trick like that again or somebody’s in trouble […] I have on blue sunglasses with wiener dogs on the frames. I can pull up my shirt and fill my belly button with sand except if I do she’ll dig it out with the washcloth tonight. I’m starting to learn cause and effect. Hal in the bathtub means Hal up in the air.”

The most moving essay, of course, is “The Fourth State of Matter.” In this essay, Beard situates the reader into life after a divorce: the house is empty, squirrels are nesting in the abandoned bedroom that once belonged to a husband, a beloved dog is getting sicker. The only solace Beard can seem to find is at her job as an editor for a physics journal, and she recounts her relationship to her coworkers, the scientists she has come to know so well. This journal was at the University of Iowa, and in 1991, a graduate student shot and killed Beard’s colleagues in their offices while she wasn’t there; she had gone home early for the day. In this essay, Beard grapples with the unimaginable. It is heart-wrenching and so beautifully written; it truly is hard to describe. In a way it’s a tribute to those who were killed, and to the ways the lives of others can touch us. In another way, it feels like an essential record. This happened, I found myself thinking over and over again, and that feels important.

The Boys of My Youth is a beautifully written close examination of the seemingly small moments that mark us, that change the way we look at our world and at ourselves. It will break your heart, but it’s worth it.

 

I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE by Sloane Crosley

When there’s a lot of stress in my life, one of my favorite genres to turn to is humorous essays. I’ve consumed nearly all of David Sedaris’s oeuvre, and as repeat readers might know, have recently added Sarah Vowell’s voice to the go-to list. So when I saw a blurb on this cover comparing Crosley to both Sedaris and Vowell, I was immediately intrigued. In I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Crosley turns her sharp wit to her own life, creating a humorous account of one woman’s experiences maneuvering careers, relationships, girlhood, and occasional humiliation. The further I got into this book, the more it became like having coffee with a friend (even if I’m a bit worried about what this friend might be saying about me to our other friends).

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Crosley’s voice is intelligent and sharp. Her essays manage to be light and fun without becoming vapid and uninteresting, even as she writes about seemingly mundane aspects of daily life. The essays span a broad range of experiences, but their unifying theme seems to be exploring the roles that Crosley plays (or fail to play) in her life. Crosley writes without reserve about being a friend, a lover, a career-woman, and sometimes, the girl who has to call the same locksmith twice in one day to let her into her apartment. She sometimes casts a harsh light on the rituals we’ve come to accept as part of existing together, like weddings and dinner parties, but her sharpness is softened by her willingness to make fun of herself, as well. The result is an authentic and often endearing commentary on life in Crosley’s world.

It seems worth nothing that the scope of Crosley’s world is pretty specific. These essays are not about womanhood or young adulthood so much as they are about the young adulthood of a white, East Coast, suburban-turned-New Yorker woman. Crosley is writing humorous anecdotes about her own personal life, and so the scope is going to be inevitably narrower than, say, Eula Biss’s sociopolitical commentary. While I find Biss’s essays more interesting, I don’t disparage Crosley’s work for being what it is. As Nick Lezard noted in his review of this book for The Guardian (for, in my ambivalence, I sought out other opinions), “As I have commented before, it is the job of a good writer to familiarise readers with modes of experience quite alien to them, and I Was Told There’d Be Cake does that. I did not know what it was like to be a young, attractive, intelligent woman living in Manhattan; I might have tried to imagine it once or twice, but been scalded so horribly by envy that I gave up after three seconds.” Many of the essay collections I’ve read combine personal experience with more journalistic or scholarly commentary, but that doesn’t seem to be the intention of this work. I note this not as a criticism, but simply to say that if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not what you’ll find; rather, as Lezard characterizes, I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a humorous account of what it’s like to be this specific person, in this specific place and time. And Crosley seems to know this, and at times even lampoons the markers of privilege that exist in her world. It all comes together to make a vivid and enjoyable portrait of a life.

I would be lying to say that this book struck quite as much of a chord with me as Sedaris’s or Vowell’s works have done, but I am glad I spent some time with this funny, sharp, smart voice. If you’re as stressed out by the rapid passage of time as I have been, this book might be a good companion, one who’s witty, bold, and warm enough to shake you out of your worries for a while.

SYLLABUS: NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL PROFESSOR by Lynda Barry

I have always had trouble keeping a journal. It’s a practice that comes highly recommended by my favorite writers, from Joan Didion to David Sedaris, but I have never been able to stick with it. My attempts always devolve into a space of anxiety and over-worry; what should be a method of achieving presence and clarity turns into a Petri dish for every negative thought I have. The only time I’ve ever completed a journal cover-to-cover was when I was in elementary school. I was inspired by the Amelia’s Notebook series by Marissa Moss, a series of books written in the form of the fictional diary of the protagonist, Amelia. The notebooks were a combination of writing and drawings, and often they didn’t just depict the events of a day. The Amelia character would use cartoons and charts to explore her interests, tease out ideas she had, and elaborate on her relationships with her friends and family. I modeled a composition book after this idea, and it’s the only time I’ve been able to keep a journal. The book itself is also the most complete record I have of myself from this time; while it’s a tad embarrassing, I’m glad I have it.

I bring up Amelia’s Notebook because I was so reminded of it while reading this book. Syllabus is an account of Lynda Barry’s experience teaching an interdisciplinary college course about the psychology of art-making. The book is also structured as the author’s composition book, though it is actually a combination of Barry’s actual syllabus, notes from the course, and her recollection of teaching the course. Barry is a writer and artist, and she uses a variety of mediums, from drawing to handwriting to collage, to pursue the themes and ideas of the course. It’s been a long time since a book inspired me to create so immediately, but I plan to go out and get a composition book as quickly as possible.

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Syllabus pursues some rather large ideas about what it means to make art. The psychological angle of the work explores the effect that art-making has on our brains and psyche, and its importance in our development and happiness. Why are humans driven to create? And why does this drive dissipate as we age? How can we enhance our lives by rekindling our once-simple pleasure in creating a line, a picture, a story? Barry brings a variety of scholarship and disciplines to these questions, but she also observes as her students tease out their own answers.

While some of the themes of this book can seem a bit grand and abstract, Barry grounds these ideas with practical, step-by-step exercises to get her students (and her readers) started. She includes the assignments she gave to her students; the reader can almost follow along with the course work if they choose. This was the part of the book that I found the most enjoyable. In one example, Barry provides a template for keeping a daily diary of observations, one that includes writing and drawing. She encourages her students to use this format as a way of being more present in the world, of observing more acutely, hoping that this act of observing will feed into the students’ artwork. I am so excited to start keeping a diary in this way.

This book seems determined to help the reader create, no matter their artistic skill level. In fact, Barry is clear to encourage a simplicity of style, of simply using lines and colors to convey an idea quickly, without worrying about how “good” it is. Barry interrogates our understanding of what makes a drawing “good,” encouraging anyone to create simply for the pleasure of it. By breaking down the barriers of accessibility, Barry is able to get across the message that art-making is beneficial to the human experience itself. Not only is creativity accessible to everyone, it is essential. Amidst the current trend of adult coloring books and wine-and-painting events, I think we’re at the perfect place for these themes. If I could, I would hand everyone I know a copy of Syllabus, a blank composition book, and some colored pencils. Go make stuff, dear reader, and find joy in it.