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What We’re Reading: Riverine

2016 September 22
by Liz Lampman

What We're Readingbooks1-1-9cad1de360026716Riverine by Angela Palm (Graywolf Press, 2016) 

I picked up Riverine and found more of myself than I’d bargained for. A child with a racing mind and rabidly romantic devotion to her first ever friend. Land with an impossible need to continue in and of itself, despite human tampering. All that, and a language with the kind of focus and endurance that sometimes leads to hope. “Like rivers,” Palm writes, “people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” In this memoir, rife with subtly repeated images and motifs, Angela Palm inspects the branches of her life and her trajectory away from suffocation.

Raised in rural Indiana, in a tiny township, Palm’s early years were marked by domestic unrest, the Farmer’s Almanac, and the boy next door. In her memoir, she goes back to the beginning, and follows from there the trails that have lead to her adulthood as writer, mother, wife, and homecoming love.

Though we experience the span of her life, Palm’s childhood and adolescent persona feels especially accessible to me. There’s a poignancy to the point of view in these early chapters that feels immediate and familiar—as if the naiveté of my own childhood has bloomed again before my eyes, coloring the world with both curiosity and suspicion. Perhaps I feel at home with Palm’s voice here because of our Scorpio kinship? Or, more likely, the internal dialogue in Part I, “Fields,” is so brooding and obsessive that it could captivate any audience. Palm perfectly dissects the myth-building and meaning-making involved in childhood thinking, not ignoring but instead highlighting the mundane artifacts of life and their power to shape the mind. For instance, she illustrates the lewd illustration on her father’s cap which would inform her idea of womanhood and female attractiveness. From the discussion of the cap, Palm seamlessly branches into a rich characterization of her mother and thus propels the memoir with powerful and earned energy.

In fact, part of the appeal of Riverine is the way the memoirist includes the material world in the development of her story. Palm laces history into both time and landscape in a way that makes this book decidedly real. After pointing to the blank yellow on the map where she was raised, she recalls the riverbed’s first inhabitants, the Potawatomi, who were exiled by the Indian Removal Act. She continues, throughout the book, to contextualize her own existence in space with history—how the Kankakee River was re-routed in the 1800s, leaving behind the floodplain of her childhood house. Later, she recalls Monica Lewinsky and the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 and 1997; both mile-markers in her adolescence with significant impacts on national discourse as well as her local economy.

If you’re on the fence about memoirs, then consider this: Riverine is a smart book. Would you care to learn a bit about thermodynamics and entropy? What about bifurcation and the splitting and re-planting of hostas? Or Badlands, the 1973 Terrence Malick film? Palm is unreserved in her roaming and generous as she shares how the mind makes sense of life’s strange echoes of itself. What’s more, she’s funny.

I likened dead Papa Lou to Jesus and Santa, to Danny Boy and Fido. This bothered me because I preferred to pee alone, and now there were two invisible persons, one invisible God, and two dead dogs following me into the bathroom. It was getting crowded.

As non-fiction requires, Palm shows her flaws unabashedly. This is a person you want to know, or maybe you feel like you come to know her, to love her even. This is a beautiful story of coping, survival. “I have taken meditation everywhere and sprinkled its soft gray middle across the land like salt.” And this is the diction and the imagery that Palm rewards you with for reading her memoir. Finally, that person who has interrogated the earth for its patterns and the heart for its ability to remember, she tells the most satisfying story of unrequited love that I’ve ever encountered. Love and a river that also rises and falls, robs and renews.


What are the landscapes that have made you who you are as a writer? as a reader?



What We’re Reading: Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces

2016 June 30
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What We're Reading

Not so long ago… okay really, forever ago in Internet Time, we interviewed poet, teacher, and essayist David Biespiel about his opinions on the ins and outs of MFA programs. I’m returning now (perhaps in the hazy disillusionment of my own MFA experience) to his book for a little guidance, better yet: a wake up call.


Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces by David Biespiel (Kelson Books, 2010)

If you’re anything like me, a preface to a book on creative technique and craft that features Adrienne Rich is a fairly sure guarantee that you’ll make it to chapter one. While that’s the case in Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, David Biespiel shows less of an interest in delivering what you think you want and instead offers the reader what they might (or probably) need. This is a book about wandering and fixation, boundaries and boundlessness. By the end, you may discover a new friend—the Artist inside you—who’s ready to take a stroll through a fresh process, a creative journey.

Now, reviewing a craft book is kind of tricky, I mean, I can’t just give away all the craft tips! So I want to explain why this is an important summer read. For me, at least, summer is slightly less stressful than the other nine months of the year. Maybe the American education system has also conditioned you to breathe a little easier June through August. In any case, now that I feel less pressure, I am more willing to consider my craft and method of crafting. And really, that’s what David’s book is—a proposal of another method of creativity and creative output. He never mentions submissions or contests, reading recommendations, or even educational programs (and thank goodness because my browser history is chock-full of all that jazz in blog and article form). Before sitting down with this text, my summer plans went something like this: revise, revise, revise, submit, draft. Maybe that’s your plan of attack, and more power to ya!, but I can say with total confidence that the first three verbs on my to-do list would have been fraught with frustration, “submit” clouded with self-doubt, and “draft” with dread. (You guys, I’m just being honest.) Instead, reading this book just reminded me that there are many paths to “success” (whatever that is). What Every Writer includes, instead of the advice de rigueur, is a well-spring of ideas for how to jump start the creative process, valuable examples of athletic and visual artists who exercise this proposed method, and, perhaps most importantly, OODLES of empathy for the writer/artist who is battling their own stuck process and potentially self-doubt or frustration. Sound familiar? If you’re interested in a fresh approach to your writing, I say, dig into this read and discover your other 999 faces.

If I had to sum it up, Every Writer proffers an order of operations: Palette, Passion, Failure. Yup, I said failure, but Biespiel said it first. Before you fail though, you might begin with a lengthy dabbling or brainstorming method that might begin with a “word-palette,” a method where you sit down and essentially doodle language. A list of language forms itself, out of your mind, associations, and surroundings. The word-palette leads to a version of an experience (story, poem, et cetera). “The more you investigate change, the more you discover what you hadn’t known to see. In other words, the known unknowns become all you confidently know,” Biespiel explains. In my understanding, expanding the drafting process in this way allows for feeling and passion to enter into many versions of poems where stress or frustration may have formerly governed revisions.

I use the word “version” very intentionally because so does Biespiel. In fact, one could sum up this text with a very simple maxim: “versions not revisions.” The reason is simple. With the draft-and-revise method, one is only ever trouble-shooting and adjusting the draft that already exists. And we all know what happens when you come to a road block and you simply cannot “fix” what’s in front of you. You scrap it and feel like crap. But did you ever give the poem/prose a real chance to fail? Perhaps not, because the revision process was dictated by the problems in the original draft, and where can imagination or exploration enter in when we are confined to an initial creative impulse? Enter Palette; enter Passion.

The word-palette exercise frees you from constipated drafting: “No one wants a tepid attitude in your marks,” says Biespiel. “Write with a fierce attitude—whether it’s a sentence or scene—and that’s what readers will most positively respond to.” The marks he refers to are: sentences & syntax, lines & stanzas, characters & scenes. Whatever your medium, your writing will be imbued with your attitude, and your attitude is inevitably shaped by your engagement and your process while drafting. Biespiel proposes, therefore, that you explore with all your might the “marks” you employ and let them lead you to discover the version of whatever you are writing.

David says he forms these word-palettes over weeks and days, carrying around a folded sheet of paper that serves as a catchment for all the language, thoughts, lines, and the title that comes to mind. Then,

As for what I create from the words on the list? Well, if I like what comes of it, great. If not, I move on. I pick words out of the version, start over. Make a new list, do it again. I’m not making drafts and revising to fix it. I’m making lists of words to see what resonates within me. And then thinking about how I feel about the words and the resonances.

Failure does not sound so bad when you can recycle the palette and reinvent the poem/prose that first evaded you. “[B]y throwing up air ball after air ball in your writing, you master the distinction between miss and swish—which because of their consonance, assonance, and rhyme these two words would fit wonderfully onto one of my word-palettes!” So what kind of ball are you playing? Draft-and-revise or miss-and-swish?

More importantly, I leave you with the question that Adrienne Rich posed to Biespiel and the Stegner fellows: “Are you in it for the long haul?”


What We’re Reading: Wondering Who You Are

2015 October 29

What We're Reading

WWYA-coverWondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea (Tin House Books, 2015)

In 2000, Richard Bandy was diagnosed with a rare and serious form of appendix cancer. An elective form of risky and then-experimental surgical chemotherapy worked, but complications that followed the procedure resulted in an anoxic brain injury. The brain injury caused him to lose not only his memory but also all traits of his former personality. The outgoing, driven, masculine (and sometime violently angry) man was replaced with a quiet, emotional, and passive one. The author of Wondering Who You Are is Sonya Lea, Richard Bandy’s wife. Lea’s unsettling and raw memoir blends medical drama, personal narrative, and the story of a long — and ultimately enduring — marriage.

Bandy and Lea married and had a family while they were both young. Although they loved each other deeply, their marriage was not always an easy one. Lea struggled with alcoholism for several years, and Bandy struggled with an anger that at times became physical. But, despite their lows, the two always found their way back to each other; it’s clear through her telling that they shared a profound love. However, following her husband’s brain injury, Lea finds herself thrust into an incredibly difficult scenario: her husband is alive, but he’s not the same man to whom she was married. Over the course of several years following the brain injury — and with much rehab, therapy, and neurological care — Bandy eventually regains enough skill to fully function, and he is eventually able to return to work. Despite that, he never recovers many memories, and his personality remains vastly different.

Of course, this situation raises fascinating questions: who are we without our history? What happens to our identities when we lose our historical moorings? Lea spends the bulk of the memoir facing these questions along with her husband — although they’re each forced to face these questions in their own, much different ways. In some aspects, Bandy’s injury has insulated him from the gravity of the situation: he grieves, but he is also unable to live in anything but the present. Lea, on the other hand, understandably dwells in the past, desperate to bring her husband as she knew him back. She writes,

I see that Richard isn’t scared of our situation. The sadness he occasionally feels is because he’s concerned about my suffering. I’m the one who is terrified of losing my identity. Especially the “us” that I think I remember. While I’m making dinner, crying to my friends, listening to my husband snore, I slowly wake up to the truth that I have no idea what makes me “me.” And the thing about truth is that it dismantles even as it inhabits.

As time goes on and it becomes obvious that her husband will never be the same man he was before his brain injury, Lea becomes cognizant of the shift she’s undergoing. Bandy’s not the only one who has lost something; Lea, too, grieves for the man, the memories, and the shared identity that the two have lost. She grapples with the way she now feels for her husband; initially, his new personality is deeply unsettling. She is unhappy with his maddening passivity, unhappy with what she feels is the loss of his masculinity, and unhappy with the loss of intimacy between them. She has to decide whether she can continue to view him as a “complex, intimate partner.” In an attempt to rediscover their love, the two travel together, relocate frequently, even invite a third party into their marriage. Although the path back to happiness is winding, the risks they take together eventually do serve to reawaken Lea’s love — or, more accurately, they allow Lea to begin to accept her husband for who he is now: “Sometimes things are mysterious in our relationships, and then we get to see our beloved, and it cracks the heart wide open.”

As she fills in Richard’s memory with the history of their marriage, she admits that she could downplay their more unpleasant chapters, but that to do so would dishonor their truth. The same can be said for this book. There are many unsettling — even angering — moments, and as a reader, I had to be conscious to set aside my own identity and judgments and remind myself that she was telling her story as it unfolded for her and her husband. She shares with her readers intimate thoughts, emotional conversations, and the most private scenes of her relationship with Richard. These are daunting subjects to write about, and I commend her for a willingness to write candidly about the intimacy within a marriage — the book is a page-turner because of this approach.

Lea’s stark, intense, and beautiful writing, combined with her unsettling but compelling subject matter, means that Wondering Who You Are is a memoir that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Have you read any books that you enjoyed but were unsettled by? If so, were you able to separate yourself from the book and understand what it is was that made the book difficult for you? Did needing that introspection add to your opinion of the book or detract from it?


What We’re Reading: The Boys of My Youth

2015 July 30
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whatwerereading-header0316085251.1.zoomThe Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard (Little, Brown & Company 1998)

Okay, I know. I’m late. Late in getting around to a book that stared me down

from the top shelf for the last year and late to a title that’s been high on my list for much longer. With that confession, I’m here to insist that y

ou add Boys of My Youth to the top of your queue. Hell—just drop what you’re doing and grab this halting collection of non-fiction stories.

Beard sets the tone for The Boys of My Youth with the brutally self-conscious voice of her adolescent self in “In the Current.” Though her role in the story is purely observational, even objectifiable, pre-teen Jo Ann is not simply a witness. In fact, this opening story asks the reader to notice how the mind and the heart of the point of view make a story what it is.

I just stand there, embarrassed to be noticed by a teenager. I hope my shorts aren’t bagging out again. I put one hand in my pocket and slouch sideways a little.

Though she is shorebound in the riverside scene, she is actually in the very current of the story—the tragic action melts behind the caustic discomfort of her experience. The story ends:

I look down. My shorts are bagging out.

Over and over again in this collection, throughout various ages and stages, Beard explores the content of her life with deeply self-aware subjectivity. The result is an answer to a question I’ve been musing over for some time… where is the creativity in non-fiction? It’s not just beautiful syntax and drool-inducing sentences; here especially, Beard delivers memory with hard-hit line drives to deep left field. I’m left chasing the red laces of truth across a turf of careful recall and daring transparency.

Seriously, interwoven within captivating stories about a coyote loping across a desert landscape or two cousins losing themselves ala Thelma in an out-of-the-way 80s dancehall, are lines like these:

The steel guitar comes overtop of it all, climbing and dropping, locating everyone’s sadness and yanking on it.

As readers, what can we do with sentences like these except pause for a moment, and take in what good writing can do to illuminate all the yanking we’ve been through ourselves. The deep, terrible sadness that flounces through these stories as a sun hat on a confident, sun-kissed human, walks with a good-humored partner, poking fun whenever possible. In the most well-known story in the book, “The Fourth State of Matter,” Beard’s dogs assist the emotional development of the speaker, especially in moments like these:

“I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,” I say while putting on my coat. I use my mother’s aggrieved, under appreciated tone. The little brown dog wags her tail, transferring her gaze from me to the table, which is the last place she remembers seeing toast. The collie continues her ghoulish sleep, eyes partially open, teeth exposed, while the Labrador, who understands English, begins howling miserably. She wins the toast sweepstakes and is chewing loudly when I leave, the little dog barking ferociously at her.

These light moments keep the attentive reader afloat. And the reading itself is easy; the pacing matches a the way a curious mind peers into the past. ‘What was that?’ you can almost hear Jo Ann asking as the stories reach well into childhood, deeply into how she became. In so doing, Beard never lets the writing slip away from the work of the storytelling. Actually, her prose catches me off guard again and again. How many times have we read about a lake scene? Seen it plastered as the backdrop to some dewey cliché in the foreground. Somehow, Beard makes it new in “Cousins.”

It is five A.M. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish strings loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads. One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.

The panoramic view here is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s valley landscapes. Beard spares no detail and each simile and metaphor is both economical and fresh. And to think, she’s describing her mother and aunt while she and her cousin are in utero! That’s another thing about these stories, the author’s sense-memories and intuitive memories (such as the lake scene depicting her mother and aunt) complement each other, creating a mirage-like reading experience where reality and imagination trip over each other in a clumsy but affable fox trot.

The Boys of My Youth is my book of the summer. Yet somehow, I know I’ll be referring to these maddeningly affective passages all fall, winter, and spring.

What book has been calling your name lately?