Essay mini reviews today, plus exciting news from the wonderful Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out: the Nonfiction Reader Challenge is back!
Annie Dillard’s 1977 Holy the Firm is a brief book, more like an extended essay. From 1975, Dillard lived in a one-room cabin on an island at Puget Sound for two years. It seemed like a time of spiritual soul-searching for her, asking questions about the natural world and the role of a god, while considering suffering and too-common horrors. She circles several primary events, including a moth flying into a candle flame, and a plane falling from the sky, leading to a seven-year-old girl having her face badly burned.
These lead to obvious questions that we’ve been asking forever, about how suffering and pain are allowed by a higher being.
It is November 19 and no wind and no hope of heaven and no wish for heaven, since the meanest of people show more mercy than hounding and terrorist gods.
I’ve already come to my own conclusions about these topics long ago (this encapsulates my thoughts perfectly), so I don’t find this kind of rumination particularly compelling. Especially because Dillard is meandering and often abstract in her writing and musing — I still find her thoughts and conclusions hard to pin down. This is much more about the journey than the destination.
I loved it in that it felt like a continuation of her actions from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which she quietly lives and observes and thinks and hops from topic to topic and observation to observation with her exquisite language and linguistic twists. That book was such brilliant nature and metaphysical writing, and this just wasn’t quite on that level. Although her brilliance is still remarkable:
There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.
As I’ve said, can anyone else write like her? Even her work that I’m least enthusiastic about is still extraordinary. This was my least loved of hers so far, but I like getting to know her and her style more as I read through her nonfiction. It’s still haunting, evocative, and occasionally even funny.
Much more to my liking was Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays from 1998 that switch between scenes of childhood and adulthood, specifically adulthood at a turning point. The narrator (called Jo Ann, although Beard writes these in a very short story-like fashion, without explicitly addressing that they’re about her) has just been through a painful separation from her husband. She describes her process after the split, including a long road trip and reconciliations that were doomed from the start, and talks voraciously like a teenager with a childhood friend who’s also freshly divorced, after her husband had the cliched affair with his secretary.
I thought to myself, not for the first time in this life, Everything is perfect; all those things that I always think are so bad really aren’t bad at all. Then I noticed that out my window the clouds had parted, the clear night sky was suddenly visible, and the moon — a garish yellow disk against a dark wall — seemed to be looking at me funny.
It’s sometimes hilariously funny, purposely and perhaps without meaning to be, like in Beard’s descriptions or wording. She’s a writer who chooses each word and turn of phrase carefully and it shows. Especially the essays set in her childhood, in that certain way that children take things literally. At her grandfather’s funeral, she’s told he will live forever in her heart, which disturbs her: “I’m too big to sit on a lap, my legs are stiff, and now my heart has a grandpa in it.”
The essay “Waiting” affected me most, in which Jo Ann and her sister are in the immediate period near the end of their mother’s life, when they know she’ll be passing very soon. It’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and heart-tugging. The sisters visit the funeral home even before their mother is dead (!) and their interactions with Mr. Larson, the owner, are highly entertaining. “He is accommodating and resourceful but clearly unimpressed, like a plumber in the presence of a medium clog.” It all just felt so true to life — the tendency to laugh inappropriately, to notice more around you, the things we do to alleviate grief, even for a few seconds.
“Bonanza,” about visiting her grandmother and being overcome with that weird, sudden, suffocating sadness peculiar to childhood, was another standout, as was any story around her and her sister as kids, forced into a parade, dropping Barbies into pigpens — it’s all wonderful. And yet shot through with a certain darkness — her father was an alcoholic; in one frightening story Jo Ann could’ve died in a bicycle accident. It all just felt so true to life – the good and the bad blending together in the same moments, memories being complicated, and humor standing out, thankfully, through it all.
Its most famous piece is “Fourth State of Matter,” an award-winning account of the shooting of six professors and employees of a space physics journal at the University of Iowa, where Beard was managing editor. She wasn’t present, but was obviously deeply affected, and intersperses the details of those events with the story of her dying collie. I was uncomfortable with it, though that’s perhaps a testament to how powerful it is. I also just can’t really connect with stories about dogs in general, maybe my aversion was as simple as that. I’ve been reading about the essay in the meantime, since it’s so famous and lauded and I want to understand it.
In any case, it’s a superb collection worth a read, especially since Beard finally has a new book of essays coming in March 2021.
Why might you need some essay collection ideas? Because: 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge!
Shelleyrae at Book’d Out is bringing back this challenge, started this year, to “encourage you to make nonfiction part of your reading experience during the year.” You already know I support this. I didn’t participate this year because I already read only nonfiction so wasn’t sure how I fit in here, but Shelleyrae has such a fun and varied list of topics that it’ll be easy to take part.
You can choose to challenge yourself by reading 3, 6, or 12 books from this year’s categories:
- Essay Collection
- Indigenous Cultures
- Wartime Experiences
- Published in 2021
Add your announcement post with your goal (mine’s to do them all) at the linkup and link your posts back throughout the year when you complete one. You can read in any order, at any pace, as long as it’s within 2021 and books count for one category each.
I love the topics this year (oceanography! disease!) and I’ve got ideas for all of them except Hobbies and Indigenous Cultures. Any suggestions?
If you’re interested in participating, see Shelleyrae’s info post and ask her for title suggestions in case you need any — she’s got tons. I’m also happy to suggest if you need any ideas. Will you be joining in?