Holy the Firm, The Boys of My Youth, and the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge

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:

  1. Biography
  2. Travel
  3. Self-help
  4. Essay Collection
  5. Disease
  6. Oceanography
  7. Hobbies
  8. Indigenous Cultures
  9. Food
  10. Wartime Experiences
  11. Inventions
  12. 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?


27 thoughts on “Holy the Firm, The Boys of My Youth, and the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the reading non-fiction challenge info…..I’ll have a look.
    I have 2 books to suggest: Oceanography:
    Wild Sea: a history of the southern ocean – Joy McCann
    (see my review for info dd. Jan 21 2020).
    The other book I enjoyed was in the category indigenous culture:
    Deep Time Dreaming – B. Griffiths
    (see my review for info dd. April 19 2019).
    Both books are literary prize winners in Australia!
    Catching up on the news this Sunday morning…
    I see the presidential tragedian hasn’t left the stage yet
    just …45 more days. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ooh thanks for the recommendations! Actually I have way too many for oceanography, that’s been one of my favorite genres this past year. But always happy to have more and especially from beyond the US. Will look up the Indigenous one…I’m so lacking in that area, it’s really bad!


  2. I liked the Wild Sea because you never hear anything about the southern ocean….they even skip it on all weather maps/reports. It is crazy weather down there! You are up early…I’m trying to read a few more books by white authors…before 31 Dec 2020…the deadline. Question…could you mention on NF reviews if the author is. Voice of color? You just have to say “For you NB” …then I’ll know! Have a good reading Sunday…I still miss the paper version of the New York Times…and the magazine section puzzle!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that does sound really interesting! And that’s true, you never hear much about that area. Good to know, I’ll look into the book.

      I know, I get up early because I work with with my European clients…so around 5:30 every day. Today I slept in an hour though! It’s funny what you miss, isn’t it? Is it not possible to find paper copies of NYT anywhere there? We usually had some news agents that would have a couple of copies, I think…but yes, not the same.

      I’ll try to remember to mark them for you! My reading in that area isn’t as good as it could be though! I compiled this list earlier in the year though, could be helpful for you next year: https://whatsnonfiction.com/2020/06/06/nonfiction-reading-resources-for-anti-racism-empathy-and-blacklivesmatter/

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another nonfiction challenge?! Ooooooh this is tempting…going to ruminate on this a bit. I find that a concentrated challenge over a month (without categories or really any pressure) works well for me. As soon as the timeline is stretched and there are things to check off, I have a hard time.

    I was going to jump in with “oh I have lots of recommendations for Indigenous Culture” but actually I’ve been reading about all the horrible things done to Indigenous peoples in Canada and that’s not really the same at all. I will say that Alicia Elliott’s essay collection, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground talks about her experiences as an Indigenous woman, what her culture means to her and also the pain and grief she walks with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, that’s why I avoid the challenges in general, they’re just too much and dealing with a reading/review schedule for ARCs is enough already. But this one is pretty relaxed and easy if you already read a good bit of nonfiction since there are so many different categories. Like out of all of them I only had to really think about two categories and otherwise I’d be reading them anyway. I think you’d definitely hit at least half with your interests!

      Yes, I was thinking about what I’d read in the Indigenous Culture area already and it was all horrible things!! Like Highway of Tears, Red River Girl, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. All great books and very important but all horrible things that overlook most of the culture. How depressing. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground sounds totally fascinating and I hadn’t heard of it — thank you!! That might be the one.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Looks like an excellent challenge! I’ll definitely consider joining. Interestingly enough, for ca. 20 years I had primarily been a non-fiction reader. Much of that was due to reading books for library review journals, especially the history of science and technology, invention and inventors, etc. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began this spring, I found myself escaping into dystopia, sci-fi, and even some horror. I read six Stephen King novels/novellas in a row.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, that’s a lot of Stephen King all at once! How were you able to sleep 😆I find it so funny what different people turned to for escapism this year. My own surprised me as well, since I read much more science and medicine and about diseases/pandemics. It’s not really like me at all, but I guess you never know what strange, stressful times will bring out in you!

      Always nice to hear from a fellow mostly nonfiction reader 🙂 Definitely consider joining in the challenge; if you read a lot of nonfiction already it shouldn’t be too hard to check off a few of the categories!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. [I’m not sure how to add the emojis here] 😉 I started to read “The Great Influenza”, but found the topic almost too close to home, so to speak. But I have enjoyed listening to related reports about historical epidemics and pandemics on NPR and the like.

        The 12 categories of this challenge look very straightforward yet intriguing. I’m definitely going to look at the challenge links you provided. Thanks!

        P.s. Two of my kids think that I’m crazy to read Stephen King, but three of the books I read were not horror but suspense/thriller.:)


  5. Thanks for linking this! A bit late to the party but I think I’ll give it a try. Would love suggestions for Oceanography books by female authors, and especially for food books by non-white women if you have any. The others I have some ideas from my TBR shelves or library list already.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Rachel Carson books I linked would be my best suggestion for Oceanography by a female author, either Under the Sea Wind or The Sea Around Us. Both are beautiful and really informative. I can also recommend Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs, although I didn’t love it as much as many others seemed to!

      For food books by non-white women, there’s Maryse Conde’s Of Morsels and Marvels, BUT with a sort of caveat, I’d say…it’s kind of marketed as food writing and although each essay has some food-related memory or story, it’s definitely not what you’d expect as a traditional “foodoir”. (I quite liked it overall though.) I absolutely love Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava, it’s one of my favorites in this genre, and she’s half-Jordanian. The book is heavily focused around her father’s heritage and cultural connections. Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers is a collection with many pieces from writers of color and I can think of several off the top of my head who were women, like Edwidge Danticat and Carmen Maria Machado. I have the upcoming foodie memoir Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream, which is written by several members of a Vietnamese family about opening a restaurant in Miami as refugees. It sounds lovely. I’ll let you know if I think of others! Glad the challenge could pique your interest and that you’ll be joining in!!

      Liked by 1 person

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