Author Jay Varner and I have a few things in common.
First, we both grew up in small, blue-collar town Pennsylvania. Second, we witnessed the demise of the factory world (and the birth of the Rust Belt) during our lifetime. Third, we both left for college only to return home with college degrees in English (a degree that is bewildering to blue collar families). Finally, when we did return home, both of us ended up in jobs as local newspaper reporters -- a position that many people did understand (So that is what you can do with an English degree one of my relatives exclaimed!)
But these are where the similarities end.
In Nothing Left to Burn, Varner returns home to McVeytown, Pennsylvania, and takes a job as a reporter, only to find out that one of his beats, so to speak, is writing about local fires. Ironically, Varner's late father was the town's fire chief (and a local hero), and Varner himself can't help but feel torn by this position. Part of him believes that his father would be proud, but another part of him can't help but still feel resentful for the way that fighting fires took his father away from home.
Varner's memoir intertwines his story as a newspaper reporter with memories of the past. This past includes an exploration of Varner's relationship with both his parents, but also with a person who complicates his family situation even more: his grandfather, who was a fire bug and who delighted in starting fires of his own.
Nothing Left to Burn is a wonderful memoir about family, history and place. While those of us who grew up in rural Pennsylvania can certainly relate to Varner's book in many ways, in general his memoir is a great coming of age tale that shouldn't be missed.
As a Pennsylvanian native, I am constantly drawn into the environmental debates of my homestate. As someone who teaches at a college, I have always felt the need to try to approach controversial issues objectively and fairly in spite of my own reactions (often emotional) to a subject. Fracking is one of those issues.
Jimmy Guignard, in Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, & Living above the Marcellus Shale, takes on the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Guignard teaches at Mansfield University, which is located about three hours from where I live. (That's actually close by rural Pennsylvanian standards).
Guignard starts off his book with an argument -- not really an overall argument about fracking, per se, but an argument with his wife about fracking. The reader comes to find out that the author's family lives in northcentral Pennsylvania, the heart of the state's fracking land. She wants to buy a house outside of town (so that their family will have more room); the author does not, fearing the issues with the big companies that have seemingly taken over their world in the last few years. Guignard explains, "Where Lilace [his wife] saw escape, I saw risk."
What follows is an exploration of the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Guignard approaches the issue of fracking through a rhetorical lens. In other words, he examines the way that words and symbols are used to influence people's beliefs about fracking. He delicately tries to balance the rhetoric of the big companies while offering a sympathetic ear to the local community, a community in desperate need of money (he himself is working at a struggling college).
Yet, I wouldn't really call this book an academic read. As the author himself says in his preface, " I was a redneck before I was an academic and don't much enjoy that impersonal academic voice. So imagine I'm telling you this story outside a fire, beer or bourbon (or both) in hand." No, I didn't read Guignard's book with a beer in my hand (I'm more of an iced tea drinker), but I did whip through his words at record speed and came up thirsty for more books that explore fracking with the same passion and intellect I found in his words.
In this haunting coming-of-age book, Lauren Wolk introduces us to the thoughtful and kind 12-year-old Annabelle who is growing up in rural western Pennsylvania in 1943. Wolk opens up her book with the words of the main character: "The year I turn ed twelve, I learned how to lie."
What follows is a story about love, friendship, and betrayal. We are introduced to a new student in Annabelle's class, Betty Glengarry, a child who is violent and cruel. We are also introduced to Toby, a veteran of the Great War, who suffers from an mysterious mental illness that renders him as simply strange to the small rural community. And finally, we are introduced to Annabelle's best friend, Ruth, a fragile child caught in the crossfire of violence and cruelty. When all three of these lives collide, Annabelle is faced with the biggest challenge of her young life.
It's easy to compare Annabelle to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed many reviewers do. Yet, perhaps because the story takes place in a landscape that is more familiar to me than the deep South, I found young Annabelle to be more courageous, more realistic, and indeed, more human than many young heroines found in coming-of-age novels.
I have eagerly looked forward to Wolk's second book since I read her first novel, Those Who Favor Fire, a novel that takes place in a small town that rests on top of a burning underground coal fire. Wolf Hollow did not disappoint.
In her newest novel, Jennifer Haigh returns to the small Pennsylvanian town of Baker Towers, a world she first explored in her 2005 book by the same name. In Baker Towers, she explores coal mining, but in Heat & Light, she opens her book with a short history of oil.
Then, she delivers a single line that stayed with me as I read the rest of the book: "More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath."
As someone who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am well aware of how defined my world was by what was beneath me. I am also well aware of the state's problematic relationships with the environment and the blue collar/working class world. Haigh's newest novel takes us into the heat of this relationship with the story of how fracking invades and thus, changes the lives of those who live in Baker Towers, Pennsylvania.
It's through this story that learn about Rich Devlin, who leases his mineral rights to finance his dreams of farming. We learn about his young daughter, whose mysterious illness may or may not be because of environmental issues that have been caused fracking. We learn about a lonely preacher, who falls in love with one of the workers who is fracking the land. We learn about organic dairy farmers, Mack and Rena, whose business is hurt by the environmental issues going on around them. All of their lives are intertwined by the arrival of fracking in their world.
Yes, Haigh's novel is political. There's no denying that. Still, she doesn't offer any clear cut answers to the questions she poses through her characters about a world where fracking may be both a blessing and a curse.
Perhaps that is what I loved most about this book.
Visit Haigh's website to learn more about Heat & Light and her other novels.
Long-time readers of my website/blog know that I'm a huge Tawni O'Dell fan. I always have been, ever since I first read Back Roads (an Oprah Book club pick). Coal Run, her second book, has been my absolute favorite, but I have to say that her newest book, Angels Burning may bypass her other books to move towards the top of my favorites list.
Angels Burning opens with a murder. A teenage girl's body is found in a sinkhole of an abandoned coal town (eerily similar to the real-life Centralia, a town infamous for its underground mine fire). Chief Dove Carnahan, who hides family secrets of her own, takes on the investigation.
What follows is more than just a murder mystery. Yes, much of the plot revolves around Dove seeking to find who committed the murder. Readers of mysteries, however, may be a bit disappointed as the plot and subplots veer off into many different directions so that the book is more than just a whodunnit story. Instead, readers will be treated with an exploration of character development and physical setting. Some readers may think that O'Dell approaches her characters with only stereotypes in mind, but I found that she navigates the back roads and people of Pennsylvania with a refreshing eye, pointing out the grit, stubbornness, and yes, sometimes violence that harbors in the northern Appalachia landscape.
For more information about this book and her other works, visit Tawni O'Dell's website.
If I had to sum up my feelings about Nancy McCabe's From Little House to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood in one sentence, it would be this: after reading this book, I now want to go back and re-read all my childhood favorite books.
Part travel book, part memoir, part literary analysis, McCabe's book examines her love of reading while revisiting specific childhood favorites. Since McCabe herself grew up in Kansas, she feels a close attachment to the Little House on the Prairie series, and much of this book examines this series, while cataloging McCabe's own trip (with her daughter) to various homes/tourist attractions from the Little House books. She intertwines bits and pieces of her own history with reading, including her initial reactions to the Little House characters as well as her disdain to the television show. She also offers analysis of the books including reviewing the argument that it was Laura's daughter, Rose, who actually penned most of the books in the series.
The Little House series clearly takes center stage in this book, but McCabe also examines Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Throughout her book, she also looks at other childhood favorites including two of mine: The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White (I loved this book as a child, and sadly many people have never heard of it -- even those who have read White's classic, Charlotte's Web) and Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (of I Know What You Did Last Summer fame). Her observations of the texts include her initial childhood readings along with more adult observations of the characters, plots, and time periods of publications.
McCabe currently resides in Bradford, Pennsylvania (a mere 45 minute drive from where I live), so it was great to find a read from a local reader. Her website can be found here.
Now, I just have to find that box of childhood books I have stored in my walk-in closet upstairs...
Lori Jakiela's Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe may be acclaimed as a work that explores adoption, but a closer look reveals that Jakiela's book is much more. In her newest book, Jakiela intertwines her story of looking for her birth mother with explorations of her relationship with the mother who raised her and her own personal struggles with motherhood.
Jakiela starts off her book with a simple statement that sets the tone for her story: "When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one. The Catholic Charities counselor's word for this other mother I want after decades to find is biological. Illegitimate is another word for people who end up like me. It's what I feel now, unlawful, unauthorized, unwarranted her in this office that smells like antiseptic and rubber gloves, hot teeth drilled down to the bone."
From this first paragraph, we are introduced to several important components of the book. Jakiela is not just feeling the loss of her mother, she is feeling a loss of herself, and she believes that looking for her biological mother is a step in regaining part of her personal identity that seems muddled and foggy (at least in her viewpoint). This is not what she tells the counselor, however. Instead, she says that she is looking for a medical history.
What follows is a braided story. First, Jakiela chronicles her journey towards finding her biological mother. Second, she retells stories that highlight her relationship with the couple who adopted her. Finally, she relays her own frustrations (and joys) of being a working wife and mother.
Readers who are new to Jakiela's work may find the nonlinear progression of her journey a little confusing, yet, I believe that many people who find this book are already familiar with many of the characters introduced in Jakiela's two previous memoirs, Miss New York Has Everything and The Bridge To Take When Things Get Serious. My advice to those who are new to the writing of Lori Jakiela: read Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe and then read her two other memoirs. I will bet you will return to Jakiela's newest memoir with a deep appreciation of the delicate way that she balances humor with her depictions of love, in its rawest, yet purest forms.
For more information about this book, see Atticus Books. Lori Jakiela also keeps a blog where she explores many of the same themes found in her memoirs.
As I look back on my writing life, I have noticed that many writers, especially poets, seem to drift in and out of my life. I live in a secluded area, especially when it comes to the literary world, so I have found it rather easy to lose touch with many writers I have met. Yet, social media has made it easier to "find" these writers again. Indeed, a link from a Facebook page led me to discover Good Sumacs by Jeff Grieneisen.
Place rules the poems found in Good Sumacs, as the book meanders between the poet's home state of Pennsylvania and his current home in Florida. Many of the poems found in the first part of the collection tell stories of family, such as seen in "My Grandmother" where the narrator pictures a woman "widowed young" walking through the streets of Brockway (where incidentally is only 30 minutes away from my hometown), "to the glass factory/where she machined gobs of soda ash/into smooth, cool jars." In other poems, the narrator himself becomes a character as found in "Like a Butterfly" where he and his sister "rubbed powder off delicate/transparent wings" of butterflies so they could pretend they were pixies, or in the quieter, more meditative poem, "Transforming" where he shakes apples trees so the fruit falls to the ground, fruit that will later be a meal for the local wildlife: "At dusk, three doe carefully munch apples/snuff breath into the air/with black, glossy noses."
In other poems, place becomes the main character. In "At the William Penn Museum," the narrator tells about his first adventure on an escalator while in "Echoes" he narrates his descent into the caverns of the Susquehannocks. My favorite poem, however, is "Centralia" where the poet looks at a Pennsylvania coal town deserted because of a raging mine fire underneath the ground. With careful attention to detail, Grieneisen pictures the town today: "Smoke still creeps/from the dusty cracked ground/buckling highways, swallowing homes/and melting the rubber soles of sneakers/on Ashland teenagers who sneak/into Centralia woods with stolen beer kegs."
The tone of this collection shifts a bit when Grieneisen's poems move towards Florida. Indeed, the poem, "Writing Nothing about Florida" can only be described as a work about homesickness: "Here the dirt is sand/and lakes teem with Anhingas/that do not sing/like chickadees or cardinals/but cry like feathered beasts/breaking the darkness/that hides nothing." Other poems find the narrator slowly maneuvering around what he would deem as a foreign landscape. For instance, in "Tropicana" he describes a city that smells like "the burning carcasses of oranges." In another poem, "Dance of the Anoles," he chronicles the "invisible love" of creatures who "spin, face to face/tails a compass needle never finding home."
Jeff and I went to graduate school together many years ago (more years than I care to admit!) and have since lost touch, which is why I'm so happy to discover his debut collection of poetry. I'm especially thrilled to see his navigation of place, and the connections between characters and setting, connections I strive so hard to make in my own work.
More information about Good Sumacs can be found at Mammoth Books, the publisher, and on the poet's website.
Dean Bakopoulos's debut novel, Please Don't Come Back From the Moon, starts off on a surreal note. In the opening chapter, the author describes a Blue-collar neighborhood in Detroit where the fathers of the community start disappearing, many using the phrase "I've gone to the moon" to make their escape.
After this first chapter, however, this novel drifts away from the surrealism and moves into the gritty world of the unemployed Rust Belt where mothers are forced to take on the roles of the vanished fathers and young men are forced to contemplate their own roles in a world that is no longer defined by the traditional ideas of work and family. As an avid reader of Rust Belt literature (if that really is a subgenre of literature), I know it's hard for a writer to tackle the subject of Blue Collar life in an unique way; yet I found Bakopoulos's novel an interesting coming-of-age story about the working class world in America.
In this book, the reader meets Michael and his friends, all who are trying to learn how to navigate their fatherless world. The book starts with an almost nostalgic tone concerning the missing fathers as explained by Michael himself: "What I missed most was the collective drone of our fathers' lives, their big and clumsy presence. I even missed their cussing and their labored breathing from too many cigarettes." Soon, however, the missing fathers become mere ghosts, as the boys finish high school, find jobs, get married, and have children of their own. Throughout their lives, they fight to stay away from their own fathers' legacy of disappearance and abandonment.
Please Don't Come Back From the Moon is one of those books (published quite a few years ago) that I somehow missed, so I'm glad I found it now. More information about this novel (and Bakopoulos's new book) can be found on the author's website.
Set in Flint, Michigan, Buick City, a book of prose poems by Sarah Carson, explores the landscape and people of a dying Rust Belt City. Certainly, a reader diving into the pages of Carson's newest collection may expect the rust and dust of a city that is fading from the American landscape, yet, physical landscape is not the most important aspect of Buick City. Instead, we get a frank look of the lives navigating a rough, and in some ways, bleak, world around them.
Buick City opens with a poem titled, "The Beginning" with a clear description of how lives are intertwined with setting of this book. We see an Avon lady hanging "Shiny magazines on the "bent steel poles of mailboxes." We see the prostitutes who follow her, stealing the Avon pamphlets, "looking for ideas." We also see Rasta kings who "sell cigarettes, area rugs, handbags out of their camper van." In the background, a train shakes their world, rattling "dogs awake in ditches," shaking "windowsills full of spider plants," and turning on "touch lamps in the faces of sleeping children."
From this poem on, Carson's collection looks at the lives of people who navigate this landscape. The book intertwines a loose coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator with other people who float in and out of her life. We are introduced to this narrator in the poem, "On TV the Boy Killer Wears My Same Sweater" where she explains that for several years she wanted to be a boy and that her father blamed her mother: "She's the one who let me play with cap guns. She's the one who let me wear the Ninja Turtle sweater to school day after day." As readers, we follow this narrator as she grows to adulthood, chucking rocks at police cars, witnessing her parents divorce, falling in and out of love. Landscape plays an important part in all of these stories. For instance, in "The Half Trailer" the narrator introduces us to her neighbor by what she can hear and smell through the thin walls of her mobile home: "That night I came home from work and stayed awake for hours listening to the movies he was watching, full of explosions and gunfire, underscored by the gentle rumble of his smoker's cough, the flick of his lighter, the sweet smell of his fat girlfriend's Family Dollar perfume."
Around this loose narrative arc, the reader is introduced to a variety of people. In one poem, "The Building" we are introduced to a lonely girl who leaves a note for the mailman that he will never read. In another poem, "Demolition Derby at the Fairgrounds" we learn about a man arrives home from a night out to dogs that are "disappointed to find that he's the first one home." And in a mini-series of poems about a 24 hour grocery store, we are introduced to a cast of characters that are struggling to survive both jobs and home life.
In spite of the grim details, and often times grim outlooks of her characters' lives, Carson also provides humor and hope in her poems. As I was reading through these prose poems, I couldn't help but compare her work to the fictional stories of Raymond Carver. Yet, while the people may be similar to the characters found in Carver's works, Carson often goes beyond the minimalistic techniques made popular by Carver. Indeed, after finishing Buick City, I found myself thinking about the wind on my face as a train rambles by or the strange smells of grocery stories or warehouses.
In a recent issue of Belt Magazine, Sarah Carson gave a great interview where she discusses Buick City. You can read her interview here. You can also visit her website.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.