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 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.