6/13/2014 0 Comments
Anyone who regularly keeps up with my writing (including my book reviews and blog) knows that I love my Pennsylvania working-class landscape. It's been said that Pennsylvania retains its natives more than any other state in the union and I can understand why -- there's something in the coal patches and rust belt remnants that works its way into our skin and never lets go. And it's this "something" that made me pick up Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscape by Bill Conlogue.
Conlogue's book is a series of essays (written as chapters) that explore the history and the land of Anthracite Pennsylvania. In his introduction, he explains that the book is written as "narrative scholarship," a type of writing that is often found troublesome in the academic world for various reasons. Although I was not familiar with this particular term, as I read through the book, I couldn't help but think that Conlogue is writing in a type of creative (or literary) nonfiction, as he blends personal narratives with historical and literary resources. For instance, he often recounts his own personal memories of growing up in dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania or attending a college in coal-mining country and then blends these memories with current issues regarding the environment.
Conlogue's main goal is to explore a specific place (in this case, eastern Pennsylvania) and in essence, celebrate that place whether it's through personal stories, historical documents, poetry, and recent environmental studies. He explains, "To assume that every place can be any place is to endanger all places." Indeed, every chapter takes on a specific part of eastern Pennsylvania. For instance, in one chapter titled "Merwin and Mining" Conlogue investigates the trauma of coal mining -- both on humans and on the land -- using the poetry of W.S. Merwin and Jay Parini as lenses for looking at history and landscape. In another chapter, he discusses the landscape scars of the past including leftover mine debris in culm banks and acid mine drainage. (He also cites many poems by Sherry Fairchok, who wrote the book, Palace of Ashes, is one of my all time favorite contemporary poetry books).
It seems that when studying the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania, that the state's coal mining history often takes center stage. Conlogue, however, spends considerable time examining the dairy/farming industry -- a part of Pennsylvania's working-class world that is often overlooked. Because he grew up on a dairy farm, he is able to offer personal stories and insights into the world of the Pennsylvania farm. He also places his family's farm in the context of history, researching and explaining the slowly disappearing family farm, often through the building and demolishing of the barn. (When I was growing up, the barn that shouted the slogan, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco was a common sign; now, I have to note that both the slogans and the barns themselves are slowly disappearing).
For my readers who love the Pennsylvanian world as much as I do, this is a book that belongs on your bookshelf! For those of you who do not necessarily have an interest in Pennsylvanian land and history, that is okay, because Conlogue's book is a must read for anyone who believes that there is a link between a land and its people.
For more information about this book, see The Pennsylvania State University Press's website, which also features other review of Conlogue's work.
At the start of Trespasses, author Lacy M. Johnson explains her writing process of compiling her memoir by saying that she spent over sixty hours interviewing family members about their life stories. Then, according to Johnson, "At a certain point the facts got in the way of the truth." The line between what is truth and what is fact is always a fuzzy boundary, of course, and it's this fuzzy boundary that Johnson uses as a tool to explore her family's life in rural Missouri.
Johnson's story is not a chronological one. Instead, she chooses to trace the past through episodic scenes; many of them could be described as spots of time or specific transcriptions of memories. Through these snippets we see her parents' and grandparents' stories, stories that often brim with a rugged love of both family and land.
We also see Johnson's own stories . Not only does she record her own memories of growing up, we read quiet contemplations woven in between tales. Identity is the main focus of these contemplations, and indeed, class, race, and gender issues surface through many places in this book. For example, in one section, Johnson considers the meaning of white trash while recording her struggles at a major university. In another section, she discusses her frustration when someone tells her that the rural Midwest doesn't have "culture."
Like Johnson, I know what it is like to struggle with identity. I grew up in rural northern Pennsylvania, a place that cannot be defined by being part of the East Coast (our way of living is nothing like those who live in New York City or Philadelphia), yet we are not really part of the Midwest. Technically speaking, we are part of Northern Appalachia, which yes, is very different than Southern Appalachia -- so as you can see, I find identity a hard subject to examine, and Johnson's episodic exploration of the past is a stark look at the way we navigate our own personal histories.
For more information about Trespasses, and other work by Lacy M. Johnson, visit her website.
At heart, Nicole Walker is a poet. I knew this as soon as I read five pages of her memoir, Quench Your Thirst With Salt. I knew this way before I read her bio note and discovered that yes, Walker, had many poetry publications. I knew this as soon as this first paragraph popped out at me: "The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teaches her a lesson about progress. Even before the dam, the waterfalls would have battered her forefathers. The rocks would have walloped a punch, broken the skin, bruised the flesh."
And so starts Walker's Quench Your Thirst With Salt, a memoir. More specifically, however, this book is a collection of lyrical essays that explore her life growing up in the state of Utah. Every chapter can be read (and perhaps, should be read) as an individual essay. For instance, one chapter titled "Filtered Water" focuses on the life of the water we use while juxtaposing this life with the author's own life, describing what she knows and doesn't know about her own family history. In another chapter, she introduces the reader to her father's alcoholism through discussions of the term "superfluidity" and in another chapter she describes her relationship with her own body when she has to have surgery at a young age. While most of the book focuses on her life in Utah, other chapters venture outside of the state including Nevada, Oregon and Minnesota, all the while aspects of the natural world with her own life.
Readers will find that Walker's book is more of an episodic exploration of her life rather than a straight linear narrative. We don't necessarily find clear beginnings or clear endings; instead, we read thoughtful insights about family relationships and their correlations to the world around us. And, of course, it's easy to get lost (blissfully, so) in the poetic language of Walker's landscapes, whether they are manmade or natural.
You can read more about Quench Your Thirst With Salt on Nicole Walker's homepage or the website of Zone Three Press.
Prairie Silence by Melanie Hoffert is part coming-of-age story and part coming-out story. The book chronicles Hoffert's journey back home to North Dakota, where she explores both the past and the present in order to reconcile sexuality, religion, love, and family.
The book intertwines Hoffert's current life with her memories of the past growing up on a North Dakota farm. She gives a name to this confrontation of the past, Prairie Silence, which she describes: "Prairie Silence is -- I have come to believe -- the way that people of the prairie mirror the land with their sturdy, hardworking, fruitful and quiet dispositions. They are committed to each other like the soil is committed to the crop. They are uncomplaining in the way the land dutifully recovers after tornadoes, droughts, and floods destroy a season's harvest. They are humble and quiet, like white prairie grass in the wind. They swallow their problems, their fears, their shames, and their secrets -- figuring that nature will take care of everything, somehow or other. That is, after all, how it works with the crops. And once a silence has taken hold, whatever it is, it is hard to uproot." It's this confrontation that is the very conflict in the book. How does one confront a place that doesn't wish to speak out loud?
Hoffert doesn't really find any answers, but she seems to find peace. And part of this peace is found in the landscape that she describes so beautifully, a world that can deliver stunning sunsets that defy literary clichés or winter storms that seemingly blur the world in wind and white. Having never been to the Dakotas, Hoffert's book didn't really deliver me to the physical place, but to other books that also celebrate the Dakota landscape, including Dakota by Kathleen Norris and The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart. It's a beautiful book about reconciliations with memory and place and home.
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.