Reviews | Commentary | The Literary World by The Neck
This review originally appeared in 15 Bytes Magazine. “House Under the Moon” was a finalist for the 2013 15 Bytes Book Awards in poetry. I liked this book partly because I’ve met Michael personally in Logan where he and his family live, and partly because he’s a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, something I’ve been dabbling in for a couple of years. “Dabbling” is perhaps the wrong word for it. It’s become a discipline for me, this Zen thing, and one that I would recommend. My introduction to meditation was through the writings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh whose mindfulness work seems to have penetrated the West to reach many. like me, who have never had an entree into Eastern thought and spirituality. Not sure when I can call myself a “Buddhist,” if ever, but I have to say that of late mindfulness/meditation has been transformative for me. And this book of poems sort of helped me understand that, calling yourself this or that, Buddhist or not, is the least important thing to worry about.
“IN HIS 2012 COLLECTION House Under the Moon, it’s clear that poet Michael Sowder has suffered for his art, as spiritual seekers do. The first section (“Homecoming”) starts with a kind of post mortem of the life previous—another marriage, a father whose marginalia in a book sends the mind reeling in memory and loss, perhaps old systems of thinking, feeling and believing. The direction is linear, forward in direction, away from something and home to a new hearth that in the second half (titled “Housekeeping”) becomes eastern, circular and
curiously joyful.” read the full review
House Under the Moon
by Michael Sowder
Truman State University Press
(2012) 85 pages
Michael Sowder is a poet, writer, and professor at Utah State
University in Logan where he lives at the foot of the Bear River
Mountains with his wife, writer Jennifer Sinor, and their boys, Aidan
and Kellen. His first book of poetry, The Empty Boat, won the 2004 T.S. Eliot Award and his chapbook, A Calendar of Crows, won the New Michigan Press Award. His nonfiction, which explores themes
of wilderness, poetrics , and spirituality, appears in Shambhala Sun, The Wasatch Journal, and several essay collections.
Raised in an Irish Catholic family, Michael Sowder was trained as a meditation teacher in a tantric yoga tradition in the 1970s and subsequently practiced meditation in Buddhist and Christian mystical traditions. He is the founder of the Amrita Sangha for Integral Spirituality, an organization that explores and teaches the practices ofthe world’s contemplative traditions.
In the fall of 2013 the winners of the first annual 15 Bytes Book Awards were announced. As the literary editor of this online arts magazine, I had the privilege of working with other magazine staff and the editor, Shawn Rossiter, to determine all the particulars of launching a new statewide program of this type. In part, the 15 Bytes Book Awards was in response to the fact that the Utah Book Award went on hiatus. (Whether it returns is still in question.) But, being an art magazine for adults, we decided to limit the categories to literary fiction, poetry and art books. This seemed enough for the first year. At the moment we are engaged in the second iteration of what we hope we become an annual affair perhaps someday expanding its categories to include narrative nonfiction.
The winner of last year’s fiction award was Barbara Richardson’s Tributary, a novel set in the 19th Century. I had the privilege of writing the review/citation for this extraordinary book which, coincidentally, falls within my own long-term interest in Mormon letters. I found this book not only worthy of a 15 Bytes book award, but also worthy of note for those within the admittedly small but rather obsessed cadre of “Mo-lit” enthusiasts–a group to which I often feel ambivalent toward, even though my own forays into writing suffer (or benefit) from my seeing Mormonly. (With apologies to Emily Dickinson’s phrase to describe her own poetry as “seeing New Englandly.”)I fear still, and perhaps always will, as I express below in the review, that Mormon literature, such as it was, is and might in the near future become, will fail to find an audience. One thing is certain: no one is in charge of this train–not the institutional church, not its dissidents, apostates and true believers either within our without the academy, and not its rank-and-file. There are broader, indiscriminate and enigmatic forces blowing through the attempts of not only Mormon writers but every writer right now…not only technological but social forces (both of which continue to profoundly inform each other). In the end, serious writers of every stripe can only do what serious writers have always done and what they’ve always been called to do: write and write well. Perhaps writing well is like loving well. It is its own reward.
“Remarkable as Barbara K. Richardson’s novel Tributary is, it is most remarkable, perhaps, because it seems to be one of the first literary works in memory that positions the history of the Great Basin in the broader context of its time. Set in the years following the arrival of the Mormons to Utah, this sprawling tale told in the first person dignifies the region, if rarely the “saints” who people it, with the weight of its narrative. Here the territory is not just a placeholder in the story of the west—or in modern parlance, a ‘flyover state.’ Its heroine, plucky Clair Martin—the woman with the red stain of a birthmark on her left check—is its product, and its curse, its orphan and its lay prophetess. Clair is a proto-feminist—not entirely likable—and, lucky for the reader, stained with much more than just the splotch on her face.
“Of the many questions this Western epic raises in the course of its scene-shifting from Brigham City to the Mississippi Delta and back to the Utah/Idaho border is, what happened to those 19th Century Mormons who left their tribe?”
Read the full review
Tributary by Barbara K. Richardson
Torrey House Press (September 2012)
Barbara Richardson’s debut novel, Guest House, launched the first literary Truck Stop Tour in the nation and was a fiction finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2010. In Tributary,
she claims the land of her Mormon ancestors who settled the northern
Salt Lake Valley. Richardson earned an MFA in poetry from Eastern
Washington University. Barbara is also an avid environmentalist. She now
writes and designs landscapes in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.
Visit the author’s website: www.barbarakrichardson.com
“It’s rare to read poetry that is this experiential, visceral and
somehow transcendent at the same time. In three sections Bertram runs
her electric fingers as if over the braille of American life as varied
as wildlife (coyotes, elk), the natural sciences (inter-galactic
formulas, weather patterns—in both a glass globe as well as “the model
solar system, [in which] planets suspend & twirl/as if from a
spider’s whirl.”), as varied as “blankets sewn/with thinning economic
plans and called them/shawls…” as well as the body, including in one of
the more memorable poems, the laboratory heart sans blood . . .” Read the full review
But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise
Red Hen Press
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award) is a finalist for the 2013 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry. An Assistant Editor at Quarterly West, and a Vice-Presidential Fellow at the University of Utah, Bertram has had work appear in Black Warrior Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Narrative magazine, Subtropics, and other journals. This is her first book.
“MOTHERLUNGE IS A FULL-FRONTAL assault on every dappled, dimpled and doily-enhanced image we’ve had of both women and mothers. Think Sandy or Orem, Utah—scrubbed clean with culturally-defined markers of motherhood, riven with Victorian charms that are neither really Victorian or charming. Then think the opposite.That is Scott’s literary world. That the story is also hysterically funny even as it makes you squirm, is a tribute to the writing—an exquisite mix of the scalpel scraping along the physical curves of the female form and the cumulative, and ultimately sublime effects of pushing out another human onto a steel table: scrape and plop.” Read the full review
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
New Issues Poetry & Prose (January 8, 2013)
Winner of the 2011 AWP Prize for Novel and the Utah Original Writing Competition, Kirsten Scott’s Motherlunge has also been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize for debut novel from the Center for Fiction. Scott is a graduate of the University of Utah Creative Writing Program. Her short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review, Western Humanities Review, PANK, and
elsewhere. She works as a medical writer and lives in Salt Lake City
with her family. She is currently working on a novel about a
gynecologist named Ajax.
As with this country of ours at large, there is at play, in Jana Richman’s new novel The Ordinary Truth (Torrey House Press, 2012), the national see-saw of delusions vs. reality, collective doctrines vs. the sweet, inevitable flux of life’s authentic rhythms. In central Nevada—the driest state in the union, where this contemporary western takes place—authentic, inevitable life is rooted in the land and made possible by that rarest of west desert commodities: water.
Here’s a little tutorial for all of you water-rich east coasters. It’s given early in the book by Kate, the middle-aged Deputy Water Resource Manager: “You can mess with the rancher’s daughter and get away with it. You might even be able to mess with the rancher’s wife and still come out okay. But you mess with the rancher’s water, you can’t expect to just waltz into town one day, unarmed and unprotected. That you’re damn sure not going to get away with.”
Here Kate is talking to her young, live-in boyfriend, a pony-tailed, tantric sex-practicing urbanite who is wondering why she’s so estranged from her rancher family 400-plus miles north of where they live, and work, in Las Vegas high rises. Like the tiny but life-sucking island of Manhattan supported by its outlying boroughs, Vegas is a water-sucking desert island supported by drainage of deep carbonate aquifers that the sparsely-populated ranching communities up north rely on for survival.
And Kate is the point person in the Nevada Water Authority’s actual proposal to spend $2 Billion burying a 300-mile water pipe to drain 200,000 acre feet of water a year from six basins and send it back to the hoards walking The Strip. So she isn’t going to be “waltzing” into her home town of Omer Springs if she can help it. Meanwhile, as she compartmentalizes her rural heritage from her work, the cognitive dissonance is starting to fray her around the edges. There seems to be something more dangerous to Kate in Spring Valley than the machinations of a water grab that for the denizens of Vegas will, as she says, “secure the future of their oblivion.” (p. 315)
In one word, the danger is her irascible, 70-something-year-old mother Nell. Told through alternating first-person accounts, including Kate’s, The Ordinary Truth is, at 368 pages, a big, grappling work of intense rural family dramas, the receding life of western ranching, the threat of unsustainable urban sprawl and, literally, a smoking gun. It’s got everything you might imagine should be in a western—big sweaty men and strong women who talk in vernacular; horses and a dog named Jasper distinguished by their personified temperaments; tightly sprung barbed wire fences; ranch hands who drift in one day and stay 20 years; long drives over hill and vale to get to the public school and the occasional trip into Ely for a steak dinner at The Nevada.
But Richman, whose second book and first novel The Last Cowgirl was set in nearby Utah and also explored both the clash of the cowboy myth with the suburban/urban climes (where most westerners now have gathered) as well as the way technologies shape (and threaten) the land, among other things, has written more than a genre novel here. After all, this is Nevada, where not only live the improbable cities of Vegas and Reno but where bumping along in a truck cab, spewing dust for hundreds of miles along the placarded “loneliest highway in America” is de rigeur, but where atomic bombs are tested and brothels are happily regulated by the state.
In fact, it’s in one of these brothels, outside the state’s capital where Kate’s college-aged daughter Cassie is holed up. She’s the catalyst of this tale, having convinced both her grandma Nell and her mother Kate, locked in a 36-year feud, that she’s living with the other for the summer. Unlike her best friend from college who got them both summer jobs at the Wild Filly Stables, Cassie has found her niche away from the back rooms at a computer designing the website. But like her mother, she is haunted by Spring Valley. “They’re all the people I love in the world,” she explains. “I feel like I walked into the last scene of the last act of a play. I’m not expecting I can turn this into a happy ending, but….I have to try anyway.” Ever since Nell’s husband (and Kate’s father) Henry Jorgensen died in a mysterious hunting accident, mother and daughter have moved further apart. Like the missing father in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Henry presence is all too felt in the cast of characters that includes Nell’s twin brother Nate, his wife Ona and most of the town of Omer Springs. Nothing has been okay since Henry died, with mother and daughter competing for his love in absentia rather than being drawn together by their mutual calamity.
We learn later that ordinary truth, not the insipid lionizing found in an obituary, must come out, and the novel for the most part successfully navigates the various voices from which we learn, piecemeal, what went wrong in Omer Springs. Even the hazy romanticism that Henry inhabits in everyone’s head is brought into question, although not as much as I would have liked. Additionally, Richman occasionally overreaches, stating the obvious as when one of her characters points out the terrain of an entire family history mapped out in a facial scar. Yet, in the end she admirably wrangles with a story that elevates itself into a kind classic Greek tragedy but with spurs.
And as in the best dramas, she is sure-footed in sympathizing with how families complicate if not destroy themselves, and how natural resources are used like pawns (to wit: the notion of carbon cap and trade). While this is Nell’s story, it is her daughter Kate who best articulates the fault lines that threaten Nell’s world, as well as those in the glimmering city 400 miles south. What about the ranchers’ “pastoral entitlement,” to quote Katie? “You talk about the people of Las Vegas as if they chose between two options—owning a large ranch or making fifteen dollars an hour dealing cards at a casino—and deliberately decided on the life of so-called glitter and greed….There are three hundred million people in the United States alone. You don’t think some of those three hundred million yearn for a few thousand acres of land and the water to go with it, along win the damn near free use of several hundred thousand acres of public land?” (pp. 313-14) Meanwhile, at the foot of the Snake Mountains where Nell has lived her life, alkali patches continue to expand into the green grass, starving from the subterranean pillaging of the land’s life source.
The water wars are really just the back drop to this domestic drama. And yet like water, Richman’s prose slowly erodes the desert basins of the Jorgensens’ world to reveal the beating heart of a family in the throes of literally and figuratively seismic change and arrested by secrets that have too long lay buried. It’s a tribute to the author that she is able here to lovingly portray the stark Western landscape without sentimentalizing it. Even Cormac McCarthy’s tautology of the earth can seem at times so galactic that it swoons, while Richman’s west desert never strays further than Kate’s aunt Ona stepping outside her home under the giant blue vault of the western sky, and wiping her hands on her apron. “The sight of her performing that small movement touches me,” says Katie. “Pure simplicity and beauty. Nothing wasted, nothing nonsensical. In Vegas, we’ve lost sight of our singular insignificance, our infinitesimal blip of time and matter in the universe. In Vegas, we are the center of our worlds. Out here, the geography does not allow it. One moves across the land without reverence or conceit, a small piece of the whole.” (p. 241)
Richman mirrors this macro view with the internal dynamics of the Jorgensen clan which are not without their satisfying resolutions in the end, however painful. Whether in Vegas, in Manhattan or on the coasts of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami two years ago this week, a reader can resonate with Richman’s trenchant view of an arrogant world that refuses to acknowledge the costs of trying to live outside of its natural landscape, continually driving disastrously, it would seem, towards its collective delusions.
is the author of a memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, and two novels, The Last Cowgirl, which won the 2009 Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction, and The Ordinary Truth. Jana’s provocative prose has been compared to that of Pam Houston, Barbara Kingsolver and Pat Conroy.
I meant to write a review of the sprawling novel of America’s Oregon Coast, Mink River by Brian Doyle over
Thanksgiving, because it was what I was grateful for. As the year ends, I realize I’m thinking
about it still. Grateful for it, still.
Doyle’s narrative style is off-putting (at first), but eventually one that wins you over by sheer earnestness.
The narrative is episodic and, what you would call in the dramatic arts, an ensemble piece. If there is a
protagonist it is the town of 500 residents itself called Neawanaka on the northwest coast. The cast of characters as
one would expect in an outing like this is many: the village doctor who smokes the same number of cigarettes each day, each smoke the name of one of the 12 apostles (plus Matthias who replaced Judas); A working intuitive named “Worried Man,” one of two who runs the tiny (and comprehensive) Department of Public Works; his married daughter who therapeutically carves massive wood chunks and is named “No Horses”; the owner/bar tender of the local watering whole who pines for a change in career, a change of a scenery; a crow named “Moses,” who talks and
has, literally, a bird’s eye view of the town; a man who beats his son who is called “the man who beats his son”; another in hospital called “the man with thirteen days to live [or twelve…or two, or one…].”
You get the picture. It’s all rather disorienting at first, not unlike a long Russian novel
is disorienting with its many characters with multiple names. But in the end, you love these folks,
animated by their Irish, and mixed Irish-other (including Native American)
heritage, who in a lesser work might be overtly referred to as the “salt of the
earth.” You love the town and the smell of the alder and pine burns off the pages when it’s not, in the form of a log,
falling off a truck and going through a windshield and killing a man named Red Hugh O Donnell, whose adult children, one a fisherman who is ambivalent about the sea, and his sister who has a drinking problem aren’t exactly sure how to process the death of their brutal father except, for the time being, to go back to the sea and drink more, respectively.
This is not to say there is no plot. There are several extended questions that inter-weave: Will the boy Daniel who fell off a cliff on his bicycle walk again? Will his mother be able to recover from “the unshakable sense of herself so shaken”; Will the opera-obsessed cop be able to capture the child-abusing fugitive arrested through Worried Man’s premonitions but who then escaped? Will Moses still be a crow if he can’t fly? How will there ever be enough money to survive in a town whose lumber industry has
So there are these overlapping circles of human drama throughout, and that is stabilizing. Compelling as story. But then there’s Doyle’s experimentation which violates all kinds of novel-writing rules—at least the rules you might
read about in a How-To Write book. His prose is purplish, excessive, and uses stacked up adjectives and nouns, and quotes from William Blake as if its creator is in a nursery, gleefully manipulating building blocks for the naked thrill of seeing how tall he can make it. Punctuation at times goes to hell. Sentences run on and on…and on. Narrative threads run the risk of getting lost right up until the end. This stuff careens all over the place and is, I would imagine if it surfaced in a graduate writing seminar, be deemed at minimum as “undisciplined,” “overwrought.”
But it’s also quite wonderful, perhaps the poster child of how inspired, visceral writing trumps craft…or more accurately, perhaps, becomes its own craft through its own internal logic. Known for his spiritual nonfiction, sometimes overtly Catholic, Doyle has a written a work with a beating heart that resonates with the perpetual sea that alternately nuzzles and violates the shore of this struggling, heart-broken town. And in the end, Mink River re-ups the author’s signature. This book will make you swoon with the relentlessness of life—as relentless as the mercurial sea—and the terror of the dark, damp woods. There are moments of awe and exquisite recognition that require that the reader put down the book, and quiet his or her heart. One of these episodes describe a fetus miscarrying from a swimmer in the upper reaches of the Mink and how it flows seaward and, like the personified protoplasm (or, if you’re Catholic, I suppose, like the person that it is) it sees and feels and glories, however briefly, in the wide, wide world before it plunges into the collective unconscious of the wet universe.
Doyle’s brand may be spiritualized naturalism, admittedly rawer than that of the English
romantics’, his rhetorical style one that adds fifteen adjectives or twenty-five nouns in a single, micro description. But structurally, Mink River turns on the author’s periodic “checking in” of his unruly cast. As with the embryo flowing downriver, we get a sort of catalog of what’s going on, the bird’s eye view of what everyone’s
doing or thinking at one particular moment.
Rain in and on and over and through the town, gentle and persistent, gray and gentle, green and insistent, thorough and quiet, respectful and watchful. On Worried Man and Cedar in the Department of Public Works where they hunch over a table strewn and scattered with maps. On Declan staggering along the beach to the hulk of his boat. On Michael the cop as he drives gently through town humming Puccini and thinking of what to make for dinner for hiswife Sara and their girls. On Sara as she spades their garden with the two little girls who are digging as fast and
furiously as possible looking for worms because their daddy says if they find fifty worms he will take them fishing tomorrow morning rain or shine. On No Horses walking in the hills, up the old quarry road and through the forest and back along the old quarry road once twice three times. On the young female bear two miles upriver from the village where she found a dead elk calf…. (p.141)
These surveys regularly appear but themed not just through behavior, but through thoughts, through fears and through prayers and dreams.
In this way, and in others more subtle, Doyle not only brings you along as every good novelist should, but plumbs the depths of his little site by broadening his canvas again and again. More accurately, he draws a broader and broader diameter of circles out and out, then back in and in until the gumbo—the ennui of the quotidian life, mythologies religious and otherwise, addictions, despair, tragedy, economic survival, sensuality, coitus and how one
dies–convincingly converges into a satisfying whole.
Sort of like life. Sort of not. Like a river town in the northwest where the forest and the sea seem to be having one long, even eternal conversation—sometimes an argument–while the town’s denizens still, somehow, are living rather than just performing a life–thinking about or actually cupping one another’s faces with their hands to comfort and connect in any one moment. And that is, finally, what makes the town of Neawanaka and Mink River so remarkable: it countermands the narcissism of our age, and of our contemporary literature—so that life
lived is just that: a life that is lived. Lives reflected in Doyle’s luminous prose through story in its most numinous sense. Story in the form of a novel that merits my thanks.
by Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle is the author of many books, including the novels Mink River and The Plover; The Grail, his account of a year in a pinot noir vineyard in Oregon; and The Wet Engine, a memoir about his infant son’s heart surgery and the young doctor who saved his life. He edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.