Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Review: A DOUBTER’S ALMANAC by Ethan Canin

a-doubters-almanac_0A Doubter’s Almanac
Ethan Canin
Random House, Feb 2016
576 pp; $28

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Mathematicians toil in obscurity, often for years, at work that will probably come to nothing. It doesn’t take a Fields Medalist to understand why a novelist, that most uncertain toiler of all, would be drawn to such a plight.

Milo Andret, the genius at the center of Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, sacrifices domestic tranquility and ignores social norms in the pursuit of solving “mankind’s great puzzles.” His Princeton colleagues hate him, and for good reason. Milo is an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, and an egomaniac. Tragically, his single-mindedness is no guarantee of success. Milo loses a cushy job, alienates his wife and daughter, and suffers through a grotesque late life illness, all while chasing that one elusive accomplishment he needs to secure his legacy.Continue Reading

Review: PRODIGALS by Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb 2016
240 pp; $25

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Consisting of eight short stories that focus on the inner lives and small experiences of (mostly) white thirty-somethings, Greg Jackson’s debut collection, Prodigals, is one that stands out for its mental acuity and philosophical athleticism. A former fellow of the MacDowell Colony, Jackson puts his gifts on full display here. No minute human experience is too small to unpack with high diction and zeal, for pages, until it gives way to revelation, and ultimately, the humanity resting at the core of these stories’ protagonists.

When reading, it’s easy to make comparisons between Jackson and David Foster Wallace or F. Scott Fitzgerald—writers who are generous with their interior world-building and can spend pages upon pages describing the journey of one particular feeling as it needles its way into something resembling transcendence. However, those comparisons are a bit short-sighted, as Jackson, unlike DFW or F. Scott, seems to be genuinely investigating life as someone in between the stations of youth and middle age via his characters.

Jackson goes about these investigations with a prose style that is equal parts ivory tower intellectualism and genuine pathos. Sentences read as a potent mix of the breathtaking and unsure, questioning as much they answer any question they’re hoping to navigate. Take this sentence, for example, from “Amy’s Conversion”:

What I see now is the twilit lake, soot clouds in the distance, sky that faint humid orange blur it could be some summer nights, a burning calico, heat rising from the water like the ghost life within it.

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Review: RAPTURE by Sjohnna McCray

Sjohnna McCray
Graywolf Press; April 2016
72 pp; $16

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“Father and Son by Window,” the opening poem in Sjohnna McCray’s debut poetry collection Rapture, has an ephemeral feel; the poem rises like a plume of smoke. “You sing, soft winds and blue seat,” it begins, a line more about sound and mood than action, with such rich consonance that it practically begs to be read aloud.

This nicely sets up the book as a whole, hinting at McCray’s talent for sound, while gently nudging readers in the direction the poems will take. Many of Rapture’s main subjects are introduced here on page one: the relationship between a father and a son, the pleasures and irritations of the domestic sphere, and—of course—love, in all its forms.

The love between father and son is present in the second poem, too, but in “How to Move,” love is manifested as attention to the physical body. The line breaks in “How to Move” flawlessly measure the information in beats:

I cannot look at anything
so black as my father’s leg
or used-to-be-leg below the knee[.]

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Big Picture, Small Picture: Context for J.D. Salinger’s NINE STORIES

Four_US-Soldiers_watching_allied_bombardementThis blog series, Big Picture, Small Picture, provides a contextual collage for a chosen piece of literature. The information here is culled from newspapers, newsreels, periodicals, and other primary sources from the date of the text’s original publication.

“Just a perfect day,
problems all left alone,
weekenders on our own
it’s such fun.”
-Lou Reed

Easter Sunday, 1953, is a perfect day for a parade. The early April sun shines from the uninterrupted pristine blue of the sky, its rays shielded by the thousands of festive holiday hats bobbing up and down Fifth Avenue; the slight nip to the air provides a handy excuse for the Manhattan fashionable to don the latest fur stoles and scarves. By noon, the crowd swells to 1,250,000. The parade marks a return to dignity, following last year’s processional, which was besmirched by a wet blanket of cold rain and “the antics of self-seeking exhibitionists and publicists.”

Among the revelers, a “small, golden-haired” boy tearfully tugs on the sleeve of a policeman in Times Square. He’s lost his mother, whom he describes as wearing a rose and pink dress. Seconds later, the frantic mother appears and smothers her boy in kisses. The officer notes her attire with a shake of his head: an orchid pinned to a navy blue suit.

The next morning, Monday, April 6th, J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is published by Crown. The collection, with its wry and spiritually wounded characters, immediately garners Salinger praise and solidifies his reputation (after 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye) as an important voice in American fiction. In her review for the New York Times, the writer Eudora Welty raves: “What this reader loves about Mr. Salinger’s stories is that they honor what is unique and precious in each person on earth. Their author has the courage—it is more like the earned right and privilege—to experiment at the risk of not being understood. Best of all, he has a loving heart.”Continue Reading

Review: THE GEOGRAPHY OF GENIUS by Eric Weiner

geniusThe Geography of Genius
Eric Weiner
Simon and Schuster, January 2016
368 pp $26.95

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What do Plato, da Vinci, Beethoven, and Adam Smith have in common? Sure, they were all innovative geniuses, but each lived in a city in the midst of a creative boom. Coincidence? Eric Weiner doesn’t think so. The author of The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley says our ideas about creativity underestimate the importance of place. But how did creative clusters arise in such varied cultures: Renaissance Florence, The Song Dynasty, Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, Vienna at the times of Mozart and Freud? Was it just dumb luck? Something in the water? How do creative clusters emerge? Why don’t they last? How can we encourage them today? These aren’t trivial questions. (In fact, Weiner says that’s one way creative geniuses distinguish themselves from us ordinary schlubs: they ask better questions). Weiner wants to bust the myth of the creative genius who springs forth fully formed (or after putting in 10,000 hours), working in isolation. What’s most important, he says, is a culture that identifies and nurtures creativity. Continue Reading

This Spring’s Must-Reads

Spring 2016 Pic

The warmer weather brings with it some of the best publications of the year, and here are four of our spring favorites.

BroderSo Sad Today
Melissa Broder

March 15
Grand Central

Poet and Vice columnist Melissa Broder is undoubtedly one of the best essay stylists at work today. Her collection based on her previously anonymous Twitter account @sosadtoday made me fall in love with the essay form all over again. Broder’s writing is funny and sober, her honesty uncomfortable and comforting, and reading her book is just like getting a text from your best friend.

So Sad Today dissects topics we’ve all experienced but are reluctant to discuss: falling in and out of love, diving into and crawling out of addiction, and the crippling realities of anxiety and depression. In “I Want to be a Whole Person but Really Thin,” Broder connects her eating habits to her habits of mind. “Never Getting Over the Fantasy of You is Going Okay” reviews the possible remedies to infatuation in the digital age, and “Help Me Not Be a Human Being” is a series of love stories written for the insecure person inside all of us. She also examines the naked allure of sexting, the crucible of loving someone with a chronic illness, and how the internet is sometimes our most reliable, if not most sincere, companion.

It’s easy enough to say that So Sad Today is brutally honest, but there’s a real kindness to Broder’s honesty, too, the intimacy with which it beckons a reader’s shy and tender heart. In Broder’s company, we can dare to tremble at our own depths.

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Review: İSTANBUL İSTANBUL by Burhan Sönmez, translated by Ümit Hussein

IstanbulIstanbul_CVFİstanbul İstanbul
Burhan Sönmez, translated by Ümit Hussein
OR Books, May 2016
192 pp, $18

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Unlike in New York, where managing to live in the city for ten years grants one the status of being a New Yorker, rarely will you meet a person living in Istanbul who will be identified as an İstanbullu. The stakes are much higher. To be an İstanbullu, so says popular consent, one’s family must have managed to survive in the city for three generations. To make it in the city for just a decade will not do.

Burhan Sönmez’s novel, İstanbul İstanbul however, suggests otherwise while also suggesting why no one can lay claim to being of the city. In his multi-narrator, multi-story within story tale, four men stuck in the same jail cell in an undisclosed underground location within the city spend more time with their heads in the city than in the jail itself. Why they are each indeed there is part of the mystery of the novel, but Sönmez alludes to the time being the early 1980s, in which arrest and torture due to political involvement was common following Turkey’s third military coup.

İstanbul İstanbul is less about the inhumane conditions of the prison and more about the city itself, and in that the novel succeeds in trailing narratives that loop into one another, but that someone yet again, lead back to Istanbul. As the character known simply as “the Doctor” says, “All stories become the property of Istanbul in here…”, and so his own personal story on how he ended up in the prison, and even the folk narratives that find their way into the novel are also all about Istanbul.

To capture the city so thoroughly though is a feat in and of itself. Just as with Sönmez’s novel, Istanbul defies being pinned down due to its multitudes. Yet Sönmez indelibly captures parts of the city and its inhabitants’ psyche. He describes the curse of “development” in the city that caused “houses …[to] presume to grow vertically in floors and block out the sky” and “square[s to be]… crushed beneath giant shadows” and how most people in the city loved crowds, as that was where “The beauty of the city lay”. Sönmez simply gets what it means to loathe and love the city, which is one large part of what the novel argues makes one an İstanbullu.Continue Reading

In Bookstores Near You

In 1995, Dennis Covington’s breakout book, Salvation on Sand Mountain (Addison-Wesley), told the story of his immersion into the world of snakehandling, faith healing, and the fervent religious sects of the Appalachians. Back then, his search for renewal was triggered when, as a stringer for the New York Times, he covered the trial of Glen Summerford, pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, for the attempted murder of his wife. Summerford’s weapon: rattlesnakes. The testimony, the courtroom drama, the spectators, and the religious fervor seduced Covington, who eventually began handling snakes himself. His next memoir, Cleaving (North Point Press, 2000), was beautifully co-written with his wife and traced the history of their turbulent marriage as well as their attempts to drill fresh water wells for the impoverished in El Salvador. Once again, storytelling mapped Covington’s continued quest for faith—or, in the case of Cleaving, perhaps the loss of it.

In his sixties, Covington has found himself once again questioning what faith is and whether or not, at his age, he has any means by which to express it. In the opening pages of his new book, Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World, Covington writes:

I began to reimagine faith as an action rather than a set of beliefs, as something that anyone, believer or not, could initiate if only given the time and the means. I was no longer physically able to do many things, but I could still write, so in my sixties, I decided . . . to go to places where people were subject to extremity, as [Christ’s] followers like Saint Peter and Saint Paul had been, and as the generations that came after them would be, the ones who’d be “mocked, imprisoned, stoned, sawn asunder, tempted, and slain with the sword.”

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NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries II and III


vintage virginia

This is the second installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Here’s the first installment.

Query II: A notice of its rivers, rivulets, and how far they are navigable
Query III: A notice of the best Seaports of the State, and how big are the vessels they can receive

When we talk about Virginia, we must talk about water. The Atlantic World begins with storms and tides, with strange ships alighting on new shores.

Despite Jefferson’s faith in the fixity of what he calls “the economy of nature” (Query VI), nothing really holds still in his world. Jefferson’s Virginia, the “area somewhat triangular” he delineates in Query I, actually is a porous landscape channeled by rivers and marshes of varying depths. Hard boundaries now dissolve in the water that flows over and through the land. Likewise, the rivers which Jefferson catalogs in Query II reflect a glimmering overlay of colonial and Native vocabularies: James. Monongahela. Rivanna. York. Names branch into other names. Jefferson observes that the Cumberland River is also called the Shawnee; and when he speculates about the sources of the Missouri, he alludes to stories told by Spanish merchants based in the once-French, now-Creole settlement of St. Louis.

This is how one world floods into the next.Continue Reading