Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015.

I have only discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver since her death in 2019. Isn’t that how it often has been with great writers? One of the ironies of this was that I lived in Oliver’s birthplace of Maple Heights, Ohio for nine years. How did I miss knowing of her for so long? She was even teaching at nearby Case Western Reserve during some of the time I lived there and it was during this time that she won the Pulitzer prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive. I am glad at last to have found her, a writer roughly of my generation.

This collection is a good introduction to her work, a selection of her poetry written between 1963 and 2015 and published in 2017, a couple years before her passing. The book features over 200 of her poems arranged in reverse chronological order, most recent first. One of the most striking things one notices is that most of the poems are of sights on her daily walks near her home in Provincetown in New England. She writes of snakes and swans, of the pond near her home, of blueberries and violets, sunrises and sparrows. Her poetry is suffused with wonder at the simplest things, her sense of the oneness of all things and her desire to be one with them.

The transcendent is never far, sometimes in the Romantic awareness of the Ultimate in all things, sometimes in echoes of Christianity, writing of “Gethsemane” and Psalm 145. Her poem “Praying” (from Thirst, 2006) might do as well as anything to encapsulate the prayers of the “spiritual but not religious”:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The reference “into thanks” reflects another theme running through her work, a profound thankfulness for life, even in its transience. In the concluding lines of “Why I Wake Early” (2004) she writes, “Watch, now, how I start the day/in happiness, in kindness.”

One of the striking things evident in the arrangement of the poems is that her later poems are much shorter, and to me carry more meaning in fewer words. Another morning poem, “I Wake Close to Morning” (Felicity, 2015) opens this selection:

Why do people keep asking to see
God's identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon
Do you think she had to ask,
"Is this the place?"

Perhaps it is the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” or perhaps the waning of life’s energies that both slows her steps and leads her to choose her words as she writes in “The Gift” when she states: “So, be slow if you must, but let/the heart still play its true part.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that all here is sweetness and light. She writes of loneliness, and disappointment, and of death. One of the few poems of social comment is on the death of Tecumseh, one of the native leaders who fought displacement from the Ohio lands. Yet the dominant note is the wonder of the world around her that makes me wonder as to how much I miss on daily walks. We see, but do we pay attention? Oliver’s poems suggest she lived a life of paying attention

Review: The Columbus Anthology

The Columbus Anthology, edited and with an Introduction by Amanda Page. Columbus: Trillium (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press) co-published with Rust Belt Publishing, 2020.

Summary: An anthology of non-fiction prose and poetry by Columbus authors, mostly relating to Columbus.

As many of you know, I write quite a bit about the town I grew up in, Youngstown. There’s a bit of irony in that. I lived in Youngstown for my first twenty-two years, the first few of which I have no memory. I have now lived in Columbus for thirty years. Apart from a book by Wil Haygood, I’ve read nothing about the town where I have spent most of my adult life. That’s not entirely surprising. Columbus is this town where most everyone seems from somewhere else (including a substantial part of the Youngstown diaspora), that is the only major city in Ohio that has grown in the last thirty years. All this is to say that I’ve realized that it might be wise to know more about this place I’ve called home. So I picked this up on a Small Business Saturday from a local indie bookstore.

The Columbus Anthology is kind of a cross between local memoirs and a literary journal. If nothing else, it serves well as an introduction of the literary talent of the city, a city that has produced the likes of James Thurber and the aforementioned Wil Haygood. It evokes a city that is “a good place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit.” It celebrates the music scene of past years around Ohio State, the legendary Buckeye Donuts, neighborhoods past and present like Bronzeville King-Lincoln and Franklinton, and those marks that we have become a big league city, the Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL) and Columbus Crew (MLS).

Here are a few pieces I enjoyed, taking nothing away from the rest of the collection. David Breithaupt in “Every Day I Ride the Bus” captures the unique ambiance and sights riders of the High Street COTA bus route.

“In a City Marked by Change, Columbus Crew SC Remains a Powerful, Unifying Force” by Hanif Abdurraqib recognizes the ethnic diversity of the city and how our soccer team brings people together across these lines.

Both “The City That Raised Me Has a New Face” by Tiffany Williams and “What Would Jane Say” talks about the Bronzeville King-Lincoln area of Columbus, eviscerated by I-71 and the observations Jane Jacobs would make here about the once vibrant life and decline of a neighborhood.

The city that has been the nation’s test market for restaurant franchises (and is the home of White Castle and Wendy’s) struggles to define a distinctive food. For Nick Dekker, a restaurant writer, it is breakfast and he celebrates the great places to start the day in “Breakfast with Columbus.” We’re also the home of Marzetti’s, known for salad dressings. In the family’s restaurant days, they were the reputed inventors of “Johnny Marzetti,” which showed up on cafeteria trays all over Ohio–that casserole of ground meat, pasta, cheese and sauce–great comfort food. Shelley Mann Hite writes about the history and her quest to reinvent the perfect Johnny Marzetti.

Turning to poetry, “Nighthawks” perfectly evokes that institution of students and street people, Buckeye Donuts where:

Smoke from the burning doughnut oil/infuses with the lonely

post-game colognes lining the formica/counter at the High Street

haunt simmering in the late night.

“Night Hawks,” Joseph Hess, p. 127.

“Walking in the Topiary Park After Snowfall in February” by Jeremy Glazier beautifully captures a place and moment in time and the evanescent character of our lives.

“The New Oath” by Hannah Stephenson with its repeated, rhythmic “If a child…” enlists us all to the universal moral commitment to protect and pursue the flourishing of children.

Fariha Tayyab’s “Thanksgiving” describes the immigrant who, drawing on their own experience of colonial powers, sees through our national mythologies as one “Migrating from one stolen land to another.”

This anthology captures both some of the distinctives of this city and its underside. It is a great place for writers to live (“Five Reasons Why Writers Should Move to Columbus”) and Fayce Hammond’s experience of assault that began at a gas station weeks after moving to the city (“Fear of Fuel”).

The anthology includes brief profiles of all the writers and it is a diverse group that represents the diversity of the city. It’s a good collection that allows one to see the city through many different eyes.

Review: McGowan’s Call

McGowan’s Call, Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2007.

Summary: A collection of short stories and a novella tracing the ministry of a pastor from a small Ohio river town to a suburb of Dayton.

The life of a minister is probably one of the least understood of any occupation, or, in the language of this book, a call. The author was a minister for thirty-one years in the southern Ohio settings of this book. One has a sense of an inside glimpse into the life of a minister–sought in spiritual crises, often triangulated in church governance fights, always struggling with the congruence between the face he must present in public and his private life.

The book consists of several short stories set in an early ministerial assignment in Hatteras, a small industrial town on the Ohio River. The novella at the center of the book and concluding stories are set in a Dayton suburb and a much larger church–a typical career arc of an effective pastor.

The book opens with Davis McGowan’s arrival in Hatteras, and encounters with a homeless man in “a game of mutual respect between a local and an import.” Another story describes the loss of daughter who looked much like his own daughter in a tornado, and the small comfort he could offer with his presence and prayers. That weekend he goes to find his own solace on his boat.

The guy at the bait shop seemed truly disgusted that I would come to play on my boat when lives had been lost. I couldn’t argue. It was on my mind, too.

Rob Smith, p. 24

This tension between public and private, who McGowan is and who he is expected to be runs through these stories.

“False Witness” is the novella at the center of this book. It centers around the death of Angie Fornesby, wife of Barker Fornesby, a rising executive. She was undergoing cancer treatments, promising at least a number of years where she would enjoy a quality of life. It was a bit tricky because she was also diabetic. In fact, that is what killed her, an overdose of insulin. Since both Barker and son Matt were trained and skilled in administering doses, this ruled out an accident. Barker’s not exactly forthcoming. He doesn’t readily produce an insulin log. An alert prosecutor also has picked up on a number of interactions between Barker and a hospital nurse. Davis had given an initial statement to investigators right after Angie’s death. Slater, the prosecutor, thinks he has enough to take a murder case to the grand jury. They subpoena McGowan, asking about his interactions with Angie. Not sure of what really happened but seeing where this was going, and the impact it could have on Matt, he gives false testimony that gets Barker Fornesby off. He discovers in the concluding story that he has made a lasting enemy in Slater.

In the same concluding story is one of the most finely written passages in the book, a description of a pastor living the call. McGowan has been called to be with a couple whose unborn child has died in utero. After a stillbirth is induced, McGowan holds the dead child, named Joshua, and speaks of how much his parents would have loved him. Then he goes to them.

“I held Joshua and called him by name,” he said.

Becky looked to Chad and then back to McGowan. “Was it awful.”

“He was beautiful,” said Davis.

“Am I silly, Dr. McGowan, to want to see him?” Davis glanced at Chad.

. . .

“You felt Joshua inside, and that little kick made you both think about the future in another way. Now that he’s gone, none of that will happen in quite the same way. You’ve lost a lot.”

Rob Smith, pp. 161-162.

This is the noble, heart-wrenching work pastors around the world pursue daily, unappreciated until one is on the receiving end of that care. Much of it is unseen by most congregants, who are critical of sermon styles and have unreal expectations of the spirituality of these very human people, while also expecting them to fix the toilets in the building.

McGowan is neither unworldly saint nor worldly hypocrite. He loves to sail, loves his wife, and pursues his call with integrity while struggling with the tensions between public expectations and his sense of self. He is one who’d rather dress up in old jeans and hang around with the youth group than hob-nob with socialites. He wrestles with the ambiguities of doing what is right and merciful when it isn’t strictly the letter of the law. He incurs enmity when he does so.

Rob Smith has truly created an interesting character in a profession we often discount. He no doubt draws upon his own experiences to explore what it looks like to care faithfully for a group to which one is called, the beauty and the pain that goes along with this. There is an understated beauty in this writing that doesn’t overwhelm with spiritual profundity but draws one through the unpretentious decency of McGowan. And if you haven’t gotten enough of McGowan in this volume, there are three more: McGowan’s Retreat, McGowan’s Return, and McGowan’s Pass.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Barnstorming Ohio

Barnstorming Ohio To Understand America, David Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020.

Summary: The author recounts a year of traveling Ohio, always a political bellweather, to understand America.

David Giffels lives in Akron, just down Interstate 76 from my hometown of Youngstown, which features prominently in his new book. Both of us have lived our lives in Ohio, so reading this felt like inside baseball. What Giffels did in the writing of this book is travel throughout the state, talking to a wide variety of people. He contends that in doing so, this does not just reveal Ohio, it reveals the country, of which Ohio is a microcosm:

Geographically and culturally, the state is an all-American buffet, an uncannily complete everyplace. Cleveland is the end of the north, Cincinnati is the beginning of the South, Youngstown is the end of the East, and Hicksville (yes, Hicksville) is the beginning of the Midwest. Across eighty-eight counties, Ohio mashes up broad regions of farmland, major industrial centers, small towns, the third-largest university in the country, the second largest Amish population, and a bedraggled vein of Appalachia. It is coastal, it is rural, it is urban, and suburban. (p. 5)

That about captures it, although I would add that Columbus, where I now live, is home of the second largest Somali population in the U.S.

He begins by profiling Jim Renner, a former factory worker, then a business owner, someone who over time shifted in loyalty from the Democratic party to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. His story sounds like that of many disaffected Democrats who believed they had been ignored.

His travels take him to Lordstown, after GM shut down the plant and the struggles of workers, promised a recovery by the president, waiting to see what the company would offer in the way of employment at another plant. He talks about why Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown so perfectly captures the pain of so many workers. He visits Mansfield, interviewing an indie bookstore owner leading an effort to repopulate the downtown with businesses (a store that is closing as I write). He chronicles a growing craft beer business and the resurgent Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati.

He returns to Youngstown in time for Congressman Tim Ryan’s announcement of his presidential bid, attempting to be a voice for the voiceless. He shifts to Hilliard, Ohio, outside Columbus, and a group of women going to the Women’s March. Then, we’re back home learning more of his son’s story, from fireman to policeman, on the front line of fighting Ohio’s opiate crisis. He jumps over to the demise of a local shopping mall and others, including one we regularly shopped at when we lived in Cleveland, now an Amazon fulfillment center.

Then another Ohio. Agricultural Ohio with a farmer outside Delaware, Ohio, struggling with changing weather patterns making it difficult to plant his fields. This is the Ohio where the awards come in the form of bumper crops, and fresh corn on the cob. Like the Lordstown workers, he wants to be heard, he wants Washington leadership to know where things are made and grown in “flyover” country.

Back to Youngstown, he invokes a recent legend of Valley politics–Jim Traficant–bad hair, vulgar mouth, loud clothes, fighting for the worker, and taking a little on the side, the name of the game in Youngstown politics. It helps explain how Mahoning County nearly went Republican and Trumbull County to the north did. He chronicles the sputtering end the campaign of Tim Ryan, Traficant’s protege.

Remaining months take him back to Cincinnati where he meets the former mayor and learns of policing reforms. He hangs out at a Renaissance Fair near Dayton, visits a fading Ohio River town, learning why some hang on and the hope fracking offers. He strikes a positive note as he profiles dropping off at Ohio State a young man he met at his local community college, one who turned his life around and has big hopes for a future after law school.

His journey ends at the beginning of the pandemic, reflecting as he awaits the return of the buzzards to Hinckley on why we stay, why we keep coming back. And that is a significant part of the story. With so many hard knocks, why do so many stay, and some return? I don’t think we are offered much in the way of an answer other than the bonds that tie people to each other and to a place. He reveals both resilient people, and those who struggle with hope, and sometimes terrible addictions, some overcoming, others not. He introduces us to all sorts of people who believe their lives matter, their work matters, their hopes and dreams matter–America in a Midwest state. He reveals a shared sentiment, a longing that the nation’s leaders would be worthy of those lives, respect that work, and honor those hopes and dreams.

This is not a Chamber of Commerce Ohio. I appreciate Giffels work because he shows us the Ohio that is, an Ohio I recognize. If he’s right, those from other parts will recognize something of their own situation, their own people and place as well. He opens windows to see unvarnished American life and the longing that our politicians would see it as well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: My Life in the Cleveland Zoo

Life in the Cleveland Zoo

My Life in the Cleveland Zoo, Adam A. Smith with Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2014.

Summary: A memoir recounting numerous stories from the author’s years of working at the Cleveland Zoo as a tour train driver, a night watchmen, and a animal keeper with pachyderms.

Most of us who have ever been to a zoo spend most of the time noticing the animals. Rarely do we notice the other creatures in the zoo, the human beings who make the zoo work day in, day out. I found this book, sent to me by the author’s brother Rob and cousin Craig (both former Youngstowners), a fascinating account of the people behind the magic of zoos. It also brought back memories for me of the Cleveland Zoo. We lived in Cleveland for nine years, and I have memories of pushing my son around in a stroller in the mid-1980’s, particularly up and down the hills that are a part of this zoo. One thing. If you were a county resident, you could get in free, at least when we went.

Adam Smith first started working at the Zoo as a college student in the late 1960’s and continued on and off until about 1983. The book recounting these years consists of three parts corresponding to the three jobs Smith held: tour train driver, night watchman, and animal keeper with the pachyderms. Each of the sections is filled with stories of the people, and the animals, that turn driving around and around the zoo, or walking night watchman rounds or mucking out elephant stalls and hippo pools into a combination of riveting adventures or laugh out loud funny accounts–sometimes both.

One aspect of Cleveland culture was the story of going to the teamsters union hall to sign up for the union before starting work, complete with the ripped enforcers guarding the receptionist communicating, “don’t mess with the teamsters.” In the tour train years the funniest story was the great Tour Train Race. Along the way are fun stories of hi-jinks with the concession and ticket girls, and the zoo manager who keeps rehiring him long after college while he sorted out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Time and again, he came back to the zoo after trying a range of other jobs.

Eventually he had the opportunity to work as a night watchman, a full time job. His sketch of John Sich, the longtime watchman who oriented him, fleshed out a person not unlike many of laborers I grew up with Youngstown–a combination of a hunter who loved killing rats, a guy with street smarts (“never punch in early”), and utterly punctual and regular on his rounds. Adam took a very different approach, and the stories of his adventures with the junior rangers who basically slept through the shift or accompanied him in his mouse eradication ventures were hilarious, except for the time when a bow hunter was in the park and killed a deer, and easily could have killed him as well. And there were those frigid winter Cleveland snow storms!

Then the job as an animal keeper turned up on the job postings–and no one signed up. Adam learned that it was because of the feared Simba, an elephant who had attacked and injured several keepers and could easily kill you. What’s more, she was utterly unpredictable. Perhaps one of the most edge-of-the-seat and heart warming stories was when the day came that he either would establish his dominance with Simba, or wash out as a pachyderm keeper. Coached by the diminutive woman head keeper Ellen, he succeeds, followed by the tender moment of rewarding and stroking the once-fearsome Simba. The scarier incidents were actually with the hippos.

For a memoir, this is a long book with a lot of chapters, a lot of stories. In the epilogue, written by the author’s brother Rob, who edited the book posthumously, we learn that this was a much longer book. It seems that Adam Smith was a storyteller, and the truth was that I didn’t mind, because his stories drew me in. At a deeper level, they were stories of camaraderie with other zoo employees, tinged with deep respect for a number of them. They were stories of love for the animals, even the ones that could endanger his life. Finally, it was a narrative that brought back memories of a part of our life I hadn’t thought of for many years.

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Thanks, Craig Smoky Roberts, and Rob Smith for sending me this book. As always, the views are my own, but I do hope they reflect well on your cousin and brother respectively, whose stories far outshine my rendering. His was a good life.

Review: This Is Ohio

This is Ohio

This Is OhioJack Shuler. Berkeley: Counterpoint, (forthcoming August) 2020.

Summary: A narrative account of the overdose crisis in the United States, focusing on Newark, Ohio, a former industrial center, advocating for harm reduction and the involvement of drug users in policy decisions.

The events narrated in this book occurred in a town not forty miles from where I live in Ohio. Until the Covid-19 epidemic overtook the news, one of the most alarming recurring stories were the number of overdose deaths in our city (Columbus) and nearby cities like Newark. Five deaths in a weekend were not uncommon. In 2018, 3980 people died in Ohio due to overdoses. To put this in perspective, as I write [April 12, 2020] there have been 253 deaths from Covid-19 in Ohio. The 2018 numbers are down from a peak of over 5,000 deaths.

Jack Shuler is a narrative journalism professor at Denison University, located in the scenic college town of Granville, a few miles from Newark, the county seat of Licking County. This book is a work of narrative journalism tracing lives on the front lines of fighting against drug overdose death in Licking County–both advocates and users.

The account begins by introducing us to some central figures in this book–Trish Perry, whose son Billy has been in and out of prison, on and off drugs. Jen Kanagy is a local nurse. Eric Lee is an activist and recovery advocate. Tresa Jewell is another nurse. Chris Gargus leads a religion-based addiction treatment program called the Champions Network. They are together on a street corner distributing clothes snacks and harm reduction supplies including syringes, Naloxone, condoms, Neosporin, and other personal hygiene items–until they run out.

Shuler traces the efforts of these people over several years, from spring of 2016 to summer of 2019. We see them and others like them struggling with addiction, supporting people attempting to get off drugs in starting a new life, advocating with public health officials for programs that would reduce hepatitis A and C, make treatment programs more available, including prison diversion programs, and otherwise protect people from overdose deaths.

Billy, Trish’s son typifies the struggle. Addicted to opioids, he nearly died and his girlfriend did from an overdose. Finally, he decides to get clean and does so for nearly a year, paying his bills, starting a painting business and hiring others. He becomes an eloquent advocate for harm reduction efforts. Then, an overdose death of a friend, and other pressures lead to a return to using, parole violations, and a return to prison.

Shuler’s up close and personal study teases out the larger issues behind this book:

  • The economic crisis so many towns like Newark face with the departure of industries, as people who have stayed try to eke out an existence and find hope.
  • A public health crisis. Shuler argues that overdose deaths are not primarily a criminal justice issue but a public health crisis, often brought on by over-prescription of addictive opioids, scarcity of treatment options, as well as harm reduction efforts.
  • Addicts have enough shame without punitive measures, and none truly want to be addicted. Harm reduction measures coupled with support that meets addicts where they are leaves the door open to getting into programs offering either drug substitutes or getting off drugs.
  • Harm reduction doesn’t enable drug use, which will occur with or without, but it saves lives, and saves costs of communicable diseases.

Perhaps the biggest message of the book is “nothing about us without us.” Shuler seeks in this narrative to amplify the voices of those, users, former users, and advocates. Often, they are not a part of the public deliberations focused on addressing overdoses. They are seen as problems, not fellow citizens who may contribute.

One other theme that runs through Billy’s advocacy and that of others is to base public health decisions not on preconceptions or on political pressure but on scientific data. The narrative approach presented this more in anecdotal form, which may be persuasive to some and not others. More of this may be found in the notes to the work, which I suspect many won’t see. A postscript that makes a data-driven argument for the public health approaches advocated in this book would strengthen the book’s argument. Particularly, I think there need to be stronger arguments that harm reduction does not enable, and potentially enlarge, the drug-using population, which may be the biggest sticking point in the public’s mind.

Drug overdoses are not simply a Newark problem or an Ohio problem. They are a national problem that walls, wars on drugs, and incarceration have failed to address. It is a grievous problem in my state, from J.D. Vance’s Middletown, to Columbus, where I live, to nearby Newark, and my hometown of Youngstown. Shuler offers a platform for those advocating a different approach for a problem that plagues all of our cities. Public health leaders have been able to mobilize significant political and civil will during the Covid-19 crisis. It is an interesting question to consider the possibilities if similar leadership and public will were exercised to address the overdose epidemic that has taken so many and has been declared a national public health emergency. Might lessons learned in addressing one epidemic be used to address another?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Ohio

Ohio

Ohio, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Four characters, acquainted with each other in high school return to their home town in Ohio ten years after graduation on the same night, unbeknownst to each other, driven by various longings reflecting lives that turned out differently than they’d hoped.

There are two Ohios. There is the Ohio of big and middle-sized cities, most within the rustbelt, apart from Columbus and Cincinnati, struggling to re-make themselves. Then there is the rest of Ohio. After you subtract the first Ohio, there are about 75 counties, each with a county seat of five to thirty thousand or so people. This story could have taken place in any of them. The largest city in the county, a decent size high school, farmland and a few local industries that employ much of the town. Many were devastated in the Great Recession of 2008. Those who could have left. Or they enlisted, some returning physically and emotionally wounded, some returning in pine coffins. The towns struggle with the opioid epidemic that is ravaging the state. There is the wistful memory of what was, combined with a hopelessness.

That is the backdrop of Stephen Markley’s debut novel, and captures the lived reality of many in my home state, when you get beyond the Chamber of Commerce promotional materials. The disturbing thought as I read this account is that it is a narrative that extends far beyond Ohio, across our national landscape.

The story begins in 2007 with a memorial parade for Rick Brinklan, the son of New Canaan’s chief of police. A bereaved family. A former girlfriend who cannot speak. A former friend who fails to show up. Fast forward six years to a hot summer night in 2013. Four graduates from the local high school, unbeknownst to each other, return to the town the same night.

Bill Ashcraft, an increasingly radical political activist, carries a mysterious package to Kaylen Lynn, for a substantial payoff, Rick’s former girlfriend, who had slept with Bill as well. Stacey Moore, a lesbian and ecologically oriented student of literature returns to New Canaan in her search for Lisa Han, her first love, who broke off with her, and then mysteriously disappeared from her life, apart from a few communications, which oddly, tracked back to New Canaan. She meets Lisa’s mom and an old high school music teacher, but fails to find a clue to Lisa. Dan Eaton, having lost an eye after his third tour of duty, in Afghanistan, returns to see his old flame, Hailey Kowalczyk, now married. Tina Ross drives across the state, leaving the first man who really loved her to avenge herself for a high school sexual assault by Todd Beaufort and his football buddies.

Markley tells the stories of each separately, moving back and forth between high school episodes, subsequent life events, and the present of the summer of 2013. There are points they, and the others they knew who are still in New Canaan intersect. We begin to see that high school wasn’t simply “the best time of our lives” but for each, a darker time that marked their lives, even ten years later. Violence done in high school, known and unknown, comes full circle in violence. Idealism and patriotism dissolves into disillusion and anger and grief.

There is a movement between veneer and reality–the church upbringing and FCA Bible studies, and sexual exploration and violence; the Friday night lights of a powerhouse football teams and cheerleaders, and the horrible things done at unsupervised drinking parties, the betrayals of friends.

The book portrays a bleak view of the world evident in the last words of the book, as Bill and Stacey part after meeting once more, several months after the summer night of 2013:

” ‘Keep searching, Moore.’ He pulled away so he could look her in the eye. ‘Fight like hell. It’s the only thing I’ve ever truly believed. Always, always, always fight like hell.’

And they were gone, these infinitesimal creatures, walking the surface of time, trying and failing to articulate the dreams of ages, born and wandering across the lonesome heavens.”

Heaven for them is empty, dreams fail and die, and yet each of the four in some ways fights on. Danny cares for a wounded buddy, both on the battlefield and at home until he dies. Tina ends up in a prison ward, trying to find hope and forgiveness in the Bible studies she leads. Bill and Stacey keep searching. They make us ask why we keep hope alive in a seemingly hopeless world, why we dream and try to articulate those dreams.

And then there is the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance, resolved in the book, but not in this review. You just have to read this haunting, troubling, and powerful work. It both is and is not about Ohio. It is a reflection on the disjunction between the American dream and American reality, that a rising generation is struggling to make sense of, and with which the postcard towns of our American landscape are trying to come to terms.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.

Elena Richardson, matriarch of a seemingly perfect and successful family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sleeps in one Saturday to awaken to a house on fire–little fires started in the center of each of the beds in the house. Elena, the keeper of rules in a community of rules watches the house burn down as her “perfect” children and husband gather–all except Izzy, who always pushed against the rules and is no where to be found. It is Izzy who set the fires, and has fled. How did all this happen?

The little fires begin when Mia Warren and her high school daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment Elena owns. The two of them have lived a gypsy life, living only long enough in any one community for Mia to compose a series of photographs, the sales of which, along with odd jobs provide enough for them to live on, before they pack what fits into their VW Rabbit and move on. But this time they hope to stay.

Little fires. Elena’s son Moody is curious and meets Pearl and instantly falls in love and draws Pearl into the affluent life of the family with older brother Trip, and sisters Lexie and Izzy.

Little fires. Elena visits the duplex and sees Mia’s art–photographs altered or with other objects superimposed that she sends to a New York dealer. Hearing Mia works at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, she invites Mia to clean and cook in exchange for the rent in what seems a noble gesture of supporting the arts.

Little fires. Izzy is suspended for standing up to a bullying music teacher, and opens up to Mia, who asks, “what are you going to do?” opening up possibilities Izzy has never thought of before. Izzy begins assisting Mia in her work.

Little fires. Lexie and Izzy see a photograph of a younger Mia holding an infant (Pearl) in the Cleveland Museum of Art by a famous New York photographer, Pauline Hawthorne. They talk Mrs. Richardson, who is a reporter for a local newspaper, to investigate the back story. In the process, she uncovers secrets Mia has kept even from her own daughter.

Little fires. Mia figures out that the Asian-American baby who is a ward of the state that the McCullough’s, close and childless friends of the Richardsons, want to adopt, is the baby her co-worker at the Chinese restaurant, Bebe, left at a fire station when she had been abandoned and in post-partum despair. Mia lets this information slip, leading to a custody case that is all over the press, and that divides the community, and fires Elena’s resentment of Mia, who seems to represent everything Elena is not, and perhaps turned away from for her successful, rule-abiding existence.

Little fires. Pearl and Trip become involved, as much at Pearl’s initiative as Trip’s, destroying Moody’s friendship with Pearl. Pearl helps Lexie get an abortion, even letting Lexie substitute Pearl’s name on the patient record, and then brings Lexie home to be cared for by Mia afterwards.

Little fires that in the end lead to the setting of little fires that burn down the house. At one point Mia talks with Izzy about how, like prairie fires, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” The fire that destroys brings new life to the prairie. The question is, will it do the same for all the people caught up in these little fires? What will Mia do about the secrets of her past that have been uncovered? And what will Elena do, seeing the destruction of her perfect life by her wayward daughter?

I was drawn to this book because the author grew up in and writes about Shaker Heights. We lived for nine years in its poorer, blue collar neighbor down the road, Maple Heights. I knew many of the places about which she wrote, ate at some of the restaurants, shopped at Shaker Square and occasionally at Heinen’s, and admired the ambiance we couldn’t touch. We knew about some of the rules. Her portrait of this earliest of model suburbs rang true.

As I read, I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry. I once had a friend who observed that the American dream is killing us. This book suggests how our suburban dreams may kill us, how the ideal life of successful spouses, kids in good schools groomed for Ivy League admissions, and how a life of following the rules, a life both socially conscious and socially tone deaf may destroy something of what makes us and others unique.

 

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

hillbilly-elegy

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016.

Summary: A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author.

This book caught my attention for a number of reasons. J.D. Vance is an Ohio author. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University, as is my son who is the same age as the author. And a number of reviewers have said this book explains the appeal of Donald Trump. I was interested for another reason. As those who follow my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts know, I grew up in a working class, rust belt town as well. On the opening page, he writes, “You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” That sentence could have been written about my home town.

At the same time, Vance comes from a distinctive sub-culture, the Scots-Irish hillbilly culture of eastern Kentucky, as opposed to the eastern and southern European roots of many of the people in Youngstown, although we had our share of hillbillies who had made their way north to work in the mills. Vance takes much of the first part of this book to describe his family roots–the scrappy, fiercely independent and fiercely loyal to family character of these people who would take a chain saw to someone who insulted their mother, sacrifice to no end for children and grandchildren, and fight like cats and dogs with each other. We learn of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, estranged from each other, but who turn a corner when they see how their fighting destroyed their daughter, Vance’s mother, who struggled with alcohol and opiate addiction, lived with a series of men, creating an increasingly unstable home environment for Vance. He describes himself at the edge of the abyss, with declining grades and beginning to abuse substances. He recounts his mother’s episodes of violence, and then the utterly heartfelt apologies, with nothing changing.

The turning point came when his mother came to him to provide her with a urine sample so she could keep her job. He writes:

 “I exploded. I told Mom that if she wanted clean piss, she should stop f***ing up her life and get it from her own bladder. I told Mamaw that enabling Mom made it worse and that if she had put her foot down thirty years earlier, then maybe Mom wouldn’t be begging her son for clean piss.”

From then on, he lived with Mamaw, and describes how life improved. She insisted he study hard and in her own rough way insisted he contribute to the household, do his chores, all, with the hope that he would have a better life. After graduation, he realized that he still didn’t know entirely how to do that, and deferred college to serve in the Marines. Not only did they teach him what he was capable of physically, pushing him harder than he’d ever been pushed; they taught him life skills like balancing a checkbook and handling money. He learned to stop listening to the voices that said, “you aren’t good enough”, the pervasive hopelessness of the working class culture he’d come from. He ended up handling media relations for his base, and receiving a commendation.

He used veterans benefits to go to Ohio State, finished in two years, and gained admittance to Yale Law School. For the first time, he came to understand the importance of social capital. After his first “interview week” he observes:

“That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.”

A law professor provides him with some of her social capital, and something more, advice at a crucial point putting the focus on a budding relationship rather than a clerkship that really didn’t matter to his ambitions.

The conclusion of the book faces the stark realities of coming back to Middletown, now bereft of its steel plant, its people struggling with not only making it in lower income jobs, but opiate addiction, families in turmoil and more. These are the “left behind” working class to whom Trump appeals. Yet one gets the sense in reading Vance that he doesn’t think Trump, or any politician, can solve their problems, because the unstable lives they’ve chosen, or in the case of children, been thrust into, won’t enable and equip them to keep any jobs that may be gained. It is a crisis of spirit and hope. Vance thinks ultimately that this is a culture which needs to find its own answers, needs to come up with its own Mamaws and Papaws, and culture-renewing institutions. In contrast to other-worldly, insular fundamentalist churches and dysfunctional families, he asks:

“Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”

Vance’s book actually gives us hope. Truth was, he didn’t need a lot of social capital to make the difference. A tough old grandmother who provided stability and structure and expectations that he could make something of himself was enough, at least to get him on the right course. That may seem over-simplistic. And it won’t help everyone. It didn’t help Vance’s mother. But it makes the point that the critical capital in any community is not the capital poured in by public and private means, but the capital of the people who live there, and whether they have the spiritual resources of hope to believe their own choices matter.

Politicians peddle panaceas. I’ve watched them do it in my home town. But the people who have made a difference and created bright spots don’t look to politicians but to God, themselves, and each other, and then put their backs to the hard work of providing role models for kids, and to rebuilding, a neighborhood and a business at a time. I appreciate Vance for naming the illusions to which politicians pander, the realities that defy political solutions, and what made the difference for him–the tough old grandma, the drill sergeant, the law professor, who took the time to provide structure, and counsel, and affirmation. Could it be that it is just that simple, and just that hard?

Ohioana Library: Ohio Writers, Ohio Subjects

ohioanaWhat do Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Doerr, Wil Haygood, Toni Morrison, Louis Bromfield, Arthur Schlesinger, David Webber, and James Thurber all have in common? They are all Ohio authors. What about David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin? They’ve written on Ohio subjects (the Wright brothers, and William Howard Taft respectively). And all of their works can be found in the Ohioana Library, located just north of downtown Columbus, sharing a building with the State Library of Ohio and the Columbus campus of the Kent State University School of Library and Information Science.

Until my wife called my attention to an interview with current director of the Ohioana Library, David Weaver, I had not known such a thing exists. Yet the Ohioana has been around since 1929, founded by Martha Kinney Cooper, who at the time was Ohio’s first lady. It was established to gather a collection of books and other materials written by Ohioans or about Ohio. Currently there are over 45,000 books, 10,000 pieces of sheet music and 20,000 files of biographical materials on Ohio authors. Sheet music? One of the most famous pieces, at least for died-in-the scarlet and gray wool Buckeyes is Frank Crumit’s Buckeye Battle Cry, written in 1919. Materials do not circulate but are accessible for research use by the general public.

The Ohioana doesn’t simply preserve the works of Ohio writers, artists, and musicians. It also is dedicated to promoting these works. There are two principle means by which they do this. One is the Ohioana Quarterly, which highlights and reviews new books added to the library and features literary events throughout Ohio. All members receive a copy but back issues can be accessed in .pdf format online.

The other way the library promotes Ohio authors and artists are through the Ohioana Book Awards, annually recognizing outstanding literary accomplishments in poetry, juvenile and young adult literature, fiction, non-fiction, and works by non-Ohio authors on Ohio subjects.

Last of all, The Ohio Library sponsors the Ohioana Book Festival in the spring of each year. The next Festival is scheduled for April 23, 2016 at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel on Capitol Square. There are seminars on various literary subjects and genres throughout the day, chances to meet a number of Ohio authors, children’s activities, food trucks (!) and of course, books!

As a native Ohioan, I would argue that our state has a rich but often under-estimated cultural heritage. The mix of urban and rural communities, of peoples from so many different ethnic heritages, the vibrant support of the arts throughout the state, and cutting edge library systems in many communities fosters a rich cultural life, and I believe a vibrant cadre of writers and artists past and present.  So it was a delight to learn about the great work the Ohioana Library is doing to preserve and promote our Ohio literary heritage.

I hope I can get down to meet the folks doing this work soon. Look for a follow-up on this one!