Wildflowers in the Median: A Restorative Journey into Healing, Justice, and Joy by Agnes Furey

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Annotation by Jennifer McCharen

I’ve never read a book like this. A mix of narrative nonfiction and poetry, Wildflowers in the Median was written by, and tells the story of, two people thrown together by tragedy, who transform that tragedy through their friendship and through writing.

Leonard Scovens murdered Agnes Furey’s daughter and grandson. The grandson was six years old. Leonard plead guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Agnes did not press for the death penalty, but instead  took her shattered life and tried to rebuild. Then, she did something radical: she forgave Leonard.

Agnes’s and Leonard’s story unfolds through chapters that alternate between their two voices, and little is revealed in a linear narrative. Instead, we get moments captured in Agnes’s poetry, an essay from Leonard about what it was like to be beaten as a child, then Agnes’s statement to the court in Leonard’s murder trial, and at about the halfway point in the book, letters from Leonard to Agnes.

The letters are what makes the book truly incredible. As pieces of writing, they are perhaps less interesting than other sections of the book. Leonard’s essays and poems thrum with verbal energy and a striking, unique voice. Agnes’s poetry, while simple, reveals something so mundane as to be extraordinary: the poetry of a non-poet, of a regular human being forced to grapple with the darkest struggle any of us ever has to face. But the letters are heart-stopping, not so much for their beauty of prose, but for the beauty of the reason they exist at all, which is that, despite all he had done, Agnes reached out to Leonard in prison, and offered him compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.

The correspondence in the book is Leonard’s letters to Agnes as he was unable to save her letters to him when he was transferred to another prison in 2005. This is yet another tragedy, but for the book it’s kind of a good thing. Leonard is a somewhat more interesting writer than Agnes. The singleness of voice helps the book stay focused. And more importantly, it is Leonard’s journey of redemption that is the fascinating one. But that might be because Agnes’s journey is, comparatively, still a mystery. In response to Leonard’s letters, we get poems that Agnes wrote at the time, and these insights are so different from his long, complex insights. We see Agnes healing, we share little poignant memories with her, but with Leonard we get to go on the entire roller coaster of the redeemed sinner – a story near and dear to the heart of our culture whether we’re believers or not.

Through their writing, we witness something truly remarkable: the transcendence of unthinkable evil by two people nobody would have expected to be able to understand each other. The murderer and the bereaved mother are almost archetypes in their resonant power. But instead of a story of revenge, we witness a completely radical story of something much messier, two people doing the devastatingly hard work of trying to see where the other is coming from.

What strikes me most about this book as a work of nonfiction is the simple fact of its existence. More than a work of literature composed by a writer, this book is evidence of the potential of the human spirit. As a work of writing, I am struck by its simplicity, and its urgency. These two writers are egoless, unselfconscious, and they know what matters. There are no flourishes of prose, no showing off. They use words deftly and carefully, as a tool for overcoming the darkest hours of their lives. Together.

I can barely stomach the thought of trying to emulate this text, which I strive to do with most texts I admire. It is a work of art born of necessity in peculiar circumstances and it could never be emulated without those circumstances, so how could I ever ask for such an experience to befall me?

Although the situation that led to Wildflowers in the Median is far from my own life, even I feel healed and enlightened by its power. This text speaks to me as a writer, giving clear marching orders. It tells me to seek out stories that matter. And if possible, perhaps help such stories to be born.

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“The Fifth Chair” from The Healing Circle: Authors Writing on Recovery by Mary Swander

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Annotation by Angela La Voie

In “The Fifth Chair,” essayist Mary Swander employs the metaphor of a chair to describe the ontology of chronic physical ailment or illness. She writes: “While Chair #1 is raw trauma, Chair #3 is the confrontation with that trauma” (119). Swander describes Chair #1 as “bone-chilling helplessness” and states that “the real fright of Chair #1 comes not so much with the fact that you are alone but that in that loneliness you must convince someone else that something is wrong and then rally him or her to action” (115). Swander calls Chair #2 the “loneliness of vulnerability” (117) where the afflicted person must learn to surrender to the discomfort of being helped: “Chair #2 loneliness can at the same time feel invasive and healing” (117). Swander describes Chair #4 as a literal wheelchair (119), adding that in Chair #4, the actor finds her way in the world again, but is operating on the emotional plane of isolation and loss. Conversely, Swander describes Chair #5 as a transmuted state of being in which the author has come to terms with her physical limitations. The achievement of recovery, however, does not result in an ultimate state of wellness but of learning to make something beautiful and meaningful from the emotional and physical wreckage brought by the chronic physical condition.

Chair #5 addresses the most compelling aspect of Swander’s essay. Swander writes:

I’d like to say that when Lady Lazarus got up out of Chair #5, she could walk forever without a brace or a prop or a limp. All I can say is that while Chair #5 is a place of peace and productivity where solitude again reigns, it is also a chair of detachment, an integration of alienation. . . . Chair #5 is a moving forward with hope despite the pain, connected wholly and intimately with both the light and shadowy sides of the self. (128)

Here, one might visualize a balancing scale. On one arm sits the pain and trauma wrought by chronic illness or ailment. On the other arm sits the act of creative production now possible from the transmutation of the suffering produced by one’s chronic physical condition. The act of creation holds both sides of the scale in balance. Significantly, to reach this transmuted state herself, the author embraces the solitude and isolation that had been so troubling for her while occupying the other chairs. The author’s study of early Christian mystics calls forth a “kinder, gentler acceptance of suffering” (124), ultimately leading Swander to what she describes as a Buddhist act of “letting go of desire, the need for support, the need to be understood” (127). Swander’s practice of solitude and study leads the author to a number of conclusions, including the following: “Hildegard [von Bingen] as well as the other mystics knew that the spiritual was not found in the grandiose, but in the small growing things and the ordinary moments that previously you may have overlooked or found mundane” (125). By engaging in a literal act of creation through the planting of seedlings, Swander realizes that “all of the mystics I’d read had found their fulfillment in some kind of creative activity that gave something back to the world” (128). In Chair #5, the state of physical limitation is still present at times or in some capacity, but “[l]ife transforms into art” (128).

In writing about recovery from traumatic injury, I find Swander’s use of different chairs as a rubric for understanding the various aspects of trauma and recovery extremely useful. In a land where each person’s physical and emotional state is as different as the next, it can be difficult to find a framework that brings some sort of unifying lens to look at one’s own experience. For writers analyzing trauma and healing, Swander’s essay provides a means of isolating the different pieces of the writer’s own journey. Using Swander’s essay, I was able to see how my own narrative structure might come together in a new light for the current book I am writing. If Elisabeth Kübler Ross has becoming iconic in naming the five stages of grief, I would argue that Mary Swander has introduced a new classic for writers dealing with trauma and recovery.

Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud

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Book by Martin Gayford

Annotation by Susan Tuttle

Martin Gayford, art critic and curator, asked his friend, renowned British portrait artist Lucian Freud (a grandson of Sigmund) if he would paint his portrait. As he states at the beginning of Man with a Blue Scarf:

… my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence…. The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. (9)

Gayford’s curiosity to “see how it was done” doesn’t start and stop with a description of palette, canvas and technique. It transcends the boundaries of mere description of how a portrait is painted from the viewpoint of the sitter to become an accounting of process, revealing much more about both the artist and the sitter than he could have predicted when he sat down in that chair in Freud’s London studio in late November 2003. In Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford chronicles the process from start to finish in a series of dated narratives, often, but not always, starting with his arrival at the artist’s studio. As the book unfolds, the reader becomes aware that the sittings are just the scaffolding onto which Gayford’s observations, conversations, musings and remarks on Freud, art and his role as the sitter take purchase. The reader is afforded an intimate, unique and rare view into the working life of a world famous but reclusive portrait artist, as well as a glimpse into the psychology behind what a portrait is, and what it means to paint it.

One doesn’t have to have any particular pre-knowledge of art to enjoy Man with a Blue Scarf, but an interest in the creative process and some curiosity about what it means to be a working artist will make the reading experience more enjoyable. Gayford lives in a rather exclusive world, and a very British one at that, and while he usually makes an effort to explain the names dropped, sometimes he assumes we all travel in that circle. It could be taken as a compliment to the reader’s worldliness; seldom does it come across as stuck up. This is partly thanks to the fact that his subject, Lucien Freud, is about as down to earth as they come. And this is a strength of the structure of Man with a Blue Scarf: Gayford never fails to return the reader to the moment, back to the studio where wiry and spry octogenarian Lucian Freud is behind the easel, often half naked, wielding hog’s hair paintbrushes and thinking out loud.

The narrative is well balanced, taking advantage of conversations between Gayford and Freud to gain insight and reveal background without reverting to contrived flashbacks. Gayford recognizes early on what he has to gain:

While the artist is gathering the materials necessary for the portrait, the sitter – accidentally and automatically – is provided with a similar set of observations of the artist. By the end of this picture, I shall be in possession of a mental portrait of LF, culled from all the hours of looking at and listening to him. (21)

 What the author perhaps didn’t anticipate was a slow and not overly obvious parallel to the development of the painting concerning how Gayford the sitter appears to Freud the painter. Months before the portrait is complete, Freud reveals to Gayford:

‘You look different every day.’

‘More than most people?’

‘More than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered. The features don’t change, it’s more the way that they are worn.’….

Throughout all the sittings to date I have thought of myself as a fairly unchanging object that LF is slowly tracking around, taking a long series of sightings as a surveyor might. Now it suddenly seems more like mapping a cloud, wave, or similar object in constant flux…. Josephine [Gayford’s wife] concurs that indeed I seem to alter in appearance from day to day. (136)

There is a nice dynamic between Gayford’s observations and his take on Freud’s observations that keep the narrative active and relevant. About midway through the book, Freud decides that he has painted Gayford’s head too large and needs to “shrink it” by applying dark paint (104). Gayford later makes an interesting comment in regard to this shrinking that could be applied to all art forms:

He continues with the process of ‘shrinking my head’, which is clear evidence that the picture is – like any work of art, in words, paint, stone or any other medium – an entity that follows its own inner laws. (107)

When I think of art – literary, visual or even auditory – as an “entity that follows its own inner laws,” I feel justified as a reader, viewer or listener to respond in my own way to the piece. As a writer I enjoy the dichotomy of controlling the medium while at the same time being aware that my work is taking on its own life, and letting the story lead me. In Gayford’s writing about a process through observations, the discoveries are multi-layered, running the gamut from what he has discovered about painting and Freud to what we the reader discover about Gayford.

Indeed, Man with a Blue Scarf is “an entity that follows its own inner laws” as is made clear sitting after sitting with all that is divulged and discovered. Abundantly punctuated with full color reproductions of paintings discussed in the text, adding a true visual to a discussion on the visual arts, the book is calm and thoughtful, and surprisingly revealing in an understated way. Gayford makes good use of the form, and is discrete when it comes to inserting himself into the narrative, careful not to push the main subject, Lucian Freud, offstage. This, in spite of the fact that Gayford himself is the Man with a Blue Scarf.

Madness, Rack and Honey: Collected Lectures

4127NgYwbDL._AA160_book by Mary Ruefle

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

The thing about writing an annotation when you don’t have to is that it forces you to wrestle with a book. Not only how the book coheres—its mechanics and structure—but it also forces you to wrestle with its meaning. Why and how did this book affect me? Does this book offer me something unique? What will poet Mary Ruefle have to say about poetry that I haven’t heard or read before?  I bought Madness, Rack and Honey on the recommendation of a poet friend and started reading it fairly soon after acquiring it because a) it was such a physically beautiful book and b) I had to know the origin of its wonderful title.

Ruefle begins her book with an introduction.

“I never set out to write this book. In 1994 I began to be required to deliver standing lectures to graduate students, and the requirement terrified me. I was told the students preferred spontaneous talks, but I am a rotten and unsteady extemporizer… I always looked askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing. Still, my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence…” (VII).

It was here (at the very beginning) that the book began to sweep me off my feet.

Because the book is a series of collected lectures (much like Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream”) it is possible to read it in pretty much whatever order you would like. One of the first lectures I read was “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.” Again in the first few paragraphs, Ruefle seemed to be present in every word, reaching out to me:

  “When I was twenty-five I began to keep a monthly list of books I read. Over time it became obvious that although some months I didn’t read at all, and other months I read eight or nine books, on the average I read five books a month, or sixty books a year. Assuming this was more or less true from the time I was ten… I can calculate that I have probably read 2,400 books in my life… Out of those 2,400 books I probably remember 200 or 8 percent.” (183)

I too read at about Ruefle’s rate—averaging between 50 and 70 books a year—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels. I will pick up a sequel to a book I’ve enjoyed (for instance Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam’s Trilogy) and I won’t remember important plot points which at the time, I thought I would never forget. Ruefle reflects in this lecture about reading more than you can process and the value in rereading.   She says, “… I had reached a juncture in my reading life that is familiar to those who have been there: in the allotted time left to me on earth, should I read more and more new books, or should I cease with that vain consumption—vain because it is endless—and begin to reread those books that had given me the intensest pleasure in the past, books I had all but forgotten in their details, but loved in the shadows they cast over me…” (185) I think anyone who is over 40 years of age can relate to this musing—all the reading left to do before you die in these, your finite years on this planet. Reading to Ruefle (and to me) is a serious business.

Another one of my favorite essays is the lecture entitled “Twenty-two Short Lectures.” This lecture begins with “Why All of Our Literary Pursuits Are Worthless.” Ruefle says, “Eighty-five percent of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects. English is spoken by only 5 percent of the world’s population.” (247) That’s it. That’s the whole first lecture. Both incredibly wise and incredibly funny.

And finally the lecture that gives the book its title, “Madness, Rack and Honey.” The phrase came to Ruefle in a dream. The honey is the sweetness of writing a poem. She believes it is an echo of a Persian poem, written in Farsi, which she has always loved. “I shall not finish my poem/What I have written is so sweet/The flies are beginning to torment me.” The rack is the torment, torture and pain of the poem. “And if you have never experienced the rack while working on a poem then you have never worked on a poem.” (135) The madness is perhaps the most easily explained; for what else is the result of an activity that is sweet, but so sweet you feel tortured?

This isn’t simply a how-to poetry book—it’s fiercely and ferociously engaged with life, especially living a literary life. It refuses standard narrative structure and reminds me more of a series of collage essays (ala David Shields or Maggie Nelson) rather than an expository set of lectures on the power and meaning of poetry in the modern world.  I spent the entire book jotting down names of books, poems and philosophers to read (in my limited remaining amount of reading time). Her segues into etymology of words we use every day but have profound significance (fear and secret for instance) will make even the most jaded poet and reader wonder again about the language that comprises our daily task of creating.

Ruefle has lived and read and written and offers up that wisdom to her fellow writers and fellow human beings. On page 75 she talks about hearing and listening in the womb before we are born—about the experience of sound without meaning, that our “first experience of the world is that the world is a secret, that is, it neither hides itself nor reveals itself.” You could spend a lifetime thinking about how life is a secret, the world is a secret, and poetry is a secret—always hiding and revealing in turn.

I am profoundly grateful Ruefle’s allegiance to knowledge and intelligence swayed enough in our favor to offer this book up to poets, or to anyone who likes to read and wishes to live an examined life.

The Things Between US

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book by Lee Montgomery

annotation by Chris Geraci

Of all the memoirs I have read, The Things Between Us, is one of my favorites.  Beside the fact that I did an internship with Lee Montgomery at Tin House Books, her story is engaging without being preachy and at no point does Lee ask for sympathy or forgiveness, and Lee is just an all-round amazing person.  Her writing is just like her personality, no bullshit, the truth is the truth, take it or leave it.  As a result, Lee Montgomery the person and Lee Montgomery the author is real and believable.  To me she is a bit of a rock star.

Lee is extremely gifted in her use of descriptive language and concise storytelling.  She takes a story of alcoholism and family dysfunction, doesn’t trivialize it, but finds the humor in it.  Through tragedy and loss, her family comes together and bonds over the life and death of Lee’s father.  Although, it is clear her father is her hero and that she is her father’s daughter, her mother steals the show (the book), with her gregarious personality combined with her excessive drinking.

Clearly, there is a heavy dose of admiration for Mrs. Montgomery by the people who know her.  She reminded me of a 30s Hollywood Starlet: glamorous, commands attention, is adored by those around her, and a hopeless alcoholic. What is refreshing about Lee’s tale is that she is clearly aware of her mother’s personality and flaws, but there is no anger or blame, just acceptance that this woman does love her, but is severely flawed.  Lee writes, “I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying.  She is the rock in the road that I navigate around.”

Lee also has respect for both her parents, especially her father, Monty.  Monty is the gatekeeper of Lee’s mother.  Despite countless drunken episodes, Monty stands by her unconditionally. Even when the focus should be on Monty’s health, Lee’s mother steals the show.  But courageously, Lee writes about the truth, the pain from her point of view and acknowledges that the memories and stories are hers and vary from her siblings take on the same set of events.  Lee epitomizes what we have learned about being true to your story, your characters, and the memories; stay committed to the truth and your story will be raw, emotional, and very real.   A memory or an event can inspire a variety of interpretations, which are still true, just your version of the truth.

What Lee does so well is her attention to the visceral details, combined with her talent for lessness.  Her narrative technique is sparse, Lee chooses each word carefully, and her talent as a frank storyteller is apparent – it is also a reflection of her personality, no sugar coating the truth.  Lee’s memoir contains an excellent example of interweaving stories, guiding the reader smoothly between past and present without losing her audience.  The result is one that compels the reader to turn the pages in order to see what happens to these beautifully flawed characters.  Not only does Lee command the craft memoir writing, she creates scenes that are so clear and concrete – as she walks through the fields with her father, you can see the morning steam arise from the grass.  Her mother’s constant accessory, a crystal glass with booze is so real that you can hear the ice clink when it it is dropped into the glass.  Although the heart of this story is about a sad dysfunction, Lee creates an acceptable distance that as a reader it does not feel sappy or overdramatic, it is just sad.  Through this journey of familial decline, Lee creates a picture of her mother that is gregarious and fun.  Despite the fact that Mrs. Montgomery is an alcoholic, you still like her.  It is a masterpiece filled with flawed, but likeable characters.  The Things Between Us is quilt of memories woven together in an exceptional memoir.

 

 

Embalming Mom: Essays on Life

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book by Janet Burroway

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The title piece in Janet Burroway’s collection of essays is an imagined discussion between the author and her deceased mother that says as much about how fiction writers strategically choose details and create dialogue as it does about how we, as human beings, process and reprocess our memories to fit the moment.

“I want to put you in a story,” Burroway writes in the opening of “Embalming Mom,” one of sixteen essays in her collection of the same name. “Apparently it’s a matter of some importance.”

The essay takes its place somewhere in the gray space between fiction and nonfiction. It is based on a real memory – Burroway watching her mother iron the puffed sleeves of a cotton dress – but it is thoroughly fictionalized in that the two women never encompassed the same space as the author describes it.

In the piece, Burroway is 45 years old, recently divorced and sitting in the breakfast nook of her childhood home. At first we think she is a grown daughter who has returned to her mother’s home after a bad breakup. As the story develops, we realize it is Burroway’s dramatization of a memory: she is watching her mother, a devoted 35-year-old housewife going through the domestic motion of ironing clothes. Burroway is imaginatively goading her mother into a mock conflict for the sake of a story she wants to write, while her mother is wrestling with an ulcer and admonishing Burroway for being indiscreet, in her life as well as in her fiction.

The author has put herself in a fictitious scene with her mother in an effort to recall and capture her as a character. As the narrative moves through time and place, Burroway sets the stage and creates dialogue between herself and her mother. She chooses the items to place in the scene, such as a fishbowl for an ash tray, and even goes so far as to chide herself when the details of the scene fall short. Burroway revises until it feels authentic. She writes:

She turns again, one eyebrow raised and a mocking smile, “What, then, am I the most unforgettable character you’ve met?” Not like her, neither the eyebrow nor the words, which have the cadence of a British education. I’m the one with the British education. I try again. She turns back like the film run backward…and turns again robotlike, profile gashed with a smile. “Honey, write for the masses. People need to escape. They need to laugh. (39)

The essay is similar to the way we replay personal conversations and experiences of the past and how we try to recast them in a more favorable light. At the end of the piece, Burroway acknowledges that the morticians have done what she was not able to do herself. “Everybody says they have done a splendid job,” she writes. “They have caught her exactly, everybody says.”

As a writer of memoir, I am fascinated by the process of how we recollect. I enjoy reading how other writers stumble across their memories, and how hard they work to pull the fragments of remembrance together to create a more cohesive picture in their mind – and then, of course, how they render that memory to the page. Each of the essays in Burroway’s collection focuses on a certain trigger of memory. Whether it is a photograph, a picture frame or the electrical stove in the first apartment she rented after her first divorce (“the paraphernalia of an ongoing life,” she calls it), Burroway allows these triggers to open the narrative to a time when she was able to make meaning of some aspect of her life. Using objects to activate memory is a good practice not only for memoir writers, but for writers of any genre. Because memories themselves are prone to distortion, the lines between genres are slightly blurred when one writes about memory – as Burroway shows us in her collection of essays.

In “Dad Scattered,” she remembers her father by going through his things – not substantial things like clothes or tools, but the seemingly insignificant things, like tie tacks, old keys and foreign coins. By swapping a photo out of a frame in “Freeze Frame,” she reflects on the ways in which we frame our lives. “We Eat the Earth” is a reminiscent piece about the English garden she never could quite manage. And in “Soldier Son,” she draws distinctions between her two children, who are very different but similar in how passionately they embrace their divergent lifestyles.

I admire Burroway’s expertise at getting under the skin of her subject, and her writing reminds me of what makes an essay great: the ability to connect the small moment (installing a pool in the backyard) to the bigger question (how do we bury our past?).  Each of her essays contains an element of doubt, followed by evidence to the reader that she is doing the difficult work of examining her life in order to find meaning in her chosen subject. Therein lies the value of memoir, and Embalming Mom is an example of why readers gravitate to the genre.

As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story, “truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.” Burroway fully engages with her experiences. Her essays reveal confessions, convey transparencies and offer readers some wonderful surprises.

 

Maps to Anywhere

book by Bernard Cooper

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

At first glance, the thirty or so essays that appear in Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere seem to lack a common narrative thread. Upon closer read, the unifying factor of these works becomes more apparent. The essays explore the contrast between the idealism of a 1950s childhood and the disillusionment of family members struggling with medical issues, sexuality and disappointment. Through evocative prose, self-deprecating humor and the ability to see what others may not, Cooper gently places his reader at the crossroads of dream and reality, hope and fear, wonderment and grief.

Some of his essays are contemplations, or up-close studies of objects and concepts that are so ordinary they hardly warrant thought (a barber’s pole, potatoes), but Cooper manages to elevate them to the level of profundity. Others are memories, mostly of loss and heartache, such as the death of his brother and the declining health of his father. Cooper explores the relationship between everyday and profound by creating contrasts in his essays.

In “The House of the Future,” one of the collection’s longer works, Cooper describes a futuristic modular house made entirely of plastic. He compares the staged solitude of the model home with that of his actual home, which was more chaotic and less welcoming, due in part to his older brother’s struggle with leukemia and his father’s infidelities. Cooper frames his family’s losses around the fortified structure of a home that will never break down, never deteriorate  and never need repair. He writes:

One could look down through the plexiglass steps to the House of the Future and glimpse a large reflecting pool, shivering and shaped like an amoeba. It bore little resemblance to the rubber pools, rowdy children wading within, which dotted our local yards. (98)

Cooper grew up around Los Angeles, and the sights and sounds of the city are apparent in his writing. Throughout the collection, Cooper is a California boy. As a child, he watches his father dive into the backyard swimming pool, noticing the way the man’s skin hangs loose from his body. As a grownup, Cooper is still is father’s son. In “The Wind Did It,” an essay in which his father refers to him in Yiddish as “boychik” and repeatedly says “I’m just looking back,” Cooper watches his dad prepare for a trip to meet a Somoan chief named Muto Peli:

I’m sprawled on my back in the middle of the room, picking at strands of plush carpet, wishing I hadn’t eaten the cheesecake. But my father wanted to celebrate, to say good-bye with something sweet, and besides, he loves to watch me eat, especially foods his doctor forbids. I lift my head and lean on my elbow. “Say his name one more time.” (61)

Cooper’s sentences are long and leisurely with multiple clauses and commas, a style that gives his writing a dreamy, sentimental feeling. In an essay entitled “Live Wire,” Cooper takes this sentence structure to the extreme, writing the entire paragraph-length story all in one sentence. The piece captures in beautiful brevity the moment an electrical wire falls to the street. It reads more like poetry than prose.

Cooper also uses simile in a way that is both effective and efficient. With just a few words, he conveys the full meaning of a moment, or creates a vivid picture for the reader. After reading a newspaper piece about his father’s divorce from his second wife, Cooper writes, “My secret knowledge of him, acquired via the news, hangs between us like a crystal chandelier, swaying and clinking, erupting with refractions.” (48)

Personally, what I admire most about Cooper’s work is how adept he is at noticing things that others might miss, and then capturing them in words that are both simple and stunning.

For example, when he writes, “We walk downstairs and out to my car. As we hug goodbye our glasses bump,” (62) he captures the similarities between father and son, and the lovable awkwardness of a grown man hugging his father.

As writers, we often attempt to tackle the larger issues in our lives: disappointment, trauma, grief, joy and triumph, to name a few. But Maps to Anywhere inspires me to pause in the smaller moments, to take note of how these in-between instances can have their own meaning, and then to experiment with language structure and simile in order to find that connection between ordinary and profound.