Standout Reads 2016

Late again… But you were probably needing some books to read this summer. In case you’re bored, here’s the best of what I read last year:


The Sport of Kings, CE Morgan. Ha. After the exquisite gem of Morgan’s first novel, what did her readers expect? It’s always difficult to come out with the career-defining second book. Will it meet expectations? Be too ambitious and fail? Be more of the same and therefore be boring? Ha, again. Morgan goes for it and writes an old-fashioned but updated Great American Novel that draws from but transcends Faulkner and the rest. Ballsy. She pulls it off and then some.

Power, Linda Hogan. A native American girl and the woman she adores come of age through terrible tradeoffs? What is power? Authenticity? Extinction? What IS an endangered species?

Any Deadly Thing, Roy Kesey. Stories. I’ve said before this guy should be the literary toast of the country. Make it so.

The Door, Magda Szabo. Atmospheric, oblique narration, post-War Eastern Europe. What’s not to brood over here?

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. One view of the other side of the Vietnam war.

Wolfhound Century; Truth and Fear; and Radiant State. Trilogy by Peter Higgins. Intriguing and beautifully written triller/fantasy/alt-history/steam-punk mashup based on Soviet Russia.

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra. The guy who brought you A Constellation of Vital Phenomena returns with this more authentic-feeling story collection exploring different dimensions of post-Soviet society.

Fives and Twenty-fives, Michael Pitre. The strongest of the Iraq or Afghanistan war novels I’ve read so far.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton. If it weren’t for the horses and the dresses, she could have been writing about us, right now, today.

A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay. Tremblay is a pretty exciting writer to come along lately and he busts up a few genres.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay. See above, though while A Head Full of Ghosts is more meant to be horror, only is it, Disappearance is more literary, or is it horror?

The Night Guest, Fiona MacFarlane. Eventually we will all be trapped in webs spun by our night guests, and we will invite those guests in to spin those webs. How this happens to the elderly character in this novel is a tale told with beauty and wisdom by this younger writer.

Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens. What could be more dilated, more engrossing, more internally focused than the last few hours in which we are creating and bringing forth an entire life? Talk about poetics…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. This is so often mentioned that I might have skipped it, but I can’t stop thinking about it a year later, so here it is.



Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, Scott Shane. Everyone should read this, or you should, if you want to understand the drone program and what’s behind today’s headlines. Also how we got to be a country that executes citizens without trial.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Michael Snyder. This is a Big Think about the Holocaust that many may not be ready for. That is, a lot of what you learned in school is not true, or not true exactly. Most of the Jews were not killed in Germany, and were not killed by Germans. The Holocaust mostly took place in Eastern Europe or in the Ukraine, in what Snyder calls the “homeland” of European Jews, given that they’d been living there in many cases for over 2000 years. Most of the murders happened by bullet, not gas, which was a last resort at the very end of the war. This is not to excuse any of it, but to look at the conditions under which this was allowed and encouraged to occur, and the failure of the states leading to the collapse of the political rights they’d backed that then allowed such chaos and hatred to flourish where for a time in many cases there had been some form of balance, however uneasy. The upshot: it is statehood and citizenship that protects minorities. Where Jews maintained citizenship, such as in Denmark or Sweden, they were not surrendered (refugees, lacking documentation, were). When Austria and other East European countries lost independent statehood, they had no power to protect the Jews. In Poland, the Ukraine, and the other Soviet republics where statehood had long been disputed, Jews and other ethnic groups simply went under the wheel. It was Hitler’s long-term goal to remove everyone, including all the Slavs. In fact, he was less interested in the Jews than in killing off the Slavs. The original plan had been to liquidate the Slavs while sending the Jews to Siberia. It was only when the Slavs began killing the Jews on their own that Hitler & Co seized the opportunity, Snyder argues. But these are tech-weenies. The target was the black earth of the Ukraine, and Germany’s control of it and resettlement there.

I’m simplifying a good deal.





Standout Reads 2015

Finally! Just squeaking by before the end of the first quarter… here’s my list of the best books I came across LAST year. As always, this list has nothing to do with release dates. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with what I read in 2015. I pulled in a couple from 2014, because there were SO MANY I loved from that year I couldn’t fit them all in. The good news is that 2016 is already looking great.

I’ll start with my top pick; after that, totally random order.


Little Life, Hanya Yanigahara. I won’t say I enjoyed it, but it was the most thought-a little lifeprovoking, chewy novel I read all year. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll think about it forever I bet. Like those great books we read in high school. One of which was…

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. I read this twice and it bummed m
e out totally both times while feeling absolutely true. I swore I’d never read it again, but after reading A Little Life, I felt I had to revisit it. Yanagihara never says anywhere that she was writing judein counterpoint to Hardy, and neither do any of the reviewers I read, but it seems obvious to me.

The Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante. There are four. Read them in order, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Weep because they are so good, so right, so rightly done, and how did she do it?

Nora Webster, Colm Toibin. Another novel looking at a woman in a small impoverished community, in a country where women’s lives are tightly controlled by said community and by Catholicism, and where poverty is also strictly enforced by social mores. Yet, the narrative is handled very differently. Beautiful book.

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Perhaps not as polished as some of Haruf’s other books, but it was his last, and I figure he ran out of time. Much to think about here, and to be moved by, as is usual with Haruf. With this story, I found myself considering how wrapped uwatsonp with their own lives adults become, how insensitive to the needs of their children and parents, how insensate to the fact that their children and parents HAVE interior lives.

Let Him Go, Larry Watson. If you’re missing Kent Haruf, go read Watson.

The Blazing World
, Siri Hutsvedt. Can never go wrong with Hutsvedt. She blazingworldshould win everything. An outsized, unfashionable, and rather shrill woman, gifted as an artist, but overshadowed by her art-critic husband, may have gone a little crazy by the way she’s been marginalized, and by
the way her work has been stolen (at first with her blessing as part of her performance art, as part of her POINT about the way women artists are not taken seriously, but later, actually stolen), but then again maybe not, as her final work unequivocally shows her genius.

dark room

The Dark Room
, Rachel Seiffert. Three ways of looking at the Holocaust from the POVs of ordinary Germans, including leading up to it, during the war, and from long after. The middle novella was made into the Canadian movie Lore, also worth watching.

Day of the Oprichnik, Victor Sorokin. A Russian writer has recently made a list: the 10 best books for understanding contemporary Russia. This little oprichnikhorror of a novel, though set in the not-so-distant future, should have been on it.

Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner. First novels have become so workshopped and polished these days. Here is one that may have serious flaws but that also pays off big. This novel takes huge risks. It’s vivid and daring—well worth the read.

gardenSomeone Else’s Garden, Dipika Rai. Stands out among Indian novels for its emphasis on lower-caste women. Beautifully written.

Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum. I didn’t actually rate this novel very highly on Goodreads, but it still stands out for certain reasons. The question of mental health vs. personality disorders for one thing. What the hell was WRONG with that woman?

Girl girlwarat War, by Sara Novic. Another very interesting first novel. This book came under fire for getting some of the details wrong about what may have happened in Zagreb, but I maintain it stays true to what a 10-year-old girl may have remembered. The war in the title stands for a lot of different struggles, both external and internal. Perhaps the ending was a bit too clean, but the book stays with me, and that’s what I look for.

einsteinEinstein’s Beach House, Jacob Appel. It’s hard for a short story collection to make this list, because often some stories really rock and others seem just blah, but this collection shone all the way through. Appel is one of those writers who has published hundreds of stories and won dozens of prizes but only recently has begun seeing his books published. I hope he soon gets the broader recognition he deserves.


Men We Reaped, Jessmyn Ward. A grief memoir, as Ward gives us the backstory of the young men she grew up with, including a brother, who died violently in her neighborhood, sometimes as a result of their own misdeeds, or just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Structural poverty is the main culprit.

Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright. No matter what quote you think you’ve heard and why you believe you hate her, you should still read this book. You should read all the books by the secretaries of state. It’s no easy job, and maybe you’ll find out about the deals and the trades and why it’s impossible not zealotto do some harm in this role, and maybe you’ll stop armchair quarterbacking.

Zealot, Reza Aslan. Makes a good case that Jesus was crusader who wanted all non-
Jews out of Israel. That is, he may have been the Jewish equivalent of a jihadist.

The Beast in the Garden, David Baron. How mountain lions changed their ways and came to threaten suburban beastcommunities. Reads like a thriller.

Worlds of Arthur, Guy Halsall. While it’s extremely unlikely that there was ever a King Arthur, here’s a great window into the era in which he would have lived, if he had. (And there are a few assumptions Halsall dismisses out of hand that I’m not sure he should, so maybe there’s a teeny bit of hope, still, though not for a King.)


Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey. What I admire about Trethewey is the precise way she combines the narrative and the lyric… a good chunk of this collection looks at a company of black soldiers who held an island off Louisiana for the North during the Civil War. Trethewey was recently the U.S. Poet Laureate.

Nox, Anne Carson. Designed like a scrapbook, the  book” emphasizes the hopeless nature of trying to reassemble our memory of a person who has committed suicide.

Hard Love Province, Marilyn Chin. This collection is also chasing something ephemeral, a “beautiful boyfriend” who has died.

Many Parishes, Adrian Koesters. One of the best collections I’ve read in years, this debut approaches childhood abuse, sequesterdom (is that a word?), deep religious inquiry, and spiritual emergence with fortitude and tenderness.


Once in a while I come across journals that I actually read from cover to cover, so I go ahead and recommend them (on top of other journals I’ve mentioned in past years, and my standards, such as Beloit Poetry Journal, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and that lot):



Tar River Poetry

Iron Horse Literary Review

Ploughshares Solos Omnibus 3

Anger Happens

“The taboos against expressing our anger are so powerful…. When a woman shows her anger, she is likely to be dismissed as irrational or worse. At a professional conference I attended recently, a young doctor presented a paper about battered women. She shared many new and exciting ideas and conveyed a deep and personal involvement in her subject. In the middle of a her presentation, a well-known psychiatrist who was seated behind me got up to leave. As he stood, he turned to the man next to him and made his diagnostic pronouncement: ‘Now, that is a very angry woman.’” That was that! The fact that he detected—or thought he detected—an angry tone to her voice disqualified not only what she had to say but who she was as a person.” —From The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner, published in 1985; how far we have not come.

danceangerAt the end of last year, novelist Ayelet Waldman had a “tantrum,” a “hissy fit”, a “meltdown,” upon learning that her book was not included in the New York Times’s list of 100 most notable books of the year. This type of snub tends to upset many writers, especially when positive reviews of their work have been published by the list-maker, and when another major paper (such as The Washington Post), has listed the same book as among the top 50.

Waldman sent out 8 ill-advised tweets, the last 2 apologizing for the first 6, in which she expressed outrage, sadness, confusion, and frustration. Linkbaiting operations, whose employees apparently do nothing but troll Twitter looking to aggregate someone’s—maybe anyone’s—more ill-advised tweets so that person can be made to look as stupid or evil or crazy as possible, had a field day with Waldman’s posts.

Not surprisingly, people rampaged through the comment threads, proclaiming that they would never, ever read anything that this woman wrote. This crazy woman, this bitch, this terrible mother, this rotten wife.

Yup, they said all of those things. Scroll through the comments on those links yourself, just as sociological research. You’d think she’d advocated date rape or collaborated with the Nazis.

Now, if you want to, go back and read the tweets for yourself. Was that a tantrum?

I’ll show you a fucking tantrum. I lost it in Lowe’s not long ago because the cellphone signal kept dropping. I was unable to reach my husband with the URGENT question of which size drain screen we needed for our tub. I swore multiple times in public, mainly at the phone itself. Fuck you! I said to it. Goddamn motherfuck. Fucktit! angry-woman-girls-images-funny-pictures-bajiroo-dot-com-photos-1

I’m not proud of this. I’m ashamed to go back to that store. I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant for anyone who might have overheard (I was so focused on my own misery, for which I didn’t even have a good reason; it was just one of those things. I didn’t notice if anyone was around.)

I know. We’re supposed to think of other people first. At all times. But sometimes other people don’t happen to occur to me. That’s not a good thing. But I don’t think it’s a crime against humanity, either.

“That’s ugly,” a friend’s husband used to say, when she became enraged. He’d rush around the house closing windows and drawing curtains, even though they lived in a remote cabin and had no neighbors. I mean no one around, at all.

It seemed to us that our husbands often used the fact of our rage as an excuse not to consider the content of what we were saying.

“You’re sick,” my husband used to say.

My friend L and I had no way to assess this. Were we sick? Ugly? How would we know? We seemed perfectly normal to ourselves. Not always paragons of politeness, but who is? we reasoned. Later, when I got a job in the “real world,” I saw women behaving “worse” than I ever had, at least in public. A VP stamped her feet and raged at the CEO–right in the hallway. At another job, a VP regularly screamed at the top of her lungs at her husband, with the door of her office open. Afterwards, she would stride out of the office, puffing her chest and straightening her blouse as if she’d just come from some liaison.

I’m not saying that these behaviors make other public displays of anger okay, only that I have no idea what’s normal for women.

Because here’s another data point: I was trading dog stories with another woman, and she said she’d once tripped over her golden retriever while carrying a hot plate. She’d sprained her ankle. “I almost cursed!” she said.

Hm. Is that normal? Or is that repressed? If this is the baseline, I guess I could see why Ayelet Waldman’s tweets might have seemed psychotic.

The thing is, I suspect that if Waldman had said all this one day later, or a month or two later, perhaps in an essay with a reflective tone, looking back on how she had felt, she would have been congratulated on her honesty. Other writers who had felt the same way would have come out in support, in droves. They would have voiced relief that someone expressed what they were secretly feeling.

My guess is that’s is because she reacted in the moment that people had trouble with the content of what she said. You know. Women and raw emotion. Can’t be having that. Emotional women are crazy.

It’s interesting that Waldman also expressed nostalgia for her (most likely frustrating at times) career as a public defender, claiming that it was more directly rewarding than writing was. Because wouldn’t you know, just a week or so ago a Facebook friend posted this status: One of the worst days ever being a lawyer. And god fucking damn do I feel angry. Pissed. I’d love to shatter a big window with my phone or the big-screen TV. If there were someone near who I didn’t like I’d pick a fight and beat the mother fucker to death.” (Used with permission.)

Wow. Now that’s angry.

Let’s grant a few things. This guy posted on social media, but really only to his friends, and not to a truly social social media forum—i.e., he’s not a novelist or an essayist with a large public following, so linkbaiters like Jezebel and the rest are probably not trolling around his feed hoping for juicy tidbits to go viral with. The friends of this man understood the context and were unlikely to pile on and accuse him of being a bastard, a potential murderer, someone whose life’s work was unworthy of any validation whatsoever.

Which is sort of a shame (about the lack of interest on Jezebel’s part), because actually he’s a civil rights lawyer, and the thing he was mad about was a kid getting locked up for life. So, instead of being angry about a personal or professional slight—a blow to his ego—he was upset about a matter of justice. Like the woman Lerner describes above, he was morally outraged.

All the same. He said he wanted to kill someone. Or rather felt as if he could kill someone. Whereas Lerner’s colleague expressed nothing of the sort. And Waldman said nothing like this, either. She wanted to curl up and cry. She said she felt outraged, a term that would cause most English teachers to write “vague” in the margins. She mentioned no device, no matter how infuriating everyone on this planet agrees it is, that might get smashed, no person, motherfucker or otherwise, who might get beaten up.

And while I’m sure those who know Waldman personally were similarly unlikely to pile on to the hate-train and accuse her of bitchiness and general unworthiness as a writer and a mother and a wife and a human being, the rest of society, including otherwise progressive writerly society, jumped right in.

Many of these same people, in saner moments, know that our society is repressive toward certain behaviors in both genders. And just a couple of weeks ago psychiatrist Julie Holland argued in the New York Times that we as a society are overmedicating women’s feelings. Emotional women are crazy.

I have some issues with Holland’s essay, which I might get to in another blog post, but for now let’s go with it. My sister posted a link to it on Facebook, and some of her friends agreed that the thesis was obviously true. If this is obvious, it would follow that we ought to welcome more emotional expressions, including of anger, from women.

Well, maybe not in Lowe’s, over a cellphone signal.

My lawyer friend on Facebook had a reason for his anger. Waldman had a trigger for hers. I merely had a tantrum in Lowe’s, though I do have a clinical problem with anger. In all these cases we can debate whether a public display was a-ok, and what terms of expression are acceptable, and we can also have another discussion about whether any of us gets more or less of a pass due to extenuating circumstances such as moral outrage, mental illness, perimenstrual factors, PTSD, or whatever. That is, whether judgment from the rest of you is ever justified without knowing more.

(Right now I am swearing at my computer because my mouse is not selecting properly, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing to swear about, and my neighbor is swearing because he cannot find his keys, which also seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing to swear about. Sometimes in the mornings we grin sheepishly at one another. I refuse to believe that either one of us is a bad person overall, though our other neighbors possibly hate us both. It’s negative energy for sure, though, and even the dogs don’t like it. If we could control it, we surely would, and I for one have been trying my whole life to get a handle on it–to make it so my dogs and my neighbors pop into my head before my anger at the mouse does–and today is apparently not the day of victory. It would be nice, though, if someone out there would once in a while acknowledge the struggle:

Confessional Poem

The problem with being
really fucked up
is that no one gets

how hard even small
improvements are.
So that week when

I lasted four days
before exploding
doesn’t count,

because I still exploded.)

Some rage is righteous, like the civil rights lawyer’s, some is reasonable, like Waldman’s, some is ridiculous, like mine at my cellphone. But on a bad day, any of it might leak out. If we want to have any integrity, we can’t just say it’s a shame that society censures certain behaviors (also, in women, blunt communications styles—another thing Waldman is famous for, and something I also happen to relate to) in one gender or another. We have to be willing to tolerate those behaviors at least sometimes. I’m not saying you have to accept my anger, especially not in Lowe’s, but sometimes, women are going to lose it, in public, for reasons both scrutable and in-.

These episodes, what with being “ugly” and “sick” and all, are bound to be unpleasant, perhaps most of all for the women who lose it. But what does that mean for the rest of who they are? When an athlete beats his wife, people debate how this should affect his professional career. When a writer, such as Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, is found to have been a member of the SS, some people choose not to read his subsequent, unrelated work. “There are consequences,” people say.

“There are consequences,” people said, in that huffy parentified tone we all seem to have adopted lately, about their stated decisions not to read, ever, anything Ayelet Waldman had ever written, because she had been ungraceful with her anger. Maybe so, but I maintain these consequences for the expression of a woman’s anger are extreme, and neither logical nor natural. Such a disproportionate response seems rooted in gender bias.

I know a lot about my female friends. How neurotic they are about hiring cleaning people even when they can afford it, for instance; how weird they are about food; how dishonest about money; how much they hate or love sex; how ambivalent about parenting or careers. I know almost nothing about how they do rage. Oh, there were those few sightings in the workplace, and one or two friends have let a couple of mentions slip regarding hurled cutlery. But compared to the data I have on other areas of behavior–in fact, women rarely admit to even feeling anger–this is a black hole.

How do you do yours? Do you bite back a curse and donate $100 to charity?

Or do you yell? Throw stuff? Gnash your teeth? Spit? Slam doors? Swear in public? Flip people off while driving? Fire off a bunch of tweets? Go in your bedroom and pound pillows? With the door open or closed?

I’d like to know.

Upvalley and Downvalley

Where I live now, on Colorado’s Western Slope, towns are strung out along the confluence of two rivers, the Roaring Fork and the Colorado. Those who live “upvalley” live southward along the Roaring Fork, and generally speaking, the richer they are or the richer they want to be, the closer they live to Aspen. Those who are considered less affluent or perhaps just more blue collar in their upbringing, tend to live “downvalley” along the Colorado River from Glenwood Springs, and west toward Grand Junction.

I’m generalizing, because it’s unrelentingly beautiful everywhere in between. Plenty of people choose to live in many of these spots confluence mapdue to professional considerations, personal preference, or historical connections. There are actually quite a lot of professional, artistic, and well educated people living downvalley, but some upvalley people either don’t know this or don’t like to think so.

I live in the middle, in Glenwood Springs, a Victorian town where the Roaring Fork and the Colorado join. If you’ve ever driven through Colorado on I-70 or come through the state on Amtrak, you’ve nicked the edge Glenwood. Perhaps you’ve stopped at the hot springs.

Often when I’m skiing upvalley, where most of the snow is, other skiers ask me where I live. When I tell them, the conversation usually just ends right there. “Oh.”

The right answer appears to be Carbondale (the next town upvalley from ours) or Basalt. (Most people think Aspen is kind of gross.) I wouldn’t mind living in Carbondale. It’s a cute town, closer to skiing, with a surprising amount going on culturally. But whenever someone does this “Oh” thing, I get my back up and feel kind of stubborn about the lower end of the valley.

So imagine how the feelings run about another town, about 20 miles downvalley, called Silt.

Silt is located in the Grand Valley, which deserves its name. Heading west on I-70 from Glenwood, you pass New Castle, the last of the semi-respectable downvalley towns. You go around a bend and the sky opens up into a wide stretch of mesas and light, light, light. Then you hit the triad of strangely named settlements. Silt, Rifle, Parachute.

We lived in Silt ourselves for a short time. I’d told my partner: Please, anything but that town. I can’t live in a place named after mud. Why would anyone call a town Silt? Not that Carbondale or Basalt are particularly attractive names, or that Aspen is all that creative when you look at any hillside in Colorado.

But as a poet, I feared Silt. It sounded like a place where people would just, well, settle. As if they didn’t care what happened to them. Even Rifle, I said, had more of a—I can’t help it—a kick to it.

The rental market around here, though, is very tight, and it’s so hard to find landlords that allow pets. We’re not ready to buy, partly because we haven’t decided on a town. So, my partner wound up choosing a house in Silt while I was out of town. It was seven miles from the job he’d taken as a public mental health therapist, in Rifle. We had a lot to learn.

When I saw the view from our mesa-top house in Silt, I had a hard time complaining:

SunriseontheRoan  phone2 022

All my life I’ve struggled to wake up in the morning. But not there. I couldn’t wait to get up and look out the window (the shot above left is sunrise on the Roan Plateau). The days were long, even in the dead of winter. A few months ago, I was back in Boulder to get my ski boots fit at Larry’s Bootfitting, and one of the customers there said, “People talk about the light in Santa Fe, but I think the light in the Grand Valley is just as good.” She was so right.

There were other charms. A few miles from the house—not a bad bike ride, or a quick drive if I wanted to take the dogs for a run on nearby trails—there was a reservoir, Harvey Gap.

HarveyGap 2012-08-18 09.23.28

Speaking of dogs, Silt has the best dog-park ever. Dogs can get right into the Colorado River, or meander through cottonwoods and thickets. Circling it twice was a 20-minute run for me.

0810121735 0810121742

I can say that every single day I lived in Silt, I lived in stunned appreciation for the beauty. Every bike ride had a view for each pedal stroke. Pretti Lane, for instance:

pretti lane roan view 2012-08-18 10.01.05


silt horses pretti lane tony cropped

It was only about an hour to great skiing—either upvalley at Sunlight or Snowmass, or downvalley at Powderhorn:

phone2 012 phone2 015

And the climbing opportunities were also great, at the West Elks, only a fraction of which are shown here, or at Rifle Arch, or the more famous Rifle Mountain Park.

phone2 009 phone2 011

However. You need to breathe. And to drink water. That haze in the Pretti Lane shots? Coming from wildfires, which is just SOP these days in the West, but also from ozone and other toxins in the air from fracking and drilling. Whenever I turned on the washing machine, the whole house smelled like natural gas. The washing machine, not the dryer.

My mechanic told me that his kids are not allowed to drink the water in school. That’s the school’s rule. No drinking the town water.

The upvalley people, many of them environmentalists, will say: We need to drill because we must reduce our dependency on foreign energy, so we can get out of these wars. Or as another environmentalist, someone high up in Garfield County administration, put it: We need the revenue. She said, Our county is one of the most powerful in the state, and it has no debt because of oil and gas drilling.

It doesn’t seem to change their minds if you point out that we don’t HAVE ENOUGH oil and gas under our American soil to make a difference in our foreign dependency. A month ago, the US Energy Information Administration dropped its estimate of shale gas reserves by over 40%, after a flurry of internal emails last year expressed widespread reservations about the inflated optimism about the future of natural gas drilling in this country.

A friend who sells weapons navigational systems to Middle Eastern governments, US energy companies operating in the Middle East, and defense contractors told me: Middle Eastern countries have enough oil and especially natural gas to supply the world for well over a hundred years, easily. They play down supplies in order to keep prices high. Whenever they want to change US production levels, the Saudis et al simply cut their prices. That’s because the oil and gas we have cost a lot to get and to refine.

Yet, the downvalley people in Silt and neighboring towns say: Please drill. We need the jobs.

They’re right, they do need jobs. Silt, a bedroom community dependent on drilling, recreation, and construction work, with a fair amount of small-business owners who commute upvalley as far as Aspen, has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the county, perhaps in the state. It’s just that drilling doesn’t seem to be helping with that. The boom economy actually caused the problem by bringing in too many people, driving prices up, and then when the boom corrected, the costs didn’t adjust properly.

It’s always this way in the West. You wonder why anyone ever believes it will be any different. It’s like a cheating lover who promises he’ll treat you right this time.

The price a community pays for the boom time is high. Few people upvalley ever go down toward Silt or see what’s going on there. They’ll say: Oh, I know it’s beautiful. But you never know when you’ll wake up in the morning and have a drilling rig next door.

Right? We know we need the energy, but we don’t want to live with that shit.

pretti lane well padsilt rig




The trouble is, most of the people who make the decisions about what to allow and what not to allow live in Glenwood Springs or further upvalley. Or all the way in Washington, DC. They don’t really see “those people” who live in Silt or Parachute. The ones who, despite all this drilling, somehow can’t keep their houses. Whose schools are closing on Fridays despite these high county revenues. Upvalley people of course hear about meth use, but it’s usually fodder for jokes and eye-rolling instead of compassion.

Few people realize the long, back-to-back shifts that gasfield workers pull, for example, and the lack of safety precautions on the rigs—probably the original driver of the meth use. Or see that when it’s reported that drilling has “moved” to, say, North Dakota, the families don’t move. The workers, usually the fathers, commute crazily back and forth, often paying as much as $2500 per month for a camper in North Dakota on top of their Colorado expenses.

Meanwhile, my partner tries to help the children in downvalley towns, many of whom experience “anxious attachment,” which in school looks a lot like attention deficit. Some of them are not learning well. They can’t sit still and can’t concentrate, because they miss their fathers and they don’t know what’s going to happen next in their lives. This is on top of losing a day of school due to closures, while their strained parents try to pay for an extra day of childcare.

(Oh, we’re not responsible for what happens with the schools, said the county official. That’s up to the local communities and the state. Hm. I thought she said Garfield County is one of the most powerful counties in the state; why can’t it use that power to get more help for local communities?)

The thing is, Garfield County also wants to sell this region on recreation. On retirement. But you can’t do that if you’re wrecking the climate with oil and gas development, or making real estate investment dicey by destroying views and water quality. Who does want to wake up and find an oil rig next to their retirement home? Policymakers have to choose a direction.

It’s always easier for county administrators to collect revenue from extractive industries and punt regulation/accountability to the feds. If you work more soberly to attract long-term businesses that will employ people steadily and provide benefits, even if wages are lower, you might bring in fewer people, more slowly, overall. But perhaps they will be the people you really want for the region. Perhaps you could essentially Ben & Jerry’s Colorado—realign attitudes, loyalties, and politics simply by treating people better. It would be an interesting experiment. These gasfield workers are amazingly loyal to energy companies who treat them like crap and quite often kill them. What would happen if you took these tribal guys and gave them good jobs?

In another community these guys might be welding ships or building One World Trade Center, under the protection of a union. Right now they’re getting drilled into the ground, blown off 5-story rigs in high winds, and having their arms torn off. They work back-to-back 12-16 hour shifts at jobs that require a lot of focus and then are judged for using meth. Most of them are contractors or subcontractors and don’t have benefits. The tech companies I’ve worked for have had to provide perfectly ergonomic workstations due to OSHA and other standards. I mean, these employers have been worried about us getting carpal tunnel. What is up with the safety enforcement for these highly profitable energy companies?

No one holds these companies accountable on just about any level. They are granted exceptions for flaring wells even when fire bans are in effect statewide. Fracking is unsafe, environmentally. The studies that initially showed that it was safe for drinking water have been discredited. And yet nothing has been done to change any practices, or simply to stop it. The longer this goes on, the harder it’s going to be to attract better alternatives to the region. Who’s going to want to come to a fracked-up place like this?

I miss Silt. I miss the light and the big sky and the fact that I couldn’t look anywhere for one second and not see something beautiful, even if I had to overlook a rig or a wellpad. Glenwood is in a narrower valley and loses daylight much faster. But the water is better, and yes, probably the people are more educated overall, and much more friendly, as I think liberal outdoorsy types often are. I’ve found a community of writers and thinkers faster. But because of the lack of light it’s harder to wake up here. And I suspect that, as far as material goes for me as a writer, there’s less here. Overall, I wish we could have stayed. I wish our landlord’s house hadn’t been foreclosed upon. I wish the air and water had been safe.

Right now there’s a big debate about allowing some drilling to take place closer to Glenwood. No one local really wants that, partly because it would be in wilderness, but mostly because it would mean more traffic through an already overly burdened city infrastructure. However, there’s a back road the big trucks could take. Guess where it goes? Through Silt.

My guess is they’ll “solve” the problem that way.

We’re a little hypocritical about energy, said a Carbondale friend. We sure are. She meant that we take it from other countries, and kill for it. I mean that we wreck small-town America for it.

But not the hip small towns. Just the places where people are asking for it.




For a moving portrait of the culture of oil and gas-dependent communitiescolton, please, please read Alexandra Fuller’s absolutely gripping  The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, which I briefly discussed in an earlier post.

For more on the environmental aspects of fracking, please check out Western Resource Advocates. They also have a blog.

For more on the community perspective, visit award-winning young-adult author Peggy Tibbetts’s blog from Silt.


Maybe you don’t want to live next to a drilling rig—and I don’t blame you—but if you drive a car or have a thermostat, take a look once in a while.

Standout Reads 2012

This year I had more time to read than usual and so I have a lot to say. Again, I’m listing the books that popped for me of those I read in 2012; they may or may not have been published in the last year. Also, as usual, I probably forgot to OneNote several striking books as the year unfolded; on the other hand, this post can’t go on forever.



winter's boneWinter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. The movie mapped pretty closely to the book, but this is well worth reading for details and a kind of inner beauty no movie could capture. My sister, who has trouble believing in fiction, posted a request on Facebook for a list of books that were realistic. This book is full of characters we grew up with in New Hampshire, even if it’s set in the Ozarks. And I see them in meth-land a little west of me in Colorado, too. The main character Woodrell chooses to follow is the older sister in a family torn by drugs and mental illness. She’s the one, appearing in so many dysfunctional families, who holds it together. How she does so is poignantly drawn.

The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon. I’ve yet to find a piece of Hemon’s, shortlazarus or long, fiction or non-, that I haven’t loved. This novel takes us back to a time when the only desired immigrants in America were northern European ones, ideally speaking English, though German and Scandinavian Protestants were tolerated. Jews and those of Eastern European and Mediterranean descent were viewed as are many view Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants today. Good citizens were terrified of anarchists, and political cartoons often caricatured bearded men with bombs. Sound familiar? This wasn’t so long ago, round about 1900, 1910.

friend familyhottest dishesA Friend of the Family, Lauren Grodstein. Just a good, hypnotic read. Extremely well plotted, crafted, with a lot to think about in terms of motivation and psychology. Moves fast—an escape read with a literary level of characterization and writing.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky. Another fast-mover, psychologically taunting and haunting. Psychopathic narrator you can’t look away from, one of the worst mothers and grandmothers you’ve ever met. Also hilarious.

Little Children, Tom Perrotta. For some reason, this is the first Perrotta novel I’ve ever read, and I plan to read a lot more. I don’t typically like novels about suburbia, but this manages to dig so deeply into male/female roles and expectations in our society right now—his sense of how women view men, their disappointments and desires is so dead on. And his explication of the confusion some men feel about the redefinition of their roles his interesting too.

engineerThe Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky. Stalin gave himself this title, and Skvorecky, an exiled Czech writer, appropriated it for his grimly humorous novel. One takeaway: rednecks are everywhere, and Hitler and Stalin took advantage of the ignorance of the peasantry. It wouldn’t take much in our country, either.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides. Nothing original in recommending this one. I’m not sure why, of the three smart kids at Brown who make up the main characters, it’s the girl who is the lesser light and the boys who are the geniuses, but let’s let that slide. I also would have liked more discussion of the marriage plot itself—i.e., what Madeleine was actually arguing in her paper. It seems odd to me that this wasn’t directly discussed. However, the insight into Leonard’s bipolar disease is exquisite, and not adequately credited, IMO, among reviewers. I found the book engrossing overall and stayed up late reading it.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Again, a first for me from an accomplished author. Mitchell’s books are said to be so diverse I wasn’t sure where to start, but with the movie coming out I decided to read this one. I thought the book was strong for the first third or so, but I wasn’t sure why he was considered to be SO great. Until about halfway through the book. Then I realized I was in the hands of a genius. So hang in there; it’s well worth it. There’s a pivot point after which you are not coming back.

The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Yes, there were places where I thought he should have let a metaphor stand and not explained it. It’s still a powerful book. I hope there are more to come, both from this author and from other writers with something to say about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Canada, Richard Ford. Another strong book by one of my favorite writers. Reviewer Ron Charles said he thought this one should have won either the NBA or the Pulitzer, I forget which, and I agree, whichever it was. A few annoying quirks, but overall an engrossing book.

The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver. I’d been putting this off for yearspost birthday because I didn’t think it could measure up to We Need to Talk About Kevin. It probably doesn’t, but it’s still a complex, fascinating book. What Shriver does well is put you inside the heads of women you don’t really like being inside the heads of, and yet they are very interesting heads to be in.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. I didn’t find this book as confusing as many people seemed to. Like The Marriage Plot, it’s a reexamination of a collegiate triangle that included at least one unbalanced person. The narrator isn’t reliable, but he’s aware of this fact and trying to face up to it. I hardly think it’s worth mentioning that a narrator is unreliable anyway. Isn’t that something postmodernism established? Isn’t that irrefutable? I don’t think we can ever return to the concept of a reliable storyteller. Anyone who thinks they know the whole story is either deluded or lying. Anyone who believes them is either naïve or an idiot. That goes for movies and news stories and presidential speeches and everything.



Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. This speaks to what I just said about the Barnes book. An essay by D’Agata, which appeared in McSweeney’s (I think, or else The Believer), surrounded by arguments between the author and his fact-checker. Since the essay is a work of creative non-fiction, sometimes you agree with the author that the fact-checker is being a bit ridiculous about every little thing. On the other hand, is it really a matter of the rhythm of the sentence whether a town has twenty or twenty-one bars? (I don’t remember if this was an exact item of dispute, but it was something like this.) It seems to me that creative non-fiction shouldn’t stretch matters of actual fact, or should stop and discuss it, reflexively, when it does. Or, as in gonzo journalism, it should just be clear from the nature of the piece that it’s totally out of bounds from the start. The point is not that you tell the truth or don’t, or that there is no truth (I actually think there is, but that it’s hard to know all of it), but that you discuss what you do and do not know. And THEN—it turns out that Fingal and D’Agata ramped up their original argument, or so I read somewhere, in order to make this book more “interesting.” So it too is a bunch of bullshit. If you’re interested in matters of this sort, this book is worth reading on a number of levels, and with lots of salt. I’ve got Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point on my shelf, as it seems to be a similar exploration, only a lot more personal and more honest. But I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t recommend it.

legacyLegacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick. I’m way late to the party with this one. Limerick got a MacArthur award partly on the strength of this work. A revisionist look at the history of the American West that’s now foundational. And anything but reductionist. In a different way, it’s also a meditation on truth and how we access it.

The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon. Who wouldn’t kill for this title? If I recall correctly (read this early in the year) it comes from one of the Desert Fathers, trying to manage despair while meditating in the wilderness in the early days of Christianity. About as comprehensive, compassionate, and personal a look at depression as you can hope to find.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, DT Max. Another unbeatable title—came love storyfrom the subject’s, David Foster Wallace’s work. I’m sure this is the first of many biographies of Wallace, but it’s a hell of a start.

line breakLine Break: Poetry as Social Practice, James Scully. Maybe if you grow up with a poet in your family you don’t get around to reading enough of his work. For some reason I just read this book this year and found it riveting. Also helpful, especially the title essay, which is about shaking up poetry in form as well as function. Like Adrienne Rich and others, Scully argues that poetry ought to be a form of activism. His life and writing have often mirrored that belief.

Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginsberg. One of the finer accounts of life in the maelstrom of the Stalin purges. Ended in a weird place. I just learned there’s a sequel, which I intend to read soon. I’m dark that way.

A God in the House, Poets Talk About Faith, Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler. I wound up giving this book as a gift quite frequently in the past year. Kaminsky and Towler interviewed a diverse group of renowned poets. Not all of them specifically believe in God or in a monotheistic God/Western God. Each segment ends with a poem on the subject of faith or the search for faith. It’s a powerful book; not predictable or schmaltzy.


Every Riven Thing, Christian Wiman. There are some pieces in this book that make you think, okay, this guy (the editor of Poetry magazine) doesn’t need to write another thing if he doesn’t want to.

Nightworks, Marvin Bell. This was a re-read. But it’s amazing to look through a collection that spans a lot of an author’s career and think, wow. What strength, going all the way back to the beginning.

Angel in Flames, James Scully. What I just said, though not a re-read—this collection representing a lifetime of work and translation came out recently. As a young poet, Scully won the Lamont Award. He taught at the University of Connecticut. He was invited to come to Chile by President Allende. When Allende was deposed in a coup, Scully and his young family went anyway, working to assist guerillas who opposed the brutal (and US-supported) dictator Pinochet. There’s an underground worldliness to Scully’s work that a lot of US poetry just doesn’t have.

Plume, Kathleen Flenniken. This book is thematically integrated based on the author’s experience growing up in a community where everyone worked at a nuclear plant and then becoming a scientist working at the Hanford nuclear plant herself.

Riven      Angel in Flames Selected Poems & Translations 1967-2011     Plume

Advice from a Master

Some years ago I took a master class with the poet Marvin Bell. I’d beennightworks galvanized by an interview I read in American Poetry Review. The interview (not linked) was accompanied by a selection of Bell’s Resurrected Dead Man poems. I was only starting to take myself seriously as a poet—i.e., to give myself permission to call myself one. Many people who write fiction regard poetry as something sacred that they have either failed at or “could never do.” And it’s often the case that a poet has tried to write fiction and was told by some teacher that he or she sucked at it, and wound up writing poetry instead.

And some poets and teachers of poetry have strong feelings about the division of art forms. Bell himself has said that writers of prose and poetry do very different things. Novelists must put stuff in, while poets leave things out.

Yet, here I was, writing stories and piling up pages that I thought might one day turn out to be novels. And here were these poems, or things that might be worked into poems, dropping into the various piles on my desk. Was I supposed to cut them up and flush them down the toilet like unwanted children? Bury them in the backyard in the dark of the moon?

I didn’t think so.

deadmanI found the Dead Man poems and their sequels so exciting because of the way they related to sentences. Every line was a sentence, and every sentence was a line. The narrative drive, the energy gripped me—I paced, I talked to myself on walks in the woods—and yet many of the poems talked about the end of things, they discussed what happened when you emptied (after considerable agony) the possibilities.

An MFA was logistically and financially out of reach, so I promised myself I would take a workshop with Bell if I could find one. I did, at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop.

Some key advice I encountered there, not included below: Examine the strength of the line. If you had to pull a line out of the poem, what would it sound like on its own? Sometimes you need a crappy line just to get to the next one, and sometimes bad sections help the great ones stand out, IMO—a too-polished workshop piece can sometimes be bland. But on the other hand what good are lines like these:


or were


is to see


over and of


All from a recent collection of a highly respected American poet (the collection also contains work so stunning I don’t care if he never writes another poem).

Anyway, Bell recently sent me a list of 32 points of advice he likes to give to writers. He says he was asked to write an essay, but he was too lazy and came up with this list instead. I was going to write a blog on an entirely different topic, but I was too lazy. So I’ll post this list instead, with his permission. I may not agree with every point, but this guy has been at this for a long time and has work to his name that I look to again and again. Here’s the core of his philosophy about writing.


32 Statements About Writing Poetry


1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

2. Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

10. Autobiography rots. The life ends, the vision remains.

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.

14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance.

22. What they say "there are no words for"–that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it’s enough.

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s poetry! On the other, it’s just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry:

Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

– Marvin Bell


Used by permission.

Burning Down the Room

I just came back from visiting my son, now 21. As I think about my next steps in the world—I’ve moved into my third rental space in less than two years—it seems like a good time to post this draft of a blog post I found in my files recently. I’m not sure why it never got pushed live when I wrote it over a year ago.


Burning Down the Room


Burn it all down. Room by room. Tree by tree.

I was in a trauma counseling session, trying a technique my doctor had recommended called brainspotting. It’s based on EMDR, and doesn’t seem significantly different to me. In any case, I’d been having a lot of panic attacks and my doctor thought this would help.

I had headphones on, playing music that randomly went from ear to ear, so that both sides of my brain could process the episode I was grappling with. My eyes were open and focused on a single point in the room, I think to give my mind a point of “rescue.”

I’d been cooped up all winter with a broken ankle, so it hadn’t mattered so much that whenever I had to go anywhere I had to put my head down between my knees for several minutes, maybe an hour. But now that I needed to catch up on a bunch of tasks as well as move forward in my life, this type of handicap was unacceptable.

We started by focusing on a wildfire that affected my neighborhood the previous fall. I didn’t think the fire itself was the problem. It was a metaphor for many other disasters in my life, many lovingly built structures that had been destroyed. I was having a hard time finding shelter. Believing in shelter.

The trauma specialist told me to burn the whole house down. And the entire surrounding forest. And then see what happened. In my mind’s eye, obviously, not for “real.” But when you mentally enact these scenarios with these headphones on, you’re in a slightly hypnotized state, and the affect is high. It does feel real.

house8However, it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to burn down most of my little house. The kitchen I’d designed so carefully. The walls I’d stayed up all hours mudding and painting. The floors I’d refinished. My wonderful soaker tub. Those beautiful windows and skylights. The gleaming golden ceiling. The “spirit in the sky” turquoise paint in the hallway. Bye to the Persian rugs chosen for these spaces. I had to close my eyes, but all the bookshelves my brother built and all their contents went to house3ash without the world collapsing into a black hole.

It was harder to see the old lilacs and the monster Ponderosas go. Some of those trees are among the oldest in the canyon.

I stopped when I came to Julian’s room. I mentally stood in the doorway for twenty minutes or more, keeping the flames at my back.

What’s happening? the trauma specialist asks.

I’m trying to burn my son’s room, I say.

Oh, she says. We’d both been expecting other, older events to come up, stuff from my own childhood, as the walls of my house fell.

It wasn’t what this room was, but all the things it wasn’t. It was never sunnyhouse7 and welcoming, like the south-facing corner room Julian had in our pre-divorce home, with its warm, pine-paneled walls. I was never able to get the furniture arranged so the room in this “new” house felt right. Partly because while we lived there Julian was at an age where whatever I said wasn’t going to be received.

There were things I found in this room, over the years, things I didn’t want to find. In some cases the use was all too clear. I never figured out what some of those other things were for.

This room was empty a lot of the time. When you’re divorced, you only get to be a parent half time. If there’s a hint of conflict—and when isn’t there?—with a teenager, there’s always the other parent, promising no curfew.

Standing, in my mind, in Julian’s doorway as the flames try without success to eradicate all of that—the rap and the Sponge Bob posters with their mixed messages, the other signs I found, almost too late, of his psychic pain, I realize it’s not that I don’t want to let it go. It’s that I don’t want to let go of the hope that I can roll back time and fix it. THEN.

But how’s Julian NOW? the trauma specialist asks, gently.

I want to say he’s fine, but then I realize that’s just a statement of faith, or even hubris, like some guy from Arkansas who knows nothing of foreign policy who pontificates on Iran. Julian’s in college, and I see him once or twice per year. I had the money in savings to pay for tuition, but not much extra for travel. All I have to go on is what he tells me over the phone, and what he posts on Facebook, which isn’t much.

What’s your relationship like?

Pretty good for long distance, I say. But we don’t talk or text every day like some parents do. He tells me what he’s thinking about as a consequence of his physics seminars. I listen to his music uploads on Soundcloud. He shares his thoughts on relationships.

THEN WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT? she asks. Do you realize how many parents don’t have this?

I don’t know, I say. I wasn’t the kind of mother I thought I’d be. I never made this room into what I imagined. In fact, I was sort of thinking this house was just the first post-divorce house, and then I’d give him a *real* home.

So it’s okay if this house burns?

In a way. If I had a better house to go to. But that never happened. And now it doesn’t matter, because he’s gone anyway. It just all seems…irrelevant… now. I didn’t finish the nest, really, and now what’s the point?

I kept trying. I kept thinking tomorrow would be another day. But it feels like we’re out of tomorrows.

So now it’s time to go build your nest, she says. What would that look like?

Good question. I never for one minute thought I’d have a tough time answering that. I’ve always been an independent person, with a strong sense of who *I* am. But maybe because I also had a strong sense of WAIT, GET BACK HERE, KID, I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU, I wasn’t quite as ready for this next step as I expected. 

I move out of the doorway and let the roof come down on the last room standing.

But I don’t feel right about it.


Hat tip to Andi O’Conor’s blog, Burning Down the House.

<<Please note that post draws on an exercise, a guided meditation of sorts, that took place in a therapy session. The purpose of the session was to process fear and uncover underlying issues (I’m simplifying). As those who have been following this blog know, there was a fire, but it did not reach my house. I am not literally planning to burn down my house, nor have I ever burned any structure, intentionally or otherwise.>>


Thinning Down the House

I’m moving on again. I’ve had to do this a few times in the past couple of years. Like a lot of people, we’re finding that the jobs we want or can get are not necessarily where we were living, or where we wanted to live. (Yay for the efficiencies of capitalism, as people take great losses to truck around after work, often forced to leave perfectly good homes and positions.)

As we rent out the home we own near Boulder, we’ve entered a new phase as tenants ourselves. One new liability of this role is that, in this economy, landlords are going into foreclosure quite frequently. Including the guy we’ve been renting from. So once again we have to move.

I was just reading an account in The New Yorker by someone who loves moving. I find it emotionally exhausting. 

Each time we’ve moved we’ve “streamlined.” Each time we still can’t fit our stuff into the new place. Too much of the past gets excavated, and there are too many decisions to make. I get why my partner wants to keep these pictures of his deceased wife and some of her jewelry. But what about her high-school diploma?

What about the dollhouse? he counters. He means this HUGE dollhouse my grandfather built as a replica of the home I was living in as a child. My grandfather also built miniatures of all the furniture in the house. The craftsmanship isn’t excellent, but it’s still a cool dollhouse. All of my siblings played with it in some way, even if was to use as a gerbil cage or as a matchbox parking garage. Somebody, possibly my kid, re-tiled it throughout in construction paper. Okay, it needs some remodeling, but I don’t think it’s a scraper. The point is, it’s been a imaginative focal point for generations of Steeveses.

The problem is that it’s competing for storage space in a very cramped basement with dozens of crates of my books. And with Tony’s climbing gear. 

Just the other day, I got an email from some advice guru—not sure why I’m on her list—on how to declutter. It appears that it’s energetically congesting to hold on to stuff. Put questionable items in a box, she says, and if you haven’t gone looking for them in six months, have your partner donate the box without your even checking it.

Nice, but what about the dollhouse? We’ve got stuff in boxes we haven’t seen in two years. I’m not throwing all of it out. I know I won’t need it all in six months, but I can’t swear I won’t need it in 12 or 24, or that I’ll be able to afford to buy it back if I do. Everything is way too uncertain.

I have decided to let go of the sheet cake pans. I’m pretty sure I won’t be making cakes for elementary school classes, thank God. But when it comes to things like the dollhouse, I was saving it for grandchildren, so the longer it’s stored, the better. My son is only in college.

So, I guess the dollhouse needs to be dragged around, at least until I know if a) the kid is even having kids, and b) he and his partner will want it for their kids. Maybe he’ll connect with the kind of person who would hate the idea of their perfect children playing with a dollhouse that was once peed in by gerbils. You never know with some people. 

But didn’t you have a crappy childhood? my partner points out. It’s a hundred degrees out and we’re sorting stuff in an garage without air conditioning. What’s so great about a dollhouse made by a grandfather who otherwise sounds kind of mean, and that replicates a terrible little house you hated living in?

Well. Um. He did put a lot of work into it. It doesn’t seem right to just… Anyway. Just put it in the keep pile, will you?

You can only get so thin right at mid-life. Maybe you can ditch a bedroom, but you’re still serving as a storage unit for your kids. You still have leftover pets. You still have to work and need good closet space for your professional wardrobe and a bathroom big enough for two people to get ready in.

In this economy, you don’t know what’s next. Are things getting worse for us or better? Will a smaller house or a bigger one be around the next corner? I don’t want to be a hoarder, but I also don’t want to give up hope.

“No one expected to feel this uncertain at this age,” said one friend, let go after decades at a multinational corporation. I agree. We’re not wired for it. In many cultures, people over 45 are elders. We’re not supposed to be rushing around trying to find jobs, trying to convince landlords that just because we have pets we won’t trash their places, trying to decide what to do with that photo album that’s always been on the bookshelf built into the dining room wall.  

Contrary to the “wisdom” of almost all these self-help gurus, it almost never feels good to let things go. Tony and I have almost always regretted the books and records we’ve sold or given away. Inevitably our tastes (okay, except the Bay City Rollers) have circled back. The grad school notes I tossed in the dumpster during one purge I then went looking for after I reconnected with a high school friend on Facebook. Turned out he was a professor working in an area I’d written a paper on, and he wanted to see that paper. Damn it.

In this last round, Tony has been putting his MSW notes into the recycle bin. “It almost feels like these parts of you never existed when you throw them out,” he said. I know that’s why I hold on to my books. Sometimes I forget I read whole shelves, but it all comes back to me when I stand in front of them.

And then there’s the stuff that maybe is best to leave in the back of the closet. It turns out that there really isn’t that much that’s “energetically liberating” about going through every single box. It would have been fine if you left the dead wife’s jewelry at rest and spent your weekend out in the sunshine, roped up on a technical route on Independence Pass. Who’s to say that isn’t also a form of moving on?

Anxiety—it makes you fat and clingy.   

Standout Reads of 2011

Once again these are the books that stood out for me among those I read this past year. They were not necessarily published in 2011; many of them appeared decades ago, in fact.



  • Native, by William Haywood Henderson. Henderson’s gorgeous, delicate, but also ripping first novel explores some themes similar to those in “Brokeback Mountain.” This novel came out several years earlier. And it’s better, IMO. Not that there isn’t room for lots of this kind of thing in a big state like Wyoming. 
  • The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak. So many American novels are about personal anomie, with characters suffering from what the DSM-III used to call schizoid personality disorder. I’m left wondering, why should I care about characters who don’t care? This main character has every reason to be in this situation. He’s an immigrant three times over, having come to America, returned to Austria, and ultimately coming back to America. That is to say, he has no home. Yet, he fights for the Habsburgs in WWI, among so many tribal groups it’s hard to say why they’re fighting. It’s a time in history when close personal bonds are not always present. However, there is no narrative distance in this story. Great trick, Krivak.
  • City of Light, by Lauren Belfer. A little soapboxy, or a lot, at times, but so interesting in terms of the industrialization of electricity and the social movements it either spawned or was coincident with. Take a trip to Buffalo, which once, like Pittsburgh, had a shot at being one of the centers of wannabe old-money American society (ie, robber barons aping blue-bloods…the ridiculousness goes on and on, but it’s worth reading about). What keeps this book out of mere book club classification is Belfer’s refusal to give her heroine a neat ending. She doesn’t wind up unhappy, exactly, but it’s a tough time in history to be a woman and there’s no real way out of that.
  • Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor. Yeah, should have read these a long time ago. Thanks to author Thomas Powers for pointing this out after I mentioned a book of his in my blog last year.
  • Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. I’ve read lots of Stegner’s longer works, but am only now working through the stories.
  • The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin. Actually I’m not sure I liked this one, but I recommend it so someone else will have suffered.
  • The Good Son, by Michael Gruber. I recommend anything by Gruber, no matter what’s wrong with it. His books are so interesting and engrossing that you come away satisfied even if the plot made no sense or the characters were slightly impossible. They’re supposed to be thrillers, but he takes his time building place and character, and it’s always worth it. His writing is pretty high-quality. Every once in a while, it’s as if he says to himself, oh, crap, I’m supposed to be writing a thriller, better stick in a sex scene on a kitchen counter. And so you have this awkward sex scene on a kitchen counter (nothing against kitchen sex, just awkward kitchen sex). In the end, though, you learn so much about whatever it is he’s writing about, plus the setting, that you don’t care. Okay, I don’t. The Good Son is about Afghanistan.
  • Sworn Before Cranes, by Merrill Gilfillan. I went back to this book after reading Great Plains (see below), to see if I liked it as much as I remembered. I had initially reviewed it for the Boulder Daily Camera backimage in the 90s. Yeah, baby, it’s still beautiful. This may be one of the most under-noted and –appreciated story collections of the last century. Maybe that’s because they’re almost more like long prose poems than stories. Today, this form would be welcomed, perhaps even elevated over a conventional story. But then it was fairly radical to call this a short story. James Galvin’s novel-or-whatever-it-was, The Meadow, was out, and people were excited, but they weren’t sure what to do. What I like about Sworn before Cranes is the way he’s unafraid to delight in what he sees down in the pockets and folds in the plains. He’s a magic man. Where Frazier is at pains to show the braided glory and seaminess surrounding Native Americans since the Conquest, Gilfillan as a poet and naturalists has interests in sound and imagery. It’s good to read them both in the same year.


  • The Tiger, by John Vaillant. About a tiger who began stalking and killing some of the particular poachers who had wounded it. About Siberian Tigers in general. About Siberia. About the history of human-tiger interactions. About why poachers poach. About the few people in Russia who are trying to protect the environment and why. And about how not just dead tigers but also the whole Siberian ecosystem is getting smuggled to China and made into stuff we’re buying in Home Depot. With the personality and menace of This Particular Tiger on every page.
  • Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. I hadn’t got around to this for some reason. I remember Frazier sitting in the Boulder Book Store back when it was a one-storey, one-slot place. He wasn’t giving a reading, just sitting behind a table with his ponytail, waiting for people to ask him questions and ask him to sign his book. I didn’t know who he was, but I like guys with ponytails. I kind of felt sorry for him. I thought, Oh another guy who drove across the country and wrote a book about it. It’s a great book.
  • On the Rez, by Ian Frazier. Not sure who else could pull this off. At first you’re not sure who this book is about. Indians? Frazier? Frazier’s kids? The contents of his household? But Frazier is a good, entertaining writer and it’s no skin off your nose to keep reading, so do it. In the end it comes together with a big, WHOA, holy shit that was intense. Nose skinned.
  • The 4% Universe, by Richard Panek. It’s not even wrong, according to some reviews I read by math and physics majors! A user-friendly way to find out a little about dark matter by getting the dirt on how the scientists fought each other to discover it. I particularly liked learning about Vera Rubin, who did some of the important early calculations and pursued her Ph.D. (but not at Princeton, her first choice, because women were not admitted to the graduate school then) despite nursing four children. At one point concessions had to be made in a key telescope regarding the only bathroom…. For pete’s sake, as if we don’t all pee in one place inside our homes.
  • Murder in the High Himalaya, by Jonathan Green. Not the greatest writing but a gripping story. Tibet is the weirdest place to read about because you might as well be in the middle of the Lord of the Rings, the references are so medieval and mystical. At the heart of the book is a moral dilemma that should not have been one—a community of climbers witnessed Chinese border guards shoot unarmed refugees—mostly women and children. A 17-year-girl was killed. The event was filmed. The people who filmed it knew what to do—release it to the press. But most of the climbing community wanted to keep it under wraps so that they could stay on China’s good side and keep climbing in the area. The book digs into the story of the refugees, gives the official Chinese version, and explores the different climbers’ opinions. But overall you wind up thinking a lot about relative versus absolute morality. This isn’t even the Holocaust, where you might have to choose between your life and someone else’s, or between your child’s life and someone else’s. This is about whether you get a sponsorship for a being a jock.
  • Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I saw this referenced in an interview with Bly in American Poetry Review and asked the library here at Phillips Exeter to get it. Bly argues, here and elsewhere, that American poetry has moved too far away from the great associative leaps that characterized romantic poetry as well as the work of many of the Spanish and South American poets, such as Lorca and Neruda. We’re too much stuck in our heads. He’s not arguing for the stream-of-consciousness stuff that we’re starting to see all over the place in MFA poetry now. Bigger leaps, more stream-of-SUB-consciousness stuff that requires a broader base of reading and experience.
  • The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller. Drawn to the beauty of Western Wyoming, Fuller moved to the area near Pinedale and found herself caught up in the conflict associated with the industrialization of that landscape for gas and oil development. In the life story of a young cowboy and roughneck, she epitomizes this tension. It’s not unlike The Tiger (above) in some respects. Fuller’s controlled but essentially gonzo journalistic style makes these characters sympathetic and gives the lie to narratives offered up by writers like Annie Proulx, which make the same landscapes look ugly and the same people bestial. One question is what are we going to do about the fact that we are turning our last wildernesses into grids full of drilling rigs, powerlines, switching stations, dusty dirt roads, and tanker trucks going up and down all day long? With little concern for worker safety as we go…
  • No Life for a Lady, by Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Memoir of ranching in New Mexico in the late 1800s. Interesting to compare her life with the one depicted in City of Light, above. Cleaveland went East for her schooling and it must have been a shock to deal with the routines and proprieties people in the East were bothering with. Something I’d never heard before: there was a messianic figure who came to Denver, walking out of the Mohave desert. Francis Schlatter was so charismatic that special trains were sent to Denver full of people who wanted to see him and be healed by him. He disappeared, only to show up on the Morley ranch in New Mexico, where he dictated his life story to Agnes’s mother. The title he chose is wonderful: The Life of the Harp in the Hand of the Harper. However, although she recounts this tale about Schlatter, I’m struck by how little personal reflection on God comes through in these memoirs I’m reading about life in the American West around this time.
  • The Victorians, by Thomas J Schlereth. Actually reads pretty well. Packed with interesting facts and figures about this transformative time in our culture. Good stationary bike or elliptical reading.



  • Way More West, by Ed Dorn. I wanted to reread Gunslinger, but this was what was on my shelf here in my Exeter apartment, and it’s got parts. Never gets old.
  • Morning Poems, by Robert Bly. Okay, I’m on a Bly kick. The stuff that’s coming out right now from him just rocks. So I looked on my shelf and found this, which I hadn’t got around to reading for some reason. Lots of strong pieces here. My only real objection, and it’s a big one, to Bly is that although he means to honor the feminine it’s always as he defines it, and his definition is always in terms of the male. Boring. But almost any poem that stays clear of that stuff, I love.
  • From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, by Charles W. Pratt. Each quiet piece will make you think. Pratt’s had some airtime in 2011 courtesy of Garrison Keillor. Here’s a sample from my blog earlier in the yeimagear.
  • Three Russian Women Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Bella Akhmadulina, by Mary Maddock. I was feeling so unsatisfied with certain Akhmatova translations by Kunitz and Kenyon that I thought I might have to try my own hand at them. Luckily, I went looking for other versions, and after reading what was in this book, I decided I could sleep. I also discovered Akhmadulina, who is possibly a better poet (gasp). While I was at it, I read Feinstein’s biography of Akhmatova. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
  • Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz. Just read it. If you find anything in there you don’t like, let’s discuss.
  • When I received my fellowship, the identities of the fellowship committee members were revealed, I found out about their significant publication credits and awards. So I went out and bought their books. What an enriching and humbling experience to read them:
    • Evidence of the Journey, by Ralph Sneeden
    • Cameo Diner, by Matt Miller
    • Strange Land, by Todd Hearon