Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb

Links to some of my other reviews

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2011 at 4:59 pm

A Terrible Love 

A Review of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

(Cresset, December 2013)

A First Novel: For Better or Worse

A Review of Paul Harding’s Tinkers

(Cresset, September 2010)

The Comfort of the Resurrection

A Review of Paul Mariani’s biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins

(Books & Culture, December 2008)

A Review of Michael Perry’s Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting (HarperCollins, 2009)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm

I like to read Michael Perry’s books about life in rural and small-town Wisconsin because I recognize the places and people in his essays.  When I say that I recognize these places and people, I mean this quite literally.  My niece sang in a choir with Perry’s parents, my parents buy meat from the same one-eyed butcher who processes Perry’s pork, and my mother once took a writing workshop with Perry.  Thus I was surprised, a couple of years ago, when I encountered a review of one of his books in the New York Times or when I saw him on the list of scheduled speakers for Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing.

It’s not Perry’s writing ability that engenders the surprise.  Indeed, he writes with well-timed humor and thoughtful poignancy.  It’s that his books produce a particular satisfaction in me that other readers won’t necessarily share: the pleasure of judging how well he describes a world that I know well.  His latest book, Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, is no exception. When Perry invokes the smell of fresh tires at Farm & Fleet, I’m there. When he describes his father towing a cow down a country road, I know exactly what that road looks like.

But the number of readers who have this experience is not enough to generate a book contract with HarperCollins.  This has made me wonder about the broader appeal of Perry’s books to readers who don’t have family in Bloomer, Wisconsin.  Part of the appeal, I imagine, has to do with the genre in which Perry writes and part of it with his credentials as a chronicler of rural life.

Perry writes in a well-worn genre that was launched upon the waters of Walden Pond when Henry David Thoreau set off to suck the marrow out of life.  Call it the “Experiential Narrative Essay Collection.”  When Barbara Kingsolver resolves to eat only local foods for a whole year, Bill Bryson dons his backpack to hit the Appalachian Trail, or Michael Pollan decides to build a cabin, this is the kind of book that results.  I’m most familiar with books that record experiments in rural living, but the genre has a broad range; some interesting recent examples including A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible  and  Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.

Coop records Perry’s experiences over a year in which he and his wife made a small foray into raising hogs and chickens and concurrently added a second child to their family.   It records these experiences, interspersed with memoirs of Perry’s childhood. As he farms, he thinks about his experience growing up on a farm. As he parents, he reflects on his own family, which included sixty foster children, many with severe disabilities.  Even as he fills pages with memoir, though, the central narrative of the book is about the economic triumph of feeding day-old bread to his hogs or teaching his six-year-old daughter to cut hay for her guinea pig.  What do readers find so satisfying in reading about other people’s experiments in living?  Why should I care how Perry constructs a “chicken tractor” or whether he allows his daughter to watch the hogs being slaughtered?

‘Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg Believes': a review of Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile (Alfred Knopf, 2006)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm

On April 21, 1780, the curate of Selborne Parish, Hampshire, wrote to Daines Barrington, his correspondent and fellow naturalist: “The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property.”   This letter marks the beginning of a relationship well-known to readers of English nature writing, that of Mr. Gilbert White and Timothy the tortoise.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, nature-essayist and New York Times op-ed columnist, also narrated a meeting of these two figures in a slender novel published in 2006: “I met Mr. Gilbert White when he was twenty years old.  The human year 1740, and I just come to England.  Stolen from the ruins I was basking on.  Jut of wall that had stood forever in sight of the Mediterranean Sea.  In earshot of its mild tides.  Thrust into a heavy bag by hand unseen.”  Yes, the tortoise is the narrator—the conceit that gives this novel, full of minute details of eighteenth-century life, its purpose.  

The difference in perspectives of White and Klinkenborg is illuminating.  Gilbert White identifies the tortoise with an English location, Sussex, and labels it property.  Klinkenborg narrates an earlier meeting and gives an imagined back-story, the tortoise stolen from its idyllic native home on the Mediterranean, “thrust” into a bag. 

Klinkenborg’s aim in Timothy or Notes of an Abject Reptile is to complicate our assumptions about human-animal relationships and to cast a tortoise-shaped shadow on the legacy of one of the heroes of the history of ecological science.  It is a didactic novel, one that sets out to teach that humans are merely animals; Klinkenborg, through the voice of Timothy, instructs humans toward a sharper recognition of our kinship and common fate with the rest of the natural world. 

When this novel arrived in bookstores, I immediately went out and got it, perceiving correctly that I belonged to the target audience: a reader of nature essays, a person who enjoys identifying the species that come to my bird feeder, and watches with interest the worms and insects that populate my (chemical-free) garden.  I have even done scholarly research on Gilbert White.   

Along with my interests in the natural world and Gilbert White, I have also recently read a stack of novels in a genre which Timothy fits well.  There’s no established label for this genre, but I call it the “literary re-write”: a novel or play that takes a well-known classic of western literature and re-tells its story from the perspective of a minor character or shifts the perspective enough to call into question the driving assumptions of the original.  John Gardner’s Grendel, Jane Smiley’s Ten Thousand Acres, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea are three of the better-known examples of the genre.  More recently, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel March, by Geraldine Brooks, fits this label.  All of these “literary re-writes” are didactic novels like Klinkenborg’s Timothy.  They set out to make the reader feel uneasy about the cultural and historical milieu which produced the original.  At worst they are preachy and supercilious.  At best, they present convincing and compelling characters that enable one to inhabit a world that exists alongside the one created by the original, in a tension that deepens one’s reading of both the original and the re-write.         

It is not difficult to see why Jane Smiley might take on family dysfunction in King Lear or Jean Rhys might explore the unwritten story of the mad wife in Jane Eyre, but why would Klinkenborg choose the relationship of a little-known eighteenth-century clergyman and a tortoise for interrogation?


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