Publishers Weekly ran a wonderful piece on Counterpoint, LLC’s history and accomplishments as the company celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall.
November 6, 2015
Before reaching its 20th anniversary this year, Counterpoint Press traveled a winding road, from its founding by Frank Pearl (founder of Perseus Books Group) and Jack Shoemaker, to its current iteration as part of Counterpoint LLC, which includes imprints Soft Skull Press and Shoemaker and Hoard.
Counterpoint Press’s current home, Counterpoint LLC, came together in 2007 when Charlie Winton, now chairman, CEO, and executive editor at large of Counterpoint, sold the Avalon Publishing Group to Perseus but kept the Shoemaker and Hoard imprint, acquired Counterpoint Press from Perseus, and then bought the independent Soft Skull Press. In 2014, the press also acquired the Sierra Club’s backlist titles.
When Winton acquired Counterpoint, the editorial mix was fiction and memoir. Winton wanted to add “serious nonfiction,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in provocative, journalistic-type publishing, truth telling with a distinctly progressive bent.” Between Counterpoint and Soft Skull, 65 to 70 original titles are published each year. (Shoemaker and Hoard doesn’t release new titles anymore.) Winton believes they might be “the only for-profit literary publisher west of the Hudson—and there aren’t that many east of the Hudson.”
Winton stepped down as publisher in 2013, and Rolph Blythe—who has worn a variety of hats in publishing, including bookseller, marketing director, and literary agent—assumed the role. Blythe joined a team that includes Shoemaker as editorial director, Dan Smetanka as executive editor, and Megan Fishmann as publicity director.
“Counterpoint is an author-driven house,” Smetanka said. “We exist in service of the authors that we publish.” Counterpoint’s authors agree. “When Counterpoint makes an offer to publish your book, you know your book is loved,” said author Tod Goldberg, adding that “they believe in you artistically, even if you don’t create a giant bottom line figure.”
Author Elizabeth Rosner, who has worked with Smetanka since 2000, said she used to “imagine that the advantage of being with a large house meant access to more resources, more support, more visibility, prestige,” but finds the “noncorporate version of a publishing house to be a genuine relief. I’m grateful to be published by people who still care about the written word.”
Going forward, Blythe said the press will likely expand through internal growth and possibly acquisition. “There aren’t that many of us—for-profit publishers doing the kind of work we’re doing. It’s a really challenging model. To grow the list organically is a slow way to grow. So we also consider acquisitions and look at other presses that might complement what we’re doing,” Blythe said. “We are moving the house in a more commercial direction. Since I’ve been here we’ve had two authors on the Today show: Lisa Bloom (Suspicion Nation) and Kevin McEnroe (Our Town), which is not insignificant for a small publisher.”
Reviews and critical success have also increased. Since the fall of 2013, the press has had 18 reviews in the New York Times Book Review, with one title making the cover. Karen Bender’s Refund recently won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.
Smetanka is currently excited about Abby Geni’s debut novel, The Lightkeepers, set for release next January, and said “bringing new voices like Geni is something you can do when you have a legacy of quality, thoughtful publishing.” Another book set for early 2016 is M.F.K Fisher’s posthumous second novel, The Theoretical Foot: A Novel. The manuscript for Fisher’s novel was found among the belongings of her longtime agent, Robert Lescher, after his death, and publication is set for next February, some 24 years after the death of the celebrated food and travel writer.
While Counterpoint continues to publish big-name authors such as Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and James Salter, Winton makes sure that the press is always attuned to new writers. “The thing we’ve been able to do successfully, which is the calling card of an independent literary press, is balance the values that we’ve always tried to have and maintain our relationships with our core authors while introducing new writers,” Winton said.
Goldberg continues to be impressed that the press takes risks, citing as an example Counterpoint’s decision to publish Les Pesko’s No Stopping Train through the Soft Skull imprint after the author and highly regarded creative writing instructor’s suicide. “Dan heard about this manuscript that Les couldn’t sell, got a copy of it, and published it to rave reviews. I have no idea if the book sold very well, but it almost doesn’t matter. That book is out there for a greater good, and that matters. I feel like that ends up being a kind of defining quality of Counterpoint’s 20-year run: they publish books that matter.”
November 9, 2015
Bird hangs up and sits on the stairs still talking, wondering if it might be true. She might be dying, that is, or only making it up. There is a code she doesn’t know, she thinks there must be, a sneaky, menacing tally. She lost seven teeth when she was pregnant: her gums withered; the yellow roots let go. She swallowed a tooth in her sleep one night and thought she had swallowed the baby, thought: I will have to give birth through my head.
“Like Zeus,” said her husband, teasing, “weird god of the fructifying bolt,” and walked out into the world.
What a fancy man Bird had married. Her boy calls him Fancy Man, too. Little Whale, White Moon, he calls the baby.
Bird cracked her pelvis, giving birth to that baby, and it hurts her still to walk. Not always, true, but all at once, going up. Plus the doctor had to go back in there—to get the last of the bone and the balled-up hair that the baby had left behind. Scrape it out.
Bird counts to ten—that helps—with her head down, sitting on the gritty stairs. Dog hair, dryer fluff—she doesn’t clean much. She doesn’t walk much. But she used to!
Bird takes the stairs the way she has learned to—sitting, moving backward, moving up, thinking of the seal and its flippers. Hands on the step: straighten your arms: hoist your big butt up.
She needs a bladder tuck—doctor said so. Her bladder sags, it pooches out of her—unmoored and inelastic—any time she stands. So she sits and tests it with her finger and of course she thinks baby. But this one will be pelagic and never come to land.
Bird reaches the landing and drags her mother’s robe across a nail poking up from the wide-plank floor. A scrap of cloth tears free when Bird stands up, a ragged wing her boy will bring to breakfast in the flat of his hand, saying, “Mama, I found a, I found a, I found a—”
But it is not, after all, a butterfly like the one that once stood on his nose.
For now, he sleeps. The boy sounds like seven men sleeping. He is small enough Bird could carry him still from room to room to room, if she could. He says, “Carry me like a baby. Feed me your milk like a baby. Feed me the kind that’s cream.”
She finds the rug with her feet, holds her hands out, blind, finds her bed in the dark.
“Who called?” her husband asks.
Bird doesn’t answer him: he’ll be down in a beat, in a long-drawn breath—a heavy sleeper, her husband, heavier since the children came. He sleeps through hunger, pestilence, flood.
Bird slides her cold feet into the heat he makes. She drops off to sleep for a minute, three, for a glimpse of a dream of Mickey, Mickey galloping over the prairie swinging a lariat over his head—roping gophers, roping coyote. Ho doggie. Not another two-legger in sight. But something whimpers, hurt, in the grasses, lost.
That’s the baby startled awake in her crib.
Bird moves toward her, the sizzle of panic starting up in her chest: she is too slow, too late, she always will be.
The baby sounds like a barking machine. She thrashes in her crib, unboned and blind, good as blind. The weight of her body pins her, strands her in the drift of her sheet: she’s been dropped by the wind, breached from the sea. Shored up here, needing.
Every living tissue, Bird thinks. She doesn’t want to, but of course she does. Bird wants a shirt that smells of her mother still to ball up in her hands. So to sleep. Sleep and let the phone go, let the school bus pass. Take the day in bed.
I can’t want that.
But she does.
She brings the baby to her breast in bed and tries to sleep. Nothing doing. She’s all stirred up. She smells smoke, or a hurricane coming. Smells the baby’s milky head. She has a tooth already, this baby, a little headstone poking through.
A little zing when she nurses. It hurts. If only it would hurt a little more, Bird thinks, maybe she would wake him. Take her man in her mouth and wake him, want him hard again. Gimme gimme.
She tries to want that, but what she finds to want is the mess of herself, the old dream that Suzie lives. Makes up, or lives, Bird cannot sort it. She cannot sort the news from the wishful, the actual from the dreamed-up muck of what Suzie fears, or Bird does, from what Suzie wants, or Bird does, or half the time what difference there is between wanting at all and fear.
She will turn a corner and find him there. She will never in her life again see him.
* * * *
Sacred, she thinks, and narcotic. That’s how it felt to her.
And now every word she utters or hears makes it feel flimsy and dull. But it wasn’t. It was sacred, she thinks, and narcotic. Doomed—but that didn’t matter.
That Mickey lived for weeks in his ragtop—summer then, the sumac high, down by the Brooklyn bridge. Didn’t matter to her. They climbed the trusses—in the wind, the rain, the dark of the night they met. They were lit. They were lights in the great swag of lights the river passed beneath with its garbage scows, its freight of darkened souls.
They kissed, and the air everywhere went sparky.
Sparky is her boy’s word.
May he never be a boy like Mickey was. May he never meet a girl the girl Bird was.
She draws the baby close against her. She can net her whole back with one hand. I will keep you from anything doomed, Bird thinks, and her heart picks up—with wanting, she thinks, and fear.
Appetite and revulsion.
Your life swings around, and you survive it, she thinks.
You make something other of it — life from life — keeping what you can. Even when you can’t keep much.
She would never in her life again see him.
But she keeps the cuttings of Mickey’s hair balled up in a drawer somewhere. She keeps the peel of the first orange they shared and a cruddy bloody tissue. Not much. He had demolished everything else: the little clay pot he had made for her, the painting of the silver-lined cloud. He rode her bicycle into the river. Mickey burned every letter he had written to her and the box he had made to hold them.
The note he left said, Forgive me. I talked to your mother while I wrecked that stuff. I don’t know why I did.
Of course Bird kept it.
The photograph of the dog in the ragtop, Mickey kept. He kept the photograph Bird took of her mother, newly dead, she had shared with him from shame: Bird’s mother in her bed before the coroner came. She looked terrified. She looked to be screaming, still bleeding from her ears.
Of all the things he might have kept, he kept snapshots of the dead. Think of that, Bird thinks—and count your stars. You survived him.
Or not. Because wasn’t surviving the worst part? The dreadful onset of the cure? There was nothing you couldn’t get over. You could sorrow all your life, but still you lived, you lived. You hoarded. You flew your mother on a string like a kite.
Of course it pulled. The kite was enormous. Her mother called down: it was lonely, dying alone.
But there was always more string to let out, Bird found, to keep from being lifted, to keep her mother lifting away. And Bird was heavy. She felt stuffed with sand when her mother died, the anchor and solace of grief. She couldn’t move; she couldn’t want to. Should she move, Bird moved against a current and the current wore her away. Even sleep wore her away: the dream that her mother still lived. Bird would turn a corner and find her mother still dying in some darkened room. Bird had forgotten her. She needed peanuts. She smelled of shit; she needed her ears to be cleaned. Daisies, she needed. Tchaikovsky. A nice bowl of kittens and peas.
I will never die, her mother insisted. And died. And died again.
We’re thrilled to see that Publishers Weekly has selected not one but two of our titles as their pick of the week. Congratulations to Noy Holland, author of Bird: A Novel, and Tara Ison, author of Ball: Stories!
November 6, 2015
Bird by Noy Holland (Counterpoint) – In her powerful debut novel, Holland (What Begins with Bird) tells the story of Bird, a mother and wife who, over the course of an innocuous weekday, reminisces about her drug-fueled spell with Mickey, a past flame, after a telephone call from an old friend, Suzie, tips her off to his latest escapades. Alternating between past and present, Bird mentally slips into her former life—a time of squatting in rundown buildings, risky sex, suffering a miscarriage, traveling cross-country, and encountering odd characters—as her contemporary self watches her son board the school bus and, later, soaks in the tub with her infant daughter, in Bird’s rural home in a vague Northeast setting. Telephone conversations with Suzie, who is embracing the wild existence Bird abandoned, bridge the eventually blurring time lines and result in a surreal journey. Holland crafts a deceptive narrative, one that on the surface appears to chronicle the dreariness of domesticity, yet ultimately transforms itself into a densely layered tale of lust and ache, filled with touches of the bizarre. A fascinating novel.
Ball by Tara Ison (Soft Skull) – The synthetic blond, the berserk lover, the horny teenager—Ison delves into the minds of these characters and others in this captivating and disturbing collection of stories: think Mary Gaitskill or Miranda July, but more demented. Ison writes about sex as the undercurrent of all adult life. Past abuse, current relationships, future encounters—none dispel the magnetic tug of human sexual attraction. The erratic narrator of the title story is just as annoyed by her dog’s obsession with playing ball as her boyfriend Eric is annoyed by her obsession with the dog. Eric breaks up with her, but she can’t break up with the dog. Or can she? In “Fish,” the main character waits for her dreaded uncle to die so that she can quietly feed his remains to the fish at a botanical gardens. Another story dramatizes the wig shopping one friend must do for her friend dying of cancer. The resentment between the friend builds to a startling climax with a pair of tweezers. These stories may shock but they also provoke, with many leading to an unexpected, and not always happy, ending.
“For me Gordon, and my first idea of myself as a writer, began at Columbia, amid student protests against investments in South Africa—shouting outside the window, leaves coming down, a hallway bright as a hospital. When I got to the head of the receiving line, Gordon asked me one question: Why are you here?” Lithub run’s Bird author Noy Holland‘s essay on her mentor Gordon Lish.
November 5, 2015
I first knew about Gordon Lish from an article Amy Hempel wrote for, I think, Vanity Fair, a piece called “Captain Fiction.” I was fresh out of college and working an entry-level job at Esquire, bussing tables downtown at night. I had written a story or two, didn’t know much but knew enough to feel invited by the lavish, heated, exalted way Gordon spoke about fiction—really about being alive. I went straightaway to Columbia and stood in the receiving line dumbly, unsure of myself, waiting my turn for the interview.
I don’t know if Gordon was wearing his jumpsuit back then, with the tail of his belt hanging loose, and brogans, and his many-feathered hat—I think this rig came later. Mark Richard came later, who sat on the heating vent, and Diane Williams, and Will Eno—years later. This gets to be a long time and a lot of people ago—late 1980s, early 90s—Sam Michel, Dawn Raffel, Michael Kimball, Yannick Murphy; Amy Hempel, Jason Schwartz, Lily Tuck, Ann Pyne; Ben Marcus and Peter Christopher and Victoria Redel and Richard Blanchard—to say nothing of so many others, stellar at the time, who turned to photography, welding, I don’t know, wrote for a time and quit.
For me Gordon, and my first idea of myself as a writer, began at Columbia, amid student protests against investments in South Africa—shouting outside the window, leaves coming down, a hallway bright as a hospital. When I got to the head of the receiving line, Gordon asked me one question: Why are you here?
It was just awful—dreadful—the story I’d sent him. There wasn’t a sentence in it he could stand to read but one. (He read the sentence aloud. I’ve forgotten it, a shame: I owe that sentence my seat at the table.)
I come from a quiet family. I’d been to a college where teachers wore tweed. Called young women Miss. Spoke softly. But very soon here was Gordon with the dial turned up talking nooky and Bloom, the nuthouse, Artaud, the implicative load, the hours he could go without pissing. He was irreverent, even lewd. He spoke admiringly of Paglia (who had shredded his book and sent it back to him–for use in the men’s room) and told biting, hilarious Schmolovitz jokes.
Why are you here? The question persisted. To what end, what effect, what possibility?
At Columbia, I began the first fiction I would publish, a story called “Absolution.” When I finished the story, Gordon wrote to my mother—she was in Tuscaloosa dying—an extravagant letter of extravagant claims, and he encouraged her to help me (she always wanted to and did.) My life was taking opposing turns—heady, painful, a bewildering loss I had begun to believe I could make something beautiful from. With sufficient desire. Desire is everything—this was at the heart of Gordon’s teaching.
Gordon didn’t last at Columbia. Before long he was conducting private classes in New York City apartments. We sat on the floor at Christine Schutt’s place—six hours, nine—late into the night, the traffic thinning. And a kid—Will Schutt, lovely poet—cracks the door, an eye in the dark, giddy, and looking on.
Fidgeting, pissing, food, thirst—we were briefly beyond all of it—any daily numbing concern—jobs to go to, rent to pay. I know how this sounds. The feeling wasn’t so for everyone, but I wasn’t alone in feeling it and for me it was absolute. The class was church. An intoxicating faith. A drug to last the week until we could get ourselves up from the village or across the country or over the river to sit back down. People came at great cost repeatedly and some–reading aloud, he always had us read aloud–some never made it past the first sentence. He’d say, What have you got, Kimball? Let’s hear it. Come on, Raffel. Let’s see if you can beat Richard. The scourge of Richard.
You lost it, Gordon would say. Or: You had it but you got tired. Don’t get tired. Exhaust the object. Why are you here? What is wrong with you?
These were not rhetorical questions. There was no discussion. There was reading and listening to others read and listening to Gordon speak. Perform. His teaching was a demonstration of what he wanted us to practice—shapely, obsessive, unafraid; a lot like juggling fire. I watched in awe thinking, How in the world can he bring this around—bring this thing back to that other when each is so distant and different?
Gordon seemed often in peril of losing his way. He improvised, invented. He vivified the plain and the daily. Talked shit, told jokes, made use of it, of everything, the snippet overheard. He repeated sentences, phrases we had written: “–things best left kept secret;” “–my brother and my’s room;” “I saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck once–” and followed with his wild praise.
We were writing into history. We were the gods of the page.
There was no “outside,” no public: the comparison was each to each. It wasn’t school. It was your life and you stood on a precipice and you had to commit or fail. Fail better.
Gordon was preacher, father, guide. Rogue. Raunchy, divine. We wrote to have something to hold against death—a rebuke. To beat death. What an achy, invincible feeling I could have, sitting cross-legged on that floor. What panic at the years passing.
I met Sam Michel in that class and we married and we’ve been married for 20 years. Sam and I see Gordon some and we talk on the phone and once, in New York, when our boy was still small, we went to a playground together, uptown, Central Park. Cracked jokes, pushed our boy on the swings, forgot the time, talking. Dusk came and we turned to go home but by then we couldn’t: we’d been locked in. It was a tall spiked iron fence—no way we were getting over it. We whistled and yelled and waved our arms and, as we did, a fat raccoon sorted quietly through food in the trash. At last help came, surly, scolding. But you can’t scold Gordon Lish.
I never saw him soften. I never saw the man shrink from saying plainly what was painful to hear. People hated him for this and still do. Well, let them. For my part, I will go to my grave saying thank you thank you thank you. For belief in what is possible, thank you. Stamina. Nerve. Not publication, not popularity in the moment, but something that has a chance to endure. Gordon’s teaching continues to make it, for me, easier to bear—even to hunger for—the isolation, the rebuke, the feeling of needing to stumble through my own peculiar darkness.
The sentence the sentence the sentence. Accretion. Torque. Swerve. Implicative load. Loosening of associations. You want your sentence to lean and hearken to the sentences which precede it. Music, you want. The gaze. You want, when you finish reading, not applause but a stunned regard. The spell cast and lasting. Some kindred soul whisperingmore.
Alternet ran an excerpt from Kathleen Winter‘s book Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, which chronicles her experience in crossing the Northwest Passage.
November 4, 2015
We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses—so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours. Were it not for Sheena McGoogan, who’d begun translating what she saw into her sketchbooks and encouraged us to do the same, I might have come away from the whole experience unable to express a word about it. Only after two years of looking at the images I sketched, both in the book she gave me and on watercolour paper, have I been able to speak. I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.
The first words I encountered in the North were made not through symbols but by rock, sky, and water — and, later, by the profound animals who possessed potent languages of their own. In the dramatic gallery of ice that cracked and floated off the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier into Disko Bay I began to perceive speech and language that proved other than human: to translate it I’d need to understand my own mind and body in a new way. This would take coaxing and tutoring by the land we were to travel, and because I’d been conditioned toward reason, to linear and compartmental thought built by explanation and deduction, it would take time.
I was far from the first human to lose my bearings here. Historians call Disko Bay the last place John Franklin was seen by European eyes. Witnesses claimed they saw him with his ship moored to an ancestral cousin of the icebergs we were encountering; once Franklin sailed from Disko Bay, no one from that part of earth ever saw him again. I felt, on seeing the icebergs, how one might easily vanish after being in their presence. The idea of mooring one’s ship to the ice had a ring of sad folly: had Franklin trusted the ice because of its mass and presence, even though it was made of frozen water and insubstantial as a dream? I tried to picture his ship moored to the ice and felt nothing but surprise at the prospect: both ice and ship seemed destined for dissolution. Might Franklin have sensed this at the outset?
Back on the ship we headed up Karrat Fjord, home to narwhals and seals and colonies of dovekies. We were to go ashore on an uninhabited island, and I saw we were entering a new psychological zone, a hybrid between the urban life we all knew and another, less knowable life ahead. Passengers tried to conjure memories of wilderness hiding within the cities we’d left behind. Surely we knew something about wilderness, about animals? The birders talked with Richard Knapton, the ship’s ornithologist, about birds common to both Greenland and their own homes in the south.
“A peregrine falcon,” a passenger said, “lives at 2180 Yonge Street in Toronto, on the corner of Yonge and Eglinton. It sits high on the Canadian Tire building, hunts from there, brings prey, and in full view of everyone in the offices, tears it to pieces. Blood everywhere.”
“Ravens in Greenland,” Richard answered, “will assess the length of a sled dog’s chain, then sit just outside of it.”
I’d seen those ravens coexisting here with chained huskies. I’d sensed the dogs’ haunted spirits cloaking the settlements in resounding howls over the gardens and graveyards. Those dogs tore prey to pieces as well as any peregrine falcon could.
But the land on which we were now about to walk had no dogs and no living humans. There would be human bones, though. The land knew how to devour its share of blood and bone, more ravenous than peregrine or dog.
“Be aware,” said Aaron, the young New Zealander who would lead us on our first walk far from any settlement, “that out on the land there are human remains. Respect them, and be aware of the boundary. Notice where the gunbearers are standing. Whatever you do, don’t go beyond the gun perimeter.”
He sent scouts ashore to establish sightlines and safe hiking places. Aaju and others readied their guns in case we met polar bears.
Marc St-Onge talked of the rocks we were about to walk on as if they were agents of action instead of the stationary lumps I witnessed in the distance. As we approached the rocky island I noticed him getting even more excited than usual.
“The rocks here” — he gesticulated as if at entities that hurtled and tore through space-time — “are all about the collision and suturing of continents.”
Marc saw movement where I did not; it amused me, yet I sensed he was trying to transmit a message I couldn’t intercept. Rocks, to Marc, were far more powerful than they appeared to me. It wasn’t that I doubted Marc’s view — but I lacked his perception and could not hear or decipher anything the rocks might be trying to say. I didn’t want to even try to hear their language. I was more interested in the ice, water, air, and myriad tiny lichen. On other voyages this ship had brought a botanist along, but we did not have one. I spent a lot of time with my face close to the ground, listening not to Marc’s stones, but to the eloquence of diminutive plants. I found their voices exquisite and brave.
We clambered onto a rise where black and orange lichen blazed in perfect circles on the rocks. There were, indeed, human bones, not buried in southern fashion where there is soft ground, but ritualistically lain under cairns of stone that we had to be careful not to disturb. It would have been easy to walk on one if you were negligent, and send rock and fibula and skull tumbling disastrously down the embankment, disturbing spirits. I climbed high over a carpet of tight green moss and minute leaves, and I sprawled on a sun-warmed blanket of turf from where I watched tantalizing icebergs float in the distance, breaking off into smaller and smaller pieces that floated then melted in the water with a fluid serenity. I was elated to have a vantage point no other passenger had found, though it meant I lay near the bones of a long-dead hunter reclining under a stone mound.
I lay alongside those bones on top of the stony ridge, listening to the soundscape. On our ship our captain once again fished from his deck, a distant figure raising and lowering his single line while around him roared a crashing boom as icebergs cracked and avalanched. The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord. I climbed higher and found a rock shelf. I sat on the ledge in one place for a long time, alone and listening.
New York Magazine‘s Vulture included Lauret Savoy‘s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape in their monthly roundup of books to read this November.
November 4, 2015
Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape, by Lauret Savoy (Counterpoint, November 10)
Savoy is a geologist at Mount Holyoke, but this sui generis creation, wherein John McPhee meets James Baldwin, dissolves all academic boundaries. Trace is a memoir, a meditation on landscape and identity, and a travelogue with a mission. “As an Earth historian,” writes Savoy, “I once sought the relics of deep time. To be an honest woman, I must trace other residues of hardness.” Digging for her family roots in America’s tripartite legacy — natives, African slaves, and European settlers — she unearths some genealogy, but more fruitful are the connections she makes between philosophy, ecology, and race.
The Wall Street Journal reviews Judith Hooper‘s debut novel Alice in Bed. Book critic Sam Sacks writes, “Ms. Hooper splendidly captures the humor and equanimity with which James faced her ailments… And the writing is elegantly dressed in the language of the period…”
October 30, 2015
When Judith Hooper’s Alice in Bed (Counterpoint, 392 pages, $25) begins, Alice James, the younger sister of Henry and William, is 38 and has checked herself into the Royal Leamington Spa in the English Midlands. For most of her life, she was plagued by a battery of infirmities — vertigo, migraines, rheumatism — that fall under the catchall diagnosis of neurasthenia. She had long tried to manage these illnesses, but when she went to Leamington in 1887, she took to bed and effectively did not get up again before her death from breast cancer five years later.
This sounds like the makings of a pitiable story, but it was during these final years that she produced her diary, which throbs with wisdom and perception, and, most remarkably, an enthusiasm for life: “Nurse says that there are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing,” she wrote in 1889. “How grateful I am that I actually do see, to my own consciousness, the quarter of an inch that my eyes fall upon; truly, the subject is all that counts.”
The pleasure of Ms. Hooper’s novel comes from its ability to summon this warmth and vitality. “To an observer it looks as if I am immobilized,” her James remarks, “but I am a traveler with a spectral Baedeker, visiting all of the places and people I have known.” The novel is made of these memories — of her stifled New England upbringing, the grand adventure of her European travels, her loving if troublesome relationships with her famous brothers and her devoted “Boston marriage” with Katherine Peabody Loring.
Ms. Hooper splendidly captures the humor and equanimity with which James faced her ailments (she cheerfully notes that “when you faint every day, you soon get used to it and it becomes a sort of hobby”). And the writing is elegantly dressed in the language of the period, though it must be said that this is borrowed finery, as many stirring phrases — “A congenital faith flows through me now, making all of the arid places green” — come directly from the diary. If “Alice in Bed” encourages readers to hunt down the original, so much the better.
October 28, 2015
22. Bird by Noy Holland – November 10
Bird puts her child on the bus for school and passes the day with her baby. It’s a day infused with fear and longing, an exploration of the ways the past shapes and dislodges the present. In the present moment, Bird dutifully cares for her husband, infant, and older child. But as she inhabits this rehabilitated domestic life, she re-lives an unshakeable passion: Mickey, the lover she returns to with what feels like a migratory impulse.
The day begins. Nothing will stop it.
The phone rings in the dark. Word finds its way along—no matter how far out you live, no matter what you say.
For years now, Bird has said it, for all the years since she has seen Mickey, all the things she has thought to say. “I wish you’d stop,” Bird says.
But this is Suzie. Newsy Suzie. Her voice high and bright, “It’s me.”
“Me too,” Bird says. “I was sleeping. You have no fucking clue.”
What Suzie has is the next word on Mickey. She has a new name to give Bird. She has had the names down the years, a trade sometimes. Beatrice. Once a dancer, Brigitte, a girl who painted. Rosemarie. Country girls, exotics. Clara, Angelina, Racine.
“That’s enough,” Bird tells her.
“Oh it isn’t. I keep you posted. Early girl news. He moved.”
Moved, moved again. He thought to marry. He’d marry another, think of that, just as Bird had.
“He’ll never marry,” Suzie says, “he’s like me. She would have to swear to die in three months’ time of an incommunicable disease. I don’t care who—Racquel, Ruby Lou, Victorine. He’s like me.”
Suzie lives among the samplings. The saplings, and the fathery men. Men and boys and girls. Ship to shore; hand to mouth; bed to bed. Not for her: the leaky tit, the pilly slipper. The dread of the phone that rings in the dark: It’s your turn next to suffer.
– Noy Holland
The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review of Summer Brennan‘s The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, calling it “freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories.”
October 25, 2015
The Oyster War opens with the epigraph “Everything not saved will be lost.” The sentiment seems straightforward, appropriate for a book addressing, according to the subtitle, “the future of wilderness in America.” But I paused at the quote’s attribution. The book’s guiding thought comes not from Thoreau or Stegner, not from Muir or Snyder, not from generations of writers who’ve proclaimed the intrinsic value of the wild. Instead, the author pulled this quote from a Nintendo quit screen message.
What, exactly, are we talking about saving?
An epigraph can be quiet, whispering an idea into a reader’s ear. Or it can be loud. This one, with its incongruous source stamped in all caps across the middle of an otherwise blank page, stomps its feet, announces itself. This is not your ordinary environmental story, it shouts. Drop your assumptions now.
The Oyster War casts shadows over a political landscape often rendered in stark, noontime black and white. It forces us to think beyond an easy binary of wilderness (pure, moral, natural) and business (corrupting, foul). The “war” reported here isn’t between the usual foes, plunderer and defender (say, Shell and Greenpeace), and the wilderness in question isn’t a remote, pristine battleground (the Arctic, say). Instead, author Summer Brennan recounts the decade-long fight between the National Park Service and a small, family-run oyster farm operating, alongside cattle ranches and dairy farms, in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, just an hour north of San Francisco.
In the early 2000s, Point Reyes’s Johnson Oyster Company was struggling to comply with environmental regulations and to stay afloat financially. Sewage from the company’s onshore buildings leaked into Drakes Estero, and plastic debris from the mariculture operation washed up on nearby beaches. The company’s 40-year lease with the National Park Service, which owned the oyster farm’s land and waters, was due to expire in 2012. Owner Tom Johnson was ready to give up.
In 2005, his neighbor, Kevin Lunny, a local rancher seeking to diversify his family’s operations, bought the struggling enterprise and renamed it Drakes Bay Oyster Company. As part of the sale, Lunny took over the lease. He knew park officials didn’t plan to extend it, but he hoped that by investing in the company and cleaning up the environmental problems he could convince them to issue a special operating permit. What perhaps he didn’t foresee was the park service’s determination to fulfill a long-standing mandate.
Back in 1976, four years after the Johnson Oyster Company signed its lease with the National Park Service, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act designated the majority of Drakes Estero, where the farm raised imported oysters, as “potential wilderness.” The continuing presence of the oyster farm was considered a “non-conforming condition,” and in 2004, the year before Lunny bought the oyster farm, an NPS field solicitor wrote that “the Park Service is mandated […] to convert potential wilderness […] to wilderness status as soon as the non-conforming use can be eliminated.”
These are only the barest outlines of the complicated fight over the fate of the oyster farm — a 10-year battle that would play out in lawsuits and scientific reports, federal legislation and mediation attempts, a grassroots poster-making campaign and countless column inches in local and national newspapers. The “war” would end only after the US Supreme Court had its say. Supporters of the farm — ranchers who worried that the threats to the oyster farm might endanger their own livelihoods, and advocates for local, sustainable agriculture — argued that agriculture and wilderness had coexisted for generations in Point Reyes and that the oyster farm, if managed sustainably, could be an asset to the landscape. Park employees, local environmental groups, and other residents countered that oyster workers disturbed seals and fouled the shores with plastic spacers they used in farming. The farm’s supporters accused the park service of government overreach and bad science. Wilderness advocates accused the farm of misrepresenting the facts.
Enter Summer Brennan, a journalist who landed in the middle of the controversy when she took a job as a reporter for the Point Reyes Light. Brennan was both insider and outsider — she’d grown up in the area but had spent the better part of a decade away. Eventually, she parted ways with the paper, and set out on her own, as she writes, “to solve a specific scientific mystery” — was oyster farming harming the estuary? — and to discover which side was telling the truth and which side was bending it. Along the way, she raises critical questions that extend beyond the immediate controversy — questions all of us need to be asking ourselves about our rapidly changing world. In the prologue, she identifies two “riddles” as central to the story of The Oyster War. One of these conundrums is, as Brennan puts it, “When humanity has touched and changed every corner of the earth, what does it mean to be wild?”
The wild is both cultural concept and legal description. Going back to Thoreau and beyond, we have understood wildness to be in opposition to cultivation. In “Walking,” Thoreau wrote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” For him, the wild was both a physical place and a mental state; when he wrote, in the same essay, “that in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” he was advocating both for the preservation of wild places and for a resistance to civilization’s demands. He valued wildness in part for what it offered to human beings: “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp.”
Americans have inherited Thoreau’s romantic attraction to the natural world. We go to wild places to shed the city and its stresses, to “reboot,” to find ourselves and save ourselves. Our national park system was founded on the idea of preserving our country’s natural wonders and wild places — for the people. The 1872 legislation that created our first park set aside Yellowstone “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Pleasuring-ground. The phrase sounds decadent and hedonistic today, but then you think of that park’s traffic jams and camera-toting tourists walking toward buffalo and, well, it doesn’t seem that far off the mark.
The landscape we’ve inherited would be unrecognizable to Thoreau, and our environmental laws have reflected its degradation. Just over a century after his death, the 1964 Wilderness Act (which Brennan includes in the book’s appendix) created wilderness as a legal category, conferring a higher level of protection on an area than park status, and serving a different purpose as well. According to the act, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In wilderness, the needs of the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants eclipse the interests of human beings.
Inherent in the conflict over the oyster farm is the fact that human beings had been more than visitors in Point Reyes for a long time. The Wilderness Act goes on to refine the definition of wilderness as “land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” But the oyster farm operation on the shores of Drakes Estero, as Brennan describes it, included an oyster shack and hatchery, a dock and conveyor belt, drainage ponds, picnic tables, a shipping container that functioned as a cannery, and trailers and mobile homes that housed the farm’s employees. On a visit there, Brennan encounters escaped dairy cows, a child’s Big Wheel, propane tanks. How could this be wilderness?
Here is where the designation of “potential wilderness” enters the scene. In creating a legal category of areas that could be converted to wilderness once “non-conforming uses” were removed, the authors of wilderness legislation suggested that we might be able to undo the damage we’ve done, that we might restore a place to, if not its original state, at least a “natural” one. It’s a hopeful thought in a world where human activity, in the form of carbon emissions, now affects even the most inaccessible, seemingly unspoiled regions of our planet. But whatever condition a place reverts to, after an oyster farm is removed or after (if) we drastically reduce carbon emissions, it likely won’t even remotely resemble whatever might have been in the absence of human civilization.
The very idea of wilderness restoration requires that we revise our definition of what’s “natural,” and perhaps also that we reenvision the wild.
Food writer Michael Pollan, who, Brennan tells us, weighed in on the side of the oyster farm, has been arguing since his very first book appeared nearly 25 years ago that we need to abandon Thoreau’s view of wilderness and cultivation, nature and culture, as opposites. In today’s world, he insists in Second Nature, even wilderness requires intervention and management: “[B]y now, we have made so many changes in the land that some form of gardening has become unavoidable, even in those places we wish to preserve as monuments to our absence. […] it’s too late now to do nothing.”
What that management should look like is controversial. In the city parks near my house, volunteers rip out the invasive Himalayan blackberry, bindweed, and English ivy that tangle, climb, and threaten to engulf entire trees and replace them with native plants. But in many wilderness areas, workers are allowed only to remove invasive vegetation. Policy then dictates that they let “nature” take over and see what regenerates.
In the question of how to manage the stretch of land and water comprising the Drakes Estero wilderness area, Pollan and others contended that sustainable agriculture was a responsible use of a region that was already “semi-domesticated.” Others maintained that the “gardening” necessary to restore wilderness was digging out the oyster farm entirely.
Which brings us to the other “riddle” Brennan raises at the beginning of her book: “How do we decide who belongs or doesn’t belong?”
As I read The Oyster War, a controversy was brewing in my own neck of the woods. Two days before the Vietnamese supermarket three blocks from my house was to close its doors for the last time, a neighbor posted on the community’s Facebook page the announcement of the closure and a link to Trader Joe’s “Request Location” page. The post, which encouraged neighbors to ask the company to move into the soon-to-be-closed Viet-Wah location, set off a 50-comment flame war, with buzzwords like “local,” “affordable,” “corporatist,” “gentrification,” and “multicultural” lobbed like grenades.
My urban neighborhood, with its screaming sirens and sea of concrete, looks nothing like fog-hushed Point Reyes, where wind rushes across water, picks up sand, rustles through grasslands. Still, I can’t help but see parallels between the two, not just in the rancor inspired by change but in the issues that stir that rancor. Both there and here, people worry about their ability to remain, on the land, in their neighborhood, connected to a place that feels like home. Or they worry that all that’s valuable about a place will be lost as it changes.
As the battle in my neighborhood played itself out on Facebook, an occasional bell of sadness would cause a break in the hostilities, like this one: “That Viet-Wah was one of the first memories I had in the United States. Tomorrow a part of me closes.”
The Oyster War is a story about our relationship to the wild and our attachment to place, but it is also a story about how story itself functions. Near the end of the book, Brennan writes, “The more I researched and wrote or thought about this case, the more it seemed like a Rorschach inkblot test, with people seeing within its sprawling little mess whatever monsters they already found most frightening.” Among the monsters she calls out are “big” government,” sloppy science, and the struggle of the “little guy.”
Unique, specific stories can transmute into symbols when we close our eyes to nuance and particulars. With the proliferation of click-baiting, sound-biting media that convey only stripped-down summary or the shouts of the loudest voices, we are ever in danger of losing our ability to see the complexity of our world.
Every story is freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories. The great value of Brennan’s book, even if it gets, as she writes, only “as close to the truth as I could reasonably be expected to come,” is her deeply probing effort to understand and craft as full and complex an account as possible. Shaped like a spiral, the book begins at the outer edges of the narrative and circles slowly inward, tracing as it goes the many contexts that are indispensable to understanding the oyster farm controversy. Along the way, Brennan takes us across the country to negotiations over wilderness legislation in the halls of Congress and back in time to the origins of California oystering. We follow her into a dispute over the “culling” of nonnative deer in Point Reyes and through Edward Abbey’s writings and the inception of the radical environmental groups Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. Finally, she leads us into the local ranching community, the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore, and the scientific and legal volley between the oyster farm and the park service.
Only after accompanying Brennan through these histories can we begin to come to any conclusions about what should or shouldn’t have happened in the war over the oyster farm. Even then, we might not easily come down on one side or the other (and perhaps such a conflicted reaction is desirable in our complicated world). We will, however, have come closer to understanding some of the questions we face, and the options open to us, as we seek to create a world that retains something of the wild.
Everything not saved will be lost. Maybe the out-of-context origin of Brennan’s epigraph was simply coincidence. Maybe the quote just happened to fit her topic — wilderness — and who cares where it came from? But I doubt it. Because as the digital world — in the form of a quit screen message — unexpectedly intruded into my reading experience, what came to mind were all the words I’d ever lost, drowned in the deep blue screen of a crashing computer, locked away on an unreadable floppy, or simply forgotten.
Everything not saved will be lost. Doesn’t this apply to story, too? What about all the words lost — perspectives and knowledge unavailable — because they were never written down in the first place? Writing is an act of preservation, too. We need stories like the one Brennan tells here — stories that take time and great persistence to research, consider carefully, and then fashion into a coherent and engaging narrative. Books like The Oyster War ask much of their readers: patience, openness, a willingness to see all sides of a situation. Are we at risk of losing these complex accounts in favor of a quick glance at the headlines? And if so, what then? Will we become locked in our own perspective, seeing only what we want to see and ignoring the rest?
WhoWhatWhy, the investigative reporting site led by Russ Baker, ran an essay by Larry Hancock on the futility of Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi hearing. Hancock is the author of Surprise Attack: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 to Benghazi.
October 23, 2015
The underlying story of Benghazi is one that cannot and will not be talked about in any open session of Congress. This means that Thursday’s hearing featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was nothing but an exercise in futility.
It is the story of a covert CIA operation that was operating from a separate facility in the Benghazi compound that was simply known as the “Annex.” Some two dozen CIA case officers, analysts, translators and special staff were a part of this operation and its security was provided by CIA Global Response Staff (GRS), who had entered the country under diplomatic cover.
The CIA’s mission included arms interdiction — attempting to stop the flow of Soviet-era weapons to Central Africa — and very possibly the organization of Libyan arms shipments to vetted insurgent groups on the ground in Syria.
There is also evidence that the mission was working in concert with military personnel from the Joint Special Operations Group Trans-Sahara. At the time of the attack, an unarmed American surveillance drone was in flight over the territory east of Benghazi and Trans-Sahara military personnel were stationed in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
In contrast, the State Department’s special diplomatic mission facility, classified as “temporary,” was minimally staffed with a rotating series of State Department officers sent to and from Tripoli.
US Ambassador Christopher Stevens had not been in Benghazi for a year. When he arrived for a short stay in September 2012, only a single diplomatic officer was present there, and that officer rotated back to Tripoli upon the ambassador’s arrival. Stevens was accompanied by a communications officer and a handful of Diplomatic Service Security staff. The security personnel provided protection for the ambassador during his travels and meetings in the city. His presence was intended to be extremely low key, but it was exposed in the local media shortly after his arrival.
FRUITLESS, MEANINGLESS, POINTLESS QUESTIONING
Asking Clinton to justify maintaining the State Department temporary mission in the face of a worsening security situation is fruitless, given its actual function as a clandestine national security mission cover.
Questioning Clinton about that role would be as meaningless as questioning senior CIA personnel about operational information. Such missions cannot be publicly acknowledged or discussed, and revealing anything about them is strictly prohibited.
The same national security laws constraining State Department and CIA personnel also prevent lawmakers, other than those on select intelligence committees, from being briefed on such missions. And even those privileged individuals could not raise related questions in public — or even in closed sessions that include committee members or staff without the appropriate clearances.
In addition, querying Clinton about her involvement in the immediate response to the attacks is also pointless. The Secretary of State has no legal or operational role in a military response to a diplomatic facility attack. Only National Command Authority (president/secretary of defense) can order a foreign military intervention. The State Department does have Foreign Emergency Support Teams (FEST), composed of personnel from multiple agencies and maintained on alert to respond to crisis. But the FEST teams have no military elements and are dispatched only in the aftermath of a crisis, when the security situation allows. Following an attack their role is damage assessment and recovery.
Earlier investigations have already documented that President Obama ordered a military response immediately upon word reaching Washington. They showed as well that the AFRICOM commander responded to that order right away, directing deployment of the closest military quick reaction units — units which were on station in Spain, training in Eastern Europe, or back in the United States.
There were no armed American aircraft or naval units close enough to respond during the attack, those assets were in operation in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the Horn of Africa in Somalia and Yemen.
MAINTAINING A COVERT PROFILE
As for the well-equipped paramilitary operatives at the CIA station, according to their own statements, they were initially held back by the CIA station chief — as they had been in other incidents. And the station chief was, in turn, acting under his directive to let local militia groups respond. That practice was intended to maintain the station’s covert profile. Unfortunately, it was not consistent with providing any real time defense for the State Department compound.
Given all of the above, it is clear why the hearing quickly turned into a game of “pin the tail on the donkey.” As Democrats have claimed all along — and some Republicans have recently admitted — the committee’s work is mostly about beating up a political adversary and not at all about advancing the security of American diplomats abroad.
The Washington Center for the Book administers the annual Washington State Book Awards (formerly the Governor’s Writers Awards), given for outstanding books published by Washington authors the previous year.