‘Joyas Voladores’ – Brian Doyle
I thought this was a superb piece of writing. Doyle’s description of the hummingbird’s engaging and well-written. In the first paragraph, after the opening sentence, he starts three short sentences with the phrase ‘A hummingbird’s heart is...’ – a technique called anaphora. He then finishes the paragraph with one very long sentence full of vivid verbs – “whirring...zooming...nectaring...hammering.” He uses anaphora at the start of the second paragraph too – “They can...” and the long list of the exotic and mysterious names of different types of hummingbirds adds an element of what is almost poetry to the essay. He then goes on to explain the “enormous immense ferocious metabolisms” that give these beautiful creatures with their beautiful names such a short life expectancy. Again he varies his sentence structure, so that long sentences are contrasted with short ones which also involve the reader by using the second person pronoun: “You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine.”
Doyle then moves to the “biggest heart in the world” – that of the blue whale. He carefully tries to give the reader a sense of its sheer size – the child being able to walk in the heart’s chambers is a down-to-earth way of explaining this to the reader. I liked the way Doyle admits we know “next to nothing of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale.” The notion that whales might have “wars” and “arts” stresses our lack of knowledge and gives them an aura of the bizarre and unknown. We then get a brief paragraph on the type of hearts that all living things have before Doyle’s succinct and distinctly non-scientific conclusion – “We all churn inside.”
The final paragraph of Doyle’s essay is so moving. As a whole the essay is a constant surprise, because form the title and the opening paragraph, it is impossible to predict how the essay will end. It ends with a meditation on the sufferings that we as humans feel through our hearts and the way that we are never completely open with anyone for fear that our emotions will be too strong, too overwhelming. There is a danger that this will lead a generalized sentimentality on Doyle’s part, but the essay ends with a list of real things that can, without warning, break through the barriers we erect in order to move us – “a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road.” From its beginning as an article on hummingbirds, this essay becomes a hymn to the human capacity for emotion.
‘Our Vanishing Night’ – Verlyn Klinkenborg
This article on light pollution opened my eyes to a phenomenon I had never really considered before. I found Klinkenburg’s explanation that light pollution is “largely the result of bad lighting design” made complete sense and his historical perspective that even two hundred years ago the biggest city in the world would have much darker was also something obvious, but something which I had never considered before.
This article is full of interesting facts – who would have thought that the lights from a fishing fleet would be visible in space? – and raises all sorts of concerns about the effects of light pollution on many different species. According to Klinkenborg, migration and mating patterns of some birds are altered by too much artificial light; that nocturnal animals have had to change their behaviour because they are more at risk from predators; that songbirds now sing at the wrong time of day; that sea turtles are finding it harder and harder to find dark beaches to hatch their eggs on safely.
One reassuring point that Klinkenborg makes is that light pollution can be easily remedied and measures to reduce light pollution would have the additional benefit of saving energy. He suggests that even human beings have been effected by artificial light – that modern urban populations have lost touch with the rhythms of darkness and light, and that this may be having deep psychological effects on human behaviour. However, it is clear that much more research needs to be done if we are fully to understand the effects of light pollution. Klinkenborg writes that “one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.” If this is true, then light pollution is a deadly new enemy. The article convinced me through its presentation of facts that more research is urgently needed. However, its emphasis on facts did not lead to very much emotional engagement on my part, so although it was interesting, I did not find it very engaging.
‘Bookmarks’ – Rebecca McClanahan
This is an extraordinarily powerful piece of writing. It is structured round McClanahan’s response to the marginalia written in a public library book – Denise Levertov’s Evening Train – but digresses in interesting ways to become a personal memoir, involving McClanahan’s youth and background, her love of books and marginalia, and, movingly, the story of her first marriage and her breakdown after her husband began to physically abuse her. Its emotions see-saw between the highly positive – the rewards of reading, the delight in speculation about a book’s previous owners based on the marks they have left, the joy of sex – and the highly negative – the sense of betrayal when her first husband reveals that he has made someone else pregnant, the sadness of the death of Carolyn (the writer’s mother’s best friend and fervent bibliophile), the first physical assault her husband made on her, her breakdown and suicidal tendencies afterwards. This emotional movement increases the power of both the happy moments and the darker memories.
McClanahan starts with the Levertov and ends with it too; she feels an empathy with a previous reader, whom she deduces to have been a woman, whose feelings McClanahan thinks she can discern through the annotations she has left and who she assumes (by the end of the memoir) to have been as suicidal as she herself once was. The essay ends with McClanahan in her imagination calling to the woman who once annotated this book: “Wait up, I want to say...Wait up; I want to tell you something.” Of course, what she wants to tell, the reader knows, is that life is so full of joy and happiness, and that broken hearts can be mended, and so suicide is not the solution. Despite the terrible story of her first marriage and her suicidal thoughts, this memoir oozes a love of life, and books, and the joys of reading. I found this essay very moving and cleverly structured in the way McClanahan moves between the library book she is reading now and the woman she imagines annotating it, and her own past: even her own past is revealed in a non-chronological fashion, because she moves between her experiences as a student and the a young wife, and older memories of things that her mother or Carolyn did or said in the distant past: McClanahan’s skill is shown in the way she brings all these strands together successfully.
The Inheritance of Tools – Scott Russell Sanders
Sanders structures this essay very cleverly indeed. In the opening sentence we are told that the morning his father died, the author hit his thumb with a hammer, but his immediate reaction to the news of his father’s death is delayed until the end of the story. What intervenes is part family history and the continuities that exist across generations, part celebration of the human ability to use tools well, and part tribute to his father and his carpentering skills. At points it also becomes a meditation, almost, on human existence – as if we are defined by the tools we use. The mood is uplifting, despite the sadness he feels at his father’s death, because he sees his own childhood behavior copied in the behavior of his own children (and this is presented in an amusing way) and also continuity in the fact of being human and using tools: he writes with enthusiasm of what anthropologists call “dawn stones” – the first primitive tools that humanity used – and he observes, “Our ancestors used them for grinding corn, tapping awls, smashing bones. From dawn stones to this claw hammer is a great leap in time, but no great distance in design or imagination.” Sanders does not say, but the reader might well think that the death of a parent and the sadness it causes are also part of being human and have been since we first evolved. In the essay these continuities – between generations of Sanders’ family and, over the ages, with primitive man – bring a sense of solace and comfort, just as the act of constructing a perfect right angle gives comfort and satisfaction.
Sanders writes with great nostalgia and respect for his grandfather and his father, and is proud of the fact that he still uses the tools that they used. Things said or done by both men are fondly recalled, as are his own early, comic attempts at making things: “My cobbled-together guitars might have been alien spaceships, my barns might have been models of Aztec temples.” The anecdote about his daughter’s gerbils also provides humor. Sanders makes us aware of the outside world at one point when he reports hearing the news headlines on his daughter’s radio while they fret over the gerbil problem, but the whole tone and message of this piece of writing is positive and that happiness and redemption are to be found in continuities, especially that provided by our families. Anyone who has some ordinary object in their family passed down through the generations will be able to relate to this.
Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog’ – Kitty Burns Florey
This originally-named essay is a delightful surprise. I say originally-named because the title gives the reader no clue whatsoever about the content of the essay whatsoever and so our expectations as we start reading are constantly surprised. In fact, the essay is a nostalgic piece about the now old-fashioned way that students of English in all American schools were taught how to “diagram” sentences. There are several examples of what a “diagrammed” sentence looks like which give the essay some visual appeal. Florey makes a lot of literary allusions which some readers might well find rather off-putting: in the first paragraph alone she has referred to George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and writers like Emerson and Fennimore Cooper. Later when she quotes H G Wells on the written style of Henry James I realized that she expects her readers to have the same reading experience and knowledge as she does – so the essay appeals to a well-read, highly literate readership. Towards the end of the essay she re-enforces this sense of exclusivity by remembering snatches of Latin that she remembers from her schooldays.
In the end, despite Florey’s enthusiasm for diagramming sentences and the bizarre diagrams that accompany the essay, I was not convinced that the skill of being able correctly to diagram a sentence was worth being especially nostalgic about. She herself admits that “Diagramming may have taught us to write more correctly – maybe even to think more logically – but I don’t think anyone would claim it has taught us to write well.” However, despite her desire to name drop lots of famous authors there are moments when Florey’s own language comes alive: she writes about the absurdity of trying to force “English into the well-made boxes of Latin and Greek, which is something like forcing a struggling cat into the carrier for a trip to the vet.” Here the simile involving the cat momentarily lifts the writing and makes it more engaging for the reader.
‘The Old House’ – David Sedaris
I found this article very funny indeed. Sedaris starts by describing the very modern furniture in his parents’ brand new house. You realize that the article will probably be light-hearted when he says that as children they learned that Scandinavia “was the name of a region – a cold and forsaken place where people stayed indoors and plotted the death of knobs.” That final phrase – “the death of knobs” – which sounds so ridiculous, is a reference to the clarity and simplicity of Scandinavian furniture design. The main part of the article is a fond but amused account of his teenage rebellion against all things modern, and a false nostalgia for a period in America’s past that he never lived through and which his parents cannot bear thinking about. The humor derives from the fact that Sedaris never lets us forget his teenage obsession was ridiculous, because he presents the views of others alongside his own. For example, when he is about to go out outrageously dressed in clothes bought from Goodwill, his father tells him he looks a mess. Sedaris responds: “Sure I looked out of place beside a Scandinavian buffet, but put me in my proper environment and I’d undoubtedly fit in.” His father’s response – “The environment you’re looking for is called a psychiatric hospital” – shows how ridiculous his dress sense is.
His obsession with the past leads him to choose lodgings that are full of antiques and completely lacking any modern convenience, but from a modern point of view Rosemary’s parlour is “a dirty room full of junk” – which Sedaris does realize by the end of the article, when he is also able to admit to himself – “More depressing still was the thought that I belonged here, that I fit in.” This insight brings him to his senses and finally moves out happily when Rosemary’s house is sold to the university. His time at Rosemary’s is also made comic by the weird characters (rosemary included) who live in the house, such as Chaz – a schizophrenic who has stopped taking his medication, and Sister Sykes – Rosemary’s eccentric old mother.
‘Yarn’ – Kyoko Mori
This is a strange article to read. On the one hand, it is full of information about the history of knitting and weaving and the different properties of thread and yarn, but it is also full of personal anecdote concerning the writer’s experience as a knitter and what it means to her.
I was surprised that knitting “is a young craft” and is pre-dated by weaving – something I had considered to be technologically more advanced – after all, to weave you need a loom. I was also surprised that when knitting first entered western Europe it was a male skill and its workers were organized in to guilds in medieval cities – just like other craftsmen. The fact that the sweater is also a relatively modern idea also intrigued me.
More is amusing in her accounts of her own early attempts to knit at school and admits she only starts to knit after meeting an expert German knitter at university. But since then she has knitted hundreds of items of clothing, especially hats, and given many of them to friends as presents. The appeal of knitting is made clear: it’s a very portable skill And you can do it anywhere with hardly any special equipment; the vibrant colors also attract Mori and her friends to the art; in addition, yarn is more flexible, more “forgiving” Mori calls it, than sewing with thread, and in as strange way more democratic since anyone can master it very quickly with practice. In fact, the whole essay is about being “forgiving” I think. At the end of the third section Mori says of her knitting that it is a way if releasing herself from her own evil spirit:
The evil spirit I want to usher out of my knitting and my life is at once a spirit of laziness and of over-achieving. It’s that little voice in my head that says, I won’t even try this because it doesn’t come naturally to me and I won’t be very good at it.
The notion too that every knitted garment must have at least one deliberate mistake is a symbol of being kinder to ourselves and to others, accepting the faults in ourselves and others.