Monday, February 17, 2014

Cassandra Kircher: On E.B. White, Adoption, and Writing Hybrid Reviews

Every time I read E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” it sends my head floating, and I feel so close to White’s words that they seem suspended inside of me. It’s an essay about memory and family and returning to a place that has been a part of a person’s life since childhood. I love the description of the outboard motors sounding like mosquitoes. I love the togetherness of father and son. I love the storm at the end. And I love the way that White negotiates what he calls the grooves of his mind as he reflects on the past at the same time that he is experiencing the present. He published the essay in his early forties, and I know now that it might take that much time to appreciate the patterns in our lives.

There’s a lake in my life like White’s, and I’ve come to realize over the years that having a lake of your own might be a prerequisite for falling in love with “Once More to the Lake” in the way that I have. At least this has been my theory the past couple of semesters I’ve taught the personal essay, since most of the students who read White aren’t very enthusiastic about his lake or the quiet everyday, life-and-death events that happen there. I sometimes think it’s only students like Cory, a young woman who used to vacation at a White-like lake in Maine, who defend White’s essay. After reading “Once More to the Lake,” Cory went on to write poems about her own lake and the loons that live there and the father that fished by her side.

My lake is in the upper Midwest, surrounded by birch trees, and I’m writing about it now in another essay that begins with the same two paragraphs I began this piece with, an essay—in fact—that I began with the Daily Essay in mind, and then I riffed right into my own life and couldn’t let go, pretty much abandoning White and my thoughts about his relationship to the essay. That first piece I wrote was about loss, not the kind that reverberates from White’s final sentence about his son and the chill of death, but the kind I experienced the afternoon I realized my uncle had given my brother the deed to the family cottage—and what that distancing from my lake feels like. I didn’t leave White deliberately. I wandered away, the way White thought essayists are supposed to, the way a good hiker does when, walking along a river, she sees a new plant or tree and ends up off trail all the way back to the car.

Juggling my lake experiences and White’s essay got me thinking about the kinds of book reviews that negotiate a reviewer’s own life and a work of literature created by someone else. There seem to be more of these around lately, published primarily by journals focusing on nonfiction. Fourth Genre publishes them and Brevity. A nonfiction session at this month’s AWP will focus on defining what its panelists have named the “essay/review” (although the term essay-review was used to describe a piece by Lorrie Moore in the New York Times Book Review that has nothing to do with Moore’s personal life). I’m not sure what to call them: Hybrid? New? Personalized? They seem to be more described than labeled, even though most journals that publish them don’t mention anything about them on their submissions pages (DIAGRAM excepted which has been publishing this kind of review about all genres, not just nonfiction, since 2004).

The first one I wrote was for Brevity. I was—I thought—reviewing Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the 20th Century when Debbie Hagan, a Brevity editor told me to “… be aware that the book reviews [in Brevity] are a combination of personal narrative and book review, the intersection of what we read and our personal lives.” I wanted to tell her I knew that, but I’m not sure that I did. I knew that the reviews I’d read in Brevity were different (i.e., short?), but until receiving Hagan’s email I was planning to review Stuckey-French’s book in the same way that I’d reviewed On the Outskirts of Normal for a different journal a few months before: pretty normally. Now I was told to go ahead and write about myself in addition to the American essay in the last century. I can’t remember if I found that conflation terrifying, but I started again, eventually replacing my first paragraph with a point of “intersection” between reading Stuckey-French and my life, a point that focuses—conveniently—on E.B. White:
The first time I read E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” it seduced me. I was in graduate school when a professor assigned it, and the essay brought back scenes from all the years I had once spent at a lake in northern Wisconsin. The same lake my father had gone to as a boy. The one where I hoped to take my own future daughter or son….
Of course, Stuckey-French’s book focuses on a topic much larger than this one essay, but White was his hero as well as my path into whatever it was I was writing.

There’s a good chance that Brevity, just as it published some of the first online flash nonfiction, also published some of the first hybrid flash reviews about books of nonfiction when Dinty Moore started publishing them on his website around 2006. I felt my way forward into my review of The American Essay in the Twentieth Century by remembering Hagan’s advice (above) and by rereading the reviews in Brevity, reviews usually following a loose, three-part convention: 1) begin with the personal; 2) transition to a focus on the book being reviewed; 3) end back with a brief nod to the personal. It’s the formula I ended up co-opting, writing a chunky first paragraph all about me, and then shifting gears to get to what I thought of as my real subject:
“Once More to the Lake” nudged me into what White calls “the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.” The same essay, indeed all of White’s work, helped lead Ned Stuckey-French back in time, though in a less personal and sentimental way, to an understanding of White’s place in the essay’s development.
Dinty Moore shifts gears in a similar way, though from his book-subject to his personal life, in a review of Brenda Miller’s Blessing of the Animals:
“The dogs are barking. All over Mexico, it seems, dogs are barking, and its 3 a.m. and a crescent moon hangs low in the sky.”
    With this simplest of details, the opening to one of Brenda Miller’s marvelous essays, I’m transported back to San Miguel de Allende, a cobblestone and cathedral town filled with donkeys, street vendors, and American ex-pats in Mexico’s mountainous bajío region, where I had the good fortune to spend four weeks last summer. For me nothing beats lying awake in bed, with the windows open….
When I finished my review of The American Essay in the Twentieth Century, I decided that it lined up pretty well with its Brevity peers and sent it in, almost forgetting that I had been negotiating new terrain until a friend (a writer, but not an essayist) read it. “What,” he asked—curious, puzzled, earnest (and he’s not an earnest friend)—“is this?”

It wasn’t the conventional review I’d written a few months before on Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain—my friend had read that one as well. In that review I’d written a line that Monroe liked well enough to want it tattooed on her body or cross-stitched on a sampler for her wall. (I learned of this second-hand through Facebook.) One of the many reasons that I liked her book about adopting a daughter while living in a small, conservative town where she lived as an outsider was because I, too, had lived in a small, conservative town and had adopted a daughter, a daughter who was sick the day I met her when she was eighteen months old and stretched corpse-like across my lap, not trusting me even in her heated sleep. I understood Monroe’s book and her experiences at their core, but no one who read my review would know why. I wonder now if hybrid reviews aren’t more accurate, if there might be something almost dishonest or disingenuous about withholding a writer/reviewer connection, like my own adoption information, from a reader. After all, the writer of a book of nonfiction is reaching for truth about his/her experiences. Shouldn’t a reviewer of how those experiences are represented in words do the same?

My friend that day wasn’t worried about my review being different from the conventional reviews that, according to Frank Donoghue in The Fame Machine, have been making or breaking authors since 1751. Instead he was worried that I had written so much about the summers of my childhood vacations that I was obscuring Stuckey-French and his central argument about White’s role in saving the personal essay from extinction. When writing that first review I hadn’t thought of myself as standing in front of my subject, waving my arms like a bratty kid, but when I started writing a second hybrid review, this time on Kirstin Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Living in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, my friend’s concern had become my own. Who was I, I wondered, to start spouting off about my ten years living along Colorado’s Front Range, the setting of Iversen’s book? What could I contribute to the nuclear horror-story that had happened at Rocky Flats, a plutonium trigger manufacturing plant that was in Iversen’s childhood backyard? In writing about Full Body Burden, I committed what must be an academic sin by publishing two separate reviews on Iversen’s one book: a hybrid review for Brevity and a much more conventional review for Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment. (I also—more sinning—featured Full Body Burden along with Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in a longer multi-book review focused on nonfiction written in response to the nuclear age.)

Why do I like writing these hybrids? Any essayist knows that, in Edward Hoagland’s words, “Essays belong to the animal kingdom, with a surface that sparks like a coat of fur.” They have what Carl Klaus calls a “nominal” subject dancing and twirling with a second, usually more important, subject. By definition, a hybrid review is an essay. You don’t have to hope that the sparks will show up and start flying. And when they do, when the animal is up and running around, there’s payback for the reviewer—insights arrived at when your life is filtered through literature. Before writing about The American Essay in the Twentieth Century and Full Body Burden, I hadn’t made connections that writing the reviews helped me make:
E. B. White is Stuckey-French’s hero, and in many ways, he is mine—not only did I swoon over “Once More to the Lake” all those years ago, but White’s work, as much as any other essayist’s, also attracted me to a genre that I hardly knew existed.
Reading Full Body Burden on a flight to Boulder last spring, I wasn’t feeling the weight of a book in my lap as much as I was feeling the weight of guilt, of not paying attention all those years ago. If only I would have acted, I could have tried to shatter the silence as Iversen has so powerfully and beautifully done.
Conversely, reviewing On the Outskirts of Normal helped me to better understand Debra Monroe’s life and book and to see parallels between Monroe’s experiences and my own. I can’t, however, pull out a couple sentences from that review, as I did from the Stuckey-French and Iversen reviews, to illustrate any personal insight I reached about my own adoption story or the many years I lived in a small town.

From their beginning, traditional literary reviews have been panned Goldilock’s-style, in various ways, as too positive or too negative, too bland, plentiful, elite, dumb, comprehensive, pretentious, derivative, or obsolete, but never just right. Elizabeth Gumport, in her 2011 n+1 article “Against Reviews,” argues that we should just get rid of reading and writing them altogether because they’re “pointless” and because “…the new age requires a new form,” one that she doesn’t describe, although it’s possible she might like the intimacy of the hybrid form as well as its focus on the reviewer’s own experiences instead of what she calls “a modified recapitulation of what already exists” (i.e., the book itself).

I was driving home from work a couple of weeks ago when I heard a review (a conventional one) of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and gushed so much about the book to my husband that he bought it for me the next day. I had fallen for George Eliot’s Middlemarch the nine months I lived in Oxford, some of the dreariest and saddest of my life, and the book had taken a place in my memory as a close friend. Mead’s book interested me, in part, for that reason, but as I listened to the reviewer describe My Life in Middlemarch, I was reminded of the hybrid reviews I’d written. It sounded as if Mead was writing a personal narrative about her own life and its relationship to Middlemarch at the same time that she was doing a biography of Eliot and a review, or critique, of Eliot’s masterpiece. When I read Mead’s preface the next day, I found the question that I didn’t even know I was looking for. A journalist for years, Mead used five questions to frame her Middlemarch project. One of these—What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has helped my understanding of my own life?—hit me in the gut. When writing hybrid reviews, I had been addressing this question to some extent, but more by chance than by design. Explicitly adopting this question when writing my next hybrid review and replacing “Middlemarch” with the book under consideration could make a difference not only to my life and other people’s lives, but it might also help define a kind of review that ends up being more important and relevant than we now know.

If someone had asked me to describe the cover of My Life in Middlemarch the first few days that I owned it, I would have mentioned concentric circles and, perhaps, my intuition that the cover was not memorable because it only depicts part of an obscure scene that must be England and part of a young woman who might be Eliot or Mead. This morning, however, I realized that these circles are really something as concrete and specific as a vinyl record, either an album or a 45 rpm single, and that the cover is a visual representation of personal memory, of returning to a place and time over and over and over, and of the grooves, even though you don’t see them, that take you back.


Thanks to Ned Stuckey-French, book review editor at Fourth Genre, Debbie Hagan, book review editor at Brevity, and Ander Monson, editor of DIAGRAM, for answering my email inquiries about hybrid reviews. Thanks also to Patrick Rudd, librarian at Elon University and Jessica Brown, Elon student, for helping me to research the history (or lack of history) of hybrid reviews.


Cassandra Kircher has recently published nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, Apalachee Review, and Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. She is the winner of Flyway's 2010 Notes in the Field contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She teaches nonfiction at Elon University.


  1. Thanks, Cassandra. White is a touchstone for me too, my favorites being Death of a Pig and The Ring of Time. The former I wrote about recently on Bill & Dave's Cocktail Hour:

  2. This is "just in time" for me, Cassandra, as I am embarking on writing a review of Danile Menaker's "My Mistake"( because I revere all things EB White as Ned knows through a class I took with him, and all things New Yorker because White graced their hallways and their front pages) and wanted to use a more narrative style-not fully realizing what that even meant to me--and now I know. Thank you so much for this valuable essay.

  3. Cassandra, very insightful. I love how you put Brevity's book reviews in context with what other literary magazines are doing. Also, I agree that the personal narrative can't overshadow the book being reviewed. The hybrid review works best when the reviewer's personal experience and insight adds another layer to the book's conversation.