Faculty Pick


Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

Richard Adams Carey - There are books that you enjoy and admire, and then books that you so enjoy and admire that you take them into your bones, and their phrases and themes become part of your own DNA as a writer and storyteller.

Such a book for me was Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.” Published in 1986, the work is a steaming broth of travel, history, folklore, ecology, and philosophy, its subject matter a part of the world as big as China, no more populous than Seattle, and as remote to most of us as the moon.

The impressions of European, Russian, and American explorers in the Arctic are quoted liberally, but Lopez—radically for that time—gave equal or greater weight to the oral histories and belief systems of the Inuit and Yupik peoples he moved among. He is particularly eloquent on what Western explorers called “the native eye,” that nearly occult sensitivity to the nuances of sky, water, landscape, and wildlife behavior that has been lost to Westerners since, more or less, the Agricultural Revolution.

Lopez’s knowledge of and respect for that other mode of being and this other-worldly geography was rocket fuel for me as I researched and wrote my first book, “Raven’s Children,” about the life and struggles of an Alaskan Yupik family. Lopez’s empathy for all things human, along with the grace and precision of his language, inspire me to this day.


Faculty Picks: Thrasher and Silber

Richard Adams Carey-- Sometimes a book comes way out of nowhere to knock you breathless. This is what I wrote in the annotated bibliography accompanying my first book, Raven’s Children: “A harrowing memoir by an Inupiaq Eskimo who is an alcoholic is to be found in Anthony Apakark Thrasher’s Thrasher: Skid Row Eskimo (Toronto: Griffin House, 1976).”

I found it somewhere on a bookstore’s table of publishers’ remainders. I was then still in the process of writing about a Yupik Eskimo family under siege from alcoholism, and I took a four-dollar chance on this obscure memoir of a solitary life eclipsed by the bottle.

But what a life and what a story. One of 21 children raised in a caribou-skin tent in the Canadian Arctic village of Tuktoyaktuk, and taken in 1943 at age six to a distant Catholic boarding school, Tony Thrasher was among those generations of Native American children whose original sin was their language, their culture, their parentage, their skin color.

No, this is not the inspirational story of someone who finds a way to rise above abuse and mistreatment. Instead Thrasher wanders through Canada from job to job, from woman to woman, frequently drunk. He was convicted of murdering a man in an alcoholic blackout and imprisoned for seven years. The story ends with Thrasher heading back to prison, this one for the criminally insane. There he disappears from history.

But his memoir crackles with storytelling verve, its byways lit by dream sequences, folktales, childhood memories, ancestral myths, as befits a man fathered by a shaman.

The two white reporters who helped assemble this manuscript were skeptical of some of Thrasher’s personal stories. But the tales and their evocative details all could be verified. “Right down to the name of the aircraft which is in Thrasher’s script but not in Jane’s ‘All the World’s Aircraft,’” they wrote. “De Havilland said there had been such a plane, just one, and that it had operated where and when Thrasher had specified.”

This really is Thrasher’s story, not theirs, dredged honestly from hell, and it’s both terrible and beautiful.


Katherine Towler-- Joan Silber’s Improvement, her eighth book, won the 2018 Pen/Faulkner Award in Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. The fact that these accolades have come when Silber is 72, after years of steadily working and publishing and being known by a small band of followers, many of them fellow writers, is something to celebrate.

Silber has created a unique hybrid in this book that is equal parts novel and linked story collection. Her focus moves from a single mother living with her young son in Harlem to the woman's ex-boyfriend and his involvement in a scheme to make money by smuggling cigarettes across state lines. Improvement initially appears to be a composite portrait of a close circle of characters living in Harlem, but then it moves farther afield, to Turkey and Europe, and jumps back in time forty years. Only a thin thread at first connects these narratives. As the chapters unfold, however, a large canvas becomes apparent, with a series of startling links revealed. Silber creates a sweeping narrative that is rooted in small moments and a close rendering of character. She accomplishes this feat of storytelling by allowing one character’s story to rest beside another’s without commentary or overt nods to their connections.

Her natural, easy style makes a highly plotted book feel completely unforced. Silber renders her characters with a light but deft touch and a bemused distance. Her quick insights into their inner states come as moments of divine revelation, but just as quickly, she’s back to the business of daily life. Silber’s nimble handling of both structure and character, and her wonderfully wry and effortless voice, make this book a pleasure to read and one to study for its masterful technique.

Faculty Picks: Abbey, Tharp

Amy Irvine-- It's the 50th anniversary of the first printing of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire—the book that etched indelibly into the American imagination the fathomless ocean of red raw lands in southern Utah. For the occasion, I have been commissioned to write a work that takes measure of Abbey’s near-prophetic concerns. Writing in the early sixties as a backcountry ranger in Arches National Monument (it’s now a full-blown national park), the Pennsylvania-born anarchist already believed that population, industry, and tourism were unsustainable. In his words: “growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness.” But even Cactus Ed could not have imagined just how aggressive and malignant that cancer would become—that the latest presidential administration would eviscerate two of the nation’s newest national monuments (also in Utah), and turn the Department of Interior, which is mandated to preserve the wilderness character of such lands, into the Department of Industry.

It’s easy then, to don the shroud of Abbey’s misanthropy (“I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”), to embrace his privileged solitude in the wilderness. Indeed, a more acute case of Ivory Cabin Syndrome there never was. For Abbey writes about his solitude as if he didn’t have a wife and kids in the wings. And the name he coined for Arches? “Abbey’s Country.” As if he had forgotten that the whole place had been stolen once from the region’s Native Americans, and then again from Mexico.

But we live in a far more crowded world now, and we cannot afford to hate the whole of us. So I’m trying to write the thing that takes on Abbey’s sneering, bigoted individualism with a more inclusive and communal approach to defending public wildlands. Which isn’t easy, when you’re the kind of person who prefers scorpions and quicksand to family reunions and neighborhood potlucks.

But I’m trying.

Lydia Peelle-- Many years ago, a friend recommended The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Actually, that's not quite an accurate statement. When she heard I hadn't read it, said friend immediately put me in her car, drove me to the nearest bookstore, bought the book (in hardcover!), and handed it to me, saying, "I'm not going to tell you anything about it. Just, read it." How's that for a book recommendation? And I am forever grateful to my friend for literally putting this book in my hands, because it is one I turn to all the time.

Creative thinking, as Tharp reminds us, is no magical mystery. It is in fact a habit to be cultivated and sustained, and in this book Tharp shares the techniques, exercises, and rituals for creative work that she has developed in her long and successful career as a choreographer - techniques than any artist, working in any genre, can practice and benefit from. The ideas in this book are a wonderful reminder of mind-body oneness. And, they're fun!  Here's one: get up out of your chair, step away from the writing desk, start moving your body and, and, as Tharp puts it, "Do a Verb." What will happen? Who knows! I love this book for the way it shakes up my "writer" brain, and I love to recommend it to other writers.

Faculty picks: Oliver and Sedaris


Katherine Towler-- I am writing fiction these days so I have been reading mostly nonfiction. Sometimes (but not always) it’s helpful to read in other genres besides the one you are wrestling with. Upstream, Selected Essays by Mary Oliver (Penguin Press, 2016) is the sort of book that calls for slow, careful reading and asks you to become as still and observant as the author. Most of the essays collected in this volume, published when Oliver was 81, have been previously published. As a selection of the best from previous books, Upstream is a gorgeous introduction to her prose and the subjects that merit her unflinching attention. These include astute pieces on the work of Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth. Other essays chronicle Oliver’s construction of a small writing studio in the back yard from materials salvaged at the dump, and her rescue and care of an injured black-backed gull who takes up residence in the bathtub. Oliver’s devotion to nature, a theme in her poetry, is given even more room in these essays, short and compact as they may be. The natural world is the subject she returns to most consistently, rendering her encounters with the animals and plants she meets on her daily walks in language so taut and revelatory, sentence after sentence take the breath away. Here’s a sample: 

“Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. . . .  Eventually I began to appreciate – I don’t say this lightly – that the great black oaks knew me. I don’t mean they knew me as myself and not another –that kind of individualism was not in the air – but that they recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting.”

Engulfed in Flames.jpg

Craig Childs-- After having assigned the same David Sedaris book, Naked, enough times, I decided to move on. This time I went for When You Are Engulfed in Flames, his 2008 book of essays recounting awkward moments of his life, turning anguish into snickering laughter and gut bomb roars. The subject revolves around his midlife crisis. He writes, “How had 9,125 relatively uneventful days passed so quickly, and how can I keep it from happening again?”

Yes on all counts, he’s a master humorist, his word-by-word articulation is as smooth as butter, his playfulness with grotesqueries of humanity is outstanding. But I’m not here to review the thing. I’m here to tell you that in the end, all I could think was, that was easy.

Easy to write, I mean. The book seemed manageable, clearly defined. I could see the outline, the number of subjects, how many points needed to be hit in each essay, how many live moments and conversations versus backstories. I know it wasn’t easy. Unless Sedaris is super-human, he sweated over the thing until he couldn’t see straight. Reading how neurotic he is, this would be unavoidable. Yet the final result was…easy. He succeeded with the magic trick. Crazy but wholly capable. Read it with structure in mind, you’ll see what I’m talking about, and enjoy those succinct and biting passages of his: “mess with me, and I'll stick my foot so far up your ass I'll lose my shoe.”

Faculty Picks: Sartre, Gyasi, Kurtén


Richard Adams Carey-- Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerie first novel, Nausea, published in 1938, could not be described as plot driven. Action? Well, protagonist Antoine Roquentin is a writer (and a loner) struggling to finish a biography of minor 18th century politician, to rekindle a romance with a former lover, and to resist the blandishments of a lonely autodidact who will be revealed to be a pedophile.

The real action is all within. Roquentin’s primary adversary is something that might be viewed as depression, but for Sartre it’s an especially clear-eyed grasp of the human condition. Trivial moments and objects are described in revelatory detail, in passages that ring with both their beauty and the hollowness glimpsed at their core. The result for Roquentin is a sense of nausea that “spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time—the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.”

The novel is written in diary form, and its final sentence—“Tomorrow it will rain in Bouville”—is life-affirming in the sense that at least there will be a tomorrow. Sartre’s hero endures, and if we could read his description of that rain, the imagery would be stunning.


Jo Knowles-- I recently read and loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). It's a riveting historical novel that follows the descendants of two sisters born on the Gold Coast of Africa who were separated by slavery, and the horrors that follow for generations, both in Africa and in America. The plotting, the characterization, the deep emotional punch every chapter packs is remarkable. Each chapter reads not so much like a short-story but a novella, and by the end of each, you feel cheated by having to leave the character you've just come to care deeply about. It's a masterful novel that explores the development of institutional racism and the deep and lasting impact of slavery that much of America still has not fully grasped.


Craig Childs-- I was asked what I’d read last. Having just finished writing two books in the past few weeks I thought, do I even read books anymore?

Then I remembered my research. Towers of it. The last book was Pleistocene Mammals of North America by the eminent, late paleontologist Björn Kurtén and his late co-author, born in Leadville, Colorado, osteologist Elaine Anderson, a dear friend who worked an Ice Age field camp with me in the 90s.

Printed in 1980, Pleistocene Mammals remains the hardcover manual on the general distribution, habitat, and fossil specifications for Ice Age animals, or anything else to live on this continent in the last couple million years. The drawings of teeth and jaws, jumping mice and mammoths, are simple, clean, and scientific. The language is often clinical, “the posterior mandibular foramen is larger than the anterior...”

But it’s a book that tells you something, a sort of time machine. You pass through pages showing ranges of sabertooth cats and Ice Age seals, and a world is reborn.

To write, you are not just in your own head, not just reading as a lark. Reading becomes solid work. You have to learn different ways stories can be told. Call it research, or world-building, this is where the good stuff is.