Rebecca Bain

Annie Proulx is a bit of a nomad. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain” moved 20 times as a child, and she’s kept the habit alive as an adult. A constant series of unsatisfactory houses—too big, too small, no bookcases—made her long for a home that reflected who she is as a woman and a writer.

Proulx almost has that ideal home on 640 acres in Wyoming, a landscape she writes about in her first nonfiction book in two decades. Her house and her book are called Bird Cloud.

Bird Cloud is many things: part memoir, part social history, part nature observations, with a little archeology tossed into the mix as well. However, it’s not exactly the book Proulx was planning to write.

“I hadn’t planned to write a memoir. What I thought I was going to be writing about were the problems and solutions in constructing my house because I find that sort of thing interesting. And there was a lot more of that in the book before my editor decided maybe there shouldn’t be,” Proulx says by phone from New Mexico. Laughing, she adds, “So a lot of that went out the window. And it gradually, by itself, turned into a memoir because life is holistic, not compartmented.”

The problems with the house began long before Proulx broke ground. She had been looking for land—beautiful, wild land—for some time when she found a former nature preserve by the North Platte River. But acquiring it proved a touch dicey, as she explains:

“I didn’t think we were going to get the land when we were bickering and dickering back and forth with the Nature Conservancy, from whom I bought it. And one day I was driving from the east to the west; the weather comes out of the west. And I was living on the other side of the Medicine Bowl Range at the time. And as I turned glumly into the driveway, I glanced up at the sky and there was this enormous, enormous bird-shaped cloud. . . . And I thought, oh, that’s cool. It must be a sign that I’m going to get the place, and it should be called Bird Cloud.”

Anyone familiar with Proulx’s work knows the physical settings of her fiction are often love poems to the land itself. Naturally she wanted the house she built on her Wyoming prairie, with its towering cliffs and gorgeous wetlands, to reflect that. As she writes in Bird Cloud, “Because place is such a major part of my writing and life, I thought it important that Bird Cloud breathe in and out of the landscape. A house subject not only to the wind, but to the drowning shadows that submerge it every evening and the sharp slice of sunlight at the eastern end of the cliff.”

And did her architect design such a wonder for her?

“Indeed he did! I love the place,” she says. “It’s incredibly beautiful, it is calming, it’s a fine place to work, all my books are there. The problem is, I can’t be there in the winter.”

All it took was one winter. Wyoming’s 80-90-mph winds pack the heavy snows into something resembling concrete. The stuff can’t be shoveled—it has to be poked with sharp stakes in an effort to break it up. Plus, Proulx has a half-mile-long driveway. When the snow gets packed like that, snowplows are useless. Proulx realized her house was only perfect about eight or nine months of the year—the other months she’d be trapped inside, unable to leave her beautiful prison. Wonderful as Bird Cloud is, she still hasn’t achieved a perfect house she can live in all year long.

“I was having exactly this conversation with my middle son and his girlfriend yesterday. There’s always a trade-off. There’s always something that’s awful and wonderful about the place. When we look at it, we usually see the wonderful things and not the awful things. It’s when we start living in it that the awful things become quite upfront.”

When the weather begins to worsen in Wyoming, she relocates to New Mexico, where she spends the winters. That’s why she was in Albuquerque when our conversation took place.

Proulx’s new book isn’t just about her house or her life in Wyoming, fascinating as that is. She also shares the entertaining histories of some of the more colorful characters who lived there in the 19th century (and some equally colorful ones who live there now), her theories on the extinction of the woolly mammoths and her lyrical observations on the flora and fauna. She’s got a rich source of material: There are pelicans, bald eagles, golden eagles, great blue herons, ravens, scores of bluebirds, harriers, kestrels, elk, deer and a dozen antelope.

“That’s been one of the great pleasures of the place, to have watched the private lives of all the local birds. They recognize me and they recognize the James Gang who worked on the house. But when strangers come, they get all agitated,” Proulx says.

In addition to the hardcover edition, Bird Cloud is also being released in audio format. When asked if she’s the one reading it, Proulx crisply replies, “Heavens, no! I’m far too busy for that. I did read the introduction for the audiobook, but I left the rest of the book to someone else. I don’t have time for it.”

Does that mean she has another project in the works? Proulx says yes, but offers no details. Just like the men of the Old West she writes about in Bird Cloud, she likes to hold her cards close to her chest until she’s ready to lay ’em down.

Annie Proulx is a bit of a nomad. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain” moved 20 times as a child, and she’s kept the habit alive as an adult. A constant series of unsatisfactory houses—too big, too small, no bookcases—made her long for a home that reflected who she is as a […]

On a bitterly cold January day in 1988, some wicked individual dumped a tiny orange kitten into the book drop of the public library in Spencer, Iowa. Hours later, librarian Vicki Myron found the frostbitten bit of fluff, and the lives of that kitten, Myron and the entire town changed forever.

Named Dewey Readmore Books, the kitten grew into a cause célèbre and was a beloved inhabitant of the library for the next 19 years. After his death in 2007, Myron wrote a book about his life, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. Almost overnight, the book became a sensation, spending months atop the bestseller lists. It also brought Myron thousands of letters from people wanting to tell her how touched they were by Dewey’s story and, more often than not, sharing reminiscences of their own cats. Myron was touched by many of these stories and felt others would be, too. So she and her co-author, Bret Witter, gathered a number of them into this latest book, Dewey’s Nine Lives.

One such story is that of Bill Bezanson, a Vietnam vet suffering from an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Bezanson wouldn’t allow himself to get close to anyone or anything (he changed jobs, locations and acquaintances every few months) until an owl dropped a kitten on the roof of his car. The relationship he formed with that cat, named Spooky, helped Bezanson find his way back to the life he had shunned.

Dewey fans will be thrilled to know there are some additional stories about the small-town library cat, too, including what Myron believes is his spirit bringing romance back into her life after a 30-year hiatus. While not all readers may be convinced Dewey was responsible, certainly those who enjoyed the first book will rejoice in her happiness and in Dewey’s Nine Lives.

 

On a bitterly cold January day in 1988, some wicked individual dumped a tiny orange kitten into the book drop of the public library in Spencer, Iowa. Hours later, librarian Vicki Myron found the frostbitten bit of fluff, and the lives of that kitten, Myron and the entire town changed forever. Named Dewey Readmore Books, […]

Creating colossal challenges for oneself appears to be a firmly ingrained part of the human psyche, whether it’s Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953 or Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking in 2002. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that writer Adrienne Martini decided to knit an impossibly complicated sweater as a way of taking charge of her life.

As a wife and working mother of two, Martini often felt as if she were being pulled in a hundred different directions and seldom of her own choosing. Knitting, which she took up seriously after the birth of her first baby in 2002, grounded her. As she writes in her new memoir, Sweater Quest, “Making stuff with my very own hands has enriched my life in innumerable ways. Both kids and craft have taught me how to deal with frustration so acute that I’d want to bite the head off a kitten. Both are great courses in expectation management. Both have given more than they’ve taken—and introduced me to a community that I otherwise never would have known.”

But with a closet full of the hats, scarves and gloves she had knitted since the birth of her first baby, Martini wanted a challenge that would truly push her to her limits. She found it in the Fair Isle sweater pattern “Mary Tudor,” designed by Alice Starmore. Undaunted by the fact that the pattern was in an out-of-print book in a discontinued yarn, she embarked upon her “sweater quest” two years ago. Her adventure brought her into contact with knitters from all over the world (knitters are an interesting breed of folk) and, of course, helped her discover a few things about herself in the process.

Which is why Sweater Quest is not just a book about knitting, although readers certainly learn a great deal of the history of the craft in its pages. It’s a reminder that the human race loves a challenge—indeed, thrives on the quest—to be able to say with pride, “I did this.”

Creating colossal challenges for oneself appears to be a firmly ingrained part of the human psyche, whether it’s Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953 or Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking in 2002. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise […]

Comfort food—even the words are warming and evocative, and most of us have familiar foodstuffs to which we turn when times get rough. However, when Paula Butturini’s husband, John Tagliabue, was shot by a sniper while covering events in Romania for the New York Times in 1989, Butturini knew that comfort food was only part of what would be necessary to help him recover. So the couple returned to Rome, where they had spent their happiest times together. In a new memoir, Keeping the Feast, she recounts the terrible struggle both had to regain some normalcy in their lives, and the role that food played in their recovery.

While it took two years for Tagliabue’s physical injuries to heal, it was the devastating clinical depression into which he fell afterward that nearly destroyed the couple. For years, Butturini’s husband was so depressed he often couldn’t speak. Once an outgoing, compassionate man, he became a shell of his former self, isolating himself from everyone but his wife and the psychiatrist he saw several times each week. Antidepressant drugs had no effect on his problem; for months on end, he only got worse, bedeviled by crippling anxiety attacks, uncontrollable crying and morbid introspection.

At her wit’s end, Butturini turned to the best cure she knew: “Just the magic of honest food—fresh and wholesome—simply prepared and eaten together three times a day, from ingredients that Italians have largely been eating for millennia. Italy still celebrates one of the most primordial rituals of the human community, the daily sharing of food and fellowship around a family table; what better place to take ourselves to heal?”

Butturini’s gratitude at having food as a lifeline to cling to is evident on every page of Keeping the Feast. It is a celebration of the human spirit, persevering in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and a paean to the restorative ability of food to bring comfort and peace to our souls as well as our bodies.

Rebecca Bain is a freelance writer and editor in Nashville.

Comfort food—even the words are warming and evocative, and most of us have familiar foodstuffs to which we turn when times get rough. However, when Paula Butturini’s husband, John Tagliabue, was shot by a sniper while covering events in Romania for the New York Times in 1989, Butturini knew that comfort food was only part […]

Attitudes toward assisted suicide for the terminally ill are seldom lukewarm—people either believe strongly that this course of action should be sanctioned or, just as strongly, that no one has the right to end another’s life, even for medical reasons and at that person’s request. Zoe FitzGerald Carter firmly believed in an individual’s right to take this difficult step until her own mother decided it was time to die. The anguish Carter felt, her conflicting emotions and the upheaval it caused in her family are painstakingly chronicled in her first book, a memoir titled Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death.

“It really was an incredibly difficult year,” says Carter, speaking from the home in Berkeley, California, that she shares with her husband and their two daughters. “I felt like my life had been derailed, and it was death and dying 24 hours a day. I started feeling very isolated from my husband and children because I felt like the predominant emotional event in my life was not with them. It was with this maddening, endless, difficult discussion with my mother which at some point I realized was only going to end when she died.”

There was never any doubt about whether Carter’s mother was terminally ill. Twenty years earlier, she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and she was already dependent on around-the-clock assistance for the smallest of tasks. It was obvious that she would soon be unable to get out of bed at all. Her pain was increasingly resistant to drugs. So why did Carter refuse to go along with her mother’s decision?

“I live in Berkeley, and there are people who’ve read this book and they say, what was your problem? Why didn’t you just help her kill herself? You should have helped her go, it was what she wanted. And I don’t know if it’s because they haven’t experienced anything like this or it’s all about politics and assisted suicide should be legal, end of story. I think it’s probably because people have this idea—oh yeah, if I get sick, take me out back and shoot me. But I think when they get down to it, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

It certainly proved complicated for Carter and her two sisters. While none of them wanted their mother to cease to be a living, breathing part of their lives, their responses to her decision to end her life were quite different. Her sister Hannah became Carter’s lifeline, the only person who shared her conflicting emotions. Katherine, the oldest sister, basically checked out of the whole scenario, saying their mother’s decision to die, her constant shifting of her “death date,” her demands that her daughters be by her side when she died, were all a shameless bid for attention—which Katherine refused to give her. It was important to Carter that this division among the sisters be chronicled in Imperfect Endings.

“I do think when a parent dies that what happens among the siblings, if there are siblings, is a really big part of the story: who shows up, who doesn’t show up, the different ways that they show up. The whole histories that we have in our families oftentimes emerge and intensify, and alliances and animosities and old regrets get reactivated and ratcheted up in these situations.”

Part of the impact of Carter’s book comes from her juxtaposition of chapters; she weaves her past into her memoir, giving the reader a more satisfying context to use as a contrast with the present. It becomes a reminder that an imperfect childhood often becomes irrelevant when a parent is dying. Musing on why this was important for her to bring out in her book, Carter says a relationship with a dying family member differs from any that has preceded it.

“When you’re with somebody who’s dying, you really do love them in this very pure way. You just love them and you’re there for them. It’s very healing. A lot of my anger and pain around my mother’s decision really dropped away at the end.”

Despite the gravity of the subject matter, there are sections of Imperfect Endings that are quite funny. The visit from the “Exit Guide” from the Hemlock Society is one such example: Carter’s snobbish mother cannot bring herself to allow this man to orchestrate her demise, not because she is bothered by “getting gassed,” but because he’s a good ol’ boy from Tulsa named Bud. This is, as Carter writes, a serious social handicap: “My mother is a solid Washington Democrat, a liberal even, but she’s also a cultural and intellectual snob, and this man is definitely not a member of the tribe.”

In the end, Carter’s mother (at the suggestion of her doctor) decides to refuse all food and water until her body ceases to function. It is this action that sways Carter to accept her mother’s choice of death and brings her to her mother’s bedside for the final time.

“I mean she didn’t eat, day after day after day. This was not a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of moment where she took a bunch of pills and killed herself. This was something she talked about and thought about for a year and then persisted in, day after day at the end. . . . I saw her absolute commitment and unblinking strength during that fasting time.”

One cannot help but wonder, with all Carter went through, whether she would ever put her own family through such an ordeal. She says yes, but only if her daughters agreed that it was the right thing to do and were comfortable with the decision.

“I do believe assisted suicide should be legal, but you have to recognize that nobody wants to do it. Nobody wants to be in a place where they feel that is the best option. It’s not easy. And there is a price you pay for it. I do feel like there’s a price my sisters and I paid emotionally and psychologically by participating in my mother’s death. I think it’s a tricky issue.”

But, as Carter says, it was a privilege to be by her mother’s side when she ended her years of pain, although it’s not a topic she brings up at cocktail parties or the school’s PTO.

“People are uncomfortable talking about death. People think it’s all just a big downer, and it’s scary and awful. I don’t think it’s all just scary and awful. I think there’s something very life-affirming about going through a death with somebody. There’s nothing like death to remind you of one of the most profound things about life, which is that it doesn’t go on forever. That sense of gratitude for being alive and awareness of the gift of life is a wonderful thing to experience.”

Rebecca Bain is a writer in Nashville.

Attitudes toward assisted suicide for the terminally ill are seldom lukewarm—people either believe strongly that this course of action should be sanctioned or, just as strongly, that no one has the right to end another’s life, even for medical reasons and at that person’s request. Zoe FitzGerald Carter firmly believed in an individual’s right to […]

On March 23, 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom was still a new venture for American troops, 18 vehicles became separated from the rest of their army convoy. Following faulty directions, the group entered a hostile town, where they were overcome by militant villagers. In her new book, I’m Still Standing, Shoshana Johnson writes of the ordeal that followed.

Johnson, who is this country’s first female black POW, wasn’t even sure why she’d been deployed—she’d spent her career in the Army as a cook. Meals in the desert were either field rations or provided by a civilian dining service, so she had little to do once she arrived in Iraq. But in the attack that killed 11 of her fellow soldiers, Johnson and six male soldiers were taken prisoner. Johnson had sustained severe injuries to both of her legs; two of the others were also injured.

For the next 22 days, until they were rescued by Marines acting on a tip, the seven POWs were shuffled from cell to cell, building to building, town to town. They were often separated; their injuries were given only cursory attention; their meals were inadequate bowls of rice, sometimes with a piece of chicken. Worst of all, they had no idea if they would be released, kept in prison indefinitely or executed. The last two options seemed the most likely.

Johnson writes of the horror of this uncertainty, of the unending boredom of days with nothing to do but imagine the worst scenarios, of hostile guards—or even worse, a flirtatious one who would stroke her neck or try to hold her hand. She also includes the more mundane details of the prisoners’ grim existence: dirty clothes, the lack of bathing facilities or even toilet paper. But Johnson isn’t entirely censorious about her treatment by the Iraqis. Several treated her with kindness, even becoming protective of her. And she still wonders if the three policemen who were their final captors might have been the ones to tip off the Marines.

When she and her fellow captives were finally released and landed in Kuwait, a chaplain approached Johnson and asked if he could pray with her. “The chaplain took my hand to begin the prayer, but before he could even say the first words, I started crying. I was overwhelmed with how much I had to pray about. There had been days of sheer terror, days of utter hopelessness. So many awful things that could have happened didn’t. Instead there were times when I had been grateful for the kindnesses so many of our captors had shown. And now I was free and on my way home. It was overwhelming.”

In fact, events after Johnson’s return to the U.S. were at times nearly as emotionally devastating as her ordeal in Iraq. Fellow soldiers became jealous of the attention the POWs received, and the Army refused to include PTSD treatment as part of her insurance coverage. She believes reporters even gave more coverage to Jessica Lynch (also captured by other Iraqis that day) because she was blonde and Johnson was black. It was distressing enough that Johnson left the Army; these days, she has returned to culinary school and also does public speaking, and she struggles with depression, guilt over living when her fellow soldiers died and anger at her treatment by the Army. Yet Shoshana Johnson proves with this book that she is, in fact, still standing.

Rebecca Bain is a freelance writer in Nashville.

On March 23, 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom was still a new venture for American troops, 18 vehicles became separated from the rest of their army convoy. Following faulty directions, the group entered a hostile town, where they were overcome by militant villagers. In her new book, I’m Still Standing, Shoshana Johnson writes of the […]

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