***Recent news about Stargazing in the Atomic Age:***
Stargazing has earned a Silver Medal for the Essay in the 2022 Independent Publisher Awards.
I'm thrilled that Stargazing was selected as a Kirkus Best Book of 2021. The book was also featured as one of three "Best of 2021: Our Favorite Indies" here as well as one of three "eloquent essay collections" here.
I had a delightful time discussing Stargazing with Or Zarua's Rabbi Scott Bolton and his congregation. You can find a recording of the event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQKe9Gb0MCI
**Forthcoming and recently published:**
"Half Here," an essay about our relationship with objects in art and life, is forthcoming in VOLT, issue 26, due out May 16, 2022.
"Surrealism in Our Time: A Review of Katya Kazbek's Little Foxes Took up Matches," is forthcoming from the Los Angeles Review of Books in May, 2022.
"Conjuring in Wartime: Colm Toibin Evokes the Art of Thomas Mann," a review of this writer's new novel The Magician, was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on October 11, 2021. You can read it here: https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/conjuring-in-wartime-colm-toibin-evokes-the-art-of-thomas-mann
"Blind Curve Ahead," my review of Rachel Kushner's essay collection, The Hard Crowd, appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books on May 21, 2021. You can read it here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/blind-curve-ahead/
*"Firefall," an essay about what Fall feels like in fire country, was published in 2020 in Napa & Sonoma, one of Wildsam Field Guides' excellent and creatively researched touring books . You can read the full essay below:*
The day after I moved into a cabin in Sebastopol, I fled. For years, I had wished myself into a place like this one, hoping I might eventually wake up as well as work in Sonoma, where grapevines contour hills in landscapes Dürer could have etched. But the date I started my tenancy proved turbulent. Even as the movers carted in my possessions, Diablo winds skittering above the slopes of the Sierras began to hurl themselves across a bone-dry Central Valley. After gaining heat and hurricane speeds, these fierce disturbances swept into San Francisco. While I surveyed the sprawl of my things, wind was scudding across Bodega Bay and wrinkling the water by Doran Beach into shivering silver. At the roadside fish houses, furnace-like gusts wrenched plates away from people dipping crabmeat into cocktail sauce. Up the coast at Furlong Gulch, gulls strove against the jagged vectors of air flinging them toward rocks, regaining altitude before parting from one another like Thunderbird planes.
As I unwrapped a glass sheathed in newsprint, an emergency alert lit up the phone and began to shriek its drone and pause and repeat. Friends and colleagues had lost houses in blazes, yet I froze in disbelief.
Fire and fall have always been twined in California, but the changing climate has made them inseparable. Still, it is one thing to recall Joan Didion’s sentences about the Santa Anas that bring chaos to the Los Angeles mountains and another to watch smoke fill your own atmosphere. In the rambling garden in back of the cottage I had just leased, wind pummeled a Chinese scholar tree until its tasseled yellow foliage blurred into liquid gold leaf. Just beyond the windows that usher the outside into this compact building, a pyracantha bush loaded with crimson berries swayed left, danced right and bowed sideways.
Lodged tight in boxes, my books stayed put and my ceramics held fast. But my heart beat fast, too, stumbling over its rhythm so that I could not think what to take with me. The phrases scrawled on the sides of the cardboard boxes massed in the living room did not help. Should I drag out the photo albums from the nearest column, or hurry back and forth ferrying paintings from bedroom to doorway?
Unable to decide, I jerked an unpacked suitcase upright, grabbed my wallet and hoisted a tote bag heavy with books onto one shoulder. Outside, the sky was slate, and the smell of burning wood--part acrid and part earthy--was strong. A trace of vinegar laced the air: grapes sizzling in a vineyard. Fine Gray grit sleeted the car’s dashboard. Plants and trees rustled and creaked. The pulse sounding in my ear beat loudly over all of them, quicker than the tick-tick-tick of a clock. I drove away without even throwing water over the fireglow maple my brother had planted for me in a wide blue pot whose leaves had long since exchanged spring’s blood-red tints for green.
“Nature’s first green is gold / Her hardest hue to hold,” Robert Frost beings in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” one of many poems that juxtapose the straight lines of our life spans with the cycles of seasons. Though Frost was born in San Francisco, his work, like his name, evokes New England’s icy winters more frequently than its transient summers, whose midpoint, the “singer” in “The Oven Bird,” tells us , remains as far from spring as “one to ten.” The landscapes Frost creates, like the phrases reeled out by Walt Whitman and the lines that hang in the air of Emily Dickinson’s poems, build the language of weather readers recognize from coast to coast. But when it comes to seasonal time, Northern Californians are out of sync with the nation as a whole. We share a Mediterranean climate with just six sites on the globe: the shores of the Mediterranean basin and five small areas in the Southern Hemisphere. In Sonoma, as elsewhere by the California coast, winter is a sodden relief. Then rain beats down upon hills summer has long since bleached to tawny hues that bristle like the flanks of sleeping cows.
And still, I yearn for fall. Autumn is ardent. Fading chlorophyll spells the extinction of leaves, but just as some dying minds are illumined by a synaptic storm for a few seconds before they go dark, the trees bloom brightest in the weeks before they reduce themselves to skeletons. In the mountains east of Sebastopol, trees take on hues beyond the art of Renaissance masters to mix. In September and October, the anthocyanins that pigment blueberries and plums announce themselves in dogwoods and sumac, while the carotenoids that yellow daffodils and brighten pumpkins bronze gingkoes and turn aspens into sparklers.
In fall, masses of crimson float above lakes from the Catskills to California. Our hearts burn along with them--until fire makes trees writhe. As strips of eucalyptus bark curl and shrink, our skin grows clammy. Soon, orange enrobes the forest. In the end, what could pass for monochrome poles stake out vast swaths of smoking ground that mark where houses and forests used to be.
But nowhere are the hazards and plenitude of the harvest more closely interwoven than in counties like Sonoma. By September, the fruit trees that line street after street are laden. Figs hang from branches, while other trees become englobed with the mottled red and green Gravensteins that lend their name to the highway winding through the West County’s apple orchards. Ripening pomegranates bejewel the front yards of some of my neighbors. In others, sunflowers vie with corn in front of Japanese maples whose leaves will shift from the colors of squash and flamingos before deepening to the burgundy fermenting in wine cellars only a few miles away.
Two days before Halloween, in 2019, I turned by car back toward the home I had evacuated a week earlier. As I set my cottage to rights, crows chattered in their separate voices and crickets took over the nights. Two weeks later, the rain came in sheets, tossing the solar lights I hung in the branches of the shrubs beyond the window like shipboard beacons on stormy seas.
A year later, I write in the interim before winter sets in. Some evenings, I pour ruby or gold into a half-full glass and sit turned toward trees on the verge of brilliance. Flocks of cedar waxwings devour berries beginning to ferment. Sometimes they hit the windows with a thud, mistaking glass for the air through which they wing. One day, for 10 long minutes, a bird with a bandit mask sits stuporous after dashing itself against the pane. Its breast heaves, revealing the single red stripe that seems to answer the carmine berries from which it sipped.
I walk out into the somnolence of late afternoon. The trees are quiet, but a few straw-colored grasses rustle as if they would pick themselves up and leave their places. Slowly, the street falls toward the Laguna flatlands. At the head of the trail, I take in the soft blue of the encircling mountains. Swallows crisscross the sky, quick as bats. The path curves and I am face-to-face with the cows of the neighboring dairy. For a reason of their own, they have gathered near the mesh that fences them in the broad field that adjoins this pathway. Moving deliberately as a metal crane, one swivels its neck toward me. Silence. For a moment, nothing moves but the flies that mascara its eye. Then my own are caught by a rarity. A flame-colored monarch sieves currents too slight for me to sense. It hovers and dips and rises. Then, flimsy as a scrap of scorched paper, it drifts out of sight.
* * *
Why is it we sometimes assign more dignity to things than to one another? “Half Here” plays out these questions by considering the fraught relation between two sisters: one devoted to accumulating objects, the other a woman who rids herself of almost everything. Tacking between prose and poetry to assemble its ideas, this essay forthcoming in Volt 26 (Winter 2022) juxtaposes the everyday materials we shore up with their representation in still life and portraiture.
* * *
You can find "What to Read When You Crave Calm After Doomscrolling," a collection of recommended reading I put together for the Rumpus, here.