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Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Judy Ray's 'Sense of Place'

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Whirlybird Press.
Judy Ray’s ‘Sense of Place’
By Bob Sommer

From Place to Place: Personal Essays, by Judy Ray
Whirlybird Press, 2015

Somewhere along the way we got our words muddled up and transmogrified essay into creative nonfiction, which sounds like the name on a door sign outside a cavernous university laboratory in which white-coated MFA candidates do things to words that can’t be discussed when others are eating.

Essay is such a marvelous word—suggestive of rich thinking, of experience, of exploration in language. Imagine Montaigne being told he should have his Essais “workshopped”!

Judy Ray’s new book, From Place to Place: Personal Essays, restores the idea of the essay to its etymological roots. “An essay,” she writes in her preface, “can be defined as a prose composition that is ‘analytic, speculative, or interpretive.’ By claiming ‘personal essay,’ I can drop the analytic and speculative, so what am I interpreting? Small episodes of my life… the kind of flashes that inspire poems, the foundation of choosing to write.”

In prose that is admirably fluid—and appears deceptively simple for the often complex nature of her themes—Ray wanders the literal and figurative geography of her rich and varied life in a series of essays connected by the themes of cultural diversity and the meaning of place. A native of southern England, she has lived in Africa, Australia, India, all over continental Europe, and in the United States. Long ago naturalized as a U.S. citizen, she describes the serpentine, Kafkaesque workings of the immigration bureaucracy and finds beneath its layers occasion to explore the nature of identity.

She brings a Wordsworthian sensibility to these essays, tapping ordinary, close-at-hand objects and activities in everyday life for the meditations they inspire: a kitchen stove, newspaper clippings, a moving sale, jury duty. In each reside memories and experience, and they become the ledges from which she leaps and then floats, as if on the thermal drafts of experience, through the meanings they suggest. Here, for example, is how the image of a highway evokes her “sense of place”:

Within this one land, ‘civilization’ or ‘progress’ has brought the highway strip to all our towns, hiding what might have been their unique character behind skins of gaudy, flashing franchise, familiar from coast to coast, border to border—housed in cheap rectangular constructions. What does that proliferation of repetitive images do to a sense of place?

Her life has been marked by drama and tragedy, so there is rich storytelling in this book. She played a role in a murder case. Few of us, fortunately, can make such a claim. She also describes at once sensitively and yet with enough distance to avoid the bathos that might flow from the immediacy of powerful emotions the tragic loss of her stepson, Sam, at just nineteen years old.

Judy Ray suggests that her own history offers “no more dramatic events than in most lives.” But the diversity of her life, the combination of events, the many places she has lived, the interesting people she has known coalesce in her unique and nuanced sensibility to offer a wide-ranging and continually engaging journey through these essays.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thank you, Inquiring Minds Bookstore!

My sister, Cathy Brawner, has arranged for the Inquiring Minds Bookstore in Saugerties, New York, to sell copies of Where the Wind Blew to raise funds for homeless veterans. If you don't happen to be passing through Saugerties, you can also order a copy at the link. Proceeds benefit The Francis D. Sommer Memorial Fund for Homeless Veterans.

The storefront at Inquiring Minds Bookstore, Saugerties, NY
Well done, Cathy! And thank you, Inquiring Minds Bookstore!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

‘Leavenworth,’ a new essay, published in Rathalla Review

The current issue of Rathalla Review includes an essay entitled “Leavenworth” from my current work-in-progress, Losing Francis: One Family’s Journey through a Decade of American War.

Read the full essay here (beginning on page 31): “Leavenworth” 

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Eco-band Soular takes back the tradition of musical activism in its debut album, ‘Take It Back’

Take It Back: A (mildly desultory) Review-Essay
By Bob Sommer

“… if we’re looking around for someone else to get on the job we might just look over our shoulders and find we’re looking into a mirror at our own sorry selves.”

So it’s a bunch of tree-huggers all squeezed into my then thirteen-year-old Jeep. It’s a year ago and we’re headed west on I-70 for a Sierra Club meeting in Topeka on a cool Saturday morning. Outside Kansas rolls by with the sun behind us, still low on the horizon, throwing splintery shadows across fields of corn stubble. In back one tree-hugger reads the newspaper. Up front sit me and Craig Wolfe, who wanted to sit up front because he’s a big guy and the seats in back are tight and our friend didn’t care who sat up front or in back, so Craig’s up front.
Click the image to visit Soular online
We’re talking. I’m asking about his music. Back in THE DAY—which for both of us is the sixties and seventies, THE DAY, that is, before the music died for a decade while machine-generated pop insanity called disco throbbed and shook most of our brains into all manner of weirdness, like believing “greed is good,” solar panels on the White House are bad, and big hair is beautiful, so forth, so THE DAY was the metonymic day before all that—and, to complete the sentence, back then Wolfe was a rock ’n roller. He played in a band called Amdahl Wolfe, doing gigs four-five nights a week all over Kansas City and beyond. It was THE DAY.

But THE DAY passed and then came life, and Wolfe got into the construction business, building passive solar houses and doing other tree-hugger stuff, including plunging into the Sierra Club in Kansas in a big way. I’ve known him for seven-eight years now. I do tree-hugger stuff too. We’re all about averting mankind from his/her/our collective manic suicidal race into annihilation as we gobble up every square foot of land, spew the black goo that used be dinosaurs and 250-million-year-old trees into the air and water, and basically torture ourselves with rage for more and more and more STUFF.