On the Shelf: Belle Boggs

The week’s recommended reading and culture from Orion authors and artists.

• After learning about primate reproduction for my March/April piece in Orion (“The Art of Waiting”), I was excited to discover a scientist in my community who has been doing some fascinating work on primate reproduction—and writing personal essays about her experiences. This month, I’m looking forward to the release of Maji Moto, a limited edition fine press book from Durham, North Carolina’s Horse and Buggy Press. Maji Moto is the work of Courtney Fitzpatrick, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who spent seventeen months observing baboon reproduction in Kenya during the worst drought in living memory. Maji Moto (which means “hot water” in Swahili) explores the effect of that drought on human and animal life through beautiful and unflinching lyric essays, organized like diary entries, and incredible photography. Here is a sample:

The sky keeps filling with clouds. A goose down comforter shields this piece of Earth from its sun and one fish-belly cloud hangs low and swollen.

We shiver.

How can these clouds not bring rain?

This drought is the worst that anyone can remember. It has draped the landscape in zebra pelts, laying them out like the watches of Salvador Dali. Stripes melt. Faces seep into the ground, baring a toothy grimace. Innards writhe with maggots. Cows, calves, wildebeest, elephants, buffalo. They are dying in droves. Forget sleeping groves and water holes, you could map this place by its dying and dead. They are pushpins marking the intersection of space and time. What is the distance between corpse and carcass when the scavengers are full? Stay braced, my friend, for it is around the corner and underfoot. Scientists counted over 3,000 wildebeest carcasses and open water is either a mirage or contaminated by death. Ungulates, born to run, now only run in place, fallen down and pawing the dust. Tracing and retracing, a halo of dying effort is recorded at the base of their hooves. They are schoolkids making snow angels.

Click here to find out more about the project and see some of Fitzpatrick’s photographs.

• I loved Amy Leach’s essay on panda wisdom in the latest issue of Orion (listen to it here), and searched out another of her essays, “Sail On, My Little Honey Bee,” in issue 7 of A Public Space. In “Sail On,” Leach describes the orbit and disposition of moons. Here is a small sample:

To get an idea of the relationship between the Earth and the Moon and the Sun, find two friends and have the self-conscious one with lots of atmosphere be the Earth and the coercive one be the Sun. And you be the Moon, if you are periodically luminous and sometimes unobservable and your inner life has petered out. Then find a large field and take three steps from the Earth, and have the Sun go a quarter-mile away.

For best effect, and to fully appreciate Leach’s playful (and gorgeous) writing, you should read the essay aloud.

• Have you heard of the video essay? I hadn’t, before watching a recent presentation by Eula Biss at UNC-Chapel Hill. Biss, author of Notes from No Man’s Land, described the composition process for “Ode to Every Thing,” a collaboration with her husband, John Bresland: he recorded the video, and she wrote an essay to accompany it, which she reads in voice-over. Biss is known for the clarity and elegance of her prose, the depth of her questions, and the sometimes surprising directions of her research, but the visual images Bresland captured—mostly a long shot of their infant son’s slowly rotating airplane mobile—capture the menace of a parent’s fears and the anxiety of impermanence in the world of stuff we create. Click here to watch the video, which first appeared in Requited Magazine.

• I met Ken Abbott last fall at a workshop organized by North Carolina’s arts council. Abbott gave a presentation of his photography, including photos from Hickory Nut Gap Farm near where he lives in Asheville. About the farm, which he discovered while chaperoning his daughter’s preschool field trip, Abbot writes, “If Wendell Berry is right about good form conferring health, and I believe he is, then perhaps this is what accounts for the glow of the place, a glow like patina on old bronze. The glow is the product of lives lived in community and action, with a deep connection to the land, and an abiding appreciation for and faith in the beauty underneath it all.” I keep returning to the slide show for the deep sense of history (family and natural) contained in each of Abbott’s stunning photographs.

• Finally, the book I’ve been recommending to everyone (or marveling over with friends who have already read it) is Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, thirty-four new and collected stories published last year by North Carolina’s own Lookout Press. Binocular Vision was a finalist for just about every fiction or short story prize from 2011, and was this year’s winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. Pearlman has said that her greatest theme is “accommodation,” and the stories in her collection often feature characters—travelers and emigrés, doctors and precocious children—who must make room in their lives for new understanding. To read thirty-four stories, collected over a decades-long career, might feel overwhelming—especially when the stories are this good. So perhaps you’d like to start with one? You can read Pearlman’s “The Story” here, and join an online conversation about the work that begins on April 9 with Hinge Literary Center. Pearlman will join the discussion to answer questions on April 17, from 3 – 4 p.m. Eastern, during her North Carolina book tour.

Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen. She lives and teaches in North Carolina. Her essay “The Art of Waiting,” her first for Orion, appears in the March/April 2012 issue.