River City Reading: Controversial photos, gender fluidity, the Eastern Shore, and a girl at war

May’s new books are taking your brain places.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs


by Sally Mann • May 12th, 2015

Like many artists, photographer Sally Mann is best known for her most controversial work.

In the early 1990s, Mann released a collection of photos called Immediate Family, which focused on her three young children. Taken on the family’s remote Virginia farm, the photographs show her children playing, swimming, and existing in their natural childlike state, which–in the hot Southern weather–often happened nude. As quickly as Mann was praised for her work, she was also criticized; people across the country saw the pictures as little more than pornography and couldn’t wait to tear her down. In her new memoir, Hold Still, Sally Mann traces her life and career prior to the infamous photographs, as well as the impact they had on every moment since.

In theory, Hold Still shouldn’t work. It’s close to 500 pages, meanders its way into almost unbelievable territory, and isn’t written chronologically. But somehow, almost like Mann’s artwork, the oddities are what give the book its magic. The high page count is tempered with dozens of photographs that illustrate Mann’s life, while the overarching, thematic story feels forward-moving, despite its wayward chronology.

Part of the artist’s job is to make the commonplace singular, to project a different interpretation onto the conventional. With the family pictures, I may have done some of that. In particular I think they tapped into some below-the-surface cultural unease about what it is to be a child, bringing into the dialog questions of innocence and threat and fear and sensuality and calling attention to the limitations of widely held views on childhood (and motherhood).

Though she touches on a number of fascinating topics, the highlight of Hold Still is reading Mann’s thoughts as she looks back on Immediate Family. She breaks down how the photos were taken, her mindset while taking them, and the fallout of their publication. This grows into an intriguing discussion of the purpose of art and criticism that Mann puts into incredibly powerful words, braced by the beautiful portrait she paints of her family. Both longtime fans and readers previously unfamiliar with Mann’s work are sure to find the life she shares in Hold Still endlessly engaging and fascinating.

The Argonauts


by Maggie Nelson • May 5th, 2015

If you mix together one part theory, one part memoir, and a hearty dose of love story, you’ll end up with something like Maggie Nelson’s new book The Argonauts. Nelson’s story follows both the birth of her relationship with Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, and the birth of their son. Between the narrative of their meeting, marriage and family-building, Nelson digs deep into questions of gender, sexuality, motherhood, and the individual. Though she turns to various thinkers as a base for many ideas, her commentary feels fresh and incredibly timely.

How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality–or anything else, really–is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?

As I read The Argonauts, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Though Offill’s work is fiction, both pieces shift big ideas into compact spaces and read like a collection of swirling thoughts. Much as I felt after reading Dept. of Speculation, as soon as I closed The Argonauts I knew it was a book I would pick up again (and again and again). Perfect for book groups looking for the challenge of digging deep, Maggie Nelson has penned a piece with endless opportunities for questioning and discussion.

Girl at War


by Sara Novic • May 12th, 2015

In 1991, ten-year old Ana lives with her parents and baby sister in Croatia’s capital city, blissfully unaware of tensions beginning to rise to the surface. Before long, however, she is unable to miss the civil war sparking around her as Yugoslavia starts to crumble. While attempting to travel within the country with her family, Ana’s once simple life is thrown into chaos and sets off a chain of events that will lead her through dark, unexpected situations.

I used to think all languages were ciphers, that once you learned another’s alphabet you could convert foreign words back into your own, something recognizable. But the blood formed a pattern like a map to comprehension and I understood the differences all at once. I understood how one family could end up in the ground and another could be allowed to continue on its way, that the distinction between Serbs and Croats was much vaster than the ways of writing letters.

Girl at War is completely devourable, in the best way. Nović precisely stacks the novel’s plot so we’re left haunted and wide-eyed in the first 100 pages, learning only half of Ana’s story before giving way to the refuge of her modern-day life in America. But we soon see that physical and emotional safety are two vastly different things, as Ana continues to struggle with her memories a decade later. Her remaining time in Croatia bubbles under the surface and makes the book nearly impossible to put down.

Sara Nović has written an unflinching look at life during war and the endless ripples it leaves in its wake. Girl at War is a debut that makes you thankful to find an author early in their career and thrilled by what they’ll do next.

The Shore


by Sara Taylor • May 26th, 2015

The world of Southern Gothic literature was once well populated with women; Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Dorothy Allison are regularly mentioned alongside William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. But in recent years, the genre has shifted away from its ghostly Gothic roots toward new Grit Lit sensibilities–and it’s overwhelmingly male.

Enter Sara Taylor. Don’t be fooled by the beachy scene on The Shore‘s cover–the islands off the coast of Virginia are beautiful, but their stories are grim. Taylor’s characters encounter drugs, extreme physical and sexual violence, and murder of the kind that’s common to Grit Lit, but countered by the feminism and sense of magic realism the genre has been lacking.

The Shore works as both a novel and heavily connected short stories. Starting in 1885, the book follows the community on the Shore for over 200 years, dropping hints and names along the way; a minor background character in one chapter could be central to the plot in another, sometimes 100 pages later. While this will certainly be frustrating for some readers, the flipping and puzzling can be what makes a book a reading experience rather than just a story.

An absolutely immersive experience, at that. One to continue puzzling over and thinking about and re-reading, particularly given the last chapter. At just 24, Sara Taylor brings together the best of Grit Lit and Southern Gothic with a completely original spin. We can only hope she pulls up a seat and stays a while.

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Shannon Nemer

Shannon is a reader, teacher, and professional Australian Shepherd entertainer.

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