An American Map by Anne-Marie Oomen
I have a confession: There are books I haven’t read. No, not those books; not those ones in piles on the coffee table, the ones we’ll get to eventually, the ones we’ve always intended to read but still haven’t found the time. I have books I haven’t read that are written by my favorite contemporary American authors.
I keep them on a special shelf: Jack Driscoll’s Stardog, Michael Delp’s Under the Influence of Water, Claire Davis’ Season of the Snake, Pete Fromm’s Dry Rain, Judy Blunt’s coveted book of poems (which she gave to me upon signing my MFA thesis for approval), Steve Almond’s The Evil B.B. Chow, William Kittredge’s Best Short Stories, Tobias Wolff’s In the Pharoah’s Army, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Ursula Hegi’s Unearned Pleasures, and perhaps a few more.
I call these books my chorus, because I can always feel them calling to me. Many are written by authors that I know personally, all are the last book in the author’s collected works I have yet to read. And while the Type A Capricorn in me begs to finish each and every one of these books, checking those authors off my list, the Writer in me knows better. These are books I want to save. These are books I’ll need in times of doubt or self-worry. Books I’ll need on the cusp of great realization. Books I’ll want when, in the middle of the night with only the glow of the laptop illuminating my face, I need to call upon a familiar mentor for support.
Last week, I pulled one of my chorus from the shelf: Anne-Marie Oomen’s collection of essays titled An American Map. Days, I spent teaching my heart out to a room full of adult writers. Evenings, I promised myself at least one hour with An American Map. One hour with a writer whose words in person and on the page have inspired me countless times these past 20 months on the road. One hour with a writer who believed in me enough as a colleague to endorse my application to become Guest Faculty for College of Creative Arts. One writer who glimpsed an essay I wrote and had doubts about, only to reassure me by using it as an exemplary creative nonfiction text in her class of MFA students.
One writer whose body of work I have now completed.
An American Map is perhaps one of the most honest, layered, poetic accounts of the merging of mind and place that I have ever read. In this way, it is also one of the most authentic American contributions to the dialogue about landscape and culture that I can think of. With each essay, readers dive a little deeper into Oomen’s mind-memory, seeing for ourselves the lyric layers that make up this author’s compassionate, if not careful worldview. We can see why blue smoke in one landscape reminds her of angelic figures in another. How a lost bracelet in Puerto Rico leads the mind back to war, to taking too much, to the struggles of otherness.
A careful reader will come away not just knowing more about the author’s travels or more about the nuances of each place she visited—but more about what it means to be American and to see like an American and to react like an American. In this way, An American Map is also unapologetically brave. How many writers are bold enough to tackle “American-ness” and what, bathed in Oomen’s mid-western light, it really means? How many will show themselves missing social cues, mistaking meaning, or mentally anguished (even if to come out on the other side of clarity)? How many will stay with the drafts of an essay long enough to sift for meaning, then reshape it, letting an image-based, gentle story emerge?
There’s a few out there who do it. Kittredge’s Owning it All is one of them. Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness is another. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley counts, too. I’m adding Oomen’s An American Map to that list.
What books do you “save”? Are there books you read again and again? Are writers alone in considering books as “friends”? Add to the list via comments.