The Best Book I’ve Read in Years

October 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm (By Amba)

and I’m serious, Is this little book of “flash fiction” by Sippican Cottage: The Devil’s In the Cows. Yes, Sippican (Gregory Sullivan) is an old-time blogfriend but I am not being influenced by that. This is not hyperbole. The book, quiet, modest, sly, insidious, packs a wallop. It’ll blindside you and punch a laugh out of you in a public place, and only sometimes because it’s funny, which it often is. Sometimes it’s just startling — so apt and so unexpected.

It took me a long time to finish reading it and write about it, not so much because I’m busy (though I am), but because each one- to three-page story, and there are 37 of them, feels like a whole novel. A character falls into you like a stone into a well and the reverberations go on and on. A glimpse of, a momentary overhearing of a life somehow implies the whole life. How does he do that? It’s the compression of poetry with the witness of fiction.

The stories are responses to archival photographs from the Library of Congress. Their “narrators” are mostly farm people, laborers and craftspeople, who worked with their hands on things that had real substance; that is, they are voices of a nearly gone world and they transmit the wisdom obtained by wrestling with things that are tangible and heavy and unhurried, that have their own textures and dangers, that require respect and give back an inalienable self-respect, no matter what the world thinks.

I had to put “narrator” in quotes because Sipp doesn’t channel these people’s “voices,” exactly, although the stories are written in the first person and they sound natural, they have particularity, they would make great dramatic monologues in a one-actor show. (Dorothea Lange as Anna Deavere Smith?) But what they say is not exactly what these people would SAY, even to themselves; it’s what their being would say if given a voice.

Let me just quote you a couple of paragraphs at random.

The dentist Yankees drift by on the dance floor and you can see them eying the real woman you got, pushing the limits of her dress every which place — Bam! Boop! Bap! — and he’s got the skinny sorority girl who moves around like a giraffe in a straightjacket and you know right off that she moves like that everywhere. That’s why he can’t stop robbing a peek at the missus when he can; they always sneak out of the house in their mind in here, the white bread. They couldn’t handle a woman like I got anyway. They should stick to the ingenues who reach for the diazepam instead of the kitchen knives when you piss them off.

In other words, please be true. In other words, I love you.

* * *

He’s wearing the wrong clothes and toing a comical box of the wrong tools, and not enough of them, either, and his hands are like his momma’s, or more likely his daddy’s if he’s an ink-stained wretch. He’s wrong, all wrong, and in every aspect and from every vantage point — asleep or awake; in action or repose; drunk or sober — but he’s smart enough to look you straight in the eye and say, “I don’t know nothing but I’m willing to learn, if you’ll show me.”

A boy like that knows everything.

* * *
You can read a whole story here.

If you buy this book, see if you don’t end up buying a bunch more of them to give to certain friends, the ones who know what these people are talking about. My only regret is that some of the people I most want to give this book to are dead.


  1. Melinda said,

    I used to enjoy Sipp’s stories on his blog. Glad to hear there’s a whole book of ’em now.

  2. karen said,

    That’s exactly how i feel, Melinda. I’ve peeked in via Aliblog a few times lately and am so glad. The Mr. Curly video was a hit w/my girls:0).

  3. callimachus said,

    You had me at “moves around like a giraffe in a straightjacket”

  4. mockturtle said,

    Reminds me a little of the writing of Rick Bragg.

  5. lh said,

    Sip is such a talented man.

  6. lh said,

    Cal, I’m glad to see that you saw this. Otherwise, I was going to email a link to you.

  7. karen said,

    I’m going to google a poet i heard on the tail end of Terry Gross’ program on Npr- Marie Howe. I heard two poems and just really connected to her intuition of feeling.

    Also, kinda o/t, but… my daughter wants to be an RN, got sidetracked a tad and will end up w/a BA in Psychology instead and continue on- i hope. She called, all excited about a ~Personalities~ class she had just been to, claiming to have found a connection in my life to Freud’s “Theory of Seduction”. The whole episode(or whatever to call it)w/my FinL.

    I briefly saw wikipedia on that theory and don’t think it quite fits, although the believing their own fabrications so deeply, so sincerely… i just think in my case it isn’t quite that.

    Is there a personality disorder where a person believes their own fantastical lies while hearing the truth and denying it? Or, is that just… denial? In his case, projectionary.(sp) (projectional?(sp)) ok, i made a new word, then.

    Just so you know, whenever i google, i ask the wrong questions and never get a straight answer. I’m that way on an automated tele call, too. I get confused easily. When i went to the IRS office to get my name changed on my #- i had that poor guy laughing til he cried. Said he hadn’t laughed that hard in yrs.

  8. karen said,

    I really like the title:0).

  9. amba12 said,

    I envy that guy laughing. Wish I could’ve been there. A good laugh is hard to find.

    Freud’s “theory of seduction” caused tremendous battles. I can’t remember who was on which side of them, but someone—Freud?—said the report of being sexually molested or seduced by an authority figure—from father or brother to the analyst—was usually a fantasy of the patient’s. This turned out to be, on the contrary, usually bullshit. The theory provided good blame-the-victim cover for actual seducers and molesters. On the other hand, in recent decades therapists have seen molestation where there wasn’t any, causing innocent kindergarten teachers to spend years in prison and alienating daughters from blameless fathers—or so they claim. Complicated, innit?

  10. karen said,

    Freud was a pretty messed up thinking dude, i say.
    I told that to my daughter, that these theories were just that… theories.
    This particular Seduction theme was confusing for me- what little i saw on wiki since it had to do w/repressed molestation– younger that age 3. That at 1st it was all lies, then the repressed memories that came out as fantasies. I think.

    People are complicated!!

  11. mockturtle said,

    It was perhaps unthinkable in Victorian times that these women could be telling the truth about their fathers. Did Freud also originate the ‘penis envy’ theory? It’s something I never experienced. Ever.

  12. amba12 said,

    Except on camping trips, or in fishing boats.

  13. amba12 said,

    SMALL fishing boats. Then, it’s a damned handy thing to have.

    Otherwise, it’s so nice not to have to deal with the nuisance of the thing. Especially when you can just borrow one.

  14. mockturtle said,

    Don’t need one if you have this: I never go hiking or camping without one.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I mean you don’t need one for peeing. Didn’t imply you don’t need one–ahem. ;-)

  15. mockturtle said,

    And, I might add that if you wear shorts or convertible pants you never need expose yourself while using the device. I just unzip part of the convertible leg zipper and place the device. I also use it in my tent–it comes with little plastic bags with spouts that fit over the plastic tubing. :-) Better than venturing out in the dark to get eaten by a bear. ;-)

  16. amba12 said,


  17. kngfish said,

    I must admit…I do love how these threads go….

    what the hell, let’s go the whole nine….

  18. mockturtle said,

    Gotta admit it. Very funny! :-D

  19. karen said,

    Good Lord, Ron!!!!
    And here i thought it was all about flutes, or something!!
    Notice how the beautiful woman never once smiled- that might qualify as penis envy, right there.

    MockT– how cool. Being a farmer… well, it reminds me of something either titus or Gmahal said(probably titus)about some woman in India squatting to pee and not wiping…

    Also, since we are on the o/t subject– there’s a video w/three English guys peeing at urinals and they ~help~ e/other out. I watched most of it, but the setting was the in-laws before the falling out and also before Easter dinner(two weeks before Easter, though). I wondered why everyone shook hands befrore letting go after the blessing. Extremely blasphemous, but a memory of my BinL, a big joker:0)– when he was having a good laugh.

    Maybe Ron can find that one, too?

  20. kngfish said,

    Sorry Karen…can’t help you with that one! :0

  21. karen said,

    That’s ok– i you tubed it and it’s under all kinds of things, but the English version(the 1st two i found were in French) is– damn, i think i forgot already. ~Secret Things Men do in Bathrooms~, maybe. I checked out 3 men in a toilet and then got the variety titles.

    Idk, not really my humour, but it is something i won’t soon forget(excepting the correct name!).

    My husband just told me we have a new heifer calf- she’s red and white. Her Mom’s name is Virginia, so he named her Venus.

    What a gift:0).

  22. mockturtle said,

    Congratulations on the birth of your new heifer Karen! :-)

  23. karen said,

    It makes up for losing Lolypop the other day. She had a DA(displaced abomasum – twisted stomach)and it was so packed that she couldn’t recover even after surgery.

    Sun and rain, both.

  24. TT Burnett said,

    Interesting how naturally we got to the subject of penises from Sippican Cottage. Cows I’m not sure about. I think more of bull in this context.

    Sorry about Lolypop, Karen.

  25. LouiseM said,

    Karen’s mention of Marie Howe’s poetry earlier in the thread gave me pause and a smile as I once again experienced the unique electronic connection between persons and thoughts available by internet. As a result, I went looking to find the two paper versions of Howe’s books on my shelf, and took them with me to our bathroom where they sat unread for several days next to the throne.

    This morning I picked up Kingdom of Ordinary Time and after enjoying the picture on the jacket and reading several poems, decided I needed to come back to the thread to thank Karen for the prompt and affirm that none of us knows how far our words and thoughts reach, or where they come to rest. To my surprise, I found the comments had traveled in a similarly intimate direction!

  26. karen said,

    Our ~L~ families, all descendants of a cow we bought way back about 13 yrs ago(Lovely, her name was)are plentiful and we get a lot of heifers from this family- always a good thing. They are shaped a lot like their matriarch in body – but, when we lose any one(of anything) we miss that special face– esp, w/Lolypop, her eyes:0).

    We just keep going, and maybe that’s what i loved so much about this woman’s poetry. Her great love of her friends and an understanding of time and timing, too, i think.

    I’m reading a book right now on Purgatory that a friend had w/her and loaned to me for my husband. It’s called ~Get Us Out Of Here!!~, w/the two exclamation points. Barely believable, but who am i to say? It’s definitely a good read, IMhumbleO.

  27. LouiseM said,

    Devils (and loveliness) in cows, along with mystics on purgatory. Two exclamation points indeed!! I had a good time tonight reading some of the online excerpts from the Simma book.

    From one of the Howe poems read yesterday, this description of way the “aha” of awareness comes from inside and out, under the title “Easter”:

    Two of the fingers on his right hand
    had been broken

    So when he poured back into that hand it surprised
    him–it hurt him at first.

    And the whole body was too small. Imagine
    the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill.

    He came into it two ways:
    From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants.

    And from the center–suddenly all at once
    Then he felt himself awake in the dark alone.

    by Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

  28. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    I copied that poem to my mother, with the broken bones in her feet. I thought maybe she could relate!

  29. LouiseM said,

    Healing is a strange phenomena. Plastic brains, holes that fill, breaks that mend, cuts that close. Especially so in the face of aging, decay and ongoing death. Living with brokenness and partial healing; another feat. It felt sweet and good to know the poem took wing and moved on. My copy of the cow book arrived yesterday.

    With the thread at rest, I’ll add another poem read this morning (same Howe book) as it brought stories previously shared here to mind:

    Why the Novel Is Necessary but Sometimes Hard to Read

    It happens in time Years passed until the old woman,
    one snowy morning, realized she had never loved her daughter…

    Or, Five years later she answered the door and her suitor had returned
    almost unrecognizable from his journeys…

    But before you get to that part you have to learn the names
    you have to suffer not knowing anything about anyone

    and slowly come to understand who each of them is, or who each of them
    imagines him or her self to be–

    and then, because you are the reader, you must try to understand who you think each of them is because of who you believe yourself to be

    in relation to their situation

    or to your memory of one very much like it.

    Oh it happens in time and time is hard to live through.
    I can’t read anything anymore my dying brother said one afternoon,
    not even letters. Come on, Come on, he said, waving his hand in the air, What am I interested in–plot?

    You come upon the person the author put there
    as if you’d been pushed into a room and told to watch the dancing–

    pushed into panties, into basements, across moors, into
    the great drawing rooms of great cities, into the small cold cabin, or

    to here, beside the small running river where a boy is weeping,
    and no one comes,

    and you have to watch without saying anything he can hear.

    One by one the readers come and watch him weeping by the running river, and he never knows,

    unless he too has read the story where a boy feels himself all alone.

    This is the life you have written, the novel tells us. What happens next?

    Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

  30. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    “pushed into panties, into basements, across moors” — that’s great.

  31. karen said,

    “Oh it happens in time and time is hard to live through.”

    I’m glad to have the Simma book– it makes my pain(grief) feel like it’s worth something.

  32. LouiseM said,

    True story: Our 20yr old collects and restores kerosene lanterns He works at a farm store and tonight came home after work to sit down at the dining room table (where I reside with my computer, notes and books) and talk while filling and lighting two of his lanterns. He was good with listening as I read some of the pieces I’d cut and pasted from the online Simma article that came through Karen’s mention. By the time he had both lanterns going his dad had woken from a nap and joined us. I asked if they’d be willing to listen to a really short story I’d read this afternoon that reminded me of the lanterns and when they said yes, went to get the Sippican Cottage book (from where it was stacked–next to the throne). In the warm glow of lantern light, they looked at the picture and listened to The Rusty Bucket, followed by Spring Potatoes, and The Devil’s in the Cows. It was a good time, a special, one of a kind shared moment which seemed so similar to the “vignettes” in the book I was surprised. As if the book contained a dynamic that opened us to a past/present awareness. The line that started the connection: I was born to drink from that bucket. He was born to live in that power.

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