Selected Essays

Down the Research Rat Hole

JSTOR Daily, December 20, 2018

The Polynesian rat ( Rattus exulans ), Wikimedia Commons

The Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), Wikimedia Commons

FOR THE PAST week or so, I’ve been clearing out my office, re-shelving dozens of books, filing hundreds of articles, working my way through reams of paper covered in scribbled outlines, arguments, diagrams, clarifications, lists. Here, a triangle meant to depict a synthesis of conflicting ideas, there, a timeline covering two thousand years of human history; all of it—the whole mess—the residue of some seven or eight years’ work on a book about the Polynesian migrations. . . . (more)

Prose Matters

Essay Daily, September 27, 2013


WHEN I TEACH nonfiction writing, I tell my students that an essay needs to have something that it’s about; that it’s better if takes the form of a story; and that a good first question to ask oneself is: what makes me a good teller of this tale? A lot of what I believe as an editor comes out in these classes, and a couple of years ago a student of mine, an experienced journalist and a wonderful writer who had taken the class in order to experiment with form, did me a tremendous service. He made notes of all my observations—my exhortations, my admonishments—and at the end of the class he printed them all out and gave them back to me. . . . (more)

Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love

Paris Review Daily, May 27, 2013.

Winslow Homer,  Rowing Home , 1890

Winslow Homer, Rowing Home, 1890

THREE YEARS BEFORE my mother’s final illness she had a major stroke. It was not a typical stroke—more cascade than cataclysm—but when it was over it had laid her low as effectively as a bolt of lightning.

At first, we didn’t know if she would live or die. She couldn’t move any part of her body, couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. This last was particularly distressing—swallowing is such a primitive function—but the stroke, it seemed, had struck a primitive part of her brain. . . . (more)

Past Tense

Meanjin, Vol. 61, No. 2 (2002)

John Forbes, photo courtesy Jacket/John Tranter

John Forbes, photo courtesy Jacket/John Tranter

‘Where’s the present tense / now that we need it?’
                                        —John Forbes

I AM SITTING in the kitchen reading John Forbes’ Collected Poems while my sons fire cap guns across the table at each other and run shouting down the hall. The battle is for possession of the best weapon. The youngest learned long ago to hold out, yelling at the top of his lungs until we can take it no longer. ‘Give it to him,’ someone barks, ‘or you’ll never see that gun again!’ John, himself the eldest of four boys, would have enjoyed this, I imagine. . . . (more)


New Zealand Geographic, No. 107, January 2011

Tai Tokerau, New Zealand

Tai Tokerau, New Zealand

AT SOME LEVEL , our children have always known they were Maori. But it was a thin and abstract kind of knowledge, because until recently everything they knew about New Zealand came from books and movies and TV. They had occasionally encountered other New Zealanders here in America where they live, but because of the way our lives have played out they had no firsthand experience of New Zealand. In fact, until very recently, the only other Maori they’d ever met was their father. . . . (more)

Book Reviews

"For summer travel, 6 classic children's audiobooks," Boston Globe, July 15, 2016.

"Take on audio 'Odyssey,'" Boston Globe, November 29, 2014.

"'In Other Words,' a stranger in a strange language," Boston Globe, February 6, 2016.

"'The White Road: Journey into Obsession,' by Edmund de Waal," Boston Globe, November 7, 2015.

"Good audiobooks for Thanksgiving travel," Boston Globe, November 21, 2015.

"'The Sea Inside' by Philip Hoare," Boston Globe, June 7, 2014.

"'Alone on the Ice' by David Roberts," Boston Globe, January 26, 2013.

"'The Human Shore' by John R. Gillis and 'Among the Islands' by Tim Flannery," Boston Globe, November 24, 2012.

"'Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms' by Richard Fortey," Boston Globe, April 12, 2012.

"If we couldn't read," Boston Globe, February 5, 2012.

"'The Man Within My Head,' by Pico Iyer," Boston Globe, January 1, 2012.

"'Into the Silence' by Wade Davis," Boston Globe, October 21, 2011.


Q&A with NEH Public Scholar, December 17, 2015

WRITER 2.0 with A.C. Fuller, July 15, 2015

BookGirl TV with Tessa McGovern, March 7, 2013

WritersCast with David Wilk, December 18, 2011

Literary Mama with Suzanne Kamata, December 2009

ArtSake Nano-interview, January 22, 2009

Come on Shore Q&A, 2009

ABC Radio National with Ramona Koval, September 28, 2008