This week’s other featured books, “48 States,” by Evette Davis and “The Unsinkable Gus Davis,” by Laurie Trumble Davis, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our Authors page.
THE BOOK: This World Is Not Your Home: Essays, Stories & Reports.
PUBLISHED IN: 2022
THE AUTHOR: Matthew Vollmer
THE EDITOR: Walter Robinson
THE PUBLISHER: Eastover Press.
From the EastOver Website: “EastOver Press is an independent literary press with an online journal named Cutleaf. “EastOver Press specializes in publishing collections of short stories, essays, and poetry in a format that honors both the writing and the writer.
“For Cutleaf, we seek the best in contemporary writing in prose and verse from emerging and established writers. We are excited to promote writing that speaks to our commonalities and our differences.”
SUMMARY: Ranging from third person accounts to essays in the form of notes, instructions, and extended meditations, This World Is Not Your Home unfurls like an idiosyncratic playlist of the possibilities available to the writer of creative nonfiction.
The title essay, written in second person, tells the story of Vollmer’s growing up in rural North Carolina, and catalogs the psychological pressures exerted by a little-known religion that, while all-consuming for the author, seemed invisible to the rest of the world. Other essays include:
- Instructions for how to write a love story that centers two young star-crossed lovers at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school.
- A trip to a mountain home built to resemble a castle reveals a secret underground bunker that houses tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Nazi militaria.
- An essay written in the form of notes takes stock of forbidden music.
- A husband and wife take a walk after dark, encounter a spectacular cosmic phenomenon, and return home to discover a distraught child.
- An investigation into NASA’s Symphonies of the Planets, an album of electromagnetic impulses emitted by various planets, which was transformed into sound waves, occasions an extended meditation on space, music, and the meaning of sound.
- An eyewitness account of the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech considers the surreal and sorrowful reactions to an unfathomable violence.
- In another essay, a preoccupation with his inevitable death causes Vollmer to imagine who his wife might remarry, and the cataloguing of his potential replacement’s superior characteristics and preoccupations creates a kind of portrait in reverse.
- An essay that unfolds in a single paragraph recounts the house of Vollmer’s best friend, which has since been razed, and becomes a requiem for the loss of a childhood filled with Nerf footballs, a farting dog, Intelevision track pads, and an obsession with finding hidden messages in rock music.
- A third person retelling of a trip with his family to visit his parents in their mountain home over Thanksgiving becomes an occasion to grieve a recent miscarriage, while dramatizing peculiar family dynamics and bearing witness to the beginning stages of a mother’s early onset dementia.
Written using a variety of forms and points of view, these immersive, voice-driven essays are a testament to the dexterity of the form.
THE BACK STORY: The book was written over the course of 15 years, focusing on a number of incidents and occasions for composing essays, stories, and reports.
WHY THIS TITLE?: “This World Is Not My Home” is a lyric from a song that I often sang in church.
Lily Hoang, author of five books of prose including Changing and A Bestiary, said, “This World is Not Your Home is a collection of versatile, volatile, and virtuosic essays. Each essay begins with the self and rappels deep inside and then catapults out, out to the mysterious and unfathomable world, and then out further, to the sun, and out further, still, to parameters of space, the limits of understanding, all while challenging any stable expectation for what an essay should be or even look like. From reckonings of God with Science to the near witnessing—how close does one need to be to qualify as witness?—of massacre to the special beauty of boyhood friendship, Vollmer’s essays show us how common the exceptional can be and how the quotidian is really quite extraordinary and profound.”
Chris Offutt, author of The Killing Hills, said, “You don’t simply read Matthew Vollmer, you enter his consciousness for varying periods of time. It takes a stalwart bravery on the part of the reader, but far less than the courage manifested by the writer. This World is Not Your Home is a remarkable achievement by a brilliant writer.”
Padgett Powell, author of novels including Edisto, A Woman Named Drown, Edisto Revisited, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, You & Me, The Interrogative Mood, and Hologram, said, “Vollmer has great fun here with what I will call periodicity for want of better term. He pushes things to just inside the boundaries of domestication, another dubious term I’m not going to improve upon. The resultant of these forces is a writing that is well reasoned and sharp and so muscly that it surprises and gratifies.”
Stanley Crawford, author of The River in Winter and Mayordomo, said, “The telling of an ordinary life can be made extraordinary through vibrant, innovative writing. This is just what Matthew Vollmer has done in his This World Is Not Your Home. Often hilarious, sometimes grim, his account sparkles with surprising insights.”
AUTHOR PROFILE:Matthew Vollmer is the author of two short-story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as three collections of essays—inscriptions for headstones, Permanent Exhibit, and This World Is Not Your Home: Essays, Stories, & Reports. He was the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects invocations from over 60 acclaimed and emerging authors, and served as co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. His work has appeared in venues such as Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Tin House, Oxford American, The Sun, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and Best American Essays. He teaches in the MFA program at Virginia Tech, where he is a Professor of English. His next book, All of Us Together in the End, will be published by Hub City Press in 2023. He enjoys biking, taking long walks, spending time with his wife and son and cats, playing PS4 games (especially horror), and thinking of fun and innovative ways to get people to write.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I hope this book helps people understand how important it is to be honest with family about the stories that they’ve told you and which you believe but also how stories are the gods of our world and how indebted we are to language for forming reality.
SAMPLE: from StoryQuarterly:
They had just finished eating—the man and woman and their son—at their favorite Mexican restaurant, where, even though they hadn’t quite cleaned their plates, they complained that they’d eaten too much, which was a signal for the man to say, as he always did, “Time to visit the vomitorium.” Though the man knew that feasting was an important part of high culture in ancient Rome and that the wealthy enjoyed slathering wild boar and venison with fermented fish intestines, he also knew, because he’d consulted his phone during a previous visit to this same restaurant, that feasters did not excuse themselves, waving away slaves who’d been enlisted to brush crumbs and bits of bones from their faces, in order to visit a system of tureens reserved especially for regurgitating food, thereby allowing vomiters to return with vigor to their indulgences. The man knew that the word ‘vomitorium” actually described the entryways of ancient Roman amphitheaters. But because “vomitorium” was a word that made both his wife and son shake their heads and laugh despite themselves, he said it, and the trio took it as their cue to leave.
On the way home the woman suggested that they should all go for a walk; after all, the dog had been left inside all day and could use some fresh air, and as good as it might sound to lie down, the family might better aid their digestion by perambulating the neighborhood. This sounded like a good idea to the man, but once he parked the car in the driveway, the boy slung open the door and scampered toward the house, and by the time his parents made it inside he had already resumed the playing of whatever video game he’d most recently downloaded to his tablet computer, the one that required him to tap and swipe the screen of the device with the relentless tenacity of a madman. The woman shrugged. The man hooked the dog’s collar to a leash. And, because they had recently agreed that twelve was an appropriate age to leave the boy alone in a house for short periods of time, they told him they’d be back in a little while, and left without him.
At first, the man and woman walked without talking, and this, the man thought, was fine. Nice, even. The man had always enjoyed taking walks with the woman, and she with him. Though the two were different in many ways, and though she was half an inch taller and her legs were longer, the couple walked at the same brisk pace—the woman often noted that they shared a similar stride—and so walking together, though they never held hands, as this had the tendency to introduce an awkwardness that impeded their gait, felt completely natural.
At the crest of the hill, the woman sighed heavily, and when the man asked what was wrong, she said she was in a funk.
Instead of asking her to talk more about this funk, the man said something like, “Me too” or, in a way that suggested he was in the same boat, “Tell me about it.” It would be easy to imagine that the man had good intentions for claiming a funk of his own, and that by commiserating with his wife, he might have been curating a little funk-sharing space, one they might inhabit together and thereby lift one another’s spirits, but the truth was, the man had gotten temporarily caught up—as he sometimes did—in a kind of playful but ultimately self-serving brand of spousal antagonism. After all, it was beyond ludicrous to think that even if he did have a funk to call his own that it could compare to hers, which was a funk that happened to be six months in the making, a funk that, were it a human baby, would soon have the strength and wherewithal to crawl around on its own. This funk had been born, more or less, at the end of the previous winter, when the man and woman went to a local breast imaging center and sat in a waiting room where a bald, goateed man in overalls and a satin Harley Davidson jacket held a little girl on his knee while the old woman next to him—head wrapped in a scarf, eyebrow-less face forcibly placid—drank Styrofoam cup after Styrofoam cup of medicine.
At this point, the woman squeezed the man’s hand. He squeezed back and said, “It’s going to be okay,” and then a nurse called the woman’s name and she left the room. Two days later, the woman received a call from the radiologist, who said everything was fine, that there were some calcifications in both breasts, nothing major, but something to keep an eye on, which was something of a relief, at least for the next 48 hours, until the woman got another call, and the same guy said that he’d been having some second thoughts, and that he’d given the mammogram to another radiologist, one who had a bit more experience, and this radiologist had said something like, “Well, fifty percent of doctors who know what they’re looking at would tell you that it looks like you might wanna biopsy, and the other fifty percent would be content to watch and wait” and “If it were me, I’d biopsy,” and so a week or so later the doctors removed tissue from one of the breasts and sent it a lab, where it tested positive for a certain kind of non-invasive breast cancer, specifically a kind that begins in the milk ducts.
Before the woman had learned of this new development, she had decided—because it was the most conservative and therefore safest approach—that if the news were bad she would elect to undergo a double mastectomy with reconstruction, a process that subsequently involved visits to a number of doctors, including a family physician, an oncologist, a breast surgeon, a plastic surgeon, and a radiation oncologist, and a regular oncologist, who, after learning that the wife had suffered four miscarriages, surmised that the flood of estrogen of a full-blown pregnancy might have been just the thing to cause the cells in those milk ducts to spread. Other doctors wrote on white boards, drawing normal looking cells and cells that had mutated. They suggested books for the woman to read. They asked the same questions that nurses had just asked. They made inquiries about family history and medications. During exactly zero of these visits had the woman explained that she’d been writing a book about the rhetoric of breast cancer survivors, a project whose origins could likely be traced back to the fact that the woman’s mother had died when she was only 46 years of age, and that the woman had been 14 at the time, and that this event had shaped her life to a profound degree, since, for years afterward, she privately grieved for her mother, filling journals with writing, notebooks upon notebooks she still kept but never read and never showed anyone. It goes without saying, then, that the woman’s diagnosis had been devastating—she had laid for a long time in the middle of the day on the bed with the man, crying and dabbing her eyes and saying things like, maybe there’s a silver lining to all this, because they’d discovered it before it had become invasive, and then thinking of a world in which her son didn’t have a mom, and crying some more, and the man remembered a story his wife had told him long ago about sitting alone on the floor of her living room not long after her mother had died, watching cartoons with tears streaming down her face, while eating an ice cream pie that had been delivered by her father’s new girlfriend. So yes, the news had been devastating. The procedure itself had also been painful—the first surgery involved not only the removal of breast tissue but the insertion of expanders to stretch her pectoral muscles—and exhausting—the woman had to sleep in a recliner for four weeks—and messy—tubes draining blood and liquid from wounds into little squeeze bottles that had to be emptied twice a day—and boring—it turned out a person could only watch so much TV before you felt like you were going insane—and frustrating—she longed to exercise, but couldn’t run for a month, and then, once she’d returned to her previous form, the second surgery, during which the expanders would be replaced with gel packs, she’d had to give up running again. This, more or less, was the extent of the woman’s funk, which, it is perhaps plain to see, the man was foolish to have equated with his own, even—and perhaps especially if—he was joking.
The couple continued to walk in silence. This silence, though, it wasn’t like before. It wasn’t comfortable. At least not for the man. Did the woman now resent his presence? Did she wish she ‘d stayed at the house—or that he hadn’t come along? He couldn’t be sure. The only thing he could say with absolute certainty was that the evening through which they were walking was, without question, incredibly beautiful. In the distance, unseen children were laughing and screaming happily—the man imagined a game of chase or hide and seek while the children’s parents sipped cocktails or stood over flaming grills. Fireflies pulsed in the air: little intermittent flashes of green. One might even say—as the man couldn’t help but think—that they were walking right through the middle of a quintessential summer evening, as if the night itself was pulling out all the stops to put on the performance of the season. The man and woman turned a corner. A soft breeze rustled the leaves of a tree, which diffused a yellow glow. Past the tree, they could see, in the sky, a low full moon: a bright and impossibly huge sphere hovering above the neighborhood, illuminating the algae-blanketed pond across the street, riming the dark green fields beyond. The man pointed skyward. The woman said, “Wow.” The fact that they had both been rendered speechless gave the man hope; maybe, he thought, the beauty they’d encountered during this little stroll would erase the memory of his ineptitude. He kept quiet, so as not to infringe on an unspoken truce. He thought about taking a picture and instinctively patted his pockets to locate his phone, which he remembered having left in the bedroom to charge. And that was okay. It wasn’t possible to take a good picture of the moon, anyway—at least not with his phone.
As the couple approached their house, a light in the living room snapped on, followed shortly by another light downstairs. Initially, the man figured the appearance of a sequence of lights in their house could be easily explained: his son likely wandering through rooms, looking for a cord so he could charge the dying battery of the tablet computer. Then again, the man thought, it could’ve been anybody. For years, they’d left the front door unlocked: they would leave the house for a few minutes or a few hours or an entire day and though they would certainly shut they rarely locked their front door, placing full trust in their neighbors and anyone who might wander into their cul-de-sac (proselytizers and lawn care specialists and meter readers and pizzeria employees placing hang-tags on doorknobs) that they would have the good sense not to enter a home that wasn’t theirs.
They heard the screams as they approached the front door. It was the boy, screaming—in a way that seemed desperate—their names, as if through force of sheer will—and volume—the man and woman might materialize. The man figured that the boy had somehow injured himself—and remembered once when he was a kid at a church camp and how he’d ducked out of playing baseball, because he hated baseball, and returned to his room, where he’d cut himself playing with a pocket knife, and started screaming bloody murder for help, and how a neighbor had appeared and said, after inspecting the injury, which turned out to be rather slight, “I thought somebody had cut their leg off.” The boy, however, was not injured. He was, as he attempted to explain, between exhausted sobs, scared; he hadn’t known where his parents were. He’d tried to call his mother’s phone and she hadn’t answered, and he’d tried to call the father’s phone, and he hadn’t answered either, and because both of them had never not answered their phones, the boy had become afraid, and began to entertain worst-case scenarios. It was here that the man was overcome with empathy for his son; he could remember having this exact feeling as a kid, and how terrible it had been to not know where your parents were and then imagining that something horrible had happened to them and the more time passed without them showing up, the more real the imagined scenario became, until it had solidified itself in reality and become the only viable explanation: this was it, they were never coming back, they were gone forever. But the man and woman had returned. They were not gone forever. And so the woman hugged the boy and then the man hugged him too and then the man said I want to show you something. He took the boy’s hand and led him outside, knowing that the boy was probably wondering what in the world was he doing, taking him out into the yard at this hour, at night, and then in the space between the houses across the street, the man pointed, and the boy looked into the sky and saw the big bright moon.
For the most part, the couple had kept their son in the dark about the particulars of his mother’s surgery. He didn’t know that the entirety of his mother’s breast tissue had been removed. He didn’t know that a surgeon had placed expanders under her pectoral muscles and that she’d had to visit the surgeon every two weeks to receive injections that would gradually enlarge them. He’d never seen the drains where red fluid sloshed. He didn’t know that the expanders had been replaced with gel packs. He didn’t know that his mother would be returning to the operating room in December to remove her fallopian tubes, because that was, doctors had discovered, where ovarian cancer likely started. The boy had only known that doctors had found something in her breasts that could turn into cancer if they didn’t remove it. He didn’t ask any follow-ups. He was more concerned about the recliner the woman had to sleep in. Once she was done with it, she’d promised it would be his.
The man didn’t explain that the moon wasn’t really bigger, that its apparent enormity was merely an optical illusion. Instead, he let his son bask in the brightness, hoping that the sight of it would act like a commemorative stamp on his memory, and that someday the man would say, “Hey, remember that time when you thought we were gone and I showed you the moon,” and the boy would say, “Yeah,” and then the man would tell him about how he and the boy’s mother had walked together, each of them carrying silent burdens the boy had known nothing about, and the boy would remember the time when his father, who could not always be depended upon to do or say the right thing, had shepherded him into the yard and pointed to the huge round rock in the sky that was reflecting the light of the nearest star, and how the boy had wiped away his tears to see it.
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