Egg by Nicole Walker
Bloomsbury, March 2017
Reviewed by Emily Hoover
Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain: “the present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” In this metaphor, the egg is portrayed as something both vulnerable and powerful, as something highly anticipated yet also feared, for we can’t always look upon the past as favorable. Nicole Walker explores this contradiction in her latest book, appropriately called Egg. In fact, she uses this very quote as the title of her penultimate essay.
Egg is Walker’s third book of nonfiction, and it is just one book from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series, in partnership with The Atlantic. The project is “a book series on the hidden lives of ordinary things.” Other subjects covered include Golf Ball, Driver’s License, Cigarette Lighter, Hotel, and Silence. Like its cohorts, Egg offers an unusual lens for observing everyday objects. In this book of thirty short essays, Walker combines equal parts personal narrative, natural history, and cookbook—adding a pinch of cultural history and a dash of mythology—to whip up something that defies genre and is especially palpable in today’s divisive political climate wherein both reproductive rights and the environment are under attack.
Walker is attracted to the egg for many reasons: as a binding agent, it is a necessary ingredient in dishes from all over the world; as a feminine symbol, it represents life for cold and warm-blooded creatures alike, for “ovaries toss out eggs like cigarette butts from a car window” each month just as baby sea turtles hatch from eggs near the shore. But most importantly, she posits that the egg reinforces difference and separation as well as what she calls “perfect ” potential. After all, as she writes in an early essay called “The Egg Came First,” “The unfertilized chicken egg is half white, half yolk, but you don’t know that until you open it. Crack the egg and you’ve unleashed the binary.” There is something dangerous about splitting the egg from its shell, just as danger lurks when we segregate, label, or divide individuals based on gender, race, class, or sexual orientation.
Reading Egg is like dragging your fingers along a chain link fence: sometimes it hurts to see how things are connected, but that pain is also thrilling, healing somehow. Walker surveys the depths of virginity and motherhood, global warming and habitat destruction, cooking and art. And she does so with impeccable precision. As she shares her desire to be a mother in “Why Do We Break The Things We Love the Most,” she writes of the fragility of patience. Though she desperately wants to miss her period and welcome life into her womb, she learns that “Sometimes an egg is not a sign of anything except breakfast.”
Later, in “A Science Fair Every Year,” Walker writes about a spat she had with her daughter, Zoe. Realizing her own hotheadedness, she describes the chain reaction: “I know I have cracked my daughter’s perfect shell as surely as the ground has been cracked open for coal and the ice has been cracked open for carbon and the egg has been cracked open for breakfast.” In combining her child’s hurt feelings with the earth’s many cracks and bruises, she beckons us to see how a seemingly small act of aggression can have widespread effects. It is painful to compare interfering with a child’s science project to mining for natural resources. But, as Walker suggests, perhaps we should in order to truly understand the workings of the heart.
Although for many cultures “eggs mean love of mother,” creating life is not just limited to motherhood. Walker uses the egg as a link to art—how art, like pregnancy, is deeply personal until it is shared with the world. She writes, also in “A Science Fair Every Year,” “It’s no one’s business what we do with our eggs; that’s why their shells are opaque. No one is allowed to look in. But everyone is thinking, inside, inside, inside. That’s where the art lives.” The body becomes the shell and the amorphous egg its brain baby, just waiting to be opened.
Walker digs up feelings of frustration and powerlessness in my favorite essay/recipe hybrid, “How to Cook a Planet.” As she shares guidelines for preparing soufflé, poached eggs in broth, and funeral potatoes, she weaves in worldly lessons that we won’t get from Julia Child or Martha Stewart. She asserts that some eggs, once their shells are broken, can’t be un-cracked. In other words, “it is nearly as impossible to repair a mess of stringy egg as it is to repair a fractured rain forest or revise a pointless story.” The action of cracking the egg and pouring its contents into a mixing bowl is the same as struggling with the finality of our decisions, both in our writing lives and in our decimated rain forests.
In her steps for making soufflé, she argues that it “might be the best creation story,” for “Like these myths, you have to separate the eggs, egg from ocean, wet from dry, hydrogen from oxygen, in order to make something new.” Something new might be great for chefs, but in terms of serious topics like global warming or turtle extinction, Walker suggests that the old human recipe, built on separation and monetary gain, has been destructive. She writes, “It is as easy to crack a planet as to wreck an egg recipe. Putting too much baking soda in its oceans, turning it acidic, cracking its mountains to dig for coal, cooking that coal like a soufflé in an oven, making those broken eggs reach for the clouds, turning the crust golden brown.” She describes the ruin of our planet in quipped lists, using cooking terms and metaphors, to show that we should look at our climate the way we look at our favorite recipes for baked eggs. Maybe then, we can save it from burning.
Walker’s Egg poses a lot of questions about the self and the larger world. Rather than offering oversimplified answers or political posturing, she gifts us her thoughts, complete with their rich aroma and complex flavor patterns. After sampling this delicious dish of a book, I realized something: Walker can itemize the ingredients and compose the recipe for me, she can create space for this kind of dialogue, but it’s up to me to mix the ingredients—to do my part and make this world into something better by caring for the earth and its residents the way I care for the organic, cage-free eggs I prepare. There’s some food for thought.
Review of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot
Rachel Greenberg, contributor
6 September 2016
Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else and finalist for the Orange Prize, is often listed in such company as Kelly Link and Aimee Bender for the very sophisticated sense of the “weird” she demonstrates in her fiction. Her latest novel, Mr. Splitfoot, released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on January 5, 2016, is an excellent example of the problem with jacket descriptions: how do you sell a complicated and genre-defying novel in a compelling but brief way? I admit that on first reading the jacket’s plot description, I found myself anticipating what type of book I thought this would be: quirky characters go on quirky journey. Journey is a metaphor for life. Classification as a “horror” novel should really read “creepy” novel — no major scares expected. I was right in some ways, but I am so glad that didn’t stop me from reading it. There is real beauty in this writing and some real scares, to be sure.
Though this novel does resist the limitations of a single genre assignment, it seems fair to see that it has been directly influenced by the traditions of gothic and horror novels, the bildungsroman, and the travel novel. Two women, niece Cora and aunt Ruth, wander along highways and through forests on their way to some location that Ruth knows but refuses to divulge. With this journey at the center of the story, the lives and perspectives of these two women snake around this central plot with moments from Ruth’s past braiding into Cora’s present.
Both of these women have been badly wronged. We learn of Cora’s hardships right away: her affair with a married man has become dangerous and he refuses to accept that she will keep the baby they’ve conceived. When Ruth appears one night without explanation and apparently unable or unwilling to speak, Cora decides to go with her gut and follow Ruth to wherever it is she plans to go.
Ruth’s mystery unfolds more slowly and begins further in the past. Abandoned in a radical evangelical foster home after her older sister ages out, Ruth becomes deeply attached to Nat, a boy of the same age who claims to be able to speak to the dead. The two become “sisters,” supporting and loving each other as closely as twins. Their standby trick is to provide the other kids in the home with messages from their mothers (whether they are dead or not). Ruth’s life is plagued with aggressive and dangerous men, each eerier and more unsettling than the last. Without giving anything away, there are some truly disturbing and scary moments in Ruth’s life, and while the supernatural does have a role here, most of the real horror in this world arises from very human motivations.
Hunt’s novel would be equally at home in a gothic reading list as in a feminist one. While the mechanics of this story are distinctly in the categories of the uncanny and the horrible, all of the weird magic of this world dances around some central questions: when does a person become a mother? Is it a process of biology or of choice? What does a person become when they have no mother? What does sisterhood mean? How do we support our sisters? Responding to a long tradition of ghost stories that explore the intricacies of the experience of being a woman, Hunt’s thematic choices are well-suited to a gothic horror aesthetic.
At every chapter break, Mr. Splitfoot compels the reader to continue, and unlike many stories in the gothic tradition, Hunt’s writing is full of exciting action and tension. It’s true that some readers may find themselves chomping at the bit to understand exactly how all of these eccentric characters and strange plot elements will connect in the end as it does take some time to see the pieces mesh. And if, like me, you tend to be suspicious of novels where the main event is the strangeness of the characters, or the shock value of the action, or the authorial arm-twist of a cliffhanger, you may find yourself feeling a little too aware of some of the narrative tricks in play as you read. But the more Ruth’s story becomes apparent and the more the novel starts to show its horror chops, the more genuinely compelling it becomes. And in fact, as the novel progresses, the more invested the writing starts to become in undermining the traditional “tyranny of text,” a very modern narrative sensibility that casts new light on the larger structural design. Throughout, Hunt’s writing is incredibly rewarding and the ending proves well-worth the journey especially if, like me, you are a lover of literary horror who wants some real, honest-to-goodness scares mixed in with your subtle creepiness.
Rachel Greenberg is a writer from the Baltimore area, currently living in San Diego. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in Tethered By Letters, Shameless Magazine, Thoroughfare Literary Magazine, and San Diego Writers’ Ink.