Book Review: One Long River of Song (Notes on Wonder)

Luminous, is the word I would use to describe some of the essays in this collection by Brian Doyle, a writer I was not familiar with until reading One Long River of Song.

This book, which I borrowed from the library but now feel so entranced by it that I am probably going to buy a copy for myself, was mentioned somewhere in a review, caught my eye, and so I kept it on my radar (I have lots of books on my radar).

Lucky me. While Doyle apparently is well known in many circles as an essayist of renown, exploring spiritual matters (one of his gigs was with a Catholic journal, I believe), which sort of would turn me off from him if things veered too religious, the collected pieces here are full of humor, insight, reflection, quiet, family and more. The spiritual aspects are more a sense of shared humanity.

Yes, there is a deeper spiritual nature and some references to religious beliefs to Doyle’s pieces, but these elements allow him to step back and look at the larger world with, as the subtitle says, Notes on Wonder. From the natural world (he is particularly attuned to Hawks and birds, and a piece about hummingbirds to start the collection is exquisite) to the unanticipated pleasures of parenthood (he and his wife were told they would not have children, and then had three) to growing up in a bustling family (one essay about biking to the beach along the highway, only to be saved from near death by an older brother is touching), to conversations with friends and strangers that become small odes of intensive observation, Doyle is a writer of note.

I am sad to report that this collection, curated by his wife and put into context by a writing friend, David James Duncan, whose foreword is a moving piece of textual friendship, was published following Doyle’s death from brain cancer. And yet, even the later pieces, in which he writes about leaving this life, Doyle somehow finds the right words to touch your heart, to be grateful for what you have in the moment you are in. One particular late essay in which he imagines what his wife thinks of him, through his own strange wanderings and mutterings, is touching, funny, and so deep with humanity.

As part of my own reading life, I often take passages and sentences that I deem to be beautiful or enriching, and share them out elsewhere under a #smallquotes tag. It’s a way for me to remember my reading, and honor the writers, but also, in typing out the passages from the books, I learn more about how to be a writer myself. Doyle has been a wonderful teacher, in this regard, giving me so many beautiful passages and flowing sentences that I could have easily found dozens in this book.

I wasn’t aware of Brian Doyle when he was alive and a vibrant writer of novels, essays, poems and more, but this collection of pieces has brought him and his words into my world, into my heart, and for that, I am grateful.

Peace (flowing on the page),

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