Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover


Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover

A Review by Peter Anastas

(Dogbar Publications, Gloucester, 2016, 142 pp.,  $15)


“We tell stories for as many reasons as we live. They celebrate the beginnings and endings of our lives. They are the hand that rocks the cradle, the hand that wraps the shroud. They give meaning to the long or short haul of our lives.” –from the Preface


In Telling Tales, Gloucester poet and novelist Eric Schoonover has given us a collection of essays as finely written as they are delightful to read.   Each essay explores an arresting theme and tells a particular story, so that in reading them we are doubly rewarded.

We experience the taste of dates in Egypt with their author, who shares his thoughts about the role of memory in our lives.  In an essay that dramatizes issues of class and companionship, we accompany Schoonover as a young college instructor, who travels from his Eastern American classroom to Washington State to join a fire fighting crew in the Palouse hills.  We’re with him in a car race in which a relationship is also explored, and we assist him in building “Tuva,” his Micro sailboat, which still plies the waters off Cape Ann (he also builds a bed for his grandson Jacob to whom the book is dedicated).  Most powerfully, we climb into the mountains of Switzerland, where Schoonover travels to scatter the ashes of his parents near the small Genevan village where the family spent several memorable vacations.

Yet for all their variety and Schoonover’s scintillating prose, these essays are seamlessly constructed, as befits the boat builder who wrote them.  The word essay comes from the French essai, which means “an attempt.”  In writing an essay one begins by setting down tentative thoughts about a subject.  In the process we may also be trying to discover what we actually think about that subject, and what we want to say about it once we begin to write.

Essays have generally been categorized as “formal” or “familiar.” Formal essays usually consist of an impersonal analysis of a subject, while familiar essays are generally written from a personal point of view and  tell us as much about the writer as his or her subject.

Our era may well be one in which we have witnessed the primacy of the familiar essay, through the popularity of personal essays and memoirs, the profusion of Op Ed columns, and, more recently, the explosion of individual blogs, in which writers write as much about themselves as they do about their subjects.  Yet the new digital technologies (not to speak of texting and Twittering) with their inherent demands to think and write fast, and therefore more superficially, have helped to create a literary culture in which care of construction and thoughtfulness of intent have often been eclipsed by the pressure to post or respond to other posts.  While this has arguably afforded more democracy of access and expression (everybody is now seen to be a writer), the inevitable consequence has been a sacrifice of depth.

For this reason Eric Schoonover’s Telling Tales is all the more welcome.   The personal voice is here in these wonderfully luminous essays, which are both autobiographical and a history of the sources and growth of a literary sensibility.  We come to understand who the author is through the gathering details of his life—fishing with his father as a child; experiencing his first misunderstanding by a teacher in the rural Western Massachusetts school he first attended, in a town where he was the only paperboy; teaching English and literature in a variety of settings; and traveling to remote places whose cultures fascinate him, with his family as a child and later as a mature traveler and writer

With this collection Schoonover has in effect restored the essay to its proper place as an invaluable yet ever flexible mode of expression and exposition, a means of coming at the world in multiple ways, while sharing with the reader what the writer has discovered during the journey.

In describing what he has set out to achieve in this rewarding book, Schoonover quotes Joseph Conrad’s own reason for writing: “I want to make you see.”   And we do see through Schoonover’s eyes some of the world he has experienced and remembered, just as we feel through language that rises to poetry what he has felt and wishes to share with us.

Telling Tales may be a slender book in terms of page length, but it is brimming with the kinds of wisdom, humor, insight and sheer intelligence that are certain to make a lasting impression on the reader.


eric schoonover

Eric Schoonover is a writer, boatbuilder and watercolorist, who lives in Gloucester in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, also a writer. He is the author of the award-winning The Gloucester Suite and Other Poems and a novel, Flowers of the Sea. His latest book, Telling Tales, has just been published.

An Academic Christmas

by Eric Schoonover

A Child's Christmas in Wales - Winter 2000 production for The National Theatre of the Deaf. The Set Design is by Richard Finkelstein. This adaptation of the work of Dylan Thomas, is by Burgess Clark, with direction by Peter Flynn

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Winter 2000 production for The National Theatre of the Deaf. The Set Design is by Richard Finkelstein. This adaptation of the work of Dylan Thomas, is by Burgess Clark, with direction by Peter Flynn

The corgi sits next to the stack of papers. Perhaps he’ll eat some: there are essays on Melville, Whitman, even Elizabeth Bishop. Some tasty stuff, even whale meat there, but he only nickers and dreams of a Xmas-day bone.  Children race through my study, loving to slide across the wide waxed floorboards on the runner rugs, their winter surfboards, crashing into the dictionary stand holding the giant Webster’s III.  I shout. The dog looks up. The phone rings. It is the day before, long before, caller-ID, so I scrunch deeper into my great comfy chair . . . and hope.  “Dad, the phone’s for you.  Sounds like another sob story!”

Time: 9.30 a.m. 24 December, many years ago. This is the worst time in an academic’s year.

Our semesters always ended just before Xmas. Grades had to be submitted to the registrar within 78 hours after the final examination—in hand.  So, if you gave an examination on the 23rd you’d be staring at a pile of blue books on Xmas day. The computerized processing of grades was far in the distance.  Students could not discover their final grade until the New Year, when reports were sent home; we faculty posted grades on our office doors. But some students, even some of my students, couldn’t wait: they began calling before I’d even read their exams or papers. I had clearly informed them, repeatedly, that grades could be obtained only by those two methods:  the registrar or the office door. But as my son, now too an academic, observed, “Some students never listen!” a remark that seemed to apply to a few of the some 7,000 students that I have “taught” over some 40 years of my life. (Quick checking on my arithmeticing fingers informs that probably I read a grand total of some 42,000 student papers in my academic career.)

The day before Xmas can be trying, even in a non-religious household. There are commitments of gifting, of cooking, of making music, of writing letters and cards, of visiting, of entertaining, of reading Dylan Thomas. Yet for the academic, all of this must be pushed aside in favor of the exam booklet, the term paper, the graduate thesis proposal. This is the worst time in an academic’s year.

And then the reading itself, after the younger children have fled to other adventures and the door firmly shut against the delicious smells of pies and strudels and sauces for the next day. Did Mr. Adams deliberately mis-read the exam’s instructions? He’s been a tough one, frequently missing class, missing quizzes, and then arguing about grades. Do I give him the benefit of the doubt? It’s too late for a make-up, which I always allow in term. I want my students to learn the material. If they fail or do poorly in a major segment, I feel as if they should have a second chance.

So now, with grades due in a few hours, there’s no second chance. And that first paragraph lead in Daphne Cook’s term paper on Anne Sexton sounds awfully familiar—and it’s not credited. Well, other matters are, thoroughly credited. And, you know, once you say something about Sexton, everyone else seems to have said it too. This is the worst time in an academic’s year.

Hey Professor Softy, get a grip. But I can’t just now; I have to drive to the station to pick up the New Yorkers who feel a seasonal urge to be in the country in a large Victorian farmhouse fairly near the ocean.

Morning has gone, strident Xmas trumpets blast through my thickened door. “Dad, Mom wants to know whether you can . . . and now!” A sandwich, edges curling up, has been set on my desk. Thoughtful, maybe. I think of the Frost poem we studied last month:

. . . I am done with apple-picking now. / Essence of winter sleep is on the night, /. . .  I am drowsing off.  “Daddy, Henry won’t play Candyland with me!” I Drowse.

I check the pile of remaining exam booklets—constantly wishing that it will magically shrink to one, well, maybe two. It won’t. I’d like to skip that part of the course. “Dad, they’re back from the beach, and Mom says it’s time to make them cocktails.” That’s the answer. An anodyne. It’s danger? More sleep. This is the worst time in an academic’s life.

After midnight, after Santa has descended though our enormous fireplace and arranged all of the presents just so, after I have relaxed again into the depths of my Morris chair, after a blanket has been pulled up over me (thoughtful) and I might just sleep a bit more, the number of booklets has magically, it seems, reduced itself to very few. And then I think of the ending of that great story of Christmas written by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:  I said some words to the close . . . darkness, and then I slept.


Eric SchoonoverEric Schoonover, Professor Emeritus of American Literature and Literature of the Sea at the University of Rhode Island, now lives in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, a writer. Gone the corgi and the farmhouse, gone the blue books and even Candyland.   “An Academic Christmas” will appear in Schoonover’s forthcoming book, Telling Tales.