A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape
Meditations on Ruin and Redemption
Essays on memory, history, and place that give voice to the sorrow and joy of being human
The title cloud of Matt Donovan’s A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape refers to the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that buried the city of Pompeii under twenty feet of ash. It’s no surprise, then, that Donovan found the site of the sacred ruins an inspiration, using their legacy to form the beginning of this extraordinary nonfiction debut. Donovan pursues the image of the cloud throughout these fourteen spellbinding essays on ruin and redemption. He explores the original atomic cloud at the Trinity test site. From there, he touches on the same image rising above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the childhood memories of nuclear apocalypse in the 1983 film The Day After.
Moving from atomic devastation to the beauty of the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., Donovan makes the kind of uncanny connections that enliven his work at every turn. Tragedy becomes personal when a dear friend is diagnosed with cancer. And there are heart-stopping references to Kent State, in which Donovan explores the effects of six students killed during an anti-Vietnam War protest.
Closing with thoughts on the Pantheon in Rome, Donovan shifts his meditations from a place of apocalypse to an ancient building that has avoided, against all odds, becoming a ruin. A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape is about the flawless connections between antiquity and the present, personal experience and historical events, architecture and art and literature. The redemptive power of beauty hovers over this spectacular work, reminding us that darkness and light make an inextricable pattern in our lives and form the delicate balance of what ultimately makes life worthwhile, what gives meaning to the sorrow and joy of being human.
“Matt Donovan’s essays are haunted, searching, lyrical, and above all dogged in their ability to conjoin personal history with public history, whether he is investigating the ruins of Pompeii, the Trinity bomb site, or his grandparents’ ghostly home movies. His voice is erudite but intimate, and his self-reckonings and troubled reflections almost invariably give way to a bracing sense of wonder. ‘Memory,’ wrote the ever-canny Walter Benjamin, ‘is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theatre.’ Matt Donovan understands this metaphor in a manner that is shared by only a precious few of his contemporaries, and his book is a dazzling performance.”
— David Wojahn, author of World Tree
“Matt Donovan spins his obsessions—Pompeii, the Pantheon, Raphael’s Transfiguration—into storytelling gold. Donovan’s distinctive vision, gorgeous prose, and curious mind combine brilliantly. A pleasure to read, from start to finish.”
— Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire
“There’s no contemporary essayist who can touch Matt Donovan for his companionableness, his easy and immense erudition, and his refreshing skepticism about what Randall Jarrell once called ‘the monumental certainties that go perpetually by, perpetually on time.’ In our time, the certainties Donovan rebels against are our aversion to facts, our cultural laxness in proclaiming Sensibility King/Queen, and our gargantuan self-regard that wants to see profundity in watching a rhinoceros push a pea from one end of its cage to the other. But never does Donovan scold or rant or turn village explainer. Instead, with self-deprecating modesty and humor, Donovan walks the walk as well as talking the talk. He is devoted to facts, skeptical of himself and his desires, and deeply in love with the contradictory ways that history and personal experience shape each other. His meditations on the atomic bomb, on Pompeii and the Pantheon in Rome, are unparalleled for their speculative reach and grasp of physical detail.”
— Tom Sleigh
“A literary, wide-ranging, time-traveling fusion of the essay and memoir forms, of the themes of death and life, of destruction and rebirth."”
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— Albuquerque Journal
“Matt Donovan masterfully reveals how art elevates what is ruined and captures what is absent. These meditations, which collapse time and geography, bring into poignant relief the nature of the untamable mind and our complexly vexed humanity. At its heart, the book is an homage to the impenetrable mystery of the sacred.”
— Kathleen Graber, author of The Eternal City
“Matt Donovan’s expansive erudition over fourteen meditations on ruin and redemption is never deadening: everything from painting, architecture, engineering, sculpture, photography, film, literature, music, geography, history, and mythology seems to be embraced in large loops.”
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— World Literature Today