I've published new writing about Herman Melville in the Holy Land. It appears in the May issue of The Public Domain Review.

Contemplating the Judean Desert

Hope for a better year




Routes of literary pilgrims in the Holy Land. Black: Herman Melville on horseback, January, 1857. Red: JW on foot May, 2017 and April, 2019


My friend and Yale classmate Jerry Glover died of AIDS in 1982. In this our 50th anniversary year, I and several classmates have memorialized Jerry. Our collaborative essay was published this spring in the Yale 1969 reunion classbook.

Jerry Glover, early 1970s



It seems the duty of a live literary man to perpetuate the memory of a dead one when there is such fair opportunity as in this case: but how Thoreau would scorn me for thinking that I could perpetuate him.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, eulogizing the late H. D. Thoreau



The Melville Room, Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, MA


Southward they file. 'Tis Pluto's park 
Beslimed as after baleful flood: 
A nitrous, filmed and pallid mud, 
With shrubs to match. Salt specks they mark 
Or mildewed stunted twigs unclean 
Brushed by the stirrup, Stygean green, 
With shrivelled nut or apple small.
    —Melville, Clarel


Sodom apple, a shrub in the Judean desert

Herman Melville wrote his best books while living in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. I grew up there a century later. The limpid leafiness of May may have come to his mind when, appalled, he saw the stony desert of Palestine in 1857.

Umpachene Brook, Mill River, MA


St. George, whether or not he actually killed a dragon, is big in the Holy Land — even Moslems venerate him. Any souvenir shop is sure to have images of St. George for sale. This icon, about six inches square, did not come from an ordinary shop. It is Russian from the early 19th century and made its way to Jerusalem, where I bought it in April. Now it hangs by my bed, illuminated by a spotlight. We are going to be inseparable.



I'm a writer in part because of the example of my uncle Peter Matthiessen. From him I learned that every sentence matters — every word counts. Nothing must be loose, and if you stray toward a cliché, you had better be ironic about it.

Here is my sketch of the young Peter in Paris. It's published in the Feb. 4 edition of The New York Times Book Review. Here is a long essay about his boyhood and his discovery of the joys of nature on Fishers Island, N.Y. It appears in the Summer issue of The American Scholar.

Peter Matthiessen, Yale Class of 1950



My book sails on like a ghost ship. Meanwhile I'm doing occasional pieces for Discover magazine, as listed on the Author page. I have a major new writing project in the works about the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine. A few readers will recall that I visited the monastery in 2011. I've been back twice more — staying in a cell, hiking the desert landscape, and recording the timeless rhythm of the monks' lives. I've begun a book on the political, environmental and spiritual issues affecting Mar Saba. The crux is that the monks are encircled by Palestinians who are in turn encircled by Israelis. The 20 or so Greek and Russian Orthodox brothers who live here believe they will prevail, for after all the monastery has functioned almost without interruption for 1500 years.

The monk Prodromos above the Kidron gorge



October 10

The New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by me today. It's about how fixing a sewage problem could foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Check it out here.

July 23

My book is still having a small impact. I received the following by e-mail the other day:

I ordered your book by mistake. I am very interested in India and was just ordering away on Amazon and ordered yours. What a wonderful mistake. I am grateful beyond words. I could not put this book down. I am Jewish so the tie of BRCA is of interest to me (although I do not have the gene). Your amazing and beautifully written book enabled me to start reading The Human Genome by Matt Ridley which I abandoned 10 years ago due to lack of any foundation for the concept. I also took two other books on the genome from the library today. The story you told of Shonnie and her family was awesome and also very sad. I have many very religious friends (I am not myself) and so this has always been of interest to me but other genetic heritable disorders fascinate me as well. You opened a door to understanding an entire world that I would never have broached. Brilliant does not begin to describe your knowledge but the beauty of your writing. I cannot thank you enough. I plan to read your other books but will have to request them form my library as they were not in the stacks. I also think it might be a great idea for someone to write the Human Genome or DNA for Dummies. Fortunately instead of such a title I found yours. Again my thanks. It is wonderful to know you are never too old to find a new avenue to travel.

With regards
Chloe Ross


November 8

The Journal of Heredity has published a technical but surprisingly touching review of the book.

November 5

Better late than never, here's a video recording of my talk at UCLA's Institute for Society and Genetics last spring:


September 7

Discover magazine's latest issue features an article by me on the aging of the world's population. The backdrop for the story is the retirement community of Sun City, Arizona.

July 15

Dr. Harry Ostrer, a major figure in my book, has written a fine book of his own. It's called Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. Harry's book and mine are reviewed together in the new issue of Moment magazine.

July 6

My sales are becalmed. But As It Is On Earth, the debut novel by my brother Peter Matthiessen Wheelwright, is about to take off.

April 9

Tablet, "a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture," has posted an interview with me by Sara Ivry. Listen to the Vox Tablet podcast here.

April 1

At a book-signing at St. Stephen's Church in San Luis Obispo, I sold 41 copies. True, I was among friends. We also honored the late Dale Owen, who would have been 100 years old today. My book is dedicated to Dale, an artist who mastered many forms. Below is the stained-glass window that he did for St. Peter's Church in San Pedro, CA. The book tries to fragment and meld subjects the way that Dale broke up and fused colors.


March 29

The local press weighs in. Read the rousing notice in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

March 14

Previously on the blog I wrote about a genetics conference that I attended in Herzliya, Israel. Now the website for the Atlantic has cleaned up my report and posted it here. I sense that Jewish readers are beginning to discover my book. To that end my publisher and I have decided to put me up for the Jewish Book Council's 2012 Network Author Tours. Look for me to appear at a synagogue or JCC near you this fall.

March 6

The freewheeling folks at KGNU radio in Denver-Boulder are offering my book as a premium during their spring pledge drive. I was interviewed by the station's How On Earth science show. Click here to listen, starting about five minutes into the podcast.

February 24

While praising the book, some of the critics have been bothered by its structure. They notice it's not linear. My chapters are not seamless. Now a senior editor for the Atlantic puts a nice spin on the matter. See her wide-ranging interview with me here.

February 22

My appearance in Denver lifted the book to the #4 spot on the list of local best sellers. And though I bragged about escaping speed traps during my road trip, a camera in Star Chamber er, Star Valley Arizona has begged to differ.

February 20

A nature photographer named Jane Isaacs sent an e-mail with nice comments about the book. However, she notes that in the last chapter, as I climb the Culebra Range with Shonnie's father, I refer to a pika as a rodent. It's actually a member of the rabbit family. Check out Jane's artful composite of pikas and mountain columbine:


February 18

Change of pace: The March issue of Discover magazine has my article about the Asian carp that are invading Midwestern waterways. Click here to read.

February 11

Here's a fact-filled review by Charles Mann in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Here's a picture I took of Mount Blanca last week as I left Culebra. Shonnie is in the mountain.

February 5

An article was published in the Denver Post today in connection with my book tour. A good review has appeared in the Seattle Times. By the time I get home I will have driven 3,000 miles, dodging a blizzard and speed traps, while absorbing gobs of Western scenery. Now the book travels on its own power.

January 30

OMG, 165 people came to my reading at the NM History Museum in Santa Fe yesterday. The books on hand all sold out. Tonight I visited with Shonnie's family at a reading in Alamosa. Gorgeous Mount Blanca is streaked with snow. Denver is next.

January 26

A radio host in Santa Fe quizzed me today. Click here to listen to the podcast.

January 20

The reviewer for Barnes & Noble has weighed in. She's read the book closely and likes it a lot.

January 18

I'm about to hit the road. The book is in stores. Has the zeitgeist changed? Two good if rather slapdash reviews have appeared online. You can read them here and here.

December 21

Just received word of a really nice notice in Booklist. And a recommendation by Scientific American.


December 15

Last summer I attended a genetics conference in Herzliya, Israel. The question of Jewish identity was a major theme of the meeting. How much was cultural and how much was biological? This issue for Jews is not new, but it has new urgency because of recognizably Jewish markers in the DNA. The discussion at times was heated. Here's the link to my report.

November 21

The official publication date for the book is January 16. A week later I take off on a book tour of the Southwest. You may attend a reading and have your book signed at the following locations. Check local websites for starting times. I'll be listed soon if I'm not already.

Jan. 23 - Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, CA
Jan. 24 - Warwick's Books, La Jolla, CA
Jan. 25 - Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ
Jan. 26 - Bookworks, Albuquerque, NM
Jan. 29 - New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, NM
Jan. 30 - Adams State College, Alamosa, CO
Jan. 31 - Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, CO
Feb. 1 - Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance, Denver
Feb. 16 - UCLA Center for Society and Genetics, Los Angeles, CA
Feb. 26 - Chaucer's Books, Santa Barbara, CA
Mar. 16 - Antigone Books, Tucson, AZ
Apr. 1 - St. Stephen's Church, San Luis Obispo, CA

November 4

Discover magazine has published an excerpt from the book in its December issue. Text is drawn from several chapters. Click here to read the piece (1.3MB PDF file).

October 18

Publishers Weekly has posted the first review of the book. It's a good one. Click here to read. Another good review, from Kirkus, will appear shortly. Click here for a peek.

September 28

JTA, the international news service for Jewish issues, has a story about the detection of Jewish markers in the DNA of Hispanic Americans. My book gets its first pre-publication mention.

June 24

My wife and I have returned from nine days in Israel and Jerusalem. For most of our stay in the Holy Land we were tourists. I have made a picture journal of the trip, which you can read at the following links:

1. Muslims and Jews in Israel and Palestine

2. The Christian Bazaar

3. To the Kidron Wilderness

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