Can't say I've ever had a burning desire to read about taxidermy, but based on Kirk's weird but marvelous essay "Bartok's Monster," in this month's Ha...moreCan't say I've ever had a burning desire to read about taxidermy, but based on Kirk's weird but marvelous essay "Bartok's Monster," in this month's Harper's, I figured I had to read more by this guy, whatever the topic. He's a wildly entertaining stylist, at least in the Bartok piece.(less)
Just read an interesting review re this bio in The Roanoke Times. It's been nearly 25 years since I read "Dunces," and I'm curious to see how it holds...moreJust read an interesting review re this bio in The Roanoke Times. It's been nearly 25 years since I read "Dunces," and I'm curious to see how it holds up on a second read. One of few books that has made me laugh out loud.
Near the end of this engaging biography of a biography, Sisman quotes Samuel Johnson: “I write therefore I am alive.” The same could be said, even mor...moreNear the end of this engaging biography of a biography, Sisman quotes Samuel Johnson: “I write therefore I am alive.” The same could be said, even more so, for Boswell, and the primary virtue of Sisman’s book is his ability to show in dramatic and entertaining detail just how much B. created his own eccentric life through writing. Sisman’s goal is to prove that B. was a literary artist of great skill himself, and not the sychophantic “stenographer” and boorish “idiot” that more than a few of his contemporaries thought. Toward that end, S. provides a fasincating portrait of a writer at work under conditions, many of them of his own making, that most of us would find something less than conducive for achieving literary fame: a social calendar that would’ve made Truman Capote blanch; excessive drinking and whoring; working as a traveling lawyer; and prolonged bouts of severe melancholia that rendered him nearly paralyzed. But write he did, producing a personal journal thousands of pages long, in which he recorded seemingly every thought and sensation that ran through his mind, and every utterance that passed his ears. These journals provided the material for his famous bio of Johnson; but they also demonstrate B’s working methods in ways that contradict simplistic image of him as nothing more than faithful and diligent collector of table-talk. Instead, he made quick notes, often lists of unconnected quotes and details – “ a portable soup,” he called them -- which he would return to later, “when my mind was, as it were, impregnated with the Johnsonian ether, I could, with much more facility and exactness, carry in my memory and commit to paper the exuberant variety of his wisdom and wit.” B. not only relied heavily on his memory, but acknowledged the subjective nature of that memory. If this sounds suspciously like methods of much creative nonfiction practiced today, with all its virtues and potential abuses, one might argue that B. was more of a forerunner for Norman Mailer than John McPhee, though he was also obsessive, a la McPhee, in collecting and verifying every scrap of information about J’s life he could find. Sisman also gives B. credit for reinventing the genre of biography. Before B’s work, Sisman explains, the purpose of a good biography was to provide a model of uplifting and noble character, confirming in the public’s mind an already existing image of a famous and revered figure like Johnson. B., on the other hand, insisted on presenting a more complex – more human – portrait of Johnson by including anecdotes and quotes that showed him in a less flattering light. What he wanted, most of all, was an “authentic” portrayal of his friend, a heroic figure sometimes burdened, like all of us, with his own baggage of petty and venal qualities. B. succeeded so well, S argues, as both a skilled writer and literary innovator that his critics admitted they found the book both engrossing in its description and voice, and appalling in its lack of respect for J’s private life. At this point, one can’t help but wonder to what degree B. created the conditions for our current plague of “celebrity” bios by the likes of Kitty Kelley, et al. (An unfair swipe at KK, possibly, since no less an august journal than The American Scholar, recently published a respectful profile of her.) Sadly, at the end of his life, B. was seen more as a boorish gossip than a literary star; his reputation did not begin to recover until the early 20th c., when scholars acquired his voluminous journals and letters and realized how much of a craftsman and innovator he really was.
A former teacher of mine, the poet Gary Gildner, once said, “All writing comes out of chaos.” For anyone interested in the messy process of creating art out of chaos, I think Sisman’s book provides a more insightful and far more entertaining model than many of the writing guides and self-help books available today. What really holds this book together, though, is the ever exasperating and aggravating, sometimes pathetic, sad and comical but also heroic character of James Boswell. S’s book, as it picks up momentum, reads more like a novel with a highly flawed but sympathetic protagonist who achieved greatness, however belatedly bestowed, both despite and because of his own eccentric but inspiring character. In a way, ironically, though he provides ample evidence of the kind of authentic tawdry details of B’s own life early critics assailed in his portrait of Johnson, Sisman also reaffirms the original goal of biography: to instruct, inspire and uplift.
(If I wanted to be picky, I might knock off a half star for Sisman’s determination to chronicle B’s every step in collecting documents from Johnson’s life, a strategy that rereates on the page his subject’s own overly scrupulous if obsessive desire to create an “authetic” portrait. A kind of homage, perhaps, rewarded with the virtue of capturing the authentic Boswell – assuming S. doesn’t take the same literary liberties that B. did with his subject.) (less)
Good review in last Sunday's NYT Book Review. Having just finished Elie's The LIfe You Save May Be Your Own, which includes lots about Dorothy Day's pa...moreGood review in last Sunday's NYT Book Review. Having just finished Elie's The LIfe You Save May Be Your Own, which includes lots about Dorothy Day's pacifism, I'm interested to learn how other public figures responded to critism for their views during times of war.
Steffens, Tarbell, McClure ... names I hadn't thought of in ages but were immediately recongnizable as soon as I heard them again. Didn't realize LS b...moreSteffens, Tarbell, McClure ... names I hadn't thought of in ages but were immediately recongnizable as soon as I heard them again. Didn't realize LS became such a dupe of Soviets (according to NYT review), but that just makes him all the more interesting of a figure.(less)
Look up Sloan's "In the Back Room of McSorley," (described in Joseph Mitchell's essay about the famous bar, "The Old Place at Home," both portrayed wi...moreLook up Sloan's "In the Back Room of McSorley," (described in Joseph Mitchell's essay about the famous bar, "The Old Place at Home," both portrayed with the same sense of restrained melancholy and admiration) and "In the Wake of the Ferry," for evidence that Sloan was much more than a topical illustrator of street life in NYC. Though I find fellow Ashcan artist George Bellows more stirring and dramatic on a purely visual level, Sloan subtly plumbs the inner depths of his subjects to greater effect.
I didn't know this bio existed until I came across it in a used book store recently. Exciting to see that someone else considers Sloan worthy of a full-length bio.(less)
The title, taken from a Flannery O'Connor short story, sums up a key theme developed by Elie: one's spiritual experience, no matter how public or insp...moreThe title, taken from a Flannery O'Connor short story, sums up a key theme developed by Elie: one's spiritual experience, no matter how public or inspirational, always starts and ends at the deeply personal, individual level. As Elie says in final chapter, "The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives." This quote also sums up E's main achievement in this masterful group portrait of 4 American Catholic writers, O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy: his ability to show how the "crooked experiences" and "complicated lives" of these four did more to enrich their spiritual lives than blind obedience to dogma. Instead of settting them up as one-dimensional paragons of piety, E. works in the spirit of Day's own command, "Don't call me a saint!" In the process, he humanizes them in ways that, ironically, make their lives all the more inspirational by rendering them more accessible. And though each wanted to reach a wider audience in his or her writings, they resisted being held up as, what Merton angrily called "surrogate believers" that unintentionally prompt others to "bury their unbelief in a master's belief."
E's other main achievement is the manner in which he weaves together four such rich lives in a seamless way, alternating and juxtaposing sections, some lengthy, some as brief as a short paragraph. And though he offers a good sense of their daily lives, this is more of a critical biography than a conventional chronological one, "reading" their lives, so to speak, by examining the books they read and how those readings, as well as their personal experiences, influenced their writings. And my oh my, did these folks write a lot -- columns, letters, diaries, essays, memoirs, stories, novels. More inspiring, for me, than their devotion was their intellectual curiosity; I found myself making lists of other books and authors to look up. These folks were big readers, of everything, including Literature. They were all influenced by the great Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky. At the end of her life, when asked what she would like to be her legacy, Day said she wanted to be remembered as reader, as someone who was lived out the ideals in her favorites novels, by Tolstoy and Dickens, which she reread after her official retirement. As he was dying of cancer, Percy was discussing Chekhov through letters with his lifelong friend the writer Shelby Foote (in particular, he liked C's "The Bishop," about a dying bishop who realizes and embraces his own insignificance). Like Robert Richardson in his superb bios of Emerson and Thoreau, Elie is adept at summarizing complex ideas in a very accessible form without sacrificing rigor. Though Elie is a lucid writer, such depth and richness of material requires careful attention. I wouldn't describe the book as dense, in terms of accessibility, but thick with ideas that reward a slower pace of reading. Not a book to rush through. I never read more than 20-25 pgs at a crack, and I confess that sometimes I felt like I needed a break from so much spiritual commotion and struggling. Hence, it took me 2-3 months to finish the book.
Personally, I found Day's story the most compelling, and Walker's the least, but such is Elie's talent that I never felt impatient to leave one life to get back to another.
It would be a mistake to think of this book solely as a portrait of faith; it's also a portrait of writers working out their visions of the world on the page. These folks were highly dedicated to their craft as writers, and they are as inspiring for their aesthetic commitment as much as for their spiritual conviction. On a more general level, I think anyone interested in stories of how beliefs and values -- whether religious, social, political or aesthetic -- develop over a lifetime would find this a rewarding read.
My only complaint is that Elie tends to push the "pligrimage" theme too much, constantly reminding us of what quickly becomes fairly obvious throughout the book. Perhaps he thought it was necessary to hold together so much material from four different lives, but it all pretty much speaks for itself.(less)
(oops, sorry, just discovered that AS has not made this review available online yet. buy the journal itself; it's worth it, as it also has great essay "Reading in a Digital Age." actually, this essay is available on AS's website)
Read this book. Next read Whitman's poem "Come Up from the Fields Father." Then you will understand the price one pays to transform grief and compassio...moreRead this book. Next read Whitman's poem "Come Up from the Fields Father." Then you will understand the price one pays to transform grief and compassion into great art.(less)
Fiercely candid but even-handed portrait of Picasso, but the real hero of this book is Gilot herself. Despite all of his manipulations, Gilot provides...moreFiercely candid but even-handed portrait of Picasso, but the real hero of this book is Gilot herself. Despite all of his manipulations, Gilot provides a detailed insider's view of a great artist at work. And perhaps even more moving is the story of a young woman commiitted to her own art, even in the presence of a such a giant figure i 20th c. art (and a giant ass in his personal life).(less)
Very nice mix of narrative, cultural commentary and critical analysis. If you have any interest in pre-war arts scene in Paris or avant-garde in gener...moreVery nice mix of narrative, cultural commentary and critical analysis. If you have any interest in pre-war arts scene in Paris or avant-garde in general, I strongly recommend this one. A rigorous but accessible book. Shattuck writes very well. (see also Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge)(less)
Casement was a complex, even contradictory man -- Irish Protestant who supported Irish rebellion but who also worked for Britain as diplomat, a positi...moreCasement was a complex, even contradictory man -- Irish Protestant who supported Irish rebellion but who also worked for Britain as diplomat, a position he used to expose the atrocities against Congolese by King Leopold, and against Putomayo Indians by rubber companies. He was convicted of treason against Britain for conspiring with Irish nationalists to smuggle weapons, and hanged in 1916, reviled as much as he had been revered earlier in his career. Like his countryman, Oscar Wilde, his legal fate was influenced by his homosexuality, as much as any specific crime. Casement appears to have had the same infinite resource of energy and committment that drove another larger than life figure, Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer. They don't make 'em like this anymore, folks, and Inglis does Casement full justice, the heroic and illicit sides of his persona.(less)
A kind of writing workshop report on the great historians. In series of essays, Clive explains what makes famous historians like Gibbon Maccauley not...moreA kind of writing workshop report on the great historians. In series of essays, Clive explains what makes famous historians like Gibbon Maccauley not only great scholars but great writers. Along the way, you learn much interesting info about the lives of these writers and the periods they wrote about. This is a book for people who love great writing, regardless of subject or genre. While I'd long had a vague wish to read at least some of Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, it wasn't until I read Clive's description of Gibbon's style and approach to history that I got excited enough to actually pick up once of those massive volumes. I doubt I'll ever finish the whole work, but with Clive as an expert guide, even just reading a section here and there became a real treat. I may not know enough to explain fully why the Roman Empire fell, but I can say with some confidence why Gibbon's massive work is still a joy to read for contemporary audience.(less)