Joy Williams’ nature essays present the stark nature of reality in the 21st Century. She often is caustic in her assault, abandoning any room in which...moreJoy Williams’ nature essays present the stark nature of reality in the 21st Century. She often is caustic in her assault, abandoning any room in which the reader can be absolved from guilt and relax, even for a moment. Her prose, while very well written is off-putting. She is passionate about her subject matter, but her militant approach left this reader, an environmentalist, feeling attacked.(less)
I get the impression that Mendelsohn spent considerable time thinking about not only the structure of this book – but that which it mirrors – the stru...moreI get the impression that Mendelsohn spent considerable time thinking about not only the structure of this book – but that which it mirrors – the structure of his thoughts…expands out to the structure of his family…to the structure of his community (religion, ethnicity, education, place, etc), to the structure of how all of that fits into history which is a construction unto itself: what stories get told, by whom, and why, what stories don’t. The silences in history also speak volumes. His exegesis of Rabbinical texts was/is the culmination of this process… Here are there great scholars discussing the foundations of my religion, upon which my culture is built, my family and by association me and they cannot agree on what any of it means. There is no getting to the bottom of it. They aren’t even sure of the words. If the foundations of who we are, are so shaky—how do we then build a future? How do we define a past upon which we can build ourselves? I found myself glossing the italicized text to get on with the story. If Mendelsohn sees his grandfather through this purer lens – perhaps he will come to understand himself, his community, and his place in it, better. Again, enter Schmiel Jaeger. For it is his death that has shaped the community of this particular family – as the story of Cain & Abel shaped all for the biblical stories that followed – it’s not about great events that transform the world – it’s about specific events that happen in the lives of unknown people that create the shape of the larger picture.(less)
The Art of the Personal Essay is an amazing collection of nonfiction essays that spans hundreds of years. It offers the cityscape that is the developm...moreThe Art of the Personal Essay is an amazing collection of nonfiction essays that spans hundreds of years. It offers the cityscape that is the development of Creative Nonfiction. Whilst I was engrossed in each essay, I confess the power of the text becomes lost if one tries to read it as a whole (or assignment). I find myself returning to the essays contained there often; opening the book and simply being drawn into a world in miniature, perhaps Virginia Woolf, or Richard Rodriguez, or some ancient Chinese writer. A text that should be on the shelf of every nonfiction writer, and one that should not collect dust as it offers insight to the narrative of the human condition that all writers to which all writers wish to add.(less)
I read Richard Bach’s Illusions when it came out—and loved it. Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, in many ways, reminded me of that book, only not as...moreI read Richard Bach’s Illusions when it came out—and loved it. Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, in many ways, reminded me of that book, only not as good. There are no pretenses with Bach. He sets out to write a novel with a moral. And he does just that. Lessons are offered and reluctantly accepted. Tuesdays with Morrie sets out with the same intention: here are some life-lessons, learn them and be a better person. But he gets preachy. He’s egocentric—look at me I’m so great because I went back and did this thing. He annoyed me. The difference between Bach and Albom isn’t even subtle – Bach sets out to write a book for me, Albom’s book is for him. For me, this is an important distinction; while offering me the lesson of humility, please don’t be filled with hubris. Craft-wise, although preachy and somewhat sappy, the text hangs together tightly. It has a journalist’s tone, but not once did I pause in awe of beautiful prose. Overall, this text left me disappointed and feeling like I was watching someone stroke their own ego while telling us how good he was for recording someone else’s pain.(less)
In Will in the World, Steven Greenblatt explores the life of William Shakespeare by examining known facts and filtering them through the lens of plays...moreIn Will in the World, Steven Greenblatt explores the life of William Shakespeare by examining known facts and filtering them through the lens of plays and sonnets. It is a fascinating study of how an author can be found on the page. By tracing known events in Shakespeare’s life, Greenblatt examines why particular plays may have been penned at particular times. He explores where ideas may have come from for particular plays. Greenblatt not only examines Shakespeare’s personal life, but he puts him in the larger context of 15th century England, examining politics, and social issues. Greenblatt makes it clear, repeatedly; that what we know of the life of William Shakespeare is mostly supposition, superstition, and myth. But there are provable facts. When he was born, who he married, and when, his children and grandchildren, when he died, legal encounters. By feeding these events through the filter of known works Greenblatt builds an amazing characterization of Shakespeare in his own time. Will in the World does not pretend to be a definitive biography. Nor does it pretend, in all cases, to be factual. It does examine, in close detail how we find a writer on the page. Shakespeare’s work is known for its universeality – and it making it personal Greenblatt adds another dimension to looking not only at Shakespeare’s work, but where do we fid ourselves lurking on the pages of our own writing, perhaps invisibly. Perhaps not as invisible as we suspect.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried can easily be compared to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. In both text the author is involved in a war—both...moreTim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried can easily be compared to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. In both text the author is involved in a war—both in the physically and internally. Both authors are forever changed. Both books are fictionalized tales of survival – O’Brien’s and Vonnegut’s. Both stories carry (no pun intended) a universal truth; the truth is hard to capture, this experience, the experience of war, is on many levels ineffable—un-relatable as a truth. O’Brien tells us, "And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen" (85). For me, this book is an almost ideal representation of the idea of truth subjugated to storytelling. Where is that line? Is it in the marketing? We all readily accept that O’Brien is telling us his story – although his book is sold as fiction. And yet, James Frey was crucified for A Million Little Pieces, because it was marketed as Creative Nonfiction. Creative nonfiction embodies a level of fiction—memory is fictitious. Truth must be told…slant. Without the commentary—the asides—would Ted Lavender’s death be palatable? To tell his truth O’Brien must find ways to invite his reader into the horror of the moments he lived. He must survive intellectually and emotionally in the telling and so must the reader. By making his tale “fiction” O’Brien makes the tale—the emotional tug-of-war played by young soldiers in Vietnam—vital, real for the reader.
In Cold Blood was an experiment in form—and the expansion of a genre. The author, Truman Capote did five years of painstaking research before committi...moreIn Cold Blood was an experiment in form—and the expansion of a genre. The author, Truman Capote did five years of painstaking research before committing what he learned to the page. The story of how the text came to be is almost as fascinating as the tale of the Clutter murders itself. Capote insisted that there should be no authorial presence in the text, and yet his voice drips from each page. The protagonist is Perry Smith, the murderer who Capote is quoted comparing himself to. In the book our sympathies lie with the murderer—with Capote—with the outsider. And the text is successful in this, the reader, this reader, walks away wondering if there but for the grace of God go any one of us. And yet, Capote is not present. It would be impossible for Capote to have put himself into his book without taking away from the story. He was colorful, egocentric, and well, generally speaking, the center of attention. The impression gotten from the articles written about Capote and his work was that he was not well received in Holcomb. There were reports of Truman at hotels in pink lingerie… In 1959, in Kansas, one can assume that wasn’t very acceptable. Had he made himself someone within the text – how would that have changed the mom-and-apple-pie presentation he gives us? It’s not his story – he isn’t a character in it and I think wisely chose to allow the character be who and what they were – it gives the story a sort of insular integrity – these people, in this community…that Truman was not in any way connected to. The power of the story lies, at least in my opinion, in his physical absence. The structure of the text is compelling there is a starting point and an ending point. What happens in between is relative and although factual, it is contextual. The book is not linear at all and yet not once does the reader feel lost in time or space. What amazed me about Capote was his transitions from the murdered’s point of view to the murderers, to the detectives—seamlessly. I’m not sure how aware I was of this until I watched the movie, which isn’t seamless. It is clear why this text is one of the hallmarks in the genre of creative nonfiction. (less)
Sharman Apt-Russell’s book Hunger: an Unnatural History is a compelling study of an intimidating topic. Apt-Russell approaches her subject matter meth...moreSharman Apt-Russell’s book Hunger: an Unnatural History is a compelling study of an intimidating topic. Apt-Russell approaches her subject matter methodically; her poetic use of language engages the reader on every page despite the large sections of text devoted to scientific study and research. The combination of research and personal commentary is a daunting undertaking. As is the combination of scientific jargon and emotional reaction to information, and yet Apt-Russell does so skillfully. Perhaps this is because her subject matter demands scientific inquiry and could not be more personal to each and every living thing: hunger. The insight the text offers sends shivers down the spine and stands the hair on end: “At the same time, the icon of children in famine is a Western bias. In many of the places where extreme hunger exists, the survival of adults might be viewed as more important. . . . In famine, a focus on women and children highlights biology: here is a mother who cannot feed her child, a breakdown of the natural order of life.” Readers react in a visceral way to this statement, but Apt-Russell goes on, “This focus obscures who and what is to blame for the famine, politically and economically, and can lead to the belief that a biological response, more food, will solve the problem” (179). Where does the reader take responsibility? Can we stop hunger without addressing other—less biologically necessary—processes? It leaves the reader wondering what sort of disease in human society causes hunger and famine. A critical read should lead the reader to a desire—a hunger for more knowledge. Yet, it is through her soft poetic language that Apt-Russell presents the hard truths about our world. (less)
Mary Karr's book, The Liar’s Club tells the tale of her turbulent childhood in the fictional eastern Texas town of Leechfield, and later in Colorado....moreMary Karr's book, The Liar’s Club tells the tale of her turbulent childhood in the fictional eastern Texas town of Leechfield, and later in Colorado. Karr's portrays members of her immediate family her sister Lecia, two years older than she; her father, Pete Karr, an oil refinery worker; and her mother, an emotionally unstable woman who hates living in Leechfield. The text starts on a vague traumatic childhood experience—and never lets up. For this reader the memoir was difficult, and at points impossible to read. Karr describes the sort of childhood that most people would deny, work to forget—avoid. Mary's parents are at war with one another and eventually divorce only to remarry later. Her mother's alcoholism and addiction to diet pills lead to many strange moments in Karr’s impressionable childhood. At one point, she, Karr’s mother, becomes unhinged and appears to be about to kill her children. Karr’s father is a rough-and-ready, cantankerous Texan with Native-American blood who excels as a teller of tall tales in his group of buddies who meet at the American Legion. This group is christened the Liars' Club, thus the title of the book. Although the pages of The Liars' Club are chock full of arguments, fights, and unsavory incidents of all kinds, the memoir was hugely successful. This success is due to Karr's skills as a poet, her finely honed sense of humor, and her wonderful ear for the slang of eastern Texas. Readers probably also sense that underneath the surface turbulence, this dysfunctional family still loves each other—or is this undercurrent that the author implies what the lie really is?
Dress your Family does not carry the power and sarcasm of Sedaris’ other texts. The writer sounds tired and worn down. His once sharp wit is edged wit...moreDress your Family does not carry the power and sarcasm of Sedaris’ other texts. The writer sounds tired and worn down. His once sharp wit is edged with anguish and resentment. His humor, which I have always read as sharp edged, now cuts to the bone. This book, more so than others I have read by Sedaris, has a subtext. A disquieting commentary about the author’s family: a father who disowns him for his sexual preference, a sister who clearly is not comfortable with him around, who apparently wanders the streets of Boston pulling a cart full of junk, a boorish brother. It is clear that the author sees himself as better than these people. Set apart. Rather than the broad social commentary one expects from Sedaris this is more memoir-ish, more confessional, more of a poor-me book that was overall very disappointing on the one hand and instructional on the other. He in no way tried to pick stereotypical behavior in his family members for us to be able to transfer to our own family members – nor did he try to gloss his bitterness with any sort of creative humor or sarcasm. He simply stated it. While the text had a lot of potential to reach great heights in the realm of humorist writings it falls flat.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a lighthearted book filled with humor and wisdom. Lamott’s ironic view of the realities of writing creates a well crafte...moreAnne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a lighthearted book filled with humor and wisdom. Lamott’s ironic view of the realities of writing creates a well crafted, accessible text. Her wry commentary about God, writing and the nature of twentieth/twenty-first century living is engaging. Although, as with many of her books, Lamott is grammatically lax, her presentation of a writer’s life is accurate. Her courage in showing her insecurities is awe-inspiring. Lamott makes no attempt to engage all writers, she targets her audience and hits hard. The text offers concrete advice for writers of all levels in a non-textbook way. Lamott offers personal anecdotes and professional observations from the point of view of a writer, teacher, and human being. Her flaws-and-all approach invites readers to accept their own weaknesses and insecurities. (less)