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)
Deane presents Reading in the Dark as a “novel” and I am unclear as to how much is fact and how much is fiction. Much of what he wrote about the dynam...moreDeane presents Reading in the Dark as a “novel” and I am unclear as to how much is fact and how much is fiction. Much of what he wrote about the dynamic of the Irish family situation rings very true in my own reality. Irish families are a topic close to my heart. His discussion of the things left unsaid in Irish family life rings true and is echoed in many other books about Irish and Irish-American culture, ranging from Alice Carey’s I’ll Know it When I See it, to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, to Tom Hayden’s Irish on the Inside. Much of what he writes about the continuing violence, prejudice and trouble in Northern Ireland is factual—even if his characters are fictitious. And I don’t know that they are. Deane presents a compelling look at life in embattled Northern Ireland. He presents to the reader an intimate portrait of an Irish-Catholic family. He offers the superstitions surrounding this family. He allows the reader to accept that a ghost can be a spirit or a memory—that both are haunting and can be frightening enough to devastate lives. The story is presented in a first person child’s view, albeit it an omniscient view. Dean walks us through the confusion of growing up an outcast in his community—which is itself outcast from the society in which it is enmeshed. We, as readers, are presented with several different perspectives of the outsider. Deane’s mother keeps herself just beyond the intimacy of her family, specifically her husband and sister, by keeping her secrets. Secrets that eventually drive her insane. Her husband, Dean’s father, remains outside because of what he does not know, as well as what he does. Each of the children in this family is left on the outside because none of them knows the whole truth. For Irish-Americans (like Dean) reaching back to untangle the things unsaid can be a healing process. To write about it offers others a door into the silences in their own families. I have read many books about Irish and Irish-American families and the recurring theme of prevailing silence—and how families function, or don’t, around that. Dean’s direct insertion of the larger socio-political picture into the dynamic speaks more directly to the issue and perhaps can offer, at least for Deane, a way to find definition to who he is—and why. (less)
One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays written by White in the late 1930s and early 1940s. White interjects world politics, children’s literature an...moreOne Man’s Meat is a collection of essays written by White in the late 1930s and early 1940s. White interjects world politics, children’s literature and farming in to this eclectic series of essays that have an eternal quality to them. White’s ability to blend several topics into one coherent essay is humbling to this writer. I was very fascinated by the way White intertwined the completely mundane with the overwhelming world, here is just one example:
“While the old wars rage and the new ones hang like hawks above the world, we, the unholy innocents, study the bulb catalogue and order one dozen paper-white Grandiflora Narcissus (60 cents) to be grown in a bowl of pebbles. To the list my wife made out I have added one large root of bleeding heart to remind us daily of wounded soldiers and tortured Jews.” (14)
Let’s look at catalogues, oh by the way there is this awful thing going on and you should think about that! He used this technique successfully, in my opinion, throughout the text. Of everything I read during this period, the craft of this text impressed me the most (which surprised me because I did not like Charlotte or Stuart). In places it appeared stream of consciousness, while in others crisp journalistic prose. In no situation did he seem to not be in control of the writing. White’s original/intended audience likely didn’t read his work as critically, or perhaps as writers would. White offers his reader a lot of carrots. A “regular” reader of his work in Harpers may come to expect a level of politics in his essays—because, at least at this point in his writing, it is present more often than not. White had to have been aware of that. In my opinion, White is a consummate writer. It appears, over the distance of sixty years, that he was concerned about his audience. He is both eloquent and economic in his use of the language. He has shown amazing discipline, craft-wise. He didn’t send me searching for obscure references, I wasn’t lost in a maze of footnotes, reading dictionary in hand, working to decipher meaning, there were precious few dead-ends in the text, and I wasn’t left asking why. Occasionally, I checked a World War II timeline – to refresh my memory as to the order of events (I remember being surprised at how early he was writing about the Holocaust in an American publication)—but it was strictly for my own edification—such clarity was not necessary for the content of any specific essay. One can see the future writer of children’s books in many of the essays. His use of vivid imagery is, to me, amazing – who couldn’t see those peeps/chicks huddled up in overcoats? Or a crazed over-stimulated dog? Or even a trailer park in the Keys? He didn’t show us anything – he immersed us in it: the sights, smells, feels and the emotional impact of each situation. And yet, he rarely loses the context of the larger world around him—this is the approach most successful writers of juvenile literature write.
I think we lose something if we don’t read for the beauty in a piece—what is meaning without beauty, even if that beauty is terrible (as Yeats suggests). When the artistry is completely removed we end up with Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and not Bernini’s Trevi Fountain (1629) in Rome. Over time bold political statements fade away and all that remains is the beauty. As to “One Man’s Meat”, what White is saying is there is no such thing no matter how far one works to remove themselves from the whole – we are all in this together. He comes back to this over and over again in some very subtle ways, in hunting, in school trips, in helping his neighbor with the sick ewe, in taking the government subsidy (and thus connecting himself to a larger structure). Even in the beginning with the $450 turkey – he is acknowledging that we are interdependent. We depend on our community as individuals – and nations must depend on a world community. In “The Practical Farmer” he acknowledges that his taste in meat (so to speak) may not be for everyone—and that it does take an outside income to survive. It is important to remember that these essays originally appeared in 3-4pg segments. Two-hundred-seventy-five pages of farming, fishing, and foreign affairs might seem overwhelming – four pages might not. This text successful as a whole. (less)
Cooper is an unsympathetic narrator. And he makes his father that way as well. I found the book beautifully written, lyrical in places, especially at...moreCooper is an unsympathetic narrator. And he makes his father that way as well. I found the book beautifully written, lyrical in places, especially at the beginning, but hollow. I got bored with it because it wasn't so much about the story as it was about the teller of the story. In the end I found myself wondering if in his afterlife Ed sees himself as Lazarus, the headless chicken: just another dog and pony show. I found his characters to be stock, stereotypical (yes, yes, I know stereotypes exists for a reason -- my dad was a drunk Irish Catholic Cop -- but what made him interesting were his quirks that defied that stereotype, not those that conformed to it). Can our writing be too perfect? Should it incorporate a sense of the messiness of the relationship about which we are talking? Can the evanescent perfect word be the wrong word? These are the questions the book left me with. I tried to find something nice to say about the book, something more than yeah, pretty words, but I keep coming back to a line from Blazing Saddles: Hedley Lamarr: My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives. Taggart: God darnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore. Yeah, that sums it up. (less)
The cover quotes the Los Angeles Times as saying, “[This] may be as close as Vonnegut comes to a memoir.” But it’s not really a memoir. Sure, it reflec...more The cover quotes the Los Angeles Times as saying, “[This] may be as close as Vonnegut comes to a memoir.” But it’s not really a memoir. Sure, it reflects upon the past, nationally more than personally. And that’s what drives the linked essays; they’re not personal. That’s what makes them personal.
Vonnegut shares with the reader his disillusionment: “Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of.” He reminds his readers of their own disillusionment – lost idealism.
Vonnegut is angry – and damn it you should be too. He goes on to say, “But now I know there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable.” His caustic commentary on the state of the nation is erudite and biting. He tackles politics, religion, fossil fuel – and the art of writing well. How do they all interrelate? How did this conflagration create Vonnegut? How did it make America the place it has come to be – and American a shameful adjective? For Vonnegut, as for many of us, it has come to be through the toxicity of the administration currently in Washington. And Kurt has no problem saying so on page after page. He laments, “The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick, and Colon.”
He, in one brief passage, makes heroes of librarians while disparaging all of Washington: “So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.” Indeed it does – and in the pages of some of America’s best-written political commentary of the day.
The slim volume, a mere hundred-forty-five pages, assaults the reader’s sensibilities on every page. The prose is crisp, piercing, and on target. Perhaps the book is good because I agree with its politics, perhaps because Vonnegut’s truth is my truth. Perhaps because he states so clearly what the rest of us fear saying. It is the kind of book that, page after page, the reader replies, to no one in general, damn I wish I said that.(less)
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.
**spoiler alert** So what? All of my training in creative writing has taught me to ask this question, so what? Carlos Eire does not adequately answer...more**spoiler alert** So what? All of my training in creative writing has taught me to ask this question, so what? Carlos Eire does not adequately answer this question in his text Waiting for Snow in Havana. Sure, he overcomes a great deal in his life. We all do in different ways. And his anger is still ripe—over ripe. He has not conquered that in any way. So where is the “changed character” in this text that makes it successful? I don’t see one. There are hints, here and there, that perhaps there is change—he evolves from a homeless Cuban boy in Miami to a graduate student. But how? He doesn’t offer any explanation for this metamorphosis. It is, in fact, mentioned in passing. Eire spends considerable time in the text wallowing in his anger and self-pity. He has been robbed of his country, his father, and his inheritance. Fidel Castro is guilty in the first instance and his adopted brother Ernesto in the second two. The story does offer an example of how one could weave important history into a personal narrative, at least on a surface level. Eire does not return to fill in his childhood gaps – why does Castro overthrow Batista? What are his ideals? What are the rebels who face the firing squad standing up for? What ideal do they defend, other than opposing Castro? Without a solid grasp of history, these details are lost to the reader. These details that clearly shaped the author’s sense of reality, at least in this text. It left me asking, so what? And Ernesto. Eire’s resentment for his adopted brother still resides in the heart of a ten year old. It is bitter and adds nothing to the overall story line of the author’s survival and yet Eire returns again and again to the demonic Ernesto. By the time it is revealed that Ernesto was trying (it is implied unsuccessfully) to molest Eire, I am already beyond caring; so what? There is no resolution at the end of the text Eire has not resolved this issue. Intellectually, I am aware there is change and growth in the protagonist – as the book exists at all. But my knowing is off the page. Eire does not give his evolution, just his anger. How does one go from homeless in Miami to a dishwasher in Chicago to a professor at UVA? The book was likely cathartic for the author, but left me festering and asking so what.
Abigail Thomas’ book, Safekeeping, took me by surprise. I was several chapters in before fully understanding her technique. “Several” chapters was the...moreAbigail Thomas’ book, Safekeeping, took me by surprise. I was several chapters in before fully understanding her technique. “Several” chapters was the span of a mere seven, or maybe eight pages. And I’m not sure how I feel about it. The story does not come together as a whole, not really, until the end. It reads like a diary – a well crafted diary. Some chapters are less than a page, really just notes. Notes to a dead ex-husband. It was interesting to me how Thomas wove her relationships into the text; particularly her relationships with her second two husbands. Their relationship with each other was more intriguing – but, sadly, was left mostly unexplored. She reflects on her life with these men and her life with her children as she considers her own mortality. The text focused on the issue of grief – like Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Unlike Didion, Thomas gives her reader her feelings of fragmentation; short pages, annotations, subtext that is perhaps not clear for several pages more. While Didion relates to her reader that she felt this way: disconnected and disjointed, what she gives her reader in the end is a polished, well organized book written in solid chapters. Didion’s book was easier to wrap my mind around – but I think that Thomas’ book ultimately gives me a clearer picture of the process of grief. (less)
**spoiler alert** David Sedaris is a modern satirist. He (like Pratchett) tackles the mythology of Christmas. The six essays contained in Holidays on...more**spoiler alert** David Sedaris is a modern satirist. He (like Pratchett) tackles the mythology of Christmas. The six essays contained in Holidays on Ice are heart-wrenching, tragic, and hysterical. Sedaris attacks his subject matter with gusto. We all have strange surreal experiences (many of which seem to cluster around the holidays). Sedaris captures the thought processes of his surreal experiences. One would assume his work was fiction if not told otherwise. Who needs fiction when the truth is so colorful? Sedaris’ experiences at Macy’s in the SantaLand Dairies ring frighteningly true: drunk Santas, obnoxious parents, children urinating on the fake snow. It is Sedaris’ ability to make these bizarre moments in the human experience acceptable, even funny that captivates his reader. He uses anecdotes to express his distain for what Christmas has come to mean. At the end of each essay the reader, though amused, feels a little dirtier, a little more ashamed for the roles we have accepted in the western holiday madness. Sedaris’ prose is crisp and biting—he makes it easy for his reader to believe that his mother had no problem with a prostitute drinking with him and his siblings on Christmas Eve (as long as dad didn’t find out). He makes a case for the sappy-holiday-movie producer; we can almost see him preaching to that congregation. Almost. But as critical readers come to see Sedaris isn’t talking about the movie industry, or his mother’s good will. He’s talking about us: our compassion, our greed, our combination of idiosyncrasies that make us human. He allows us to laugh at ourselves when we realize his sister isn’t getting him a prostitute for Christmas – she is rescuing one. The deceptive use of foreshadowing throughout the book allows the reader to make assumptions. Assumptions that are almost universally wrong. As a consummate writer Sedaris successfully forces the reader to look inward and reconcile the fact that the moral of the story isn’t that prostitutes can be saved, but that we made assumptions. And we shouldn’t do that. No one knows where the story leads, even on Christmas.
Allison’s memoir employs many new strategies for me. She incorporates photographs into her work, whether they are successful or not, I don’t know, whi...moreAllison’s memoir employs many new strategies for me. She incorporates photographs into her work, whether they are successful or not, I don’t know, while I enjoyed them, they were at time distracting, as they had no identifiers. Allison also admits this text was originally meant as a performance piece, this aspect definitely gave the piece a different feel. I read several sections out loud. This offers a new dimension to the text. One can hear the story told. While it is Allison’s story, about Allison’s family one gets the impression that it could be any southern family. The women are composites—successful composites. They resemble smoking, cussing women all over the southern United States. Allison presents her picture of these women, filtered through her experiences; some of which may be difficult for others to grasp. But her characters could be next door, or up the street. Everyone from small-town America knows the girl who was desperate to find a perfect life in the big city, only to return broken and defeated. Throughout the text Allison hangs on to what is important to her in small-town America without letting her reader forget that she has moved on and made dramatic changes in her personal reality. Changes, which in many ways, permanently remove her from that small town setting. (less)
Few adults approach Beowulf without some knowledge of the story. It is generally read in high school and again in college. Grendel and his mother are...more Few adults approach Beowulf without some knowledge of the story. It is generally read in high school and again in college. Grendel and his mother are the nefarious duo tormenting the Danes in the reign of King Hrothgar. Beowulf comes to the rescue and is, of course, successful. Beowulf returns home to Geatland, where he eventually becomes king. But the story doesn’t end there and there is not a happily ever after. Beowulf is killed by a dragon in his old age. His body is burned and the Geats begin to live in fear that their enemies will now attack. I read it in high school. I read it in college. It was considered a boy-book, to be avoided if possible. Not to be considered for pleasure reading—ever. I did peruse the Tolkien edition in the seventies – but it was Tolkien and the seventies. I did not read the entire text. So what brings a middle-aged woman back to Beowulf? Seamus Heaney. And reading it wasn’t about the story—it was about this particular interpretation of the story. Grendel still dies by Beowulf’s hand. The dragon still kills Beowulf. And it’s still a boy-book, a profoundly eloquent boy-book. Opening the book to any page offers up the power of Heaney’s linguistic faculty. “I adopt you in my heart as a dear son. Nourish and maintain this new connection, you noblest of men; there’ll be nothing you want for, no worldly goods that won’t be yours” (63). The simple addition of a semicolon to a text adds another layer of depth to Heaney’s interpretation of the original language. In the introduction, Heaney explains his reasons for taking this project, his discontent and finally his revelations about language. It is this last element that is intriguing. It is his labor over each word, his quest for the perfect translation, his examination of etymologies and endemic languages. It is his finding the meaning of ancient words scrawled in musty texts by listening to the old folks chatter in Ireland. The power of the text does not lie in the story, but in Heaney’s ownership of the words that make the story.
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)
While the title implies the text is a parody of the classic text, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, it is actually a style manual unto itself...moreWhile the title implies the text is a parody of the classic text, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, it is actually a style manual unto itself. Plotnik discusses, in encyclopedic form, ways of approaching writing, engaging, readers, and who to look to as modern examples. He discusses; tense, diction, dialogue, foreign language use, idioms, and many others testy writing issues. The writing is sharp and edgy, filled with relevant and modern examples. E. B. White would be proud. This is a text that will live on my bookshelf along side my battered Strunk and White, and the MLA Handbook. (less)
I never tire of reading the work of William Shakespeare. His ability to steal the work of other, earlier, writers and carry those stories forward into...moreI never tire of reading the work of William Shakespeare. His ability to steal the work of other, earlier, writers and carry those stories forward into literary prestige is awe-inspiring. And Romeo and Juliet is no exception. It always surprises me that when high-schoolers read this text it is presented as a love story and the deeper questions that the author presents are overlooked; What value do we, as a society, place on friendship, faith, trust, and love? What guides us to choose the people in whom we do instill our trust? What happens to us all when we live locked in our prejudices and fears? The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, for me, is that it is seemingly reduced to a boy-meets-girl romance.(less)
I have always enjoyed Anne Lamott’s writing style. Her calculated and deliberate grammar choices, she wants to keep her reader present and breathless...moreI have always enjoyed Anne Lamott’s writing style. Her calculated and deliberate grammar choices, she wants to keep her reader present and breathless with her. I find this engaging in Traveling Mercies. The question I have been batting around is, does this work as a spiritual autobiography? And further, does she capture, in her use of tone and character, her sense of God? I would posit that God is as much a character in the text as Lamott herself. God is never “out there,” He or She (I loved how she did that so consistently throughout the text) is very present and often is a character in the text. For me, Traveling Mercies is successful in many ways because we share many cultural values/esthetics. Her journey can and does mirror mine: hectic, confusing, stressful, dysfunctional, real. Her spirituality is grounded in a concrete present tense. Although she alludes to Jesus as being her guide, model, savior, and perhaps substitute father figure, the God of her belief system understands the chaotic nature of life – the fast pace – the dated-ness of many organized religions. She has very much made God in her own likeness, a busy being with an, at times, somewhat dark sense of humor. And she seeks her God in all of her experiences—and finds her or him there. There were places in the text that seemed forced or contrived. For me, the chapter entitled “Grace” felt that way. Of course, this could be because I related so, so, much to the preceding chapter, “Forgiveness”. I know mothers like the one she describes, and often find myself more like Lamott than the other mother portrayed. “Grace” felt to me forced as opposed to “Forgiveness” which just sort of tumbled out. I have struggled to decide if Traveling Mercies is a good book. Or is it good because I liked it. And does the answer to that matter? I think that it does. And I think the book likely does not meet the standard of a “good” book – it was good for me in that I related so well. It is good in that she openly admits her vulnerabilities; she owns them. But Lamott’s style can get sloppy in its speed. She glosses things that may ultimately be important, and often (also like me) ignores the rules of grammar. I don’t think that her work, with the notable exception of Bird by Bird will stand literatures true test – endurance. But it was a great read nonetheless. (less)