I used portions of this book when teaching an introductory non-fiction writing course. I found many of the chapters a useful resource for students wit...moreI used portions of this book when teaching an introductory non-fiction writing course. I found many of the chapters a useful resource for students with specific writing issues. Particularly Part II--"Finding a Structure" or Part III--"The Art of the Sentence" provided instruction and examples that actually helped students to see in practical ways how they could move their sentences and structure to something better.
Some of the chapters--for instance, "Passive Voice--need to be longer (adding more examples, prompts, and exercises) if this book were to be considered "comprehensive." The author writes in engaging prose and has clearly thought about and is experienced at the "harder than it looks" skill-set known as "teaching writing." This tome rates as one of the better "how to" books of this genre for active students of writing.(less)
Geoffrey Wolff’s second memoir, A Day at the Beach: Recollections, is a well-written and smart reflection of a man in the terminal days of his “late m...moreGeoffrey Wolff’s second memoir, A Day at the Beach: Recollections, is a well-written and smart reflection of a man in the terminal days of his “late middle age.” Actually, unlike his first memoir The Duke of Deception, a book more akin to a biography of his infamous father: The Duke, this book is a series of nine essays describing life-episodes starting as early as his college days and ending with a novella-length description of sailing with his wife and grown sons.
The Duke of Deception was written with a tone of restraint; for the most part the author allowed a simple recitation of the facts to convey meaning. In this effort Wolff abandons any appearance of neutral restraint. A Day at the Beach has a far different tone. At times intelligent and witty, Wolff does become snide and hectoring, offering the tone of an abrasive but very bright smart-ass. However, what ties these two memoirs together is the looming and overshadowing presence of “The Duke.”
Memoirs often allow the reader to hear alternating voices. The voice relating the events as seen by a much younger author alternates or is followed by a more mature reflective voice delivering to the reader a portion of understanding or interpretation, a kind of wisdom derived from distance or time. The essay—a term derived from the French essai meaning “a trial” and the Latin exagium translated “to weigh”—often suggests the author, far from understanding, writes in a desperate attempt to understand. It was Montagne who suggested, “I write so that I know what I think.”
In A Day at the Beach Wolff’s essays attempt to make sense of his own life’s many surprising twists and turns, a journey irrevocably tied to a fantastical con-man father. The Duke, so big a hero to his son growing up and then an object of revulsion in the young man first learning his father wasn’t what he had believed, was also the conundrum who died alone in a mental institution, penniless and friendless. After being raised by a father with such an aversion to truth-telling and who raised false personas to a high art, is it any wonder Wolff struggled throughout his life and on the page to know just what could be believed and who could be trusted.
Because The Duke plays such a large role in Wolff’s life there is a significant amount of over-lap with his earlier memoir. In addition, as with all essay/ memoirs, at times there is a lack of connection between the parts. That is, the stand-alone character of each essay, at times engenders confusion concerning just how the essays tie together or where the overall arc of the work might be headed. This lack of continuity is most evident with the last, and longest, essay: “Waterway.”
The Duke has haunted the first eight essays only to disappear in this last essay. It may well be the author intends a simple allegory. That is, just as Wolff negotiates the treacherous passage from Bermuda to the US, we are only to understand he has also made a "home port" with his wife and sons. However, given the smart writing that proceeded this last essay, I think this is too simplistic for this author. The problem lays elsewhere.
I don’t doubt Wolff has reached a kind of home port resolution. The problem: I was left not really understanding why. To be clear, I do not expect Wolff to have the book end with all relationships and questions tied up with a trite synthesizing bow. I also understand our modern suspicion (And I assume Wolff's as well) concerning happy endings, a concern reflecting the unspoken presupposition that all happy endings are, by definition, infected with sentimentality—a kind of prose believed to be the most evil force in contemporary writing.
However, I think the problem actually reflects a problem with the author’s choice of form. By choosing the essay the reader expects to have been offered more speculation as to why the same boy who was brought-up by a nearly amoral con-man successfully negotiated his own propensity for falsity and alcohol. Why as a mature man he achieved a lasting even enduring marriage and produced children who as adults now offer him a measure of respect. Surely by all contemporary standards this constitutes at least a qualified success, even a life containing a measure of satisfaction and accomplishment.
None of us can look back upon our life’s successes or failures and explain the reasons with certainty. However, the essay form demands the writer share the thinking journey. The reader must see the twists, false starts, dead-ends, and mystery of the author’s thinking as he or she attempts to find a degree of understanding.
In this last aspect, I find A Day at the Beach: Recollection—an otherwise extremely entertaining and well-crafted book— wanting and therefore cannot award it a top rating. (less)
Authors Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff might be an argument for the presence in the human genome of a great writing gene. Following a tempestuous marriage...moreAuthors Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff might be an argument for the presence in the human genome of a great writing gene. Following a tempestuous marriage and divorce, these two biologic brothers were raised separately. Tobias Wolff Tobias, the younger and perhaps more famous writer, (A Boys Life, In Pharaoh s Army, The Barracks Thief) was parented by his mother Rosemary while Geoffrey became the responsibility of his father, the Duke. Geoffrey Wolff was a long-time book reviewer for The Washington Post and achieved moderate success as a writer of fiction. However, it was his memoir, Duke of Deception: Memories of my Father, that brought the older Wolff critical acclaim.
Duke of Deception would perhaps be most accurately labeled a biography of his father, Arthur Samuels Wolff-“The Duke.” “The Duke” has become one of the most memorable characters in modern American literature. I first encountered the escapades of Wolff’s father reading an abstraction of Wolff’s memoir found in a writing textbook devoted to writing vivid characters.
Proving that the truth is more fantastic than fiction, the life of Arthur Wolff—a man his son calls the world’s greatest “bullshit artist”—provides a fascinating read producing alternating bouts of hilarious incredulity and profound disgust. Is it really possible that this man without a college degree and no experience could have become the chief engineer in multiple well known aviation companies? Or, could a man live so well for so long constructing imaginary personas and refusing to pay his debts? Had I not previously read Tobias Wolff’s accounts of their mutual father, collaborating accounts of events unknown to Geoffrey, the Duke’s amoral con-man career might have strained all belief.
Given the Duke’s outrageous and sometimes unconscionable parenting I suppose the memoir could be viewed as Geoffrey Wolff’s therapeutic efforts to shift blame for his own personal flaws. However, while the author is candid concerning his alcohol addiction and behavior flaws--flaws he points out that bear frightening similarities to father’s issues—Duke of Deception does not join that “blaming” sub-genre of memoirs so popular these days. Rather, this non-fiction memoir reads like an outstanding novel.
The best authors render fictional characters in a “thick” or “rounded” fashion. By this, it is meant the reader discovers a character on the page that is, as are most actual individuals, a montage of good and bad qualities, variable expertise, and multiple foibles. In the best memoirs the author must treat him or herself as a character, undergoing a self-interrogation equal in intensity to the inspection given the other characters. The “I” character must be shown in an equally “round” fashion or the reader will lose confidence in the author’s will to tell a true story. This memoir/biography meets this exacting standard.
The Duke of Deception also reads like excellent fiction because the author is skilled storyteller. Wolff isn’t interested in delivering parenting sermons or moral lectures or beating-down the reader with didactic facts. Readers are trusted to “get it.” and the prose flows smoothly. Using juxtaposition, suggestion, and omission, the reader is able to glimpse the author’s surprising and subtle empathy and sense his—and therefore our— slow acquisition of a deeper more dimensional but refracted truth about his father. Above all, the reader feels the whispered pathos of a young man growing-up in the company of a deeply flawed father.
I strongly urge newcomers to the memoirs of the Wolff brothers to read Tobias Wolff's A Boys Life in conjunction with Duke of Deception. A rare if not unique opportunity to read two highly skilled writers describe the same persons and reflect upon many of the same events from such different vantage points and with far different literary styles. A delicious literary treat. (less)
Richard Russo’s protagonist in the novel Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr stumbles badly negotiating the pot-holes of late middle-age and it...moreRichard Russo’s protagonist in the novel Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr stumbles badly negotiating the pot-holes of late middle-age and it bothers him—actually, it bothers him a lot. He discovers himself perseverating far too often over a writing career that stalled twenty years ago and is beset by thoughts that his wife is having an affair with the Dean. In addition, Devereaux’s children are making a mess of their lives, his colleagues are plotting against him, the father who abandoned him is returning, and he is having anxiety attacks over what is imagined to be a terminal medical condition. However, the real problem for Devereaux, a professor of English in a “lower-tier university,” is that he has been openly committed to not caring about such things; he has been his department’s most successful practitioner of that uniquely academic worldview: ironic anarchism.
Russo’s main character has been committed to the proposition that no aspect of life is to be taken too seriously or go without humorous but skeptical analysis. William Henry Devereaux has yet to find a topic unworthy of his pithy and sarcastic wit. His absurdist critique is a mocking worldview consisting of equal parts of careful observation, chaos theory and pseudo-intellectual arrogance.
This odd approach to relationships and career might not have garnered our protagonist much traction in the majority of life’s enterprises but, William Henry Devereaux Jr entered University life and achieved success: he has risen to the rank of full professor, become chairman of the English Department, and finds himself a candidate to become the Dean of the College. The fact that Devereaux’s wife doesn’t listen to him, his children don’t take him seriously, and neighbors and colleagues dislike him hasn’t, until now, made much of an impression.
This book is full of a very modern brand of humor. Russo accurately captures a host of the most ridiculous and absurd behaviors found among college professors and the academic enterprise. I have spent over twenty-five years in the academy, first on the medical faculty and then as a part-time member of an English Department and felt sure Russo had been looking over my shoulder. Derrick Bok, then president of Harvard, was said to have remarked that “The reason Academic battles were so bloody was because the stakes were so small.” Russo’s graceful prose brackets these foibles beautifully.
The novel is chocked full of ironic humor and I frequently found myself amused. However, this was not the sharp-witted aggressive humor found in a Woody Allen screen-play or the farcical misunderstandings reveled by Shakespeare in "Twelfth Night" or even the slap-stick absurdist humor of say a Monty Python movie. Rather, my amusement was more like the wry smile accompanied by a shake of the head that reflects, “If I hadn’t actually seen this kind of absurd behavior I wouldn’t believe intelligent human beings capable of such non-sense.” I think Russo writes a novel detailing academic life in a humorous vein because it allows the reader, especially a reader without much contact with the academy, to loosen the constraints of believability. I think Russo knows that if he were to have written these character’s stories without emphasizing the humor most readers would have not had much empathy for them or believed such people existed.
Many of Russo’s best works (And here I’m thinking of novels like, “Bridge of Sighs” or “That Old Cape Magic” are full of small-town people who he sympathetically renders coping with the bittersweet stuff of families and jobs and life’s half-full glass. And, Straight Man surely has a measure of this. Yet the infusion of such large quantities of ironic humor in order to render the characters believable also instills a corrosive acid scrubbing our belief there can be any real hope for William Henry Devereaux or his colleagues. Irony is, after all, the notion that holds nothing is what it seems, nothing can be believed because there always remains some other self-serving motive or truth lurking just beneath appearances.
Perhaps my four stars for this wonderfully conceived and rendered novel reflects less a criticism of Russo's prose than my peevishness concerning the current state of novel writing. I grow tired of a constant diet of irony. These days I find myself ranting that we don’t need one more novel that tests the limits of terminal irony’s final frontier and then "throw the baby out with the bathwater."
To be fair, "Straight Man," is a modern novel that does not lapse into terminal irony. Rather, it is a humorous and a worth-while read by a master author.(less)
This is the classic: food as theology/theology of food/embodied life/Celebration of God's good creation. If that were not enough, a delightfully craft...moreThis is the classic: food as theology/theology of food/embodied life/Celebration of God's good creation. If that were not enough, a delightfully crafted book.(less)
This is my second reading of Taylor's now "classic" text outlining the spiritual and historical origins of modern western culture. To be clear, by "sp...moreThis is my second reading of Taylor's now "classic" text outlining the spiritual and historical origins of modern western culture. To be clear, by "spiritual origins" I mean Taylor primarily dissects Christianity's contribution to the formation of Anglo-American culture. Taylor, a Catholic, is even-handed when handling protestant/catholic issues but covers little of non-Christian religious traditions. First published in 1989, Taylor's analysis has stood up well and remains a key source. (in addition to his newest book continuing and completing his argument ) Sources of the Self is an essential starting point for any student studying at the interface of religious belief and contemporary culture.
Although my devoting such a great amount of time (twice)! to this 500 page text may seem excessive, close reading of the text has been more than rewarding. In particular, Taylor's final chapters: "Visions of the Post-Romantic Age" and "Epiphanies of Modernism" provided a helpful intellectual infrastructure for both my long-standing interest in theology and the arts and a newer imaginative literature project. In many ways the twenty plus years since the author wrote the text have added significant validation to his assertions. I know of no other text with such a wide-ranging, thoughtful, yet distilled analysis of modern imaginative culture.
However, be forewarned: the writing here is academic and I do not mean simply the presence of numerous endnotes. Taylor's prose while clear is ponderous and without literary style. Worthwhile reading, but Sources of the Self does require a committed reader.(less)