More book reviews. I know you’re excited about that!
Best American Essays 2016 — Jonathon Franzen ed. (2016)
Franzen’s stated criteria for choosing the essays was whether or not the writer was taking a risk. Okay — risky writing is often good writing but I don’t think it makes a sound criteria for choosing the best essays. It leaves out too much of human experience and rewards sensationalism. That said…
Sebastian Junger’s “The Bonds of Battle” (from Vanity Fair) on PTSD in particular seems to be more confrontational than informative. . He contends that soldiers returning from battle in older, more connected societies did not suffer from PTDS. While it is interesting to pit the anthropology of older more connected societies against our modern disconnected society and then use that contrast to comment on PTSD, he presents a lot of numbers without citations (I hate to be a pendant in a book review, but really — if you’re going to challenge the existing narrative around PTSD you’d better look like you’ve done some credible background research.) Yes, I will concede that the disconnected nature of much of modern society makes the causes and “cures” for PTSD more difficult, this essay didn’t convince me that PTSD is an artifact solely of the modern age and the poor quality of the research prevents this contributing much to the discussions surrounding the issues.
The other essay the particularly struck me was Jordan Kisner’s “Thin Places.” She writes about her experience of OCD and the models of mental illness as they relate to the self. There are, she contends, thin boundaries between the self and the illness. These boundaries are much thinner than are popularly described in the current models of mental illness. This essay is troubling in a good way. I’ve had to look at my own definitions of “self”, “illness”, and the contrast between claiming that this things is “I” and that this other thing is “not‑I”. Well worth the time for the larger philosophical questions that it raises.
Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy — Mark Doty (2002)
I read this because Doty is one of the poets teaching in Port Townsend next summer. A short (80 page) essay on the nature of things and our relationships to them. And by extension on the nature of art and it’s relationship to us. The main subject is the titular still life painted by Jan Davids de Heem. Along the way he dips into and out of memory and reflects on the objects that have inhabited his life. He touches on his lovers, past and present and the houses that he has lived in as well as his grandmother’s purse and the peppermint candy that came out of it and the objectively ugly chipped turkey platter that he keeps above the mantel piece. He interrogates our often complex relationship with objects, how they are mediated by the people, places, and events that we associate with the objects and how once that context is removed (or for objects for which we don’t have context like the items in a still life) they take on a different kind of meaning — a more universal one but without the degree of intimacy that we can bring to the objects that we hold as our own.
Whipsmart — Melissa Febos (2010)
I had an unexpected reaction to this book. I don’t trust the narrator to be telling the truth. Partly because I don’t believe that addicts ever get over the habit of telling the not-truth. And partly because I don’t trust the end of the book.
A lot of the book is about Febos fronting. Keeping up appearances. Keeping one life away from the others and controlling any overlap with humor and bravado. All the while hiding from everyone the complete mess that she making of her life with drugs.
In her recovery from her life in the sex trade (which comes after her recovery from her life in drugs) the insights come too easily and stick too well. Basically I think that at the end of the book — once she’s talked about all the disasters of her life, she’s still fronting — this time with the perfection of her new life.
It’s a young book and prone to the black and white reasoning of youth. And I don’t trust that.
White is for Witching — Helen Oyeyemi (2009)
I love ghost stories. This is ghost story, it’s just not clear who the ghosts are.
Like many of Oyeyemi’s books this one is told by several narrators. It is necessary to pay attention. Miri, her twin Eliot, a friend of Miri’s called Ore, and the house — haunted by four generations of women, all have speaking parts. The house in particular is an important voice. The house says things that the rest of the characters either won’t or can’t say.
There is a witchiness to all of the women involved in the story. Four generations of the Silver women, two housekeepers, (the first who runs away, and the second who stays for reasons of her own), even Miri’s college friend Ore has some magic in her.
It’s all very witchy and haunted and ghostly and wonderful. (I found this book not as hard to follow as Mr. Fox which I reviewed in November. But this time I was better prepared for the task of carefully tracking who the speakers are.)
Glitter in the Blood: A Poet’s Manifesto for Better, Braver Writing — Mindy Nettifee (2012)
Much of a muchness with all the other “craft” books that are really about psychology, unblocking inspiration, etc. Nettifee writes in a kind of fun voice with lots of random asides. (She admires Kurt Vonnegut’s essay style which led me to Wampeters, Foma, and Gallafoons. A very worthwhile discovery reviewed below. )
The second half of the book claims to address the matter of editing. Like most books that address editing it is pretty useless, for me, at least. The only way that I can understand editing is to watch the process. It’s not enough to say — look for mixed metaphors. I need to see examples of the “crimes” I am supposed to be avoiding and ways to “fix” them, whether I agree or not. Perhaps it is impossible to teach revision?
It doesn’t help that I don’t particularly like Nettifee’s poetry. Maybe I should have read some before I bought the book. But I review most of the poetry craft books that pass along my notice. It’s a public service to the rest of you ;)
There is one fabulous game borrowed from Rachel McKibbens. Make a list of ten inanimate objects, then make a list of ten animals, then make a list of characteristics and habits of those animals. Remove the middle list and apply the characteristics and habits of the animals to the inanimate objects Voila interesting bits of poetic language that you can use as jumping off places.
Caramelo — Sandra Cisneros (2003)
The exploration of the storyteller’s role in family life comes to the fore as the young Mexican ‑American Ceyala Reyes begins to dig into and then tell the story of her Awful Grandmother and how she came to be just that Awful, despite her grandmother’s ghostly objections. There is, as in most family books, a moment of redemption at the end. But here it is not spoiled by being too easy. The family relationships remain uneasy as all family relationships do.
I love reading Cisneros for her descriptions of things. Though occasionally the lists of objects can get to be too long. Her description of all the things seen on a walk down street in Mexico City, while accurate, goes on just enough to long to break the fabulous spell of being overwhelmed. Still her ability to inject a bit of poetry and invoke the emotion of a time and place with perfectly chosen descriptive elements points to her poet’s training.
Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons — Kurt Vonnegut (1999)
Just for your information:
Wampeters–An object around which the lives of otherwise unrelated people revolve, e.g., The Holy Grail.
Foma–Harmless, comforting untruths, e.g., “Prosperity is just around the corner.”
Granfalloons–A proud and meaningless association of human beings, e.g., The Veterans of Future Wars
A collection of essays, book reviews, a couple of commencement speeches, and a longish interview with playboy magazine. It’s interesting to see Vonnegut at the height of his fame looking backward and forward. Many people speak of the great pessimism of these pieces but I would argue that anyone who holds to true a moral code and the belief in the power of human communities (lacking though they may be at this moment) cannot be considered a true blooded pessimist but only a situational one. Pieces not to miss include: Bifra: A People Betrayed, which gives background to a conflict that I was only vaguely aware of at the time and renders what is now history heartbreakingly, acutely clear. The Playboy Interview — wide-ranging and a fine example of why we used to read the magazine. But perhaps most importantly — In the Manner that God Must Shame Himself. Published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1972 — in responses to the Republican National Convention which nominated Richard Nixon. In which Vonnegut (rightly) divides our political system not into Democrat and Republican but into Winners and Losers. A painfully accurate recasting of the political discourse. It seems to me that Vonnegut owes the world (no, he doesn’t owe us shit, really) to put this one out there in an easily findable, readable form. Or maybe Harpers should ask for reprint rights.