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.