shiny things in messy little piles

Author: lara (Page 2 of 95)

Four Books on the Modern Essay

In the last cou­ple of months I have been read­ing a lot about essays. Of the four books reviews here, the one I’d most rec­om­mend for the gen­er­al read­er is the D’Agata. It’s a col­lec­tion of essays with short intro­duc­to­ry notes suit­ed those curi­ous about the shape of the mod­ern essay and how it got there. For a rec­om­men­da­tion for the writer I am torn. None of the oth­er books is spec­tac­u­lar and none of them com­plete­ly reflects my cur­rent think­ing on the essay. But, I’d say the Lopate con­tains the most use­ful exam­ples and that Moore’s Dear Mr Essay Writer shows the inner work­ings of the essay writer’s mind best.

The Next American Essay (A New History of the Essay) — John D’Agata. 2003.

D’Agata is inter­est­ed in stretch­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of essay as far as pos­si­ble then  look­ing to see what is hap­pen­ing at the mar­gins. Some of these essays are very exper­i­men­tal and not all of the exper­i­ments suc­ceed. The foot­notes essay is a chore to get through. Oth­ers, like “India” — a series of “fac­tu­al” state­ments on India tak­en from ancient sources, are stun­ning suc­cess­es. This is a worth­while book to read if you’re inter­est­ed in the shapes that essays can take and in stitch­ing up your own ideas about the form. Just be pre­pared to find a few that miss you. It’s very indi­vid­ual — sev­er­al peo­ple have praised “Black”. I thought it was over­wrought and grim.

* Ur texts for the mod­ern essay *

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. Dinty Moore. 2015.

Ques­tions from oth­er essay­ists are vague­ly answered with quick replies and illu­mi­nat­ing essays. There is a medi­a­tion on the exot­ic and the eat­ing of a zebra burg­er that doesn’t go near­ly as far as I would have liked it to, but… The one about how not to be a jack­ass about exes is sol­id life advice. Then there is some weird thing about brains and cau­li­flower that shouldn’t have been pub­lished. Oth­er essays riff on top­ics or tan­gents to the ques­tions asked by oth­er essayists.

* amus­ing, short, uneven. *

Crafting the Personal Essay. Dinty Moore. 2010.

This book is meant to be used as a text-book. There are dis­cus­sions of essays that are not includ­ed in the book. Clear­ly these are meant to have been read on class hand­outs. Many of the essays cho­sen for the book are old-fashioned. (And, con­ve­nient­ly, in the pub­lic domain.) The oth­er essay exam­ples are Moore’s own. And while not bad. Well, he’s not my cup of tea.

* if I need­ed a cheap text-book with exam­ples in the pub­lic domain *

To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Phillip Lopate. 1994.

Anoth­er teach­ing text. I like the Lopate book bet­ter than the Moore. It thinks more deeply about the essay and the mem­oir in mod­ern terms. It also makes bet­ter use of old­er essays. Though I think Lopate spends too much time on the mem­oir and diss­es the lyric essay as not real­ly being the thing — not being truth­ful enough. He likes a sol­id fideli­ty to real life. Even as he admits that mem­oir is nec­es­sar­i­ly slant­ed or one-sided, he still pumps strong­ly on the side of writ­ing the truth/fact.

* a lit­tle less fond of the lyric and exper­i­men­tal forms than I am but care­ful­ly thought out *

Letter Home 4 Aug, 2018

Dear­est ones,

I went to a lec­ture last week. Ilya Kamin­sky, a famous Ukrain­ian poet, began by ask­ing “How is life on this shiny plan­et?” I did not know how to answer him. He taped pic­tures by Diego Rivera to the wall and read from Calvino’s  Invis­i­ble Cities. He spoke of how our work is always in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­ers and point­ed to two of my favorite artists. I was, all at the same time, utter­ly chuffed and in com­plete despair.  And I won­dered how am I ever going to find myself in the mid­dle of that con­ver­sa­tion? I remain a child stand­ing at the edge of the room watch­ing the adults play word games in a lan­guage that I am just learning.

Lat­er that after­noon while dri­ving down the hill to town I was over­come by a deep wave of homesickness.

Do you remem­ber the emp­ty lot in down­town? The one that is so deep? There is an apple tree down there. Filled with lit­tle green apples — green apples that are about to ripen, many have red shoul­ders already. Some­how this does not seem hope­ful to me. I must be deranged in some way.

Between all that and the dis­ap­point­ing lemon cake… well you can imag­ine my state of mind.


Yrs affec­tion­ate­ly, L

Ragtime — E. L. Doctrow

It starts out so odd­ly. It’s off putting. There is a fam­i­ly whose mem­bers have no names only mark­ers for their places Moth­er, Father, Younger Broth­er, the Boy. Then Hou­di­ni crash­es his car into a tree and ends up sweat­ing out an after­noon in the fam­i­ly par­lor and that seems so unpromis­ing. And yet. Stick with it. That’s my advice.

Hou­di­ni is only the first of the his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters who will show up and the sto­ry will shift sev­er­al times to high­light them and oth­er (named) fic­tion­al char­ac­ters. There is the impov­er­ished immi­grant Tateh with his beau­ti­ful daugh­ter whose brief inter­ac­tions with the socialite Eveyln Nes­bit and the rad­i­cal Emma Gold­man send him run­ning from his immi­grant life into anoth­er alto­geth­er self-made Amer­i­can one. And Coal­house Walk­er III, the black man who’s humil­i­a­tion at the hands of a racist fire chief and his men pro­vides the impe­tus for an ongo­ing bat­tle for dig­ni­ty and redress that ends with a dyna­mite rigged art col­lec­tion of JP Mor­gan and a show­down in the streets of New York.

Both of these sto­ries along with the sto­ry of our unmanned fam­i­ly bump into one anoth­er again and again. There are so many cross­ing sto­ries that you can’t make a tidy sum­ma­ry of all the plot points. There are also a lot of char­ac­ters, but Doc­torow is a good enough writer that you don’t end up half way through the sto­ry going “and just who is Sarah?” You can fol­low each of the char­ac­ters through the sto­ry and come away with an under­stand­ing of their dif­fer­ing views of the world the they share.

Doc­torow is a love­ly writer, his sen­tences sing along with the Rag­time music that CWIII plays on the fam­i­ly piano as he courts the silent girl Sarah. This book is an ear­ly exper­i­ment in mix­ing his­tor­i­cal and fic­tion­al char­ac­ters out­side of the genre of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. There are a few unac­count­ably sur­re­al moments. Freud and Jung in the tun­nel of love on Coney Island stands out as one of them. But most of it is just odd enough to keep your atten­tion focused where the writer wants it to be.

(pub­lished 1975)

Once you fall into the rag­time tem­po it rocks along. 


This old man — he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb.

This old man, my old man, my man, is a long haul truck­er. Here last week, gone this week. Back the week after.

Knick-knack, paddy-whack give a dog a bone. 

I’m singing to the big old hound lying on the kitchen lino. Use­less thing. All sag­gy skin and knob­bly joints any­more. Snuf­flin’ in his sleep after rab­bits he’s nev­er caught. My old man sings that Elvis song to him. Says it’s because Booger is my dog, ain’t no friend of his. Which is why Booger sleeps on his side of the bed when he’s home? I don’t think so. Con­tin­ue reading

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