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 *
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
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.
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
Follow a handful of characters through a single day in Philadelphia. 9 year-old Madeline aspiring jazz singer and newly motherless and in more than a bit of trouble. Continue reading