Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard

Alicia Erian, author of the novel "Towelhead" and upcoming memoir, "The Dragon Lies Down", told me that some stories are too fascinating to be ruined by pedestrian writing. To illustrate her point she mentioned "Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison," by T.J. Parsell, "My Lobotomy," by Howard Dully, and "A Stolen Life," by Jaycee Dugard. I had never considered reading Dugard's story. Why? I imagined I'd feel slimey, like a voyeur.

When Erian told me Dugard's memoir riveted, I decided to shelve my misgivings and put "A Stolen Life" at the top of my to-read list.

Dugard does an admirable job. She tells her story evenhandedly, and avoids getting caught up in emotion. Given what she's gone through, that's a literary miracle in and of itself. In Dugard's case, not being a writer may be a plus; it's hard to imagine being able to read a story like this if the teller had gone at it with a heavy hand. The writing doesn't dazzle but just as Erian said, I didn't much care. And sometimes the lack of writing mojo worked to Dugard's benefit; that she was able to periodically break into platitudes, casting a little sunshine -- something that would diminish most other stories -- made her story even more compelling. As added value, for those of you who, like me, prefer audiobooks, Dugard narrates "A Stolen Life."

It occurs to me that I thought 'A Stolen Life" would leave me feeling sad and scared. When I think about Dugard and how she survived this nightmare, though, what I'm left with is hope.

Monday, December 12, 2011

One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman

Ackerman's "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a sparkling gem, the tale of a young Polish couple in the 1940s who manage a zoo and save Jews by hiding them in animal cages. When Diane Ackerman came out with the intriguingly titled "One Hundred Names for Love," I couldn't wait to crack the book's spine and again lose myself in her prose.

OHNFL recounts Ackerman's experience as caretaker after her husband suffers a major stroke. Sadly, although "The Zookeeper's Wife" rivets, this medical-recovery memoir disappointed, was riddled with cliches. Ackerman does a lot of "telling" here, presenting information and directing us toward a conclusion, instead of "showing" us and letting us form our own thoughts about the outcome.

Mike Dahlie, (esteemed teacher at Butler, and author of "A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living"), says that, contrary to popular notions about writing, it's not always wrong to eschew showing for telling. He wasn't, of course, referring to prose pocked with cliche. Here's a taste: "So our days together still include many frustrations, but once again revolve around much laughter and revelry with words." There's a lot of generalizations and broad, descriptive words packed into that sentence! I dug into OHNFL with high hopes, but it wasn't long before drowsiness overtook and, craving caffeine, I found myself rummaging through the kitchen junk drawer, searching for toothpicks with which to prop my eyelids open.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

"I just finished 'This Beautiful Life.' What did you think of it?" asked Rebecca.
"Um..." I stalled.
"It's on your blog list thing, isn't it?" she asked.
Fair enough.

Let me explain. Fall brought a glorious parade of rockin' authors to the circle city. Anita Diamant, Myla Goldberg, Richard Rodriguez, John Green, Lee Martin -- oh my God, it was enough to make a girl swoon! Fascinated by the literary line-up, I may have lost my way -- temporarily. Titles on my "Waiting to be Reviewed" list have languished since summer. So when Rebecca asked what I thought of "This Beautiful Life" -- a novel I finished before autumn's first chill -- all I could conjure was a faded feeling of vague disappointment.

Memory-refreshing is the order of the day, and the "Waiting to be Reviewed" titles are back on hold at the library for that very purpose. While my beleaguered brain struggles to recover plots (how shocking is it that these storylines are so easily lost?), with "Blue Nights" I'll start anew. After all, if Didion can't cut in the "Waiting to be Reviewed" line, who can?

Didion's newest memoir, "Blue Nights," explores her feelings about growing old, and the tragic death of her only child, her daughter, Quintana Roo. This, on the heels of the sudden and unexpected death of Didion's husband, John Dunne, an event that spurred her previous memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking."

Do I recommend "Blue Nights"? Absolutely. For God's sake, she's Didion -- sparkling prose, and an eye that doesn't for a moment shy away from brutal self-examination. Do I also have reservations? Well, yeah.

In "Blue Nights" Didion elegiacally examines her perceived motherly failings, her detachment. I couldn't help but find a parallel detachment in her memoir. Maybe anxiety's the issue -- something I know only too well. Anxiety tends to stain, darkening all other aspects of relationships. As an admittedly anxious mother writing about her relationship with an anxious child, Didion's worries are well explored, but her mother-daughter bonds -- not so much. I yearned to read about Didion's connection with Quintana, and hoped she would do so with the same unsparing prose she uses to chronicle the unease. Instead, Didion filled page after page with stories of celebrity friendships, and her literary jet set lifestyle. There's enough celeb name-dropping and discussion of designer labels to wean People Magazine and QVC from the most addicted fans.

In the end, though, I consider a book satisfying if it moves me. Leaves me feeling changed. And despite the annoying arm's-distancing Hollywood babble, "Blue Nights" succeeds.