Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, by Anna Quindlen

Our beloved Anna Quindlen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of nonfiction and fiction alike, missed the mark in "Lot's of Candles, Plenty of Cake," her new memoir about life, family and aging. This compilation of light, fluffy vignettes is entertaining but predictable. Quindlen's stories all conclude with sunny bromides. She gives us dull platitudes, but what we want are shiny truths.

If you have a nonfiction yen, Cheryl Strayed's "Tiny, Beautiful Things," a compilation of her best "Dear Sugar" columns, will make you shiver.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sweet and Low, by Rich Cohen

On the Sunday after the holiday, my family was still celebrating Thanksgiving. A half-full pan of leftover turkey sat on the middle shelf in the fridge, and the beds in our basement and spare rooms were still warm from out-of-town relatives, my mother-in-law and cousins. Every year on Thanksgiving, my family dines on a meal featuring a giant roasted bird, marshmallow-topped sweet potato and orange-cranberry-apple relish, but what we really look forward to is gathering with family. Expectations like these can be a recipe for disappointment.

This year, the holiday served as a nudge, a reminder, to keep my expectations in check. To stay flexible. The cousins who always come in from St. Louis had to leave early to attend a friend's wedding. My West Coast father had to cancel his visit when he came down with a bout of arthritis so severe it sent him to the hospital. My mother-in-law made the trip from Cincy, but not until turkey-day-plus-one -- she couldn't find anyone to feed the stray cat she's been giving bowls on tuna to for the past few years.

Since we're talking Thanksgiving, I'll segue into being thankful for books -- which is what I'm supposed to be writing about, anyway. For instance, Rich Cohen's family memoir, "Sweet and Low." Cohen is a grandson of Ben Eisenstadt, the man who invented sugar packets (Am I the only one old enough to remember the sugar crust on the metal-topped glass pourers that sat on tables in diners next to the ketchup and mustard?), and Sweet 'N Low, the artificial sweetener in the little pink packets. This family memoir may not feature early-departing cousins, arthritic fathers, or cat-obsessed mother-in-laws, but Cohen's got his own cast of zany characters. And his journalism background -- he's written for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair -- serves him well. The dialogue in "Sweet and Low" will slay you. His rich uncles are machers and his great-aunts are nuts, which is how it is in all families, right? Cohen shows us a version of the Amercian Dream, a small family business that serendipitously finds a way to fill a need. But things don't stay sweet for long in "Sweet and Low." Scientists uncovered evidence that saccharine may be carcinogenic, there was family infighting, the business developed ties to the mafia, and there were troubles with the government. Cohen gives his family's story context by peppering the text with cultural touchpoints -- the advent of the country's dieting craze, how takeovers took over America's business landscape, and how government regulations serve to protect the public while crippling business.

"Sweet and Low" is a loving look at family, and a nice reminder that even when my kin can't join me for the holiday, there's still plenty to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Natural Woman, by Carole King

Thanksgiving road trip? Looking for a compelling and fun audiobook to pass the time? Here's what your dashboard CD player's been waiting for: Carole King's memoir, "A Natural Woman."

King turned 70 "One Fine Day" this year -- a fact guaranteed to make a boomer like me feel old. Born Carol Klein, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, King's known for the saxy hit "Jazzman," but has led a rock 'n roll life. In "A Natural Woman," a double your fun read/listen, King dishes on her tumultuous, celeb-studded life. Her honeyed, New Yorky voice takes the listener back in time. A key bonus of the audiotape is that she belts out song snippets. Want to revisit the druggy sixties and feminist seventies? King's memoir will not only take you there, but leave you feeling "You've Got a Friend."

As is required in memoir writing, King gives us the dirt -- four marriages, including a first husband who became mentally ill and a later marriage to a charismatic and charming man who would eventually emotionally and physically abuse her. A staunch liberal and environmentalist -- the title "A Natural Woman" couldn't be more fitting -- King spent years raising her kids in a cabin in Idaho. Sprinkle these gems with tales of performing with James Taylor, and of social drama with John Lennon, and you've got a virtual "Tapestry" of juicy listening.

On the downside, King often comes across as opinionated and preachy, and at times I wanted her to stop explaining and just TELL THE STORY! This sometimes detracted from the fun of listening to the drama of her life.

"A Natural Woman" is the perfect book for a road trip. I bet the music of King's life will render rough roads so smooth you'll never think "I Feel the Earth Move." And if you're already on the road, en route to your turkey day destination, you can listen to King's memoir on your winter break trip. "It's [never] Too Late," baby.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading My Father, by Alexandra Styron

One of the history teachers at my kids' high school gives off such a calm and friendly vibe that within minutes of first meeting him, I could tell my kids would be in good hands in his class. I often have the same experience when I meet a new book. My hands flip the cover open, and from the page one, chapter one, I get that vibe. Well-crafted prose shows that the author is deft and trustworthy and that what's to come will be a pleasure.

It didn't take me long to realize that Alexandra Styron's one of these authors.

Ms. Styron, the youngest daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner William Styron (author of "Darkness Visible" and "Sophie's Choice") has penned a daughter's memoir, one that succeeds on many levels. It tells us her story, of growing up in the most privileged pockets of the East Coast. It also takes us deep into the glittery life of her famous and mercurial father, one of the Big Shouldered Authors of the '70s, a contemporary and friend of Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller. And most compellingly, Styron takes us deep into her volatile yet loving relationship with her dad.

Despite being a tad turned off when Ms. Styron recounted stories of the brushes she had as a younger adult with the rich and famous -- a minor complaint I'm more than willing to overlook -- Styron shows us the way memoir should be done, with brazen honesty and unwavering generosity.

If you're a memoir lover, you'll love "Reading My Father." Enjoy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Margaret Atwood

I surprised myself at Margaret Atwood's Q&A when I asked her if she's read "Fifty Shades of Grey." Her response: "I don't have to." She explained that books of this type come around periodically. "This is what we call a "shop and f&ck" book. Men also enjoy them, but have trouble with the first part."

Atwood's work is gloomy, but she's funny.

I ended up with an invitation to the dinner that preceded her reading at Butler, and I buzzed with adrenalin. When Atwood, a petite woman in her mid-seventies, entered the room of students and professors, most of us kept at a polite distance. Literary royalty. At a certain point I took a deep breath, sat down in a space next to her that had just been vacated, and found myself making small talk.

With Margaret Atwood.

I asked her if her busy touring schedule interfered with her writing, and she said, "When I travel I'm away from things in my life that interfere with writing." She takes advantage of time spent on planes and in hotel rooms to write, and makes a point of letting her "people" know she doesn't know how to answer her cellphone. (She must be playing with them. Her books have cautionary tales about the dangers of technology, but she doesn't strike me as someone intimidated by it. In fact, she's an active tweeter.) I told her how surprised I was to find that on the audiobook of "The Year of the Flood," the hymns are performed -- with instrumental accompaniment. She told me her agent's partner, Orville, plays with a band, and when he read the manuscript, he took it upon himself to set her lyrics to music. On the recording he and his band performed these pieces.

After the dinner, Atwood spoke at Clowes Hall, and by the way, if you think people aren't reading anymore, you should have seen the crowd. Atwood spoke on the question of whether or not we can we write the future. Her first point: The future doesn't exist, so it's up for grabs. No one can fact check it! She gave us examples of the wild and disparate ways the future has been imagined, from Hollywood's "Men in Black," which she watched on the plane, to Potatomancy, a practice which uses spuds as divining objects. Atwood deadpanned that there could be cults founded by Frito-Lay.

Atwood spoke about how we humans are hard-wired for storytelling, and that language is structured to delineate time.

Both at her talk and at her Q&A, Atwood spoke about her environmental concerns. These issues are engine that drives Atwood's MaddAdam Trilogy. ("Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood" are the first two installments.) No surprise, Atwood's done her homework. Twice she mentioned that during the Vietnam War we could have easily decimated our planet. The U.S. shipped vast quantities of Agent Orange across the ocean, and if any of those ships had spilled, the blue-green algae, which produce a large percent of our oxygen, would have been destroyed.

But despite these Cassandra-like stories, Atwood's managed to hold on to her sense of humor. And unlike many of the writers who came to Butler last semester, she didn't keep her fans at arm's length-- she was accessible and forthcoming. When she obliged and posed with us for pictures, she exuded a quality I can best describe as regal. She glowed.

Atwood's work is rife with doomsday warnings, but in her lecture she also spoke of hope. She said her wish for us to have hope, and when someone asked her what she wishes we hope for, she answered, "More hope."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Orxy and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Some people have a hard time saying no to chocolate chip cookies. Me? I'll eat those cookies every time, but my willpower really pales when faced with having to choose from the list of Butler's creative writing courses. So much great learning! So little time! This fall, the nonfiction workshop taught by a visiting prof from DePauw was a no-brainer, but there were two other courses, just as delicious. I just couldn't say no. In the spirit of compromise, instead of registering for those two additional courses, I decided to audit. Still, I'm not in this game for the grade. I'm in it to learn, so I've got to put in the work. The semester's still green, and I'm running fast, trying to settle in, and figure out the classes' rhythms.

This morning I sat down to read stories assigned to me by the editors at Booth, the literary magazine at Butler. Reading takes time, especially for a slowpoke like me. (Undiagnosed learning disability? I often wonder.) As I tucked into the first story I thought about all the other reading I needed to do and the muscles in my scalp tightened. Reading for Booth is yet another great way to learn, but it takes so much time. I must admit I haven't had the sunniest attitude about my Booth-reading responsibilities as of late. But get this: If you were to have walked by my spot in the coffee shop when I was halfway through, you'd have seen me grinning. The stories were that good. (And even when a story wasn't Booth-worthy, I knew I'd learned from it. Reading carefully, trying to discern what works and what doesn't, will do that.) Stories can be magical. They can transform, surprise, and teach a whole new way to be in the world, and that's no small thing.

I read Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" for one of the courses I'm auditing. To tell you the truth, I doubt I would have ever picked up Atwood if it wasn't required reading. I like fiction. Sometimes. But most of the time I put more stock in nonfiction. Most of the time, my take is that real life -- so compelling, confusing and confounding -- renders fiction unnecessary. When I picked up "Oryx and Crake," it wasn't long before I was quickly sucked into the story. I'd forgotten the power fiction has to surprise and captivate.

Atwood calls her work "speculative fiction," (as opposed to science fiction), in that she doesn't employ fantastical story elements. No space ships teeming with Martians. Atwood's tales are about the dystopian, future worlds that could come about when a society is overly-stressed. In "Oryx and Crake," Jimmy survives an apocalypse, the earth battered and depleted, his only company a bunch of genetically modified humanoid creatures -- Crakers. The Crakers look to Jimmy as a god, and as Atwood shows us the these strange Crakers, she deftly shifts back and forth, using flashback to tell us how humankind, and Jimmy, came to this perilous and desperate point.

Atwood tells a great story, but there's more. Her stories carry weight. (Psychic weight, if you will, a term I just learned at a Booth meeting.) Atwood's got something to say that's deeper than the storyline. It always fascinates me to discover what captures an author's imagination. Atwood is fascinated at how delicate civilization is, how fast society can disintegrate, and how little it would take for us to give up our freedoms.

There is so much to learn. How lucky are we that Atwood, a Big Question kind of author, will be speaking tomorrow here at Butler. Scan the crowd and look for me -- I'll be the one scribbling notes, listening closely, doing my best to learn, a big grin on my face.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bringing up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman

When Ms. Druckerman moved across the pond with her husband, she was a bride, her heart set on beginning a family. "Bringing Up Bebe" begins here, with Druckerman ambivalently navigating foreign soil and infertility treatments. Luckily, children were in the cards, and it wasn't long before the we see the author, still living Paris, raising two small children.

A journalist, Druckerman couldn't help but notice subtle, yet pervasive, differences between American-style parenting and the way French parents relate to their charges. While the overriding sentiment behind much of American parenting seems to be anxiety, the French--perhaps due, in part, to the availability of subsidized childcare--take a more relaxed approach. Druckerman writes about the Pause, the French way of waiting for a moment or two before responding to a child's cries. Using this simple, common sense technique allows for the possibility of self-regulation by the child. But whether discussing sleeping through the night or dining with children in restaurants, Druckerman purports that the French are better at communicating that they have clear expectations for their children. When teaching them how to behave, the French don't flinch in the face of tantrums. When a child shows his or her unhappiness, the French don't rush to make the child happy, but react with restraint.

A book like this can't help but paint parents on either side of the Atlantic with broad strokes---how else to make its point? Druckerman's stereotypes didn't bother me. After all, I WAS the stereotypical nervous mother. What did become wearying was the extent to which the author paraded her roster of experts, the myriad doctors and caregivers whose proclamations supported her thesis. Still, "Bringing Up Bebe" is a fun, thought provoking read that won't keep you from sleeping through the night.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Very few things make me laugh out loud. My family accuses me of having no sense of humor. That may be true, but I prefer to think of myself as discriminating. Last semester my classmate, Ashley, clued me in on Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. "Susan, you MUST read her blog. And she's coming out with a memoir!" I gave Ashley my head tilt of agreement, and said "Uh-huh," but even as those syllables came out of my mouth, I was thinking Ashley's "super-funny" could very well be my "meh."

And that's why I almost hate to admit this, but today, while I listened to the audiotape of LPTNH, I heard a noise I almost didn't recognize. It took me a second or two for it to sink in. It was me, laughing.

In a cyber-world where it seems as though everyone blogs, Lawson has done something pretty remarkable. She parlayed her achievements as a blogger into a successful vault into the literary zeitgeist. What are the odds?

Lawson grew up in a small town in Texas, the daughter of a taxidermist who often brought his work home. Lawson writes about the strange episodes of her childhood, most of which involve the feral animals -- some alive, some dead -- her father brought into their home. Writing about her adult life, Lawson fesses up to struggling with a disease that left her ability to sustain a pregnancy questionable, a whooping anxiety disorder and rheumatoid arthritis. She manages to transform her tragedy and suffering with humor and a keen eye for ironic detail. No, dead babies are not funny, but Lawson, caught in a situation that would drive anyone mad, holds our hands and takes us to a place where we can laugh at the sheer absurdity of her situation.

Sure, read the book. But if you can, listen to the audiobook, which Lawson reads herself. Her delivery is spot-on, pee-in-your-pants funny. But don't fool yourself into thinking you can get away with listening while your kids are around. Lawson loves profanity, and is particularly fond of tossing out the F-bomb. Occasionally I thought Lawson went a little too far, that the humor, instead of clever, became silly. For instance, at the end of the audiotape she talks about how the word "vagina" is funny, and in this riff she repeats the word at least 25 times. Enough already. But pushing aside a few minor complaints, I think Jenny Lawson is amazing and smart and twisted and really, really funny. LPTNH is witty and tender and profane. And hysterical, just like Ashley said.

P.S. Lawson's success coming on the heels of her blog made me remember an interview with Anne Lamott, one of my all-time fave authors, from a few years back. In this interview, which I think appeared in Salon, she opined that she saw no purpose in blogging, and that she wants to write books. This, despite my undying love and admiration for Lamott, pissed me off. (Sorry, I'm getting all Jenny Lawson-cursey on you, aren't I?) I thought Lamott's remark was myopic, especially for someone who writes heartfelt, underdog memoir. Recently, though, through her Facebook fan page, Lamott has started posting kick-ass mini-essays (there I go again with the cursing), blog-style. Which just goes to show you, don't underestimate the power of words, even if they appear on the screen instead of the page.

Which reminds me, it's about time I reviewed Lamott's new book.

Until then,

Sunday, August 5, 2012

This is How, by Augusten Burroughs

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about honesty, how keeping secrets can really be a form of lying. I've been thinking about how much of what we tell other in everyday life isn't really direct and honest discourse, but so much bullshit -- untruths, half-truths, stories with key parts omitted. Lies are the mother's milk of our culture, don't you think? I've often had the experience of dogpaddling through the muddy waters of a certain situation, only to discover, years later, that the shiny surface of the story is covering a bare, naked kernel of truth that doesn't in any way resemble the story I've always told myself.

Which is why "This is How," a kind of new-style self-help manual, is one of my favorite books of ALL TIME. (I won't even demean the previous sentence by capping it with the ubiquitous exclamation point.) Burroughs, edgy and blunt, may not be everyone's cup of tea. After surviving an unusual and tragic childhood, he then survived the fallout: years of alcoholism. This is something I know about personally, not the alcoholism part, but the existing at the fringe of society part, about holding onto life by the proverbial thread. Going through life this way does one of two things to a person: it either destroys him or her, or it leaves the hanger-on-er clear-headed, able to see past the inanities of polite society in order to get to what's really important. Like Love. Compassion. And Truth--even though those truths might sometimes seem cruel. Truths can be hard to hear, can expose the dark underbellies of our shame. In writing this I don't mean to hold myself up as any sort of better-than-thou truth teller. I do believe, however, that my life experiences have often positioned me nose-to-nose with unsavory truths, without the luxury of being able to turn away -- whether those truths were about others or myself.

Here's a random sampling of Burroughs topics: How to be thin; How to feel like shit; How to be fat; How to feel less regret; How to live unhappily ever after. Sure to be the most controversial of Burroughs' offerings, "This is How" comes out against AA, recommends (in certain circumstances) one kick an anorexic child out of the house, and purports that overweight people aren't heavy because they can't lose weight, but because they haven't committed to losing weight, and that they should stop whining and embrace their muffin tops.

Burroughs' childhood (crazy mother and unstable home life which featured a constant parade of wacky and dangerous characters) may seem outrageous to most, but because it's not that different from my own experience, I feel an odd sort of comradeship with him. The drama and trauma of unstable early years exacts a high price, but I think that if you can survive them, they have the potential to transform you into someone who can cut through the ubiquitous bullshit of everyday life.

Truth, for me, is kind of like pornography -- it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it. And when I see or hear something that captures a truth, I experience a visceral reaction as it resonates through my body. Remembering Burroughs' book has me shivering all over again.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Pretty Girl, by Debra Spark

Debra Spark's book, “The Pretty Girl,” is an unusual compilation: a novella followed by six short stories. This got me to thinking about some of the conundrums authors face. At some point in the writing process, the question arises as to how long the story will be: flash (super short), short story, novella or novel.

The novella, “The Pretty Girl” (the book and the novella have the same title), explores the relationship between Andrea, a young woman, her spinster Great Aunt Rose and one of Rose's paintings. From the start, there's an air of mystery about Rose's painting, which symbolically carries the weight of a family secret. With each turn of the plot, Spark brings us in a little closer, all the while maintaining suspense. At the novella's end, the story blossoms and satisfies, its secrets finally revealed.

The novella is followed by six short stories, each of which showcase Spark's considerable talents in painting multi-dimensional characters—outwardly successful, yet with slippery motivations and interior landscapes riddled with self-doubt and confusion. As each of the stories progresses, its characters unfold and facets of their personalities are slowly revealed. Reading a Spark story is a little like touring an old house using a flashlight—individual rooms light briefly and only at the end do we see how each contributes to the whole. Certain elements in Spark's work weave in and out of each story and form a thematic undercurrent: art and the creative life, the older generation's legacy and Judaism. These elements give the stories a common thread.

In the short story “Conservation,” Spark gives us a nuanced portrayal of Dana, an art restorer who finds herself inching further away from her husband as the borders of her marriage dissolve. In the story “I Should Let You Go,” we see the relationship between two sisters, Ginny and Cara, and learn how Ginny's life plays out after Cara dies of breast cancer. In another story, “Lady of the Wild Beasts,” we meet Sharon Berger, and see her beginning to come to terms with the fallout from the schizophrenia suffered by Jane, her cartoonist twin sister.

“A Wedding Story” is the last offering in the collection and the most magical of Spark's pieces. Spark tips her hat to old Hasidic folktales, naming one of the characters Rabbi Simon Baal Shem. On a personal note, my family claims descendancy from the Baal Shem Tov, the rabbi credited with founding Hasidic Judaism, but don't believe for a minute that this is why the story stole my heart. “A Wedding Story” features a miniature rabbi (Simon Baal Shem), who pops out of a chocolate egg and advises Rachel Rubenstein on matters of the heart. The story is about bashert, the Jewish concept of fate, which usually pertains to romance.

“The Pretty Girl” and its realistic characters and stunningly crafted stories left me changed. All this, and a tiny rabbi named Simon Baal Shem. That the “The Pretty Girl,” recommended by a writing friend, found its way to me seems nothing less than bashert.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Love Sick, by Sue William Silverman

We are quick to label, to diagnose. What to make of this? I often think that if I had a particular struggle, it would be reaffirming to be able to give it a name. On the other hand, why must every detour off the path of "normal" behavior be pathologized? This question has long been on my mind, and is one of the reasons I shook my head when I first heard the term sexual addiction. A convenient excuse for philandering husbands, I smirked. Then I saw that one of my favorite memoirists, Sue William Silverman, had penned a book chronicling her sexual addiction, and I wasn't sure what to think. Well, that's not exactly true. Silverman's memoir "Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You" riveted me. And I love, love, love Silverman's guide to aspiring memoirists, "Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir." Bottom line? I trusted Silverman. I realized I'd jumped to judgment without understanding what sexual addiction's about.

"Love Sick" had much to teach me.

Writing memoir sounds easy, but it isn't. It's devilishly difficult to craft a cohesive narrative out life's stories. Writing a sexual addiction memoir has got to be the most difficult thing of all. As I expected, Silverman handled this delicate subject deftly. She flashed back on just enough of her background to inform her addiction, and she did this in an even-handed way, not blaming, but explaining. The scenes that show the author with men paint a picture of her yearning without giving too much detail. This feels just right. In general, scene-driven parts of an addiction/recovery story are fun to read and easy to get on the page. In Silverman's case, though, more detail would have distracted from the arc of her story. And what's tough to portray vividly in an addiction memoir are the inner shifts, those invisible yet monumental moments when a person comes up against her demon. Sometimes the demon's the victor, but ultimately healing occurs. It's these rearrangements of the self, by definition tectonic and colossal, that are the carrot in recovery memoir and Silverman's tight, lyric prose conveys this inner-journey.

The word "unflinching" appears so frequently in reviews and blurbs, it has become cliched with overuse. That's a shame. Perhaps there should be a dictionary of terms for reviewers. And if there was, under the term "unflinching" the first listing would be Silverman's "Love Sick."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings, edited by B.J.Hollars

A few days ago, iconic monster creater Maurice Sendak died. In his children's book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak gave us Max, the naughty little boy who worked through his untenable anger by navigating a scary and monster-filled fantasy world. The monsters in Max's world “roared their terrible roars,” and “gnashed their terrible teeth,” but Max stared them down. The toothy, bug-eyed fantasy creatures mellowed when they realized Max wasn't cowed by their fright-inducing act. They crowned him king, and held a wild rumpus. But a life of wild partying can be tiring for even the most energetic kid. In the end, Max waves goodbye to his new monster friends, and returns to the comfort of home and his still-hot supper.

When my teenagers were young, I read them Sendak's book every night. When I got to the part of the story where the monsters try to scare Max, the kids and I acted out the monsters' lines – we roared our terrible roars, gnashed our terrible teeth and rolled our terrible eyes.

It has been over a decade since I last picked up a book about monsters, and this is curious. Because when I got to thinking about monsters, it became obvious that they're not just for children. The world is a scary place no matter how old you are, and our minds create monsters to deal with fear. It wasn't until I picked up “Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings,” that I realized how satisfying it could be to explore the subject of fear by reading fantasy.

Edited by B.J. Hollars, "Monsters" features the work of some of today's literati: Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), Matt Bell (How They Were Found) and Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage). Some of my favorite stories, though – those that left me gazing at the horizon and pondering the universe – were penned by writers I'd never come across.

“Monsters” showcases creatures of every flavor: Frankenstein, Bigfoot, werewolves, zombies, and all manner of hybrid beasts. The stories I most connected with blurred boundaries and told of humans who revealed dark, monster-like emotions and monsters who showed soft, human-like characteristics. For instance, in “Daniel,” by Alissa Nutting, a baby boy grows up to become a fanged monster. His mother blames herself and traces the problem back to her ambivalence in her role as wife and mother. She remembers an eerie scene in which, while she nursed her newborn, she imagined her milky breasts as blood-filled wrists, draining. Creepy. Yet, as parents, who among us hasn't occasionally felt overwhelmed and drained?

“Bonsai Kitten” is another story that artfully blends human and monster. Randy is a character who narrates his own passage into monsterhood. The scenario sounds a lot like he was hospitalized for severe burns. He alludes that he became a monster (or burn victim – it's never really clear) because another boy “...drunk and bored, he bent time around me. He crossed the yellow line and split my life in two.” It reads like it was a horrific car accident, although that's left vague, too. The other boy died, and Randy,now a monster, ends up seeking revenge for his lost humanity by harming the dead boy's sister. It's the tragic intersection between human and monster that compels.

“Monsters” the first offering by Pressgang, Butler's new micropress, is impressive inside and out – and I'm not just saying that because I'm a Butler booster. The book's fanciful artwork echoes Sendak's. It's a pleasure to read – larger and wider than most paperbooks, bound so it opens flat and is printed with dark ink in a large, easy-to-read font. Until I sank my teeth into “Monsters” I hadn't thought about how tightly bound books are such a pain to prop open. Or how it takes so much energy to read the small, light printing of many books.

I thought I was done with monsters years ago. After all, my kids are now in high school. But I was wrong. “Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings” gave me a new lens through which to look at the world. You should try adding some monsters to your literary diet, too. Don't be afraid; it's a deeply pleasurable read.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Shockaholic, by Carrie Fisher

What do you look for in a memoir? Great storytelling? Confession? What about celebrity? A protagonist who struggles with mental illness? Look no further, fearless memoir junkies, Carrie Fisher's got a new one on the bookshelves, and it's a doozy. "Shockaholic" refers to Fisher's need for ECT -- yes, shock treatments. Shocking, no? Well, I say that if you're depressed enough to require shock treatments, you might as well laugh at yourself. And Fisher does. Fisher's topics are rangey. She explains her ECT-induced memory loss, explores her friendship with Michael Jackson and dishes on the showdown she had with her "stepmother," Elizabeth Tayor. Mostly what's on her mind, though, is her father, Eddie Fisher. In fact, one might argue that "Shockaholic," at its heart, is Fisher's last love note to her dad. Their father-daughter relationship was cursed from the get-go. Ms. Fisher tells of her lonely, father-less girlhood. Here's a telling scene: Eddie comes to see Carrie when she was an adolescent, and makes a salacious remark about his daughter's body. Father Fisher abandons his offspring, lets her down in every possible way. But here's the real shocker: When he becomes infirm, Carrie lovingly takes care of her father. Fisher works hard to shock by confessing her ECT, but for me it is this later-in-life forgiveness that shook me to my core. Celebrity memoirs risk becoming whiny riffs on the travails of the over-privileged and famous. But Fisher's brazen honesty and self-deprecating humor carry her memoir safely out of this sad territory. I laughed. I cried. I empathized. At the end, I felt changed. This, my literary friends, is what we all want in a memoir.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mark Kurlansky

After a few glasses of Pinot we started talking about Toni Bentley's sodomy memoir. That's when the evening heated up. I ended Passover by celebrating with eight colleagues, all students and professors at Butler, and the esteemed author Mark Kurlansky.

Kurlansky, a prolific nonfiction writer, has penned over twenty books, including the bestsellers "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World," and "Salt: A World History." In his early sixties, Kurlansky shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Mark said that last year was the first time that four of his books hit the market in the same calendar year. His newest offering, hot off the press, is "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man," a biography of Clarence Birdseye.

When I asked Kurlansky about Birdseye, he lit up. "You might not expect it, but Birdseye was a foodie," he said. He went on to explain that Birdseye, who was born in 1886 and died in the mid-fifties, took a series of jobs that required him to travel to remote areas and shoot animals for scientific purposes. In one job Birdseye helped identify the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever by isolating ticks off of the animals he bagged. When I asked Mark whether Birdseye took these posts because he wanted to be a part of scientific breakthroughs or simply because he liked to shoot animals, he responded, "Probably both!" Birdseye married the daughter of a member of the board of National Geographic. "She really got him," Kurlansky said of Birdseye's wife. She followed Birdseye to an outpost in Labrador, where she delivered their child. It was in ricket-riddled Labrador, a remote icy area inhospitable to the cultivation of vegetables, that Birdseye, wanting to ensure the health of his family, first got the idea of freezing and transporting produce.

I observed that Kurlansky is conspicuously absent (for the most part) in his work and asked his opinion about the current trend in nonfiction -- so much of what's written is personal narrative, and even non-memoir pieces weave the "I" of the author inextricably throughout. As if bemoaning the state of nonfiction offerings, he said, "That's true. I like to keep myself out of the story." Interestingly, he added that in his more recent books he has put more of himself onto the page. I mentioned to Kurlansky that all a reader needed to do to get a sense of him was look at his oeuvre. He nodded.

Within his oeuvre are a few short story collections and novels. I was curious about this mix, so I asked Kurlansky about his relationship to fiction. I expected to hear that Mark's heart remained solidly in the camp of nonfiction, but he said his true love is writing short stories. "Unfortunately, you can't make a living writing short stories," he said.

I was curious about his process. "When you begin writing a short story do you know where the story is going to go or does the plot develop as you write?" I asked. Two writers who recently visited Indy, Nicole Krauss, author of "History of Love" and Maile Meloy, author of "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It," both said that when they sit down to write they have no preconceived plot, only the characters in mind.

"Often I start with a single sentence and go from there," said Kurlansky.

"And how do you tackle nonfiction projects?" I asked.

Kurlansky said he loves the research stage. Once the research is completed, though, and he faces masses of notes, the task feels daunting. When compiling his first draft he usually goes through his notes and includes salient events as they happened chronologically. "It's such a relief to get that first draft down on paper," he said with a smile. "After that the book starts to write itself." Kurlansky said he loves the revision process, taking a rough draft and molding it into a finished product.

Kurlansky told us about his next book, which will be about the 1964 song "Dancing in the Street," by Martha and the Vandellas.

At one point in the conversation Mike Dahlie, author of "A Gentleman's Guide to Gracious Living," brought up one of his favorite authors, one whose work has been on his mind as of late, Trollope. (When I recently brunched with Maud Newton and Dahlie, Mike mentioned he wanted to write an essay about Trollope. Put those thoughts on the page, Mike. Write the essay!) Trollope's autobiography contains spread sheets that detail how much money he made from each book, then ends with a paragraph in which, according to Mike, Trollope states that his inner life is none of the readers' business. "It basically says f@#^ off," said Mike, who never swears. (Must have been the Pinot.) This led to a Kurlansky-centered, table-wide discussion on whether, generally speaking, most fiction is born from an author's experience, and whether or not it's valid for an author to exclude readers from his/her inner life.

The evening's conversation rambled far and wide. Kurlansky observed that despite Israeli children's love of vegetables, Israel has no business growing salad produce -- or rather has no water with which to cultivate those crops. Mark also laughed while telling us he is staying at our program's new Efroymson Center for Creative Writing. He has bad associations with the house, as his memories of it are from the late '60s, when he was a Butler undergrad, and it was the home of Butler's controversial president.

Kurlansky said that as he reflects on his books, he now sees their underlying theme as survival. He said that in some of his books, like "A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry" and "The Basque History of the World," this theme is obvious, but in others it's less conspicuous, like, for instance "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World."

"Where does this notion of survival come from?" I asked.

"I don't know," he answered.

Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

About two years ago my relationship with my closest gal pal Janine flipped, culinarily speaking. Until then, I was the one who asked if she had checked out the new recipe for carrot soup in the paper. I was the one who had stories about trying to make asparagus souffle from the newest Kosher By Design cookbook. Upon mentioning any of this, Janine would inevitably muffle a laugh as if to say Are you kidding? For Janine dinner was a utilitarian chore. For me, at the time, making dinner was a metaphor for love.

But that was then. Now, for reasons too complicated to go into now, I am the new Janine. Frozen breaded tilapia for dinner? Perfect. Fried chicken from the grocery's deli counter? A pot of pasta? These are my new go-to dinners. Now, when Janine and I go on power walks through the neighborhood, she's the one offering tips on the best way to peel garlic, is the one bragging about the new recipe for Moroccan fish cakes. She bakes her own granola.

Which is why I knew she'd love Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter." Hamilton, chef of Prune, a famous NY restaurant, has penned not so much a food memoir, but the story of a woman who grew to know and adore good food the way the rest of us know and adore our closest friends.

BB&B is a delish read from beginning to end, and it shows that Hamilton has an MFA in Creative Writing. Hamilton writes artfully about her love affair with food -- the magic of boiled squash blossoms, the terror of butchering her first chicken. I devoured BB&B, loved it, didn't want it to end, but I did have a few bones to pick. For instance, Hamilton writes about living with a woman before she ultimately married her husband and had children, but never once explained what was going on. Did she change teams? Maybe her early lesbian relationship was an experiment, but this didn't seem to be a simple case of fluid sexuality. (New adjectives, apply here!) Hamilton writes about her rocky and unusual marriage, one in which her husband needed to marry an American to stay in the country, one in which she and her husband didn't even live together in the early times. I couldn't help but be curious -- was her marriage a farce? Did she just want to have kids? Look, if you're gonna put your marriage in your book then you've got to spill it, you can't leave your reader in the dark. An article in Psychology Today ( proposed that Hamilton's failure to dig in and address the issues in her failed marriage are a reason the memoir failed. I disagree. Kind of. It's just that what Hamilton got on paper is so, so good. (And for good gossip, checkout The Post's article which blames the breakup of Hamilton's marriage on her affair with her brother-in-law! )

But unanswered questions notwithstanding, BB&B does a memoir's work, takes you into and through one person's story. Hers is a story worth telling, even if she's not dishing the way two friends do on their evening power walks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Maile Meloy

Whether guarded and insular or curious and generous, all of Butler's visiting authors have something to offer. Sometimes the author sends out a vibe that (s)he is doing us a favor by dropping by, but it's more fun when the author is open to the experience.

As evidence, I give you Maile Meloy. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, she's also friendly and open-hearted. Maile's vibe was I'm here, and I'm ready to engage.

Meloy is the author of two novels (Liars and Saints, and A Family Daughter), two short story collections (Half in Love, and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It), and a Young Adult novel (The Apothecary). Her morning Q&A at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing was followed by continued conversation over pizza. That night she wowed the crowd as she read from a new, as-of-yet unpublsihed story, "The Proxy Marriage."

Maile spoke about how her childhood in Big Sky Country effected her writing. She said that living in an isolated place like Montana makes people believe they can do things no one else can. She approaches writing, she said, in the same blind way.

Meloy said she likes to switch between short and long forms, and compared writing short stories to dating, and novel-writing to a long-term marriage. Each type of writing uses a different 'muscle,' and employing this analogy she said that short story-writing uses fast-twitch muscle, whereas novel-writing uses slow-twitch. She recently completed the sequel to "The Apothecary" and said that writing Young Adult novels has opened up a new area in her brain. Still, it has been a challenge for her to return the short story form, and she feels that her prose now reads like Young Adult lit.

When speaking about her story collection BWITOWIWI, Meloy said, "Time is the great editor." She illustrated this point by saying that she pulled the stories from BWITOWIWI from her reject pile. Time had passed since she last looked at them. With fresh eyes she was able to push through and fix the stories. "Don't give up on your reject pile," said Meloy, "especially if there's something in there that twinkles."

Meloy often starts a story with dialogue and puts her characters in charged situations. She doesn't outline her stories in advance, but thinks them through on paper, developing the characters and the plot as she writes. "I stand the characters up and let them talk." She tries to surprise the reader and herself. This type of automatic writing requires a lot of revision, she said, and she often goes back to makes her characters more vivid. "I have a responsibility to make the characters visible." Because there is so much revision involved, Meloy said she throws out as many pages as she keeps.

When asked about writer's block, Meloy discounted the phenomenon without saying so outright. She quoted Picasso, saying that Inspiration must find you working. "You do the work the way a violinist practices scales," she said. She writes every morning, the time of day when she is closer to her unconscious and dreams, the time her mind can make more associations. If she gets stuck, she takes a break. Often, when she returns to the work, she is able to untangle the problem. Or, she starts something new. "I feel grounded and happy when I write."

Meloy, who writes fiction, said that a lot of readers assume her stories are autobiographical. Her story Red From Green (from BWITOWIWI), tells about a young girl who has an troubling experience on a river trip. Meloy said that sometimes people come up to her and insist that she must have taken a similar river trip. When Meloy complained about this to her friend, the writer Tobias Wolff, he chided her, saying that writers work hard to make stories real, but complain when readers believe them.

At lunch I asked Maile if, in addition to writing, she teaches. She said she tried it for a year, but wasn't very good at it. That's the only thing Meloy said that I didn't buy. She didn't teach a single formal class at Butler, but I learned more than I can say.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Maud Newton

The photo, so blurry as to only do justice to her smile, looks like it was taken with Ms. Newton in motion. This pretty much sums up how I felt about her visit, that it went by too fast. Before her talk at Butler, we MFAers were all atwitter. We wondered what she would look like, this Maud Newton, this author of one of the longest-standing and most-respected literary blogs. Some of us expected an older, staid, bookish woman. Maud Newton was anything but -- a high-heeled, petite, stylish young woman with a heart-shaped face set off with a pair of parenthesis dimples and hipster black eyeglasses.

Newton began her blog,, over a decade ago, as a lark between projects. Back then, she commented, culture blogs were few. Blogging was a combination of performance and writing. (And yes, she said, contrary to rumors, blogging IS writing!) Back then blogs were just beginning to be discovered by newspapers, and there was always tension over the question of whether those in the literary world considered blog writing important. As print media began their own blogs, though, the criticism about blogging diminished.

Newton's advice for bloggers: "Have faith in yourself, your perspective, your voice. Express yourself completely." She went on to say, "Your point of view distinguishes you from everyone else. Only you can get your words on the page." And then a warning: "Once your words are in the world it's impossible to take them back."

Newton receives about sixty books a week. Between her day job and working on her first novel, she finds herself stretched, and has decided she doesn't want to review books she doesn't feel strongly about. If she feels a book won't be edifying or meaningful, she has no qualms about bailing. Her advice for reviewers is to reach into themselves and explain why they do or don't like a book. They have a duty to be honest and not bore the reader.

Now, here's something wild: the day after Newton spoke I was invited to a brunch with her, Mike Dahlie (author of "A Gentleman's Guide to Gracious Living"), Allison Lynn (author of "Now You See It"), and John Green (uber-popular author of too many YA novels to list.) CAN YOU IMAGINE?!

Actually, John Green was a no-show, his kid had strep throat. Green met with us MFAers last fall (see my post from November, 2011 and was genuine and earnest. His words stay with me still. I would have LOVED the chance to break bread with him again. But, to tell you the truth, I was almost hyperventilating with excitement with Newton, Dahlie and Lynn at my table. One more erudite author? I might have needed to breath into a brown paper lunch bag.

So, what did I ask Newton, the author who has published in Narrative, Granta and The New York Times, and about whom the Paris Review blog wrote is necessary reading? Mostly I was speechless, but when the nerves subsided enough for me to get my bearings, I asked, "What is your favorite book of all time?" Answer? "The End of the Affair," by Graham Greene. I asked Newton about the profile of author Emma Forrest she published in The Awl. Newton said she wanted to give readers an appreciation for Forrest's memoir, "Your Voice in My Head," so instead of a traditional interview, she put together a profile. Newton seemed especially -- and rightly -- proud of this piece. Check it out at (My review of Forrest's "Your Voice in My Head" can be found in my January 6, 2012 post,

Overall, the brunch went by so fast that it was over by the time I'd finished my yummy Patachou crepe. It was only as I drove away (after Maud hugged me goodbye!) that I realized all the great questions I wanted to ask her were still orbiting in my head. Here's what I walked away with: Maud Newton, Mike Dahlie and Allison Lynn are all extremely nice. They inhabit a six-degrees-of-separation literary world, and were able to chat about literati the way my crowd gossips about our kids' SAT scores. Also, I learned two things about myself: One, that I wish I had attended prep school instead of the alternative, Haight-Ashbury high school (where I spent a lot of time doing things you might expect a teenager to do in the Haight-Ashbury), and two, that I wish I was better-read.

Check out my pal Beth Bates's much more detailed recap of Newton's talk in her post: www.

None of these links are working, are they? I suppose you'll need to cut and paste the URLs. (Is that what they're called?) Have I ever claimed to have a clue about this technological mumbo-jumbo? Yeah, I know, you're not surprised. Me neither.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dueling Celeb-oir: Untied, by Meredith Baxter, and Drama, by John Lithgow

It was only when I emptied the ashtray that I realized I had been duped by my brother. There, under the aluminum bowl in the hollow of the wooden ashtray stand, were the crinkled, beige remains of desiccated liver vitamins. Dad gave my brother and me one each morning. Each vitamin was embedded with a small nugget of dried liver. The pills smelled like old, wet wool socks and tasted like dog excrement left by a rabid, dyspeptic dog. The rule-following eldest, I took my tablet dutifully, suppressing a gag as the small gravely bits dissolved in my mouth. My brother, infinitely more savvy than me, had spit out his vitamins and stashed them in the ashtray's base. When I saw those relics, it hit me. I had been a patsy. (And also that I hadn't given my brother nearly enough credit.)

I can't blame my brother for not letting me in on his secret. He knew I was a goody-two-shoes and would have narc-ed on him in an instant. He knew I'd "out" him. But when I saw the ugly truth, that I had needlessly consumed DRIED LIVER each morning, I had an epiphany: I didn't need to follow every f-ing rule. (And also, if someone gives you a shit-flavored pill, spit the damn thing out!)

What, you may ask, does this have to do with celebrity memoir? Well, maybe it's that sometimes it's okay to break the rules, to spit out the stuff that's supposed to be good for you. Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing literature to foul-smelling vitamins. But sometimes a little fluff can also be nourishing.

So let's look two examples of my not-so-secret indulgence, what I like to call the "Cap'n Crunch of literature," celebrity memoir.

I don't see many movies, but one of my all-time faves, The World According to Garp, features John Lithgow. Because Lithgow doesn't have the chiseled jawline of a typical leading man, I was sure "Drama" would be delicious celeb-read, full of the confessional over-sharing that is the genre's hallmark. Wrong! "Drama" is more autobiography than memoir, more dry recounting of achievements than raw story. Lithgow skips honest revelation in favor of cliche and generality. It's only near the end of the book that Lithgow gets personal, tells us that he had a MAJOR problem with fidelity, slept with many (all?) of his leading ladies and destroyed his marriage. Even then, his explanation for this adulterous behavior comes off sounding like an excuse, like he's letting himself off the hook. In other words, if you're looking for drama, you won't find much of it in "Drama."

In "Untied," Meredith Baxter, star of Family Ties (and the '70s show Bridget Loves Bernie, which you'll only remember if, like me, you've hit the half-century mark), comes clean. WAY clean. "Untied" is the anti-"Drama" -- and that's good. Baxter's memoir isn't artful. It's no "The Liars' Club." It's structure is simplistic and predictable. But Baxter packed her (probably ghost-written) memoir with so,that I didn't care. Three failed marriages, a famous abusive spouse, a descent into alcoholism -- what more could you ask for? How about Baxter's slow, late-in-life discovery of her homosexuality?

"Drama" is certainly the better written memoir. But if you've decided to read celeb-oir -- the literary equivalent of spitting out a liver vitamin -- you might as well make it count, might as well order a literary meal sugary enough to induce a diabetic coma. In this memoir battle, "Untied" is the sweet winner. Insulin not included.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nicole Krauss and my inner 13-year-old

Tuesday afternoon, Nicole Krauss due any moment for a Q&A, I was excited and a little nervous. A birthday this week, I had just confessed to Nancy that despite my 51 years, I still feel like the anxious 13-year-old girl I was in 1974. Nicole Krauss. Yikes. Bestselling novels. Young, hip, East Coast Jewish writer. Famous hubby. Rumor had it that she deflects all questions about her personal life, and I wondered if all I would see was Krauss's lovely forehead as she angled her gaze toward the floor to look down at me. Thankfully, as is almost always the case, my inner 13-year-old was wrong. Fantasies of Midwest inferiority notwithstanding, Nicole Krauss was polite and well-spoken.

At the Q&A Krauss spoke about becoming a novelist, saying that by the age of 15 she knew she wanted to become a published writer. "The need to write is a need for freedom," she said. The literary form that first captured her attention was poetry, and she studied with Joseph Brodsky. By the time she turned 25, though, she realized the compact and compressed form of poetry demanded perfection, and diminished her personal space. She felt trapped. She discovered what she was meant to do even as she wrote the first few pages of what would become her first novel, "Man Walks Into a Room." Joking that she is now a failed poet, she explained that within the space of a novel she finds infinite freedom, a way to recreate herself. "Novel writing," said Krauss, "fits the way I think." An ill-defined form, she said, the novel is by nature imperfect. "I've learned to enjoy relaxing into a novel's imperfections. Novels illuminate new aspects of life, she said, and within their pages there is always a conversation between the fictional world and real life.

Krauss told us a bit about her writing process. She begins a novel by using a series of dots -- characters, images or moods that compel her -- that serve as jumping off points. "My work as a writer is to find the coherence. I'm interested in seeing how the parts are juxtaposed," she said. She creates a set of characters, the underlying requirement is that for each she must feel a profound empathy. The quality of this empathy, though, has a different quality in each of her books. "Leo and Alma, from "The History of Love" wear their hearts on their sleeves," said Krauss. On the other hand, the cruel Israeli father from "Great House" had Krauss wondering what the quality of that empathy was. She came to see that, as with many of her characters, he needed to unburden himself.

Krauss said her writing is a process of enormous trial and error, a throwing of herself into the unknown and coming up against parts of herself she didn't know she had. In describing her three novels, she noted that "Man Walks Into a Room" is a linear work, whereas "The History of Love" is polyphonic. "History of Love," she said, is about the power of imagination, about the power we have to reinvent ourselves. "Great Desk" is made up of stories that touch at points, that allow readers to see parts echo within the whole. Referring to "Great House," Krauss described the desk as related to the idea of the burden of inheritance. A huge and bulky hand-me-down, the desk was incredibly flexible as a metaphor, and served as the connective tissue between the stories.

Interestingly, Krauss said she embarks on each new novel without a game plan, without an endpoint. As she works on a novel, the concerns within it need to grow, and as this sense of urgency builds, her characters' paths reveal themselves. Ultimately, for both Krauss and her readers, each novel is a discovery until the very end.

Krauss's masters degree is not in creative writing, but in art history. I asked her how her studies of the visual arts impacted her writing, and she noted that she sees her novels visually. When someone asked to what extent she keeps the reader in mind as she writes, Krauss replied that, in general, she doesn't think a lot about the reader until revision begins.

Writing pal Maria Cook asked Krauss why her writing lens focuses on how characters deal with trauma's after-effects, rather than how they survive the trauma itself. Krauss responded that writing about the traumatic situations theselves simply doesn't provoke her imagination. "What fascinates me is what trauma asks of the survivors, how they are called upon to radically recreate themselves."

Sitting across from Krauss at dinner that night, my inner 13-year-old reappeared. How many people get to say they had dinner with Nicole Krauss? Still, I hoped for a chance to see the author a little less guarded. It was clear Kraus was still on duty, though. She agreeably chatted about literature, but wasn't eager to engage on a personal level. She shared with us her fondness for translations and works by European and Israeli authors. I asked Krauss if she thought of herself as a Jewish writer, and she resisted the label, saying she would like to be able to write about anything that spurs her imagination.

Charming at her evening reading, she apologized to anyone in the audience who might have come to see Nicola Kraus, author of "The Nanny Diaries." She read from "Great House," and answered a few questions. It was while answering one of these questions that Krauss returned to the theme that lies at the foundation of her work: empathy, which she said was, for a writer, one of the most important things. "Literature is one of the few opportunities to stand in another's shoes, to transcend boundaries and experience another's life.

"We'll always need literature as long as empathy matters to us."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Happy Accidents, by Jane Lynch

For me, it's all about the connection. I thrive on it. I want to get to know others -- and not in a small talky way. Also, I'm a supreme busybody. I want to know everything about everybody, and not only do I not mind reciprocating, I want to. My dear friend and fellow MFAer Nancy Hill became enamored with the work of poet Simon Armitage and, two weeks back when Armitage crossed the pond to spend a few days with us at Butler, Nancy's open and generous nature shined bright. Connection? Between Hill and Armitage I felt as if I'd won the lottery.
First, Nancy kindly invited me to join her and Simon for lunch after she picked him up at the airport. After his evening reading, Nancy invited me to join her, her genial husband, John, and Armitage for a few pints. Not only did that provide me an opportunity to get to know the poet Armitage, but a bit about the man behind the poet.
This semester I'm lucky to be in Andy Levy's (the director of Butler's MFA program), Visiting Writers class. Andy's a treasure trove of literary wisdom, and he recently presented us with this gem: Novels teach us how to read them, and that as this occurs, we learn a different way to see the world. The best writing of any type serves to connect us to the world through a lens different than the one through which we normally view. When memoirs accomplish this it's magical.
I had hoped "Happy Accidents" would do all this: connect me with an intriguing actress, and give me a glimpse of an experience unlike my own. Indeed, Lynch's celeb-oir is satisfying as a fun, entertaining romp. Ultimately, though, it's the equivalent of superficial small talk. It's a light read -- in its own way refreshing, yet non-nourishing, like an ice cold glass of Kool Aid on a ninety degree day.
Lynch takes the reader through her angsty childhood, one in which she couldn't shake a sense of otherness. And although it was a nice surprise to find that she doesn't fall into the easy trap of parent blaming, she doesn't show us what it was like to feel so 'other,' of why she felt this way. Lynch's path to becoming a well-known actress has been unique. She didn't hit her stride and find fame until later in life, and she had me with this part of her story.
To her credit, Lynch doesn't hold back about her personal life. Or does she? She writes about her years of therapy, years of not being able to get along with others, and a seemingly asexual life. She writes that she finally was able to admit what those around her knew long ago, that she is a lesbian. And yet she doesn't pull us close and show us the emotion that comes with this self-isolating behavior, or how her coming out impacted her life.
Like Glee, the show that presented Lynch with the character of Sue Sylvester, that ushered in her breakout fame, Happy Accidents is heartfelt and sentimental, yet at its foundation is constructed of superficial platitudes.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Simon Armitage

The Butler writing community didn't know what to expect when they arranged to fly British poet Simon Armitage across the pond. His book, "Seeing Stars," features whimsical, surreal poems. We wondered about the man who penned this work. A stereotypical stand-offish Brit? A dry, funny, Monty Python wit?

We were surprised in the best way. Memories of certain authors' visits stay with us. Jonathan Lethem and John Green, with their open-hearted generous spirit, with their desire to engage and share literary wisdom, left deep marks. And so it was with Armitage's quiet energy, his eagerness to participate and engage.

Not as well known in the U.S., Simon Armitage, awarded the title Commander of the British Empire, is a writer of poetry, novels, translations and nonfiction, and has also written for radio, television and film. What's the path a young Brit takes to becoming a CBE awarded poet? By the time he entered his teens, Armitage was enthralled with poetry. One year his teacher posted the six best poems from Armitage's class. Armitage's wasn't one of them. He chuckled as he told us that he might be pursuing a career of revenge.

Following his father's footsteps, Armitage's first job was as a probation officer, in Britain a position more closely aligned with social worker. There's a link between the social values of probation officers and the social values of poetry, he said, in that in both professions you're social irritants, not fully signed up to society's expectations. When he started writing poetry, still working as a probation officer, others asked him if he'd still have material from which to draw upon if he quit his job. Armitage wondered if the world of a probation officer, with its drama of, for instance, babies with burn wounds, is actually the real world. His days in social welfare behind him, he has now achieved his independence -- freedom of thought and expression -- through the quiet world of poetry.

At his Tuesday night reading Armitage read his poems with soft-spoken humor. He was funny, gracious and quick to respond to questions with dry wit. He began by explaining that for U.K. poets, 'place' is emphasized, is the taproot and wellspring of their work. The poems in "Seeing Stars," he said, have been described by some reviewers as prose poems, but he doesn't agree with this classification. Others have said the works are flash fiction, and Armitage quipped that he wasn't sure what that designation means. They have also been called "Not Poems." Because, he said, if one writes poems it's almost impossible not to write one, he gave this label a hearty Yes!

Armitage prefaced each piece by relaying a personal story that formed the seed for the poem. Despite his quiet nature, Armitage was a natural performer. His reading, deadpan and peppered with singular inflections and wry pauses, entranced. He told us that his interest lies with poetry that has a living voice within it, a relationship with the language, rather than poetry that sounds like writing or thinking.

Although Armitage has penned novels, he said that the longer term energy commitment a novel requires no longer suits him, and he much prefers the short bursts of energy involved in composing a poem. He loves the idea that poetry is portable, and can have poignancy, life and energy in different settings. In writing poetry Armitage said he is trying to communicate an idea

"Poems come to me as daydreams. My mind floats from one idea to the next, and a bit of language comes along."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Karen Maezen Miller. Zen Priest. Memoirist

I was due to join the Butler grad student dinner last night with Zen Priest Karen Maezen Miller, and I didn't know what to expect. A silent, beaming figure? Beatific smile? Otherworldly? Maezen Miller wasn't exactly that. Not that she didn't radiate a certain type of energy, but she was a lively dinner companion. She asked each of us about our lives. She had opinions about topics of discussion and she shared them. In short, she was engaging, definitely of this earth.

I was psyched to meet Miller. Her first book, "Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood," was, for me, that magical book that found its way to me at the very time I needed it most. In "Momma Zen" Maezen Miller tells how she uses Zen to navigate the "crooked path of motherhood." Maezen Miller said that while "Momma Zen" is the story of a daughter becoming a mother, her new memoir, "Hand Wash Cold," is the story of a woman becoming a wife.

After dinner we gathered at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing (my graduate writing program's lovely new home). Maezen Miller spoke about the path she took to becoming a writer. A petite woman with close-cropped gray hair, she slipped off her shoes and moved around the floor, gesticulating to emphasize points. "Everything I read and write is right in front of me," she said. To illustrate this she read a quote from an article she found in her Efroymson Center bedroom. The quote, from Andy Levy, director of the grad program, was about how the Efroymson Center will give our program a home and enable it to grow. Maezen Miller remarked that her writing helps her to make a home in her own life, and enables her to grow.

Growing up, teachers praised her writing, giving her confidence in her creative ability. She loved words and language. This affection for the written word led to her successful career in marketing. Ultimately, though, her work as a ghost writer and in writing speeches for others left her unfulfilled. After her mother died she realized she wanted her words to be her own, to serve something other than the corporate world.

"Don't write what doesn't need to be written," she said.

Maezen Miller uses writing as a process to examine and become intimate with her life, pointing out that there's a difference between one's life and the story of one's life. When she finds herself sick of one of her life's stories, she seeks the underlying truth, tries to unwind it, and look at it with fresh eyes, without filters and judgment.

In response to a question from the audience, she said she never hates writing. "Hate comes from fear," she said. "There are times I may not be ready to write, or may be confused. It may be hard for me to have faith during these times, but if I can roll with that, without ever passing through hate, I end up in love with writing again."

The funniest part of the evening was when Maezen Miller addressed discipline and practice, as they pertain to writing and Zen. "Put your ass on a chair," she said as she slapped her rump and pointed to the chair behind her, illustrating the point. "Every practice needs structure."

A self-professed late-comer to both Zen and motherhood, Maezen Miller told us she came to Zen when "everything fell apart." "Liberation comes when the walls collapse," she said.

She closed her talk by reading new work that happened to tap into my interest in the Hasidic roots of my family's lineage. She commented that just as it's the older generations' job to take root, the newer generations' job is to uproot.

Definitely something on which to meditate.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

You may wonder how many times can I possibly evoke Mr. Slinger, the hep teacher from the children's book "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," whose catch-phrase is "Wow, because that's about all I can say. Wow." Yet, here it is again, because that's about all I can say. Wow.

I could tell you that Swamplandia! is set in a rundown theme park in Florida. I could tell you about the delicious, compelling and brimming-with-quirk children of parents who run the park. I could tell you about how, like in every Disney movie, the mother dies and that this sets in motion the kids' quest. I could tell you that Swamplandia! is so story-rich it almost feels like two separate stories.

But I won't.

Instead, I'll just say this: GO OUT AND BUY THIS BOOK! And this: Russell's writing is swoon-worthy. In previous posts I've shared with you the dirty little secret of my less-than-fully-developed fiction gene. Yet, Russell's inventive turns of phrase, her sparkling similes, her vivid descriptions...Oh, for God's sake, just read it! Thank me later.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Poet Anne Waldman

As the song goes, "Don't know much about poetry." It's not just me, is it? I hear "poetry" and I narrow my eyes and tighten my lips. I expect to be perplexed, to struggle to understand.

Waldman was one of the key figures in the Beat movement, and co-founded with Allen Ginsberg the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Despite my San Francisco upbringing, despite that my high school was a block away from the corner of Haight and Ashbury, I expected Waldman's reading to leave me dazed and confused.

I missed last night's reading, but was able to attend a reading/performance Waldman gave for a small group of Butler students this morning. Donned in a gold and scarlet fringed paisley scarf and skinny black slacks, Waldman brought her musician son, Ambrose Bye, to accompany her readings. She began with "Why Am I Daring To Show My Face," a piece Bye accompanied with keyboard and a recording of a repeating vocal taken from the poem. Say what you will about poetry, Waldman's not boring. She doesn't simply read. She sings. She chants. She clips and staccatoes some words while drawing out others. That Waldman's sensibility was born in the social revolution of the '60s gave her reading a strange duality, as if existing both in the present and back in the psychedelic flower power days. This sense of time-travel echoed in Waldman's appearance, her face now lined, but her hair still long, stick-straight and jet black.

(Speaking of art that feels out of time, check out Uh-Oh Plutonium, a strange punk-glam music video featuring a 1982 Anne Waldman: )

Her next poem, Doubt, a state of mind that's one of my more reliable companions, especially resonated.

Waldman read from her book, Manatee/Humanity. Over Bye's background track of synthesized aquatic sounds, Waldman explored her environmental concerns. She read, gestured and swayed, as if the words' energy pulsed through her body. In the Q&A that followed the performance Waldman explained that the manatee, a huge yet fragile beast, is the central deity of the piece, and the idea came from her encounter with a manatee at a theme park. Other elements woven through the piece are Buddhist tenets, and the loss several of her close friends.

Waldman also performed a poem she penned that was included in a literary magazine's Beatles tribute. Her poem riffs on the song "Tomorrow Never Knows." She noted that John Lennon wanted the song to sound as if it had been recorded from a mountaintop, so the Bye's soundtrack included the call of sea gulls.

In the Q&A I had the chance to ask Waldman to describe the starting point of her path to becoming a poet. It's an intriguing question, don't you think? What does a poet's childhood look like? Waldman answered that her artistic parents led her naturally to a creative path, that art was such an integral part of her upbringing, it became her identity. In essence, she had no other choice.

Still don't know much about poetry, but I'm now a Waldman fan.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stuart O'Nan

Okay, here's the back-story. My son's friend's mom is in charge of a yearly charity luncheon where Big Name Authors come to speak. The mom knows I'm studying creative writing, so she shares the top secret authors' names with me before they're made public. And, because I'm the worst liar in the world, it's not worth it for me to even try to hide the embarrassing fact that I never recognize any of the names! Yup. That's me: Literary fraud. This year she trotted out Stuart O'Nan's name and, once again, I had to confess ignorance. My next move, naturally, was to find out who the hell O'Nan is. I scoured his titles and, naturally, looked for his shortest book! And that's the story of how I made 160-page "Last Night at the Lobster's" acquaintance.

O'Nan's title certainly had me quizzically tilting my head. Couldn't imagine what this novel could be about. Turns out LNATL has a simple premise. It's a lean, tight portrait of Manny Deleon, the manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster on its last day before closing for good. Not an edge-of-your-seat novel, not a plotty book, but an eerily dead-on character study. And man, oh man can O'Nan write! In this way books are like life: when you come across something truthful, you just know it. You automatically connect. So even though, at first glance, LNATL seems to be about the closing of a chain restaurant, in fact it's book about life and loss.

What can I say? A former O'Nan ignoramus, I'm now a staunch O'Nan fan. LNATL gets two claws. (Sorry, too cheesy to resist.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok

Thought I was on a roll, had finally posted a few reviews at weekly intervals. So what happened?

Spring semester. Last semester I didn't have class responsibilities, I only audited. I feel like a classroom virgin again. Despite my struggles to get back in the rhythms of my fab creative writing program, it's great to be 'back in the saddle.'

The Memory Palace had glowing reviews and I anticipated a fine read. The premise is delicious and has all the necessary components of compelling memoir. As an adult, Mira Bartok is injured in a serious car accident. She can't think straight, suffers from cognitive deficits. While she struggles with a loss in brain function, she reconnects to her long-estranged, ailing mother, Norma. Both Mira and her sister cut off contact with Norma years before, going so far as to change their names, to protect themselves from Norma's abusive, paranoid and violent behavior. Their mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

I don't envy Bartok's job as a writer because telling the true story of growing up in a crazy world is excruciatingly tough. When you grow up in an environment where everything and everyone around you is crazy your ability to form and process memories becomes impaired. From this, I know. So maybe that's why The Memory Palace had a disjointed, ephemeral feel. I read this a few months ago, and my own memory falters here, but what I remember is this: I was a frustrated reader. The narrative fragmented, slipped in and out of time. I tried to hang on, to stay engaged, but fought to keep my interest from slipping. Bartok's prose kept me at arm's distance. What I wanted: to feel more of a connection to the author, to hold onto the thread of her story in a more linear fashion.

Next up, something completely different -- Stuart O'Nan's "Last Night at the Lobster."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest

When asked for parenting advice, Lori Palatnick, the leader of the group which sponsored the trip I took to Israel this past summer, said this: What children -- and adults -- want, more than love, is to be understood. For someone to "get" them.

My friend, Nancy, wrote a story about how she struggled with anxiety while on a walking tour abroad. At the story's sweet end Nancy finds inner calm by connecting with another traveler. Both Lori's advice and Nancy's story illustrate the allure of memoir: by attending to our innate need to forge relationships with others, we find meaning, and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Read "Your Voice in My Head." Emma Forrest's own voice is funny, sarcastic and staggeringly honest as she writes about her rocky path. Depressed, bulimic, lonely and self-mutilating, she finally finds an understanding, sympathetic and trustworthy psychiatrist. One day, unable to reach him, she discovers he had died. Then, as she struggles to overcome the shock and pain of this loss, her serious boyfriend (Colin Farrell, for all you People Magazine and TMZ lovers), breaks up with her.

Forrest, so unmoored and mired in loss, takes the reader deep to the core, to that place of honest connection. It's a courageous book. A hopeful book. I didn't want Forrest's story to end, but when it did, I felt changed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Possibility of Everything, by Hope Edelman

"The Possibility of Everything" was my beach read on our family's end-of-summer trip to the Outer Banks. Gawd, I wanted to love this book. Edelman's "Motherless Daughters" will always hold a place close to my heart. When I read that book I felt, for the first time, that someone understood about growing up in a one parent, motherless household. Unexpectedly, I felt liberated, as if I'd come out of the closet.
Edelman set the bar high.
TPOE, a momoir (mommy memoir), has a great and promising premise. Edelman is an anxious mother (yup, I'm still relating, Hope), who struggles with her three-year-old's behavioral issues and takes her to Belize to find alternative, native cures. To her credit, Edelman doesn't sugar coat. Nevertheless, there was something that didn't sit quite right in TPOE. Maya's (the daughter's) behaviors never came across as pathological, although it was clear Edelman viewed them as such. Also -- and I'm hesitant to write this, as I don't want to be perceived as judgy -- Edelman often came off looking like one of those mothers. You know the ones I'm talking about -- the ones in restaurants who blithely ignore their misbehaving tots until the chaos has gone on so long, and created such a ruckus, that any attempt to reign in the child is too little and too late. Unfortunately, Edelman appeared a bit bumbling and ineffective, while poor Maya tantrumed her way across Belize.
Edelman did a disservice to the pace by slowing the narrative, plugging in too many big chunks of the history and culture of Belize. Nevertheless, her story, despite being a little unsettling, still compelled.