more on Rick Bragg

I am struggling to respond to the book I just finished, so I wrote a letter instead.

Mr. Rick Bragg,

I make a very small living as a book reviewer these days, but reading your books I am no kind of book reviewer, because I don’t know how to write about what you do when you write about your life.

Of course I believe that the best books for us find us at the right times, and yours have found me at the time when they can hit me the hardest. I am having a crisis of identity and place, having moved from my hometown of 32 1/2 years in Texas to a small town on the Canadian border of Washington state, which I have found largely unworkable. Your writing about places I have never lived and know only a little or not at all – Miami, New Orleans, rural Alabama – makes me feel homesick. Your writing about being a displaced Southerner at Harvard, or in New York City, resonates with me, although I am not the same as you. I’m from a big city – the fourth largest in the country – and have moved to a small one; but your displacements feels familiar all the same.

You are, of course, one of the finest writers about food that I’ve encountered. At the risk of offending, I will say I don’t eat pork, because I don’t like pork; but your descriptions of cracklin’s (etc.) still make me wish I were there and not here.

I am not one of those “who went to speech school to get rid of their accents,” in part because I don’t have much of an accent, being from a city, but what I have I will keep – although I was at one point one of those, as you observe, who fear “they sound slow, or at least unsophisticated, to outsiders.” When I interviewed for a big-time academic job in the North, I worried about saying y’all. I shouldn’t have. I don’t apologize, any more.

Houston is many things, big and diverse, containing multitudes, and that is my single favorite thing about the place; this also means that Houston can be a bit schizophrenic, even self-loathing. You write that Atlanta “tears down its history with wrecking balls, and builds something bland and homogenized in its place.” Houston has done too much of that, although it’s done lots of other things with its history, as well.

This wasn’t supposed to be about me, but that’s the work your writing does. I see a lot of myself and my own experience, even where I see all sorts of adventures that are unknown to me. That’s a piece of work, in itself.

You’ve made a big difference to me. Keep up the good work. I wish you and yours all the best; you feel like friends to me now.

Thank you.


Tomorrow I’ll try again to write a book review.

movie: Capote

I was so pleased when Husband expressed an interest in watching Capote with me the other night. It’s rare that we agree so easily! And I have some Capote readings coming up – The Early Stories of Truman Capote for a Shelf Awareness review, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a beer-drinking book club; and I do like a little immersion when I get to know a writer. I recall being deeply impressed by In Cold Blood, but I hardly remember Other Voices, Other Rooms at all, so there’s that.

capoteCapote‘s storyline is concerned with the writing of In Cold Blood, with no examination of Capote outside that timeline. Opportunities are missed there, of course, as the man had a fascinating life in general; but as a fan of In Cold Blood I can’t complain. Any work of art, literature, or film has to choose its scope. In this case we are glad to get to meet Nelle Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener), as she assisted Capote with his research in Kansas: I read somewhere recently that she was an ideal helper there as her soft, Southern femaleness alarmed the Kansans a little less than Capote’s flamboyant New Yorkness (of Southern roots, yes, but still). The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Capote and does as outstanding a job as I had heard (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, among others).

The Clutter family has just been killed in rural Kansas. Capote reads about it in the New York Times, and immediately feels that this is a story he needs to write; he takes a train down to Kansas from New York with Nelle, his childhood friend. In their distinct styles – Capote pushier, Nelle more quietly sympathetic – they interview the locals and get the feel for things. Then two suspects are arrested, Dick Hickox and Perry Smith. When Capote first lays eyes on Perry, he changes his plans from an article to a full-length book. “There’s just something about him, he’s so lonely” (I paraphrase wildly). The film emphasizes the connection between Capote and Smith, which reads here, on screen, as somewhere between a strong psychological bond and infatuation. Husband struggled with Capote’s character as he transitions from apparently having a crush on Perry, and getting him a new lawyer to help him out in an appeal (and, as he later acknowledges, help himself out in terms of having a book to research)… to exploiting Perry for his story and being sorry that the man won’t die quickly enough. This makes Capote a less sympathetic character: absolutely true. But is it an accurate depiction of the man? I think quite possibly yes, so don’t hold it against the filmmakers. Finding the protagonist likable is not, I think, a requisite for art.

I was particularly intrigued by and suspicious of the implication that the epigraph for Capote’s final, unfinished work Answered Prayers was a comment on his experience with Perry Smith and In Cold Blood. It was a convenient epilogue to this film, certainly, but I think it’s a bit complex an idea to just throw out with the finishing credits. I’d enjoy exploring Capote’s life and work with this idea in mind, though. Whatever else you might say about him, I think we have to agree that he’s an intriguing guy. My favorite biographical subjects are always those that raise complicated reactions in us, and Capote fits that bill.

Capote is an arty, well-produced and interesting film that mostly follows the true and also interesting story of Truman Capote and In Cold Blood. Hoffman’s acting is very fine: his expression of Capote’s voice, mannerisms and prima donna behaviors are often a little grating but I think that was true of the original, and he does a good job with the character switching Capote used for different scenarios. I enjoyed Capote and Capote both very much.

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

on Rick Bragg

Sometimes it happens this way. I decide I need to read a book – not put it on the TBR shelf to grow musty for two to five years to never, but really read it – and (as in this case) I put myself on the local library’s hold list for it. It comes my turn, and I go to the library and pick it up off a special shelf where it’s been filed under my name. I take it home, and I go back to reading the books I’ve been assigned, for work, for a living. I read another 6, 8, 10 books; some of them are really good, and I get involved and distracted. I interview a few authors, which is often, not always, engrossing. I go online to renew this book that I haven’t made time for yet, and find that – of course – someone else is on the hold list, behind me in line. I have to turn it in in four days. If you have forgotten this about me, I am a librarian. I’m no longer employed as such, but that blood pumps through me still.

So I put down the book I had just begun reading, for work, with a deadline. That book, by the way, offered an epigraph by the author of this book. And I pick up All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg.

Bragg blew my mind with My Southern Journey (which will publish in two weeks or so; look out for my review then), and although I’d heard his name before, I never knew that he would be a writer to reach into me in such a way, to pull on me and make me nostalgic for a place that is not my home: foreign language words like fernweh, sehnsucht, saudade seem to touch on it. Bragg’s travels capture me; how will I ever go back to that other book, let alone my life, when this is done?

the TBR shelves: a lifestyle

Friends, I am a full-time reader-writer these days, having moved cross-country and left my day job behind. I read & review books & do author interviews for a living, and pursue my own, creative writing where I can. Let me repeat: I read books for a living.

I’ve written about this before, but I say again, I read for lots of reasons. I read for work, obviously, and am happy that what I get to read for work is mostly stuff I’m really interested in. But I also want to read all the good creative nonfiction and memoir out there, to train myself on it; I want to read all the good writing about sense of place, and people’s relationship to place; I want to catch up on everything ever written by Hemingway, Abbey, Maclean, and Dillard; I want to read more Stegner and Snyder. For fun I’d definitely spend more time with King and Burke. I want to read all the books on this and other lists. There are always more classics on my wish list – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Nabokov. I’m sure I’m forgetting all sorts of things, too.

Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve also got a couple of shelves devoted to books I already own and hope to someday find time for. Sometimes I weed these. When we moved from Houston to Bellingham, I was pretty ruthless; but I still moved probably 50 or 60 “to-be-read” (or TBR) books. Where do they come from?? I was just wondering this, so here’s a blog post.

My TBR shelves, in pictures (click to enlarge):



These are recommendations (and gifts – Fil) from friends, on cycling and nature and Texas and Mexico; biographies of Melvil Dewey, Howard Hughes, and Zelda Fitgerald (if there’s a theme there, it might be mental illness); nature writing, much of it recommended by other nature writers; a hefty pile of Sharon Kay Penman; and several galleys I missed the chance to review for Shelf Awareness, but still hope to read (a smokejumper’s memoir; a readalike for Gus Lee’s Honor and Duty). Books about writing, or books that showcase the kind of writing I aspire to. There’s a different edition of A Sand County Almanac, from my dad. They’ve come from the discards pile at libraries I’ve worked at, as gifts, as galleys from publishers, and more than I like to admit I’ve bought and paid for, and may never find time to read. I’ve read 80-something books this year, and 18 of them were purely my choice, unassigned. I already quit my day job. What gives?

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents The Little Prince

little princeThe Little Prince is a magical tale, and I was immediately sold on the idea of a local production, performed by young people no less. The Neighborhood Playhouse Summer Drama Camp culminated in this production after less than two weeks; the ability of these teens to stand up with confidence and memorized lines after such brief prep is impressive enough, even if the play hadn’t been beautifully and feelingly done, which it was. Wow.

This was a musical production, and as I said about The Drowsy Chaperone, there were moments of less than perfect polish: these actors (whether youth or adult) are not professionals. But that’s okay! In fact, like when I go to watch college or adult-league sports, it’s part of the charm: I can see that these are “just” real people, like me, pursuing a passion. And I’m not criticizing. The level of performance here was very high – just not Broadway.

There were several very strong singers up there, especially the young lady who played the flower, but they all played their parts well. I felt the magic of St. Exupery’s original work, as these young actors communicated all the emotion of the pilot – his frustration, his regrets – and the prince, whose innocence is part of his appeal. I felt happy and lucky to be in the small audience. Thank you, Neighborhood Playhouse, and to the kids: bravo.

Rating: 7 snakebites.

best of 2015, to date

I’ve had several requests lately for recommended reads, and I always try to have those ready for my friends & readers! As you know, I’ll always do an end-of-year best-of list, but maybe it’s time for an interim selection. Not all of these will make the final 2015 list, I’m sure, but some will: my first entry is still the only 10 rating I’ve given this year. Now with a few annotations… click the links for the full review, and in the cases where it hasn’t yet posted, I’ll do my best to come back and add those links when they become available.

This is a fairly varied list, which I always feel good about: something for everyone, I hope.

Best of 2015 to date! Thanks for caring, y’all.

  • Martin Marten, Brian Doyle – fiction. A novel of two young creatures, a boy and a marten, showcasing outrageously fine writing and a unique sensitivity to the fact that we humans are not the only ones living and breathing on this planet.
  • Of Things Gone Astray, Janina Matthewson – fiction. A whimsical novel of lost things and what they mean, and the stories of the people who lose them, and sometimes find them again.
  • Travels in Vermeer, Michael White – nonfiction. A lyrical memoir of recovery and art appreciation; the best writing about the visual arts that I’ve encountered.
  • Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin – nonfiction. Memoir of a young female carpenter, about everything entailed in that life, and the balance between the mental and the physical.
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander – nonfiction. Memoir of loss of a beloved husband by an excellent poet; lovely glimpses of global cultures.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – nonfiction. Writing advice and wit from a respected mind, with a fun and singular voice.
  • Mislaid, Nell Zink – fiction. Quirky novel of mixed-up relationships with a strong sense of place (set in the South).
  • Wondering Who You Are, Sonya Lea – nonfiction. Memoir of a spouse’s traumatic brain injury: sex, love, art, identity.
  • Station Eleven*, Emily St. John Mandel – fiction. Imaginative post-apocalyptic novel of a traveling symphony and Shakespeare theatre company in a changed United States. Emphasis on character and story rather than sensationalism of collapse.
  • Old Heart, Peter Ferry – fiction. Brief, sweet, feeling novel of old age and end-of-life autonomy with impulses toward romance, but not an idealized version.
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk & White – nonfiction. Still an outstanding style guide, and surprising funny, enjoyable reading.
  • The Anger Meridian, Kaylie Jones – fiction. Novel of a traumatized widow seeking direction in vividly evoked San Miguel de Allende, with a little puzzle for the reader to work out.
  • Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante – fiction. Somewhat distressing, compelling novel well summarized by its title.
  • The Writing Life*, Annie Dillard – nonfiction. Lovely essays about Dillard’s writing life: glimpses into places and experiences and challenges.
  • South Toward Home, Margaret Eby – nonfiction. A review of one Alabama woman’s literary icons that resonated especially with me.
  • Dakota, Kathleen Norris – nonfiction. Lovely evocations of sense of place in essay form.
  • My Southern Journey, Rick Bragg – nonfiction. Funny, moving, evocative, beautifully crafted, very short true stories from the Deep South.

(* are audiobooks.)

Honorable mention goes as well to Paul Kingsnorth’s singular debut novel, The Wake, which tells a great story, a historical post-apocalypse set in England following the Norman Invasion. Kingsnorth makes the gutsy decision to tell the story in a modified version of Old English, making it quite hard to read: I fear he will lose readers by challenging them so greatly, but really, it’s a worthwhile book if you can struggle through. It gets better after 50 pages, I promise!

If you try any of these fine books out, I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

Bellingham Theatre Guild presents The Drowsy Chaperone

drowsyOn a rainy night, with a sprained ankle, I set out on my bicycle with Pops to see a local amateur production at a neighborhood theatre. In a word, the production was indeed amateur (which is to say, unpolished), but heartfelt and charming; and the play borders on too silly but was ultimately fun.

The narrator is a middle-aged, socially awkward man, sitting in the darkness of his apartment and dreaming about another world. He speaks directly to the audience about the strengths and downfalls of musical theatre, and puts on a record, the soundtrack to a musical of the 1920’s called The Drowsy Chaperone. The action comes to life in his living room, as the original cast performs the play, interrupted by our host’s interjected comments on the show.

The musical is your standard comedy of errors, involving a wedding that not everyone is supportive of, and includes mistaken identities and the beginnings of new romances. It was pretty cheesy, particularly in its song and dance (even more so than your standard musical!), although the tap dancing was a great addition. But as the story developed, I was more tuned in to the pathos of the narrator and more on board with the general silliness of the show-within-the-show. So while it started a little questionably, by the end I had let myself go into the world of the theatre, and it was rewarding. The performances were less than perfect, but again, this is local, amateur, community theatre: adjust your expectations a little, and be prepared for a good time. I left feeling uplifted by the fun, and will be looking for more Bellingham Theatre Guild performances in the future. Thanks, neighbors.

Rating: 6 gimlets.

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