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“Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

This essay appears in the Didion collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I actually accessed it online, and you can too: here.

From the Essays of E.B. White, particularly “Here Is New York” and “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” and a little bit from “On a Florida Key,” I got swept over to this essay, because I wanted to figure out how they did place so particularly. That is, the particularity of a place, but the fact too that it’s so personal, that even the one Florida Key in the one year when White was there is not the same for anyone else as it was for him. I annotated this essay for the place-details Didion uses, and her zooming in and out.

“Goodbye to All That” is about a time in Didion’s life when she had a relationship with a place. She moved to New York City in the mid-1950s, and away again in the mid-1960s; she writes here of New York “beginning” and “ending” for her. The story of the essay is of the way the specialness of the place ended for her, what she could see from one end of the experience that she couldn’t see from the other. It is a fine blend of particular details and of generalities, or philosophical statements, such as: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” Or, that New York is “a city for only the very young.” There is a definite “Paris is a moveable feast” tone: elegiac, loving of a particular experience indelibly aligned with time and place.

In just over ten pages, Didion memorializes the New York City she loved upon arrival. It is a lovely study of this place, peppered with anecdotes and scenes–parties, snips of dialog–as well as those generalized philosophies; and it retains a feeling of pulled-back nostalgia and reflection. Didion’s choice of details creates that place that is so particular and personal. “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already… and the warm air smelled of mildew…” The hotel room in the second paragraph super-cooled to thirty-five degrees, and the young Didion’s fear to call for help “because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come–was anyone ever so young?” (A lovely aside, addressing the reader there, and again maintaining a reflective distance in time.) The bridge viewed from the window. These details continue to make the place of this essay a specific place–the Triborough bridge, all the street names and addresses named as “the Nineties” and “the Eighties”–but they also give it sensory specificity: “I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume.”

I can’t wait to read more Didion. Up next is The White Album.

Rating: 9 new cabinets.

Love and Fury by Richard Hoffman

Hoffman writes of struggling to know his father, or the challenge of the two fathers: “the one who made me, and the one I’ve made of him.” This is a memoir mostly of Hoffman’s adult life; it also handles race and class and family (the title refers to his theory of familial relationships). Hoffman is particularly concerned with questions of the racism, sexism, misogyny and abuse, the toxic masculinity, the blue-collar working class Pennsylvania of the coal mines with which he was brought up. In the course of the book, he becomes a grandfather and his father dies: these are the occasions for his reflection. And he is calm as well as reflective, introspective; he tries to be hard on himself and look the truth in the eye. This is the classic, universal question I am interested in: the mystery of one’s own parent(s).

I enjoyed Love and Fury. I felt immersed in Hoffman’s reckonings, and I very much identified with the struggle to know the father figure. I liked how he anticipated concerns about his memory, as when he prefaces an early childhood memory with questions about early memories generally, or where he admonished himself to say it (a difficult truth). It felt considered, as a book, if that makes sense–thought out. In fact it is more a memoir-in-essays, with lots of thinking on the page, than a strictly narrative story. A memoir for those interested in social justice as well as family.

Rating: 7 recliners.

Essays of E.B. White

Ah, E.B. White. You know him as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and as half of Strunk & White, as in The Elements of Style. He wrote for The New Yorker for some six decades, and is one of our finest essayists. This is an important collection, then, and one that my semester advisor Kim Kupperman thought was important to my work.

White’s essays are arranged by subject categories (farm, city, planet, memories, etc.) and cover some forty to fifty years, although unfortunately not all are dated. This essential selection proves his ease and artistry with the form. His prose is conversational, familiar, funny, and serious, but does not take itself too seriously; he is an absolutely likeable narrator, and this collection is both a guide to the United States at various points in history, and simultaneously timeless.

White’s prose is so easygoing; it sounds effortless, but of course we know that’s some of the hardest prose to write. The hardest part of reading so many near-perfect pieces is figuring out what to annotate. But finally I returned to the first essay that made me sort of take in breath at its close, because of its structure and its return: “Coon Tree.”

As White famously writes in his Foreword, the essayist puts on many different shirts when he sits down to write (“philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast”). But if he can be said to have a single style, it’s what I think of as the classical essayist’s. He appears to ramble across subjects and moods, but this meandering is deceptive; the essay does have a unifying theme or message, even if he seems to wander aimlessly. “Coon Tree” displayed this skill the best, for me, so I annotated it for its structure.

Additionally, I was especially enamored of “Here Is New York” (of course, place), particularly the passage in the second paragraph where he lists places and their distances: “I am twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state…” This reminds me of Joseph Mitchell’s meticulous but not tiresome cataloging of the little details that make a place.

But I could go on, when in fact what I mean to recommend to you is: read anything by E.B. White–anything at all, but these Essays make an excellent starting point.

Rating: 9 of the mildest zephyrs.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir ed. by William Zinsser

I don’t remember when I got this book; I’ve had it for quite some time. (I also have Zinsser’s How to Write a Memoir waiting for me on the massive and daunting to-be-read shelf.) I finally opened Inventing the Truth to read Annie Dillard’s essay, “To Fashion a Text,” that Kim Kupperman assigned me; but I found I couldn’t put it down. I went back to the beginning and read the whole thing through, and I think it’s an excellent collection.

Zinsser approaches “the age of the memoir” beginning with a series of craft talks in 1986. These talks, transcribed, are joined by later additions to form this collection of nine craft essays, all originally delivered orally (whether to an audience or in interview format with Zinsser) by nine writers including Dillard, Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They talk about what they want to talk about, so the subjects vary somewhat but all address how to write memoir from very different angles. Their delivery, perhaps because originally oral, is consistently enjoyable, and the content is very useful, practical, nuts-and-bolts; it also offers insights into the writing of masterpieces like Beloved. Not to be outdone, Zinsser’s introduction is a lovely piece of prose in itself, and presents a nearly perfect review of what the book in turn contains.

I made a bunch of notes, and am interested in particular in reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. A few details that especially fascinated me: that Toni Morrison considers the work of her fiction to be “trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left.” And then the concept that when the straightened Mississippi River “floods” its old path, it’s not really flooding at all, but remembering: where have I heard this before? Lovely! I wonder if these essays–all of them!–struck me so nicely because they were originally delivered orally. I have always been interested in the idea of oral histories or oral storytelling.

This was a deeply enjoyable book, obviously recommended for anyone struggling with the writing of memoir, but actually it should be appealing to general readers, too, especially those impressed by the work of Dillard, Morrison, et al. Perfectly pleasant reading.

Rating: 8 Rorschachs.

The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco

A devoted, tormented daughter eulogizes a beloved father in this thought-provoking and experimental memoir.

Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye is an intense and unforgettable memoir, as fascinating for its artistry as for its subject matter.

Jeannie was 18 when her father died. Though her mother is beloved and sympathetically portrayed, it was her father who had been her hero, her perfect person. On his deathbed, Jeannie promised him she would write about him. Although there is no sign that he heard, let alone held her to it, this promise would haunt the increasingly troubled young woman for years to come.

Her father had lost his left eye and wore a prosthetic one, which was in fact plastic, “but sometimes I call it glass. Glass implies the ability to be broken.” He lost his left vocal cord, too, and her mother loses hearing in her left ear. “What will be left of me if I lose her?” Jeannie’s father had a daughter before her, from an earlier marriage, who died in a car accident. That daughter was Jeanne; the daughter who promised to write this book is Jeannie, pronounced the same but with an added i. She fills her book with meditations on glass and left.

The Glass Eye is not what the 18-year-old intended to write. In the years after her father dies, Jeannie appears to function at high levels: she receives several degrees and works for prestigious publications. However, she is hospitalized repeatedly, battling mental illness and devastating grief. Everything is about her father–“Of course I hallucinated my eyes had fallen out.” A symptom of bipolar disorder (one of several diagnoses Jeannie receives) is a preoccupation with ” ‘clang associations,’ connections between words dictated by sound rather than meaning,” although for Jeannie, eye and i and I are also connected by meaning.

Vanasco pays compulsive attention to metaphors, and to the project of writing this memoir, which becomes a meta-exercise observing itself. She wonders, “What’s my hindsight perspective? Is this my narrative present?” and plays with plot. She asks the professor in her memoir course, “What if it’s about the promise to write the book?” The Glass Eye is indeed about Vanasco’s promise, as it’s about her father, grief, loss, her dead half-sister and reckoning with her own mental illness. And it’s about itself: both memoir and writing-about-writing.

Lyric, haunted, smart and tortured, this is an obsessive love letter to a dead father as well as a singular work of literature. The Glass Eye will attract memoir fans and readers concerned with mental illness and bereavement, as well as writers concerned with craft.

This review originally ran in the September 15, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 dollhouses.

The Essayist’s Dilemma (Occasional Papers on the Essay: Practice and Form, from Welcome Table Press) by Marcia Aldrich, Lucy Ferriss, Kim Dana Kupperman, and E.J. Levy

This paper is available for free download here. (Full disclosure, again: Kim Dana Kupperman, one of four contributors to this pamphlet and founder of the press, is currently my semester advisor.)

I expected a rather dry read, a how-to, a craft book(let), in short. Instead I found a brief, punchy discussion, in four voices, of something that matters to me. It was quick and fun to read. I’m so sorry I doubted.

This is such a brief piece of work that I’m in danger of writing more in review than there is to review, but here goes. Marcia Aldrich’s introduction sets up the dilemma: publishers don’t like essay collections; essay is a dirty word; essayists have trouble getting published as such. (Examples given.) Lucy Ferriss responds with “The Parts and Whole”: the idea of needing to group a collection around an idea, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, is not such a bad challenge, and one that can yield good results. We should not resist this push. Kim Kupperman, in “An Essayist’s Dilemma,” shares the journey (I just used that word because Kim hates it. Sorry, Kim)… the evolution her book I Just Lately Started Buying Wings experienced on its way to the form in which I read it. As she sums up: “a question, a taking apart and reassembling, a husband’s instinct, a poem’s fever, an editorial directive, and, finally, a return to an original idea.” Finally, E.J. Levy writes “In Defense of Incoherence”: she quite likes a thoroughly disconnected essay collection, thank you, and screw commercial concerns.

It’s all good, useful stuff. I think it’s true, that essay collections are unpopular with publishers, because they are unpopular with the (profitable) general readership. Ferriss’s argument makes perfect sense to me, perhaps because my mind works the same way, or I believe the same thing she seems to: that an overarching and unifying idea (or the dreaded theme) is a good thing. This is very much the concept that Levy argues directly against in her piece. As a reader, I am much more like the profitable general reader than I am like Levy. I prefer unity. In fact, I have long resisted reading essay collections, especially when they are presented as miscellany. I realize how damning an admission this is: I hope to write and even publish essays; but I don’t want to buy or read them. Well, it’s a little less damning than that, because I hope to write and publish a memoir-in-essays, or a decidedly connected collection.

Kim, as I read her, does not take a position on whether connectedness is desirable or no. I loved reading the story of Wings; it was the perfect example to learn from, since I studied this and her later memoir rather closely and have been getting to know the author herself some. (Also, its organization is a little unusual, or complicated, but clearly it has an organization.)

Although I don’t read and think the way Levy does, I enjoyed reading her opinion – especially as she called in Fisher’s Consider the Oyster:

I’m a fan of M.F.K. Fisher’s work, but by the time I’m on the fifth oyster in Consider the Oyster, I’m queasy. It’s nto that such a strategy can’t work, but that it makes me suspect that the essayist was considering something other than the oyster–a check from a publisher maybe, the adorableness of her own conceit.

My first thought was, Levy does not like oysters as much as I do. I’d love the opportunity to discover how many oysters it would take to make me queasy! I haven’t found it yet. Seriously, I see her point; but I guess I also found Fisher’s conceit adorable, enough to be unbothered by it. Maybe it’s just how much I like oysters.

Perhaps the greater point here is that we all, always, still, have different preferences. I agree with the thesis of this pamphlet (as I see it), that a preference for a disconnected miscellany of essays is less universal than an appreciation of connected collections (or books with narrative arcs, like memoirs). And I’m on the side of the majority here. That will make it harder to publish the unconnected. I hope it still happens, because I desire a multitude of options and value the tastes of the minority; but I agree with the majority, taste-wise, and with the problem presented here.

I guess the most optimistic thought I have to offer is: this is why we have Welcome Table Press, Kim Kupperman’s small press that publishes weird little essay things that perhaps no one else wants; and thank goodness for that, and for all the other small presses that publish the minority’s desires. It’s The Long Tail all over again, and I’m in favor of it.

Rating: 9 brief and well-stated arguments.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

I came to this book originally some time ago, from Paul Liscky’s The Narrow Door, though they only subtly name one another. It was a happy continuance when Kim Kupperman recommended it. And, I have a thing about oysters. This book is not terribly much about oysters, mind you, but it still attracted me.

Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is a lovely meditation on a single still life painting which shares the book’s title; but it is also a study of still lifes in general, and a thoughtful retrospection ranging through the author’s life and loves by way of a handful of objects, and finally a study on the topic of attention. Doty returns to the idea that we seek both intimacy and independence, both belonging and exploration, both the comfort of home and the risk and excitement of travel. Interesting as ekphrasis, as study of duality, and as biography in objects–even as a lyric list essay, broadly defined. I found it interesting to note all the references he makes to other paintings and other art forms (chiefly poetry). Also lovely writing, although this will surprise no one who knows Doty as a poet.

Another of my continuing obsessions–even more than oysters–is things or stuff. Think Guy Clark’s song “Stuff That Works” or Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Buckeye.” I really appreciated the attention Doty pays to things in this very short book. It was a rewarding immersion, and I recommend him.

Rating: 8 quinces.
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