MFA readings: a selection

Perhaps predictably, my rate of reading & writing for school threatens to outpace my work on this blog; and school is my priority, of course. Here I thought I’d just offer a quick rundown of what I’ve been reading lately and how it struck me. (Titles are bolded.) There may be more selection or digest-style posts to come.

My program director, Jessie Van Eerden (a most impressive woman & writer), put together a packet of portrait essays for a seminar she’s taught in the past, and shared this packet & her notes with me. I had a variety of reactions to these essays, which is totally okay: some will be more useful to my studies than others, and these reactions are all subjective.

I was most intrigued by

  • “Tracks and Ties” by Andre Dubus III;
  • “A Mickey Mantle Koan” by David James Duncan;
  • “Interstellar” by Rebecca McClanahan;
  • “The Passions of Lalla” by Michael Ondaatje; and
  • “A Good Day” by Jessie van Eerden,

and did some close readings especially of “A Good Day” and “Interstellar,” two profiles of the authors’ mother and sister respectively that include some autobiographical detail as well, and take certain organizing principles to help them tell the story of a whole person or a whole life in just a few pages: what a skill. I feel like maybe I’ve read “A Mickey Mantle Koan” before. It examines a beloved brother through a single object, one he never held in his hands, and integrates the language of both baseball and Buddhism, and lets the author do some more existential musing as well: ambitious, but executed. “Tracks and Ties” is another hyper-compressed profile, and “The Passions of Lalla” is especially interesting because it tells the life story of a person the author (apparently) never knew, through research, family mythologies and speculation. I hope to find time to go back to that one.

Of “Bessie Harvey’s Visions” by Will Woolfitt, Jessie writes, “Technically, this is a poem, but Woolfitt first wrote it as a lyric essay (same material sans line breaks).” I enjoyed reading it, and found the imagery and atmosphere involving, but I couldn’t see so clearly how to make this experience useful to my own writing.

Similarly, I was engaged by three longer profile essays –

  • “Present Waking Life: Becoming John Ashbery” by Larissa MacFarquhar;
  • “Notes on Pierre Bonnard and My Mother’s Ninetieth Birthday” by Mary Gordon; and
  • “Fuller” by Albert Goldbarth,

at least two of which have in common that they conflate or compare/contrast two very different subjects: Gordon swims between the art of Pierre Bonnard and her mother, as Goldbarth floats between Marie Curie and the dancer Loie Fuller. MacFarquhar more subtly lets her own character (herself) enter her examination of the poet John Ashbery. These again are worthy of study but didn’t feel right for my uses at this time.

By contrast, there were two essays in this packet that I just failed to enter at all. “The Shape of a Pocket” by John Berger and “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” by Anne Carson felt too cerebral, too much work to wade through. This is not where I’m interested in going. In the latter case, the problem may be that I’m not drawn to the question of how these women “tell God”: and is Carson’s failure to bring me in despite my feelings about the subject matter her shortcoming, or a simple, blameless lack of connection? I may not be the right person to answer that last one.


up-in-the-old-hotelAs a separate project, I read essays from Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, a big fat book I’ve had on my shelf for years. Saint Mazie and Joe Gould’s Teeth both refer to Mitchell’s work. He is famous for his decades of work for The New Yorker, and his portrait essays in particular.

I enjoyed every word I read–including the Mazie portrait, which I recognized from its reflection in Attenberg’s novel–but I settled on the title essay, “Up in the Old Hotel,” for my craft annotation. All of the essays I read showcased a seemingly neutral and nearly invisible narrator, and let the subjects portray themselves by use of dialog and speech, as well as physical descriptions, anecdotes and settings. The “Old Hotel” was remarkable because it told a lot more story than some of the straight portraits did; and its subject is not a person (although the central character Louie is very central) but a building, the old hotel. I focused in particular on the middle 12 pages of the piece, which offer a nearly uninterrupted monologue given by Louie, with minimal paragraph breaks and a wildly digressive style. Writers are warned against such techniques; but they work beautifully here. I think that’s because Louie’s voice is so strong and engaging; his style is so conversational that the reader buys into the delivery method completely; and because of Mitchell’s few but very strategic interruptions (Louie stops to make change, answer a customer’s question).

I recommend reading Mitchell if you get a chance.


the-situation-and-the-story
Finally, for craft, I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. This one didn’t work for me: in a word I’d say her succinct introduction and conclusion do the work her book wants to do, while the fatty middle part (two sections, on the essay and the memoir) read to me like wandering lit crit, and had little to offer me in thinking about my own work. Gornick has received plenty of positive response for this book, but my reaction was tepid. Her analysis of a number of essays and memoirs would have been more interesting to me if we had more reading in common, of course. But I am reminded of Christopher Bram’s The Art of History, which spent a lot of time giving negative or positive reviews that I did not always agree with, and which seemed so subjective that I was a little turned off. Yes, I see the irony as I give this negative, subjective review. But note that I am not here to sell you writing advice. By this point in the lifetime of pagesofjulia, I figure my readers know what we’re doing here together. (Thanks for sticking around.) If you loved The Situation and the Story or found it very useful for your writing, I’d love to hear your explanation of that experience. Not to argue, but to learn.

That’s my long post for today–now back to the program!

two listening opportunities

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit)

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit)

One of my favorite things I’ve read for the start of school coming up is an essay by Scott Russell Sanders titled “Buckeye.” Terrain.org offers a full-text version here, and I hope you’ll go read it and enjoy it, too. It’s short. Or, perhaps even better: on that same page, you can click to hear Sanders himself read it aloud for you. It’s a little under 20 minutes that way.

I am also still a little entranced over his essay “The Inheritance of Tools,” which I have not been able to find in a free full-text form that is not cluttered with one professor or another’s question-and-answer. (Best not to color your first reading, you know.) If you can track it down, do. I guess I might be in the market for one of his collections one of these days.

Amy Leach (photo credit)

Amy Leach (photo credit)

While I’m thinking of excellent essays read aloud by the author, I can’t help but mention Amy Leach, again. You recall that I loved her book Things That Are. I’ll just remind you again that you can hear her read “God” to a bluegrass accompaniment here. Under 5 minutes, that one.

Enjoy.

And while we’re here: any read-by-the-author clips you love and would like to share? Reading one’s work is such a different skill, I think, than writing it. I think immediately of Barbara Kingsolver, whose Flight Behavior and The Lacuna were such breathtaking performances, completely aside from the excellent books.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 58: Weather (winter 2016)

You can buy issue 58 here.

You can buy issue 58 here.

I always find something to appreciate from Creative Nonfiction. And in this issue, I confess, I had the added thrill of seeing several essays I got to read as submissions, that made it all the way to publication. Being a reader for CNF has been an incredible learning experience for me.

In this weather-themed issue, I really enjoyed Joe Fassler’s interview with Al Roker (Fassler wrote the essay “Wait Times” that I found so mesmerizing). Andrew Revkin’s essay about climate change, on the other hand, though much praised by editor Lee Gutkind, failed to grasp me: I found it overlong and less-than-gripping, and I guess also I found his opinions hard to access.

Interestingly, among the essays in the magazine’s main section, I was more excited about Ashley Hay’s “The Bus Stop” and Tim Bascom’s “My First Baptist Winter” than I was about the prize-winning “Recorded Lightning” by Amaris Ketcham: I enjoyed Ketcham’s writing very much, but the lightning-shaped text formatting which I think ‘made it’ for some readers only distracted me. Beatrice Lazarus’s “The Snow” was another interesting reading experience. I found the writing sometimes lovely and sometimes awkward, and the story’s steering between extreme weather and human violence took me a minute to grab onto. There is no question these are all impressive essays, but as usual, some worked better for me, personally, than did others.

Sejal H. Patel’s “Writers at Work” piece, called “Think Different,” lets Patel and five other memoirists discuss the impact of technologies on how we access and write about our memories. How does Google Earth, for example, help or confuse our recollections of the houses we grew up in? (Much more on this topic lies within The House That Made Me, which I recommend if this subject interests you.)

This issue of CNF is not the one I’ve enjoyed most, but there’s no shortage of thoughts provoked. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 7 tornadoes.

Bayou Magazine, issue 65 (fall 2016)

bayou mag 65Bayou, from the University of New Orleans, is one of the briefer lit journals, which I confess leaves me sort of relieved: easier to get through in a sitting. In turn I’ll pass that brevity on to you.

Three essays grace these pages. “Holiday” by Ann Hillesland is, again, brief (a theme!), and takes a look at a movie that interested the writer when she was a teen, its commentary on her life; she comments in turn. I am sympathetic with this kind of writing, as a book reviewer. “Lifeline” by Patricia Feeney recalls Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini, for its elegiac look at a rather unloveable family member. In ten pages, it manages a great deal of pulled-back perspective and passage of time; there’s a lot of movement.

My favorite was “The Mending Wall,” by Andrew Bertaina, who is undertaking something like what I hope to undertake in writing about my own mother: seeking the parts we can by definition never know. It also yielded the remarkable lines,

Perhaps you cannot mend things when you are still broken. I will never understand love or people: we are collections of moments, of opinions, of thoughts, not whole.

Overall, these pieces feel a tad less polished than the essays that appear in The Believer or Oxford American, which is not all bad: I’ve written before about the value of amateur art, the feeling of community and of real people efforting, and of movement and progress: we start here, and we improve. It can’t all be Broadway and the NBA; it is heartening to see community theatre and Division III college ball. Also, there has to be somewhere for us amateurs to submit to. I hope this doesn’t sound like faint praise: I enjoyed my time spent with Bayou, and you’ll see more of it here.


Rating: 7 showtimes.

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

In a collection of prose, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet ruminates joyfully on art and nature.

upstream

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver should also be known for her prose: thoughtful, joyful and wise, always sparkling with characteristic energy. Upstream collects previously published essays and one new piece, skillfully grouped to chart a philosophical journey and “felt experience” much like that which she attributes to Walt Whitman.

Oliver revisits her childhood, and early instances of the sense of wonder so integral to her poetry, which she has often found in nature. The essay “My Friend Walt Whitman” speaks of a youthful and persistent literary affinity. Others explore natural places and creatures–spider, puppy, bear, bird–and the pleasures of artistic work. The middle of the collection contains slightly longer pieces of literary criticism–rediscovery of and praise for Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman and William Wordsworth. Poets and the natural world mingle as Oliver invokes Percy Bysshe Shelley while hunting for turtle eggs. Finally, the previously unpublished essay, “Provincetown,” honors the Massachusetts fishing town where Oliver lived for many years. Brief but redolent, this love letter to a place in the passage of time tends to look backward, as do several of the essays immediately preceding it, so that the collection moves toward retrospection.

Upstream serves as an excellent, accessible introduction to Oliver’s work, and despite its largely previously published contents, will satisfy her fans with its fresh arrangement and feeling of movement. These meditations are evocative, lovely and of course poetic, charming in small pieces and as a whole.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rumors of total welcome.

Fourth Genre, volume 18, number 1 (spring 2016)

fourth-genre-18-1

I began this issue of Fourth Genre feeling a little underwhelmed. But I finished impressed, and intrigued. My personal reactions to these essays ranged widely. Some of them just let me down. I read a prizewinning essay that struck me as more interesting in its clever format than in its content; and I felt the same about several of the essays that followed. I gave up on an essay that felt increasingly weighted down by academic, philosophical wordiness. I was frustrated by another that characterized travelers as trying in vain to make themselves more interesting: this writer recommends “an hour-long excursion to the public library” and the purchasing of souvenirs “in your own living room, never having changed out of your pajamas” over real-world experiences. Now, I heartily recommend visiting your public library regularly. But I felt that this writer missed an important point, that some of of us have profound experiences by visiting in person places outside of our daily geographic routine. Of course, this is merely a personal reaction, as they all are.

Some left me a little ambivalent. “Recapitulation Theory” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson struck me. I’m not sure it holds together as a whole for me; but at many points throughout I was fascinated (and not least by the narrator’s role as librarian). The contributor bios indicate that this is part of a larger project, which makes perfect sense. I appreciated the tortoise trivia, and the emotion, in Lawrence Lenhart’s “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go: A Carapace in 37 Parts”; but I regretted the on-the-page formatting of text wrapped around carapaces and scutes. I found it distracting – it made reading more challenging – and didn’t feel it added anything that more traditional block formatting of graphics wouldn’t have accomplished.

On the other hand, I found some gems. “Sixteen Forecasts” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade was another playfully formatted essay but one I enjoyed more. And I am intrigued by the two authors: how did they put this together? I want to know. “Light” by Kathryn U. Hulings is a powerfully feeling narrative about the trauma of a suffering, self-destructive loved one. Mimi Dixon’s “Anesthesia” is, again, a more traditionally formatted essay but one with more to say. Rachael Perry’s “The Sand Dunes: An Elegy” is scarcely a page long, but deeply lovely and evocative. Jane Bernstein’s “The Incident in My Park” is an electric, disturbing story – that is, a narrative. Not that it’s done entirely straightforwardly. There are time jumps; there is musing. But perhaps what I’m finding here is a preference for narratives (a la Creative Nonfiction). With “Brother Sammy,” Deborah Thompson is a little more subtle in building the narrative that frames her reflections, but in this lovely, short essay, she made me think, and this was another successful piece for me.

And then came the highlights of the journal, beginning with “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter” by Katherine E. Standefer. She uses a decidedly nontraditional format, something I quibbled with earlier in the journal; but this one worked so cleanly for me. I was aware of the form (footnotes, in this case, and with the relationships between source and note often unclear), but it didn’t get in the way of what I was reading: a personal history in snippets, engrossing and moving throughout. And then! “Animalis” is followed by Standefer’s essay about the essay, “Breaking the Body: On the Writing of ‘Animalis’.” This was the perfect choice for a piece about the piece, both because of its unusual form and because of the story of how it came to be: in a word, slowly. I was captivated! And the loveliness of her lines crosses over to the craft piece, in which she writes

The reference list of our bodies? It is both broken and gorgeous. The shards, glinting light, became the essay’s wrestle.

and

I learned that an unruly essay, controlled by the reins of voice, will hold its readers and deliver them somewhere new.

Things continued to solidify for me, to make sense and to make enjoyable reading, as the journal proceeded with craft essays. After Standefer’s essay and commentary came Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas with “The Peach Orchard” and “On ‘The Peach Orchard’,” which totally drew me in as well: she writes about La Violencia in Colombia in very complex ways using several narratives. I was impressed, and her commentary was equally engrossing. Dawn S. Davies writes “Disquiet and the Lyric Essay” in which we learn a lot about the writer (voice!) as well as consider some questions about what makes an essay ‘lyric.’ The book reviews that follow struck me more as responses to books than reviews of them (although I enjoyed the playful review of Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy). In an “Inter-Review” with Wendy S. Walters (in which they discuss each other’s new books), Michael Martone says he

think(s) of publishing as more like political organizing than the gatekeeping of taste and promoting something as “good” or “bad.”

which I found an interesting thought.

All in all, I found immersion in this lit journal a thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating, somewhat challenging reading experience. It’s yielded more reading: I have a play, a song, an essay and a blog post now queued up from references in this issue. I enjoyed some of the writing very much, and some of it wasn’t for me; but that’s the world, and that’s okay. It seems that Fourth Genre appreciates nontraditional formats almost for their own sake, and I’m not sure my tastes run in quite the same way, but there is much here to like. I’ll keep my eyes open.


Rating: 7 hermit crabs.

Klee Wyck by Emily Carr

klee wyckKlee Wyck is a collection of short stories–fragments, really, many of them–begun in Emily Carr’s youth and then polished and published in her old age. I’ve written a little about some of these fragments here and here.

First and most importantly, I need to emphasize the story revealed in Kathryn Bridge’s fine introduction. If you are at all interested in this book, it is imperative that you get this edition of it. Here’s why.

Emily Carr is best-known as one of Canada’s finest painters. She was passionate about depicting her home environment of west coast British Columbia, which as she explored it in her teens and twenties in the late 1800s was still mostly unspoiled big forests; but perhaps she was most passionate about the lives, traditions and plight of the Indian or First Nation people she knew there. Their totem poles were among the central themes of her work. She also wrote extraordinarily well, and her writing was concerned with the same issues. The collection Klee Wyck serves largely as an indictment of the white settlers, especially the missionaries, who worked so hard to destroy native cultures. After a first edition by Oxford University Press, publishers Clarke, Irwin and Company purchased the rights to Klee Wyck, and put out an educational version thereof that thoroughly whitewashed Carr’s words and intentions. Bridge details the tragically extensive cuts and edits. And that’s the version of Klee Wyck that was available to so many for so long.

As it stands now, the restored & complete collection I’ve read is lovely, understated but firm. As I said in the teaser posted earlier this week, Carr had a keen eye for clean, tight prose, rather like Hemingway I’d venture. Her sentences are clear and direct, but often glittering with word choice and turns of phrase.

The grating of our canoe on the pebbles warned the silence that we were come to break it.

The sockets had no eye-balls, but were empty holes, filled with stare.

The tent full of sleep greyed itself into the shadow under the willow tree.

(She also has a knack for anthimeria, or the usage of one part of speech for another.)

The tips of the fresh young pines made circles of pale green from the wide base of each tree to the top. They looked like multitudes of little ladies in crinolines trooping down the bank.

The story “D’Sonoqua” about a character in the Indians’ mythology, and the striking, horrifying, awesome totems she inspires, is as striking as the totems Carr describes. In other words, I read her skill with language as parallel to the skill of the carver when she writes

The power that I felt was not in the thing itself, but in some tremendous force behind it, that the carver had believed in.

That clean transfer of force from the thing itself to the receiver is Carr’s gift, too.

And then in contrast is the story “Wash Mary,” a scarcely 2-page sketch of a woman Carr knew when she–Carr–was very small. Its simplicity is its accomplishment; I love that everything we see is everything the child Carr saw, nothing more, and with no added translation of meaning. It’s powerful nonetheless, perhaps because it shows how much a child can see without understanding.

Klee Wyck does address nature and the visual arts, the subjects for which Carr is known. But this book is firmly about people, not trees or totem poles. It’s about a human tragedy, for example the Indian children taken from their parents and villages to Indian residential schools (as I read about in Wawahte). This is why it’s so important to get this edition. Also: gorgeous, clean, precise writing. Emily Carr was a master of several forms. Do check it out.


Rating: 8 strong thoughts.
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