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A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place is a medium-longform essay (81 pages), published here in book form, about Kincaid’s home island of Antigua. Kincaid uses a second-person address to a “you” that stands in for North American or European white people, the unpleasant tourists and descendants of colonialists she observes visiting Antigua. On the surface she is concerned with place–what is Antigua–but the essay is equally concerned with race, empire, and history, and unafraid of long parenthetical asides. I was assigned to read this for its help with writing about place, and so for me the final four-page section describing Antigua as physical place is perhaps most interesting, from a craft standpoint. (Or perhaps I should reconsider what it means that this physical description is the part that seems most place-based to me. What defines a place? Its physicality, or its people and its history?)

It’s also remarkable for Kincaid’s strong, strident voice, and for those long parentheticals. It should go without saying that A Small Place makes a fine introduction to Antigua itself, too.

Rating: 7 brand-new Japanese-made vehicles.

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

This is a longform essay about reading, inspired by Ulin’s son’s struggles to read and annotate The Great Gatsby (for school, naturally). Over its course, Ulin ranges widely over his own book-reviewing career; his relationship with his son; the reading habits of the author and others (including many other writers); studies of brain science and distraction patterns; politics and current events; the nature of memory (in memoir, in Ulin’s personal observation, and in scientific studies); e-readers; and much more. Though it was assigned to me as a craft book–meaning an instructive book about craft–I found an interesting element in Ulin’s own writing: his use of parenthetical quotations from other writers.

This could be a sort of self-referential exercise, too: a longform essay about why it’s so challenging these days to read such things as longform essays. (This book began as an essay in the Los Angeles Times, which was then expanded into the fuller-length version here, at ~150 pages.) I confess I found my attention wandering at times, which could be commentary on many issues, of which only one is Ulin’s talent on the page: distracted times, indeed. Overall I did enjoy the discussion, including the meanderings into the utility of the e-reader and Obama’s popularity ratings, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Ulin and I are in sync on many conclusions about the state of the world and of reading. “It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.”

Rating: 7 titles.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

Kingston’s is a memoir in five longish essays, each of which could, I think, stand alone. A child of Chinese immigrants growing up in Hawaii in a Chinese immigrant community, she blends memoir (meaning personal or family recollections) with Chinese folktales, and ends up commenting on culture at least as much as her own personal experiences. This blend pushes the boundaries of memoir in the direction of imagination, and pushed my personal comfort level somewhat as a reader: I tend to prefer clear lines between fact and fiction, and while I am intellectually open to blurrings, I do notice my discomfort when it happens. I am most interested in the final essay, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” which expands metaphorically on the concept of literal voice. I’m also interested in the structure of this collection of five essays: their number, their varying lengths, their order, and the choice to offer a memoir in parts like this. Obviously the most unusual element, though, is that blending of folktale, imagination–even fantasy–with traditional memoir reporting.

Kingston has a vivid storytelling style, and voice. It is easy to get lost in the story at hand, and there is a dreaminess (in some sections more than in others) that I don’t often see in memoir. The flip side is that it can be harder to mentally pull these parts together into the story-of-a-life that I expect from memoir. But there’s no question that this is an absorbing and entertaining book–not to say that there isn’t emotionally difficult content, of course.

General readers of fiction as well as memoir will find much to enjoy. Students with rather more literal minds may be challenged.

Rating: 7 white tigers.

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson

My advisor Kim recommended this book to me as a craft book, although it is not quite a how-to, but rather a contemplation on the reading/writing life.

This short study of Emerson on the subject of writing (by an Emerson expert) is a brief, accessible view on the man. Quotable, but more than a collection of quotations. Richardson portrays a complete man, not simply a set of accomplishments. This Emerson is fascinated with writing as process and lifestyle, philosophic, and committed to exposing his own shortcomings.

I found it worthwhile, and an easy way into Emerson, who I haven’t found terribly approachable before now. I noted several quotations. The part especially intrigued me, in the final pages, where Emerson and Goethe are in some conversation about how intimidating it can be to observe the greats who have come before us… I often feel, when I discover a wonderful, new-to-me writer, both inspired by their achievement and discouraged by how high the bar has been set. And then of course the closing idea that to be a writer is to “abdicate a manifold and duplex life”! Whew.

An easy read, by turns encouraging, thought-provoking, and challenging.

Trivia of which I was unaware: Richardson is married to Annie Dillard. When I read this at the close of his ‘Acknowledgements’ (at the end of the book), I thought, ah! there’s the wisdom. (Some of you may recall that I have a complicated relationship with Annie Dillard–not all love–but enormous respect.)

Rating: 7 white whales.

Consider the Oyster by M.F.K. Fisher

I regret it took me so long to read this slim, delightful collection. M.F.K. Fisher is a very fine essayist, known for her food writing but a clever, funny, thoughtful voice in general. Warning: these delicious little pieces will make you hungry (if you have any taste at all for my favorite bivalve).

Obviously I read this book for my own essay about pearls and oysters which I’ve been working on for years… but it was an absolutely pleasure all around. Consider the Oyster has an original copyright date of 1941, and you can hear its era here and there; but overall, I think it ages really well.

Under 100 pages, and all about oysters. Short essays cover oyster sex; the seasonal nature (or not!) of edible oysters; a great many recipes from throughout history and around the world, with Fisher’s commentary; pearls; the oyster as aphrodisiac; regionalism; and more. Fisher is mostly but not entirely concerned with oysters as eaten by humans. Her writing is pithy, charming, humorous and very smart. She is a real personality, and I am a real fan.

Really, folks. What a short, accessible, but so clever little book this is. You should really pick it up, unless oysters totally disgust you, in which case you still should, because it will educate and probably humor you just the same.

Synchronicity: one of the back-cover blurbs here is credited to Clifton Fadiman, who is himself the subject of one of the next books on my list (for the Shelf), The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman (author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which was one of the first books I personally recognized as “creative nonfiction” as I was beginning to conceive of the genre). Everything is circular. Like a pearl.

Rating: 8 pearls, naturally.

Key Grip by Dustin Beall Smith

Dustin Beall Smith came recommended for his contribution to You. That essay, called “being [t]here,” didn’t particularly grab me (put it up next to Kitchen for being amorphous or abstract, at least too much so for my perhaps overly literal mind). But this book did.

Key Grip is a memoir in essays, in reverse chronological order. The first essay makes up fully a third of the book, followed by eleven shorter ones. The narrator is a risk-taker, a thrill-seeker, with self-destructive behaviors. The book is about those behaviors, about mourning the death of his father, and about art: the lifelong struggle to become a writer, and the decades along the way spent in service to another art form, as a key grip in the movie business. Smith is expert at engaging storytelling, such that the craft appears effortless or invisible. As a classmate once said, the apparently effortless writing is the hardest to achieve. But for me, the most interesting element in this collection was its reverse-chronological organization. That’s what I annotated, for school.

The extra-long opening essay, “Starting at the Bottom Again,” is a hilarious account of a mature Smith (age 57) traveling cross-country with a near stranger, to go on a Lakota vision quest. It is not only hilarious, but also gripping and pathos-ridden, gloriously told. If I have a complaint, it is that we left this absorbing world and did not return to it. I expected to continue chronologically from this point, and perhaps to get sequel vision quests, as Smith’s Lakota spiritual guide suggests to him.

Instead, we go backwards in time, seeing Smith suffer the loss of his father, work as a key grip, get dissipated and wild with drugs etc., become a skydiving instructor, return to childhood. Many of these essays are excellent in their own right. But I remained a little baffled by the departure from that first essay, “Starting.” I think we all generally expect chronological order when we read. We know how to deal with disjointed jumpings around in time; but to start at the end, so to speak, can be a little disorienting.

Nevertheless, once I paid attention to what this backwards-order was doing, I decided I like the way meaning, and characterization of the protagonist, build. For one thing, this is very like how we get to know people in real life: we meet today, in the present, and then (if we get that far) we fill in backstory. We can never know a new acquaintance’s past if we weren’t there for it, but we can listen to the stories.

Smith is a very fine storyteller, and these are amusing, sensational stories he has to tell, always with a note of sadness if not regret. I do recommend his memoir.

Rating: 7 jumps.

Distance and Direction by Judith Kitchen

I remain perplexed by Judith Kitchen. Actually, as I reread my review of Half in Shade, I am tempted to say: this, again, but with different subjects.

Kitchen’s meditations on distance and direction vary from very short lyric pieces to longer essays, and range geographically from Ireland to Brazil, across the United States, and more. They are about connections to place and people; and while she covers many topics, she is perhaps primarily concerned with mourning and remembering her father. Interesting for many craft elements: pronoun-switching, the use of objects, and wide-ranging subjects cohering. She is such a poet, with her words that don’t make literal sense next to one another. But the lines are lovely, and what meaning she does make speaks to me.

This collection as a whole leaves me unsure of what to say. I can best make sense of this art on a sentence level, or at best an essay level. Luckily, that is what I have to annotate (for school): a single element in a single essay, mostly. (There is always the option to annotate a book-level element, such as organization, which is what I did with Dustin Beall Smith’s Key Grip. Review to come.) For Kitchen, I annotated her pronoun-switching in the title essay “Distance and Direction.” While most of the book is written in first person, this essay is told in third person until the final paragraph, when a first-person I comes in to comment on what the she (earlier version of the self) does. This is an unusual use of POVs, and I found it interesting and very effective, although I think it takes a Kitchen-level expert to pull off such a trick.

Despite my attempt to articulate this craft element, I am left with the persistent feeling that Kitchen is not for me; she is too much a poet–too abstract–or perhaps simply too smart for me.

Rating: 7 skulls of horses.
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