Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Writing Our Own Non-Studies of D. H. Lawrence

geoff dyer sheer rageGeoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage [Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence] is just about the best non-study of D.H. Lawrence that I’ve ever read.  Not that I’ve read any other non-studies of Lawrence, or any actual Lawrence studies, for that matter.  But if you want to read a truly superb non-study of Lawrence, I can’t recommend Out of Sheer Rage highly enough.  You will learn some things about Lawrence — but at a slant—and you will learn a world about Geoff Dyer.

That’s what I liked about it.

I’m a big Geoff Dyer fan.  Call it a crush if you like. I won’t argue. It’s a literary crush.  I find Geoff, as I like to call him, about the best company I can imagine: for entertaining me highly, making me laugh out loud, and most of all, for expressing to a T how life feels, at least to me a lot of the time: the existential angst of it all.  Geoff is hilariously human, full of foibles, self-deprecatingly self-aware, with a navel-gazing self-consciousness, a keen intelligence about the human condition, and a love-hate relationship with his best subject, himself.  He’s willing to let you in, up close and personal, so that it feels as if you’re his intimate.  He’s a mess, and he’s willing to tell you all about it.  But he does so with such aplomb, such delicious, sharp, acerbic observations about himself and everything around him, that to read him is to feel truly vindicated in your own human shortcomings.

The idea behind Out of Sheer Rage is that Dyer intends to write a serious study of D.H. Lawrence, the writer who most made him want to become a writer.  But he keeps procrastinating, and Sheer Rage becomes a painfully comic description of his efforts to get a grip.

Here’s how the book opens:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate.  Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.  If,  I said to myself, if I can apply myself to a sober—I can remember saying that word ‘sober’ to myself, over and over, until it acquired a hysterical, near-demented ring—if I can apply myself to a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence then that will force me to pull myself together. I succeeded in applying myself but what I applied myself to—or so it seems to me now, now that I am lost in the middle of what is already a far cry from the sober academic study I had envisaged—was to pulling apart the thing, the book, that was intended to make me pull myself together.

I love this voice, and if you don’t, stay away from Geoff Dyer.  He won’t be your cuppa.  But he sure is mine.

The result is that Dyer ends up writing this very book — Out of Sheer Rage  — which never manages to actually be the serious, intended study of Lawrence (though there is much about Lawrence in it, based mainly on his letters; no dazzling critical reading of Women in Love, however; so sorry, WIL scholars).  But it is about a lot else, mainly the anxieties, frettings, and grouses of Everyman Dyer.  The title comes from a quote of Lawrence’s, regarding his book on Thomas Hardy: “Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid—queer stuff—but not bad.”  The perfect epigraph for and description of Dyer’s own book on Lawrence. Continue reading “Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Writing Our Own Non-Studies of D. H. Lawrence”

Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?

Half a Life by Darin StraussThis week in the online memoir course I’m teaching, the students are working on characterization, both their own and that of others. We’re reading a chapter in Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington called “Writing about Living People,” in which she talks about how writers must come to their own decisions about their responsibilities to those whose lives are entwined with their own, and how one must balance the reasons for writing a story using real names against the harm that might be done to someone else.  I had thought this matter of what we owe people we write about was settled in my mind. I always counseled and taught that when writing about other people, one must try to arrive at the largest understanding and perspective, and while I didn’t think that was always easy, it seemed to me obvious and relatively simple.  Then last week I read a memoir by Darin Strauss called Half a Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and my complacency on the issue was given a good shake.

Half a Life is the story of how, when he was a senior in high school, Strauss was driving his dad’s Oldsmobile when a girl he barely knew, a junior at the same school, inexplicably swerved her bike across two lanes, collided with his car, and was killed.  Even though he was not responsible for the girl’s death, Strauss struggled with guilt that haunted him for decades.

I felt riveted by the writing and the story when I first started the memoir.  But I became troubled by Strauss’s writing about the girl’s family.  It has surprised and puzzled me how much this has bothered me. I won’t say it’s keeping me awake at night (other things do that), but I found myself thinking about it a good deal and feeling troubled by it. It has made me revisit the issue of the writer’s responsibility to other people.

Strauss first met the Zilkes when he attended Celine’s funeral, which was excruciating for him.  He acknowledges that his presence complicated Celine’s parents’ grief with the question of how they should treat him at the funeral.  “A possibly brave act for me, but awful for them.”

He describes the initial meeting with Mr. Zilke:

In the long moment before he found words, and as he took my hand, Mr. Zilke settled on an expression, a hard-won glint of: I will be friendlier than you have any right to expect me to be.

It occurred to me in reading this difficult scene that it was being filtered through a tremendously subjective narrator, which I suppose is true of everything in memoir. But I didn’t completely trust Strauss’s recounting of Continue reading “Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?”

Rachael Hanel’s “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” plus Two Questions

Hanel_cover_small (1)The cover of Minnesota writer Rachael Hanel’s memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, is curiously upbeat, practically gay, with its jokey title in bright white, yellow, aqua, and salmon letterings. A better cover to my mind would have been a skull, for truly this book is a memento mori. Maybe the cover designer was a Minnesotan who, like the folks from rural Minnesota whom Hanel captures so knowingly, was afraid to face the real subject, death and its bride, grief. Maybe the cover designer thought it would put readers off to sense how dark this book is.  But to me that’s its great strength.  Death was the school of Hanel’s childhood, and she tried to learn its lessons. But when it struck suddenly and close to home, she was brought to her knees, finding nothing in her education had truly prepared her for what personal loss and grief really feel like.

Hanel grew up in Waseca, the daughter of Digger O’Dell, who had a grave digging monopoly in that area of south-central Minnesota, digging more than 100 graves a year. Her father, Paul Hager, took the name from a character on the Life of Riley.  He loved the outdoor work, having spent the prior 14 years from right after high school slopping pigs and cleaning manure off concrete floors with noxious chemicals. He and his wife also mowed and tended the cemeteries, often accompanied by their three children. Rachael was three when her father became a gravedigger, so she grew up playing around headstones, learning math by subtracting birthdates from end dates, seeing toys and balloons people left on babies’ graves, and studying the mystery of death, captured in the photograph of a young girl in a locket on one of the gravestones.

It didn’t strike her as anything special or unusual to have a gravedigger for a dad, and she says, at least in the beginning, that spending so much time around graves and being exposed to so much mortality didn’t bother her.  Her parents were modest, practical, hard-working people with a secure and respected place in the community. Death and burial were just part of life, just what they did, and it didn’t occur to them that their impressionable daughter might be affected by so much exposure to death, nor would they have known what to do about it.

But at least as this memoir is shaped, Hanel was affected by all the death, to the point of being somewhat obsessed with it.  She was certainly on her own in processing it; death wasn’t discussed and people in that area, “stoic Germans and Scandinavians, reserved northern Europeans who wore stony faces for the world while they withered inside” taught her nothing about how to deal with her own grief, when it came to her as a staggering blow.   She was fifteen and her father forty-six when he died in great pain within three days of being diagnosed with cancer. At the real heart of this memoir is the story of a daughter’s love and loss, and the aftermath.

Hanel recounts an incident when she was five years old, standing at the grave of her uncle, being horrified that his daughter Michelle was actually sobbing in public. This raw emotion frightened the young Rachael, who “felt as embarrassed for her as I would have felt had she been physically naked.” This is her first glimpse of the real pain that accompanies death, the first time she grasps what losing a loved one can mean to someone:

The cemetery took on a different meaning. It became more than an expanse of lawn marked with jutting granite and marble teeth, more than just a place where Dad and Mom worked. It was no longer the place where I sat in the pickup with my books until I could go home and play with my Barbies. Instead, the places where I watered flowers or picked up sticks were the same places families like Michelle’s had stood. Holes were opened to receive their bounty, then closed forever. Bodies rested below me, invisible tenants.

But it is only when she experiences the death of her father that the enormity and confusion of death is truly brought home to her.

Continue reading “Rachael Hanel’s “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” plus Two Questions”

The Still Point of the Turning World: A Moving and Uneven Memoir

The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp

Emily Rapp was a creative writing student of mine at St. Olaf College in the early 1990s.  She was an unusually gifted writer even as an undergraduate, standing such head and shoulders above the other students that it was a given that she was headed for a successful career as a writer.  She was also lovely, a beautiful, vivacious redhead, delightful in every way to the extent that I knew her.  She had just about everything she needed already in place: a keen intelligence; a gift for language; a rich, complex sensibility; and a literary style and voice already well developed.  The only thing she lacked was age and experience.  Time would take care of both of those.

She did indeed go on to a distinguished career as a writer and professor of creative writing.  In 2007 she published a memoir called Poster Child, which, for reasons lost to me now, I never finished reading.  I think the subject matter, her experiences with having her left foot amputated at age four due to a congenital defect, and losing her entire leg by the age of eight, didn’t engage me sufficiently.  Of course it is about more than that—about living with a disability, about self-image, especially as a female, about acceptance of one’s body, no matter if flawed.

Emily now has a new memoir out which is getting a lot of attention, such as a full-length, positive review in The New York Times Book Review.  She was on the Today Program (I know because we’re friends on FB), and the book is being widely reviewed and well received.  The memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, traces her ordeal and grief over the shocking diagnosis in January, 2011, that her son, Ronan, nine months old, had Tay-Sachs disease, an always fatal, genetic, degenerative disorder that usually results in death by the age of four or five.

At the suggestion of a friend, Emily began blogging about her experience.  The blog, Little Seal, (“Ronan” means “little seal” in Irish) was named one of the 25 Best Blogs of 2012 by Time Magazine.  Emily had found a great outlet for the turmoil in which she was swept up, and an appreciative, sympathetic audience.

Still Point has some of the most moving, beautiful writing that I’ve read in any grief memoir.  Especially in quiet moments with Ronan, she captures the heartbreaking sadness of losing her baby bit by bit:

I stopped for a moment and gently removed his hood. I let the wind ruffle his red-blond hair and I looked at his sleeping face and I rocked him for a bit in the sun.  We kept walking into a tunnel strewn with dry leaves where both our shadows disappeared and we were alone.  I stood still and listened to his breath and mine.  I felt a momentary flash of peace, a great still pause.  T.S. Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world,’ and of course this terribly tender love, and I thought, This is all I have to give, and I tried with all my strength to pass that feeling into Ronan, and then I thought, Remember this.

But too often in the book, at least for my taste, there is something manic, perhaps a bit hysterical (and why not!), repetitive, and overly Continue reading “The Still Point of the Turning World: A Moving and Uneven Memoir”

WILD: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — a Wonderful Memoir!

Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail
Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an amazing and wonderful book.  It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s beautifully written, so skillful in its craft, and so deep in its heart and feelings.   I found it totally engrossing, entertaining, and moving.

I think you would find it equally fine, but I do admit I’m prejudiced.  Cheryl was a student of mine in a graduate level fiction writing class in the fall of 1990, when she was senior at the University of Minnesota.  It was that following spring that Cheryl’s mother died of lung cancer, forty-five days after her shocking, unexpected diagnosis, at the age of forty-five.   When Cheryl came to my office to tell me, we both cried.  I have never seen anyone as heart-broken.  Even at twenty-two, Cheryl was one of the best students I have ever had. There was something so special about her, so bright and receptive, mature, warm, talented, and genuine. I felt honored to know her and call her a friend.  I recognized, as anyone would, that she was already on her way to being an exceptional writer.  Over the years she worked hard at developing her talent, with a commitment and sacrifice few people are able to muster.  She published some knockout essays, and in 2005 she published an excellent autobiographical novel, Torch, that deals with her mother’s death. But it is with Wild that she has achieved a spectacular success:  Knopf’s lead spring book; rave reviews in The New York Times, the NYTBR and just about everywhere else; a spread in Vogue; foreign rights sales in many countries; a big book tour; the movie rights bought by Reese Witherspoon; and #6 on the NYT nonfiction best seller list this week. None of this is a flux or some literary form of mass hysteria.  People are responding with such “wild” enthusiasm because the book actually deserves it.

The memoir braids the surface story of twenty-six year old Cheryl hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone with the emotional back story of losing her mother, having her family disintegrate after her mother’s death, and her own subsequent “wilding,” in which she began having affairs, got into heroin, divorced her young husband whom she loved, and changed her name to Strayed, because, as she puts it:

“I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

She’s terrific at capturing the physical aspects of the hike itself, but what creates a lot of the poignancy and power of the book is Cheryl’s ability to capture her inner life, the exploration of the past that has brought her to this necessary journey alone and on foot. She convincingly tracks her internal movement along the trail from damaged and wounded to strong and whole.   Both journeys—the external and the inner one—are incredible feats of fortitude, effort, pain, and authenticity.  I certainly felt that I had traveled with her, so intimately does she let us into her life and self.  Her voice is so authentic and so at her service, her technical skills so highly developed, the pacing and structure so skillful, her persona so honest and appealing, the memoir is a joy to read.  It’s also a great model for memoir writers in how it weaves the forward action story with relevant, resonant passages of back story that give weight and meaning to that forward action.

It was four years after her mother’s death that Cheryl hiked the PCT.  The idea had come to her almost randomly, it seemed, in the midst of her own downward spiral, into sex and heroin.  She describes her experience with heroin:

“It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like I’d found an actual planet that I didn’t know had been there all along. Planet Heroin. The place where there was no pain, where it was unfortunate but essentially okay that my mother was dead and my biological father was not in my life and my family had collapsed and I couldn’t manage to stay married to the man I loved.

“At least that’s how it felt while I was high.

“In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand. In the morning there weren’t only those sad facts about my life. Now there was also the additional fact that I was a pile of shit.”

It is in the midst of this crack-up that she decides she has to walk the PCT alone. On the hike she understands the connection: Continue reading “WILD: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — a Wonderful Memoir!”

Joyce Carol Oates: Laura Ashley and Mudwoman

Innocently browsing through our Minneapolis Star Tribune one morning (March 19), I came upon the “The Browser” column, which consists of short book reviews.  Suddenly my eyes grew large in horror.  Joyce Carol Oates has published a new novel.  Lord help us!  By some counts it’s her 38th.  She’s sort of the literary equivalent of that California woman who gave birth to octuplets.

It’s called Mudwoman, which does not bode well.  Here’s the review:


By Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 428 pages, $26.99)

Madness and malevolence squirm on almost every page in Joyce Carol Oates’ 38th novel, a sprawling tale that showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Oates, 74, one of America’s greatest living novelists. Mudwoman is M.R. Neukirchen, a brilliant university president who is haunted by memories of the abuse inflicted by her birth mother before she was adopted by a genial Quaker couple. M.R.’s adulthood is plagued by nasty, intrusive strangers and disturbing events, many with ties to post-2001 U.S. politics and policies. Oates’ dark brilliance is ever evident in her main characters, complex souls with mysterious corners in their psyches, and in her cartoonlike minor ones, who are usually dangerously undereducated and undermedicated men with yellow teeth, beady eyes, dirty hands and bad grammar. But “Mudwoman,” which Oates’ publisher is touting as one of her “giant” novels, is deeply flawed. Characters you’re sure will become pivotal instead just disappear. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether Mudwoman is doing or dreaming, as in one nasty scene in which she dismembers a “conservative” colleague. And Oates’ moments of genius get lost in the time-hopping, dash-heavy narrative. Still, a failed novel by Oates would be a masterpiece by many another writer, and her chief themes — that demons denied or ignored inevitably will rise up to sabotage an individual or a nation and that human nature is rarely admirable (“What is man? A ball of snakes,” she quotes Nietzsche as saying in her epigraph) — are nothing to sling mud at. PAMELA MILLER, NIGHT METRO EDITOR

Reading this description of the novel, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or scream.

Now here’s a quote from A Widow’s Story, her memoir about the death of her husband and the experience of becoming a widow unexpectedly:

“Despite my reputation as a writer my personal life has been as measured and decorous as Laura Ashley wallpaper.”

Mudwoman vs. Laura Ashley.  It gives one pause.

One of the things I was interested in tracking in A Widow’s Story was what JCO revealed about her writing life and her imagination.  I’d love to know what it is that drives her, how she found the time to write as much as she has, and maybe most of all, why and how “Laura Ashley” produces so much violence, rape, incest, suicide, and psychological darkness out of an apparently measured and decorous personal life. Continue reading “Joyce Carol Oates: Laura Ashley and Mudwoman”

Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: On her Marriage to Raymond Smith

Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith

In my first post on JCO’s A Widow’s Story I focused on her experience of trauma and grief following the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith.

Now I want to look at another aspect of the memoir that fascinated me: her writing about her marriage and husband.

I don’t think you can ever really see inside other people’s marriages, which doesn’t mean we’re not interested in trying. I also think writing about one’s own marriage is a “challenge” best avoided! Given this memoir’s “situation” –Oates’ husband’s sudden death– and the “story” (to use Vivian Gornick’s terms)–her emotional, psychological and even physical survival in the year after this event, Oates would naturally have to write about Ray and the marriage. But some of what she wrote felt as if she were revealing maybe more than she intended or was in control of. Memoir requires truth, honesty, and exposure. But I think the best memoirs are ones in which the reader feels the writer has processed the material sufficiently and understands it deeply. I’m thinking, for example, of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, about an incestuous relationship with her father. The material in that memoir seemed so digested by the author that it didn’t seem creepy. At least for me, I didn’t feel I was seeing things that the writer was unable to see herself. I was spared the unpleasant feeling of being a voyeur. At times in Oates’ memoir, I did feel uneasy, and even troubled by what she was revealing.

To her credit, JCO was willing to explore and expose things about her marriage and Ray in her efforts to understand them, and to tell the whole truth as best she could. It does make for fascinating reading, perhaps because it isn’t so digested and under control. There is no doubt, given the pro she is, that Oates made editorial decisions about what she wanted to include and what leave out. Undoubtedly she would have had opinions from her editor and others about the material too. I wonder if she has any regrets about it now.

Early in the memoir, pg. 8 in fact, Oates introduces the theme that will continue throughout the book, of feeling that she didn’t really know her husband, despite their having been married for forty-eight years:

“…we’d felt, through our long marriage, as if we’d only just met a few years before, as if we were ‘new’ to each other, still ‘becoming acquainted’ with each other; often we were ‘shy’ with each other; there were many things we did not wish to tell each other, or to ‘share’ with each other, in the way of individuals who are only just becoming intimately acquainted and don’t want to risk offending, or surprising.”

I found this fascinating and a little bewildering. On the one hand, she writes of her intense love for Ray and profound feelings of loss at his death. On the other hand, she returns often to this idea that she didn’t really know him:

“I am beginning to think Maybe I never knew him, really. Maybe I knew him only superficially—his deeper self was hidden from me.

“In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious—unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews, rejections by magazines, difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers—disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily/hourly basis!—it seemed to me a very good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?”

This struck me as a curious way to conduct a marriage. Apparently he didn’t know her any better than she knew him, because she kept so much to herself. As she notes, “…he did not read most of my fiction and in this sense it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely—or even, to a significant degree, partially.” She muses on this:

“I regret it, I think. Maybe I do.

“For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness.

“But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.”

She wonders “…if I’d spent too much time in that other world—the world of my /the imagination—and not enough time with my husband.”

Given her stupendous output of writing, she must have spent almost every waking and unconscious moment in her imagination. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. It appears that she and Ray were both people quite compatibly caught up in their literary endeavors, she as a writer and teacher, he as editor of the Ontario Review and the press they began together. They shared a domestic life that suited them well. There was apparently no conflict, and if there were crises in the marriage, they are not mentioned in the book. They had a settled, fixed, predictable marriage that was apparently very close in some ways, despite their not knowing quite a large part of each other’s inner lives.

They called each other “Honey.” Continue reading “Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: On her Marriage to Raymond Smith”

Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Painful, Powerful, Rich Memoir

A Widow’s Story

I’ve finished reading Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir A Widow’s Story, though I’m far from being finished with it.  I don’t know when I’ve bookmarked a book more.  It’s full of striking passages that I want to revisit and share with you.  I felt riveted by the unexpected loss of her husband, and the vivid, impassioned depiction of her “posthumous” life, as she describes it, in the moments, hours, days, weeks and months following his death.  The memoir is first and foremost a purge of uncensored grief, but it’s also revealing, more so perhaps than she intended, about herself and her marriage, and it gives glimpses into her life as a writer.  I’m fascinated by JCO in part because of her mind-boggling prolificacy (a word I learned from the memoir).  From a quick scan of her bibliography, I count that she’s written 26 novels under her own name, 11 under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, 23 short story collections, 10 poetry collections, 8 novellas, 9 plays, 15 non-fiction books, 5 young adult novels, and 3 children’s books.   It is impossible to understand how this is even possible!

Oates’ husband of forty-one years, Raymond Smith, editor of the Ontario Review, was seventy-seven and quite fit when he came down with pneumonia.  Joyce recognized that something was “not-right” and drove him to the Princeton Medical Center.  In less than a week he would be dead from a secondary infection contracted in the hospital there.  She’s brilliant at capturing the nightmare roller coaster of his hospital stay, all the while expecting that he would be shortly discharged and life would resume.  At one point she gets a shocking phone call from the medical center that Ray’s heartbeat has accelerated and they haven’t been able to stabilize it.  Does she want extraordinary measures to be used to keep him alive?  At first she’s so stunned she can’t speak, but then is able to stammer Yes! Yes of course!  Do anything you can to save him.   A “sickening feeling of vertigo” overcomes her and she falls against the dining room table and onto the floor.  This is “the first unmistakable sign of horror, of helplessness—impending doom.”  In an italicized section at the end of the chapter, a device used throughout much of the memoir to highlight the insights of the seasoned widow looking back, she recounts that she acquired from this fall an “ugly bruise of the hue of rotted eggplant and of a shape resembling the state of Florida…” but the widow will almost forget this terrible phone call, “For soon there will be so much more to recall, from which mere fainting onto a hardwood floor will be no reprieve.”

The memoir proceeds in present tense, which gives it dramatic intimacy and immediacy.  Indeed, it is impossible not to identify with Oates as if the reader is living through her story also.  “Now into my life—as into my vocabulary—there has come a new, harrowing term: Telemetry.”  Ray is moved into this unit adjacent to Intensive Care, where over the next few days he appears to be recovering.  But E.coli sets in in his right lung, and Joyce will receive another shocking call at night, waking her from sleep, telling that her husband is in critical condition, and again asking if she desires extraordinary means to keep him alive.  Her husband is still alive, according to the voice on the phone, and in a panic she drives to the hospital.  “In the ghost-white Honda I am veering over the yellow line into the other lane, for some reason I am having difficulty gripping the steering wheel—my hands are bare, the wheel is cold yet the palms of my hands are slick with sweat.  I am having difficulty seeing, too—the road ahead, in the Honda’s headlights, looks smudged.”  We are caught in the same grip of fear and disbelief that she describes, even as we know the outcome.

What follows is as painful as anything I’ve read: the shock of finding her husband already dead, the disbelief of not hearing his voice saying Hi honey when she enters the room, her “pleading with him as a child might—‘Oh honey what has happened to you!—what has happened to you!—Honey? Honey?’”   Oates’ ability to render the dissolution of the self she has known, the sudden plunge into the totally unknown and terrifying universe of losing her husband, with the shock and disorientation that accompany it, is amazing and heartbreaking. Continue reading “Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Painful, Powerful, Rich Memoir”

In Which I Try to Figure Out How and Why I Choose Certain Books to Read

What to read next?

In my last post, I talked about how there are a million books out there to read (and listed some places to read reviews of them).  Then I got myself in trouble by saying I wanted to give more thought to how and why I choose certain books and that I would report back.  Now I feel obliged to report back, not that I think anyone is holding his or her breath.  Turns out I don’t know why I pick books, beyond certain X factors that seem to vary from book to book.  It’s usually a combination of things that reach a critical mass: maybe the subject matter or theme; maybe I’ve loved other books by the author; or maybe I’ve never heard of the writer and am curious; maybe the title; maybe a rave recommendation from a reader/friend; maybe a glowing review; maybe it’s a book by someone I know; maybe the number of times the book crosses my radar.  There are other more mysterious X factors, no doubt, such as something about the writer’s sensibility I am attracted to, picked up almost subliminally from somewhere, or something in myself that isn’t quite conscious.  When enough of these elements come together around a certain book, I decide to read it.  Nothing too mind-blowing there.

I should state my biases up front.  I mainly read literary fiction and memoir.  I’m not proud of this, it’s just a fact.  I admire people who read more widely than I do, but when I read a book it’s probably going to be a novel or memoir.  That’s because I’m trying to write fiction and memoir myself.  There’s a never ending fascination with how other people do it and the hope that some of how they do it well will rub off on me.  Anthony Doerr puts it this way: “Reading is everything to me as a writer.  It’s where I go when I get discouraged, when I forget why it is I wanted to be a writer in the first place.  And books are where I go when I want to be reminded of the mystery and magic of our shared language.”  I read books that are going to feed the writer in me.  I’m not interested in books that aren’t well written or literary, in the sense that some attention is paid to style and language.

Right now the book I’m reading is Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Story.  I picked it because I wanted to know about the experience of becoming a widow.  I know many people who have lost their partners.   I really can’t imagine what that is like.  This past June my cousin David Bates was killed suddenly by a falling tree (June 29th 2011 post), making his wife of  40 years an instant widow.  I have witnessed the excruciating sense of bewilderment, loss, grief, anger, and adjustment widowhood has thrust upon her.  I fear becoming a widow myself.  Reading about it is an attempt to gain some insight or perhaps preparation for what seems unimaginable, but which happens all the time.  It could happen to me.

I had read an excerpt of A Widow’s Story in The New Yorker, so was familiar with it.  At the time, I didn’t feel particularly interested in reading the whole book.  But I recently read Blue Nights by Joan Didion, about the death of her daughter and her own aging.  One of the themes I’m attracted to in books is loss.  Loss, death, aging…I’m a barrel of fun.  I read Didion because I wanted to know more about the experience of losing a child, another loss I can’t imagine.  I had read her memoir on widowhood, The Year of Magical Thinking, several years ago and reading her again somehow brought to mind Oates’ memoir.  I hadn’t read any autobiographical writing by JCO, so I was curious to see what that writing was like.  The New Yorker piece had seemed raw, unmitigated by the passage of time, as straightforward as its title.  I thought A Widow’s Story might bring me close in to the experience of widowhood and I was right.  I’m riveted by the book.  I’ll review it in a post here when I finish. Continue reading “In Which I Try to Figure Out How and Why I Choose Certain Books to Read”

One Million Cats, One Million Books: What to Read, Continued…


Millions of Cats

As a child I loved a book called One Million Cats.  A quick Google search reveals it was a picture book written and illustrated by Wanda Gág in 1928.  It won a Newberry Honor award in 1929, one of the few picture books to do so.  One Million Cats is the oldest American picture book in print.

But enough factoids.  This is a great book!  An elderly couple is lonely and the wife wants a cat to love.  So her husband goes out to find one, and comes upon a hillside covered in “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.”  The old man can’t decide among all the cats which is the most beautiful.   Each seems so lovely he’d like to keep them all. He goes back home with all the cats following him.  Just imagine the illustrations!

To five year old me, this was a thrilling story.   It still is.  A million cats!  Not even one too many.  In one of those kick-in-the-pants ironies that Life loves to serve up, my sister–who was allergic to cats when we were growing up, so that we had to keep our cats outdoors (which worked in South Carolina)– now has just slightly less than a million cats.  She has about six or eight at home (strays find their way to her door with amazing radar), runs a no-kill cat shelter, and feeds feral cats at a colony, while cat-crazy me married someone who is allergic to cats and can have none.

One Million Cats came to my mind as I was contemplating writing about how people, myself included, find and choose books to read. Continue reading “One Million Cats, One Million Books: What to Read, Continued…”