Sunday, September 25, 2011

When Apples Go Bad: Part-2

  1. Explained situation to first Apple Customer Service Rep.
  2. Informative, polite exchange leading to transfer to a rep. who could look into the specifics.
  3. Transferred to Dave.
  4. Explained more in-depth, took picture of IPod, emailed Dave.
  5. Dave explained policy, issued a special code and explained the exception.
  6. Dave took notes of the exchange and determines the store needs to be held accountable for their behavior.
  7. I am impressed.
  8. Happily awaiting package to return and exchange my daughter's broken IPod.

Baltimore Book Festival (Repost)

If you've been within a mile of Mount Vernon Place this week; if you've visited the library, a book store, a friend with a book; or if you’ve perused the Sun, the City Paper or b, chances are you already know The Baltimore Book Festival is this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
I’m honored to be reading with Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, writer, editor, Hopkins professor and advisor. We’ll be at the CityLit Tent from 1:45 to 2:15 as part of their School of Lit .
School of Lit features faculty and students from some of the area’s finest writing programs. Joanne and I will be reading nonfiction essays, short stories and talking about Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs MA in Writing.
I hope to see you there.

Things I Want My Children to Know

1. I love them more than I can say.
2. I am so proud of them.
3. It’s a pleasure watching them grow as individuals–even though it means I will no longer be the center of their lives (and, yes, I am oblivious enough to believe I am now the center of their lives).
4. I enjoy engaging in conversations with them (which is not the same as arguing with them, see things I learned from George Bush).
5. They are talented, beautiful, wonderful children who will grow in to talented, beautiful, wonderful adults who will never try to force me in to a nursing home (unless it’s a really nice one where I can write for hours on end while watching the ocean from my ocean-view apartment).
6. They are destined for success.
7. They can tell me anything.
8. I will always love them.
9. I will not always be right, but that won’t always stop me from offering my opinion.
10. Never stop learning.
11. Make new mistakes, there’s no sense remaking the ones I have already made (and, made quite well thank you).
12. Don’t let any one decide your dreams (not even me).
13. No one has the power to make you fail.
14. Make the decisions that will make you proud, not popular 

Things I Don't Want My Children to Know

1. Each night I check to make sure they are breathing.
2. I am capable of doing unspeakable things to people who hurt my children.
3. I am not as nice as they think I am.
4. Dating wise, I’m far more shallow than they give me credit for. So, while my daughter worries that I don’t take an interest in the men we encounter at the market, the mall, the local McDonald’s—I have seen them (often before she has) and dismissed them.
5. The rest of the things that I don’t want them to learn by reading this, smiles. 

Things I Learned From George Bush

My household is a Momocracy. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. Of course, I have the burden of making sure my terrorists are actually terrorists. So, I’m faced with the burden of proof, truth, and evidence…ok, so maybe I didn't learn that from him

Points of Interest: Eden's Lounge

I will admit that more than a decade has passed since my days of sneaking into clubs using ID of questionable validity.  So, I was surprised when I discovered this past weekend that the days of sensuous, flirtatious moves on the dance floor have been replaced with the need for condoms.

Good Points
1.      Harem-esque d├ęcor gives the lounge an aura of the exotic (though the moves on the  floor are closer to erotica)
2.      Two for one Happy Hour and no cover until 9.
3.      Parking lot across the street.
4.      Diverse crowd ranging in age, income, and dateability.
5.      Dark enough to just have a good time without worrying how fine (or not) the guy you just passed was.
6.      Clean, available, and easy to locate bathrooms.
7.      While encouraging a certain type of intimacy the crowded dance floor does not encourage lingering conversations.

Not-So-Good Points
1.      After two drinks those steps become treacherous.
2.      While there are many places to sit, under the air conditioner is not one of them: Depending on where you sit, it leaks.
3.      Tables located around the dance floor seems like such a good idea, until a mixed drink comes cascading towards you.

When Apples go Bad, Part 3

1. The FedEx box arrives within a few days of talking to David.
2. My daughter packs the iPOD Touch in the box and sends it off while she frets over how long she can survive iPOD-Less
3. I receive an email that the iPOD has been received and is undergoing diagnostics
4. A few hours later, I receive an email that her iPOD is dead, Apple is sending her replacement.
5. A day or two later, the package arrives, daughter and iPOD are reunited (well, sort of) and all is well with the world, until
6. My daughter receives an odd phone call from Aaron claiming to be from Apple regarding a mix up at the post office and the need for her to return the iPOD.
7. I get on the phone.
8. The misunderstanding is understood as soon as an adult gets on the phone; “Aaron” was probably not from Apple or was he a disgruntled Apple store employee a bit miffed that we went around procedure?
9. Contacted David to let him know all was well and mentioned the odd phone call.
10. While he didn’t address the phone call (either it happens all the time or he didn’t want to get into it), he followed through and has earned Apple 3 potential iPODers.

What I've Learned from EBay

1. I am far too competitive for my own good.
2. It’s not about the merchandise, it’s about the game.
3. It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as it’s me.
4. Always read the item description.
5. Read the seller feedback: if no one else had a good experience with the seller, you won’t either.
6. Calculate the shipping.
7. Ask for clarification before you bid.
8. Never bid on impulse.
9. Never bid more than you can afford to pay.
10. Propose the unexpected bid: $4.56, $7.97, $11.26—I have won things I wanted (and didn’t want) by bidding the unexpected. 

Chatty With Beattie (An Overly Long Overview)

The first word that comes to mind when considering Beattie is chatty.
I have encountered few characters who consider themselves and their surroundings, circumstances and pasts so completely and as often as those entombed in a Beattie short story.
In The Women of This World, a short story in Beattie’s “Perfect Recall” collection, we learn about Dale, her thoughts about her medical condition, her talent for cooking food she can not consume and for selecting drink for others that she can not indulge in. She considers everyone: her neighbor who ends up dying, her would-have-been father in law, her mother in law, her would-have-been-father-in-law’s soon-to-be-ex wife and her own soon-to-be-ex-husband. What she does not consider is her marriage, which is ironic because her husband (who seems to have very little going for himself) is considering leaving her.
I find some of the short stories of Beattie’s collections difficult, narratively, to follow. Beattie has a talent for, or an addiction to, slipping from character to character within the same paragraph. I find I appreciate knowing what different characters are doing, or why. I like the different angles of a story—I just prefer them in different paragraphs or chapters.
In Flechette Follies, a 100 page short story leading her 2005 collection “Follies,” my head begins to ache when Beattie introduces a police officer a page or two after the accident and by the next paragraph, “The driver of the car was Nancy Gregerson—Gregerson having been her married name. Her maiden name, not resumed after the divorce, was Shifflett. The town was full of Shiffletts…”
At this point, I am tempted to skip to the end. But, my curiosity leads me to read more. Why is Beattie significant and to whom? And, for whatever reason I like her, but while I’m reading her, I don’t know what it is I like, so I have to keep reading to figure it out.
Relationship conflicts seem to be a favorite theme for Beattie. In Cat People, a “Perfect Recall” short story, the narrator—who does not seem to have a job but does seem to have some sort of psychosis—is married to a painter who paints live models who according to the narrator: all “come to love” her husband,” (136). The couple is renting a house (transients seem to be another Beattie favorite). Next to the house they rent, there lives a couple for whatever reason trapped in a marriage of extreme compromises: she wants cats, he wants to kill cats. Love is never mentioned and neither is anything else that would make it likely that this couple would stay together—except her mental condition: Which is more pronounced than the narrator’s is. The narrator may not be insane, my proximity to all that she considers is.
In the stories I have read, very little is revealed through dialogue. The absurdities pile up in Cat People: brother and sister modeling in the pool while an old man paints them; fighting neighbors throwing things and cursing at cats; cat jumping through the hole in the fence over shooting the hole and landing in the pool; model acutely afraid of cats; cat circling the woman “like a shark” (138); woman getting hit in head with an apple; strings of her bathing suit breaking; police…it gets to feel like too much, too many hands in the pot, I mean plot.
I am thankful for the slim dialogue. It makes the stories feel genuine and less stifling. Her characters, like real people, say one thing and feel, think, experience another. But, in several of Beattie’s stories, the narrator, the omniscient third person or the talkative first person, knows and reveals what feels to be an exuberant amount of information, about everything.
Several of Beattie’s stories have paragraphs that span half the page, Flechette has one that spans the entire page (page 12) and another that spans the length of page 14. There are a lot of clues smashed into a Beattie paragraph, still, I stopped reading. But, while skimming the story, I begin to see the promises of psychology fulfilled. Wedged between Nancy’s reflections on her screwed up relationship with her drug-addict son, Nicky, and Lawrence aka George’s back story, there is a page and a half long paragraph that tells of Nancy’s brief marriage, miscarriage, potential annulment and eventual pregnancy (with the aforementioned loser): “She never slept with him again, though—as she suspected—she was already pregnant.” Lines like this, I think, continue to make Beattie formidable in contemporary fiction.
When skimmed, there is a tension in Beattie’s stories that is lost when read word for word. She seems to enjoy weaving her characters, bringing them close and then having them go their separate ways (but not, of course, before delving deeply into their circumstances) and bringing them close again: in that, it reminds me of Nevesky Prospect. I find the psychology most intriguing: the things her characters think, their motivations.

Other Beattieisms:
Unlikeable, self-absorbed characters—it’s almost refreshing to encounter stories where learning something about the human psyche, not liking the characters, is the motivation for reading—almost.

Avoids the obvious:
Beattie throws people together: the mother with the wayward and finally missing son with the spy/government operative…and while the obvious thing, at first, would be to have him find the son, by the time you finish digging deeply in their closets (they are both single) you imagine they will meet again for sex. But, no. They meet again to find the son. What is not obvious is that this professional, will be hit by a bus.

Reading Beattie is similar to reading Mann, Roth, and (Sophie’s Choice): The narrative makes me textually claustrophobic. The experience of being too intimately acquainted with someone reminds me of the diaries—except, I liked those. Perhaps what is different is that since her characters are not necessarily going into mental descent, it feels cluttered. Not uncomfortably close because I learn their weaknesses, I expect that, but that there are so many weaknesses, so many external and internal conflicts within one short story that it feels outlandish, gothic and perhaps Gogolesque.

In a May 2005 Times review of “Follies,” David Means recognizes, “Beattie’s minimalist style, an extension of Hemingway’s technique of omission.” I didn’t quite see that. Means continues, “In her new collection, ”Follies,” Beattie struggles mightily to break out of a minimalist straitjacket she fashioned years ago. Sometimes she succeeds — a few of these stories are her strongest in years — and sometimes she does not.”
In their author bio, Barnes and Nobles compares Beattie to Carver: “Her stories, like those of minimalism’s famous poster boy (and Beattie’s good friend) Raymond Carver, are composed of simple, declarative sentences teeming with irony and finely observed detail; also like Carver, she is a nonjudgmental narrator, completely detached from her characters and their actions and meting out contextual clues to be interpreted by the reader.” This is true, sort of.

New York
Key West setting
Adult themes (examples…chains, bike…bad-girl boots)
Counter culture
Fate, psychics: destiny as motivation for characters or a mechanism to draw characters together and then have them acknowledge and act on it.
Current events (pauses, but does not reflect, on)
Sex and sexuality

Reviews: Beattie is consistently reviewed in the Times, though I have to say I read her work without prejudice (without reading the reviews), so I was surprised that they reacted much the same.
In 1976, J.D. O’Hara declares Beattie, [regarding the New Yorker]:“the best new writer to come down that particular pike since Donald Barthelme.” Of her first collection of short stories, “Distortions” the Times reviewer calls Beattie, the “artist of situations, not plots,” (Times) praising her ability to “renew for us the commonplaces of the lonesome lover and the life of quiet desperation.” What, to me, feels chatty and cumbersome in some of her other works, is hailed by O’Hara—in regards to Beattie’s first novel “Chilly Scenes of Winter” as: “the quietly elegant shape of its reporting.” (August, 1976).
Just over a week later, in another Time’s review of both “Distortions” and “Chilly Scenes of Winter” Anatole Broyard delivers my sentiment completely: “I have been trying to decide whether Ann Beattie’s stories are good, or only fashionable. After some painful–it was painful–deliberation, I came to the conclusion that they are both, but that she could, and ought to, make them better.
A 1997 Times review of “MY LIFE, STARRING DARA FALCON by the infamous Michiko Kakutani, also seems to successfully peg Beattie’s writing:

the memoir within the book:
“This pathetic memoir, called ”My Life,” is unfortunately an uncanny mirror of Ann Beattie’s own novel, ”My Life, Starring Dara Falcon,” which similarly alternates between eye-glazing trivia and mind-boggling melodrama. Indeed Ms. Beattie’s novel embodies the worst flaws of her early and later fiction: the meaningless chatter and anomic cataloguing of the mundane that could turn her weaker stories into formulaic exercises in alienation, and the schematic narrative pyrotechnics that have made her less successful novels awkward and contrived.”

After relating how tedious the characters and plot are Kakutani compares Beattie’s characters to the issues Updike deals with, the result: “The problem here is that Ms. Beattie treats this conflict with the subtlety of Jim Carrey, turning her characters into caricatures and her story into a joke.”
Although not talking about the ending, Kakutani says: “Halfway through the novel, Ms. Beattie is resorting to symbolism so heavy-handed that she might as well have spelled out everything in italics for the reader and appended footnotes.”
While Beattie credits Kakutani’s review as the reason she no longer reads them, there was good news to be found in this review, mainly that not all of her work is received this way. According to Kakutani:
“This unlucky character isn’t the only thing to have disappeared from this novel. Nowhere to be found are the maturity and melancholy wisdom that have distinguished Ms. Beattie’s finest recent work. Gone, too, is the bright, glittering dialogue she could spin off with one hand…An ill-conceived experiment, ”My Life, Starring Dara Falcon” must surely mark a low point in this gifted writer’s career.”
It should be noted that a later work received more favorable reviews.

In her Folio interview.
On what makes a short story successful: “What makes a story successful for the reader is not necessarily what makes it successful for the writer…I think a story is successful if you really appreciate the shape of it, the weight, the clarity .
On graduate writing programs: “I have mixed feelings about writing programs, as I think most professors and students do. On a good day, when I’ve explained more about a student’s work than she or he knew and also come up with a solution for how to fix whatever problem I see (the smart ones rarely listen to exact advice, which is entirely right)…
On Past and newer (1998) writing styles: “I think a lot of the difference between my newer work and the older work is that I would have tried to imply some of those things before.”
On the very problematic matter of details: I think that [these details] are slightly tedious, but to some extent they have to be included for verisimilitude.
I write about relationships but I tend to leave a lot to the imagination or to interpretation. I am interested in the psychology of relationships, but not in showing a lot through back story. I am trying to find the balance between what I need to know and what readers need to know to get something out of each story.
Writers she has influenced:
According to Kakutani (Times, April, 2005), her style has inspired other writers in that it has “resulted in elliptical narratives free of authorial comment but filled with fistfuls of contemporary details and bright shards of dialogue.”
Like Bobbi Ann Mason, Beattie has been categorized as writing “Kmart realism.”
On endings, Beattie says: “want the reader to be haunted by what’s already happened, not by the last-minute fireworks, as it were.” [Regarding Follies]. I find her endings often unsettling. In Talk, the summary ending: Marie and Brenda, both at different, yet similar points in their narratives, see one another. In what Marie thinks is shame, Brenda pretends not to see her. The ending, the final forcing together of these two extremes, one living youth, the other perhaps reliving it, feels plotted. The ending: “she looks at Jacob, who stands hands-on-hips, jaw set, gazing with narrowed eyes after the drunken fools who could easily have hurt themselves, while the people on William’s substantial boat would have remained unscathed.” The point perhaps is that they are not unscathed; they only appear to be so. It is a conclusion reached before the narrative reaches it.
In, Cat People, the parrot –which escaped during the fiasco around which the story revolves—returns on its own: “It looked well, and seemed to be enjoying its freedom…I would swear that it winked. The moment it said ‘fifteen’ it flew away, having a more distinct idea than most of us when it should leave and perhaps even where it should fly (146).
The story goes beyond what feels like the natural ending. It reaches the point of summary the “in case you missed it…” Kakutani accuses her of in other stories.
What I am impressed with:
Beattie is everywhere.
Born in DC in 1947, first story published: A Rose for Judy Garland’s Casket” in the Western Humanities Review in 1972 (Weber)
In 1974 “A Platonic Relationship,” The New Yorker. According to Folio interview, they had rejected 22 of her stories before publishing that one, and after that one, they published a slew of them. Attended graduate writing program at University of Connecticut.
Chilly Scenes of Winter (Novel) 1976
Distortions (collection) 1976
Secrets and Surprises 1979
Fall in Place 1980
The Burning House, 1982
Love Always, 1985
Where You’ll find Me: And Other Stories, 1986
Picturing Will, 1989
What was Mine, 1991
Another You, 1995
My Life Starring Dora Falcon, 1997
Park City, New and Selected Stories, 1998
The Doctor’s House, 2000
Perfect Recall: New Stories, 2002
Follies: New Stories, 2005
Follies for the New York Times, (Anthology) 2008
Also, many stories in the New Yorker (many short stories published), and journals like Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as many anthologies.
Ann Beattie has published 16 novels and short story collections.
She has been included in John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century and has received the PEN/Bernard Malamud Award for lifetime achievement in the short story form. (Simon Says)
“Her awards include one in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980), Distinguished Alumnae Award (1980) and Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree (1983) from her alma mater, American University, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980” (Weber)
Beattie has had books adapted in to movies: Chilly Scenes
Makes a living as:
Writer and Creative Writing professor at University of Virginia (as of 06)
What I have learned:
Endings: I often wonder on what note to end the story, it’s quite simple once I think the story through verbally.
On endings: end it at the end.

Follies; Perfect Recall, Talk (Ploughshares) and below links plus:
NY Times Articles
Swapping Family Tedium for Ruthless Narcissism

Wish I Could be Anywhere but There: A Review of “Wish I Could Be There”

My intention was to write about Shawn’s choice of structure. But, I can’t. To discuss the structure, I would have to discuss my aversion to it, my inability to concentrate on anything more than a superficial level on topics of medical intimacy. It is a response that overcomes me often in conversation and to my surprise when breached in text. I tend to “tune out” during conversations pertaining to medical ailments, recovery, accidents, and treatments. I find it impossible to focus; impossible to choose to engage in these conversations. Only for my children will I actively experience the discomfort of such discussions. For all others, I listen, or appear to, while concentrating on something, anything, else. I do not endure the enclosure: their despair confines me. It is not a phobia. I do not require, like Shawn’s father, a shroud of protection from all things yucky. I acknowledge broken bones, reset noses, cancer. But something about these brushes with medical imperfection or mortality causes my mental retreat. Unlike Shawn, I do not seek to analyze this. It is something that limits neither my enjoyment of the world nor the world’s enjoyment of me. It is merely something that is.
Yet, because of my aversion to all things medically intimate, I find I cannot engage on a meaningful level with those portions of Shawn’s text that are not narrative. In the narrative I see Shawn and his parents interact (or not) and I know my judgments are skewed. I am taking the information Shawn chooses to show (dialogue, responses, actions) and not fully acknowledging the information he chooses to tell (medical evaluations, hypotheses, analysis). The psychological and physiological citations, explanations and justifications are meant to provide access in to the Shawn’s psyche, to provide causality. I find this dissection painful. Through narrative, I visit and revisit Shawn at certain experiences in varying perceptions. I then revisit (or feel as if I do) the same situations psychologically or biologically. So that I am repeatedly thrust uncomfortably close and my mind rejects it and retreats.
Shawn’s choice to infuse his memoir with the analysis and theories of others seems a way, as he claims, to present his life abstractly so readers can identify but not blame him for choices. It also feels, as he also admits, to be an incomplete account. Because of language, voice and the limited amount of events actually covered, this account, which he likens to the overlapping sections of the brain, is complete with many sections of grey. But, I wonder if there isn’t more to it. I don’t get a sense of the writer on the page. I get a sense of his humor, his struggle with his phobias and the accomplishments he makes through his narration but not throughout the text.
Perhaps I would find it comforting if he had reached a point where he actively takes charge of his own life. Still, I have to appreciate Shawn’s honesty in admitting the scope of the text. In the foreword, I am able to appreciate the painful process of subjecting yourself to textual analysis and the courage it takes to do it. As a writer, from this text I take away the need for courage and for strength. If I was able to face (though not overcome) my aversion to medical intimacy by reading Wish I Could Be There, I’d like to think he at least came to terms with his phobias by writing it. 

On A Gathering of Old Men

If I had to sum up A Gathering of Old Men in 65 words or less, I’d say: Charming, seemingly simple, straight forward, unflinching, direct language used to describe, relate, show, tell, lead and allow readers to glimpse racism through the eyes, hearts and souls of fifteen narrators struggling to escape a point in time that so happens to be in Louisiana in the 70’s but is so widespread as to have been almost any where decades, years, months or weeks before.
Several things strike me as being notable about Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, mainly the narration, the dialogue, and the subject. A few weeks ago, a classmate mentioned they felt writers cheated by writing about emotionally charged issues like racism, but I have to disagree. Topics like racism have been written about from almost every imaginable angle in both fiction and nonfiction so the idea is not necessarily to right a wrong or write a wrong; but to make people care, to touch them so that they can learn something from it, feel something from it: that’s writing, and with A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines has done it. I have to admit being intrigued by the subject matter made me eager to read the book; racism and oppression always stir emotions in me so I expected the book to be easy enough to read through. Yet I wasn’t quite planted in the book from page one. There were a lot of characters for me to get to know and not a lot of time to get to know them, the rhythm of the book, perhaps helped by the short chapters, simple (yet complex to duplicate) dialect and short sentences with very little poetic imagery and even less metaphor kept me whirling and interested, but not emotionally vested.

That came much later.
The way Gaines presents characters is astounding. Take Janey, when I meet her through Snookum and Miss Merle, one of the first things I know about her is that she has pride in her work, “But I knowed Janey woula killed me if she even thought I was thining ‘bout coming in that yard,” (p.8) I know this because Snookum tells me and because Gaines shows Jack and Bea as being removed from the present, would they know if Snookum was in the yard? She also has respect for other people and their titles and expects children to be respectful: she expects Snookum to call Candy, Miss Candy and Lou, Mr. Lou. This is a bit sketchier than it appears on the surface. As I am writing I find myself wondering if she doesn’t correct Snookum when he says Mathu and Beau because they are black and Cajun or because she is in shock, and her composition is rapidly deteriorating. Through her own eyes I learn that she is spiritual or at least that she calls on the Lord an awful lot in times of trouble, and I didn’t get the impression that those are the only times he hears from her. I also learn that she is persistent and responsible, at any moment she could have stopped trying to call Lou and Miss Merle, but she doesn’t give up. Despite the strength of her religion, Miss Merle shows Janey’s faith as faltering when she orders her to give her the names of people who don’t like Fix, but to me that also shows her intelligence. She knows she can trust Miss Merle, but she knows her well enough to know that trust has a point.
I learn much more about Janey and the other characters through their eyes and through the eyes of the characters around them but more importantly I learn a lot about them from what they don’t see, and that’s when I learn to care about them: after knowing their wants and needs, their limitations and dreams, their mannerisms and actions, all of a sudden and all at once I know them. Gaines shows characters through their dialogue, their motivations (not just motives), through their triumphs and losses, revealing them from the inside out and thus humanizing them, planting them firmly in their world.
I was interested in the subject matter from page one, but I cared about the characters from page 29, while watching Mat and Chimley decide to risk life for the possibility of LIFE, and I cared not just for the overall outcome of the story but for the outcome of each character. I imagine Gaines has a chart listing each character with their wants, needs, motivations, desires, history, skin color, tragedies and triumphs so that at any point I believe he knows more than he is sharing with the readers, as if there is more behind the curtain, and as a reader I appreciate that and as a writer I strive for it. I realize a story flows more fluidly when I know more about my characters, when I take time to chart their motivations, I have their guidelines and I can place them in situations and have them act based on their character, or in spite of it. I realize I need to work on distinguishing my characters from one another, as Gaines does, with dialogue, tone and attitude. I want to create stories people can care about, can get vested in and a good place to start will be my chart of characteristics. The first step for building a believable character, is believing in them myself, from there I can take them anywhere. 

Humor on the Rocks: A Review of The Tender Bar

Despite what I know as a reader and a writer, when I think of memoir I think of revealing journals, reflective diaries, intimate letters and scandalizing intimacy: no more, no less. I think of memoir as a label as necessary as “scrapbooking”: both are terms used to define something as simple and as complex as our primal need to understand and to be understood. But as far as labels go, when I hear them I tend to dismiss them reflexively. Like other memoirs introduced this semester, The Tender Bar refuses to be dismissed. On the surface, in The Tender Bar, Moehringer blends the story of his attempts to replace his absent, alcoholic father with his attempts to plant himself among the ever-present alcoholics of Publicans (formerly Dickens) bar. But it doesn't stop there. Within the pages of Moehringer’s cocktail, the search for identity mixes with thick layers of responsibility, love, success and defeat. The combination is intoxicating.
With a distinctive voice, Moehringer introduces the hand he is dealt: a struggling, single mother; an emotionally and financially stingy grandfather; a loving, verbally abused grandmother; a gaggle of cousins led by a harpy of an aunt; and an alcoholic, gambling somewhat neurotic uncle. He offers no visions of grandeur, few explanations and even fewer excuses. Yet, in this reflective essay, Moehringer offers the reader the wonderful gift of humor. Humor laces his struggle to protect his mother; his attempts to forge an identity among the men of his life; his challenges at Yale; his first attempt at seduction and his first entanglement with love. While an underdog worthy of Uncle Charlie’s infatuation, JR’s humor is what hooks me. I wince when JR’s father stands him up, the first time. I laugh through his bookstore education. I understand Dorothy’s intricate relationship with poverty. I exhale as JR finally reads Yale’s acceptance letter (though I know it will come). I cheer when JR finally frees himself from Sidney (though I am quite surprised he gets her at all). And when he seemingly breaks the New York Times tradition of not promoting copyboys, I exalt: that is until they don’t offer him a reporter job (yet). I celebrate his every triumph. Of course, his descent in to alcoholism is disturbing, but he reveals it with humor and I know Moehringer will be just fine.
Moehringer’s humor is not self-deprecating. He laughs at himself and at others, he laughs at his choices and at his actions, and he laughs at his expectations and illusions. I’m so busy laughing along with him that I don’t feel myself reeled in completely until he presents his mother with the Yale ring. I am so proud of this kid until he, as his coworker says, “fucks up” again. Moehringer keeps few secrets from his readers. While I am not surprised that he gets in to Yale; gets Sidney (ok I’m surprised that it happens at all not by the presentation of it); gets his heart broken; and gets an eventual position at the Times, I don’t doubt them in the way I might if they had not been carefully set up. There seems to be no haphazard occurrence, Moehringer leaves nothing to chance. By the time a more mature, sober Moehringer revisits Publican’s, I recognize what he has paid to come back: he has shown me.
Moehringer’s realization that he has in his mother what he has been searching to recreate in others, is one of the greatest gifts I receive from his memoir. I appreciate the tying of loose ends, the sense of closure. I recognize that my reading his memoir is as important to Moehringer as his writing it. So, as a writer I receive two lessons from The Tender Bar. First, it is important to be able to approach myself and the characters in my life with humor. Humor adds my tone, my voice to my experience. If what I put on the page doesn’t sound like me, it isn’t worth saying it. Secondly, I learn that lessons, like experiences, are to be shared. So perhaps through this memoir, I have learned to define memoir, and by extension my need for it. More than a collection of snapshots and experiences, memoir is the sharing of lessons. It is the chronicle of where emotionally, mentally and physically I am and of what I paid to get here. 

Double Talk: A Review of Double Down

Somewhere someone, maybe not even a writer, has figured out the precise point where all memoir should begin. And somewhere someone else has figured out no such point exists. It should be easier to begin a memoir. If a memoir is about an experience, it would seem logical to begin at the beginning of the experience. But because experience exists within context, such beginnings aren’t really beginnings, are they? I was pleasantly surprised when the brothers Barthelme began Double Down not in the crib, but in their days of maturity, a few slender pages before they discovered their addiction. I enjoyed the brief introduction and the plunge to the present. Throughout most of the memoir, the narrative is conversational, the tone unhurried. While the pace is steady (not rhythmic) the chorus of “we” unhinges me every time. Still, from the beginning, something about the language has me interested as a reader and as a writer. By entering Double Down on the edge of the authors’ experience, I am intellectually, though not emotionally, vested in the characters—to a point.

As a writer, I have to know where the narrative leads. Before that, I worry about where to begin. Opening too far before the center of the experience may reveal more than I intend. Opening later may give me the opportunity to add color to otherwise shaded narrative. Opening too late means I have to double back and fill in spaces to bring the reader to the point of the narrative. Maybe there is no one way to begin my memoir. While I like the sense of starting it where the experience begins, the problem is separating the experience from its context. The Barthelme’s choice to begin the narrative just before their gambling spree feels like the perfect beginning. And maybe it is the best choice for this story, but because the narrative takes such a repetitive, almost obsessive turn, it feels like the problem stems from the opening chapter. To create context the narrators often revisit the same event or thought. It feels as if there is no theme, no solid ground. There is an undercurrent in the narrative that carries the “I blame my father” stream a bit too far. Instead of rushing in to the past, the brothers choose to back in by sharing glimpses of their parents and glances of other characters. From there, they delve deeper in to their mother and deeper still in to their father. Finally, as they reach the height of their gambling, they point out, again, that they blame their father for their belief that nothing is, for them, impossible.
By starting the narrative as they settle in to Hattiesburg, they risk the readers’ sense of direction and time. Switching between the gambling scenes and the non-gambling scenes, I often lose track of when things are happening and how much is at stake. There is something to be said for the linear narrative. Specifically, the narrative often travels between their father’s death to the casino floor, and back. I lose track of how getting charged for attempting to cheat a casino is a significant period of their life. More than that, I don’t get the sense they realize how significant this event could have been. It seems they chalk it up to an experience, a warning to fellow academics. While they do eventually stop gambling, it is, according to them, because the magic is gone. There is no warning: don’t risk more than you can lose; don’t lose more than you can risk. Instead, there is the warning: don’t expect too much of your kids. God forbid they live up to your expectations. I am disappointed because I have a suspicion that the memoir is not complete. Double Day does not live up to its ambitious beginning.
I haven’t given up on the idea of starting a memoir at the moment before the experience unfolds. No matter where I enter, I need to be sure to fill in relevant information and to return to the narrative. Most importantly, I need to decide where my memoir begins. 

On Black Like Me

I can not count how many times I finish reading a passage, only to realize I have been holding my breath. I can no longer recall how often my eyes well with tears as a conflict unfolds. I can not remember how often a smile creeps across my face at the vision of a carefully crafted scene. But, I will not soon forget the feelings inspired by John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Through details, setting, language and tension, Griffin has created a narrative that reaches beyond his experiences as a white man with black skin to the experiences of black and white American History. Griffin exposes the side of history that fades the otherwise crimson, virginal and bold colors of our country’s flag. He embarks on a racial research endeavor that teaches him more about himself and more about people in general, than he expects to learn. What unfolds for me is both historical and intimate. The pages breathe.
Seldom do we discuss race. Griffin takes us in and out of the homes of our black and white neighbors. He moves physically and mentally closer than I have been to people of either race, and does so in glimpses that feel more like meals than mere mouthfuls. He is often in the awkward position of justifying the actions of the characters he encounters: Griffin reveals people. By capturing people within their social, political, ethical and racial surroundings, he is able show them as meaningful characters—while not (often) undermining their intentions. Griffin shows us people in their own elements and for the most part, let’s them sink or swim in their own words. Griffin’s is an interesting experiment. I don’t know that I am a skin color away from my neighbor. I don’t think I consider skin color as the only aspect of what defines me as a black woman. As Griffin learns, people exist outside of their skin color. They conform to circumstance and opportunity, they respond to fear and succumb to hatred.
When I write, I write from the vantage point of my experiences and perceptions. Griffin certainly starts with the self. He doesn’t end there. As a writer, I appreciate Griffin’s examples of launching with the self and moving through history and culture in a way that includes political, economical, social and racial perceptions, experiences and motivations. And, Griffin, like no other nonfiction writer I have read, uses the elements of fiction to create an historical nonfiction narrative in a way that saddens, infuriates, and inspires me. Griffin uses the overarching natural tension between black and white and the tensions that exist between his travelling from one realm in to the other to create moments that I will endeavor to duplicate. Suspense slips upon me even at times when I have all the details and know all of the characters. I find my breath catches at the thought of Griffin being harmed or revealed. That tension takes talent to maintain: and Griffin has it.
I am revitalized by this work. Through details, sensory observations and imagery, Griffin pulls you in to uncomfortable images, and makes it impossible to turn away. Griffin’s language and style set scene after scene of despair while not sacrificing the beauty of language: “A burned-out light globe lay on the plank floor in the corner. Its unfrosted glass held the reflection of the overhead bulb, a speck of brightness (page 69)” I can feel the overwhelming weight of gloom chronicled within page after page. Yet, Griffin sprinkles humor where humor is due. The text is balanced.
Reading this work, this topic of race as experienced from someone who knows he is no different black than he is white, offers a perspective I seldom think on. While racism is still a reality, this narrative captures experiences I seldom heard from my grandparents. I rarely glimpsed them as victims. My soul is left whole though bruised from the reading. Griffin has created a work that feels intimately close to him and to history. He brings us closer to the psychology of racism and perhaps face to face with our own psychology. I am so thankful to have read this work. Its language gives me hope for my place in literature teetering as I do between the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. I don’t aspire to change the world with my writing, at this point I can only aspire to change me. 

Indecent Disclosure (or Dis-Clothes-ure): A Review of Self Made Man

There is something slightly disconcerting about Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man. I am not unsettled by the lengths she goes to deceive people in to believing she is a man, but the lengths she goes to dispel them of this notion. The blurb on the book jacket claims Self-Made Man follows the traditions of Black Like Me. I beg to differ. Vincent alters her personality and identity to become Ned with the intention of building and studying his relationships. Griffin alters his skin color to study the actions and reactions of people based on their own perceptions. Vincent’s deceptions are for a book, she claims nothing less: While Griffins are for society. Perhaps the difference is one of degrees. How far will a writer go for a story?
As a writer, I have reservations about how far I am willing to go to create a story. I understand from Vincent’s qualifying first chapter that her intention to write the book is based on her curiosity and struggle with gender roles. Despite her summary conclusions at the end of each experience, I don’t buy that this experiment is not a more personal endeavor. The struggle I have is with disclosure, or the business of telling people you are writing about them as a part of your research: as you write. It’s self editing at its finest. Vincent deceives people, and then tells them about her deception. She studies their reactions to write about them. If the relationship alters after she tells them, she writes that too. Maybe it’s not that base. Maybe I don’t understand her sudden guilt, her sudden need to disrobe.
Something is happening to America. There is a return to honesty, to confession in relationships. And I, for one, do not like it. I am an avid believer and staunch practitioner of denial. I have never cheated on anyone, emotionally. I have never been compelled to tell any man anything other than what I wanted him to believe. And when I have been tempted, I find a conversation with myself typically cures my need to tell all. This is not the attitude I employ with friends and relatives, possibly because I don’t sleep with them. But to anyone I am physically bound, I am deceptive.
I have lied to boyfriends and husbands. Sometimes for their own good but mostly for mine. Relationships are based on such imperfections. So, I do not understand Vincent’s need to tell Ned’s bowling team, dates, brothers of the monastery and the self-realization group that she has included them in a textually crafted lie. What does she gain by hurting them? What do they gain by knowing the truth? For me to understand Vincent’s need to reveal Norah, I would have to recognize it as the hostile act I find it to be. I don’t see where one character, name changed to protect his identity, is better off by knowing of her deception. Many of her characters are bewildered and hurt when she tells them she is really a man. Supposedly most are relieved once she explains about the boo—I doubt that.
While I have issues with the lengths Vincent goes for this story, she reminds me that people are not characters. They don’t exist to enhance my narrative or to provide suspense or tension where none exists. I have fallen in to the temptation of viewing myself as the author of my own novel. That view provides me the ability to make choices, to view possibilities, to rewrite endings. It also allowed me the audacity to view people as characters, replaceable ones at that. My memoir, if I choose to write it, will represent people, events, lessons and experiences and I’ll write it when I’m ready. I won’t ask permission of those whose narratives intersect with mine. But, I won’t deceive people for the sake of enhancing my own story. 

For the Sake of Our Daughters: A review of How to Cook Your Daughter

Seldom do I wander the pages of someone’s life and so intimately witness what my presence has cost. The privilege of intimacy is paid for by the writer. The cost can be exacted in currencies of privacy, friends, family, self-esteem, confidence, courage. How much is the story of my life worth? Am I willing to pay that price? How to Cook Your Daughter costs Jessica Hendra her privacy, her relationship with her father, and hopefully, her guilt. Within the pages of her memoir, Hendra unravels her life: the motivations behind her bulimia, anorexia, and her often destructive relationships. Incest expertly knots threads of guilt and shame into a jumble of insecurity, silence and anger. Writing this book allows Hendra permission to be angry with her father; and permission to let him go. Finally, Hendra sheds the vows of secrecy to which she is bound.
That’s not quite true. Hendra’s rape is not a secret. She tells friends, lovers, and therapists. She confronts her father on numerous occasions. She does not, however, find the same salvation Tony claims. Choosing to publish gives Hendra a voice. For Hendra, exposing her father means winding down the pathways of her past. It’s a rickety ride. But, it is necessary. According to Hendra, she must publicly confront her father in order to stand up as a mother. Hendra knows the repercussions: Tony’s denials, accusations and anger; the public’s intimate knowledge of her; the impact on her daughters. Still, she does something Tony won’t; she acknowledges he raped her, and that it is wrong. Writing her memoir takes a courage I wasn’t sure Hendra possessed. When we meet her, she is still vulnerable despite her roles as wife and mother. But she summons the courage to publicly challenge his “confessional” memoir.
Still, I have to ask if after 32 years it was worth it to publicly reveal her rape. And I have to answer, yes. According to Hendra, she doesn’t reveal the rape to attack her father’s selective memory. She tells the truth to establish truth in her family; to make truth the legacy she passes on to her children. She tells the truth because her father has denied his impact for too long.
It is a noble statement: if I choose to write a memoir, it will be for my children. I would like to think my memoir will serve as an entry to what defines me. But maybe not. For my memoir to act as a framework of my life, I would have to be dead. And to be honest, I would like to have all of my important conversations with my children the old fashioned way, while I’m living. I like talking with them, sharing with them, interacting: the language of parenting. But for when I’m not here, when all that remains are my words, I would like to leave a memoir. Still, it haunts me that my words will float without context or interpretation on slender pages turned by tear soaked –I am dead after all—fingers.
While my children provide a noble cause, I will have to write my memoir, for me. As a writer, I’m not sure what I take from Hendra’s work. What I take most from How to Cook Your Daughter is not as a writer at all: it is as a woman and a mother. Hendra’s childhood reminds me of the awesome responsibility of motherhood. Through Hendra’s experiences, I am reminded of the choices we make for those we love: of the obligation to make choices. I respect Hendra for writing How to Cook your Daughter for her daughters. I worry, that she could not write this for herself. But because of her systematic unfolding, because she reveals herself as a character rarely in charge of her own plot, I understand. While it may take me some time to realize the writerly benefit of How to Cook Your Daughter, I take what I need from it one page at a time. 

On Matters of Necessity: A Review of Necessary Sins

There is a point where loved ones, once removed from the cumbersome stresses of life, appear in memory as innocent, guileless ghosts we were blessed to have known: as angels. Such is as they appear in Necessary Sins. Death is deceptive like that. Death is forgiving in a way memoir, or the reading of memoir, is not. Lynn Darling’s Necessary Sins introduces a not-so young woman and her pursuits of a not-so single man. Darling portrays young Lynn as a college girl curious about sex and life; and her position in both. Perhaps she is a late bloomer. Something—her breasts, her sense of self, her appetite—develops and gone are the vestiges of youth. Though Darling doesn’t seem to know that. An insecure Darling graduates from Harvard but not from the collegiate lifestyle as she tumbles from one bed to the other well in to her late twenties. Her exploits in to sexual and social identity seem to last well beyond the time self exploration is expected. Yet, Darling curiously chooses to dismiss her actions as a sort of rite of passage: she confuses choice with youth.
As a not-so young woman, her conquests include the accomplished and the dangerous. As an inquisitive Washington Post writer who seems to question her own worth more than anything else, she eventually pursues Lee Lescaze. Darling portrays Lescaze as an innocent, though willing, bystander in his own seduction. The seduction is lingering, or as slow as seduction can be when the object of the seduction—no matter how willing—is a married coworker. Through a devious or remarkably amateur device, (she sends him flowers with a signed card), Lescaze’s wife, Becky, uncovers the affair. And so does the Post.
There is no discussion of why Darling sends the card, or why Lescaze keeps it, or even of why he leaves it for Becky to find. This memoir does not explore intention or motivation. Either way, within a few pages, Lescaze is Darling’s. With her pendulum personality swinging predictably between adolescence and adulthood, of course by then she isn’t sure she wants him. Courting danger is intoxicating, but having it move in with you is an entirely different experience, and chapter.
Several times in the narrative Darling points to her youth. It is both the aphrodisiac and the elixir for Lescaze. At times, he is attracted to it, they both are: At times, he is repelled by it, they both are. Most of the time they seem to dangle from a ledge. Lescaze’s spiral continues through alcohol and the distance he places between his actions and his children. Darling doesn’t dally there. While it is the death of his son that seems to bring him closer to his daughters, it is his dying that brings him closer to readers.
But, it is in Lescaze’s death that Necessary Sins is a love story. Finally, Darling becomes real, but only here. Throughout most of the narrative, she is remote, deceptive. Darling is not a reliable narrator either because of the way she chooses to remember the past, or the way she chooses to reveal it. There is something keeping me from gaining access to Darling. I’d like to think it’s not judgment. Lynn Darling writes, I think honestly, about loving and losing Lescaze to cancer. And while she writes about remembering him now as a man, it’s not evident on the page.
The Lescaze Darling reveals does not reflect on his own decisions. And I don’t believe it. Their seduction seems to rely on words, on images, on fantasy. Am I to believe their reality relies on ignorance? The discussions: What are we doing? What have we done? How will our marriage be different?—don’t happen on the page. In fact, I have little indication from the text that they happen at all. Often, Darling does show the tender strains of marriage. She shows where the fairy tale of what I imagine she expects, does not add up to her reality. Still, I don’t see Lescaze’s divorce and the indecision; the doubt and the departure: I know these things because they are implied, not explored.
Hers is not the story of the wake. Darling prefers not to witness the damage caused by choices. Darling’s is the story of her time with the man she loves. In that, it is satisfactory. If I look to gain nothing more from it, I should be satisfied. But because I believe she is holding something back, because I believe it is unfair to present only the memoir you can bear to part with: I am not.
Darling’s memoir has inspired few criticisms. Either out of respect or malice, neither the Post n
or the Times published an online review of the book. Insightful, honest, poignant, compelling. The few respectable reviews published online strike a familiar chord. They all ring slightly out of tune. According to Kirkus Reviews, Necessary Sins is a “multilayered memoir…probing the ethics of adultery and portraying an enviable, mature marriage.” Darling does not probe. She unobtrusively recalls, she recounts, she relays; she does not probe. Or rather, she does not probe where she does not want to. She analyzes her own behaviors to a degree. Darling doesn’t question the ethics of her affair. What Darling does is to show the seldom seen heartache, despair and helplessness in watching the man you love die.
I do not believe Darling accepts Lescaze’s role in the affair. Darling seems to blame her youth while ignoring the possibility of Lescaze’s downward spiral as a contributing cause. I cannot agree with Deborah Donovan’s 2007 review on Booklist: Darling “opens an achingly honest window onto her life…an emotionally rewarding read.” As I say that, I realize it is not entirely true that I don’t believe it. There are parts where Darling holds nothing back. She is vulnerable in ink as Lescaze dies, often shifting from anger to understanding. She is real there. In other places she is guarded. She is not ready to let the reader in.
While I do not agree with Vanessa Juarez’s EW review: “Though Darling glazes over her insecurities with self-deprecation…” Darling’s dissection of her insecurities and self-deprecation about her writing are amply sprinkled throughout the text. I do agree with her that “the narrative is most revealing when she lets her guard down.” If Darling dared to do that more often, her memoir would be compelling. Perhaps, like editor Alexandra Jacobs says in her review in The Observer: “Lynn Darling’s sins may indeed have been necessary. This book was not—at least not for anyone but herself.” Darling’s gift with Necessary Sins is not as she claims to her readers to be “a memoir about screwing up and growing up, about the way our mistakes and embarrassments often teach us more about ourselves than our success ever can.” It is the gift of knowing when to love someone, and what, in the end, is worth holding on to.
What else is really necessary?

Sunday, July 6

 I have just finished Rachel Sontag's memoir.  I would describe it as an "easy read" if only to be obnoxious.  I read it eagerly at times and at other times with trepidation, not because of what she said but because of what I thought she meant.  Devouring the pages there were lines that brought tears to my eyes, lines filled with meaning on the edge or underneath it, lines focused and clear and precise.  Then there were lines with innuendo or suggestion, where a hint of something terrible was not nearly enough.  

If I were talking to Rachel, and after 200 or so pages I know her fairly well enough to call her by her first name, so if Rachel and I were talking I would have to ask her to tell me exactly what was going on.  The implication is that her controlling, perhaps over protective father was drugging her mother and perhaps sexually attracted to his daughter, though instead of acting on these impulses (thankfully) he exerted control over her appearance, her actions and most sadistically and brutally her self esteem and self worth.  It was a malicious cycle of abuse where her father dictated harsh, untrue and hurtful things for her to write, internalize and sooner or later believe.  It was definitely abuse.  Her mother, often drugged either by him or by her illusions of love, stood idly by, when she wasn't trying to kill Rachel. 

And yet, there is an implication that the father, who prescribed drugs for his mother and kept codeine liked in a safe at home (why?) and looked at his daughter and thought obscene things about her, had an unusual attraction to Rachel of which his mother was jealous of.

I'm not sure where Rachel is when we meet, psychologically I mean.  She has sought therapy but has not resolved the issues with her parents. She has reached the point where she can survive without oozing back in to their patterns and her sister has emerged from the well dripping with another problem, but there seems to be no self resolution.  There is the sense that that functions, but not that she has learned a thing.

This is a memoir that shows the reasons she has acted or reacted a certain way, it is an answer perhaps to a question she was asked by a lover she had no way of answering, other than like this, thus we have Rachel.

Very close to intimate, very close to healed.

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