Madness, Rack, and Honey

Madness, Rack, and Honey
Collected lectures
by Mary Ruefle
ISBN: 9781933517575

The title grabbed by attention, as did the cover design: boldly set type with the M and that first comma nearly squeezed off the edge, with soft not slick paper. It feels good and hefty in the hand: this is a booklover’s book.

It would have been heartbreakingly disappointing if it wasn’t also a good book. Turns out it is a collection of lectures by a poet I wasn’t familiar with. Three hundred pages later I am still not familiar with her poetry, but I like the way she thinks, writes, and shares her mind at work.

I believe the poem is an act of the mind. It hink it is easier to talk about the end of poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind. The mind acts, the mind wills a poem, often against our own will; somehow this happens, somehow a poem gets written in the middle of a chaotic holiday party that has just run out of ice, and it’s your house.

It’s the running out of ice bit, and it being your house, that hooked me.

Ruefle pulls no punches. On the topic of the vague you is poetry, she has this to say:

Mr. Sterling asks a burning question: “After all, how can we know who ‘you’ is, if ‘you’ is, in fact, some ill-defined ‘I’?” I’d like to answer that: read the poem, use your noggin, and figure it out.

She lets her mind wander, she makes unexpected connections, she isn’t in a hurry. She talks about kittens and Las Vegas and Emily Dickinson. She knows why you are reading the book: “Everybody loves secrets — that’s why you are here.”

It is hard not to quote from every chapter, there are so many great lines, so many ideas that struck me.

On why she writes:

I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say”; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.

From “On Fear”:

Feelings are not subpar. On the other hand, lest we forget, let me repeat: to be more emotional and less cognitive is to be less evolved than the species is able to be. It is to be like a four-year-old child. Feelings seem to represent a place where emotions combine with intelligence and experience to create a highly personal thought process that results in an individual’s worldview. And that is where I want to take up our fear again.

I started reading this every night before bed; it was something to savor. Of course I finished by reading earlier and earlier in the day. I wanted to see more of what Ruefle had to ask (“In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”) and the strange-but-not-strange things she would say (“I remember “remember” means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.”)

It is early going, yet I am willing to say this will be one of the best books I read all year. I foresee rereading it. (I am going to explore her poetry, too.) Highly recommended, particularly for booklovers and artists.

The Accidental Masterpiece

On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
by Michael Kimmelman

ISBN: 0143037331

Kimmelman is the chief art critic for the New York Times, a fact I admit to not knowing until I read a blurb on the back cover. That’s right, I don’t really keep up with NYT art coverage. I do admit to doing Chelsea gallery crawls on the rare occasions when I am in New York, though. What I know about art falls more into the category of knowing what I like when I see it, being willing to surprise myself and see new things, and searching out more information when something catches my interest.

All of which is to say that you don’t need to have majored in Art History or have a membership at the Met to enjoy this book. Kimmelman can write, and he is more interested in telling stories and thinking, as it were, out loud than he is in being a snob and showing off. That he has been able to get access to things most people can’t is true: that he manages to make you feel not jealous, but curious is skill.

The frame for his essays is not so much the sweep of art history or the politics of the art world, but what I think are more curious concerns. These are revealed in the titles, all starting with “the art of”: making a world, being artless, having a lofty perspective, making art without lifting a finger, collecting lightbulbs, maximizing your time, finding yourself when you are lost, staring productively at naked bodies, the pilgrimage, gum-ball machines and other simple pleasures.

You don’t have to be familiar with the artists he writes about; his essays provide the necessary context. Seeing larger or color reproductions of some of the works he talks about would have been good, but then the book wouldn’t be the kind of paperback you could tuck in a small bag and read on the subway or in a coffee shop. I understand the tradeoff, and think it was the right one to make, even if it did make me wish I was perhaps reading this on my iPad, with links off see more about the artists or to zoom in on the detail of an unfamiliar (and they were pretty much all unfamiliar to me) painting.

If you are interested in thinking about art, or how to think about art in more expansive contexts, you’ll probably like this book. I did.

The End of Youth

by Rebecca Brown
ISBN: 0872864189

This book collects essays loosely woven together by the theme represented in the title.

What they are really about is understanding who you are now in relation to who you were as a child, to who your parents were then, and what that might or might not mean about who you are now. Brown is old enough (she was born in 1956) and apparently has done enough personal work to be recounting these stories without fierce anger or bitterness. Her parents are gone. They helped shaped who she is, but she’s the one responsible for living her life.

In the opening piece, Brown imagines a heaven for her parents. Not in the deeply religious sense, but in the “I’ve wished I believed in some place I could imagine them” sense. I was struck by this, though I haven’t imagined the same for my mother, who died nearly ten years ago. I understand the impulse to come to a place of peace, and that perhaps a new level of understanding the story of your parents may be possible once their story is over.

Another standout essay is “Nancy Booth, Wherever You Are” about teenage Brown’s giant crush on a camp counselor who recognized and shared her difference, and generously offered connection. Anyone who has firsthand experience dealing with depression will identify with “Description of a Struggle”. These kinds of stories, of the hard and good and hard and not so good moments, are hard to tell well. Brown is the kind of storyteller who can do this vital and important work, without it being in your face that is what she’s doing.

I’m glad I found this collection at forty. I probably would have read it, along with the stories I first discovered in college, and it wouldn’t have meant as much to me then as it does now.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

by Charles Baxter
ISBN: 9781555974732

I was impressed with Baxter’s earlier collection of essays (Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction) so I’ve been looking forward to reading this one.

One of the many things I like about reading Baxter on fiction is that he isn’t only a theorist or critic, he’s a writer, and a damn good one. (See two previous posts for examples: Believers or A Relative Stranger or get yourself to the fiction section of just about any bookstore and pick up whatever they have by him, maybe The Feast of Love.) He’s invested as a writer and a reader. A substantial part of the pleasure in reading this book is seeing how someone with Baxter’s investments thinks about stories.

He says what he thinks, which is incredibly refreshing. No attempts at profundity via obsfucation, no couching arguments in tortured theoretical constructs, he clearly articulates ideas and provides examples to illustrate his points. Genius, really, and fun to read if you are any sort of story geek.

So what is he up to? In his own words,

Think of these essays, then, as the reports of a private investigator, examining a few stories with a magnifying glass, looking for the secret panel, the hidden stairway, the lovingly concealed dungeon, and the ghosts moaning from beneath the floor.

I could quote line after line from the pages I dogeared, but here are just two, to show the flavor of Baxter’s writing:

Except for adolescent infatuations, which are too everyday, there’s nothing like a good usuable obsession to provide an interesting story. (“Digging the Subterranean”)

If you are looking for the soul, watch for bad manners, which are definitive. [talking about Dostoyevsky’s antagonists in “Creating a Scene”]

Okay, I lied — one more, because it is one of my favorites:

Fiction is that place where human beings do not have to be better than they really are, where characters can and should confront each other, where they must create scenes, where desire will have its day, where all truth is beautiful. Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual. (“Creating a Scene”)

It is one of my favorite lines because it gets at why I care about stories, why I want other people to care about and pay attention to stories: they are vehicles that let us be more human than we otherwise, sometimes, are willing to let ourselves be with each other. They can help make sense of the daily madness. What Baxter is doing in this book is helping to make deeper sense of stories, what makes them tick. Highly recommended.

Granta 80: The Group

Pictures from Previous Lives
published Winter 2002

I have a stack of old issues of Granta, most of which I have not read, but which I very much intend to read someday. Doesn’t every real reader have stacks of someday books in the house? For this particular issue, someday finally arrived a week or so ago.

It makes me wonder if someday will come sooner for the other issues I have lying around. I like the idea of bits and pieces – essays, photographs, a story or two – collected in themes. (I can spot Ambition and Beasts up there on the shelf, waiting, along with Truth + Lies, and others whose print is too small to decipher even at a squint.)

I was drawn to this one now because I’ve been thinking more and more about photography (as well as trying to go out and shoot more as I learn my way around the new camera) and it seemed to offer completely different ways of thinking about photography. Most of the essays in this issue use an old snapshot as an object to spark memories and stories: they aren’t about the aesthetic, artistic, or theoretical implications of the image as an image.

There’s one piece that is almost all images, and one story where the image is pivotal but unseen. Contributors recall being arrested in South Africa, being unemployed and hanging out in England, becoming a published poet in Nigeria. There are snaps of white and black farmers in Zimbabwe, of family groups, of children in what many would call a cult. Images from a war and from a seminary in Tennessee. The issue, as Granta put it, is what happened when “writers take out their group photographs and remember the best and the worst.”

So the photographs here are triggers for the authors. If you are interested in vernacular (“found” photos) this issue will be of interest. If you are a photographer by hobby or vocation, this is a very different context to consider images in – that of personal reminiscence, not usually from the actual picture-taker – about images and what they mean.

Fabrication

Essays on making things and making meaning
by Susan Neville
ISBN: 1878448080

This collection of essays turned out to be more on the philosophical side of making meaning than on the documentary side of making things. There isn’t anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Neville’s focus is Indiana, and how the manufactured/manufacturing landscape isn’t what it used to be. (I would have preferred a bit more digging into if it ever truly was, in the way I question if the 1950s ever truly were the way they are usually portrayed.) She visits a tomato canning plant, a coffin manufacturer, a glass works, a doll maker, and a goth night event at a hotel, among other things. Unfortunately, the essays sometimes read as though Neville was more in her head than she was really in these places. As a result, at times her meditations on meaning were overblown.

She addresses nostalgia, hope, progress, and difficulty in her essays. I wanted more grit. Oh, there was blasting heat of melting steel and the possibility of shattering glass, but not enough danger (even in the metaphorical sense). One kind of past has eroded, the present has questions, and the future is uncertain in Neville’s essays: if these ideas in a soft focus (versus sharp documentary) appeal to you, you’ll probably enjoy this collection more than I did. My hopes were high, but overall I was disappointed.

Stranger Than Fiction

by Chuck Palahniuk
ISBN: 0385722222

This collection of essays is divided into three sections: people together, portraits, and personal. The stories are gross, disturbing, full of longing, surprises, and wishes. This means they’re all about the kinds of things people do, think about, and struggle with.

I can’t imagine who else could bring together write ups of an outdoor sex festival in Montana, an interview with Marilyn Manson, taking steroids, building castles, psychics, and shaving your head going terribly wrong all in the same book. (And that isn’t even an exhaustive list.) I expected to like this book; the only other Palahniuk I’ve read so far is Lullaby, and I like that.

Thing is, I liked it even more than I thought I would. Reading nonfiction by a fiction writer I like can be a daunting proposition, particularly if I think the author is going to talk about themselves at all. What if they ruin the good feelings I have? The feelings I have about them or their writing based on knowing pretty much, well, nothing about them. What if I learn things I don’t want to know, and can’t unlearn? If the risk is high, so it the potential reward: I can wind up feeling more strongly about an author or their work. That was the case with Palahniuk and this book.

The guy starts off his introduction telling us, “If you haven’t already noticed, all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.” He keeps that straightforward, no bullshit, not embellished, just what you need and no extras thing going throughout the book, and it really worked for me. Recommended.

Vermeer in Bosnia

by Lawrence Weschler
ISBN: 0679777407

Weschler (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder) writes interesting and true stories. His essays are absorbing, usually contain something of the unexpected, and reflect craftsmanship. Whether or not you think you have an interest in Vermeer’s paintings, Polanski’s films, or Hockney’s polaroids, Weschler will grab you and hold you long enough to finish his story.

Vermeer in Bosnia collects bits Weschler published over the past twenty years or so, mostly in The New Yorker. In just over four hundred pages, he gets into “Oh ye of little faith” as metaphor, machine tolerances needed for obsessive furniture building, the most-hated journalist in Poland, the quality of light in Los Angeles, and belief in the Borrowers, among other things. If you appreciate odd connections, well-written nonfiction, and are open to seeing possibly familiar things in new ways, read this book. Recommended.

Somehow Form a Family

Stories That Are Mostly True
by Tony Earley
ISBN: 1565123603

This book is a collection of personal essays, though Earley isn’t entirely comfortable with that description. Personal, these days, often means a “predisposition toward narcissism” and that really isn’t an attractive idea to a good writer. Also, what he wrote here doesn’t follow the definition of essay he learned in school.

And for these things I want to say, Thank God.

I’m grateful for Earley’s collection of mostly true stories. I’m grateful he’s willing to look at how he grew up, at the people and places he came from, and talk about them in a way that makes me recognize them, even though I’ve never set foot in rural North Carolina. (Though I, too, have family members that say peaked.)

The power of recognition that Earley inspires is surprising. The stories he tells are so grounded in particulars (is there another way to talk about shooting a cat?) they cause something to fire off in my own brain, a kinship based on the insistent truth of family stories.

Earley writes about his family in a way that isn’t showy, that isn’t looking to capitalize on some kind of otherness. He talks about pain without being stoic and manly, and also without wallowing and melodrama. He’s just a guy, doing the best he can. He sees Ann B. Davis — Alice, from The Brady Bunch — and wants her to talk to him like she’s Alice and he’s one of the kids. He knows that “stories in real life rarely end the way we want them to. They simply end.” He’s quiet, he’s an observer, he’s a writer, and he’s giving us a peek inside his head.

He’s a guy with a talent for clean, honest prose. No tricks, none of that fancy meta-consciousness crap, no games. His style here will be familiar to readers of his novel Jim the Boy — spare and unaffected. What he offers are just human stories worth listening to, because they are worth telling. Highly recommended.

How To Be Alone: Essays

by Jonathan Franzen

ISBN: 0312422164

Jonathan Franzen may always be known for getting himself disinvited from the Oprah show and book club. He’s a relatively young man (early forties) as authors go, and no doubt has many more books and publically-recorded “misstatements” to come, so one can’t be sure. This book, as a collection of essays, gives Franzen the opportunity to explain himself, reveal his thinking in a more nuanced way than may be possible in an interview.

But he doesn’t say much about Oprah in these essays. I found this a bit of a disappointment as well as a relief: I had more than a sneaking suspicion that Franzen was an asshole, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted my suspicion confirmed. Generally, I don’t care to know much about writers as people. I care about what happens between the covers of their books, not what happens between their ears when they aren’t writing. So essay collections by fiction writers hold an odd attraction for me: do I want to know what they are thinking when they write, if it isn’t fiction?

Franzen says all the essays in this collection (over a dozen, the book weighs in at just over 300 pages) have the same “underlying investigation”: “the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.” This is a broad enough topic that it can be said to cover all the essays in this book, from the one about his father’s Alzheimer’s to the one about the Chicago post office, to the one about his reading of The Recognitions as well as the one about a supermax prison.

Being a writer, of course Franzen winds up saying a lot about writing:

“The will to record indelibly, to set down stories in print, seems to me akin to the conviction that we are larger than our biologies.” (“My Father’s Brain”)

“Because imaginative writing is fundamentally amateur. It’s the lone person scouring the trash heap, not the skilled team assembling an entertainment, and we Americans are lucky enough to live in the most wonderful world of junk.” (“Scavenging”)

“Fiction is the most fundamental human art. Fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” (“Mr. Difficult”)

These statements illustrate a difficulty I think Franzen has: he has desired to build his reputation as “serious” novelist, a writer of books of social import, but on the other hand, he wants to say “Hey, look, I’m not an asshole, just an expert trashpicker.” He wants to be liked, in spite of himself. This torn Franzen is most clearly on display in a revised version of “the Harper’s essay”, (now called “Why Bother?”) as he manages to raise both interesting questions (“How to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it?”) and be ridiculously overblown (“The American writer today faces a cultural totalitarianism analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of Eastern bloc writers had to contend.”)

In “Sifting the Ashes” Franzen notes that to “take control of their lives, people tell themselves stories about the person they want to be.” What to make of the stories he chooses to share in this collection? Is he being disingenuous? Possibly. And possibly he is just a cranky guy living in New York who is not yet ready to think in public about the varieties of success (critical, popular, financial) he has experienced. He comes across as smart, and a bit defensive. The packaging appeals to me: I’m not speaking here of the lack of an Oprah sticker, or the attractive blonde woman reading a book in Three Lives bookstore on the cover, but the promise of “aloneness.”

In fact, I was surprised at how caught up I was in working my way through this book, how interested I was in following Franzen’s chain of thought even when I didn’t agree with it. Recommended.