Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

You’ve Got (Too Much) Mail, And an Invitation to a Letter

March 4, 2011

Letter paper, with ink pen and ink bottleWhen’s the last time you took a day off from e-mail?  How about an evening, or even an hour?  How many times a day do you click on the In box?  Do you feel the urge even now?

If you’re an average worker bee, you get upwards of 200 e-mails a day, spending 40% of your work day opening, answering, forwarding, and deleting; and your work day gets longer and longer.  The most diligent worker bees head for their In Box well before breakfast and take their iPhones to bed.

Is this good for us?   Is it fun?

Or as John Freeman asks in The Tyranny of E-Mail, “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

That’s a question to give one pause.  And The Tyranny of E-Mail suggests we need one.  A great big “wait a minute!” while we ask, “E-mail, what is it good for?”

Well, it’s good for a lot of things, as we all know.  But as its speed keeps increasing, as our In boxes overflow, as our attention shatters into fragments, as our work day eats up more of our waking hours, as this rolling electronic to-do list keeps the horizon of completion ever on the move, we find ourselves in a “strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment” where the party never, ever ends.  And it’s least fun party on the planet, because all the ravers are sitting alone in front of their techno-screens.   No dancing allowed.

This is John Freeman’s argument, or part of it, and as soon as I read it, I knew he was my kind of thinker.  He’s no technophobe, no luddite.  He simply asks whether “there is a way we can slow (e-mail) down, so we can make the best of it while retaining a foot-hold in the real-world commons.”

You know, the real-world, physical commons of face-to-face interaction: the theater, post office, town square, meeting hall, bowling alley, voting precinct, bank, bookstore, shopping street, park.  Or the café, where we sit in conversation with a colleague or a friend,  and the social cues of expression, inflection and bodily presence help us interpret meaning and tone.  Where the sheer physical presence of our friend brings us sensory pleasure.

All these places and interactions give us what e-mail does not: the physical presence of others in the commons of civic and social life, a place filled with reminders of “the importance of sharing resources, of working together, of balancing our own needs with those of others.”

Being tied all day (and night) to e-mail also removes us from that commons of the natural world, the one we share with other species, and whose resources we depend on for life.  The one our bodies belong to, with their physical limits and hunger for the sensual pleasures of the world. (more…)


Patti Smith, Just Kids, and I Ride the Bus

January 26, 2011

Last Saturday, I had one of those jittery, jumping, monkey-mind mornings—the kind that sometimes happen when the machine is on and the shiny buttons beckon. Click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on email, click on news, click on email, back to news—and even though I felt myself sinking in the slough of despond, I just kept clicking away.

Granted, the despond was partly due to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, who’d rejected my offer to do a reading there.  I wasn’t famous enough, they wouldn’t sell enough copies of my book to make it worth their while.  But all that clicking also meant ignoring what feeds me: Art.  Creativity.  Writing.  Engagement with the world of weather and people and city streets.  So I wrenched myself away from the desk, stuffed Patti Smith’s Just Kids in my bag and bolted.

Virginia Woolf once left her house for a winter walk across London on the pretext of needing a pencil.  Even before I shut my front door behind me, I remembered her errand, which I often repeat.  I, too, need a pencil. Scotch tape. Tea bags. Paper. A new pair of shoes. But mostly what I need is the world and the chance, from inside the bubble of urban anonymity, to listen, watch, observe.  I need to rub up against stories and think quiet thoughts. To let ideas rise up while my body moves through three-dimensional scenes—the kind you don’t need special glasses to see.

Patti Smith once left her parents’ house in New Jersey with a stolen copy of Rimbaud in her bag, and headed for New York. Knowing she needed to be there, she lived on the streets, slept in Central Park, went hungry, and then one day by accident, ran into another kid her age whose name was Robert Mapplethorpe. And the two of them—just kids—with no way of seeing who they would both become, devoted themselves to the only things that mattered: one another, and art. (more…)

Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries: a Review

September 17, 2010

In the first pages of The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott lays out the realities of his “lonely, pointless existence,” both past and present.   He is a former heroin addict now hooked on Adderall; the son of a cruelly abusive father who in rages would “grasp for whatever meant the most to you and destroy you,” and who now posts negative reviews on Amazon of Elliott’s books ; motherless at thirteen then a runaway and ward of the state, subject to the usual cruelties of group homes and psych wards; doomed to “fragmented, thin” relationships with women; self-destructive, suicidal and addicted to violent sex.

Any one of these would fuel an entire woe-is-me memoir.   But this is not that kind of book; there’s nothing sensational here.  First, because the narrator seems to lack self-pity.   Instead, the story comes to us in the flat, affectless tones of the depressed (which I found both relieving and unsettling).  More importantly, though, this memoir is not really about Stephen Elliott’s pain, it’s about writing.

Two years into a writer’s block when the book’s events begin, Elliott faces the annihilation of the one positive identity he’s forged for himself: a writer.   Deep in the maze of Adderall and depression, he grasps at the thread of a story—an acquaintance confesses to “eight, maybe nine, murders”—and begins to find his way out.  This confession doesn’t ultimately give Elliott the “true crime” story he hopes it will—it turns out to be false—but it leads him to another, real  crime and its subsequent legal trial.

Like the confession of Sean Sturgeon, the trial of Hans Reiser, who is accused of murdering his wife, gives Elliott not only material, but purpose.  And like any fine writer, Elliott has the resources to ponder from the writer’s remove what these events mean to him and why.   The result is a multi-layered memoir about following both threads, real and made-up, and coming to realize that their attraction for him lies in their echoes of his own family relationships and sado-masochistic desires.

Elliott resists the typical memoir story arc: from trial to triumph over adversity.  For him, “to follow an interest out of the darkness is a trick, a small Band-Aid for a larger problem,” and his rescue by writing is partial and will not last.  Still, it’s awfully fine writing.  The sections devoted to his life and pursuit of the story are sometimes non-linear, almost musical in the interplay of the book’s several leit-motifs.  And the sections of trial reportage show off Elliott’s gift for tight plotting and suspense, insightfulness into motive (his own and others), and attention to telling detail.

Even so, writing will not ultimately save him, and the larger question, “How do we remind ourselves to start again?” seems without answer.  There is no shiny bow of epiphany when The Adderall Diaries ends, but a series of thoughtful understandings and an ongoing search.

Xavier de Maistre Takes Us on a Journey Around His Room; or A Broken Hand in Oakland Meets 18th-Century France

September 6, 2010

Normally this time of year, I’d bring you the harvest report from around the block and beyond.  I’d be checking in on the chickens, asking after the sweet corn crop that filled up a neighbor’s front yard, admiring some sugar pie pumpkins and finding out if anyone ate nearly as many romano beans as we did at my house this summer.  Man, those beans were good.

But alas.  While my neighbors gather in their late summer tomatoes, and the cabbages get serious about fall, I’m plopped on the sofa with my right foot on the coffee table and my left hand in a cast.   OMG, you might say!  What manner of drama have we here?

Thanks for asking.  It’s been a Wile E. Coyote kind of summer, so laugh if you like.  I do.  In June, I tripped over the cord to my laptop, flew into a wall, and broke my nose.  In July, I hiked a few too many miles in the Sierras and acquired a stress fracture in my foot.  Ten days ago, I took a little spill on my bike (which I could still ride with my tender foot) and broke my fall with my hand.

So you might say I’ve had some weeks of unplanned  relaxation.  Which puts me in mind of Xavier de Maistre, who also spent time under house arrest.   (more…)

William Least Heat-Moon Goes on a Mosey for Quoz

August 13, 2010

If you like your travels interesting and your books the best kind of slow, then ramble on out to find a copy of Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey. William Least Heat-Moon, who’s driven back roads and side roads and everything but Interstate roads for decades, may be the best traveling companion one could want.   What could be better on a mosey than the company of a well-read, curious, funny and brilliant raconteur?

A mosey, as you know, is a leisurely walk, and even though Heat-Moon travels mostly by car, the thing is, he’s not in a hurry.   Instead, he’s in search of quoz, defined as anything “strange, incongruous or peculiar.”   Quoz-finding comes easy if you know where to look, and Heat-Moon knows: off the main roads and in places that haven’t been mowed down by the uniformity, as he puts it, of “crapulent consumerism.”  In short, he seeks out locales with character.  And characters. (more…)

How to Talk About a Pie You Haven’t Eaten, or Why Read a Book?

August 3, 2010

This week, we contemplate M. Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The argument, as I understand it, is that deep reading is passé.  You know, reading sentences, turning pages, dwelling in the life a book from beginning to end…waste of time.  Instead, M. Bayard promotes faking it.  You read a review or two, perhaps you even skim the cover or first page, you snatch a few bon mots out of the ether (net), and voilà. You can smartly join the conversation at a cocktail party.

I think I could use a martini.

Intellectual subterfuge is hardly new.  In fact, M. Bayard’s particular genius may be that he’s grabbed the copyright on skills known to undergraduates everywhere.  Surely even a few of them (not any that I know) would even agree with Bayard’s proposition that “it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in its entirety–or even opened it.”

In just this way, I hope to do justice to M. Bayard’s book.

Now I will grant that not every book is worth reading.  Not every book is even a book.  (I hear a certain Bieber has just signed a deal for his “memoirs”).  But I’m not quite sure the cocktail party standard will quite do it for me.

Let’s say, for example, that we substitute “eating” for “reading,” and “pie” for “book.”  So, the proposition becomes, “Eating pie is passé.  Instead, we’ll read a description of a pie, just enough to fake out our friends.”

Now this will work, no doubt.  You can go to your next dinner party and talk smartly about pies you have known.  Just to give you some material, here’s this:

  • It was peach, homemade, filled with sweet, juicy ripe Freestone peaches I picked at the local orchard.  I made the crust with two sticks of butter, put lots of cinnamon  in the peaches.  You should have smelled the house while it baked: all that hot buttery crust, bubbling peaches, warm cinnamon.  And the taste…mon dieu.  We ate it warm, a scoop of slow-churned vanilla ice cream melting slowly on top.

Now I ask you, would you rather read the Cliff’s Notes about pie?  Or eat the pie?

Knowing Our Place: Learning from a Cracker Childhood

July 13, 2010

I grew up mostly unrooted, so when I read Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I wished that I, too, had grown up poor in a rural Georgia junkyard with parents so religiously fundamentalist they forbade my wearing pants, cutting my hair, or having friends over to play.  That’s just how good a storyteller she is.   But Ecology is even more than a great story, it’s an act of devotion to place.   Ray’s embrace gathers in the human tales of family and Cracker culture, but also those of the longleaf pine forests that once blanketed the South.    For those of us who lack her deep connection to culture and land, this book is an occasion for longing.

Ray’s rootedness fascinates me, as rootedness always does when I meet people who have it.  Outside the South, they’re not that easy to find.   Most of us in the U.S. are mobility incarnate, variously attached—or not—to a series of addresses, but without deep knowledge of the places we live.   Even if we feel fiercely devoted to our city or neighborhood, we rarely know the deep, ecological story of the land our houses stand on.  Ray’s book is about roots in that deepest sense.  Its chapters alternate between yarns about family and tales of the longleaf pine and its whole forest ecosystem: the complex interdependence of pine trees and wiregrass, indigo snake and gopher tortoise, scrub buckwheat and chaffseed and the Mississippi sandhill crane.  She tells that story, too, in a way that will hold you spellbound. (more…)

Bill McKibben’s EAARTH. A review, a rant, an invitation.

May 31, 2010

Before we all head off into our gas-powered, coal-fired lives this week, I invite you to take the pledge: You will not let the summer go by without reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  It’s not exactly beach reading, unless your beach is on the Gulf of Mexico.  And the way I see it, that is now everybody’s beach, everybody’s wetlands, everybody’s ruin.  We all have a hand in that broken cookie jar.

Bill McKibben would have us know a few simple things:

1.  Climate change isn’t some hypothetical future event.  It’s here.  Now.  And it’s only going to get worse.

2.  Civilization as we’ve known it—the civilization made possible by a stable, abundant and richly diverse planet—is screwed.  Because that planet no longer exists.  It’s over.

3.  Modernity has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels—and those days are gone.

For doubters, there’s data—lots of it.  And the numbers add up to this: the planet that human culture has known for 10,000 years has been changed so dramatically by human activity, McKibben has rechristened it “eaarth,” with an extra ‘a’.  After you read the first half of the book, you might wonder why he didn’t just call it Planet Doom. (more…)

REALITY HUNGER, truth, lies and why manifestos make me cranky

March 25, 2010

My resistance to David Shields’ REALITY HUNGER started with the book jacket, which tells me I will either love or hate it, be a convert or detractor.  The word “manifesto” lays down the same law.  You’re either with it or with the status quo.  I felt weary before I even started.

Of course, David Shields, or rather, “David Shields,” may or may not have written the jacket copy, and may or may not have written a manifesto, or even this book.   REALITY HUNGER, as you may already know, is made up of 26 chapters labeled A-Z and 618 numbered bits of wisdom, most of them borrowed, stolen, plagiarized, ripped-off, sampled—whatever—from other writers.  The original sources are, but only under duress inflicted by Knopf, identified in end-notes.   And that medium, to borrow an idea from a thinker who apparently needn’t be named, is the message.  The old and new together propel art into its future, copyright hinders creativity, sampling is the art of the now, and the lyric essay is the art of reality, because unlike the conventional novel, it conveys the gaps, ellipses, doubts, uncertainties and disorder of “reality,” whatever that is.

To elaborate: There’s not really a through-line here, but a number of threads that radiate and whorl like a spider’s web—the metaphor is Shields’, or someone’s.   One thread is the nature, inevitability and necessity of appropriation by artists.   A second announces, in effect, that for Shields at least, the conventional novel is washed up.   He’s tired of made-up characters, invented plots, the neat arcs and structures that have nothing to say to us now.   A third thread is that the moment for nonfiction has arrived.  And not just any nonfiction, but the kind that’s been branded the lyric essay.   Closer to poetry than fiction, a multi-genre prose of indirection, suggestion, association, fragmentation and non-linearity, the lyric essay brings us the news, where the real story is human consciousness.  (The word “essai,” we’re reminded, signifies a process of trying, rather than a product of knowing).  And so Shields’ own “essai,” REALITY HUNGER. (more…)