immersion

Doubt confronts faith

April 22, 2016 | 7 Comments

Top reads of 2015

December 28, 2015 | 6 Comments

M Train is a portrait of the artist in real time. Patti Smith rambles around New York City, travels overseas to attend a meeting of an odd society devoted to continental drift that suddenly disbands; she writes and muses in a beloved café near her East Village townhouse that one day simply closes. She impulsively buys a Far Rockaway beach shack that Hurricane Sandy promptly submerges.

We see her consume much coffee and the odd meal—vegetarian snacks, really, they seem to keep her going. She tends her cats, falls into bed with her clothes on, somehow loses a beloved coat, leaves a special camera on a park bench. Spacey? Truly. Yet paradoxically mindful. She’s always reading, writing, drawing—and charmingly caught up in TV detective series. Her book’s title may refer to memory, where Smith spends many waking hours. Her past and ongoing lives feel deeply processed. A stoic romantic, her globetrotting habits include tending dead poets’ graves.

For all this detail, she leaves out a lot. Her focus may be the key to M Train. And you always know where she is in time and space or flashback—reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (reviewed)—despite scant connective tissue. She never plods in what’s basically a chronologically intercut with penumbras of backstory. There’s almost nothing on her poetry and music careers; Smith’s past lives emerge as resonant memories during her peripatetic foreground narrative.

This is a widow’s story. A message from someone in her late sixties living with loss. Her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, vanished at age 45, slain by a heart attack; her beloved brother who managed her tours fell to a stroke soon after. Smith’s laconic artistry can be seen in her placement of Fred’s spare scenes. No deathbed stuff, however. And her two adult children don’t appear in this slice of life. If sadness suffuses M Train, the book isn’t glum. Shining through is Smith’s sense, lifelong and apparently innate, of divinity.

[Read More]

Space cadets

November 5, 2015 | 4 Comments

Once I met a woman who blurted after I’d given a reading, “Writers . . . They’re known to be egotistical.” She peered into my face. I was speechless. She’s a professor of literature! Plenty of untutored laymen share her impression.

I say this while immersed in Of a Fire on the Moon, the account of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 by a man who fueled that stereotype, legendary egotist Norman Mailer. Reading it because of another book I’m reviewing, I find Mailer’s stance may imply at first blush I’m smarter and feel more, which gives me the right to be this self-referential. But I can’t help but think as well of the burden of such a claim. To be smarter and more empathetic. You can see, too, that he isn’t just winging it—his language and insights reveal he’s deeply immersed. His idiosyncratic impressions of the astronauts are interesting and, let it be said, funny.

In other research for my upcoming review, I perused Oriana Fallaci’s account of the mid-1960s space program in her critically acclaimed but now hard-to-find book, If the Sun Dies. Published in 1967, three years ahead of Mailer’s, Fallaci’s reflects greater access. In what seemed a less intense period, she hung out with and interviewed, astronauts. They clearly liked her. And she scored a sit-down in Alabama with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who was the Nazis’ before he was ours. This for me was the high point of If the Sun Dies—Fallaci had been a young resistance fighter in Italy in WWII, and loathed von Braun; she intercut their interview with her memories of occupying German soldiers. Her later work obscures this one’s brilliance. Fallacii (1929–2006) was a brave, blazing talent.

[Read More]

Bird nerd

May 13, 2015 | 4 Comments

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald brings out the beauty and killing prowess of raptors used as hunting allies. She’s steeped in the ancient tradition of falconry, reduced, in our time, to a tiny, odd subculture. The hook for this book includes her selection of a notoriously temperamental goshawk to train instead of a comparatively easy species such as a peregrine falcon. She spends much time fretting over her hawk and frantically running after it, raising a gloved fist and blowing a whistle.

I should say her, not it: Macdonald’s goshawk is a girl. Endearingly dubbed Mabel, she is both gorgeous and a fierce avatar of death. So it’s all the more charming when Macdonald discovers that Mabel enjoys playing catch with crumpled paper wads. Mabel’s narrowed eyes mean mirth. But she’s a changeling. Triggered by sights and sounds, her quicksilver reactions—effectively her moods—are expressed in beating wings, biting beak, gripping talons.

H is for Hawk, the first memoir to win Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, is slow at first, and dense—this was my fresh-mind morning book for a good while before I adjusted to Macdonald’s rhythms. But heightened experiences appeal, and Macdonald evokes them in a narrative rife with savory juxtapositions. She braids three stories: taming and training the goshawk; coping with her father’s death and her disordered state; depicting novelist T.H. White’s own harrowing experience with a goshawk. White’s deeply damaged psyche and tormented life anger and chasten Macdonald in her mirroring pursuit.

[Read More]

Awake at the wheel

June 11, 2014 | 12 Comments

One day Mark Schimmoeller decided to do a little traveling, “attempting to visit people living for something other than what our consumer society deemed was important.” Thus was his mission when he set off in 1992 atop one wheel for a cross-country unicycle trip.

Body balance steers this upright one-wheeled vehicle driven by pedals. Unicycles appear to date back to the late 1800s and a bicycle called a “penny farthing.” The benefits of riding a unicycle are documented, and riding on one wheel has even been pushed to an extreme sport.

The author of Slowspoke meets all types of people living along the byways of America as he buys provisions, dodges cars, and seeks out places to camp for the night. He sketches word portraits of folks who don’t trend on Twitter, just as real as the ones who populate reality shows on television.

Schimmoeller muses as he rides, in no hurry to arrive. The reader ponders along with him, about topics such as time: “It had become cool to have no time, to be busy.“Ah, I thought, but Socrates long ago warned: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

It was just this type of recurring silent mental dialogue I found myself having with a unicyclist that decelerated my progress through Slowspoke. We ramble along in our thoughts, he and I, noticing patchworks of woods and fields, hearing the sound of the wood thrush, and feeling the hot morning sun on our faces.

[Read More]

Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

February 10, 2013 | 18 Comments

Why Truman Capote’s slippery masterwork keeps making news. Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel Reading the excellent new writing book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I was a tad surprised to see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood extolled on page five for its magisterial opening. Capote’s start is gorgeous, with …

[Read More]

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

December 30, 2012 | 8 Comments

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe? The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language. —Joyce Carol Oates Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut …

[Read More]