narrative, stories

Illogical and emotional

October 29, 2013 | 7 Comments

As a dog owner, an “animal lover,” and a former farmer, I largely enjoyed Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Author Hal Herzog’s message is simple and clear: humans’ relationship with animals is illogical and emotional. My bona fides didn’t make me a logical-minded reader. I got emotional reading some of the stories.

But there were unforgettable passages, such as his outlining the strong animal rights stance of Nazi Germany. This created great difficulties for the Reich because it had to dispose humanely of so many pets that had belonged to the Jews they were mass murdering.

My view of the book is complicated by the fact that I read it as a member of my university’s screening committee for possible common books. A common book, which is read by every entering freshman, must have two qualities: a strong story and a strong social issue; Herzog’s book is more of a collection but explores a strong social issue. And our students would find it interesting, I think, at least initially.

I was concerned they might wonder why they were reading the same message repeatedly—that there’s no sense in how we treat animals of different species—and might bog down. And then my own biases came into play.

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Breaking Bad’s prologue pays off

September 18, 2013 | 13 Comments

In literature, prologues establish a story at some wiser remove, as in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Or they promise the reader an exciting story by jumping into a dramatic moment, as in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (analyzed). Often a prologue does both, offers a survivor’s perspective and a taste of the drama of his surviving.

A few weeks ago, AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad opened its fifth and final season with a revelatory and risky prologue, puzzling for what it revealed. By last Sunday ’s episode—with only two more to go—viewers have seen the power and utility of this move in intriguing them and shaping their reactions. The prologue that has weighed on our minds exploded like a time bomb Sunday night.

Breaking Bad is the story of how Walter White, a meek, resentful, and broke high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, becomes a meth-maker after he’s diagnosed with cancer. In the past four seasons, viewers have watched White edge into evil as he becomes a drug kingpin. We see him learn to live by the cruel parameters of his criminal world. And become trapped by his own ego—a brainy man who underestimates others at every turn—as his intelligence turns to hubris.

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Solnit’s ‘Faraway Nearby’

August 8, 2013 | 13 Comments

Rebecca Solnit tried to leave home at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. At last, at age seventeen, her jealous mother and her indifferent father sent her into the world like a girl in a fairy tale:

“For that odyssey my mother would not let me take any of the decent suitcases in her attic but gave me a huge broken one in which my few clothes and books rumbled like dice in a cup. My father gave me a broken travel clock that he said was worth repairing and I kept it for years before I found that it was not.”

The Faraway Nearby opens with 100 pounds of apricots, collected from her ailing mother’s tree, ripening and rotting on Solnit’s floor, a bequest and a burden as if from another fairy tale. The fruit was a story, she explains, and also “an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories.” So Solnit tells her own story, shows how she escaped it by entering the wider world of others’ stories, and how she changed her story as she better understood her unhappy mother.

What sent her mother’s indifference toward her into permanent rage was when she asked young Rebecca, age 13, for sympathy when she got a lump in her breast, and Rebecca, who hadn’t received much sympathy herself, failed to supply it. With effort, as an adult Solnit realizes that her mother had had a hard life, was trapped in her own story of victimhood, and must’ve cared for her before memory: “She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.”

Out of duty and from solidarity with two of her brothers, Solnit ends up tending her mother through her long decline from Alzheimer’s. The apricots arrive near the end of this sad period, which Solnit terms a serial emergency. Having hooked us with this, her story, Solnit tells us it doesn’t much interest her anymore.

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Learning the blogging genre

July 17, 2013 | 14 Comments

At a writing conference recently, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years, the author of many books. I was surprised at lunch when he began to lecture everyone at our table about the wrongness of the Iraq war. Talk about preaching to the choir—there probably wasn’t one soul at the confab who thought the war had been justified or who wasn’t sickened, at some level, by its tragic waste of blood and treasure.

I realized that my friend’s gauche presumption, inadvertently condescending whatever your view of the war, was inseparable from him as a writer. I saw that he’s an autodidact, which means a self-taught person. Someone who lectures himself about the truth he has come to. Which pretty much defines writers, however many teachers have helped them along the way. They’re seekers. But there’s in this autodidact condition an even darker root, didactic, which describes someone who lectures others.

In other words, I saw my own tendencies writ large. A strategy of much nonfiction writing, it seems to me, involves taking the curse off didacticism by witnessing about what’s true for you in the form of story. What I’ve just tried to do by telling a little story about my friend instead of saying didactically, Don’t lecture others.

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Echoing a familial refrain

June 28, 2013 | 5 Comments

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel strikes universal chords. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini Riverhead Books  (Penguin Group ); 404 pp., $28.95 hardback. Also available in paperback (Bloomsbury Publishing), Kindle, Nook, Audible, audiobook CD, SoundCloud, iTunes, and large-print (Thorndike Press) editions. Guest Review by Lanie Tankard “…and the place echoed every word, and when he said ‘Goodbye!’ Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’”  —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (Trans. by A.S. Kline) Khaled Hosseini took a risk in his third novel. He tried a …

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A narrative of our human nature

April 24, 2013 | 6 Comments

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts …

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Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

April 3, 2013 | 12 Comments

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp. Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for …

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