REVIEW or retrospective

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

The long & short of sentences

June 28, 2017 | 8 Comments

Richard Ford’s new memoir, Between Them, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. In contrast, Brian Doyle, a prolific writer of novels and narrative nonfiction who died in May, was a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. “His Last Game,” an essay of only 1,184 words,is about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012. It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices.

Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.

He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.

You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child.

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Feminism & our human destiny

June 7, 2017 | 13 Comments

Giving a friend a tour of Otterbein University recently, my wife and I guided her into its Science Center, mostly so I could re-visit its plexiglass aviary of parakeets just off the lobby. A subject of study by faculty and students, the birds, of the sort sold in countless pet shops, are native to Australia and are properly called budgerigars. Otterbein’s dozen budgies flit about in an array of colors and patterns: traditional greens, spritely blues, luminescent yellows.

“These birds all look different,” I said to our guest. “But all of them have something in common. Can you see it?”

A mathematician, she accepted this empirical challenge and circled the aviary. The birds took scant notice, accustomed to visitors. After she gave up, I said, “They’re all males.” The only giveaway is that, in the traditional patterns, males have a vivid blue cere, a patch of flesh, above their beaks.

Thus the chance to explain that Otterbein academics have duplicated a fraternity house—because a female-only budgie flock would fight. (And surely all hell would break loose if the academics had mixed males and females.)

“But why do they make that noise?” she asked me. “What are they saying?”

We listened to the birds’ chortling—an endless, repetitious but pleasing boy chorus. Why indeed? A traditional survival-of-the-fittest answer: they’re claiming territory. A prelude to war. But surely the best answer—and equally Charles Darwin’s—is: because female parakeets like the sound. Furthermore, they’re favoring males who are sociable enough to flock together to produce such background sound for them to enjoy.

The latter answer isn’t my Romantic notion but arrives courtesy of a remarkable new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.

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A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 12 Comments

I’m always circling back to James Baldwin. My latest return, reading The Devil Finds Work, his essays on American cinema, was spurred by watching the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I found the film, as a work of history, of racial reconsideration, of brilliantly structured art, quite literally stunning. Based loosely on Baldwin’s unrealized plan to write a book about three slain friends—civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. It opened nationwide on February 3, and I saw it shortly afterward in a screening at Ohio State. I’ve been trying since then to watch it again. The film’s power derives, in large part, from its periodic juxtaposition of images of American racists of another era with those who’ve gaped and japed at recent rallies.

Such a stinky revelation of human insufficiency. Hence the timeliness of Baldwin’s urgent message that race is America’s story. Race is where our nation’s transcendent ideals meet the angels and demons of human nature. Is America only an accident of its riches or is it an avatar of the expanding human spirit?

Baldwin sank his teeth in such foundational issues. Which is partly what makes him one of America’s greatest writers. He loved America and its culture, but was an outsider—made doubly so by his race and his homosexuality—and he wrote in fierce, profound clarity and despair. The Devil Finds Work shows you what it’s like for such a man to consider movies he loves and ones he hates. It’s a racial and social deconstruction of American cinema.

Writing of the “mindless and hysterical banality” of the evil in The Exorcist, Baldwin reveals his own feeling of insufficiency before the “heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” Any human’s freedom carries the almost unbearable burden of honestly confronting one’s failure to be fully human: “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live.”

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Pain’s parallel kingdom

April 12, 2017 | 7 Comments

After a divorce and well into single motherhood, at 38, Sonya Huber contracted an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid slowly erodes. Within three months of that, she felt her skeleton “pulsing.” A new bodily self-sabotage—rheumatoid arthritis. As Huber points out, autoimmune diseases are when the body attacks itself, for largely unknown reasons. She endures constant joint pain—the main effect of her particular arthritis—along with whole-body aches and odd effects. Woven through Pain Woman Takes Your Keys is her effort to accept and make sense of her suffering.

The linked essays in Pain Woman Takes Your Keys form a memoir with a narrative arc. Her desperation early on, when she realizes her fate, but still knows what it feels like to be pain free, makes her “feral.” She sees specialists and cries. She demands, of herself and doctors, to be healed. She settles for palliative measures. Medical professionals’ power over her—their ratings of her “difficulty,” their cold rejections, for endless insurance-related and humdrum reasons—gradually make Huber wary, furtive, meek. This degradation feels instantly real, and you’re angry on her behalf. Friends and colleagues, not knowing what to say when they notice a flare-up, often blunder. They suggest yoga, acupuncture, massage, all of which soothe but cannot defeat what’s undefeatable.

The book’s witty title essay is about one of her few refuges, writing. At first afraid that the “fogginess and ache” of rheumatoid arthritis would destroy her practice, Huber still goes to the keyboard for an hour or more a day. The focus helps. Sometimes blogging is the best she can do.

Her essays in Pain Woman Takes Your Keys form a memoir that sends a message from pain’s parallel kingdom.

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A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 25 Comments

Natalie Portman’s inspired performance and its complex layering of time frames distinguish the film Jackie.

Portman nails Jackie’s breathy finishing-school voice—you imagine it began as an instructed affectation, as an adaption to a wealthier milieu, or as an ambitious adoption that became her. She also conveys Jackie’s sincerity, her flashes of insecurity, her fidelity to duty, and ultimately her pain. After the horror in Dallas, she plans Jack’s funeral, even as she medicates herself with alcohol, comforts her two young children, and oversees the packing of her family’s possessions for their abrupt exodus from the White House.

The movie opens after all that, scant days after the funeral, with Jackie being interviewed. She wants to further her husband’s legacy by cementing his image as a noble leader, as an aristocrat who loved the people, as a demigod. This foreground frame (or recurring braid, if you choose) grounds the narrative. Otherwise a succession of flashbacks, not always linear, the segments reflect Jackie’s PTSD and the nation’s disorientation.

Like many a boomer, I carry memories of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy fell in Dallas and Jackie scrambled briefly onto the car’s trunk: to retrieve a piece of his skull, the movie affirms, not to flee, as it appeared to many at the time. Then, as we watched: Oswald’s killing and JFK’s funeral and John-John’s brave salute. But I’d never contemplated Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, much less her PTSD.

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Making life add up in art

December 28, 2016 | 17 Comments

I was surprised, even knowing Bruce Springsteen’s songs, when I heard him say, promoting his autobiography Born to Run on the radio, that he’s been in therapy since 1983. This was one of the reasons I bought the book. How is that possible for such a beloved man? For rocker so incredibly charismatic and vibrant yet down to earth? For an American success story? What’s the deal, Bruce?

Springsteen answers my question early in Born to Run, revealing the details and circumstances of his exquisitely screwed-up family. And why and how he bore the brunt. But also the curse of depression, and maybe bipolar disorder, that plagues his kin and himself. A figure at once grounded and mythic, Springsteen reveals his behind-the-scenes heroic struggle with emotional baggage and mental illness. That’s his double-whammy, existential and biological. He experienced his father’s rage toward him—and outright contempt—plus he inherited his old man’s disease. Add to that how hard it is just being human, let alone a celebrity, and oh mercy.

The theme of his interior struggle isn’t incidental but, threaded through his massive book, it’s what he’s come to explore and to offer. He’s a good writer—no real surprise—whose prose is conversational and rhythmic.

The matter of Springsteen’s songwriting—the nitty gritty of how he does it—is what some readers will miss. Instead we get his savvy and hyper aware analysis of his work. For instance, I’ve always thought his 1975 breakout album, Born to Run, sounds over-produced, but didn’t expect Springsteen’s confirming verdict on its flawed “bombastic big rock sound.” But, he adds, offering a deeper insight, that’s the dark side of its “beauty, power, and magic.” He’s exquisitely tuned to tradeoffs—he wants it all—and struggles to accept them. Springsteen’s autobiography both reveals his battles with his fragile psyche and explores how he tries in art to make meaning from his life.

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