Review: Elsewhere by Richard Russo Print E-mail

Elsewhere(American Book Review Volume 34, Number 2, January/February 2013)

Beyond Blood

For Richard Russo—who, along with John Irving, is a kingpin of New England novelists: ten books, eight of them fiction, one a Pulitzer prizewinner—“love your mother” is not some affirmation he’s noted on a three-by-five card and keeps in his shirt pocket. He does love her. Unfailingly. Undetachably. A long life, both devoted to and trapped by Mom, has proved it. Russo’s mother—Jean to her friends—raised him after separating from her no-count, gambler husband in the small town of Gloversville, New York, home to a glove factory and her family who worked the trade. Early on, Mom secures the boy’s pledge that they’ll stand together no matter what. No matter that they must share a house with her parents, against the latter’s wishes, and no matter that the ensuing friction, along with her eventual joblessness, poverty, and dependency, defines their drama.

Review: Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid Print E-mail

ann richards(Oxford American February 11, 2013)

Among the reasons we remember Texas governor Ann Richards—she of the frosty pompadour, whom cancer took at age 73, in 2006—is her pearly shot at George H. W. Bush during her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (After Poppy Bush won election, he sent Richards a small silver pendant in the shape of a foot, a token of his affection.) Richards’s twin silver streaks of hair and tongue became her trademarks, bringing her national notoriety and an unlikely rise in Texas politics.

Some in the Lone Star State may recognize the multitude of characters in Jan Reid’s long-winded biography; the rest of us must sort through a mountain of facts. Waco-born and Baylor-educated, Richards was, by her late thirties, married to an ACLU lawyer, the mother of four, and perilously alcoholic. The booze and occasional drug use resulted in a family intervention and clinical treatment that saved her life. She traded one addiction for another, politics, and seems to have loved the punishing public spotlight as much as she loved spending her weekends reading memos. After stints as Travis County commissioner, in Austin, and state treasurer, she won the Texas governorship in 1990, largely because of her snappish wit and tireless spunk.

Review: Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young by Jeremy Grimshaw Print E-mail

lamonte young(Contrary Magazine Winter 2013)

What Is the Sound of One Note Droning?

Minimalism. Art’s 50-year-old movement. A force of stasis. Of repetition. Of the barest materials. In writing. Ray Carver. Language eviscerated of ornament. The impact: disturbingly hollow. In painting. Frank Stella. Primary colors, perfect shapes. The response: purely dispassionate.

In music. There is the bell-like wistfulness of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies.” There is the repetitious ecstasy of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” And there are the sound environments of La Monte Young—the conceptual pieces (“One or more butterflies is let loose in the performance space”) and the long-tone drones (“Chronos Kristalla”).

Review: A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi Print E-mail

free man(Los Angeles Review of Books November 1, 2012)

Let Us Now Praise Free Men

If you're one of the unorganized working poor who inhabit the grimmest parts of Delhi, India, you’re probably a mazdoor, or laborer — late teens or early twenties, male, unskilled. To earn your rupees, you carry bags of cement at building sites, whitewash a staircase, paint a house. If you make enough in one week, you take the next week off. Then, you can eat, drink, and smoke the money away, in part, because there’s not much of it and because the jobs are plentiful; you just have to show up every day by the side of the road at six in the morning. You might work one season, lay off for another, ride the trains or catch a bus for another menial job elsewhere. You’ve been known to leave (abandon, some might say) a needy family, a nagging wife, a brood of children you’ve grown tired of. You might also blow off your birth family, live anonymously in Delhi’s (or Calcutta’s or Mumbai’s) frenzied quarters where no one knows (or cares) whence you came.

Review: The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso Print E-mail

manguso_opt(Contrary Magazine July 9, 2012)

Suicides Are Painful

Many who read Sarah Manguso’s first memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), were in awe of the tale and its teller. At twenty-one, Manguso contracted an autoimmune blood disease that grew into nine years’ of transfusions, paralysis, and depression. It seemed the only way she could write about the debilitation was in short chapters, each a high-wire act that combined medical fact, incisive description, and intense but transient emotion. The terse style seemed to be holding back a floodgate.

Much of the same approach structures The Guardians, an ode on the suicide of her college friend and Platonic companion, Harris. Hospitalized three times for bizarre behaviors and depression, Harris was given antipsychotic drugs. It’s theorized that one side effect of those drugs is the rare akathisia, a kind of psychotic restlessness, which intensifies any driven behavior into mania. Escaping from a ward, the thirty-four-year-old wandered all day then leapt in front of a speeding train.

Review: [Sic] by Joshua Cody Print E-mail

sic cody(Punchnels June 15, 2012)

One Maniacally Meandering Memoir

A few years ago, I wrote a book about memoir—not a how-to tract, but a what-happens-when an author writes one, its shocking self-discovery, its redemptive journey, akin to most events in life that change us significantly. I posited a term for a new kind of book that eschews a childhood trauma or mom and dad’s lousy parenting but embraces a just-lived drama: a divorce, a fizzled start-up business, a near-drowning in Lake Michigan. My term, “sudden memoir,” means to unpack a not-yet or nearly over relationship or event whose resolution may come about because you’re making a book about it. The mud of it is the point, especially since your subject is not past, and the book, one hopes, circumvents the mythologizing power, the authoritarian nostalgia of remembrance.

Review: Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie Print E-mail

Ann-Beattie-imagines-Mrs-Nixon(The Rumpus January 30, 2012)

Write What You Don't Know

Had you not read much of Ann Beattie’s fiction—which is the case with me, just a few of The New Yorker stories—and Mrs. Nixon was your introduction to this writer, you’d think, How astonishing: she’s a collagist, an experimenter, formally fearless, analytically daring, animating with this book the most notoriously prudish of all the presidents’ wives, Thelma Catherine Pat Ryan Nixon (1912-1993), wife to Richard, vice-president under Eisenhower in the 1950s and president from 1969 until his ordering the Watergate break-in forced him to resign in 1974. “I am very happy to find myself paired with Mrs. Nixon,” Beattie announces, “a person I would have done anything to avoid—to the extent she was even part of my consciousness. As a writer, though, she interests me. My curiosity is based on how little we share in terms of personality, or upbringing, or what fate has dealt us.” Write what you don’t know.

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