Criticism
Review: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S. L. Wisenberg Print E-mail

cancer_bitch(Contray Magazine Summer 2010)

Upbeat Diary: Victory Over Cancer

Not far into S. L. Wisenberg’s memoir, I was hooked on the deft craft of this writer. The longtime Chicagoan, author of Holocaust Girls, and Northwestern writing instructor couches this tale in the familiar lay of a diary—the year-and-a-half in which she was diagnosed with cancer, endured chemo, lost her curly tresses, threw up (but not much), and got through. Wisenberg’s approach, however, hardly records just the facts, the style our grandmothers used to bullet-point their identical days with. Instead, this “cancer journal” is thematically wrought and keenly essayed.

Deracinating the diary, Wisenberg includes little of the quotidian and lots of the indispensable. The time-frame is chronological, a recent spell of eighteen months, January 1 to June 30. The entries, though, are cleverly titled and shaped, mini-essays running in mini-fits-and-starts.

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Review: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman Print E-mail

possessed(The Rumpus May 13, 2010)

From Russia With Love

Initially, I was attracted to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed because I hoped it would be an oar-dipping voyage into a memoir sub-genre I have come to admire: a confession about how a writer has been bewitched by an author (Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a meditation on his inability to write about D. H. Lawrence) or by the act of reading (Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading).

Why am I drawn to these writers? I think of Craig Seligman’s Opposites Attract Me, a three-way tryst with himself, Pauline Kael, and Susan Sontag (he relied, for much of his essay, on his close friendship with Kael); Seligman is smitten, to be sure, and he seeks to understand how these two critics have enraptured him. For some authors, reading is a means to match insights with, or better, to stay in the spell of, another author, largely because it feels so good to be bedeviled by the relationship long after the book ends.

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Review: The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott Print E-mail

Adderall(Contrary Magazine Spring 2010)

Still Addled After All These Years

What is Adderall? A partially controlled stimulant made with amphetamine. Improves attention span and decreases impulsivity. Used for attention deficit disorder. Works quite well, so say its takers. To me it sounds like a venomous snake or a recess game for sixth graders. But for Stephen Elliott it’s a lifesaver. Or, better, a life-enhancer, a necessary tool in the creative writer’s kit. In 2006, suffering writer’s block, Elliott needs help. After four self-referential novels, a book of real-life erotica (My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up), and a nonfiction chronicle of the 2004 presidential race, he’s dried up, a has-been at 37. So he takes Adderall, and voilá, this book. Of course, he finds that it’s not the not-writing that’s got him down. It’s his own still-addled life he hasn’t faced up to since he’s merely recreated its doppelgänger in fiction.

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Review: The Last Word: 76 American Epitaphs Compiled and Illuminated by J. D. Abel Print E-mail

Omar Polk(Contrary Magazine Winter 2010)

Whatever

The idea is brilliant. (No wonder the author gives himself credit in his byline.) Write epitaphs, or gravestone inscriptions, a few lines of pithy poetry. Draw the departed’s portrait in cross-stitched pen and ink. Add in birth-death dates to account for era and end. Voilá, a collection of utter simplicity and mesmerizing effect.

What could be more deflating to our ego nature than this gallery of dreams deferred by the absurdly talented Southern California painter, caricaturist, and draftsman, J. D. Abel.

Exhibit: Malcolm Omar Polk, 1947-1967, his image, and his last words:

I seen a twister pick up a barn

I seen a comet with a tail

I seen a crazy man fuck a wild goat

but I never seen nothing

like Viet Nam

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Review: Two Katrina Books by Dan Baum and Dave Eggers Print E-mail

zeitoun(Open Letters Monthly December 1, 2009)

Books of the City

For readers, what’s exhilarating about great crimes and tragedies in the American South is how quickly, how necessarily, they are translated into literature.

The most recent maelstrom eliciting literary remembrance is Hurricane Katrina, late-August/early-September 2005. But this time it’s not fiction that rushes in. We’re too wired to wait for fiction. It’s nonfiction, and the coverage is personal—memoir, reportage, biography. Fiction will come. But for now the urgency of the witness/participant story is driving the boat. The reason is, Katrina played so well on TV. The writer bounces off that reality, feels the charged immediacy of those pictures of families waving at helicopters from rooftops.

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Review: Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell Print E-mail

mhaskell-390-jacket_jpg_3(Contrary Magazine Autumn 2009)

America's Great Feminist Icon

Every culture has its enduring art—Rome The Aeneid, Italy The Last Supper, Russia the Pathetique Symphony. In those pre-modern societies, the value of art was based on its creator’s mastery and its national or religious cast. Art had not yet been tainted by its earning power. Not until the mid-twentieth century, when mass production of art and mass audiences for its consumption arose, was art’s intrinsic value exchanged for commodity value. Shares in its intrinsic value continue to fall. The art work’s preeminent worth today lies in that cuddly American euphemism, its commercial appeal.

To be viable in the commercial era, art works need social and technological currency: they must court controversy to fuel their sales; they must seek publicity to supplant their merit; and they must be reborn, where apt, in another medium. The prevailing works of the past century are those bent most by commodification. The most bent, in turn, become cultural icons.

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Review: The River Lock: One Boy's Life Along the Mohawk by Stephen Haven Print E-mail

river-lock-190(Contrary Magazine Summer 2009)

A Poet's Memoir

You’re not likely to read a memoir as good as Stephen Haven’s. Its brilliance lies in his fearless blend of the past in the present. In his mid-forties, the author is haunted by a wounded adolescence. On a pilgrimage, he returns to his hometown to discover why he's so obsessed. There, the still-ripe memoires of twenty and more years past unleash a torrent of wonder and regret. The only way to manage the deluge is to stir the past into his feeling for the past. Doing so, Haven crafts nuances and complexities about memory and loss few memoirists achieve. It may be that his ability springs from his primary calling. Haven is the author of two fine poetry collections, Dust and Bread and The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks. To say The River Lock is a poet’s memoir invites questions. How does a poet recall? Does he remember differently from us non-poets?

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