Review: Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes Print E-mail

Barthes_-_A_Very_Short_Indroduction_pic0006(Contrary Magazine December 2010)

Alchemical Grief

There is something physiologically aglow about this tapestry of fragments—a fabric of feeling that Roland Barthes began weaving for his mother the day after she died, October 25, 1977. Mourning Diary, keenly translated by Richard Howard, is a set of two-hundred-plus intensities, each a sentence or two at most, written by Barthes over a two-year period following his mother’s demise. The compilation is Barthes’ last writing, and it is unclear whether this was an intentional book.

Barthes lived with his mother, in Paris and in Urt, his childhood home in Southern France, all his life. She adored him, supported his difference, his genius. He adored her, bringing her a rose—and himself one—whenever he could. Since her death has ripped away such affecttion, he quickly diagnoses his condition: “I’m not mourning,” he writes, “I’m suffering.”

Review: Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between by Bob Cowser Jr. Print E-mail

greenfieldscover(Contray Magazine Fall 2010)

In Murder-Crazy America

Be warned, the writer Bob Cowser Jr is a grappler. He clinches, bear hugs, throws down, and pins his subject to the mat before we know what’s happening. In previous books, Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team and Scorekeeping: Essays from Home, Cowser often corrals a foe, himself among them, belligerents with whom he grips tight and won’t let go.

Green Fields layers three such struggles: the murder of a child, the author’s link to the long-ago crime, and a polemic against the killer’s state-sponsored execution. Cowser tells the first of these with CSI-like precision: Eight-year-old Cary Ann Medlin is raped by twenty-three-year-old Robert Glen Coe, murdered, and left in a ditch beside Bean Switch Road outside of Greenfield, Tennessee, September 2, 1979. The author pushes us unsparingly into the senseless killing, the harried manhunt, the grisly find, the politically-tinged trial, the purgatory of appeals, a family begging for justice, and the unclean state execution with the pithy naturalism of a Dreiserian narrator.

Review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields Print E-mail

952632(Agni Online June 15, 2010)

Driving Cars in Clown Suits: David Shields Terrifies Novelists

Whenever writers of a new era question the purpose of literature, it takes a poet to declare the old aim dead and make the new aim live. In our time, such a poet, or, more accurately, such a prose collagist, is David Shields. His Reality Hunger is an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative. Its troubled, prickly unease is palpable. Hewing to the self-reflexive tenor of our age, Shields provokes us as much as he interrogates himself. Neither nasty nor narcissistic, he makes his case with 618 nuggety fragments, half in aphoristic style, half in the paragraph vein.

As I read, I was mesmerized by Shields’s originality. Until he pointed it out, midway through, that his content was barely his own: “Many (most?) of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. One bonus point for each identification.” In effect, he outsourced actuality, then pushed it, with much subterfuge, back into Reality Hunger.

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.

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.

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.

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

Omar Polk(Contrary Magazine Winter 2010)


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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