Criticism
Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty Print E-mail

gracenotes(San Diego Union-Tribune September 14, 1997)

Song of Ireland

What is it with Ireland and its writers?

Why do so many leave—Joyce, Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Frank McCourt—and then, in one guise or the other, write the story of their exile?

Must every tale mix unforgiving parents, oafish young men and an inhospitable Catholicism that dislocates the artist's bones and resets them, stronger at the broken places, in another country? Such questions shadow Bernard MacLaverty's fine Grace Notes. Composer-protagonist Catherine McKenna is like the author: AWOL from the armed camp of Northern Ireland.

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Review: The Saskiad by Brian Hall Print E-mail

saskiad(San Diego Union-Tribune February 9, 1997)

An Epic for Our Times

What captured my eye no doubt captured yours: That ancient-sounding title with the "-d" suffix, -d for epic. Indeed, the gall of Brian Hall to claim epic status for his novel, a self-promotion few writers would dare. Yet it is not long into this absorbing, protean contemporary story of a 12-year-old girl’s search for her mysteriously absent father, before we realize the claim is justified. Few novels published in a given year have Hall’s magnificent compassion and intellectual daring. Why not say it: This is a masterwork of fiction.

Not only are there reverberations to Homer’s The Odyssey and Melville’s Moby Dick, both sea-faring journeys away from and back to home which Hall evokes geographically and psychologically. But the author also parallels those books for themes of alienation and the importance of home. Much mischief cometh from one little "-d."

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Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion Print E-mail

didion(San Diego Union-Tribune September 19, 1996)

A Postmodern Disaster

What's a reader to do when one-bewildered-third of his way through Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, a novel ostensibly about arms-smuggling to the Contras in 1984, the story's mercurial narrator announces she has "lost patience . . . with the conventions of the craft (i.e., novel writing), with exposition, with transitions, with the development and revelation of `character' "? A reader can a) persevere, b) marvel at the artistic feat of salvaging some intrigue from the wreck of obscurity, or c) lose sympathy with Didion's characters, who appear to be no more than sacrificial pork penned in the cold-war sty of Ronald Reagan-led misadventure in Central America. Can-do kinds of readers can do all three: persevere, marvel and lose touch. Persevering, we meet Elena McMahon, a reporter for The Washington Post and a well-to-do divorced mother of a disconsolate grown daughter.

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Review: truth and lies that press for life: Sixty Los Angeles Poets Print E-mail

0604_Art_Melancholy(Poetry Flash Number 223 July 1992)

Uneasy Confessions

Today, the prevailing trend in publishing poetry, besides presenting individual authors, is to publish the work of poets in community. Scan the anthology section of your bookstore's poetry corner and you'll see the packaging: the poetry of ethnicity (African-American, Jewish-American, Native-American); the poetry of gender and relationship (men's issues, mothers to daughters, incest survivors); and the poetry of place (Key West, Ohio valley, Oregon coast). But such grouping is not new to poets; they have already come together as working writers, developing themselves through communities that often fuse elements of the University writer's workshop, the coffee klatch, and (at times) the 12-step program. Poets organize in communities not only because of their identity, but also because they wish to create community, to commune, where a personal and shared poetry becomes their bread and wine.

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Review: Three 1991 Poetry Collections: Roger Weingarten, Maurya Simon, Lowell Jaeger Print E-mail

kjugv(High Plains Literary Review. Vol. VI, No. 2, Fall 1991)

Poetry With and Without Feeling

After reading three poets of highly dissimilar focus I am again amazed at the truthfulness of a simple rule, one that may seem obvious to any reader. Poetry which forges with its subject a depth of feeling that is honest and personal and grave cannot be ignored.

But woe to that poetry which forges without feeling.

Of the three before us, Roger Weingarten's verse (Infant Bonds of Joy) has little in it to recommend. His emphasis on mercurial objects stirred with ponderous discourse succeeds too often in trivializing emotion. The result as Leonard Kriegel wrote of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is "something missing . . . something essential, an absence not merely of the deeper self but of the very possibility of a deeper self."

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Review: Metaphor and Memory by Cynthia Ozick Print E-mail

ozick(Pembroke Magazine Number 23, 1991)

Heart to Heart

For Cynthia Ozick essays are the houses of ideas, not the doorway to her personal experience. Consequently, in this collection of some thirty essays and reviews from the 1980s, she writes about herself only sketchily: She grew up in the Bronx speaking Yiddish and English; she fell prey to a few ethnic-hating schoomarms who lessoned out the oi sounds from her Bronx-cum-Jewish brogue; and at seventeen, she she kew she would devote her life to writing "literature."

Judging by her much lauded, complexly textured fiction—three novels and four story collections—her devotion (and talent) has produced some excellent work. Read the recent "A Shawl," the haunting story of a mother and her two daughters interned in a concentration camp and the shawl's nourishing power over their living and dying. The story is about self-disclosure and religious strength, subjects common to her fiction, and about Jews whose faith manifests itself struggling with annihilation or the temptations of secular life.

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Review: Circe's Mountain: Stories by Marie Luise Kaschnitz Print E-mail

circe-lilli-ladewig(Northeast Series V, No. 3, Winter 1990-1991)

The Art of the Felt Story

Autobiographical fiction like clothing often attracts our attention not by the quality of the cloth but by the attitude of the wearer. That is to say writers who base their fiction on their own lives seem most honest about themselves when they are attuned to what Willa Cather called "the range and character of [their] deepest sympathies." Because they have discovered an awareness of their own sensibility by way of art and made such knowledge primary, they can make the best stylistic choices for their work. We feel a writer's stories of personal growth as truthful when the felt depth of the experience equates to the formal quality of the telling.

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