Criticism
Review: Memoir: An Introduction by C. Thomas Couser Print E-mail

0538480(American Book Review, 35.2, May 13, 2014)

A book that intelligently and capaciously introduces memoir for the general reader is, like a Chicago Cubs pennant or a movie reuniting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, long overdue. Such a flight I’ve been expecting, and I’m happy to say the bird has landed. So much about the memoir’s individuation in recent years, having gained traction as art and as therapy, C. Thomas Couser addresses. It seems there are few better qualified than he to take on the form. Since the late 1970s, Couser, American Studies professor at Hofstra University, has become a formidable authority on life-writing—with American Autobiography (1979) and Altered Egos (1989), about our national obsession for self-writing; Recovering Bodies (1997) and Signifying Bodies (2009), on the true stories of the ill and disabled; and Vulnerable Subjects (2003), about the ethical landmines authors face, writing about willing and recalcitrant intimates.

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Review: The Griffin of Literature: Three New Books of Prose Poetry Print E-mail

Knossos fresco in throne palace(TriQuarterly January 31, 2014)

I’ll admit it: I’ve never understood the prose poem, although it seems to be going strong in its third century. It’s the griffin of literature—an amalgam of the two literary arts that neither enhances their respective purposes nor makes the result stronger at the fused place. A definition is not much help; here’s the clearest definition I’ve found in a poetry handbook: “The point seems to be that [any] writing in prose . . . is a poem if the author says so.” It’s at odds with itself, which, I realize, may be the point. But when I reflect on the prose poem’s formlessness, I find it leaves me cold. A few descriptors may explain the chill: the prose poem is blocky, spatially inelegant, print-dependent, unmetered, and unsyllabic.

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Review: Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee Print E-mail

cotton tenants(Los Angeles Review of Books June 2, 2013)

Lives Nurtured in Disadvantage

If the contemporary reader of nonfiction knows anything about the universe of American literature — or just its prose galaxies — she knows that James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is our greatest nonfictional failure and the finest book-length lyric essay ever written. Five years in the making, Agee’s book was published by Houghton Mifflin (after Harper’s dumped it as unwieldy) to scorn, praise, and sales of 600 copies before it went out of print. (Agee didn’t endure well, either. He died in 1955 of a heart attack in a New York taxicab after three marriages, alcoholism, chain-smoking, a self-acknowledged crappy diet, and brilliant forays into nearly every form of writing he tackled. He was 45.)

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Review: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields Print E-mail

David Shields(The Rumpus March 3, 2013)

ReCollage

Two nights ago, I, a freelance writer, dreamt about an editor who paid me $500 in advance for a new piece, sight unseen, topic my choice. I was fresh out of ideas, so I asked him for one. Write, he said, about why the subject you examine resists your examining it. That verb, resists, filled my 7 a.m. waking. Right off, I knew this meant a tug-of-war between the recalcitrance in me and the recalcitrance in the subject.

Next day, the stork brought the baby in the form of Stephen Kessler’s film, Paul Williams: Still Alive. A wayward sort like me, Kessler spends the first third of the 87-minute movie searching for Williams (that little big man from the 1970s, sad troubadour, TV actor, mop-top blonde, orange-tint glasses), the second third finding the faded star still adored in a few world outposts and Kessler’s relishing the contact, and the final third feeling disenthralled with the 70-year-old, who’s gone beyond the silliness of “Hollywood Squares” and now mimics himself in one on-the-way-to (but-not-quite-there) Las Vegas venue.

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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.

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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.

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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”).

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