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Devotion: Why I Write/Book Review

shoppingDevotion: Why I Write
Patti Smith
Yale University Press 2017

A few pages into Devotion, Patti Smith’s recent meditation on writing (originally delivered as a lecture at Yale), I wondered, Is it really possible/desirable/commendable to live this sort of contemplative literary intellectual existence in America/the world in the 21st century? As I moved further into the book, however, I became enveloped in its calm and confident atmosphere, and such nagging prosaic questions disappeared.

In the past two decades Patti Smith has been highly prolific literarily; at 69, she is certainly aging well, and still inspiring generations of artists. An illuminating piece of Patti Smith trivia: after the phenomenal success of Horses, plus a few more albums, shopping-1.jpegSmith retired more or less from public life with her husband Fred, had two kids, and stayed home to raise them–getting up early each day to write. In a recent interview with Alec Baldwin she says that she loved her life at that time, and the continual writing served to hone her craft. She said she couldn’t have written the books she’s writing now were it not for those years of practice.

Certainly her books show a high level of skill, while leaving space for her dream states and moments of transcendence. In Devotion she outdoes herself, performing a feat of magic that I’ve never seen from any other writer: in a scant 93 pages she shows us her mental process.

This is how: In Part One Smith writes a journal of the hours leading up to a trip to Europe and the first few days of business with her French publisher; here she includes the minutiae of daily life: what she ate for breakfast, the book she read on the plane, the images on her television at night. Part Two, the centerpiece of Devotion, is a work of fiction–a short story, novella, whatever one wishes to call it–in which the reader gets to stare directly into the writer’s brain! Talk about “Show Don’t Tell!”  We get to see how characters and descriptions in a story reflect details written earlier, in Part One. We literally get to see life interwoven with art. And the story is so finely wrought that I completely forgot I was reading something by Patti Smith–something I, as a long-time admirer, am acutely aware of when reading her non-fiction. The final section of the book describes a visit to the home of Albert Camus’ daughter, where Smith reads his unfinished last manuscript, and eventually answers the question “Why Do I Write?”

The sum total of Devotion‘s parts is a glorious trip, an exploration of a writer’s mind. It should be assigned reading in every writing class from here on in.


The Goldfinch: Book Review

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Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch (Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’)


The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014

Spoilers ahead.


“To write a novel this large and dense…is equivalent to sailing from America to Ireland in a rowboat, a job both lonely and exhausting…—Stephen King, reviewing The Goldfinch in The Guardian

If reading fiction is an escape from reality, I’m having trouble with re-entry. It’s been over a week since I finished The Goldfinch, yet it’s still one of the first things I think of in the morning and return to several times during the day. Somewhere around page two or three hundred I took up residence in the world created by Donna Tartt, and I’ve yet to move out. (“…with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost…” —from The Goldfinch.)

The Goldfinch however, is no escape: it thrusts us into the awareness, always just beneath the surface, that the only way out of our troubled lives is death, a truth most of us tend to avoid. When forced to face it, our reactions can range from depression to terror to thoughts of suicide (as in might as well get it over with). I don’t know if this was Tartt’s intention, but it was, at least for me, the novel’s ultimate statement. Not that she doesn’t offer glimmers of joy and hope along the way, particularly in her long summary-like ending: but the dark side decidedly overpowers the light.

A plot-driven novel, The Goldfinch is full of twists and turns and moments of heightened suspense. Unlike most plot-driven books (see John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, et al), in which the action is fueled by stereotypical cardboard characters, The Goldfinch is populated by multi-dimensional  human beings: Theo, the narrator around whom all others spin; Boris, his chief sidekick, dragged all over the world by his abusive businessman father; Pippa, the girl Theo falls in love with moments before a bomb goes off in the New York Metropolitan Museum, setting the plot in motion; and dozens more. I can still vividly picture every one of these characters, though Tartt, thankfully, allows readers to fill in most of our own visuals—which is odd, considering she’s so heavy on other kinds of description.

As both a reader and writer I’ve never been that interested in description, whether of city streets or country roads, lavish mansions or run-down hovels. Thus, Tartt’s long, elaborate word paintings of whatever’s going on while what’s really going on goes on annoyed the hell out of me—that is, for the first hundred pages or so, until I fully surrendered.The plot is so engaging that I’d impatiently scan the page (or rather Kindle screen), my nerves twitching with the feeling of Come on, get to the story already! For instance, just as Boris is about to tell Theo (and us) what’s become of the treasured painting at the center of the plot, Tartt leaves the conversation momentarily to let us know what’s showing on the TV set in the bar. She’s also big on that famous plot device, the flashback: after the explosion, when Theo crawls through a collapsed passageway seeking an exit, Tartt flashes back to a time when he was stuck in another tight space. Sometimes she even writes a flashback within a flashback.

At such moments I became distracted and annoyed, and read as quickly as possible to get past what I saw as “extra”s…but then a funny thing happened on my way back to “the story”: I began to notice that my impatience was similar to what happens during suspenseful passages; Tartt’s long flights of description left me literally suspended. I was desperate to know what would happen next: I had to turn the pages. Eureka! Are these literary devices—the descriptions, the flashbacks—purposeful techniques employed precisely to create suspense? Is her deftness with these methods partly what makes the book so compelling? Perhaps. No, more than perhaps: probably. It’s worth noting that The Goldfinch is only Donna Tartt’s third published novel, and that she spent eleven years writing it. At a time when would-be authors attend workshops on “How to Write A Bestseller in a Weekend” and toss off a book in six months’ time, Donna Tartt is holding down the fort of literary excellence.



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All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki: Book Review

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All Over Creation isn’t Ruth Ozeki‘s most recent book — that’s A Tale for The Time Being — but one of my blog followers gave me this one as a donation gift, and it’s the second Ozeki novel I’ve read. The first—also her first—was My Year of Meats, a book that knocked me out completely; to this day I mention it, along with Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, any time talk turns to whether a book can actually affect some aspect of life as we know it. Like MYOM, All Over Creation’s  message is artfully woven into a story I inhaled like oxygen, peopled with characters I felt I knew. All of them are wildly different, and come from various walks of life, with opposing philosophies and politics, yet they come together and respect one another. So complex was the development of the story and the characters’ interactions, I couldn’t help but face the certainty that I could never write a book like this. I couldn’t. I don’t know how Ozeki did.

With the exception of Eliot, a history teacher-turned-corporate pimp—that is, PR man for a pesticide company—who was an enigma to me, everyone in AOC resembled people I’ve known for real. If I identified with anyone it was Yumi, a woman so full of contradictions she’s constantly being pulled in six directions at once. Yumi was and still is My Year of Meatsregarded as scandalous to the good folk of Liberty Falls, Idaho, many of whom interpret her behavior as classic signs of a “Bad Mother.” In fact Yumi is passionately crazy for her kids—it’s just that she also insists on having a life of her own; she isn’t someone who, like her best friend Cass, can devote herself to hearth and home only. Sure, she’s selfish and self-indulgent, and yes, she makes some bad decisions—but she isn’t unkind and she isn’t a “Bad Mother.”  Still, Yumi’s contradictions are torture to live with, and invariably lead her to trouble, inflicting a mess of collateral damage in her wake.

Ruth Ozeki - A Tale For The Time Being

Ruth Ozeki (Photo credit: Kris Krug)

As for the rich, twisting and somewhat twisted plot: Yumi’s father Lloyd, a lifelong potato farmer, is dying when Cass tracks her down in Hawaii. Yumi comes home, not having seen her parents since she ran away at 14. She arrives with three racially mixed fatherless kids in tow, and bumbles through her unique version of caretaking. Meanwhile, on the highways of America the Seeds of Resistance, a group of food activists, are roaming the country staging protests in supermarkets and food corporations, fueling their Winnebago with McDonald’s used french fry oil. They happen to see a seed brochure put out by Lloyd and his wife Momoko, who’s been cultivating her stuff for decades, organic seeds worlds apart from the genetically engineered crap coming out of the labs of Eliot’s employer, Cynaco (cyanide anyone?). Along with seed descriptions Lloyd pens his raving religious philosophy, which somehow coincides with the beliefs of the Seeds of Resistance, and voila! It’s a match made in heaven.

I’ve already given away too many potential spoilers, so that’s all I’ll say about the plot. What’s more important, I couldn’t tear

Ozekimyself away from this book, and I fell in love with every one of Ozeki’s people. I’m now gearing up to read her latest book. Ozeki is a wonderful writer. Read her!

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House of Mirth: Book Review



House of Mirth cover The night after I finished reading The House of Mirth I woke up several times and remembered with a pang that Lily Bart, the main character, had died. Though the woman was but a figment of Edith Wharton’s imagination, still I cried for her. I honestly cannot remember when a novel has affected me quite so deeply, but The House of Mirth packs a wallop, especially when you consider it was written in 1905, over 100 years ago; except for surface details and social mannerisms it could have been written today. To this I can attest: Lily Bart—c’est moi! I make this claim as a woman who, like Lily, began adult life from the privileged place of the upper middle-class, clueless about the machinations of money, unprepared for a journey of downward mobility that slammed me against the wall more times than I care to count. Like Lily I knew nothing about money—how to get it, how not to spend it, and the consequences of this ignorance. Unlike Lily, however, my social milieu provided plenty of information on chemical accessories, thus saving me from her method of self-annihilation.

Lily Bart is a great beauty (here she and I again part company) born and bred to be ornamental—she lights up the rooms of the rich and decorates the great halls of art and culture whenever she graces them with her presence. Lily understands this role, as well as her obligations as an object of beauty, and in return she expects to be taken care of in the style to which she is accustomed. Not only has Lily never been taught self-sufficiency, she received no intimation that she might have to learn. With this calamity never even imagined, Lily drifts through high society, pleasing others and beautifying her surroundings. Until she doesn’t—and therein lies a tale.

from the film

from the film

A series of almost trivial events are set in motion that cause Lily’s wealthy friends to snub her, until eventually she’s cast out of their gilded circles. These so-called friends treat her abominably: a woman alone is particularly vulnerable to becoming the scapegoat in other people’s dramas. Thus, a manipulative “friend” sets her up as wrongdoer to deflect blame from the actual culprit in her marital strife, i.e., herself. Rumors about Lily’s alleged part in this melodrama spread

Lily Bart in film version

Lily Bart in film version

before she can defend herself. Real disaster hits when her aunt, believing the rumors, disinherits her and with exquisitely bad timing dies almost immediately afterwards, leaving Lily with barely enough income to survive, much less enjoy her usual high lifestyle. And yet, when Lily comes into possession of some incriminating letters that could be used to restore her good name, she inexplicably rejects the opportunity to save herself. While this gives her integrity, I found  her reluctance to sink so low frustrating under the circumstances.  Lily was so badly treated, and the people around her so despicable, I thought she had every right to bring them down by any means necessary.

It occurred to me that perhaps Wharton meant for the reader to see Lily as a spoiled brat deserving of  her tribulations–but if this is what Wharton intended, she failed, at least with this reader. I rooted for Lily from beginning to end, and wished she would dump New York society into the Hudson River. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, I strongly identified with Lily as a single woman living by her wits alone.

Unfortunately she doesn’t dump high society; they dump her, and Lily’s circumstances continue the downward spiral, until she’s living “the boarding-house life” of single working women at the turn of the 20th century in New York. Alone, poor and lonely, she meets the challenge with a valiant attempt at honest labor in the milliners’ trade. With an instinct for charming design, Lily has always thought herself adept at hat trimming —but she soon discovers there’s more drudgery in millinery work than she ever imagined. The hats Lily produces are devastatingly inferior to those done by the ordinary girls working next to her. Failing dismally at a simple trade makes Lily even more despondent, and as each pathway systematically closes off to her, the reader senses we’re heading towards a very bad, sad ending.

images-2The House of Mirth contains many elements of any contemporary woman’s story, and could have been written in 1780 or 1968 or 2013. This serves to remind us that the unfair disadvantages of women’s lives have been operational since Day One and continue to the present. The economic system we in the U.S. live by forces women into marriage whether we want it or not.  The patriarchy is organized in such a way that what women can do in life is limited by its unwritten rules and regulations. No matter which segment of society a woman travels among—the rich, the unconventional, the artistic, the poor—all are governed by an invisible machine that benefits men and oppresses women.

In Lily Bart’s existence Edith Wharton—herself a member of the upper crust—captured the lives of millions of women, not only of her own time but throughout history. And material deprivation isn’t even the worst of it. Writes Wharton:

She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution…It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years.

This is only the second Wharton novel I’ve read (the first was The Age of Innocence). Unlike Jane Austen with her little pile of eight novels, Edith Wharton wrote 31. Lucky lucky me!

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail/Book Review

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl in the Wild

Cheryl in the Wild

Cheryl Strayed. She strayed from her home, from the pain of her mother’s death, and from her stepfather’s remarriage. She strayed from the husband she claimed to love, and from the senseless way she had been living. Almost without thought, Cheryl strayed onto the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and with no previous hiking experience she hoofed it from California to Oregon.

I suppose I should apologize for such inexcusable literary opportunism, abusing, or exploiting, a hokey last name like that. Had Strayed been the author’s true birth name, I wouldn’t have done so, but since it’s a name she actually chose—and it’s one of the things about this woman I couldn’t help but look down on—I just couldn’t resist. Because she’s so open and honest in her writing there’s a lot more to poke fun at—but as it turns out, there’s just as much to admire, even love.

As of today, January 30th, Amazon lists 1382 reviews of Wild on their site, most awarding the book four out of five stars, none less than three. It helps that Wild is an Oprah selection, but even if it wasn’t this book would still generate a great deal of interest. When was the last time you read an outdoor adventure story written by a woman? And because it’s by a woman, there are many more levels to the story than rugged adventure. The author’s life events, her feelings and insights, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams are woven almost seamlessly into heart-stopping encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, and the quirky people she meets on the trail. It adds up to a fascinating, gripping memoir.

One Amazon writer did a fantastic job on her review, and I highly recommend reading it. I’m not sure I agree with all of her analysis, though; she says that Strayed “speaks for so many women who have suffered similar insults and assaults and have never had such an articulate writer to tell their story.” I didn’t see the book this way, not as a universal female story at all. Though more than just adventure, at its heart the book still is a tale of adventure. For someone like me who’s averse to physical exertion, this kind of book offers transcendence. Never in my wildest dreams would I attempt or even want to attempt a rigorous journey like hiking the PCT–but because I’m averse to living it, I love reading it. I particularly love that another woman did it.

Cheryl Strayed dared step into the unknown, handling every challenge that arose so well she survived more or less intact. She even waited another 15 years to tell her story, proving she didn’t do it just so she could write the book. (So many people do things like that nowadays.) I probably have no right to feel proud of Cheryl, but in some crazy sisterly way I do. This woman did something extraordinary, and she deserves all the accolades she’s getting  for it.