TOMORROW: My Book World | J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year
My Book World
Smith, Alison. Name All the Animals. New York: Scribner, 2004.
If I had had the time, I would have read Name All the Animals in one sitting. In this memoir, the author begins benignly by sharing with readers in great detail how close she and her brother Roy are at ages nine and twelve, respectively, so close that their mother names them Alroy. Together, they explore an abandoned house in their neighborhood. And then, in a similar way to how it must shock the narrator and her parents, it shocks the reader to learn of Roy’s death at eighteen. The rest of the book covers several years following in which Alison finishes high school. She demonstrates how her family, good Catholics, avoid all the questions that should be asked and tackled. Alison develops an inner and outer world of her own making, all in aid of forgetting and yet commemorating her brother. In failing to grieve, however, she cuts herself off from most people until she meets one she can’t resist. Smith tells this harrowing story without sentiment but with all due regard for the truth. She structures it in such a manner that readers discover along with her how she must grow up, how she must proceed without Roy in her life.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Leo N. Tolstoy's What Is Art?
My Book World
Fellows, Will. Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
This book has been on my shelf for over twenty years. If I had read it when it was new, it might have seemed fresher. As it is, the men featured here, born between 1907 and 1967, seem stuck in their contemporary argot. I wonder if gay farm boys are still experiencing the same universals, some of which dovetail well with so-called urban gays. Young farm boys seem to have more interest in growing beautiful things like gardens instead of livestock; they enjoy cooking more than being outside. Insofar as it is possible, given small rural school districts, they become involved in the arts and often excel in them. Over and over again, you see gay farm boys say they don’t care for picking up tricks or one-night stands, that they would prefer long-term relationships but that rural life makes that kind openness impossible. The reader cannot imagine the number of these men who have sex with male siblings and other relatives before they begin to engage with and marry women. Perhaps the most prevalent commonality is the harm religion, particularly Catholicism, causes young boys and men as they search for a way to express their sexuality and find a partner with whom they can share a life. Like the urban gay youth, they more often than not experience a sympathetic mother and a distant or hostile father because the gay son doesn’t fall into line. By the end, I almost felt as if I were reading the same four or five profiles over and over again. And yet I know I wasn’t. Every gay man’s story has something in common with others and every story has its differences, its unique qualities, which set that man apart.
What would be interesting now would be for Fellows (or some other courageous writer/scholar with boundless energy) to interview gay farm boys born between 1970 and 1995. Have their experiences been different than the generations before them? How does arranging for sex online compare to picking someone up at a bar or at some Interstate rest room? Are fathers still as intractable about masculinity and what that means? Has the world at large made any dent at all into the sequestered lives of rural Americans? This fascinating book seems to invite an ongoing discussion in which these and other questions are explored.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Aaron Smith's The Book of Daniel: Poems
MY BOOK WORLD
Andrews, Julie with Emma Walton Hamilton. Home Work. New York: Hachette, 2019.
Andrews begins the book with a summary of her first memoir, Home, that came out in 2009, which is a good thing. It induces the reader to want to locate a copy (for the details must be juicy), as well as it gives readers a view of what her early life was like before she became famous and moved to Hollywood to work.
Unlike many memoirs which can be of a meandering nature, this one moves quickly from one locale to the next, one creative project to the next, one family crises to the next with little reflection, except by way of journal entries from the time period Andrews is calling to mind. Having said that, I believe Andrews moves from locale to locale because that is the nature of the business she is in. In making a film, she must relocate to where the project is being shot. With regard to each film there are preproduction stories, stories during the shooting, and then stories about when the film or live show opens—the reviews, both good and bad. And I’m sorry, of course, Ms. Andrews does reflect upon the relationships she has with her two husbands, her daughter by the first one, the step children she acquires (happily) from her second husband, her siblings and her Moms and Dads, plus the two daughters that she and Blake Edwards adopt from Vietnam. Julie reflects, but it’s often a hand-wringing followed, most of the time, by things turning out all right.
Still, the memoir has more than a few amusing anecdotes. My favorite involves one with Mike Nichols and Carol Burnett. The three are staying in the same hotel as Julie and Carol prepare for their joint TV special. He wants to meet late at night after his train has been delayed, and the women agree. They get into their pajamas and robes and when they know he’s in the hotel, they wait for him at the elevators. They decide it would be funny if they are kissing when Nichols gets off the elevator:
“At this point, one of the elevators went ‘ping!’ so I whipped Carol across my lap, making it look as if I had her in a full embrace. The doors opened … and the elevator was packed …. Nobody got out, nobody got in. As the doors closed, they collectively leaned toward the center so they could get a better view. Carol and I simply cracked up.
Anyone like me, who has followed the career of Ms. Andrews from Mary Poppins until now, will appreciate the depths to which she mines her soul to share once again with us her life and her talents. It’s quite a ride.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | TBD
My Book World
Cep, Casey. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. New York: Knopf, 2019.
This fascinating book unfolds by way of three sections. In the first, Cep brings to life a decades-old Alabama story of insurance fraud in which one Rev. Willie Maxwell begins buying up life insurance policies on relatives and others close to him. If that isn’t unusual enough, then each one of those persons begins to die in car “accidents” or by other strange circumstances. Even stranger, Cep makes clear, is that for some reason law enforcement cannot seem to pin these crimes on the prime suspect: Willie Maxwell. When Maxwell attends the funeral of the last victim, a relative of the deceased pulls out a revolver and kills the minister.
The second section of the book is about the attorney who not only helps the minister stay out of prison for years previous to the murder but who is so skilled that he gets an acquittal for the minister’s murderer. The attorney himself is a colorful figure, a liberal Democrat who throws caution to the wind and runs for office. After he wins, his actions are too liberal for some and he is harassed (in a dangerous KKK style) out of office, never running again. Along the way, he makes friends with author Harper Lee, known for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The reason the two become acquainted is that Harper Lee is attempting to write a book, à la her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, about the Reverend (The Reverend also being her working title). After all, when Mockingbird was finished, Lee had little to do, and not yet much money, so Capote hired Lee as his assistant to help him research his book. And what a great assistant she was. Cep makes clear that, in all, Lee offers Capote at least 150 pages of typewritten notes. Her talent is combing the physical landscape for specific details; his has more to do with affect, interviewing the related parties, getting them to open up. Lee spends years apparently applying the same journalistic skills to the Maxwell case, but she ultimately abandons the book, believing she just doesn’t have enough information to make it a great book. Cep’s portrayal of Lee is one that readers may not be familiar with: an alcoholic (she eventually, unlike Capote, gets clean); a millionaire who lives, in some ways, like the poorest among her; someone who writes because she loves it, not because she must make a living from it; her own kind of philanthropist, taking care of people and causes she believes in.
Cep weaves together these three strands into one compelling narrative which contributes to even a larger picture: a last gasp of the Old South and its many, many contradictions. A descendant of a slave who allegedly kills members of his own race. A liberal attorney who attempts to evolve the white race in his home state of Alabama. And a writer, childhood friends with Truman Capote, who may be more Libertarian than Liberal, never really finding her rightful place in the American canon of literature.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | TBD
My Book World
Houston, Pam. Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. New York: Norton, 2019.
Pam Houston may be the single best teacher of writing in the U.S. today, not only by way of her classroom techniques (which I know of firsthand) but by way of example, and Deep Creek proves my case. Houston’s main tenet, always, is to begin with the concrete details—whether fiction or nonfiction—and those details will lead you to your narrative.
“I have always believed that if I pay strict attention while I am out in the physical world—and for me that often meant the natural world—the physical world will give me everything I need to tell my stories” (78).
And once again, as in all Houston’s stories, novels, or essays, she mines the glimmers in her life to reveal to readers her twenty-five year acquaintance with a patch of land high in the Colorado Rockies, at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, her ranch; the extreme physical, sexual, and emotional abuse her parents heaped upon her; the nanny, Martha Washington, who was more of a mother to her than anyone; obtaining the ranch property and hanging onto it by a thread at times, both financially and in terms of the physical world which, where she lives, has an extreme impact on human life whether it be the winter temperatures and snow and ice or a hundred-year fire or human encroachment. Many metaphors guide her. She lives by a purely spiritual (not religious) guide: What are the best ways for me to be kind to others and to the earth I live on, and how can I leave both better off before I leave this earth? Because of her childhood abuse, Pam grows up always on guard, always ready to leap into the future, and that is how she often lives: running literally to all four corners of our, at times, flat earth. She is invited or invites herself to some of the most strenuous and exhilarating ventures around. And in this book she makes each one of them shine, or glimmer.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-44 Alaska
My Book World
Chee, Alexander. How to Write an Autobiographical
Novel: Essays. Boston: Houghton, 2018.
This collection of essays is a staggering one. In the way that fiction writers link short stories, Chee links essays to explicate how he works as a fiction writer. His metaphors are simple yet profound. His advice is wrenched from the heart, and yet at no time does he allow sentimentality to interfere with his message. The entire collection—like a group of short stories, like a novel—possesses a narrative arc that is subtle, inching readers toward the climax, easing into a quiet denouement. The book seems nonlinear, but Chee glides readers from a few youthful months spent in Mexico becoming fluent in Spanish, to his older youth in college with Annie Dillard as a professor, to his maturation into an astute, caring professor of creative writing, to the publication of his first novel and how it explores and ultimately exposes the biggest secret of his life.
The Publishing Triangle, a long-established organization for LGBTQ writers based in New York, recently awarded this work the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. I hope, as a tour de force, it will win even more accolades in the coming months or years. Chee is a remarkable writer, and anyone who takes a seminar from him ought to feel fortunate.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-41 Nevada
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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