Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

book by Joan Didion

annotation by Jacqueline Heinze

A month shy of my graduating from college and moving to New York, a dear friend handed me her stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s essay “Good-bye to All That.” In Claudia’s version, four actors would represent Didion at the different ages the author refers to in her essay. There was Didion at twenty, and twenty-two, and twenty-eight. I played the oldest version of Didion, the writer living in Los Angeles reflecting back upon her time in New York. (At the time, I had a sophisticated short haircut that I think could make me look older than my peers.) We, this handful of actors portraying Didion, stood stationary in our spots on a proscenium stage and delivered lines from the essay directly to the audience. Two decades later, I still have nearly three-quarters of this essay committed to memory. (We did not perform every word; Claudia had edited it.) I also remember vividly what this piece meant to me. “Good-bye to All That” affected me in a way I had no words for at the time; “it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story” (228). I knew only that the piece plucked some fiber, some thread, inside of me that had grown taut since I had begun to become a woman and now I was vibrating with a life experience I hadn’t even yet had. Of course, when I did move to New York, my experiences would be different than Didion’s, but I would get caught in the rain in front of the Plaza and so duck into The Paris and catch whatever movie was showing, and I would cry walking crosstown late one morning in the same stiletto heels and tight jeans from the night before. There would be both romance and wretchedness in spades. And, ultimately, I would leave New York and make Los Angeles my home, but I knew nothing of these things when I first read this essay that somehow captured both who I felt I was (of course I wasn’t; I was nearly completely unformed) and who I wanted to be. I write all this because I feel compelled to admit, not without shame, that it took me twenty years to read the rest of Didion’s collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is with nearly equal shame that I confess I struggled with the book.

There is no doubt Didion is brilliant. Consider this sentence:

“Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in it venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniforms” (80).

It is one of many sentences that demands a second reading; one of many that bursts open the page with its insight, imagery, and language. Didion constructs entire complex worlds between a capital letter and a period. Yet the writing is clear. The second read is not necessary to decrypt the meaning, but to linger over its assembly and marvel at the richness of the language.

But the greater theme strung among these essays is unsettling. The collection examines the decay of the moral fabric of the United States during the mid- to late-sixties, but the focus is on the West, and more specifically, on California, Didion’s home state. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion captures a national desire to chase mirages. Through piercing observations, and yet in her quietly nonjudgmental tone, she suggests we are driven by a vague sense that dreams will come true, and although the dreams themselves are nebulous, the belief in them survives long after the harsh light of reality has eclipsed the golden glow. An underage, pregnant bride cries tears of joy because a cheap, gaudy, shotgun wedding in Vegas was everything she dreamed it would be. In Haight-Ashbury, a child is given hallucinatory drugs. Regardless, the dream hangs on. About California, Didion writes that it is “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (172). That sense of suspension is inescapable from the first page to the last. And so is Didion’s cool tone. She holds readers beyond arm’s length. No matter I portrayed her on stage, after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I felt that Didion was an intentionally elusive artist, a mirage in and of herself. So, despite her perfected artistry and her penetrating wisdom, and just as much because of them, I was often restless and on edge as I grappled with this book.

There were passages that returned me to the Didion I discovered at a 20. Her serial construction—the repetition of subjects or verbs or simply the word “and”—were welcomingly familiar to me. I scribbled, “Classic Didion!” in the margins next to phrases such as, “I am going to find it difficult to tell you why…” (188) and “…which I’m talking about here” (205). At these moments, I no longer hung above the work. Instead, I was back on stage, standing in my own blinding stage light and vibrating as I delivered her words into the darkness.

Zen and the Art of Knitting

book by Bernadette Murphy

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

Bernadette Murphy in her first book Zen and the Art of Knitting uses clear and simple language that is simultaneously vivid, evocative, colorful, and, here’s the author in her— reflective—to make apt and often metaphorical connections between life and knitting without overreaching.

“Few things lend themselves so easily, so wisely to a metaphorical understanding of life as does knitting” Murphy says, adding that it “seems to be a metaphor for turning chaos into order” (31, 103). As she interviews knitters from all over the world, she finds some consistent patterns—namely, that knitters “associate their knitting experiences with the lessons they’ve learned about life” (152). Among those lessons: We construct the patterns of our lives as we would a sweater: “piece by piece, stitch by stitch” (31); we can “go back to the place before the mistake and correct it”, thereby “undo[ing] what we’ve done”, which is different, of course, from how things work in the real world (12, 31); “We are all made of the same materials, we are all joined in the knitted garment of life”—the old adage, cut from the same cloth comes to mind here (193); furthermore, “we are each stitches, necessary for a completed work” (193); we can “metaphorically weav[e] the disparate parts” of ourselves “back into a cohesive whole” (which certainly sounds cheaper than therapy) (15); we can, through our craft, build “elements of self-esteem that cannot easily be unraveled” (78); finally, we can reveal “a beautiful pattern” behind each of our distinct lives (154). These connections roll effortlessly off the author’s tongue (or more accurately, off her fingertips) and onto the page for our eyes and ears to soak up. And we know Murphy isn’t getting carried away with double meanings in verb choices like knit, weave, interweave, stitch, hook, and unravel because the folks she interviews make similar connections, too.

Knitting is “‘like praying with beads, stitch by stitch’” a Waldorf School handwork teacher and abbey oblate adds. She’s so quick to jump on the simile bandwagon, you’d think she weaves words—not blankets—for a living. (67)

A marriage counselor whom Murphy interviews is quick to use a simile to describe her knitting practice (not to be confused with her private practice): Knitting is “‘like eating a piece of pickled ginger after sushi to clear the palate’” she explains of knitting’s soul-cleansing effect (53). What an unlikely comparison, and yet—how apt!

Although I personally have the hand-eye coordination of a four-year-old and thus have never tried to knit anything in my life, I think the reason that Murphy and her interviewees manage these comparisons without coming across as overreaching is that they do so seemingly effortlessly—with the ease, one might argue, of knitting itself (once it becomes mindless, that is; once it takes on the Zen-like quality from which this book derives its very name). I don’t get the sense as a reader that Murphy kept a writer’s notepad by her nightstand and another miniature one in her purse in which to fastidiously record one-liners to sprinkle throughout her debut book. And I hardly think her interviewees had the time to rehearse answers over the course of their knitters’ tête-à-tête with the author. On the contrary, their answers flowed smoothly; they weren’t going for the next bud-um-BUM moment. For them, the comparisons were as natural as sitting on the back porch with a cup of tea, a “ball of wool and two pointy sticks” (30).

And that is exactly how I experienced the read: like I was catching up with a good friend I hadn’t seen in years (knitting herself), but it was as if no time had passed. I grew so comfortable around the knitter’s terminology, I almost felt like—to hell with my four-year-old hand-eye coordination! I can totally knit after reading this book. But then I remembered how riding a bike went after I hadn’t done that in fifteen years, and that’s something I actually once knew how to do. (Think: forgetting how to brake or turn and jumping off the thing in frustration, mid-peddle, faster than if I’d seen my own ghost.) So perhaps knitting isn’t in my immediate future. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-written, well-researched, well-thought out book on the matter. What makes Murphy so successful is her ability to use knitting as a vehicle to convey universal truths. Perhaps Tara Ison said it best on the back cover: “A wise, illuminating book for knitters and non-knitters alike.”

Just as I don’t have to be an alcoholic to appreciate a compelling memoir on addiction or a survivor of abuse to be drawn in by a powerful story on the subject matter, I also don’t need to be a knitter to know that I like to hear truisms about living and how to do it better. We all want to know how to correct a mis-stitch here, a fumble there. It’s as though Murphy is telling us, we can repair the world by repairing ourselves, and we can do that through the Zen-inducing effects of knitting. And even if we never take to knitting personally, we can bliss out while reading about how others are becoming less tightly-wound while unwinding a ball of yarn. We can read about how they are making connections from self-to-world: the friction of their metal sticks creating the inspirational charge—their knitters’ needles the conduit to universal truths.

As a writer, I am reminded that readers will care if you make them. And that is exactly what Murphy does in Zen: She sticks it to us. (I couldn’t resist.) It doesn’t matter that she writes about knitting. She could write about any topic that is dear to her be it cooking, motorcycling, mothering, or mentoring. That she chooses to write about knitting is irrelevant. What matters is how she’s able to use it as an entry ‘point’ if you will, to speak to the human condition—to weave her way into our collective hearts and minds.

 

The Chronology of Water

book by Lidia Yuknavitch

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

I could write about Lidia Yuknavitch’s use of fragments, offset by long paragraphs without any punctuation, in The Chronology of Water. Or, I could write about her often colloquial language or self-professed “wise-ass voice” (291). Or how she sometimes addresses the reader directly and other times switches into the second person or the present tense, seemingly without warning. I could also write about her lyrical passages, a contrast to those more informal shorter-than-sentences. Or about how she does sex writing better than anyone else (cue to me racing to include her work in my MFA graduating presentation on How to “Do” Good Sex Writing). But I won’t write about the author’s fragments or point of view choices or tone or tense-shifting or mind-blowing sex scenes because I can’t not write about her reflections—so self-aware, so deep—they moved me to write “YES” in my margins, over and over, often with three or four underlines for emphasis.

Yuknavitch begins the memoir by telling us about her stillborn daughter and then flashing back to her own girlhood, which is equally as horrific as the opening hospital scene. We learn that the narrator’s father molests both Yuknavitch girls and that Lidia turns to swimming for salvation: “Anything in the water felt like home … In water, like in books—you can leave your life”, she writes (148, 152). Her mantra becomes “Hold your breath until you can leave” (73). And leave she does. For Texas. On a college swim scholarship. Which she promptly loses because she’s busy losing herself :

  • in drugs

“I would have put anything in my mouth … breathing in the white, breathing out comprehension and emotion” (64-65).

  • & in sex

“I’d become the kind of woman whose mouth was stuck in a permanent ‘yes’ shape … I was using my body as a sexual battering ram … All that euphoria filling up the hole of me” (64, 143, 69).

  • & in death wishes

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life” (72).

  • & in marriages

like the one to “poor Phillip”, who was “never cut out for a woman like me with a rage in her bigger than Texas” and the second one to Devin—the “charismatic narcissistic tender hearted frighteningly attractive artistic drunk” whom “you divorced [eleven years later] because he slept with not one but about five gazillion different women” (59, 171, 207).

  • & in a flurry of self-destruction

like “a big blond DUI” (222). Like “count backwards from 100 with your eyes closed and with this stick up your ass and balancing an egg on your left tit …” (208). Like spinning out on the freeway and hitting a “5’ tall brown skinned pregnant woman who had no English” and then “blow[ing] a number out of orbit” because you drank that entire bottle of scotch, and now your car is totaled, like your life (212, 208).

But then Yuknavitch meets Andy Mingo. Her married student. I know. It sounds about as suspect as everything else she’s been up to. And she knows it too. “Yeah. Well. What did you expect? I’m still me, after all”, she muses (238). But as it turns out, Andy is the real deal. He becomes husband number three and number one dad to their live-born son, Miles. And while Yuknavitch jokes about her poor decision-making above in a self-deprecating manner, she speaks eloquently about her metaphorical rebirth. “[Even as we were] working out our childhood wounds at each other … He [Andy] treated th[ese] thing[s] I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish” (259, 239). That is a sentence I not only wish that I’d written, but also that I were living. For the narrator, finding the kind of love that heals instead of hurts is a shift that borders on revolutionary. Yuknavitch has been to some pretty dark places in her life, but she assures us that “… beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes” illuminate the darkness and that “the simplicity of loving” can teach a girl how “to live on land” (293, 272). This is quite a remarkable notion when coming from a swimmer, who’s only ever flourished in pools, rivers, and oceans.

“It is not easy to leave one self and embrace another”, but Yuknavitch has done as much in her new roles as together wife (as opposed to the angry, intoxicated version she brought to her first marriages) and doting mother (as opposed to the grieving kind she was after her first child’s birth and death or even the kind she grew up with—“a numb drunk folded into her own pain” (190, 163).) With those dark hours behind her and nothing but trees in front of her in her magical Oregon home with the family she’s created, the narrator has made it out of the “the cold wet of [her] life” (151). Here, she needn’t worry that her father’s anger built the house (a refrain she repeats throughout the book). Here, she can take solace. Here, she can feel nestled and supported. Planted and rooted. “I felt safety … Something up until that point in my life I’d only felt in water” (256).

In committing her story “about desire and language … About fathers and swimming and fucking and dead babies and drowning” to paper, Yuknavitch “rebuild[s] the wreckage of a life a word at a time”, and what a beautiful and reflective life her words make (141, 202).

 

The Wild Trees

9780812975598

book by Richard Preston

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

In his work of creative nonfiction The Wild Trees, Richard Preston uses simile, polysyndeton, point of view, and a careful blend of story, science, and history to bring his characters—both human and nonhuman—to life (or in many cases, to much larger than life). Relying on careful research on trees and the people who climb them, as well as personal interviews, Preston taps into third person omniscient narration to inhabit the minds of quirky arborists and eccentric forestry professors, as well as climbing grunts, champions, and enthusiasts, biologists, botanists, high climbers, adrenaline junkies, and forest canopy scientists and explorers. Other times, Preston enters the story himself, and the point of view shifts. What doesn’t change, what never falters—regardless of the point of view—is the author’s beautiful command over language and romantic, dreamy portrayal of an obscure and unchartered way of life up above ground.

Preston uses similes to describe the physical features of various trees—mostly, hyperbolically tall ones—in a way that even the lay reader, who has never ventured into the depths of a forest, can understand and picture. He likens young redwoods to “plantations of fuzzy Christmas trees,” and “splashes of red maples” among the pines to “torches burning in the last gray light of afternoon,” (7, 63). Then, there are the “virgin, ancient redwoods,” which loom above everything “like Mohawk haircuts,” and the tall, skinny Telperion tree which stands “like a pencil…in mud…as tall as an office building,” (7, 129). As readers, we needn’t run to the nearest national park or even to our computer screens for a better look at these trees because, in each of Preston’s sentences, we can picture their massive size and distinguishing physical features. Through simile, the author illuminates some of nature’s most impressive organisms. Through simile, he leaves us with a touch of vertigo and the sensation that the ground is unsteady, like when you step off a treadmill or a moving walkway at the airport: “You can hang [from a tree],” Preston tells us, “like a spider hanging on a silk thread,” or “swing like a pendulum,” or even “bounce-walk…like walking on an asteroid,” (152, 262, 263). Simile is the perfect literary device for Preston to make clear to the non-tree climber exactly what tree climbing is “like” (or even sometimes, “as”).

Using polysyndeton, the author creates a sense of breathlessness and suspense and disbelief just as deftly as he creates snapshots of the forest with simile. The prior sentence is an example in itself, and it was Preston who inspired it. (In fact, I have since employed this literary device in my own writing, and I’ve found it to be a nice juxtaposition to a single “and” or the absence of coordinating conjunctions altogether—asyndeton.) Preston writes that the tree is “a complex structure…an architecture made up of nooks and crannies and shaded, moist spots, and fertile pockets…” (203). It’s a sentence that doesn’t allow the reader to come up for air and makes her want to keep pushing through the dense foliage, or, in this case, to keep turning the pages—themselves, former trees. In another example, he lists four plants commonly found on the forest floor in a manner that makes us feel as though we’re trekking through the “impassible thickets” too: “The understory of a forest consists of virtually impassable thickets of huckleberry bushes and salmonberry canes and ferns and small trees,” he writes (170). The sentence feels as though it’s in a hurry, just as one of Preston’s characters, grocery clerk Michael Taylor, is in a hurry to discover the world’s tallest tree. Indeed, finding that “Ultimate Tree” isn’t as simple as one would think, either (78).” The author uses polysyndeton to explain that “You could be crawling through ferns and underbrush and pass right by a huge tree and never see it,” (79). We can feel the weight of Taylor’s frustration in this sentence. We’re there in the forest with him on our hands and knees looking up, up, up at the redwoods all around us, but we can’t make out which one is the grandest.

For most of the story, the author acts as an omniscient third-person narrator. He is even privy to sexual encounters between characters Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine, two tree experts and academics who will later marry “in midair, in the space between the spires,” (220). “They had never made love in the forest canopy,” Preston tells us, “but they wanted to…She took off everything…very carefully…He unharnessed himself and undressed, lying next to her…The aura of danger…added a sweet edge of hazard to their explorations…they made endless love in the air without touching,” (199, 196). It is clear through this passage that Preston is inhabiting the minds and thoughts, if not bodies, of his characters. In fact, he explains in his Author’s Note that he was able to do so based on information obtained from interviews, followed by ruthless fact checking. Nearly halfway through the book though, the point of view shifts when Preston enters the story: “I came across the Atlanta tree-climbing school while I was surfing the Internet,” he writes in first person (137). It seems that tree climbing is not entirely foreign to him—he’s not an outsider looking in on an unfamiliar world but a tree climber himself! This new information, as well as the shift in point of view, is surprising but not altogether jarring. Suddenly, we understand why Preston was inspired to write about this unknown world—it’s not unknown to him. He has a vested interest. The following chapter returns to third person, but Preston the character continuously re-emerges. He weaves the first-person experience (and occasionally the second-person, too) into his third-person story as seamlessly as he does factoids about trees and arborists and the forest canopy and climbing equipment and the people who explore the trees and use the climbing equipment. (At some points, the book reads like a 9th grade biology text—think capillary action, embolisms, and gymnosperms—while at other times, the reader is laughing at lines like “‘I’m really a Douglas-fir guy, not a redwood guy,’” or “Now that he had a job, Taylor…got his hair trimmed into a mullet.”) (114, 73).

From rappelling to trunkwalking to skywalking to spidering to crack jamming, jugging, tree surfing, and whipper-taking—the author invites us inside the fascinating world of tree climbing. His careful hand guides us through the forest, where we meet characters who are just as varied as the forest’s motley organisms. Grounded on our respective recliners and couches and chairs, we readers find ourselves totally engrossed in a foreign world and also free to spontaneously yell, “Clear!” to confirm that, down here, all is indeed well.

The Confessions of an English Opium Eater

dequincybook by Thomas De Quincey

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Thomas De Quincey’s “Iliad of woes” serves as a forerunner to the contemporary trend of addiction memoirs about sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeking relief from stomach pains, De Quincey first takes opium (in the form of laudanum tincture) on the advice of a pharmacist. Like many addicts, he begins his spiral into pharmacopoeia through self-medication. Plagued by health troubles (he views his body as a “wretched structure”), there is limited medical aid available to him. A resourceless, homeless teen, impoverished and lacking higher education or vocational training, opium is his only steady friend. It quiets his hunger pangs, cushions his loneliness and smothers his grief.

Opium is a deranged and seductive lover to whom he returns again and again, despite the dangerous, vampiric nature of the relationship. His dance of indulgence and repentance continues for more than half his life. Again and again, he promises to quit the habit, only to slide back into use. He tinkers with his dosage and bargains with himself about where, when and how much he can safely take without risking negative health effects or reigniting an insatiable craving. The inevitable decline and descent into withdrawal fills his tumultuous sleep with hallucinations and terrors, dreams of vicious crocodiles, ancient “mystic ages” and “battlements [that] bore bright stars” (prophesying buildings lit with electric lights?) and “a greater influx of thoughts.”

Recovering alcoholic and Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis states that addiction is akin to “pressing the pause button” on your emotional processing, as De Quincey proves, ruminating the pains of unhealed emotional wounds and grieving the loss of his first love, Ann, a 15 year-old prostitute from his days on the streets. During yet another attempt to quit the habit, he writes, “It seems as though all the thoughts which had been frozen up for a decade of years by opium had now … been thawed at once–such a multitude stream in upon me from all quarters.”

“Confessions…” is a weak purgative. Written for money (financial troubles dogged De Quincey throughout his life), he openly acknowledges his audience’s salacious desire to rubberneck at the seedy side of life. His narrative wanders, less a chronological account than one given in spurts with gaps of time. Likewise does the story lack detail. De Quincey was married and had eight children with his wife but only two of the children are mentioned in passing (as an interruption in his opiated haze). The faceless wife remains unnamed.

A cathartic attempt to purge sin through public revelation, De Quincey does not deeply probe his motivations or the emotional subtext underlying them. This is telling of the era, however—Alcoholic Anonymous’12 Steps of recovery and the self-help movement was still a century and a half away. Addiction treatment and concepts of psychiatric analysis had yet to infiltrate popular culture. Or perhaps he felt he gave away enough of himself to satisfy his audience, readers who expected less of the memoir genre than we do today.

 De Quincey’s fantastic vocabulary and flowery prose take a moment to become accustomed to (along with his paragraph length sentences) but logophiles like myself will relish the breadth of his linguistic abilities. He unselfconsciously uses phrases like “limitary peripatetics,” “pecuniary emolument” and “shabby habiliments” along with a casual sprinkling of French and Latin, a testament to the rigors of his education (or at least those of 19th century merchant-class boys). His is the quintessential portrait of the melancholic writer, fearing a book he yearns to write to be a labor “too great for the architect.”

De Quincey shifts fluidly from a discussion of factual events and his emotional responses to philosophical, social and economic ruminations. By today’s publishing standards, his work feels both overwrought and experimental. Rejecting traditional linear storytelling for an elastic exploration of his topic, he fears no censure. “But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.” This is perhaps the greatest lesson for my own writing: to fearlessly apply the full palette of linguistic and stylistic techniques to a piece; to birth and nurture the work without regard to imagined future criticisms; and to hold on to the things I love and value–lyricism, musical phrasing, tiny details, complex, sink-your-teeth-in sentences and unwieldy yet perfect words.

It is almost comforting to read a firsthand account of De Quincey’s creative floundering and his daily battle to remain hopeful in the face of poverty, addiction and ill health. Writers endure many miseries, most of them silent. We are players in a vicious dodge ball game, and our fiercest opponent isn’t critical and public censure or ridicule, but our own knuckle-biting anxiety and self-doubt. Though we may labor through many a dark night of the soul, it’s reassuring to know that our words may resound through the years to deliver pleasure, camaraderie and inspiration to those who toil alone through the lonely hours, all the while dodging that cruel, ceaseless ball.

Despite the vast distances between us (centuries, continents, classes, gender), I closed the book feeling that I had met a kindred spirit. Light sleepers who adore winter, we both value wit and the flexibility of sound, meaning and function in language. Most importantly, De Quincey understands what is most important in life: a good cuppa. “Tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities … will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual.”

Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy

9780743246415book by Carlos Eire

annotation by Miriam González-Poe

“Desire proves itself most eloquently and painfully. Desire is God, and God is desire,” writes Carlos Eire in his memoir about growing up at the onset and during the turbulent times of the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy recounts Mr. Eire’s genteel and privileged beginnings as a child of Cuba’s old aristocracy and continues cataloguing the chaotic halt to a way of life that ended with Fidel Castro’s take over of Batista’s regime in 1959, and, the author’s subsequent and unwilling experience as a child of the Peter Pan Project. Mr. Eire writes with great candor and honesty about his family and the people that peppered his life during these formative years. He spares not one of his characters the proper reckoning, the good and bad they represent to him, yet he finds a way to do it with grace, incredible believability and a conversational style of writing that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Mr. Eire’s descriptions are at once humorous with the innocence of boyhood, and sad with the recollection of boyhood and innocence lost. Through the use of seamlessly flowing flashbacks he constructs a cohesive whole of a manuscript. Descriptions are stark, visceral, and beautifully visual, sometimes bordering on poetic. Mr. Eire has a special gift for the art of metaphor and hyperbole. In chapter after chapter the reader delights to find that what begins as a seemingly innocuous story about a boyhood recollection is really a collective statement of something of much deeper societal meaning and conflict. For example, in chapter 16, Eire relates his young-child fear of becoming “black” were he to eat dark foods that began after Nilda his African Nanny tells him innocently that if he just eats one more bite he will grow up to be “just like her.” Nilda is trying to encourage little Carlos to eat so that he will grow and become an adult, but he gets scared instead, and the fear that he will lose the privileges of his “white” upbringing and turn African become a vessel for the exposition of racism and prejudice. Carlos refuses for months to eat anything dark. Of the day he faced his fear of “dark foods” he writes, “I closed my eyes and took a bite from the chocolate-covered ice-cream bar thinking that this might be my last moment on Earth as a white boy. I savored the ice-cream in my mouth”…. “I had trouble opening my eyes after that first bite. But when I finally opened them, I immediately looked at my hand. I was white. White, as I’d always been. Whew!”…. “They’d been right after all, those that told me that dark food couldn’t turn you into an African.” He concludes the chapter with a powerful metaphor on the prejudice that every individual suffers when coming to a new country as a disenfranchised immigrant: “What they didn’t know was that it would take only one brief plane ride to turn me from a white boy into a spic. And I’m reminded of it every time I have to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic” as a race distinct from “white” or “Caucasian.” It wasn’t any food that stripped me of my whiteness. No just one forty-minute ride over the turquoise sea. Well let me correct myself. Since I flew out of Cuba at sunset, the water wasn’t turquoise at all. It was starting to turn dark blue, and the farther north we flew the darker the water became. By the time we had reached the lights of Key West, the sea was black. Pitch black.”

With a tongue-in-cheekness that belies the seriousness of the subject matter of which he writes, Mr. Eire anoints his characters with a personality that is meant to describe Who-they-really-are in metaphor. He gives each of his characters a loving pseudonym and refers to them as such throughout the manuscript. His father is Louis the XVI, King of France; his mother is Marie Antoinette the tragic and beautiful queen; his Aunt Lucia is the Woman Without Desires. In this manner, Mr. Eire adds to the description of his characters within their quasi-tragic settings without needing to spend time completing it in writing. By comparing his characters to the well-known gods of history, Mr. Eire allows his readers to do the job of completing the characterization of his own characters for him. His use of strategic metaphor continues as the author paints an even grander picture using historical comparisons by pairing French Revolution to Cuban and the falls of the civilized lives within each. Mr. Eire inserts enough personal details  to make it interesting yet allows his audience to fill in gaps left to the imagination.

Mr. Eire’s use of first person narrative is conversational and easy to follow, as well. He intersperses dialogue and captures the voice of the 10-year-old boyhood on an idyllic Caribbean island with true believability. His recounting of childhood adventure and feelings is universal and easily relatable. He uses Spanish terms and phrases liberally, but he also takes the time to explain and translate each and every one, and their context, which makes the reading of his narrative that much more enjoyable, evocative, understandable, but most importantly, relatable.

As a writer and a memoirist, there are stories that inspire me in life, and there are stories that inspire me to want to write the stories of my life; then there are those that somehow have the ability to do both. I am always drawn in to stories that tell you their tales with  universality of theme despite very personal and specific of topics. This is one of those books. As a writer and a first generation American, I chose this book to read because it was my desire to learn more about my own history.  My parents were part of that lost generation of Cuban-Americans who immigrated to the United States during the “Castrolandia” catastrophe that rendered their beloved old Cuba a thing of the past. And this book does tell it like it is (or was) from a first-hand point of view. But the true beauty of Carlos Eire’s writing is not only in that it tells the personal story so well of an often glossed over time in our modern history, it is also rather, in the manner that he incorporates the events of his personal life into universal themes of the human experience, themes of which we can all relate. He is believable, thus he is trustworthy. As writers, we are all striving for authenticity and believability in our writing, no matter what our subjects are. As writers, it is our ultimate goal to have the audience trust us as storytellers. Mr. Eire’s easy skill in this arena makes his work Waiting for Snow in Havana not just an entertaining informative story but a primer for any writer striving to learn the art of  creative, authentic memoir writing. His prose flows so easily and effortlessly, that the reader has to remember to pay attention to the art of the writing, lest she forgets herself caught up in the adventure of the reading.

Mr. Eire’s incorporation of Spanish terms and their explanations into the English prose also satisfies. This is a technique that is for many bi-lingual authors not an easy thing to fit into an English manuscript effectively and have it understood implicitly. His manipulation of style, rich with metaphors and similes driving subtle points home in both languages, is so brilliant and visceral at times the reader can almost feel her mouth water with the succulence of it! Mr. Eire’s prose is an all in one: learning tool, enjoyable story, and history lesson.

In Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire creates a satisfying story that is not just a memoir about exile, but about the universal themes of loss, change, adaptation, living life without closure, and the eternal constant of hope. He accomplishes the task of writing a story laced with the realism of tragedy, the mysticism of hope and the universal desire to understand the flow of life events when explanation for those events has become both incomprehensible and absurd. “Is it possible to have a life without desires?” the author writes in Chapter 18. “I refuse to believe it.” Indeed, it is obvious that this story is Mr. Eire’s desire, and his hope. It is a remembrance and tribute to a way of life now extinct, and the author accomplishes his desire, (as he so stated), “most eloquently and painfully,” and to the satisfaction of his audience.

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick

9780374528584Book by Vivian Gornick

Annotation by Susan Tuttle

Vivian Gornick, in her work The Situation and the Story: the Art of the Personal Narrative, distills the personal narrative to its essence. The title repeats itself over and over, until it is like a mantra: situation, story, situation, story, situation, story.  This is the central question to which writers always return: Is this the situation or the story?

Gornick starts out with her reaction to a eulogy held for a colleague. She wonders why, although it contained essentially the same information as the ones before it, this particular eulogy moved her and hung in her memory. The eulogy was based on a memory. Starting there, Gornick uses a head-bone-connected-to-the-neck-bone logic and links the relationship between the memory, the story, and the impact on her:

The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred…. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel… the presence of the one doing the remembering… I became aware at last of all that was not being said… This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on…. (4-5)

She discovered the why it had moved her by dissembling what was said and how it was expressed. In the course of this examination, she also discovers that “Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona” (6).

And there she has it: the personal narrative becomes interesting and accessible the moment the author moves away from center stage and allows a persona to experience the story behind the situation. This moving away is key because “…without detachment there can be no story” (12). She goes on to clarify: “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). And there can be no insight without detachment.

Don’t misunderstand: this is not a how-to book, but rather a private and analytical examination of what the personal narrative is. She looks closely at her own work and how she “… struggled to isolate the story from the situation…” (20). She actually practices what she preaches throughout, demonstrating through her persona – a writer – the effort, insight and courage it takes to explore the personal narrative as a literary form.

In memoir and personal essay writing, the inherent I-centeredness of the piece can pose a challenge if allowed to slip into a “dear diary” style. Gornick defines the nuance between writing as self and writing with a strong persona:  “I had a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me…. I had created a persona…. it wasn’t their confessing voices I was responding to, it was their truth-speaking personae” (23, 24).  The idea of having someone speak for the writer on the page is liberating – a simple idea that could free the author of the psychological constraints of writing about personal experiences in the first person. She goes on to explain: “I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.” (25).

In an essay, we learn, while the writer uses persona to make a story of a situation without allowing emotions to take over, the persona can also be used to explore a subject other than the self.   Gornick writes, “Whatever the story has been… there’s been a situation to contain it and a truth speaker to interpret it.” (26)   Thus, memoir can, on the strength of its persona, reveal a truth that cannot be seen by the narrator, but is nonetheless revealed to the reader. While at times this makes for an unreliable narrator, if sustained, it can be extremely revealing:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom…. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened (91).

Yet, Gornick’s honesty and humility about her own writing experiences persuades us that she will not lie to us (14, 19, 24).

It is this honesty, confidence and inquisitiveness, both as a reader and a writer, that guides The Situation and the Story. Gornick’s advice to the writer is based on her own profound interest and delivered in a supportive and meaningful way. She sums it up best: “…I trained my eyes on the writing…. To read out of one’s own narrow but clarified need, I concluded, was to teach oneself better how to write….” (165).  Thus, by allowing us to come along on her journey, we are enlightened through Gornick’s commentary on and examples of the necessity of a strong persona for the self-as-narrator.