Tag Archives: annotation

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.

 

Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud

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Book by Martin Gayford

Annotation by Susan Tuttle

Martin Gayford, art critic and curator, asked his friend, renowned British portrait artist Lucian Freud (a grandson of Sigmund) if he would paint his portrait. As he states at the beginning of Man with a Blue Scarf:

… my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence…. The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. (9)

Gayford’s curiosity to “see how it was done” doesn’t start and stop with a description of palette, canvas and technique. It transcends the boundaries of mere description of how a portrait is painted from the viewpoint of the sitter to become an accounting of process, revealing much more about both the artist and the sitter than he could have predicted when he sat down in that chair in Freud’s London studio in late November 2003. In Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford chronicles the process from start to finish in a series of dated narratives, often, but not always, starting with his arrival at the artist’s studio. As the book unfolds, the reader becomes aware that the sittings are just the scaffolding onto which Gayford’s observations, conversations, musings and remarks on Freud, art and his role as the sitter take purchase. The reader is afforded an intimate, unique and rare view into the working life of a world famous but reclusive portrait artist, as well as a glimpse into the psychology behind what a portrait is, and what it means to paint it.

One doesn’t have to have any particular pre-knowledge of art to enjoy Man with a Blue Scarf, but an interest in the creative process and some curiosity about what it means to be a working artist will make the reading experience more enjoyable. Gayford lives in a rather exclusive world, and a very British one at that, and while he usually makes an effort to explain the names dropped, sometimes he assumes we all travel in that circle. It could be taken as a compliment to the reader’s worldliness; seldom does it come across as stuck up. This is partly thanks to the fact that his subject, Lucien Freud, is about as down to earth as they come. And this is a strength of the structure of Man with a Blue Scarf: Gayford never fails to return the reader to the moment, back to the studio where wiry and spry octogenarian Lucian Freud is behind the easel, often half naked, wielding hog’s hair paintbrushes and thinking out loud.

The narrative is well balanced, taking advantage of conversations between Gayford and Freud to gain insight and reveal background without reverting to contrived flashbacks. Gayford recognizes early on what he has to gain:

While the artist is gathering the materials necessary for the portrait, the sitter – accidentally and automatically – is provided with a similar set of observations of the artist. By the end of this picture, I shall be in possession of a mental portrait of LF, culled from all the hours of looking at and listening to him. (21)

 What the author perhaps didn’t anticipate was a slow and not overly obvious parallel to the development of the painting concerning how Gayford the sitter appears to Freud the painter. Months before the portrait is complete, Freud reveals to Gayford:

‘You look different every day.’

‘More than most people?’

‘More than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered. The features don’t change, it’s more the way that they are worn.’….

Throughout all the sittings to date I have thought of myself as a fairly unchanging object that LF is slowly tracking around, taking a long series of sightings as a surveyor might. Now it suddenly seems more like mapping a cloud, wave, or similar object in constant flux…. Josephine [Gayford’s wife] concurs that indeed I seem to alter in appearance from day to day. (136)

There is a nice dynamic between Gayford’s observations and his take on Freud’s observations that keep the narrative active and relevant. About midway through the book, Freud decides that he has painted Gayford’s head too large and needs to “shrink it” by applying dark paint (104). Gayford later makes an interesting comment in regard to this shrinking that could be applied to all art forms:

He continues with the process of ‘shrinking my head’, which is clear evidence that the picture is – like any work of art, in words, paint, stone or any other medium – an entity that follows its own inner laws. (107)

When I think of art – literary, visual or even auditory – as an “entity that follows its own inner laws,” I feel justified as a reader, viewer or listener to respond in my own way to the piece. As a writer I enjoy the dichotomy of controlling the medium while at the same time being aware that my work is taking on its own life, and letting the story lead me. In Gayford’s writing about a process through observations, the discoveries are multi-layered, running the gamut from what he has discovered about painting and Freud to what we the reader discover about Gayford.

Indeed, Man with a Blue Scarf is “an entity that follows its own inner laws” as is made clear sitting after sitting with all that is divulged and discovered. Abundantly punctuated with full color reproductions of paintings discussed in the text, adding a true visual to a discussion on the visual arts, the book is calm and thoughtful, and surprisingly revealing in an understated way. Gayford makes good use of the form, and is discrete when it comes to inserting himself into the narrative, careful not to push the main subject, Lucian Freud, offstage. This, in spite of the fact that Gayford himself is the Man with a Blue Scarf.

Embalming Mom: Essays on Life

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book by Janet Burroway

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The title piece in Janet Burroway’s collection of essays is an imagined discussion between the author and her deceased mother that says as much about how fiction writers strategically choose details and create dialogue as it does about how we, as human beings, process and reprocess our memories to fit the moment.

“I want to put you in a story,” Burroway writes in the opening of “Embalming Mom,” one of sixteen essays in her collection of the same name. “Apparently it’s a matter of some importance.”

The essay takes its place somewhere in the gray space between fiction and nonfiction. It is based on a real memory – Burroway watching her mother iron the puffed sleeves of a cotton dress – but it is thoroughly fictionalized in that the two women never encompassed the same space as the author describes it.

In the piece, Burroway is 45 years old, recently divorced and sitting in the breakfast nook of her childhood home. At first we think she is a grown daughter who has returned to her mother’s home after a bad breakup. As the story develops, we realize it is Burroway’s dramatization of a memory: she is watching her mother, a devoted 35-year-old housewife going through the domestic motion of ironing clothes. Burroway is imaginatively goading her mother into a mock conflict for the sake of a story she wants to write, while her mother is wrestling with an ulcer and admonishing Burroway for being indiscreet, in her life as well as in her fiction.

The author has put herself in a fictitious scene with her mother in an effort to recall and capture her as a character. As the narrative moves through time and place, Burroway sets the stage and creates dialogue between herself and her mother. She chooses the items to place in the scene, such as a fishbowl for an ash tray, and even goes so far as to chide herself when the details of the scene fall short. Burroway revises until it feels authentic. She writes:

She turns again, one eyebrow raised and a mocking smile, “What, then, am I the most unforgettable character you’ve met?” Not like her, neither the eyebrow nor the words, which have the cadence of a British education. I’m the one with the British education. I try again. She turns back like the film run backward…and turns again robotlike, profile gashed with a smile. “Honey, write for the masses. People need to escape. They need to laugh. (39)

The essay is similar to the way we replay personal conversations and experiences of the past and how we try to recast them in a more favorable light. At the end of the piece, Burroway acknowledges that the morticians have done what she was not able to do herself. “Everybody says they have done a splendid job,” she writes. “They have caught her exactly, everybody says.”

As a writer of memoir, I am fascinated by the process of how we recollect. I enjoy reading how other writers stumble across their memories, and how hard they work to pull the fragments of remembrance together to create a more cohesive picture in their mind – and then, of course, how they render that memory to the page. Each of the essays in Burroway’s collection focuses on a certain trigger of memory. Whether it is a photograph, a picture frame or the electrical stove in the first apartment she rented after her first divorce (“the paraphernalia of an ongoing life,” she calls it), Burroway allows these triggers to open the narrative to a time when she was able to make meaning of some aspect of her life. Using objects to activate memory is a good practice not only for memoir writers, but for writers of any genre. Because memories themselves are prone to distortion, the lines between genres are slightly blurred when one writes about memory – as Burroway shows us in her collection of essays.

In “Dad Scattered,” she remembers her father by going through his things – not substantial things like clothes or tools, but the seemingly insignificant things, like tie tacks, old keys and foreign coins. By swapping a photo out of a frame in “Freeze Frame,” she reflects on the ways in which we frame our lives. “We Eat the Earth” is a reminiscent piece about the English garden she never could quite manage. And in “Soldier Son,” she draws distinctions between her two children, who are very different but similar in how passionately they embrace their divergent lifestyles.

I admire Burroway’s expertise at getting under the skin of her subject, and her writing reminds me of what makes an essay great: the ability to connect the small moment (installing a pool in the backyard) to the bigger question (how do we bury our past?).  Each of her essays contains an element of doubt, followed by evidence to the reader that she is doing the difficult work of examining her life in order to find meaning in her chosen subject. Therein lies the value of memoir, and Embalming Mom is an example of why readers gravitate to the genre.

As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story, “truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.” Burroway fully engages with her experiences. Her essays reveal confessions, convey transparencies and offer readers some wonderful surprises.

 

The Boys of My Youth

book by Jo Ann Beard

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The Boys of My Youth is an elegant collection of twelve narrative essays that focus on the author’s Midwestern childhood and the relationships that carried into her adulthood. To show readers how she came to be the person she is, Jo Ann Beard uses a combination of present tense narration, simple yet meaningful motifs, and a layering of scenes from childhood and adulthood to create a collage of pieces that evoke emotion without being overly sentimental.

One essay in particular illustrates this narrative structure. In the title essay, which comes last in the collection, Beard writes about the pursuit of childhood crushes. Throughout the piece, Beard shifts from her childhood neighborhood, where she prank-called boys with her best friend, Elizabeth, into her adulthood, where she is an editor in Iowa and Elizabeth is an editor in Chicago. Throughout the essay, the two share a telephone conversation discussing past relationships and they way they met.

In one paragraph they are in junior high school French class, horrified when the teacher tells a classmate she enunciates like Porky the Pig. Immediately, the narrative shifts to present time, as they are reminiscing over the phone and Elizabeth is correcting the author’s memory about the first time they met:

“That was ninth grade, not seventh,” Elizabeth says. “We were already friends when that happened.” She is at her office in downtown Chicago, talking to me on the WATS line. “You wouldn’t’ believe what my desk looks like right now.” I would because I’ve witnessed it. She’s an editor, and there are manuscripts stacked everywhere and yellow notes with Urgent scrawled across them stuck to the carpet. (156)

One of Beard’s many talents is melding the funny with the sad, and creating beautiful sentences that evoke certain feelings within the reader. Her subject matter is not particularly sentimental, since many of her essays are about the smaller moments in life, but her prose is so sparse and well crafted that it resonates with emotion.

“Cousins” is an example of this. A collage-like essay that begins with two pregnant sisters fishing from a boat, it moves into the lives of sisters’ boy-crazy, free-spirited daughters: Beard and her cousin, Wendell. The essay is comprised of nonlinear snapshots – Beard and Wendell as girls playing Dirty Barbies in the backyard or getting stoned at an Eric Clapton concert, juxtaposed with scenes of Beard’s mother lying in a hospital bed, coming in and out of consciousness because of morphine and illness.

She writes,

“They [Beard’s mother and aunt] swim through her lake, gray-eyed sisters, thin-legged and mouthy. They fight and hold hands, trade shoes and dresses, marry beautiful tall men, and have daughters together, two dark-eyed cousins, thin-legged and mouthy.” (44)

Beard’s essays work together as a collection because they address similar themes and include similar descriptions or motifs. “Cousins,” which is my favorite piece in the collection, includes a motif of a silver baton in a way that is hauntingly beautiful. A few of the author’s pieces feature the same phrases and similes, such as swimming or rowing a boat as metaphor for dreaming. Several essays begin with and include short, matter-of-fact sentences that immediately place the reader into the story, such as “Here is a scene” or “This is daytime.”

Beard’s twelve essays also vary in certain ways. Some are very short. “In The Current,” which is about three teenagers who get caught in a river current, is barely two pages. Others, like “The Boys of My Youth,” are much longer. A few are written in past tense, but most are in present tense (which Beard said in an interview with The Fiddleback, an online magazine, is something she does unintentionally).

Writing in present tense closes the narrative distance between reader and writer and lends immediacy to the story. What the writer surrenders with present tense, though, is a measure of reflection, which is a key element of memoir. If the narrator is speaking in the moment, hindsight is not an option. Beard’s essays tend to run short on reflection, perhaps because of her use of present tense.

Another interesting element of this book is how Beard writes about her childhood. She seems to inhabit the space between remembering and imagining. Readers see this best in the essay, “Bulldozing the Baby,” in which Beard is a three-year-old separated for the first time from her favorite doll, Hal. The essay conveys her toddler thoughts in a humorous, adult-like manner. Since it is unlikely anyone would remember events from when they were three years old, the piece reads as though it was meant more for entertainment than for recollecting the past. If readers accept that the author has taken creative license, the effect is a funny take on what happens when Beard’s aunt decides to take away her beloved Hal.

 
I most admire Beard’s use of motif, particularly in her essay “Cousins.” The repeating images of fish, silver flashes, swimming and rowing a boat add a beautiful depth and connectivity to the work, which is something I would like to add to my own personal essays.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals

book by J. Maarten Troost

Annotation by Lee Stoops

 

“I knew then that we had both made the mental leap from the continental world to the island world, where anything can happen and usually does.”

~ J. Maarten Troost, The Sex Lives of Cannibals (191)

Maarten Troost makes no claims that his decision to follow his girlfriend to a remote atoll in the middle of the equatorial pacific was anything but silly; life-changing, worldview-changing, perspective-changing, sure, but still silly. And it is in his recognition of his own ridiculous circumstances that he finds travelogue/memoir gold. Some claim he might become the Bill Bryson of my (30-something) generation, and I can get behind that. I laughed the entire way through the book while at the same time coming to a deep understanding of Troost’s (and his cast’s) character(s), a passionate sympathy for the strange and fascinating culture (and enthralling and not widely-known history) of the I-Kirabati (pronounced kee-ree-bas) people, and a not strange desire to visit that part of the world and experience it as he did. The man is a wickedly talented word-smith, but even more, he crafts so compellingly a story of two years of his life – bookending those years cleanly without making it feel contrived but keeping it cinematic. His toolbox is laden, but the three most provocative devices I identified with both as a reader and a writer were humor, self-exposure, and construction (lyricism, pacing, provocation).

Humor is probably one of the most challenging elements to writing creative nonfiction, specifically personal narrative or memoir because it doesn’t work if it’s forced, but it’s hard to write humor without trying to write humor. To be fair, there are a number of times that Troost’s humor is forced, either in word choice/construction, or in the way he presents a scene. However, the times that he is just writing to the ridiculous of the experience are hysterical – the direct, well-crafted lines, the truest lines, the strangest (and, somehow, most relatable) lines. A specific example, in which Troost and his girlfriend, Sylvia, have taken in a few pets, even though, on Tarawa, the I-Kiribati people don’t regard animals as worthy of domestication (and usually just eat them), and decide that to protect them from other animals (specifically during times of “heat”), they need to fix them:

 Fortunately, the new vet finally arrived and I made arrangements to spare the other animals from the urges and consequences of their hormonal imperatives. The cat was the first to go. Each morning he returned to the house a little more battle-scarred, and though he survived kittenhood, it seemed unlikely that he would survive as a cat unless he was fixed. I picked Sam up and carried him to the pickup truck. If you have never driven a manual-shifting car alone with an uncaged cat, I recommend that you go to great lengths to avoid the experience. I deluded myself into thinking that the cat would sit quietly in the passenger seat, but in fact moments after I started the car he found his way to the top of my head, which he used as a perched to leap toward the window, which sadly for him, was closed, causing him to experience a not inconsiderable amount of panic, which he manifested by ripping me to shreds, pausing only to relieve himself. By the time we reached the vet’s office, a two-room surgery in Tanaea, I was bleeding from a number of slashes and I smelled like cat urine.

“Hi,” I said, “It’s nice to meet you. Welcome to Tarawa. I have a cat for you. He’s presently locked in the glove compartment” (188).

 

While I’ll address self-exposure in a minute, I think some of the most powerful humor Troost utilizes is self-effacement. In this example, Troost has overcome his fear of the possibility of sharks in the water and heads past the reef to snorkel:

“I dived in for a closer look, and as I did so I nearly blew out my sphincter. I had dived directly on top of a shark.

In my panic, I filled my lungs with water. Then I began to flail and kid and otherwise behave like weak and injured shark fodder. I was out of sorts. Jittery adrenaline bursts are not helpful when you happen to be in deep water with lungs full of seawater. I had no idea what the shark was doing. I was too busy drowning….Then I heard that little voice that has saved me so often in the past – relax, get a grip, swim up, clear your lungs, breathe, and get the hell out of the water, you twit…

Apprently I had frightened the shark. And it was no wonder. I was twice as big as he was. with my mask back on I could see it swimming rapidly away…

I was breathless by the time I entered the house…Between gasps, I shared my adventure with Tiabo…

“You are scared of te shark?” Tiabo asked with raised eyebrows.

“Yes, of course I am scared of te shark.”

“Ha, ha,” Tiabo laughed. “The I-Matang [white man] is scared of te shark. I-Kiribati people are not scared of te shark.”

“That’s because I-Kiribati people are crazy people.”

She laughed mirthfully. She had another story for the maneabe [center of the village where gossip happens] (104-105).

 

Self-exposure can make or break memoir or personal narrative. Writing in the form, we commit to opening up, reflecting, presenting honestly, with regard to both the narrative as a whole and to the persona in which we write. Troost has managed a book in which it seems he came to the blank page prepared to leave nothing out. An experience where the potential for cultural misunderstanding, even xenophobia, pressed, Troost shares himself – his thoughts, concerns, confusion, and frustration – openly. At one point, he interrupts himself to say he knows he’ll get hate mail for saying so, but he began to think the smell of dog roasting on a spit was pretty good. He constantly questions their sanity for moving there, only to write to experiences that affirm the decision. One effective way Troost initiates his self-exposure is with the briefs that appear before each new chapter. The mini abstracts give the chapter-focus away and introduce how the author feels and why he feels it is important to devote a whole chapter to the topic.

Chapter 1: In which the author expresses some Dissatisfaction with the State of his Life and ponders briefly prior Adventures and Misfortunes, and with the aid of his Beguiling Girlfriend, decides to Quit the Life that is known to him and make forth with all Due Haste for Parts Unknown (1).

Chapter 2: In which the Author reveals the Fruit of his Research into the Strange Island Nation he has declared his new Home (which leaves much unknown), compensates for his Ignorance with his Lively Imagination (which is inadequate, very much so), and Packs (inappropriately) (15).

And so on, and each chapter not only delivers on Troost’s abstract promises, but he opens freely – exposing himself as both brilliant and ignorant, able and pathetic, honest and scarred, optimistic and fatalistic. It’s beautiful, particularly since it’s generally so funny.

Troost’s construction, he claims at the forefront, is developed with the reader in mind: “DISCLAIMER: This book recounts the experiences of the author while he lived in Kiribati…since we’re disclaiming here, the author wishes to acknowledge that in a few incidents recounted herein, he has played a little fast and loose with the space-time continuum. He has done this for you, the reader.” Following that, the story is primarily chronological, which makes the two years flow well. It also enables Troost to develop his character/persona, and show gradual change and growth. By the end, the reader sees a different, better, more sympathetic person. Between the beginning and the end, Troost engages his enormous vocabulary, occasionally slips into didactic writing, but for the most part, sets a terrific pace and develops beautiful imagery and scenes.

I suddenly noticed how small our boat was. I remembered that it was made of plywood. Thin plywood. Thin and old plywood. Thin and old and rotting plywood. Thing and old and rotting and easily breached plywood. Imperceptibly, I moved to the middle of the boat. What were we thinking, washing fish blood off the deck in shark-infested waters? A patch of water where sharks can be confused with whales (158).

While I have not traveled as extensively as Troost, I have toyed with the idea of turning my travel journals into personal essays or even travel memoirs. Troost delivered the kind of story that anyone can read and enjoy while also presenting a model for aspiring travel writers. Humor, exposure, structure – the trifecta of entertaining and world-changing travel stories.

Firebird: A Memoir

book by Mark Doty

annotation by Wendy M. Fontaine

Firebird by Mark Doty examines the roles that art and beauty play amidst lives characterized by sorrow and disappointment, while also telling the story of a young boy who grows up gay and finds his calling as a poet.

The book also takes a nontraditional approach to the many ways in which nonfiction writers manifest their perceptions of memory.

Doty opens Firebird with a metaphor that becomes the basic mosaic of the book: his comparison of memory – or remembering – to a Dutch perspective box he finds in a London museum. The box has two lenses, he tells us. Observers can look through one lens to see rooms with distorted contents, such as an elongated picture of a dog, or they can look through another lens, which shows a chain of rooms that appears to go on forever.

“Maybe around some corner, at some angle I’ll finally discover, if I lean into the eyepiece, if my eye works hard enough to probe the hidden recesses – I’ll find them…the family I can’t seem to see through any more direct means,” he writes. “They are hard to approach; they don’t want to be known. Memory confounds and veils them, and were they ever clear to begin with?”

Firebird takes an interesting approach to point of view and memory perception. It is told primarily in the present tense, leaving less room for reflection than memoirs written in the more traditional past tense. But to establish a stronger sense of hindsight, which is critical to the genre of memoir, Doty changes point of view from first person to third person in certain passages and uses phrases such as “that boy I was” to introduce reflection.

During his most painful memories, Doty switches from first to third person, referring to himself as “he” rather than “I.”

The switch from inside the author’s head to outside of his body, as though he were observing himself as a character in a movie or play, creates a greater narrative distance – not only between the writer and the reader but also between the writer and himself. If Doty is stepping back to see his boyhood self more clearly, he wants the reader to do so as well.

In one of the most intense passages of the book, Doty’s mother catches him dressed in drag as Judy Garland singing “Get Happy.”

“Am I wearing her lipstick?” he writes. “I feel blank; I have no explanations. She says, with a hiss, with shame and with exasperation, Son, you’re a boy. And they’re held frozen also in the son’s fear and shame, since of course he knows he’s a boy, doesn’t need reminding. The fact that she feels she must tell him this means he has failed: he isn’t who she wanted, he absolutely does not know how to be who she wanted.” Continue reading

Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower

book by Shana Alexander

annotation by Tina Rubin

Author Shana Alexander tells the “real” story of the 1980 murder of Herman Tarnower, the doctor behind the Scarsdale diet sensation, by Jean Harris, his lover of fourteen years. Written like a nonfiction novel in the style of Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book gripped me from the outset. Excellent journalist that Alexander was (she was the first female to write for Life magazine), she clearly asked the tough questions that she knew would shape a compelling narrative.

Jean Harris was the headmistress of an exclusive Virginia girls’ school and, as the title suggests, very much a lady. How did such a well-bred woman become a murderer? I was intrigued by Harris’s descent into hell because it sounded much like the journey of the main character in the novel I’m writing. I want my protagonist to ring true, and Alexander provided the real-life character study I was looking for. She portrays Harris as a successful, professional woman with a good upbringing, and no history of mental illness, who becomes victimized by her own unquenchable hunger for Tarnower’s love.

As it turned out, Harris killed Tarnower by accident while she was trying to commit suicide. This was a different story than I expected, yet even so, I gained insight into the factors that shaped Harris’s character and caused her to make the choices she did. Much of her background was similar to what I had attributed to my main character, so I had the satisfaction of knowing that psychologically I was on the right track. Harris’s father was impossible to please, her older sister was clearly the favorite, and she nurtured a romantic notion of love that could only disappoint. The picture that emerges of Herman Tarnower, too, is similar to my antagonist: intelligent, talented, and arrogant to the extreme. This is a man who goes out of his way for no one. Continue reading