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review 2017-05-05 14:57
"The Situation and the Story," by Vivian Gornick
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative - Vivian Gornick

Vivian Gornick's book on the art of essay writing was bound to get good marks from me, if only for its extensive drawing of examples from famous books and essays.

 

Criticism — as compared to reviews — is a singularly rewarding experience, especially in the hands of a good writer such as Gornick. It can open your eyes to a new way of seeing a piece you have already read or turn you on to writers you have never experienced. In the course of this book I was turned on to Seymour Krim, I reopened an essay by Joan Didion, and I've hunted down a PDF of Edward Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles." 

 

The point is theoretically to help in the writing of essays, but I was delighted to discover that what drew me in was perhaps the point all along. Gornick does not reveal until the conclusion her suspicion of studying "craft" (as it were) and the idea that one can teach writing at all. It's not how to write but how to read, critically and with an eye toward story, that drives The Situation and the Story. Gornick is asking the reader to dig deeper, discover what it is about Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" that makes it compelling.

 

"Who is speaking, what is being said and what is the relation between the two," is a repeated admonition as you read into a story. Orwell going out and shooting an elephant could be an act of bravado, it could be an act of cruelty, but  in the way he writes it is an exploration of colonialism. What it means to represent a ruling nation among a people who aren't keen to have you there, and especially when you're not too keen on the idea either. What does that position do to someone? This comes through in his voice, in the way he describes "the situation" as much as in the actions he takes. Asking these questions will make such readings more enjoyable and meaningful, but should also inform your own work.

 

The crux of this lies in a story about one of who students writing an essay about her grandfather — a man she has never met. The story isn't quite working until someone realizes that her learning about her grandfather is the situation, it provides a structure for the story, the actions on which the writer can hang meaning. The story, the meaning itself, is actually about the girl connecting with the grandmother. From there the essay starts to come together in a more satisfying way. 

 

I am not convinced with all of Gornick's stances, her belief in the inborn gift of writing skill is maybe just said wrong or maybe it is magical thinking. And the way her distaste for post-modernism is slipped in does not serve any end except to let you know she is not a fan. But if you are interested in personal writing, either to write or read, this is a good place to start.

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review 2017-01-28 04:12
It is the essence of man that he must question himself.
No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1928-36: From the Collected Works, Vol 1 - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

-Deitrich Bonhoeffer

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review 2016-12-20 14:36
Maybe the Sky isn't Falling, It's Awfully Big You Know
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism - Kristin Dombek

Nearly halfway through this book-length essay Kristin Dombek admits to using the kind of shallow depictions she is criticizing in other books and articles, but then it is a problem inherent to the form. How does one capture a person in 1,600 words, or even 70,000? 

 

The problem Dombek is exploring in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is a rash of lazy pop psychology online diagnosing pseudo-celebrities, ex-boyfriends, and an entire generation (spoiler alert: it's millennials) of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If Dombek isn't able to adequately sum up the lives of the people she brings into her arguement, it only serves her point. She may not be able to prove someone isn't a narcissist but the takeaway is that it is a very difficult thing to sum up a life, to throw a label around is a dangerous thing to do unless you can really back it up.

 

The thinness of internet diagnoses is almost comical, but Dombek, being a more serious essayist than myself, gives them an honest hearing and delves into the history of narcissism from the Greek story of Narcissus through Freud and finally to the DSM. It's a troubled history, based on misunderstanding and often reflecting as much on the diagnostician than on the diagnosed.

 

I could have been satisfied with just her chapter "The Millennial" which goes into the story of Allison, whose callousness on an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen has become legend in books and essays and in the popular conception of the narcissistic millennial. Except, of course, she has a whole life, almost none of which was the one sentence where she insisted on closing down a street that goes past a hospital for the sake of her birthday party (and I think we've all known since at least 2005 that reality shows have naught but the thinnest relation to the reality they depict, much less any reality we know).

 

"It takes only a brief Internet search, though, to flesh out a bit more bout Allison's life," Dombek says, as if no one had considered to look past the surface before judging that there was nothing behind it.

 

She's married, Dombek reports, she and her husband run a foundation to help impoverished school children in Atlanta. She got her bachelor's degree in psychology. She may be a narcissist, she may be a sociopath for all I know, but casting a diagnosis based on one moment, or on any one appearance on MTV, must necessarily be more about our own assumptions about a group than about that group itself.

 

I don't think our tendency to play armchair psychologist is all that novel or dangerous, but I think Dombek has produced a thoughtful work here that hopefully reminds us that when we decry people who live on the internet we're judging people by what we see on the internet. It's well researched but is grounded in the experience of the writer who has been thinking of these things, witness as we all are to selfies and food pics and the other wonders of social media.

 

The Selfishness of Others is a slim book for all it contains, it is focused and can be gone through quickly. Be ready for some dense psychology stuff when you get into the thick of things, but it is worth getting through.

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review 2016-12-14 19:08
Review: What We Do Now
What We Do Now - Valerie Merians,Dennis Loy Johnson

How soon we forget.

 

Or, if you are like me and were too young and clueless to really understand the implications of the 2004 election, how late we learn.

 

Following the election of La Naranja, a meme started circulating (shocking, I know). It was a picture of George W. Bush with his beady-eyed smile, accompanied by big, blocky yellow text: “Miss me yet?” I laughed and may even have agreed when I first saw it, even though I’m pretty sure this originated under Obama and is, quite frankly, insulting. (Despite what a lot of people seem to want to claim about “moving on” and “just accepting” election results, you may be surprised to hear that there was a tremendous amount of backlash to the election of our first black president.) The problem, of course, is that a large quantity of people did miss Bush, Jr. then and decided to do something about it now. They missed an America of religious fanaticism, deceptive economic bubbles, and the us-vs-them mentality of the War on Terror. So we decided to re-elect him in a new, more virulent form—quite possibly with Russia’s help and certainly with media complicity.

 

What We Do Now is an essay collection published by Melville House in direct response to Bush’s reelection. The parallels to this election and current political climate it contains are unnerving. Just as an example: the introduction opens on a story of election despair-inspired suicide—and the crashing of the Canadian immigration website.

 

I was just out of high school in 2004. I remember watching the events of 9/11 in every class just a few years before, but I was politically illiterate. The majority of my family has always been conservative, in degrees varying from quietly moderate to…less quiet and much less moderate. I felt divorced from their views from an early age, though I can’t exactly say why. I’d like to think it was because I’ve always been a voracious reader with wide interests but it’s just a guess.

 

It wasn’t until college that I started really paying attention, and even then that is a relative statement. I’ve still never comfortably affiliated myself with a party. For the sake of transparency, we’ll just go with “liberal,” though I suppose at this point “progressive” is more accurate.

 

I mention this simply for the sake of objectivity, which is not something I brought to this book.

 

What We Do Now is divided into nine sections: Attitude, Plans of Attack, Voting & Election Reform, Media, The Separation of Church & State, The Environment, Economics, International Relations, and Dissent. It’s a slim volume of just barely 200 pages but contains pieces from 24 contributors of varying backgrounds from journalists and politicians to editors and professors. The pieces are connected by their opposition to a Bush presidency and many share common themes but there are also contradictions that highlight the different ideas that take root within any group, no matter how unified in overall vision.

 

This has turned out to be one of those synchronicity-kismet-fate-whatever reads, one that arrived at exactly the time it was needed and could make the greatest impact on me. Perhaps it’s a bit odd that it was intended to be a product of its time, an immediate reaction to an imminent threat twelve years in the past and now feels so astonishingly relevant. Or perhaps that is to be expected since we obviously haven’t learned anything over the last few decades. The issues laid out in many of these essays are resurfacing in our political discourse in nearly identical form: “strong leaders;” racially-biased voter suppression; rust belt rage; Islamophobia; uninspiring candidates; reactionary politics vs. logic; the list goes on. Most of these essays could be repurposed for today with a simple search-and-replace for names and dates. Some of them have proven to be sadly prophetic, predicting our failures as a democracy with painful accuracy.

 

A few examples to demonstrate that no matter how things change, they still stay the same:

 

“We do, indeed, seem to have become a country where moderates, let alone liberals, simply don't stand a blessed chance, where anything other than an angry, intolerant, persecutorial attitude is scorned and mocked by a plentitude of bar bullies gone drunk with power.”

 

“One of the first issues we need to address if we’re going to get out the vote at a level required by a truly participatory democracy is the lack of excitement many people feel for the candidates put forth by our parties.”

 

“For many people, the most pressing issue is the fate of Roe V. Wade and women’s right to choose.”

 

“…America still maintains a segregated Apartheid voting system. Black, Hispanic, and Native American voters are the immediate targets, but all Americans dispossessed by the system are victims…”

 

“More important than any single botched campaign strategy is the overarching failure of the left to understand the role the corporate media plays in shaping public opinion, public policy, and ultimately, political leadership.”

 

How many of these snippets could come directly from a New York Times article or Medium thinkpiece today?

 

And yet. We did make a turnabout for a little while, didn’t we? Obama will go down in history as a truly great president, even with some decided mistakes and all of the roadblocks the obstructionists in congress regularly threw in his path. We can perhaps credit our current situation to the inherent pendulum-swinging tendencies of the two-party system. But we might also be able to give some credit to our ability to rally in times of extremity; the writers in this collection show that Bush’s election taught us some nasty truths about our nation and its divisions and for a time they impacted us enough to bring Obama into office for two terms (something no one would have foreseen when this book was published).

 

While much of my attention was drawn to the parallels with the politics of now, many of the contributors offer predictions and advice for the future. Some of their advice has proven to be a failure (the Democratic party should go even more centrist to capture the moderate Republicans!) and some of it has yet to be put into any kind of measurable practice even now. But I take comfort from it and I hope that this time maybe, just maybe, we might make use of it. Many of the essays offer talking points and advice that will be of great use in the trials to come, especially pieces like “Fighting Words for a Secular America” by Robin Morgan and “Our Mandate: Making Media Matter” by Danny Schecter.

 

Immediately following the current election, many commentators have thrown out the idea that “our country is more divided than ever.” I have a feeling these people make poor history students. Even disregarding, well, THE CIVIL WAR, Reconstruction, the communist witch hunts, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, among many other things, just looking a little over a decade into the past at the situation in 2004 shows those divisions have never significantly dissipated. We keep taping over the cracks when we would do better to actually fix them, though how is another matter. My dream would be to take inspiration from the Japanese art form kintsugi* and repair our divisions in a way that keeps them alive in memory but makes them a beautiful reminder of progress and change. The cracks should always be remembered—they just shouldn’t be allowed to break us.

 

 

*The Japanese art of repairing cracked pottery with gold, highlighting rather than concealing the flaw and making the piece one-of-a-kind as well as a reminder that beauty comes from imperfection.

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text 2016-12-12 14:53
Reading progress update: I've read 76 out of 203 pages.
What We Do Now - Valerie Merians,Dennis Loy Johnson

From the introduction:

People are not upset, they are distraught. Even people who are staying put, who are going through their days and trying to get over it, are not upset in the way they usually are when their candidate loses. Something is different this time. They are feeling a sense of loss, yes, but in the sense of something leaving, something beloved getting away from them. And to an unprecedented degree, people are not getting over it.

 

We do, indeed, seem to have become a country where moderates, let alone liberals, simply don't stand a blessed chance, where anything other than an angry, intolerant, persecutorial attitude is scorned and mocked by a plentitude of bar bullies gone drunk with power.

 

This is talking about the 2004 reelection of Bush. Sound familiar? WILL WE EVER LEARN??

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