Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Promise of Anne Lamott

This past summer, I read several books by novelist and essayist Anne Lamott. Someone suggested I read Bird by Bird, which is Lamott’s book length reflection on the process of writing. Not only did I read it, I reviewed it and blogged about it.

Then I read some more Lamott and blogged some more.

Finally, in July, I began reading Crooked Little Heart with a public declaration that I would share my reactions. Reactions which might now seem long overdue!

But ripe or not, here they are.

Lamott opens Crooked Little Heart with this sentence: Rosie and her friends were blooming like spring, budding, lithe, agile as cats.

To my ear, that’s two stale similes in one very important sentence: not a good way to start.

If that were the best a writer could do for language, she would need a very, very strong story. In fact, Lamott delivers a fine, well-crafted, engaging story; good conflict, good resolution, plenty of side plot to keep the reader wanting to go forward.

But here’s a frustration. Lamott is actually very capable of outstanding language. Within pages of that disappointing opener, she refers to a man named “J. Peter Billings” as one who “parts his name on the left” –- certainly to me a bright and vivid capture. She gives us “low rolling lion-claw hills.” At one point, a teenage girl is “as broody as a gaunt young buffalo,” and another, elsewhere, “snores like an ancient pug.” And I could continue.

So why open with a bomb? That seems sloppy.

As for sloppy – Lamott continues in CLH to slip and slide around within a point of view frame. As in Rosie, she has a narrator with access to the interior lives of two characters –- but inconsistently. The reader is treated to the thoughts and feelings of the daughter sometimes and the mother at other times. When those two characters are apart, this troubles the reader little. But when the two characters come together, an odd thing happens; the narrator suddenly seem only to know what is going on with one or the other. Why is that?

The problem here may be more in the evolution of narrative technique than anywhere else. We readers have been trained in a tradition: the writer is expected to establish and then maintain a particular point of view. There are a number of options, but once set, the reader expects consistency. Any number of outstanding contemporary writers duck this expectation at random points with -- strangely enough -- no negative impact on the reader’s comfort and acceptance.

Why it works sometimes and does not work at others is beyond my capacity –- at least so far -- to parse.

But leaving aside such quibbles -- and they are definitely quibbles -- Anne Lamott writes stories and essays that are worth every minute you will spend with them.

Put her on your reading list.

Or, to put it another way:

Accessing the work of Anne Lamott

Was a task I ended liking a lot

While not quite top tier nor highly prolific

I find her delightful and pretty terrific.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Can You Tell?

As we are walking away from our dinner companions this evening, my sweet mate says, "I know what's going to happen."

We've just finished dinner with some nice friends. Some political conversation, all cordial. Some health and family stuff; everyone is basically ok, nothing out of the ordinary.

We ourselves are a rather blessed middle American couple with probably fewer than average worries but nevertheless a real concern or two on our very real horizons.

So I am all attention!

He says, "Bets is going to find out he's cheating again and leave him for that politician's p.r. guy or the young fellow who cannot manage a horse."

And what world are we in?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

You're Going to a Class Reunion? Why?!?

Last weekend, October 2, 3 and 4, about 50 of my high school classmates got together in our old hometown. That means that roughly 10-12% of the class showed up for one or more of the class events scheduled for the weekend.

Ten to twelve percent is not a big turn-out. So I think it’s interesting to consider who came, who didn’t and – to whatever extent we know or can guess – why.

It was a class reunion, but the timing may have been a little ‘off’ for more than one reason. First of all, we finished high school about 45 years ago and ‘45’ is not a particularly common marker for big memory events. Twenty-five certainly and fifty; even thirty and forty seem more logical than 45. But some of our classmates did make the effort to organize a 45th.

In the past, we’ve usually had reunions in the summer, often near the end of the school year as if revisiting graduation itself. This time, we got together in October, on the weekend of Homecoming. That makes a certain kind of sense, but there are people who find traveling in June easier. Teachers and professors and school administrative types and anyone still responsible for school age children. (Not too many of us remain in that last group.)

So an October 45th Class Reunion might not be the biggest draw. Let’s assume a fair number of people simply decided – if they were interested at all – they’d wait for the big one coming up about five year from now. Particularly for classmates traveling in from out-of-town.

But what about that? Are people more likely to come if distance is no issue?

This is a bit of a surprise. A little over half of the class – maybe 55% -- live in and around the town of our youth – which, by the way, happens in this case to be Joplin, MO. A little under half – about 45% -- live outside the immediate area. Of course some live much further away than others.

Obviously, then, we would expect people living in the Joplin area to be ‘overrepresented’ at a class event. NOT SO! Just slightly over half of the attendees came from the Joplin area; slightly under half came in from out of the area.

If some people will come from a distance, why don’t lots and lots of people come from nearby?

I happen to have two friends who live in the Joplin area who did not come and I know why. In one case, she had direct conflicts with the timing; her spouse, not a classmate, had a birthday last weekend. In the other, she has less than no interest – she tried attending a reunion once and found the experience unpleasant.

In marketing research where I spent a fair chunk of my working life, we note that people can tell you why they do what they do, buy what they buy and so on. But they cannot as a rule tell you why they don’t do or buy something. In the case of class reunions, I suspect the opposite holds. If you don’t go, you probably know why and if you do go, it is rather harder to explain why.

Amazing things can happen at class reunions. My widowed mother found her wonderful second husband at a class reunion. Such hopes may account for some of the single classmates showing up. But it certainly cannot account for the majority, who arrived with spouses in tow.

I came – bringing my willing mate along – in part because I needed to make a trip to Joplin anyway. And I thought certain friends who matter to me greatly were coming in – didn’t happen to work out that way. And I just have this endless curiosity about the trajectories of lives – about the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the hopes and dreams we hold on to as well as the ones we let go of.

You rarely get what you came for, but it’s still interesting to see how we’re lookin’ these days.

Sitting on floor from left to right are:

Mardell Thomas Rouse, Stephanie White Everitt, June Johnson Shelton, Linda Hensley Evans, Linda Putnam Emmert, Carol Corbin Buck.

1st row left to right:

Phyllis Payne Sapp, Nancy Page Allen, Sharon Peters Arnold, Joyce Tillman Frey, Jeanne Looper Tighe, Janet Counts Severs, Janet Hale Tabin, Sharon Johnson Lawrece, Billie Lenger Stockam, Katherine Patterson Barnes, Charlene Veteto Jones, Sharyl Reece Barwick.

2nd row left to right:

Jim Christiansen, Jerry Brackett, Mike Clark, Paula Mills Barlett, Pat Aggus Noe, Donna Drake Helton, Betty Shanks Smart, Joe Cowen, Frank Metz, Martha Earhart Wright, Donna Powers Hansen.

3rd. row left to right:

David Knisley, Bill Cook, Tom Harrison, Bruce McCaw, Mitch Stevens, John Keeling, Ross Smith, Jay Campbell, Rick Sadler, Gary Flenner, Dennis Triplett, Bill Hunt, Perry Potter.

4th row left to right:

Butch England, Steve Campbell, Jim Anderson, Dennis Smith, Monty Gavin, Clyle Linam, Dave Stockam, Jim Krudwig, George Gagle, Micky Moore.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

JHS64 Reunion after 45 Years -- Breakfast

Here -- a little more edited and organized and labeled -- are pictures of part of the group that collected Sunday morning at the Golden Corral.

Not quite Breakfast at Tiffany's, are we!

  • (Left hand picture, from left) Martha Earhart daughter, Gene Baldwin's daughter, Paul Mills Bartlett.
  • (Right hand picture, from left) Paula Mills Barlett, Janet Counts Severs, Mike Clark.

      • (Left hand picture, from left) Paula Mills Bartlett and Janet Counts Severs.
      • (Right hand picture, from left) Mardell Thomas Rouse, Paula's husband Buzz Bartlett.

        • (Left hand picture, from left) Carol Corbin Buck, Sharon Peters Arnold, Sharon's granddaughter.
        • (Right hand picture) Paula Mills Bartlett.

          • (Left hand picture, from left) Martha Earhart Wright's son-in-law and daughter.
          • (Right hand picture, from left) Roger Brown, Jene Baldwin, Martha Earhart Wright.

            • (Left hand picture, from left) Sharon Peters Arnold, Sharon's granddaughter, Mardell Thomas Rouse.
            • (Right hand picture, from left starting with lavendar top) Betty Shanks Smart, Donna Drake Helton, David Knisley.

            • (Left hand picture, from left) mmm, maybe later, with help!
            • (Right hand picture, from left) Betty Shanks Smart, Janet Hale Tabin, Donna Drake Helton.

                • JHS64 Friday Tailgate Party

                  Here are a few shots from the Friday night picnic in the Junge Stadium parking lot. If I've mis-identified anyone, corrections are most welcome!

                  Sharon Johnson Lawrence Pat Aggus Noe

                  Bruce McCaw, Billie Lenger Stockam,
                  David Stockam Jamie McCaw, Bruce's wife

                  Jim Christiansen

                  Sharon Peters Arnold

                  David Stockam

                  Billie Lenger Stockam

                  Friday, October 2, 2009

                  The Upside of Censorship

                  Or Reading Banned Books on the North Shore

                  In case you haven’t heard, this past week was the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. It reminds me that about this time last year, someone started circulating a list of books that had been banned or suppressed somewhere, sometime, with the claim that Sarah Palin had attempted to have all of them removed from the Wasilla, Alaska public library when she was mayor of the town. I was personally disappointed that some of my otherwise very intelligent and well-informed book loving friends readily accepted this hoax as truth.

                  But that did start a long conversation in my reading group.

                  My reading group plans booklists several months at a time. We have two very creative leaders who develop the lists with input from the rest of the group. We like to have a theme. Over the years, our themes have included “Laudable Asian Novels,” “Acclaimed Prize Winners,” “Adventure, Sex, History,” and “Around the World in Five Books.”

                  But following the circulation of the banned books list, our next theme was irresistibly banned books. From a list of about ninety books banned, suppressed or challenged, our team selected five.

                  If your group wants a starting place, check out this list -- link here:

                  And maybe you’d like to see what we read from the list. Our picks, spanning the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century, also proved to cover a range of subjects. And they varied in literary value as well.

                  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in 1852; the story is set in the pre-Civil War United States. The bestselling novel of the 19th century, it had a huge historic impact, often credited with sparking the U. S. Civil War.

                  Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was published in 1884, but deals with events occurring considerably earlier, about 1839, in the American Midwest along the Mississippi River. Although very popular, it is often challenged because of its repeated use of the word ‘nigger.’

                  Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was written and published about 1928. It is set primarily in England before, during and after the First World War. Less familiar, at least to the American reading public, the story concerns the development and life of a lesbian. The book was subject to considerable efforts to ban and suppress in England shortly after its publication.

                  Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. L. Lawrence was also written and published about 1928. Although set in Great Britain and written in English, the book was published in Italy. The events of the novel take place in the early part of the 20th century. The book was considered quite sexually explicit for its time and was widely banned, censored and subject to suppression.

                  Not Without My Daughter, written by Betty Mahmoody with William Hoffer, was published in 1987 and described events from just a couple of years earlier, 1984-85. The book is based on Betty Mahmoody’s life and the life of her family, particularly concerning events in Iran. It paints a very unflattering picture of some Iranians and Iran in general. Efforts have been made in Iran to suppress the book.

                  Many years ago an uncle of mine specifically told me NOT to read James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Of course, the very comment only made me determined to read the book – which I admit I still try to do from time to time. But the point is this: there is nothing like forbidding people to read something to increase interest in doing just that.

                  So the ninety or so books on the Adler Banned Books list become all the more interesting because sometime, somewhere, someone tried to prevent other people from reading them.