ehrenreichBiographile, April 8 2014


LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve, 256pp. $26.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God is a departure from her impassioned political bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch — it’s a personal story, although not a conventional memoir. Ehrenreich revisits and explores a period in her teens when she experienced a series of inexplicable “encounters” that shook her faith in the reality of the world. Culminating in a kind of epiphany in the California desert, these mystical experiences both disturbed and intrigued the young Ehrenreich, who was already questioning the purpose and meaning of life.

Raised as an atheist and trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich had no language or framework to understand these encounters, except as the frightening onset of mental illness. The book is the story of the adult writer’s attempt to describe and understand what happened to her — and what it might mean for the rest of us.

Biographile: At the beginning of the book you describe rediscovering your teenage journal and deciding to try to unpack this mysterious story. How did the writing process develop from there?

Barbara Ehrenreich: There was a certain point where I said, OK, I think I’m actually going to do this, and started writing the first chapter. After that, I had plenty of other things that I went on doing, but this was my project. It was spread over several years, but that’s just how long it took to do.

BIOG: So you had a fairly clear idea of what you wanted the story to be from the start?

BE: No! There were a lot of surprises. I knew I had things to figure out, and that I would be working very hard to describe what I always thought to be indescribable. I did research along the way and found out some amazing things. One that stands out in my mind was about this kid I had gone on the skiing trip with, that ended so spectacularly — or cataclysmically, in my case [with her vision in the desert.] To find out that he claims he was transporting nitroglycerin in the car on the way back… [Ehrenreich discovers this in a phone call during the writing of the book.]

BIOG: It’s a great moment: a clash between how you describe yourself as a teenager, as very solipsistic, and the realization, looking back, that in fact you were at the mercy of the world around you.

BE: And that there were some people a lot more solipsistic than I was!

BIOG: It’s rare to come across a memoir, perhaps especially by a woman writer, that is so much more focused on a philosophical coming of age than with emotional or sexual discovery. Was that a deliberate decision, to keep the focus on intellectual discovery?

BE: There are a couple of reasons for that focus. One is that’s what the journal is about: I didn’t think it worth my time to write down anything I considered trivial or frivolous, like high-school life, and I wasn’t that interested. I was a super-geek, although outwardly getting along fine in terms of going to school and doing what was expected of me. But once I started asking that question, What is going on here? — that’s what I was obsessed with, starting at age thirteen.

BIOG: We also tend to assume that teenagers are just hormonal creatures, so we don’t take their philosophical development very seriously.

BE: Or worse, we say, “Oh yes, you have those big questions when you’re an adolescent, but when you grow up they should go away. When you become a mature person, you should accept everything as it is and just get on with your life.” I didn’t do that. I think we should all take our younger selves a little more seriously.

BIOG: There’s clearly so much that you learned from going back to your journal.

BE: Yes, and with some impatience on my part. I was frustrated at how unrevealing my journal was for those things that I knew I was thinking or feeling. At other times, as an older person, I felt real respect for that younger person.

BIOG: It seems as though the central question of the book is one of communication: how we describe things that are indescribable. When you were writing the book, how did you find the words for these experiences?

BE: I thought of myself as not so much writing a memoir, but more of a metaphysical thriller. Here I have this question, this event, this mystery in my life, and it doesn’t go away. I have to return to it at a certain time in my older life.

BIOG: I’m curious about this as a literary problem — how have other writers tried to describe this? You mention fire as a metaphor that comes up a lot.

BE: When I was gearing up to work on the book, I read a lot of accounts of mystical experiences, and was amazed to discover how often they used the metaphor of flames or fire. Then I thought, hey, burning bush! This goes way back! And I can’t claim that my experience is anything parallel to those of other people who claim such experiences, but it seems to be. My guess is this is a pretty widespread phenomenon — we just don’t talk about it.

BIOG: And even though finding the language is difficult, there is some way of approximating in words what is going on.

BE: A lot of people solve that problem by saying it was God, or a god — something supernatural or some kind of being. I didn’t have that “out.” I didn’t have that imagery, didn’t have that kind of comparison to make. You really have to dig deep to reimagine things.

BIOG: You write a lot about mental illness in connection with this kind of mystical experience, and it seems we have similar narrative problems there. I wanted to ask about that in connection with your other writing, which has been so much more clearly politically motivated. Is that where this book has a political urgency, in the way we understand and treat mental illness?

BE: I would say so. I was terrified as a teenager of being seen as mentally ill, because when I went to the library and read everything I could about unusual psychological experiences, that’s all I could come up with: mental illness, probably schizophrenia, which seemed really scary. So I thought, you just don’t talk about these things, or you end up in a locked ward. It bothers me very much that the dissociation — which is the psychiatric term I used for my early perceptual anomalies, which started when I was thirteen — is considered an illness. There is the psychiatric assumption that there is one shared reality, and if you’re not down with that reality, you’re pathological. That’s horrible. That’s totalitarian, as far as I’m concerned.

I was so nervous when I first showed this book, or the proposal for the original chapters. I just thought, people are going to say you’re nuts. And you could make a case for that, that’s fine, but so far nobody has said that to me.

BIOG: And then the scientific side of your thinking comes out, in that that’s not enough of an explanation. Even if you were to say this was a symptom of some psychiatric anomaly, that’s not the answer, that’s just the first question.

BE: My scientific feeling is that when something bizarre and seemingly inexplicable happens, you don’t just bury it out of sight. You have to look at it with the full power of your own mind and rationality.

BIOG: That seems connected to your scientific training, at the beginning of the era of uncertainty, and your discovery of how much was unknowable in chemistry and physics.

BE: Yes, and this book turns out — somewhat surprisingly, to me — to be more a critique of science than it is of religion. It’s a critique of a kind of Newtonian or Cartesian science that separates the mind from the body completely, and then says we humans are these little conscious lights in a universe in which everything else is really dead and operating mechanistically. I’m taking that on!

BIOG: Whether the mystery is out there or whether it’s in us, it’s still such a mystery.

BE: Yes, but I don’t like to leave anything as a mystery. I was talking with my sister on the phone over the weekend, and she said, “Well, isn’t it enough, Barb, to just say it’s all a mystery — it’s so big and our little minds will never understand it?” I said no! I have to die trying!

BIOG: I’m curious how you hope this book connects with readers. It’s such a personal story, but then it gets as big as humanity in some ways.

BE: Well, it’s a little different from a lot of my previous books, when clearly at the end I want the reader to put the book down and march on City Hall. I felt in writing this that I was making a report: Here’s what happened. For many, many years I had no idea what to make of this. I’m sharing it now, because I think it’s a human responsibility to share even bizarre experiences and observations. I would really like to hear from more people who’ve had similar sorts of experiences. I would like people to feel, maybe there’s something going on here, and that this has something to do with their own lives too.

BIOG: It seems likely that you would have a lot of readers who have stories that are not explained by their particular religion, or they’re not satisfied with the explanation.

BE: Right. It took me an awfully long time to realize that this was a widespread phenomenon still. You can go back to Moses and the Burning Bush, or so many of the prophets in the Old Testament. I spent a lot of time reading — which was very strange reading for me — the Christian mystics. They always attribute what happens to them to God, but I can see parallels and similarities with what happened to me. So I think there’s something widespread but unacknowledged. We’re a society, a culture, that just does not speak of them, but I think even bizarre and mystical things can be in the purview of rational thought and science.

BIOG: So the idea that science and religion are in opposing camps, and to accept one you have to reject the other, is unnecessarily reductive.

BE: I do object to religions that require belief, because there’s so much that’s against scientific rationality. Not all religions require belief — a lot of Jewish people will say you don’t have to believe, you just have to follow the law. I have always been fascinated by the ecstatic religions of West African derivation, where there’s no idea of believing in the deities or spirits, you actually see them in an ecstatic trance. That’s impressive to me. But I don’t like the idea of belief because that’s like a surrender: “I can’t prove it, and you can’t see it, but there is something there.” Well, let’s find out!


Book Review

Biographile, December 8 2013breathless

By Nancy K. Miller
Seal Press, 238pp, $16.
The front cover of Nancy K. Miller’s absorbing new memoir, An American Girl in Paris, shows a young woman in an overcoat, dark hair teased into a low beehive, smiling at the camera as she strolls along the banks of the Seine. Her pose looks confident, but a closer looks shows a little uncertainty in her smile, as though she’s aware that she’s trying too hard to play the role of an insouciant local and disguise what she really is: a brainy, sheltered Upper West Side girl trying to run away from home. The snapshot is a revealing window into what follows, the tension between confidence and timidity, between growth and regression, above all the desire to become something other that what you were raised and trained to be.

Continue reading


happy-marriage-ann-patchettBiographile, November 5 2013. (Part II November 13 2013.)

Joanna Scutts

By Ann Patchett
Harper. 305pp. $27.99

The award-winning novelist and memoirist, author of the brand-new collection of writings, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and owner of Nashville’s beloved indie bookstore Parnassus, opens up to Biographile about the public role of a writer, and about tempting fate with a title, in the first part of a two-part interview.

BIOGRAPHILE: In your introduction, you present the book as a serendipitous, almost accidental collection of your nonfiction essays. Do you now see a larger story unfolding through these different stories — a thematic through-line?

ANN PATCHETT: Oh, absolutely — I think I was being cavalier [in the introduction] because it took me two years to do it. My friend Niki Castle put it together and then I kept going through and taking out the pieces that I thought were weak and writing something else to build a narrative arc. Then I would read it through again, and something that had seemed really great two or three readings ago now seemed weak, because I kept upping it, kept pulling things out. If it works the way I want it to work, it’s a book about the things that I am deeply committed to: the things that I am, in a sense, married to. Not just my husband — family, friends, dogs, art, work, bookselling. The things that I wouldn’t give up.

BIOG: So the title, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,is bigger than just the one essay that shares it. When did that emerge as the title for the book?

AP: It was fairly late in the game. On one hand, speaking as a bookseller, it’s a great title. Garrison Keillor was reading at the store last night, and he asked me about the title, and I said it. He looked up and he just looked so shocked, and said, “That’s a great title. It’s fiction, right?” I cracked up and said no, and he said, “That’s terrifying.” And that’s sort of how I felt about it. It’s a great title but it was so scary to me, because it’s as if I’m saying, “My children are beautiful, and they love me, and they get good grades, and they don’t smoke crack” — it’s just a really bad idea from a personal point of view to call a book this, because it’s like inviting the evil into your life. Once I decided to call it that, every time my husband and I had an argument I would say, “Oh, this is great, I’ve got a book coming out in six months called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and look at us now!”

BIOG: You have at least until the paperback version comes out …

AP: That’s right! “This was the story of a happy marriage.” Only have to change two letters.

BIOG: It’s how literary titles tend to go — you’re waiting for the ironic twist.

AP: If nothing else, it’s a title that will make people go to the book and say, “What? What’s that about?” And that’s what you want.

BIOG: There are so many ways it can be read — it brings up ideas of what marriage is, how a happy marriage is different, and what happiness is.

AP: There’s a picture of me on the back of the book, which is something I normally object to, but it’s in the bookstore, and it’s me sitting in this sea of books. There are boxes of books all around, and there are books up to the ceiling, and I’m quite small — and I really like that, because if you picked the book up and turned it over you’d think, well, wait, is she talking about being married to books? And in a way, I am.

BIOG: I wanted to ask about the challenge in nonfiction of deciding what’s private and what’s public. I found the stories about your public engagement as a writer so striking, particularly about opening the bookstore, and around the Clemson speech and controversy. [In 2006, Clemson University in South Carolina assigned Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty, the story of her close friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, to the incoming freshman class, and invited the author to give the convocation address; Patchett found herself subject to a protest and smear campaign by “concerned” locals and parents who objected to the book.] Do you find it harder to write about yourself in these public roles, where it’s not just your story that you’re telling?

AP: No, I don’t — in fact, I’d never even thought of it. When I’m writing about opening the bookstore, or about Clemson, I’m really writing about how I am feeling in that experience, so it doesn’t register as different than when I’m in the nursing home feeding my grandmother.

BIOG: The bookstore story in particular is about becoming aware that suddenly you’re the face of something. It remains your perspective, but it brings up an interesting question about the public role of the writer.

AP: It’s true, because I am telling stories in which I’m in front of an audience, and a lot of other people are viewing me as these things are happening, but that doesn’t change my personal experience in the moment — I’m just in it. I’m also viewing myself with a certain amount of detachment, as the person that these things are happening too, but it doesn’t change me as a person. No matter what’s going on, we’re still just seeing the world with our own two eyes.

Part II

BIOGRAPHILE: Do you think Truth and Beauty would have been as controversial a choice for the students at Clemson if it were a novel?

ANNE PATCHETT: Oh, I think it wouldn’t have been. In the speech that I gave at Clemson I say something about that, that maybe the reason that The Great Gatsby andAnna Karenina and other novels aren’t as upsetting is that they aren’t true, and so we can think, well, people didn’t really behave this way. Yet personally, I find fiction so much more moving and glorious than I do nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction and I enjoy it, but if I make a list of my favorite books, they’re always novels.

What fiction is good for is it gives us empathy, because it forces us into the skin of another person, in the way that nonfiction doesn’t always do. Somehow in nonfiction, knowing the story is true, we stay outside and observe it, and yet in fiction — if it’s good — we’re often really forced into the story, and into the skin of the character. We can say, that’s how that feels, or I don’t want to participate in these acts — or I do want to participate — because now I have a better sense of how it feels.

BIOG: And somehow, with an autobiographical piece of writing, it’s easier to blame the writer for the bad feelings we may have when we read. With a novelist, we understand that it’s imagination — we’re a step removed.

AP: When you read a novel you can imagine it happening to you. I read Katherine Boo’s book,Behind the Beautiful Foreversabout Mumbai and the slums, and to me it’s a wonderful book, but I had a sense of disconnect. Compassion, but just thinking, Man, I am never going to Mumbai. Whereas if I read a book like White Tiger, another book about poverty in India, but it’s a novel, I feel it all pressing in on me. I feel like, I just shot that guy. It brings a panic up in me, that closeness with the character.

BIOG: Also the uniqueness of your experience, as a nonfiction writer, is part of what makes your story special. It can’t be shared in the same way, so the writer has to find different ways to share what they’re feeling and thinking. Although this isn’t primarily a book about writing, there’s a lot here about your writing methods. Do you approach nonfiction differently from fiction?

AP: Well, for me, nonfiction is so much a job, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been a successful nonfiction writer, compared to some of my friends who are novelists. This was true especially in my twenties and thirties. I have lots of friends whom I was always recommending to magazines — I’ll put in a good word for you, and you can get this job too — and they couldn’t do it. They procrastinated. They couldn’t do this whole deadline thing, and it made them incredibly miserable, to have the looming assignment, and for some reason that never bothered me; I’m really good with assignments! But there really aren’t a lot of fiction writers who go back and forth between the two. [Elizabeth] Gilbert is a good friend of mine and she of course is somebody who does it brilliantly, but at the same time, everybody is just so shocked that she can write fiction, even though she started out writing fiction. No, there aren’t a lot of people we’re willing to accept this from.

BIOG: You mention that one of the changes in the publishing landscape has been that you’re given different parameters by, say, Audible and Byliner, to write longer pieces. In the book, the difference between what would have been a substantial magazine article feels much smaller next to those longreads, and has a different rhythm. Does that higher word count change your writing?

AP: It really does, because I’m so fixated on word count. Do you know that magazine called The Week? They have an author in there every week who picks six books to recommend, and they said it was supposed to be 320 words. So I pick my six books and I write my six little descriptions, and it’s 320 words, and I send it in. The editor wrote back and said, “Oh my God, you actually turned in 320 words. Usually when I say it’s supposed to be 320 words, an author sends in 900, and then I have to cut it down.” So it has been really interesting to open up. But at the same time, Audible and Byliner also told me how long they wanted it — 15 or 20,000 words. It wasn’t like I could just write forever.

The one piece actually where I had no restrictions was the piece about the Los Angeles Police Department [a story in which Patchett, the daughter of an LAPD captain, successfully tries out for the Police Academy]. I had written a very short piece about that and then I went back and rewrote it for the book and made it really long, because I had all these fabulous notes. But even then, at the end, I found myself going back and cutting out big chunks of that piece, because I was afraid it was going to be boring, that I was giving too much information.

BIOG: So having a sense of the length of a story will start to shape it even before you begin to write.

AP: Absolutely.


men-we-reaped-2Biographile, October 3 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury USA. 272pp. $26

National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s first foray into nonfiction, Men We Reaped: A Memoir, is a powerful and painful story from an often voiceless corner of the country. Ward was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in a close-knit, semi-rural community bedeviled by racism, poverty, and injustice — but also rich in generosity, love, and self-reliance. The book tells two entwined stories, of Ward’s own upbringing as her parents struggled and failed to hold their marriage together, and the loss after loss of five young men, by violence and accident, narrated in reverse: cousins, friends, and Ward’s only brother. The book insists on the connections between these losses and their resonance within and beyond the community, and on the importance of lives that so often go unrecorded and unrecognized.

BIOGRAPHILE: I wanted to start by asking about your title. It comes from a Harriet Tubman quotation about the Civil War, is that right?

JESMYN WARD: Yes, she was telling a story about a battle that she’d been near, and the men she was talking about “reaping” were from a black regiment, and they suffered heavy losses in that battle. That’s the language that she used to describe going into the field after the battle and gathering the men, the fallen men.

BIOG: It’s so powerful, because it connects to the idea that the young men you’re writing about are victims of a kind of invisible war that’s going on right now. Was that connection something you had in your head from the start?

JW: It was. This is the first time that I’ve figured out a title at the very beginning of writing a book, and it actually stayed the same throughout because it fit so well. I felt that Harriet Tubman was telling my story and the story I’m trying to tell about young men — she was speaking to that back then. This is happening again, and the young men are a casualty of this larger war, this unseen war.

BIOG: The statistics you include, the death rates for young people in this kind of community, are the kind that we only otherwise see in war zones. That comes to seem like an inevitable connection, but it’s a shocking one to go into the book with.

JW: Part of what I’m trying to accomplish in the book is to shock people out of their complacency; to shock them so that they’re not thinking in the same modes that they had been beforehand about what it means to be a young black person in the United States in general, or more specifically, what it means to be a poor black person in the South. So that’s what I’m hoping for — maybe if they think about the problems differently, and they actually see it as a problem, then maybe one day this won’t be the case. Maybe we won’t lose our young people in the way that we have been.

BIOG: The sense of outrage that drives the book comes from drawing these connections, and saying that these people’s lives and their losses are connected, even if we don’t see the connection as obviously as we might if we had defined it as a war.

JW: I wanted people to see that not only are they connected, but that also so much of what has happened in the past in the United States has real consequences in the present. I think that’s something that people forget about, and that when they see these statistics, when they see the news about another young black man shot, or hit by a random bullet, they don’t connect the two. I really want people to be aware that the history of racism, the history of poverty, and this larger culture that in general, unfortunately, devalues black people — that they have real consequences in real lives, and everything that happens at the present moment is not just a result of some mythical personal choice, and the choices you make in your life have no connection to anything else. We’re all about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, et cetera — I think that’s a harmful mythology, that the choices that we make and the things that we do in our lives are not connected to anything else. So I’d like to help to debunk that.

BIOG: The structure you chose for the book, with the two timelines running backward and forward — was that also something that you had in mind early on?

JW: Yes, I did — I had that mapped out from the beginning. I’ve found that in fiction — and this is just the kind of writer I am — I can’t really work from an outline. I have a vague idea of the characters at the beginning of the book, and then I have a vague idea of whatever the end of the book will be, but I can’t approach creative nonfiction like that. So from the beginning, when I thought about telling the story of losing my brother and my friends, and using my life as a context to try to help the reader understand why those losses might have happened, I couldn’t conceive of telling the story any other way. I knew that the structure I’d chosen was difficult, but it felt physically wrong to be telling the story in another order. I needed to go forward through time and backward through time at the same time, and end in the middle with my brother.

BIOG: It builds tension in both directions, because you know what’s coming but not quite how how things are going to play out. The structure draws attention to itself, and makes the reader think about how the story is being told.

JW: I know that it’s harder for the reader to orient herself in the narrative because it’s so odd, and the way that I give the information is not very straightforward. So I do make the reader work, but I hope that the conclusions that I come to in the end are worthwhile enough.

BIOG: There’s a striking moment in the book when you’re talking about writing your first novel, and the feeling that you were being too kind to your characters, who also come from this kind of background. Can you talk about that move from fiction to memoir, or creative nonfiction — did you feel pressure to make the story feel more positive, or to shape it differently?

JW: I did, because although it’s based in truth, these are real people, and I come from a really small, tight-knit community, so I felt a lot of pressure to sanitize what had happened, what I’d done, what others had done. But my understanding of memoir is that it’s based in fact, and my job was to tell the truth, in the hope that in telling the truth there’s some result in the end, that I’m working for something. Every page, though, was a struggle. Even though I was committed to telling the truth, it was still difficult — I had to figure out how much of the truth do I tell, how much am I going to share, how far do I go, what do I keep?

BIOG: How did you approach writing yourself in the story? In a lot of the chronologically later sections, you come through as a kind of a watcher, or a witness to events; you’re there, but you’re not always central.

JW: I think that’s definitely true of most of the young men sections. The sections about my life and my family’s life — I had more to work with there. It’s always hard for a writer to make herself into a character; I had to figure out what my defining characteristics were, and that’s something I had to work through multiple drafts to figure out. It was a painful process, because a lot of it involved looking back at events in the past, like the section where we’re living in the subdivision and there’s that creepy cellar out back in the woods. When I began writing that chapter I didn’t realize that that cellar would figure so prominently, but it did. When I sent it off to my editor, she came to that section and asked me: What does this cellar symbolize, why do you think you’re writing about this? She made me do the things that I should have already been doing, as a novelist: She made me look at myself in the past, and offer some kind of judgment, some kind of insight into who I was, and the person I am now. It took a lot of work to go back, in moments like that, and ask what was it about myself in that moment, what was it about that cellar that so horrified me, what did it mean to me? A lot of that character development I was doing in the fifth, sixth draft of the book, because it’s really difficult to — even yourself in the past moment — to step outside yourself and really make yourself into a character.

BIOG: What has the reaction to the book been like so far, in your community?

JW: It’s a mixed bag. The reaction from my extended family and a good number of the people in the community is that it’s a good book and it was a story worth being told. I get that from my sisters, too — but there are some people in the community who don’t like that I told such a personal story, and that I revealed the things I did.

BIOG: It seems that your role of witnessing is a role that falls to women in the community: to watch, to wait, and to grieve. Was it difficult, being a woman and writing about men’s lives in this way?

JW: It was difficult. When I was writing the book I was thinking about gender — in the way that, say, my brother’s upbringing was different from my upbringing, and in relation to my parents, trying to figure out if their differing ideas about gender affected their relationship. But it wasn’t until I got to the end of the book that I realized that people would have this reading, that this is something that just affects young black men. When I got to that last chapter, and I mentioned the young women I knew who died since 2004 — there were three of them — I realized that because I only included events from 2000 to 2004, it skewed the book in that direction. I wanted to acknowledge that young black men are living and dying in this way, but I want people to recognize too that it’s not just young men. Women too — they may not hustle in the way that some of the young men do, but they too have substance-abuse issues, or mental health issues, or are involved in unhealthy relationships. They suffer from the same pressure.

BIOG: So this is not simply a story about women losing men and men being lost, but again it’s all connected. Is there more of this story to tell? Do you think you’ll continue to write memoir?

JW: I’m definitely returning to fiction for my next book. Maybe there is another book I could draw from this subject matter, but I don’t know if I’m up to writing one. It’s very hard to deal with true subject matter, especially when you’re writing about such weighty issues.

Book Review

ebwhite-coverBiographile, July 11 2013.

E.B. White
The Little Bookroom, 58pp, $16

To mark E.B. White’s birthday, Biographile recommends one of his best-loved works, Here is New York. Written during a “hot spell” in July 1948 — quite the understatement in the days before air conditioning — it is an unforgettable evocation of the people, sights, sounds (and yes, smells) that make up summer in the city. This small masterpiece of urban nostalgia was released in 1999 in a special edition to mark White’s 100th birthday, with a foreword by his stepson, the legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell. Photographs of White in suit, hat, and bow tie make the city look archaic, but from his opening line it’s clear that his version of the city is timeless: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

The most visible legacy of Elwyn Brooks (“E.B.”) White today may be The Elements of Style — he’s the White in Strunk & White — or his beloved children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. For most of his career, however, White was a regular contributor to the New Yorker and other magazines, including the travel magazine Holiday, for which he originally wrote Here is New York, in part as a favor to Angell, who was an editor there at the time. White had moved to a small town in Maine, but agreed to return to the city he had once called home, and reflect on what had changed and what had not.

Holed up in a hot hotel room in midtown, White launches his essay by describing his proximity, in miles or mere blocks, to the famous people and events that marked the city of his youth, a list he says he could rattle off “indefinitely.” In a diner across the way, he sits eighteen inches away from the actor Fred Stone, noting that this distance is “both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.” Fame, like danger, is always both near and far.

Indeed, for White, it’s a remarkable thing that the city has survived without exploding into violent self-destruction at any number of possible flashpoints over the years. In 1948, shortly after World War II, the vulnerability of the city to attack had shaken its inhabitants deeply; for post-9/11 readers, White’s prescience is eerie as he notes: “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy.” That contemporary shiver makes his evocation of the city’s essential tolerance all the more moving. Above all things, says White, New Yorkers must be tolerant, must observe the respectful distance of eighteen inches. The city’s survival depends on it; without it, “The town would blow up higher than a kite.”

Like many writers about New York, White sees that it is made up of natives, commuters, and settlers. He is scathing about the “locust” commuters, who come in just to pick the city’s pocket — in his eyes it is the settlers, the immigrants, who give it “passion.” The city enables creativity by the sheer number of options for entertainment that it offers; the more distractions there are, the easier they are to tune out, since there’s no shame in “not attending” even great and historic events. There will always be another.

As well as inspiring poets, the city’s density, its intensity, make it a kind of poem itself: “It compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music.” White’s own spare descriptions can also turn unexpectedly to poetry. As he watches the sun going down from the long-vanished café in the Hotel Lafayette on Ninth Street, he observes that “brick buildings have a way of turning color at the end of the day, the way a red rose turns bluish as it wilts.” Anyone who has waited in anticipation for the light to fade on a warm city evening knows precisely how that looks.

Book Review

collegeofoneThe Rumpus. July 23, 2013.

By Sheilah Graham
Melville House Neversink Library. 304pp. $15.

Reviewed by Joanna Scutts

The Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, born Lily Shiel, shaped herself out of nothing much, and she knew it. As her eight memoirs attest, she also knew how remarkable the story of her self-reinvention was—especially the three and a half years she spent as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s companion and lover, until he died on her green living room carpet in December 1940. Her 1967 memoir College of One, reissued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, tells the story of the couple’s relationship through their shared project of educating Sheilah, via a one-woman intellectual boot camp devised by Fitzgerald, “for a woman who had to learn in a hurry.”

Graham’s desire for education is rooted at first in shame and fear. Shame: that she can’t keep up with the intellectual conversation of the people she gets to know in London, New York, and Hollywood, the likes of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and Mary McCarthy, who drop names she doesn’t recognize and assume a knowledge she doesn’t share. Fear: that she’ll be exposed, humiliated, and banished back to where she came from. It isn’t until she’s deep into her curriculum that she begins to enjoy the reading and discussion for its own sake, rather than out of a class anxiety so palpable it’s painful to read. Even Graham’s success in Hollywood is driven by her sense of shame—she goes west from New York with relief, to a town “notorious” for its ignorance: “I would be comfortable there. No one could embarrass me with erudite conversation.”

Lily Shiel grew up in an orphanage in the east end of London, her thick hair regularly shaved to prevent lice, and the eager brain underneath stuffed with homilies, Bible verses, and historical simplifications that promoted an allegiance to God and King. It was an upbringing that erased her identity as the child of Jewish refugees from the Ukraine, and shaped her into an obedient daughter of the English working class, terrified of anarchy and unions, and accepting of an unjust status quo. Her father had died when she was very young and her mother, too poor to cope, placed her two youngest children in the orphanage. When Lily graduated at fourteen, her education was over: she was needed at home, and it wasn’t until her mother died a few years later that Lily moved to the West End of London and made her way onto the stage, via shop work and marriage to a much older man, who smoothed out her accent and groomed her, if not quite for stardom, then at least for survival.

Many years later, in Hollywood, the lowest moment of Graham’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald came when he threw her secret origins in her face, screaming that she was a Jew in front of the nurse who had been hired to see him through the aftermath of a titanic gin binge. This ugly detail is softened in the memoir (Graham says only that he revealed her “humble beginnings”) but is stripped of euphemism in the afterword by Graham’s daughter Wendy Fairey. It’s the starkest example of the memoir’s pattern of revelation and evasion in its depiction of Fitzgerald, who appears by turns as generous and self-interested, loving and narcissistic, hopeful and nihilistic.

Graham early on shrugs and accepts the power imbalance of a male Svengali educating a beautiful protégée. Long before she meets Fitzgerald, she says she has learned “that men who are in love are not interested in whether the girl knows an A from a B at the beginning of the relationship”—and suggests that perhaps they prefer it that way. Scott himself, she says, likens his education of Sheilah to what “Irish and Scotch pioneers who had struck it rich in the West had done, importing peasant girls to marry.” Not that the two can marry, with Zelda still alive in a distant asylum, haunting Sheilah’s nightmares. The education becomes a bond that stands in for, and later transcends, that missing marriage.

The curriculum of the College of One, described in detail and reproduced in a neatly typed appendix, is eclectic, demanding, and innovative. Fitzgerald is a firm historicist, assigning novels and poems as illustrations of an era as Graham works her way through the thousand pages of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. He helps her through Shakespeare by assigning her “bridges” of famous passages to memorize in advance and then watch out for as she reads, and professor and pupil act out scenes from novels, plays, and poems. He constantly revises the curriculum, giving it to his long-suffering secretary to re-type. It would be hard not to see the whole thing as a masterly form of procrastination—Fitzgerald was dragging his heels on The Last Tycoon at the time—were it not for the joy and peace that it clearly gave him in the last year of his life. Graham, too, makes clear at the end of the book that she has moved beyond shame to a prouder, more positive understanding of her education, shifting from the past to the present tense as she declares: “It widened my horizon. I know where to look. I know how to evaluate. I am curious.”

As a writer, Graham is plain and conversational, and her story often meandering and anecdotal. But her modest style makes the defining moment of Fitzgerald’s death—right in the middle of the music course—land the more powerfully for its understatement:

It was a strange coincidence that he asked me to play [Beethoven’s] Eroica Symphony while he was making some notes about football on the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Soon after it ended, Scott suffered his fatal heart attack. There was still an echo of the music in the room with the afternoon sun through the venetian blinds making patterns on his pale face on the dark green carpet.

Perhaps only at a distance of twenty-six years can something so shocking be described with such elegant detachment—and perhaps only by the most diligent student of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Astoria, New York.


blue-plate-specialBiographile, July 9, 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Kate Christensen
Doubleday. 368pp. $26.95

Novelist Kate Christensen, whose books include The Great Man and The Astral, turns her hand to memoir in this month’s Blue Plate Special, an unforgettable coming-of-age story about love, loss, and food. We caught up with Kate to ask her about taste and memory, making the leap from novel to memoir, and why food is such a powerful portal to the past.

BIOGRAPHILE: You mention that the book has its roots in your blog entries. At what point did you see the larger story start to emerge? Did you have to do a lot of editing to turn them into a book?

KATE CHRISTENSEN: It took only three or so months to write the first draft. It came out of me naturally and fast because, of course, I already knew the story. The hard work started after the first draft was written, when I had to figure out how to structure my life as a narrative, how to shape it around my love of food, how the recipes fit in. But the greatest challenge was trying to figure out how to excise my ego from the whole process. I think it all started working for me when I was finally able to treat myself as a fictional character and allow my own voice to be separate from my life.

BIOG: Were you surprised by any connections that emerged between the entries?

KC: I was surprised at how hard it was to write the book after having so much fun with the blog. The blog was one thing: easy, organic, episodic, lighthearted – the book was another. I had to dig intentionally to uncover memories that were raw and visceral and painful to recall. I had intended to write a book about food. But there is no hiding in food: the fact that food was my subject and theme in no way provided any shade. On the contrary, every memory about food, beginning with the soft-boiled eggs of my two-year-old, cataclysmic breakfast, forced me to recollect everything that surrounded it, sad or painful, funny or revealing.

BIOG: What was it like moving from fiction to nonfiction — does it feel like a very different writing process? Do you think you’ll write more nonfiction in future?

KC: I feel a greater sense of responsibility, writing nonfiction. Rather than inventing a cast of characters whose lives are generated by my imagination and the demands of the novel itself, these are people who actually exist, both in my memories and in the world, people whose stories I have appropriated in the course of telling my own. I changed many names and soft-pedaled as much as I could and sent the manuscript around to various loved ones for corroboration, correction, and comments, but in the end, I can’t pretend it was easy or comfortable to write about real people, including myself.

That said, I am fomenting another food book, but one that is less about me and more about food itself.

BIOG: Much of your writing about food focuses on obsession — you discuss gorging on particular foods (like cream cheese sandwiches) and at other times, severely restricting what you ate, which feels different from many food-related memoirs that primarily emphasize pleasure. Did you deliberately set out to describe both joy and the punishment of eating, or do you think those are connected somehow?

KC: As a creature of extremes who strives (usually fruitlessly) for moderation, my life story is, like many people’s, fundamentally an account of sliding along a spectrum of irreconcilable, though coexisting, desires. Both overeating and hunger have been profound parts of my life, and therefore I had to acknowledge both in its telling.

BIOG: We seem to be in something of a golden age of food- and drink-related memoirs by women. Are there other “foodie” writers (men or women) who influenced you during the writing of this book, or whose work you particularly admire?

KC: Food memoirs have saved my life during times of insomniacal trouble, most notably the works of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Laurie Colwin, and Nicolas Freeling. I also love the fictional and nonfictional works of the likes of James Hamilton-Paterson, Diana Abu-Jabar, John Lanchester, Nora Ephron, James Chase, Jami Attenberg, Adam Gopnik, Cathi Hanauer, Gabrielle Hamilton, Tamar Adler, and Michael Pollan.

BIOG: Throughout the book you’re surrounded by people who are seeking some kind of unconventional salvation, from Berkeley hippies, to anthroposophical communities, to your sister’s involvement with a cult. In the book, it often seems as though food was in part a refuge from the spiritual yearning of the people around you — a tangible response to their otherworldly needs. What kind of spiritual balm, if any, does food offer?

KC: I’ve grown to feel that the deeper the attachment to a dogma, religion, or belief, the less the visceral connection to experience, which is all I’ve ever wanted. If food offers any balm, it’s the comfort of being in a world of pleasurable concreteness, one in which the experience is evanescent and temporary. When food is gone, it’s gone, and then it’s time to make the next meal.


Book Review

maclaneBiographile, June 14 2013

Mary MacLane
Melville House Neversink Library, 304pp, $16

On the opening page of her short firecracker of a memoir, I Await the Devil’s Coming, Mary MacLane declares herself “odd,” “distinctly original,” and “a genius” — and it’s hard to argue with any of those claims. It’s 1901 and she’s nineteen years old, stuck in Butte, Montana, and bored to the point of desperation. Her memoir, or “Portrayal,” was written to get noticed, and get out. It became a bestseller, earning her a devoted following of bored, passionate, lonely girls just like herself. The book crackles with its author’s outsized personality and outrageous proclamations, yet its shock tactics are rooted in genuine feeling, of being an outsider and longing for more.

The memoir covers just three months, from mid-January to mid-April of 1901: three cold, dull months in which nothing much happens. Mary takes long walks, eats ravenously (plates of fudge, olives, Omaha steaks with “fresh green onions”), does housework, and writes. No doubt because of the unchanging rhythm of her days, she is an expert in the art of repetition in writing — certain phrases rattle and resound in these pages like incantations: the “sand and barrenness” of her Butte world, her own “wooden heart,” the “Gray Dawn,” and the Devil.

MacLane lives with her mother and siblings, but they merit just a sentence here and there; she is primarily interested in herself. However, some of the most intriguing passages in the book evoke the wider world of Butte, a populous mining town with an established social hierarchy. Unlike many restless writers who condemn their hometown for its dull sameness, MacLane describes Butte as various and endlessly intriguing to a “student of human nature.” While dominated by those of Cornish and Irish descent, the “heterogeneous herd” that turns out for festivals like the Fourth of July includes “greasy Italians”; “starved-looking Chinamen”; “swell, flash-looking Africans,” and “soft-voiced Mexicans.” Despite all this ethnic variety, Butte remains a place of “sand and barrenness,” where people are gossipy and conventional, and their souls are “dumb.”

Marriage, which might have seemed a natural preoccupation for a nineteen-year-old girl at the turn of the century, is treated with contempt. Based on her observations of the world around her, marriage to Mary is a mere cloak of convention that allows people to judge others while concealing their own vices. There is love in perhaps two of a hundred marriages, she decides, and tests the logic of her conviction with an inversion of convention: “When a man and a woman love one another that is enough. That is marriage. A religious rite is superfluous. And if the man and woman live together without the love, no ceremony in the world can make it marriage.”

Of the few people who venture closer to MacLane’s tempestuous orbit, the most important is the woman she calls the “anemone lady” — an older English teacher at her high school who once showed her some kindness, but who has moved away. At this safe distance, Mary lavishes her love on the older woman, in terms that seem — as with much of the memoir — to be both heartfelt and designed to raise the eyebrows of those married gossips in Butte. “I feel in the anemone lady a strange attraction of sex,” she says bluntly. “There is in me a masculine element that, when I am thinking of her, arises and overshadows all the others.”

Elsewhere in the book Mary’s sexual passion is directed at an even more inflammatory object: the Devil. She addresses him as a combination of salvation and suitor: “an extremely fascinating, strong, steel-willed person in conventional clothes — a man with whom to fall completely, madly in love.” He represents escape, and his arrival a longed-for consummation. In her anticipation of the Devil, MacLane sounds like a modern version of those medieval female saints, like Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, whose spiritual autobiographies appeal to Jesus in similarly personal, impassioned terms. Yet MacLane is no saint, nor even a fully committed sinner; she’s too down-to-earth for spiritual transcendence. Sure, she begs the Devil to take her immortal soul, but she also implores him to deliver her from all kinds of mundane frustrations: “women and men who dispense odors of musk”; “round, tight garters”; “unripe bananas”; “weddings”; and “any masculine thing that wears a pale blue necktie.”

MacLane’s early fame did not last, and perhaps because she was so popular with her teenage-girl readers, her writing did not earn critical respect. As Jessa Crispin’s thoughtful introduction points out, while MacLane was “ahead of her time at nineteen,” the twentieth century grew up fast. The social constraints that seemed as immovable as the mountains of Montana to Mary MacLane in 1901 were blown to pieces in the decades that followed. MacLane went to the Devil for good in 1929, obscure and alone, but anyone who reads her will never forget her voice.

Book Review

shrapnelThe Wall Street Journal, May 24 2013

By William Wharton
William Morrow. 263pp. $23.99

Shrapnel wounds haphazardly—it can glance off the surface or lodge deep in the body. In William Wharton’s World War II memoir, it becomes a metaphor for the impact of the war on a young soldier and for the ordinary psychic shocks that can maim a person: “the general shrapnel of the human condition.”

In a series of 30 episodes, “Shrapnel” describes Wharton’s progress from basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., to combat in France and Germany and a distinctly inglorious aftermath. Throughout, Wharton’s resistance to authority, and his conviction that the Army is insane, reckless, incompetent or all three, subvert any heroic expectations. The “good war” is just like any other: chaotic, dull and soul-shakingly traumatic by turns.

William Wharton was the pen name of Albert William du Aime (1925-2008), the author of three memoirs and eight novels, including “Birdy” (1978), a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was adapted into a 1984 film. Born in Philadelphia in 1925, he joined the Army out of high school and then, after the war, married, had four children, and worked variously as a teacher, painter, handyman and author.

The war, he writes in “Shrapnel,” convinced him at the age of 19 that he never again wanted to hold power or authority over another person. In a long section titled “D-3,” Wharton is offered a mission—as though it’s a privilege—parachuting behind enemy lines in preparation for the Normandy landings. “This all sounds like a very poor movie,” he thinks, but the promise of a Silver Star and the obligation to appear fearless—”the great male double bind”—make refusal impossible. He is tipped out of a plane in pitch darkness, sets up camp in the root-hollow of a fallen tree and waits. Nothing happens. Eventually, with his rations running low, he is discovered by Canadian troops and delivered back to his regiment. The whole mission has been pointless, and there is “no mention of my silver star.”

Wharton and his fellow troops have only the vaguest notion what this war against the “Krauts” is about. There are occasional exceptions, such as a hapless yet determined Jewish recruit and a German-born, Jewish-American soldier, Kurt Franklin, whose family has been killed by the Nazis. Franklin is matter-of-fact about his desire for revenge but also about the anti-Semitism he has encountered in the Army. He enlists the blond, blue-eyed Wharton to help him interrogate Germans, including forcing two SS officers to dig and lie down in makeshift graves. One finally breaks down “as they start sprinkling dirt on his face.” Although he recognizes Franklin’s need for revenge, it’s too much for Wharton: “I feel like a Nazi myself.”

The book’s final section, “Massacre,” is introduced simply as “a very sad story.” Wharton’s patrol rounds up 10 surrendering Germans—”a raggedy, loose, sad-looking bunch.” Fatigued, he relinquishes command to one of his men and leaves, but when the patrol reappears they have no prisoners. His replacement claims to have shot them trying to escape, but the true story is one of torture, revenge and shallow graves. It was kept out of the public record by a special court-martial, which may also have indirectly kept this memoir from publication in the U.S. for many years.

Wharton’s writing is plain and declarative and resolutely free of wider reference. Military slang obtrudes, a special code for a special moral universe: KP, OD, SNAFU. The memoir’s power lies in Wharton’s refusal to make the mental and moral adjustments necessary to normalize war. The officer giving him his absurd parachute mission tells him that the radio he is carrying is the most important thing about it: “I look at him to see if he’s kidding. He isn’t.”

For Wharton, militarism in itself—even heroic American militarism—is continuous with the abandonment of humanity that enabled Hitler’s regime. When “goofy southern crackers” in his unit discover that black troops were billeted in a building just before them and hurl their mattresses into a courtyard to burn them, they are not redeemed because they are fighting Nazis. “I don’t have much confidence in my fellow human beings even sixty years later,” Wharton writes. His memoir forces us deeply to question our own.

—Ms. Scutts teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.