One Writer’s Beginnings

By Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a “continuous thread of revelation” she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father’s coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother’s sturdy independence, Eudora’s earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction.

I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction, particularly autobiographies. I would not have picked out this book to read for myself if it wasn’t required.

It was well-written certainly, and the language was good. But I find my books like this really irritating where the author tries to retro-actively ascribe certain events to their development as an individual and writer. It just comes off as super-pretentious at best. This was one of those books where you want to wave your little “I call bullshit” flag.

This book really would have been much better as a straight autobiography, rather than this autobiography/writing memoir hybrid. The bits about her family and childhood and how everyone ended up doing what they did, was interesting. Unfortunately the reflections on her life as a writer took away from the book in my opinion.

It is a pretty short book, which made suffering through it a little more bearable. I do feel bad on some level being so negative about a book written by a Pulitzer winner, but then again, I’m pretty vocal about my dislike of Hemingway, so I suppose it’s all right. They might have lots of esteem and awards, but they’re just people, too, right?

Have you read this book? What was your opinion of it?

The Woman Warrior

By Maxine Hong Kingston

A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity.

I’ve always felt like books from certain cultures have certain flavors, that seem to be a product of the culture and language itself, rather than individual authors. Spanish and Chinese stories I’ve noticed exhibit this the most.

This novel, though non-fiction, felt very similar to Amy Tan’s fiction novels. Beautiful, lyrical, haunting, but also raw and a bit messy in what they describe. I’ve long thought of Chinese culture as being reserved and unwilling to really talk about the more personal aspects of human nature e.g. sex, childbirth, death, etc. But their literature is certainly unafraid to deal with these things, in a no-nonsense, get-your-hands-dirty way.

This seems to be a memoir of sorts, but it weaves in fictional stories and myths of ancestors and others in the telling of its author’s identity.

The book is divided into five sections that deal with different women: the author’s dead aunt on her father’s side, Mulan, the author’s mother, the author’s mother and her sister, and finally the author herself.

I found all of the stories very engaging and very beautifully written. The structure might seem odd to some readers, but if you just roll with it, it flows and fits together nicely. I read this all in one sitting on the plane ride back from California, which I felt was such a great way to experience this book, especially since it isn’t very long.

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town—and the family—Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

If that first line doesn’t make you sit down and take notice, nothing will. From the very beginning of the book, it is clear that this is an unconventional story. Made all the more unconventional by the fact that hers is a true story.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this book if you’re also working on/trying to write your own book: you might just feel like giving up. Walls’s writing is rich and powerful, sophisticated and tender. She tells a difficult story with a beautiful brush. As she moves from innocent child, for whom her parents are God, to independent adult, who almost pities them, her narrative style never wavers. Her story is generous and harsh in all the right places. While her parents were far from perfect and her childhood years even less so, we are never given the sense that Walls particularly regrets the past. Rather, she almost looks on it as a sad and distant adventure.

There is no question that it irrevocably shaped who she is. But perhaps, it was for the better. To triumph over such deep adversity, truly, that makes a person.

I loved the idea of “The Glass Castle”, what it represents, how it keeps coming back in the story, and ultimately, that Walls chose to title her memoir The Glass Castle.

Between that first line and this last line, lies an extraordinary book.

“A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.”

Marbles

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

Shortly before her thirtieth birthday, Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Flagrantly manic and terrified that medications would cause her to lose creativity, she began a years-long struggle to find mental stability while retaining her passions and creativity.

Searching to make sense of the popular concept of the crazy artist, she finds inspiration from the lives and work of other artists and writers who suffered from mood disorders, including Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Styron, and Sylvia Plath. She also researches the clinical aspects of bipolar disorder, including the strengths and limitations of various treatments and medications, and what studies tell us about the conundrum of attempting to “cure” an otherwise brilliant mind.

Darkly funny and intensely personal, Forney’s memoir provides a visceral glimpse into the effects of a mood disorder on an artist’s work, as she shares her own story through bold black-and-white images and evocative prose.

One of the things I really love about graphic novels is that it’s entirely possible to read them in one sitting, inside the space of an hour or two. I started this before bed and definitely finished it all that night.

If you’ve ever been curious as to what being bipolar feels like, read this book. Forney does a great job of conveying the highs and the lows, with text, images, and spatial representations. In a weird way, I think the bipolar disorder is uniquely fit to be depicted in graphic novel form. I don’t Forney could have communicated the vast difference between the two if this were just a novel.

This is the fourth graphic novel I’ve read, the others being Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (highly recommended), Maus by Art Spiegelman, and The Watchmen by Alan Moore. I enjoyed and loved all of them. Graphic novels are very interesting, especially studying in the context of art-as-literature and literature-as-art. While I say that you can read these novels pretty quickly, you can also read them very slowly. There’s so much to take in on each page, particularly in the case of Watchmen which is just intense. No wonder it’s held up as one of the greatest examples of the genre. It really is exceptional, especially on the level of detail.

I picked up this book after seeing a review of it in a magazine (Entertainment Weekly, I think it was). I was attracted to it because I, too, have long contemplated the associations between artists and mental illness. After being part of a pretty close-knit writing department at a large university, by the end, it almost felt like if you didn’t have something “wrong” with you, you didn’t belong. Mental illnesses were worn as badges of honor, in a way. Which is not to belittle people’s struggles. I also count myself into the above category. (Generalized anxiety, depression, and a spot squarely on the obsessive spectrum of OCD, if you’re wondering what my merit badges are). A couple sections in Marbles particularly resonated with me because of this. One, the author’s struggle to decide if treating her bipolar disorder was equal to killing her creativity. In other words, whether her creativity stemmed from the “crazy”. Two, there’s a particular section where she discusses how among the community of bipolar sufferers, the numbers of meds you’ve tried are clung to like hard-fought medals of honor.

There are a lot of facts in this book, both about bipolar disorder as a disease and about the relationship between artists in history and mental illness. It’s definitely not a coincidence. I don’t think there’s a person in the modern age who’s decided to devote themselves to some type of art that hasn’t thought about whether, one day, they might become another Sylvia Plath or Virgina Woolf.

One of my favorite passages in the book, is the section where she finally tells people about her illness. None of her friends ran away screaming. All were accepting, in their own way. The interesting thing is, I think this is pretty typical of people’s experiences. Maybe it’s still taboo, maybe not, but people who really love you probably already knew you had (insert mental illness).

A diagnosis doesn’t make you a different person.

Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

I first stumbled across this graphic novel while doing research for my paper on The Hobbit graphic novel. Mauswas the first “comic book” to win a Pultizer Prize. It is also credited as one of the first graphic novels. Maus is particularly hard to classify, sometimes called memoir, history, autobiography, fiction, or any mix of genres.

Maus recounts a history of the Holocaust in animal form. The Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans as cats, the Polish as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. As in Watchmen, Spielgelman makes full use of what you can do in a graphic novel that you can’t in a book. In one scene, Vladek and his wife Anja are trying to pass themselves off as Polish: Spielgelman depicts them as mice with pig masks on.

What I particularly liked about Maus was the way it dealt with the place of the Holocaust in today’s history. Spielgelman is himself a character in the novel. At one point, he goes on a tv show to talk about the first part of Maus (Maus was serialized between 1980 and 1991, and the novel is itself commonly divided into Part 1 and Part 2). In it, Spielgelman is asked the question, “Many younger Germans have had it up to here with Holocaust stories. These things happened before they were even born. Why shouldthey feel guilty?” Though this question is explicitly directed at Germans, I think it applies to much of the young generations. I’m not going to lie and say that I, as an American, don’t feel the same way. Often, the Holocaust is taught so much, but repetitively, without introducing anything new. I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t sick to death of it, reading the same books and watching the same films over and over. I wrestled with myself for awhile, feeling completely guilty and selfish for even daring to think such a thing. But it’s true.

Last year, I took a graduate film studies seminar on World War II, but more specifically the Holocaust. I was initially apprehensive, as I wasn’t particularly interested in studying it anymore. But I’m glad I took the class. Not only did we read things like Schindler’s List and Primo Levi, we watched films I’d never seen before (Schindler’s List, Inglorious Basterds, Valkyrie, The Reader). We also watched the documentary by Alain Resnais, Night and Fog. For years, I’d wondered if something was wrong with me that watching those made for tv movies and reading The Diary of Anne Frank didn’t make me cry. But this affected me in the way that nothing else had. And then I began to see what the real problem was.

The public education system delivers a very watered-down form of the Holocaust and World War II. You’re taught about it in a way that invites an excess of emotion on the part of the teacher, but there are no materials provided that evoke the same response in the student. What you’re left with is this great gap between people who are trying their best to try and get you to feel something with PG materials and students who haven’t got a clue and are annoyed that people keep harping on and on. It wasn’t until I took my college course that I finally got it. Spiegelman provides this answer to the above-mentioned question: “Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!” I liked that Spiegelman approached this question head-on, in the text.

The other thing I greatly enjoyed about Maus, is that I think there’s a tendency to over-romanticize World War II, the Allied victory, and the survivors of the camps. What I mean by this is, like many other things, if some person comes through a great trauma, they are often later excused from other bad behaviors. Spiegelman relates a scene in which his father, Vladek, expresses blatant racism against an African-American man. Spiegelman attempts to point out that what Vladek is doing is no different than what the Nazis did to the Jews, but Vladek refuses to see it. I like that Spiegelman had this courage to approach his relationship with his father in a way that doesn’t paint him in a romantic light.

Maus is as much a history of the Holocaust as it is a chronicle of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father. In this, he is honest. He portrays Vladek as a stingy, crotchety old man who makes everyone around him miserable. This is quite different from many of the other treatments we get of Holocaust survivors. In Maus we get a human, rather than romanticized, idealized portrait of an ethnic group. The thing that is so often forgotten is that people are people. Even people who have had great atrocity delivered upon them, do not always transfer that into absolute goodwill toward their fellow man. We are all flawed and faulty, every last one of us.