The Oyster Climbs the Great Chain of Being: Eleanor Clark’s Locmariaquer

“…But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster….” – Geoffrey Chaucer

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark (image courtesy Goodreads)

Anyone who reads Eleanor Clark’s classic The Oysters of Locmariaquer will come away from the book convinced of two things: 1) cultivating oysters is a complex and difficult task that might well suck the life out of one foolish enough to try to do so; 2) if the people from any place are up to the task of cultivating oysters, it is the Bretons. Clark’s book falls into that interesting category of nonfiction made famous by the great John McPhee. That is, Eleanor Clark, like McPhee, combines meticulous research (there is more in this book than anyone this side of an ichthyologist would want to know about the biology of oysters and the history of human/oyster relations) with personal narrative (there are stories of the lives of Breton villagers who are tied to the oyster industry – or to Brittany – that can move even the most jaded soul).

Of course, Clark antedates McPhee, and perhaps he owes her a debt for combining the scientific and historical with the personal in ways that can engross the reader and make one learn in spite of oneself. After all, Clark won the National Book Award for Nonfiction with this tale of Belon oysters and the Breton people who raise them in 1965, the same year McPhee published his first significant workContinue reading

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Appreciating Gabriel Garcia Marquez: the Reality of Magic…

Garcia Marquez’s use of magical realism as a literary style gave him  freedom in a repressive culture…

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 2002 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Any appreciation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last week at age 87, will likely drift into a discussion of the literary style he championed throughout his long career: magical realism. Though the style is probably most strongly associated with Latin American writers (besides Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, and Carlos Fuentes are all considered predominantly magical realists) in the public mind, it has a longer history than one might think, and its primary practitioners all point at a small (and not necessarily immediately considered together) group of writers as influences on their work: Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, and Miguel de Cervantes are all cited regularly by Garcia Marquez and his fellow magic realists as influences. Continue reading

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Donald Barthelme’s Snow White and the PostModern Moment…

Reading Barthelme’s Snow White reminds us that PoMo is about uncertainty as much as it is about anything…

Snow White by Donald Barthelme (image courtesy Goodreads)

Donald Barthelme is a name closely associated with two of postmodern literary fiction’s most important structural/stylistic innovations: flash fiction and collage. While his reputation was built on his short stories - and Barthelme is celebrated for his innovations to that form – he also wrote novels (really, anti-novels) which, in Barthelme’s case, are constructed pretty much the same way as his stories: resistant to anything as bourgeois as a narrative structure, Snow White is composed of dozens of brief vignettes designed to force the reader to engage the text as a text. Thus, Snow White becomes not simply a retelling of the classic fairy tale, it also serves as a commentary on the fairy tale and its structuralist elements.  Continue reading

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Nature in Focus: Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson

Once upon a time readers actually wanted to learn from books…

Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson (image courtesy Goodreads)

After a spate of book reviews for new found writer friends, this essay takes a look at a book from the 2014 reading list.  Sharp Eyes: A Rambler’s Calendar of Fifty-two Weeks Among Insects, Birds, and Flowers  is a series of descriptions and discussions of weekly nature walks. It’s one of those wonderful late 19th century “educational” works that does its best to disguise itself as entertainment.

The book is an interesting relic of the late 19th century’s “naturalist” movement inspired, in part at least, by Henry David Thoreau. Naturalist, illustrator, and writer William Hamilton Gibson offers his observations of the New England woods around his Connecticut home. Sharp Eyes is heavy with mini-lectures in botany and entomology (one wishes for more about birds since those are for this reader the most interesting chapters) but Gibson writes in the literary journalist style of late 19th century American magazine work, so even the most tedious science lessons are larded with references to poetry and philosophy that leaven the scientific descriptions and explanations…. Continue reading

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Review: Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell

C.D. Mitchell understands the “Dirty South” better than many who trumpet their knowledge of it…

Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell (image courtesy Goodreads)

In my recent essay on Richard Ford as an influence on my own writing I wrote about  dirty realism, a style associated with a group of authors, several of them Southern. Besides Ford, I mentioned Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff. (One might also include Jayne Anne Phillips, though her West Virginia roots might lead some to question her Southern bonafides.) The characteristics that distinguish writers who work this side of the literary street (including this guy, though his interest seems to incline to turning the style of dirty realism on rather different sorts of characters) are also characteristics of C.D. Mitchell’s work. In Alligator Stew, however, Mitchell, like any good artist, takes the dirty realistic style and runs with it, making it his own and linking it to classic Southern storytelling. Continue reading

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Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and the Light it Provides…

“We have to keep civilization alive somehow.” – Richard Ford, “Communist”

Rock Springs by Richard Ford (image courtesy Goodreads)

Aspiring writers choose role models for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, as with those who’d emulate Byron or Baudelaire, it’s the attraction of the daring or Bohemian (or both) lifestyle as much as (in most cases, more than) the work. Sometimes, as with Hemingway or Salinger or Vonnegut, it’s the self-delusion that one can write (stylistically) as they do  easily. If an aspiring writer sticks with it and develops a personal voice, the role model takes on another role: that of fondly remembered (and, perhaps, regularly returned to) mentor.

That is how it is for me with Richard Ford. I first encountered his work shortly after I’d completed my doctoral studies in writing. That was through his “breakout” work (as Wikipedia terms it) The Sportswriter. While that book was wonderful and led me to seek out more of Ford’s work, its most important function in my life was that it led me to the Ford book that I treasure most, his collection of stories called Rock Springs. Continue reading

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Book Review: Dismal Key by Mitch Doxsee

A thriller with a serious message that is also a model of what YA fiction can be…

Dismal Key by Mitch Doxsee (image courtesy Goodreads)

Mitch Doxsee’s thriller Dismal Key walks an interesting line.It certainly can meet the criteria for Young Adult (YA) literature; its protagonist, McCluskey Harvey, is 16 and in the course of the novel develops his first serious romantic relationship. And, as in any good coming-of-age story, the protagonist learns powerful life lessons about himself and what he will/will not do, no matter how evil the opponent he faces.

But Dismal Key is also a powerful tale about a sinister and under-reported crime; the kidnapping of adolescent girls for the sex slave trade. How Doxsee manages to weave together a story about a teenager’s annual summer visit with his grandparents with a riveting (and frightening) thriller about human trafficking and a serial killer that doesn’t feel contrived (unlike some popular YA works) is a credit to the author’s seriousness of purpose. Continue reading

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