I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
What is not to love about a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking? If it’s Lemony Snicket’s Christmas children’s book for adults The Lump of Coal, I assure you, it is all lovable – even the copyright page (laid out concrete-poetry style in the shape of Christmas tree). The Lump of Coal tells the story of holiday miracles: not the ones you probably know (“the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision”), but the story of (you guessed it), a lump of coal, who “like many people who dress in black… was interested in becoming an artist. The lump of coal dreamed of a miracle – that one day it would get to draw rough, black lines on a canvas or, more likely, on a breast of chicken or salmon filet by participating in a barbeque.”I will hardly spoil the ending by assuring you that these dreams come true – and that the path to them is charmingly illustrated (as were the Series of Unfortunate Events) by Brett Helquist. And that the lump’s adventures are marked by Mr. Snicket’s signature narratorial interruptions of his story for cryptic personal revelations, his idiosyncratic definitions of words possibly not familiar to his audience, and his winning mix of the fantastic and the depressingly mundane. For any of you who know Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (which includes several Christmas offerings – my favorite, “James,” features a Burton drawing a Santa-suited arm offering a teddy bear to a doubtful looking little boy who has several parallel gashes across one eye; the text reads: “Unwisely, Santa offered a teddy bear to James, unaware that he had been mauled by a grizzly bear earlier that year.”) – The Lump adds another volume to the genre of Edward Gorey-ian cynical, morbid, and eccentric illustrated works that take the form of children’s stories but are really much more for grown ups.(Oh, yes – and a final note: The Lump of Coal is elusive (which in this case means it likes to hide from employees and shoppers in bookstores). An indefatigable Vroman’s employee did managed to find it for me yesterday, but it hid from him for a good fifteen minutes, and this was the second bookstore I’d been to in search of it. At the first, The Stanford Bookstore, not one of the twenty copies in stock could be found.)
There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov considered the quandary he’d given himself, remembering his own life and putting it to paper:
They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years—to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know. . . . So perhaps it is time we examined ancient snapshots, cave drawings of trains and planes, strata of toys in the lumbered closet.
Nabokov understood the transience of day-to-day life; the way a cup of coffee empties itself almost immediately after its pouring, a ring of moisture its only shadow. We must give over to decay, and what we leave behind—the memories we’ve created through interactions with other people—must serve as our authentication. Accepting our impermanence is both the most terrifying and most comforting thing we may have to do, both our mortal limitation and our eternal emancipation.
Anthony Doerr’s newest collection of stories, Memory Wall walks this perfect line of memorial trepidation. Doerr’s voice has no limits, and each of his six stories quietly probes the grasp we keep on our memories. He begins, rightly, with a tale of memory displaced and dispossessed. The title story allows us to observe the consequences as Alma, an elderly white South African suffering from dementia, preserves her memories on plastic cartridges, which line the walls of her Cape Town home like glittering seashells. Alma’s memories—particularly those of her late husband, whose attention to her dwindled as he became increasingly obsessed with archaeology—are like fossils partially unearthed, our portrait of her a composite at best.
As her memories are recounted (by the way of thieves digging through the cartridges, in the hopes of finding buried treasure), we come to understand exactly why each memory’s disappearance means so much to her, and why each cartridge demands such attention. “Water in a vase, chewing away at the stems of roses. Rust colonizing the tumblers in a lock. Sugar eating at the dentin of teeth, a river eroding its banks. Alma could think of a thousand metaphors, and all of them were inadequate.” This is what it is to lose the ability to recount your life; this is the loss of personal history. Doerr compounds Alma’s loss by making it unspeakable, by placing her recalling just out of reach.
Each of Doerr’s stories could be contained in one of Alma’s cartridges, each a testament to the desire to make memory into a tangible totem. “Procreate, Generate” imagines a couple’s difficulty conceiving, the trauma of having “seventy-five trillion cells in their bodies and they can’t get two of them together.” “The Demilitarized Zone” examines a man missing his soldier son during wartime, each letter received delivering a fresh blow. “Village 113” follows a woman preserving seeds even as her village prepares to be submerged to make way for China’s massive Three Gorges Dam. She sees history in every inch of the town: “Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. . . . Everything accumulates a terrible beauty.” The seeds she salvages become “as heavy as a child,” her cross to bear, her memories and the memories of the town made manifest.
Doerr’s voices are not all aged, or even fully matured; in “The River Nemunas”, he fully embodies a fifteen-year-old girl, flying to Lithuania after the death of her parents, and ultimately chasing down her mother’s ghost in the pursuit of a legendary sturgeon. “The urge to know scrapes against the inability to know. . . . We peer at the past through murky water; all we can see are shapes and figures. How much is real? And how much is merely threads and tombstones?” Finally, in “Afterworld”, elderly Esther suffers from epileptic fits that serve as blasts of clarity, bringing her back to her youth as an orphan in Nazi Germany, and to the fateful moment in which her life was miraculously, inexplicably, spared. The lucidity in the midst of her seizures crystallizes her understanding of the past: “Draw the darkness, Esther thinks, and it will point out the light which has been in the paper all the while.”
Doerr’s protagonists seem destined to suffer from their own memories at the same moment they create and thrive in new ones, but at least they never feel anonymous or generic. The language he employs to shape each character’s voice is so specific to that character’s circumstance, so fresh and precise, that he always keeps us engaged. Sometimes the metaphors Doerr employs are a bit trite—yes, fossils represent memories, we may have seen this coming—but each perspective is so genuinely articulated that snark doesn’t seem necessary. It is rare to find an author whose voice feels artless and sincere; even if the story might feel predictable, we have to applaud his guilelessness. Doerr’s is the voice of a natural weaver of tales, and it feels only right that his final thoughts would carry undertones of the Brothers Grimm: “Every hour, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”
In a world where so much meaning comes at the expense of innocence and wonder, the truths illustrated in the simplicity of recollection, of bringing memories hidden in murky water to the level of surface observation, prove as engaging as epic poem. Doerr’s voice, to be sure, will not be forgotten.
We may live in a time when it’s finally okay to acknowledge what most have long known — namely, that book reviewers sometimes know the authors of the books they review. To be sure, book review editors still put up a front of seeking out reviewers who have no acquaintance with an author under consideration, but, as social media has made the world smaller, and as the literary world itself has undergone an unhappy shrinkage, it’s gotten harder and harder to verify that an assigned review won’t wind up being a better reflection of a reviewer’s affection (or animosity) for an author, rather than a true measure of a book’s particular quality. It’s gotten to be a bit like blurbs, hasn’t it? I mean, really — is there anyone out there who still visits bookstores and believes that the downright epileptic spasms of praise on the backs of books indicate true, unsolicited, un-commissioned opinions?
This is nothing knew. Henry James wrote extensively and glowingly about Robert Louis Stevenson even as there was a chair in Stevenson’s house known as the “Henry James chair” for the Master’s use of it during salons and soirees; and H.L. Mencken went after Theodore Dreiser — really lit him up — after having met him a number of times. Neither James’s nor Mencken’s opinions are likely the direct product of these relationships, but how can we know that for sure? The relationships are not acknowledged in the critical essays that we must trust to be assessments that are uncorrupted by non-critical views. And now, 100 years later, in a literary world notably smaller and vastly more interconnected, it still works the same way: friends (and enemies) write about each other’s books, but pretend they are writing about strangers.
All of which is prelude to me saying fie on that. I am reviewing Marc Nieson’s new book, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape, and I have a more than passing familiarity with both the author and the subject. In fact, I’ve known the latter even longer than the former.
Schoolhouse is a memoir, which basically means it’s about Nieson’s life and the wisdom he’s drawn from it, but first and foremost it uses Nieson’s time living in an old stone schoolhouse during his stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a temporal fulcrum and emblem of transition. My part in this is that I visited the schoolhouse even before Nieson did. He’s older than me, but I attended the Workshop before he did, and the guy who lived in the schoolhouse before Nieson happened to be another Workshop student who was also an auto mechanic who knew how to work on Alfa Romeos. As it happened, I had bought a Spider just after I graduated from college, a joke that almost no one got. Anyway, the joke turned out to be on me: the car cost a fortune in repairs, and I spent a number of days visiting the schoolhouse of Schoolhouse.
I met Nieson, most likely, at a Workshop poker game, and even in the first few pages of his book one taps into the gentle, anger-averse mien that made Nieson something of an odd presence at both those games, and in that creative writing program, each of which often featured conflict. We became friends in a more than casual, yet less than wholly intimate way, such that there is a lot that is new to me in Schoolhouse, but also much that I recognize from those old Iowa days — in particular, Nieson’s description of the diagram that Frank Conroy used to illustrate the co-creation of art, that melding of minds that is the necessary component of any truly literary event. (I myself have since scarified that image onto the brains of probably 1,000 students by now.) Indeed, you might then leap to the conclusion to that in order to review Nieson’s book I wouldn’t really have to do all that much. We were close; I lived those days too. Probably, I could skim it and do just fine.
But that would be completely wrong.
There are a few things you can say with certainty about Schoolhouse. It’s a love story that is also a book about a kind of emotional sustainability — how to do right by both your soul and your surrounding — and it’s the tale of a rootless man coming to grow a few. The book globetrots from Iowa to New York to Italy, but thematically it never strays far from the old stone building, since demolished, that stands to this day as a symbol of Nieson’s education, the retelling of which might just teach us a few things too. It’s a kind and quiet book about a world that often isn’t either, and it’s told in a spare language that serves an inverted measure of the volume’s difficult-to-plumb sophistication.
But hold on right there. Because that kind of description, i.e., the usual descriptions of book reviews, doesn’t really describe my experience of Schoolhouse at all. If I’m to be honest, then I must allow that my experience of my friend’s book was based almost entirely on the difference between the man I found in these pages and the one that I thought I knew.
When you read books by strangers — as Gertrude Stein would have us do (“I write for myself and strangers,” she wrote, though she had plenty of writer buddies) — you don’t get to experience that at all. Of course you recognize that you have a particular kind of intimacy with people in books, and with people through books, which everyday relationships lack, but if you never read a book that was written by someone you know, then you never come truly face to face with the sad inadequacy of real life, which is the reason books exist in the first place. When I read Schoolhouse, I realized there was more pain and past in Nieson’s life than I had ever known or suspected might have lurked there. My impulse was to dig into my own past and project this new Nieson onto my fragmented memories of him, as though I could I heal the gaps in my past that suddenly felt like wounds.
Which was kind of stupid, but which, as it happens, is sort of what Schoolhouse is about. There’s a wonderful story here, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Rather, I will tell you that Schoolhouse is about those times when “you can hardly tell whether you’re hiding out from the past, or in it.” The book, then, is not about the past, it’s about memory, and the inadequacy of memory is what ensures that “there are all kinds of amputations and oversights in this world.”
Amputations and oversights…That pretty well describes the emotion I was left with at the end of this simple, powerful book, written by a guy I once knew fairly well. Or so I thought. A good book, by its goodness, proves the inadequacy of the world to which it is addressed. And I now know Marc Nieson all over again, as you might — as a vague, perfect, intimate stranger.