Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Mar 07 2010

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Writing and Obsession

Thinking today about the old chicken-or-the-egg question:  do we choose the stories we tell, or do the stories pick us out of the crowd, follow us home, demand our attention? I just finished reading Rebecca Skloot’s extraordinary first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and it reminded me afresh of how important it is for those of us who write to always be listening, as Stephen Dunn puts it, “with that other, inner ear.”  A student in a community college biology class, Skloot first saw the name HENRIETTA LACKS written on the board as part of a lecture on cell division.  HeLa cells, named after Henrietta, were the first cells to survive–and reproduce–for more than a few days within a lab environment, making possible everything from polio vaccines to cancer therapies to gene mapping.  But who was Henrietta Lacks? Skloot wanted to know.  “No one knows anything about her,” her instructor replied. “She was a black woman.”

That was the inciting incident.

“What does your character desire?” we often ask our writing students–or are asked, in turn, by those who read our own works in progress.  “What does this person want?  What is his or her obsession”

But an equally important question might be:  What is the writer’s obsession with the story he or she sets out to tell?  For if it’s less than an obsession–if it’s mere inclination or, god forbid, calculated choice–the deep, primal heartbeat that drives a book’s creation for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, cannot take meaningful root.

Sometimes when a book gets uniformly good reviews, the small, winged cynic on my shoulder begins to mutter and twitch.  “Can’t be that good,” it grumbles.  “Probably disappointing.”  Within minutes of beginning The Immortal Life, said cynic was reading as voraciously as I, captivated by the unlikely marriage of personal interest story–the emotionally impacting story of Lacks herself, which unfolds in step with the developing relationship between Skloot and Lacks’s living daughter–and the story of HeLa cells themselves: their discovery, their commercial development, their impact on modern medicine and, as a result, every person living today.  Technically speaking, what makes this book a lasting masterpiece is the skill with which Skloot is able to portray both the personal and the scientific, making each story equally engaging and, through that process, strengthening each.  One might argue that Skloot, who earned her MFA at The University of Pittsburgh and is a contributing editor at Popular Science, is uniquely suited to write this particular story, skilled as she is in both in the portrayal of human pathos and the analysis of scientific fact.  But Skloot’s interest in Lacks began long before she’d developed this particular skill set, and it lasted through long years of disappointment in which Lack’s descendants–burned by past experiences with both reporters and the medical establishment–refused to be interviewed.  It lasted through self-financed research trips, broken relationships, job changes, life changes.  Through it all, beneath it all, that primal heartbeat pumped out its question:  Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Thank goodness Rebecca Skloot never stopped listening.

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Feb 01 2010

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A Controlled Pause: Thoughts on Dani Shapiro’s “Devotion”

First, a happy update: book club members in Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Hawaii, Florida, New York and Maine have requested a free signed hardback of Good Things.  Scroll down (or click on Book Clubs) for more details about this promotion, which will continue until we have one hundred requests.

Projects such as corresponding with book clubs require managing details, and though some claim that God is in the details, I always find myself racing around, yet getting nothing done, when I have lots of things–the domestic mashed up with the professional–clamoring for my attention.  Reading Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Devotion, was a controlled pause, a deep breath. If you feel as if you’re foundering under a thousand post-it sized to-dos, if you find your mind working like a hamster on a wheel, if you can’t be easy, be quiet, be still, the process of Dani’s own struggle to find a spiritual center and silence will completely engage you. “I was always racing,” she writes on the second page. “I couldn’t settle down. I mean, I was settled down–I was happily married, and then mother of an eight year old boy. But I often felt a tremendous sense of urgency, as if there was a whip at my back.”

Shapiro’s search for peace leads her to revisit the life-threatening illness of her son and to reconsider her mother’s death.  She immerses herself in yoga retreats and follows the sparked trail of coincidence. Along the way, she reconnects with the Orthodox Jewish teachings of her childhood. Yet, rather than providing herself–and her reader–with easy answers, the book unfolds, in short collage pieces, as a series of questions that reveal the beating heart of human nature. Why do things happen? Is there a reason for the way life unfolds? Shapiro writes about being “complicated with Judaism,” a phrase that has helped me understand my own relationship with Catholicism. I wrote about this relationship, and its gradual transformation, in my own memoir, Limbo, and though the experience of illness led me to different conclusions, I loved being witness to Shapiro’s own journey.

“My bookshelves were filled with books I had bought with every good intention,” Shapiro writes, “important books containing serious insights about how to live. Over the years, they remained unopened. Taking up space. What would happen if I opened the books? If I opened myself–as an adventurer, an explorer into the depths of every single day? What if–instead of fleeing–I were to continue to quiver in the darkness? It wasn’t so much that I was in search of answers. In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers. I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there.”

And so she does with eloquence and grace.

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Jul 09 2009

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Filed under News,Reviews

A roundup of the latest reviews.

  • Fiction Writers Review
    The honest passion to Ansay’s writing is one that I haven’t encountered in a while, one that pleasantly reminds the reader that it’s okay, at times, to be a little earnest. It is Ansay’s dedication to truth, both emotional and historical, that keeps the novel from reading like a stale formula of past and present, but rather a story that is very much alive, rich with imagery and text, transcending boundaries of time and narrative.
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
    Ansay is an adventurous writer whose work evades easy categorization. But if “Midnight Champagne” is primarily a comedy, brimful with character and incident, “Good Things I Wish You” is something else: darker and quiet, a meditation on art and love in the European mode.
  • BookList (July 1, 2009)
    Spare yet sumptuous, precise yet lavish, Ansay nimbly sifts historical fact through an admittedly autobiographical filter to deliver a richly textured study.

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