Publications
Review: Grace and Favor by Thomas Caplan Print E-mail
Criticism

grace_and_favor(San Diego Union-Tribune January 4, 1998)

Because They're Entitled Is Why

Call Thomas Caplan's novel Grace and Favor a romance of multinational capitalism, with corporate takeovers and insider trading at the heart of its pithy intrigue.

Call it also a classic tale of self-conceit, in which England's landed gentry (a notch below royalty) show that entitlement must endure, at any cost. The moral value to which this class is born is clear: Hold on to an estate, to wealth, to family honor.

And yet, according to Caplan, the gentry's most prized possession is its ability to rub out any threat against its mossy primogeniture. Caplan, an American, sets his story in England, where an American, John Brook, has married the very beautiful Julia Midleton-Lygham.

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Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty Print E-mail
Criticism

gracenotes(San Diego Union-Tribune September 14, 1997)

Song of Ireland

What is it with Ireland and its writers?

Why do so many leave—Joyce, Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Frank McCourt—and then, in one guise or the other, write the story of their exile?

Must every tale mix unforgiving parents, oafish young men and an inhospitable Catholicism that dislocates the artist's bones and resets them, stronger at the broken places, in another country? Such questions shadow Bernard MacLaverty's fine Grace Notes. Composer-protagonist Catherine McKenna is like the author: AWOL from the armed camp of Northern Ireland.

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Freshman Comp, 1967 Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Thomas_MacAfee(Anchor Essay Annual: Best of 1997 edited by Phillip Lopate)

That I was a severely bookish eighteen-year-old must have been fairly evident to my dormi­tory roommates at the University of Missouri, my freshman semester. The night before classes began, they tried to pry me away from my desk for a keg party to which I responded, “I can’t go. I need to finish studying the introductions to my textbooks.” I believed those small Roman-numerated pages would offer insight into the learning models that awaited me. In fact, so intent was I to begin my education that after saying goodbye to Mom and Dad a few days earlier I rushed out to purchase my course books and then, parked at my desk, nearly memorized the glossaries of each text. I wanted more than a head start; I wanted to achieve, as my dad sug­gested, the notice of those who mattered, the professors with whom I was soon to be engaged, and I hoped, enthralled. If called on in class, my responses would prove just how formidably prepared I was.

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A Severity of Conscience: Writers & Self-Censorship Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

maxwell_perkins_nywts3(Written May 1997)

Her name is Arianna and she says to me, the professor, after creative writing class, after I had put her in the dunce spot of staying around to speak with me, “I know you wanted me to com­ment on Phillip’s writing, but I can’t because it disgusts me.” She is an older woman, my age, with dread locks and dark brown eyes. There’s a fierceness about her like one who clerks a night shift at 7/11. “It’s his language that repels me,” she goes on, “the language of ad­dicts, using shit and fuck incessantly, typing women as no more than whores who want dope. I’ve heard it a hundred times before, and it doesn’t deserve my attention.”

I shouldn’t be surprised she’s upset. Her objection, though, is rare. “Were you to tell him this,” I say, “he might understand more about his audience than he realizes, that his sensibility is not the only one he can write for.”

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Review: The Saskiad by Brian Hall Print E-mail
Criticism

saskiad(San Diego Union-Tribune February 9, 1997)

An Epic for Our Times

What captured my eye no doubt captured yours: That ancient-sounding title with the "-d" suffix, -d for epic. Indeed, the gall of Brian Hall to claim epic status for his novel, a self-promotion few writers would dare. Yet it is not long into this absorbing, protean contemporary story of a 12-year-old girl’s search for her mysteriously absent father, before we realize the claim is justified. Few novels published in a given year have Hall’s magnificent compassion and intellectual daring. Why not say it: This is a masterwork of fiction.

Not only are there reverberations to Homer’s The Odyssey and Melville’s Moby Dick, both sea-faring journeys away from and back to home which Hall evokes geographically and psychologically. But the author also parallels those books for themes of alienation and the importance of home. Much mischief cometh from one little "-d."

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Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion Print E-mail
Criticism

didion(San Diego Union-Tribune September 19, 1996)

A Postmodern Disaster

What's a reader to do when one-bewildered-third of his way through Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, a novel ostensibly about arms-smuggling to the Contras in 1984, the story's mercurial narrator announces she has "lost patience . . . with the conventions of the craft (i.e., novel writing), with exposition, with transitions, with the development and revelation of `character' "? A reader can a) persevere, b) marvel at the artistic feat of salvaging some intrigue from the wreck of obscurity, or c) lose sympathy with Didion's characters, who appear to be no more than sacrificial pork penned in the cold-war sty of Ronald Reagan-led misadventure in Central America. Can-do kinds of readers can do all three: persevere, marvel and lose touch. Persevering, we meet Elena McMahon, a reporter for The Washington Post and a well-to-do divorced mother of a disconsolate grown daughter.

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Fellow Teachers, We Are Not Mr. Holland Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Magritte-11680digi-L(Inside English May 1996)

Some days I think that I might have been something other (I almost wrote more) than a writing teacher. What? A columnist, a novelist, a screenwriter, an editor, a publisher. Yet these fancies dissolve in a mist of maybes because for me there’s so much to like about teaching. Teaching—at least in college—is remarkably nourishing for student and instructor: Students who use the encouragement and structure a good teacher provides typically excel far more than they could on their own, and teachers who balance the autonomy and collegiality which the profession demands usually find their work very gratifying.

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