Publications
The Psychopaths Among Us: A Three-Act Essay Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

ben-thomas-1(AWP Talk, Boston, March 2013; First Published TriQuarterly May 31, 2013)

Time: Late August
Place: Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
Event: A weeklong workshop in “writing the memoir”
Players: Seven writers and me, the teacher

     Act I

A woman writer in her sixties is the last of seven students to share her work. Her title: “The Psychopaths Among Us: A Case Study.”

I present her writing here in the style she adopted, a very clipped textbook shorthand, articles dropped from nouns, and minimal development. I can’t imitate her reading voice, but its tone, hectoring and shrill, is somewhere between Donald Trump and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher.

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How I Want To Be in That Number Print E-mail
Articles

big chief costume(Oxford American May 20, 2013)

Friday: It's the Mud

Ah, New Orleans in early May. You might think 90 degrees, fly-trap stickiness, magnolias, and post-Mardi Gras contrition. You'd be half right. This year's 44th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at least the second of two weekends I attended, was so rain-sodden I almost cried. Some five hundred acts performed during the seven-day festival, and I figured I could get to twenty-five or thirty if I kept motoring. A night of downpour turned the fairgrounds' paths into cold mud, an all-day toe-squishing trudge: tire-tread sand, horse-track slick, grassy sludge, ankle-deep ooze, pig-sty slop. It was fifty degrees, and most of us half-dressed fans were wearing straw fedoras, cut-offs, and plastic-wrapped tennis shoes. We teetered through the mud at a woozy half-time to the music, balancing inebriation and chagrin.

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Review: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields Print E-mail
Criticism

David Shields(The Rumpus March 3, 2013)

ReCollage

Two nights ago, I, a freelance writer, dreamt about an editor who paid me $500 in advance for a new piece, sight unseen, topic my choice. I was fresh out of ideas, so I asked him for one. Write, he said, about why the subject you examine resists your examining it. That verb, resists, filled my 7 a.m. waking. Right off, I knew this meant a tug-of-war between the recalcitrance in me and the recalcitrance in the subject.

Next day, the stork brought the baby in the form of Stephen Kessler’s film, Paul Williams: Still Alive. A wayward sort like me, Kessler spends the first third of the 87-minute movie searching for Williams (that little big man from the 1970s, sad troubadour, TV actor, mop-top blonde, orange-tint glasses), the second third finding the faded star still adored in a few world outposts and Kessler’s relishing the contact, and the final third feeling disenthralled with the 70-year-old, who’s gone beyond the silliness of “Hollywood Squares” and now mimics himself in one on-the-way-to (but-not-quite-there) Las Vegas venue.

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Writing While Ill: Pathography, Then & Now Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

VirginiaWoolf(Shenandoah March 1, 2013)

1 /

Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay, “On Being Ill,” with a doozy of a sentence:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

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Review: Elsewhere by Richard Russo Print E-mail
Criticism

Elsewhere(American Book Review Volume 34, Number 2, January/February 2013)

Beyond Blood

For Richard Russo—who, along with John Irving, is a kingpin of New England novelists: ten books, eight of them fiction, one a Pulitzer prizewinner—“love your mother” is not some affirmation he’s noted on a three-by-five card and keeps in his shirt pocket. He does love her. Unfailingly. Undetachably. A long life, both devoted to and trapped by Mom, has proved it. Russo’s mother—Jean to her friends—raised him after separating from her no-count, gambler husband in the small town of Gloversville, New York, home to a glove factory and her family who worked the trade. Early on, Mom secures the boy’s pledge that they’ll stand together no matter what. No matter that they must share a house with her parents, against the latter’s wishes, and no matter that the ensuing friction, along with her eventual joblessness, poverty, and dependency, defines their drama.

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Review: Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid Print E-mail
Criticism

ann richards(Oxford American February 11, 2013)

Among the reasons we remember Texas governor Ann Richards—she of the frosty pompadour, whom cancer took at age 73, in 2006—is her pearly shot at George H. W. Bush during her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (After Poppy Bush won election, he sent Richards a small silver pendant in the shape of a foot, a token of his affection.) Richards’s twin silver streaks of hair and tongue became her trademarks, bringing her national notoriety and an unlikely rise in Texas politics.

Some in the Lone Star State may recognize the multitude of characters in Jan Reid’s long-winded biography; the rest of us must sort through a mountain of facts. Waco-born and Baylor-educated, Richards was, by her late thirties, married to an ACLU lawyer, the mother of four, and perilously alcoholic. The booze and occasional drug use resulted in a family intervention and clinical treatment that saved her life. She traded one addiction for another, politics, and seems to have loved the punishing public spotlight as much as she loved spending her weekends reading memos. After stints as Travis County commissioner, in Austin, and state treasurer, she won the Texas governorship in 1990, largely because of her snappish wit and tireless spunk.

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What Am I? A History of San Diego in 20 Objects Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20130130(San Diego Reader January 30, 2013)

1. Wyatt Earp Promissory Note

Most San Diegans who recognize the name know that the onetime deputy sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona, was also a notorious carpetbagger. Earp and his pal, Doc Holliday, killed — some say murdered — three cowboys during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Eventually, Earp, with various clans gunning for him, left Arizona and followed Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go West, young man.” His love of gambling brought him to San Diego in 1885. With the hand-rubbing promise of the railroad (which never came), he wagered his and others’ money during the real-estate boom. He controlled four saloons and gambling halls, two near Sixth and E Street, and one, the Oyster Bar, in the Louis Bank building on Fifth Avenue. (The district, once the Stingaree, is today’s beer-and-burger haven, the Gaslamp.) On a very good night, Earp raked in as much as $1000. Flush, he spent it on prizefighters and racehorses, games in which, citing Raymond Starr’s phrase, the greedy Earp “sought to divest other speculators of their profits.” But the law caught up with him. This note, in the research library of the San Diego History Museum, is for $1000, payable to W. P. Walters, and it is signed by Earp and John Morales, an accomplice, no doubt; it is dated 1894. By then, the lawman was an outlaw, having ventured as far as Alaska, though Walters’s suit forced him to return and pay up. Progress, indeed, since it was a court, not a corral, settlement.

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