Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Undisciplined writing

Back when I was the Town Librarian, that apparently credentialed me as being knowledgeable about books (nothing could be less true) so the features editor asked me to write book reviews for the local paper. It wasn't usually much fun. The paper understandably wanted a focus on books of local or southern interest, whether they interested me or not. But once in awhile somebody would write, oh, say, a lesbian comic novel with a South Carolina setting. Cackling softly, I'd put it on my list.

I still had to write in a demure professional manner. And it was very valuable experience. I challenged myself to tighten and polish my prose to a point that would force the editor to print every word I turned in. I succeeded only occasionally (OK, like, twice, all right?!), but I felt triumphant when I did, and learned a lot about fine tuning my work.

But I always wanted to indulge in the total lack of self-discipline that I've found blogging. In later entries, I might investigate this issue more.

This is a review I wrote in 1991. You can blow up the picture and read the review if you like, but it's a basic, conventional review, written for the sensibilities of a community so concerned about Good Taste that a group made a formal complaint about the spine labels on the library books; they were not precisely aligned so that you could gaze down a row and see an even white line.

(Click if you'd like to enlarge)

There are 3 things you can't do in a nice polite local paper feature. Well, probably more than 3, but I ran into 3 when I wrote this review.

1. You can't giggle like a 12-year-old over a dumb sex joke.
2. You can't digress at all, much less outrageously, and
3. you really shouldn't diss a classic too often. Choose your battles.

So because it's my blog and I'm no longer reigned in by an editor, here's what else I really wanted to say about The Revolution of Little Girls, by Blanche McCrary Boyd: This book had me literally sliding out of my chair with tears in my eyes, laughing.

Generally, it's a well-done fictional journey through reconnecting with buried memories of abuse. The funny passages that don't quite work are still not insensitive, just a little implausible, so the integrity of using humor in an abuse-memory plot remains intact. To take a comic approach to such a subject is risky and, remarkably, Boyd pulls it off and manages to be both moving and wickedly funny.

The episode that had me howling depicts the kids in the English class getting out of control, as the tension drains off following a confrontation between the teacher and another student. It all happens during a read-through of Our Town. So, OK, you'd maybe have to find Our Town as irritating as I do to find the passage so uproarious.

The novel's heroine, Ellen, forms a slightly obscene misinterpretation of a scene in Our Town. The scene in which Mrs. Gibbs bids her husband to come out to the garden and smell her heliotrope. Ellen collapses in hysterics. So did I.

Our Town is admittedly one skillful piece of work. You have to admire any writer who can take a view of both life and afterlife that makes Pet Sematary look warm and fuzzy, and snuggle it down into such a deceptively wholesome hometowny play that schools produce it on a regular basis. So when somebody like Boyd mocks it so well, I just kind of fall in love with her.

Anyway, I liked the book.


ronnie said...

I love the concept of a blog as "undisciplined writing"!

And I've just added to my "books to be read" list.

Mike said...

And I love the concept of a book that recognizes the way even the darkest lives can include humor.

A woman once told a group of us around a table a story from her childhood, which we knew involved a psychotically violent Italian mother. The "Italian" part is that, on this occasion, the mother had laid out the ingredients for a large batch of pasta, including a large bowl of whole eggs and a mountain of flour. Then, for some reason, she went out on the porch to get something and the lock clicked behind her.

This woman, then a little girl, and her brother proceeded to get into a hilarious egg-and-flour fight in the kitchen while watching their mother pound on the door and scream curses at them, demanding they let her back in. As she told the story of this riotous moment from her life, we all were laughing so hard we couldn't speak.

Like, to ask her what happened after her mother got back in.

But somehow that wasn't the point of the story.

If I knew where she was today, I think I'd send her a copy of that book.