Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it too many times: memoirs aren’t written, nor are they to be read, for technical prowess. That I’ve said it that many times means I now have to eat my words. Rick Bragg has written a memoir so ably done that, well, you have to pay at least a little attention to his writing skills. I’ll give you a couple of examples in a minute.
Ava's Man purports to be a reminiscence of Bragg's maternal grandpa, Charlie Bundrum. In truth, it’s a history of his entire, rural, poor, Alabama family on his mother’s side. No, that’s not it, either. It’s the story of every poor family in the rural South of the early twentieth century. It’s the story of my family, too.
The Bundrum family, led by Ava and Charlie, lived a life just this side of the law, called no place in particular home except the woods and rivers up and down the Georgia/Alabama line. Undeterred by poverty, homelessness, and the Great Depression, their family kept growing and growing. And Charlie, moonshiner and brawler by night and roofer by day, tamed himself and established a backwoods morality that engendered love and devotion in friends and family alike.
Now about Bragg’s style: He’s clever enough with words to use a Southern dialect in a way that doesn’t seem like hokum. And unlike most memoirs, he tastefully skirts his own presence in the Bundrum saga, except for an occasional moment in his third-person narration. He gives us scenes with little dialogue (he surely knows that memoirs are more honest that way), depending on this agile narration to keep the reader in Charlie's deep woods.
And he handles dicey things in, oh, so gentle a manner. Of Charlie’s death, he gives us only this:

The men were passing a pasture gate when he just stopped, to get a breath. He looked around him, as if it was the first time he had seen anything like it, anything so fine, and fell onto the new grass.

And humor, Lord, he can be droll. In the final chapter, Bragg visits a relative who’s a bit upset at wild boys shooting up his mailbox after stealing his guns:

“I don’t even have to open my damn mailbox to read my damn mail,” he said from behind a wreath of smoke that, even from across the room I recognized as Camel nonfilters. “I can read my damn mail standing out in the middle of the damn road, it’s got so many damn holes in it.”
I said it was a shame.
“I wouldn’t be so damn mad,” he said, “if I didn’t know they was shootin’ my own damn mailbox with my own damn guns.”
I nodded my head.
“Well, he said, “they can kiss my ass and call me Shorty.”
I decided to ask him later exactly what that meant.

What Bragg conveys in Ava's Man is something common to Southern heritage – that his folks persevered in situations large and small with upbeat determination and an often grim stoicism. And not just a little bit of cleansing humor.

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Dubliners, by James Joyce

If I were tto sum up what I believe Joyce was trying to do with this collection of connected stories, that’s the word I’d use. But back to that in a moment.
Critiques of Joyce’s work goes in all directions, but that’s ultimately to his benefit, as far as I’m concerned. Most criticism terms his portrayal of the city and its inhabitants as sketchy and uneven. Further, these critics believe certain stories go on interminably and with no clear point – that they provide no crisis and resolution, that the characters are hazy and incompletely developed.
All this is true if one were to read and attempt to digest each story individually. Joyce himself made the point early on that Dubliners describes a progression – from childhood through deep adulthood. But even with that said, readers and critics alike have remained uneasy with this collection, preferring to declaim it as the failed work of a writer who only later gained his literary footing. Critics do ferret out Joyce’s upset with the Catholic Church, his concern with the malaise growing over the Isles – and over Europe in general – as colonialism, industrialization, and the growing militancy of western nations led Europe toward WWI.
I dispute these critics' claims. (Yes, I realize it’s dangerous to project one’s interpretations too deeply into the intent of writers, particularly one as experimental as Joyce.) But this brings me back to my central premise: possibilities.
It’s generally conceded that the first stories in this collection are the most accessible, so let’s take a quick peek at that first one, "The Sisters," narrated through the eyes and ears of a young boy:
In this story, a priest, Father Flynn, has died, and the man’s decaying life becomes the topic of conversation between a group of men first, then three sisters, these three women having varying relationships with the priest, hence different perspectives on his life.
But there are certain undeniable facts: the priest has acted in odd ways; all are at a loss as to how to interpret these odd actions. Was he possessed by the devil? Was he going insane? Was he simply growing addled and childish? Or was he demonstrating some discontent with the Church?
Each of these questions tell the reader something about Dublin and its inhabitants, which I believe is to Joyce’s point. No longer, Joyce seems to be saying, is there a consensus reality for such a group of people as the inhabitants of Dublin – their reality is tempted away from such consensus by individual biases, fears, and consequent individualized perspectives. And, I believe, Joyce used such a trope of an emerging Modernism in different ways to dissolve the classical belief that the Church proclaimed spiritual reality, that the Irish and British Governments legislated economic and political reality, and that art was simply a metaphor to represent such a monolithic consensus.
But Joyce seems to want his readers (of that time, and perhaps today as well) to understand that each of us lives various shades of reality, that perhaps a consensus can be shaped from the sum of these shades, but that no one person could possibly represent such an overarching consensus.
Over and over, as in "The Sisters," Joyce seems to present this to us through the possibilities he depicts in his stories. Whether it’s boys observing and reacting to other children and adults on Dublin’s streets, whether it’s in political and religious conversations, whether it’s in the life choices a character makes, Joyce presents us with…possibilities. Possibilities that often lead in a literary sense to the old chestnut of suspense. And these in turn can lead the reader to understand that reality is (a cheap analogy, I admit) a road with many branches, not an all-inclusive bubble.
If I’ve plumbed James’ intent with anything resembling accuracy, this makes his work the precursor of the best of today’s postmodern thinkers and writers.

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Sylvia Nickels’ Eight Miles of Muddy Road

Memoirs of the kind Sylvia has written aren’t the stuff of great literature, nor are they meant to be. But such memoirs do serve a pair of significant and valuable literary purposes:
• If a historian were to write a piece on, for instance, sharecropping in the U.S.’s southeast, he or she would not be very likely to dig to the deep level of detail Sylvia has depicted in her fine book. In Eight Miles of Muddy Road, she writes of her family’s many moves, their never owning a home, the many schools the Maner children attended, their food, what they ate and what the food was served on. She writes poignantly of Maner children dying, the family unable to provide adequate medical care.
These are the details underlying the broader sweep of Southern poverty, the resilience of the people who lived it, further implying the base causes of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s.
The Maner family’s story provides a case in point regarding this era of U.S. history and of rural Georgia and Alabama. Were historians to write falsely of such times, such memoirs would soon set things right. And because such memoirs continue to be written, historians dare not trifle with the broader truths of American history.
• That such memoirs depict uniquely personal experiences of the broader scope of Southern history means no one will be able to relate completely to stories such as Sylvia’s. But those of us who read this memoir and who have grown up in or around such circumstances will be able to recognize threads of Sylvia’s story common to our own. Such writing, then, allows us to transcend the harshness our own families might have lived and to grasp the broader strengths of the human condition.
How has Sylvia accomplished this? She writes here, as with most memoirs of this kind, in a voice very nearly that of a Southern elder relating oral history to children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It’s a casual, conversational voice that wanders in and out of tales, repeats itself occasionally for emphasis, and views her history from the distance of both age and elapsed time. This is the stuff of lore, of family and cultural wisdom, now reduced to the page instead of being told under a cooling oak tree or before a winter fire.
Still, she manages to turn a fine phrase here and there, phrases elevated above mere conversation. For instance, while speaking of the South’s ever-present cotton plants in our turn-of-the-century Southland, she writes:
“They drooped with open, needle-tipped bolls…filled with marshmallow-white fluff…Crimson spots on the snowy cotton sometimes marked where the boll tips had pricked our fingers.”
Other gems:”
…memories, like persimmons, grow sweeter with the frost of years.”
while relating something she’d done and wasn’t proud of, she wrote, “It had lain like a rock on my conscience for so long…”
My favorite vignette? An episode in which Sylvia had received a pretty pink dress for Easter. She was so proud on the dress that she didn’t wait until Easter to wear it in public. She wore it to school the next day, only to discover it had been a cast-off of one of the school’s well-off girls. As the girls made fun and snickered, Sylvia replied: “Frannie! Missy just told me that this was your dress. Thank you so much for giving it to me. I promise to take good care of it.”
This, then, is the best of the poor Southern story in a nutshell. Instead of succumbing to hate and shame, Sylvia found a way to show pride in her new dress and to forge a connection with the girl who had previously owned it.
What could she have done differently in this memoir? I would've loved to have read scenes and dialogue more sharply drawn, more detailed depictions of place, especially of Mamaw and Papaw’s home, to which the Maners continually returned. Having depicted these aspects in sharper focus would've afforded the reader a more vivid view of Sylvia’s early life experience.
Titles are always problematic for me, and while hers implies much about the poor Southern experience, I would've also toyed with words near the end of her “Clay Pigs Can’t Squeal” chapter, possibly considering Wandering In The Wilderness as an alternative.
There’s much more in Sylvia’s deceptively simple story that I haven’t alluded to. It would be well worth the time spent with this brief read to find pieces of your own story in hers.

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The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink (A Reprise)

When read this book and blogged on it recently, my obsession was with Germans and their literature coming to terms with the book’s overarching subject – Nazism. Since then, I’ve learned more about that literary thread, and have come across a new (to me) term: German Expressionism.
This sub-genre of German lit pre-dated Hitler and the wickedness he drew from the German psyche. In fact, it goes back to Kafka, perhaps farther. Essentially, it means that we (people, not merely readers) tend to become outwardly what we are in an inner sense. In perhaps simpler terms, this means that we approach the outer world subjectively – particularly though our unique fears – thus manifesting situations in our lives that allow our fears food and breath.
Had I known this when I read The Reader, I would have understood more about Hanna, the woman first-person narrator Michael read to and had an affair with. And I’d have had a better understanding of Schlink’s intent. If you faithful readers remember, Hanna was put on trial for war crimes because of her stint as a guard at Auschwitz.
Michael, who watched the proceedings, became appalled as Hanna’s confessed to crimes she could hardly have committed. And so did this reader.
Hanna’s secret, I’m sure you know by now, was that she had never learned to read. She managed in life, but she surely thought she’d always lived a lie. If the main tenet of German Expressionism depicted above does hold psychological water, she, like Kafka’s Gregor in his Metamorphosis, became troubled enough by her “secret” that she felt compelled to lance that seeming boil in an external way. And she knew full well that she’d be executed for her “crimes."
Maybe Schlink went to extremes to have Hanna feel compelled to death in this way, but no more so than many characters in German literature, including Kafka’s. Perhaps the only real contribution that Nazism made to the world was in creating situations during his regime that would cause such fear-based seeds of shame to bear inordinate fruit in Germany. Perhaps unwittingly, he added to German literature's Expressionistic demons sufficiently to allow citizens of later generations to stomp such fears into the dust, much as Hitler’s Wehrmacht ground Europe under the tracks of its tanks.

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