Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Recently, I wrote a guest review of The Long Goodbye for the website Booksellers Without Borders. I was pleased with my submission, yet looking back on my introduction to the piece, I found myself incredibly harsh with my critiques of the memoir industry. Granted, I was careful to specify that my arguments were directed at certain memoir sub-genres, and certainly not the entire category. Meghan O'Rourke definitely amazed me with her work, and I recently finished Italo Calvino's Hermit In Paris: Autobiographical Writings. With Calvino's work, even more potential disclaimers arose, at least initially. I've been an admirer of his fiction for many years, so it's (personally) odd that I haven't read his non-fiction writings beyond Six Memos For the Next Millennium. While this is an older collection, a lot of regarded writers have had their personal writings published, sometimes posthumously, with those volumes sometimes seeming like no more than collectible items for completists, rather than worthy additions to a given canon.
However, I was grateful to find that none of those initial worries ended up applying to Hermit In Paris. It's a collection of autobiographical sketches from magazines, translated/transcribed interviews, and the occasional insight into his writing process and political leanings. The majority of the pages are devoted to his then-unpublished "American Diary 1959-1960," an illuminating, vastly entertaining account of his first American visit. In Six Memos, Calvino shared his views on the few qualities of fiction that have multiple impacts. As I've mentioned previously, his enthusiasm for the subject permeated that text, creating a work that was a combination of the technical and the joyous. In Hermit In Paris, Calvino's non-fiction style goes in a different direction. While there's no doubt that he feels passionately about his work and life, most of the topics are explored in a very matter-of-fact tone. For someone noted for grand, fabulist novels and stories, it's interesting to note how his takes on reality are equally as grounded. At the same time, the wealth of information and detail are gripping, with no need for stylistic embellishments.
"American Diary 1959-1960" is the heart of the collection, but not for the obvious reasons. His entries provide sketches of mid-twentieth century America that seem to fit the understood mental images that people have of that era, even if he or she didn't live through it. However, being an Italian visitor, his descriptions are intended to be neutral, even with his accounts focusing on the positive and the negative. He's looking at the country through new eyes. Some of the scenes and writings apply perfectly to today's American landscape, but having them exposed back then was probably jarring.
"In the land of consumption where everything must be thrown away so you can rush and buy new goods, in the land of standardized production, one learns, surprisingly, that there is a whole underworld market of goods which no one would ever imagine could be bought or sold in America. There are huge stores of second-rate goods, as in the Italian area of Chicago, which are the same as the stores downtown except that the goods are rejects which exude an air of poverty even when they are new (Calvino 71)."
I'm not trying to fit his older passages to modern times, but really, his accounts of some Texas citizens could nicely apply to the likes of Rick Perry and his supporters:
"What comes over is an impression of a country in uniform, these middle-class families marching in formation all wearing stetsons and fringed jackets, proudly displaying their practicality and anti-intellectualism which has developed into their mythology, fanaticism, and alarming belligerence (Calvino 105)."
Arguably the most famous and stirring accounts in the American diaries are Calvino's travels to Montgomery, Alabama. He witnessed the most savage examples of American racism, and depicted it honestly. Some of the most shameful acts in American history are written about without moralizing or grandiose images. These accounts and images are painfully well-known, but coming from the voice of an outsider who's witnessing it firsthand makes the racism, segregation, and violence even more shocking.
"This is a day that I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of a society's fundamental rules. I was present at one of the first episodes of mass struggle by the Southern blacks: and it ended in defeat. I don't know if you are aware that after decades of total immobility black protests began right here, in the worst segregationist State in the country: some were even successful, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, advocate of non-violent protest. That is why I came here to Montgomery, the day before yesterday, but I did not expect to find myself right in the middle of these crucial days of struggle (Calvino 111)."
"This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism which survives intact after a century, as though they were talking of things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous (Calvino 116)."
In terms of this essay, it's difficult to make such a vast transition from Calvino's sobering accounts of the segregated South to his more personal writings, but his detailed autobiographical chapters are insightful. Some of the information is repeated multiple times (his youth, his parents' occupations, his growth as a writer), since some of the pieces are interviews, but for the most part, every piece provides a wonderful look at his views. His travels, embrace and rejection of Communism, and fighting in the Italian Resistance are detailed honestly, but some of his best quotations come in abstract forms. In "Political Autobiography Of a Young Man," he states his views on literature in a global community, hypotheses that, again, apply to our modern times without being an act of "picking and choosing" statements that just happen to apply to the twenty-first century; instead, these are the views of a keen mind in an expanding world.
"I would like to point out here at least two things which I have believed in throughout my career and continue to believe in. One is the passion for a global culture, and the rejection of the lack of contact caused through excessive specialization; I want to keep alive an image of culture as a unified whole, which is composed of every aspect of what we know and do, and in which the various discourses of every area of research and production become part of that general discourse which is the history of humanity, which we must manage to seize and develop ultimately in a human direction. (And literature should of course be in the middle of these different languages and keep alive the communication between them.)(Calvino 155)"
Calvino is also very candid about his own work, much along the same lines as his views on future literature in Six Memos. Many authors, past and present, seem to take no middle ground in discussing their own works: they have a tendency to be overtly dismissive of how their literature works, or they can be unnecessarily overwrought. Calvino seems to know that his canon has its ups and downs, and regards his critics openly, rather than spitefully.
"The few critics who have been unfavourable are those who intrigue me most, the ones from whom I expect more: however, I have not been lucky enough to have received a negative critique which is both serious and in-depth, one which teaches me useful things. I did receive an article by Enzo Giachino, when The Path to the Spiders' Nests came out, a total, absolute dismissal of the book, a real hatchet-job, but also extremely witty, which is perhaps one of the best articles written about my books, one of the few which every so often I like to reread, but not even that taught me anything really: it attacked only external aspects of the novel, which I could have improved by myself (Calvino 8-9)."
And even in the most metaphysical atmospheres, he manages to make a description of his writing honest and true:
"My desk is a bit like an island: it could just as well be in some other country as here. And besides, cities are turning into one single city, a single endless city where the differences which once characterized each of them are disappearing. This idea, which runs through my book Invisible Cities, came to me from the way that many of us now live: we continually move from one airport to another, to enjoy a life that is almost identical no matter what city you find yourself in (Calvino 168-169)."
Hermit In Paris is one of the rare essay collections that works on its own, being accessible to someone unfamiliar with Italo Calvino's fiction. But then again, non-fiction and fiction collections seem to go hand in hand for fans of a given writer (for example: would someone who has not read John Cheever's fiction be inclined to pick up The Journals of John Cheever? That's unlikely). The essays provide their own merit, and are not just a random assemblage of posthumous writings. These are excellent examples of an intellectual mind that navigates fiction and sociology with ease. Given that idea, doing a concrete "review" of Hermit In Paris is almost impossible; one is either going to agree or disagree with his opinions. I would assume that most Calvino readers have already read this work, but also, for anyone curious who consumes political and personal essays, its admirable to have a book that manages to stand on its own merit, rather than being an add-on to a diverse bibliography.
Calvino, Italo. Hermit In Paris: Autobiographical Writings. Copyright 2003 by the Estate of Italo Calvino. Translation copyright 2003 by Jonathan Cape.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Since beginning my work with Instafiction, an obvious realization has been affirmed: the world of literary journals, both domestic and international, is its own version of Jorge Luis Borges' Library Of Babel (it was no accident that Jeremy selected this story as the introductory piece for the website). When we began the project, I quickly found some excellent stories featured online, and my already great enthusiasm multiplied. Just as quickly, I ran into several walls. Publications, both esteemed and obscure, tend to feature 'archive' tabs, yet many of those links take the reader to a list of the previous issues, with no previews or true archives. Jeremy and I have exchanged dozens and dozens of e-mails as we've continued with Instafiction, and some of the most passionate exchanges of ideas centered on the lack of online availability. Jeremy toyed with the idea of writing a "rant/manifesto," and I also felt strongly enough to make my own opinions heard, and that's what this essay is about. In my research of the past few years, most critiques of literary magazines come in the form of dissatisfied writers who are tired of rejection letters. At worst, these are just snippy arguments, but at best, said anger has led people to create their own journals or websites. I love the world of short stories and publications; the last thing I want readers to think is that I'm raving. I also don't want to shoot myself in the foot: the openness of a lot of publications is one of the reasons Instafiction exists in the first place. Therefore, I want this to be a plea, with the critiques coming in the form of tough love.
Economically, if an organization maintains both a website and an actual print publication, the editors and publishers need subscriptions to survive, not to mention the noble goal of trying to provide writers with rewards for their efforts, rewards above "publication and a free year of issues." The question is: outside of immediate friends, families, and supporters, how do these publications get subscriptions? With the demise of bookstores, the viable market of impulse buyers is dwindling. As a bookseller, I was one of those customers: my bookshelves have more than a few literary magazines purchased on a whim. Granted, it's not financially feasible for most people to subscribe to multiple journals. However, having issues available for public browsing has certainly led to a select percentage of purchases. In today's world, publications have done their best to strike a balance between physical and digital copies. If more and more of these reputable outlets are going to be strictly digital, or see the majority of their work consumed online, it is seemingly obvious that making a portion of the work available for free would help expand readership.
Yes, there's still a problem of media consumers wanting everything for free, which doesn't help in an economic sense. This isn't a new problem. In the 1930s, baseball teams didn't want to air radio broadcasts, fearing that making their product available for free would mean that fans would stop coming to the actual games. It took time for owners to realize that expanded exposure would lead to greater audiences. Some critics feel that all information and creativity should be free, since it has the potential to be re-worked and manipulated for even more examples of creative outputs. My plea is not to have all publications revert to complete, free archives....however, I have come across several that have done so, and most of us wouldn't complain if this was the case across the board. Personally, I'm all about the happy medium, and I feel that most niche publications would benefit from at least some free material. Of course, it all depends on the quality of the stories, poems, and essays. The majority of the websites I've browsed have at least some redeeming quality. More availability would lead to more website hits, and potentially more income than relying on a small circle of subscribers.
I wish I could take credit for the following argument, but this is Jeremy's idea: with a lot of literary magazines offering the sale of back issues without archival samples, some are making logical mistakes. With rare exceptions, who is going to buy an old back issues sight unseen? Good, revered publications have their share of collectors and completists. For the random web browsers who stumble upon a given site, wouldn't the odds of a purchase increase with more comprehensive samples? Again, it's up to a given organization to make that decision. But returning to the baseball example, offering more can do more good than offering nothing. The New Yorker, for example, can get away with limited free material. For a fledgling literary magazine, virtual closed doors can be harmful.
Am I being selfish? Yes, actually. With Instafiction, I've seen too many promising literary magazines with no archives, and therefore no way for us to promote what could be an area worthy of more attention. Jeremy and I have had decent success in reaching out to publishers and writers, accommodating folks who are more than willing to help by creating web pages or navigation tools to make a story available in a web-friendly format. Our "selfishness" is actually a desire to promote. We're behind the scenes, and our goal is to feature terrific fiction, as well as give exposure to writers beyond the usual Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. While asking for requests for available material has been fruitful, sometimes time is limited. If stories were available and worthy, they'd be featured. But with no way to know, sometimes it makes more sense to simply move on to other sources.
At the risk of sounding sappy, I very nearly titled this piece "A (Tough) Love Letter to Literary Magazines and Journals." But really, this is true. From publishers down to readers, the majority of these small writing markets are not created and consumed for money, but for the passionate base of readers and writers who want to see quality work out in the world. Our work with Instafiction aside, it's a joy to be able to stumble upon a particularly creative website or piece of fiction, especially not knowing it existed ten minutes before finding it. Even if audiences remain small but dedicated, the potential to reach out to more people should be one of the guiding forces behind literary magazines. Again, the desire to produce income based on the sales of current and back issues is understandable. However, stories and poems aren't sold like groceries or lawn equipment. So I humbly urge these publications to open their doors, give their writers the exposure they deserve, and in time, hopefully create an open atmosphere of creativity and reading for everyone involved. I've also seen too many story websites that haven't been updated in years, probably due to folding and not being able to continue as a source of writing. I sincerely hope that the smallest of markets continue to succeed, and exposure/availability can only help, not hurt.
(NOTE: The photos I've taken and used in this piece are strictly for illustrative purposes. I'm in no way directing any of my above opinions toward the publications featured in the photographs.)
Saturday, August 13, 2011
While researching previous essays on Paul Auster, I was reminded of the criticisms he receives. My review of Moon Palace highlights some of the major ones, namely his lack of dynamic female protagonists and his tendency to repeat common themes throughout his fiction. However, since I've read only one of his novels so far, the majority of these critiques are taken from secondary readings. Rare is the writer who lacks personal or creative faults, especially when various writings are open to vastly different opinions. Then again, I'm personally able to take the bad with the good with some of my favorites. I've written many pieces that stress my admiration for the style and philosophy of Jonathan Franzen, yet I've disagreed with more than a handful of his statements. Getting back to Auster, I was perplexed to re-read the words of literary critic James Wood, who likened Auster supporters to dutiful stamp collectors, and in a roundabout way expressed dismissal over Auster's prolific output. The man has written many books. Recently, I was browsing his collection at Chicago's Harold Washington Library, and I scanned titles that I hadn't recalled seeing before. The pros and cons of a vast bibliography seem like new arguments, but ones lobbed at only a select few writers. One could make the case that, for example's sake, Don DeLillo works in similar fashions, with seemingly annual works that occasionally blend themes and settings. Since I have a long way to go in reading the rest of Auster's works, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of his Collected Poems. I'm an ardent fan of his nonfiction, and more readings of his novels will come in the future. By reading his poetry, I was able to introduce myself to his writings in a different format, and in the process discover new traits (as well as sketches of his older ones).
The selections in Collected Poems span the 1970s, and also include some of Auster's French translations from the late 1960s. Given the fact that these are the works of a young poet (as Norman Finkelstein writes in his introduction, Auster's later poetry was the precursor to his fiction), especially when written in a time of social upheaval, one wouldn't be faulted for assuming that the works would be biting. He does bring the occasional outline of (then) contemporary culture, but the majority of the poems are striking in their combination of thematic simplicity, expanded into complex poetic atmospheres. Subjects and metaphors that can easily be overwrought are presented in sometimes minimal context, hitting their marks and moving on before they have the chance to be redundant or weighed down. The human senses are prevalent, and one of the best examples is the third poem from the collection "Unearth:"
"The blind way is etched
in your palm: it leads to the voice
you had bartered, and will bleed, once again
on the prongs of this sleep-hewn
braille. A breath
scales the wick of my stammering,
and lights the air that will never
recant. Your body is your own
measured burden. And walks with the weight
of fire (Auster 39)."
In a strictly basic sense, I found myself continually reminded of Moon Palace, in that the poems jump back and forth between urban and rural atmospheres, even if the settings are only passing hints. The reader is transported to literally timeless scenes, and sometimes the balance between a poem and its title can hint to both the urban and rural conditions. The easy "answer" is that perception is the same, no matter where one comes from; it's what we perceive that changes, not the actual act. To make more sense of this, the poem "Northern Lights" helps. There is no hint of any outside influence beyond natural phenomenon, therefore making the poem a wonderful moment that could be experienced anywhere.
"These are the words
that do not survive the world. And to speak them
is to vanish
into the world. Unapproachable
that heaves above the earth, kindling
the brief miracle
of the open eye--
and the day that will spread
like a fire of leaves
through the first chill wind
consuming the world
in the plain speech
of desire (Auster 125)."
Granted, fiction and poetry, and essays are their own forms. Even with his general lack of well-rounded female characters, Auster has a place as one of the strongest writers of masculinity and male creativity. With this in mind, his poetry is amazingly neutral, and goes back to my aforementioned hypothesis of creating emotions that fit into multiple categories. The strongest theme in his poems is communication, or lack thereof. Voices are stifled, intention is lost, and communication in all of its forms is highlighted in both complexity and the ability to be limited. The emotional looks at love and communication are left open to be potentially uttered by male or female speakers. Given his background and knowledge of the French language, some of the stronger imagery could be broken down as masculine or feminine words, if they were translated into French. But for the most part, disaffection and the struggle to voice feelings are sociological as a whole, and not meant to give one gender more illumination than the other. Finding the best poetic representation of communication in his work is daunting, but some are excellent introductory examples, like "Choral." Also, this is a good example of how Auster continually leaves explicit communication at the end of a poem, making the reader go back to make sense of how it fits into the whole.
"Whinnied by flint,
in the dream-gait that cantered you across
of earth that inches up
to us again, shattered
by the shrill, fife-sharp tone
that jousts you open, million-fold,
in your utmost
you dip your finger into the wound
from which my voice
escapes (Auster 70)."
The collection closes with "Notes From a Composition Book (1967)," a collection of thirteen brief passages in which Auster attempts to make sense of the world and language, and, given the date, to potentially provide potential themes of his future works. Of course, these are not set in stone, and given their brevity, it would be far too easy to pick and choose the most adaptable passages. However, the passages are universal to creativity, and not just Mr. Auster's. Mission statements, hypotheses, representations, and conflicting styles are always present in contemporary writing. Writers and critics champion some forms while disparaging others, and vice-versa. Auster is no stranger to being disparaged, yet the breadth of his work and styles manages to illuminate many themes, or at the very least, open various topics to discussion. His tenth note (cited below) manages to convey this, and as a whole, is hard to argue, since it neatly simplifies the act of writing while still leaving it open to its vast potential. I found a lot of good in his poetry, and while there is still much that I haven't read, I'm happy that these early pieces go beyond what I'm familiar with in his canon.
"The eye sees the world in flux. The word is an attempt to arrest the flow, to stabilize it. And yet we persist in trying to translate experience into language. Hence poetry, hence the utterances of daily life. This is the faith that prevents universal despair--an also causes it (Auster 204)."
Auster, Paul. Collected Poems. Copyright 2004 by Paul Auster.
Monday, August 1, 2011
Last year, I was highly satisfied with a reading of 1999's The Intuitionist, my first introduction to the work of Colson Whitehead. His fantastical account of warring elevator inspectors was a metaphorical exploration of American race relationships, bureaucratic hypocrisy, and gender identifications, all packaged into a compelling mystery novel. Since then, I've read quite a bit of his excellent book reviews and essays, as well as following his Twitter feed (@colsonwhitehead), which happens to be one of the most entertaining ones I've encountered, a good combination of poetic riffs and genuinely insightful commentaries. Recently, I made time to read his second novel, John Henry Days, thereby continuing my accidental trend of reading his novels chronologically. Published in 2001, the novel is a sort of combination of the above traits. It's a mix of contemporary and older American landscapes and values, along with more explicit looks at racial identity, this time with the metaphorical aspects being more sly. Also, like Whitehead's nonfiction writings, it's another careful balance of the serious and the comical.
In Talcott, West Virginia, various people begin to assemble for the first annual John Henry Days Festival, a celebration of the mythical folk hero and an official unveiling of a U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorating American folklore. Among the people are: J. Sutter, a black journalist from Manhattan who is covering the event for a travel website, as well as trying to set a press junket attendance record; J.'s fellow journalists writing for other publications; Pamela, a chain-smoking young woman who inherited a massive collection of John Henry memorabilia from her father; a nebbish stamp collector named Alphonse Miggs; and a collection of P.R. representatives, local motel owners, and small town politicians. Alternating chapters provide an extensive fictionalized account of the John Henry story, as well as details about how the myth permeated American society through song, academia, becoming a story that takes on almost religious acceptance.
J. Sutter is a career journalist, navigating a world of banquets, release parties, and deadlines. He collects receipts to falsely inflate his expense accounts, wears free clothes accumulated at fashion junkets, and lives for free buffets and food spreads. The John Henry Days assignment isn't glamorous, but he views it as a job. However, he is slightly worried about being a black man in a small Southern town, and has a tendency to project his own stereotypes on the local people. One might be tempted to categorize J. as "disaffected," (this adjective appears on the paperback's plot description) but weary is probably more appropriate. He has seen everything in the world of journalism, and even the novelty of web-based writing is taken in stride. In describing J., Whitehead explores the character's personality, and also manages to be ahead of his time in depicting the internet as just another source of information.
"J. doesn't feel like explaining the web; this guy probably thinks a laptop is some new kind of banjo. Lucien set it up. J. hasn't worked for the web before but knew it was only a matter of time: new media is welfare for the middle class. A year ago the web didn't exist, and now J. has several hitherto unemployable acquaintances who were now picking up steady paychecks because of it. Fewer people are home in the afternoon eager to discuss what transpires on talk shows and cartoons and this means people are working. It was only a matter of time before those errant corporate dollars blew his way. He attracts that kind of weather (Whitehead 19)."
His interactions with the other members of the press are rendered effectively; they aren't friends or co-workers, but linked together through similar assignments. His meetings with Pamela follow an expected trajectory, from initial irritation to friendly acceptance to potential romantic feelings. Upon reflection, J. and Pamela, for all of the past and present details of their lives, are not written for the reader to gain a complete understanding of them. They develop nicely, but the novel leaves their future open-ended. However, Whitehead provides them with enough depth to be realistic. Pamela, for example, is not thrilled about being at the festival; she's merely hoping to rid herself of her father's John Henry collection, and more problems are boiling below her surface.
"Haunted by stuff. Hunched over ramen, in the same clothes she'd worn for days, she felt dazed. She was on the patch. She was off the patch. She was on the gum and smoking in between. She didn't go out that much, partly because she couldn't afford to, partly because going out did nothing for her mood. Her friends understood, her friends told her it was natural. It was part of the grieving process. Therapy diffuses: everyone knew the cant, the correct diagnosis. It was natural. It had nothing to do with her father, however, it had to do with John Henry, the original sheet music ballads, railroad hammers, spikes and bits, playbills from the Broadway production, statues of the man and speculative paintings (Whitehead 45)."
The beauty of John Henry Days lies in Whitehead's depictions of American history. He explores the world of songwriters and the prevalence of John Henry as a time-honored song subject. Pages are devoted to the plight of singer Paul Robeson, who played John Henry onstage. Yet the fictionalized stories of John Henry, while based on American mythology as opposed to the more factual histories of the song business and the story of Robeson, are the most striking and real. Internet research hints to the very real possibility of John Henry being based on an actual black steel driver; like much of contemporary mythology and legend, the truth has been obscured through time, conflicting accounts, and letting the story stand for its own morality and meanings. Whitehead takes these ideas and crafts them into a tale that draws on the humanity of John Henry, the troubles of being a black man in the 1800s, and thereby highlighting the story in ways that are not always apparent.
"John Henry turned to bed early that night. He had never been beaten by another man's hammer but pride is a sin. He took his rest. The payday carousing tried to keep him awake but he willed himself to sleep and dreamed of the contest as a fistfight between the white man and the black man over the fill of the western cut. The dead watched the contest from beneath the rock. He saw through their eyes staring up at himself as he crushed the face of the white man. He did not need his hammer for that (Whitehead 147)."
"If John Henry wanted he could have put faces to the voices but he did not try. He knew all the men. Some were friends. Some were enemies. It did not matter where they stood with him as their talk swirled into one talk about the contest. They laid bets on whether a man could beat a machine. All of their wagers on John Henry before this time were rehearsals for this day. One voice came to him saying it was impossible. Another voice said John Henry was no kind of man like you and me, but a demon and no machine was going to stop him (Whitehead 384)."
John Henry Days is not without its occasional misstep. Aside from J. the other journalists, while occasionally given strong dialogues and important later scenes, sometimes become grating and serve more as obvious personality types instead of true characters. The details of Alphonse Miggs, the seemingly henpecked stamp collector, are incredibly compelling, yet his true worth to the novel almost becomes an aside, rather than a rewarding payoff. However, for a second novel, Whitehead manages to expand on the themes and motifs that made The Intuitionist such a force. In addition to fictionalizing the real questions of race relations, Whitehead has a gift for his take on various settings. The Intuitionist was written in a city that could have easily been alive in the past or set in the future. In John Henry Days, race and settings, both contemporary and historical, are shown in a classic novel format. These books are excellent beginnings and foundations for Zone One, his forthcoming novel set during a zombie apocalypse. I've long disdained the cultural fascination with zombie stories, but if Whitehead can take well-discussed issues and render them unique, I'm sure my reaction to that work will be the same.
Whitehead, Colson. John Henry Days. Copyright 2001 by Colson Whitehead.
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