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I’ve written before on Jonathan Franzen. I didn’t care for The Corrections, which we read in my narrative writing class in advance of his appearance at Vassar (circa the Oprah controversy), a reading he did as a favor to his friend, a professor at the school. I was appalled by his performance, for which he was awkward, ill-prepared and clearly contemptuous. We all were, to the point where, in order to reestablish a productive learning environment, we were banned from mentioning Franzen in class. Privately, though, I stewed for years.

But, here’s the thing. I still loved Freedom.

Why? Because a writer and a writer’s work are separate. The work has its own life and should be taken on its own merits. Read the rest of this entry »

Is it wrong to post a paragraph from someone’s essay for no real reason other than to share it? I’m not sure. This passage in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Colorado” chapter in State by State is so killer, though, that I’m going to risk it. I’ve had it in my head since reading it about two weeks ago. Maybe by putting it down here, I’ll get over it and feel like it’s okay to write something of my own even though it will be less lovely. Or maybe I’m just copying it to know what it feels like to type these words!

…”in the pure light like a bright, immaculate wound.” I don’t know why this language of hurt should attach to alpine Colorado, or why, in the best-known version of the traditional song, the man of constant sorrow (“I seen trouble all my days”) should be bound for Colorado (“where I was born and partly raised”). Unless I do know why: The pure light and gin-clear air can’t be matched by your life. They will only put a hurt look into your eyes, whether you stay or go.

I read this line–“The pure light and gin-clear air can’t be matched by your life”–about fifteen times before I was sure I understood. Now that I do, I think I would be too scared to ever venture west to Colorado.

I swoon when I read Elizabeth Bishop. She’s got perfect timing. I can’t dissect her writing at all. I have no idea how she makes it so effortless, funny, punchy. This essay, a memoir piece about a little trip through remote Brazil, had me exclaiming to myself on the beach today. In particular, this paragraph:

The store had been raided, sacked. Oh, that was its normal state. It was quite large, no color inside or cloud-color perhaps, with holes in the floor, holes in the walls, holes in the roof. A barrel of kerosense stood in a dark stain. There were a coil of blue cotton rope, a few mattock heads, and a bundle of yellow-white handles, fresh cut from hard ipe wood. Lined up on the shelves were many, many bottles of cachaca, all alike: Esperanca, Hope, Hope, Hope. There was a counter where you could drink, if you wanted. A bunch of red-striped lamp wicks hung beside a bunch of rusty frying pans. A glass case offered brown coffees leaking through their papers, and old, old old, sweet buns. Some very large ants were making hay there while the sun shone. Our eyes negotiated the advertisements for Orange Crush and Guarana on the cloud-colored walls, and we had seen everything. That was all.

Weren’t you there? I was there. Surprised by the Orange Crush, but oh, swooning, swooning, swooning.