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    Entries in - Criticism (32)


    A review of 'Public Apology,' by Dave Bry

    BOOKFORUM - 13 MARCH 2013

    Dave Bry is sorry. For several years, mostly for the New York website The Awl, he's reached back into a sordid, New Jersey/New York past, unearthing misdeeds big and small. If you imagined each of these stories as a moral sustenance, Bry has for years now been serving up dark and funny snacks. Assembled rather expertly for his book Public Apology, they now qualify as something more satisfying, like a turkey dinner on how (not) to live.

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    Getting Out of the Picture: On Being Nick Flynn, a Review of 'The Enactments'


    A SINGLE MOTHER in Massachusetts reads through her son’s notebook and shoots herself. Still grieving, the son ends up working in a Boston homeless shelter, where one day his alcoholic father seeks refuge. The father is a bad drunk, as many are, and after a while the clinic votes to bar his reentry. The father spends his first night on the streets, sleeping on exhaust vents behind a library. During the vote that sent him outside, the son either does or does not raise his hand. Then the son writes an entire book about his mom’s suicide and the booze and the homeless shelter and that vote. The writer later stands onstage with the likes of James Frey, and this man, Nick Flynn, makes Frey’s semi-real book about semi-real addiction pretty much disintegrate into oblivion by comparison. Flynn leaves Boston and marries and has a daughter, and his father eventually makes it into a subsidized apartment and then to a hospice and then gets to meet Robert De Niro, who will be playing him in a movie about his son’s book. It’s all Nick Flynn’s doing and the result is Flynn’s third memoir, The Reenactments, a poetic and probing diary of writing, memory, and filmmaking.

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    Take It From a Soldier: On Kevin Powers's "Yellow Birds" 


    FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, we've been sending soldiers over there, and when they come back we say thanks, but we don't really talk about what they did. We call them heroes, but what do we call them when they kill each other on the base, or beat their wives, or clock one of us, maybe, in the parking lot of the Home Depot? Which words do we offer then? We know this violence is some kind of residue, left over from the work we asked them to do. We don’t excuse their crimes, yet we feel responsible and perhaps ashamed, so we say little, or nothing. All the violence we asked them to do is hanging there, and none of us has a clear idea how to apportion blame, or even how to discuss it. What has this silence done to us? These questions drive the work of a few good writers, such as novelist Benjamin Percy, in his stand-out short story from the 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh, and more formidably and more recently, Kevin Powers, in his novel Yellow Birds. A former U.S. soldier, Powers announces his candidacy as the generation's premiere war writer with a cerebral and searching knockout of a debut. Nominated for the National Book Award, and informed as it is by what Powers experienced first-hand, Yellow Birds is crushingly mature, real, and fragile.

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    I'm afraid of Virginia Woolf: On war movies, adolescence, and the 50th anniversary of Albee's masterpiece


    Last year, my oldest friend, Dave, was serving in the US military at a base in southern Iraq, where rockets rained down near his trailer, driving his roommate to hand-build a wall made from paving stones and water bottles around their bunk. My wife, meanwhile, had accepted a job in Baghdad, where projectiles took paths close to where she slept. In the meantime I made a home for us in Istanbul, the closest reasonable city, where I could raise our young daughter. The situation wasn’t ideal, but it’s the one we had. Alone for weeks at a time, I’d think about growing up in Florida with Dave, meeting my wife in Asia, moving to New York, then lighting out for more difficult terrain. I’d pour myself a stiff drink, wondering how we’d all gotten here: Was life at all what we may have imagined, or hoped for?

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    In praise of nightmares


    GROWING UP, MY SISTER and I spent Tuesday nights at an art studio across town. The air conditioner sputtered, and we learned how to draw a wine bottle, flowers, our hands. Was it my mother’s idea, or had we wanted to go? She can't remember, and neither can we. Soon my sister lost interest, preferring to volunteer at a veterinary clinic, but I stayed with it, graduating to pen and ink, watercolor, and then oil paint. Hard as I tried, however, what I did on the page never seemed to match up to the things I saw at night, when I'd stare at my curtains, and see, in the darkened folds, the outline of a face or a bird or a ship. I still remember that ache, the mounting feeling that tomorrow would be the day I'd put pen to paper and recreate those lines and curves, and the dread that again I wouldn’t.

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    Jonestown, Naipaul, and me


    The other day in Beirut, I took a meeting with a woman of Lebanese origin who was recruiting writers for a new journal. In an email, she said she liked the stuff I’d sent—at least enough to have coffee. 

    We sat in silence for a moment, sipping drinks at the outdoor cafe, when a street urchin approached our table. The boy, who appeared to be about 10, looked into my eyes and implored me in a murmuring voice for “money, money, money.” I glanced quickly at the boy, then at the woman, seeking her lead, not wanting to make the wrong move. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and made no eye contact with the boy or me. Confused and already regretful—it seemed like no good would come from any of this—I stared again into his eyes. Just then, he raised an arm and began to stroke my face with a dirty hand. I felt his skin on mine, and my heart beat fast. Here I was, in Beirut, seated at a table, a warm hand on my face. Then the lady began to yell, and the boy scrambled off. We sat again in silence. Where could we go from here?

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    Innocent and Abroad: Mark Twain and the Art of Travel Writing

    THE MILLIONS - 16 MARCH 2012

    Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”

    I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.

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    Who was Barry Hannah writing for?

    TRUE/SLANT - 3 MARCH 2010

    The conventional wisdom is that Barry Hannah, who died this week at the age of 67, is the kind of writer who had two kinds of readers. One: Those who just haven't read him yet. Two: As the estimable Wells Tower wrote in a profile before Hannah's death, those who get a "feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work."

    Sheepishly, I think I fall into a third category. I admire the taut, spring-loaded fury in Hannah's hearty, American stories. But even as I learned to agree with the idea that he's among the most important fiction writers of the last decades, I always brushed up against his mechanics, and sensed in his disciplined prose a kind of wrestling match with the words that didn't work for me. (I gravitate more toward another tortured, muscular southerner: Padgett Powell, who in my opinion wrote the best book of 2009.)

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    In Defense of Verlyn Klinkenborg


    For several years now, I have kept in my wallet a few paragraphs by my favorite New York Times writer, Rural Life columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg.

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    More countries for an old man

    THE REVIEW - 17 JANUARY 2009

    - A review of Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Penguin, 2008)

    It's now a world of travelers. So says Paul Theroux, who's logged the miles to know. Wandering and describing this increasingly accessible world for more than thirty years, the Massachusetts native has written fiction and nonfiction that, among many other feats, have taken us deep into Africa, by foot along nearly every mile of the English coast, and paddling among the Pacific's remotest islands. As more and more people travel -- and attempt to write about it -- perhaps no other scribbler, as he calls himself, has more convincingly shown he can touch down in an unfamiliar locale and make the reader care not only about the people and places encountered, but leave the experience knowing more about themselves, and how they might live better.

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    Shrink raps: Three books refract Sigmund Freud


    -Freud's Free Clinics, Elizabeth Ann Danto (Columbia, 2005)
    -Recollecting Freud, Isidor Sadger (Wisconsin)
    -Freud's Requiem, Matthew von Unwerth (Riverhead)

    Sigmund Freud's analytic couch implies a lush affair, an indulgence for the wealthy matron or nervous son of great inheritance. Over the past century, that handsome image has fueled more than a few dismissals of Freud, critical and informal. But thanks to a thorough new study, the charge that psychoanalysis was a luxury for the upper class deserves reappraisal.

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    The cruel wit of Evelyn Waugh 


    Charity requires that one forgive Waugh," argues Christopher Hitchens in "The Permanent Adolescent," his essay on the author in the May Atlantic, "precisely because it was his innate—as well as his adopted—vices that made him a king of comedy and of tragedy for almost three decades."

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