Monthly Archives: September 2010

Obama’s ‘Dreams from My Father’

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Three Rivers Press, 457 pages

I’ve written about Barack Obama a couple times on this blog. In “Narrative Nation” I explored the meta-meaning of his presidential campaign; in “Behind the Barn” I told how my wife’s family’s barn in northwestern Ohio became one of only about three “Obama Barns” in the entire state.

Now I’ve finally read Obama’s first book, his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and am impressed with him as a writer, not just as in “he’s a good writer,” but as in he’s a writer. Or was, before his political day jobs took him away. I feel like I know him much better, a man with gifts and burdens, someone who had to forge his own identity far more consciously than most people do. His exploration of this identity, half white and half black genetically—but only black in the white world’s eyes, especially when he moved to the American mainland for college—is central. And though I’d assumed he hadn’t faced prejudice while growing up in diverse Indonesia and Hawaii, I was wrong.

My favorite part is the first third in which he recreates his childhood and college years. The conflict here, his doubts, confusion, anger, is personal. His depiction of his white grandfather—ribald, whiskey drinking, garrulous—is just great, an earthy portrait, far from that of the sober Kansan I’d expected.

Confident as a boy—his mother, grandparents, and even his absent, charismatic father all believed in his destiny—Obama suffered a dissolute, cynical period in college. (He did every drug but heroin, where he drew the line, despite a buddy’s urgings.) He allowed the white world that had rejected him to co-opt the values he’d been raised with. He lost hope, rejected those values, and tried to become a bad ass. It took him time to regain his footing:

I rose from my couch and opened my front door, the pent-up smoke trailing me out of the room like a spirit. Up above, the moon had slipped out of sight, only its glow still visible along the rim of high clouds. The sky had begun to lighten; the air tasted of dew.

Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.

Except now I was hearing the same thing from black people I respected, people with more excuses for bitterness than I might ever claim for myself. Who told you that being honest was a white thing? they asked me. Who sold you this bill of goods, that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful or diligent of kind, or that morality had a color? You’ve lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself—about who you are and who you might become—have grown stunted and narrow and small.

I sat down on the doorstep and rubbed the knot on the back of my neck. How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear. The same fear that had caused me to push Coretta way back in grammar school. The same fear that had caused me to ridicule Tim in front of Marcus and Reggie. The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.

Obama tries to keep himself in the story in the next section, which depicts his years of political organizing in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the narrative turns less personal, slightly less vivid—the conflict is more societal—and more compelling in biographical and historical terms. His daily life, other than at work, isn’t clear. But his finally joining a church, the one whose erudite but angry pastor later would be used against him, was a significant and interesting thread and it climaxes this section. Finally he bends the narrative into a satisfying arc by bringing his story to Kenya, where he meets his father’s family, some of whom adore him and some of whom are touchy, easily slighted, offended by this handsome American’s long absence from Africa.

Obama’s election in law school as head of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American to hold that post, got him the memoir contract. Publishers saw the historic significance of his selection and gambled on him. This paid, obviously. Dreams from My Father appeared about the time he was elected to the senate.

Of course it’s impossible to read the book now except as a portrait of the politician as a young man. His story was worth telling, and he possessed the talent to tell it beautifully, but it was published (and probably in large part written) because Obama was marked for greatness in public life. He knew it—anyone with eyes to see knew it. This might seem to diminish the book slightly, qua memoir, but it’s also the truth that it was the story he owned, was his to tell.

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Filed under memoir, politics, REVIEW

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-classical, essay-collage, essay-concise, essay-expository, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, humor, immersion, journalism, memoir, research, REVIEW

Lucy Grealy’s ‘Autobiography of a Face’

“Part of the job of being human is to consistently underestimate our effect on other people . . .”—Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face, is an account of her childhood and young adulthood struggling with surgeries, treatments, and disfigurement from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer of the jaw. She conveys so well the aloneness of a sick child, at the mercy of hospital staff, and the effect of looking different from other people. Even when she wasn’t confined to a sick ward, she and her mother traveled into New York, day after day, for her chemotherapy or radiation.

“The streets in New York City are their own country. A knowledge of them gives one a sense of power. It makes no difference that for the most part New York is a giant grid, supremely traversable compared with such labyrinths as Paris or London. Its power heaves up from the pavement right in front of your eyes, steam escapes in fits and starts as if the whole place were going to blow any minute, people who have already blown apart lie in its crevasses, and all the while there is a thin promise, a slight wheedling tone, that something important, something drastic, is about to break.”

Grealy became wise in the ways of human weaknesses—cruelty, foibles, and pride. But she is searingly honest as well about herself, about her hubris and her unsympathetic insularity.

“I used to think that truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help. It tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else, only to leave our original faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent and haunt us.”

Grealy’s life spawned a second great memoir, novelist Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with Grealy that began when they were MFA students together and ended when Grealy, after long suffering and struggles with addiction, died of an overdose. I plan to reread Truth and Beauty, a sad, wise, beautifully told story, recently reissued in paperback.

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Filed under memoir, NOTED

Review: Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory’

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov. Knopf, 268 pages.

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”

Vladimir Nabokov follows this intriguing precept, which he announces in Speak, Memory, with vigor in the book, fondling the minute sensory and surface details of what he loved as a boy (especially butterflies, on which he became a renowned expert) while skimming over the particulars of major events, such as the exile from Russia of his liberal, reformist family. The memoir embodies the writer’s conviction that “this world is not as bad as it seems.”

Published first as a series of essays over many years in The New Yorker, and compiled as a book in 1947 after “more or less thorough rewriting,” in Nabokov’s phrase, Speak, Memory seems less cohesive than the great novelist’s fiction. (In the middle of it he begins to refer to “you,” and I realized he was addressing his wife, to whom the book is dedicated.)

Nabokov’s fine prose calls attention to the writer and exacerbates—or strengthens, if you please—the author’s choosing, in the memoiristic mix of scene, summary, and reflection, to lean heavily on the latter two and especially on reflection. The memoir’s downplaying of events, and the writer’s cool eye, distanced me emotionally from the story and its characters and, again, swiveled the spotlight back on the writer making baubles at his desk from his childhood memories. The book relies on your knowing about Nabokov. Often I found Speak, Memory tedious, especially the long genealogical histories (odd, given his philosophy), because they are poorly linked to his parents and himself, though surely they’re a gold mine for biographers. Better are his detailed portraits of his many tutors, whether admired or hated.

What I keep thinking about, not exactly fondling, more like worrying over, is Nabokov’s portrait, consisting of about four sentences in the book, of the unfortunate boy who was born less than a year after him. He never mentions his two sisters and youngest brother, but notes that the role of this number two kid, Sergei, was to watch him, the young genius named after his father, be coddled and favored. Nabokov admits to bullying Sergei, and I sensed that Nabokov dominated the entire family—or at least its offspring—as some smart, strong-willed firstborns can. Sergei grew into a hapless, passive young man, in Nabokov’s telling, who lingered too long in Berlin and the Nazis killed him. Nabokov bravely distills his own cruel, childish role in shaping this victim, but he doesn’t pretend to guilt he doesn’t feel. His own childhood was as happy as happy could be. He asks for not a whit of sympathy—quite the contrary—when his idyllic world is shattered, first when his wealthy parents lose everything, then when his beloved father is, by the way, assassinated.

The message in Speak, Memory is in the words themselves, in the nature of memory, and in the meaning given to life by aesthetic passions. The literary world instantly hailed the book as a masterpiece, though Nabokov never forgot his bruising encounter with the New Yorker’s copy desk over the years of its serialization. While grateful for the editors’ “minor improvements” to the grammar of this non-native writer, Nabokov skirmished to preserve his rhythms, allusions, dry jokes, and artifice. In places his writing ability astonished me. One example:

“Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. . . . Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself onto a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start.”

There’s so much going right there. What thrills me isn’t the easy alliteration that Nabokov loved—so do I: how that “lone light dimly diluted the darkness”—or the pleasing rhyme of “visible drizzle,” but his use of “uncouth” to describe the swan, which nails the malevolent stupidity that sets apart swans from their cousins, ducks and geese. Not to mention his noting its “ridiculous efforts,” followed by this perfection: the “slippery sound” of the bird’s wings against the wooden gunwales. That “wide ripple” and “gluey” “dark swell” are pretty darn good, too. He piled on adjectives, but they were the perfect adjectives.

Knopf’s “Everyman’s Library” edition of Speak, Memory is elegant but features a criminally tight, dense design; though I own it, I checked out an older, more readable version from the library. Knopf’s does include a never-before-published final chapter, Nabokov’s pseudo-review of the book. In it he explains his overlooking his siblings as stemming from “the powerful concentration on one’s own personality, the act of an artist’s indefatigable and invincible will.” Interestingly, similar to Updike in his great memoir Self-Consciousness, reviewed previously, Nabokov says he takes nonfiction’s pledge literally and seriously, which perhaps helps explain the book’s sparing dramatization:

“Obviously Nabokov’s method would lose all sense unless the material were as true an account of personal experience as memory could possibly make it. The selective apparatus pertains to art; but the parts selected belong to unadulterated life. Nabokov’s memory, especially in regard to the first twenty years of his life, is almost abnormally strong, and probably he had less difficulty than most memoirists would have had in following the plan he set himself: to stick to the truth through thick and thin and not be tempted to fill gaps with logical verisimilitudes posing as preciously preserved recollections. In one or two cases research may have proved that something was incorrectly remembered . . . ”

Nabokov says the “permanent importance” of Speak, Memory is as a “meeting point of an impersonal art form and a very personal life story” that traces certain “themes” from early life—including jigsaw puzzles, chess, colors, hikes, exile—into new realms and toward creative maturity. In other words, he aimed to write a sensory, artistic memoir, not a gassy autobiography; he succeeded, according to his own ruthless standards. If I found the result less charming than he intended, I admire and take instruction from the depth of this mandarin’s effort to honor and to link elemental experiences. It gives me more respect for my own.

Per his “review”:

“The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind. All thematic lines mentioned are gradually brought together, are seen to interweave or converge, in a subtle but natural form of contact which is as much a function of art, as it is a discoverable process in the evolution of a personal destiny. Thus, toward the end of the book, the theme of mimicry, of the ‘cryptic disguise’ studied by Nabokov in his entomological pursuits, comes to a punctual rendezvous with the ‘riddle’ theme, with the camouflaged solution of a chess problem, with the piecing together of a design on bits of broken pottery, and with a picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new country. To the same point of convergence other thematic lines arrive in haste . . .”

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Filed under aesthetics, honesty, memoir, REVIEW, theme

Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

“Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the ‘theme’ or ‘thesis,’ whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing—you just end up re-stating the obvious.”

“If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, love revision, love shaping sentences. You have to adore words and the endless possibilities of words in combination.  You have to know in your heart that even if no one ever read a word of what you have written, you would still do it, for yourself, because the process, the practice, is thrilling and inescapable.”

These quotes are from Dinty W. Moore’s interview with Writer’s Digest about his new book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. As befits the founder of Brevity, the interview is concise. But in it he touches on pretty much everything a writer needs to know. His personal practice is simple but obviously effective in getting the work done: he says he rises about six o’clock, “writes for a few hours,” and goes off to his day job.

AARP on line currently features his distilled tips for people who want to get started writing a memoir. Elsewhere on this blog are other Moore tidbits, including excerpts of a previous interview with him by Mary Richert and my review of his textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, revision, teaching, education, theme, working method

Review: ‘Saddest Music Ever Written’

The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” by Thomas Larson. Pegasus Books. 262 pages

It’s the soundtrack at the climax of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and was played in countless memorial services for the victims of 9/11. You may not know the title or its composer, but you know—everyone on this planet knows—the pensive, foreboding tune: those ever-rising violins as if a spirit is ascending, the delicate fade into sorrow beyond verbal expression, the feeling of tragic grandeur it evokes. Listen on YouTube if you can’t place it. The last time I looked, the BBC orchestra’s version, conducted by Leonard Slatkin only four days after 9/11, had about four million hits between its two posts.

This “slow, minor-key lament,” writes Thomas Larson , “evokes a deep sadness in those who hear it. . . . Over a near seventy-five year history, the piece has grown in value because of its aesthetic beauty and its pragmatic use. Like the English hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ the Adagio is an icon of American grief. . . . No sadder music has ever been written.”

Anyone who loves music realizes this work expresses no single thing, no one truth, and yet there’s no mistaking its honesty. What’s more, the work taps undiscovered feelings, feelings we may not know we have until the work unlocks them. If there’s one piece in the American classical canon that lends its voice to help us grieve losses of which we are conflicted or unaware—personal, national, universal—it’s Barber’s Adagio. . . . As you listen, you’ll go down to where the darkest emotions reside. . . .

It captures the sorrow and pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary, come alive—holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages. The Adagio is a sound shrine to music’s ability to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art. The snail-like tempo, the constrained melodic line, its rise and fall, the periodic rests, the harmonic repetition, the harmonic color, the uphill slog, the climactic moment of its peaked eruption—all are crafted together into one magnificent effect: listeners, weeping in anguish, bear the glory and gravity of their grief.

A prodigy from small-town Pennsylvania, Samuel Barber was summering in Austria in 1936 with his Italian lover when he created, at age twenty six, the Adagio. As he wrote the music that leaves us “tribally wrung out” he was probably the happiest he would ever be, observes Larson. Though Barber went on to win two Pulitzer prizes and to become wealthy from his operas and classical compositions, his middle age was plagued by depression and alcoholism.

The Saddest Music Ever Written, structured itself like a musical composition—Prelude, Part One, First Interlude, Part Two, Second Interlude, Part Three, Postlude—is intended as an “intimate history” and aspires to a resonance similar to Barber’s Adagio. The book is an intriguing hybrid narrative: an analysis and history of the composition; the story of Barber and his career; and Larson’s memoir of his own depressive family. The eras’ relevant cultural and social histories are interwoven into these strands.

This fusion of unusual content and thematic structure works, a postmodern approach that reflects the pervasiveness of memoir and the growing importance of personal narratives in our otherwise narratively fractured time. Memoir is one human voice speaking, giving its truth. We understand and appreciate that a person wrote the Adagio for Strings, that one of his listeners composed The Saddest Music Ever Written, that the personal restores relevance to history, that a writer’s interest is personal, and that artistic expression is always intensely personal and therefore so must the artist-writer-performer be.

In exploring his family’s history, especially that of his embittered father’s traumatic wartime service and frustrating career, and whom he imagines being touched by the Adagio, Larson depicts the generation that first heard Barber’s lament. (Many of them listened on radio over a long weekend in April 1945 to its first, spontaneous airings—a recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC symphony for its premier—after Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death near the war’s end.) Arguing for the Greatest Generation’s sadness from various losses, personal and historical, Larson burrows toward the truth of a universal human sorrow that explains the Adagio’s existence and its global reception.

You look forward to Larson’s memoir chapters. Just before you doubt their relevance, or lose the thread, he returns more directly to Barber or his music. And you realize that Larson’s deeply personal stories reflect how humans actually experience art and that they’ve deepened your understanding—of Barber, of the Adagio, and of something about sunny America’s unfathomable sadness, which strains toward expression in this classical masterpiece by a self-destructive genius.

The Saddest Music Ever Written will be read and studied by diverse audiences for years because the book’s underlying concept, its story, and its execution are impressive. Larson is also author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, reviewed earlier.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, REVIEW, structure