Friday, March 20, 2009

DAY SIX: Victoria Zackheim

We’re coming to the end of this guest stint and there’s so much more to discuss! What I’d like to do today and tomorrow is introduce you to my first two anthologies and some of the essays from them. I’m always torn, worried that it’s too self-promoting, but I want to give you examples of what I consider to be excellent personal essay writing…and what better place to find them!

Let’s start with the first anthology, The Other Woman: 21 Wives, Lovers, And Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, And Betrayal. I’ve already posted about some of the excitement around this book and I have to admit that, nearly two years after its publication, I still feel the thrill of those first months…and the year that followed. In addition to two appearances on The Today Show and several local and regional talk shows, plus radio programs all over the country, we had wonderful readings in bookstores on both coasts. (The Kepler’s crowd was enormous…I think there were seven contributors at that reading!) Also, I took five of the essays from east-coast contributors and wove them together into a one-act play, which was presented at The Player’s Club theater in Manhattan. (The Today Show in the morning and the theater production that night made it one of the most memorable days of my life.) Not long after, I took essays from west-coast contributors and repeated the process at a theater in San Francisco. On the stage were Jane Smiley, Ellen Sussman, Sherry Glaser, Aviva Layton, and actress Liz Mamorsky reading for Binnie Kirshenbaum. You can imagine the thrill we all felt, turning words on a page into a fluid and dramatic stage production!

The exciting elements of an anthology are many, but there are two that stand out for me. First, the story itself. How does the author approach the “theme” of the book and associate it with a personal story? Second, what is the voice of the author? Let me give you an example of what I mean by voice. In Pam Houston’s essay, Not Istanbul, she begins:

Here’s the thing about the other woman. She lives inside your head. She may live on the next street or in the next town or half way across the world; she may be 5’2” or 5’9”; she may be rail thin (never skinny) or voluptuous (never fat). But however big or small she is, however much space she takes up in the world, will never compare to the amount of space she’ll take up in your brain. It is there that she will spread herself from wall to wall, eating gift-wrapped chocolates—so many gift-wrapped chocolates that she will ooze into every nook and cranny of your cerebrum, until you won’t be able to think of anything else. And if you let her take up residence there, no matter when you cut her off, no matter how hard you try to starve her, you may never, ever, get her out.

Houston manages to remain detached by using this second-person narrative technique. We don’t get emotionally involved…at least, not yet. Now, compare that to Aviva Layton’s essay, My Life As a Muse:

Looking back at that moment, I still don’t know where that feeling came from. Since he was over twenty years my senior, was I looking for a father figure? Someone who would rescue me from my own doubts and anxieties? Or maybe it was his physical presence—stocky body, mane of black hair, blazing blue eyes radiating a force-field of crackling energy. And the words! They spilled out of his mouth with such intensity. He dominated the room, his voice booming out snatched lines of poetry: Byron, Pope, Catullus, Cafavy. I was mesmerized.

Here’s she emotionally engaged, exposed, and sharing all of this with the reader. Now read the beginning of Jane Smiley’s essay, Iowa Was Never Like This, where she pulls us in with a little shock and lots of humor:

I could have paid better attention to the signs. For example, I could have noticed that, both the first time around and the second time around, my husband Steve wooed me by detailing his exploits with other women, then flattering me by comparison—of all these women (dozens! hundreds!), I was the ultimate. Nevertheless, when he told me there was another woman, and that she was our dental hygienist, I at first didn’t believe him, because not two weeks before telling me, he had remarked, with a straight face, that, should I ever find myself in a vegetative state, he would keep me, and even cherish me, in the living room of our house, so that he could personally fulfill my every unconscious need

And that’s what I love about anthologies…all those wonderful voices reflecting such different perspectives and emotions.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss For Keeps: Women Tell The Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, And Acceptance.

Now, here are more recommended books…enjoy!
I’ve been hearing exciting things about Nancy Agabian’s Me as Her Again: True Stories Of An Armenian Daughter, named this week as a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Nonfiction. Kepler’s says: In this memoir, Nancy Agabian tells stories of growing pains, family tensions, and buried pasts.

Joyce Maynard has a novel coming out at the end of July titled Labor Day, published by William Morrow. It’s the story of a single mother, raising her son in a small town, and the strange and lonely man who comes into their lives on a Labor Day weekend and changes them forever. Maynard is one of those rare authors who can cross from fiction to non-fiction with ease, evident in her previous books, which include To Die For, At Home in the World, and Internal Combustion.

Dara Horn’s third novel is coming out in two weeks. ALL Other Nights (W.W. Norton) is about Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union army. On Passover, 1862, he is ordered to murder his own uncle, who is plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. His next order is not to murder a spy but to marry one. A story of insight that questions who comes first, family or country.

M.J. Rose’s new novel, The Memorist (Mira Books) was name People Magazine Book of the Week and called “first-rate fiction" by the Washington Post. It’s the story of a woman paralyzed by her past, a man robbed of his future, and a centuries-old secret. As Rose writes on her website, “The dreads are back.”

Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (W.W. Norton) is a narrative history following a group of influential businessmen who fought to roll back the New Deal in the 1930s. In these economy-imploding times, it’s particularly relevant.

There’s one more author I’d like to highlight. Canadian David Layton is a brilliant young author whose work hasn’t been touted in the States. But it will…so keep your eyes open. (And yes, he’s related to Aviva, who’s quoted above…it’s her son!) His first book was a memoir, Motion Sickness. This will take you to an interview with David about the book. He followed this with a novel, The Bird Factory. If you can find his books, I suggest you read them. His reviews are superb and he’s a literary force on the move.

See you all tomorrow…and thanks again for reading and commenting!

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