memoir

The Trip to Echo Spring; on writers and drinking by Olivia Laing

In Olivia Laing’s newest book, The Trip to Echo Spring, the writer chooses to investigate “why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She takes us through a trip that weaves between six writers of 20th century American literature and her own ghosts of growing up in a home where alcoholism played a strange and erratic part.

Laing has chosen literary lions F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver, whose drinking habits are as well-known as their canonical works. The book explores the many aspects of their lives, which seem to echo with each other. Their upbringings and domestic lives could easily be swapped and no one would know the immediate difference. At the beginning, Laing writes about her decision,

Most of this six — or saw themselves as having — that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy.

Along with investigating these six writers, Laing details a train journey she takes throughout the continental United States, leading her to the hometowns or adopted way stations of the writers. Her intent is to explore how these men experienced and thought about the disease and their relationship to alcohol.

Dealing with childhood experiences of growing up with an alcoholic in the household, it seems only natural that the author would find momentum in taking on such a hefty and well-documented theme: writers and alcohol…and especially American writers and alcohol.

The book begins quite elegantly with Laing outlining her plan and hopeful desires. Her words and sentences lull forward giving the reader a sense of untrustworthy calm when describing clearly troubling past memories. Like the authors she’s chosen, Olivia Laing’s own writing is so effected by alcohol, albeit, not her own disease. These clipped memories envelop the reader and a favorite moment is when Laing writes that she only recently began thinking about the past,

For years, I’d steered well clear of the period in which alcohol seeped its way into my childhood, beneath the doors and around the seams of windows, a slow, contaminating flood.

Unfortunately, she has chosen six authors that so many people are aware of, both of their writing and their lives. No new information was really presented. Although, I did find myself more engrossed with the portion about the poet John Berryman. I wondered if this was because I knew the least about him, or was it because his life was described somewhat differently? His troubles, at times, stuck out in the book, whether it be his drunken college instruction or his tendency to fall down all of the time. However, these are more anecdotes and the way alcohol effected his writing is similar to the other five.

As the book progresses, we regrettably move further away from Laing’s initial trip and closer to a regurgitation of well-known facts culled from biographies and diaries, although, still retaining the notion that alcoholism is rampant in the authors’ writings. Echo Spring was enjoyable to an extent. However, Laing’s beautiful writing that swam around the opening pages began to drop-off and the idea behind her train journey a baffling one beyond getting a publisher to pay for a trip to Key West. I liked her idea of travelling to these birth places and homes, but the reflection was lacking.

Questions circled around my mind as I read on. Was this book, perhaps, meant for an audience not familiar with 20th century American writers? Laing writes that she was most interested in these six because their lives mirror each other, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to investigate writers who alcoholic lives are less known to us? This is her book, of course, but without new information presented, my mind wandered to Marguerite Duras or Patricia Highsmith, just as two examples.

The Trip to Echo Spring was a personal endeavor that felt less personal as the pages went by. Laing’s writing is top-notch but the lovely prose that populated the beginning chapters began to fall away as the reflections became more direct excerpts from outside works than to Laing’s own train journey and bits of her childhood experiences. She was strongest writing about these latter moments than offering up well-known information about these flawed great American writers.

*photos from Wikipedia.org and The Guardian

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I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane

“This is not a diary. It is a Portrayal.” 

mary maclaneThis is how nineteen-year-old Mary MacLane labelled her “diary” which ultimately became her first book. Canadian-born Butte, Montana resident, Mary MacLane who was entirely fed up with the boredom of her life and tediousness of her neighbors, took pen to paper and began in January 1901 to write down her daily thoughts and philosophies.

Firstly, the book (which is being reprinted by Melville House) is a tornado. It immediately swept me up, invigorated me, and made me want to shout Mary MacLane’s name from the proverbial hilltops. Much of her entries detail her desire to leave the bored and hypocritical town where she lives and move on to bigger and better things–to a place that will understand her genius. She writes in a poetic style at times. By this I mean many entries are exquisitely crafted with rhythm, sound, attention to syntax, and a purposeful repetition of words and phrases.

“They are very few who give the Devil his due in this world of hypocrites.”

Throughout the passages, MacLane is writing either to a potential reader or to the Devil, himself. To her, the Devil represents a place or a purpose far away from Butte, Montana. She is critical of the people who marry and consider themselves God-fearing folk, but she is quick to propose a union between herself and the Devil. She has imagined conversations with him and frequently writes about waiting for him: “The Devil has not yet come. But I know that he usually comes, and I await him eagerly.”

While reading this book–and, especially, the beginning with all of its angst and passion on super-drive–I knew that this was a perfect dose of intensity that I needed. To be shaken up; to get out of the slump I felt about my own book’s “voice”; a shot of this vigor and imagination is what I needed because of the current book I am writing which has a female narrator whose voice is filled with anxiety and strives for something else, while still retaining her sense of humor (“I never learned to sew, and I don’t intend ever to learn. It reminds me too much of a constipated dressmaker,” writes MacLane).

The introduction to “I Await the Devil’s Coming,” is a perfect compendium to both the book and to Mary MacLane’s own life. She was able to escape Butte, Montana after her book became a smash hit. “By her own account she lived a decadent life during these years” when she was in Chicago and New York City. She wrote two follow-up books, articles, and starred in a film based on one of her books which has, unfortunately, been lost. But why am I just hearing about Mary MacLane now, you ask? Although, she had success during her lifetime, she died in a Chicago rooming house under “unknown circumstances.” She and her work were immediately forgotten. For more info about her life, check out The Atlantic article.

Although, MacLane’s personal narrative came out over a hundred years ago, it still smacks of the contemporary. This is highly recommended. Hop over to the publisher’s site to read the first few pages.

By the end of the book, I found myself with Mary awaiting the arrival of the Devil.

“When the Devil comes over the hill with Happiness I will rush at him frantically headlong–and nothing else will matter.”

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes With OwlsSo things have been a little quiet around here lately with some travelling, a pseudo-vacation (working vacation?), and a strange arm malady that has made typing painful (how can I be a writer when I must dictate email responses at my cell phone?! oh, why cruel world?!?). But enough of my complaining. Sometimes when you are benched, it’s a perfect time to get some reading done and eat frozen yogurt. But anyhoo.

While on my beach vacation, I started with David Sedaris’ newest book. I’ve been a big fan for a long time and have even listened to all of his audiobooks. With the exception of Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, I’ve loved them all. I was so excited to get my hands on his newest, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.

Unlike his past essay collections, this one is uneven. There were moments that I absolutely loved it. I noticed that he excelled–like he always does–when writing about his family. I was less enthralled with his time visiting dentists in France. I couldn’t help but feel let down when I read a passage that had that absolute gut-busting Sedaris humor and observation because unfortunately the collection has some lackluster essays as well.

This collection is marked “Essays, Etc.” That et cetera is sometimes satirical “short stories” or a long poem closing the collection. They, of course, had humor but they served as a way for the writer to vent his frustrations with certain aspects or individuals in the United States. Although, sometimes very funny, I found myself hoping for their end so I could move on to parts about his father or what other strange mischief Sedaris got into as a child.

Although somewhat missing the usual Sedaris pizzazz, there were still essays that were a pleasure to read. When the audiobook comes out, I will still listen to it. David Sedaris, no matter what, is an exquisite story teller.

Below, is a short video about the title of the book.