Book Reviews

Winter Journal Book Review
By: Pat LaFleur

“You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the whole world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”

With these lines, and now breathing in the steam from your freshly brewed cup of tea, you begin reading Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal (2012). You brought this one home to your chair because you’ve always enjoyed Auster’s work, and memoir is one of your favorite genres.

But these opening lines halt your first sip and raise your brow. Not because they’re poorly written: they’re actually quite smooth, as his tend to be. And not because you disagree with what they say. They’re sharp in their commentary, if anyone were to ask. Instead, Auster’s opening sentence strikes you because, based on your understanding of memoir, Auster... well, he just doesn’t seem to get it.

And then, over the course of the next 230 pages, your tea disappears, night turns to morning, and you find yourself standing corrected.

Typically, memoir is the product of its author’s attempt to answer the question: WHO AM I? Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project (2011), describes this process as a marking of territory, “staking out what’s yours, defining it and walking its perimeter.”  In doing this, you will discover the boundaries of the truth of who “you” are, plotting a coherent outline of what makes you “unique.” And, hopefully, if you succeed, your reader will follow along.

So, why on earth - you ask yourself - would Auster begin his memoir by describing his growing suspicion that he is, in fact, just like everyone else? The answer lies - as it usually does with Auster - in his way of writing it.

Auster’s form, which has become critics’ chief complaint about Winter Journal, consists of loosely related thought-fragments. Some recollect places (a 50-page, chronological catalogue of the dwellings he has inhabited in his lifetime), some feelings (like the way his six-year-old bare feet feel on the cold morning floor) and other definitive episodes in his life (his mother’s death, to name the most vivid). And because Auster makes no obvious effort to link these sketches, it’s easy for you to think that this open weave of memory flies in the face of everything memoir promises. You wonder if they will ever merge into anything recognizable. Will they ever tell a story? Will they ever shape and define the truth of who he is?

And then it hits you, the reason you hesitated with that first line: Auster’s memoir refuses to tell you this truth. There is, in fact, no single “truth” to tell. When describing his struggle to commemorate his mother, he explains that there are “too many gaps, too many silences and evasions, too many threads lost over the years for (him) to stitch together a coherent story” (132). Auster’s fragmentary style, you realize, works to make the same point about his attempts to reflect on his own life. The telling of his story must be as scattered and flighty as his own memory. This, for Auster, is no doubt the closest he or anyone else can get to authentic “truth.”

Auster refuses to tell you a coherent story not because he disagrees with Smith’s description of memoir, but because he favors the mapping over the map it creates. The 50-page list of places he’s lived, dripping with tedious detail, might seem self-indulgent, but only if you read them as Auster’s attempt to squeeze them into “the truth of who he is.” Instead, you choose to read these pages as a demonstration of the often difficult road one must undertake when outlining this truth.  Lest we forget Auster’s demonstrated skill spinning a good yarn (The New York Trilogy, The Music of Chance, anyone?), if Auster wanted Winter Journal to deliver a moving, fluid narrative, he could and would have. Instead, while Auster’s works of fiction plainly pursue their characters’ search for identity, Winter Journal gives a first-hand look at that process.

This is because, for Auster, memoir - a word no doubt sharing ancestry with memory - happens underneath the level of straightforward story and clear understanding - or, as he puts it, before “the domain of conscious selfhood” (136). His life has no “arc,” in the literary sense of the word. Instead, it adds up to a heap of parts as crude, as ordinary and as (non)related as “sneezing and laughing, yawning and crying, burping and coughing, scratching your ears, rubbing your eyes, blowing your nose, clearing your throat...” (229). How many times, Auster wonders, has he done these things? Collecting these memories, holding an extended conversation with yourself (with no shame, he structures the memoir in 2nd person), these are where memoir lies, and in this way, it not only marks out what makes you you, but it also shows you how we all ask these questions of ourselves.

In Winter Journal, Auster takes you on a journey through his mind, his body and everything in between. And if you’re left with any sort of grip on the author by the end, it’s an understanding not so much of who he is but of how he works. And you set the book down, having sipped its final drops, wondering if there’s any better way to understand someone.

You set the book down, suspecting that maybe you’ve enjoyed thinking about Winter Journal more than actually reading it.

[1] From National Association of Memoir Writers Teleseminar, posted 27 Apr 2012.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette

By: Pat LaFleur 
If you come across a copy of Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette (Random House, 2002), take pause before opening and ask yourself at least 3, if not all 6 of the following questions:

1)    Do I like history books?
2)    Do I like travel books?
3)    Do I like reading other people’s journals?
4)    Do I have a pathological obsession with the color wheel?
5)    Do I actually like the unrelenting, scrupulously detailed narrative typical of my least favorite Victorian author?
6)    Do I have a lot of time on my hands?

Okay, I’ll back up.  It’s only fair to say that Finlay’s book embarks on an admirable (and potentially interminable) task: to chronicle the cultural histories of the color wheel’s most ancient ancestors.  While she admits that this fascination is not new, she’s right that it warrants continued pursuit - if only because it takes something that is easily shelved as part of “nature” and recasts it as a very human thing.  In an academic sense, her scientific treatment of these pigments sheds a different light on why, for example, the Boddhisatvas in Dunhuang’s cave 419 appear with darker skin than the depictions of the Buddha in the foreground.  Rather than reading the darker skin in a racial context, Finlay explains how these pigments simply darkened with time, and so, in one sense, her histories open new avenues of interpretation and meaning for us to consider.  In an even more vital sense, though, Finlay describes the potentially bloodier side of some red dyes derived from the cochineal beetle, inhabitants of the prickly pear plant: “[The harvesters] made a surreal scene, with their hoods and gloves and glasses, and the constant hiss of the compressors echoing around the fields... The protection was necessary: one of those fine spines in the eye and a worker can go blind.”

She’s got stories like this for all the major colors, and it’s no secret to anyone who has moved beyond a freshman-level art survey that there is more to color choice than hue, saturation and value. Colors have cultural connotations and consequences, too, and Finlay resolves to flesh out these connections between hue and humanity.

And my, oh, my does she flesh them out. To a fault. Part history textbook, part travelogue, part art theory thesis, Color: A Natural History of the Palette takes what is a dense, rich topic and refuses to discriminate in its choices of detail or digression.  In fact, where most lay history or travel writing relies heavily on careful narrative craftsmanship, Color reads more like a polished version of her apparently extensive field notes.  And it’s not that her writing is bad.  Finlay can certainly craft a sentence, a paragraph, and - like the cochineal example above - she has no trouble weaving drama into the production of these inks and dyes. 

Ultimately, though, she doesn’t seem to know the boundaries of her stories.  Take her chapter on the color Yellow, which moves somewhat erratically from Mumbai to Hong Kong, to Britain, back to Hong Kong, and finally to Iran - with references to New Zealand, Macedonia, Tasmania and La Mancha, Spain sprinkled in for flavor.  To a certain extent, I wonder if this is a consequence of her topic: these hues have rich, extensive human histories.  But I think Finlay limits her audience by providing such meticulous historical detail, particularly when it’s crafted as a linear travel narrative.  As a whole, Color shows little notable effort to shape these histories into something palatable.

So my tone in beginning this review, I’m convinced, stems directly from the way in which I set out to digest Color.  Some of you might be thinking: “Oh, he just doesn’t have the same passion for color that I do... I’m sure it would keep my interest!”   Okay, maybe you’re right.  But I’m not wrong in saying that if you try to sit down and read this book in one, two, or even five sittings, you will fail.  The topic might be fascinating, but the writing fails to captivate.  Take home the book if you must, but leave it on your coffee table, your night stand, or your bathroom sink, and read it bit by bit.  Read it for the information, not for the storytelling.  Otherwise, a rich, textured history of art will quickly be drained of all its color.

Ignore Everybody (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity) Fails to Make a Lasting Impression

By: Pat LaFleur

If creativity can be summed in a greeting card, Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody (Portfolio, Penguin Group) has probably come closest to doing so. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Ignore Everybody (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity) consists of short chapters, sprinkled with dozens of sometimes-relevant business-card cartoons (MacLeod’s creative bread & butter). This style, eventually, makes perfect sense. As the author reminds us again and again, he is a skilled copywriter, and the titles of each brief chapter read like ad copy. On the whole, the book drips with the clever language and direct delivery of an ad agency, dissecting the creative process into 40 bite-sized chunks.

MacLeod’s strength lies in the refreshing clarity of his “keys.” He is a skilled wordsmith, distilling some of the creative-type’s biggest anxieties into some helpful “a’ha” moments. “Inspiration precedes the desire to create, not the other way around.” “It’s hard to sell out if nobody has bought in.” “The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.” There are more of these gems buried all over MacLeod’s book, making it a decent source for words of creative encouragement and inspiration.

Despite the sharp edges of these aphorisms, though, Ignore Everybody fails to be more than a creative-devotional, and one that’s missing the practical, go-do-this-now part at that. Over and over, MacLeod has me wringing my fists: okay, I get it, but how do I put this into action? The closest MacLeod comes to such a thing is when he advises you to, whatever your work, “put your whole self into it.” Really? This cliché is surprising coming from an accomplished copywriter. The rest offer brief, loosely related anecdotes, mostly from the author’s personal life.

The root problem with MacLeod’s book lies in how vague a model of creativity these aphorisms provide. MacLeod’s image of the artist is familiar: 
a solitary figure - in this case, a dude at a a bar scribbling over the back of a business card, while waiting for his date to arrive. And while this image strikes as poetic, and maybe even romantic (seize inspiration when it’s there; don’t be bound by traditional forms; art must be for the artist as much as the audience), we’re still left staring at this silhouette from all the way across the room. In other words, this book leaves me with about as much as his cartoons: a brief, abstract image, easily lost in my pants pocket, among all the rest.

Ultimately, Ignore Everybody could have moved beyond the business-card-copy format, and taken the time to develop concrete descriptions of the author’s process. This would have added some much needed - and much wanted - substance to MacLeod’s unique style. But that would have required more than what a greeting card - or a business card - could hold. I’d say this one’s worth flipping through, but doesn’t need space on your bookshelf.

* What’s more worth checking out: his website at He’s got a pretty fresh approach to ad copy and illustration.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Book Review by Pat laFleur

Stephen King almost didn’t finish his memoir, On Writing, because, while out for an afternoon walk, he was struck by a blue Dodge van and almost died. As it turns out, this event will become the conclusion to his book. As an ending, it works, and not because he’s known best for a suspenseful and horrific storyline. It works because King isn’t just writing about writing. He’s writing about what it means to live, and almost die, an artist.

Well, okay, let’s back up: this is a book on writing... writing fiction. King hammers this point, again and again, actually. He discusses craft technicalities like dialogue, paragraph, character development, and others -- things that might cause artists of other disciplines to look the other way. But, to borrow a phrase, let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? That would be a mistake.

As much as King sculpts a model of a writer, he also frames a particular view on what it means to create. Oddly enough for King, creativity is less an act of creation than one of discovery. He repeatedly refers to his stories as fossils, and he is the archaeologist. A story is buried in the earth, he says, describing the common notion, among writers anyway, that stories often take themselves in directions he never imagined, and he warns beginning writers against plotting too heavily. Instead, he prescribes a more spontaneous, exploratory approach. In other words, King offers a model of the artist as a sort of medium, transmitting something perhaps beyond his or her conscious self.

Whether this fits your method or not, King’s chorus sings the importance of... well, being methodical. Write. Paint. Sculpt. Sing. Whatever your craft, make it routine. And read, view, or listen to others even more. No doubt this will seem obvious to serious artists everywhere, but to King, it’s just that simple. It’s action. It’s habit. It’s impulse.

Because writing fiction is King’s linchpin here, it’s true that his memoir has its limits for other types of artists. King’s writer is, in certain ways, a lonely soul, working mostly behind a closed door. Many would cringe at such a solitary prospect, but even certain writing circles should see how King makes little room for more collective types of composition, like writing workshops (King hates these), collaborative digital texts, or social media.

In the end, though, King prescribes finding your method and sticking to it. He admits: this is hard and takes patience. But, it might even save your life, pulling you back into yourself, even after a blue Dodge tries to knock you out of it. If you are an aspiring writer, this is a must-read, hands-down. King is not preachy, but firm and real. There’s no sugarcoating; making it as a writer is damn hard. And if you’re an aspiring artist of any kind, note how we turn 100 pages before King digs into the technicalities of writing itself. The rest tells the story of a craft in practice. For this reason, it’s a must-read for artists of all stripes.

****As a writer myself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t trim this review with a few of my favorite Kingisms on writing:

1.    “Put vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary.... This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.”
2.    “If you can remember all the accessories that go with your best outfit, the contents of your purse, the starting lineup of the New York Yankees or the Houston Oilers, or what label ‘Hang On Sloopy’ by The McCoys was on, you are capable of remembering the difference between a gerund and a participle.”
3.    “The adverb is not your friend.”
4.    “...the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing -- the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.”
5.    “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”

For more information about Pat laFleur you can check out his blog for more details.


Another Take on Imagine: How Creativity Works 

by Pat laFleur

This past Monday, Jonah Lehrer - darling of the journalism and pop-science communities - was crucified.  In an article posted this afternoon, Michael Moynihan outed the bestselling author for fudging facts regarding Bob Dylan’s career as they pertain to his most recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  Lehrer himself, in a public statement, has corroborated Moynihan’s claims.  Nightmare, right?

Well, let’s step back and think about this for a moment.  It’s easy to challenge - no, totally erase Lehrer’s credibility here, and it wouldn’t be the first time.  Lehrer has a track record of questionable evidence in his writing, whether it’s the accuracy of information or over-simplified interpretation.  But here Moynihan is right on to conclude that, with Imagine, Lehrer has proven himself more troubled professionally than a young journalist just gaining his footing.

I worry, though, that readers will be quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater here... or, at least leave the room and forget the baby’s in the tub.  In wondering how crucial the Dylan facts are to Lehrer’s scientific accuracy, I went back and read over my notes.  I found that I never once scribbled the words Bob or Dylan on my notepad.  Why not?  Because, for Lehrer, Dylan is a model of a theory in practice, which we need not confuse for evidence supporting that theory’s accuracy. 

In re-reading the chapter in question, it became clear to me that we could remove the Dylan anecdotes from the chapter without diminishing the scientific information.  Lehrer devotes at least half of the chapter to outlining psychology professor Mark Beeman’s research on moments of insight (“Eureka!” moments).  For Lehrer, Dylan’s process provided an instance of “find[ing] the strange thread connecting...disparate” things.  This, according to Beeman, is a right-brain process central to gaining insight and thinking with originality.  In the chapter, we don’t see much evidence at all, actually; instead, simply a summary of Beeman’s research.  Dylan, on the other hand, is Lehrer’s evidently failed attempt to link that science to popular culture.  Nothing more.

Unfortunately for Lehrer, this failure is precisely where the book - and, admittedly, my earlier review - wrongly claims that it succeeds.  But still, I’m not ready to throw away my copy just yet.  Maybe it’s because I’m wondering why it took a self-identified “Dylan obsessive” - rather than a neuroscientist, or (*gasp*) an editor at Houghton-Mifflin - to point out the book’s lack of citation of any kind.  It’s now more evident than ever that Lehrer’s use of information should be scrutinized with a gigantic microscope, especially when he practices such disregard for reference or citation.  But, until someone points out misleading reference to scientific studies like Beeman’s, I think I’ll throw out the Dylan, but keep the science.  It is, after all, still pretty cool stuff.

A book that’s NOT pop-psych or self-help? Imagine that…

Before reading Imagine: How Creativity Works, I’d not heard of Jonah Lehrer.  After reading it, I want to read more.

In Imagine, Lehrer leads us through the contradictory neurological functions and sociological environments that make up the long-mystified “creative process.”  His first chapters visualize how creativity and imagination (terms that the author admittedly conflates, for better or worse) can be “transformed from something metaphysical – a property of the gods – into a particular twitch of the cortex.”  On one hand, we have the right-brain cognitive jazz that leads to revolutionary works like Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”  On the other, we have the diligent marches of the left-brain and pre-frontal cortex that characterize Beethoven’s painstaking revision process.  At this point, Lehrer zooms out of the brain and switches to a sociological register, exploring how our interactions with others influence our own depth of imagination, and vice versa.  Creative powerhouses like Pixar and Wiedan + Kennedy detail how things like departmental structuring, hierarchies, and even restroom placement can make or break an organization’s creative capacity.  By the end, Lehrer makes a case for creativity “[requiring] description from multiple perspectives,” a description rich enough to allow one to read this as a roadmap toward a more imaginative life.  After all, if we’re all endowed with the same cognitive hard-wiring, shouldn’t we all be able to create?

If this is what you’re seeking, though, you’ll likely find Imagine to leave a stale aftertaste.  This is partially because Lehrer’s story is (appropriately) so complex and contradictory, describing a dancing matrix of distraction and focus, interaction and isolation.  The second, sociological half of the book is more successful in outlining this roadmap: it’s easier to imagine, on one hand, how amicable debate and critique (rather than non-discriminatory brainstorming) among team members leads to more creative solutions than it is, on the other, to imagine relying on amphetamines to give your left-brain a boost.

But Lehrer is careful to remind us that creativity is not easy.  As such, his success with Imagine is not in providing a creativity “how-to” book, nor in proposing a pop-neurology for creating something out of nothing. No, the ultimate triumph of Imagine lies in its taking a phenomenon that, to some, feels so intuitive and, to others, seems so alien, and presenting its process in such lucid and thorough terms as to demystify it and remind us that it is, after all, a very human thing.

That’s why tomorrow I’ll be picking up copies of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  Lehrer possesses the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate things, giving us one more example of the creative process he’s described.  I can only assume his other books do the same.

To read more articles and reviews by Pat laFleur you can visit his professional site for more details. 

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