12 November 2009

Book Review: 3 Non-Fiction Essays

This is not really a book review. There is no book. Instead, it is a review of three personal essays I bound together for my Introduction to Literature course: three essays I still remember fondly ten years after reading them.

The Bone Garden of Desire by Charles Bowden (Read it online here)
Bowden weaves food, flowers, lust, and death in this poetic personal essay. The essay is fragmentary, moving horizontally forward and backward through time even as it moves vertically through the topics. I'm not sure why I assign those particular directions, but I do. Something in the tone, the interrelation of these primal topics, and the melancholy seduces me.

Bookmarks by Rebecca McClanahan
McClanahan exposes herself through her musings on a gray-haired woman's marginalia. The concept of marginalia is one I find fascinating, being a reader and a (gasp) occasional marker of books. I too have looked at a note in the margin and wondered about the writer/reader. The thrust of this essay, however, seems to be the author's failed marriage and her subsequent depression and acceptance.

Refugium by Barbara Hurd
Hurd ponders the necessity and danger of refuges, particularly in swamps. Full of metaphors, the essay offers an enticing view of the isolation and possibilities of self-discovery inherent in refuges. She paints a picture of the swamp that is both terrifying and oddly appealing.


All three essays, like many personal essays, blend together the personal with the factual/historical. Bowden mixes his friends (Art, Paul, Dick, Chris...) with historical figures such as Homer, King Solomon, and Apicius. McClanahan and Hurd thread quotes and commentary from books throughout their essays. It is this mix that I adore, and it is this mix that adds to the fragmentary nature of the essays.

One of my draws to the personal essay is the artful way essayists use fragments to reveal a whole in a way different from a continuous narrative. There is something about the presentation of snippets of time - it never pretends to be the whole story in the way chronologies do - that seems to be both more contrived in its juxtaposition and yet simultaneously more honest.

I taught Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut in the first few weeks of class. Slaughter-house Five contains three separate stories, all told out of order: 'real' life, war life, and abduction life. The use of non-chronological fragmentary story-telling is essential to the theme of the novel in this case, and I wonder how necessary it is to these three essays? Now, I'm off to ponder this question. Perhaps I'll see if my students have an answer...

1 comment:

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