Bringing back the essay

The term non-fiction may seem scary to many—but throw the word creative in front of it, and there’s a whole new world of literature available for reading pleasure. Personal essays aren’t just dry, boring pieces of academic writing, but they look into the lives and existences of others. The following books were read in ENG 256-002 (Creative Non-Fiction) and reviewed for your pleasure. Check them out; expand your mind.

Possible Side Effects

Natalie Backer, Staff Writer

In all of his books, Augusten Burroughs riffs on stories from his life. Possible Side Effects is no different in this respect. Burroughs covers the gamut from childhood memories of his manic-depressive mother and dismissive father to more recent stories with his partner Dennis and the rest of his chaotic life in between. His family is definitely messed up; none of them appear the least bit normal (though Dennis comes close). Even his friends have some serious issues. The stories are in no particular order, so we can jump from hearing about Burroughs convincing Dennis to buy a new dog to go with their current one all the way to hearing about Burroughs having to visit his favorite grandmother down in Georgia once a year (and then a later story where he talks about his other grandmother, who appears to be a demon from Hell).

Usually, the stories in Possible Side Effects have multiple streams of consciousness, or at least two pieces that go together in some way. Burroughs isn’t afraid to go off on a tangent. However, he typically is able to tie everything together at the end. Occasionally he meanders to a finish that I find unsatisfying. In “Taking Tests, Taking Things,” he begins by talking about what pushed him away from working in advertising as a living, then how he decided he wanted to become a cop. He talks about the tests involved, moving on to how he once had a security job at a store. The ending of the story is quite funny, but the story itself just eases its way to the end with no real coherence.

Fortunately, while there are definitely weaker stories in the book, most of them don’t have that problem and actually either made me laugh out loud or almost made me cry. “The Forecast for Sommer” tells the story of a woman who took care of Augusten during some of his mother’s bad times. One day when she had taken him out for the day, she took him back to her place. His vivid descriptions of her apartment, his conversations with her and the poignant ending when we hear what happened to her made me tear up. Burroughs writes with such a deft touch in stories like this, with bits of humor thrown in but nothing that will overshadow the touching aspects. Some of his childhood stories are the same way.

Other stories lean more toward the comic, but even these have their moments that bring a twinge to your heart. In “The Wisdom Tooth,” he talks about the first vacation he takes with Dennis in years and the horrible string of events that happen when he breaks a tooth at a local restaurant. I almost died laughing from the way Burroughs described this trip (and then almost doubled over in sympathy pain when I read the description of what had actually happened). But then he talks about how much Dennis means to him, and it exerts emotional heft. None of these stories are equal; each one has its own blend of sorrow and humor that make them a joy to read.

Truly Legendary?

Tim Niederriter, Staff Writer

Michael Chabon is a modern fantasy writer who has been working in the genre since 1987, but this book, Maps and Legends, is his first collection of essays, released in 2008.  The works in this volume were written throughout Chabon’s career as a novelist and are all about the way stories and maps influenced his life and career as a writer. Throughout the book, Chabon’s essays progress, though not strictly chronologically.  The pieces move from earlier parts of his life to later experiences but include asides and notes involving later works.  While his writing style does not change throughout the book, his topical matter does.  He begins with an essay about the modern short story, and moves into the title essay, and then to my favorite of the essays in the book, “Ragnarok Boy”, which also appeared as the foreword to D’aulaires Book of Norse Mythology.  The writing style is sometimes long-winded, often descriptive and very vibrant, containing a great deal of information. For this reason and for its take on the life of a writer from his own perspective, I think it is an excellent book.

Breakfast of Champions

Lindsay Lelivelt, Features Editor

Appropriately subtitled “a low culture manifesto,” Chuck Klosterman’s collection of essays entitled Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs cuts to the core of popular culture and delivers a healthy serving of nostalgia, critique and a strong aversion to John Cusack.

The first chapter, “This is Emo,” opens the book with a bang, Klosterman boldly stating that “no woman will ever satisfy me” and placing the blame on John Cusack. From then on it’s a long ride through Billy Joel songs, episodes of Saved by the Bell, a view into the Real World and a glimpse into the phenomenon of Internet porn.
Klosterman’s writing style is clever and quick-witted with only a hint of pretentiousness. Employing footnotes to enhance his essays adds a pseudo-scholarly feel to a book about not-so-scholarly topics.

Arranged much like an album, each chapter is given a track listing and a time-span, thus cleverly inserting another pop culture reference. From discussing Coldplay songs, The Sims computer game, Guns N’ Roses and “the symbolic importance of The Empire Strikes Back,” it’s a wonder that Klosterman is able to fit so much of himself into the book without spreading himself too thin. Klosterman successfully pours his proverbial heart and comedic soul out in this book, making it entertaining and relatable.

Libro luxurio

Emma Ellingson, Staff Writer

“Like my clan back home, this collection is hard to define, part memoir, part fiction, part kid’s book and a chance to do some drawings,” New York-based designer Cynthia Rowley said.  It sounds as though she is describing her newest collection to go down the runway. But she’s referring to the contents of her book, Slim: A Fantasy Memoir.

At a little over a hundred pages, it is more than a narrative journey from childhood to adult life. From creative little girl to successful fashion designer, Rowley incorporates dreamy, vivid illustrations that are just as much a part of each chapter as the accompanying text.

It is evident from the beginning of the book that Rowley was destined for a career in fashion. In junior high she learned that her homemade coats, jewelry and dresses awarded her a certain social notoriety. These weren’t just any do-it-yourself projects. She made earrings from the furniture in her dollhouse, a skirt from the fabric of an umbrella and a hat of mismatched mittens. Ingenuity and creative flare seems to run in her family. In 1968, when astronaut Neil Armstrong came to her family’s hometown in Illinois, Rowley’s mother sewed her own gown for the formal occasion (only to realize upon arrival that she chose the same brocade that furbished the dining chairs). Instead of buying his children a go-cart, Rowley’s father enlisted her and her brother to help him make one. Simply stick two wood planks and an old lawn mower engine together with Elmer’s glue, take it for a spin, then try to explain the racket to the police later.

The lines between fiction and reality blur at times. Was it really her balloon-sleeved dress that carried her to a parking lot a few towns from her own? Or was it only her inflated imagination that did the carrying away? Rowley clearly never lost her youthful spirit. It translates wonderfully into her present career. Her past few collections have been accompanied by short films that act as previews before the full runway premiere. One shows a group of girls playing musical chairs. Another is of a game of hide-and-seek in Central Park (visit to watch).
She dedicates an entire chapter to her passion for making her runway shows real productions. Real shows. Shows which are all about the fantasy. They whisk you away to a fairytale land or pull you down the rabbit hole to a strange yet fascinating world. In September, at New York Fashion Week, her Spring 2010 RTW collection opened with a magical twist. A white cloth floated down from the ceiling, guided by invisible wires which pulled it perfectly flat over the catwalk, stunning the audience in the process. Music from the original score of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria contributed to the sweet but eerie illusion.

“It is definitely an evolution from what we’ve done in the past. It’s less girly, less frilly. And it’s definitely more body conscience and grown up. A little bit athletic, a little bit sporty, but very clean and graphic. The whole idea of season-less dressing was very important,” Rowley said of the collection backstage. The crowd of models, colleagues and reporters bustling about, eager to speak with her are testament to her talent in design and style. She has a real playfulness that is rare in fashion, and of which one can only truly understand from familiarity with her character or by reading her memoir. The book will delight readers of any age and inspire women both young and old that following your dreams should be the most natural thing in the world.