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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Wading Annie Dillard... "Critical Acclaim" is an Oxymoron, and so am I.

"I cannot cause light...the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam." Annie Dillard

I took another turn at bat with author, Annie Dillard, recently, and struck out. At the risk of abrading fans, and in defiance of acclaiming reviews, I believe much of her work to be overrated (duck!). I take this stand on pretty thin ice, way out in left field, all alone, a self-admitted incompetent word-pusher if there ever was one. But I can read. Maybe it's a gender thing, rearing it's ugly head.

It took hip-boots to wade Tinker Creek; "too much science, I don't understand." But I keep trying, now slogging through "American Childhood," a rather average-bordering-on-tedious, autobiographical effort where the reader gets a glimpse into her effusive style and bizarre imagination. The story oozes along, beginning with Annie as a five year old egocentric child around which the universe spins. She slowly evolves—at the speed of Darwin—to a more outward mindset of "others," and shrinks slightly at the realization of being a common speck-on-a-planet amid the ordinariness of suburban, 1950's Pittsburg. 

Annie's parents have money, which is always nice, so at least she doesn't go wanting... a nice way of saying, she lived a somewhat upper class un-suffering, if not, sheltered life. Here's her "riveting" account: "I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again." Sigh.

If you are an insomniac, "American Childhood" is among the best sleeping pills I've ever had; knocks me right out every night in less than 10 minutes. Long unbridled sentences test verbal agility and the bounds of attention span, as she commas and free-verses along whimsical meandering paths on her way into Guinness Book of World Records. I thought one of Dillard's one-sentence paragraphs could literally stand alone as a novella, what with subplots and everything but the kitchen sink and a beating heart (a la Dr. Frankenstein: It's alive...It's alive...It's alive...It's alive!).  

Another problem I have with Dillard is "rhythm," or cadence. Daily life is fraught with enough hurdles, so I don't really care for books with obstacle-course syntax where one loses the point. It's a common criticism, to be honest, often directed my way, and rightly so. (see what I mean?).

I think my problem, and it is "my problem," not Dillard's, springs from something over which I have no control, i.e., the older male perspective. Given my advancing years, I'm acutely aware of testosterone levels on the wane, even while, of all things, estrogen levels creep upward. Inevitably, and unfortunately, "male perspective" is tweaked by time, and if I live long enough you'll find me tearing up during "Finding Nemo" and falling head-over-heels in love with Annie's prose. 

When reading becomes "wading," I'm tempted to put it down. It feels like such a waste of precious time, sleep, and energy. Problem is, if you do that with Dillard, you risk missing out on some golden nuggets that, at minimum, affects your day, and, possibly, the rest of your life.

Allow me to step back in the batter's box and take a swing at redemption: The woman can turn a phrase; pregnant, poignant, powerful. She understands "life" because, in spite of her pampered upbringing, Annie has suffered at the hands of her craft... as all writers/artists do. Listen to her: "You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical...the page always wins." Art is hard! Otherwise everyone would be artists. Oh she's in touch with reality, alright, sometimes too in touch...as if she's God, and knows my unrighteous heart.

But who am I to question intelligent minds that flit at the speed of light? Look for those small quiet places between Dillard's "confetti parades" of mindless free verse. Read "between the lines," where she surrenders lucid nuggets that rock you back on your heels. Wade forward, upstream, for within the juxtaposition of torturous verbosity and confetti lies the "soul-of-wit brevity" of little "gems," hidden, like the old ruse of a golden ring packaged in an appliance box full of corn curls. 
Rewards are often proportional to the work.

Now I submit for your consideration a few of my favorite Annie Dillard Nuggets:

You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical...the page always wins.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.

Write about winter in the summer.

You can't test courage cautiously.

Remember everything...go through life like a plankton net.

The writer studies literature...careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.

Write as if you were dying...and your audience is too.

All my books started out as extravagant and ended up pure and plain.

If you're going to publish a book, you probably are going to make a fool of yourself.

We owed it to God to develop our talents.

And one that bears repeating, the one that keeps me digging through Annie's piles of prosaic tailings in search of that "ring:"  
I cannot cause light...the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.

That's my review. Keep in mind that, Critical Acclaim is an oxymoron, and so am I.

Finally, a few more shots from this past winter's wonderings...
Peace out, brothers and sisters, and do a little "it's the weekend" dance.
mark and bobbie


  1. Thanks for wading and finding the nuggets. Not on my radar at the moment. Hate to admit I haven't read Annie Dillard. I'm a left wing ecological rabid environmental crazy person....but rather than read Annie Dillard I want to be hiking Cedar Mesa and finding those granaries and kivas. Only hiked it once, and of course it wasn't enough. Your photos made me tear up, but I am old and full of whatever happens when women get old, certainly not estrogen.

  2. You're reading her so I don't have to. Thanks for taking the bullet. As always, lovely and thought provoking images.

    BCB Jim
    Just waiting to die somewhere in CA.

  3. Nuggets? you were being facetious in a sarcastic way eh?
    I've not heard of Annie or her works, so I just downloaded Tinker Creek (1974, I was 22 yrs old!) free from an Elibrary and will read it and get back to you.
    If you're an avid reader, you'll enjoy "The Violin Maker: A Search for the Secrets of Craftsmanship, Sound, and Stradivari" by John Marchese
    I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how delightful it is.

  4. For the same reason, I can't get through Faulkner's books. The sentences are too long. Thanks for the nuggets, now I can go back to murder mysteries.

  5. Love the photos, have never read anything by Annie Dillard and judging by your review, I don't think I want to! :)) When we visited Tower Ruin in April of 2016, an archaeologist and his buddies had hiked down--he told us a lot about the ruin--very interesting.

  6. Pilgrim At Tinker creek...."the answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
    You two have again and again been there...and sensed it. xo-scamp

  7. Heading back to Bluff for the fourth time tomorrow. Can't get enough of discovering new ruins. Thanks for the beautiful photos to wet my appetite again!

  8. You explain perfectly why I somtimes skim a book...looking for that one phrase or sentence or even paragraph that makes me go back and reread it. I don't know if I've read Dillard. I have the hardest time remembering most of what I read until I go back and begin to read it accidentally again. Then things start nudging the back reaches of my mind and eventually I realize I read this one before. I should keep better records. I guess I DO keep records as I'm on Goodreads. I think I'll go see if I've read her. I bet I have.

    And your photos are stunning, as always. Love so many of them, too many to list out my favorites. Thanks for sharing them.

  9. LOL. I read Dillard's 'The Writing Life." Here's what I wrote on my Goodreads review:

    "Annie Dillard's biographical musings on writing, being a writer, and living the life of an artist. Some of it was beyond me, but most made me want to try."

  10. LOL LOL LOL And the only other Dillard I read was "The Maytrees" which I gave two stars and didn't finish. Ah well....

    1. I have to say, to be perfectly honest, when I read "The Writing Life" I didn't find it a "slog" and rather enjoyed it. That was back when I thought I was going to be a real writer... published by now, and rich and famous :)

  11. I should have just made ONE comment...but this is cracking me up. My review of "The Mayfields:"

    "I tried. I really tried. But I couldn't finish this book. The writing is lyrical, almost poetic and that entranced me. But the story didn't go anywhere for me. And I had to look up too many words."

  12. I borrowed Tinker Creek from an E-Library last night, managed to get to page 5. She does have a lyrical poetic style; a collection of words strung together which is a bit of a struggle for my mind to follow. Too many other good books to read! I'll return this book. There's no reason/incentive to struggle for another 5 pages.

    1. In defense of Annie...it was not the best book for an "introduction."
      "too much science, I don't understand."

  13. I'm sure you have probably read Gretel Ehrlich? I have read Annie and enjoyed her but your review was spot on. Her novel of frontier life 'The Living' was very enjoyable. Gretel has similar musings on nature and the west in particular but more in tune to my own experience of thought. She was struck by lightning, both literally and perhaps figuratively.


    1. "Universe/Home" is now on deck on the Kindle. Thanks for your recommendations and drug prices on the previous post. Hopefully many will benefit...including me. :)

    2. mark have you read Wild- Cheryl Strayed?? i enjoyed it Walden Creek Rv steve

  14. finally = the best pictures yet!! oh give me the 55 chev----PLEASE! love the rant- maybe someday understand the rants!! Walden Creek Rv-Steve- sold RV!! now smaller unit- and 40 Nat.L parks in west await!!

  15. yes as your sales manager we both are somewhat frustraded!! but i am still hopeful!! walden creek rv steve

  16. omg!!! so beautiful canyon! I wish I could visit this place too!


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