Tag Archives: Tin House Books

The Miraculous Cat

a catA Cat by Leonard Michaels (Tin House Books, $18.95, 128 pages); illustrated by Francis Lerner, introduction by Sigrid Nunez

“A cat is content to be a cat.”

A Cat is a nicely illustrated re-release of a book originally published in 1999.  The book was written by the late Leonard Michaels, who taught as a Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  The line drawings for the original and this edition were by Francis Lerner, and they well represent the relaxed yet athletic nature of cats.

A Cat is both an examination of and a tribute to felines.  Each page contains a parable-like statement about the nature of cats, although Michaels noted that we can never truly capture the essence of these creatures: “A cat reminds us that much in this world remains unknown.”

Michaels certainly loved cats: “Looking at a cat, like looking at clouds or stars or the ocean, makes it difficult to believe there is nothing miraculous in the world.”  Cats remain in the present moment, making the most of life.  In Michaels’s words, “For a cat just to live is splendid.”  And cats show us that sometimes it is best to get out of one’s mind: “To be quick as a cat you must not think.”

Cats live on their well developed instincts, “However a cat looks or behaves, it is what it is, a small and intensely serious being, a cat.”

Well recommended for anyone who is willingly owned by a cat.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  This new edition of A Cat was released on November 13, 2018.  (Sasha the cat decided this was a great book to sit on top of.)

 

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Son of Your Father

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, August 2010)

“Every writer is alone…”

This is a memoir about a writer, Tom Grimes, whose idol was famous for writing a memoir.   It began as a eulogy written by Grimes for Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time: A Memoir that was published in 1977.   Grimes decided to expand that eulogy by writing in detail about how he came to be discovered by Conroy, a noted instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   This, however, describes just half of the narrative – the book might just as easily have been titled A Writing Life, as it fully details the obstacles, impediments and vagaries that can overwhelm an ambitious young writer.

Interestingly, Grimes and Conroy first happened to meet when the former was an applicant to the Workshop.   The meeting went so badly that Grimes left and destroyed his copy of Stop-Time.   But Conroy randomly happened to read the manuscript for a novel written by Grimes, and greased his admission into the Iowa Writer’s program.   Conroy and Grimes had such an obvious father-and-son relationship that many of Grimes’ fellow students derided him as Conroy’s “golden boy.”

In the sections where Grimes writes about Conroy, I was reminded of the tone used by John Gunther in Death Be Not Proud, the account of his son’s death at the age of 17.   The tone is quiet, sad, respectful.   (Especially as Grimes comes to regret the periods where he failed to keep in touch with Conroy.)   In contrast, the writing has a sometimes jarring quality when Grimes details his own rollercoaster-like (and manic) career as a young author.   With the strong support of Conroy, Grimes’ first novel resulted in a small bidding war among publishers for the rights.   Grimes went for the highest pay-day only to find that the promised public relations campaign for his novel was never to materialize.   And then no publisher wanted Grimes’ second novel.

Grimes clearly covers his descent into depression and near-madness in a manner that only some will wish to read.   The more fascinating pages are the ones where he provides a view into the world of publishing; it’s a world where a writer can be offered a high six-figure advance one day and find that the offer has dropped to the very lowest of five figures the next.

“You’ve changed my life…  love, love, love.”

This memoir concludes in a way that the reader will find – depending on his/her perspective – either encouraging or unimpressive.   Grimes was 54 at the time he wrote Mentor, the same age that Conroy was when the student-writer Grimes met his most important instructor.   Grimes is now a college-level journalism professor.   He teaches in Texas rather than in Iowa, but serves as a replica of Frank Conroy.   This can be viewed as a heartfelt, living, tribute to his mentor or, alternatively, as the reliving of a life that had already run its course.

This reader found this to be an admirable and frank memoir of two lives that, for all of its stark candor, fell just a bit short of being the type of inspirational story that one would read and subsequently re-read.   The first half of the account was far more engaging than the second half.   Mentor leaves one with a sense of sadness and wariness about life, which was likely the writer’s intent.

Takeaway:   This is a memoir that some (writers, mainly) will love – they will view it as a loving tribute to a teacher from his student.   Others will understandably see it as a bit too unvarnished.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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A Shaggy Dog

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson (Algonquin, April 2010)

This reviewer had such high hopes for this novel, a “love story” by Pete Nelson.   Like many readers, I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and hoped that this would be a worthy follow-up in the same genre.   In Stein’s book the animal protagonist is Enzo the dog; a dog whose thoughts can be heard by his race car driving owner.   Enzo is old and looking forward to his passing so that he can be reincarnated as a human being.   In Nelson’s book the featured animal is Stella the dog; a dog who can speak to her owner Paul Gustavson.   Stella is old and mostly immobile; she is fully prepared for her upcoming last trip to the vet.   Are the similarities a bit obvious?

I Thought You Were Dead starts off as a truly hilarious story due to Stella’s wise, sarcastic and biting voice.   The dog realizes that her divorced owner is pretty much a loser – he’s a hack writer who writes for the Moron series of books (like The Moron’s Guide to Nature, Paul’s current assignment).   Paul has a girlfriend, Tamsen, who takes out insurance in the form of a second boyfriend.   Paul might as well have the Beatles’ song “I’m A Loser” playing in the background of his life.

Stella’s spirit keeps the reader glued to the story until the point at which her health takes a turn for the worse, although it is not a fatal turn.   Because Stella looks at life as something to be enjoyed and valued in times of good health, she does not desire to hang around as something to be pitied when she drops stool around the house and has to be carried up and down the stairs.   In this, as in other things, she’s wiser than her owner.   Stella, in her wisdom, eventually convinces Paul that he must set up an appointment for her to be euthanized.

It is at the point of Stella’s sad death that the novel pretty much comes to an end.   Oh, Nelson continues it with a secondary plot about Paul’s father having a stroke and Paul having to come to terms with his past in order to understand his future.   Right…  It seems that Paul’s father crashed a family car when Paul and his siblings were young and tragedy ensued, a fact that everyone must deal with again for reasons that are not quite clear.   Paul is supposed to learn a great lesson when his father, recovering from a stroke, tells him not to drink.

One wonders if something happened in the author’s life that is being revealed here as a form of catharsis?   If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an author wrestled with his past in the form of thinly disguised fictional events.   In the forthcoming book The Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes admits to including a factual incident in a novel he wrote – the night his father crashed the family automobile, “drunk and doing ninety.”

The family story in Dead feels like a secondary plot that was tacked on as the author could not decide what to write about once Stella the dog was removed from the spotlight in this novel.   It’s unfortunate as the glue lines attaching the funny and overly downcast plots are almost visible.   With Stella gone, the story limps painfully and overly slowly along to a conclusion – a disappointing one – that will come too late for the average reader.

There are some who criticize Anna Quindlen (unfairly in my eyes) for what they view as her slow and detached style.   Quindlen’s latest family novel, Every Last One, virtually soars compared to the final few plodding chapters of Dead.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   This one starts off as cute as a puppy before it turns into an old tired dog of a story.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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