How to Be Alone

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Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Now in How to be Alone, discover the personal narratives and the dead-on reportage that earned Franzen a wide readership before the success of The Corrections.

The audiobook How to be Alone features Franzen's reading of a moving narrative of his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease (which won a National Magazine Award and has been reprinted around ...

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Overview

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Now in How to be Alone, discover the personal narratives and the dead-on reportage that earned Franzen a wide readership before the success of The Corrections.

The audiobook How to be Alone features Franzen's reading of a moving narrative of his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease (which won a National Magazine Award and has been reprinted around the world).

Although his essays range from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each essay wrestles with essential themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civic life and private dignity, and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America.

Here, in 14 essays, are 14 fresh answers to the question of how to be alone in a noisy and distracting mass culture. These essays show the wry distrust of the claims of technology and psychology, the love-hate relationship with consumerism, and the subversive belief in the tragic shape of the individual life that help make Franzen one of our sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics.

Nearly every in-depth review of Jonathan Franzen's best-loved novel, The Corrections, discussed what became known as "The Harper's Essay," Franzen's controversial investigation of the fate of the American novel. Now, for the first time, listeners can hear the essay in How to be Alone, along with the personal tales and dean-on reportage that earned Franzen a huge following. Here, subjects range from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works and from his father's moving struggle with Alzheimer's' disease to Franzen's brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author. Each piece wrestles with Franzen's favorite themes; the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For two reasons, Jonathan Franzen was the most-discussed author of 2001. The first, of course, was the publication of his novel The Corrections, which won critics' plaudits and the National Book Award. And the second, needless to say, was Oprah Winfrey. The controversies stemming from his very brief tenure as an Oprah author reverberate still. In this eclectic collection of essays, Franzen examines not only the book club brouhaha, but maximum-security prisons, the sex-advice industry, and the persistence of loneliness in postmodern America. How to Be Alone contains Franzen's two most famous essays: the moving piece he wrote about his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease and "the Harper essay," his incisive 1996 view of the precarious state of the American novel.
The New York Times Book Review
[Franzen] starts from the hypothesis, basic to any good novelist's inquiry, that even the simplest, most trivial activities…are riven with complexities, and then proceeds, with exemplary ethical seriousness, grouchy stubbornness and silken wit, to break those complexities down into their moral, psychological and historical components.
From The Critics
In this wise, entertaining collection of essays, the author of the 2001 National Book Award– winning The Corrections treats a wide variety of subjects—Alzheimer's, cigarettes, rotary phones—but he's never far from his central concern, the literary life. Reprinted here is his controversial 1996 Harper's essay on the state of the novel, as well as the story of his famous disinvitation from The Oprah Winfrey Show for seeming, as she put it, "conflicted." But his most poignant (and funny) account of writing's pitfalls and pathologies is "Scavenging," about his years as a struggling fiction writer and the objects that peopled his world: "I wonder, is it possible to imagine a grimmer vision of codependency than the hundreds of hours I logged with sharp strands of copper wire squeezed between my thumb and forefinger, helping my TV with its picture?" Of his reluctance to join the Prozac-satiated multitudes with their "undepressed smiles," he notes, "I seem to myself a person who shrilly hates health." Franzen could seem shrill were his insights on modern life not so keen nor his belief in books so passionate. Author—Eric Wargo
Eric Wargo
In this wise, entertaining collection of essays, the author of the 2001 National Book Award– winning The Corrections treats a wide variety of subjects—Alzheimer's, cigarettes, rotary phones—but he's never far from his central concern, the literary life. Reprinted here is his controversial 1996 Harper's essay on the state of the novel, as well as the story of his famous disinvitation from The Oprah Winfrey Show for seeming, as she put it, "conflicted." But his most poignant (and funny) account of writing's pitfalls and pathologies is "Scavenging," about his years as a struggling fiction writer and the objects that peopled his world: "I wonder, is it possible to imagine a grimmer vision of codependency than the hundreds of hours I logged with sharp strands of copper wire squeezed between my thumb and forefinger, helping my TV with its picture?" Of his reluctance to join the Prozac-satiated multitudes with their "undepressed smiles," he notes, "I seem to myself a person who shrilly hates health." Franzen could seem shrill were his insights on modern life not so keen nor his belief in books so passionate.
Publishers Weekly
"In publishing circles, confessions of self doubt are widely referred to as `whining'-the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don't sell, ungracious in writers who do." This quote, taken from his Harper's essay "Perchance to Dream," and later reworked for this collection as "Why Bother," was written before Franzen tasted huge success with his bestselling novel The Corrections. Fans of that work will be intrigued by the elements from Franzen's personal life that run parallel to those of the characters in The Corrections. However, Franzen's adroit cultural criticism, albeit a personal one, is the root of this collection of essays. Hearing such subjective work read by the author himself adds an air of authenticity. It also satisfies a curiosity as to what that voice actually sounds like. This audiobook's editors satisfy that curiosity, but also make the wise choice of not letting Franzen read the entire collection. While his reading is sincere, his delivery, unlike his text, is passionless and dry. Fortunately, the lion's share of the essays is read with much more moxie by James. He gives these intelligent, thoughtful and provocative pieces more dramatic punch than Franzen can. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Forecasts, Sept. 2). (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In these essays, Franzen, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction, demonstrates how our materialistic culture has brought about the homogenization of society. He notes that although one might assume a black lesbian New Yorker and a Southern Baptist Georgian are very different people, in reality, owing to the influence of the mass media and powerful corporations, "both watch David Letterman every night, both are struggling to find health insurance, both play Lotto, and both have a guilty crush on Uma Thurman." From a personal and scholarly point of view, Franzen discusses such topics as our obsession with technology, the state of the novel, modern prisons, the proliferation of sex-advice books, and a scandal in the Chicago postal system. Also included is a very moving account of his father's battle with Alzheimer's disease. Although many of the works are scholarly in tone, Brian d'Arcy James's lucid, well-paced narration makes this collection accessible and interesting. Very highly recommended to all libraries.-Beth Farrell, Portage Cty. Dist. Lib., OH Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Of maximum-security prisons, Dumpster diving, and privacy in a technological age: a collection of essays diverse and entertaining by the author of last year's Big Novel, The Corrections. Before The Corrections, which led circuitously to "Oprah Winfrey's disinvitation of me from her Book Club," Franzen was perhaps best known to general readers as the author of an arch, funny, and contrarian essay recounting the reasons for his "despair of the American novel," published in Harper's and thus known among the cognoscenti simply as "the Harper's essay." Revised to be still more arch and no less contrarian, if somewhat less lit-critical, the essay (now called "Why Bother?") is reason enough to fiction lovers in this increasingly "infantilizing" culture to take Franzen's nonfiction out for a spin, though it won't please the academic readers it relentlessly twits in salutary slaps such as: "The therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease (canonical work from the Dark Ages before 1950) and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World ("the work of women and of people from nonwhite or nonhetero cultures"). The other essays, most previously published in Details, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, deliver sufficient bang for the book, though none quite stands up to the centerpiece. Some of them, such as a perceptive study of the Post Office at work, manage to be quite timely even as they bear a few signs of age; others get a little weird, as when Franzen observes that smoking cigarettes serves, at least in his case, "to become familiar with apocalypse, to acquaint myself with the contours of its terrors, to make theworld's potential death less strange and so a little less threatening." None, however, is predictable, and all bear Franzen's trademark sensibility of smiling, even though scared silly, in the face of doom. Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many remaining admirers.
From the Publisher
"The welcome paradox in How to be Alone is that the reader need not feel isolated at all. . ..This collection emphasizes [Franzen's] elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion's." —The New York Times

"Why be alone? For the pleasure of reading books such as this." —Entertainment Weekly

"Franzen critiques the alienating effects of postmodern America with just as much passion as he displays in his fiction. . .he cuts to the truth with razor-sharp precision. . . These essays offer a great reason to turn of the TV and spend the evening alone, lost in thought." —Time Out New York

"How to be Alone reaffirms the novelist's prerogative to engage in social criticism. And Franzen's calm, passionate critical authority derives not from any special expertise in criminology, neurology or postal science, but rather from the fact that, as a novelist, he is principally concerned with the messy architecture of the self." —The New York Times Book Review

"There is here the eloquence and sensitivity and profound personal engagement that is only possible with the printed word—and, even then, only when it has no fear of being literature. Put Franzen among the living heroes of it." —The Buffalo News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743528290
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 9/1/2002
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 6 cassettes, 9 hrs.
  • Product dimensions: 4.12 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 1.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for fiction for The Corrections in 2001, and is the author of two other critically acclaimed novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's.

Biography

Until his award-winning novel The Corrections was published in the fall of 2001, Jonathan Franzen was probably best known for a somewhat dyspeptic 1996 essay he wrote for Harper's entitled "Perchance to Dream." In it, Franzen decried the state of modern American fiction and, by association, that of his own career.

Part of Franzen's frustration may have stemmed from the reception of his first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). Although both books showcased his formidable literary skills and earned respectful praise from critics, neither one sold well. He won a Whiting Writer's Award for City and, in 1997, the British literary magazine Granta named him one of the 20 best American novelists under the age of 40. Still, major recognition seemed to elude him.

All that changed with The Corrections, a sprawling tale of American family dysfunction that was immediately acclaimed a "postmodern masterpiece." At long last, Franzen had found his voice, emerging from the pressure of trying to emulate his literary heroes Don DeLillo and William Gaddis. The New York Times Book Review called the novel "marvelous"; The New York Observer called it "brilliant"; and the Boston Globe called it "smart and boisterous and beautifully paced." In short, The Corrections put Franzen on the literary map.

A month later, Franzen's star lost some of its luster, when he became embroiled in a public relations fiasco. Kingmaker Oprah Winfrey selected The Corrections for her popular Book Club, but when the author expressed his discomfort with the endorsement, the show quickly withdrew its certification. A vilified Franzen hastened to explain himself, the book was re-Oprahcized -- and in a final salvo, Franzen wrote about the entire experience in a widely read New Yorker piece that only served to compound the controversy. As the line from his book goes, "What made corrections possible also doomed them." No matter; what Franzen lost in Oprah's esteem he gained in untold sales from the publicity, and The Corrections went on to win the National Book Award.

In 2002, a collection of Franzen's cultural criticism (including the famous Oprah piece and a reworked version of "Perchance to Dream") appeared under the title How to Be Alone, reaffirming his status as a writer of elegant nonfiction; and in 2006, he forayed into memoir with The Discomfort Zone, a self-lacerating look at his youth, his family, and the forces that shaped him into a writer.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1958
    2. Place of Birth:
      Western Springs, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

How to Be Alone

Essays
By Jonathan Franzen

Picador USA

Copyright © 2003 Jonathan Franzen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312422164

Chapter One

A WORD ABOUT THIS BOOK

My third novel, The Corrections, which I'd worked on for many years, was published a week before the World Trade Center fell. This was a time when it seemed that the voices of self and commerce ought to fall silent-a time when you wanted, in Nick Carraway's phrase, "the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever." Nevertheless, business is business. Within forty-eight hours of the calamity, I was giving interviews again.

My interviewers were particularly interested in what they referred to as "the Harper's essay." (Nobody used the original title, "Perchance to Dream," that the magazine's editors had given it.) Interviews typically began with the question: "In your Harper's essay in 1996, you promised that your third book would be a big social novel that would engage with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature; do you think you've kept that promise with The Corrections?" To each succeeding interviewer I explained that, no, to the contrary, I had barely mentioned my third novel in the essay; that the notion of a "promise" had been invented out of thin air by an editor or a headline writer at the Times Sunday Magazine; and that, in fact, far frompromising to write a big social novel that would bring news to the mainstream, I'd taken the essay as an opportunity to renounce that variety of ambition. Because most interviewers hadn't read the essay, and because the few who had read it seemed to have misunderstood it, I became practiced at giving a clear, concise pricis of its argument; by the time I did my hundredth or hundred-tenth interview, in November, I'd worked up a nice little corrective spiel that began, "No, actually, the Harper's essay was about abandoning my sense of social responsibility as a novelist and learning to write fiction for the fun and entertainment of it ..." I was puzzled, and more than a little aggrieved, that nobody seemed able to discern this simple, clear idea in the text. How willfully stupid, I thought, these media people were!

In December I decided to pull together an essay collection that would include the complete text of "Perchance to Dream" and make clear what I had and hadn't said in it. But when I opened the April 1996 Harper's I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand-word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn't quite follow it. In the five years since I'd written the essay, I'd managed to forget that I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person. I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn't share his particular faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times. I used to think that our American political economy was a vast cabal whose specific aim was to thwart my artistic ambitions, exterminate all that I found lovely in civilization, and also rape and murder the planet in the process. The first third of the Harper's essay was written from this place of anger and despair, in a tone of high theoretical dudgeon that made me cringe a little now.

It's true that, even in 1996, I intended the essay to document a stalled novelist's escape from the prison of his angry thoughts. And so part of me is inclined now to reprint the thing exactly as it first appeared, as a record of my former zealotry. I'm guessing, though, that most readers will have limited appetite for pronouncements such as

It seemed clear to me that if anybody who mattered in business or government believed there was a future in books, we would not have been witnessing such a frenzy in Washington and on Wall Street to raise half a trillion dollars for an Infobahn whose proponents paid lip service to the devastation it would wreak on reading ("You have to get used to reading on a screen") but could not conceal their indifference to the prospect.

Because a little of this goes a long way, I've exercised my authorial license and cut the essay by a quarter and revised it throughout. (I've also retitled it "Why Bother?") Although it's still very long, my hope is that it's less taxing to read now, more straightforward in its movement. If nothing else, I want to be able to point to it and say, "See, the argument is really quite clear and simple, just like I said!"

What goes for the Harper's essay goes for this collection as a whole. I intend this book, in part, as a record of a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance-even a celebration-of being a reader and a writer. Not that there's not still plenty to be mad and scared about. Our national thirst for petroleum, which has already produced two Bush presidencies and an ugly Gulf War, is now threatening to lead us into an open-ended long-term conflict in Central Asia. Although you wouldn't have thought it possible, Americans seem to be asking even fewer questions about their government today than in 1991, and the major media sound even more monolithically jingoistic. While Congress yet again votes against applying easily achievable fuel-efficiency standards to SUVs, the president of Ford Motor Company can be seen patriotically defending these vehicles in a TV ad, avowing that Americans must never accept "boundaries of any kind."

With so much fresh outrageousness being manufactured daily, I've chosen to do only minimal tinkering with the other essays in this book. "First City" reads a little differently without the World Trade Center; "Imperial Bedroom" was written before John Ashcroft came to power with his seeming indifference to personal liberties; anthrax has lent further poignancy to the woes of the United States Postal Service, as described in "Lost in the Mail"; and Oprah Winfrey's disinvitation of me from her Book Club makes the descriptive word "elitist" fluoresce in the several essays where it appears. But the local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.

Chapter Two

MY FATHER'S BRAIN

Here's a memory. On an overcast morning in February 1996, I received in the mail from my mother, in St. Louis, a Valentine's package containing one pinkly romantic greeting card, two four-ounce Mr. Goodbars, one hollow red filigree heart on a loop of thread, and one copy of a neuropathologist's report on my father's brain autopsy.

I remember the bright gray winter light that morning. I remember leaving the candy, the card, and the ornament in my living room, taking the autopsy report into my bedroom, and sitting down to read it. The brain (it began) weighed 1,225 gm and showed parasagittal atrophy with sulcal widening. I remember translating grams into pounds and pounds into the familiar shrink-wrapped equivalents in a supermarket meat case. I remember putting the report back into its envelope without reading any further.

Some years before he died, my father had participated in a study of memory and aging sponsored by Washington University, and one of the perks for participants was a postmortem brain autopsy, free of charge. I suspect that the study offered other perks of monitoring and treatment which had led my mother, who loved freebies of all kinds, to insist that my father volunteer for it. Thrift was also probably her only conscious motive for including the autopsy report in my Valentine's package. She was saving thirty-two cents' postage.

My clearest memories of that February morning are visual and spatial: the yellow Mr. Goodbar, my shift from living room to bedroom, the late-morning light of a season as far from the winter solstice as from spring. I'm aware, however, that even these memories aren't to be trusted. According to the latest theories, which are based on a wealth of neurological and psychological research in the last few decades, the brain is not an album in which memories are stored discretely like unchanging photographs. A memory is, instead, in the phrase of the psychologist Daniel L. Schachter, a "temporary constellation" of activity-a necessarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole. These images and data are seldom the exclusive property of one particular memory. Indeed, even as my experience on that Valentine's morning was unfolding, my brain was relying on pre-existing categories of "red" and "heart" and "Mr. Goodbar"; the gray sky in my windows was familiar from a thousand other winter mornings; and I already had millions of neurons devoted to a picture of my mother-her stinginess with postage, her romantic attachments to her children, her lingering anger toward my father, her weird lack of tact, and so on. What my memory of that morning therefore consists of, according to the latest models, is a set of hardwired neuronal connections among the pertinent regions of the brain, and a predisposition for the entire constellation to light up-chemically, electrically-when any one part of the circuit is stimulated. Speak the words "Mr. Goodbar" and ask me to free-associate, and if I don't say "Diane Keaton" I will surely say "brain autopsy."

My Valentine's memory would work this way even if I were dredging it up now for the first time ever. But the fact is that I've re-remembered that February morning countless times since then. I've told the story to my brothers. I've offered it as an Outrageous Mother Incident to friends of mine who enjoy that kind of thing. I've even, shameful to report, told people I hardly know at all. Each succeeding recollection and retelling reinforces the constellation of images and knowledge that constitute the memory. At the cellular level, according to neuroscientists, I'm burning the memory in a little deeper each time, strengthening the dendritic connections among its components, further encouraging the firing of that specific set of synapses. One of the great adaptive virtues of our brains, the feature that makes our gray matter so much smarter than any machine yet devised (my laptop's cluttered hard drive or a World Wide Web that insists on recalling, in pellucid detail, a Beverly Hills 90210 fan site last updated on 11/20/98), is our ability to forget almost everything that has ever happened to us. I retain general, largely categorical memories of the past (a year spent in Spain; various visits to Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street) but relatively few specific episodic memories. Those memories that I do retain I tend to revisit and, thereby, strengthen. They become literally-morphologically, electrochemically-part of the architecture of my brain.

This model of memory, which I've presented here in a rather loose layperson's summary, excites the amateur scientist in me. It feels true to the twinned fuzziness and richness of my own memories, and it inspires awe with its image of neural networks effortlessly self-coordinating, in a massively parallel way, to create my ghostly consciousness and my remarkably sturdy sense of self. It seems to me lovely and postmodern. The human brain is a web of a hundred billion neurons, maybe as many as two hundred billion, with trillions of axons and dendrites exchanging quadrillions of messages by way of at least fifty different chemical transmitters. The organ with which we observe and make sense of the universe is, by a comfortable margin, the most complex object we know of in that universe.

And yet it's also a lump of meat. At some point, maybe later on that same Valentine's Day, I forced myself to read the entire pathology report. It included a "Microscopic Description" of my father's brain:

Sections of the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal cerebral cortices showed numerous senile plaques, prominently diffuse type, with minimal numbers of neurofibrillary tangles. Cortical Lewy bodies were easily detected in H&E stained material. The amygdala demonstrated plaques, occasional tangles and mild neuron loss.

In the notice that we had run in local newspapers nine months earlier, my mother insisted that we say my father had died "after long illness." She liked the phrase's formality and reticence, but it was hard not to hear her grievance in it as well, her emphasis on long. The pathologist's identification of senile plaques in my father's brain served to confirm, as only an autopsy could, the fact with which she'd struggled daily for many years: like millions of other Americans, my father had had Alzheimer's disease.

This was his disease. It was also, you could argue, his story. But you have to let me tell it.

ALZHEIMER'S IS A DISEASE of classically "insidious onset." Since even healthy people become more forgetful as they age, there's no way to pinpoint the first memory to fall victim to it. The problem was especially vexed in the case of my father, who not only was depressive and reserved and slightly deaf but also was taking strong medicines for other ailments. For a long time it was possible to chalk up his non sequiturs to his hearing impairment, his forgetfulness to his depression, his hallucinations to his medicines; and chalk them up we did.

My memories of the years of my father's initial decline are vividly about things other than him. Indeed, I'm somewhat appalled by how large I loom in my own memories, how peripheral my parents are. But I was living far from home in those years. My information came mainly from my mother's complaints about my father, and these complaints I took with a grain of salt; she'd been complaining to me pretty much all my life.

My parents' marriage was, it's safe to say, less than happy. They stayed together for the sake of their children and for want of hope that divorce would make them any happier. As long as my father was working, they enjoyed autonomy in their respective fiefdoms of home and workplace, but after he retired, in 1981, at the age of sixty-six, they commenced a round-the-clock performance of No Exit in their comfortably furnished suburban house. I arrived for brief visits like a U.N. peacekeeping force to which each side passionately presented its case against the other.

Unlike my mother, who was hospitalized nearly thirty times in her life, my father had perfect health until he retired. His parents and uncles had lived into their eighties and nineties, and he, Earl Franzen, fully expected to be around at ninety "to see," as he liked to say, "how things turn out."



Continues...


Excerpted from How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

A Word About this Book 3
My Father's Brain 7
Imperial Bedroom 39
Why Bother? 55
Lost in the Mail 98
Erika Imports 139
Sifting the Ashes 143
The Reader in Exile 164
First City 179
Scavenging 195
Control Units 211
Books in Bed 242
Meet Me in St. Louis 258
Inauguration Day, January 2001 275
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    The Bobby Vinton of Non-fiction

    I don't read much non-fiction in my free time. I prefer fiction novels. But, I read 'The Corrections' and decided to try JF's 'How to be Alone.' Glad I did. At the outset, I was suspicious of non-fiction by a fiction novelist -- the Reader never knows when the Writer has crossed the line from non-fiction back to the home turf. The Writer probably doesn't know either. So, although I approached the content with a grain of salt, I held JF up to the light with regards to the writing. And the result was pretty interesting. I know that these essays were printed originally in another format -- magazines I think. I don't think that a Reader who read them at the time of their original publications would have the same interaction with them as the Reader who read them in one fell swoop as a collection. Read them seratim and the Writer's controlling hand pops out as much as the substance of each essay. The entirety of the collection plays like an accordian: sometimes JF is distant from the Reader (like an accordian extended and strained) and sometimes he is closer (like an accordian squeezed close and tight to the body) and sometimes he is nearby and amiable but not too intrusive (striking a comfortable C Major). He draws the Reader in and then pushes the Reader out. Among the first group are the essays about the purpose(s) of fiction novels and fiction writing. His syntax, vocabulary and presentation create distance. That's not to say that I wasn't absorbed by them all. (Despite what Ms. M says, I appreciate the effort that goes into knowing and choosing the right word to express the thought.) And that's not to say I agreed with everything JF posited. Sometimes he just made me chuckle. (Honestly, TV is not a horseman of the apocalypse of American culture.) The second group of essays, including those about his father's illness and JF's return to St. Louis, draw the Reader towards his human-ness. He achieves that not only with the content, but use of more pedestrian vocabulary and references to common stuff. (These were hard for me to read as my mother, who suffered from dementia, recently died. Then again, they made me feel a little less lonely.) The third group, including the essays about the Post Office, the prisons and cigarettes, were well-constructed, informative and interesting, and they would have made great segments on Dateline NBC. (I'll not remark on the sex essay as 'Victorian silences appeal to me' too.) So the uptake is that not only are the individual essays worth the effort to read, but also the collection offers a rare glimpse into how a Writer controls the Reader. And JF is a talented man. Which in turn makes me happy. My favorite (and that is the right word) author died this year, which is sad in many ways and on multiple levels. However, I have found a handful of Writers who, collectively or in groups, can fill the void. JF is one of them. I anticipate greatly his next novel. And you know, after reading 'How to be Alone,' I wonder if this news isn't a bit disquieting for JF -- he has an audience with expectations. Ah, the power of the Reader.....

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2003

    change your view

    Visiting a post office hasn't been the same for me, since I read Franzen's LOST IN THE MAIL in this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2014

    Jess

    She sits on her couch, eating a cracker and watching Touched By an Angel.

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  • Posted August 12, 2013

    Wonderful book of essays.

    Wonderful book of essays.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    A Sparrow

    A sparrow glides through the air, with a note. The sparr dropped it in front of his den. It was from Willowwish. "Dear, Shadowhunter. Sorry about yesterday at my den. I felt bad for making you upset. So I was thinking it over... how about you come visit my den for a little meet-up and get to know eachother and have dinner? If you don't want to come, well, okay. Hope to see you soon." --Sincerly, Willowwish

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2012

    Birdsong

    She curls up in a ball. Sorry- i have to go. Maybe tomarrow?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2012

    Shadowhunter

    Falls asleep

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2012

    Insightful and moving...

    ...if not a little preachy and dated. There is a distinct "get off my lawn" quality to a few of the pieces that I couldnt quite get over.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

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