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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron
Home Fire: A Novel
Kamila Shamsie
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present
Howard Zinn

Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway - Joyce Carol Oates Joyce Carol Oates and I have an odd relationship—purely literary, of course. Many times her works have left me quite satisfied. Others have been disappointing. I know this is not a so much a reflection of her talent; rather, it is her push (a need?) to publish what seems like a million books in her lifetime. When an author is churning out five books a year, the reader should expect it to be hit-or-miss. Yet, I come back for more. For all the nights I’ve spent awake mulling over lackluster tales, I keep returning in the hopes of stories that will keep make my nights wild with excitement.So what book could be more perfect than Wild Nights!, a collection of five stories that tell of the last days of five literary giants—Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway? I was captivated with the concept when I first heard of it, and, to date, it is the only Oates book I have read immediately after publication. Yet, through the entire book, I was prepared for disappointment, so that when it came along, I was able to brush it aside and enjoy Wild Nights! for its better qualities.Unfortunately, the biggest disappointment is the concept itself. The publishers knew what they were doing by adding the tagline "Stories about the last days of…" It certainly worked on me: I was captivated, even though I have yet to develop an appreciation for Twain and am not the slighest bit familiar with Henry James. Be advised, however, that these five stories are not necessarily depicting "the last days" of the aforementioned authors. They’re not always even depicting the authors themselves. Now that’s disappointing!My hope with the Poe story was that it would speculate as to what happened to the influential writer whose death remains a mystery today. Immediately, one sees this is not the case, however, as the tale begins with the day Poe died and carries on for many months afterwards as he performs his duties as sole occupant of a Chilean lighthouse. Not what I had expected, but more than acceptable as it carried a Poe-esque theme and tone throughout its entirity.For Dickinson, I had considered a moving tale which pondered the poet’s seclusion, heartache, and obsession with death. Oates, instead, weaves together "EDickinsonRepliLuxe", the story of a 21st-century couple who purchases a mechanical reproduction of the author herself. What does this have to do with the last days of EmilyDickinson, or even Dickinson herself, you ask? Absolutely nothing. The android doesn’t even give us much of a glimpse into the author.At this point, I had thrown what few expectation I had away. I knew before reading it that the story of Twain would have nothing to do with his birth and death coinciding with Haley’s comet like I had entertained before taking the collection home from the library. It didn’t. And it didn’t have anything to do with his death. This story was however about the author and even took place at a late point in his life, which I guess falls into the vague misnomer of "last days." "Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906" gives insight into a part of Twain’s life that I had known nothing of. It was equally suspenseful and tender and stood out as the collection’s best.Of the authors, Henry James was the only I had read no works of; other than faint name recognition, I knew nothing of him. James’ "last days" peer into his time spent volunteering at a London hospital during World War I. It carried over a certain feeling that the Twain story had in it’s eery sentimentality. This one, however, seemed to carry on a bit too long and by the end, I just wasn’t as interested as I was the first half.The final tale regarded Hemingway, the writer whose life ended in the stereotypical author way. Surprisingly at this point in the book, "Papa at Ketchum, 1961" begins immediately with a shotgun pointed to Hemingway’s head. Could this truly be a story about the author’s "last days?" Here again, Oates effectively uses the writer’s style which may be jarring to the reader unfamiliar with Hemingway. (He liked pronouns. He liked them very much. You could say he loved them. Except he loved many things. Like short sentences.) Of course this story wouldn’t fit in to this collection if it just told a straight forth narrative of Hemingway’s death, and so Oates digresses on other paths which I will not reveal.If I were unfamiliar with Joyce Carol Oates, I would’ve thrown this book across the room. I would have felt lied to. Disappointed. It’s not what one should expect. Those familiar with Oates, however, probably will expect it. And they’ll equally expect that though this book, like any of Oates’ many books couldn’t possibly be bad, it very likely is not that good, either.