Book review: Holy Land

cover of "holy land" and photo of author dj waldie

We are studying style in our weekly writing workshop, how we use everything from humor to commas to sentence construction (or lack thereof) to express things, and how those things add up to what we might call a "voice."

Brenda, our fearless-leader/teacher/tour-guide also has us doing exercises that bring our attention to the style of other writers, literally deconstructing their work line by line, paragraph by paragraph, to see how they craft worlds, lure us into stories, and guide our focus.

Like most new things, it's a maddening exercise at first. I stumble through essays so clean and deftly executed they seem born that way, like little literary Venuses on the half-shell. I know it's a lie, of course; no one escapes the painful and humiliating tedium of Anne Lamott's famed Shitty First Draft. Still, despite my best efforts at keeping this (and that wonderful Beverly Sills quote about there being no shortcuts to any place worth going) at the forefront of my thinking, I am always quite sure that when I sit down, it should be different. And immediately, if not sooner.

Here's who might cure you and me and anyone else within earshot of that notion: D.J. Waldie, thoughtful chronicler of Things Southern-Californian, with emphasis on that which was created out of something only to erase the thing from which it sprung. In Holy Land, his memoir of a suburban boyhood in Lakewood, California, he alternately describes what it was like growing up in one of the many manufactured towns that began popping up outside of slightly older outposts like Los Angeles and, in his case, Long Beach after the Second World War, and chronicles the inception and building of the town itself.

Unlike the by-now convention of switching back and forth between stories, chapter by chapter, something James McBride did beautifully to create context and build suspense in his memoir, The Color of Water, and that James Michener did thoughtfully in The Source, so you could skip over the tedious modern-day love story, Waldie writes in what I can only call fragments, because my literary vocabulary is so limited. (I'm working on it, I'm working on it.) He loops from personal recounting of the modern-day life in this same town he grew up in, Waldie lives in the same house his parents bought freshly built, and works for the city government, to historical documentation to childhood impressions and so forth, delicately switching from lens to lens until magically, this strange and complex something that sprang from "nothing" starts coming into focus.

You can get all kinds of glimpses into what this crazy place is like, of course, and from all kinds of angles: Chandler and Cain, Bukowski and Fante, and poor old Nathaniel West, to name a few of the few I've read. Of them all, Joan Didion's writing comes the closest to this kind of oblique, restrained, meticulously constructed narrative (she's a big fan, by the way, if her glowing blurb is to be believed). It's work that clearly required a lot of work to make it look like it didn't; it's un-showy yet elegant, and always evocative.

Holy Land restores your faith in the value of rewriting, and the precision it brings. Not to mention it's a helluva good read...


Legalese, etc! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links: if you click on them and buy something, I get Amazon dollars. Which is great, as it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: The Color of Water

author James McBride and his mother Ruth McBride Jordan with book cover

I am sure I was doing many valuable and useful things with my time back in 1996, but it's clear to me that one thing I was not doing enough of was the reading of excellent memoirs, nor even the reading about the reading of them.

How else to explain my egregious oversight in picking up one of the most engrossing, uplifting and flat-out amazing stories of true life to have hit the bestseller list so late that the 10th anniversary edition has already been in print for four years?

Fortunately, I'm fairly sure it's never too late to read The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. For those of you who weren't of reading age when it first came out (or who, like me, simply had your head stuck somewhere it shouldn't have been and missed it), The Color of Water tells the story of one Ruth McBride, née Ruchel Dwara Zylska, redubbed Rachel Deborah Shilsky by her Polish-Jewish immigrant parents upon their arrival in the U.S., a name the Orthodox-raised Ruth further Anglicized when she did the unthinkable for a rabbi's daughter born in the early part of the 20th century and broke away from her family. To marry a black man. And, after his death and the death of her subsequent husband, ultimately raise 12 children on her own, putting all of them through college.

Such a break! Such a story! And most of all, such a woman! At the core of Ruth McBride's story is the animating truth of the universe, love, love, love, which she freely admits and burns so brightly with, it's positively dazzling, dazzlingly positive. I confess to a certain grudging determination when I picked up the book from a stack of autobiographies at Bart's: I'm reading to learn, I told myself, and I can't learn about what makes a good memoir work unless I read the good memoirs.

Happily, steeling myself for an earnest-but-plodding slog was not only unnecessary, but a dazzling reminder of what a jackass I am, still making assumptions at the ripe old age of almost-49. "Page-turner" barely does this book justice; The Color of Water bubbles, crackles and glows with life, as much because of the brilliant writing skills of Ruth McBride's journalist/jazz musician son, James, as it is because of Ruth's own story. McBride flips between the stories of mother and son, the older story lending perspective to the modern one, the two intertwining in a vivid, real-life display of how our most difficult earthly clashes can become our most glorious heavenly gains.

It's a brilliant accomplishment and a huge gift to the world. If I could travel back in time to have read this 14 years ago, I would. The next best thing I can do is recommend that if you haven't yet, pick up a copy and read it today...


Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Photo of James McBride and Ruth McBride Jordan © Judy Lawne, via Oberlin College's website; image of book cover © Riverhead Books.