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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Veil Lifted: Revealing a Peculiar Memoir

The Black Veil: A Memoir  Digressions
          When one is handed a book by someone who states, "I want you to read this book to tell me what you think of it, I thought it was kind of weird--I got it for a dollar at the Dollar Tree store", then a red flag, perhaps combined with an impish chin stroking curiosity, might be one possible reaction.  This was the case when my sister handed The Black Veil by Rick Moody to me during my December holiday vacation to Tennessee.  I am sometimes reluctant to read a book when someone says I should read it because it was a good book, but the reluctance becomes even more cringe worthy when I am told I should read it because it was weird.  Okay, so I do have a tendency toward weird tastes sometimes, but to have another person take it upon themselves to decide what might be weird according to my predilections and hand me a book based on that judgment can be somewhat off-putting.   Nevertheless I took this bargain book with the reminder that it might be a few weeks before I would get to it, and in doing so assured my sister that I would let her know what I thought about the book.  I have now finished reading The Black Veil and am ready to not only provide my honest assessment of this book to my sister, but also to you who are reading this.


          In short, this book is weird.  I won't say that it is a book that I would necessarily recommend to anyone else, or that I liked the book.  There were times when I forced myself to read with a frustration previously reserved for struggling through certain books or articles required for a college class in which the reading was only done for a grade and not for any personal pleasure or even enlightenment.  This is not a positive review of The Black Veil, nor is it absolutely negative.  It is my commentary on a peculiar reading experience with which I had a like/dislike relationship, not having enough of an emotional attachment to consider my feelings toward the book to be as strong as love/hate--my feelings are somewhat ambivalent, yet with enough stirring to exact my pronouncement on Rick Moody's odd little memoir.


         One of the impediments of my absolute enjoyment of this book becomes evident in the complete title of Rick Moody's book:  The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions.  Where the concept of "memoir" in a fairly straight-forward telling of Moody's life story would be reasonable to most readers, the added digressions to the story provide a conundrum of humorous or, at times, interesting historical reflections which sometimes establish a sense of time--past and present--and other times a sense of mind--the authors interpretation of the world around him and his interpolation of his own inner thoughts. In his preface Moody states, ''My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative.''  He goes on to say, "Alas, this account never settles for the orderly where the disorderly and explosive can substitute.."   Egad! This sounds a bit like literary fireworks and an attempt at sensationalism to me.  It seems to me that even Moody recognizes the difficulty of the way he approached the memoir and how it might be accepted by the reader.  


        Rick Moody is a well established and critically acclaimed author who is most known for his novels The Ice Storm and Garden State, both which have been made into feature films.   In his memoir Moody reflects on his early life in what he portrays as a somewhat dysfunctional family, though probably not any more dysfunctional than most average families.   From his New England roots he senses an inherited guilt that has been passed from his Puritan forebears and perhaps further back to his European roots.   The darkness that overshadows his life is further complicated by the familial connection to one Joseph "Handkerchief" Moody who is thought to be the inspiration of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, "The Minister's Black Veil".  Since I had never heard of this story, let alone read it, I found myself digressing online to read "The Minister's Black Veil"--not the best story I have ever read, but more of a curiosity of the early American short story.   I was to later find that the story is found at the end of Moody's book, but I think the reader would be served better by having the story introduced toward the beginning so that the connection would more clear to the reader of Moody's memoir since so much of the metaphor of the story is the metaphor of Moody's life and the memoir that he has written.


          The memoir follows through Moody's troubled adolescence and into his early adulthood during which he struggles with alcohol dependency and difficulties in relating to others.   His problems lead to a mental breakdown which results in a stay in a mental hospital.  He recounts his period of recovery and some parts of the years that follow.   The aspects that might be of most interest to those who want to know about Moody and his writing career are sadly deficient.   This is not the story of Rick Moody the successful writer, but the story of Moody the moody guy, angst-ridden, searching for self and trying to understand his family.  It is at times dark and troubling, and at others ludicrous and fun.  Some of the ancestral history is interesting and some goes to an extreme that can in stretches be boring.  Moody must be commended in any case for the amount of detailed research that he has put into this book.


            This leads me to the writing style used by Moody in this particular book.  If you thought the style of this, my present commentary, was a bit rambling, with an excessive amount of phrasing set apart by commas, then you might multiply my long sentences by double, triple, or even more, and you will get an idea of the way The Black Veil is written--think in terms of paragraphs that at times go on for several pages.   And if you wonder about my use of italics, then you are in for a great distraction in Moody's book as he uses italics throughout.   The author's explanation for the use italics that is given at the end of the book is rather clever--he uses the italics in lieu of having to resort to footnotes, something which I often find more distracting than italics--but if I had known the reason of the extensive use I might not have been as annoyed with the italics as I was while in the midst of reading The Black Veil.  Moody is a good story-teller when he is telling the story, but he can be pretty perturbing in the digressions, especially with what oftentimes comes across as an artificial and affected style of writing.


         Should you read The Black Veil?  For most I would say no, unless you are interested in reading a challenging and uniquely written memoir.  This is unlike any other memoir I've read.  I often found it tedious reading and was anxious for it to end, however in retrospect the book did stick with me.  Moody's conclusions about what is real and what is not in the way we all portray ourselves and see others makes me wonder about the authenticity of this memoir.  Has Moody truly lifted the veil to show us who he really is, or has he donned a mask of theatricality to provide us with the gimmickry of a skilled writer playing with our heads.   Maybe you'll want to read the book for yourself so you can tell me if you thought it was weird.


         Have you read any of Rick Moody's books, or specifically The Black Veil?   When a memoir receives more of a literary treatment than a straight-forward telling of a life story, do you think it is as trustworthy?   If a writer is breaking the traditional rules of writing and/or formatting would you prefer to have this explained before you start reading, or do you like to approach a book like a mystery and try to figure out the writer's tricks for yourself or be told after the fact?




            Beginning next Wednesday I will be having a series of guest posts.  The first one, on July 13th, will be Tina from Life Is Good.  Many of you have already heard from Tina in the Post Challenge Challenge that she and Shannon from The Warrior Muse have been undertaking.  Tina will be talking about that Challenge and other interesting things.  Stay with Tossing It Out on Wednesdays for all the informative guest posts to come.






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28 comments:

  1. I have not read the book in question and reading what you have written don't think I will.

    I will look forward to your Wednesday guest as they come along.

    Enjoy your day,
    Yvonne.

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  2. It must not have been well read for it to end up in a dollar store. It sounds more like exercise than reading.

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  3. Honestly? I read 1 or 2 short stories, many reviews of his work and, frankly, the only thing I recall is looking up the word "semiotics". I'm sure there's something to be said for creative styles and writing exactly as one things; I've even tried it for a piece or two. But it's a tough slog when you're talking about a full-length book to read, and I have to be fully engaged to want to keep on reading. This doesn't sound like the subject matter would be interesting enough to me to merit struggling through. Excellent review Lee - and very clever, illustrating the style by using italics in your own!!!

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  4. Not my type of read. I think 'Dollar Tree' would've sent up the biggest red flag for me though.

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  5. Your sister sounds like me, I often say 'I'd like you to read this book and tell me what you think'. It sounds like you found the book really unsettling. So I guess I'd have to be in the right frame of mind to read it, I think. :O)

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  6. Hi Lee .. I wonder if you because you had to plough through it and had to report back to your sister, even if not us, then more of the book stuck with you?

    Sounds interesting .. but perhaps something I'd tackle as a project rather than a read ..

    Thanks for the review - good to read about Moody and about the book .. cheers Hilary

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  7. 'If a writer is breaking the traditional rules of writing and/or formatting would you prefer to have this explained before you start reading, or do you like to approach a book like a mystery and try to figure out the writer's tricks for yourself or be told after the fact?'

    Hard to say. Depends on the execution. As you forced yourself through some of this-- does not make for a pleasant reading experience-- I would say 'mystery' is (more than) a bit risky?

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  8. I'd give it a try. If a book costs a buck it's not a lot of $. I understand they have remainders & you can get some hardbacks/paperbacks for a great deal. Long paragraphs--I think that's a wordy author. But I'd give it a shot. Sometimes the strangest books end up becoming favorites.

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  9. Not a book I'm familiar with but your review certainly gave us all a taste of what we would find in it. Excellent review, Lee.

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  10. Yvonne -- I have some interesting guest posts coming in the next several Wednesdays. Stay tuned!

    Delores -- There were times I felt like I was slogging through snow or mud or weighty literary techniques.

    Li -- I had fun with my feeble recreation of Moody's style.

    Alex -- I guess it's not a horrible find for Dollar Tree, after all the book did win some awards and has been highly acclaimed in some circles. It's better than most books I've seen in that store's bargain bins.

    Madeleine --Frame of mind has a lot to do with how we react to a book. There were times when I thoroughly was enjoying the book and other times not.

    Hilary -- I actually think you might like the book since it had so much in the way of information packed into it. A lot was rather interesting.

    Suze -- I don't think the average reader would put up with this book.

    Lisa from Nadir -- You are another one who might appreciate the book. It's a challenge, but certainly not trash.

    Pam -- Thanks for taking the time to read this review.

    Lee

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  11. I'm going to read this book. It sounds like something I'd like..most of the time I find that stuff other people label as generically 'weird', I think is excellent.
    I haven't read anything by Rick Moody.
    If an author gives their memoir a 'literary' treatment it doesn't bother me in the least..who am I to say that someone has not interpreted their own life correctly? Of course certain things will be embellished, we all do that whether we write it down or not..and if they want to fabricate other things...oh well, it's none of my business...as long as it's a well told, well written story..and by 'well written' I don't mean not 'weird'..sometimes I think that anyone who thinks outside the conventional box gets labeled as 'weird'
    Good review Lee, I'm gonna look for this book! We don't have 'Dollar Tree' in Canada, but I bet the Bookman has it!

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  12. BOIDMAN ~
    You find it "off-putting" when a family member who knows you're a bit weird and have a taste for the weird in arts suggests that you should read a particular book because it's weird and therefore you might like it?

    You find that "off-putting"?

    Now that's just plain WEIRD!
    [;-)

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

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  13. Yikes. It's that ambivalence you speak of that makes me not want to read (or finish) a book. I'd much prefer to finish a book I hate. At least that means it's brought some emotion/passion into the equation. Ambivalence is a waste of my time.

    Hey, at least it was only one dollar, right? LOL

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  14. Nope, not read him or the book. The only Dollar Tree book I even thought about picking up was a jumbo color book.

    The only book that will tick me is off, is one where it is said to be one thing, only to be something totally different.
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

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  15. Everybody seems to be knocking the book because it ended up in the dollar store.

    Sooner or later, they ALL end up in the dollar store!

    Once the paperback is released, the hardback starts the never-ending markdown spiral...

    Sorry all you authors and aspiring authors...it's the publishing circle of life!

    Larry

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  16. Eve -- I'd like to hear an assessment from someone who does read it so let me know. Reviews on line are really mixed--love it or hate it mostly. Check the library. It should be there since it was a fairly major publication.

    StMc -- Actually my whole family is pretty weird.

    Jeanmarie -- I won't call my time spent reading this wasted time. There was some literary value and it has made me rethink the concept of memoir.

    Jules -- I saw some of those coloring books at Dollar Tree the other day. And I bought two more books. They were a dollar! I couldn't resist.

    Jo -- Like I said, this book is probably not what most readers would enjoy.

    Larry --Just like the Lion King. I actually wish they had a better selection of books at Dollar Tree. The one close to my house has a very limited selection and most of them look a lot weirder than this one I reviewed.

    Lee

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  17. An excellent and thorough review. I've found some gems at General Dollar. I will skim books at the store and then take a chance if it sounds good. I might have bought this one for a dollar. But if I decided it was too weird and would rather spend my valuable reading time on something else, I'd shelf it. I've shelved books that have cost more than a dollar!
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

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  18. I have not read any of Moody's books. And this one sounds really, really strange.

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  19. Good morning Lee,
    Thanks for the post, I always look forward to reading your thoughts. I don't think I will read this book... as I am still checking out Flannery. Have a fantastic day!
    Take care,
    Lisa

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  20. I've not read anything by Moody and I don't think I would suffer through his memoir.

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  21. thank you for sharing, it posts some nice views about writing a memoir (blogging is a memoir:)). i would not read the book because i do not have a clue who the person is.

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  22. The fact that it ended up in the Dollar Store, or that it was a bit difficult to read, doesn't bother me at all. To me, it's all about the story. GREAT review!

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  23. sounds interesting to me...yeah, am weird. lol

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  24. Ann -- I don't regret having read this weird memoir--it did have something to offer me.

    Angela -- I might be hesitant to read his novels based on this experience, but they have been acclaimed and might be worth one's time.

    Lisa from FFD-- Between the two choices I would definitely recommend Flannery O'Connor.

    Paula - I'm not sure I would call it suffering, but it was tedious at times.

    Ocean Girl -- I did not know who he was until I read more about him on the internet.

    Pat -- It was a convoluted story for sure and might be right up some folks' alley.

    mymy -- Join the weird club. I like weird stuff too.

    Lee

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  25. I attempted this book, but was so annoyed I could not continue. It gave me a headache. I guess it's hard to say what I prefer in terms of non-traditional writing styles. It depends upon the mood I'm in. Sometimes I'm all about go with the flow, others, "splain it to me, Lucy."

    Interesting review. I'm looking forward to the guest posts. I've met some great new people through the post challenge challenge.

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  26. I've never even been tempted to pick up a book I've seen at a dollar store. This review didn't convince me to change my stance. Considering he's written books good enough to make movies I'm surprised.

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  27. Melissa -- I was so tempted to stop reading, but in the end I'm glad I did finish. I guess I got something out of the reading experience--not a lot in the way of entertainment, but it was...interesting?

    Maurice -- I won't say that a book found in the dollar store is bad--as Larry pointed out earlier it's just part of the cycle of some published books. The movies as I recall were fairly good.

    Lee

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Lee