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September 26, 2022

Review in Haiku: A Strong West Wind

By Katrina Stonoff

Child of the '60s,
daughter of the Bible Belt,
finds a higher life.

I read A Strong West Wind, by Gail Caldwell (chief book critic for the Boston Globe), because I was interested in her agent, and it came highly recommended. Caldwell is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the jacket calls it an "exquisitely rendered memoir."

I even pulled a quote from the book to add to my quotation journal: "What we have of anyone is so slight: the timbre of a voice, the leftover stories, the smell of a hunting vest." I love this statement. It's simple and contains a profound truth encased in specific details that create an image. It evokes my father.

But the sentence is rare. Overall, the book was a good reminder of why anonymous literary agent Miss Snark says book critics shouldn't try to write novels (actually, she was talking mostly about agents, but she did mention critics as well). I suspect many (if not all) book critics read books with an arrogant eye, thinking, "Heck, I could do better than this!" But if A Strong West Wind is better than "this," I have to wonder what's being sent to the Boston Globe.

For one thing, there's no sign of a story arc. I know it's nonfiction, but memoir has to follow the same structural rules as fiction to hold a reader, and this reads more like a 100,000-word, three-paragraph essay. I have to question whether she would have found a publisher if she didn't already had a "platform" through the Boston Globe (an established group of readers she could easily reach who could be counted on to buy the book).

The sad thing is, it was potentially a beautiful book. There is an elegance in the details, a inherent love for the father who perhaps would have preferred a son. She tells the story of a generation that lived through the mightiest changes earth has seen: from the World War her parents survived, through the Sixties and into the computer age.

But Caldwell herself got in the way. She could not resist showing the reader how bright she is.

There are too many sentences like this one:

"Not long before I turned in my key to Garrison Hall, before I crated the books and steered the Volvo onto the asphalt headed east, I had an encounter with a visiting scholar from a neighboring department that epitomized my ambivalence about academe -- about the misinterpretations it fostered, the little political cadres that helped it to function."

Sure, it makes sense. It's grammatically correct. But it measures 12.0 on the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale, which means you have to read at the level of a high school grad to understand it. And I believe the Flesch-Kincaid scale embedded in my word processor doesn't measure higher than 12.0, so it probably is much higher than that. By comparison, most newspapers measure between sixth and eighth grade, and this journal entry comes in at 9.5, even with Caldwell's sentence. On the Flesch Reading Ease scale, it earned 5.0 (other sentences in the book received scores as low as 1.2!). By comparison, this review rated a 60 for easy reading, and Caldwell's earlier sentence, the one about the hunting vest, rated 62.1.

And nobody gets to use "epitomized," "academe," and "cadres" in the same sentence unless they're writing for a scholarly periodical with peer reviews.

The irony is, she quoted a professor she had in grad school, a writing teacher who routinely accused her of "wiseacre acrobatics." The professor (who nicknamed her Clever Girl) had written on one of her early papers, "There is too much cleverness in the world and too little truth. Let's try to have more truth."

So the message I get is ... Caldwell still hasn't learned this lesson. There is too much cleverness in A Strong West Wind, and its truth is buried by its author's wit.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-06-05
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