Saturday, August 07, 2010

An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

I have been poking away at this book club selection for a couple months.  It's a memoir and I am just not a good memoir reader.  I have two problems reading memoirs:  a) typically, there's not enough story arc (because real life doesn't necessarily work that way) to sustain my interest; and b) as I've mentioned before, I'm not comfortable with the posing.

Annie Dillard is a writer (and artist) who has written more non-fiction than fiction. AAC is Annie Dillard's story of her growing up years, childhood through high school.  It reminded me a bit of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, though DW is fiction and is set earlier than Annie Dillard's life by a couple decades.  Both AAC and DW paint childhood/adolescent years with a respectful and romantic brush.

Annie Dillard descended from some old money families, so her early life included private school, dancing schools, coming out galas, second summer homes.  Her immediate family lived a more middle-class existence, but her grandparents were well-heeled, so that culture trickled down.  Sunday evenings were spent at the country club.  She of course was aware enough to observe the privileges available to her and she was not particularly invested in that world.  She was much more interested in learning, drawing, reading, writing, science, exploring, baseball,  and so forth than in her place in social hierarchy.

Annie Dillard has mad writing skills; she can turn a phrase.  Describing the light that passed occasionally across her bedroom walls at night, after having figured out that it was a car that generated the moving light, but still enjoying the story she could make up about it:
When the low roar drew nigh and the oblong slid in the door, I threw my own switches for pleasure.  It's coming after me; it's a car outside.  It's after me.  It's a car.  It raced over the wall, lighting it blue wherever it ran; it bumped over [sister] Amy's maple headboard in a rush, paused, slithered elongate over the corner, shrank, flew my way, and vanished into itself with a wail.  It was a car.
And I appreciated how far-ranging her interests were in her childhood and the way she incorporates them into her memoir.  Example:
The awesome story of earth's crust's buckling and shifting unfortunately failed to move me in the slightest.  But here was an interesting find.  Only a quirk of chemistry prevented the ground's being a heap of broken rubble.  I hadn't thought of that.  Why isn't it all a heap of broken rubble? For the bedrock fractures and cleaves, notoriously; it uplifts, crumbles, splits, shears, and folds.  All this action naturally shatters the crust.  But it happens that the abundant element silicon is water soluble at high temperatures.  This element heals the scars.  Dissolved silicon seeps everywhere underground and slips into fissures and veins; it fills in, mends, and cement the rubble, over and over, from age to age.  It heals all the thick wounds on the continents' skin and under the oceans; it solidifies as it cools, uplifting, and forms pale veins of scarry quarts running through everything; it dominates the granite bedrock on which we build our cities, the granite interior of mountains and the beds that underlie the plains.
She grew up in Pittsburgh, so she touches on Pittsburgh's steel history.

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