THE HABIT OF BEING

LETTERS OF FLANNERY O'CONNOR

Flannery O'Connor's best fiction seemed almost pre-grooved, as though she merely poured ink—and vividness—into grooves of mysterious life that were already whitely there. Being Southern, being Catholic, and being ill had a lot to do with that, and these hundreds of letters give O'Connor's tough, funny, careful personality to us more distinctly and movingly than any biography probably would. The idea of the spinster lady with lupus living cut off from the world in Milledgeville, Georgia, a primitive who raised peahens and a queer kind of ruckus—religious and weird—in her fiction, is dispelled. She was at home with the foremost literary figures of the day: Lowell, the Tates, Elizabeth Bishop, J. F. Powers, John Hawkes. She took no guff about finances connected with her work. She asked for criticism and accepted or discarded it according to its merits. She was conservative and anti-integrationist. Besieged by collegiate requests for clarifications of her work, she became weary, testy, revealing: "I have to sit down and write a graduate student in Cleveland who wants to know why my stories are grotesque; are they grotesque because I am showing the frustration of grace? It's very hard to tell these innocents that they are grotesque because that's the nature of my talent." Another side to her talent is an almost astonishing directness. In the letters, this is often found in humor, but the point is never lost. In a series of letters over ten years time to a woman identified as only "A.," O'Connor writes a kind of spiritual biography of a Catholic writer. "I am only interested in a fiction of miracles." She recalls a dinner where Mary McCarthy blathered on about the Host being a marvelous symbol, and prompted O'Connor's: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." When A. leaves the Church, O'Connor mourns in her fashion, trying to convince her friend that if Jesus weren't God, she—O'Connor—would want to have nothing to do with him. Throughout, there are only the lightest, self-deprecating remarks about her debilitating, finally fatal illness: a refusal to let it slow her, and for every physical blow, her mind and outlook and literary assurance getting reactively tougher. Remarkable and inspiring.

Pub Date: March 16, 1979

ISBN: 0374521042

Page Count: 644

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1979

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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UNTAMED

More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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