Daisy A. Hickman

There’s an art to interviews. First of all, it helps to be a great observer and listener and to know something about the person and subject under inspection. Most of all, it helps to care. Daisy Hickman fits that bill perfectly. Last week she placed her questions and my answers on her great blog Sunny Room Studio. I hope you’ll test my hypothesis about Daisy and her skills by reading her post “A Voice That Sings” and by asking whether Daisy’s questions elicited good responses from me. I was honored to be her subject.

And now, at my request, Daisy has turned her hand to a new project. She’s not usually a book reviewer, but she kindly responded to my invitation to review a memoir she enjoyed by Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone. Franzen, of course, is one of the most famous writers of fiction and nonfiction living today. Unlike Toni Morrison, who has decided not to write a memoir, Franzen has dipped into memoir more than once, often by writing essays in The New Yorker and then publishing collections. Guest blogger Lanie Tankard referred to The Discomfort Zone in her excellent two-part review of Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom. If you have read Freedom, you might think about Lanie’s thesis that Franzen’s memoir and novel are intricately related to each other.

Here’s Daisy’s review titled “Franzen’s Long Summer.”

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, 2006)

 Rarely, do I read a book just as it’s released.  I may buy it then, but almost always, the book will spend a few months, or even years, on my bookshelf: in waiting.  Such is the case with Franzen’s memoir.  I’m simply more inclined to pick up a memoir by another woman, for one thing.  More broadly speaking, I read whatever seems “compelling” in the moment, given my interests, projects, and personal journey.

 But, at long last, Franzen’s book came into focus for me.  And then Shirley was kind enough to ask about writing a review for her outstanding blog.  Since Franzen is releasing another book of essays, Farther Away, in mid-April, it might be a good time to share a few impressions of his memoir (a New York Times notable book of the year in 2007) that included several spot-on political and cultural observations.  They ring as true today, as when he wrote the book.

 There are some 34 reviews posted on Amazon, and let’s just say, it’s a mixed bag.  Not uncommon in the world of publishing.  What is “good” for one, is “bad” for the next.  But after reading Discomfort, I could  see why someone might love, hate, or feel indifferently about Franzen’s memoir.

I can’t say that I loved the book, but I definitely liked it.  Found it worthwhile and relevant.

For one thing, there was an underlying warmth to the personal history Franzen shares, as he covers some 45 years of life experience in 195 pages (paperback edition).  And I loved the title, because it captured a number of key life situations when Franzen felt out of place.  Uncomfortable.  In fact, near the close of the book, he admits to loving (the best) human beings who don’t fit in.

To explore these feelings of “not fitting in,” he covers his adolescent years in detail, as though trying to discover something about them that still perplexes him.  But I think he’s also quite fond of the youthful Franzen who was a touch rebellious.  He was definitely the kind of student who loved to question authority and what it should stand for in all-American places like Webster Groves, Missouri.

 I also lived in St. Louis for a time, but in a different suburb and maybe a year or two after Franzen had completed his last trip home to visit his mother.  So I appreciated many of the landmarks he wrote about.  The Arch, in particular.  (His friends took him there blindfolded for his birthday.)

But, of much greater importance, is the way in which Franzen weaves together an intriguing personal profile – the evolution of his personality, interests, and life themes.  There is enough detail to create a realistic portrait, yet moments of insight give the book cohesion and depth.

 I sensed the yearning for “truth” that many of us share and his appreciation for the complexity of most relationships.  Born when his mother was 38, the third of three boys, Franzen seemed intent on growing well beyond the constraints of childhood in as many ways as possible:  professionally, personally, and permanently.  He writes about how his 17-year-old self still shows up on a regular basis, however.

 My guess is that he will write another memoir one day and title it: Short Lives and Long Summers.  This was an interesting phrase that he used toward the end of Discomfort to describe the lives of birds.  In a chapter called, “My Bird Problem,” he writes: “Birds were like dinosaurs’ better selves.  They had short lives and long summers.  We all should be so lucky as to leave behind such heirs.”       

In a second memoir, Franzen can write about his life as an author and his literary accomplishments.  Clearly, he wanted to become a serious and significant writer from a young age, so, in many ways, he has already enjoyed a life of long summers.  But when the last sentence is written, the last book published, it may still feel as though it was all too short — a dream never quite captured in the way imagined – one that couldn’t stop time or make death go away.

 I recommend this book because Franzen is an author worth reading.  And even though he seemed to be working a bit too hard at his prose in some passages—preferring the perfect sentence to the sentiment he was hoping to convey—I am more than willing to overlook this.  It gives his memoir an artistic flair, an air of “hard work” in action.

But I forgot to mention how much he loved the work of Charles Schultz as a boy, spending many pages in the book discussing Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy.  It was most endearing.  And it effectively revealed the heart of a young boy groping to understand the world around him through comic relief.

Daisy A. Hickman is the founder of SunnyRoomStudio – a sunny, creative space for kindred spirits.  Her blog appears there each week.  She’s also an author and a published poet, currently at work on a memoir and a poetry collection.
@dhwrites or @dazydaywriter (via twitter) @SunnyRoomStudio (facebook)

Have you read Franzen, either his fiction or nonfiction? What new thoughts did you have about him based on this review? Do you want to know him better? Do you find “misfits” interesting? Do you identify as a “misfit” yourself?

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