Daisy Hickman: Interviewer and Reviewer (of Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone)

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.
 http://SunnyRoomStudio.com
daisy@daisyhickman.com
@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?

Shirley Showalter

27 Comments

  1. DazyDayWriter on March 26, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Shirley, thanks again for the opportunity to work together via our blogs — I’ve enjoyed it!

    I would agree that Franzen’s fiction and nonfiction are strongly linked. Many of the scenes from The Corrections seem to have a basis in reality, although tweaked of course. I also think that like many of us … he is torn between taking life seriously or turning it into a comic strip. He builds artistic “tension” in most of his work by looking at life through this dual lens, one of contradiction, yet, compatibility.

    I have all of his books on my shelf, so am looking forward to following Franzen’s journey.

    Thanks again, Shirley. Have a lovely week. ~Daisy

  2. shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 10:47 am

    “He is torn between taking life seriously or turning it into a comic strip.” That’s a really interesting way to describe Franzen. You will be well prepared to evaluate where he lands in each new book.

    I’ve really enjoyed being one of your “kindred spirits” online, Daisy. Hope you find some new ones with this post!

  3. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Thank you Daisy and Shirley for this review. I have not read the memoir but was interested in the fact that you either love it or hate it. I looked up the reviews and was intrigued by, “how his mother’s “strong opinions” have deeply affected his life. I have a friend who fits that description, and it’s interesting to see how it’s affecting her sons aged, 24 and 21 today.

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks, Sonia. One of the pleasures of reading is that we can gain insight into the lives of others as well as ourselves. This happens in both fiction and nonfiction as we engage sympathetically with the characters of a given text.

  4. Lynne Spreen on March 26, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Daisy, I’ve got a dozen books waiting for me to read, but you still make me inclined to purchase this one. Franzen is a complicated character in his own right. I’m sure he’d be an interesting read. Thanks for this to both you and Shirley.

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm

      Hi Lynne, glad to see you here! Thanks for supporting both Daisy and me with your comments. I have just learned how to install an Amazon plug-in on my site so that if people are inspired to buy the book, they can do it without leaving the site. I get a small reward from Amazon, but mostly I do this for the convenience of my visitors. Hope you enjoy. If you do read the book, please come back and comment again. You are always welcome.

  5. Laurie Buchanan on March 26, 2012 at 11:57 am

    SHIRLEY – Thank you for inviting Daisy to your space today. I enjoyed watching the short video clip of you in the upper right-hand corner. I’ve forwarded your link to a person I know who is writing a memoir.

    DAISY – I enjoyed reading your review. I especially loved your keen observation: “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…” as I struggle with that myself.

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      Laurie, so glad you took the time to watch the clip and to share it. Hope that your friend will benefit from the book and the Magical Memoir Moments I share every week. It’s fun to connect in this way.

      And the sentence you picked out from the review hits home with me, too. Maybe Daisy will want to comment further.. . .

    • DazyDayWriter on March 27, 2012 at 10:04 am

      To elaborate re my thought on Franzen and his dedication to each sentence … perhaps just my intuition, but it seemed that in various places he was really “laboring” over a phrase. And sometimes this created a “halting” flow, instead of a more “effortless” flow … to a passage. It didn’t feel “natural,” in other words. But, again, that may simply be part of his artistry.

  6. Barbara on March 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you Daisy for alerting me to this review. If Franzen’s memoir is as well written as your review I’ll look forward to reading it.
    b

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      Barbara, thanks for the comment. And come back if you read the book.

  7. Leanne on March 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Thank you for offering this review, Daisy. It was very interesting to read.

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      Hi, Leanne. Glad you liked the review.

  8. Holly Weiss on March 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Franzen is indeed an author to read. I had not read his memoir. Your review was in depth and informative, Daisy. I’ll definitely look the memoir up. Thank you, Shirley for inviting a great reviewer to your blog.

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      It was a pleasure, Holly. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Tina Barbour on March 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Daisy: Thank you for the review! I have not read anything by Franzen, but I see that I will need to add him to my (very long) list of books to read. I always enjoy a review that reveals the reviewer’s likes AND dislikes.

    Shirley: Enjoyed the interview on Daisy’s site. She asked wonderful questions, and you answered in such a creative and honest way. I love author interviews. I am inspired by people like you and Daisy. Thank you!

    • shirleyhs on March 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      Thank you, Tina! So glad you liked the interview Daisy did with me. She made it fun to answer questions.

      And I agree that hearing positive and negative perspectives on a book helps me decide whether to add another one to my towering bedside table.

  10. Jen Knox on March 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    Daisy,

    This is an excellent review, and, yes, you’ve sold me. I was not a fan of The Discomfort Zone the first time I sat down to read it; however, at the time I was so immersed in the world of memoirs and my MFA program that I may have had a limited view of what I was looking for. You’ve piqued my interest enough to pick it back up. After all, you never know when a book, especially a memoir, will resonate. And as I think you point out, we can learn from personal stories in both the ways we relate and do not.

    Shirley,

    This is a lovely blog, and I’m so excited to have found it. I’ll be checking in. 🙂

    Best,

    Jen

    • shirleyhs on March 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

      Jen, welcome to this blog. It’s so delightful to meet more kindred spirits. I have found many through the gracious connecting that Daisy does.

    • DazyDayWriter on March 27, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Thanks, Jen! Lovely to have you stop by. Shirley’s blog is definitely a favorite place of mine. Have a good week.

      (P.S. Shirley, Jen was also a guest in SunnyRoomStudio … here’s the link @ http://sunnyroomstudio.com/2012/01/27/genuine-wonder/ … she’s a wonderful author, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her.)

  11. Melissa Foster on March 27, 2012 at 8:46 am

    Wonderful review, Daisy. Thank you for sharing! xox

    • shirleyhs on March 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Melissa!

  12. Richard Gilbert on March 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    I really enjoyed your fair-minded and interesting review, Daisy. I enjoyed The Discomfort Zone so much, and admired it, when I read it a year or two ago. You have captured its appeal well, I think. Franzen has a gift for writing, and an equal talent for alienating people–not so much in his writing as in his comments. And so his writing doesn’t always get a fair shake, but he and it did here.

    • DazyDayWriter on March 28, 2012 at 9:10 am

      Hi Richard, thank you for your comment. I dropped by your blog http://richardgilbert.me/about/ and enjoyed it.

      Your Ohio connection is one we share. My husband is from the fair “city” of Orrville — home to Smuckers and Bobby Knight, I believe. We also used to live in Indy. Glad to know about your work, your memoir in progress. I’m always looking for intriguing Studio Guests in SunnyRoomStudio, so will keep you in mind.

      You’re right about Franzen … the good and the alienating … but a strong author will probably need to be willing to go against the grain. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck … at least he’s in good company.

      Thanks again, Richard. Although we don’t live in a “fair” world, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and make a point of looking for understanding versus negative labeling. Our world is heavily burdened by negativity, it seems. ~ Daisy

  13. shirleyhs on March 28, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Ha. The Discomfort Zone must be the place Franzen feels most at home. Perhaps his memoir is an explanation for his sometimes truculent or provocative behavior? I have yet to delve into his work, but this review, and Lanie’s review of Freedom will prepare me to look hard, especially at the women characters.

  14. diane on March 28, 2012 at 8:00 am

    I appreciate how this review gets to the heart of the author’s topic and point of view. It prompted me to take a few notes and understand what it is I’m trying to say in my own work. Thank you!

    • DazyDayWriter on March 28, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Glad you found the review helpful, Diane. I enjoyed writing it … thanks to Shirley, I got to do something new!

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