Here are three works offering creative interpretations of noted authors and their works.
Love As Always, Kurt Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw
The then-clean-shaven novelist was struggling at this moment to break through a memory block and write a book about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Rackstraw became his lover and close friend, and her new memoir chronicles how Vonnegut’s life changed when he finished his Dresden book, originally titled Goodbye Blue Monday but eventually called Slaughterhouse-Five, and rocketed to wealth and fame.
Rackstraw remained his sympathetic sometime-lover after his divorce and remarraige, and the stories she tells are refreshingly modest — she doesn’t claim to have been Kurt’s greatest muse, though she may have been an important part of his support system.
Fittingly, this is a kind book. Rackstraw remained a writing teacher at Iowa and an editor of the North American Review, and her book offers appealing cameos of Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Geraldo Rivera (who, I’m surprised to learn, briefly married Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter), John Irving and even, in a late chapter, Jon Fishman of Phish, a dedicated Vonnegut fan. My only complaint, and a surprising one regarding a memoirist who spent her life writing and editing fiction, is with the prose itself. Many sentences are stiff and clumsy. One characteristic paragraph confusingly begins:
That ‘Slapstick’ was not a rave, critical success was a disappointment — and also one that Kurt himself severely awarded only a grade of “D”.
This from a lifelong writing teacher? Such stylistic blunders are strange to see, but it doesn’t mar the value of this book for anyone wishing to learn more about the gentle soul of Kurt Vonnegut. He earns here a rare honor among celebrity writers: a romantic literary tell-all that only upholds his adoring popular image.
The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl
Like The Dante Club, still my favorite Matthew Pearl book, The Last Dickens is filled with appealing scenes of soon-to-be-legendary early American publishing personalities hard at work. James R. Osgood of Fiends and Osgood is the hero, and the unscrupulous Harper Brothers are the heavies (today, Ticknor and Fields has been lost inside the wayward Houghton-Mifflin firm, while HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch). We also meet Frederick Leypoldt, editor of a new journal called Trade Circular and Publishers’ Bulletin, which would eventually become our familiar Publisher’s Weekly, along with an array of literary waterfront pirates known as bookaneers.
The historical material is delightful, and I hope Matthew Pearl will keep exploring the early publising scene in future works. But his novelistic formula — wrap a great author in a fictional mystery and aim for the bestseller list — may be wearing thin, and I found The Last Dickens less satisfying than his books on Dante or Poe. This may be due to my lack of particular interest in Charles Dickens — sure, I loved Great Expectations, but Dickens was never in my personal pantheon — and is surely due to the fact that I’ve never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I’ll always be interested in any book Matthew Pearl writes, but I hope his next novel will move beyond what has now become too limiting a formula for an author of such wide talent and knowledge.
Curses and Sermons by Nic Saunders
Here, the male and female characters are simply called “The Cowboy” and “The Stranger” respectively, but the basic setup remains. Not every experimental play needs to be enhanced with cinematic visuals, but they work well here. The characters dig deep holes in the ground, perhaps as symbolic preludes to making love, and travel through psychedelic filters until they finally, as Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow eventually must, make love. The film ends happily, a satisfying exploration of an enigmatic work.