Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

Description-A Writer’s Friend or Foe?

dearada_typepad_com_dear_ada_images_2008_01_15_experience_261_artFellow author Mark Tilbury tossed out a question that is often on my mind as a reader and writer. In his post, Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description, Mark asks us our opinion on today’s style of writing.

We’ve all encountered the “massive blocks of descriptive prose” to which Mark refers. Sometimes they truly are too long, too irrelevant to the story, too purple, etc., etc. I have skimmed such passages in search of the storyline and/or dialog that would put me back in the story.

However, because we’re all friends and adults here, I’m going to say that I disagree with the notion that description is informative but unnecessary. I hear all the time that the reader shouldn’t be led around by the nose; he/she should be given the opportunity to imagine the story. As an avid reader, I can honestly say that I have never felt this way about descriptive writing. On the contrary, my imagination was enhanced and grew because of the description I read including that written about journeys and the passage of time.

The key is that writers need to learn the perfect balance between too much and enough, the fine line between well-written, well-placed prose versus that which is encumbering, unnecessary. This seems like a daunting task, but I believe it can be achieved by not reducing writing to a formulaic method. In doing so, authors will elevate writing back to the level of artistic recognition it deserves.

85806_Ashford_1_122_526lo_122_526loI have never read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, but I would have to agree that abundant description about a character’s acne would be tedious. If that acne-plagued character traveled by canal boat from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then I would love the benefit of description. I would look forward to a word picture painted by the author that draws me in to the sounds, smells, and sights of the trip. It would be a perfect place to introduce traveling companions, a time for the protagonist to reflect, an opportunity to build the tension that so deliciously moves the story forward.

Even if none of the above-mentioned suggestions occur, as a reader I would still enjoy the mental images of traveling with the character, and I believe an important part of the writing would be lost if these well-written descriptions didn’t occur. As Mark mentioned in his post, they are an art form unto themselves. Like all art, value thereof still resides in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. Well-written description can exist purely for the sake of entertainment.

I have to wonder if writing hasn’t gone the way of food preparation in that we no longer know how to linger over a book in the same way that we forego multiple course meals and choose to patronize fast-food restaurants. I read because I enjoy the slower pace, and while there is a place in my fa9bbdedb5103e7f31a0893eff84ed56reading diet for the occasional literary Big Mac, more often than not, I opt for the balanced meal of description, dialog, prose, and narrative.

Now I don’t want to start a fight with screenwriters because I truly do appreciate their craft. However, using what worked in an action-packed movie and applying it to writing has resulted in fast-paced novels written with the singular hope of being turned into a movie. This has diminished writing for some of us. This influence has led to the removal of poetry and painting (mental images) from writing resulting in flat, hollows stories. Let movies be movies, appreciate them for all that they are; and let books be books, treasures not to be rushed through.

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