Monday, December 12, 2016

Book Review - Am I Alone Here: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner

There are some books where the title is completely confusing and, at first glance, out of place...Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men comes to mind.  This is not one of those books.  What you see is what you get with Peter Orner's Am I Alone Here: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read.

The book gives readers glimpses into the author's life, and what books/authors have influenced him.  It's a borrowed book that he never returned to the owner, and Orner is ruminating about his relationship with the borrow-ee.  It's a scene in a book that Orner is currently reading, that brings up memories of a similar scene in his life.  It's two books that, initially might not seem similar, but upon reflection and analysis from Orner, are shown to have quite a bit in common.  By the end of the book, you may feel like you know something about Peter Orner.  However, as is the case with most collections of essays, you may resonate with some of the writings more than others.

For me, one of the most interesting essays was "Eudora Welty, Badass".  In it, Peter Orner talks about his love for Eudora Welty, and how he made a pilgrimage to her home (now a historic landmark) and inspects her books.  He discovers an obscure story in one of her short story collections called The Bride of the Innisfallen called "The Burning".  Welty primarily wrote about the American South, living her entire life in that area.  In the particular story, she did not shy away from confronting the overt racism and other evils perpetuated against slaves.  In particular, the practice of slave-masters raping their female slaves is highlighted - in the context of post-Civil War Reconstruction.  Welty takes on complicated and complex issues that face Southerners with clarity and sharpness.  For Orner, that definitely makes her a badass, and puts this story in the realm of Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, and William Faulkner.

Most of the pieces feature at least one book that played a significant in Peter Orner's life, but there are two essays that which are written as obituaries for his father.  His father features in many of the essays in Am I Alone Here as being a source of love, fear, example, and confusion.  One of the most unexpectedly moving essays is "My Father's Gloves", showing how an ordinary object for one person can be a metaphor and important artifact for someone else.

There are over 40 short essays here, each around 5 pages long, which makes it perfect reading while waiting at an appointment, during a lunch break, or sitting on your...throne.   In fact, the writing style is so unpretentious and full of humor, yet well-crafted and thoughtful that you won't realize you're learning something, or feeling feelings, until the essay is over.  This is the brilliance of Peter Orner's writing - it creeps up slowly and without flourish, then hits you over the head.

Am I Alone Here: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read is a book that can be approached many different ways for different people.  It's for readers and bibliophiles.  It's for lovers of imperfect people and relationships.  It's for memoir and essay enthusiasts.  It's for humans.