Reading Matters

‘Poor Teeth,’ an Alabama photographer, a forgotten marriage

Sarah Smarsh
Sarah Smarsh Twitter

My guiltiest of guilty pleasures these days is following New York Times book critic Dwight Garner on Twitter.

He’s a lively writer, with a gift for the clever phrase, and he leads me down lanes I’d never otherwise venture. What’s more, he’s someone who consistently tips his hat to other fine writers. (The Michigan poet Amorak Huey is another generous hat-tipper on Twitter.)

Garner led me to Sarah Smarsh’s article, “Poor Teeth,” in a magazine called Aeon. She opens the article: “I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes.” Smarsh says, “My family’s distress over our teeth -- what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake -- reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underpriveleged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condtion.”

Smarsh is a regular columnist for journalist Krista Tippett’s email newsletter On Being, and her first book, due next year, is “In the Red,” about her upbringing in Kansas and the American class system.

It was also Garner who tipped me to the obituary of Hale County, Ala., photographer William Christenberry, which ran in the Times in November. Christenberry’s stark photos of the run down and neglected in rural Hale County are reminiscent of Walker Evans’s Depression photos.

The obituary writer, Richard B. Woodward, mentioned Christenberry’s 2008 autobiography, “Working from Memory,” which I’m eager to read. In the memoir, Christenberry quotes his mother: “Son, everyone is going to think Alabama is a rusted, worn-out, old, bullet-ridden place, based on your work.”

And Christenberry, according to Woodward, would answer that he liked the warp that time gave to things, and he’d quote Emily Dickinson: “Memory is a strange bell, jubilee and knell.”

Somewhere, in time’s inky depths, in a secret ceremony beyond recall, I must have married the novelist Paul Auster. Why else would I continue to love, honor and obey this self-indulgent man through chapter after chapter of his latest opus, “4321.” Honestly. But I can’t stop, though turgid is the tread. Then, suddenly, he describes the way young Archie Ferguson feels after his grandmother dies, touching the knick-knacks in her apartment, or what a windfall of money does for his peace of mind, and I’d plight my troth again and again.

Even the Guardian loves “4321,” hoisting it to first on its January fiction list, and calling it “a meditation on fate and possibility.”

Do I recommend it? Yes, for those with leisure, patience and an abiding curiosity about life’s twists and turns.

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