March 17, 2005
The Virgin of Bennington by Norris, KathleenFiled under: Memoir | Buy on Amazon
This is a book that's not sure what story it's supposed to tell.
It starts out as a memoir, focusing on Norris' college years and her adjustment to life in New York. Then it becomes the story of the Academy of American Poets. Then it becomes a biography of Norris' supervisor at the Academy, her mentor, Betty Kray. In the end you're left scratching your head, not sure what you just read.
But that doesn't mean it's not well written. Norris' prose is often like poetry, smooth and well polished. It's an enjoyable read, it just becomes frustrating when it refuses to settle on one topic.
The story of Norris' early years actually fits the title of the book. It's a story of the inexperienced coming of age in the sexual revolution and discovering her place in life. Eventually it turns into Norris' foray into poetry, but the narrative doesn't hold together. The story is lost as the other topics take over, and it makes for a mediocre memoir.
The story of the Academy of American Poets is intriguing. It was a non-profit group established to support poets and promote poetry. It includes the vibrant social scene of New York in the 1950s through the early 1970s. Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, James Wright, and a number of other famous and semi-famous poets and artists are mentioned. Teachers, poetry-lovers, and the kind of people who donate money to libraries will find the history of establishing poetry readings in the parks, schools, and libraries fascinating.
The biography of Betty Kray is interesting for what can be learned of her character. In Norris' eyes she seemed to be able to handle everything, and after a while you wonder how balanced the portrayal is.
The Virgin of Bennington is worth reading if you like poetry, the hip New York scene, or community education projects. If you're looking for another treatise on faith from Norris, steer clear of this one. She rarely--if ever--mentions God until the very end, and then it almost feels tacked on--completely out of character for Norris.
As a special interest book it has some appeal, but it will be a general audience flop. If she picked one topic from the start it would have made for a much better book.
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