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By Jay Parini

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Showers of sparks shot out of its caldera—the dark hollow in which the keys lie. Smoke and cinders poured out, noises exploded and spattered, black dense smoke rose up, and a wild, deep fire lighted the whole thing. " Comic in its hyperbole, this passage simultaneously signals the author's understanding of writing's explosive power. " For her own life—and, by extension, for her reader—she seeks the intensity, passion, tenacity, and vision that she celebrates at the end of "Living Like Weasels" (in Teaching a Stone to Talk) as she recalls Ernest Thompson Seton's story of a man shooting an eagle out of the sky and finding "the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat": I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.

What is (gasp) the relationship between the world and the mind? Is knowledge possible? " One of Dillard's projects in Living by Fiction is to "cry foul" the aims of some contemporary modernist fiction to "[recreate] . . " Believing in the responsibility of art to generate fire as well as smoke—"any art, including an art of surface, must do more than dazzle"—she calls for a more serious contemporary criticism. " Finally, whether she composes fiction or nonfiction, Dillard affirms the need for writing to provide interpretations of the world rather than merely to reflect the self-absorbed playfulness of the writer.

The young Annie might fall in love with "a red-haired fourth-grade boy named Walter Milligan . . [who] was tough, Catholic, [and] from an iffy neighborhood," but everyone, herself included, understood that such relationships could never actually materialize. Similarly, racial and ethnic boundaries were well-policed, sometimes even by those who were socially marginalized. When a Catholic boy tells the young Annie to call her maid a "nigger" and she complies, she learns both the presence of and necessary resistance to social hierarchies: Dillard's mother became furious, "steely," insisting that such language and those who used it were forbidden.

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