Blackwell, Elise 1964–
Blackwell, Elise 1964–
Born 1964, in Austin, TX; daughter of botanists; married; children: one daughter. Education: University of California Irvine, M.F.A.
Writer, editor, translator, and educator. University of South Carolina, Columbia, assistant professor. Formerly a professor at Boise State University, Boise, ID, and copywriter at Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Hunger (novel), Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2003.
The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Unbridled Books (Denver, CO), 2007.
Grub, Toby Press (New Milford, CT), 2007.
Elise Blackwell was inspired to write her first novel, Hunger, after reading a Seed Savers Exchange publication. In an interview with Identity Theory Web site contributor Matt Borondy, Blackwell explained: "My childhood exposure to botany primed me to be interested in the story." In Hunger, an unnamed narrator recounts his experiences during the Siege of Leningrad, which took place during World War II when German troops surrounded the Russian city, blocking the population's access to food and supplies. During the siege, also known as the "hunger winter," the narrator is employed in a botany laboratory that holds a collection of exotic seeds. While he and the other scientists vow to protect their collection no matter how starved they become, the narrator secretly eats some of the seeds. He survives while the other scientists, including his wife, perish. The narrator also describes adulterous exploits even as he explains that he truly loved his wife, Alena. To emphasize the bleakness of Leningrad, the narrator recollects exotic meals he had prior to his time in the lab.
Hunger makes readers question whether the narrator was justified in eating the seeds. Though the narrator's actions show cowardice, he rationalizes that he does what is necessary to survive. Roberta O'Hara, in a review for Bookreporter.com, stated that the narrator "is an indulgent man whose every choice in life has been dictated by his wants, his desires."
Hunger received generally positive reviews. While a Kirkus Reviews contributor stated that "the fiction, psychologically, remains … brittle," other reviewers suggested that Blackwell recreates the details and the period well. Carlin Romano, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, commented that, "as a first novel, Hunger stands on its own: a finely angled vision into hell, a spare portrait of the banality of survival."
Blackwell draws on her Louisiana roots in her second novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. A coming-of-age story, the book begins on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, focusing on Louis Proby, son of a self-made lumberyard manager who is ninety years old. Louis reminisces about events in his life, such as his first love, his fraught relationship with his father, and his harsh introduction to the political realities of his community. The central event in Louis's life, however, was the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which destroyed Cypress Parish, Louisiana, his hometown, after civil leaders decided to dynamite the levees protecting the town in order to save the city of New Orleans.
Joanne Wilkinson, in a review for Booklist, described Blackwell as a "thoughtful, subtle writer." Washington Post Book World contributor Ron Charles, however, stated that the novel was beautifully written but too restrained to exploit fully its emotional potential. In a conversation with Curled Up with a Good Book reviewer Luan Gaines, Blackwell said that her grandfather's memoir served as inspiration for The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. She was particularly intrigued by his account of working in Louisiana lumber camps in the early years of the twentieth century and the sacrifices and compromises that members of his generation made to ensure a good life for their children and grandchildren. In the same interview, Blackwell stated: "It's a common American story, I think—one generation paving the road to social mobility for the next," She also emphasized that neither Louis nor his father, William, is based on her grandfather.
As to the novel's relevance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's disastrous impact on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Blackwell told Gaines: "Much of human history has resulted from decisions the powerful, particularly those with the power of wealth, make for everyone else. That was certainly true in 1927 Louisiana. Though Cypress Parish is a fictionalized setting, the novel is based on true events, including the dynamiting of levees south of New Orleans. That decision was made mostly by men who held no elected office, and it was made not so much to save the inhabitants of New Orleans … but to preserve the image that Northern capital was safe there. It's an old story and a new one." Donna Bettencourt, in a review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish for Library Journal, hailed the novel as a "compelling story of a river that still resists the best math and science humanity can construct."
Grub, a satirical novel about the contemporary publishing industry, departs from the more somber themes of Blackwell's previous books. A loose retelling of George Gissing's 1891 novel New Grub Street, the book skewers publishers, agents, and critics, but does not spare writers themselves when they are eager to betray their standards to produce books that will make them rich and famous. Though a writer for Publishers Weekly found some of the characters' behavior too exaggerated, the critic appreciated Blackwell's incisive look at the profit motive in publishing, concluding that she "nails the contemporary forms taken by some very old ambitions."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Australian, September 22, 2007, Cathy Peake, review of Grub.
Booklist, April, 2003, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Hunger, p. 1273; March 15, 2007, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, p. 23; September 1, 2007, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Grub, p. 52.
BookPage, April, 2003, review of Hunger, p. 23.
Free Times, May 23, 2007, Craig Brandhorst, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2003, review of Hunger, p. 157; July 15, 2007, review of Grub.
Kliatt, November, 2004, Nola Theiss, review of Hunger, p. 13.
Library Journal, March 1, 2003, Edward Cone, review of Hunger, p. 116; March 1, 2007, Donna Bettencourt, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, p. 66; September 1, 2007, Jenn B. Stidham, review of Grub, p. 124.
Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2003, Mark Rozzo, review of Hunger, p. R14; December 7, 2003, review of Hunger, p. R8.
Midwest Book Review, May, 2007, Harriet Klausner, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2007, Amy Virshup, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
Observer (London, England), August 31, 2003, review of Hunger, p. 16.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 14, 2003, Carlin Romano, review of Hunger.
Pop Matters, August, 2007, Claudia Smith Brinson, review of Grub.
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), August 26, 2007, Bill Thompson, review of Grub.
Publishers Weekly, May 5, 2003, review of Hunger, p. 201; January 29, 2007, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, p. 41; July 30, 2007, review of Grub, p. 54.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 2007, Michael Leone, review of Grub.
State (Columbia, SC), September 5, 2007, Claudia Smith Brinson, review of Grub.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), October 26, 2007, Nicholas Clee, review of Grub, p. 20.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 1, 2003, review of Hunger, p. 4; October 5, 2003, review of Hunger, p. 4; May 26, 2007, Jason Berry, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, p. 9.
Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2003, review of Hunger, p. W7.
Washington Post Book World, May 6, 2007, Ron Charles, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
BookPleasures.com,http://www.bookpleasures.com/ (June 30, 2008), Norm Goldman, review of Grub, interview with Blackwell, and review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (October 10, 2005), Roberta O'Hara, review of Hunger.
Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (June 30, 2008), Luan Gaines, interview with Blackwell.
Enfuse,http://www.enfusemagazine.com/ (June 30, 2008), Tori Fullard, review of Grub.
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (May 18, 2003), Matt Borondy, interview with Blackwell.
Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (June 30, 2008), Mary Whipple, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish; review of Grub.
Reading Group Choices,http://www.readinggroupchoices.com/ (June 30, 2008), interview with Blackwell.
Time Warner Bookmark, http://www.twbookmark.com/ (October 10, 2005), biography of Elise Blackwell.
Vulpes Libris,http://www.vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/ (June 30, 2008), Jackie, review of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
Writers Read,http://whatarewritersreading.blogspot.com/ (June 30, 2008), brief interview with author.