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Grave Goods

John P. O'Grady

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Title: Grave Goods
Author: John P. O'Grady
Genre: Essays
Written: 2001
Length: 147 pages
Availability: Grave Goods - US
Grave Goods - UK
Grave Goods - Canada
  • Essays of a Peculiar Nature
  • These pieces have been published previously in a variety of periodicals, including Common Boundary, The Quest, and Terra Nova

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engagingly written pieces on the odd and unusual

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The grave goods of the title are -- so the epigraph from a Dictionary of Archaeology -- "objects placed with the deceased on burial". It is this idea, of the type of objects that might be placed in a grave, the "offerings to the dead man's spirit" or the provisions or mementos, that is of interest to O'Grady. Symbolic, apparently useless offerings, they still serve a purpose. It is these types of stories that he eagerly pursues and recounts.
       O'Grady is grounded in the real. He studied forestry, he has an affinity for nature. But he also interested in that slightly super-natural, willing to consider the unclear bounds between natural and super-natural. It is the irregular, the odd, the peculiar that intrigue him. "Myth is undervalued in a scientific education", he suggests (and then demonstrates fairly convincingly).
       O'Grady is a story-teller. These sixteen pieces are, nominally, essays, but all the while O'Grady is spinning tales. They are based in fact, as O'Grady recounts occurrences, dredges up memories, considers events. But many of the incidents around which the pieces focus are mysterious and odd -- and O'Grady revels in these aspects of the tales. There are spirits, psychics, legends. There are apparently inexplicable appearances, disappearances, and occurrences -- some of which turn out to have some very mundane (though often amusing) explanations. There is even D.B.Cooper, whose hijacking O'Grady describes in one of the more straightforward pieces.
       O'Grady is open to lots of ideas and stories and explanations, but he also has a healthy skepticism. There is a lot of debunking here. Everything from Plymouth Rock to the Idaho border is considered. Rip Van Winkle's grave, psychics working for the police, and a variety of free spirits all crop up. O'Grady doesn't necessarily take anything too seriously, but he is willing to entertain these ideas and consider the implications.
       Some of the pieces follow a single thread; others lead him to jump from topic to topic. He does so engagingly, a true raconteur: he grabs his audience and holds on. These are almost performance pieces, rather than essays. (Of course, too much flourish can detract from the substance -- as happens occasionally here.)
       Many of the pieces are told in the first person, and O'Grady mentions relevant autobiographical detail. He studied forestry at the University of Maine. He took one of Stephen King's writing classes. Territory he is familiar with -- Maine, the Catskills, New Jersey -- reappears, though he ranges fairly wide across the country.
       Nature, especially, is of interest, and his roundabout approach is a good one. He doesn't rant to much about the horrors of modernity, but rather uses examples -- people he's encountered, stories he's heard -- to make his points. Fairly subtly, fairly effectively. Even ideas that are hard to treat without becoming mawkish are quite well-handled -- so, for example, in his piece on the notion that: "Each of us has a tree out there somewhere", in which he offers personal reminiscences, myth, and historical anecdotes to put together a decent little piece.
       O'Grady is also drawn to the "kooks" -- "full-souled people living on the edge". Apparently quite sane himself, he nevertheless feels there is something to learn from them. And he doesn't romanticize them, which makes it all quite bearable.
       O'Grady has a deceptively easy-going style. Sometimes it is a bit too laid back: "He had begun his conjuring. I guess you could call it that." Sometimes he is a bit too clever; he writes about game six of the 1975 baseball World Series: "Everybody in New England is barnacled to their TV screen." But on the whole he adopts the right convincing story-telling tone.
       There's also some thought here. Mild philosophical speculation. A dash of metaphysics, some old-fashioned truths. The down-to-earth approach is particularly welcome, and without making mountains out of molehills or insisting overly earnestly on the grand significance of his insights, O'Grady does have manage to convey some interesting thoughts and ideas.
       Writing specifically about history, O'Grady says that the common attitude (and fear) is: "if you don't get it into a book or onto a sign, it gets away and goes feral." But O'Grady likes the feral. Indeed, he seems cautious in how he sets down his stories here, as though not wanting to trap them, or fix them on the page (or in the imagination). He wants them to retain their aura of mystery and their haziness. He offers few solutions: most of what he describes remains as shrouded in mystery at the end of his accounts as at the beginning -- though the shroud has often been shifted or changed in the process.

       The essays collected in Grave Goods are small pieces. Entertaining magazine pieces. They hold up here, too, accomplished (if occasionally too studied) works that amuse and entertain and provoke a little (but not too much) thought. Good anecdotal material, well recounted. They are "essays of a peculiar nature", and as such not always entirely satisfying. But on the whole it is a worthwhile little collection.

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Grave Goods: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer John P. O'Grady was born in 1958. He currently teaches at Allegheny College.

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