Nonfiction Week of #NovNov: Short Memoirs by Lucille Clifton, Alice Thomas Ellis and Deborah Levy

It’s nonfiction week of Novellas in November, which for me usually means short memoirs (today) and nature books (coming up on Wednesday). However, as my list of 10 nonfiction favorites from last year indicates, there’s no shortage of subjects covered in nonfiction works of under 200 pages; whether you’re interested in bereavement, food, hospitality, illness, mountaineering, nature, politics, poverty or social justice, you’ll find something that suits. This week is a great excuse to combine challenges with Nonfiction November, too.

We hope some of you will join in with our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). At a mere 85 pages, it’s a quick read. I’ve been enjoying learning about her family history and how meeting her teacher was the solution to her desperate need to communicate.

My first three short nonfiction reads of the month are all in my wheelhouse of women’s life writing, with each one taking on a slightly different fragmentary form.

 

Generations: A Memoir by Lucille Clifton (1976)

[87 pages]

After her father’s death, Clifton, an award-winning poet, felt compelled to delve into her African American family’s history. Echoing biblical genealogies, she recites her lineage in a rhythmic way and delivers family anecdotes that had passed into legend. First came Caroline, “Mammy Ca’line”: born in Africa in 1822 and brought to America as a child slave, she walked north from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight, became a midwife, and died free. Mammy Ca’line’s sayings lived on through Clifton’s father, her grandson: she “would tell us that we was Sayle people and we didn’t have to obey nobody. You a Sayle, she would say. You from Dahomey women.” Then came Caroline’s daughter, Lucy Sale, famously the first Black woman hanged in Virginia – for shooting her white lover. And so on until we get to Clifton herself, who grew up near Buffalo, New York and attended Howard University.

The chapter epigraphs from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” call into question how much of an individual’s identity is determined by their family circumstances. While I enjoyed the sideways look at slavery and appreciated the poetic take on oral history, I thought more detail and less repetition would have produced greater intimacy.

Reissued by NYRB Classics tomorrow, November 9th, with a new introduction by Tracy K. Smith. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

Home Life, Book Four by Alice Thomas Ellis (1989)

[169 pages]

For four years, Ellis wrote a weekly “Home Life” column for the Spectator. Her informal pieces remind me of Caitlin Moran’s 2000s writing for the Times – what today might form the kernel of a mums’ blog. In short, we have a harried mother of five trying to get writing done while maintaining a household – but given she has homes in London and Wales AND a housekeeper, and that her biggest problems include buying new carpet and being stuck in traffic, it’s hard to work up much sympathy. These days we’d say, Check your privilege.

The sardonic complaining rubbed me the wrong way, especially when the subject was not finding anything she wanted to read even though she’d just shipped four boxes of extraneous books off to her country house, or using noxious sprays to get rid of one harmless fly, or a buildup of rubbish bags because they’d been “tidying.” These essays feel of their time for the glib attitude and complacent consumerism. It’s rather a shame they served as my introduction to Ellis, but I think I’d still give her fiction a try. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)

 

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)

[187 pages]

In the space of a year, Levy separated from her husband and her mother fell ill with the cancer that would kill her. Living with her daughters in a less-than-desirable London flat, she longed for a room of her own. Her octogenarian neighbor, Celia, proffered her garden shed as a writing studio, and that plus an electric bike conferred the intellectual and physical freedom she needed to reinvent her life. That is the bare bones of this sparse volume, the middle one in an autobiographical trilogy, onto which Levy grafts the tissue of experience: conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her.

It’s hard to convey just what makes this brilliant. The scenes are everyday – set at her apartment complex, during her teaching work or on a train; the dialogue might be overheard. Yet each moment feels perfectly chosen to reveal her self, or the emotional truth of a situation, or the latent sexism of modern life. “All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world,” she writes, and it’s that quality of attention that sets this apart. I’ve had mixed success with Levy’s fiction (though I loved Hot Milk), but this was flawless from first line to last. I can only hope the rest of the memoir lives up to it. (New purchase)

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any short nonfiction on your reading pile?

30 responses

  1. Yes, I am a huge fan of Cost of Living as well, especially since it mirrored my own life to a certain extent. I have the other volumes lined up to read as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s wonderful when a parallel story finds you like that. Even I found plenty to relate to there — a lot of Everywoman experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed Cost of Living although the overuse of references and framing devices by male intellectuals stood out as being odd and frustrating in a book that’s trying to shake off the patriarchy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, I’m usually sensitive to overuse of quotations, but it didn’t bother me here. I felt she chose the quotes so well and wove them into her own writing in an organic way. And I didn’t even twig that many of them were by men. Thinking back now, I mostly remember de Beauvoir.

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      1. I think it was because she’d used George Orwell in the first book, then Orson Welles in the second and then put up a portrait if Oscar Wilde while commenting on the moths that landed on her fridge magnets of two prominent female artists.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, interesting. I loved the first line; it’s possibly my favourite one encountered so far this year.

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  3. My only contact with Levy was not a success, but this may be the book to change my mind. Though looking at Claire’s comment, I’m now wondering ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No harm in trying! (If you’re lucky enough to find them at your library…)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I share your mixed feelings about Levy’s fiction but Cost of Living sounds unmissable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I DNFed her latest novel but Hot Milk was a memorable entry on that year’s Booker shortlist. I think you’d like the crisp storytelling in her autobiography.

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  5. I’ll be reviewing The Cost of Living tomorrow, I do love Levy’s nonfiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my first taste of it but I will certainly read more!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Nonfiction Week: Short Memoirs by Lucille Clifton, Alice Thomas Ellis and Deborah Levy (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]

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  7. Generations is the one that would appeal to me. I’ve got quite a lot of nonfic on my NovNov pile, from White Fragility through a memoir of growing up in Birmingham to books about Black and Modernist London respectively to one about parakeets! Not sure I’ll read them all this week, definitely unsure about the reviewing side, but they’re ongoing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My husband was in London last week for the first time in years and loved seeing the parakeets. The reviewing can always lag behind…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve read all three of the Levy memoirs and loved them all. The Cost of Living is the stand-out of the three, but the other two aren’t far behind. I just love the way she makes the ordinary extraordinary through her turns of phrase and referencing. I bet she would be a hoot at a party!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear that they’re on a par. I’ll try to get a review copy of Real Estate when it comes out in paperback next year. Your phrase is just right, making the ordinary extraordinary. I could have sworn I saw her at the last in-person Young Writer Award ceremony, but Eric (who should know) said it wasn’t her.

      I’m sorry I didn’t find enough to write about Generations to fill a whole Shiny review. (How embarrassing to get a follow-up e-mail from the publicist on the same day!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Levy has a way with words that I adore. Real Estate is more of the same, but a little baggier, she’s slightly less angry in it.
        No worries on Generations!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, that Alice Thomas Ellis book sounds most cringe-worthy!

    Like

    1. There were some amusing moments, but the overall attitude felt dated. Especially bad was a joke about how she probably put another hole in the ozone layer by spraying a whole can of bug spray!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The Lucille Clifton, despite your minor reservations, appeals to me, especially not long after having got a lot out of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. And your mention of Caitlin Moran reminds me I must get round to reading the slim novel she wrote, I think, in her teens for #NovNov

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kindred was one of my favourite reads of last year. Generations would indeed make a good follow-up.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] Homecoming by Arthur Schnitzler (reviewed by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write) Short Memoirs by Lucille Clifton, Alice Thomas Ellis and Deborah Levy Aimez-vous Brahms? by Françoise Sagan (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ […]

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  12. I am reading “I’d Rather Be Reading” by Anne Bogel. It’s a re-read for me. Such a fun book/novella.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to read that! Alas, Bogel’s books aren’t available in the UK. One day I’ll have to find a secondhand copy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh! I didn’t know that! Not even in ebook form?

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      2. That’s a possibility, but I tend not to buy Kindle books.

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  13. I didn’t realize that Clifton memoir was so short! Practically another volume of poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. […] at under 100 pages; multiple volumes of Garfield comics also helped. Three were 5-star reads: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, […]

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  15. […] The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self. […]

    Like

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