January Releases, Part III: Taylor Harris, Cathy Rentzenbrink & Tanya Shadrick

Rounding off my three-part look at some of the month’s new releases with two memoirs plus a memoir-writer’s self-help guide today. (Can you tell I’m a memoir junkie?) Topics range from medical mysteries and covert racism to a reclaiming of life after a near-death experience, but these three nonfiction works by women are linked by the determination to overcome self-doubt.

 

This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris

One morning, Taylor Harris and her husband (an African American family based in Charlottesville, Virginia) found their 22-month-old son Christopher, nicknamed “Tophs,” awake but unresponsive in his crib. In the years that followed, she and his doctors looked for answers as to why his body couldn’t regulate his blood sugar levels, sometimes leading to seizures, and to why his speech and mental processing remained delayed. All their tests and theories have never amounted to a conclusive diagnosis. This was a book that repeatedly surprised me. I’d assumed it would be exclusively about the medical mystery of Tophs’s physical and intellectual disability. But Harris elegantly weaves in a lot of other themes, too: mental illness, her own physical concerns (a BRCA2 mutation), racism, faith, and advocating for her children’s health and education. (Full review at BookBrowse.)

 

Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink is a lovely human being, and I’ve always appreciated her enthusiastic support of books. I’ve read all of her work even though I’ve been disappointed with her last few releases. There are so many writing guides out there – including several on memoir-writing specifically – that the first question to ask about one is, does it offer anything new? For me, this one doesn’t. In fact, it’s more of a therapy session than a practical writing guide.

The undemanding prose slides right down, but 60 pages in (at the end of Part One, “Preparation”) I realized all we’d had thus far was enumerating and countering the hang-ups of unconfident, procrastinating would-be writers. The rest of the book does then get into the nitty-gritty of producing a first draft (“Excavation”) of a life story and editing it into a more polished form. Rentzenbrink peppers in little tricks to keep oneself at the desk, like setting a timer or micro-goals, writing a section in the form of a letter, and dredging up sensory details. Most of the mini chapters are just a couple of pages. Several end with a series of prompts. I’m notorious for skipping the application questions in self-help books, but I’d be interested to hear if other readers have actually gone through these exercises and found them helpful.

I’m so familiar with the author’s own story from her three autobiographical works that I was less than patient about encountering certain incidents again here – though I was intrigued to learn that she gave up alcohol in the recent past after realizing that she was a problem drinker. I’ve also read most of the material in her Further Reading list; all told, I didn’t feel this book offered me much, as a lay reader or a maybe-some-day memoirist. But it seems to have been enormously popular among critics and readers (its average Goodreads rating is 4.38), so clearly a lot of people have been finding Rentzenbrink’s down-to-earth approach reassuring.

With thanks to Emma Finnigan PR and Bluebird for the proof copy for review.

 

The Cure for Sleep: Memoir of a Late-Waking Life by Tanya Shadrick

From my Most Anticipated list. Shadrick hangs around the fringes of nature writing cliques on Twitter, so I expected this to have more of a nature/travel element. Instead, it bears a fairy tale ambience, of a little girl lost in the woods and craving freedom; of a sleepwalking woman deciding to live more deliberately. It opens with a near-death experience: Shadrick, new mother to a son conceived after infertility treatment, suffered a severe haemorrhage after the placenta tore an artery and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.

From this point she returns to the beginning of her life and proceeds chronologically, pausing at joyful or traumatic moments. Her childhood feels like the key to understanding everything else: her father left when she was a baby; her mother, all too aware of being of lower class, was driven to improve herself. Shadrick wanted her mother all to herself, at the same time as she felt trapped by her. She injured herself jumping off an outhouse roof in protest at her mother’s new boyfriend, who became her stepfather. At university she reacted against her upbringing in predictable ways, failing her first year and having an abortion. Even once happily married, she kept unconsciously searching for surrogate father (older male) figures.

After the postnatal operation, she felt a need to escape – by suicide if necessary – yet forced herself to stay, make connections in her town and be present for her children. But she remained a free spirit, swimming and writing a mile-long scroll as public performance art. Her work with hospice patients, recording their memories, qualified her to edit Lynne Roper’s wild swimming diaries into a Wainwright Prize-longlisted book.

Awakening versus sleep is the figurative framework for the memoir, with a feminist insistence on freedom and self-fulfilment at the same time as being a mother. This is an unusual book – at times overwritten and too deliberately moulded into tropes as a rebuttal to randomness, even though, looking back, I can’t decipher a coherent plot to the events – that reminded me most of Free Woman by Lara Feigel and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell.

With thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.

Does one of these books appeal to you?

12 responses

  1. I think the writing one would appeal most to me because the other two feel too serious for my state of mind these days. I can’t read anything about people’s children having medical difficulties, it’s too much. I used to read writing books a lot in my early twenties, when I wrote more than I do now. So I suspect I’d always have an affinity for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One thing I will say for Rentzenbrink’s books is that they are always very readable and relatable. I’m not sure how much of her stuff is available in the USA.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh now this is interesting because I’m sure you said there was going to be one today that I would fancy, and I can’t tell which one that would be!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha! The Harris and/or Shadrick. I know you’re not into medical stuff, but the perspective on race and how that affects her son’s treatment and education is important. And then, though the Shadrick is not as nature-y as I expected, the way she interrogates and shapes her life story might interest you. Or not! It was a weird one.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This Boy We Made sounds really interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It wasn’t what I expected, but I ended up really enjoying it. I love the cover (and it has that font I keep noticing).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. staciachapmanbookish | Reply

    It sounds like This Boy We Made may be a good one for me to put on a ‘recomendation list’ for clients with children who have medical conditions. It can be a lonely existance for parents in this situation and books of this genre are oftentimes helpful – this one sounds as though it may be (I have also noticed this font recently).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I expect the stuff about having to be her son’s medical and educational advocate would be particularly reassuring for parents of disabled children.

      Like

  5. I was eyeing the Rentzenbrink, but after your review, have crossed it off my Wish List. I fell in love with Dear Reader, so wanted more, but clearly the memoir book doesn’t hit the target.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, well, I didn’t care for Dear Reader either, so it may be that I have a general problem with Rentzenbrink’s prose (a little too generic, and repeating bits of her own story, which I knew from her first book). This one is definitely geared more towards would-be writers.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m intrigued by what you’ve said about the first one, with the idea of so many different themes working their way into the narrative. Sometimes I am frustrated by memoirs about medical issues that seem to reinforce the idea that a diagnosis is a separate entity, rather than one facet of a whole life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her Christian faith is a surprisingly large element of the book given that it wasn’t released by a religious publisher. So the ‘facing the unknown’ bit of the subtitle is about an attitude towards everything in life she can’t explain or control.

      Like

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