These two memoirs may be very different in terms of the setting (Texas and Yale versus rural Lancashire) and particulars, but I’m reviewing them together because they are both about dysfunctional families and the extent to which external circumstances determine how others see us – and how we view ourselves.
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir from the Dark Side of the American Dream by Casey Gerald (2018)
The title comes from a seventeenth-century sign in a French village that was intended to get the God-dazzled peasants back to work. For Gerald it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reminder that his life, even if he has made good after an unpromising beginning, is not some American dream or fairytale. It’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s no sugar-coating his family issues. His father missed his tenth birthday party because he was next door with dope fiends; his bipolar mother was in the psych ward while his father was in jail, and then disappeared for several years. Gerald and his older sister, a college dropout, got an apartment and set their own lax rules. In the meantime, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay and trying to reconcile his newfound sexual identity with his Christian faith.
In spite of it all, Gerald shone academically and athletically. He was his Texas high school’s valedictorian and followed his father into a thriving college football career – at Yale, where he accidentally fell into leadership via a Men of Color council across the Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until he got to Yale that it even occurred to him that he was poor. (I was reminded of the moment in Michelle Obama’s memoir when she got to Princeton and experienced being a minority for the first time.) As he neared graduation, he decided to go into investment banking “simply because I did not have any money and none of my people had any money.” Back in Texas after a year in a Washington, D.C. think tank, he even considered a run for Congress under the slogan “We can dream again.”
I loved the prologue, which has the 12-year-old Gerald cowering with his church congregation on the last night of 1999, in fear of being left behind at the end of the world. I think I expected religion to continue as a stronger theme throughout the book. The style wasn’t really what I imagined either: it’s a coy combination of reader address, stream-of-consciousness memories, and remembered speech in italics that often set me skimming. Whereas landmark events like his mother’s departure are left impressionistic, football games and the inner workings of Yale’s societies are described in great detail. Scenes in the classroom and with boyfriends, though still occasionally tedious, at least feel more relevant.
Gerald proudly calls himself a “faggot” and is going for a kind of sassy, folksy charm here. For me the tone only landed sometimes. Mostly I appreciated his alertness to how others (often wrongly) perceived him – a great instance of this is when he meets George W. Bush in 2007 and tells him the bare bones of his story, only for Dubya to later twist it into an example in a speech. The memoir tails off into a rather odd and sudden ending, and overall I wasn’t sure it had enough to say to fill close to 400 pages. Perhaps Gerald could have waited another 10 years? As a more successful take on similar themes, I’d recommend the memoir-in-essays Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race by Clay Cane.
There Will Be No Miracles Here was hand-picked by Colm Tóibín for publication by Tuskar Rock Press, a new imprint of Serpent’s Tail, on January 10th. It was published in the USA by Riverhead Books in October 2018. My thanks to the UK publisher for the free copy for review.
When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family that Never Spoke by Catherine Simpson (2019)
On December 7, 2013, Simpson’s younger sister, Tricia, was found dead by their 87-year-old father at the family farmhouse where she lived in Lancashire. She was 46 and had been receiving daily mental health visits for her bipolar disorder, but the family had never been notified about a previous suicide attempt just three weeks before. Simpson excavates her family history to ask how things could have gotten so bad that they didn’t realize that Tricia’s depression had reached suicidal levels.
Simpson’s grandparents – her grandfather a World War I veteran – moved into the property in 1925, so by this time there was literally generations’ worth of stuff to clear out. “I ask myself now: is it possible to dispose of a person’s effects with dignity?” Simpson frets. As she and her father sifted through antique furniture, gadgets and craft supplies, she recalls the previous death in the family: her mother’s from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before. Growing up on a cattle farm in the 1970s, the three daughters were expected to be practical and unsentimental; there was never any discussion of emotions, and they got the sense that their overworked, unfulfilled mother would rather they weren’t around at all. In this context, it was hard for Tricia to cope with everyday challenges like struggling with schoolwork and the death of a beloved cousin. She started smoking at 12 and went on antidepressants at 19.
Simpson started writing this family memoir on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in February 2016. The first step of her project was to read all of Tricia’s diaries, from age 14 on. There were happy experiences, like six months as a nanny in Vienna and a travel grant to a kibbutz in Israel. There were also unwelcome surprises, like a 1981 suicide note – from when Tricia was just 15. Simpson had never realized just how prone her little sister was to all-or-nothing thinking. She dove headlong into short-lived relationships and, when they failed, feared she would never find love again. Over the years Tricia grew increasingly paranoid, believing she was being watched on the farm and her sisters were plotting to sell the property and leave her with nothing. One time she even locked her parents in to keep them safe.
Although the subtitle is melodramatic, it conveys all that went unsaid in this family: not just sadness, but also love and tenderness. The cover image shows Simpson crying over a dead duckling; Tricia is at the left, her look of consternation startlingly intense for a three-year-old. “It’s only a duck. There’s plenty more where that came from” was their father’s hardhearted response. There are many other family photographs printed in black and white throughout the text; Tricia loved fashion, and is stunning in her glamour shots. While the book is probably overlong, I was absorbed in the family’s story, keen to see how Simpson would reconstruct events through objects, photographs and journals. (My sister is a Tricia, too.) Recommended to readers of Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other.
When I Had a Little Sister will be published by Fourth Estate on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for an early proof copy for review.
In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of Somerset scrubland at a land auction. It wasn’t exactly what she’d set out to acquire: it wasn’t a “pretty” field, and traffic was audible from it. But she was pleased to return to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels area – this “silted place of slow waters, eels, reeds, drainage engineers, buttercups, church towers, quiet” that her father came from, and where she was born – and she fancied planting some trees.
There never was a master plan […] I wanted to open up enough room for trees that might live for centuries […] I also wanted to keep areas of wilderness for the creatures […] And I wanted it to be beautiful. Not immaculate, that was too much to hope for, but, in its own ragged, benign way, beautiful.
This pleasantly meandering memoir, Pavey’s first book, is an account of nearly two decades spent working alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. The first steps were clear: she had to deal with some fallen willows, find a water source and plan a temporary shelter. Rather than a shed, which would be taken as evidence of permanent residency, she resorted to a “Rollalong,” a mobile metal cabin she could heat just enough to survive nights spent on site. Before long, though, she bought a nearby cottage to serve as her base when she left her London teaching job behind on weekends.
Then came the hard work: after buying trees from nurseries and ordering apple varieties that would fruit quickly, Pavey had to plant it all and pick up enough knowledge about pruning, grafting, squirrel management, canker and so on to keep everything alive. There was always something new to learn, and plenty of surprises – such as the stray llama that visited her neighbor’s orchard. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs.
Britain has seen a recent flourishing of hybrid memoirs–nature books by the likes of Helen Macdonald, Mallachy Tallack and Clover Stroud. By comparison, Pavey is not as confiding about her personal life as you might expect. She reveals precious little about herself: she tells us that her mother died when she was young and she was mostly raised by an aunt; she hints at some failed love affairs; in the acknowledgments she mentions a son; from the jacket copy I know she’s the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead & Highgate Express. But that’s it. This really is all about the wood, and apart from serving as an apt Woolf reference the use of “one” in the title is in deliberate opposition to the confessional connotations of “my”.
Still, I think this book will appeal to readers of modern nature writers like Paul Evans and Mark Cocker – these two are Guardian Country Diarists, and Pavey develops the same healthy habit of sticking to one patch and lovingly monitoring its every development. I was also reminded of Peri McQuay’s memoir of building a home in the woods of Canada.
What struck me most was how this undertaking encourages the long view: “being finished, in the sense of being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, is not something that happens in a garden, an orchard or a wood, however well planned or cultivated,” she writes. It’s an ongoing project, and she avoids nostalgia and melodrama in planning for its future after she’s gone; “I am only there for a while, a twinkling. But [the trees and creatures] … will remain.” This would make a good Christmas present for the dedicated gardener in your life, not least because of the inclusion of Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings.
A Wood of One’s Own was published on September 21st by Duckworth Overlook. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Last year’s abandoned books posts were popular ones – strangely so considering that, instead of giving recommendations like usual, I was instead listing books I’d probably steer you away from. This is such a subjective thing, though; I know that at least a few of the books I discuss below (especially the Mervyn Peake and Rachel Cusk) have admirers among my trusted fellow bloggers. So consider this a record of some books that didn’t work for me: take my caution with a grain of salt, and don’t let me put you off if you think there’s something here that you’d really like to try. (For some unfinished books I give ratings, while for others where I haven’t read far enough to get a good sense of the contents I refrain from rating. This list is in chronological order of my reading rather than alphabetical by title or author.)
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake: Vivid scene setting and amusingly exaggerated characters, but I couldn’t seem to get anywhere. It takes over 50 pages for one servant to tell another that the master has had a son?! Hearing that the book only lasts until Titus’s second birthday made me fear the next 400+ pages would just be more of the same. I bought the whole trilogy secondhand, so I hope I’ll be successful on a future attempt. (Set aside at page 62.)
Seven Seasons in Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance among Tuscany’s Proudest People, by Robert Rodi: I read the first 49 pages but found the information about the city’s different districts and horse races tedious. Favorite passage: “it’s what’s drawn me to Italians in general—their theatricality, their love of tradition, their spirit. Ever since my first trip to Rome, some ten years ago, I’ve found the robustness of the Italians’ appetites (for food, for music, for fashion) to be a welcome antidote to the dismaying anemia of modern American culture.”
A Book about Love by Jonah Lehrer: Read the first 31% of the Kindle book. Featured in my Valentine’s Day post about “Love” titles.
Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal by Al Alvarez: I read the first 57 pages but found the entries fairly repetitive. The book spans nine years, but up to that point it was all set in 2002, when Alvarez was 73, and he reported so frequently that the conditions (weather, etc.) at the Hampstead Heath ponds didn’t differ enough to keep this interesting. Unless he’s traveling, you can count on each entry remarking on the traffic getting there, the relative scarcity or overabundance of fellow swimmers at the pond, the chilly start and the ultimately invigorating, calming effect of the water. Impressive that he’d been taking early-morning swims there since age 11, though. Favorite line (from a warm, late June day): “the water is like tepid soup – duck soup with swan-turd croutons.”
The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion: I read the first 36 pages of a library copy and gave up in grave disappointment. Compared to the two Rosie books, this felt like it had no spark. It’s just lots of name-dropping of 1960s and ’70s songs. I felt no connection to either Adam’s current life in England or his memories of his nascent relationship with soap actress Angelina back in Australia.
The Wild Other: A Memoir by Clover Stroud: Normally I love memoirs that center on bereavement or major illness, but there’s so much going on in this book that drowns out the story of her mother falling off her horse and suffering a TBI when Stroud was 16. For instance, there’s a lot about the blended family she grew up in, embarrassing detail about her early sexual experiences, and an account of postnatal depression that plunges her back into memories of her mother’s accident. “Horses are the source of powerful magic that’s changed my life,” Stroud asserts, so she talks a lot about both real horses and chalk figures of them, but that’s not the same as affirming the healing power of nature, which is how this book has been marketed. Well written, yet I couldn’t warm to the story of a posh Home Counties upbringing, which means I never got as far as the more tantalizing contents set in Ireland and Texas. (Read the first 78 pages.)
The Evening Road by Laird Hunt: I read about the first 50 pages, skimmed the rest of the first part, and barely glanced at the remainder. Hunt’s previous novel, Neverhome, was a pretty unforgettable take on the Civil War narrative. This latest book is trying to do something new with Jim Crow violence. In the 1920s–30s history Hunt draws on, lynchings were entertainment in the same way other forms of execution were in previous centuries; buses have even been put on to take people to “the show” up at Marvel, Indiana. Hateful Ottie Lee narrates the first half of the novel as she rides with her handsy boss Bud Lancer and her unappealing husband Dale to see the lynching. Their road trip includes a catfish supper, plenty of drinking, and a stop at a dance hall. It ends up feeling like a less entertaining The Help. A feel-good picaresque about a lynching? It might work if there were a contrasting tone, a hint that somewhere in this fictional universe there is an appropriate sense of horror about what is happening. I think Hunt’s mistake is to stick with Ottie Lee the whole time rather than switching between her and Calla Destry (the black narrator of the second half) or an omniscient narrator. I’d long given up on the novel by the time Calla came into play.
Outline by Rachel Cusk: I read the first 66 pages before setting this aside. I didn’t dislike the writing; I even found it quite profound in places, but there’s not enough story to peg such philosophical depth on. This makes it the very opposite of unputdownable. Last year I read the first few pages of Aftermath, about her divorce, and found it similarly detached. In general I just think her style doesn’t connect with me. I’m unlikely to pick up another of her books, although I have had her memoir of motherhood recommended. Lines I appreciated: “your failures keep returning to you, while your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of”; “it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.”
Last but not least, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, in which I barely made it a few chapters.
Only nine in five months – not too shabby? There’s also a handful of other books that I decided to skim instead of read in their entirety, though.
I’ll be interested to hear if you’ve read any of these books – or plan to read them – and believe that they are worth persisting with.