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.
Last year at about this time I reviewed Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Elizabeth Taylor’s In a Summer Season, two charming English novels about how love can upend ordinary life. This month I read my first William Trevor novel, Love and Summer, which is very much in that vein. My other selection, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s last of four seasonal installments written for his young daughter, is a mostly nonfiction hybrid.
Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2016; English translation, 2018)
I’ve now read three volumes from the Seasons Quartet – all but Spring. The series started with Knausgaard addressing his fourth child in utero. By now she’s two years old but still the recipient of his nostalgic, slightly didactic essays on seasonal topics, as well as the “you” some of his journal entries are written to. I wasn’t so keen on Autumn, but Winter and Summer are both brilliant for how they move from tangibles – ice cream cones, camping, fruit flies, seagulls, butterflies and the circus – into abstract notions of thought, memory, identity and meaning. That fluidity is especially notable here when Knausgaard drifts in and out of the imagined experience of an elderly woman of his grandfather’s acquaintance who fell in love with an Austrian soldier and abandoned her children during World War II.
I especially enjoyed two stories: traveling with his son to Brazil for a literary festival where he ran into English surgeon Henry Marsh, and fainting at an overcrowded publisher party in London. He’s always highly aware of himself (he never gives open-mouthed smiles because of his awful teeth) and of others (this woman at the party is desperate to appear young). But more so than these stand-out events and his memories of childhood, he gives pride of place to everyday life, things like chauffeuring his three older children to their various activities and shopping at the supermarket for barbecue food. “By writing it I reveal that not only do I think about it, I attach importance to it. … I love repetition. Repetitions turn time into a place, turn the days into a house.” I highlighted dozens of passages in the Kindle book. I’ll need to catch up on Spring, and then perhaps return to the My Struggle books; I only ever read the first.
Love and Summer by William Trevor (2009)
Trevor (1928–2016) was considered a writer’s writer and a critic’s dream for the simple profundity of his prose. I had long meant to try his work. This short novel is set over the course of one summer in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and opens on the day of the funeral of old Mrs. Connulty. A stranger is seen taking photographs around town, and there is much murmuring about who he might be. He is Florian Kilderry, who recently inherited his Anglo-Italian artist parents’ crumbling country house. It’s impossible to pay the debts and keep the house going, so he plans to sell it and its contents as soon as possible and move abroad, perhaps to Scandinavia.
But he hasn’t passed through Rathmoye without leaving ripples. Ellie Dillahan, a young farmer’s wife who was raised by nuns and initially moved to Dillahan’s as his housekeeper, falls in love with the stranger almost before she meets him, and they embark on a short-lived liaison. Blink and you’ll miss that the relationship is actually sexual; Trevor only uses the word “embraced” twice, I think. That reticence keeps it from being a torrid affair, yet we do get a sense of how wrenching the thought of Florian leaving becomes for Ellie. Trevor often moves from descriptions of nature or farm chores straight into Ellie’s thoughts, or vice versa.
“In the crab-apple orchard she scattered grain and the hens came rushing to her. She hadn’t been aware that she didn’t love her husband. Love hadn’t come into it”
“He [Florian] would be gone, as the dead are gone, and that would be there all day, in the kitchen and in the yard, when she brought in anthracite for the Rayburn, when she scalded the churns, while she fed the hens and stacked the turf.”
This is quietly beautiful writing – perhaps too quiet for me, despite the quirky secondary characters around the town (including the busybody Connulty daughter and the madman Orpen Wren) – but I would recommend Trevor to readers of Mary Costello and Colm Tóibín. I would also like to try Trevor’s short stories, for which he was particularly known; I think in small doses his subtle relationship studies and gentle writing would truly shine.
Summery reading choices for next year: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson, and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (set over a long, hot summer). I may also get Sunburn by Laura Lippman and Heat Wave by Penelope Lively out from the library.
Have you read any “Summer” books lately?
My attention was drawn to The Graybar Hotel, the debut story collection by Curtis Dawkins, because the author is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Michigan prison. (You can read more about his background in this Guardian article.) These 14 short stories are all set at least partially in prison, and feature men learning how to live with the consequences of their mistakes and how to fill long, empty days. They perfect their amateur tattooing skills, write raps, or carve soap figures; they watch TV or make collect calls to random numbers. There’s a kind of make-do attitude in the air, as well as the idea that you can reinvent yourself – starting with your past. But of course there are also more destructive forces around, with drugs, suicide, and violent revenge always lurking in the background.
Perhaps of necessity, the collection is rather homogeneous. For instance, all but two stories are in the first person, with the typical narrator an observer who recounts other prisoners’ dreams and desperate actions but reveals little or nothing about himself. My favorite stories are those that also look backward and/or forward to show the protagonist’s life before and after prison rather than just dwelling on daily life in the pen. In one stand-out, “Leche Quemada,” Clyde is released after 12 years and tries to slip back into life with Melissa but finds that – like the boiled milk candies his Hispanic cellmates made and he always coveted – what you’ve been waiting for all this time might not be all that you hope for. My overall favorite is “Engulfed,” in which Steven, who admitted selling phony security systems after he fell for a set designer, calls his roommate out for lies about his past. Fire as a destructive yet cleansing force that reveals the truth is a potent symbol here as well as in “Six Pictures of a Fire at Night.”
*All proceeds from the book go into an education fund for Dawkins’s children.
The Graybar Hotel was published in the UK by Canongate on July 20th. My thanks to Alice Laing for the free copy for review.
Having enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, I was keen to try her new novel, Saints for All Occasions. It opens in 2009 with Nora Rafferty, a mother of four, rushing to the hospital after being informed of a death in the family. She reluctantly accepts that her next task will be to contact the abbey where her estranged sister Theresa, now known as Mother Cecilia, lives. From County Clare, the girls moved to Boston together in the late 1950s: Nora to join Charlie, the fiancé she didn’t really love, and Theresa to have a chance at a new and exciting life. Moving back and forth between 2009 and earlier points in the sisters’ history, the novel considers the way their decisions have played out over the course of half a century, musing over what was fated and what they might have changed. We meet and spend much time with Nora’s children, especially John, who worked on the campaigns of a suspiciously Mitt Romney-esque figure and adopted a daughter from China with his wife; and Bridget, who’s planning to have a baby with her partner Natalie but hasn’t come out to her mother yet.
I’m not sure I ever gave this book a fair shake; from the earliest pages it reminded me so strongly of other Irish-American family stories I’ve read: Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, Nick Laird’s Modern Gods, Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place, and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. With these forebears in my mind, it was hard to judge the book on its own merits. I also thought the ‘secret’ was as plain as day from the beginning. If it’s a less familiar story line for you, you may well enjoy it more than I did.
Charlie gave her a sad smile. ‘Isn’t there anything you like about Boston?’ Nora thought it over. ‘Brigham’s vanilla ice cream,’ she said. ‘That’s it.’
It was amazing that you did not become your grief entirely, and walk around leaking it everywhere. It could lie dormant inside of you for days, weeks, years. You could seem a perfectly whole person to everyone you met. Without warning, grief might poke you in the ribs, punch you in the gut, knock the wind out of you. But even then, you seemed just fine. The world went on and on.
Saints for All Occasions is published in the UK today, August 31st, by Fleet. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the free review copy.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – exciting!
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression. Knowing Barnes’s penchant for stylistic experimentation, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as he so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich has a reckoning with Power. The book is full of terrific one-liners (“Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable”), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to.
Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (& interview) by Michael Pronko: Pronko’s third collection of essays about his adopted city is an eloquent tribute to a place full of contradictions and wonders. Compared to his earlier collection, Beauty and Chaos, I sense Pronko is now more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native. The highlight is a set of pieces written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake / tsunami.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: Veblen, named after the late-nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist, is one of the oddest heroines you’ll ever meet. She thinks squirrels are talking to her and kisses flowers. But McKenzie doesn’t just play Veblen for laughs; she makes her a believable character well aware of her own psychological backstory. I suspect the squirrel material could be a potential turn-off for readers who can’t handle too much whimsy. Over-the-top silly in places, this is nonetheless a serious account of the difficulty of Veblen and Paul, her neurology researcher fiancé, blending their dysfunctional families and different ideologies – which is what marriage is all about.
Weathering by Lucy Wood: This atmospheric debut novel is set in a crumbling house by an English river and stars three generations of women – one of them a ghost. Ada has returned to her childhood home after 13 years to scatter her mother Pearl’s ashes, sort through her belongings, and get the property ready to sell. In a sense, then, this is a haunted house story. Yet Wood introduces the traces of magical realism so subtly that they never feel jolting. Like the river, the novel is fluid, moving between the past and present with ease. The vivid picture of the English countryside and clear-eyed look at family dynamics remind me most of Tessa Hadley (The Past) and Polly Samson (The Kindness).
When We Were Invincible by Jonathan Harnisch: In this short novel, a young man wrestles with depression and Tourette’s syndrome, which together drive him to the point of suicide. A series of dreams and chance meetings, along with the possibility of romance and faith in God, pull him back from the edge. The book successfully introduces philosophical themes and gives a sympathetic picture of mental illness. However, it is weaker at filling in background and providing transitions, and there are many awkward, unlikely lines of dialogue. Recommended to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: The twisty, clever story of a doomed filmmaker – perfect for fans of Hausfrau. Who is Sophie Stark? A New York City-based indie director whose four documentary-style movies are “almost more like life than life itself.” Bisexual and with certain traits of high-functioning autism, Sophie is easily misunderstood. She’s a rebel who doesn’t conform to social niceties. The book is told through five first-person reminiscences from the people closest to her. In this respect the novel’s format recalls Kitchens of the Great Midwest. My favorite sections, though, are the reviews of her films, all by the same critic.
Casualties by Betsy Marro: A powerful, melancholy debut novel about how war affects whole families, not just individual soldiers. As in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which Casualties resembles in tone if not in style, a bereaved mother sets off on a journey. Ruth’s unlikely companion on the road trip east is a Gulf War amputee who appears little more than a conman but genuinely wants to clean up his act so he can reconcile with his teenage daughter. At times the road trip scenario felt a little far-fetched to me, and Casey too obvious a replacement son figure. Yet as both he and Ruth ponder how much they have lost and the small things they can try to put right, they together form a touching picture of the various ways war’s effects can linger.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: “All stories are ghost stories,” Samantha Hunt proclaims in her quirky third novel about the crossover between motherhood and mysticism. In a dual storyline that takes in fundamentalist cults, unlikely mediums and a pregnant woman’s pilgrimage, Hunt asks whether one can ever believe in the unseen. Mr. Splitfoot has the offbeat charm of Scarlett Thomas’s work. While the plot ultimately feels like a bit of a jumble, its vision of unexpected love and loyalty remains compelling. “The End’s always coming,” but it is how one lives in the face of brutality and impending extinction that matters.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett: A debut novel in which an Australian whaler’s daughter looks back at 1908, a catastrophic whaling season but also her first chance at romance. I felt that additional narrators, such as a whaleman or an omniscient voice, would have allowed for more climactic scenes. Still, I found this gently funny, especially the fact that the family’s cow and horse are inseparable and must be together on any outing. There are some great descriptions of whales, too.
Felicity by Mary Oliver: I was disappointed with my first taste of Mary Oliver’s poetry. So many readers praise her work to the skies, and I’ve loved excerpts I’ve read elsewhere. However, I found these to be rather simplistic and clichéd, especially poems’ final lines, e.g. “Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home. / And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.” or “Late, late, but now lovely and lovelier. / And the two of us, together—a part of it.” I’ll definitely try more of her work, but I’ll look out for an older, classic collection.
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Full of blunt, faux-profound sentences and smutty, two-dimensional characters. Others may rave about it, but this wasn’t for me. I get that it is a satire on female friendship and youth entitlement. But I hated how the main characters get involved in a love triangle, and once they leave college any interest I had in them largely disappeared. Least favorite lines: “Paulina. She’s like Cleopatra, but more squat.” / “She’s more like Humphrey Bogart” and “She craved the zen-ness of being rammed.”
Noah’s Wife by Lindsay Starck: I kept wanting to love this book, but never quite did. It’s more interesting as a set of ideas – a town where it won’t stop raining, a minister losing faith, homeless zoo animals sheltering with ordinary folk – than as an executed plot. My main problem was that the minor characters take over so that you never get to know the title character, who remains nameless. There’s also a ton of platitudes towards the end. It reminded me most of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Not Forgetting the Whale (another cozy environmental dystopia based around biblical allusions).
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: This sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off on a journey. As it turns out, this debut is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. It’s organized into four sections, with the title’s four verbs as headings. In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character whose mental state comes into question. (Full review in March 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Medium Hero by Korby Lenker: Lenker is an indie musician, and the 27 autobiographical stories in his debut collection are about the everyday challenges of being on the road versus trying to pay the bills. Many feature “Korby” or “Simon” as fictional stand-ins, and recurring locations include his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho and his adopted home of Nashville. As the title suggests, Lenker has no illusions about being famous or out of the ordinary. Most of the time he just tries to be a decent guy, the kind who prays for family members in distress even though he’s not sure he believes in God. Lest that sound too serious, though, there are also stories about peeing his pants and the perils of being a metrosexual.
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan: Slides down like ice cream. And I say that even though the whole basis for this memoir feels rather thin. Corrigan frames it around five months in the early 1990s when she worked as a nanny for two Australian kids whose mother died of cancer. For a young woman fresh out of college, it was like a trial run for being a mother, and also gave her a new appreciation for everything her own mother had done for her during her Philadelphia Catholic upbringing. If Corrigan’s father was the ‘glitter’ of the family, her mother was the ‘glue’ – holding everything together in the background. This is impressively reconstructed, dialogue and all, from letters, journals and photos.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope: This novel was inspired by the story of the author’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman who was a patient at Menston Asylum in West Yorkshire from 1909 to 1918. The novel zeroes in on the long, hot summer of 1911, focusing through alternating close third-person chapters on John Mulligan, a new patient named Ella Fay, and Dr. Charles Fuller, who wants to put his mental hospital at the frontline of eugenics research. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as Wake, but I think it cements Anna Hope’s reputation as a solid historical fiction writer. I hope with her next book she’ll move beyond the years around World War I to consider a less-chronicled era.
Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber: The Jordanian–American writer reflects on how various food cultures have sustained her through a life that hasn’t always turned out as expected. Three marriages, a move from Portland to Florida, a winding path to motherhood in her forties, and her father’s death from leukemia are some of the main events. Like Sasha Martin’s Life from Scratch, this is more about family and personal history than it is about food (and there are no recipes). Still, food is the stuff of memories, and it is what binds her to two strong characters: her Jordanian father Bud with his stuffed grape leaves, and her maternal grandmother Grace with her frequent baking and the pastries they consumed together in Paris.
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: This fictionalized account of the life of E.M. Forster focuses on the drawn-out composition of A Passage to India, which he began in 1913 but wouldn’t complete and publish until 1924. In between he broke off to write his explicitly homosexual novel Maurice (only published posthumously), spent three years working in Egypt during the war, and served as a secretary to an Indian maharajah. As fictionalized biographies of authors go, I’d rate this somewhere between David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells) and Colm Tóibín’s superior The Master (Henry James); all three share a heavy focus on the author’s sexuality. “Buggery in the colonies. It wasn’t noble” is one of my favorite random snippets from this novel, and sums up, for me, its slightly prurient aftertaste.