Learning How to Be Sad via Books by Susan Cain and Helen Russell
There’s been a lot of sadness in my life over the past few months. If there’s a key lesson I learned from the latest work by these authors, who are among the best self-help writers out there, it’s that denying sadness is the worst thing we could do. Accepting sadness helps us to be compassionate towards others and to acknowledge but ultimately let go of generational pain. There are measures we can take to mitigate sadness – a focus of the second half of Russell’s book – but it can’t be avoided altogether. Alongside the classics of bereavement literature I have been rereading, I found these two books to be valuable companions in grief.
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022)
Cain’s Quiet must be one of the best-known nonfiction books of the millennium. It felt like vindication for introverts everywhere. Bittersweet is a little more nebulous in strategy but, boiled down, is a defence of the melancholic personality, one of the types identified by Aristotle (also explored in Richard Holloway’s The Heart of Things). Sadness is not the same as clinical depression, Cain rushes to clarify, though the two might coexist. Melancholy is often associated with creativity and sensitivity, and can lead us into empathy for others. Suffering and death seem like things to flee, but if we sit with them, we will truly be part of the human race and, per the “wounded healer” archetype, may also work toward restoration.
A love for minor-key music, especially songs by Leonard Cohen, is what initially drew Cain to this topic, but there are other autobiographical seeds: the deaths of many ancestors, including her rabbi grandfather’s entire family, in the Holocaust; her difficult relationship with her controlling mother, who now has dementia; and the deaths from Covid of both her brother, a hospital doctor, and her elderly father in 2020.
Through interviews and attendance at conferences and other events, she draws in various side topics, like the longing that prompts mysticism (Kabbalah and Sufism), loving-kindness meditation, an American culture of positivity that demands “effortless perfection,” ways the business world could cultivate empathy, and how knowledge of death makes life precious. (The only chapter I found less than essential was one about transhumance – the hope of escaping death altogether. Mark O’Connell has that topic covered.) Cain weaves together her research with autobiographical material naturally. As a shy introvert with melancholy tendencies, I found both Quiet and Bittersweet comforting.
With thanks to Viking (Penguin) for the proof copy for review.
How to Be Sad: The Key to a Happier Life by Helen Russell (2021)
A reread, though I only skimmed the first time around – my tiny points of criticism would be that the book is a tad long – the print in the paperback is really rather small – and retreads some of the same ground as Leap Year (e.g., how exercise and culture can contribute to a sense of wellbeing). I read that just last year, after enjoying The Year of Living Danishly with my book club. She’s a reliable nonfiction author; I’d liken her to a funnier Gretchen Rubin.
Russell has an appealingly self-deprecating style and breezily highlights statistics alongside personal anecdotes. Here she faces sources of sadness in her life head-on: her younger sister’s death from SIDS and the silence that surrounded that loss; her parents’ divorce and her sense of being abandoned by her father; struggles with eating disorders and alcohol and exercise addiction; and relationship trials, from changing herself to please boyfriends to undergoing IVF with her husband, T (aka “Legoman”), and adjusting to life as a mother of three.
As in her other self-help work, she interviews lots of experts and people who have gone through similar things to understand why we’re sad and what to do about it. I particularly appreciated chapters on “arrival fallacy” and “summit syndrome,” both of which refer to a feeling of letdown after we achieve what we think will make us happy, whether that be parenthood or the South Pole. Better to have intrinsic goals than external ones, Russell learns.
She also considers cultural differences in how we approach sadness: for instance, Russians relish sadness and teach their children to do the same, whereas the English, especially men, are expected to bury their feelings. Russell notes a waning of the rituals that could help us cope with loss, and a rise in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Like Cain, she also covers sad music (vs. one of her interviewees prescribing Jack Johnson as a mood equalizer). There are lots of laughs to be had, but the epilogue can’t fail to bring a tear to the eye. (Public library)
I found this quote from the Russell a handy summary of both authors’ premise. Dr Lucy Johnstone says:
“The key question when encountering someone with mental or emotional distress shouldn’t be, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What’s happened to you?’”
Suffering is coming for all of us, so why not arm yourself to deal with it and help others through? That’s always been one of my motivations for reading widely: to understand other people’s situations and prepare myself for what the future holds.
Could you see yourself reading a book about sadness?
#NovNov22 Nonfiction Week Begins! with Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw
Short nonfiction week of Novellas in November is (not so) secretly my favourite theme of this annual challenge. About 40% of my reading is nonfiction, and I love finding books that illuminate a topic or a slice of life in well under 200 pages. I’ll see if I can review one per day this week.
Back in 2013 I read Tash Aw’s Booker-longlisted Five Star Billionaire and thought it was a fantastic novel about strangers thrown together in contemporary Shanghai. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to find something else by him in the meantime, but when I spotted this slim volume up in the library’s biography section, I knew it had to come home with me.
Originally published in the USA as The Face in 2016, this is a brief family memoir reflecting on migration and belonging. Aw was born in Taiwan and grew up in Malaysia in an ethnically Chinese family; wherever he goes, he can pass as any number of Asian ethnicities. Both of his grandfathers were Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, but from different regions and speaking separate dialects. (This is something those of us in the West unfamiliar with China can struggle to understand: it has no monolithic identity or language. The food and culture might vary as much by region as they do in, say, different countries of Europe.)
Aw imagines his ancestors’ arrival and the disorientation they must have known as they made their way to an address on a piece of paper. His family members never spoke about their experiences, but the sense of being an outsider, a minority is something that has recurred through their history. Aw himself felt it keenly as a university student in Britain.
After the first long essay, “The Face,” comes a second, “Swee Ee, or Eternity,” addressed in the second person to his late grandmother, about whom, despite having worked in her shop as a boy, he knew next to nothing before he spent time with her as she was dying of cancer.
When is short nonfiction too short? Well, I feel that what I just read was actually two extended magazine articles rather than a complete book – that I read a couple of stories rather than the whole story. Perhaps that is inevitable for such a short autobiographical work, though I can think of two previous memoirs from last year alone that managed to be comprehensive, self-contained and concise: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. (Public library)
Six Degrees: From No One Is Talking About This to The White Garden
This month marks two years that I’ve been participating in the Six Degrees meme. I’m an off-and-on contributor – I skipped last month – but this month’s starting book hooked me in. We begin with No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, critically acclaimed but divisive among regular readers. It made my Best of 2021 list. (See Kate’s opening post.)
#1 No one is talking about the danger/allure of social media and the real-life moments that matter so much more … or maybe everyone is by now? What else is ‘everyone’ up to? Well, according to an appealing 2021 title from my TBR, Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town (a YA linked short story collection by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock). My library has a copy, so I need to catch up.
#2 I did a search of my Goodreads library to find other small-town stories and FOUR of the results were unread nonfiction books by Heather Lende, set in Alaska (where lots of the Hitchcock stories are set as well). Now, my rule is that I can only have ONE book by an untried author on my virtual TBR; only if I read and enjoy a book of theirs can I add further titles. So I culled the other three but kept Find the Good, about the simple lessons Lende learned from writing obituaries in her small town.
#3 I’ve read a few books with a lemon on the cover, but the one that was most about, you know, lemons, was The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee. I chose it as one of my location-appropriate reads – written up here – during a vacation to Tuscany in 2014, my first time in Italy. It contains (more than) all you ever wanted to know about lemons.
#4 A less apt read for time spent in Florence, but I distinctly remember lying in bed in our hotel room, which was basically part of a medieval villa, and reading it on my Nook when I couldn’t sleep because of the noisy nightlife out the window: Dirty Daddy by the late comedian Bob Saget. I rarely choose celebrity memoirs and this one was kinda crummy, but I’d requested it from Edelweiss because of my fond memories of the 1990s sitcom Full House.
#5 Full house? How about A House Full of Daughters, a family memoir by Juliet Nicolson (sister of Adam)? It covers seven generations of women, including her grandmother, Vita Sackville-West. I loved my visits to Sissinghurst Castle and Knole Park, two of Vita’s homes, and have devoured Adam Nicolson and Sarah Raven’s writings about their work at Sissinghurst. When a neighbour was giving away a copy of this book, I snatched it up. It’s packed in a box and will be awaiting me after our move (coming up in March, we hope).
#6 During the lockdown spring I wrote about a silly novel called The White Garden by Stephanie Barron, which imagines that Virginia Woolf did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941, but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst. An American garden designer tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at a wealthy client’s upstate New York estate ends up investigating what happened. My interest in the historical figures involved was enough to keep me going through a rather frothy book.
From one contemporary novel that swaps farce for poignancy to another that descends into ridiculousness, my chain has travelled via Alaska, Italy and Hollywood to Kent, England. The overarching theme has been fame: on the Internet, in small towns, in show business, and (my kind of celebrity) in the literary world.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation, hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best. Next month’s starting point is The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, my perfect excuse to finally review it (I finished it more than a year ago!).
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
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)
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)
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)
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?
Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer
Three memoirs remain on the shortlist; three windows onto living with disability or caring for a relative with an incapacitating mental illness.
First up is a visual artist’s account of growing up with spina bifida, entering Disabled culture, and forming a collaborative style all her own.
Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (2020)
“My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her legs the same length. In 1958, when she was born, 90% of children with her condition died before age two. Lehrer’s mother, Carole, who grew up in a family pharmacy business and had worked as a medical researcher, was her daughter’s dogged health advocate. Carole fought for Riva even though she was caught up in her own chronic pain after a botched back surgery that left her addicted to painkillers.
Lehrer went to a special school for the disabled in Ohio. It was racially integrated (rare at that time) and offered children physical therapy and normal experiences like Girl Scouts and day camp. But it was clear the teachers didn’t expect these children to achieve anything or have a family life; home ec classes just taught how to wash up from a wheelchair and make meals for one. One horrible day, a substitute teacher locked a classroom door and hectored the children, saying their parents must have drunk and fornicated and they were the wages of sin.
Between the routine or emergency surgeries and family heartaches, Lehrer grew up to attend art school at the University of Cincinnati and Art Institute of Chicago. Professors (most of them male) found her work grotesque and self-indulgent, and she struggled with how to depict her body. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, even a wife (though in the late 1980s, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized). In 1996 she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and it was a revelation. She learned that Disabled (like Deaf) is a cultural identity as much as a physical reality, adopted vocabulary like crip (a reclaimed term, like queer) and ableism, and began painting fellow artists with dwarfism, prostheses, or wheelchairs.
Becoming a member of the Medical Humanities faculty as well as a visiting artist at two Chicago universities, the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern, gave Lehrer access to Gross Anatomy Labs, where she found in the historical collections – just as she had at the Mütter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia – a fetus in a jar with her very condition. Knowing that she might be the first Disabled person her budding doctors met, she was determined to give them an “inclusive vision” of “the reality of human divergence.” She would have the medical students draw one of the jarred specimens, not as an oddity but as an individual, and give a 15-minute presentation about someone who lives with that disability.
Golem Girl is a touching family memoir delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most of them named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and – what truly lifts it above the pack – a miniature art gallery, with reproductions of paintings from various of Lehrer’s series as well as self-portraits, family portraits, and photographs. “I fiercely wanted to see a gallery filled with portraits of luminous crips,” she writes; “I suspected I was going to have to make them myself.” And that is just what she has done. The “Circle Stories” featured the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and “Mirror Shards” included animal daimons, while “The Risk Pictures” of some of her personal heroes were daringly collaborative: she would give the subject an hour alone in her studio with their portrait in progress and allow them to amend it as they wished. Much of her work has bright colors and involves anatomical realism and symbols personal to herself and/or the subject – with Frida Kahlo an acknowledged influence.
I’ve now (just about) read the whole Barbellion Prize shortlist. For how it illuminates a life of being different – through queerness in addition to disability, engages with the academic fields of anatomy and Disability studies, and showcases the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
- I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
“The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up even when it’s as impossible as flying around the ceiling. Whoever has authority can remove your clothes and display your stitched-up monster body to crowds of young white-coated men. You’re an assemblage of parts that lack gender and those elusive things called feelings.”
“‘Normal’ beauty is unmarked, smooth, shiny, upright; but my gaze began to slip past normal beauty as if it was coated in baby oil. I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.”
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
See my introductory post for more about the Barbellion Prize, which is in its first year and will be awarded on Friday “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.”
I will review the final two on the shortlist, The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and Kika & Me by Amit Patel, tomorrow.
20 Books of Summer, #13–14: Ruth Reichl and Alice Steinbach
Just three weeks remain in this challenge. I’m reading another four books towards it, and have two more to pick up during our mini-break to Devon and Dorset this coming weekend. A few of my choices are long and/or slow-moving reads, though, so I have a feeling I’ll be reading right down to the wire…
Today I have another two memoirs linked by France and its cuisine.
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (1998)
(20 Books of Summer, #13) I’ve read Reichl’s memoirs out of order, starting with Garlic and Sapphires (2005), about her time as a New York Times food critic, and moving on to Comfort Me with Apples (2001), about her involvement in California foodie culture in the 1970s–80s. Whether because I’d been primed by the disclaimer in the author’s note (“I have occasionally embroidered. I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story”) or not, I sensed that certain characters and scenes were exaggerated here. Although I didn’t enjoy her memoir of her first 30 years as much as either of the other two I’d read, it was still worth reading.
The cover image is a genuine photograph taken by Reichl’s German immigrant father, book designer Ernst Reichl, in 1955. Early on, Reichl had to fend for herself in the kitchen: her bipolar mother hoarded discount food even it was moldy, so the family quickly learned to avoid her dishes made with ingredients that were well past their best. Like Eric Asimov and Anthony Bourdain, whose memoirs I’ve also reviewed this summer, Reichl got turned on to food by a top-notch meal in France. Food was a form of self-expression as well as an emotional crutch in many situations to come: during boarding school in Montreal, her rebellious high school years, and while living off of trendy grains and Dumpster finds at a co-op in Berkeley.
Reichl worked with food in many ways during her twenties. She was a waitress during college in Michigan, and a restaurant collective co-owner in California; she gave cooking lessons; she catered parties; and she finally embarked on a career as a restaurant critic. Her travels took her to France (summer camp counselor; later, wine aficionado), Morocco (with her college roommate), and Crete (a honeymoon visit to her favorite professor). Raised in New York City, she makes her way back there frequently, too. Overall, the book felt a bit scattered to me, with few if any recipes that I would choose to make, and the relationship with a mentally ill mother was so fraught that I will probably avoid Reichl’s two later books focusing on her mother.
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004)
(20 Books of Summer, #14) Steinbach makes a repeat appearance in my summer reading docket: her 2000 travel book Without Reservations was one of my 2018 selections. In that book, she took a sabbatical during her 50s to explore Paris, England, and Italy. Here she continues her efforts at lifelong learning by taking up some sort of lessons everywhere she goes. The long first section sees her back in Paris, enrolling at the Hotel Ritz’s Escoffier École de Gastronomie Française. She’s self-conscious about having joined late, being older than the other students and having to rely on the translator rather than the chef’s instructions, but she’s determined to keep up as the class makes omelettes, roast quail and desserts.
Full disclosure: I’ve only read the first chapter for now as it’s the only one directly relevant to food – in others she takes dance lessons in Japan, studies art in Cuba, trains Border collies in Scotland, etc. – but I was enjoying it and will go back to it before the end of the year.
Source: Free bookshop
Classic of the Month: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959)
(20 Books of Summer #2) Lee’s quaint family memoir is set in the years immediately after World War I. He was born in 1914 and his childhood unfolded in Stroud, Gloucestershire and nearby village Slad. I started reading Cider with Rosie in April 2019 when we stopped in Stroud for a night on the way back from a holiday in Devon. I got through the first 100 pages quickly, with the voice reminding me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy, but then set the book aside for over a year before picking it back up for this summer’s food- and drink-themed reading. Taking such a long break wasn’t a major problem because the book’s vignettes are thematically arranged, so there was no plot as such to lose track of.
Lee was part of his father’s second brood, born out of the widower’s remarriage to his housekeeper. His father left his new family after just a few years, and for the next three decades Lee’s mother dutifully waited for a return that never came. Lee was a sickly child, doted on by his older half-sisters. He was surrounded by a large wider family of brothers, eccentric war-veteran uncles and duelling elderly neighbors who lived one upstairs and one downstairs in a sort of granny annex attached to their untidy, rambling 17th-century stone house. The book depicts a village on the cusp of modernization: everything was still done with wagons and horses, but that was soon to change.
It’s a nostalgic, evocative look at a country childhood. Lee captures a bygone era, portraying himself as similarly on the precipice of losing innocence. The title comes from a late moment when Rosie Burdock tempts the adolescent Lee with alcoholic cider and kisses underneath a hay wagon. This penultimate chapter on the lust of the flesh takes an alarming turn as he describes the village boys’ planned gang rape of a religious 16-year-old, Lizzy. Lee was among the boys who followed her into the woods one Sunday after church. Luckily, they lost their nerve and nothing happened, but Lee’s blasé recounting felt out of keeping and somehow more dated than the rest of his material. It left a sourness I couldn’t get over.
Quintessentially English but not as purely delightful as I expected, this was still a book I valued for its characterization and its description of golden moments in memory.
Some favorite passages:
“Summer, June summer, with the green back on earth and the whole world unlocked and seething – like winter, it came suddenly and one knew it in bed, almost before waking up; with cuckoos and pigeons hollowing the woods since daylight and the chipping of tits in the pear-blossom.”
“Myself, my family, my generation, were born in a world of silence; a world of hard work and necessary patience, of backs bent to the ground, hands massaging the crops, of waiting on weather and growth; of villages like ships in the empty landscapes and the long walking distances between them; … [The horse’s] eight miles an hour was the limit of our movements, as it had been since the days of the Romans. That eight miles an hour was life and death, the size of our world, our prison.”
Source: Free bookshop
Ten more childhood memoirs:
A few I’ve written about here and prefer:
- Boy by Roald Dahl
- To the Is-land by Janet Frame
- Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
- Bookworm by Lucy Mangan
- Period Piece by Gwen Raverat
A couple of favorites I’ve never written up:
- Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
- Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush
Plus a few that I haven’t liked quite as much:
- Maggie & Me by Damian Barr
- Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen
- Rosie by Rose Tremain
Three Out-of-the-Ordinary Memoirs: Kalb, Machado, McGuinness
Recently I have found myself drawn to memoirs that experiment with form. I’ve read so many autobiographical narratives at this point that, if it’s to stand out for me, a book has to offer something different, such as a second-person point-of-view or a structure of linked essays. Here are a few such that I’ve read this year but not written about yet. All have strong themes of memory and the creation of the self or the family.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb (2020)
You know from the jokes: Jewish (grand)mothers are renowned for their fiercely protective, unconditional love, but also for their tendency to nag. Both sides of a stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny and heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if straight to Kalb from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother, Barbara “Bobby” Bell.
Bobby gives her beloved Bessie a tour through four generations of strong women, starting with her own mother, Rose, and her lucky escape from a Belarus shtetl. The formidable émigré ended up in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, where she gave birth to five children on the dining room table. Bobby and her husband, a real estate entrepreneur and professor, had one daughter, Robin, who in turn had one daughter, Bess. Bobby and Robin had a fraught relationship, but Bess’s birth seemed to reset the clock. Grandmother and granddaughter had a special bond: Bobby was the one to take her to preschool and wait outside the door until she was sure she’d be okay, and always the one to pick her up from sleepovers gone wrong.
Kalb is a Los Angeles-based writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live! With her vivid scene-setting and comic timing, you can see why she’s earned a Writers Guild Award and an Emmy nomination. But she also had great material to work with: Bobby’s e-mails and verbatim voicemail messages are hilarious. Kalb dots in family photographs and recreates in-person and phone conversations, with her grandmother forthrightly questioning her fashion choices and non-Jewish boyfriend. As the title phrase shows, Bobby felt she was the only one who would come forward with all this (unwanted but) necessary advice. Kalb keeps things snappy, alternating between narrative chapters and the conversations and covering a huge amount of family history in just 200 pages. It gets a little sentimental towards the end, but with her grandmother’s death still fresh you can forgive her that. This was a real delight.
My thanks to Zoe Hood and Kimberley Nyamhondera of Little, Brown (Virago) for the free PDF copy for review.
In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)
I’m stingy with 5-star ratings because, for me, giving a book top marks means a) it’s a masterpiece, b) it’s a game/mind/life changer, and/or c) it expands the possibilities of its particular genre. In the Dream House fits all three criteria. (Somewhat to my surprise, given that I couldn’t get through more than half of Machado’s acclaimed story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and only enjoyed it in parts.)
Much has been written about this memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship since its U.S. release in November. I feel I have little to add to the conversation beyond my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scenes; gleefully does away with the chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory – in other words, the boring bits – that most writers would so slavishly detail; and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to constantly interrogate her experiences and perceptions.
Most of the book is, like the Kalb, in the second person, but in this case the narration is not addressing a specific other person; instead, it’s looking back at the self that was caught in this situation (“If, one day, a milky portal had opened up in your bedroom and an older version of yourself had stepped out and told you what you know now, would you have listened?”), as well as – what the second person does best – putting the reader right into the narrative.
The “Dream House” is the Victorian house where Machado lived with her ex-girlfriend in Bloomington, Indiana for two years while she started an MFA course. It was a paradise until it wasn’t; it was a perfect relationship until it wasn’t. No one, least of all her, would have believed the perky little blonde writer she fell for would turn sadistic. A lot of it was emotional manipulation and verbal and psychological abuse, but there was definitely a physical element as well. Fear and self-doubt kept her trapped in a fairy tale that had long since turned into a nightmare. Writing it all out seven years later, the trauma was still there. Yet there was no tangible evidence (a police report, a restraining order, photos of bruises) to site her abuse anywhere outside of her memory. How fleeting, yet indelible, it had all been.
The book is in relatively short sections headed “Dream House as _________” (fill in the blank with everything from “Time Travel” to “Confession”), and the way that she pecks at her memories from different angles is perfect for recreating the spiral of confusion and despair. She also examines the history of our understanding of queer domestic violence: lesbian domestic violence, specifically, wasn’t known about until 30-some years ago.
The story has a happy ending in that Machado is now happily married. The bizarre twist, though, is that her wife, YA author Val Howlett, was the girlfriend of the woman in the Dream House when they first met. To start with, it was an “open relationship” (or at least the blonde told her so) that Machado reluctantly got in the middle of, before Val drifted away. That the two of them managed to reconnect, and got past their mutual ex, is truly astonishing. (See some super-cute photos from their wedding here.)
Some favorite lines:
“Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind”
“That there’s a real ending to anything is, I’m pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.”
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness (2014)
This is a wonderfully atmospheric tribute to Bouillon, Belgium, a Wallonian border town with its own patois. However, it’s chiefly a memoir about the maternal side of the author’s family, which had lived there for generations. McGuinness grew up spending summers in Bouillon with his grandparents and aunt. Returning to the place as an adult, he finds it half-derelict but still storing memories around every corner.
It is as much a tour through memory as through a town, reflecting on how our memories are bound up with particular sites and objects – to the extent that I don’t think I would find McGuinness’s Bouillon even if I went back to Belgium. “When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of times as places, with walls and windows and doors,” he writes. The book is also about the nature of time: Bouillon seems like a place where time stands still or moves more slowly, allowing its residents (including his grandfather, and Paprika, “Bouillon’s laziest man, who held a party to celebrate sixty years on the dole”) a position of smug idleness.
The book is in short vignettes, some as short as a paragraph; each is a separate piece with a title that remembers a particular place, event or local character. Some are poems, and there are also recipes and an inventory. The whole is illustrated with frequent period or contemporary black-and-white photographs. It’s an altogether lovely book that overcomes its narrow local interest to say something about how the past remains alive for us.
Some favorite lines:
“that hybrid long-finished but real-time-unfolding present tense … reflects the inside of our lives far better than those three stooges, the past, present and future”
a fantastic last line: “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.”
I read a public library copy.
Other unusual memoirs I’ve loved and reviewed here:
Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth (essays, experimental structures)
Winter Journal by Paul Auster (second person)
This Really Isn’t about You by Jean Hannah Edelstein (nonchronological)
Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler (short sections and time shifts)
The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe (nonchronological essays)
Any offbeat memoirs you can recommend?
April Releases: Motherhood, Medicine, Wine … And an Aardvark
I’m averaging four new releases a month: a nicely manageable number. In April I read a memoir about a mother’s dementia, a bizarre little novel about a stuffed aardvark linking two centuries, a history of medicine in graphic novel form, and a sommelier’s memoir.
My top recommendation for the month is:
What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang
Maya Lang’s novel The Sixteenth of June* was one of my top three novels of 2014, so I was eager to read her next book, a forthright memoir of finding herself in the uncomfortable middle (the “sandwich generation”) of three generations of a female family line. Her parents had traveled from India to the USA for her mother’s medical training and ended up staying on permanently after she became a psychiatrist. Lang had always thought of her mother as a superwoman who managed a career alongside parenthood, never asked for help, and reinvented herself through a divorce and a career change.
When Lang gave birth to her own daughter, Zoe, this model of self-sufficiency mocked her when she had postpartum depression and needed to hire a baby nurse. It was in her daughter’s early days, just when she needed her mother’s support the most, that her mother started being unreliable: fearful and forgetful. Gradually it became clear that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lang cared for her mother at home for a year before making the difficult decision to see her settled into a nearby nursing home.
Like Elizabeth Hay’s All Things Consoled, this is an engaging, bittersweet account of obligation, choices and the secrets that sometimes come out when a parent enters a mental decline. I especially liked how Lang frames her experiences around an Indian folktale of a woman who enters a rising river, her child in her arms. She must decide between saving her child or herself. Her mother first told this story soon after Zoe’s birth to acknowledge life’s ambiguity: “Until we are in the river, up to our shoulders—until we are in that position ourselves, we cannot say what the woman will do. We must not judge. That is the lesson of the story. Whatever a woman decides, it is not easy.” The book is a journey of learning not to judge her mother (or herself), of learning to love despite mistakes and personality changes.
*One for me to reread in mid-June!
Published by Dial Press on the 28th. I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
Full disclosure: Maya and I are Facebook friends.
Other April releases to look out for:
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
On a scoreboard of the most off-the-wall, zany and fun novels I’ve read, this one would be right up there with Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle and Alex Christofi’s Glass. The two story lines, one contemporary and one set in the 1870s, are linked by a taxidermied aardvark that makes its way from Namibia to the Washington, D.C. suburbs by way of Victorian England.
The aardvark was collected by naturalist Sir Richard Ostlet and stuffed by Titus Downing, his secret lover. Ostlet committed suicide in Africa, but his wife could still sense him walking up and down outside her London home. In the present day, Republican congressman Alexander Paine Wilson, who emulates Ronald Reagan in all things, gets a FedEx delivery of a taxidermied aardvark – an apparent parting gift from Greg Tampico before the latter committed suicide. To keep his gay affair from becoming public knowledge, Wilson decides it’s high time he found himself a trophy wife. But the damned aardvark keeps complicating things in unexpected ways.
A scene where a police officer stops Wilson for texting and driving and finds the stuffed aardvark in the back of his SUV had me laughing out loud (“Enter the aardvark, alight on its mount. Enter the aardvark, claw raised, head covered with a goddamned gourmet $22 dish towel that suddenly looks incredibly suspicious hanging over the head of an aardvark, like it’s an infidel”). History repeats itself amusingly and the aardvark is an entertaining prop, but Wilson is too obviously odious, and having his narrative in the second person doesn’t add anything. This is not a debut novel but reads like one: full of bright ideas, but falling a bit short in the execution.
Published by Doubleday on the 23rd. I won a proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Medicine: A Graphic History by Jean-Noël Fabiani
[Illustrated by Philippe Bercovici; translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
From prehistory to nanotechnology, this is a thorough yet breezy survey of what people have learned about the body and how to treat it. (In approach it reminded me most of another SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed last year, ABC of Typography.) Some specific topics are the discovery of blood circulation, the development of anesthesia, and the history of mental health treatment.
Fabiani, a professor as well as the head of cardiac surgery at Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris, focuses on the key moments when ideas became testable theories and when experiments gave groundbreaking results. While he provided the one-page introduction to each chapter and the expository writing at the head of each comic pane, I suspect it was illustrator Philippe Bercovici who added most of the content in the speech bubbles, including plenty of jokes (especially since Fabiani thanks Bercovici for bringing his talent and humor to the project).
This makes for a lighthearted book that contains enough detail so that you feel like you are still getting the full story. Unsurprisingly, I took the most interest in chapters entitled The Great Epidemics and A Few Modern Plagues. I would especially recommend this to teenagers with an interest in medicine.
Published by SelfMadeHero on the 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Wine Girl by Victoria James
In 2012, at age 21, Victoria James became America’s youngest certified sommelier. Still in her twenties, she has since worked in multiple Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and became the only American female to win the Sud de France Sommelier Challenge. But behind all the competition wins, celebrity sightings, and international travel for wine festivals and conferences is a darker story.
This is a tell-all about a toxic restaurant culture of overworked employees and casual sexism. James regularly worked 80-hour weeks in addition to her wine school studies, and suffered multiple sexual assaults. In addition, sexual harassment was common – even something as seemingly harmless as the title epithet a dismissive diner launched at her when he ordered a $650 bottle of wine for his all-male table and then told her it was corked and had to be replaced. “Wine girl” was a slur against her for her age, her gender and her presumed lack of experience, even though by that point she had an encyclopedic knowledge of wine varieties and service.
That incident from the prologue was my favorite part of the book; unfortunately, nothing that came afterwards really lived up to it. The memoir goes deep into James’s dysfunctional upbringing (her parents’ bitter divorce, her mother’s depression, her father’s alcoholism and gambling, her own battle with addictions), which I found I had little interest in. It’s like Educated lite, but with a whiney tone: “I grew up in a household of manipulation and neglect, left to fend for myself.”
For those interested in reading about wine and restaurant culture, I’d recommend Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (one of my pairings here) instead.
A favorite line: “Like music, the wonders of art, food, and beverage can transcend all boundaries. … I wanted to capture that feeling, the exhilaration of familiarity, and bring people together through wine.”
Published by Fleet on the 16th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.