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:
“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.
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
(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:
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?
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.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It feels like the whole world has changed in the past week, doesn’t it? I hope you all are keeping well and turning to books for comfort and escape. Reading Ireland Month is run each March by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m wishing you a happy (if subdued) St. Patrick’s Day with this post on the Irish books I’ve been perusing recently. Even before this coronavirus situation heated up, I’d been struggling with my focus, so only one of these was a proper read, while the rest ended up being skims. In the meantime, I’m trying out a new blog design and have been working to create more intuitive menu headings and helpful intro pages.
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain (1996)
Before writing this landmark memoir, O’Faolain was a TV documentary producer and Irish Times columnist. Her upbringing in poverty is reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s: one of nine children, she had a violent father and an alcoholic mother who cheated on each other and never seemed to achieve happiness. Educated at a convent school and at university in Dublin (until she dropped out), she was a literary-minded romantic who bounced between relationships and couldn’t decide whether marriage or a career should be her highest aim. Though desperate not to become her mother – a bitter, harried woman who’d wanted to be a book reviewer – she didn’t want to miss out on a chance for love either.
O’Faolain feels she was born slightly too early to benefit from the women’s movement. “I could see sexism in operation everywhere in society; once your consciousness goes ping you can never again stop seeing that. But I was quite unaware of how consistently I put the responsibility for my personal happiness off onto men.” Chapter 16 is a standout, though with no explanation (all her other lovers were men) it launches into an account of her 15 years living with Nell McCafferty, “by far the most life-giving relationship of my life.”
Although this is in many respects an ordinary story, the geniality and honesty of the writing account for its success. It was an instant bestseller in Ireland, spending 20 weeks at number one, and made the author a household name. I especially loved her encounters with literary figures. For instance, on a year’s scholarship at Hull she didn’t quite meet Philip Larkin, who’d been tasked with looking after her, but years later had a bizarre dinner with him and his mother, both rather deaf; and David Lodge was a friend. The boarding school section reminded me of The Country Girls. Two bookish memoirs I’d recommend as readalikes are Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan.
Skims (all: )
Actress by Anne Enright (2020)
The Green Road is among my most memorable reads of the past five years, so I was eagerly awaiting Enright’s new novel, which is on the Women’s Prize longlist. I read the first 30 pages and found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters. Norah is a novelist who, prompted by an interviewer, realizes the story she most needs to tell is her mother’s. Katherine O’Dell was “a great fake,” an actress who came to epitomize Irishness even though she was actually English. Her slow-burning backstory is punctuated by trauma and mental illness. “She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow,” Norah concludes. I could easily see this making the Women’s Prize shortlist and earning a Booker nomination as well. It’s the sort of book I’ll need to come back to some years down the line to fully appreciate.
Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
As Catholics, Cal McCluskey and his father are a rarity in their community and fear attacks on their home. Resistant to join his father in working at the local abattoir, Cal spends his days doing odd jobs and lurking around the public library – he has a crush on a married librarian named Marcella. Aimless and impressionable, he’s easily talked into acting as a driver for Crilly and Skeffington, the kind of associates who have gotten him branded as “Fenian scum.” The novella reflects on the futility of cycles of violence (“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Crilly says, to which Cal replies, “But it all seems so pointless”), but is definitely a period piece. Cal is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the two other books I’ve read by MacLaverty.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (1965)
Murphy and her bike “Roz” set out on an epic Fermor-like journey in the first six months of 1963. She covered 60 to 100 miles a day, facing sunburn, punctured tires and broken ribs. She was relieved she brought a gun: it came in handy for fending off wolves, deterring a would-be rapist, and preventing bike thieves. For some reason travel books are slow, painstaking reads for me. I never got into the flow of this one, and was troubled by snap judgments about groups of people – “I know instinctively the temper of a place, after being five minutes with the inhabitants. … the Afghans are, on balance, much dirtier in clothes, personal habits and dwellings than either the Turks or Persians.” Murphy does have a witty turn of phrase, though, e.g. “I suppose I’ll get used to it but at the moment I wouldn’t actually say that camel’s milk is my favourite beverage.”
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis (2017)
Toolis is a journalist and filmmaker from Dookinella, on an island off the coast of County Mayo. His father Sonny’s pancreatic cancer prompted him to return to the ancestral village and reflect on his own encounters with death. As a young man he had tuberculosis and stayed on a male chest ward with longtime smokers; despite a bone marrow donation, his older brother Bernard died from leukemia.
As a reporter during the Troubles and in Malawi and Gaza, Toolis often witnessed death, but at home in rural Ireland he saw a model for how it should be: accepted, and faced with the support of a whole community. People made a point of coming to see Sonny as he was dying. Keeping the body in the home and holding a wake are precious opportunities to be with the dead. Death is what’s coming for us all, so why not make its acquaintance? Toolis argues.
I’ve read so much around the topic that books like this don’t stand out anymore, and while I preferred the general talk of death to the family memoir bits, it also made very familiar points. At any rate, his description of his mother’s death is just how I want to go: “She quietly died of a heart attack with a cup of tea and a biscuit on a sunny May morning.”
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’ve read all of Jonathan Safran Foer’s major releases, from Everything Is Illuminated onwards, and his 2009 work Eating Animals had a major impact on me. (I included it on a 2017 list of “Books that (Should Have) Literally Changed My Life.”) It’s an exposé of factory farming that concludes meat-eating is unconscionable, and while I haven’t gone all the way back to vegetarianism in the years since I read it, I eat meat extremely rarely, usually only when a guest at others’ houses, and my husband and I often eat vegan meals at home.
When I heard that Foer’s new book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, would revisit the ethics of eating meat, I worried it might feel redundant, but still wanted to give it a try. Here he examines the issue through the lens of climate change, arguing that slashing meat consumption by two-thirds or more (by eating vegan until dinner, i.e., for two meals a day) is the easiest way for individuals to decrease their carbon footprint. I don’t disagree with this proposal. It would be churlish to fault a reasonable suggestion that gives ordinary folk something concrete to do while waiting (in vain?) for governments to act.
My issues, then, are not with the book’s message but with its methods and structure. Initially, Foer successfully makes use of historical parallels like World War II and the civil rights movement. He rightly observes that we are at a crucial turning point and it will take self-denial and joining in with a radical social movement to protect a whole way of life. Don’t think of living a greener lifestyle as a sacrifice or a superhuman feat, Foer advises; think of it as an opportunity for bravery and for living out the convictions you confess to hold.
As the book goes on, however, the same reference points come up again and again. It’s an attempt to build on what’s already been discussed, but just ends up sounding repetitive. Meanwhile, the central topic is brought in as a Trojan horse: not until page 64 (of 224 in the main text) does Foer lay his cards on the table and admit “This is a book about the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment.” Why be so coy when the book has been marketed as being about food choices? The subtitle and blurb make the topic clear. “Our planet is a farm,” Foer declares, with animal agriculture the top source of deforestation and methane emissions.
Fair enough, but as I heard a UK climate expert explain the other week at a local green fair, you can’t boil down our response to the climate crisis to ONE strategy. Every adjustment has to work in tandem. So while Foer has chosen meat-eating as the most practical thing to change right now, the other main sources of emissions barely get a mention. He admits that car use, number of children, and flights are additional areas where personal choices make a difference, but makes no attempt to influence attitudes in these areas. So diet is up for discussion, but not family planning, commuting or vacations? This struck me as a lack of imagination, or of courage. Separating Americans from their vehicles may be even tougher than getting them to put down the burgers. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
Part II is a bullet-pointed set of facts and statistics reminiscent of the “Tell the Truth” section in the Extinction Rebellion handbook. It’s an effective strategy for setting things out briefly, yet sits oddly between narrative sections of analogies and anecdotes. My favorite bits of the book were about visits to his dying grandmother back at the family home in Washington, D.C. It took him many years to realize that his grandfather, who lost everything in Poland and began again with a new wife in America, committed suicide. This family history,* nestled within the canon of Jewish stories like Noah’s Ark, Masada and the Holocaust, dramatizes the conflict between resistance and self-destruction – the very battle we face now.
Part IV, Foer’s “Dispute with the Soul,” is a philosophical dialogue in the tradition of Talmudic study, while the book closes with a letter to his sons. Individually, many of these segments are powerful in the way they confront hypocrisy and hopelessness with honesty. But together in the same book they feel like a jumble. Although it was noble of Foer to tackle the subject of climate change, I’m not convinced he was the right person to write this book, especially when we’ve already had recent works like The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Arriving at a rating has been very difficult for me because I support the book’s aims but often found it a frustrating reading experience. Still, if it wakes up even a handful of readers to the emergency we face, it will have been worthwhile.
A favorite passage: “Climate change is not a jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, which can be returned to when the schedule allows and the feeling inspires. It is a house on fire.”
*I’m looking forward to his mother Esther Safran Foer’s family memoir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, which is coming out from Tim Duggan Books on March 31, 2020.
We Are the Weather is published today, 10th October, in the UK by Hamish Hamilton (my thanks for the proof copy for review). It came out in the States from Farrar, Straus and Giroux last month.
Intricate essays about writing in the wake of trauma, a feel-good novel about an odd couple on a trip to France, hilarious festive outtakes from a career in medicine, and a race-themed family memoir: I have four very different books to recommend to you this month. All:
Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth
(Coming from Goldsmiths Press [UK] on the 15th; already out from MIT Press [USA])
Like Anne Boyer’s The Undying and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, this is an incisive memoir-in-essays about the effects of trauma on a woman’s body. Specifically, Ashworth’s story starts with her son’s birth in 2010, a disaster she keeps returning to over the course of seven sinuous personal essays. A routine C-section was followed by haemorrhaging, blood transfusions and anaphylaxis. The effects lasted for years afterwards: haunted by the sound of her blood dripping and the feeling that her organs could fall out of her abdomen at any time, she suffered from vomiting, insomnia and alcoholism, drinking late into the night as she watched gruesome true crime films.
Ashworth toggles between experience, memory, and the transformation of experience into a written record. She admits she has lost faith in fiction, either reading or writing it (she is a lecturer at Lancaster University and the author of four novels). Her Mormon upbringing in Preston is a major part of her backstory, and along with her childhood indoctrination she remembers brief stays in a children’s home and in the hospital with chicken pox.
The essays experiment with structure and content. For instance, “Ground Zero” counts down from #8, with incomplete final lines in each section, then back up to #8, with each piece from the second set picking up where the first left off. Slashes and cross-outs represent rethinking or alternate interpretations. “Off Topic: On Derailment” encompasses so many topics, from excommunication to Agatha Christie to rollercoasters to Charles Dickens, that you have to read it to believe she can make it all fit together (elsewhere she muses on Chernobyl, magic tricks and hating King Lear).
“How to Begin: The Cut” started as a talk given at Greenbelt 2013, when I was in the audience. I especially loved “A Lecture on Influence,” a coy self-examination through creative writing lessons, and “How to Fall without Landing: Celestial City,” a meditation on the precariousness of the human condition. Her frame of literary reference is wide and surprising. This also reminded me of Sight by Jessie Greengrass, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott; I would recommend it to readers of any of the above.
Some favorite lines:
“My God-hurt head has a hole in it or needs one; to let the world in, or out – I can’t ever decide.”
“how to write about everything? How to take in the things that don’t belong to you without being poisoned by them? How to make use of the things that live inside, those seedlings you never asked for? How to breathe in? How to breathe out? How to keep on doing that?”
“Some days it feels like writing truthfully about her own life is the most subversive thing a woman can do.”
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Akin by Emma Donoghue
(Coming from Picador [UK] on the 3rd; already out from Little, Brown and Co. [USA])
I’ve read Donoghue’s six most recent works of fiction. Her books are all so different from each other in setting – a one-room prison in contemporary America, bawdy 1870s San Francisco, rural Ireland in the 1850s – that it’s hard to pin her down to one time period or roster of topics. She never writes the same book twice, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Akin gets off to a slightly slow start but soon had me hooked. Noah Selvaggio, a childless widower and retired chemist in New York City, is looking forward to an imminent trip to Nice, where he was born, to celebrate his 80th birthday. He never guessed that he’d have company on his trip, much less a surly 11-year-old. This is Michael Young, his nephew Victor’s son. Victor died of a drug overdose a year and a half ago; the boy’s mother is in prison; his maternal grandmother has just died. There’s no one else to look after Michael, so with a rush passport he’s added to the itinerary.
In some ways Michael reminded me of my nephews, ages 11 and 14: the monosyllabic replies, the addiction to devices and online gaming, the finicky eating, and the occasional flashes of childlike exuberance. Having never raised a child, Noah has no idea how strict to be with his great-nephew about screen time, unhealthy food and bad language. He has to learn to pick his battles, or every moment of this long-awaited homecoming trip would be a misery. And he soon realizes that Michael’s broken home and troubled area of NYC make him simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than your average kid.
The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly here and makes for many amusing culture clashes, not so much France vs. the USA as between these Americans of different generations. The dialogue, especially, made me laugh. Donoghue nails it:
[Noah:] “The genre, the style. Is rap the right word for it? Or hip-hop?”
[Michael:] “Don’t even try.” Michael turned his music back on.
(At the cathedral)
[Michael:] “This is some seriously frilly shit.”
[Noah:] “It’s called Baroque style.”
[Michael:] “I call it fugly.”
But there’s another dimension to the novel that keeps it from being pleasant but forgettable. Noah’s grandfather was a famous (fictional) photographer, Père Sonne, and he has recently found a peculiar set of photographs left behind by his late mother, Margot. One is of the hotel where they’re staying in Nice, known to be a holding tank for Jews before they were sent off to concentration camps. The more Noah looks into it, the more he is convinced that his mother was involved in some way – but which side was she on?
This is feel-good fiction in the best possible sense: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy. With its spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes, I can easily see it being made into a movie, too. It’s one of my favorite novels of the year so far.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay
(Coming from Picador on the 17th)
If you’ve read This Is Going to Hurt, the UK’s bestselling nonfiction title of 2018, you’ll know just what to expect from the comedian’s holiday-themed follow-up. It’s raunchy, morbid and laugh-out-loud funny. In the seven years that Kay was a medical doctor, he had to work on Christmas Day six times. He takes us through the holiday seasons of 2004 to 2009, from the sickeningly festive run-up to the letdown of Christmas day and its aftermath. With his Rudolph tie on and his Scrooge spirit intact, he attends to genital oddities, childbirth crises and infertility clients, and feebly tries to keep up his relationships with his family and his partner despite them having about given up on him after so many holiday absences.
This will be a stocking-stuffer for many this year, and I can see myself returning to it year after year and flicking through for a laugh. However, there’s one story here that Kay regrets omitting from This Is Going to Hurt as being too upsetting, and he also ends on a serious note, urging readers to spare a thought for those who give up their holidays to keep our hospitals staffed.
A favorite passage:
“A lot of the reward for this job comes in the form of a warm glow. It doesn’t make you look any less tired, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it’s worth a lot less than the social life you’ve traded it for, but this comforting aura of goodness and purpose definitely throws light into some dark corners and helps you withstand a lot of the shit.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt
(Coming from Scribe UK on the 10th)
“What are you?” This question has followed McWatt since she was eight years old. When her third-grade teacher asked the class if they knew what “Negro” meant, one boy pointed to her. “Oh, no, not Tessa,” the teacher replied, following up with a question: “What are you, Tessa?” But it has always been hard to put her mixed-race background into one word. Her family moved from Guyana to Canada and she has since settled in England, where she is a professor of creative writing; her ancestry is somewhat uncertain but may include Chinese, Indian, indigenous South American, Portuguese, French/Jewish, African, and Scottish.
The book opens with the startling scene of her grandmother, a young Chinese woman brought over to work the sugarcane fields of British Guiana, being raped by her own uncle. “To strangers, even friends—on some days also to myself—I am images of violence and oppression. I am the language of shame and destitution, of slavery and indenture, of rape and murder. I am images of power and privilege, of denial and shades of skin, shapes of faces,” McWatt writes.
Her investigation of the meaning of race takes the form of an academic paper, Hypothesis–Experiment–Analysis–Findings, and within the long third section she goes part by part through the bodily features that have most often been used as markers of racial identity, including the nose, eyes, hair and buttocks. She dives into family history but also into wider historical movements, literature and science to understand her hybrid self. It’s an inventive and sensitive work reminiscent of The Color of Water by James McBride. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading (or feels they should try) interrogations of race.
A favorite line:
“as I try to square my politics with my privilege, it seems that my only true inheritance is that I am always running somewhere else.”
I won a signed proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Have you read any October releases that you would recommend? Do any of these tempt you?
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.