This was the book I wanted Places I Stopped on the Way Home to be: a wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Edelstein’s memoir also fits into several of my favorite subgenres: it’s a family memoir, a medical memoir and a bereavement memoir all at once. The story opens in Brooklyn in February 2014 as Edelstein, age 32, is trying to build an adult life back in America after 14 years in London and Berlin. Two years earlier her father had told her via Skype from Baltimore that he had lung cancer, and she returned to the States to be closer to help. But when the moment came, she was still unprepared: “if someone had said to me: What would you like to be doing when your father dies? I would not have said, I would like to be looking for love on OKCupid. But I did not have the luxury to make that decision. Who does?”
Her father never smoked yet died of lung cancer; his mother had colon cancer and died at 42. Both had Lynch syndrome, a genetic disease that predisposes people to various cancers. Six months after her father’s death, Edelstein took a genetic test, as he had wanted her to, and learned that she was positive for the Lynch syndrome mutation. The book’s structure (“Between” – “Before” – “After”) plunges readers right into the middle of the family mess, then pulls back to survey her earlier life, everything from childhood holidays in her mother’s native Scotland to being a secretary to a London literary agent who hated her, before returning to the turning point of that diagnosis. How is she going to live with this knowledge hanging over her? Doctors want her to have a prophylactic hysterectomy, but how can she rule out children when she doesn’t yet have a partner in her life?
So many aspects of this book resonated for me, especially moving between countries and having a genetic disease in the family. Beyond those major themes, there were tiny moments that felt uncannily familiar to me, like when she’s helping her mother prepare for an online auction of the contents of the family home in Maryland, or comparing the average cleanliness and comfort of rental properties in England and the States. There are so many little memorable scenes in this memoir: having an allergic reaction to shellfish two days after her arrival in the States, getting locked out of her sublet and having to call an Uzbek/Israeli locksmith at 3 a.m., and subsisting on oatmeal three times a day in London versus going on all-expenses-paid trips to Estonia and Mauritius for a conference travel magazine.
This is a clear-eyed look at life in all its irony (such as the fact that she’s claustrophobic and dreads getting MRI tests when it was her own father, a nuclear physicist, who built the world’s first full-body MRI scanner at Aberdeen) and disappointment. I’m prizing this as a prime example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
The Family Gene by Joselin Linder
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens
“when I was in London, … I wondered if the problem of having my whole life ahead of me, free and clear and open for anything, was that having an unlimited number of options made the chance of choosing the wrong thing so high.”
“I was not yet old enough to realize that I’d never really know, that there would never be a time when I could think: I am here. This is me, without becoming uncertain again a moment later.”
“When I lived in England I drank a lot of tea, many cups a day, even though I didn’t like it. I learned quite fast after I arrived in London that drinking tea was an important way to connect with people: when I went over to their homes, or if we worked together in an office. Being offered a cup of tea meant that you were being offered an entry to something, and accepting it was important.”
This Really Isn’t About You was published by Picador on August 23rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
“Now that it’s all over I find myself thinking about family history and family memories; the stories that hold a family together and the acts that can split it apart.”
Sigrid Rausing’s brother, Hans, and his wife, Eva, were wealthy philanthropists – and drug addicts who kept it together long enough to marry and have children before relapsing. Hans survived that decade-long dive back into addiction, but Eva did not: in July 2012 the 48-year-old’s decomposed body was found in a sealed-off area of the couple’s £70 million Chelsea mansion. The postmortem revealed that she had been using cocaine, which threw her already damaged heart into a chaotic rhythm. She’d been dead in their drug den for over two months.
Those are the bare facts. Scandalous enough for you? But Mayhem is no true crime tell-all. It does incorporate the straightforward information that is in the public record – headlines, statements and appearances – but blends them into a fragmentary, dreamlike family memoir that proceeds through free association and obsessively deliberates about the nature and nurture aspects of addictive personalities. “We didn’t understand that every addiction case is the same dismal story,” she writes, in a reversal of Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families.
Rausing’s memories of idyllic childhood summers in Sweden reminded me of Tove Jansson stories, and the incessant self-questioning of a family member wracked by remorse is similar to what I’ve encountered in memoirs and novels about suicide in the family, such as Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Despite all the pleading letters and e-mails she sent Hans and Eva, and all the interventions and rehab spells she helped arrange, Rausing has a nagging “sense that when I tried I didn’t try hard enough.”
The book moves sinuously between past and present, before and after, fact and supposition. There are a lot of peculiar details and connections in this story, starting with the family history of dementia and alcoholism. Rausing’s grandfather founded the Tetra Pak packaging company, later run by her father. Eva had a pet conspiracy theory that her father-in-law murdered Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.
Rausing did anthropology fieldwork in Estonia and is now the publisher of Granta Books and Granta magazine. True to her career in editing, she’s treated this book project like a wild saga that had to be tamed, “all the sad and sordid details redacted,” but “I fear I have redacted too much,” she admits towards the end. She’s constantly pushing back against the more sensational aspects of this story, seeking instead to ground it in family experience. The book’s sketchy nature is in a sense necessary because information about her four nieces and nephews, of whom she took custody in 2007, cannot legally be revealed. But if she’d waited until they were all of age, might this have been a rather different memoir?
Mayhem effectively conveys the regret and guilt that plague families of addicts. It invites you to feel what it is really like to live through the “years of failed hope” that characterize this type of family tragedy. It doesn’t offer any easy lessons seen in hindsight. That makes it an uncomfortable read, but an honest one.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
My gut feeling: This book’s style could put off more readers than it attracts. I can think of two other memoirs from the longlist that I would have preferred to see in this spot. I suppose I see why the judges rate Mayhem so highly – Edmund de Waal, the chair of this year’s judging panel, describes the Wellcome shortlist as “books that start debates or deepen them, that move us profoundly, surprise and delight and perplex us” – but it’s not in my top tier.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “Rausing is clearly a perceptive writer. She is very hard on herself; she is brutally honest, knowing that others will be hurt by the book.”
Clare’s review: “Rausing writes thoughtfully about the nature of addiction and its many contradictions.”
Laura’s review: “One of the saddest bits of Mayhem is when Rausing simply lists some of the press headlines that deal with her family story in reverse order, illustrating the seemingly inescapable spiral of addiction.”
Paul’s review: “It is not an easy read subject wise, thankfully Rausing’s sparse but beautiful writing helps makes this an essential read.”
Also, be sure to visit Laura’s blog today for an exclusive extract from Mayhem.
Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race.
If you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and extracts have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.
The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.
Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:
Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.
[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.
He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.
Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.
- Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
- In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s
Following on from last week’s article on quick reads…
I sometimes wonder if counting graphic novels on my year lists is a bit like cheating, since some are little more than comic books. However, the majority of graphic novels I read have a definite storyline and more words on a page than your average comic. When I worked in London I took advantage of the extensive public library holdings there and tried out a lot of graphic novelists’ work that was new to me. Some of my favorites are Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds, Audrey Niffenegger and Joe Sacco. As it happens, I’ve never officially reviewed graphic novels (nor do I own any), but here’s a handful I’ve enjoyed, along with my reading notes:
This memoir in graphic novel form is super. Bechdel puts the ‘fun’ in both dysfunctional family and funeral home – the family business her father inherited in small-town Pennsylvania. All through her 1970s upbringing, as Alison grew up coveting men’s shirts and feeling strange quivers of suspicion when she encountered the word “lesbian” in the dictionary, her father was leading a double life, sleeping with the younger men who babysat his kids or helped out with his twin passions of gardening and home renovation.
In an ironic sequence of events, the coming-out letter Alison sent home from college was followed just weeks later by her mother’s revelation of her father’s homosexual indiscretions and their upcoming divorce, and then no more than a few months later by her father’s sudden death. Bruce Bechdel was run down by a Sunbeam Bread truck as he was crossing the road with an armload of cleared brush from a property he was renovating. Was it suicide, or just a horribly arbitrary accident? (The Sunbeam Bread detail sure makes one cringe.) In any case, it was a “mort imbécile,” just as Camus characterized any death by automobile.
Bechdel traces the hints of queerness in her family, the moments when she and her father saw into each other and recognized something familiar. She also muses on the family as a group of frustrated and isolated artists each striving, unfulfilled, towards perfection. This is a thoughtful, powerful memoir, and no less so for being told through a comic strip.
(Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was also on my BookTrib list of mother–daughter memoirs to read for Mother’s Day.)
This sweet, autobiographical coming-of-age story in graphic novel form is not quite as likable and quick-witted as Fun Home, but it has similar themes such as sexual awakening and the difficulty of understanding one’s parents. Blankets are a linking metaphor: the quilt Craig’s first love, Raina, makes for him; huddling in the same bed with his little brother Phil for warmth during freezing Wisconsin winters; and playing ‘storm at sea’ with the covers.
There’s also an interesting loss-of-faith element to the narrative. Craig is brought up in your average Midwestern fundamentalist Evangelical church and attends youth group, camp, etc. (where he meets Raina); the pastor even wants him to consider going into the ministry, but he doesn’t fit in here – even in the Christian subculture he’s forced into a fringe group of outsiders. Writing and drawing are acts of self-creation and self-preservation. He wants to find a way to use his drawing for good but no one seems to see a value in it. Thus everything, or nothing in particular, leads him to reject his faith when he gets to college.
How satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement – no matter how temporary.
The drawings are lush and bold (though even more so in Thompson’s Habibi). [SPOILERS ahead!] I appreciated how Thompson denies the satisfaction of a happy ending to Craig and Raina’s love story; it’s more realistic this way, recognizing that high school sweethearts rarely stay together. As Raina says, “everything ENDS…everything DEGENERATES, CRUMBLES – so why bother getting started in the first place?” And yet the beauty and power in memory of young love remains, thus Thompson’s rhapsodizing here.
[a collection of her comics for the Guardian]
As with the Garfield cartoons, you get to see the development of Simmonds’s style and the characters, as well as the march of fashion over the period 1977–1993. Very clever skewering of middle class liberal values and political correctness gone mad: the characters (especially polytechnic sociology lecturer George, in the Department of Liberal Studies, and children’s book author Wendy Weber) espouse these values, but their actions don’t always live up to the tolerance they preach. Here are some of the themes:
- 1980s politics: reactionary against Thatcherism; youth unemployment and purposelessness; income inequality; economic and social injustice
- Hypocrisy, avoiding unpleasant truths, compromising youthful ideals
- Middle vs. upper-middle / upper class: second homes, private education
- Place of women: the irony that stay-at-home motherhood is idealized and the difficulties of working motherhood denied (women – liberated to do what?)
A lovely and simple fairy tale, with classical plot elements like transformation and true love transcending all boundaries. In a quaint English setting, a country postman is tasked with delivering a letter to an address he’s never seen before:
2 Flat Drab Manor
East Underwhelm, Otherworld
EE1 LH9 [postcode = East of East, Lower Heights]
Here the postman meets a young raven fallen out of her nest, takes her home to mend her and they fall in love. Even when her wing heals and she can fly, she chooses to stay with him. Their daughter is a mixed creature; she can only croak, but she has no wings and so is raised as a human child. At university she meets a plastic surgeon who can create human-animal chimeras; she begs him to make her wings – a mixture of science and magic. It involves bloody surgery and painful recovery, but in the end she has the wings she’s always felt were hers. Her identity is described in terms very much like Jan Morris’s in Conundrum, when describing her sex change and her knowledge that she was really a girl: “My mother is a raven and my father is a postman, but I feel that truly I should have been a raven.”
Like Niffenegger’s other work, there’s an ever so slightly uncomfortable blend of sinister/grotesque elements with charming, innocuous magic.
This is probably the most peculiar graphic novel I’ve ever read. It’s the story of Jimmy Corrigan, a sad-sack workaholic who, at 36, has no friends apart from his mother, who constantly telephones him. One day he gets a letter from the father he’s never met, asking him to come meet him. And so Jimmy gets on a plane from Chicago out to suburban Michigan. Corrigan is one of those unfortunate-looking fellows who has a potato for a head and a wispy comb-over, and could be anywhere between 30 and 60; he looked little different as a child in the flashback scenes – somewhat like Charlie Brown, also in his depression, diffidence and inability to speak to women.
I much preferred the historical interludes looking at his grandfather (another Jimmy) and his years growing up in Chicago with the World’s Fair under construction. I also liked the more random additions such as patterns for cutting and folding your own model village or business cards with ‘scenic views’ of today’s Waukosha, MI on them.
Parental (verbal) abuse and neglect is a recurring theme, as are bullying from peers, car accidents, and Superman. There’s also an uncomfortable amount of imagined violence – either homicide or suicide.
Palestine by Joe Sacco
Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry
Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart
Do you read graphic novels? What are some of your favorites?