I’ve just finished two very different books, but realized that they had a common thread after all: the places you end up by listening to your heart (or possibly your ego, libido, or a combination of all the above). The books are Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot: Essays and Kathy Ebel’s Claudia Silver to the Rescue. Read more
Posts tagged ‘new memoir’
In the past few months I’ve been reading like there’s no tomorrow. Here’s my attempt to catch up the blogging to the reading.
This was a book club read, and not a genre I generally visit: Nordic crime fiction. Probably Stieg Larsson fans would devour it, or at least I guess they would (I’ve only seen the Dragon Tattoo movie — parts of it with my hands over my eyes — and haven’t read the book). Plot-driven doesn’t begin to describe it; I will say that the pages practically turned themselves. Read more
I’ve loved Russo’s novels forever, and noticed that a lot of them had absent or flaky fathers, so I always wondered if this was part of his past. Elsewhere cleared that up: Russo’s father did leave when Richard was a child. But we also learn one of the main reasons: his mother’s mental illness. As an only child, Russo spent all of his childhood, as well a huge chunk of his adult life trying to make things all right for her. As with many families affected by mental illness, the family members are in a constant state of triage, dealing with the fallout, without acknowledging (or in some cases even fully realizing) that the illness exists. This was definitely the case with Russo. Read more
This is another in my Bad Parenting series, this time with two generations of bad dads: the author’s father mortifies his children by mooning his friends in public on a regular basis; the author by sliding so far financially that he’s feeding his son with whatever spare change he can scare up in the house. For much of the memoir, Ben is hanging off a monetary cliff, by his fingernails. And while his situation is bleak, the brand of humor he slips in saves the book from being Les Miserables for the New Millennium. The description of his dad’s three varieties of mooning are worth the cover price:
My father is about to moon someone. In the A&P parking lot.
I should pause for a moment and explain, from the safety of adulthood, that my father had three major styles when it came to mooning. The first and probably the most common type happened in the car, when my father was behind the wheel. Let’s call it the Face in the Window. If we were driving through Gloucester and passed a friend from his wilder, artsy crowd, he would sometimes put the car in neutral, crouch up on the seat yank down his pants and press his bare ass to the glass…I had seen the Face in the Window from the outside enough times to fear it: the twin mounds of flesh pressed hard against the window; the dark crevice down the center, like a crack in the earth; the beard of pubic hair and dangling ball sack. No one, no matter what his suit of character armor, should have to contemplate the furry pucker of his father’s asshole in the window of a car, or anywhere else. It is like seeing your own death. Actually, it’s like seeing your own death and staring at your father’s asshole at the same time.
His second style of mooning was an offshoot of the first: the Breezeway. This is identical to the Face in the Window, except the car windows are open. It’s fresher, more natural. Easier to shrug off, if you happen to catch some collateral.
The third style of mooning is the easiest to employ on the fly: the Quick Drop. This is the moon my father used when he was on foot. It could happen in an instant, at any time. He dropped his pants, threw himself over forward, and reached behind to spread his ass cheeks wide. Without the spread it was still a full-on mooning, but the effect was a little more restrained, more polite.
With parenting like that, it’s a wonder Anastas didn’t die of mortification during his teens. And as if his dad weren’t enough of a handful, it was actually his mother who was the certifiably mentally ill one. The whole family stays for a time at a residential psychiatric facility, in hopes of restoring his mother’s sanity. This period is what gave the book its title: the therapists, in a chilling moment of tough love, hang derogatory signs around Benjamin’s and his siblings’ necks. His brother’s sign reads MR. KNOW-IT-ALL, his sister’s says CRYBABY, and Benjamin is labeled TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE. So the reader tends to cut him a little slack on his own shortcomings. He successfully (to me, at least) explains how, through a combination of unlucky breaks, weak moments, publisher stinginess, and internet-induced procrastination, he comes be be significantly worse off than penniless, even though his first novel was successful, and he was given an advance for his second. It’s only when he hits rock bottom that he remembers some of the most traumatic moments in his screwed-up childhood.
There’s a lot in this book, even though it’s less than 200 pages long. Along with his finances, his marriage has also fallen apart. He’s started another relationship, one he’s desperate to succeed at. He writes beautifully about this as well, lest you think this is a short book of poor-mouthing and mooning. Here, he describes his dashed hopes for the broken marriage, expressed in two dilapidated chairs at the house he’s rented during a temporary teaching appointment. His wife was supposed to join him, but never does.
I’d been more interested when I rented the house in a pair of green deck chairs set under a tree at the end of the winding path through the woods to the pond. They had a nice view of the water; I had imagined sitting there with Marina at the end of my teaching day with a book and a glass of wine. I had never really fantasized or even thought that much about what married life with her would be like, how it would be different from the years we had already spent as a couple — so far it was just like it had always been before we decided to get married, only worse…At first I ignored the chairs down at the water. If I saw them through the window when I looked out toward the pond, or caught a glimpse of them, between the trees, while I came down the driveway in the Volvo at the end of the day — two rickety green chairs, sitting side by side — I felt a pang in my heart that I hated, but it was real. I didn’t like missing my wife the way I did, and it bothered me that when I daydreamed about sitting with her at the pond it was like something from a commercial for instant coffee…
While Anastas’ situation is bleak, he manages to end on a modestly optimistic note. I enjoyed watching him get there.
author photo: Lorena Ros
Here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed recently.
The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver.
I enjoyed her 2010 novel So Much for That, so looked forward to reading this one. Shriver’s humor is pitch black, and this one is no exception: imagine someone writing an at least partially comic novel about a group of terrorists who periodically blow things up, causing collateral damage in the way of dead innocent bystanders. Now try to imagine getting this published after 9/11. In an Author’s Note, Shriver tells us that the novel was completed in 1998, but she had no luck selling it till now. For me, the novel succeeded as comedy, but some reviewers disagree. Michiko Kakutani the the NY Times called it “ghastly” and “very unfunny”. The main characters are a group of backbiting, cynical reporters living in Portugal. Edgar Kellogg, a disaffected corporate lawyer, has just abandoned his lavish lifestyle to join their ranks. All of them are haunted (Kellogg literally) by the spirit of a charismatic reporter who’s disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Animal Crackers, by Hannah Tinti
More dark stuff for summer. Some of these were actually too much for me — each of the stories has a human relationship with an animal at its center, and some of them involve cruelty. So I approached the story “Slim’s Last Ride” (Slim being a pet rabbit) with trepidation, and it was not unfounded. The stories are very well-written, though, and I’ll (cautiously) seek out other books by Tinti.
The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger
This is a new novel about an arranged marriage between a Bengali woman and an American man — the catch being that it’s the bride and groom who do the arranging. They meet through a dating site; though Amina’s parents approve of George, after meeting him, it’s Amina who has chosen him. Though the story kept me going, I found the characters, especially George, somewhat stereotypical: he’s an engineer, and Freudenberger gives him just the personality you might expect a cartoon engineer to have: rigid, self-centered, emotionally stunted. Amina and her family are a little less two-dimensional. Freudenberger got the idea for the novel from a conversation with a Bengali woman on a plane — the woman was on her way to meet her husband-to-be. I’d check out other books by Freudenberger, but for me, this one didn’t live up to comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s memoir about her horrific childhood is something out of Dickens, filtered through the 1960s in the north of England. When your adoptive mother tells you early on that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib”, things can only go downhill from there. Locked out of her own house overnight in freezing weather, forbidden to read anything at home but the Bible, she finds salvation by reading her way through the entire English literature section of her local library. The reader breathes a huge sigh of relief when she finally leaves home, and manages to get through Oxford. Her story is almost unbelievable, and well-written.
photo credits, from top:
Ashley Gilbertson/VII for the NY Times
Have complaints about the way you were parented? Did Mom and Dad favor a sibling, buy you downmarket toys, crack corny jokes in public? Read this memoir and you may be shamed into shutting your pie hole. Texas singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell gives us a (literally) blow by blow description of his hellish childhood. With no sibling to share the abuse, Crowell absorbed it all — except when his parents attacked each other, which happened regularly. Here he describes an outing with his dead drunk parents to a drive-in restaurant:
Biting her fingernails was a habit my mother indulged to the hilt. “It’s my nerves,” she claimed, and she took nervousness to new heights — “down to the quick,” as she put it — until her fingertips were a throbbing bloodred pulp. Considering this, it’s hard to imagine how she could produce claw marks on the side of my father’s face. But I saw it happen as Jimmy wailed on.
The time bomb suddenly exploded. My father punched her in the face, hard. Unfazed, she kept scratching away at his face and screaming “Go on and hit me. Show everybody what a big man you are. Go on, knock my teeth out. I know you hate the ground I walk on.”
These were eight-year-olds in drunken thirty-something bodies powered by pent-up rage. If experience had taught me anything, it was how to defend myself from their periodic need to hurl themselves into the inferno. But in the cramped quarters of the Studebaker, the flames were dangerously close to torching my self-preservation. Survival, from my vantage point in the backseat, was fast becoming an issue.
In my parents’ world of downward spirals, outside influences — like the carload of customers parked next to us, or concerned carhops asking if everything was all right — were less effectual than a kite in a hurricane. Quelling these prizefights called for more drastic measures.
Clarity came from a familiar source inside my head. If you want this to stop, get their attention. It occurred to me the Dr. Pepper bottle in my hand could end this brawl once and for all.
“Look what you made me do!” I yelled above the din of their vitriol, and was surprised when the fighting stopped instantly and both my parents granted me a haggard glance. Then, with the stage set, I busted myself over the head with the bottle, opening a three-inch gash just above my hairline.
Add his mother’s epilepsy and her periodic forays into Bible thumping to the mix, and is it any wonder Crowell wound up writing country songs? But the big surprise to me is that he was able to forgive them, make peace with his nightmarish upbringing, and even ease their way into whatever afterlife they earned for themselves. His account of both of their deaths is every bit as riveting as the story of their lives.
author photo: Alan Messer
These aren’t short books. I’m just short on time to blog about them, and wanted to get something in before they fade completely from memory.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
This one took a while to take hold of me, but I did end up liking it, with a few reservations. The two main characters are Renee, a 54-year-old concierge of a Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives there. What connects them is that both withhold their real selves from others. Renee, instead of revealing her love of classic literature and serious film, pretends to be everyone’s drab cliche of what a concierge is. She wills her real self to be invisible to the upper class tenants of her building, and she does a thorough job of it. She leaves on a television tuned to the sorts of shows she thinks a concierge would watch, but then retreats to the back of her apartment to read Tolstoy and Proust. Paloma has nothing but contempt for the adults around her, as well as for her sister. She lets no one know the emotional trouble she’s in.
I found both characters entertaining — except when they drifted into philosophical treatises along the lines of “what is art?” (Barbery is a professor of philosophy, which somewhat explains the detours, but doesn’t make them fit any better into the structure of the novel). Luckily, these tirades are neatly cordoned off into chapters; after a while, I started skimming. In the last half of the book, the plot gains momentum through the introduction of a new character who gives Renee a reason to let herself be seen. And Paloma meets Renee, which opens her as well. I’ve heard that there’s a movie in the works.
The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer
Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Position) strays into Alice Hoffman East Coast magical realism territory in her latest novel — only it’s New Jersey, not Massachusetts, and there’s a lot more humor involved. The story centers around Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s teachers and students, and the new drama teacher’s production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — you know, the one where the women of ancient Greece agree to go on a sex strike till the men end a war they’ve been fighting. The play is cast, rehearsals begin — and one by one, women all over town start losing interest in sex after feeling an icy wind blowing around them.
In the wrong hands, this could be silly. But the characters are so real that they threaten to walk right off the page; we feel sympathy for the newly unarousable women as well as for their rejected men. Along the way we’re alternately touched and amused: Wolitzer can portray a healthy marriage going suddenly off the rails as well as she can the eye-rolling impatience of their teenage daughter, who knows they have nothing of value to tell her.
I won’t reveal how it ends, but I found this a very satisfying read.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Prepare for frequent snorting on this one — Tina Fey is nearly as funny on the page as she is on the screen. From descriptions of her dark shin fur as an adolescent to a blow-by-blow commentary on her family’s dreary Christmas customs, Fey provides plenty of laughs, mostly at her own expense. Here’s the set up for the annual holiday trek:
Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day.
We always plan to leave around seven in the morning and, like clockwork, we’re out the door by ten. After gassing up, deicing, and turning around for an unanticipated bowel movement, we glide onto glorious 80W by ten thirty. Sure, there are those trendy types who prefer 76/70 because “it’s more scenic” and “they have a McDonald’s,” but I think 80W has a certain ceci me deprime.
And here’s the classic Palin/Clinton sequence Fey did with Amy Poehler to open Saturday Night Liive, worth a repeat viewing. Fey says “Doing that sketch on live TV was a pure joy I had never before experienced as a performer.”