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Tag Archives: memoirs

“The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association’s Notable Books List–I find excellent books there that I hadn’t heard about previously.

 “The Faraway Nearby” begins with apricots, picked from Solnit’s mother’s tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer’s to know. Solnit’s preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

 I was intrigued by the title, “The Faraway Nearby.” Here is what she says about that, “After years in New York  City, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, ‘from the faraway nearby.'” (p. 108)

 Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, “knot.” The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother’s story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

 I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. “People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully…Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you’re lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run.” (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she’s right. It has changed everything a little.

 At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won’t recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.

“Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”

I took a break from my Notable Books reading for “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. I’d heard some interviews with her earlier this year, and found her comments intriguing.

And then I had to wait awhile because there were (and are!) quite a few holds on it.

Cain’s title tells it all–she supports and values the combination of traits that characterize introversion–needing solitude for recharge, preferring one-on-one conversations over cocktail parties, focusing on one topic at a time, and a tendency for active environments to be overstimulating.

She includes research, cultural aspects, advice for romantic pairs and advice for parents.  Cain herself isn’t a researcher, but has interviewed many who are, and she has done plenty of homework in seeking out a variety of opinions.

An introvert myself, I connected with many of her observations. In particular, I saw myself in her description of the need to gear up for certain kinds of social events, almost as if going into battle. On the other hand, I haven’t sensed the scorn or disapproval of the extroverts in my life as much as she seems to have, and sometimes I felt like she “protested too much.” A personal note–I do clearly recall my college boyfriend kindly pointing out that my quietness at parties could be interpreted as my being stuck-up. And he did say so kindly. And I still remember that–it stuck with me. I would guess that quite a few introverts have received similar observations.

I’ll recommend this book to people who are interested in the many ways in which personality can be profiled, so that we understand ourselves better, and get along with others better. I’m finding myself having extended animated conversations with others who’ve read this–and so far, her audience seems mostly–introverts.

A Notable Memoir, “The Memory Palace”

The Memory Palace: A Memoir” by Mira Bartok falls into the category of “memoirs by women with mentally ill mothers.” Others in this category include “Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr and “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. I picked it up because it’s on this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. And–I’m a sucker for a memoir.

Here are the basics–Mira Bartok and her sister ended up changing their names and moving to cities away from Cleveland to separate themselves from their mother, who was seriously mentally ill. Bartok became an artist and writer. After a serious car accident and traumatic brain injury as an adult, she decided to take a few steps toward reconnection with her mother who by then was homeless as well.

This book stands out from the others because Bartok includes excerpts from letters that her mother wrote, and she includes pictures of her own art. These deepen her story. Her telling isn’t chronological, but it does make sense somehow, as she describes the reconciliation, and then backs up to tell what came before.

Bartok employs the image of the memory palace partly because she had to reconstruct her own ability to remember. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1999 at age 40, and lost much of her short term memory. She describes the memory palace as a way of remembering by creating an imaginary space where each item within the space represents something one wishes to remember, an apt description of her writing here.

As I look back on the reading and reflect on what images I will keep of this book, I will recall Bartok’s description of when she first saw her mother behaving oddly in a way that was seriously wrong, and her immediate understanding that it was something to hide. The saddest to me was that Bartok seemed to show great talent at the piano; her mother had been a prodigy. But the disorganization of the entire household kept Bartok from continuing with lessons just as she was progressing to serious music.

Bartok struggles with guilt and shame. Yet there is also a sense in which she and her sister keep their eye on the light at the end of a tunnel, knowing that their only hope is that light. Nothing here is easy, but much of it is richly focused on life and hope.

I confess that as I read this, I often silently thanked my parents for being so by-the-book in getting me to bed on time, feeding me three square meals each and every day, and insisting on a sense of order. I chafed at that, but “The Memory Palace” reminded me that there’s nothing lovely about the kind of mental chaos that puts children in true danger. I’ll recommend this to readers who love memoirs, who seek stories of resilient children, and who want to know more about families without bedtimes.

“Townie” by Andrew Dubus III

I came across this title on a “best of the year” list recently. I loved “House of Sand and Fog” written by Dubus years ago, and I’m always on the lookout for a memoir. “Townie” sounded interesting because of the relationship that Dubus III had with his father, Andre Dubus, the late short story writer.

Dubus III, his two brothers and sisters grew up primarily with their mother, living in blue collar neighborhoods in worn out Massachusetts cities of the 70s and 80s. Early on,  he sensed that he was basically a chicken who allowed others to push him (and his family) around. He hated that about himself. Their neighborhoods saw plenty of violence and crime. His mother worked hard and was away from the house a lot. He and his dad, by then a faculty member at a small college nearby, saw each other on weekends, and sometimes for dinners together during the week.

Eventually, Dubus III became someone who threw punches at others. Much of this book chronicles the various fights in which he engaged. Because of the extensive focus on fighting, I found this to be a book about another world. I’ve never thrown a punch, and never been punched. I’ve never been friends with people who did so. The fighting began to seem tiresome. I kept waiting for him to find another way to live. Eventually, he did.

At a certain point, things stabilize. Dubus III decides to be an educated person. He gets to know his father, spends time with him. His mother and her long-term boyfriend remain in his life. Dubus III has an epiphany, an experience where he writes, and it is rewarding in ways he hadn’t predicted.

But a certain anger remains about how alone and afraid he was as a child, and how much he missed. A couple of images that I’ll keep from this book include one where Dubus III, maybe 12 or so, plays catch with his dad, and his dad is baffled that he doesn’t know how to throw a baseball. He never taught his son, and apparently it hadn’t occurred to him that he might not know how. Nor did he recognize that his son lived in a place where children weren’t engaged in sports. Similarly, when the elder Dubus referred to the Red Sox, his son honestly didn’t know what he was talking about.

As an adult, once he established a strong bond with his father, Dubus III tries to find a time and a way to tell his father how awful it was for him, his brothers and sister. A couple of opportunities slip through his fingers, and maybe it isn’t as critical as he thought.

What stays is that sense of loss and fear, expressed most often as explosive physical anger.

Dubus III writes well–he conveys what was bad about his upbringing, but he’s also a fine observer of the time and place where he grew up. There was room for fun, room for friendship. That he was such a sensitive observer probably explains both the fighting and his talent for writing.

Many readers of literary fiction enjoy the story behind the stories of their favorite authors, and certainly I’ll recommend this to people who loved “House of Sand and Fog.” I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the other audiences for this book and its themes of anger, transformation, physical violence, courage, and art–somehow that list reminds me of Hemingway. There is a whole sense of adventure here underpinned by intelligence–and that suggests that a wide audience indeed.

Mary Karr’s “Lit”

I finished “Lit” by Mary Karr just over a week ago. I’m nervous when writing about a book more than a few days after finishing it. I’m the kind of reader who tends to forget whole portions of even the books that I enjoy the most. In my defense, I do retain strong mental files of particularly riveting scenes.

This is the third of Mary Karr’s memoirs. I was introduced to (and loved) her “The Liar’s Club” when it made the ALA Notable Books list in the mid 1990’s. I confess that I didn’t finish the second, “Cherry.”

Karr is a well-regarded poet and professor. But it didn’t come easy. “The Liar’s Club” tells about her crazy childhood in Texas, with a mother suffering from mental illness and an alcoholic father. But one-sentence summary doesn’t begin to convey the richness of language, story and affection that her parents provided. Her storytelling seems always to reflect that intense Southern background, well-chosen words rollicking with energy.

In “Lit” she turns to her own demons of alcoholism and depression. Karr married a fellow writer, the son of a wealthy East Coast family, and when they had a son together, things seemed destined for happiness. Karr finds herself drinking steadily as she cares for her colicky baby, and eventually she sees that she can’t just give that up. Quite a bit of the book happens amid the tension of her knowledge of her problem and her unwillingness to give up extreme self-medication. When she does give in, she bolsters her resolve with a turn to religion, to Roman Catholicism.

The scene I’ll remember from “Lit” is Karr up in the middle of the night carrying her crying baby, her unfinished drink from earlier in the evening pulling her into the kitchen, where she craves what she’ll feel when she swallows what remains. That’s not the “madonna and child” that we expect.

Karr addresses the skepticism that she expects many of her writing friends will heap on the 12-step process, and on religion. Early on, she seems almost apologetic that she’s finding the language of recovery helpful, even effective. As she continues, she conveys greater comfort there.

I’ll certainly recommend this to friends who enjoy memoirs–and Karr continues to be one of the best memoirists around. I’ll be interested to hear what friends who’ve struggled themselves with addiction and mental illness will say about “Lit.” But I don’t want to convey that this is limited just to narrow segments of readers. Karr excels in memoir. She crafts her story in such a way that it is much more than just her own.