“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.
This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950’s. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect–sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.
The book’s title refers to the table in the ship’s dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people–and Michael does.
About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory–no problem to solve.
And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.
At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy’s sister though the marriage doesn’t last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship’s arrival in England.
I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There’s something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.
Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster’s point of view with an older man’s wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word “elegant” to describe Ondaatje’s writing–fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in “The Cat’s Table” is a lovely irony.
I’ll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.
“Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard is subtitled, “A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President.” In this American Library Association Notable book, Millard tells the story of President James Garfield, who was elected in 1880 and died in 1881.
Some readers may recall Millard as the author of “The River of Doubt” which was a One Book One Lincoln finalist a few years ago. That focused on an episode in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. She excels at writing history as story.
Millard opens this story with a prologue that introduces us right away to Charlies Guiteau. Guiteau survived a collision between two steamships in 1880. His own survival when others died led him to believe that he was saved for an important purpose, and when that belief combined with his mental illness, it twisted itself into his intention to kill President Garfield.
Chapter One picks up at the United States’ Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where James Garfield, a congressman, strolls the grounds with his family. Millard uses this event to introduce two key angles that will be highlighted when Garfield is shot–the work of Inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and pioneering work regarding antiseptic procedures in surgery.
Millard spends enough time with Garfield’s remarkable rise from poverty to presidency to set the context of the time, and to tell the parallel story of Guiteau’s descent. The events following the shooting take up a good deal of the book, yet she doesn’t lose the narrative’s momentum.
I appreciated how much I learned in the course of this book. This takes several forms. The sense of the United States shortly after the Civil War, the personalities engaged in politics, the dirtiness of the politics, and the lack of cleanliness as it impacted Garfield, are staying with me.
This may not be the book for serious students of American history, but for readers who have a general interest in the time and who are unfamiliar with James Garfield, Millard unrolls a fine story. I’ll recommend it both to those with that interest in American history, and also to fiction readers who are willing to try nonfiction “when it reads like a story.”
Here’s my short assessment of “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. It’s a fine book with a fabulous first half. As a reader and evaluator, I’m so overwhelmed by the unfulfilled promise of that first half that I may be underestimating the second.
But to back up–this is a baseball novel combined with a coming-of-age story. Its focus is Henry Skrimshander, a remarkable shortstop. Henry’s fielding ability is witnessed by a catcher who is able to wangle Henry a place at Westish College. Henry’s magical talent transforms the team…until he loses it. And then his friends, his teammates, and all who have been introduced in this novel adjust their orbits around his misery.
Other aspects of the story include the life of a small liberal arts college, the first motions toward a gay relationship by the college president, the return of the president’s prodigal daughter, and the coaching brilliance of that catcher.
Harbach is a wonderful writer, combining a sense of Henry’s transcendent talent with the everyday details of college, of roommates, of part-time jobs. He takes an often wry approach, even as he describes scenes artfully, maybe wistfully. I thought to myself that he strikes the tone that I sense Jonathan Franzen going for, of telling a story with a clever voice, from a perch that allows the teller to know an awful lot, when the teller honestly likes the characters, warts and all.
I absolutely loved the first half of this book, with Harbach introducing characters in lovely order and a perfect pace. This part of the story seemed so clean, so lusciously straightforward and true. What happens after that just didn’t live up to the promise. The drama of sexual betrayal, the ongoing suspense of Henry’s inability to play, the awkward introduction of a counselor who untangles Henry’s issues, they seemed like too many condiments on a perfect hot dog.
I can’t bring myself to dislike “The Art of Fielding,” and I do think it’s fair to describe it overall as a good book, a fine baseball story. I’ll recommend this to fiction readers, to people who enjoy contemporary settings, to baseball fans, and certainly to book groups. It’s easy to see how it earned its place on this year’s Notable Books list.
I just finished “Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time” by Mark Adams, one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.
Adams alternates chapters of his own recent trek to Machu Picchu with chapters describing the travels of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911.
Adams travels to Machu Picchu via the ancient Inca Road, using routes that allow him to see what Bingham saw. He includes himself very squarely in this story, offering many personal opinions, observations, and conversations with his guide and the Peruvians who manage the donkeys, food and gear. This works. As a travel writer, Adams achieves that delicate balance where his own personality enlivens the story with overpowering it.
There’s something about Machu Picchu that remains eternally interesting. Recent developments regarding the ownership of many Inca items that Hiram Bingham transported back to Yale have added an additional measure of interest to Bingham’s portion of the story.
Adams explores several theories about the function of Machu Picchu, describes well the mountainous area where it is, and draws connections among stories, geography, and personalities. He deepens his own experiences with deft study of others, including those who have always lived in the area, the early white explorers who sought the Lost City of the Incas, and the thousands who visit the site each year.
Although this is not a deep academic study, I’ll recommend it to people with an interest in this area. In particular, I will mention it to those who have visited or intend to visit Machu Picchu, to readers who enjoy travel books generally, and to fiction readers who will enjoy a nonfiction book of it’s “a good story.”