Tag Archives: memoir

The Truth About Luck – Iain Reid

26 Mar

I have been eager to get a copy of Iain Reid’s new book so when I received a review edition from House of Anansi – a surprise, and a great one at that – I was ecstatic and did not wait to jump into the story. Reid’s previous book, One Bird’s Choice was one of my favourite reads of 2010 and my expectations were sky-high for The Truth About Luck. It rocks! Hard!

From the book’s description:

 In The Truth about Luck, Iain Reid, author of the highly popular coming-of-age memoir One Bird’s Choice, accompanies his grandmother on a five-day vacation — which turns out to be a “staycation” at his basement apartment in Kingston. While the twenty-eight-year-old writer is at the beginning of his adult life, his ninety-two-year-old grandmother is nearing the end of hers. Between escorting his grandma to local attractions and restaurants, the two exchange memories and she begins to reveal details of her inspiring life story.
Told with subtlety, humour, and heart, this delightful comic memoir reflects on family connections; how we experience adversity, the passage of time, and aging; and most importantly what it truly means to feel lucky.

Sometimes you read a book and it is something you connect with so personally and deeply it can become nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review in a constructive way. That happened with this amazing book. But, I have been thinking about it for a few days now and I feel – my personal attachment wrestled off to the side – the strength of Reid’s writing – the flow of the story and his ability to make us curious and really care about what he and his grandma are up to – make this book totally worth its 5-star rating.

Reid & his Grandmother, © Ottawa Citizen

Along with some eerie similarities between Reid and I (hello worry, anxiety and writerly lifestyle you crazy trifecta, you), our grandmothers are very similar women. Both were born in the U.K. (his in Scotland, mine in England (in 1917) but with her family she moved to Scotland very early on in her life). Both women lived through two World Wars and the depression and both ladies worked hard for most of their lives. As well, they are very smart and funny people. So, in reading Reid’s book, it was like having my grandma here with me again. (Sadly, grandma died in the summer of 2009, at the age of 92.) There were moments in the book that had me laughing so hard, tears streamed down my face and my stomach hurt. In one particularly hilarious scene, Reid’s grandmother somehow becomes entangled in her seatbelt. This quickly brought to mind an outing my grandma and I had together many years ago. It was a very hot summer day and we were going out for lunch. My car at that time was nicknamed ‘Oven Car’ – it was a notoriously bad place to be on hot, unrelentingly sunny days. I helped grandma into the car and as I got settled into my own seat, she suddenly lurched forward, grabbing the dashboard while shouting “My Ass is on fire!” But the dashboard was really hot too. “My hands are on fire!”, she then yelled. “How do you live like this?”, she wondered out loud while simultaneously trying to get undone from the seatbelt in some failed attempt at escape and fumbling with the interior controls, searching for the non-existent air-conditioning. It was so hot. But it was so hilarious and quickly became a funny story we liked to re-tell.

There were other, quieter moments, in The Truth About Luck that were beautiful and heartfelt. I am glad Reid – encouraged by his brother Jimmy – went with the idea of giving his grandmother time together as a birthday gift. They spent five days at Reid’s home in Kingston, Ontario talking, eating, seeing some local sites and learning things about one another they hadn’t previously known.

I have, unintentionally, been on this trend lately of reading books with older people featuring as main characters – here, Reid’s grandma is 92; last week I read Terry Fallis’ newest novel, Up and Down. It features a 71-year-old protagonist. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, which I read a few months ago, was a completely endearing hoot. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Helen Simonson‘s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand also feature characters of retirement age. Given our demographic trend towards an aging population, perhaps this is the new thing in publishing? If it is — I am a big fan. I can think of quite a few more books I have read and enjoyed in recent years that feature mature characters with interesting stories — I bet you can come ups with some great books too, if you think about it for a moment. As individuals, we have a lot to learn. Within developed societies, we take a lot for granted. Hearing about the experiences, challenges and triumphs of older generations should smarten us up and help us realize that older does not mean already dead. Older does not mean no longer worth our time. On the contrary, our respect, gratitude and time should be used to honour and value those who have come before us.

Helen Edna

Helen Edna

I remember talking with my own grandma about the idea that when people get old they often get forgotten. She used to tell me how lucky she felt to have her family around her and I would feel really sad thinking about those who either had no one or had people who choose to stay away. My grandmother always had more energy and more of a social life than I ever seem(ed) to muster and I really hope to live as excellent a life as she did. So, I thank Reid for his wonderful book but also for the fact that through his book I was able to spend some precious, dedicated time remembering my own grandmother and the shenanigans we got up to together. That is a great gift to a reader indeed!

This is a much more personal review than I usually write. But I suspect this is happening to a lot of people reading The Truth About Luck. I feel that most people will find it a challenge to read this book in a detached manner. Reid’s style invites you in to a comfortable, relatable story that opens you up for reminiscence. Oh, and in a totally weird yet even more personal aside:  I really need to get in touch with Reid’s mum to find out about her use of plain yogourt to help her diabetic cat. My wonderful dog recently developed insulin-dependent diabetes and he’s had a very rough go these past few months. He’s a bit more stable now, thanks goodness, and I am researching ways to help him further. Reading that yogourt could be some sort of miracle supplement to help my dog’s coat and general health, well — I need to know more!

Edited to add: Reid recently spoke with the 49th Shelf about The Truth About Luck. It’s a great article!

Bird Cloud – Annie Proulx

7 Mar

Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx’s first work of nonfiction in twenty years, is subtitled “A Memoir.” To many readers who might be hoping for a full-blown, linear account of Proulx’s life, this subtitle will be somewhat misleading and possibly disappointing. For careful readers and those with strong, natural curiosity, however, Bird Cloud will be a treasure in which Proulx reveals herself – sometimes directly and other times in more subtle ways. Proulx’s memoir is a great example of being shown what a person is about rather than being told what she is like. It is, admittedly, an untraditional way to present a personal memoir, but when examined as a portrait of a specific stretch of time – the building of Proulx’s home – the book becomes a beautiful reflection of that period.

Annie Proulx has achieved tremendous literary success with her works of fiction. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her novel The Shipping News, which tells the story of Quoyle, a lost and heartbroken father trying to create a life for his daughter in rugged and spirit-testing Newfoundland. She is also well known for her short story Brokeback Mountain, which received an O. Henry Award prize for fiction in 1998; the collection in which the story appears, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Both The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain were adapted into poignant and visually stunning films. The film Brokeback Mountain, in fact, won seventy-one awards in 2005. Place is a recurrent subject in much of Proulx’s work. How people develop and respond to their geographic location in the world is a constant theme in her story-telling and is integral to the theme of Bird Cloud as well.

In 2003, Proulx became the owner of 640 acres of rural Wyoming property, after a ten year search for “the right place.” She purchased this one square mile of land from the Nature Conservancy, “[The] place, perhaps, where I will end my days. Or so I think.” Early on in the memoir, we are given clear statements that Proulx, who was sixty-eight at the time she began this process, was “intensely conscious of fleeting time”and was worried about “a time budget as [she] was not getting any younger. Bird Cloud is cleverly arranged with this idea of time in mind. Chapters alternate between the progress of Proulx’s house building and her areas of personal interest. A small drawing, created by Proulx, begins each new chapter of the book. The drawings, while simple on initial glance, are very detailed and striking.

To build her home at Bird Cloud, Proulx assembles a talented and diverse team of workers to construct the house. Men with such amusing monikers as The James Gang, Uphill Bob, Catfish and Mr. Solar, are entrusted with creating her dream home. That their names could have been plucked from one of Proulx’s own works of fiction is not lost on me. The James Gang, in particular, becomes very close with Proulx; they often take short camping holidays together, and at one point, one of the members of The James Gang and Proulx fly to the Mayo Clinic to have some health concerns addressed. Proulx had some concerns about her right hip and was worried about arthritis affecting the joint; while Deryl was struggling with some complicated issues with his health. He had received several troubling and different diagnoses in Wyoming, so hoped to get to the root of his problems by traveling to the Mayo Clinic with Proulx.

After three years of a construction process marked by obstacles, set-backs, and disappointments. Proulx finally moves into her new house. It has become evident to her, however, that despite her hopes the new house cannot be her final home. She is disappointed to learn that, contrary to her realtor’s promise, the road to Bird Cloud is not plowed during the winter, so it will impossible for her to stay there. Proulx continues her pattern of spending winters in Santa Fe and laments a lost dream, still restless in her search for the feeling of finally being home.

I was struck by Proulx’s curiosity about a variety of subjects. Archaeology, natural history, genealogy, Wyoming’s people, birds, books – all of these things inspire her to gather more knowledge. She seeks out experts and devours details and information. She carries a pocket microscope, so she can more closely examine articles of interest discovered while hiking or cross-country skiing. I had guessed, by reading Proulx’s fiction, that she spent much time on research and was as exacting with her details as she was in crafting her sentences. The details of Proulx’s memoir bear this out. We are given a feeling for Proulx’s writing process as, during the construction of her home and her subsequent move into the place, she is collaborating on a book. She writes about that project and also talks about her love of books, a love I share. I became a bit envious and excited as I read about Proulx’s “fifty-six book cases, each weighing hundreds of pounds” and “forty-odd boxes of manuscripts and drafts,”all well ordered and labelled; evidence, indeed of a curious mind and meticulous methods.

Through reading Bird Cloud, I feel as though I have come to understand more about Annie Proulx. This book is one that continues to grow on me as I recall remarkable details so brilliantly captured for readers. The last chapter is devoted to birds, in particular the eagles of Bird Cloud. Proulx’s observations are keen and when, at the end of the chapter (and the end of story) she sees a familiar eagle with a new partner, she has a momentary hope for the male bird. The female eagle, after being shown her potential new home, “took off, heading west, and the lone eagle pursued her. I assumed she didn’t like the place.” The following day both eagles are back, but it is too late in the year to start a family. Proulx notes this is “…a common wildlife situation of hope deferred.” And here is the heart of Proulx’s book: a story of hope deferred, for the birds, and for herself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? ~ Jeannette Winterson

21 Nov

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By Zoe Williams, The Guardian

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir is written sparsely and hurriedly; it is sometimes so terse it’s almost in note form. The impression this gives is not of sloppiness, but a desperate urgency to make the reader understand. This is certainly the most moving book of Winterson’s I have ever read, and it also feels like the most turbulent and the least controlled. In the end, the emotional force of the second half makes me suspect that the apparent artlessness of the first half is a ruse; that, in a Lilliputian fashion, what appears to be a straight narrative of her early life is actually tying the reader down with a thousand imperceptible guy ropes, so that when she unleashes a terrible sorrow, there is no escaping it and no looking away.

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“Why be happy when you could be normal?” is the real-life question of her adopted mother, as Winterson is evicted, at 16, for taking up with a second girlfriend (the attempts to exorcise her sexuality after the first having been unsuccessful). There are passages and phrases that will be recognisable to anyone who’s read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: this is not surprising, since that first, bold announcement of Winterson’s talent was a roman à clef, and never claimed to be otherwise.

So anecdotes and jokes crop up in both books: the mother says the lesbian sweet-shop owners deal in “unnatural passions”, and the young Jeanette thinks it means they put chemicals in their sweets; the gospel tent, the CB radio, all the memorable details of the first fictional outing come up again, but the point is not that this is repetitive. Rather, that the documents are intended as companions, to lay this one over the last like tracing paper, so that even if the author poetically denies the possibility of an absolute truth, there emerges nevertheless the shape of the things that actually happened. I had forgotten how upbeat Oranges was; it may have been peopled by eccentrics, with a heroine held in alienation by the aspic of impotent childhood, but there were upsides. “I suppose the saddest thing for me,” Winterson writes now, “thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”

The upbringing as she tells it now is far bleaker; she was beaten, she was often hungry, she was left all night on the doorstep by a mother whose religious excesses might even have been a secondary influence on the household the first being her depression, which was pervasive and relentless. She was not well loved. However, the story’s leavened throughout by other observations. The geopolitics I sometimes found bold, and other times found too broad to be conclusive: “In a system that generates masses, individualism is the only way out. But then what happens to community – to society?” But it wriggles with humour, even as Jeanette describes Mrs Winterson, who, in between her violent homilies and dishonest violence, had like any good tyrant various crucial absurdities – “she was one of the first women to have a heated corset. Unfortunately, when it overheated it beeped to warn the user. As the corset was by definition underneath her petticoat dress, apron and coat, there was little she could do to cool down except take off her coat and stand in the yard.” There is Winterson’s quirky favourite hymn (“Cheer up ye saints of God,” it starts, “There is nothing to worry about”), her loving, impressionistic descriptions of classic authors, from TS Eliot to Gertrude Stein, as she first encounters them. And even with all this new, distressing detail, the story of her childhood ends well – it ends in escape.

Then there’s an odd page or two entitled “Intermission”, which finishes: “The womb to tomb of an interesting life – but I can’t write my own; never could. Not Oranges. Not now. I would rather go on reading myself as a fiction than as a fact … I am going to miss out 25 years … Maybe later …”

And suddenly we are on to territory which is alarming, moving, at times genuinely terrifying; skip forward a quarter century, and Winterson has just split up from her girlfriend, the theatre director Deborah Warner. She finds her adoption papers in the effects of her dad, when he’s moving to an old people’s home. She has a nervous breakdown and attempts suicide. “My friends never failed me and when I could talk I did talk to them. But often I could not talk. Language left me. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place.” At times she describes the process with precision. Other times, though, the scars of this first abandonment are given in the most unadorned, uncharacteristic prose, as though she’s trying to gnaw her way through her own sophistication to get to the truth of it. In a way, the presence in the narrative of Susie Orbach, with whom Winterson started a relationship just before she started looking for her birth mother, acts as a reassurance to the reader as much as to the author, a fixed point to whom we can return, whose very inclusion means that, whatever happens, a fresh abandonment won’t be the outcome. Otherwise I genuinely think it would be unbearable. At one point I was crying so much I had tears in my ears.

There is much here that’s impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one’s sympathy, for everyone involved, so that the characters who are demons at the start – her adoptive mother but also, to a degree, her acquiescent adoptive father – emerge, by the end, as simply, catastrophically damaged. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they wreaked on her. The peace she makes with her adoptive family is, in this sense, more important and evocative than the more complicated and double-edged peace that comes with tracking down her birth mother.

View all my reviews

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

22 Oct

Hurry Down Sunshine is a remarkable book. It is the type of book I want to tell everyone about: “You should read this book. Now!”

During the summer of 1996, on July 5th to be exact, Greenberg’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Sally, suffers a profound crack in her being which spirals into manic psychosis. This father makes a very difficult decision to commit his daughter to a psychiatric hospital for very needed treatment but struggles with why and how this happened.Hurry Down Sunshine offers a very intimate glimpse of a common psychiatric syndrome delivered from an uncommon perspective. In doing so, Greenberg illuminates an arena of collateral damage of mental illness that often eludes societal concern. The book is a two month segment of the life of a writer immersed in problems endemic to many – career, housing, finances, a first then a second marriage, children and several generations of troubled family, all suddenly up-ended by a mental illness as familiar and incomprehensible as if it were his own.

“Sally, the quirky, brilliant 15-year-old daughter from his first marriage (to Robin), was transformed overnight into an angry stranger exploding with kaleidoscopic energy, her speech shattered like dropped glass. The story, in addition to being a heart-wrenching account of the brilliant burst and fall-out fading of a full-blown mania, records the desperate efforts of the author to hold the center of his life, manage the crisis, and quench his intense thirst to understand what was happening. The author’s obsession with etiology ranges the expanse from bad parenting to drug abuse, genetics, nutritional deficiency, a rare force of nature like a blizzard or flood, offenses to God, misaligned spirituality, a bad throw of the dice, and back to bad parenting. The question “Why?” can never really be fully answered in Greenberg’s case, nor, I suspect in the case of most people suffering and living with the same disease.

Greenberg broods under the shadow of the psychiatric affliction of his dysfunctional, nearly homeless brother, Steve, as well as his readings on mental illness in writers and their families: Robert Lowell’s wild mood swings; Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, who killed herself while reading one of his books – one day before the anniversary of Hemingway’s own suicide; and James Joyce, who mirrored the author’s preoccupation with a psychotic daughter. They shared the initial belief that oddness reflected the growing pains of a very gifted child, but as Joyce’s Lucia became chronically paranoid, he mercilessly blamed himself. He squandered years and a fortune seeking remedies, which included consultation with Carl Jung and an expensive fur coat believed to possess healing powers. Lucia’s only evidence of being in touch with reality occurred at his funeral, where she pronounced her father an idiot.

Sally had been an infant without serenity. She rejected Robin’s breast at two months and was a thrasher, gripper, and yanker of fingers, hair and ears, relentlessly propelling herself away from her parents. Later, she craved reassurance but always rejected it. In school she was found to have a serious learning disorder, yet her deftness with puns and wit, coupled with sheer determination, revealed a bewildering intelligence. Sally was only eleven when her parents divorced, and several years of shuffling between them, rebellious acting out, and school problems ensued. As Sally ages, a stint of special education seemed to be succeeding and things at home, living with her father and step-mother, Pat, seemed more settled. The mania erupted like a sudden storm. Sally suffered a truly harsh psychosis based on the belief that everyone is born a genius and it is her role to reveal this truth. Beyond the uncontrolled explosions of speech and action common to her illness, Sally had none of the ebullient expansiveness usually seen. Her pressured speech was wry and negative, tinged with paranoia, replete with delusions and, it is revealed later, auditory hallucinations.

While in hospital, Sally initially disappears behind locked doors and into isolation rooms without explanation or comment from a seemingly harsh hospital staff who regard the author for weeks on end as a bothersome intruder entitled neither to consolation nor information. Doctors mostly explained too little too quickly, thus mystification reigned for much too long. Eventually bonds of understanding are formed and Sally very slowly begins to emerge from the ruins of her mania.

The story also details how severe illness stresses the family. Sally’s mother, Robin, crowded into the scene, adding her anti-medical bias to the mix of confusion and worry. Tension with his second wife, Pat, finally led to a nasty marital fight, which rebounded with a reconciliation so sincere it engendered a pregnancy. The author’s mother and brothers, each on their own, felt obliged to contribute idiosyncratic cross-currents of counsel, adding more drag to the author’s effort to keep his nose above water.

The tide didn’t turn until well into Sally’s second month of illness, and recovery proceeded like sludge. But one evening the author perceived a slight shift in the air and quite unexpectedly Sally leaned against him and said, “You and Pat saved my life. It must have been hard for you.” The miracle of normalcy and ordinary existence had descended upon them. Sally was back, and she was able to return to school that fall not fully asymptomatic, but functional. In a postscript, we learn that she graduated from high school with honors, but shortly thereafter became ill again. Two years later, she entered a marriage that lasted only three years and at last report available to the reader, she was living and working near her mother in the country. We depart this eloquently told tale, yet unfinished, in hope and worry with her father.”

JUSTIN SIMON, M.D.
Berkeley, Calif.
As featured in The American Journal of Psychiatry, September 2009

Perfection by Julie Metz

23 Aug

From the book description:

Julie Metz had seemingly the perfect life—an adoring husband, a happy, spirited daughter, a lovely old house in a quaint suburban town—but it was all a lie. Julie Metz’s life changed forever on one ordinary January afternoon when her husband, Henry, collapsed on the kitchen floor and died in her arms. Suddenly, this mother of a six-year-old became the young widow in her bucolic small town. But that was only the beginning. Seven months after Henry’s death, just when Julie thought she was emerging from the worst of it, came the rest of it: She discovered that what had appeared to be the reality of her marriage was but a half-truth. Henry had hidden another life from her. Perfection is the story of Metz’s journey through chaos and transformation as she creates a different life for herself and for her young daughter. It is the story of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood, of rebirth and happiness—if not perfection.

Julie Metz is a New York-born writer, graphic designer, and artist. In addition to Perfection she has written essays and commentary for The New York Times and The Huffington Post. She has also designed book covers for the novels: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, The Gathering, by Anne Enright and Boom! Aftershocks of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw. Metz’s husband, referred to as Henry in the book, died at home from a pulmonary embolism on January 8, 2003. Perfection is the resultant effort from Metz’s time absorbing the shock of Henry’s death and then working through the rage of his discovered betrayals and mostly covers the three years following Henry’s death.

In an interesting precursor to the book, a note to readers is included:

“I have changed the names (except my own), and other details of persons in this book. I have not changed the name of a certain dog, which suited the animal and my story perfectly. Sometimes real life surprises fiction even in the details. I have, on a few occasions, changed the order of events, where those changes benefit narrative flow without altering a factual telling of the story. Otherwise, all dialogue and events took place as I remember and recount them in these pages.”

I can only attribute this to the James Frey fall-out.

Having said that, nothing about Metz’s account comes across as questionable or improbable. Her story, though,is very probably any partnered person’s worst nightmare realized. Imagine the sudden and unexpected death of your spouse, in your kitchen, felled by a fatal pulmonary embolism. Now imagine, six months later, discovering the person you trusted absolutely was not, at all, who you thought. Is it worse to be bereaved or betrayed? Often, as an attempt at comfort, those grieving are reminded that their loved one will live on in their memories but if those memories are compromised, does the deceased still manage an existence in our world and our minds?

Julie Metz, through a revelation from a close friend, comes to know her husband had been not just unfaithful, but a serial philanderer (who was also hiding secret debts) throughout their thirteen year marriage. Using her own journal entries, along with Henry’s electronic diaries and emails, Metz created Perfection. She has been noted as “brave”, “shocking” and “candid” in other reviews of her book but none of Metz’s tale strikes me as shocking nor do her actions smack of bravery. Metz just did did what she needed to emerge on the other side.

While Henry is lying, dead on their kitchen floor, Metz is cognizant of her “last normal moment”. Metz rages at her husband now beyond her physical reach: “Henry, you are so fucking lucky to be dead.”, calling him “…a piece of shit bastard”; her grieving shoved aside to rail against Henry’s betrayal. Metz manages to identify and contact six of Henry’s mistresses, challenging them on how they were able to participate in a relationship with a married father. Through these interactions Metz comes to gain a more complete picture of the man who was her husband. Through executor privilege, Metz arranges a meeting with Henry’s therapist who offers Henry’s diagnosis of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ with an amazing ability to compartmentalize, not as an excuse but, perhaps as a peg to hang things on in an attempt at coming to understand her husband’s actions.

Metz definitely does a compelling job sharing her loves, her losses and the lies she must deal with, while offering a cautionary tale about the idea of perfection within a marriage.

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