a mother’s right to safety | 2019.10.12

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff | Review

Wolff, Tobias_This Boy's Life

Original Publication: New York : Grove Press, [1989]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 288

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook

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Searching online for what others have to say about this book, I found the National Endowment for the Arts’ proclamation that “Wolff may have invented the contemporary memoir.” The intersection of family and societal expectations which permeates Wolff’s retelling of his early childhood experiences has certainly become a very popular topic in the recent rush of the memoir craze.

Wolff spends a tremendous amount of time in this book recounting his memories of the very adult responsibilities that were repeatedly laid at his preteen feet. These responsibilities centered around his being tasked as the only male of his family to make decisions that had crushing ramifications for those he loved, primarily his mother, while he was not yet old enough to truly comprehend the existence of such consequences.

This might sound harsh, but from my reading of this book, most of the weight of these responsibilities seemed to come from Wolff’s mother and her inability to recognize her own need for safety in the shadow of her maternal longing to live up to society’s definition of what a proper life for herself and her young son should look like.

Specifically, Wolff uses his memoir to describe scene after scene where his mother asked him to choose what life situations might best save their twosome family from starvation and homelessness. More often than not, however, the decisions Wolff thought he was supposed to be making put his mother, not to mention himself, in harms way. These decisions sent them both crashing straight into the paths of manipulative, single-minded men whom Wolff’s mother felt forced to associated with. Later, she would join herself in marriage to an abusive and alcoholic husband after abdicating the decision of her matrimony to the young Wolff. At such a tender age, Wolff could only guess that a man with a job and a house would give himself and his mother the security of happiness and prosperity.

But, was the tendency of Wolff’s mother to give this type of decision-making responsibility to a small child truly a failing of her character? I hesitate to make such an accusatory conclusion. The social pressures put on women in the 1950s made for extremely constrictive options. Women often had to make decisions that ultimately silenced and endangered their personal wellbeing for the sake of meeting society’s then ridiculously narrow view of propriety.

Modern feminists might shudder at how Wolff’s mother constantly denied her own safety, and at times that of her son, so that she could secure father figures and male incomes to care for her tiny family. Highlighting the incongruities of the past, however, is one of the ultimate powers of memoir. Even though the truth of the past is more complex than our current attitudes might want to concede, Wolff makes a valuable point in his book about the importance of a woman’s right and need to speak up. He does this by showcasing the paradox of how the options available to women at the time of his youth were slim at best.

Here is a memoir all about the dangers of trying to fulfill culturally-mandated duties within a society that refuses room for independence or true safety. Here lies a story filled with the heartache and sacrifices that maternal longing can push to the forefront, often at the risk of a mother’s safety. The relatability of Wolff’s story and the story of his mother broke my heart in the end, as it reminded me that many aspects of our present-day society still have such a long way to go in remedying this type of systemic disease.

rewriting history | 2019.09.14

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover | Review

Westover, Tara_Educated

Publication: New York : Random House, [2018]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 334

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

There are times when another person’s story seems to become an almost perfect mirror of one’s own journey through life. This is where solidarity is born, and I believe this is the primary purpose of any memoir. Yet, perhaps this is just a symptom of the human brain’s constant longing for meaning and relatability where perhaps none really existed before the careful observations of the curious mind began to tease import out of the chaos of daily living. Even if the nihilists want to argue, however, that there is no actual meaning or relatability available outside our own tenuous and perhaps emotive brain connections, I’m okay with the idea that, in the midst of all the chaos and hurt life so often offers, we should take what we can get and recognize every connection as a goddamn miracle.

Westover’s memoir had so many similarities to my own life that it almost scared me (somewhat because a friend and I have also been chipping away at creating a joint memoir with a somewhat comparable theme for the last five years, but that’s . . . cool, not to mention super inspiring). Westover’s book tells the story of how the gift of education helped pull her out from under the self-deprecating guilt of being continuously abused in the midst of a strictly religious family that held immovable beliefs about what parts of society a person should participate in and what parts they needed to stay away from. The lies of “safety” perpetuated by her family impressed me very much. In the end, Westover’s family rejected her disapproval of the ongoing abuse that she and her siblings had long suffered at the hand of the family’s older brother. However, the escape she ultimately found turned out to not only need a physical distance. She had to also reorganize (not just recognize, mind you) her own understanding of her very identity.

A person’s family and the identity that that person is given during their formative years can be a lifelong trap of recurrent wrongs and recycled misconceptions. Through her memoir, Westover explains the strength of will needed to recreate one’s own identity, and this against the prescriptions of a family bent on only seeing its members and the world through a particular lens.

I applaud her for writing her memoir (not that a person only gets one in their lifetime, as I’ll explain in a bit here) in her late twenties and early thirties. She talks about this in an interview with Better Reading, saying that while she understands a lot of memoirists wait until later in life to write down and explain their experiences on a particular topic, she wanted the emotions of her story (the ones particularly about leaving her family and redefining her self-identity, literally having to rewrite her own history) to be immediately available to her during the writing process. This is where the encouragement came in full force for me in reading Westover’s book, because I’m in agreement with her method, even though it may scare the shit out of my writerly pen at times. The bravery of such an endeavor is undeniable.

So what is a memoir, and why don’t you get just one in your lifetime? According to Marion Roach Smith’s wonderful guide book The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text, a true memoir finds its difference from what we might traditionally think of as an autobiography because a memoir is a snapshot of a theme inherent in a particular portion of a person’s life. To write a memoir and to write it well, that chosen theme needs to be exemplified through the telling of very specific instances from the author’s memories. The flashbacks, so to speak, that are artfully pieced together in a well-crafted memoir give voice to that theme, breathing life into the form that I mentioned before so that the reader can find relatable handholds with which to grasp a deeper meaning that might, hopefully, help that same reader transcend what can often feel like an otherwise depressingly solitary experience.

For myself, these handholds were available at almost every page turn in Westover’s memoir. Of course, it’s not a one-to-one comparison (because everyone’s story is a masterpiece that only he or she or they get to claim as their very own), but the similarities of our experiences made me want to fist-pump with joy at knowing that I’m not alone. While the religion of choice in Westover’s upbringing was predicated on fundamentalist Mormonism, mine was of a more conservative Baptist flavor; while the intellectual breakthroughs that helped Westover finally see her family’s religious fervor from a suddenly outside perspective happened primarily at Cambridge, mine came through my academic experiences at Oxford (aren’t rival universities just the best?); and while the abuse Westover survived was mainly coming from her older brother, mine came from the patriarch that my mother chose during my childhood to bring into her household. But the underlying theme seems to be riding the same lines of frustrations and guilt-riddled confusion in many ways. We both had to decide whether we had the strength to finally get out of there. We both had to come to grips with our own self-loathing handed down to us in the lies of constant failure that our families rained down on us through our growing up years in order to see ourselves at last in light of our own true, self-chosen identities.

I’ve mentioned this mantra before (from the wonderful and eternally gorgeous Lidia Yuknavitch) in a prior post, but it seems to really relate to what I think Westover was trying to accomplish. Yuknavitch’s misfits mantra reads: “I am not the story you made of me.” Westover’s boldness in telling her story reclaims her identity for herself. The bonus feature of the very publication of her story offers a sense of meaning for others, so I’m going to say this is a win-win . . . win! Thank you, Tara, for writing this for the world to find some much-needed handholds of relatability and for other misfits like myself to fist-pump to in the otherwise too-depressing realm of solitude. Thank you for flipping the solitude of loss and abuse into the solidarity of connection and similar experience.

emergencies of addiction | 2019.04.22

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon | Review

Laymon, Kiese_Heavy

Publication: New York, NY : Scribner, [2018]

Genre: Autobiographies, Memoirs

Pages: 241

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

Source: MCL

“But what about the emergencies made by the folks who say they love you?”

Well, what about them? Are they that unusual, when we really stop to think about how relationships usually work and don’t work? Maybe the tendency to not stop and think about the truth of relationships is why this oft reality of emergencies catches most of us so off guard during the course of our lives. Laymon certainly doesn’t hold back in relating the realities of his personal experiences in his memoir, as should be in any good story about ourselves.

This book is written as if it were an almost ranting love letter to his mother, utilizing the second person motif. When we love someone, we want to speak truth to them, or at least our own very personal perspective of the truth. And being given the chance for our own truths to stand for a while in the limelight, after years of trying to simply absorb another person’s ideas of truth that have consequently left no room for our own perspectives, this is what Laymon’s book is most ardently about.

The truths distilled within the prisms of perspective that are shown in Laymon’s memoir span topics all the way from racial prejudices, the reactions of those racially prejudiced against, the addiction of eating in fits of rage and depression and with the plea over and over again for some semblance of control, the addiction of exercising for much the same reasons to the point of pushing one’s body-form to its utmost limits, the addiction of wanting, the addiction of loving and of sexing, the addiction of gambling, the addiction of seizing and expressing with violence a power over women and all others not born with the white, cisgendered man advantages of today’s society, and the constancy of vying for a parent’s love.

Besides hitting all these extremely difficult and important topics, Laymon also achieves a standard of musical prose to match that of Anthony Burgess, Milan Kundera, and Joseph Heller. If you get the chance to listen to Laymon’s reading of the audiobook version — do it!

I loved Laymon’s warning toward the end of the book where he proclaims so boldly, “We cannot live healthy lives in the present if we drown ourselves in the past.” This quote helped me remember that the goal in writing a memoir can be forward-looking. How can we move past the emergencies of our pasts and the relationships therein to a better future? How do we give room for our own personal perspectives while simultaneously giving room for the perspectives of those who have loved and maybe also hurt us? Can this make a relationship better, and why do we long for such a resolution?

To that end and with a wide-eyed view of those aforementioned love emergencies, this book also leans heavily on the theme of forgiveness, but not on the kind that ignores accountability and consequences. Truly bipartisaned (not a word, I know, but literary license?) forgiveness takes each party’s willingness to reach a conclusion that still includes a way to perpetuate growth. First comes openminded listening, then comes acknowledgement, then comes . . . the reality both parties choose to create out of the messiness of continuously crashing lives and unending perspectives.

The details that Laymon chooses to include in his memoir make it sometimes hard to breathe through the passages. But this is how real life exists in the chasm of personal experience. And I truly applaud his fearless honesty.

reclaiming personal identity| 2019.05.10

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley | Review

Conley, Garrad_Boy Erased

Publication: New York, New York : Riverhead Books, 2016

Genre: Memoirs, Autobiographies

Pages: 340

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

In some ways, this book hit close to home for me, as it illustrated how religion can influence not only people’s struggles for individual identity, but also their striving to find a place to belong within society. The story captured in this book is about Conley’s experiences while in the Christian reform program known (ironically, I’d like to argue with my fist planted firmly in the pavement of my frustration at this type of misnomer) as Love In Action (LIA), a kind of pray-the-gay-away organization founded in 1973.

It’s funny (not funny) to me that this organization is the foundational backdrop for this book, as Conley’s initial mention of it immediately invoked memories of my own from when I attended a conservative Christian university back in the early 2000s. There I was in one of the many semi-required chapel sessions, and suddenly the proud college leaders were marching onto the stage a troupe of advocates for a program that we conservative students needed to know about. While the name of that particular program now sadly eludes me, I remember distinctly the focus of the program was to help “poor homosexuals” reject their sexual deviances and come back into the fold of the Jesus freaks (I’m not trying to be disrespectful by using that term, by the way, as Christians have codified the phrase as their own way of reclaiming the would-be insult).

I remember thinking that the program visiting my college that day was proclaiming a rather uncomfortable premise. I remember being even further confused at the, once again, staunch rejection of anything outside the Christian circle. The saddest part of this type of program, which sets itself up to “deprogram” groups of individuals (therefore inherently boxing people into singular and often quite binary definitions of identity), is that, when seen from a non-Christian perspective, it paints religion in such a negative light of intolerance. If your identity is wrapped tightly inside a group-security that demands complete sacrifice and ultimate servanthood to “a higher power” that is constantly being interpreted only by the leaders of that security group, how can anything “other” be allowed room to voice any kind of alternate, personal experience.

As a memoir, personal experience is certainly what Conley’s book brings to light. His story pulls out all the stops and forces the reader to deal face-to-face with the dangers of group-think-identity as driven by religious mantras. I find Christianity’s rejection of personal identity (like whether a person identifies as being gay) to be pretty ironic, because Christianity proclaims itself to be built on individual experience, with all of its praise for the personal testimony (a phrase in the Christian realm defined as a person’s individual “coming to Jesus” story). Christians often pride themselves on being part of a religion that is based on personal relationships with God and Jesus. However, ultimately, the strict code of conduct they ascribe to seems to simultaneously encourage a perspective that says the only experiences (translated as “testimonies”) that seem to matter to the Christian group-think mentality are those that align to the interpretations of Christ’s teachings as proclaimed by the Christian leadership in vogue at that moment in history.

At the risk of turning this book review into my own personal rant against the Christian faith, I’d like to point out a detail that Conley also discusses toward the end of his book, namely the fact that LIA found it had to rebrand itself in 2012 as Restoration Path and had its leaders make multiple public attempts to try and clean up the mess its former leaders had made in the wake of their antigay therapy practices because too many of their students were ending up either victims of suicide or recovering from multiple attempts of suicide. But it should’t surprise us that if we are taught to believe that such an integral part of our identity (such as our sexual orientation) has zero chance of being accepted, the ultimate result will be the deepest kind of inescapable despair.

Conley explains in his book that LIA was very good at isolating its students into a place where they “had to [. . .] leave people behind who were harmful to [their] development, who reminded [them] of the past.” This drips of addiction counseling, as if a person’s “gayness” is linked to some kind of illicit drug that initiates continuous “bad” behavior. To combat addiction, you take away the triggers, as any former alcoholic or smoker will tell you. With LIA, the leaders encouraged its students to demonize past relationships, along with their own sex-drives, in order to isolate out these “masters” of purported deviant behavior. Conley writes of himself and his fellow LIA students, “We had to be willing to give up any ideas about who we were before we came to LIA.”

It took Conley eight years after he left LIA before he felt finally comfortable enough to write about his personal experiences while inside LIA’s teachings. This is perhaps a telling illustration of the despairing power that can be obtained by isolating, so as to then inculcate, individuals into a belief system. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book is that we need to do better at seeing individuals first by accepting them with all the complexities of the intersectionality that makes up their personal experiences and ultimately their individual identities.

conquering death to spite english | 2019.01.21

Census by Jesse Ball | Review

Ball, Jesse_Census

Publication: New York, NY : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2018]

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Pages: 241 | 4 hours 54 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

What thoughts wash through a person’s mind as they approach death? What we usually think of and what’s presented in most literary explorations of the end stages of a human life are of course memories, albeit cautiously viewed only through the lens of backward looking. Yet unlike Granny Weatherall and many others, the unnamed main character of Ball’s novel does not seem to be plagued by these all-too-common shackles of regret.

Instead, Ball’s narrator completely embraces the more pleasant-leaning memories of what he, his recently deceased wife, and their son have accomplished as a family unit during their life together. At the same time, the main character makes the very conscious decision to turn his family’s last hoped-for accomplishment into a reality, and this in the shape of a long car trip with himself and his son in the flesh, while they both carry his wife along for the ride in their memories. As a result, the narration artfully traces the characters’ journeys of standing still in the contented contemplation of the past while they simultaneously strive to take one last brave step forward together both in life and in death.

In Census, the narrator is newly diagnosed with an undisclosed terminal illness sometime after the death of his beloved wife. In response to the news of his impending passage off this celestial plane of consciousness, the main character, as mentioned above, decides to spend the remaining weeks of his life taking his son on the very road trip their little family had always longed for. Yes, very much yes, the writing captures well the bittersweetness of the main character and his son (who we know from the author’s introduction has Down syndrome like the author’s own brother) having missed this road trip opportunity while the main character’s spouse was still able to join them in the flesh. However, it is this melancholy that embodies the backward and forward sway of pushing would-be regret toward fulfillment. The book struck me as the subtlest portrayal of time travel in this way. And, this is exactly how the book is able to relate the essence of calm reflection at its core.

To call a road trip where the journeying duo task themselves with the solemn duties of tattooing census marks on various citizens may seem an odd choice at first. But this is where the novel distinguishes itself from the usual verge-of-death stories we often find in literature. For not only is the narrative filled with memories, it also offers a view of the lives being currently lived within that same narrative of the father and son being featured, as well as of the many varied people they meet (and tattoo) along the way.

I loved the other reviews I found of this book. They pointed out Ball’s literary echoing of the writing styles of Kafka, Calvino, and Whitman, each in turn, with which I agree on unrealized-until-now reflection. The landscape being described is vast and unknowable except through the people who populate it in turns with excitement and apprehension at the idea of being “counted” with the unexplained tattoo ritual associated with the census taking task. In the midst of these literarily gorgeous descriptions, Ball straddles memoiristic and fantastically-almost-science-fictional prose. Not a small accomplishment, to be sure.

And then there are the repeated references to the writings of the fictional Mutter and her sweet obsession with cormorants. Ball explains this inclusion as his solution for relating to his readers the philosophical highs and lows of his main character’s emotional states. In an interview with Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, Ball states that “having Mutter allows for emotional peaks of various sorts to be reached by reference,” instead of leaning all the weight of philosophical pondering on the main character.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the above-mentioned Down syndrome of the main character’s son and Ball’s normalcy-demanding handling of this topic. This, I feel, is too huge a part of the novel to be ignored. How do we respond with adequacy to the categorically “abnormal” when abnormal is really where everyone lives constantly if we are brave enough to admit it? We use, clumsily as they come, the words available . . . but even these efforts so tragically fail, it seems. Ball has the firsthand experience, in his relationship with his now deceased and very much-loved brother, to tackle such a topic, however. He knows enough about the failings of our English language to still convince his book’s prose to give praise to the beauty inherent in an “other’s” perspective of seeing the world. Pulling again from the Powell’s interview, I deeply appreciated Ball explains the following:

“It’s difficult to speak about subjects who do not participate in a substantive way in the creation of the language that you’re going to speak about them in. I had to find a way to write about people like my brother in English, when the language itself is an enemy. That was one of the reasons for writing the book, and one of the problems that I had to navigate in writing it.”

Because the English language, the language in which this book seems to be apolitically written, is the language of the historically oppressive. If you feel this book review is a little tiny bit judgmental then perhaps you’re ready to take another look at what really matters, with a simultaneously backwards and forwards glance.

the art of relatability | 2018.06.26

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen | Review

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2013]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 353

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

I’ve been thinking a lot about the attraction of the memoir. This year’s Wordstock (rebranded as the Portland Book Festival) a couple weekends ago gave testimony again to our culture’s currently heightened obsession with this genre. There were endless sessions it seemed with writers talking about their latest memoir or autobiographical work of fiction. We are a people who need to tell our stories, and we need them to be heard.

So, I began thinking about why our culture has been feeling so egocentric lately. But then I realized that a memoir, a really good one that is actually doing its job well, while it may be about the author, sure, is probably not so much for the author as much as it is for the readers. Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special, in this way, probably carries more significance for some of its audience members than even for Christensen herself (which, I understand, sounds ludicrous since the book is after all about Christensen’s very personal experiences).

What I’m talking about is the power of relatability. When a reader reads about an author’s experiences that mirror that reader’s own experiences, this means that reader is suddenly not alone anymore in their experiences. I deeply feel that some of the topics Christensen’s book addresses (such as domestic violence, relational infidelity, and childhood molestation) are the ones that so often need the voice of solidarity.

The book uses the author’s endless love of food, flavors, and cooking to find touchstones amongst the harsher topics that the author deals with throughout the story. I loved the imagination of the recipes at the end of many of the chapters. They felt like exemplifications of personal victories in the realm of self-actualization.