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.

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.

the reflection pool of motherhood| 2018.06.29

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer | Review

VanderMeer, Jeff_Borne

Publication: New York : MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Science Fiction, Weird Fiction

Pages: 323

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Is Borne a person or a weapon? This is often proposed as the heart of the questions that permeate the identity crises in this book. Are people what they seem or even what they demand to be recognized as in their claimed inherent identities? Or are we all simply subject to what the rest of the world wants us to be without thought of what our individual potential could allow us to become if we were given a choice?

While I’ve found these questions are what most of the other reviews on this book seem to center around, I was also struck by this book’s ability to home in on ideas of perspective as linked to motherhood. To me, perspective, especially as has to do with one’s relationship to one’s parent-figures, is often at the heart of many an identity crisis. Parents, especially mothers, have such power to reflect a projected identity that this phenomenon often leaves little room, as innocently as it may be offered, for any perspective other than that very same reflection. But reflected perspective is often what holds us in the illusion of reality, it weighs us down just enough to allow a semblance of sanity. However, even as we simultaneously try to escape this reflecting pool, new responsibilities of the self-made kind need to arise to keep at bay the confusion inherent in cutting the umbilical cords.

To give an example from this book: Borne is presented as a newly formed child in the mind of VanderMeer’s main character through much of the narrative. This main character takes on the mothering tasks of teaching her new charge the essentials of survival, everything from language to ascertaining what entities in their universe propose danger. The weight of this mother-child relationship gives form to the perspectives this main character uses to bind herself with tasks and goals toward protecting both the child she has found in Borne’s identity and toward cementing her own purpose of “raising” him from seedling-sprout to raging bio-technical defender of the world.

Yet it is the former that demands a releasing of the mothering-identity of the main character, as the weight of her self-imposed responsibilities become at once too much to bear and as unreachable as a piece of fluff battered by a strong wind. I found this aspect of the novel, the breaking away from self-made perspectives to make room for the child-character’s independence, rang with extreme heartbreak in its metaphor of the mother-and-child relationship. The scene where Borne offers protection to his mother-figure by enveloping her as a rock-shield in the face of deathly adversaries could easily be seen as the turning point in their relationship, as the protected becomes the protector. In this scene, Borne is challenged to take up the reins of initiative.

VanderMeer does a brilliant job of letting the reader at this point wonder whether Borne had ever been in need of the main character’s protection to begin with. And, again, this has to do most deeply with perspective. VanderMeer’s main character struggles with this shift of perspective as she has to more and more contend with Borne’s self-imposed independence. This is so similar to the reactions of many (and there are always exceptions) of the mothers I’ve witnessed in my journey on this terrestrial plane. The burden of raising a child often eventually turns in on itself and suddenly becomes the unbearable lightness of being left behind by that same child as they slowly but surely claim their individual identity that can often be so painfully separate from their mother-figure.

There’s a ton to unpack here and the depth of the available themes in this book had me within the first few paragraphs. VanderMeer has a masterpiece in Borne that his earlier books seem to be reaching toward. Or maybe I have a hangup on the level of irresistible intrigue with regard to the concepts noted above. Or perhaps, I’m simply in love with the audiobook narrator who did the honors on this book (Bahni Turpin, you’re truly brilliant). In any case, I found this to be a fantastic novel, on all the measures listed in my previous post about what elevates a piece of literature.