Sunday, November 29, 2009

A three dog life by Abigail Thomas

I was introduced to Abigail Thomas when doing research for a memoir writing class I led earlier this semester. She has written several small volumes (less than 200 pages) of memoir and a book about writing memoir.
She calls herself a memoirist.

Ms Thomas has an amazing ability to weave a coherent story out of beautiful fragments or short essays that loosely weave everything together. In this case, Thomas's husband Rich is in a horrible accident that leaves him permanently brain damaged. She spends the next 5 years reflecting on this and adjusting to her new, and she hates to admit it, lovely life which involves buying and moving into a house in upstate New York so she can be close to him in his nursing home, and keeping company with 3 dogs.

This is the type of book that you wish you had written. Ms Thomas is simply very adept at observations about life and making writing seem absolutely effortless. Even as she is a memoirist, you never get the impression that she is telling all or that she is narcissistic. In fact, upon reading some of these lines you become so wrapped up in her prose, that you feel certain she is writing about you.

Here is an excerpt from one essay that is written in second person. It was one of the many enjoyable moments in the book:

After 5 or 6 minutes you will tire and stand back from your work.
A tiny patch has been thinned. Perhaps you will now make coffee
and bring the cup outside. If all goes well, a perfect pink peony bush
will be revealed by lunchtime. There will be slim yellow irises too,
and the big throaty purple ones that remind you, alas, of an old man's
scrotum, but you will weed there too. By early afternoon the sun may
burn through what has been a heavy mist, and should you not be ready
to be dazzled, do not fret. It is time for a nap anyway. Inside you may
notice that what you thought was dust is instead a layer of golden pollen
blowing through the open windows. If only life were more like this, you
will think, as you and the dogs traipse up to bed, and then you realize
with a start that this is life.

She has a gift of storytelling and honesty that will take your breath away. Curl up with a cup of tea on a rainy Sunday with this one.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson

Hiding in the Spotlight has a local connection to Bloomington. The author, Greg Dawson, grew up in Bloomington and the subject of this book, his mother Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, was a music professor at the Jacobs School of Music.

As an adult, Greg was astounded to discover his mother was a Holocaust survivor, a secret she kept his whole life simply because she did not wish to talk about it. "Why would you tell your children such horrible things?"

Zhanna and her sister Frina were musical prodigies and managed to escape the fate of their Ukrainian Jewish countrymen by changing their identities and playing the piano for their would be executioners.

Her tale of war, survival and eventually arrival in America had me crying throughout the last dozen chapters. Her tale is one of happiness in light of so much horror and sadness and the written story of this tale was heart wrenching. I could not put it down. Mr. Dawson honors his mother and her family through this investigative memoir.

Mr Dawson interviewed some of the key players in their story. He and his family traveled to the Ukraine to see his mother's town and his grandparents gravesite, Drobitsky Yar, which is now marked with the names of all who perished there. In a chilling post script, he describes seeing his mother's and his aunt's names on that memorial. All believed they had perished with their family.

Mr. Dawson is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel and Zhanna Dawson is alive and well in Atlanta. This is a beautful story of survival.

Monday, November 16, 2009

All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg

Every so often I read a book that reminds me of why I want to write. Pulitzer Prize winning news writer, Rick Bragg, wrote a memoir about growing up poor in the South, and how he escaped poverty by writing and storytelling and pure dumb luck. All Over but the Shoutin’ is Bragg’s tribute to his mother and his southern roots and his story of 20 years of writing for different papers.
Part I of the memoir is the story of his youth in Piedmont, Alabama and the very best of the writing. He tells of his father’s abuse and drinking and repeated abandonment; his mother’s hard work and how she always ate last to make sure her growing sons had plenty of meat. Of her picking cotton for hours and hours just to earn a few pennies. Of going hungry and being given corn by neighbors on the street—who were black—in an era when most black neighbors did not have enough to eat. His prose is so rich and so beautiful, I am afraid I cannot do it justice. It felt southern and very full of the bittersweet marrow of life, but ringed in hope and love and also, this cannot be said enough, rooted in exceptionally strong and vibrant storytelling.
Part II continues the tradition as Mr. Bragg leaves his home to follow his journalism career. He eschews love and marriage and family of his own to chase the story for a series of better and better papers until finally he reaches the holy grail of newspaper journalism: the New York Times. In each place he writes stories about the worst of our society, the homeless, the victims. He spends time in Haiti and is witness to the horrors of a society gone mad with cruelty and killing. Each tale he tells in this section is the story behind the story, what he saw and what it taught him or how it helped propel him forward and what he gave up to pursue his life.
As he tells these tales he remembers his mother and he makes a promise to himself about her, and he also works very hard to overcome his prejudice about who he is and whether he fits in. As his career progresses he finds he does not fit in anywhere. He is embarrassed to be at home because people don’t know him or understand what he is doing, but he also does not quite belong in the exalted corridors of the NYT with all the “fancy people.” It is a familiar theme expertly rendered.
The shortest part, the end, tied it all together. He is able to fulfill his promise to his mother (even as he doubts his motivation for fulfilling the promise). He wins a coveted Pulitzer Prize, and in a three Kleenex chapter takes his mother to the awards ceremony in Manhattan where she rides in her first elevator and gets her first room service.
Rick Bragg spoke in my town last night, I couldn’t go, but I understand he is an even better storyteller in person that he is in print. That would have been quite a show. He has several other memoirs and books in print, and I am not sure if I could read them. I can’t imagine he could top this one.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

This is the story of the summer of 1996 NYC, Greenwich Village. A father witnesses his 15 year old daughter experience a psychic break and allows her to be admitted to a psychiatric ward.

He tells his story of his daughters first descent into and out of madness as it unfolds over the summer. He also weaves in the story of his brother's break with reality and how the brother lives his life in the city, another victim of mental illness.

This is an enjoyable story but almost barely a peak into the kind of anxiety and stress that mental illness can cause in a family. It felt like Greenberg was just skimming the surface. Perhaps the time frame made it feel like a "what I did over the summer" essay as opposed to an exploration of mental illness in a patient so young.

As a memoir, it was enjoyable but given that we learn later that his daughter, Sally, experiences several more psychic breaks throughout her life, you begin to wonder why he told this tale as a simple summer story. It felt almost breezy. Maybe that's okay...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Out in the Country by Mary L. Gray

Often it feels like the national ethos is anti-rural. We urban dwellers distrust the farm, the country and the small town. It comes across in our films, television and new reports. We like rural as long as it is safe and sanitized: corn mazes and pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms.

We also assume that anyone gay will leave the country immediately. No self respecting gay man or woman could stay in a rural place where they are hated and there is no support. Homosexuality and queer gender identity have no place in the country.

Out in the Country is an ethnography and cultural exploration of gay youth in Appalachia and rural Kentucky. It flips normal expectations about being gay and being rural on its head. While still an academic work and a cogent exploration of the gay cultural anthropology which came before this one, the author, Mary Gray, writes poetically about the struggle for equality and personal identity in the small towns of Kentucky.

I enjoyed reading about a local homemakers club which endeavored to present a forum for gay youth at the local public library and a gay drag show in the aisles of Wal-mart. One chapter in the book was devoted to how gay youth use the internet to connect and to understand coming out vis a vis their own personal identity.

Of course an anthropological look at rural gay youth is not going to come away with only happy endings or moral endings. Nothing in life has easy answers and no stories are necessarily ended happily or rightly. Gay people in the country do face challenges and battles to end discrimination, but they do everywhere. This book really helps to delve deeper into a place and a situation which is badly misunderstood and often stereotyped. In our age of culture wars and red states and blue states any narrative or study that helps us to think more fully about a place and a time is a welcome gift.

Full disclosure to my fair readers: Ms. Gray is a friend of mine, and she graciously offered me a copy of her book after I expressed skepticism that little old me could read and understand an academic work. I understand from the rumors that abound in my department that Mary is a gifted up and coming scholar, and her book is winning boatloads of awards from scholarly groups. As a reader of stories and narrative, I was not disappointed. There were pitchforks, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, there was tension and drama and there was literature review. I take it however I can get it.