This is a family memoir, and links several story pieces together more cohesively than almost any novel I've re...moreThis book is so wonderful. I loved this!
This is a family memoir, and links several story pieces together more cohesively than almost any novel I've read in ages. It's beautifully done. Partly it is about the author's growing up in Haiti at her uncle's house, before moving to the U.S. at twelve to be with her parents (c. 1980). And partly it is a chronicle of the year that her father and uncle died, and in which she gave birth to her first child (c. 2004). Each of these pieces is a worthwhile story in itself, but there is a darker pull that drew her to write about it all together, which is explained outright in the book's description: the circumstances of her uncle's death in the custody of U.S. Homeland Security.
It's impossible to discuss the book without eventually addressing what happened to Joseph Dantica. But first I feel the need to point out that the content of this book is just about 10% injustice, 5% history lesson, and 85% love, love, love. Edwidge Danticat loves her family so much, and she tells us so many things about the comfort and fun and happiness of belonging to them, it makes us care a lot and understand a lot about them personally. After reading this book, I love her family, and I'm, you know, a stranger to them.
The structural outline of this book is crazy and fun. She jumps back and forth through loops in the timeline every which way, and sometimes branches off into folktales or someone else's memory from decades back. It's a total ramble that she's totally in control of. Her childhood recollections are vivid, even when the circumstances are stark. Haiti at that time was, of course, a poor and often dangerous country, but Edwidge seems to have missed the "worst" of the violence and poverty that would affect her neighbors. Her uncle remembered the U.S. occupation of his childhood, and in his final days he was driven away by rebels from his neighborhood. But in between he and his wife ran a church and school, and helped to raise several young people (only one of them their own child) in what I keep wanting to say appeared to be a happy childhood, although there are plenty of tough stories here. But it isn't evoked in a way that is bleak. It's life. The author seemed to enjoy and be awed by her family as a little girl, with a warm care that the reader begins to share.
However, there is an edge, an imbalance that it seems she can barely glance at. Though waiting comfortably, the author and her brother still waited for eight years — until she was twelve — to be able to join her parents after they moved to New York City. That's a long time. That's a whole childhood. Her parents had two more children in those years, and managed only one visit back home (their immigration story is an interesting time capsule) before Edwidge and her brother were finally allowed to go. And then, snap, they were gone. Exhilarating; wrenching.
For the record: this kind of thing blows my mind, and I would dearly love to read a whole book just about that, if the author would write one. (FWIW it appears she came nearest to it in Breath, Eyes, Memory and in a lesser-known YA novel, both of which I plan to read.) Edwidge's own transition to post-immigration life is not covered in depth in this book, which made me sad because I have a lot of feelings, and it's just something I care to hear about. Our New York City contains so many millions of immigrant tales, and not of the "Ellis Island" kind but the "people who got here yesterday" kind. I think everybody who lives here should care about them, and I find it really important, but I acknowledge it was not essential to the rest of this book right here, only me.
Instead, the timeline mostly advances to her adulthood in 2004, when she learns (on the same day, no less) that her father is dying of a pulmonary disease, and also that she's pregnant. And then, when her uncle comes to visit… In the beginning of the book, she says, "This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time." I loved this introduction, and I feel I understand her all the more for it and her own meaning for the book.
There are all kinds of ways to dwell on how horrible the way that her uncle Joseph died was. I don't really want to lay them all out in a review here, because it's sad, and for most the facts will speak for themselves. The main reason I won't go into it, though, is that the author herself refrains. She shows the restraint of an artist in cataloging the injustices he experienced after being detained by immigration at the airport in Miami, and she leaves many of the more emotional messages inferred, unsaid. While you could write a whole book about those few days, she doesn't. Because of how well she has permitted us to know these people in the book that she did choose to write, we are able to understand them deeply as this very fucked-up thing goes on, and worry for their fears and feelings ourselves.
Actually, I partly take back something I said in my last review — judging by this book, maybe it is possible to write a natural-sounding narrative based on the account of a formal government report. This author, of course, had benefit of interviewing personal contacts (her cousin and their lawyer) who were present during portions of the events, but overall the story sounds measured and real, including the parts that were clearly primarily based on details gleaned from the Freedom of Information Act. It's well done and hard to do.
I believe this is the first book by Edwidge Danticat that I've read, though I've certainly read something before, because I've known her name since she showed up in my curriculum in a memoir class my first semester of college. That was several years before the events of this one, so I do not know what we read. A short essay, I think? About her hair, maybe, and perhaps one of her brothers? But I clearly don't remember. I'm eager to know her better, and I love so much that she lets us.(less)
Jo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first o...moreJo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first of her two published books, as well. It is eating me up that there are only two!
This one is straightforward memoir, in short essay pieces. Her form really is creative nonfiction, memory-plumbing and storytelling. Although she published her more recent book In Zanesville as a novel, a large portion of that material is not-at-all veiled borrowings from her self. Which is fine. I think that's interesting. The writing's so good, call it whatever you want. Let it spring from wherever you get it from.
Anyway, what I mean is that it didn't surprise me to encounter the atmosphere of her life (especially her childhood) in this book; it felt familiar and I was glad to be closer to it with this writing, even though so much of the storytelling is so very uncomfortable. I definitely have a threshold for uncomfortable, and a few of these toed that line (mostly her bleak dating years) when there wasn't enough counterweight of something else, irony or affection.
But she is one of those writers with one hell of a gift for writing childhood, nailing the really mean and really funny details. She remembers (or at least extrapolates) enough to bring us back there to what children do and don't get about what goes on, and meanwhile keeps her adult eye always on her parents. Being able to contextualize your parents will always be one of the most fascinating things about adulthood to me. I think one's parents are a mystery you will never truly crack even though you have every clue. I collect so many clues. Does everyone feel that way, or is it just me? When a really good writer writes about their parents, I believe everyone does.
About half of the stories here are about being young (sometimes very, very young); feelings about big sisters, cousins, toys. The other half are about her adulthood, particularly her marriage and divorce, the story of which is sprinkled all throughout.
By the end, I was invested enough that I wished there was something more of a through-narrative to tell me all the missing details of her personal history. But that's impossible, in a collection of short pieces, and I'm a nosy person who likes details even if the teller doesn't want to show them to me. So that's not the author's fault. I never really consider it a criticism when I love something in a book so much that I just want a lot more than it has to give me.
About some particular pieces:
"The Fourth State of Matter" is such a good piece it would be worth buying a book for by itself, but as good luck has it you can already read that one for free. (I already wrote about it a couple of months ago.)
"The Family Hour" was the other jaw-drop standout for me, a stunner from her childhood that reads very close to the novelized family elements from In Zanesville, with the added horror-twinge of it being definitely from real memories. The sewer grate, the beer bottle, the back door. This story was amazing.
"Out There" was a brilliant and brief one about powering through a terrifying experience on a long trip. It reminded me of a segment out of Wild. The facts of it made a good story all on its own, but it's her way of showing the background that gives it weight. Us knowing where her head was reminds us that we never really know where anyone else's head is while they do anything. Which is cool, but isolating, and also sometimes people are terrifying.
The title piece is really long, bringing up the last fifty pages. It's about her friendship with her best friend, weaving stories from middle school up to their current relationship. Something about the way that their adult friendship is written made me laugh so, so hard a bunch of times. It's like the way she writes the blunt blindness of kids, only they're grownups so it's even funnier and sadder at the same time. I loved it. Also, for some reason lately there's nothing I like better than stories about sneaking around at night (I don't know) and this has a great one.
And definitely can't let this go without mentioning my other favorite character Hal, which was Jo's favorite doll when she was three, who figures significantly into a short Preface to the book as well as the longer story "Bulldozing the Baby." (Jo Ann Beard, I love you, but your titles.)
So what now? I don't know. These days, the author appears to have (what is hopefully) a nice teaching job at Sarah Lawrence, but her faculty page isn't up to date with publications, and she has no proper website. So she's just a person! What. That's fine. I would just be excited if there were more to go around. I'm so into this writer, you guys, and I can't quite handle the fact that she hasn't had a wide and prolific publishing career.
So I had Google do some homework and did my best to come up with a little Internet Bibliography for Jo Ann Beard.
Firstly, there are some pieces out there that are from this book:
* "Maybe It Happened." Memoir. (O Magazine, 2008.) You can read this for free! But it's very slight, almost like a teaser for another story. * "All the Many Beasts." Reporting. (Byliner, 1998.) Paywalled, with a free trial. Also with a little use of caching… * "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow." Reporting. (Tin House, 2002.) Only available by hard copy back issue. Looks unbearably depressing, anyway. * "Werner." Reporting. (Tin House, 2006.) Only available by hard copy back issue. I really want to read this one! It's also anthologized in The Best American Essays 2007, in case for some reason one ever runs into a copy of that.(less)
Unbelievably good. Flawless. A personal essay doing the work of a short story, and more, I think.
It seems like there will be a 50% chance, when you st...moreUnbelievably good. Flawless. A personal essay doing the work of a short story, and more, I think.
It seems like there will be a 50% chance, when you start reading this, that you already know what it is about. It's not hard to find out, but I think not knowing was… not better, but different. Halfway through, I realized that it was not so sad just because of the dog — I remembered what I'd read earlier on Wikipedia, really — and what I was in for. So I'm going to leave that unsaid and leave it up to you.
While there is of course absolutely nothing I can compare in my life, the way the story is told hit me in a soft place. I believe that the reason Beard needed to write this piece was not only because of what happened, but what was happening. The idea of "the last day of the first part of my life" is familiar to me — when you are watching your life live itself out, into a new one. Sometimes so many things will end at the same time, that time is marked forever, and this story is exactly as epic as that feels.
"She was never a puppy. She's always been older than me."
This was collected in Beard's book of essays The Boys of My Youth (which is basically at the very top of my to-buy list). But it was originally published in the New Yorker, and you can read it in full on the site.(less)
So… George Eliot is my person. I love her. She gets me. Her books are really good. The way most Goodreads people seem to feel about Virginia Woolf, is...moreSo… George Eliot is my person. I love her. She gets me. Her books are really good. The way most Goodreads people seem to feel about Virginia Woolf, is how I feel about George Eliot. I like her so much that I even like the things that, when you read enough tellings of them, are annoying or dumb or snotty or flawed. I like them all. This is going to skew everything I ever read about her and her novels, so there is my disclaimer.
I've looked forward to reading this book for a long time, you guys!
This book goes straight for me: George Eliot is important to Rebecca Mead, too, and she is reflecting on that personal significance by discussing the themes and history of her favorite Eliot novel. This is 100% something I would love to do, too! I have tons to say about what role my favorite Eliot book has had in my life, how connected I feel to the events of Eliot's personal life while she wrote it, and how I foresee its significance maturing as my life moves along. Very likely most of us could do this, with some book or other. Rebecca Mead just comes very close to mine.
(FWIW, "my" book is The Mill on the Floss — my horrible inadequate review — and I think about it all the time. When I see a copy, I play the "open to a random page" game and then stop before I claw my face right off, it's so emotional to me. A little codependent tradition we've got.)
Personally, I like Middlemarch fine, though its general adulation occasionally makes me wonder if it's maybe the only Eliot that those people ever read. I haven't read everything yet either, so what do I know, but I like at least two others better. But hey, that's okay. It teaches me what I like in books. It teaches me what "Literature" likes in books. And most validly of all, Rebecca Mead is here telling me what she likes in books.
Her telling, here, isn't actually supremely specific to Middlemarch. A reader could conclude many of these things with many other books. But you know what? Doesn't matter. For her, this is the book, the one through which she can filter everything in her world. Isn't that awesome? It is awesome. I love that.
However: after finishing, I'm not surprised by the reviewers who think Mead's book is a little bit mislabeled. While it does everything it says it will in the description, it should really be noted how emphasized Eliot's biography is as a subject, and how much space it's given here. Most chapters, rather than being structured around Middlemarch or Mead's personal thoughts, are actually structured around a telling of Eliot's life that is enhanced by those other things. This surprised me, because biography is well-covered ground, and a big responsibility to deliver to new readers. And then in writing a personal book, as Mead is, glossing over the bits of Eliot's life that she's less interested in analyzing is not a very balanced approach. I did a healthy amount of biographical reading for a thesis only last year, so I've still got a decent grasp on the main narrative of Eliot's life. If it were up to me, I would make some different choices than Mead does of what to include and what to say about it, pertaining to parts of her novels. But again, I can't fault her for not writing "my" book, because she's writing hers.
Clearly, Mead definitely knows more than me, and I was reading several things for the first time, or that were told here in a way I finally took note of. She particularly spends a lot of time on Eliot's partner Lewes's sons, including some revealing letters by Thornie Lewes that haven't been published before. They're not completely on-topic, but it's a fun section in a face-palmy way. (RIYL Victorian racism, and comparisons of shooting "bushmen" to hunting "chimps and gorillas." Kids those days!) I also really enjoyed the chapter about Eliot's Oxford friends (Mark Pattison and Emily Strong), by whom it was/is widely conjectured that Middlemarch's Dorothea and Casaubon were inspired. Whether or not this theory is true or makes good sense, Mead writes a really entertaining analysis of their true story and I loved learning about them.
The thing I loved most, though, and the most original thing that Mead does in the book (and unsurprisingly, something I would LOVE to do!), is to go and make pilgrimage to as many of Eliot's landmarks as she can. All of her homes, all of the areas that influenced her writing during the Middlemarch period, Mead hops around and stares them all down. This is the perfect connective tool for this book: it fits a telling of both Eliot's life story as well as Mead's own, and has the built-in perspective of centuries. How do places and things — books, artifacts — reach us over time? Do they lose or gain value? Can they do both?
I love visiting historic sites for this reason (especially old homes), so I was extremely excited to see what Mead would find. Eliot's childhood home is a pub (the house still stands), her young adult home is a graffitied Bangladeshi community center (the house still stands), but the home she shared with Lewes for fifteen years ("The Priory") is a train track. And Mead goes to see it. I would go to see it, too! I might, if I go to London. It's worth it to me, the place. The place has value. When Mead goes to them, she speaks to people there, she looks inside, she asks to see the special rooms. It's worth it to her, too.
She also takes some wonderful research opportunities, like reviewing Eliot's notebooks and Middlemarch's original manuscript at their special library collections. And because this is Mead's book, about her own experience as a lover of this great novel, she gets to tell us how that feels, in addition to what's in them. How does the notebook smell, for heaven's sake? (LIKE A FIREPLACE!) This type of legit research experience, together with the everyday experiences of museum visits and the more personal visits she goes out of her way to do (she visits Lewes's living descendants! SHE HOLDS ELIOT'S PEN!), combine into a very trustworthy and relatable narrative experience.
More of Mead's own memoir would have enhanced this book for me. She mentions her life events a lot, but hangs on to a good amount of her journalism-trained reserve, and so does not go very deep. Probably the only thing I like more than a person talking about their favorite book is a person speaking deeply about their lives, so if there were a little more of both of those in this book I can't imagine how incredibly much more I would love it, too.
Partly, I feel that I myself am seeking a leader, someone who can write to me about life and George Eliot and how to read and connect. I'm so grateful that this book exists in order to take a step and go there.(less)
I read this when I was in 6th grade. Because I knew that it was important, and I wanted to learn about all the important things, so I read lots, and l...moreI read this when I was in 6th grade. Because I knew that it was important, and I wanted to learn about all the important things, so I read lots, and lots, of grim, completely age-inappropriate books about social oppression! It wasn't bad to do that; I learned a lot. But it was, I will say, odd.
I had to ask my dad what "castration" meant. In case you're wondering if your little avid reader is old enough for this book, consider if that is a conversation you're in the mood to have!
In all honesty? I think I learned about the book in the first place from an episode of "Mr. Belvedere."(less)
I definitely liked this. I read it the winter of the Iraq War ramp-up, in 2003. I felt under-informed about the guy's actual background, and this help...moreI definitely liked this. I read it the winter of the Iraq War ramp-up, in 2003. I felt under-informed about the guy's actual background, and this helped a lot, though I think it's intended more for readers who are already on the same page as the author. Not that anybody's managed to be on-page with Molly Ivins, but, you know.(less)
I felt very edgy while I read this -- a current-events (of 1997) monologue play performed by the author, about his own travel experience -- but of cou...moreI felt very edgy while I read this -- a current-events (of 1997) monologue play performed by the author, about his own travel experience -- but of course can't remember whether it is in fact politically edgy at all. Or if I'm any judge.
Besides, I read the majority of this tucked up on my best friend's waterbed while everyone else in the house was drinking and having fun. Because I was nothing if not super edgy at high school parties.(less)
From what I remember, this was a really well-balanced book with the right amounts of celebrity anecdotes (e.g. Ethel Merman being insane), crazed show...moreFrom what I remember, this was a really well-balanced book with the right amounts of celebrity anecdotes (e.g. Ethel Merman being insane), crazed show-must-go-on last-minute creative-genius anecdotes (e.g. "Comedy Tonight"), insider narratives on how the shows almost went (e.g. the original "Being Alive"), plus hard-to-come-by details about his generally reserved personal life (spoilers: he is a cranky pants, sometimes with rather young boyfriends). It's also made a useful reference book during the occasional post-theater debate, if you're in the right company to have them. With all the enthusiasm of Finishing the Hatters recently, I'd expect the same audience would love this. (If they don't already have it.)
I definitely did love it years ago when I read it, but I was mainly doing so through the happy-colored lenses of "I wonder if Stephen Sondheim and I would be friends? DUH OF COURSE WE WOULD BE FRIENDS! We're so alike!" (Hindsight: um, no, we would not really be friends; we are not really alike!)
I remember spending a lot of time reading this in the house of my high school's theater, during a stagecraft class where there was never anything to do. I thought I'd get to hang out with theater people, but no cigar. Hung out with Steve instead. (And sometimes Tennessee.)(less)
I love the concept behind this, and most of all, I love the Katherine Paterson piece in the beginning, which I've reread several times. It is perfect...moreI love the concept behind this, and most of all, I love the Katherine Paterson piece in the beginning, which I've reread several times. It is perfect that this is a thing.
I think I wasn't as invested in every single piece, overall? But that's okay. Maybe someday I will revisit them all.(less)