Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson

why-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normal Author Jeannette Winterson was adopted “out of the wrong crib” at six weeks of age. Mrs. Winterson, her adoptive mother, is deeply religious and given to staying up all night so that she doesn’t have to sleep in the same bed as her husband. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is at times a harrowing memoir of how Winterson’s deeply disturbed adoptive mother branded her as an unwanted cast-away — child abuse that left no visible marks but scarred Winterson for life.

After a tumultuous break-up with another woman, Winterson attempts suicide, saved only by one of her cats, clawing her face to wake her after she attempts to kill herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Winterson constructs a ladder of language of prose and poetry and emerges from her pit of despair mentally exhausted but alive. You can’t help but cheer her on as she fights for her own survival.

The Way We Weren’t by Jill Talbot

thewaywewerentjilltalbot Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election was decided, I’ve had trouble committing to books. This happens to me in times of turmoil; after 9/11, I wasn’t able to read fiction for a couple of years. I’m Canadian. I live in Canada. Neither Trump nor the Twin Towers affect(ed) me directly, but as a citizen of the world who works with American friends, you absorb the aftershocks and emotional upheaval of tragedy across the border. You can’t help but be affected, if only by proxy. It’s the times when I need books the most — as an escape, as way to reorient my perspective — that I can’t muster the attention required, it seems.

Nonfiction helps me ease back in and this time around, I turned to Jill Talbot and her memoir of love and leaving, The Way We Weren’t, to return to a reading groove. I was not disappointed; in fact, this slim volume, read in its entirety Sunday, was a lifeline back to the world of reading for pleasure. (Funny that I write about not being able to commit to a book — this is a memoir about two people who cannot commit to one another.)

Talbot excavates the aftermath of her relationship with Kenny, the man who left her and daughter Indie when Indie was four months old. Unmoored for years after the relationship dissolves, Talbot drank heavily, did a stint in rehab, and moved among seven states in fifteen years to find the right fresh start.

This book is far more than memoir-as-therapy. It’s the story of a strong woman who is still learning her own strengths. Talbot has a keen ability to examine her own fictions and actions; she’s a woman who writes to understand her past in order to embrace a better future. She’s the first to admit she doesn’t always get life right. Candour, honesty, and beautiful prose make this book one I’ll be thinking about for some time to come. In searching for her own way, Talbot helped me find mine. That’s the best gift any book can give.

January 15th, 2017

Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

nocturneA “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by or evocative of the night.

In her memoir of the same name, Helen Humphreys grieves her brother Martin James Humphreys by writing directly to him over 45 chapters — one for every year of his short life.

In July of 2009, after complaining of a backache and some acid reflux, accomplished pianist and composer Martin is diagnosed with stage 4B pancreatic cancer. (There is no 4C.) He dies on December 3rd of the same year.

Pancreatic cancer is an especially aggressive beast. My mother-in-law died of the same disease almost as quickly as Martin (diagnosed in April, 1997, after being unable to beat a persistent cold, she passed in October of the same year). You are well and then you are terminal. She died only four years into our marriage. One of my biggest regrets is the time I didn’t get to spend with her — she was a beautiful human being.

This book is close to home in more ways than one. Martin dies at age 45 — the very age I am now. Helen Humphreys grieves her one and only younger brother intensely. The existence of  such a profound and loving brother / sister relationship, at this point in my life, is completely foreign to me. My younger brother (born the very same day a decade after Martin James Humphreys) has been estranged from my parents for almost a decade. Either one of us could die of pancreatic cancer in between the superficial birthday and Christmas greetings we exchange and the other would never even know, much less grieve. Their friendship and intimacy is like a foreign language being spoken before my eyes: it’s baffling and incomprehensible to me.

Helen Humphreys sees the absence of her brother everywhere she looks. She quotes American composer John Cage, whose words ring true to me as my thoughts return to my own brother, who’s alive, but essentially gone:

“What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.”

— John Cage

Nocturne took me on a voyage to a foreign land I didn’t expect to enter; I read it in 24 hours — perhaps my version of language immersion.

Visit Helen Humphreys’ site to learn more about the book and listen to Martin playing Chopin’s Prelude 20 from Opus 28. (.mp3)

— February, 2016

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

thefarawaynearbyIn his poem, “Digging,” Seamus Heaney writes of the work of a writer:

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.

Joan Didion famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

This is precisely what Rebecca Solnit does in The Faraway Nearby. From spoiling apricots and symbiotic relationships to fairytales, myths, and stories of  survival, Solnit digs into her relationship with a distant and jealous mother battling the slow mental decay of Alzheimer’s disease.

This book has more layers of resonance than an Icelandic vínarterta. With Solnit as cartographer, no two things are so far removed from one another that she can’t uncover a resonant connection as she charts the emotional territory of our shifting identities and how these shifting selves influence our relationships. Solnit makes for an erudite yet unpretentious traveling companion on this journey of the self — a trip you don’t want to miss.

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

— February, 2016

Favorite passages from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Strap yourself in — I don’t think anyone has done a better, more complete or beautiful job describing apricots: “upholstered in a fine velvet.” Yes.

They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums.

Strikingly familiar:

For a long time, when I mentioned something eventful in my own life, she would change the subject in the very opening words of her reply.

On travel:

And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t as deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

Beautiful, symbiotic relationship:

Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.

On parents:

When you say “mother” or “father” you describe three different phenomena. There is the giant who made you and loomed over your early years; there is whatever more human-scale version might have been possible to perceive later and maybe even befriend; and there is the internalized version of the parent with whom you struggle — to appease, to escape, to be yourself, to understand and be understood by — and they make up a chaotic and contradictory trinity.

On books:

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

On decay and rebirth:

Even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming.

On the interconnectedness of things:

You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.

Imaginal cells:

A mature insect, including a moth or butterfly, is called an “imago”; the plural is “imagines,” and the cells that bring about that maturity in moths and butterflies and other flyers are called “imaginal cells.”

Strangers to our own existence:

The contemporary poet Robert Hass once wrote of this most solitary of poets (Rilke), this man who was always putting distance between himself and intimacy, “There are pleasures, forms of nourishment perhaps that most people know and he did not. What he knew about was the place that the need for that nourishment came from. And he knew how immensely difficult it was for us to inhabit that place, to be anything other than strangers to our own existence.”

How stories sustain and expand us:

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

M Train by Patti Smith

mtrainpattismithPart memoir, part elegy, part reverie. M Train, by Patti Smith, is a captivating look at a working artist’s inspiration, fodder, obsessions, and processes.

I’d known of Patti Smith for a long time (if only mostly because she wrote Because the Night, a staple song I’ve seen Springsteen perform often over the years).  A seed of interest bloomed in my brain after listening to her fascinating interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

What struck me was the way Smith spoke: she’s an original thinker, unburdened by clichés, erudite without pretension, and wholly generous in spirit. This too, encapsulates M Train.

Cafés are Patti’s “portal” to writing — a place where she communes with her art, her obsessions, and those she’s lost over brown toast, olive oil, and copious cups of coffee. Patti almost opened her own café once: she went so far as to put down a security deposit and renovate only to abandon her dream to follow a boy (Fred “Sonic” Smith) to Michigan.

Given to quests and ritual, Patti plucks stones from a notorious penal colony in northwest French Guiana to present to poet Jean Genet who “aspired” to be incarcerated there only to “fail” when the prison closed. She visits the graves of Japanese authors; she photographs Sylvia Plath’s grave several times. She buys a dilapidated bungalow sight unseen in Rockaway Beach months before Hurricane Sandy annihilated the coast. (Her tiny bungalow survives, requiring major repairs.)

This book is fascinating and layered. It’s more melancholy stream-of-consciousness than memoir, a fever dream chronicling an artistic funk at age 66.

Some passages are dense with oblique references to writers I’ve never heard of, much less read. Almost ethereally ruminative,  I found some of the imagery difficult to penetrate, but with Patti, I sense that doesn’t matter: you absorb what you can, obsess on it for a bit, and move on to a new fascination. After all, as she says, “All doors are open to the believer.”

December, 2015

Favorite passages from M Train by Patti Smith

Love the turn of of phrase here:

Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.

On Smith’s father’s “mathematical curiosity” — his own system for handicapping race horses. It’s the image of the book that I love. (His personal obsession and treasure wrapped in jeweller’s cloth.)

A journal wrapped in jeweller’s cloth, noting wins and losses from imaginary bets, kept in the left-hand drawer. He never spoke about his system but he laboured over it religiously. He was neither a betting manor had the resources to bet. He was a factory man with a mathematical curiosity, handicapping heaven, searching for patterns, and a portal of probability opening up onto the meaning of life.

The found compass:

If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.

Leaves are vowels:

A sudden gust of wind shakes the branches of trees scattering a swirl of leaves that shimmer eerily in the bright filtered light. Leaves as vowels, whispers of words like a breath of net. Leaves are vowels. I sweep them up trying to find the combinations I am looking for.

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman

BettyvilleI am terrified of getting old.

I fear becoming vulnerable mentally and physically. I’m afraid of not being able to look after myself, of my mind and memory dissolving and unraveling, putting me out of control of my life. I’m afraid that at times I’ll be lucid enough to know I’m failing. I’m petrified of becoming dependant on — at the mercy of — others.

In Bettyville: A Memoir, author George Hodgman leaves New York and returns to his family home in Missouri to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. As mother and son, Betty and George are a lot alike. Throughout their lives they’re both just trying to “get it right.” Betty did her best to raise a son she knows is gay but whose lifestyle she can’t accept. Commitment-phobic George does his best to care for an emotionally remote mother who is wonderfully cantankerous, independent, and fiercely unsentimental.

The book is about aging with grace, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, about preserving dignity despite memory loss and the body’s tragicomic fall. It’s about the distances between close family members, about the two people who supplied your DNA, yet fear acknowledging who you really are, and about how silences suppress the truth. It’s about allowing yourself to be cared for, to be taken care of. What’s beautiful about this book is the tenderness, respect, understanding, and forgiveness with which George treats his mother. We should all be so lucky to have someone like him at our side when our decline steepens.

Betty Baker Hodgman died just this past Sunday, July 26th, 2015. She was 93 years old.

I read this book twice back-to-back. It’s worth your time.

June and July, 2015

Betty is unsentimental

when Jane comes out, we hug, but Betty draws back. Her family, the Bakers, did not hug socially, and she is not a woman who cares much for such. Nor is she often sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of strangers it came with.

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman

On the second read of Bettyville. Fantastic book.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

On the Move_ A Life - Oliver Sacks Read Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life and prepare yourself for a series of vignettes by a master storyteller. It’s as though Oliver has arrived at your dinner table to regale you with anecdotes, memories, and stories of his career, travels, writing, relationships, loves, and life. As a reader, you want to make sure his wine glass stays full, so that he keeps on talking.

Sacks’ enthusiasms are deep and expansive. It’s this passion, palpable warmth, and self-deprecating charm that compel you to adore him. His fascination with the brain, deep respect and appreciation for science, and empathy for his patients anchor the book. Around these snapshots of his career are stories about his love for California in the 60s, his passion for motorcycling, weightlifting and the Muscle Beach scene, his relationships, and youthfully prodigious drug use.

This book is worth your time.

June, 2015