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When Mums Go Bad: How Fiction Became Obsessed With The Dark Side Of Motherhood

“Motherhood and ‘mum noir’ is taking over the psychological suspense shelves, but some portrayals have come in for criticism. Author Caroline Corcoran looks into the trend…”

I read a lot of psychological thrillers and mysteries, and women-centered stories have for several years now been a staple of those genres. (See 5 Domestic Thrillers: Terror at Home.)

Here novelist Caroline Corcoran focuses on novels that center around new mothers: “These new mums we are getting to know are human; flawed, not unlike the ones we know in our own lives.” 

But, she continues, “Motherhood’s dark side is a fascinating arena to explore but when done in a reductive way that suggests new mums – or those that wish to be mums but are struggling – equal sudden psychopaths, it can lead to something offensive, inaccurate and dangerous.” She warns that we should be “vigilant when it comes to tropes like these.” 

Yet, Corcoran concludes, fiction can be a great tool for raising awareness of the issues mothers face in contemporary society.

Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?

Writer Emma Copley Eisenberg’s recent book The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia “concerns the deaths of two people who have many living family members, the incarceration of a living man, and a protracted emotional and social trauma of enormous meaning to a great many real and living people.” 

Eisenberg wanted to be sure everything she wrote was correct, but when it came time for fact checking she found that “most nonfiction books are not fact checked; if they are, it is at the author’s expense.”

Here she explains what fact checking is and why it’s such an important part of producing a reliable work of nonfiction. She also examines how various publishers handle—or don’t handle—fact checking for nonfiction books.

How Chekhov invented the modern short story

“The Russian writer’s tales of stasis, uncertainty and irresolution determined the path of 20th-century fiction.”

Chris Power centers his essay about Chekhov’s influence on later writers around the recent publication in the U.K. of Fifty-Two Stories by Anton Chekhov, recently translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Although this collection does not include many of Chekhov’s most famous stories, Power writes, the stories included illustrate the traits of Chekhov’s short fiction that have been most influential.

Power writes, “in a letter of 1888 Chekhov said it wasn’t an author’s job to give answers, but formulate the right questions.” Chekhov’s stories present emotions felt, poetic moods often created by setting. The characters do not usually arrive at answers but rather consider new questions raised by their imaginings.

These are stories of ambiguity, irresolution. “Meaning is provisional in even the most apparently self-explanatory of Chekhov’s stories.”

The physical traits that define men & women in literature

While reading a book club book, Erin Davis was struck by “a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.” Annoyed by “this lazy writing,” she set out to discover how widespread this writing approach to creating characters is, because she wants “to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.”

To answer the question, she and colleagues used a computerized language processor to examine 2,000 books published between 1008 and 2020, the majority published after 1900:

Books were selected for cultural relevance. Our selection pool included New York Times best sellers, Pulitzer Prize nominees and winners, Man Booker shortlisted books and winners, books frequently taught in American high schools and colleges, and books that frequently appear on Best Of lists.

She discovered that “Men and women do tend to be described in different ways.”

Read the descriptive trends the research discovered, as well as a complete technical explanation of how the research project worked.

Boundary-Pushing Books for Fans of Narrative Experiments

I find narrative experimentation fascinating, as I’ve written about in these two previous posts:

In this article Dustin Illingworth examines four recent books that illustrate how the manipulation of narrative structure can shape meaning.

The Jim Crow South in Faulkner’s Fiction

In re-examining Faulkner’s fiction in light of the current resurgence here in the U.S. of Black Lives Matter, Michael Gorra writes, “He [Faulkner] was born into an understanding of the way white supremacy works, and a part of him never stopped believing in the racial hierarchy that shaped his boyhood, even as the writer grew increasingly critical of it.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

“What Do I Know To Be True?”: Emma Copley Eisenberg on Truth in Nonfiction, Writing Trauma, and The Dead Girl Newsroom

Jacqueline Alnes talks with Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of true-crime book The Third Rainbow Girl, “about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter.”

Questions of “the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all” are significant in journalism and in nonfiction writing. In the book, Alnes writes, “Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject.” According to Alnes, Eisenberg inserts herself into the narrative as someone who cares about the region where the crime occurred and can therefore discuss some of the expectations and stereotypes of the people who live there.  “In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.”

I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.

Myriam Gurba was among the first to call out the novel American Dirt, published in January 2020, as “a novel filled with stereotypes of Mexicans.” She is one of the founding members of Dignidad Literaria, a group that arose out of the American Dirt controversy to demand more representation of people of color in publishing. 

Here she explains, “As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.”

The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation

“Reflections on my father’s novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, in the age of American Dirt”

Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, writes, “With the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my father was the first novelist in modern history to be accused of cultural appropriation.”

And, she continues, “That experience, and what he made of it, reflects complicated truths about mid-century American culture, and maybe offers some guidance for our own contentious times.”

These Powerful Women Are Changing The Literary Landscape

Despite the publishing industry’s continuing dominancy by white men, Kristin Iversen finds some reasons for hope:

While it’s still hard to say what will or won’t be a best-seller, there are a couple of things that are promising when it comes to publishing’s future: One is that most of the last decade’s best-selling books were written by women, and another is that the majority of the people reading multiple books each year are also women. And so it follows that if there’s one prevailing theme in the literary world right now, it’s that the industry’s most influential members — from behind-the-scenes publicity powerhouses to the biggest authors to prominent critics to podcast hosts to, you know, supermodels — are overwhelmingly women.

Read here about the women Iversen sees as the sources of these hopes.

From ‘The Outsider’ to ‘It,’ the joys — and challenges — of adapting Stephen King

Travis M. Andrews discusses the recent HBO adaptation of King’s The Outsider by focusing on “one of the primary challenges in adapting King’s work: taking something so interior (in this case, doubt) and making it visual.”

Joanna Trollope on families, fiction and feminism: ‘Society still expects women to do all the caring’

Joanna “Trollope is the queen of contemporary women’s fiction and seems to be wired to the anxieties of a devoted, predominantly female, readership. The complexities of life and love cascade through novels that have confronted lust, adoption, divorce, infidelity and the changing nature of the modern family.” 

In this piece for the Guardian Claire Armitstead weaves together a short biography, references to Trollope’s novels, and an interview with the author. 

Here’s my favorite quotation from Trollope: fiction “can be a physical confessional: when you’re within the covers of a book, you can admit to all kinds of things that you can’t otherwise. It’s also where you learn about the rest of human life and where you get your most profound experience of life – except from actually living it.”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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What to read in 2020 based on the books you loved in 2019

If you liked any of the 12 books listed here, Angela Haupt has suggestions about what you might like to read this year. The 12 books from 2019 that she references are:

  • “City of Girls,” by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • “All This Could Be Yours,” by Jami Attenberg
  • “Know My Name,” by Chanel Miller
  • “Evvie Drake Starts Over,” by Linda Holmes
  • “The Silent Patient,” by Alex Michaelides
  • “No Happy Endings,” by Nora McInerny
  • “Normal People,” by Sally Rooney
  • “Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered,” by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff
  • “Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II,” by Svetlana Alexievich
  • “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” by Marlon James
  • “Inheritance,” by Dani Shapiro
  • “Lost Children Archive,” by Valeria Luiselli

Fiction to look out for in 2020

This list from The Guardian also includes a link to their list of nonfiction highlights of 2020 as well.

Storytelling Across the Ages

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker muses on the discovery in a cave in Indonesia of “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world”:

Our oldest stories are like our newest; we look for explanation and hope for a happy ending. People, then and now, tell tales about the brave things they are about to do, or just did, or are thinking of doing, or thought they might do, if they were not the people they are but had the superpowers we all wish we had. Our enterprises vary; our entertainments do not.

Why We Will Need Walt Whitman in 2020

“With our democracy in crisis, the poet and prophet of the American ideal should be our guide.”

‘Jo Was Everything I Wanted to Be’: 5 Writers on ‘Little Women’

“Julia Alvarez, Virginia Kantra, Anna Quindlen, Sonia Sanchez and Jennifer Weiner talk about how the book, now a hit movie, inspired them.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

Lots of interesting literary-related articles this week.

Crime writers react with fury to claim their books hinder rape trials

The Staunch prize was founded in 2018 to honor a thriller ““in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” This article reports on the many writers, including Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah, who refute the accusation that their books influence the outcome of trials involving violence against women.

ON ‘THE GIRLS’ IN THE TITLE

The Staunch prize was founded as an antidote to what many cultural and literary critics decry as the trend of “girl books,” typified by works such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Such books, the criticism goes, treat women as objects and glorify acts of violence against women such as stalking, gaslighting, sexual harassment, and rape. Novelist Nina Laurin, who has used the word girl and the related words sister and wife, in her book titles asks, “why do these concepts continue to capture the imagination all these years after this titling trend began?” She argues that< while such words call up certain stereotypes:

In the “girl” books, however, the female characters are also ruthless killers, kick-ass vigilantes, and skilled manipulators. The wives spy, snoop, and poison, and the mothers don’t always know best.

A TV Critic Who Has Seen the Small Screen Become Huge

Jennifer Szalai discusses the book I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by TV critic Emily Nussbaum. Szalai says that Nussbaum unashamedly “treats television as art in its own right” rather than approaching it as a lesser art form.

Judith Krantz Was the Most Important Writer of the 20th Century

Kelly Faircloth praises Judith Krantz, who died last month, as someone who “wrote highly popular commercial fiction that encapsulates her era, the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.”

Krantz’s books are often dismissed as trash, but as any archeologist will tell you, there are few resources so valuable for reconstructing a historical era as a nicely overflowing dump. 

7 Books about What Happens when Your Identity Falls Apart

Abigail N. Rosewood, author of If I had Two Lives, has spent much of her life moving around, not living in any one place for longer than five years. This transitory life has given her many different layers of identity that she sometimes has trouble stitching together. Here she offers a list of “seven works of art that investigate powerful psychic ruptures.” 

They are not easy books and they shouldn’t be. Like most great works of literature, they ask difficult questions⎯How does a psychic split happen? Can a person survive it? How many masks can one wear before getting crushed beneath their weight? Is coherency an illusion?

A Universe of One’s Own

Nicole Rudick looks at the stories collected in the Library of America’s recently issued volume The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Lisa Yaszek. 

It encompasses the genre’s pulp years (1926–1940) and the so-called Golden Age (approximately 1940–1960), and ends just before the emergence of feminist SF in the 1970s. The anthology dispels the commonly held belief that women didn’t participate much in science fiction before the Seventies and argues that a category of fiction often thought to be socially retrograde, technologically fetishistic, and poorly written is in fact rich in style and humanity. 

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Literary Links

Here are some of the articles that got me thinking over the past week.

On Impact

Stephen King experienced (celebrated doesn’t seem like the appropriate word) an anniversary last week: 20 years since the automobile accident that nearly killed him. He wrote this article for The New Yorker a year after the accident.

The Weird, Twisted Science of Blake Crouch’s Sci-Fi Thrillers

Cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

I loved Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and have just read (though not yet reviewed) his newly released novel, Recursion, which this interview calls “another particle collider of narrative ambition.” In the interview for Goodread Crouch discusses “the new book, the nature of memory, and the cosmic implications of déjà vu.”

How Has the Internet Changed Book Culture?

On June 12 the Center for Publishing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies in conjunction with Publishers Weekly hosted a PubTechConnect event entitled  “Book Lovers on the Internet: Connecting with Readers in Digital Ways.” 

The group discussed a wide range of internet-focused book-related topics, including whether the internet has changed literary culture for the better or worse, how to effectively use social media to talk about (or promote) books online, how book criticism has changed in the digital era, and which authors were best at using social media as part of their work or brand.

“If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach.”

“Never let anyone tell you there are no words”

We all process grief in different ways. For Jayson Greene, who lost his two-year-old daughter due to a freak accident, it was to take pen to paper. The result is Once More We Saw Stars, a memoir so moving and powerful, it “[restores Greta] ever-so-briefly to the world.” Here, Greene argues that there are words to express unimaginable loss, and how healing it can be to use them. 

Comfort by Ann Hood is another memoir written under similar circumstances.

A DISCUSSION ON WOMEN IN CRIME FICTION

Two veteran women crime writers, Rene Denfeld and Gilly Macmillan, “discuss the wave of new women crime writers—and if being a woman has changed how they write about violence and crime.”

Denfeld says, “Writing about violence can be a way for us to explore what it means, where violence comes from, and what we can do to prevent it.”

Both writers emphasize the need for fully developed characters on both sides of the violence equation, both the victims and the perpetrators. Since women have historically suffered the effects of violence, the current push of crime fiction written by women aims to demonstrate resilience rather than simply victimization. 

Macmillan says, “Crime fiction can delve deep into current societal issues and does it best when those issues strike a universal chord, giving us an opportunity to connect with readers in a very visceral way.”

Jennifer Weiner was right about sexism, media and women writers: “We were told we were lying”

Author Jennifer Weiner has “spent nearly a decade challenging the elitism and sexism of book publishing and criticism. Her new novel, “Mrs. Everybody” is a culmination of Weiner’s work as both a storyteller and a truth-teller, a sweeping multigenerational family saga against a backdrop of 70 years of women’s history.”

In this interview in Salon she discusses her new novel, Mrs. Everything, a multigenerational novel about women and families, and the inequality between men and women in the publishing industry.  

Here are some of Weiner’s major points:

  • “women’s stories can be big stories, even though we are not taught to think of them that way.”
  • “We read men in school and we were taught that that was Literature, with a capital L. We read books by men. Men did not grow up reading books by women in school and believing that that was literature.”
  • “I wanted readers [of Weiner’s latest novel, Mrs. Everything] to think about the importance of naming things. How once you’ve got a term for something or a word for something or a language for something, that’s when you can start to solve it. That’s when you can start to fix it.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Last Week’s Links

I’ve come across lots of interesting stuff lately.

When a Stranger Decides to Destroy Your Life

I’m including this article on all my blogs this week because it’s important that everyone with any online presence, no matter how small, read it.

50 MUST-READ CONTEMPORARY ESSAY COLLECTIONS

From Book Riot’s Liberty Hardy:

To prove that there are a zillion amazing essay collections out there, I compiled 50 great contemporary essay collections, just from the last 18 months alone. Ranging in topics from food, nature, politics, sex, celebrity, and more, there is something here for everyone!

LIGHTHEARTED BOOKS TO READ WHEN LIFE IS HARD

Sometimes a book like this is exactly what we need. From Book Riot’s Heather Bottoms:

When I’m feeling worn down, reading is a much-needed escape and comfort, but I need a book that is less emotionally taxing. I don’t want to be blindsided by a heart-wrenching death, intense family trauma, or weighty subject matter. What I need is a palate cleanser, lighthearted books to help me decompress a bit and provide a happy diversion. Here are some of my favorites. These lighthearted books are charming, soothing, funny, warm-hearted, and just the break you need when life is hard.

The Best Movies of 2018 (So Far)

Esquire offers its top–20 list of this year’s movies, some of which are based on books. I have seen exactly zero of these and hadn’t even heard of many on the list.

What about you? How many of these have you seen? Are they as good as presented here?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: MY NEW BOOK KNEW TRUMP WOULD WIN — EVEN THOUGH I DIDN’T

OZY interviews Salman Rushdie.

DONALD TRUMP DOESN’T APPEAR IN YOUR NEWEST NOVEL, THE GOLDEN HOUSE … BUT YOU’VE SAID HE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE CHARACTER OF THE JOKER.

Rushdie: It tries to do that risky thing of writing about the exact moment the book is written in. There isn’t anybody called Donald Trump in the book. But it occurred to me that in a deck of playing cards, there are only two cards that behave badly: One of them is the trump and the other is the joker. I thought, if I can’t have the Trump, I’ll have the Joker. He becomes my stand-in for Trump.

Famous writers and their vices: why we can’t get enough of them

Whether it’s Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, we relish writers stepping into their pages

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Internet reading that caught my eye over the past week.

Megan Abbott’s Bloodthirsty Murderesses

The thriller writer probes the psychological underpinnings of female rage.

Because, Abbott says, “girls are darker than boys.”

New Black Gothic

Sheri-Marie Harrison, associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, explains what she calls the new black Gothic in the novels of Jesmyn Ward and in other popular formats such as television, music video, and film.

Ward’s award-winning novels are among a number of works, literary and otherwise, that rework Gothic traditions for the 21st century… Ward engages specifically the Southern Gothic tradition. In American literature, there is a long tradition of using Gothic tropes to reveal how ideologies of American exceptionalism rely on repressing the nation’s history of slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Such tropes are, as numerous critics have noted, central to the work of Toni Morrison.

The Women Who Write: Michelle Dean’s Sharp

A review of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (Grove Atlantic).

This critical history is a rogues’ gallery of literary femaleness – even though most of the women in it rightly bristled at being defined as “woman writers.” Dean’s exemplars are, in chapter if not birth order, Dorothy Parker; Rebecca West; Hannah Arendt; Mary McCarthy; Susan Sontag; Pauline Kael; Joan Didion; Nora Ephron; Renata Adler; and Janet Malcolm. Most have at least a few things in common. While some doubled as novelists, all are distinguished for their non-fiction, with fully half reaching eminence via The New Yorker.

Amy Adams Explores Her Dark Side

An article about the amazing actor about to appear in the HBO production of Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects.

For the French Author Édouard Louis, His Books Are His Weapon

Édouard Louis uses literature as a weapon. “I write to shame the dominant class,” said the 25-year-old French writer in a recent interview.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Recommendations Nonfiction

5 Memoirs About Fathers

In celebration of Father’s Day, here are five memoirs about fathers.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr describes a dysfunctional childhood—by turns hilarious and appalling—in an east Texas oil town. The book’s title comes from her father’s group of male friends who would assemble in the evenings to drink and see who could tell the tallest tale. Yet, despite her father’s drinking and her mother’s chaotic life fraught with secrets that eventually fractured the family, Karr avoids bitterness and anger by finding the humanity, or at least the humor, in most situations. She is primarily a poet, and her skill with language shines throughout her story. When my library book group read this many years ago, one woman said, “I wish we didn’t have to know about such a horrible childhood.” But I hold the opposite view: It’s important for us to read about such situations so that, as a society, we can understand and learn how to mitigate them.

When this book was first published in 1995, it helped usher in and nurture the reading public’s fascination with memoirs. The book description on Goodreads states that later editions of the book contain a new introduction about the book’s impact on Karr’s family. I’ll have to check the library, because that’s a topic that I, and a lot of other memoir writers and readers, would love to hear more about.

Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

As she was growing up, Levinson wondered why her father, a World War II veteran, often suffered from bouts of depression accompanied by outbursts of anger. Sometimes he could be a loving, caring father, but he became a different person during those times. To understand her father’s behavior she researched his war experiences and eventually learned of the atrocities he had witnessed in Europe during the war.

I read Levinson’s book with interest because, when it came out, I had begun exploring my own father’s life. He had joined the Navy in 1941 at the age of 17. I was born a few years after he returned from the war. He committed suicide at age 36. I don’t have many memories of him and nobody talked to me (I was not quite 12) when he died, but from what I can determine, I think he must have come home with a bad case of what we now call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I think Leila Levinson and I both saw first-hand what often happens to soldiers who have lived through the horrors of war.

The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon

Gordon’s father died when she was seven years old. Her vague memories led her to think of him as the Shadow Man. In those memories he was a loving father, a charming intellectual, a writer and publisher, a Harvard dropout who led a bohemian existence during the Jazz Age. But well into her adulthood she longed to know more about him and began researching his life.

What she discovered shocked her to the core. In addition to being the loving father she vaguely remembered, she found out that he had also lied about all aspects of his life, even his place and date of birth. He was born to a Jewish family at the end of the nineteenth century but later converted to Catholicism and became outspokenly anti-Semitic. He openly supported right-wing politics and became a literary critic who also wrote pornography. The term Shadow Man takes an ironic twist as Gordon examines how his lies about his—and her—heritage had shaped and defined her own sense of self.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is another memoir of children who grew up in a wildly dysfunctional family. The father captured his children’s imaginations with the wonders of science when he was sober, but when he drank he became desperate and destructive. The mother suffered from mental illness and refused to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. The children learned how to look after themselves and each other and eventually landed in New York City. Their parents later followed them there, where they chose to live as homeless people despite their children’s more settled lives.

Despite their childhood, this is a remarkable tale of family and resilience that is often compared to The Liars’ Club because both books share a similar tone. It is heartening to see the successful lives the adult Walls children have created for themselves after living through such a childhood.

An American Requiem by James Carroll

During the 1950s and 1960s Carroll’s father rose through the ranks of the FBI and the Air Force to become coordinator of military intelligence. Carroll entered seminary and was ordained as a Catholic priest, while his brother joined the FBI. James became increasingly disillusioned with American involvement in Vietnam and became an outright protester against the war that his father so actively advanced. James eventually left the priesthood, but his political differences with his father caused a rift that was never repaired before the elder Carroll’s death.

I was drawn to this memoir because I knew James Carroll slightly when he was a Catholic chaplain during my senior year at Boston University. This account contains more history and politics than I usually like in a memoir, but in this case that information is all necessary to understand Carroll’s personal journey. I was surprised to see a number of comments on Goodreads saying that the book comes off as self-serving and self-aggrandizing. I didn’t know Jim Carroll very well, but I knew him well enough to know that the deep soul-searching in this memoir is genuine. This book well illustrates the function of memoir as a method of self-discovery and personal growth.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Recommendations Nonfiction Review

Books I Read in January

January was my month for reading memoirs, according to my reading plan for 2017. I only read two, but both, which had been on my TBR shelf for quite a while, were very good.


Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk
Grove Press, 2014
ISBN: 978–0–8021–2341–1

Highly Recommended

H Is for HawkWhen Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly, she was nearly overcome with grief. She cancelled an upcoming teaching assignment and struggled to find a way to reconnect with the world. An experienced falconer, she decided to fill her days by training a goshawk, the wildest, fiercest, most difficult to train bird of prey.

Macdonald had trained other hawks, but never a goshawk. She knew well the literature of falconry and followed The Goshawk, by T.H. White (well known author of The Once and Future King, a tome of Arthurian legend), as she progressed through her own training program. White’s book is a narrative about his experiences trying—and failing—to train a goshawk during the mid 1930s (although the book was not published until 1951). The comparison between her progress and White’s lack of progress in the difficult task of training a goshawk provides the underlying structure of Macdonald’s book.

Macdonald obtained a female goshawk, whom she soon named Mabel. As Macdonald became acquainted with Mabel, she realized “without knowing why, I’d chosen to be the hawk” (p. 58). Her identification with Mabel became stronger as the training progressed:

I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”(p. 85)

The hawk became a symbol “of things that must be mastered and tamed” (p. 113).

As she trained Mabel, Macdonald read about White’s fits and starts with his goshawk. In her book she examines White’s approach to training for clues about the mind of this brilliant yet troubled man, whose unhappy childhood underlay life-long insecurity and difficulty fitting into the world. Implicit in Macdonald’s process of understanding White through his book is the realization that readers will understand Macdonald, just as she comes to understand herself, through hers.

H Is for Hawk contains that necessary ingredient of a good memoir, an epiphany—something missing from many memoirs, such as the much over-hyped Wild. Macdonald’s epiphany begins with this realization: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all” (p. 195). She knew that she had wanted to slip onto the wild world of the forest with the hawk:

part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home (p. 220)

In the end she realized that she couldn’t overcome her grief by abandoning the human world to become a wild, feral hawk. Rather, she had to bring the lessons of the wild world back into the human sphere:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171)

The key to a memoir-worthy experience is not simply to endure, but to learn, to change, to grow.

Part of that growth is the ability to see new meaning in other aspects of the world. The broadly educated Macdonald fills her book with
details of the natural world: fields, flowers, bushes, trees, animals, rocks. Nature takes on new meaning because of the experience rendered in this moving and enriching memoir.


Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Free Press, 2012
ISBN 978–1–4516–2137–2

Highly Recommended

Brain on FireOne day in 2009 Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed, unable to speak, move, or remember how she got there. As she stared at an orange band around her wrist, the words FLIGHT RISK came into focus.

Cahalan’s journey to that hospital room had begun weeks earlier. Out of nowhere she began having paranoid thoughts; for example, with no evidence she suddenly believed that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and the voice in her head nearly overpowered her: Read his e-mails. The paranoia was rapidly followed by other symptoms: slurred speech, over-reaction to colors and sounds, nausea, insomnia, wild mood swings, uncontrollable crying, lack of focus, inability to write, facial tics, drooling, involuntary muscle movements, and seizures.

Physical examinations and extensive medical tests revealed no discernible cause for her symptoms. Various doctors prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications and used phrases ranging from all in her head to psychotic break as Calahan’s family and friends watched her condition continue to worsen. Finally, a new neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined the medical team and did one more medical test that saved her life. Dr. Najjar tested Cahalan for a newly discovered, rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to react against the brain. The disease causes inflammation that Dr. Nijjar explained this way: “Her brain is on fire.”

This book differs from most memoirs in that Cahalan has almost no memories of what happened to her during the period she writes about. Her father, who spent most days in her hospital room, kept a personal diary of the ordeal (hers and his own). In addition, her father and mother left a notebook in her room in which both documented what had gone on during their visits; the purpose of this notebook was to keep both parents informed about their daughter’s condition. Cahalan used these two documents, her medical records, and interviews with family, friends, work colleagues, and medical personnel as the basis for the book. Her journalism background enabled her to do the extensive research necessary to supplement those sources.

Despite the absence of her own memories, Cahalan maintains the focus on personal experience that’s necessary in memoir. When she can’t focus on her own experiences, she frames the story with the experiences of the people close to her: her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and her colleagues at the New York Post.

Cahalan excels at describing complex, arcane medical material for a general reader. Here, for example, is her description of how memory works:

My short-term memory had been obliterated, a problem usually rooted in the hippocampus, which is like a way station for new memories. The hippocampus briefly “stores” the patterns of neurons that make up a memory before passing them along to the parts of the brain responsible for preserving them long term. Memories are maintained by the areas of the brain responsible for the initial perception: a visual memory is saved by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, an auditory memory by the auditory cortex of the temporal love, and so forth. (p. 101)

After Cahalan was successfully treated for her brain inflammation, there remained questions about how much of her former self, particularly her mental faculties, would return. This book, with its extensive research and clear writing, demonstrates that her brain is now back to functioning quite well.

Brain on Fire has been made into a movie that will come out on February 22, 2017. You can find information about the film, including a link to the official trailer, here.


© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
List Nonfiction

10 Memoirs That Explore the Mother-Daughter Relationship (in remembrance of Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher)

Shortly after the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds on subsequent days, Susan Dominus examined the strained relationship between this mother and daughter in the New York Times: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, a Mother-Daughter Act for the Ages. Dominus writes:

There is something about celebrity mother-daughter acts like the one lived by Ms. Fisher and Ms. Reynolds that capture the imagination in a way that famous father-sons simply do not.

I’d say we can leave out the words celebrity and famous. Even the most ordinary mother-daughter relationship is archetypal, fraught with push-pull, attract-repel, love-hate, bond-reject, up-down, engage-disengage, support-undermine dynamics.

The HBO documentary Bright Lights, first aired on January 7, 2017, further reveals the intertwining lives of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

And here are 10 memoirs that focus on the relationship between mothers and their daughters:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Returning to My Mother’s House by Gail Straub

Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Then Again by Diane Keaton

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown