The Seven Good Years: A Memoir

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret by Etgar Keret
Translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen, and Anthony Berris
ISBN: 9781594633263

I was interested in this book because I like Keret’s short stories, first coming across The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and other stories and later Suddenly a Knock on the Door. The same quick observations and eye for absurdity are present in these vignettes from Keret’s life.

The seven years in the title refer to time between the birth of his son (his wife is delivering at the hospital in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and Keret finds himself in conversation about it: “What kind of original thing can you say about an explosion and senseless death?”) and the death of his father. There is talk about war and writing and making a living and making a life. Even Angry Birds comes up, and his mother takes it seriously:

“I don’t understand,” my mother said. “Did those infant piglets themselves steal your eggs, or are we talking about collective punishment here?”

The book opens with a terrorist attack and ends with sirens and taking cover. That turns out okay; that is regular life for Keret, his wife, and young son. That is very far removed from my daily reality. Yet the moments of truth in Keret’s writing still resonate, as he finds hope in stories:

When I try to reconstruct those bedtime stories my father told me years ago, I realize that beyond their fascinating plots, they were meant to teach me something. Something about the almost desperate human need to find the good in the least likely places. Something about the desire not to beautify reality, but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face. And here, in Sicily, 63 years after my father left it, facing a few dozen pairs of riveted eyes and a lot of empty plastic chairs, that mission suddenly seems more possible than ever.

If you are a fan of Keret’s fiction you will probably like this. If you haven’t read his short stories but are curious about his writing, this is a good place to start.

Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
ISBN: 9780399158179

Shapton has created a memoir focused on swimming, mainly but not entirely concerned with her years as a competitive swimmer. I am saying created and not written because in addition to the text, she has included watercolors and photographs. Combined, these elements make explicit the layers that are always present in good memoirs.

What is interesting to me about Shapton’s recollections isn’t just that she can go back in time and recreate teen years or early twenties (I’ll assume her recall is sharper than mine, or frankly than I’d want mine to be) but that there are not the sort of obvious high or low points we’ve all been led to expect in a memoir. She was not, in fact, an Olympic swimmer. There is no major family crisis.

What there is, is swimming, and drive, and questions. What does success mean? What is quitting? What are the limits of determination? What, really, does it mean to be good at something, but not great? How do you let go of who you used to be, or are you just letting go of what you used to do? What’s the difference?

Shapton shares stories with an easy flow, taking more pleasure in the language than in forcing dramatic arcs. She is an artist, illustrator, art director, co-founder of J & L Books, a swimmer, and a writer. I look forward to seeing what sort of book project she creates next.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersonby Jeanette Winterson
ISBN: 9780802120106

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since I first heard of its existence and more or less patiently waited for it to be released in the US. Here’s the quote that convinced me despite any misgivings I may have had, that I needed to read it:

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that’s what poetry is. That’s what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

Oh yes. This was going to be a Winterson book that mattered, one that wasn’t — despite being a memoir and so carrying an even greater risk — going to being all ego ego ego. Winterson being Winterson, she plays with form and doesn’t do the conventional thing, and pulls it off. It’s a story about motherhood, about needing a mother, and being lost and finding your way and how this is all messy and uncertain and you do things anyway when you have no choice, or feel like you have no choice. It’s about figuring out what love is and what it isn’t and how really, ‘what love is’ is an unanswerable concept that you keep trying to answer.

I think the title is brilliant. I suspect if you were any kind of weirdo as a kid, you understand the question in your bones.

Recommended if: you are a Winterson fan, you were raised by religious extremists and you aren’t one yourself, if you enjoy writers’ memoirs, if you want to read an unapologetic argument as to the vital importance of stories in all our lives.

Blue Nights

by Joan Didion
ISBN: 9780307267672

This most recent of Didion’s books is the first I’ve read. (This is somewhat surprising, as my sweetie frequently urges me to read Didion, one of her favorite authors. I don’t really have a good reason I haven’t done so until now.) You know going in that this will not be an easy book: it is about the death of her daughter.

As much as this book is about her daughter, it is also about questioning assumptions and decisions, and it is about aging. Didion seems surprised to find herself in her seventies and no longer immune to the frailties and indignities associated with becoming or being old. She is a tiny person, appearing delicate and from the vantage point of 40s, older — and razor sharp, and not likely to suffer fools gladly. At a reading we attended, she ended some less than useful paths during the Q&A with a definite yet not quite discourteous “thank you” followed by silence.

I was surprised at how willing Didion is to cast herself in unflattering light. I suppose I shouldn’t have been: what she is really after is a relentless pursuit of the truth, of figuring out what things mean, and writing her way there. Which is probably why my sweetie has urged me to read her work for so long.

A Three Dog Life

by Abigail Thomas
ISBN: 9780156033237

A Three Dog Life is not a sentimental book, a near-miraculous feat considering Thomas writes about dealing with her husband’s traumatic brain injury. Emotional yet practical, she’s no saint and not more of sinner than any of the rest of us.

The book is a meditation on impossible things that are in fact possible. I was surprised by the strength of my identification with her story, the way it set off associations in my head. The title (and the idea behind it — she cites Wikipedia in the epigraph, a three dog night would be a cold, cold night) spoke to me.

Not that I have a dog. I don’t, though there was a time after Mom died that Lisa said we could get a dog. I love animals, we both do, and had cats at the time. We each had a dog growing up. So it wasn’t that we weren’t animal people or even dog people. We were people who were in an office all day and couldn’t get home to walk a dog at lunch people, people who couldn’t really afford a dog walker or the regular vet bills that seem to come with dogs people.

So I knew she was really worried about me when she said I could have a dog. I was stuck in a fog of grief and depression, and there were times I just sat on the couch holding the teddy bear that had been my Mom’s. Cats are wonderful creatures, but they aren’t dogs, and ours weren’t lap cats. It’s mammal comfort Thomas understands and writes about. Of course the title works as a metaphor, but when it comes to unbearable circumstances one must find a way to bear, comfort needs to be more immediate than metaphor. Ideally, it has a heartbeat.

Thomas’s narrative isn’t linear, it loops and jumps and leaves things out, which is probably the best way to talk about loving a person who’s consciousness shattered along with his skull. Stories make sense, but his experience isn’t one chain from past to present to future:

“I don’t know who I am,” Rich says over and over. “There are too many thoughts inside my head. I am not myself.” Yesterday he said, “Pretend you are walking up the street with your friend. You are looking in windows. But right behind you is a man with a huge roller filled with white paint and he is painting over everywhere you’ve been, erasing everything. He erases your friend. You don’t even remember his name.” The image makes me shiver, but he seems exultant in his description. There are days when he’s grounded in the here and now and days when his brain is boiling over in confusion.

So Thomas writes about comfort, pain, and having a life that isn’t what anyone would plan for. She moves out of Manhattan, discovers a passion in Outsider Art, knits an incredible amount, and has dogs. She’s got a clear-eyed view of things like guilt and frustration that most of us would rather not look too closely at.

It probably says more about me than it does about her that I thought the most hopeful sentence in the book was “I didn’t start writing until I was forty-seven.” Yet it’s one of the reasons I’d recommend reading it. A Three Dog Life is not what I think of as one of those triumph of the human spirit books. It isn’t a movie of the week story. It’s about being human and having a life and making mistakes, making bad choices and sharing the stories anyway.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

by Ann Patchett

ISBN: 0060572140

Patchett’s best friend was Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face. Yes, the one with the disfigured face, the one who died of a heroin overdose at age 39. This book is the story of their friendship.

In telling it, Patchett also tells their stories about becoming writers. They went to the same college (Sarah Lawrence) but did not become close until they were in graduate school, in Iowa. And they didn’t really become writers until after that — after more surgeries for Lucy, and after waitressing for Ann.

Patchett makes it clear early on that Grealy is the kind of person who exerts a magnetic pull on those around her; get close enough — as Patchett did — and one will never escape the gravitational forces, no matter how painful things get.

Not that Patchett wanted to escape — it is also clear she loved Grealy, unconditionally. While we see that Grealy could be selfish, rude, and demanding from the beginning, Patchett convinces us that Grealy had enough charm (and a wide enough circle of friends) to always pull it off, always shine at the center of someone’s attention. Grealy was desperate to be loved, desperate to Be A Writer, and embraced the fame that came with the publication of Autobiography of a Face. She didn’t want pity, she wanted adoration. Constantly. She could always count on it from Patchett.

At more than one point, I found myself wondering just what was behind Patchett’s continued patience and devotion. Not that she made herself out to be perfect: she has her own screwed-up romantic relationships, less than ideal job choices — and she has Grealy, repeatedly asking “do you love me?” and “do you think I’m talented?” and eventually, not taking her calls because she is off snorting heroin.

Grealy called her on it, once. Grealy had just had another horrific surgery, and Patchett was with her in the hospital. Grealy tells Patchett she is such a good friend; it is one of those “what did I ever do to deserve you?” moments. For only a minute, because when Patchett tells Grealy she’s a good friend too, Grealy knows she isn’t, and tells Patchett that. Then she says, “But at least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted.” Patchett says it was a terrible thing to say; Grealy says it is true.

The reader only has Patchett’s text to on go here, and it would be hard to conclude it wasn’t true based on the available evidence. Maybe Patchett didn’t realize it, maybe she still doesn’t. I think it was probably a true and that made it a terrible thing to say. Perhaps Patchett thought if she was good enough, she could somehow save Grealy.

There are so many choices Patchett makes, that all of Grealy’s friends make, to give her another chance, to clean up her house, her bills, her life, and they all fail. Grealy was talented, yes, but her desperate desire for love and success could not compete with her desperate desire for heroin. Grealy didn’t want to stay clean, didn’t want to believe in the story about herself where she was an addict, didn’t believe she couldn’t pull off another miracle and again survive.

Patchett loved her enough to paint it that way, anyway. She portrays Grealy as a real person, with grand ideas as well as ludicrous ideas, with larger than life problems, and the all too common one that killed her.

This book doesn’t offer a long, hard look at addiction, or at enabling, or even at grief — it was written too soon after Grealy’s death for those things, perhaps. Instead it is a picture of a friendship as the surviving friends sees it, creating a book from a person because her life is missed so much, I would guess.

Recommended if you have in interest in either writer, or in reading about friendships between women, or in how writers who are big names might have gotten that way.

Autobiography of a Face

by Lucy Grealy

ISBN: 0060569662

This is the kind of book that causes people to toss around the word heartbreaking. As a child, Grealy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Two and a half years were devoted to chemotherapy and radiation treatments; she survived but a sizable portion of her jaw did not.

The horror one might assume from this situation wasn’t present: Grealy had no idea she might die, even though the survival rate for Ewing’s sarcoma was only five percent. She does not present her parents as overly afraid for her life, either. Her memoir is not a story about the fear of death.

Instead, Grealy tells a story about not fitting in, about unbearable pain that takes up residence in one’s head as loneliness and confusion, about questioning what things mean, about being scared and lost in your family, about enduring intense physical pain, and about figuring out who you are. She was a talented writer: that her skill is not overwhelmed by the bare facts of her story proves as much.

One of the questions Grealy asks early on is “how do we go about turning into the people we are meant to be?” For her, for years, the answer didn’t come because of what she saw, or what she didn’t see, or couldn’t look at in the mirror. Years of vicious school taunting and reconstructive surgeries took their toll.

“Sooner or later” she tells us, “we all have to learn the words with which to name our own private losses.” I think that is what she is doing in this book, finding the right words for her story, in crafting art from the substance of her life. Some of it is expected (“I did not trust that happiness could be an option”) and some of it is funny. When she is picking up food at a corner store, her face distorted by a “tissue expander,” she sees a man covered in tattoos, even on his face. They lock eyes briefly, and she notes that she is “living in a story Kafka would have been proud to write.”

The real heartbreak here is revealed by the afterword’s “second” ending, written by Grealy’s friend, novelist Ann Patchett. She tells us that Grealy died at 39. She doesn’t say how she died, other than to note is wasn’t the cancer that shaped the form of her face and her life.

In her own ending, Grealy says that she realizes that “most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.” The most basic things — hope, connections to other people, becoming the person you are supposed to be — were apparently what Grealy could not keep in mind. She died of a heroin overdose at 39.

Patchett wishes for more of her friend’s writing; after reading this book, I can see why. Grealy’s poetic ear, her pacing, her observations and insights are things I’d like to read more of myself. Recommended.

Everyday Matters

by Danny Gregory

ISBN: 156898443X

A little more than two years after his wife was run over by a subway train and paralyzed, Gregory started to draw. One of the results is this book, subtitled “A New York Diary.”

So there are two things going on in this book: figuring out what to do when your life falls apart in an unexpected way, and figuring out how to give yourself permission to do something you want to do without worrying (too much) if it is something you can do.

Gregory’s drawings aren’t polished. They look like the things they are supposed to look like — the inside of a medicine cabinet, a building across the street, trees — but they aren’t too smooth. The lines are full of energy, sometimes making objects a bit jumpy looking. His drawings are often splashed with watercolor or marker. They look alive. His sketches don’t look sterile, stiff, or like they were drawn from photographs or even memory — they look like he was looking at what he was sketching while he was drawing.

Which is pretty much what they are. He’s not an art school grad. He’s got the energy of the self-taught, embarking on a scary but thrilling mission of “can I really do this?” They aren’t the kind of thing I am usually attracted too, but I like them. Princeton Architectural Press liked them well enough to publish Gregory’s book in a good-quality but not expensive hardcover edition.

The balance is a bit more than fifty-fifty sketch and text in the book. Gregory writes briefly about what happened to his wife, and how the consequences (his wife in a wheelchair) are something that happened/are happening to him too; about their boy Jack; about being uncomfortable drawing in public; about going on vacations again, and generally getting on with life in little steps.

I hate to use this word because it reminds me of those Chicken Soup for Fill-in-the-blank’s Soul books, but I am going to anyway: I found Gregory’s book inspirational. Not in that ‘I overcame impossible adversity with a smile and you can to’ smarmy kind of way, but in that ‘hey, I’m fairly normal and decided to do something different, something I thought maybe I couldn’t do, and it worked out okay, think about that’ kind of way.

I liked this book, but I find that for books with a strong visual element, either you like the art or you don’t, and if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter how much someone else raves about it. Gregory keeps a blog, also called Everyday Matters, and I recommend checking it out. After spending some time on his site, I decided to buy his book, and I’m glad I did.

Why I’m Like This

by Cynthia Kaplan

ISBN: 0688178502

This book, which is I suppose technically a memoir, reads more like a book of short stories. Or possibly a somewhat rambling and informal collection of personal essays. Subtitled “true stories,” it contains twenty of them, all around ten pages long.

For the most part her stories are funny and ring true emotionally — I found myself not really caring that much if what was in each chapter was literally true, as long as it felt to me like it could be true. Kaplan has a knack for making you listen, whether she is talking about the girl with the big breasts at summer camp, being a waitress, or dealing with her mother.

This is what her sense of humor is like:

In fact, nothing happens. Well, one thing. Two months after the film screens in New York, my father-in-law passes away. He was a fairly conservative, old-school gentleman, and it is intimated more than once that seeing me locked in an erotic embrace with a black woman hastened his decline.

Not surprisingly, the piece with the most emotional depth, “Better Safer Warmer” was previously published. In this piece, Kaplan tells the story of her grandmother’s being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and needing to move into a nursing home. Funny and sad and true.

The conceit of the title — your family makes you who you are, so let me show you mine — works because Kaplan doesn’t spend too much time working it. She laughs at herself at least as often as she laughs at others; this isn’t a “listen to me whine” memoir, it is more of a “I love my screwed-up family, I am who I am because of them, and that is actually okay with me” kind of memoir. Since this is summer, I’ll say this book would be my pick for a beach read. Recommended.

Firebird: A Memoir

by Mark Doty

ISBN: 0060931973

One thing this book does is hand pieces of your own childhood back to you. At least,
that was one of the effects reading this sharply observed memoir had on me. Do you
remember the sound of kicking one of those red bouncing balls out on the playground? I hadn’t thought about kickball in years, and now I can hear that sound in my head.

Doty is that precise with his language. He is a poet (literally — L would say one of
our most gifted and under recognized poets) and his gift for language is evident throughout this book. I’d give you quotes, but I would soon wind up typing lines from the whole damn book here. Really, he’s that good.

I’m tempted to say he specializes in making the unbearable beautiful. His other prose book, Heaven’s Coast, is a memoir that deals with the loss of his lover Wally, who died of AIDS. This one reveals the stories of his “formative years” from early childhood to recognition of himself as an adult. There is loss and grief here too, but more rage and confusion and threats of violence. I was struck over and over again by the power of not knowing — his not knowing, because there was no way for him as an adolescent to know, how the pieces would eventually come together to make his own independent life possible.

I read this book because Heaven’s Coast was so good, and despite the fact it gets billed as a “gay coming of age in suburbia” story. There aren’t anything wrong with those stories, but promoting something that way robs the tale of its specific individuality, and it is talking about a book in a lowest-common-denominator kind of way, and doing that usually gets things wrong. I might read a memoir because I want to learn more about a specific person, but mostly I am just curious: I want to see, to the extent
I can, inside someone else’s head, or see the view from inside that head. I don’t read to get a sense of a demographic.

You don’t have to be gay, or a poet, or have an alcoholic parent, to identify with this book. If you were ever on the outside looking in, especially as a child, you will find something to identify with here. I suppose if you have never been an outsider (hard as that state is for me to imagine) you should read this book to see how everybody else grew up. If you have a belief in the power of art, the importance of creative connections, then you will find something here to strengthen those ideas.