Teaser Tuesdays: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I am loving Mary Karr’s well-regarded memoir about growing up in small-town East Texas. She is amazing in many regards, on which more to come soon; but today I want to talk about describing place. I have a special fascination with a “sense of place” in the books I read, whether they are fictional descriptions of real places (James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly, on Louisiana and Los Angeles respectively) or made-up places (Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, or du Maurier’s Manderley), or nonfiction.

liar's clubAs an example of the latter, I think this paragraph-and-a-half near the beginning of The Liars’ Club is as good as it gets.

If Daddy’s past was more intricate to me than my own present, Mother’s was as blank as the West Texas desert she came from. She was born into the Dust Bowl, a vast flat landscape peppered with windmills and occasional cotton ranches. Instead of a kitty for a pet, she had a horny toad. She didn’t see rain fall, she said, for the first decade of her life. The sky stayed rock-white and far away.

About all she later found to worship in Leechfield was the thunderstorms, where were frequent and heavy. The whole town sat at a semitropical latitude just spitting distance from the Gulf. It sat in a swamp, three feet below sea level at its highest point, and was crawled through by two rivers. Any hole you dug, no matter how shallow, magically filled up with brackish water. Even the wide ditches that ran in front of the houses, where I later learned that sidewalks ought to be, were not enough to keep the marsh from burbling up.

This is an astounding piece of writing. So much is communicated, and much of it we take in without even noticing. On the surface, we see that Mother is from West Texas, where it is dry, and East Texas, where the author grew up, is much wetter. But just below that surface, we get a time-frame (implied by the Dust Bowl reference), and a visual cue from “rock-white”: rocks aren’t white everywhere, but now we have a blinding tone for the “blank” West Texas desert. I love that Leechfield is “spitting distance” from the Gulf of Mexico: another reference to wetness; and “was crawled through” by two rivers? That’s a passive voice usage to compete with Hemingway’s famous one that I keep referring to. I like what is implied by that last line: Karr didn’t know about sidewalks til she left town. Not to mention the onomatopoeic effect of burbling…

Creative Nonfiction magazine has a special issue coming out on the theme of Weather. If they get to publish any passages remotely as communicative and deceptively simple as this one, I think they’ll be glad.

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

kissThe Kiss came recommended as a powerfully told memoir, the artful representation of a shocking story that does not rely upon its sensational nature to make an impact, but showcases the author’s craft. All this is true, and I am left feeling very impressed and somewhat reeling, from both the story itself and the writing.

Kathryn Harrison was raised by her mother’s parents, her mother an on-and-off presence in her life who never gives her the love she longs for. She meets her father only twice while she is growing up; his third visit, when she has just turned 20, marks the beginning of a new stage. When he kisses her goodbye at the airport, the air goes electric, and they begin an incestuous affair that will last years and cause the rest of her life to wither. Their relationship is obsessive and controlling: in other words, awfully unhealthy, even if they were not father and daughter; and it will damage her forever.

Clearly there is shock value, and the potential for merely prurient appeal. But Harrison does not let the salacious subject matter carry her book. She examines her troubled childhood, her need for love, her search for herself, and sees in hindsight the way she was preyed upon. Her father is a preacher, who argues that God wants them to be together sexually.

I never question his sanity; although I will come to the point where it is less painful to regard my father as crazy than to conclude that he has been so canny in judgment of my character and its frailties that he knows exactly what language to use, what noose of words to cast around my neck.

She studies her story, and muses on it, and the result is a work of craft, not of voyeurism.

It is still disturbing, make no mistake. You will shiver and flinch, because she doesn’t turn away from the ugly bits – and they don’t all involve her father; there is also the one with the kittens, and the scene in which Harrison’s unloving mother takes her to a doctor to have her hymen broken with medical implements. (Seriously.) But it is also, strangely, beautiful. As a writer, I am here to take notes and see how she does this thing: tells this horrifying story with grace and insight and art. I don’t really understand it, although I hope to.

Rating: 8 photographs.

Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents by Bob Morris

A son’s memoir of love and endings, despite his shortcomings and mistakes.

bobby wonderful

Bob Morris (Assisted Loving; Crispin the Terrible) loved his parents very much, even if he was not always the ideal son. His older brother, Jeff, played that role; Bob was less reliable.

When his mother died, her last garbled word was his name: Bobby. As his father died several years later, he cried out: “Wonderful!” As Morris relives and reconsiders those difficult experiences–caring for each of his parents (more or less), witnessing and helping to make decisions about the ends their lives–he pairs those final words to make the title of his searingly candid memoir, Bobby Wonderful.

Morris is on a much-needed vacation in Scotland, tasting whiskies and forgetting his cares, when he gets the call to come home for his mother’s last days. His first reaction is resentment; the scarf he brings her as a souvenir is a knockoff of the first one he considered. Still, he was there, with Jeff. In the years that follow, Morris helps his father learn to date again and encourages his independence, in part because Morris is busy trying to enjoy his own life. When his father attempts suicide, though, Morris is forced to face uncomfortable questions about his father’s end-of-life wishes, his own devotion and what it means to be a good son.

Morris’s struggles are sensitively told, deeply moving and highly relevant in a world where more and more people face situations like his. Bobby Wonderful is a gift of a book: an often funny but also perfectly serious contemplation of living and dying well.

This review originally ran in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 performances.

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss

A journey to find a famous grave and an exploration of the meanings of environment and home.

finding abbey

After the death of environmental writer Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang; Desert Solitaire), four of his friends took his body to the desert near Albuquerque, N.Mex., and illegally buried him in a hidden location. For decades since, the mystery of his final resting place has tantalized Abbey’s fans and followers. Writer Sean Prentiss set out to track down his hero, as related in the thoughtful Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave.

Prentiss calls on Abbey’s close friends Jack Loeffler, Ken Sleight, David Peterson and Doug Peacock, several of whom inspired characters in Abbey’s fiction. He visits locations that Abbey called home over decades of peripatetic soul-searching. Prentiss does his own exploring, too. Though newly settled in the Midwest for a university job, Prentiss feels enticed by Abbey’s desert Southwest, a region he has also lived and traveled in. As much as he seeks a literal gravesite, or communion with a complicated man, Prentiss equally seeks a home for himself.

Prentiss questions whether he really wants to find the object of his search. “Answers don’t solve questions. Only searching does.” His tone is wondering, and his quest is both personal (where will Prentiss call home?) and universal (what does a sense of place mean to anyone?). His goal might be disrespectful, considering the continued efforts of the Abbey camp to keep the grave’s location a secret, but Prentiss navigates this potential difficulty with sensitivity. While it offers no revelations, Finding Abbey is philosophical, poetic, a creative biography and a loving, evocative celebration of a controversial life.

This review originally ran in the May 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 cans of beer.

Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

The exertions of rowing crew under Title IX, as a means to overcoming one woman’s demons.


Ginny Gilder made her way from a privileged Upper East Side life in New York City to Yale University in 1975, in the early years of Title IX, which legislated equal educational opportunities for both men and women in all areas, including athletics. Ginny had never been an athlete; her family instead emphasized business success and keeping up appearances. But she was drawn to the grace, beauty and seeming effortlessness of rowing, and against the coach’s instincts, joined the Yale crew. The story she tells in Course Correction of collegiate competition, gender discrimination, the long road to the Olympics and personal growth, also yields Ginny’s eventual healing from the emotional traumas of a well-concealed family history.

In four sections titled Catch, Drive, Release and Recovery–the four parts of a well-executed rowing stroke–Gilder details the corresponding segments of her life. Rowing captures her passion; she drives herself through injuries and health problems to an eventual Olympic medal; she learns to let go; she forms a successful family of her own, despite a damaged past.

Gilder’s prose is earnest, heartfelt, expressive and clearly strongly felt. Her narrative will appeal to sports fans and readers dedicated to memoirs of pain and redemption. Course Correction touches on the injustices that Title IX was designed to correct (including a memorable scene involving a nude protest), and portrays a painful, affecting and impressive athletic career. But it is centrally a story of one woman’s lengthy and hard-won coming-of-age and coming home.

This review originally ran in the April 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 ankle bracelets.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Moving, charming, delicately lovely, this memoir of a husband’s death offers solace and even joy.

light world

Poet Elizabeth Alexander (Crave Radiance; the 2009 Inaugural Poem) was enjoying a loving, creative, exultant and full life with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and their two sons, when Ficre died suddenly. The Light of the World is her record of that man–a husband and father, an artist, activist and chef–and of Alexander’s grief and gratitude for the years she shared with him and the love and family they made.

This astonishing and naturally poetic memoir of love and loss is vivid and abundant with sensory detail and bright color. Alexander includes recipes–Ficre’s, and those that comforted her after his death; gives evocative descriptions of his paintings and the food and music they both loved; counts his scars; and recounts her dreams of him. But The Light of the World is not a dream itself: Alexander is lucid and absolutely present. Perhaps to ward off the end it threatens, the story she sets out to tell starts, and starts again, and starts again: at their respective mothers’ pregnancies; at Ficre’s 50th birthday, the week of his death; when they met at a coffee shop in 1996. Alexander then resolutely travels through the tragic center of her story and into the life that follows, when her family of four becomes “a three-legged table,” as she phrased it in her first poem afterwards. In this tender, perceptive portrayal, Ficre comes alive again: an Eritrean native, a peace-lover born into war, a painter also accomplished in photography, collage and sculpture, an eager reader fluent in seven languages and who “could say hello and thank you in literally dozens of other[s],” an activist and member of African, African-American and global communities. “Your life is just like a foreign film!” a friend rightly exclaims, and Alexander’s is just the voice to portray his broadly informed, musical, painterly existence.

Short chapters and language of unrivalled beauty ease a sad story, and Alexander and her sons do make a joyful noise in the end. She feels that she carries “a Santa’s sack of gifts” of Ficre’s thoughts and impressions that belong to her alone; she celebrates the time they had. Their shared dreams, scars, meals, songs, dances, history and family are fittingly and exquisitely honored here.

This review originally ran in the April 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 red lentils.

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

The pile of boxes dwindled at the bottom of the stairs and grew at the top. Ten boxes left, then four, then one, and I realized I should not have left the two bags of cement for last. I climbed eight hundred and ten stairs that day, hauled up nine hundred ninety-five pounds, nearly half a ton. The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.

The journey of a journalist-turned-carpenter, a woman in a man’s world, both thoughtful and spirited.

hammer head

Nina MacLaughlin studied English and Classics in college, and went on to work for a Boston newspaper. She spent her 20’s there, increasingly frustrated by pointing and clicking and sinking into her desk chair, so she walked away, unsure of what was next, until she spotted an ad for a carpenter’s assistant: “Women strongly encouraged to apply.” MacLaughlin relates the journey offered by that opportunity in Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.

MacLaughlin’s new boss, Mary, describes herself as a “journeyman-level carpenter and a slightly better tiler.” MacLaughlin doesn’t know what these words mean, but brings her strength, work ethic and quickness to learn, and finds an unexpectedly rewarding new life working with her hands: “The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.” She documents years spent learning and working in a male-dominated field, occasionally seasoned with observations referencing poets and ancients, but mostly living and reveling in the tangible: calluses, sinews, wood and sweat. That interplay of the physical and the intellectual centers this book, which is itself both intelligent and well-muscled, hardy and poetical.

Organized by tools that represent qualities of character, Hammer Head is unsurprisingly beautifully written, and well supported in both its structural and its cerebral elements. MacLaughlin’s voice is wise and playful, wondering and astute, and Mary is a marvelous character, levelheaded and non-demonstrative. The result is a charming, thought-provoking, utterly lovely ode to work and life and learning.

This review originally ran in the March 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: measure 9 times.

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