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Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family ed. by Joy Castro

Family Trouble is a delightful collection about the challenges of writing nonfiction about family. I loved the wide range here: of experiences related by these established (published) writers; of the advice they have to offer; and in the writers, themselves, who are of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, sexualities, gender expressions, and life experiences. Editor Castro contributes a pure-gold introduction, which incorporates quotations and references to all her contributors but also manages to offer her own perspective. I was on page 7–yes, in the introduction–when I found my first epiphany.

Essays are sorted into sections by outlook or strategy: “Drawing Lines,” “The Right to Speak,” “Filling the Silence,” “Conversations of Hope.” I have read some of the contributors before: Paul Lisicky, Alison Bechdel, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Richard Hoffman, Sue William Silverman (and have attended classes with Karen Salyer McElmurry). Others I knew by reputation: Susan Olding, Susan Ito, Sandra Scofield, Lorraine M. L√≥pez, and more. I did have favorites, sure, but I emphasize, I most appreciated the interplay, the sum of parts: these diverse voices and perspectives playing off each other. The anecdotes from experiences are valuable (and often entertaining or humorous, although there is much pain here, too). The writing is lovely. It’s a hell of a collection.

Here are a few of my most treasured lessons.

“Good writing must do two things,” contends Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001). “It must be alive on the page, and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” Writing The Truth Book, I truly was on a genuine voyage of discovery, and these two driving questions* helped shape the memoir, guiding my choices about what to disclose and what to omit. If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of those questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it.

From Castro’s introduction; and she mentions the *two driving questions earlier in the paragraph, but I submit that they don’t even matter here, for the purpose of the lesson she offers. I’ll try and recapture it: the memoirist must be driven to tell a story in pursuit of discovery or of answering a question or questions. The issue of whether to include certain material (which, I’ve said elsewhere, is a central issue in crafting memoir) then becomes simply an issue of whether it pursues the main question(s), the desired discovery. …This assumes that we know why we’re writing, and I don’t, always. Sometimes I just want to write a thing, without knowing what the burning issue is. So this becomes a multipart problem: figuring out why a story needs writing (what’s the burning question?), and then mindfully allowing that question to sort what needs inclusion and what does not.

This seems, now that I’ve thought it out, plenty obvious. But I had to get there, and Castro helped.

I also really appreciated the concept that the idea of family stories exists on a spectrum, with the immediately, intimately personal (individual) on one end, and a global human community on the other. From Aaron Raz Link:

A writer working with family materials stands in a liminal space where my story meets your story, meets the reader’s story, and becomes our story. Before I became a writer, I was a historian working in public museums. As a result, I see that family assembles our individual stories together to become the fabric we call culture and history. This process gives each of us some sense of belonging to a larger world.

Richard Hoffman’s first memoir helped put the man who raped him in childhood away in prison, and therefore offers a particularly stark example of personal or family stories having larger ramifications. He contributes to the same idea:

The trouble with the view put forth in dozens of books about family “dysfunction,” some of them interesting and helpful, is that it tries to understand the family without its community, without its culture and class, without its history and the relation of that history to–well, History.

Somehow, I feel like this relates back to some comments I made near the end of this post, about interdisciplinarity. Seeing the connections feels like some of the most important learning we can do, ever.

I loved that some essays took different forms, like Susan Olding’s contribution, “Mama’s Voices,” with its stop/play/fast-forward organization, involving tape recordings. I appreciated the far-reaching context and concerns of Faith Adiele’s “Writing the Black Family Home.” And I enjoyed and marveled at Ariel Gore’s “The Part I Can’t Tell You,” in which she does tell us. Or does she?

Much to be admired, and probably of interest to a fan of memoir as well as a hopeful writer of same.


Rating: 8 mournful duets about two people who never should have broken up.

Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood

In Florida, a stolen car, a missing woman and a conflagration draw a writer from out of town to ruminate on the darker side of human relationships in this thoughtful melding of true crime, memoir and speculation.

As Love and Death in the Sunshine State opens, Cutter Wood has just graduated from college and is on a family vacation to the island of Anna Maria, near Tampa Bay, Fla. Afterward, he returns home to wait tables, expecting never to think of the place again–until he finds out about a fire at his Anna Maria motel.

A woman named Sabine Musil-Buehler, co-owner of the motel, has been missing for several weeks. Her car is recovered, with blood on its seats and a stranger behind the wheel. Police name three persons of interest: Sabine’s husband, her boyfriend and the man who stole the car.

Wood is fascinated. He is drawn back to Anna Maria. As he enters graduate school and begins a romantic relationship, which stales and sours, he pulls apart the relationship that might have killed Sabine. Love and Death in the Sunshine State, Wood’s debut, is a memoir of post-college ennui; an investigation into a likely murder; an exploration of the light and dark sides of human connection; and an imaginative account of what might have happened to Sabine. Wood blurs genre boundaries, eventually offering a hybrid form that best suits his mind’s wanderings.

He visits with the principal characters and neighbors, and the man most people think killed Sabine. Her boyfriend Bill is in prison on a parole violation; he corresponds with Wood, as he once courted Sabine through the mail and on weekly furloughs. About that courtship, Wood writes, “There is something holy in a friendship born like this in letters.” His own correspondence is less satisfying. “I knew that Bill had lied to me, but I knew, too, that even if he’d told me everything he remembered, it would hardly answer all the questions I had.” This approaches the heart of the book: the question of truth versus fact, of what is unknowable.

Along the way, Wood profiles a handful of characters. Sabine is a German immigrant seeking sunny days and a hospitality career. Bill is an ex-con seeking support and comfort. These protagonists are joined by Sabine’s husband, her coworkers at the hotel, Wood’s girlfriend and others. And the narrator: a young man seeking art and love, frustrated by the “vanishingly small increments” through which love can turn to “if not cruelty, some precursor of that emotion.”

Wood deserves credit for a narrative voice that prizes honesty over flattery, or self-flattery. His book is essentially an examination, not only of Sabine and of her murderer’s emotions and motivations, but of the narrator himself, of universal human flaws. It is an often lovely evocation of place and culture: the gritty, small-town life of Anna Maria, its beautiful backdrop and trivial treacheries. His writing style starts out a little overblown, but soon settles into a meditative tone appropriate to his subject. In the end, Love and Death is a memorable, thought-provoking work of true crime and imagination.


This review originally ran in the March 27, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 shoes.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain

Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun is a compelling, heart-breaking piece of personal narrative, and it is told beautifully, with restraint and with artistry and structure. The first observation is one any reader might make; the second is the more subtle observation of a reader looking for writing tricks. This is a book that works beautifully on both levels.

The narrator was raised by a complicated woman named Debbie. She was a soldier, a strong woman who made impulsive decisions and charged ahead, took care of herself and her two sons through all kinds of hardship; she had poor judgment in choosing romantic partners, was married five times with many relationships in between, for which she was harshly judged in turn. When Justin was 20, she was murdered by her most recent husband, Ray, a former cop with the requisite mustache and mirrored sunglasses. Until then, Justin had thought Ray the most harmless one of the bunch.

This memoir is the story of Justin’s mother’s death: his shock and grief, his anger, the violent end of Debbie and, later, of Ray. It ranges between these individual instances of gun violence and others, personal and societal, as Justin visits with Debbie’s former partners, goes shopping at a gun show, and cycles back over and over again to Tombstone. Oh, did I leave that part out? Justin and his brother Josh were raised in Tombstone, Arizona, a town whose very existence depends on the legends of Wild West shoot-outs.

I appreciate St. Germain’s title, because it reinvents an old and meaningless saying in a fresh new way: making the point that he is indeed a son of a gun, of a gun culture that engineered his mother’s demise. I also appreciate the way he handled his own character, the narrator, in a spare way that acknowledges (for example) the problematic way in which the 20-year-old reacts to his mother’s murder. He does not always behave well, but who would?

It’s a hell of a sad story, one that recalls my recent read Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood (review to come), and A Woman on the Edge of Time. It’s a hell of a story, in the first place, and at the same time, tragically, nothing out of the ordinary: a 2017 CDC report concluded that nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by a current or former intimate partner. St. Germain does deal with this larger context, although his primary concern (understandably) remains personal.

A hell of a story, but also artfully told. I often think that creative writing, the kind I’m studying, has two parts: an interesting story, and the artful telling of it. A book can become successful, can please or entertain and sell, with either one or the other of those elements, but the best books have both a good story and a good telling. One of the key features of this book, I think, is the narrative restraint. Anytime a writer handles a story this close to home and this fraught–emotional, violent, graphic–it’s difficult to keep a calm perspective, and yet not be cold and distant. St. Germain walks that line. Another strength is the weaving in of the external, if you will, theme material: the history of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral (which St. Germain informs us actually took place “in a vacant lot to the north, between a back alley and what is now the highway. But try putting that on a T-shirt”). This is a classic gift to the writer from the universe: that he was brought up in Tombstone, that Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and the O.K. offer such a backdrop for his story and his reflections on it. This braided-in information is almost too perfect for his story; but this is why we say fact is stranger than fiction. It allows a very neat context for the narrator to think about not only his personal tragedy, but the larger cultural implications.

I was riveted as I read this book, all the way through in a day, because this story has momentum, suspense and crafted pacing. I was heartbroken for the characters, and struck by St. Germain’s gestures at the larger world. It’s a very fine book.


Rating: 8 arcane alphanumerics.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Strong words, but I’m going to say it: I think this is the most enjoyable craft book I have read. Strunk & White and Stephen King are very good but McPhee wins it.

Eight essays about writing, previously published in The New Yorker and only one of them previously collected (“but to a far greater extent [it] belongs here”). McPhee is funny, self-deprecating, practical, and wise. He tells stories! I love the anecdotes, such as the one that begins “Frame of Reference,” and makes the point that a reference must always be chosen with an audience in mind. (Greta Garbo will not be meaningful to kids born after 2000; Britney Spears will not be meaningful to my grandmother.) He gives good, down-to-earth writing advice, unsurprising, as this skill has been honed by decades of teaching experience. McPhee’s students populate these essays, too, some of them bumbling and some of them accomplished, and all of them treated gently. He relates tales of interviews that went easily (Woody Allen) and less easily (Jackie Gleason). The tone, McPhee’s writing voice, is exceptionable. I find him just quintessentially likeable. He is funny, humble, and instantly recognizable.

“Progression” is about linkages, and fits nicely with the following essay, “Structure,” on that topic. “Editors & Publisher” is something of a series of profiles of those McPhee has worked with, with some advice and wisdom about how the work works. “Elicitation” is about interviews (those great stories), both anecdote and how-to. “Frame of Reference,” with all its details from life and history and McPhee’s writing and reading, was one of the most enjoyable essays for me. “Checkpoints” is about fact-checkers, again with such an engaging proportion of fascinating story and practicality. “Draft No. 4” is about the writing process and the writing life: how drafting works, and how to hopefully retain sanity. “Omission” is about brevity, and cutting, and allows McPhee to finish both this essay and the book with a humorous line spoken by General Eisenhower: this is a writer who knows how to pick a quotation and let it stand.

McPhee gave me some things to ponder: his astonishing method of finding a structure first and them a subject to fit it; his method of note-taking and outlining; his drafting. And I will cherish forever one-liners like, “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line” (not about homicide at all, but about “greening,” a topic after my own heart). I will keep this book handy for both its solid advice and its entertainment value. I’ll be recommending it to everyone I know; and I can’t wait to read more McPhee.


Rating: 9 mustaches.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Former college roommates reunite in Morocco, with enigmatic tensions and references to a troubled past.

Christine Mangan’s first novel, Tangerine, offers suspense and lingering questions in a drama centered on the post-college relationship between two young women recently relocated to Morocco.

Lucy Mason and Alice Shipley were roommates at Bennington College in Vermont. They came from quite different circumstances: Alice was a well-off British orphan, whose guardian Aunt Maude is serious but somewhat unfeeling in her role. Lucy was a scholarship student, also an orphan, and this similarity is part of what led the pair to bond. They were terribly close in college–until the accident.

In Tangerine‘s opening pages, Alice has moved to Tangier with her new husband, John. He loves the city, its cacophony of sights and smells, its colorful crowds, jazz clubs and ubiquitous hot mint tea. Alice is not so sure. She hasn’t left their apartment in weeks, maybe months, when Lucy turns up on the stoop. By contrast, a local tells Lucy almost immediately upon her arrival: “You are a Tangierine now,” pronounced like the fruit, and highlighting the rich, fragrant foreignness of the backdrop to this drama.

In alternating chapters, the reader encounters past and present through Lucy’s and Alice’s respective perspectives. An epilogue and prologue, with unnamed narrators, offer more mystery. John is a shifting but mostly unsympathetic character. The two women’s accounts of past events differ only slightly, at first. But as the novel unfolds, it becomes complicated. Lucy’s devotion is perhaps a bit too intense. Alice’s agoraphobia is variously attributed to her parents’ death, or to a more sinister cause. Eventually, their memories of their shared past diverge enough that the question can no longer be ignored. Is this gaslighting? Mental illness? Surreality? Are these the simple mistakes of memory or is there a more ominous force at work?

In an atmosphere of shimmering heat, multiple languages and layers of history and mythology, two young women are bound together–although the reader must wait to find out if it is by a trick of fate or someone’s purposeful actions. While there is money at issue–Alice’s trust fund–the real risks are more significant. As this expertly paced novel rushes toward its finale, the question of whose reality is to be trusted becomes a question of sanity, or even of life and death.

Tangerine is a novel of intrigue and shifting perspectives, starring two ultimately unreliable narrators. Its appeal lies in the lush, sensual setting; the metered release of information about the shadowy past; and especially in untangling the twisted mystery of the present. Suspense fans will be well satisfied.


This review originally ran in the March 8, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scalding hot glasses of mint tea.

San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya (2018)

I previewed this one for you a few weeks ago.

Uncle Vanya started slow but ended up enjoyable. The first half, pre-intermission, dragged a little; Grammy felt so, and I did, and I heard similar murmurings about us. I suspect the conversational model for this production (see that earlier post) contributed to this impression, as it indeed took more audience effort to engage with the actors and their lines. And here’s a major flaw in the model: we had read quite a bit about the quietness and the recommendation to use the offered assistive listening devices. We were greeted upon arrival with further cautions on this point. But then we were told that the device was incompatible with hearing aids. Grammy was told that she could take her hearing aids out to use the device, but that her hearing aids should be sufficient. Well, they weren’t. She pretty much missed the first half of the production. We set her up during intermission, and she caught the second half fine, but we did some pretty serious debriefing after the show about what she’d missed, so that she really got the overall story only after the fact. I’m very disappointed in this aspect. It’s a shame that after such effort was taken, we were so poorly served. An innovative production can only be appreciated to the extent that it can be taken in.

That said, the second half picked up in pace (and I found it much funnier), and Grammy could hear, and I observed that the crowd around me perked up. It’s really a fine play by Chekhov, only it requires a little patience. The acting was fine! And the theatre is a lovely space: small and intimate and atmospheric. There is something so special about a theatre in the round. (I spent the first half watching an elderly gentleman in the front row across from me sleeping. He woke up but good in the second half.)

In a classic sense, the plot of the play involves several formations of unrequited love; the resentments of family, class, income, and caregiving roles; and general frustrations about the shape of human lives: family, and our relationship with the natural world. There is a fair amount of humor, but the chief feeling is one of distress. Also classic is the sense that if only these people would talk to each other outright, much would be resolved; but if this is an exasperating tendency of fiction plots, that’s only because it’s an exasperating tendency of people in real life. In the end, I felt sympathy for most of the characters, despite their flaws. I thought the acting was wonderful, especially Vanya, and the doctor, and Sonya, and I thought the production over all was a good one–setting, props, theatre management–and I, at least, had no trouble hearing. But again, the failure to serve my Grammy with the much-discussed assistive listening devices is a crying shame. I enjoyed it, but certainly have some criticisms. As always, I feel very lucky to take in fine theatre in a beautiful city and with great company. Thanks, Grammy.


Rating: 7 glasses of vodka, naturally.
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