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The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman

A loving daughter’s memoir of her father portrays the literary mind of Clifton Fadiman through his passionate oenophilia.

Before Anne Fadiman was known for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and At Large and At Small, she was an “oakling,” withering (according to an adage she quotes) in the shadow of an oak. Her father, Clifton Fadiman, enjoyed a long, successful career as a reader, book reviewer and wordsmith. He worked for Simon & Schuster, the New Yorker and the radio quiz show Information Please, and produced numerous collections of essays, criticism and anecdotes, children’s literature, translations and anthologies. Most of all, however, he loved wine.

Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautifully composed memoir of her father’s life, viewed through the lens of his oenophilia. She recalls discovering his essay “Brief History of a Love Affair” at age 10, and being disappointed that it did not describe love for a woman. She should not have been surprised, as even at that age she knew the names of the Premier Cru Bordeaux and which were the Great Years (capitalized as such). Clifton’s passion for wine was prodigious, and it was his daughter’s shame and consternation that her palate never came to appreciate any of its forms. This memoir is in part the story of that struggle–her repeated attempts to love wine, and all the fine bottles wasted on her. Near the end, she embarks on a study of taste buds, supertasters and the possible scientific explanation for her (as she feels it) failure to live up to a legacy.

While she does not shrink from Clifton’s flaws–a condescending attitude toward women, profound insecurity–this portrait is deeply loving. Fadiman seeks to reveal a complex and multi-talented man, and to celebrate his contributions to literature. She also seeks contact with a father she clearly misses. Upon discovering the careful handwritten record of his wine purchases: “He liked thinking about a bottle waiting for decades in a hushed, dark place until a hand reached in, and the corkscrew did its work, and the wine came to life again, a life that had deepened while it bided its time. Opening the Cellar Book was like that.” She calls it “the most serious book he ever wrote, the most heartfelt, the most honest.” Finding him again in his Cellar Book, as well as in his copious writings, brings Fadiman great pleasure, and will edify and entertain readers. Along the way, she touches upon a century of U.S. cultural history, to which her father contributed.

Fadiman’s prose is clear and precise, and while not overtly poetic, perfectly composed as to rhythm and sound. As in her past work, she writes with equal skill of her own memories, family history, science and the finer points of wine appreciation (which she knows by heart and inheritance, if not by personal experience). The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautiful remembrance and a loving and well-deserved tribute to a literary figure–and to the joy of imbibing.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 papillae.

Bonus:

I had a moment of joyful recognition when I discovered on page 5 that Anne’s father Clifton Fadiman was the author of the children’s book Wally the Wordworm which I remember enjoying as a child.

My review of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was one of three brief pieces I sent in to Shelf Awareness when I applied to write for them. The beloved editor who hired me there has retired, but she is still reading and reviewing, and she changed my life in wonderful ways, as did Anne Fadiman’s writings.

Circles and synchronicity, friends.


Love and Fury by Richard Hoffman

Hoffman writes of struggling to know his father, or the challenge of the two fathers: “the one who made me, and the one I’ve made of him.” This is a memoir mostly of Hoffman’s adult life; it also handles race and class and family (the title refers to his theory of familial relationships). Hoffman is particularly concerned with questions of the racism, sexism, misogyny and abuse, the toxic masculinity, the blue-collar working class Pennsylvania of the coal mines with which he was brought up. In the course of the book, he becomes a grandfather and his father dies: these are the occasions for his reflection. And he is calm as well as reflective, introspective; he tries to be hard on himself and look the truth in the eye. This is the classic, universal question I am interested in: the mystery of one’s own parent(s).

I enjoyed Love and Fury. I felt immersed in Hoffman’s reckonings, and I very much identified with the struggle to know the father figure. I liked how he anticipated concerns about his memory, as when he prefaces an early childhood memory with questions about early memories generally, or where he admonished himself to say it (a difficult truth). It felt considered, as a book, if that makes sense–thought out. In fact it is more a memoir-in-essays, with lots of thinking on the page, than a strictly narrative story. A memoir for those interested in social justice as well as family.


Rating: 7 recliners.

The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco

A devoted, tormented daughter eulogizes a beloved father in this thought-provoking and experimental memoir.

Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye is an intense and unforgettable memoir, as fascinating for its artistry as for its subject matter.

Jeannie was 18 when her father died. Though her mother is beloved and sympathetically portrayed, it was her father who had been her hero, her perfect person. On his deathbed, Jeannie promised him she would write about him. Although there is no sign that he heard, let alone held her to it, this promise would haunt the increasingly troubled young woman for years to come.

Her father had lost his left eye and wore a prosthetic one, which was in fact plastic, “but sometimes I call it glass. Glass implies the ability to be broken.” He lost his left vocal cord, too, and her mother loses hearing in her left ear. “What will be left of me if I lose her?” Jeannie’s father had a daughter before her, from an earlier marriage, who died in a car accident. That daughter was Jeanne; the daughter who promised to write this book is Jeannie, pronounced the same but with an added i. She fills her book with meditations on glass and left.

The Glass Eye is not what the 18-year-old intended to write. In the years after her father dies, Jeannie appears to function at high levels: she receives several degrees and works for prestigious publications. However, she is hospitalized repeatedly, battling mental illness and devastating grief. Everything is about her father–“Of course I hallucinated my eyes had fallen out.” A symptom of bipolar disorder (one of several diagnoses Jeannie receives) is a preoccupation with ” ‘clang associations,’ connections between words dictated by sound rather than meaning,” although for Jeannie, eye and i and I are also connected by meaning.

Vanasco pays compulsive attention to metaphors, and to the project of writing this memoir, which becomes a meta-exercise observing itself. She wonders, “What’s my hindsight perspective? Is this my narrative present?” and plays with plot. She asks the professor in her memoir course, “What if it’s about the promise to write the book?” The Glass Eye is indeed about Vanasco’s promise, as it’s about her father, grief, loss, her dead half-sister and reckoning with her own mental illness. And it’s about itself: both memoir and writing-about-writing.

Lyric, haunted, smart and tortured, this is an obsessive love letter to a dead father as well as a singular work of literature. The Glass Eye will attract memoir fans and readers concerned with mental illness and bereavement, as well as writers concerned with craft.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 dollhouses.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

Kingston’s is a memoir in five longish essays, each of which could, I think, stand alone. A child of Chinese immigrants growing up in Hawaii in a Chinese immigrant community, she blends memoir (meaning personal or family recollections) with Chinese folktales, and ends up commenting on culture at least as much as her own personal experiences. This blend pushes the boundaries of memoir in the direction of imagination, and pushed my personal comfort level somewhat as a reader: I tend to prefer clear lines between fact and fiction, and while I am intellectually open to blurrings, I do notice my discomfort when it happens. I am most interested in the final essay, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” which expands metaphorically on the concept of literal voice. I’m also interested in the structure of this collection of five essays: their number, their varying lengths, their order, and the choice to offer a memoir in parts like this. Obviously the most unusual element, though, is that blending of folktale, imagination–even fantasy–with traditional memoir reporting.

Kingston has a vivid storytelling style, and voice. It is easy to get lost in the story at hand, and there is a dreaminess (in some sections more than in others) that I don’t often see in memoir. The flip side is that it can be harder to mentally pull these parts together into the story-of-a-life that I expect from memoir. But there’s no question that this is an absorbing and entertaining book–not to say that there isn’t emotionally difficult content, of course.

General readers of fiction as well as memoir will find much to enjoy. Students with rather more literal minds may be challenged.


Rating: 7 white tigers.

We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle

An unstable childhood on the harbor in Los Angeles yields a wise, contemplative, forgiving memoir by a likable narrator.

A young mother tucked her three-week-old daughter into a drawer in a Hollywood motel room before leaving for the night. A police detective would lift the baby out again, after the mother was murdered. In the opening scene of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, an eight-year-old Kelly meets that detective for the first time, having just learned how her mother died. It sounds like a sensational beginning, but Carlisle’s measured, wondering tone allows the reader, like the author’s child self, to meet each disorienting new situation with curiosity rather than a sense of spectacle.

Kelly was raised by her maternal grandfather and his much-younger wife, whom she calls Daddy and Mommy. He likes to be called Sir Richard and boasts of a wild and heroic–increasingly incredible–past; her name is Marilyn, and she carries wounds that Kelly will gradually understand. They own a pornography shop near the Los Angeles airport, and for many of Kelly’s formative years, they live on a boat in a marina. Their neighbors are unglamorous down-and-outs, and Kelly is wracked by how normal her childhood isn’t. But in her reflections on the page, she realizes that the adults who surrounded her in her youth played various parts in her unconventional upbringing; many of them were loving, positive figures. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir about being adrift and lost on a boat, but also about discovering that we’re all more or less adrift, that yearning is a universal condition.

As she matures and learns more about her grandfather and Marilyn–the nearest to parents that she’ll ever know–Kelly persists in wondering about the mother she lost. Naturally, then, the book follows her progress: from tracking a bewildering childhood to seeking answers about where she’s come from. By the time Kelly becomes a mother, and for some time thereafter, her understanding of her roots continues to evolve. She explores the roles of trauma, love, resilience and forgiveness in shaping a life. “By now, I’ve realized that my grandfather was wrong when he told me, ‘Where you come from is important; it’s who you are,’ because it was only partly true. ‘Who you are’ also happens after you leave home. You are turning into ‘who you are’ your whole life.”

We Are All Shipwrecks is a personal history, a commentary on the experiences of childhood (uncertainty, pain, possible acceptance) and an investigation into what creates us. Readers who appreciate thoughtful memoirs will be charmed by Carlisle’s generosity and easy, open reflections.


This review originally ran in the August 7, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 cats on a boat.

reread: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Shortened version: it was excellent and moving, again. (Original review here.)

I will repeat myself (from Wednesday’s review of The Art of Memoir) that one of Mary Karr’s greatest strengths is her voice. Her personality sings or laughs or screams off the page, vernacular and colorful, wise and confused, approachable and authentic and believable. Her story is wild. If it weren’t told in such convincing fashion and with such human wonder by its narrator–in other words, if I tried to tell you here about some of the things that happened to young Mary, less artfully–you wouldn’t believe it. But in this memoir, you do.

Karr grew up in a little east Texas coastal refinery town (here under a fictional name), with a short spell spent in Colorado. Her family was troubled, and gave the neighbors some entertainment (or opportunity for self-righteous head-shaking). But this is not a simple story of hardship and woe. The Karrs are also fiercely loving and loyal, with a capacity for humor. Karr’s narrative voice seeks answers and knows how to criticize, but she loves her flawed people; she’s not out to get them. (This is one of the key tips of The Art of Memoir: write out of love, not hate. Additionally, though this sounds even harder, “as Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, ‘If you’re writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love.'”)

From a craft perspective, I suppose I will start by examining the rich inner world Karr relates here, as for example on pages 148-157. In this eventful chapter, Karr’s mother creates a massive bonfire of most of her children’s–that is, Mary and her sister’s–belongings, before threatening their lives with a butcher knife. This scene is described in great detail, meticulously, so that it takes pages for moments to pass. Alongside the scene we get little Mary’s coping mechanism: her imagination supplying parallel events to explain or counter those she is witnessing. There is a backwards-looking perspective provided by the adult Mary writing these lines, but also much of young Mary’s real-time daydreaming. There are flashbacks. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and she uses a similar strategy elsewhere, in other such horrifying, dramatic, traumatic scenes. I know one reader who finds the lengthy, meticulous description of trauma difficult; but I think it’s actually a remarkable way to put us in the scene, as well as paint the child’s surreal experience. (Also, it’s difficult. But there is no way to read about rape that is not difficult. It should be difficult.)

My remarks here just scratch the surface of what The Liars’ Club has to offer. I’m a little confounded by the reviewers who didn’t love this memoir. The “best” criticism I saw was by a reader who believes that memoirs should teach a high moral lesson or reveal an important, famous person’s life. This book perhaps does neither, but I disagree with the premise; and so, thankfully, does Mary Karr.


Rating: 8 electric can openers.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

I’ve been hearing about this one for years, I think first in South Toward Home. While it was already on my semester reading list, I was prompted to put it next in line when I read in Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir: “[A Childhood] is underrated–virtually unknown–except among the aficionados of the form.” So there. (My reading of The Art of Memoir was interrupted, so its review will follow this one. Preview: I like it.)

This is a memoir of a very short period, when the author is five and six years old, with just a few oblique references to his later life. During these two years, the child Crews becomes aware of himself in the world; he suffers serious injury and illness; his mother leaves his ‘father’ with her two sons, and after a few reunions, splits from him forever; and Crews learns that this was not his biological father, but the brother of that man, who is dead. In his reflections, what motivates the writing of this book is that Crews is haunted by the absence of his late biological father, and by a lack of ties to his home place of rural Georgia.

Both story and prose are tough, muscular, macho, unadorned, laden with violence and hardship; there are lovely lines concealed within, but Crews is most concerned with chronicling his scars. It is a raw and affecting book, and attempting a ‘biography of a place’ through a memoir of just two years is an intriguing strategy. I am fascinated by this idea, that two years of a child’s life can serve to profile a place.

I really appreciate Crews’s voice. This element (combined, obviously, with place and class) reminded me again and again of Rick Bragg. Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown is on my reading list this semester as well; I hope I get to it in time. Of course I was also drawn (as with Sanders) to Crews’s preoccupation with place, where he’s from and what that means. Another kindred in this way, although his style (and the story he has to tell) differs greatly from my own. Crews is another author that plays with a fluid ‘truth’, which Mary Karr commented on as well: she forgives this favorite memoir because the more imaginative sections are obvious enough to pick out. Those are some of the sensational bits. But really, Crews lets his story stand for itself. His childhood will read as shocking to some of us; but it also reads as very real.


Rating: 8 slisures of grapefruit.
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