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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.

Key Grip by Dustin Beall Smith

Dustin Beall Smith came recommended for his contribution to You. That essay, called “being [t]here,” didn’t particularly grab me (put it up next to Kitchen for being amorphous or abstract, at least too much so for my perhaps overly literal mind). But this book did.

Key Grip is a memoir in essays, in reverse chronological order. The first essay makes up fully a third of the book, followed by eleven shorter ones. The narrator is a risk-taker, a thrill-seeker, with self-destructive behaviors. The book is about those behaviors, about mourning the death of his father, and about art: the lifelong struggle to become a writer, and the decades along the way spent in service to another art form, as a key grip in the movie business. Smith is expert at engaging storytelling, such that the craft appears effortless or invisible. As a classmate once said, the apparently effortless writing is the hardest to achieve. But for me, the most interesting element in this collection was its reverse-chronological organization. That’s what I annotated, for school.

The extra-long opening essay, “Starting at the Bottom Again,” is a hilarious account of a mature Smith (age 57) traveling cross-country with a near stranger, to go on a Lakota vision quest. It is not only hilarious, but also gripping and pathos-ridden, gloriously told. If I have a complaint, it is that we left this absorbing world and did not return to it. I expected to continue chronologically from this point, and perhaps to get sequel vision quests, as Smith’s Lakota spiritual guide suggests to him.

Instead, we go backwards in time, seeing Smith suffer the loss of his father, work as a key grip, get dissipated and wild with drugs etc., become a skydiving instructor, return to childhood. Many of these essays are excellent in their own right. But I remained a little baffled by the departure from that first essay, “Starting.” I think we all generally expect chronological order when we read. We know how to deal with disjointed jumpings around in time; but to start at the end, so to speak, can be a little disorienting.

Nevertheless, once I paid attention to what this backwards-order was doing, I decided I like the way meaning, and characterization of the protagonist, build. For one thing, this is very like how we get to know people in real life: we meet today, in the present, and then (if we get that far) we fill in backstory. We can never know a new acquaintance’s past if we weren’t there for it, but we can listen to the stories.

Smith is a very fine storyteller, and these are amusing, sensational stories he has to tell, always with a note of sadness if not regret. I do recommend his memoir.


Rating: 7 jumps.

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.

“A Sketch of the Past” by Virginia Woolf

This essay, which I read from the collection Moments of Being, consists of nearly 100 pages of Woolf’s recollections of childhood, recorded journal-entry-style in 1939-40. It introduces Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” and of “non-being,” the latter being the cotton wool in between the important stuff of life/memory. Interesting for organization (or lack thereof); for the layering of time, then and now; and for Woolf’s list-making. It was also unfinished at the time of her death, and somewhat lacking in narrative structure. The editors of this collection make some points about it not being up to VW’s standards for publication, but as this is the first I’ve read of her work, I can’t comment on how not-up-to-standards I find it.

“A Sketch of the Past” is a series of memories of Woolf’s childhood, related when the author is nearly sixty. She begins by worrying over the format of these memoirs, then throwing up her hands to begin with “the first memory.” The form ends up being a sort of journal, with dated entries and a few comments on current events (the coming war). This layered-time effect allows commentary on both the past and the writing-present.

Woolf’s “moments of being” stand in contrast to what she calls “moments of non-being.” I understand these to be the memorable or remembered moments versus those not remembered, or not memorable–which are not necessarily the same thing. Woolf asks, “Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember? … Often… I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private shorthand — ‘non-being.’ Every day includes much more non-being than being.” She likens non-being to cotton wool, or the everyday padding of what is remembered (or, what she wants to write about). She then goes on to call her moments of being “scaffolding in the background” of the real work of her storytelling: these are people, or characters. (The idea of moments of being, or characters, as the central work of storytelling is another concept for potential annotation.) “A Sketch of the Past” proceeds to study characters: Woolf’s mother, father, and a few siblings.

For school, I wrote an annotation on Woolf’s list-making. Several lengthy lists help to accrue either scenes, descriptions or themes in Woolf’s remembering. Certainly, details are part of how she enlivens her storytelling (the flowers on the mother’s dress and the yellow blinds in the nursery, both on the essay’s first page). Sometimes it is the solitary nature of a detail that gives it its power, as with Mr Wolstenholme, who “when he ate plum tart he spurted the juice through his nose so that it made a purple stain on his grey moustache”–it is the nature of this man that “he had only one characteristic,” she says, even as she names others. This cue to the singularity of this detail, along with its vibrant colors and specificity, strengthens it. But when such details are presented in list form, I find them compelling in new ways, greater than the sum of the listed parts.

At the sentence and paragraph level (or list level!) I found things to admire here. But a somewhat archaic style and lack of narrative arc, a certain rambling quality, made this essay hard for me to engage with. I’m not especially excited about this author, lauded though she be.

Final verdict? I am new to Woolf but at this point I find her inarguably skilled, but not terribly to my tastes at present.


Rating: 6 anemones.

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.

The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank

This memoir of family wounds and favoritism charts dark territory as the author searches for understanding.

the-mighty-franks

“‘My feeling for Mike is something out of the ordinary,’ I overhear my aunt say to my mother one day when I am eight years old… ‘I wish he were mine.'”

Michael Frank comes from an especially close-knit family: his mother’s brother married his father’s sister. He is devoted to his doubly related Aunt Hankie and Uncle Irving. The elder couple is childless, and so they “share” the younger couple’s three sons, of whom Mike is the eldest. The two households are neighbors in Laurel Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. Both grandmothers live together at the foot of the canyon. It is all very cozy: Aunt Hankie calls them “the larky sevensome,” or “the Mighty Franks.”

And Mike is the luckiest, larkiest one of all, because he is Aunt Hank’s pet. They spend their free time together. She takes him antiquing, and sets out to teach him everything she knows. Hank (a nickname for Harriet) and Irving are successful Hollywood screenwriters, and they have the finest taste in architecture, art, literature, movies, music (nothing after Brahms) and manners. Hank has an overwhelming personality and strong opinions, and when she says that Mike has the eye, the artistic eye for the creative pursuits she prizes above all, he is naturally proud–and motivated.

The Mighty Franks is Michael Frank’s memoir of the relationship he shared with his forceful aunt. While he is favored, his two younger brothers are mostly ignored (Hank sniffs that one has the makings of a scientist, the other, an athlete). He is the modelling clay she plays with, until he begins to awaken to a world larger than Aunt Hank, and forms his own opinions and tastes. She sees this as rebellion, ingratitude or worse. As Mike grows up, Hank seems to break down and the Mighty Franks begin to fissure.

Frank moves between the child’s perspective of events as they unfold and a place of reflection. In writing this story, he seeks a better understanding of his aunt, the imperfect workings of his extended family and his own relationships within and outside it. Hank is firm about hierarchies: the Renaissance over the Middle Ages, Faulkner over Hemingway, Fred over Ginger, early Fellini over late. Similarly: Hank over her younger brother, both of them over their spouses, Mike over his brothers. And always Hank first.

The Mighty Franks is an immediate, gut-wrenching account of events that are often painful for young Mike. While not an easy story to take in, Frank’s ruminations offer some necessary distance. His tone is serious and his prose occasionally verbose, but the saga of this flawed family is deeply involving. Any hint of sensationalism is more than balanced by the psychological insights Frank eventually achieves.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 period pieces.
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