Origins of the Universe and What It All Means by Carole Firstman

This reflective memoir examines an odd and estranged father through the lens of his scientific expertise.

origins of the universe

Carole Firstman’s ruminative memoir tracks a strained relationship with her eccentric but gifted father. The ambitious title, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is entirely appropriate: it is a direct and repeated quotation from her father, a research biologist obsessed with finding meaning in an enormous and confounding world.

Firstman suspects her father is on the autism spectrum, which might explain some of the social awkwardness, emotional detachment and unrepentant self-centeredness that characterizes Bruce and his parenting strategies–like moving his 19-year-old bride and their newborn daughter, Carole, into a tent in the backyard, because the baby’s crying disturbed his work. Despite such shocking details, Firstman gives a nuanced portrayal of an intelligent, lonely man capable of rare displays of concern. Weaving evolutionary theory, hard science and metaphysical origin stories with personal memoir, Firstman takes a contemplative tone. She is concerned with questions of linked causality (think the butterfly effect–except with scorpions, Bruce’s area of specialty) and what exactly she may have inherited from him. For example, she puts the same obsessive language in her own mouth that she does in Bruce’s, hinting that the Asperger-like symptoms she ascribes to him may tease at her, too. Firstman’s mother appears almost parenthetically, but at its heart this memoir is about what is inherited from and owed to one’s parents.

Origins contains unusual elements, including diagrams, mock lesson plans and footnotes, alongside Firstman’s self-questioning narrative. Despite its broad scope, this essentially human story handles “a conundrum of attachment and detachment” with sensitivity and rigor.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 ounces of formaldehyde.

Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm

This memoir of a difficult upbringing in the heartland deals also with broader questions of place and free will.

riverine

Vermont editor Angela Palm grew up in a struggling rural Indiana community on the banks of the Kankakee. The river had been straightened to yield farmland, but it frequently flooded back to its original shape, turning each house into an island. Palm’s greatest happiness lay in her love for the boy next door; she fell asleep each night watching him through their bedroom windows. She dreamt of escaping her troubled home life, even without a clear idea of what escape might mean. And then the boy next door was sentenced to life in prison for a horrible crime.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here is Palm’s exploration of her roots and her journey away from them. By a complicated and sometimes messy route, she escaped rural Indiana, but the separation remains incomplete. Even with a family and creative life of her own, far from her hometown, she is pulled back, perhaps most of all by that boy next door, Corey.

Three parts form Riverine: Water, Fields and Mountains. In a blend of storytelling chapters and braided essays, Palm takes the reader chronologically through those environments of her life. Without clear plans, she nevertheless strives for a future free of obligation to her past, while also looking back, trying to understand its causes and effects. As a criminal justice student, for example, she contemplates theories for explaining criminal actions: behavioral, psychological, economic and policing theories, the broken windows theory and the biological theory of deviance. These she experimentally applies to Corey’s crime. Along the way, she repeatedly asks herself “how I loved a person who could do this and why I didn’t see it coming… why I still feel the loss of you in my life.”

Palm’s memoir is not only the story of her life and the divergent parallel life Corey has led, but also an examination of how place forms a person. “The need to look at other landscapes for clues about what already lies within us is real.” Much of her figurative journey away from the gritty setting of her youth has taken place through literal travel and relocation. Tellingly, Riverine begins with a child studying a map. Palm recognizes in herself “a fascination with selvage, run-down places and meaningful interactions with strangers… scarred lands and depressed buildings.” She seeks out abandoned spaces, looking for insight in damage.

Her writing is easy to read, compelling and draws the reader in with its momentum. Riverine is about self-determination, the origin of deviance, and places, particularly the liminal ones. “Fringe investigation was the science of my neighborhood and of my art.” Palm’s story is yet unfinished, but her memoir has an admirable structure and art of its own.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 broken windows.

book beginnings on Friday: Origins of the Universe and What It All Means by Carole Firstman

origins of the universe

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I’ve just begun a new memoir, about the author’s relationship with her decidedly eccentric father, a gifted biologist with poor social skills. It’s a little playful with formats within the book, and ranges from the personal to the broad. It’s called… Origins of the Universe and What It All Means.

What a title, right? Wait til you see the opening page. I’ve zoomed in, but this is the entire content of page one and chapter one:

one

“In the beginning there was darkness.”

Don’t worry, though, it’s justified & appropriate for this book. Do I have your attention now? Stay tuned…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

In this memoir, a young man with a Yale law degree and a promising career remembers the hillbillies he grew up with and makes a plea for improving their conditions.

hillbilly elegy

J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School with a promising career and a happy marriage, and roots “in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” Vance’s people were among the many poor who migrated along the “hillbilly highway” from the hills of southeastern Kentucky into the Rust Belt but always considered Kentucky home.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells of a poverty-stricken community distrustful of outsiders and plagued by addiction, self-defeating attitudes and chaotic home lives. He credits his Mamaw and Papaw with giving him the tools to move beyond that community. Vance graduated from college and law school and achieved a healthy relationship by the slimmest of margins, but not without paying a price: social mobility implies movement “to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” In Vance’s case, moving toward financial security and calm meant alienating himself from those he still identifies with: “I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.”

Mamaw and Papaw are not saints. Vance’s gun-toting grandmother was given to off-color language and threats of violence. Such vivid characters and an eye for nuance are among the strengths of this sincere memoir, an elegy for both the hillbillies Vance has loved, and a large population of struggling, working-class poor. He offers ideas for improving his people’s lot: cultural change from within rather than policy. But the bulk of Hillbilly Elegy is just that: a loving remembrance of imperfect but dearly beloved individuals, who did their best with what they had.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 trips to the holler.

guest review: Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert, from Mom

My mother is here today to guest-review a book to which she brings special expertise. Mom has a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Houston; used to teach English as a foreign language to adults in community college settings; and now volunteers her time tutoring English language learners one-on-one. The disclosure here is that I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for my mother‘s honest review. (It’s fun how that fact plays off this book’s title.) Thanks, Mom!

mother tongue

Christine Gilbert is quite the adventurous spirit. She tells the story in Mother Tongue about her quest to learn three languages – Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish – in less than three years, while living in three countries. This adventure includes a baby who acquires a sibling along the way. She and her husband have few ties to the U.S., and are able to work remotely. Thus they are perfectly placed for the language quest.

The quest is primarily hers, but includes her son as he grows and learns the local language effortlessly, as children do. (Her back-story includes a genetic disposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and she learns of brain research that suggests that young bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals that gives about five extra years before onset of Alzheimer’s.) She sets out to understand language learning theories, while researching all the logistics of moving house and choosing the places.

Gilbert does her homework on language acquisition theory, and she makes her case for total immersion (no hanging out with English speakers!). She works long days in language study. In the beginning – Beijing during a very cold winter with pollution too severe for the family to go out much – she chooses to hire a tutor for working at home, as well as a housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. When a crisis takes the family away suddenly, she reviews her experience and decides complete isolation within the foreign country is not the only way to absorbing language and culture. Each move and new setting will bring more lessons, and Gilbert gets quite good at her tasks.

This is not a dry tome about memorizing vocabulary for long hours. We make friends along the journey, we learn to talk and savor local food. Gilbert is a fun character, and her husband’s story is equally interesting; the book is a travel story on lots of levels. As a parenting and family dynamics study, Mother Tongue is yet another book. I’ve been involved enough in the bigger story to follow her adventures as told on her blog, and can reveal that this is an unending quest – two more countries appear there, and since I haven’t looked lately, who knows where they may be now.

book beginnings on Friday: Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

wintergreen

I am reading this in preparation for the upcoming Chuckanut Writers Conference and a class I will be taking from Robert Michael Pyle himself. An introduction from David Guterson is intriguing, as is the Pharos Edition (same folks who brought Still Life With Insects back into print). It begins:

At any time of the year and in any weather, my bedroom window frames a green and pleasant country scene. Halfway open, it makes a Kodachrome slide of the bucolic valley below, bordered by white sashes and molding.

Lovely. And this setting is just a few hours south of where I live.

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