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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.

Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I recall studying a poem in high school by Eavan Boland titled “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me.” As I approached this semester’s critical essay, one of the talented faculty in my program, Diane Gilliam, recommended this work of prose, for my topic on objects. Diane’s words, to the best of my memory, were, “Every woman artist needs to read this book.” I’m so glad I did; especially when I got to page 231, where “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” makes an appearance, as the only poem of her own that Boland chooses to feature. Synchronicity.

Object Lessons is an examination of the conflict Boland has experienced between her self as poet and her self as woman, with the overlay of Irishness on it all. She leaves Ireland at age five, to a London that largely rejects her kind, to return to her home country in her teens and to study poetry at Trinity in Dublin, a charged literary atmosphere. It takes some time for this young person, still discovering herself as a woman, a sexual creature, and a person of a nation, not to mention as a poet, to see the holes in the legacy she has inherited: there is no place for her in this history. “It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world–a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine–were absent from the tradition [of the poet’s life], although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” Names are important. “Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them.” Further, about the poet-versus-woman tension: “For anyone who is drawn into either of these lives, the pressure is there to betray the other: to disown or simplify, to resolve an inherent tension by making a false design from the ethical capabilities of one life or the visionary possibilities of the other.”

Over the course of this book, she lays out the problems she found and her own best efforts at solving them, a job she acknowledges is unfinished. But she hopes that a book like this helps future women poets, by giving them a starting point, something else to point to. Heartbreakingly, by contrast, she relates that the first woman poet she knew of as a young woman was Sylvia Plath, and that name she knew first as a suicide, not a poet at all.

I was also very interested in the way this memoir started: with the missing, imagined, scantily sketched biography of her grandmother. The narrator explores the history, the meager records of the woman; she imagines; and she travels to view a grave and a hospital. It’s a lovely study, the story of someone absent, and a consideration of what we get from an ancestor we can’t really know.

Boland has plenty of good thoughts about place, sense of place, and nation as aspect of our selves and our writing selves. She makes much of the Irish poetic tradition to conflate the feminine and the national. Her musings can get pretty cerebral and abstract, so this memoir took some slow, thoughtful reading; but I think it’s worth the time. Also, I am very interested in Boland’s assertion that she structured the book like a poem: “in turnings and returnings.” I have more thinking to do.


Rating: 7 high heels tipped with steel.

No Heroes by Chris Offutt

No matter how you leave the hills–the army, prison, marriage, a job–when you move back after twenty years, the whole county is carefully watching. They want to see the changes that the outside world put on you. They are curious to know if you’re lost your laughter. They are worried that perhaps you’ve gotten above your raisings.

This is beginning of No Heroes. Only the prologue retains this second-person perspective, which I think would have gotten difficult for the length of the book, but it’s a perfect intro: it brings immediacy, in that you are the one facing these challenges; and it offers a dreamy, literary take on Chris Offutt’s rough-edged subject and setting. This prologue takes the form of an instruction manual (“to do this, do this”): how to return home, if home is this specific place. It concludes:

You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home. This dirt is yours.

It’s a perfect beginning.

This book is a close cousin to Jeremy Jones’s Bearwallow, which comes as no surprise because Jeremy recommended it to me.

It’s a fine book. In blurbs on the back, Offutt’s style is compared to that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver: strong words, but I can see the comparison. Offutt tends toward short, declarative sentences, except when he doesn’t (like Hemingway, a man perfectly comfortable with long, convoluted sentences and full-blooming metaphor when he feels like it, despite a reputation to the contrary). That is, the prose is mostly simply put together, undemonstrative, but he also knows how to turn a surprising or beautiful phrase at the moment we least expect it; the rarity of such lines adds to their impact.

Offutt’s story, like Jones’s, is of going away and coming back. Both men are from Appalachia. Offutt is from the hills of northeast Kentucky, where he went to elementary school, high school and college within ten miles, and only realized later how unusual this was. As a troubled twenty-year-old, he’d left the hills. He returns as a forty-year-old, having collected an education, written books, married and had two boys, lived and experienced lots of places. He’s back to teach at his alma mater, a humble school where he had worked maintenance while a student, a paradoxical foot-in-two-worlds experience that his cohorts on both ends–work and school–had struggled to accept. “It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college,” Offutt writes, but that criticism sounds less nuanced in isolation than it does on the page, in the midst of his obviously tortured love for this place.

In the course of No Heroes, he navigates his return to this place, whose dirt and leaves and birds he passionately loves. His parents still live here, but his love for them is less easy. His wife, Rita, and their two sons have some trouble adjusting to a place that is not theirs. Offutt came home hoping to be a hero to students like the one he was: talented but without role models, ready to slip into crime more easily than into art. The title foreshadows the end of that plot line, of course.

But there is another plot line! And it’s a doozy, complicating the story of the homesick Appalachian who has made good and therefore alienated himself. Offutt’s in-laws are finally ready to let him tell their stories. Both are Polish Jews and survivors of a string of Hitler’s concentration camps. You think you’re homesick? The narratives of Arthur and Irene humble us all. The flashback parts are different from the whole of the book: Arthur and Irene’s chapters are told in their own voices (Offutt recorded their interviews), and his own chapters told in his own voice; occasional scenes give dialog representing the interviews themselves. While a bit jarring at times (watch those chapter titles and they will guide you; I have trouble focusing on titles, for no good reason), even this effect–the jarring in and out of a painful past–suits the subject matter. It is Arthur’s admonishment about telling the complicated story, that even victims have flaws, that titles the book: “Remember, Sonny, no heroes.”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very rooted in a beloved place, and contains two stories equally well-told. For parents, for Appalachians, for anyone facing the tension of succeeding out of the bounds of their upbringing, for the homesick, this is an engaging memoir.


Rating: 8 “crimson maple leaves with green veins that pulsed in mourning for the branch they’d left.”

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Just a week ago I gave you this book’s beginning and told you I was excited about it. It turned out to be everything I’d hoped.

Fierce Attachments is about Vivian Gornick’s mother and their relationship. It is told in two threads: the narrator’s memory of the events of her childhood in a tenement in the Bronx, and the narrative present, in which she and her mother walk together in Manhattan (where the latter lives) and throughout the city. The second thread features a daughter in her fifties and a mother in her seventies, finally eighty years old. The two threads eventually meet, as the remembered events follow a young Vivian growing up: from child to teenager, to college student, through marriage and divorce, into middle age and the walks in Manhattan. It is a very natural-feeling structure and one that makes great sense. It allows the reader to follow the heart of this book: neither the events of past or present, nor the story of one woman or the other, but rather, the story of their evolving relationship over decades, all its pain and small healings. It is also therefore about memory. The walks, which are also talks, allow Vivian and her mother to remember together, to create these stories.

In last week’s book beginning, I observed that the opening scene–a single paragraph–was given in present tense. All the narrative present events (walking in the city) are also given in present tense; but an event from the past doesn’t take the present tense again until page 91, nearly halfway through this book (at 204 pages an oddly quick read, for one so deep). It does not happen again until the past stories catch up with, merge with the present, when the mother turns eighty in the final pages and the two women find a small space in which to ease their combativeness. I had to flip back through the book to make these observations; I didn’t take notes as I went through, and in fact would have told you that more of the book took the present tense than I’ve found when I checked. I guess that makes the point that the past, rendered with lots of feeling and details, can feel pretty immediate.

There is much to admire here. I loved getting a feeling for Gornick’s inner life, as one lover calls it, her development as a writer, and the sad, conflicting story of going to City College and moving away–figuratively–from her mother, when she starts using complicated sentences and words the older woman does not understand. I appreciated the string of men she allies with, and her efforts to understand them, their places in her life and what they’ve had in common. Whatever her mother may think, Gornick uses beautiful sentences. And there is no arguing with the richness of her material: that tenement upbringing, the colorful women and sensory texture and exciting events. But for me what is most crystalline here is the relationship that is her main focus. The rendering of its difficulties.

And I see I’m writing this review prematurely, that I have not yet grasped what makes that rendering so clear. I think it has something to do with dialogue, and more to do with voice: that Vivian and her mother both get such clear voices, and not only them but many other, lesser characters as well. And perspective, the blending of what Sue William Silverman and Suzanne Paola call the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience”: the young Vivian, living in the past as it happened, and the writer Vivian walking with her mother and writing this book, and the way the two brush up against one another and eventually merge. The clear search for meaning, the honest, present wondering on the page: the classic assay.

I have a lot more to learn here; I’ll be back to Fierce Attachments soon, I expect. For now, please discover it for yourself, if you have any interest at all in the love and anguish of parent-child relationships, or admire creative nonfiction.


Rating: 8 corners.
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