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Mean by Myriam Gurba

This memoir is remarkable for its unflinching candor, for its humor in the face of tragedy and absurdity, and for its adventurous style.

Myriam Gurba’s Mean is a memoir of growing up queer, mixed-race, Chicana and female in Santa Maria, Calif., in the 1980s and ’90s. It is also a crime report, and a fantasy featuring ghosts, saints and martyrs. Race, class, sex, sexuality and sexual assault intersect in Gurba’s own life and in the news, especially when the man who attacked her goes on to kill a woman in her community. Surprisingly, though, this is also a book capable of making readers laugh out loud.

The first chapter, “Wisdom,” introduces a murder. Then Gurba flashes back to a childhood that confuses English with Spanish, because “I assumed we all had the same words.” She takes readers from that childhood, with her growing grasp of the messy concepts of white and Mexican (her parents are one of each), as she matures into a young woman dealing with questions of body and sexuality common to Western teens plus some exclusive to this particular slice of culture. The reader follows Gurba to college in Berkeley and beyond, as she continues to navigate family and other relationships.

Gurba approaches her grave subjects with acerbic humor and compassion, in a style all her own. She plays with form: “I hate found poems,” she writes, before presenting her own carefully shaped, visual found poem. Court transcripts and college course records offer various frames for considering a history that is both personal and broad, cultural and political. Formal play is not the point, however; Gurba makes the form follow her unusual story. Unsurprisingly, because she is an artist and a writer, she is concerned with words, appearances and how we make meaning. She is interested in race and class as they show up in food and pop culture; where modern sexual exploration meets Anne Frank; immigration and the visual arts, and more.

The title is important. “Being mean isn’t for everybody. It’s best practiced by those who understand it as an art form. These virtuosos live closer to the divine. They’re queers.” Meanness is a weapon, a defense mechanism and a reaction; it is also part of Gurba’s art. And yet her story and her storytelling voice are also loving and generous. The complexity of this voice contributes to the appeal of her memoir, which is compelling, suspenseful, both knowable as the girl next door and mysterious. Mean is a multifaceted book for many kinds of readers.


This review originally ran in the October 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 Jell-O parfaits.

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.


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.

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.

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth

This disillusioned environmentalist’s thoughtful, poetic call to a different approach to action and way of thinking is both sobering and refreshing.


Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake; Beast), co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project writers’ network, has published impassioned essays, poetry and literature with an environmentalist perspective for decades. That perspective is changing, however, as environmental degradation continues and the green movement tends toward high-tech strategies and “sustainability” that Kingsnorth finds uninspired. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays is his answer to a changing world. These collected works are nearly all previously published, but together they offer a new outlook. Kingsnorth is grieving, angry and disillusioned, and his essays are by turns reflective and resolute.

“The story winding itself through this book is the breaking of the link between people and places, between the past and the present, between instinct and reason, and all the consequences that have ensued and will ensue.” As a writer, Kingsnorth is concerned with the ability of stories to change how we live, and with the ability to change our stories. “We imagine what it would be like to be this character, to live in this time, to be in this situation, and if we can’t do that well, our books won’t work. If we can do that well, why can’t we make the same imaginative leap and take ourselves out of our humanity?” One theme is a need for humans to see themselves as a single part of a larger system, rather than the controlling or most important factor. “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it,” but, Kingsnorth argues, we should.

His writing can be fanciful and joyous as well as tormented. Kingsnorth writes with undeniable love: for the planet, for locations and histories, and for people. Confessions is centered in his native England but voices global concerns. Essays handle the role of technology in culture; the importance of people’s ties to place; the difficulty of embracing immigration and immigrants without losing local cultures; and the reasons for the decline of the environmental movement. While Kingsnorth writes with persuasive logic and authority on a variety of topics, he is perhaps most lyrically impressive when rooted in the local, physical world, for example when scything his hayfields in rural Ireland, or searching for carved green men in ancient Norman churches. Given his passion for place, this is unsurprising.

Neatly organized into three sections–Collapse, Withdrawal and Connection–and with an informing introduction and call-to-action epilogue, this collection serves well as an introduction to Kingsnorth’s philosophy and writing style. It also allows his more seasoned readers to chart his changing views. The overall effect is necessarily grim, but often remarkably uplifting as well. In a world on the brink of collapse, Kingsnorth offers humor, compassion, humility and wisdom.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bison.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

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