Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

BOOK: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014)

July 15, 2014

cantwetalkRoz Chast is one of my favorite cartoonists of all time — her work is frequently featured in The New Yorker, among other places, which is also where I read the excerpt from this book that made me run right out to grab a copy.

This powerful, loving, hilarious, and tender memoir is about the end of her parents’ lives, and the challenges brought forth both by grief and practicality. Spanning their last several years together, from the day she first began to realize they were in a sudden decline, to their final months in an assisted living residence, the memoir features not only Chast’s graphics, but also photographs, copies of her mother’s handwritten (and delightfully rhyming) poems, and little pieces of history and memory.

The decline hastened after a fall — ain’t that always the way — and both her parents never really recovered from the resultant trauma (mom got hurt, dad got scared). Nothing in this book is something you haven’t encountered, either in your own life as a caregiver for an elderly loved one, or through the stories of loved ones who have done that themselves.  But it’s the way it’s told here that is so enriching, enlightening, engaging.  Chast is a beautiful writer, something it’s easy to forget when you simply look at her art, which leans toward the scribbly side (though I love it, don’t get me wrong). Her insights are bottomless and her love for her parents, especially her difficult and somewhat cold mother, comes sharply ringing through both the text and the drawings.

This is a powerful and richly emotional book, and it made me laugh out loud to boot.  Definitely going to be in this year’s top ten list for me, and I bet if you read it, you’ll feel the same.  Highly, highly recommended!

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BOOK: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth (2002)

November 27, 2012

For those of you who missed it, there was just a delightful new BBC series running on PBS here in the US titled Call the Midwife, about a group of midwives (some nuns, some not) working out of a convent in London’s East End in the 1950s.  I enjoyed (most of) the series very much, so, naturally, when it ended, I decided to check out this book, the first in a set of three (I think?) memoirs written by the “main character,” Jenny Worth.

A lot of the first half of the book will be familiar to anyone who watched the series — some of the same midwifery cases are presented (for example, the husband and wife with 25 children who don’t speak each other’s language) and many of the characters are recognizable too (oh, Chummy, I love you so!).  The book also features more historical background on the evolution of the practice of midwifery and the striking poverty of the East End.

The problem is that what I enjoyed the most about the TV series was essentially every character except for Jenny, who I mostly just found cloying and annoying (hey, that rhymes!).  Chummy, a class-A awkward underdog, was obviously my favorite, and several of the nuns were also wonderful, engaging characters.  Unfortunately, these people all played much larger roles in the BBC series than they do in the book.

The episode I found the most yawn-inducing of the TV series, by comparison, was the one that focused almost completely on Ms. Worth and her complicated love life, and naturally, since this book is HER memoir, there’s an awful lot of that kind of stuff in it.  Go figure.  I didn’t find her all that interesting as a narrator, either in the series or in the book, and in terms of the traditional “fish out of water” observer, she comes off as more patronizing and judgmental than curious and compassionate.  Though her horror over the conditions in which she finds herself working (the slums of London, essentially) was honest, she never seems to shake that horror off long enough to see through the grime and disease.  She’s judgmental of the women and judgmental of the way they live their lives (why can’t they just CLEAN UP, she wonders an awful lot), and despite her increasing experience over the pages of her story, she never seems to grow very much.  Additionally, she’s not much of a deep thinker.  She doesn’t ponder the women or their lives to try to make sense of them — she merely describes them, and mostly with distaste.

Plus, as you’ll realize by about the third page, though Ms. Worth is definitely a midwife who wrote a book, she is NOT a writer who worked as a midwife.  If you catch my drift.  (If you don’t, what I mean is, BOY, is this book badly written!)

That said, I did enjoy reading this, believe it or not, mostly for the brief snippets of the lives of everyone else Jenny encountered.  I think other fans of the series will have a good time with it as well, as long as you give yourselves license to skip tedious chapters at will. (Anything that appears to be focused on Jenny, her family, or her old boyfriend, you should flip past as quickly as possible.)   The stories about the women of the East End — their courage, their grit, their spirit, their tenacity — those are the real treasures in this book. And they alone are worth swimming through the muck of mixed-up verb tenses to get to know.

It’s too bad Chummy (luf!) didn’t write this memoir, I thought to myself as I turned the last page.  I have a feeling it would’ve been a vastly different book, and greatly improved.  I’m looking forward to season two of the series, but am unlikely to pick up the other memoirs in Worth’s series.  Disappointing!

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BOOK: Dry by Augusten Burroughs

August 12, 2009

When author Augusten Burroughs was in his early 20’s, he landed an incredible job as a New York City ad executive, despite his lack of formal education in that field. A few years later, he almost lost that job when his binge drinking spiraled into full-on alcoholism. After months of coming to work drunk, his boss and colleagues staged an intervention and Burroughs was sent off for thirty days in rehab.

Burroughs selected the Proud Institute in Minnesota for his stint in the dryer, thinking that at the very least, a center geared towards GLBT populations would have the best shot of being hip and featuring “good music and sex.” He entered the Institute still completely convinced he didn’t actually need treatment, a feeling that quadrupled immediately when, in the first almost unbearably-cheesy group session, he was tossed two giant stuffed animals, Monkey Wonky and Blue Blue Kitten, and told he should snuggle up with them for the night. I’m sorry, what?

Despite the (hilariously) rocky beginnings, however, it wasn’t long before Burroughs began to recognize he had a serious problem. Thirty days later, he returned home a changed and sober man. But the post-rehab world is a hard one for anyone in recovery, and even though his rehab buddy Hayden moved in with him so they could help keep each other on track, a doomed relationship with a fellow addict and the increasing HIV-related health problems of his best friend/former lover Pighead threatened to send Burroughs tumbling back off the wagon.

Written with humor, sarcasm, and the occasional bit of semantic grace, this is another strong addition to the rehab-memoir genre. It’s not quite as good as I was expecting, given the fact I know Burroughs can tell a mean personal story (Running with Scissors, e.g.). But for what it is, it works, teaches, entertains, and moves. Definitely recommended to fans of the genre, and I’ll be keeping it in mind for my library patrons as well.

[NON-FICTION, MEMOIR]

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MOVIE (and BOOK): The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

June 12, 2008

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France when he suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and permanently paralyzed. It’s a rare condition, and one quite aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” His brain was completely fine and he could hear and see (out of one eye, at least). But he couldn’t move any of his limbs, nor could he move most of the muscles of his face or mouth (so, no speech). The one thing he could move with ease? His single functional  eye. And, believe it or not, Bauby was soon able not only to communicate with family, friends, and medical staff using that one eye, but also to write a memoir about his experiences.

I had both the book and the 2007 film based on it out from various sources (library, Netflix) at the same time, and spent about a week trying to decide which one to start with. I ended up going with the book, but, in retrospect, I think that was the wrong choice. It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the book, to be honest, because it feels insufferably unsympathetic to make even the slightest negative comment about a book written by a guy who dictated each word one letter at a time using the blinking of his eye. Yet, I confess that while I found the book quite beautifully written in parts, overall I just never felt like I was getting much of a sense of Bauby himself. Or of what he was really going through. The book itself felt somewhat “locked in” emotionally to me and I had a hard time connecting to his words, even while I recognized the very triumph of their very existence.

After seeing the movie, however, Bauby really came to life for me, and I actually began to feel some tiny, slight sense of the true horror he was experiencing (as much as anyone could feel, not having been through it themselves). The film is quite brilliantly made — it’s filmed from Bauby’s perspective, and that, more than his words themselves, was what I think finally gave me the slightest notion of what he was going through. For example, after reading the book, I knew that one of Bauby’s eyes was sewn shut soon after he awoke from his coma, because the muscles controlling the lid had failed and it was no longer able to lubricate itself. That’s why he was left with only the one eye to use for sight and communication. But while that sounded horrible in print, in the film, we actually SEE the eye getting sewn shut from the inside, and hear Bauby’s terrified thoughts while it’s happening. And oh man, I didn’t last twenty minutes into the movie before I started crying, and I pretty much didn’t stop after that until the credits rolled.

We also get more of a sense of what those around him are dealing with — his wife, his father (who is somewhat “locked in” himself, in that he can no longer navigate the stairs that would take him in and out of his apartment), his children, even the therapists around him who are struggling to figure out how to communicate with him or how to improve his quality of life.  Hearing Bauby’s thoughts articulated in his mind, as well as the emotions on the faces of those around him, finally seemed to bring the whole story to life for me.

A lot of the “dialogue” in the film is taken directly from the book — Movie-Bauby’s thoughts in many places are recitations of sections from the memoir. But it wasn’t until I really heard his assistant run through the alphabet over and over and over (he would blink once when she’d hit on the correct letter, and then she’d start over again) that I truly got a concept of how amazing it is that this book exists. I can’t imagine having the patience — either as Bauby or as his assistant — to get 130 pages of a book written one letter at a time in such a painstakingly slow process. And for him to, in the process, craft sentences as poignant and beautiful as some of the ones in his memoir is just doubly astonishing.

I highly recommend both the book AND the film, but would also recommend that you start with the movie and then read the book immediately afterwards. Reading the book first just didn’t work very well for me. I found it too hard to connect through the short vignettes and snapshots it contains. But after the film brought the entire story into a more cohesive and personal whole, I read the book a second time (it only takes 1-2 hours to get through the whole thing) and was absolutely blown away by it.

Definitely a book/movie combo not to be missed.  I hate to throw out the word “inspirational,” because that seems so trite, but it sure did make me think twice about complaining about my own problems for a while, know what I mean.  Highly recommended!

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Genre: Memoir
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Jozee Croze, Max Von Sydow