Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

45214712

They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

Advertisements

Jacob’s Ladder: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Polly Gannon

41940270._SY475_.jpg

I feel that if I don’t write this down it will all evaporate, disappear into oblivion. 

Man Booker International Prize nominee, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel Jacob’s Ladder tells us the story of Nora Ossetsky and her family, as far back as her grandfather (a third generation Swiss watchmaker) Pinchas Kerns, who moved to Kiev in 1873 to open a branch of watchworks and instead opened a watchmaking-and-repair shop. Despite his lack of interest in communism, and capitalism “he placed a high value on his craft, and viewed commerce almost with contempt” and “the watchmaker never read the Bible of communism” his children assimilated the ‘progressive ideas of humanity’. The family is one of close knit siblings, educated, happy until October of 1905 and a pogrom against Kiev’s Jews alters the course of their lives.

Fast forward to 1974: Nora is with her married lover, renowned theater director Tengiz where she is working as an artist in theater set design. Their days are filled with creative work, love and undying passion for each other. Seldom does Nora take an interest in her mother Amalia, whose own life seems to orbit around Andrei Ivanovich. The two seem nothing alike at times, and this exchange really moved me, as it seems Nora is irritated by her mother Amalia’s joy and it’s telling of Nora’s more cynical nature.

‘Amalia had positively bloomed from country life, and she laughed constantly”…

“What are you smiling about?” Nora asked.

“About everything,”Amalia answered, suddenly very serious, her smile gone. “Learn now, Nora, before it’s too late.”

Abruptly, the Chekhov play Nora and Tengiz are working on is shut down on the eve of its premiere, he flees back to the arms of his wife and child in Tbilisi, “the love cloud had vanished.” This is their sixth parting, and Nora can’t moon over losing him for long, after all going away ‘forever going away’ is what he is best at. He always finds his way back to her. For now, she has a new project and she turns to Vitya Chebotarev and here a fork, the story reaches back to their meeting and the link between them, one that fires up his mother Varvara’s hatred for Nora.

The characters are complex, Yurik ( Nora’s child) and his wonder often tickled my heart as I pondered ‘where do these beings we birth come from, similar to us in some ways carrying their ancestors in their DNA with similar features of those long departed and yet the things their strange little hearts think and say, their longings so different from our own?’ We try so hard to understand each other while sometimes not even fully aware of ourselves. Of Nora: “Nora was pitiless to everyone, not least to herself.” Of Vitya: Despite his unusual memory and his innate abilities in logical thought, he was emotionally rather backward , and had not an iota of a sense of humor. 

The family saga includes Nora’s grandfather Jacob Ossetsky’s diary entries, a man of musical passions, and desire for a beautiful girl named Maria (Marusya). The pair will join together, and spend their love in a life of letters, separated for so very long. Later those same letters collecting time in a willow chest, ignored, nearly forgotten. Simply another link in a tangled family chain that goes back and forth between the past and present. A heavy sorrowful tale of separation, isolation.

Nora becomes a single mother to her son Yurik, a strange child whom sometimes seems more her equal than her little boy. Of course Tengiz is always on the periphery of Nora’s life and Yurik’s. There was theater, now there is film! He always has something on the horizon. Vitya too is an important player, but half in and half out. He seems led about by Nora, resigned to whatever plans befall him, for a time anyway. Like an echo from past, Jacob’s love of music is birthed anew in Yurik’s very cells, a lifelong passion. Where will it take our strange little fellow?

With Vitya’s ‘trained mind’ and interest in the computer revolution, it is through his mathematical brain and the whims of fate (or his mother Varvara’s fervent hopes) that he is invited to a conference in the United States of America, where life finally blooms, maybe even love is in the stars? So too Nora and Tengiz find themselves in America when Western audiences become ‘ecstatic’ over their work, but only for a visit.  How changed Vitya is!  Back home, Nora worries about her son and how he needs something to occupy his heart and soul fully.  Time flows, death has come to her door as it must for us all, teaching her things she didn’t understand about her mother and father. Yurik finally makes it to America, is ingesting more than music, and changes his life, but is it for better or worse?

Boats to other shores, love letters, loneliness, diary entries, Russian theater, progressive single mothers, here we feel the ravages of time and place upon one family. It may not engage everyone, as we spend time with each generation the history is rich, the letters feel genuine with details some may find mundane, but what are days of life spent absented from all you desire if not mundane? The shackles of politics don’t often give us the freedom for fun and thrills. The characters are all wildly different from one another, as people are. The “storms of love” between Nora and Tengiz are imperfect and yet fitting somehow for this creative pair. The love story of her mother Amalia and Andrei is beautiful, yes even old folks can have sweet stories, even if it comes late. Where you live alters the course of your life, how can it not? But the promise of a new place, say America, isn’t always fruitful for everyone either. There are traps we can all fall into, even if the true obstacle is ourselves. We carry on, that is our only true job. The past has its tragedies through revolutions, upheavals, politics, and with the demands of the fatherland breathing down your neck how can any one person fulfill their future hopes? How can love and family ever be together, in their right and proper places, nice and safe and free? Must we look to the future, instead, our children and their children after them, even if we never meet them? Can our descendants carry on our desires? For one family, yes and no.

Old age comes for Nora “youth ended, never to return”, for those of us lucky enough to live full lives into our ‘dotage’ so to speak, that is a given. Will she finally find happiness in ways her ancestors could only hope for in the Russia they knew? You must read.

Publication Date: July 9, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel by Christy Lefteri

43124137.jpg

I am scared of my wife’s eyes. She can’t see out and no one can see in. 

Beekeeper Nuri’s wife Afra (a talented artist once full of joy, laughter like gold) is disappearing to a dark place deep inside after horrific tragedy in Allepo obliterates every speck of life they created. It’s better not too see, there is safety in blindness when you live in a world brutal, hateful, ugly. This is war, it cares nothing for the land nor it’s people.  Things are getting more dangerous, if they stay they will die, how can Nuri get the blind Afra to see this? How can Nuri convince her that emotions must be corralled, logic must be the only guide for now? How can Afra leave this land, it holds the blood, the remains of every breath of life she existed for? Leave they must, but they will take the wasteland with them, inside their hearts. For Afra isn’t the only one whose mind has been ravaged by grief, Nuri may have his vision but he sees life as a version he can stomach, as a way to keep his feet moving so he can have a dream to hitch them to.

With his cousin Mustafa waiting for him in the UK, he will do everything it takes to begin anew, but first they must live as refugees where their very lives are dependent on trusting others, proving themselves as worthy of getting to Great Britain. They will meet others just as damaged as them along the way, with broken dreams and tortured memories. “These things are in the past. They will evaporate soon, like the river..”, but the past has it’s hooks inside Afra, and Nuri too. He must be strong, for Afra’s fragile state makes her vulnerable and her heart cannot take much more.  Afra doesn’t want the past to evaporate, she doesn’t want to see the future, for it died that day in Syria.

Nuri feels he has lost Afra, and loss seems to be all he knows anymore. Their world in ruins, through the journey they will inch closer together and drift apart, can they keep their love alive, is there any hope of beginning anew, will anything give Afra the desire to heal? Maybe Afra isn’t the one who needs healing. Would that they could be like Nuri’s beloved bees, that “small paradise among chaos”. There isn’t a sanctuary from the ravages of war, it’s impossible to return to what was, the only hope is in finding something new to live for, and with memory and love keeping what was from being erased.

So many of us are protected by the happenstance of our birth, and will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We won’t have to alter our ways to fit into another country, and abandon our very culture, it’s traditions. Leave behind all the people who were a part of the landscape of our days and wonder if they are still alive. Hope for word from the very person you are running too, unsure if they are still waiting for you. We won’t be living our lives in between places, wishing for a place that is gone. If tragedy opens our doors, most of us won’t be forced to leave our homeland without family to comfort us, with time against us and the chance to grieve a luxury we can’t afford. We won’t have the barrier of language to scale. It is only through stories, films, and memoirs that we can even scratch the surface of such tragedy and yet still, I repeat, you will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We have our miseries, of course we do, but there are not enough words to express the abyss of war. We can feel compassion, but I’m not sure we have the capacity to fully comprehend it as those who live through it have no choice to.

We sometimes overlook people living in different parts of the world, it’s easy enough to do when it isn’t affecting us. We forget to see them as human beings, we do it sometimes in our own families as well, it’s human nature. This story gives life through Nuri and Afra, something to connect with, a bridge of sorts, something beyond the news that we can just gap at in horror and turn the channel, go on our merry way. There are lives beyond the headlines, people with emotions and children, partners, battles to wage. How easy it is to forget.

There is hope and love between these pages, between Nuri and Afra, despite the fear he has of his wife’s eyes. Fear of what their loss has done to her, the state it’s left her in, fear she may never come back to him and be the woman he loved with an easy, deep affection. Yet, there is no room for surrender if you want to live, it takes strength beyond measure to survive. Survive they will, but with sacrifice of immense proportions. There is beauty in moments, but it is a heavy read.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019

Random House

Ballantine Books

Turbulence: A Novel by David Szalay

41mGx85hHNL.jpg

She was very aware of her failure to be equal to the needs of this moment. 

In these connected stories each character is on a journey, be it on an airplane, within memories, or flying to their future. The title isn’t lost on readers, what is life but an irregular motion disturbed not by currents but by every experience, however great or small,  one encounters? Human beings, despite their location on the planet, confront joy, sorrow, fear, hope, love, loss and death. Every story is not the same, that’s the gift of being human. We glimpse moments here, but we don’t stay long. In one story an accident resulting in the death of a young man causes Werner , on his way to the airport, to be late for work, setting off memories of his tragic past and the death of a sister. This story was as heartbreaking as Marion’s, desperate to catch a flight to Seattle where her daughter has just gone into labor. In a moment when her daughter needs her most, all Marion feels is ‘her own insufficiency as a human being’. Despite being a famous author whose writing is meaningful enough to be taught in classes as far away as Hong Kong, she doesn’t have the right words to ease her daughter’s devastating reality. It’s easy to relate to those pauses in time, when what is asked of us is impossible to translate. We sometimes fail, because we don’t know what is required, or how to give it.

There are love affairs, and the struggle of ‘do I stay or do I go?’ The kernel of truth that maybe it doesn’t make a difference, that either choice is neither solution nor problem. In DEL-COK sisterhood is interrupted by domestic violence, despite a husband who is distant, working in Qatar. The frustration that is born out of caring, the cracks that could be fixed if only others would make the effort, the right choices depresses Anita. The many ways we are tied to each other, for better or worse. We all take flight for different reasons, not all lead to happy reunions. When Shamgar lands in Doha, we learn what it means to have a ‘sponsor’, which for all intents and purposes is really an owner. Yet even here, working a garden that will never be his, something else claims his longings. The story of Ursula, and her daughter Miri’s choice of  partner with Mousa (a Muslim man) explores love with an asylum-seeker, the mistrust and suspicion that arises, warranted or not. This collection is about people around the globe, our commonalities, our differences. In the end, aren’t we all sharing the human experience? Haunted by the same things, filled with new beginnings and endings, longings, grief… just trying to make sense of the world and our own confused hearts?

Death hovers in BUD-LGW, when a young woman comes home to visit her sick father in London, accompanying him for his scans at St. Mary’s hospital. She has news of her own to share, and her father can only hope he lives long enough to see it happen. It’s a fast read but meaningful despite the slim pages. This is my first read by David Szalay, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of All That Man Is. It’s evident that Szalay is able to get to the heart of his characters, regardless of what continent they inhabit, and write of experiences we can all easily relate to. The stories don’t have an ending, they are as open to the characters as your own life remains until your last breath.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Scribner

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Ann Goldstein (Translator)

a

I had nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath.

After thirteen years, a young girl who has lived with the love and privileges of an adored single child learns that she is being returned to another mother. No more will she live by  the ocean, with beautiful clothes and clean bedding, now her sleep will be warmed by the body of a sister and bed-wetting. Her life is like a dark fairy-tale, a princess forced to live in poverty, as if punished for some unknown deed. What has she done to be punished so? What sense in living in such filth and destitution, with parents who don’t even really seem to want her back? No longer will she spend happy days in the sun with her best friend Patrizia, nor can her friend’s family save her from this senseless exile.

Her little sister Adriana may be uncultured and ignorant but she is fierce and has a hunger for the the world, more she longs for a closeness with her big sister, the  Arminuta (girl returned). Vincenzo, the eldest brother is a mystery, who causes an eruption of confusing emotions within her when he isn’t off with the gypsies or getting beaten by his father. Each day, she longs for her ‘other mother’, she must have had a reason for giving her back, she was ill, could she be now on her deathbed and in desperate need of her care? All she knows is, her ‘real mother’ doesn’t seem to care about her at all, this useless city daughter who can’t even pluck a chicken nor perform domestic tasks. Her real family lives in a foreign world, boisterous, crude, sometimes violent and leaving her deeply lonely despite the presence of many siblings. This feels like a house of shame, parents who have more children than they can afford.

She wants to return to that other life, for now the only way is to relive the memories, telling Adriana about the delicious fresh fish from the market, fish her sibling has never had… no, for them it’s only tuna from a can. Her sister longs for nothing more than to be shown a glimpse of that life, the freedom. Then there is the baby, the youngest of the brood, a child that aches with sickness caused by desperate hunger. A different child, there is so much she doesn’t understand nor perceive about this family, swallowed as she is by her own grief and rejection. Then there is the school, here she is as much an outsider as at home, far more educated than her peers. This is yet another opportunity for her devoted sister to look out for her, whether she likes it or not. Her sister will take hits for her at home too, has protective leanings for her ‘special’ sister, who mustn’t ever be beaten. She can’t do anything right by her mother, doesn’t have the practical sense vital to their existence. Her mother is gruff, meaner than her ‘seaside mamma’ but it’s been a hard life, one that misery has seen fit to hover over. Tragedy isn’t finished with her family. There are also many things she doesn’t know about her biological mother and the story of why she was initially given up.

She must learn to get used to this new life, one that she knows she doesn’t belong in, despite her dream of returning to her true mother. “It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past.” What is mother? Will she ever know again, it’s meaning? Strange to come to love the siblings she learned of so late in her life, regardless of their differences.

It is a story of family and of identity, but one could say class too. Adriana is the heart of it and the beauty of the tale is more in sisterhood, at least that was my takeaway. This is the English debut of the Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio, it is beautifully written and engaging. We feel as equally lost and determined as all the characters. Our narrator’s mother does seem to resent her Arminuta, as if it’s easier to feel disgusted by her ‘city, upper class ways’ than own the reasons why her child doesn’t fit into their hardscrabble surroundings. It is a sad novel, and I look forward to more by the author.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Europa Editions

 

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

 

38581969.jpg

She carried everything lightly, as only the dead and innocent can. 

In The Art of Taxidermy, we meet young Lottie whose passion for ‘revising’ dead creatures has her Aunt Hilda horrified, more so that her father Wolfgang encourages her by buying her glass aquariums to ‘contain the fusty fug of death’ within. To his mind, she isn’t the freak Aunt Hilda believes her to be, she just has a scientific bend of mind, it’s ‘in her genes’. No sir! Girls she play with dolls, not skeletal remains of reptiles and birds, sheep… not be enthralled by the stink of death!

It is the states of decay Lottie is captivated by, the possibility of resurrection, of keeping a creature in it’s natural state forever unlike her mother Adrianna, whose death has hung around like a shadow. Through her grief, a passion for taxidermy is being born but Hilda thinks it’s a sickness, a disturbance in the child’s nature. Written in a beautiful lyrical style, nature dominates the pages more than death as Lottie weaves her way to the creak, observes nature searching for specimens. “But the day was teeming with life”, we explore the Australian land overhead as birds take flight or upon the ground muck through the mud and fungi. Then there is Jeffrey, made of skin rich like the earth and quiet grace, companion to Lottie’s peculiar hobby. A boy with Aboriginal origins, a boy who has blossomed in her dark heart.

What is a girl to do with the face of death but try and preserve it? She herself a flightless bird with Aunt Hilda trying to make her a ‘normal’ girl, doing everything she can to end her taxidermy dreams. Snippets of ‘mother memories’ creeping into her heart like soft dreams, Oma’s omens and superstitions, an inheritance of despair and always, ‘the air is heavy with ghosts.’ As Lottie finds her purpose, she must too confront her grief over the loss of her mother and learn her German family history, the reasons her family were treated like criminals. Will she be able to convince Aunt Hilda that she isn’t an unnatural girl, that she isn’t a bloodthirsty murderer of creatures with a macabre hobby? Do we embrace our yearnings or let shame force us to discard the very things that make our heart beat with meaning? Intentions are funny creatures themselves, as we see with Aunt Hilda pushing her ‘ideal’ of womanhood upon Lottie. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that.

A beautiful tale out of Australia, uniquely written. The subject is heavy and yet the lyrical prose is uplifting, I felt I could hear bird-call and smell the ‘fug’ of decay. For those who love narrative poetry, this is a YA novel but I think adults will enjoy it too.

Publication Date: August 23, 2019

Text Publishing Company

The Red Daughter: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

41187867.jpg

She survived her life, which maybe under the circumstances is maybe sort of heroic.

John Burnham Schwartz takes liberty with his fictions, imagining the life of Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, as she defects from the communist state to America in 1967, leaving behind her son and daughter, carrying with her the stain of her father’s infamy. Always thereafter to be ‘a foreigner in every sense of the word’ having left her homeland, a terrible mother to the two children she abandoned, that even Americanizing herself through marriage, now Lana Peters can never remove the blood that runs through her veins. Though there is an electric current that runs between Svetlana and her young lawyer Peter, loosely based on the author’s own father, the meat of the novel is in the tragedy of being Stalin’s daughter, it is a poisonous legacy. The cruel truth behind her mother’s erasure, the rest of her people ‘exiled or in prison by her father’s decree’, aunts and uncles arrested and executed, even her own brother Yakov captured by the Nazis wasn’t worth a prisoner trade. Her father controlled her life, who she was permitted to fall in love with, the state too ever a watchful eye reporting back to Stalin, there wasn’t an emotion felt, a movement made that wasn’t under scrutiny. A caged child, fed a diet of lies, not even knowing the truth behind her mother’s death. Daring to fall in love with a Jewish filmmaker, which her father forbid it seems no shock he was sent to labor camps. There was an arranged marriage, producing her daughter Katya. There was a deep love for an ill Indian man, whom she met while in hospital for her own treatment, of course she wasn’t allowed to marry him. Within the novel as in life, she journeys to India to scatter his ashes upon his passing. With her father’s death, the only release was to make a new home, to become someone else and remaining in her homeland was an impossibility.

“Svetlana’s entry into our marital orbit was something neither Martha nor I ever recovered from. Our own personal Cold War, you might say…”  of course the story fictionalized a romance between Peter and Svetlana, their intimacy a window into her unsettling life in America. It would be a spot of happiness were it true too. Here, she will never escape being her father’s daughter, not even by marrying Sid and giving birth to an American son. We follow her tortured path, living with rumors about her Russian children, Katya and Josef who have forsaken their mother (were barred really from speaking to her, as she was a traitor to the Motherland) and wonder will they ever reunite but knowing that if the ‘future has defected’, then the past keeps its grave hands upon her feet. We suffer with Peter, who can’t help but wonder at the woman behind the eyes and fall in love with her. A love cultivated in letters and visits. In 1984, Svetlana appears as a star of the international press conference at the Moscow offices of the Soviet Woman’s National Committee. With her son Yasha, she shockingly renounces her American citizenship. She was ready to unite her family at last, return to her now grown children, who needed her. It wasn’t to last, tumultuous winds were always blowing through her life and again she leaves her homeland.

It would do one good to research the real story behind Svetlana, but this was a fascinating novel regardless of how true to facts the author leaned. She did seek political asylum and she was invited by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow to visit the studio in Scotsdale, she did marry an architect and have a child with him, but it was a daughter named Olga not a son. Looking her up, she seems like a very fascinating woman too. John Burnham Schwartz tells us in his author’s note that he used his father’s ‘expansive Svetlana file’ with original material as his father ( lawyer Alan U. Schwartz) did travel under CIA cover to escort Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of Josef Stalin into the United States. She was a part of his family, that much is fact, but it is a fictional novel and his father did not have a love affair with her. Living in the shadow of such a father as Stalin (undeniable monstrous) , one can only wonder at what went on inside of her, stuck between cultures, unable to shed the horrors of her father, removed from her children… it’s a hell of a life.

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Random House