The Best of Us: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard

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“Our life together: What we had imagined. What we got.”

Truer words were never written. It never plays out as we imagine, does it? Joyce Maynard shares with us her own love story, a sort of second life that she didn’t expect nor necessarily think she wanted. In her late fifties Joyce found love in Jim, at an age when people treat women like their ‘off the shelf, finished, done, a husk’ her true love entered. There is a memory she shares from her first marriage, when she was surprised by the many people that showed up to hear her speak  and called home that night only to have her husband tell her “Just don’t come back with a swelled head”, the reader can’t help but feel the crush of it. To be witness to Jim’s arrival in Joyce’s life, submerged in the memories of Jim and the love they shared before his illness reached in like a thief, is a painful journey the author has bravely shared and a gift for any reader. The fight to ‘beat this thing’, to be the special one that can eat the right things, find the perfect treatment… well how can one not hope?

This is one of the most vulnerable memoirs I’ve read. The willingness to share the ‘earthquakes’ in her life, to expose all her wounds for our judgement- I’ve always felt there is a certain bravery in memoir. Maynard shares too the painful decisions she made with her adoptive daughters, and it had me thinking about the knee jerk reactions so many of us (myself included) have about others, famous or not, and their life choices. We have a habit of not thinking about the everyday struggles other’s face, that sometimes what may seem like a ‘Cruella De Vil ‘ move may have been the hardest step someone took and a selfless one at that.

I wonder, as I arrive each year with more disasters behind me, because we are nothing if not imperfect creatures, how we know love so much better in the second half of our lives. Here we are with our war wounds, grounded, maybe a bit defeated by our earlier idealism not just about love but family too that maybe the second half of our lives is the meat. Yes, it’s a given Jim dies at the end, but that isn’t the story. The story is their love, the fragility of time, the pain of hope and the crushing weight of loss. It’s not over for Joyce, and Jim is still with her, he was her guard dog- that sort of love remains forever.

I read that Joyce Maynard, selling her lover JD Salinger’s (yes that Salinger) letters was quoted as saying ‘I’d rather put my children through college than own a box of Salinger’s letters.”  Is that terrible? I have two kids in college at the same time, my lord if only I had a box of letters of my own! Writers are loud mouths, famous or not, we cannot shut up- scribbling furiously, story tellers, observers that must share their experience,  some of us in journals no one ever sees, others publishing their truth, there is something very interesting about this woman! He truth is biting, she doesn’t hide and I admire that.

I sometimes think about those in the spotlight and feel relief I am nobody, free to live my life without the entire world’s opinions about a life they haven’t spent one day in. Memoir is a strip tease, and those of us who are honest know we aren’t all beautiful underneath our clothes, we are flawed and Joyce admit this- even in her love with Jim she shares the ugly truth. There were times she resented the illness, anyone who has ever seen a loved one through sickness knows it’s not beautiful, it’s exhausting for the caretaker too- why is that such a shameful thing to admit?

It’s hard to read, because suffering is so unfair- as if the universe is picking on you and most especially your loved one. Is their final breath relief? Yes and God No! This is such a painful death and love story.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

Mikey and Me: Life with my exceptional sister by Teresa Sullivan

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“As I look back, I realize that I never saw other children like Mikey in public places. Many were in institutions, and perhaps the families who kept them chose not to venture into the outside world.”

Times were different when Teresa was growing up. Inclusion was nothing like it is today, and let’s face it, it could be better now too. This is an intimately painful revelation into what it was like growing up with an exceptional sister, one with severe disabilities. The family was admirable in their efforts to keep their beloved daughter Mikey in the family home as long as they could, but it wasn’t without hardship on each family member. The hardest parts of the book to read involved the abuses that happened to Mikey while she was institutionalized, despite her family’s fight- the reality is the person who can’t speak for what occurs suffers the most and is blamed for the disturbing sickness inside others. We don’t often speak of the difficulty on siblings, because in a sense, Teresa and other children like her are born into care-taking. It’s a grown up responsibility that many adults shirk. The struggle of loving your sibling and resenting them is incredibly heartbreaking. Teresa didn’t have the attention so many children need, and as much as she understood why on a mature level, it absolutely had damaging effects. It’s no one’s fault, the parents certainly tried their hardest, but caring for someone such as Mikey is a never ending job, it requires the family to be constantly on alert, more than two steps ahead. You cannot doubt their love, but it was obviously mentally and physically exhausting. I cannot imagine how much harder in times with less compassion. Back then, it was still somewhat hidden, treated like a shameful issue, families treated to freak show mentality.

How can the reader not be touched by Mikey? What sort of life is it, unable to truly communicate your needs, suffering?  Trying to navigate a world you can’t understand, abused by other patients, and lashing out against those who love you for reasons you truly cannot help. The marriage between Teresa’s parents was beyond strain, the demands of their life didn’t leave time for romance, intimacy any relationship beyond worrying and caring for their daughter. A poignant moment was the fantasy young Teresa had, watching the Helen Keller movie, the hope that maybe she could just teach her in the same way, breach the communication barrier and then the plummeting depression of reality, too much to bear. It’s no wonder that later in life Teresa plummeted herself. Drugs as escape, running away from the calm of home, where no one seemed much invested. A best friend like a sister she wished Mikey could have been later souring, bringing out the worst in her and later- an injury that terrifies her, that brings her  own brain closer to Mikey’s. The terror of losing her own function! This isn’t pretty friends but it is unflinchingly raw!

I think of the courage it takes for such a family, and the horrific reality of how it feels to have to give your child over, a parent’s true nightmare. Mikey kept them bonded and the calm is almost louder than the noise when she is no longer home. How do people keep faith? Where do you find hope when doctors have nothing to offer, when you know more about your child/siblings needs than any facility? For some people, the happy ending never comes, there aren’t any trail blazing medical breakthroughs that save them. This was the truth for Mikey and Teresa. Take heart, Teresa did glimpse happiness in her sister, be it the spinning, or moments of laughter. Never doubt Mikey’s family loved her, but this is a real look into what the family went through, Mikey included, back when no one bothered to understand only stared and judged. You didn’t have the internet to connect easily with other families like yours, nor support. Society just put them away, out of sight, out of mind but this is a family that handled what they were given in life with much grace. Such a sad story.

Publication Date: August 29, 2017

She Writes Press

 

 

We Are All Shipwrecks: A Memoir by Kelly Grey Carlisle

 

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“Who killed her? No one really knew. My grandfather had explained this to me. How had she been killed? I knew that too. She’d been strangled. Why she’d been killed didn’t seem as important, and who could answer that question anyway? Why did people die? They just did. People died all the time. Other questions seemed excessive, nosy- like the people that slowed down to stare at crashes on the 405.”

This memoir is not just simply about the tragic murder of Kelly’s mother Michele Ann Grey, when Kelly was a baby, left behind in a drawer. It is the background noise of a complicated, unique upbringing. Today, it’s not that unusual to encounter children being raised by their grandparents, but decades ago it wasn’t so much the norm. When her grandmother passes away, Kelly ends up under the roof of her grandfather Richard and his much younger wife Marilyn. “Sir Richard, that is.”  Much of the survival funded through a porn store the couple owns, that mustn’t ever be mentioned to others, Kelly was surrounded by content she wasn’t ready for. If early exposure to sexual images aren’t enough to confuse a young girl, moving into a houseboat surrounded by misfits, prostitutes and drug addicts certainly is. With a grandfather that loves his ‘Little Toad’, there is more hidden about her family history than she feels free to uncover. Told for years her mother died in a car crash, she discovers that just isn’t so. Who was her father? Nobody worth mentioning, if you ask her grandfather, just some jailhouse trash, if he even was her father. Her grandfather was a character, some people just are, but those who live with them aren’t always delighted and charmed- sometimes swallowed up in shadow instead.

Her family history is scattered to the winds, half truths- half lies. Why does her grandpa have few pictures of her mother? Why is he so bitter and hateful about her deceased grandmother, Spence? The things he tells are brutal to little ears, from sexual stories and jokes to hateful comments. Bitter with disgust for his ex-wife and her ‘friend’, trying to stain the fond memories she has of both, Kelly is thrown into confusion about love. Seesawing between giving her the best, such as making sure she attends top schools, to exposing her to the worst. Forcing his way of life on his wife and child, his nature wasn’t one to ask for approval before making life changing decisions for everyone. Some call it willfulness, others controlling. Did Spence’s secrets drive her mother to her brutal ending? Could her life choices really have caused her mother Michele to run, or was it Richard’s absence? Is Richard to blame for the way her mother turned out? Just where can Kelly point her finger? Just who did murder her mother, could she have been an early victim of the Hillside Stranglers? Or was she a victim of terrible parents?

Her family is abnormal compared to fellow students. Where they have calm adoring homes, beautiful clothes, popular perky friends, Kelly is stuck feeling frumpy, alien to the youth she should understand. She doesn’t listen to the right music, she is a throwback more invested in old shows and movies than in what’s the hot current trends. Other girls don’t have to care for elderly fathers, nor carry the dark mystery of death deep in their hungry hearts. They are sheltered from the filthy things men do to women, at least for now. They don’t yet have to navigate the world full of deviant acts.

Growing up with missing pieces makes for much struggle. As her grandfather ages, he becomes less the adoring, fun-loving grandpa he once was. Marilyn is the only mother Kelly has ever known, and the pain of watching the once beautiful younger woman become a worn out, faded shadow of her former self because of her grandpa’s demanding, often cruel nature is a difficult reality to stomach. Through the years, becoming more of a caretaker for her grandfather she finds solace in swimming, but must fight the jealousy he feels when anything takes attention away from his needs. Much of Kelly’s existence is wrought with conflicting emotions. Sir Richard is the only father she has known, and he has done the best he could. There was love, there are fond memories that peek out much like the sun in a storm.

Will she make it out of this seedy place, living along the water with unfortunate people, on a boat that is falling into disrepair? Could she rise above the bleak existence her mother knew in her final years? Will she ever know the truth about anything in her life? How can she become a strong woman with her grandfather and Marilyn as the sole examples of love? Can she see beauty with a grandfather that immediately colors the world ugly, suspect of every situation, always thinking with his mind in a gutter? Will she sail off into the unknown and finally find a life for herself? Will the thickness of blood keep her moored where she doesn’t want to be?

This memoir is a painful peeling of many layers. None of us are ‘normal’, we all carry the  weight of unmentionable tragedies. Kelly’s just happens float inside a fog of mystery. A heart-breaking, sometimes funny, fascinating memoir.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017

Sourcebooks

 

 

 

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson

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“Some deaths, on the other hand were just head-scratches, so strange that they almost defied belief.” 

This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read about a coroner. Handled with delicacy and respect for both the living and dead rather than being ‘sensationalism’, Bateson tells the real story of what such a career entails. Without a question, much skill and intelligence is required in solving such mysteries, working in reverse to uncover the truth. But also, a lot of humanity. Ken Holmes worked as both death investigator and coroner in Marin County, California. With a three term career elected as coroner, Holmes had seen everything about death. From murders, suicides, drugs, and auto-eroticism each case had it’s own unique challenges. Controlling scenes are a little thought of task, not just the gawkers, but the dangerous neighborhoods where anyone in ‘authority’ are not welcome. The terrible reality of suicides off the infamous golden gate bridge and why where a body ends up can change the entire direction of solving what happened, a sometimes sad fact. Suicide is not romanticized anymore than any other death in this work, unlike what we read in our fiction or see on television.

Not having all the clues come together can cause years of heartache for family and friends, particularly when someone disappears and their body ends up elsewhere, unidentified as happens in a case, found in the chapter titled The German Tourist. Ken Holmes’ dedication is evident in each case he handled, and his humanity too as the deceased and their survivors have remained in his heart and mind. It is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking career, and thank God for people that are able to put aside their natural reactions (such as fear, repulsion) and uncover clues creating a semblance of order in finding the truth of what happened.

It takes courage and strength to go against authority, and just as much to speak to family members weighted down by not just grief but suspicion, distrust and anger. Going with your gut isn’t always popular but vital!  Sometimes the answers are years in coming, but always remained fresh in Holmes’ mind. This is an engaging book dissecting Ken Homes’ fascinating long career. For a brief time the reader feels the weight of sorrow that follows Holmes but too the hope that he can at least provide answers for those left behind, as well as shed light birthing truth for victims that can no longer speak for themselves. Is there ever really closure? Of course not, but we need to know why death came and what is to blame, be it natural causes or death at another’s hand. We need to know the identity of the dead, because there is someone somewhere wondering what has happened to their loved one.

This is an engaging work, and I didn’t feel like I was reading something tawdry nor gory. Do horrific things happen? Absolutely, but it’s not about the carnage, there is a lot to understand and learn. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t and won’t go into a detailed account of any of the true stories within, because this book won’t be out until August and also they need to be handled with delicacy and author John Bateson does a fine job all on his own.

Yes, read it! Fascinating, heart-breaking, moving and beautifully written.

Publication Date: August 15, 2017

Scribner

 

Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky

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“The world is changing, but we seem to be living in our own little stagnant capsule, where everything depends upon the illusion of well-being. I feel a revolution happening inside of me too, but at the time I don’t know what it means. “

Jill Bialosky, author of books such as History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, The Life Room and House Under Snow here takes memoir using poetry to share episodes of her life. The beauty lives in moments that feed upon poetry.  Or does poetry feed upon the moments? It’s a unique approach to sharing one’s memories, some tragic, others humiliating, but all about loving, questioning, trying to find meaning. Just why do we turn to poetry? How can a few lines encompass an entire state of being, of feeling? Poetry is often an island we find ourselves on after the shipwrecks in our lives, and there are many. It can be a friend whose shoulder you cry on, a curious companion hungry for revelation wondering at the marvels of being alive, as much as the voice of grief or first love.

I am much reminded of an English teacher that taped quotes and poetry lines all over his classroom. This induced a feeling of euphoria for me, particularly in that moment in time when I was ‘coming of age’ myself, and the world could seem both beautiful and terrifyingly brutal. Those words made me feel less alone, whether they had the bite of sarcasm or a spirited push towards courage. Bialosky takes poetry that was meaningful to her. With Musée Des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, she finds a bridge that expresses the dreadful grip of tragedy, the weight of grief in her own life. Yet, poetry is a solitary endeavor, we peck at it and eat what gives us sustenance. Much like any art form, we experience poetry differently from the next person. Poetry can be the cry of the lonely, a plead for the guilty, a roar for the proud… it is fluid and each person has a different perspective than the next. This memoir is an outpouring of an emotional journey and yet it is fluid itself. If you love exploring poetry with a kaleidoscope of one’s life and how much poetry meant to them, this is perfect for you. I particularly think these are some of the best lines written about suicide. “I don’t understand it or know what to do with it. I’m angry. Not at my sister, but at all I don’t understand of the human psyche and the forces that unwillingly impinge upon a life. I don’t know what to do with this knot of fury.” What comes first, the poem or the experience? If you are remembering a poem after something pivotal has happened in your life, was the poem something like a premonition,  portending the future? Or are we simply fishing for meaning in order to organize the mess all of our lives are, to find a semblance of order ? Why do certain images or words brand themselves in our mind returning only after such a moment has passed? Who has the authority to say? Poetry for Bialosky has been a companion, as it is for so many of us.

Lovely.

Publication Date: July 11, 2017

Atria Books

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

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“This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld.”

Why is it so shocking to read books about such subjects as death or work in a crematorium? In all our ‘modernness’ we have built sky high walls to keep out suffering, death, decay, and illness. People used to die at home, surrounded by family, now they can do it in clinical settings- which seems terrible to me. I can take it further, we don’t want to see homeless people, or get involved in trouble our neighbors have so many turn a blind eye to abuses, crimes…because we’ll go blind if we see the underbelly of things, most especially our own fragile, mortal bodies.  So we chose blindness in the present anyway. Tuck it away nicely, sweep our ashes under a rug, toss the body somewhere sterile, and magically it will come out nice and packaged, the way we like things. We can’t even really handle decay while alive. We have creams for our wrinkles, surgery for our deformities and unflattering cellulite, we can’t handle anything that reminds us that we are aging.

There is always something ghoulish about death for most people and Cailtin Doughty may seem to some a deviant, a handmaiden to the underworld but she isn’t. She is curious and if you too enjoy or suffer (as you will) from epistemophilia then why not learn about the strangely fascinating world of the crematorium? Much like people who wonder how surgeon’s can open us up and dig around, many wonder how anyone can bear witness to death and worse, the disposal of corpses. Corpses are just people, my friends, which you too will one day be. Of course, throughout history we didn’t always have reasons to trust those who dealt with the details of death. Certainly the macabre stories we have read, or heard told have left a stain in the industry. Who in their right mind would want to work in such a field? Well, and what if no one did?

This book was so much fun, even when I was cringing and feeling shocked or sad for the terrible things that befall the living (which includes all of us, though we don’t like to tread that terrifying territory of thought) I found myself thinking differently about death. What a business! How strange, the way we paint death and hide from it with our pretty cemeteries and posh send offs. It’s more for the living than the deceased though, isn’t it? All this ceremony so we can bare being ‘self-aware creatures’ that have to accept death with life. It’s the price we have to pay, we all have a one way ticket, no one gets out of here alive, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause– okay, okay I’ll stop. Death is a loaded subject, surely only those whose thoughts turn to the morbid care to know the details. Really? Why?

This book matters to anyone who has lost someone, or will. Because we all do. It does matter who handles the bodies of our loved ones and how. I was shocked by some of the strange facts, as we are reminded by the author, death used to be present and far less shocking. Children often didn’t survive before the advance in medicine, bodies used to pile up around us- don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re not up to our ears in our neighbor’s and friend’s bodies but something has happened in the Western World where we are almost ignorant of it. Sometimes understanding a process makes it less terrifying. There are moments when I felt my heart sink, and others when I shook my head in disgust- not because of our fine narrator’s actions, just the reality of the details. In fact, reading about it takes the ‘romanticizing’ out of death. Our bodies are fascinating, and gross sometimes too.  You can’t see the human form more truly than how it looks at the end, there is no hiding for Caitlin.

I have to agree completely with her view that ‘our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead)’. We are terrified of it now that it’s packaged nice and tightly. This is a freshly intelligent book, yes I used the word fresh in a book about the subject of death. Full of interesting facts I quite enjoyed reading, and yet handled in a dignified manner. She takes the subject that gives so many people the heebie jeebies and through her wit and humor makes it less shocking.  Absorbing, engaging, provocative and always interesting. I wish I had read it sooner.

Available Now

W.W. Norton Company

Cloud Messenger: Love and Loss in the Indian Himalayas by Karen Trollope-Kumar

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Pradeep began to sing a haunting melody. 

“Phool  kitabon mein milen… What does it mean?” I whispered, not wanting to break the spell of the music.

“It means, ‘Now we will be seperated. And perhaps we shall only meet in dreams. Our love will be like a flower pressed between the pages of a book.” 

Pradeep’s ghazal (lyric poem)  sang with feeling was right, they would meet in dreams, but dreams they made a reality.  When Canadian medical student Karen Trollope-Kumar went to India to study medicine, little did she know she would meet and fall in love with a pediatrician named  Pradeep, as well as his dream of living in the Indian Himalayas. Though they parted, they couldn’t deny their destiny, to be together as husband and wife. With courage as strong as leaping off a mountain, Karen does indeed return to India to work in the foothills as Pradeep’s wife. She soon learns ‘how profoundly communication is shaped by culture’. Never in her wildest dreams did she know she would marry into a culture immersed in religion and tradition, having come from the Western world it is an eye opening experience. As a doctor, the shock is life altering, going from rural to remote villages the practices are vastly different. Amid such sometimes appalling conditions, the ceremonies and festivals sprinkled throughout their time in India are beautiful, moving. The descriptions within the book transport the reader to the villages, feeling much like a spiritual eye in the sky.

Idealistic in our dreams, we don’t imagine the obstacles we will face. Politics, superstitions, religious beliefs, poverty of people and their village, nature itself (earthquakes) and lack of trust in medicine are just a few complications that appeared.  Soon learning how to come together with your beloved with such different upbringings, surely it’s a challenge for the newly weds, but can seem like a mountain of hardship. Accepted by Pradeep’s family, depsite not being Indian herself, the beauty of their love is evident in the ceremony early on when placed on the shrine, beside the God Ganesha sits a cruxifix, to honor their grandson’s bride. In time, she learns through stories the hardships his family had faced, the fears they had for the children based on so much suffering but too she sees the turn of fortune they have later.

Desperate to bring proper care to pregnant women and new mothers, the reader is given insight into the harsh conditions such women face. At the beginning, confident with her knowledge of medicine, the arrogance that she can better their world- the reality of things is a humbling. When Pradeep confides he longs more for spiritual enlightenment than medical practices, it’s hard for Karen to understand, having come from a home that wasn’t overly religious. Her calling seems to be bringing medical care to the furthest reaches, to those most in need of life saving techniques, training dais (midwives) proper care. Even if superstitions get in the way, she won’t give up, but there are disheartening encounters as much as beautiful ones. Deep lasting friendships are formed as much as a love for the places she travels to, and lives in. She learns that she must look into herself, “Your work now  is to  look into the nature of your own discontent.”  A message any of us can take to heart in dealing with our problems, our loved ones… Our expectations often make it so hard to flow, to accept that which is real. It isn’t always someone else that is to blame, it’s our own difficulty owning what is compared to what we thought would be.

Any sort of traveler can be in for culture shock, I certainly have been myself, but India is said to be a place of contradictions. Beauty amidst poverty, physical illness and yet superior spiritual health, as much open love and acceptance as close minded rejection. We Westerners have a instinct of wanting to fix what we think is wrong, and that’s both a strength and a flaw. It’s the happy medium that’s so hard to find. Within this memoir, it’s obvious that Karen persevered through things so many of us may not be able to do half as well. People romanticize such journeys in their minds, but the reality can be a slap in the face. She learned to accept her changing dreams and the husband she loved, tied to her destiny but also his own spiritual being. Along came children, and with it so much advice from Indian women. I thought about that, and imagined the eye-rolling of others, but in truth- we think we’re advanced here in the western world where you have a baby and often go home, sometimes without generations of women (family) around to help you, and as much as magazines and the internet can guide, who knows more about mothering than other mothers? It has its charm, this unity of motherhood. As with any place on earth, there is happiness, there is suffering, there is love, there is loss, there is change and there is acceptance of things that never change, or will- but at their own pace, not yours.

A wonderful story about a young doctor who takes a big risk to create a beautiful life for herself.

Available Now

FriesenPress