Posts tagged ‘memoir’

February 14, 2011

Book Review: A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

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A WIDOW’S STORY: A MEMOIR
by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco
(February 2011, $27.99, 432 pages)

It is a rare opportunity to gain an honest glimpse into the private life of a public persona. When it happens, the reveal is often surprising because the discovery of the “real” life is quite different from the character known to the public. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband’s unexpected death and the aftermath of grief over her loss is a deeply personal and honest look at her submersion into the ill-defined world of present-day widowhood.

In 1961, after a brief courtship and at the tender age of 23, Oates married the love of her life, Raymond J. Smith, in Madison, Wisconsin. Their marriage was her foundation for nearly 50 years. In her private life, she was Joyce Smith. She and Ray shared a deeply loving marriage marred by few upheavals, trials or separations. Their academic careers mirrored, they often taught in the same universities or at colleges located close together. In 1974 they founded a literary magazine, The Ontario Review and its publishing house The Ontario Review Books. Ray left academia to become editor of The Ontario Review and while Joyce continued to teach and write, she also took on the role of an associate editor. Their union, by her own definition was, “a marriage of like minds.”

A Widow’s Story begins with Ray’s hospitalization for pneumonia at Princeton Medical Center. Ray, an editor, runner, writer and husband, had been in good, if not excellent health, for all of his 68 years. His bout with pneumonia, requiring hospitalization, was unexpected but not catastrophic. Both patient and wife expected a speedy discharge with life quickly returning to its happy and peaceful domesticity. Oates was blindsided by the rapid decline of her husband’s illness: heart arrhythmia, admission to the Cardiac Care Unit and the close monitoring of low oxygen levels. Throughout, she expected that he was going to rally and return to his usual healthy state. However, within the week Ray was dead of a rare but deadly hospital acquired infection, E coli bacterial pneumonia. Ray’s sudden, brutal and unexpected death unceremoniously threw Oates into a panicked state of widowhood. She tried desperately to comprehend the wrenching loss of her husband.

Oates’ widowhood is dark, full of grief and provides a frank look at the abyss of absence. Her observations mirror some of the bleak themes she has explored in her own writing as her author-self, Joyce Carol Oats, to whom she refers to as JCO. A Widow’s Story is deeply personal and painful to read because it describes a wrenching end of a loving marriage. We as readers experience a Pandora’s Box of the unexpected and unwanted as she writes about the aftermath of death and of a life she never expected, wanted, or planned.

Ray was her life. They had only each other; there were no children, just two cats and a garden, (mostly Ray’s cats and Ray’s garden). She compartmentalizes the year following his death into 5 distinct periods of time: I. The Vigil, II. Free Fall, III. The Basilisk, IV. Purgatory, Hell, V. “You Looked So Happy”.

Oates is brutally honest with her reflections and recollections and she writes with a rawness that thankfully lacks self-deprecation or the canonization of the departed. She is truthful in her fear that she may not be able to carry on and writes poignantly about the difficulty of daily tasks and of wearing a brave face. Equally, she’s brutally honest about her perception of living up to others’ expectations of her as The Widow. Her grief does not follow any predictable stages. She is able travel and give speeches within a week of Ray’s death but she is unable to write. She cannot sleep, although she is perpetually exhausted. She keeps an exact inventory of pain pills, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills and, in the beginning of her life without Ray, she thinks often of making a quick and peaceful exit from her own painful existence. She has flashbacks of his death, she dreams that he is alive and she feels she is being watched by a reptilian creature who wants her to die. This honest recount of raw grief is painful, wrenching and lonely.

A Widow’s Story is not only a memoir; it is also a social commentary on widowhood in the 21st century where there are no set rules. The formalities that mark the phases of widowhood are nebulous and isolating. Oates finds herself buried in food baskets she can’t consume and plants she can’t care for. She is never able to write acknowledgements of Ray’s death nor can she even pick up the phone. Her most uplifting and meaningful correspondences are via e-mail. Oates takes a very difficult look into the modern age of widowhood, speaking to the greater societal issue of avoidance and of the compartmentalization of people who are no longer part of what was once a comfortable whole.

Yet, A Widow’s Story is not without humor and light: lives well-lived and full of love must have their glory. Thankfully, Oates reveals many of her beloved husband’s traits, characteristics and talents. She is able to describe the Ray she knew, lived with and loved for almost 50 years. She recognizes that while it is painful to imagine the loss, it is also an honor to share in the life. Her year ends with hope and with a small kernel of insight which reveals that grief, even fathomless and unimaginable grief of love lost, is worth wading through. Life will go on.

Sweetman

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January 12, 2011

Book Review: Stitches by David Small

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STITCHES: A MEMOIR
by David Small

W. W. Norton Company
(September 2010 paperback, $14.95, 329 pages)

In the well done graphic novel the story surpasses both words and illustrations. With Stitches, David Small brilliantly writes and illustrates such a graphic novel.

Stitches is a sad autobiographical tale of Small’s childhood in Detroit, Michigan in the 1950s and the bulk of it is drawn from the memory of boy from age 6 to 15. A child of a wretchedly unhappy home where furious silences speak louder than screaming fights, the reader enters a world in which a mother’s silent fury is realized by a cough, a slam of a cabinet or the placement of a fork on the dinner table. For reasons unknown to Small as a child, his mother sets the dour tone of the household for hours, days or weeks at a time.

The youngest son of a radiologist father and a 1950’s housewife mother, Small brilliantly illustrates the tale of his neglected youth as a byproduct of his parents miserably unhappy marriage. Because words are never assigned to the deep unhappiness that envelopes his childhood, each family member develops a language to process the frustration and anger. Small’s father beats a punching bag in the basement. His older brother Ted bangs on his drums. Small gets sick. Born an irritable baby prone to bouts of colic and respiratory illness, he gets home-treated with shots, medicine and enemas. Thanks to the marvels of 1950’s medicine he also receives multiple sessions of high dosage radiation therapy for his sinusitis, administered by his father.

A growth appears on Small’s neck at age 11. Brought to attention by a friend of his mother, it takes three years for his parents to actually pursue diagnosis and treatment. The growth turns out to be a malignant tumor due to the repeated radiation exposure. This truth he discoverers on his own rather than being told. He undergoes radical neck surgery. His right vocal chord is cut and he is left without a voice. The surgery leaves his, “smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” Small struggles to find a voice and to conquer the demons of his youth.

This is a jarring tale. However, it manages to avoid the maudlin pitfalls of the “survivor” who overcomes tragic odds. It does not make Small a stereotypical “hero” who conquers the demons of his past. These are the all-too predictable pitfalls in many graphic novels. Instead, this tale is a truthful look at a painful past. With insight, Stitches illustrates memories of place and time which take the reader into Small’s consciousness. At times whimsical and magical, then is suddenly devastatingly sad and harsh, Stitches is moving yet it is never burdened with self-pity, or miraculously, with spite.

Small’s ink lines and washes are masterful. His use of space and expression illustrate volumes of words that are never spoken. He perfectly captures adult expressions from the eyes and understanding of a child: his mother’s crushing fury, his father’s aloof distance, his grandmother’s inconceivable insanity, a disapproving and confused frown from his parents friends and the kind eyes of his psychiatrist. Minimal use of ink and dialogue paint the greater picture of Small’s vulnerability during his childhood. Small remarkably and exquisitely captures the essence of the time and place without imparting distorted feelings or superimposing adult interpretations. This cathartic memoir of deep, disturbing loss is ultimately a testament of acceptance, forgiveness and moving on.

– reviewed by Sweetman

January 4, 2011

Book Review: The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

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THE ELFISH GENE:
DUNGEONS, DRAGONS AND GROWING UP STRANGE
by Mark Barrowcliffe

Soho Press, Inc.
(November 2009, $14, 288 pages)

I have a confession. While in high school during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was fascinated by odd, awkward and distant boys who played Dungeons & Dragons, fascinated almost to the point of a forbidden crush. They were so different, marching around in heavy black trench coats and big black boots. They avoided attention because it was usually derogatory and spoke to each other in a sophisticated nearly foreign language about things of which I could relate only vaguely back to J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They seemed to possess a knowledge of a secret world which buoyed them during the boring and sometimes cruel existence of life as a teen on the outside of normalcy.

The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe brought me back into the secret world that I had wondered about. This memoir is a lively, honest, hilarious and at times heartbreaking recount of Barrowcliffe’s adolescence as a committed Dungeons & Dragons Gamer.

At age 12, Mark Barrowcliffe chose an obscure path of wizard, warrior, evil priest or dwarf over the the more conventional path of typical rebellion. He didn’t tread lightly. He dove right in and immersed himself entirely in a world where the socially awkward boy from Coventry, England became Alf the Elf, Foghat the Gnome or Effilc Worrab, an elf warrior with the head of a mule.

Barrowcliffe describes his total preoccupation with Dungeons & Dragons as, “an obsession, a way for damaged people to damage themselves further.” The Dungeons & Dragons game became a connecting lifeline for ostracized, similarly obsessed dweebs in the mid-1970s. It was an unprecedented narrative story game that armed the players with paper, pencils, oddly shaped dice and exquisite imagination. The game typically went on for days, which for the school-aged Barrowcliffe, was from Friday afternoon to mid-Sunday afternoon. He played non-stop with a cast of memorable characters, including the most remarkable, Billy, who welcomed Barrowcliffe to the gaming table with, “Sit down between the wind and his nobility!” He then let out an enormous fart.

The Eflish Gene exposes the world of geeks and role-playing gamers. Barrowcliffe spares no humility; he was the lowest echelon in his world. His frank, self-deprecating observations of his own annoying mannerisms and over-the-top enthusiasm while playing are amusing. The responses and reactions of the other players to Barrowcliffe’s Alf the Elf are cruelly entertaining. The unforgettable characters live for the secret world of superior knowledge. They are smug in their sequestered realm which is in reality just an escape from the cruel world of normalcy. It was boys’ world because there were no girl players. Girls would destroy the game. It was a world of “bullied, power hungry twerps with no discernible skills and absolutely no hope of a girlfriend.”

Girls ultimately provide the escape ladder for Barrowcliffe’s painful extraction from the fantasy obsession of his awkward youth. The recount of his extraction from the world of Dungeons & Dragons and its circle of cloistered misfits is a bit sad yet necessary in order to for him to successfully navigate the real world. Typical of most superior-minded nerds, he takes on a tone of snide disdain when revisiting the Dungeons & Dragons gaming tables. Perhaps this is a reflection of wasted youth? Regardless, reading about this fantasy world of war gaming geeks is well worth the time spent.

Sweetman

November 10, 2010

The Very Writerly President

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Just in time for the Republican and Tea Party sweep of congressional and gubernatorial seats, former United States President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points was released to enormous media hoopla today. Back in May, The Huffington Post invited folks to photoshop their own titles and covers for the book. (Personal favorite: #10) In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says that Decision Points “lacks the emotional precision and evocative power” of former First Lady Laura Bush’s memoir Speaking from the Heart. Between the two, Kakutani says save your money and your time for Laura’s memoir over George’s.