Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller

“Mines are hidden in cake tins and biscuit tins.” He showed us. The tins were bright and promising, with pictures of roses painted on their sides, or small children with rosy cheeks  in old-fashioned winter clothes running behind snow-covered trees, or butter-soft shortbread with cherry-heart centers. “Would any of you open this tin?”

 

A few of us raised our hands eagerly.

 

“Children like you open the tins and get blown to pieces.”

 

We greedy, stupid few quickly sat on our hands again.

Damn this book is good. Alexandra Fuller writes about growing up as the daughter of a white farming family in what was then Rhodesia, in the midst of the political upheaval that would lead country after country in the former British Empire to fight for and declare their independence. Her childhood is marked by personal upheavals as well: the family moves from place to place as circumstances dictate, three of her siblings die in infancy (one — her beloved and prayed-for sister Olivia — drowns in a duck pond when little Alexandra was supposed to be watching her), and her mother is deeply depressed and frequently drunk. Actually they are all frequently drunk, including Alexandra and her sister.

Memoirs that don’t feel the need to editorialize = winners. Here is an incomplete list of things that Alexandra Fuller discusses in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight but does not feel the need to editorialize about:

  • The casual racism of her parents, sister, and younger self (“We fought to keep one country in Africa white-run,” says her mother to a guest, “just one country.”)
  • Her own and her sister’s sexual assault by family friends (“Vanessa tried to tell Mum and Dad what had happened and they said ‘Don’t exaggerate'”)
  • Her mother’s not-uncommon breakdowns, the result of long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder (“Mum is swaying and singing. She has put the record back on from the beginning. It’s the background music to her nervous breakdown. Dad serves up the food. He says, ‘Sit up straight. Mouth closed when you chew.'”)
  • The training she receives in weapons handling (“Vanessa and I, like all the kids over the age of five in our valley, have to learn how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in our house, and, ultimately, shoot-to-kill”) and emergency medicine (“I know how to find a vein and administer a drip, but I am only allowed to do this if All the Grown-ups Are Dead”)
  • The violent deaths, violent regime changes, and violent wars that punctuate her childhood but do not discourage her family from living in Africa (“We cheer when we hear the faint, stomach-echoing thump of a mine detonating. Either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed.”)

All of this is appalling to various degrees (apart from the weapons and medicine training; that is just sensible), but Fuller is perfectly matter-of-fact about it. I appreciate that. I do not need her to take a tone of pearl-clutching dismay when she talks about her past self’s unquestioned racism, or the wars her family were constantly trying to keep at the edges of. I can clutch my own pearls, thank you.

I did clutch my pearls a bit about Fuller’s hair-raising portrayal of her family life. Was this signed off on by all parties? I’m not so concerned about her parents, but I would like to be reassured that Vanessa signed off on Fuller’s public recounting of the time Vanessa was sexually assaulted by a baby-sitter.

If all this has made Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight sound unspeakably grim, it’s my failure, not Fuller’s. Her gift is to tell the worst of her stories in a tone that’s humorous without being flip, unsurprised without being cynical, heart-breaking without being self-pitying. Just a really, really, really good book. I couldn’t have been more crazy about the writing. I’m excited to pick up Fuller’s other memoirish book, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which is about her mother.

(Y’all, I am on a roll. My last four books have all been four-star reads. Do you think my next five will all be five stars? That would be a lovely treat for me, wouldn’t it?)

Review: Marbles, Ellen Forney

I started keeping a new TBR spreadsheet a few months back, with different tabs for pleasure reading, research reading, and forthcoming books. Maybe some weekend when I’m bored, I’ll set it up so that I can track when I read/review one of the books on the list, and it’ll make automatic pie charts of my percentages of gender, nationality, and whether the American cover was better or the British one. (Currently all that stuff is on another spreadsheet.)

(Yes, I like spreadsheets. Sue me.)

Anyway, Marbles, by Ellen Forney (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), was the very first book added to my new TBR spreadsheet, and I have already read it, although it is only February. I feel like such an efficient reader now! I may make a habit of it. Maybe once a month, I’ll make it that I have to fish or cut bait on the oldest book currently sitting on my TBR spreadsheet. That could be a good way of keeping things currentish while also giving myself a joyous feeling of accomplishment.

Marbles is a memoir of Ellen Forney’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and her subsequent struggles to understand and manage it. Ana recommended it in a comics round-up post last year, and what caught my eye in the review was this:

Part of me was afraid Marbles was going to be yet another exercise in romanticising mental health issues in the name of ~art~. … But as it turns out, Marbles is very much an exploration of all the reasons why this idea is uncomfortable, and that was what made it such an interesting read for me.

Hooray! Like Ana, I’m unhappy with the notion of Art and Madness They Be Linked — or, more specifically, I’m unhappy with the notion that Sylvia Plath would never have produced such brilliant work if she’d been on Xanax. (Sylvia Plath is here synecdoche for all mentally ill artists in the history of ever.) Forney wonderfully takes on these ideas from all sides in Marbles. When she’s first diagnosed, part of her feels proud: She is a crazy artist! They didn’t have medication and why should she? And part of her feels confident: Manic Ellen can organize everything to make life easy for Future Depressed Ellen.

(I sympathize with that so much! I am always trying to do things that will help out Future Jenny. It’s impossible to know what Future Jenny will have on her plate, you know? Best to take care of it now. I paid $50 into my 2014 taxes when I paid my 2013 taxes. Oh, also, I have already filed my taxes BOOM I am the responsiblest of citizens.)

But when she hits a depressive episode, she finds that it is far less manageable than she expected/remembered. (“My head was a cage of frantic rats” is an experience from my life.) So she dives into the fun and exciting world of psychotropic pharmaceuticals. I loved Forney for discussing the ups and downs of medicating with such honesty and humor: She acknowledges that life on the meds is difficult, but life off of them was becoming impossible. Taking them isn’t a perfect fix. There are side effects, which require additional medications; some meds work badly for her, and some don’t work at all. It’s a frustrating, messy, exhausting struggle to finally reach a balance that works.

Though Forney talks a lot about art and madness, she wonderfully doesn’t draw any broad conclusions, concluding instead that there aren’t broad conclusions to draw. For all her early fears that medication would destroy her creativity, she ultimately realizes that achieving balance with her bipolar disorder enables her to continue being creative. She knows this is true of her, not of everybody, and takes pains to say that different creative people respond differently to mental illness and differently to treatment.

So I liked that. I like it when someone is willing to look at a hard question and give the (potentially) unsatisfying answer, It depends.

I also wanted to mention something else about the diagnosis scene that interested me. Forney’s therapist takes out the DSM-IV and reads through the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Forney recognizes herself in every single one of them, and she thinks this:

My own brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper. My personality reflected a disorder, shared by a group of people.

I was very struck by that. I’ve struggled with depression since high school, and when I’m on a downswing, it helps to read the DSM-IV’s list of symptoms, or take the Beck Depression Inventory. It frames all the things I hate about myself as a disease, not something intrinsic to me; it must be terribly sad and difficult to feel that everything you like about yourself is really just your disease.

Review: Give Me Everything You Have, James Lasdun

Long before reading Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), I read this article Lasdun wrote about acquiring a female stalker he calls Nasreen, and this discussion in Guernica Magazine between Lasdun and another writer who was targeted by Nasreen. (I was glad the second article existed because I like to have independent confirmation when there is a case as ugly and inexplicable as this one.)

Nasreen was a student in a creative writing course Lasdun taught, and they corresponded by email for some time after. Nasreen’s emails became increasingly frequent and obsessive, and at length, abusive. She gradually escalated her behavior from sending abusive emails to Lasdun to sending abusive emails about him to his professional contacts: his agent, his publisher, universities with which he was or had been affiliated, etc. Though Lasdun went to the police and even to the FBI to try and get her to stop, nobody was able to help.

As sometimes happens, writing notes for this review led to my talking myself out of the book. Lasdun spends about half the book discussing the events, and the other half trying to find a context for them. This is okay when he sticks to literary context — he is, after all, a literature guy — but becomes dramatically less interesting when he tries to relate Nasreen and her behavior to his travels in Israel/Palestine.

Because really what draws you about this sort of story is the mechanics of the outlandish: Here occurs an improbable event X, and now what is it like, what are its practical effects? It’s like becoming obsessed with her back even though you don’t want to be; it’s like finding yourself a boring conversationalist because all you can think and talk about is this insane behavior that you didn’t ask for and can’t escape from. Give Me Everything You Have is at its best when Lasdun sticks to this.

Here is what I truly cannot understand about Lasdun’s attempts to contextualize Nasreen: He doesn’t read about stalkers. Or if he does, and if he finds out anything interesting, he does not relay it to the reader. He tries to understand Nasreen by looking at the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, but he does not try to understand her by looking at research into other people who do the exact thing Nasreen is currently doing. Or perhaps he did try to understand her this way and found it not applicable to his own situation and so did not write about it?

Obviously it is not down to me to tell Lasdun what sort of book to write, what sort of response to have to his stalker. He does not have to read research about stalkers if he doesn’t want to. But for all of his woe and self-recrimination, there is an unpleasant odor of indignation and injured dignity and that couldn’t (surely) (right? you would think?) survive the reading of a couple of papers about how stalkers behave and why and how they escalate. Lasdun is aware of his privileged position in relation to Nasreen, and says so, but it’s not at all clear that he’s aware of how privileged he is in relation to the great majority of victims of stalking, and the book suffers from the missing context.

Cover report: Variations on a theme, and the British cover does it better.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Review: The Imposter’s Daughter, Laurie Sandell

Throughout her childhood, Laurie Sandell’s father would enrapture her with stories of his brilliant, varied, and successful life: top grades at the best universities, meetings with Henry Kissinger to advise on policy, multiple awards for valor in the Vietnam War. As an adult, she spun through years of dysfunction and uncertainty before becoming an interviewer of celebrities. But Sandell also begins to learn things about her father that make it clear he isn’t, and never was, the person he claimed to be.

Cover report: Same cover in England and America. I like it!

To begin with the good things about The Imposter’s Daughter (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository): It’s a fascinating portrayal of the way Sandell’s father’s dishonesty permeated her life. As a little girl, Sandell is told that she’s her father’s favorite, and you can see that she’s subconsciously fighting hard to hang onto that designation. She sits at his feet and listens to his stories, always trying to get him to keep talking–a habit that serves her well when she gets a job as a celebrity interviewer. But as happy as little Laurie’s relationship with her father appears to be, her cartoons from the time (reproduced in the book) make it obvious that she knew more than she knew she knew.

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Sandell is funny and insightful, and she doesn’t spare herself any more than she spares her father. Her years of listening to crazy stories from her father have given her a wonderful taste for the absurd, and it comes out in the writing and the art.

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She also addresses head-on the concern that I always bring up when I’m reviewing family memoirs, which is her family’s response to what she’s doing. Prior to writing this book, Sandell published an anonymous article that discussed her father’s insane lies and the effect they had on her. Her father was predictably outraged, cutting off contact with Sandell, and her mother and sisters were angry too. Rather than engaging with Sandell about what she had found out, they clearly wished that she would just stop talking about it. Sandell includes these reactions in The Imposter’s Daughter, which didn’t alleviate my discomfort with the Family Memoir as a genre (it’s not alleviate-able — Family Memoirs are an uncomfortable genre), but at least acknowledged the inevitability of its presence. I couldn’t help wondering what a piece of life writing by Sandell’s mother or sisters would look like: How do they tell their father’s story to themselves? Or do they steer clear of it in their minds, as Sandell seems to think?

For all the positives, though, The Imposter’s Daughter ends up feeling more like a therapy session than like a story that needed to be told. Jennifer Finney Boylan, whose book She’s Not There I am going to read and review later this month (I hope), was born to write stories; she can take four disparate events in her life and weave them into something that feels like a narrative. Sandell doesn’t have the same gift. There is urgency in The Imposter’s Daughter: you can see that it is important that Sandell have some medium to insist upon her own reality when her whole life has been predicated on this other, not-real reality. But that insistence isn’t the story Sandell spends most of her time on, and the book suffers for it.

Review: Beyond the Vicarage, Noel Streatfeild

HaHA.  A while ago I read the first two volumes of Streatfeild’s slightly-fictionalized autobiography, and I could not get the third one.  I believe I rather fatalistically said the library didn’t have it and it was out of print and I’d never ever find out what happened to Noel Streatfeild.  Obvious nonsense because of course we know she became a classic writer of children’s books.  But anyway the public library here shocked me by having the third book, and I read it on Sunday after church.

I dunno.  My feelings were mixed.  I liked reading about Streatfeild’s becoming a writer.  At first when she decided to settle down and write for a living, she was always getting calls and dashing off to meet friends and do jolly things; so she decided to stay in her nightdress every morning so that she couldn’t go out even if she wanted to, until she’d finished her writing for the day.  And I was, as ever, intrigued by Streatfeild’s depiction of the changing role of class in British society during the World Wars.  Vicky’s mother could be said to be living in reduced circumstances after the death of her husband, but she persists in thinking of herself as “carriage people”.  There is this squirm-inducing scene when Vicky’s mother is living in lodgings kept by two women who were once a cook and a housemaid, and Mrs. Strangeway treats them as if they are her hired help.  “So funny,” she tells Victoria, “they like to be called Miss Baines and Miss Cook….I’m afraid I’m always forgetting about the ‘Miss’ and wanting to call them just Baines and Cook.”  Oh, and she refers to Vicky as “Miss Vicky” when she’s talking to them.  Yup, she does.

HOWEVER.  This book felt like a collection of anecdotes – not always good ones – the kind of autobiography people write when they do not really know what sort of a story they are telling.  Streatfeild talks about her service during the war, her initial disinterest in writing for children, and it’s not that any one of these aspects is uninteresting in itself.  But there’s no underlying order to them.  Streatfeild is intent on remarking on every single thing her past self did that she now realizes was immature, ignorant, self-indulgent, or otherwise unworthy of praise, and that gets old, as well.  Altogether, not her best effort.

On to happier things!

World War II.  Not actually happy at all, but bear with me.  When I was at the university library for the first time the other day, I checked out one of Juliet Gardiner’s books.  I think I read about her for the first time at Elaine’s blog, and since I am mad for social histories, and mad for Britain during World War II, I got out Gardiner’s Wartime.  Y’ALL.  This book is amazing.  I may not review it for ages and ages because it’s massively thick.  It’s so thick that if it were a sandwich, I wouldn’t be able to take a bite out of it.  But it’s wonderful!  She’s drawn from dozens of different accounts, so that you can see every event through numerous eyes.  I am not even two chapters in, and I already have the biggest book-crush on Juliet Gardiner.

Review: Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert

Not a reflection on the quality of Committed, but just something I thought of when I started reading it:  I feel like the premise of the book could be tweaked a bit to make it into an obnoxious little romantic comedy starring one of those actresses that do “quirky” roles.  Elizabeth Gilbert, successful journalist and bestselling author, never wants to get married again!  Until a US immigration officer gives her a deadline: Get married in the next year or be an exile forever!  If this were a movie, she would spend the year meeting wildly unsuitable guys and ignoring her bland but adorable next-door-neighbor/coworker/classmate, before finally realizing that her heart’s desire was in her own backyard.

That’s not really the plot though.  Gilbert is in a serious long-term relationship with Felipe from Eat Pray Love, and neither of them wants marriage.  Felipe gets told by immigration he can’t keep coming back into the country for ninety days and then leaving, ninety days and then leaving, and if he wants to stay, he should just marry Liz Gilbert.  And then she spends the year reading all about marriage.

I find this endearing because I expect that’s exactly what I would do.  In fact that’s what I do do.  When I feel suspicious of something, I go a-hunting for things to read about it.  In a-hunting down the facts in the case of De Profundis, I discovered Oscar Wilde was a screaming over-dramatizer.  In a-hunting down the facts about the oral polio vaccine, I discovered the only correlation between it and AIDS was geographical (like, the places that had medical facilities giving out the oral polio vaccine were the same places where AIDS was getting diagnosed more frequently).  In a-hunting down the facts about free speech as it applies to corporations – I am still looking into that actually.  It is very complicated and makes me feel stupid but I will persist because if Justice Stevens (my favorite Justice, y’all, because he is old and extremely brilliant and he wears a bow-tie) feels it is worth a ninety-page dissent, then I suspect it is worth a ninety-page dissent.

(Yes, I have a favorite Supreme Court Justice.  DEAL WITH IT.)

(That last thing, DEAL WITH IT, that was a Better Off Ted reference.  Any of y’all watch Better Off Ted?  Will anyone besides me miss it when it inevitably gets cancelled?)

Gilbert writes about speaking to wives in other countries, as well as to the wives in her own family, about their experiences of marriage.  She writes about the strain on her relationship with Felipe as a result of their being in limbo.  (She wants to travel to Cambodia, and he wants to settle somewhere and have a coffeepot.  I am totally with him.)  Although this book is not as full of action as Eat Pray Love, Gilbert’s wry wit is still in evidence.  She’s a little bit crazy, but she knows that she is crazy, and in what ways, which is nearly as good as not being crazy in the first place.  Plus? She doesn’t talk trash about her family.  Hurrah!

If I had one complaint, it would be that there is not enough of Gilbert talking to people.  She is good at capturing voices, just like John Berendt, and she should do it more frequently.  Indeed all the time.  If I were in charge of the world, that’s what would happen.

Read for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Other reviews:

Confessions of a Book Hoarder
Book Addiction

Let me know if I missed yours!