Review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

40539185Verdict: I don’t even know.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, February 12th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.

Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.

Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter Shalmiyev depicts in urgent vignettes her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. She tells of her early days in St. Petersburg, a land unkind to women, wayward or otherwise; her tumultuous pit-stop in Italy as a refugee on her way to America; the life she built for herself in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children of her own; and ultimately, her cathartic voyage back to Russia as an adult, where she searched endlessly for the alcoholic mother she never knew. Braided into her physical journey is a metaphorical exploration of the many surrogate mothers Shalmiyev sought out in place of her own—whether in books, art, lovers, or other lost souls banded together by their misfortunes.

By all accounts, I should have loved this book as it ticks all my boxes; I generally enjoy memoirs written by women and those that focus a mother-daughter relationship particularly, I love memoirs that are told mostly unchronologically and academically, hell, I adored the first sentences (“Russian sentences begin backwards. When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction.”) but somehow this did not translate into me getting on with the book.

Sophia Shalmiyev tells of her relationship with her mother, or rather of her relationship of the hole that her mother left in her life. Drawing on literature and theory and many things in between she attempts to paint a picture of that fundamental loss in her life. Born in Soviet era Leningrad to an abusive father and alcoholic mother, Sophia struggles with the sense of loss incurred by her father kicking out her mother and then later emigrating to the US without her.

I did find her language clumsy but not in a way that improved my reading experience (which odd sentence structure sometimes can do for me as it makes me read slowly and carefully); now, I am not a native speaker so this might very well be a fault with me rather than with the book. For a book this abstract and intensely introspective, I would have liked the language to be sharper and more precise though (something that Maggie Nelson – whose work this has been compared to – does without a fail). There was also an abundance of metaphors here that did not work for me at all and usually took me out of the reading flow (for example: “The decade is a bronze disease patina – the green paste – on a doorbell that rings when you show up, and you do not show up very often.”). In the end, while I am not usually somebody who judges books on a sentence to sentence basis, I seem to have done so with this book, which lost me early with its vagueness in prose and never recaptured my interest.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

29430746Verdict: Brilliant but near unbearable to read.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by Bloomsbury, October 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this powerful and provocative memoir, genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse.

Kiese Laymon is a fearless writer. In his essays, personal stories combine with piercing intellect to reflect both on the state of American society and on his experiences with abuse, which conjure conflicted feelings of shame, joy, confusion and humiliation. Laymon invites us to consider the consequences of growing up in a nation wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family that begins with a confusing childhood—and continues through twenty-five years of haunting implosions and long reverberations.

I find this memoir near impossible to review for a number of reasons:

  1. the book was near impossible to read for me;
  2. the book is brilliant;
  3. the book is not written for me.

If you only take one thing from my review, let it be this: Kiese Laymon is utterly, utterly brilliant. On a simple sentence by sentence level his writing is absolutely stunning, it wrecked me in the perfection of his prose. But even more so, the structure of this memoir is impeccable and the way he tells his story and makes is points is just brilliant. I read very many memoirs but it is rare that I have a reaction as visceral as I had here. The whole book is a lesson in how to gut your reader with your words. And I mean this in the best possible way (and the worst: it took me forever to finish this because I needed to take breaks to read something else).

Laymon tells the story of his body – and how his relationship to his body is influenced by his difficult relationship to his mother. The way he grounds his experiences in the way his body reacted to them added a layer to this memoir that I appreciated immensely. Written in second person narration addressing his mum, Laymon lays it all bare for the world to see. Especially the first and last chapters really drove home how incredible his craft is and how deep the cuts his life made are. I found the book near unbearable in the claustrophobia of the unfairness of it all: the unfairness of racism, of poverty, of eating disorder, of addiction. The book is this successful because it is written for black people rather than about black people – a point Laymon makes at various points throughout the book, something he learned from his mother and his own mistakes.

Ultimately this is an intimate love/hate letter to the most important person in his life and I feel very grateful to have been able to read this.

 

Mini-Review: Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

32021926Verdict: Lovely.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by Penguin, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong. Exquisitely crafted, revelatory, and full of the crack comic timing that has made Mara Wilson a sought-after live storyteller and Twitter star, Where Am I Now? introduces a witty, perceptive, and refreshingly candid new literary voice.

I am a huge fan of celebrity memoirs; I know this is not a particularly cool thing to admit, but I enjoy them a whole lot, especially on audiobook read by the author. This memoir by Mara Wilson was no exception: it is wonderfully honest, lovely, and was just an altogether nice reading experience. I personally did not grow up watching Matilda, as such I do not have a personal connection to Mara Wilson. But I follow her on Twitter and find her online presence really lovely, which was enough for me when I was looking for a new audiobook to listen to.

In her memoir, Mara Wilson writes both about her career as a child star and about her struggles with OCD – the latter of which I appreciated a whole lot. Her honesty was really great and I think is important to change the way we think and talk about mental illness. She also writes about her grief for her mother, who died really young and whose influence can be felt throughout this book – her mother seems to have been a wonderful person and Mara’s loss can be felt greatly.

One of my favourite essays in this book was her essay on Robin Williams, written shortly after his death. Here her empathy shines really bright and it brought me to tears.

Altogether I really appreciated this book and if you are looking for a lovely audiobook, this one might just be for you.

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

25079993Verdict: Heartbreaking and hilarious.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memor

Published by Vintage, 2012

Find it on Goodreads.

This memoir is the chronicle of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser drawer; about growing up in a north England industrial town in the 1960s and 1970s; and about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can guide us when we are lost. Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I do not know why I haven’t picked up a Jeanette Winterson book earlier. I loved this a whole lot and cannot wait to read more of her books. Jeanette Winterson tells the story of relationship with her mothers; both her biological mother and her adopted mother. I listened to her tell this story on audiobook and I cannot recommend this highly enough. Winterson infuses the story with her wry tone and wit and it was just a wonderful listening experience.

The family she is adopted in are conservative to no end and especially her mother (who she almost exclusively calls Mrs Winterson throughout the book) is often horrible to her. Listening to Jeanette Winterson detail the abuse she suffered would have been unbearable if she didn’t manage to always infuse her story with a sense of optimism. This sense of reflection was what struck me the strongest about this book. While Jeanette Winterson does not have everything figured out by a long shot, she is eloquent and wise and often deeply funny and this made this memoir a joy to read.

I will now definitely have to read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a semi-fictional account of Winterson’s life to see how she transformed her suffering into wonder.

Review: Vanishing Twins: A Marriage by Leah Dieterich

37690295Verdict: Stunning, accomplished, clever.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Soft Skull Press, September 4th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

“It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: Once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”

As long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s searching for a twin–that she belongs as one of an intimate pair. It begins with friends, dance partners, and her own reflection in the mirror as she studies ballet growing up; continues with physical and emotional attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions she can’t answer about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.

How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their passionate original bond alive? This memoir in fragments looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance, and language, to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.

Vanishing Twins is a memoir about a marriage – but it is also so much more. It is an exploration of identity and gender, of growing up and finding oneself, of culture and literature, of ballet and advertising. I adored this.

Leah Dieterich frames her story both in ballet and in the science of vanishing twins, using metaphors and literary analysis to construct a picture of her twenties and her marriage. She meets her husband Eric fairly young and gets married to him at an age where most people are still trying to find themselves. Their symbiotic relationship starts to feel limiting and she proposes an open marriage to explore her queerness.

The book is told in (very) short, fragmented essays (one of my favourite styles) that grow to a convincing whole. I love how the author does not try to fit everything into a cohesive narrative, because life just isn’t that way. As she muses on her marriage and distinct memories, she also writes about other things in-between, mostly ballet but also philosophy and art history. I obviously adored this, there are few things that make me as happy as brilliant, clever memoirs. I have said countless times, I love when women unapologetically put themselves front and center in their art and Leah Dieterich does this, impressively so. One of my favourite aspects was the fact that she realizes her tendency to mirror people she is close to – from her sense of style to her haircut. I loved how this was addressed time and time again. It showed the aspects of her lovers that she most felt drawn to and it illuminated the growing distance between her husband and her while simultaneously underlining the bond between them.

There is a lot to admire here: from her clean prose to her insightful analysis of everything between ballet and advertising to art. I found this a highly rewarding reading experience that has me excited for more to come from Leah Dieterich.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Soft Skull Press for review consideration. My opinions are my own.

Mini-Reviews: So Sad Today by Melissa Broder and Sick by Porochista Khakpour

I read two very similar and very different memoirs last month. Both are written by women and focus their own lives in the way I just adore (if you have read my blog for any length of time you know how much I love memoirs written by women), but I only loved one of them and thought the other fell a bit flat.

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder29213247

Verdict: I think I might be in love.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir; Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Scribe, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

I love the way Melissa Broder writes. There is something mesmerizing in the way she structures her sentences and her essays. I read her debut novel The Pisces earlier this year and fell so much in love that I more or less immediately went out and bought this one. And I am so very glad I did.

My favourite essay in this collection is “I want to be a whole person but really thin” – it’s repeating sentences and sentence structures hammered home a point so painful and real that all the other essays that followed could not quite keep up with. Broder unflinchingly looks into her own eating disorder and the way it impacts her life and does so stylistically brillaint.

In general, So Sad Today is painfully honest in a lyrical way that made reading it a total joy while also giving me whiplash. Melissa Broder does not shy away from the uglier parts of her life and her personality. She centers herself in her art in that unapologetic way that I just adore.

32600407Sick by Porochista Khakpour

Verdict: Disappointing.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by HarperPerennial, June 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

This might be my biggest reading disappointment of the year so far. I have been looking forward to this book for ages and when it finally arrived I jumped straight into reading it. I find the story Porochista Khakpour tells – of illness that went years without a diagnosis, about racism and sexism in medicine, about addiction and losing oneself – so very very important and relevant, but the execution just did not work for me. I found the structure of the book unhelpful, the jumping back and forth, sometimes within the same paragraph difficult to follow and frustrating, even though I can see how that could have worked wonderfully.

She says in the acknowledgments that she stripped her memoir of everything but herself – and maybe she was a bit too successful in that aim. I left the book not even quite knowing what Lyme Disease does to her, or what symptoms she had. Her encounters with medical doctor after medical doctor felt undefined and somehow left me confused – because I know she wanted me to see how godawful the doctors were (and I am sure they were) but I could only ever see her. I think some grounding in the reality of Lyme would have worked better for me.

My biggest problem was the prose, on a sentence-by-sentence level. I found it weirdly clumsy in parts, while sometimes being very profound. There were sentences however that I had to read multiple times to get to their meanings and I am not sure that was intentional.

 

Review: The White Book – Han Kang

39220683Verdict: Exquisite.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Portobello Books, 2017

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Find it on Goodreads.

Writing while on a residency in Warsaw, a city palpably scarred by the violence of the past, the narrator finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. A fragmented exploration of white things – the swaddling bands that were also her shroud, the breast milk she did not live to drink, the blank page on which the narrator herself attempts to reconstruct the story – unfolds in a powerfully poetic distillation.

As she walks the unfamiliar, snow-streaked streets, lined by buildings formerly obliterated in the Second World War, their identities blur and overlap as the narrator wonders, ‘Can I give this life to you?’. The White Book is a book like no other. It is a meditation on a colour, on the tenacity and fragility of the human spirit, and our attempts to graft new life from the ashes of destruction.

This is both the most autobiographical and the most experimental book to date from South Korean master Han Kang.

I am quite unsure how to review this brilliant little book. I think it is something that needs to be experienced rather than read about. Told in a series of very short musings on different white things, Han Kang circles her own grief and Warsaw’s scarred history in a way that I found absolutely moving. I read the book mostly in one sitting (it is very short) and can only recommend doing that. This way the interplay between the blank spaces on the page, the photography, and the writing worked to create an immersive experience.

Han Kang’s writing is economical; there is not a spare word to be found. It gives the impression of deep concentration and thoughtfulness which worked extremely well for this book. Another way to describe her prose would be elegant and precise. I loved this. I find there to be something fascinating in being able to write about personal trauma in this way – rather than it reading clinical it made the book all the more profound for me.

I have recently read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which much in the same way deals with a colour (blue). But the two books are radically different besides their obvious similarities. Nelson’s writing is a lot more visceral and blunt, whereas Han Kang creates the illusion of distance while being obviously affected. I am very glad to have read of those these in short succession.

There is now only one book of hers left that has been translated to English and I haven’t read. I am a huge fan of Han Kang’s writing.