Natasha Trethewey, “Memorial Drive”

I’m fully aware that some people turn away from emotionally harrowing true stories, ones that involve heartbreak and pain and grief. Sometimes that’s me. But other times, I’m drawn to these stories.

Shrinks think sad stories offer readers an outsider’s perspective which can help combat one’s own unresolved trauma. Or that painful stories offer catharsis, an emotional release that allows us to purge our buried feelings and increase our awareness. And there’s speculation that the emotional connection triggered by tragedies allows us to more fully appreciate the close relationships in our lives.

I thought about all of this during and especially after reading Natasha Trethewey’s equally riveting and excruciating Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir about the murder of her mother by her former stepfather.

I’m no expert on psychology. I do know I couldn’t put Tretheway’s book down even though at times I felt like closing my eyes to ward off what I knew was coming next. And afterwards the book resonated with me and opened me up to compassion that went far beyond the details of the story itself. I don’t mean to get dramatic here (well, ok, maybe I do) but it seemed to say something about the inherent tragedy of the human condition. Or maybe I’m just completely whacked out on COVID-mania, fire, and whatever my anxious mind tells me lies in store. All I know is it hurt so good.

We know from page one that Trethewey’s mother is killed by her ex-husband. The buildup of detail toward the murder itself is agonizing. But it’s also beautiful as Tretheway, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former US Poet Laureate, brings her exquisite poet’s eye to the metaphor-laden prose with which she tells the story.

Trethewey was born,the child of miscegenration, an interracial marriage still illegal in Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, the 100th anniversary of Mississippi’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, “a holiday glorifying the old South, the Lost Cause, and white supremacy.” There’s no way to separate her family’s story from the racism that shaped the place of her birth.

Her mother dies when she is a college student of 19 and her mother is just 40. She’s led by police officers from her college dorm to the site of the murder and followed by TV cameras. It’s no wonder that for 30 years she tries to distance herself from the trauma of the murder and the events leading up to it.

In unraveling this traumatic event that shaped her personally and artistically, Trethewey addresses her younger self, both acknowledging what she knew about her stepfather’s violent behavior and the threat he posed and granting herself retroactive compassion and absolution.

There’s also a detail here, about the outrageous and inexcusable negligence on the part of a police officer that directly led to Gwen Turnbough’s death. The fact that Trethewey doesn’t obsess over this particular, rather mentions it almost in passing, gives the event even more power.

I was drawn to Memorial Drive in part out of curiosity about Trethewey’s resiliency. How was it possible to not only survive the brutal murder of one’s mother, but go on to be an artist of the highest order, drawing beauty from pain?

I think of the ways many of us (me included!) use difficult childhood memories as an excuse for bad behavior and my only response is embarrassment. Imagine suffering the worst tragedy imaginable, the early and brutal death of one’s mother, and going on to create works of beauty and lasting impact. That’s beyond admirable. Here’s to Natasha Trethewey for writing a book that’s both intensely personal and speaks eloquently to our troubled time.


Everything has critics, even Little Free Libraries

My September 8, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

On my neighborhood walks, I’m always happy to come upon a Little Free Library to see what books are gone and what’s been added since the last time I looked. Some of these neighborhood nooks were stocked with toilet paper and wipes in March, when such things were in short supply. Others have apples and plums from backyard harvests at their base. ¶ The books, of course, are a mixed bag. Spiritual selections like “Meditations From a Course in Miracles” and “The Heart of the Shaman” sit cheek by jowl with the latest John Grisham and James Patterson. Literary fiction from Ian McEwan snuggles up next to all manner of self-help and political screeds. Sometimes, I’m lucky to spot something hilariously bizarre like “How to Poo on a Date: The Lovers’ Guide to Toilet Etiquette.” Really.

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Short stories aren’t just palate cleansers—they’re the main course

My August 25, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

For many years, I used short stories as a sort of sorbet after reading a novel. Refreshing, palate-cleansing, a diversion before returning to the clearly more elevated business of long narratives. ¶ But recently when out for a walk, I tuned in to NPR’s “Selected Shorts” podcast for my daily dose of lit. Nothing serious, mind you, just a light piece of entertainment to keep me company.

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Debra Jo Immergut & Emma Donoghue

It’s been such a jangly time. My inability to focus is only heightened by the pandemic, so when I read some good fiction I feel compelled to share. Here are a couple of recent books I liked.

YouAgainDebra Jo Immergut’s You Again tells of Abagail, a middle-aged woman who runs into a younger version of herself in New York city. Not someone like her younger self, but her actual younger self. Abigail now is in a long marriage, the mother of two, with a soul-killing corporate job. Her double is an artist, as she once was, and is involved with the same dangerous man.

Immergut is skilled at describing the artist’s thought process, especially when she explores color: I like to imagine the top of my head open, and the colors pouring in from some higher plane, some great source. Not God, not the sky. Instead, it’s the bright storm of energy that clangs and sloshes over and around every existing thing….”

The book is also a mystery with a neurological and psychological underpinning as experts try to unravel the explanation for Abigail’s experience.

Throw in some radical antifa activity, the evolution of a long marriage, Manhattan’s changing landscape, and the process of extinguishing and then re-lighting one’s creative spark and you’ve got a the material for a very satisfying read.

The concept itself is fascinating. What kind of warnings would you give your younger self? And, scarier still, what might your younger self tell you if they could see you today?

Pull-libroI listened to the audiobook version (on of Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of The Stars, a novel set in Ireland during the influenza epidemic of 1918 in the maternity fever ward of a severely understaffed hospital.

The main character Julia, a 29-year-old nurse/midwife, rushes from crisis to crisis, attempting to treat her patients’ fever and bring their babies safely into the world, aided by a young volunteer who’s the product of one of Ireland’s notoriously neglectful and abusive orphanages. If you read Room, you know Donoghue does wonders with the intensity of confined spaces.

This book is all about women, their bodies (in excruciating detail), their lack of any semblance of power in Ireland, at home or in society—“She doesn’t love him unless she gives him 12 is a well-known saying about what Irish women are said to owe their husbands—and their magnificent strength.

Just at the point in the book where I was beginning to tire of Julia’s self-sacrificing heroics, the book took an unexpected turn and became bigger than its story, encompassing a searing critique of the Catholic church, the overall injustices of Irish society, and the redemptive power of love,

The book’s afternote gives some historical background on the events it describes making it even more resonant. I was especially interested to learn about one of its real-life characters, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had a role in Sinn Fein’s 1916 uprising and was wanted by the Dublin police. I want to know more about her.

As you won’t be surprised to find, Little Brown rushed this book out in only four months considering the plot’s parallels with the current pandemic, face masks, incompetent government and all. It would be easy to be cynical about that but thank god it was worth it. Donoghue really has something to say.

Why the Irish have all the literary luck

SFChron-20200811My August 11, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I know it’s extremely dicey these days to attribute a general characteristic to any group of people by nationality or otherwise. I’m doing it anyway by saying the Irish are such damn good writers. ¶ Not all of them, I know. But when I’m bowled over by the graceful, lyrical nature of a piece of prose, more often than not there’s an Irish writer behind it.

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When a voracious reader decides she’d rather watch a movie

SFC_Jul28My July 28, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

How had it come to this? In February, I was en route home from Costa Rica on a 7 a.m. flight, focused on the tiny screen embedded in the seat back in front of me, watching “Joker,” a movie I’d never choose at under 30,000 feet. ¶ I blame it on my most recent breakup with the Kindle. We’ve had a rather bumpy relationship from the start.

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Here’s what—and whom—you won’t get at a big-box book retailer

SFC_20200714My July 14, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

People who know me are aware I never miss an opportunity to stand on my soapbox and hold forth about the importance of independent bookstores. In every place I’ve ever lived, the local indie has become a second home to me. When I lived in San Francisco in the Richmond, I was at Green Apple Books so often, I found it natural to give, often unsolicited, book advice to people roaming the stacks.

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Jennifer Ryan: The Spies of Shilling Lane

Delightful is the only word for the audiobook version of Jennifer Ryan’s The Spies of Shilling Lane. If you’re looking for an antidote to these sad, scary days, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Set in London during the Blitz, the novel tells the story of Mrs. Braithewaite, a bossy, imperious woman who’s ousted from her role as leader of her village’s women’s auxiliary group. She heads to London to reveal a long-held secret to her daughter, only to get caught up in some dangerous business involving the MI5 (English Military Intelligence), Nazi-loving traitors, and dangerous thugs.

9781984886798_400She also meets the timid Mr. Norris who, against his will, is swept up in her escapades. The gradual affection between these complete opposites, who don’t learn each other’s first names until the final chapters of the book, is one of its many joys.

In addition to a suspenseful, twisting and turning plot, Ryan’s book has some wisdom about maternal love, friendship, and discovering what’s truly important. Sometimes it borders on schmaltzy but it’s the kind of schmaltz I adore.

The audiobook is read by the perfectly named Jane Entwistle whose plummy tones are spot on. Give yourself a treat and listen to this delicious book. It’s great fun and god knows we can use some more of that.

Need laughter? These books scratch that itch

SFC_2020June30My June 30, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I don’t know about you, but I really need to laugh. A big belly laugh, complete with gasping for breath and tears running down my face, would be nice. But I’d settle for a little chuckle. Even a slight upturn of the corners of my mouth. The last several months have been distinctly unfunny, to say the least.

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Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay

I love being knocked out by a writer I’ve never heard of. Such is the case with LA writer Stephanie Cha, whose Your House Will Pay is set in LA during the summer of 2019, when a police shooting involving a black teenager inflames racial unrest and protests erupt throughout the city.

9780062868855The book is based on a true story that takes place almost 30 years before it begins, when a Korean grocery store owner shot a Black teenager in the back of the head after accusing her of stealing. The crime was caught on video, and although the shooter was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, she never went to jail.

Cha tells the story of two families—one Black, the other Korean-American—whose lives collide as both are drawn into the cauldron of racial tension and violence. She describes each family with cultural sensitivity and skillfully builds suspense as she leads to the point where their stories intersect.

The author of a crime trilogy also set in LA, Cha clearly knows her territory. She says she began writing Your House Will Pay in 2014 right after Michael Brown’s murder, but it could have been written last week. It’s that prescient. It’s also filled with insight about the ripple effects of violence and social injustice.

Here’s a taste of Cha:

Los Angeles—this was supposed to be at the end of the frontier, land of sunshine, promised land, last stop for the immigrant, the refugee, the fugitive, the pioneer. It was Shawn’s home, where his mother and sister had lived and died. But he had left, and so had most of the people he knew, chased out, priced out, native children living in exile. And he saw the fear and rancor here in the ones who’d stayed. The city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own. No wonder was it that it huffed and heaved, ready to blow, because the city was human, and humans could only take so much.

This is an important book, one that takes us behind the headlines and portrays real people, all of whom live as “others” in this country, dealing with racial injustice and profound loss. Cha’s timing is uncanny.