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Three Deaths
Three Deaths
by Josip Novakovich
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Life affirming Deaths, 6 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Three Deaths (Paperback)
Three Deaths is a very short yet very powerful book, and a wonderful introduction to the work of Josip Novakovich

Because of his nomination for a Man Booker International Prize, and because he recently became Canadian, Novakovich swam into my ken about three weeks ago. He is a writer who should be much better known. Yugoslavian-Croatian born, Novakovich is not just a writer in a step-mother tongue. Like Conrad, Nabokov, Ondaatje, and Rushdie, he is one of those immigrant, cosmopolitan writers who find their raw materials on the borderland between savagery and civilization. While their roots and their experiences often give their writing a flavour of the exotic, their writing explores primal subjects and themes. They seem bemused both by the barbarity of man and by the improbable persistence of civil behaviour and civilization. Novakovich's Croatia is a war-torn peasant land which Grimmelshausen would have recognized, a place where innocence offers no protection against atrocity. Stubbornness and humour are the chief instruments of survival, and solace is found in the senses and, perhaps, in art.

Novakovich's view of the world seems shaped as much by the death of his father as by the Yugoslavian civil war. In an essay titled "The Dead Fathers Society," Novakovich talks about the impact of losing his father when he was only 11. One of his chief realizations is that "a horror could happen, and you can go on." This insight provided by his father's death seems to underlie much of Josip's writing, yet the insight is only a small part of what he feels he owes to his father's death. Elsewhere in his essay Novakovich writes, "seeing my father die filled me with dread, and with a desire to transcend it,"and he goes on to suggest that much of his narrative impulse is rooted in this response. "Maybe," he says, "my writing has something to do with both his absence and the lingering sound of his voice."

Even if none of the three pieces in this slim 107 page volume is an avowed father memoir, Three Deaths is a patremoir. The central story of this triptych, "Apple," is closely based on the death of Josip's father and uses real family names and details. According to Robin Hemley, Novakovich fictionalized "Apple" slightly and then was uncertain whether to call it memoir or fiction. Memoir or fiction, details of the father's death match the details that Jovakovich gives for his father's death in "Dead Fathers Society." Even the first story in the collection, a story which describes the death of a young girl in 1952, has strong biographical elements. In "Ruth's Death," the third piece in the book, an essay about his mother and her death, Novakovich mentions the death of a young sister whose name, Lyerka, is also the name of the the girl in "Be Patient." With his woodworking skills and his deep faith, the father in "Be Patient" shares attributes of the father in "Apple" and the father in "Dead Fathers Society."

Three Deaths is also a tribute to Tolstoy. In "Dead Father's Society" Novakovich says, "My father's death gave me an impetus to write. Upon reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I thought I would describe my father's death and wrote two hundred pages of sketches involving our backyard and the streets of my hometown, yet I couldn't write about his death, and instead began to write a satirical story about dying, a comedy of sorts." Unsuccessful as Novakovich's early efforts were, he was eventually successful in writing about his father's death, and Three Deaths is the proof. The title Three Deaths is an acknowledgement of the debt Novakovich owes to Tolstoy, referencing, as it does, Tolstoy's short story by that name.

Whereas Tolstoy's story deals with the death of a lady, a peasant and a tree, Novakovich's three pieces describe the death of a child, a father and a mother. They also describe death in childhood, death in middle age and death in old age. Tolstoy's deaths, tenuously linked by the peasant who is servant to the lady and for whose grave the tree is felled, are bound together in one story. Novakovich presents his death scenes in three separate pieces: the first is almost a folk tale, despite specific historic detail, the second is short story like with a first person narrator, and the third is apparently a personal essay. For Novakovich, as for Tolstoy, the great unifier is death. All differences-whether in genre, gender, age, class, or even species-are annihilated by death.

For both Tolstoy and Novakovich death is tragic yet uplifting. Death creates a sense of estrangement and of compassionate detachment, and in so doing makes life all the more precious. Death is also part of the natural order and a necessary force for the future to thrive. At the end of Tolstoy's story "the trees, more joyously than ever, extended their motionless branches over the new space that had been made in their midst," the sun beams, the dew gleams, and the birds voice their happiness. There is an intensification of life. Something similar takes place towards the end of Novakovich's essay where he describes walking in the woods not long after his mother's funeral: "I stepped out into the woods, after a windstorm the night before, the sky became clear once again, even clearer than before, the visibility fantastic, the sun shining through beech and oak balding splendor of yellow and rusty red, while the wind shushed and whispered." Death and the awareness of death help explain what would otherwise be an incomprehensible optimism in much of Novakovich's writing. Awareness of death provides life with its savour, and provokes rich, sensual descriptions such as this one of the father in "Apple," moments before his fatal attack: "Then he dug his teeth, some of them made of gold, into the apple, his grey moustache spreading like a brush on the red skin of the fruit while he was biting. Saliva collected in my mouth as if he had chewed a lemon." The father eats and the child's mouth fills with saliva. Empathetic awareness is key. Others die and our lives are richer for it.

For Novakovich, though, death is more troubling than for Tolstoy. The three pieces in Novakovich's Three Deaths illustrate a deliberate movement away from Tolstoy. "Be Patient," the first piece, seems timeless and Tolstoyian; "Apple," the second, shares the intimacy and precision found in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, yet with the narrative I which the writer uses to present his childhood self a very modern "haze of brown" covers the underlying "white crystal apple meat" of the story; finally "Ruth's Death," the concluding piece, is a deliberately ragged essay, a modern, numbed, yet fevered journey towards adult understanding. The essay does not end, as Tolstoy's story does, with life accepting and enfolding and celebrating death. In "Ruth's Death,"the shushing and whispering of the wind leads eventually to a renewed contemplation of images from the funeral-images such as "the cold forehead of my dead mother, the wet and cold green soil streaked with earthworm holes, the sounds of the fistfuls of soil hitting the wood, the bees landing on the red and purple carnations." Life is intensified, yet there is that haze of brown upon it. Where Tolstoy is Edenic, Novakovich is post-Edenic. He ends his essay and his book with a recurrence of the "Fall bronchitis" to which he was subject as a child, and with the relief that "I was no longer a son. I could no longer disappoint parents by dying before them, and nobody else's opinion would matter, other than the opinions of my lungs, in which the ghosts and spirits of my forefathers and foremothers wheezed."

Three Deaths provides a wonderful taste of Josip Novakovich, and it goes a long way to explaining why he is short listed for a Man Booker International Prize


My Mother's Wars
My Mother's Wars
by Lillian Faderman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Decent, Not Great., 5 Mar. 2013
This review is from: My Mother's Wars (Hardcover)
My Mother's Wars provides an opportunity to comment on the ever increasing number of mother memoirs being published. Mother memoirs are finally coming into their own. Prior to the beginning of this century less than twenty had been published (compared to more than sixty patremoirs), but in the last twelve or so years there have been over fifty, ranging from Anne Morrow Lindbergh's No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (2001) to Alison Bechdels Are You My Mother? (2012).

While many matremoirs are historically important, deeply insightful, or extremely well written, My Mother's War is a disappointment. In her preface Faderman tells us that "Thirty years after my mother's death, my young-womanhood long gone, a sadness suddenly came upon me with the thought that though I'd know all her secrets, I hadn't known her." Sadly, by the end of the book there is no sense that Faderman is any closer to knowing her mother, or to knowing herself.

In her other writings Lillian Faderman deserves respect for her scholarship and for her political courage as a lesbian activist, but as a memoirist she still has a lot to learn. Her book fails to show the historical and sociological understanding of a book such as Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for A Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (1986). It lacks the psychological insight and the narrative excellence of Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). Her writing, while clear and reasonably interesting, lacks the skill and intensity of Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments (2005).

Faderman has hidden her mother and herself away in sentimentality and lifeless historical detail. Although she concludes her book by talking about "emotional truth," she almost seems to acknowledge her failure to achieve such truth by referring to referring to the extensive historical research which went into My Mother's Wars, and by appending a rather scholarly bibliography.


Fathers: A Literary Anthology
Fathers: A Literary Anthology
by Andre J. D. Gerard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.52

5.0 out of 5 stars Behold the Patremoir (a review with euphemisms), 21 Feb. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
What the euphemism! (Am I allowed to say "What the Euphemism?" in an Amazon review? If you read this as typed the answer clearly is yes. If the remark is expurgated you should know that this item was intended to start with a variant of "What the Greek Euphemism?" With that, I'll start over.)

And over, again. This euphemised version is evidence that the original was censored:

What the euphemism! I might as well write a review of my own book. Its a great book after all, one which deserves to be better known than it is, and it is also a book which lead me formulate the concept of the patremoir and to become a minor expert on the subject. It is a good starting point for anyone interested in reading father memoirs. Therefore, here is a brief glimpse of what Fathers: A Literary Anthology has in store for you.

Against the shock value of Philip Larkin's "They euphemism you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do," I would like to oppose the sanity of Doris Lessing's ""We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate."

In April of 2011, Patremoir Press[...] published Fathers: A Literary Anthology, a book of autobiographical pieces focusing on fathers. With personal essays and poems by 5 Nobel laureates, 7 Pulitzer winners, and writers such as Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, the book is an impassioned argument for the importance of literature in our lives.

When looked at in groups, the writers in this anthology strongly suggest that the world is improved through writing. Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, and Rita Dove demonstrate how the world has changed and is changing for Afro-Americans. Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and Alison Bechdel do the same for lesbians, as do Mordecai Richler, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth for Jews, and Michael Ondaatje, Derek Walcott, and Ken Wiwa, for colonized peoples.

On an individual level, Fathers is a self-help manual for all children trying to understand and improve their relationship with their father. There is much to be learned in thinking about the peculiarities of Franz Kafka, the obsessiveness of E. E. Cummings's father, or the genius of Winston Churchill. Fathers is also a powerful tool for fathers--fathers young or fathers old--to improve themselves. To read James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Doris Lessing, Sharon Olds, or Philip Roth explore problems of fathers or fathering is to open maps of possibility.


After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story
After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story
by Michael Hainey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.72

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check It Out", 20 Feb. 2013
"Some kids, their parents make them study the Bible, learn piano. Speak a foreign language. You--you're taught The Godfather."

Michael Hainey is taught more than The Godfather. He is taught Gaslight, Picnic and Cool Hand Luke; he is taught story lines. Ultimately, he is taught how to describe his elderly grandmother's hands held in his own as "two small mammals burrowing inside a hollow, hunkering down against each other, against the coming freeze," taught how to tell himself, taught how to write a movingly honest book like After Visiting Friends.

Indirection is one of the techniques Heaney uses to write himself and his book. Describing the childhood game of "Ghosts in the graveyard" he writes, "The ghosts look to capture the one among us who is not a ghost--the one who is undead--and change him into a ghost before he can reach "safe," reach "home." Victory depends on defying the ghosts. Evasion. Elusion. Finding home." At another point in the book, he reports a conversation with his grandmother:
"I used to worry about you," she says, "but I don't anymore. You're over the wall."
"What's the wall?"
"Fear."
Childhood game and the grandmother's remarks work together to make something greater than themselves. With subtlety and insight, this feat is repeated again and again throughout the book.

After Visiting Friends is a remarkable book, memoir, biography, detective novel, love story and bildungs roman all in one. Tender and tough, sentimental yet funny, it shows just how flexible and powerful father memoirs or, as I prefer to call them, patremoirs can be. Patremoirs can be books about detection, books about a man, books about a place and a time, books about an occupation, books about self discovery. After Visiting Friends is all these things. Like Mary Gordon's Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search For Her Father (1996) or Mark Kurzem's The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood (2008) the book shows us the obsessive investigator at work; like Clark Blaise's I Had a Father: A Post-Modern Autobiography (1993) or Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude (1982), it limns out the portrait of a complicated, almost unknowable man; like Michael Frayns My Father's Fortune: A Life (2010) or Calvin Trillin's Messages from My Father (1996) it captures a place and a time, in this case Chicago of the 60s and 70s, Chicago of which Hainey writes, "Chicago. I am of that place. Spires loom. The sky, a soiled shroud. Even as a kid, I knew it was my Old Country."; like J. J Lee's The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, A Son, and a Suit (2011), Gary Imlach's My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes (2005), or Jill Johnston's England's Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells (2008), this patremoir celebrates a craft and its discipline, Robert Hainey's trade of newspaperman; and, finally, like J. R, Ackerley's My Father and Myself (1968), Bliss Broyard's One Drop: My Father, His Family, and an Unusual Inheritance (2007), or Ken Wiwa's In the Shadow of A Saint (2000), this is ultimately a book about finding yourself.

Rich in anecdote, spare in style, deft in touch, After Visiting Friends is as good or better than most of its antecedents, and as original. Indeed, one of the delights of patremoirs is the ingenuity and the creativity children show in investigating their fathers. From the two acknowledged masterpieces of the genre, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (1907) and Philip Roth's Patrimony (1991), through to such strong and moving books as Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude (1982), Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006), John Burnside's A Lie About My Father (2006), Raimond Gaita's Romulus, My Father (1998), Miriam Toews Swing Low: A Life (2000), or Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception (1979), patremoirs constantly surprise and inspire their writers to new feats of storytelling. Also, as Jeanette Winterson showed with her superlative Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? (2011), the same is proving to be true for books about mothers. Mother books were much later in appearing than father books, and consequently there are far fewer of them, yet they too offer scope for writers to find themselves and to surprise us into new insights about how we create ourselves. In After Visiting Friends Michael Hainey's originality lies in bringing patremoir and matremoir together. By focusing on the mystery of his father, he also reveals and pays tribute to the strength of his mother.


No Title Available

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Daughter's re-Joycing, 20 Nov. 2012
What is it about graphic narratives and family memoirs?!! Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is a worthy addition to such great graphic matremoirs and patremoirs as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, Ross Mackintosh's Seeds, Seth's Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, David Small's Stitches, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know. As Alison Bechdel does in her two books, Mary Talbot uses literature and a literary life as a template against which to measure part of her own. Where Bechdel used writers such as Fitzgerald, James, Joyce, Wilde and Woolf, Talbot limits herself to Joyce and his relationship with his daughter, Lucia. The title of her book is a fitting, playful reference to both Joyce and her own father. And what better illustrator for a Joyce themed narrative than Mary's husband, Bryan Talbot, creator of the amazing Alice in Sunderland. After all, it's a small step from Lewis Carroll to James Joyce. Once again, Bryan's inventive, gritty artwork works wonders in animating social history. Husband and wife can be very proud of this book.


Elsewhere
Elsewhere
by Richard Russo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.62

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elsewhere and the Here of Mother Memoirs, 9 Nov. 2012
This review is from: Elsewhere (Hardcover)
"What follows in this memoir--I don't know what else to call it--is a story of intersections." In this remark from the "Prologue" to Elsewhere, Russo expresses uncertainty about the kind of book he is writing. In the field of mother and father memoirs--or, as I prefer to call them, matremoirs and patremoirs--his Linnean unease is not a new phenomenon. In The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search For Her Father, Mary Gordon wondered if she wasn't writing "some non-fiction genre whose proper name has not yet been found." More recently, Michael Frayn, speaking of My Father's Fortune , said that "it's not really autobiography; it's a memoir of my father." Perhaps the time has come to start looking at mother memoirs and father memoirs as distinct literary genres.

If so, Elsewhere deserves to be ranked among the best of matremoirs. In content and in style, Elsewhere is far removed from the raw recriminations of Christine Crawford's Mommy Dearest. Rather, it bears comparison with Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments, Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? or Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? as a nuanced, sophisticated, yet very readable examination of the complicated bond between mother and writer. Like Bechdel, Gornick, and Winterson, Russo shows empathy and unflinching honesty in exploring the intensity of his relationship to his mother.

This is a book that has a lot to teach us about how we fashion our selves. By exploring his mother as a fallible human being, Russo shows us the value of matremoirs. Of his mother Russo says that "she kept the narrative of our lives consistent and intact." His own narrative hints at ways in which we can do the same for our own narratives.

[For readers who have an interest in similar books, I have started using matremoir and patremoir as Amazon tags. Like Elsewhere, such books are often hard to identify by title alone.]


Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me
by Sarah Leavitt
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Tangled, but with spots of brightness.", 6 Mar. 2012
Tangles is equal parts celebration and lament, as much an anatomy of Alzheimer's as it is an intensely moving matremoir. Reading Tangles had me reliving many of the details of my mom's last years, and remembering the frustrations, the moments of fierce anger, the depressions, the sparks of humour, the exhaustion, and the closeness and caring which her slow regression and death brought to our family.

Alzheimer's is a disease of diminishment and indignity, and part of Sarah Leavitt's triumph is that she doesn't shy away from showing the darker parts of the process. Nor does she hide the dark snakes of depression, fear, and pettiness which attack her and other family members. She also shows how the disease often makes small children of patient and caregivers, and the immediacy and cartoon quality of her graphic narrative medium work wonderfully to reach the child in us all. Her telling has a vulnerability and a visceral impact which written text alone could not achieve.

As a graphic memoir, and one in which recognition and acceptance of the author's lesbian identity play a part, Leavitt's book will inevitably be compared to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Midge Leavitt, though, was much more nurturing, much less conflicted than Bruce Bechdel; and consequently Tangles is much less dark than Fun Home. Both books pay tribute, but where Bechdel remembers her father to map herself Leavitt remembers her mother to grow and nurture. Unsurprisingly, both books can be seen as mirroring the respective parent described. Whereas the art and language of Fun Home is carefully crafted and highly polished, Tangles is rougher and looser in style, a garden, "tangled, but with spots of brightness."

Tangles also bears comparison to important Alzheimer's books such as John Bayley's Elegy for Iris, Lisa Genova's Still Alice, and Michael Ignatieff's Scar Tissue. Like these books, it is a good story well told. Like these books, it belongs in every library, not just in those of Alzheimer's afflicted families.


Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
by Alison Bechdel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful Father Portrait, 2 Nov. 2011
As Art Spiegelman proved with Maus, father memoirs can take graphic narrative form. Courageously original and lovingly honest, Fun Home is a coming of age story--a story of lesbian self-discovery--which also outs the father posthumously as a closeted gay man and a possible suicide. In intertwining her father's story with her own, Bechdel is conscious of being as ruthless as her father was in "his monomaniacal restoration of our old house." She, too, is a Daedalus, who answers "not to the laws of society, but to those of [her] craft." Profoundly personal, Fun Home is also mythic. From the opening page onward, it is a rich affirmation of Stephen Daedalus's closing words in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead." This affirmation is triumphantly validated by "the tricky reverse narration" of Fun Home's final panels, in which Bechdel's artistically resurrected, epic father is there to catch and save her child self.


The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father
The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father
by Mary Gordon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Digging up Daddy, 2 Nov. 2011
The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father sketches a passionate portrait of a deeply flawed man, a shabby pornographer with literary pretensions, a convert to Christianity who was so ashamed of his immigrant and Jewish origins that he hid his past and became a nasty anti-Semite and a writer of speeches for Joe McCarthy. In the course of investigating her father's life and of reflecting on the motives for her search, Mary Gordon also had her father's bones dug up and reburied. The intensity of her obsession with her father, a father who died when she was only seven, is terrifying--yet readily understandable. The father of her childhood, after all, was not a real human being. He was a fairytale father, an Angela Carter father, a "magic uncle," a Pied Piper strewing candy and trailing kids. In trying to find her "real" father, in trying to come to terms with the lies her father told her, Gordon confesses that "I have done things to my father. I have remembered him, researched him, investigated him, exposed him, invented him." The one thing she cannot do is exorcise him. Gordon is a spiritual sister to Sylvia Plath--Plath who lost her father when she was eight--and despite her ironies, her literary inventiveness, her distancing techniques, she cannot escape the curse of victimhood which her father's early death bequeathed her.

Andre Gerard,
Editor of Fathers: A Literary Anthology


Father and Son (Oxford World's Classics)
Father and Son (Oxford World's Classics)
by Edmund Gosse
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Father of the Father Memoir, 2 Nov. 2011
The first of all father memoirs, this is still one of the best. Interestingly, Edmund Gosse's first attempt to write about his father took the form of an official biography. Written shortly after his father's death on August 23rd 1888, the Life of Philip Henry Gosse was admired by Henry James as "a singularly clever, skilful, vivid, well-done biography of his father, the fanatic and naturalist--very happy in proportion, tact and talent." Luckily, at least two other readers--John Addington Symons and George Moore--suggested Gosse should be more autobiographical and explore the father son relationship. Almost twenty years later, Gosse unburdened himself of Father and Son. Though the book was an immediate success and the reviews were largely enthusiastic, the reviewer of the Academy had reservations about the "close anatomisation by a son of a father," and the Times Literary Supplement raised the question of "how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who is also one's father." Perhaps not always fortunately, subsequent writers, far more frank and confessional, showed far fewer qualms in writing about their fathers.

Andre Gerard,
Editor of Fathers: A Literary Anthology


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