Book Review: HEART BERRIES, an emotional and raw memoir

Mailhot, Terese Marie - Heart BerriesHeart Berries
Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries, written in poetic, dream-like prose, in part is directed towards Mailhot’s sometimes lover, later husband Casey Gray. In the midst of a breakdown, her excess proved too much for him, and the memoir begins with her institutionalized–voluntarily she is quick to clarify–as she wrestled with his abandonment. (One of my favorite scenes depicts a group of women coloring at the psychiatric facility.)

Within this dysfunctional love story, Mailhot reveals greater sorrows. Her mother had a series of boyfriends and neglected her children, so they went into foster care. When Mailhot aged out of the system, she got married because she lacked better options, but she lost custody of her elder son to her ex-husband. Later, when she is medicated and more stable, she remembers that her father abused her. She reveals she and her siblings have substance abuse problems as well. All that is set against continued microaggressions due to her ethnicity, starting with those she witness against her mother who was ignored in restaurants and shops as if being Indian were a crime.

After Mailhot leaves the psychiatric facility, she starts seeing Casey once a week, though she knows he is also seeing other–white–women, at least casually, at least as friends. Even though she doesn’t believe Casey can understand her pain, even though she thinks he prefers white women, they have a child together and they marry. The memoir turns, then, addressing Mailhot’s parents and their legacy to her.

When I finished reading Heart Berries, I read some of the online reviews, and they didn’t match my experience of the book. Although I value women’s stories and women seizing control of their own narratives, Native women in particular, I don’t personally care for Mailhot’s style. At times, her writing can be lovely, but too often, it felt choppy to me. That some reviewers called her the voice of a generation seemed at best hyperbolic. That said, it was achingly honest and a provocative meditation on love, abuse, mental health, racism, and motherhood.

Book Review: MEN WE REAPED, a memoir worth reading

ward, jesmyn - men we reaped (4) (1)Men We Reaped
Jesmyn Ward

I am still gutted after reading Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward’s memoir. The book has two tracks: the story of her family and the story of five men close to her, including her brother, who died between 2000 and 2004. Ward grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in a poor family with three siblings. Her parents often argued due to her father’s playboy ways and easy parting with money. Their housing was always precarious, and once they lived with her maternal grandmother with several other family members. Her parents got divorced, but her mother tried to reconcile with her father. That didn’t work since her father had several children out of wedlock and continued to see one of the baby mamas. Ward was bullied in school. Even when her mother’s employer offered to pay for her to attend an exclusive private school, she was singled out because of her race. When wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt, a girl cornered her in the bathroom and said that she should have worn her David Duke t-shirt. Ward had to get away, so went to college at Stanford. Ward’s story is difficult to read but so enlightening, and she writes it as though it’s a novel.

In alternating chapters, Ward tells the story of the young men who died. They had different histories and died in different ways, but they all were affected by the Southern culture that devalued black male lives. The community members left felt like their people were being killed off, and as more boys died, the grief radiated and expanded. These boys deserved having their stories told, and I was glad to read about their lives and their untimely and unfair deaths.

Ward’s memoir moved me, and I highly recommend it. The conditions of her childhood were unfathomable to me, and opened my eyes to the deprivation some families endure. I shared her grief at the unjust losses of the boys who died too soon. The only thing that I felt was missing was this–Ward blamed Southern culture for the deaths of the young men. I can believe this given the poverty that creates depression, fosters drug uses, pushes people into illegal activities, and keeps a community’s public services underfunded. However, because she made the claim, I wish she’d have discussed her reasoning a bit more.

Book Review: JUST KIDS, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s long friendship

smith, patti - just kids (2)Just Kids
Patti Smith

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met in late 1960s New York City in their early twenties. What began as a love affair turned into a lifelong friendship, and, when dying of AIDS, Mapplethorpe asked Smith to document their time together.

At times, it seems amazing they survived. They had so little money for food and rent, only their wiles kept them afloat. When someone was murdered outside Mapplethorpe’s apartment, they moved to the Chelsea Hotel, famous as an artist enclaved, and their they met a number of influential and supportive associates. At the time, they were both visual artists, but Smith was moving more towards poetry and music while Mapplethorpe was turning to photography, male bodies, and S&M at the same time joining the social milieu of sponsor and lover Sam Wagstaff.

Though they grew apart and hadn’t talked for some time, when Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS, their friendship resumed, and Smith commuted with her husband and children between Detroit and New York City to spend time with him and offer care.

I’ve watched a few documentaries about Mapplethorpe, and though they mentioned Patti Smith, they didn’t deeply delve into her presence in his life. Just Kids explains their complicated relationship and how it survived after they were no longer lovers. It offers fascinating details about Mapplethorpe’s motivations and processes as well as the day-to-day life they shared.

Personally, I didn’t like Smith’s writing style which seemed affected to me, as though she tries too hard to be a poet, an identity she always clinged to. Smith reports that Mapplethorpe and others praised her artwork, but the reproductions included in the book didn’t impress me. Of course, her wild success in music speaks for itself.

I also thought the book was very choppy, moving between sections with no transitions. (Perhaps the print version had some sort of typographical indication of a change of subject matter.)

Fans of Patti Smith and/or Robert Mapplethorpe will want to read this book. I think for me, the main problem is that I am more interested in Mapplethorpe than Smith, and of course, this being a book by Smith, her story is front and center.

BOOK REVIEW: How To Be a Good Creature – learn from animals

IMG_1162 (2)How To Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery has spent her career writing about and studying animals. Perhaps her profession was inevitable from the moment in childhood when she told her parents she wasn’t a human girl but a pony, and then, when that phase ended, as her pediatrician assured her mother it would, she insisted she was a dog. When her family got Molly, a miniature schnauzer, Montgomery finally had a guide to the canine world. Montgomery realized that she had learned something from all the animals in her life, some, like Molly, a part of her family, some, like the spider Clarabelle or the Christmas Weasel, fleeting acquaintances. She learned how to be a Good Creature.

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, then, tells the story of thirteen notable animal teachers in ten chapters, and in so doing also hints at Montgomery’s story. In terms of structure and focus, the book reminded me of I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Both are memoirs organized around a specific topic (animals/near-death-experiences), and each chapter tells about a specific experience or lesson. This narrative choice makes the relatively brief book extremely clear in its purpose but also narrows the topics that Montgomery discusses.

Typically, I don’t read books about animals because they are too upsetting to me, but I made an exception for this book, and I’m glad I did even though it gutted me. I am still crying ugly tears. Montgomery’s love for animals comes through on every page, and she respects their unique individuality whether she’s describing her beloved pig Christopher or the octopus Octavia. She writes, “Each individual is a marvel and perfect in his or her own way. Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding.”

The cost of the love is pain, and when Christopher and her rescue dog Tess died in close proximity, Montgomery fell into a depression and considered suicide, not sure she could live without them. She’d committed to joining an expedition to study tree kangaroos in Papa New Guinea and decided to complete her obligation before making any decisions. The expedition team was able to find a male-female pair of tree kangaroos, something unexpected as a male had never been collared before. Dr. Lisa Dabek, head of the expedition, named the tree kangaroos Tess and Chris.

“Tess. Chris. Tess. Chris. How many times in the fourteen years I’d shared with my pig and my dog had I uttered those sweet words? Since their death, just the sound of their names had been as an arrow to my heart. But now it was different. Tess. Chris. Tess. Chris: repeating their names became a chant, a mantra, a prayer—a call to remember my beloved ones with gratitude.”

Montgomery was able to return to her life renewed, and other rescue animals became part of her family. “This is the gift great souls leave us when they die. They enlarge our hearts. They leave us a greater capacity for love.” (As an aside, I think it tragic, and not just a little selfish, when someone loses an animal and says they will never get another and go through the pain again. That attitude closes the speaker from the love of an animal and deprives a needy animal of a home. Please do not be that person. You can love another animal again and homeless animals need you.)

Even when the animal about which she writes is foreign to our experience, like a spider or octopus, Montgomery excels at describing their behavior. She treats them with the same reverence and respect she bestows upon dogs, pigs, and cats. While I might have empathized most with the chapters about dogs and pigs, I learned the most in the chapters about these less familiar creatures. “A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.”

In describing her life with animals, Montgomery also depicts her life with people: her husband, the writer Howard Mansfield; her friends in the New Hampshire community where she lives; and her parents, now both deceased, and who never understood her life choices. Montgomery relates what must be extremely difficult memories, such as her father disowning her, with a matter-of-fact remove, but ultimately with forgiveness.

Sy Montgomery herself is a Good Creature. She approaches animals, people included, with compassion and loving-kindness, and models the type of behavior and attitude I wish more people shared.

In fulfilling her purpose of capturing the life lessons from animal teachers, Montgomery’s book is near-perfect, and it is illustrated with fetching drawings by Rebecca Green. It’s also Green’s work on the cover, without a doubt my favorite book cover among the books I’ve read this year. The only problem with the book is when the reader (I) want to know more information that is outside of the book’s boundary conditions. Being on the road on expeditions must have been difficult on her marriage, but that isn’t a topic considered in the book, nor did she explain how she learned to research. Certainly there is more in her relationship with her parents to mine. I was also intrigued by asides. In her chapter on Clarabelle the spider, Montgomery emphasizes that people are not born with fears of spiders. I would be interested to know more about the research on this topic (which seems to be contradicted by recent studies conducted by Max Planck). And although I did sometimes want more information, I certainly respect the choice of a narrow focus–something many authors are reluctant to do–as it is much better than scope creep.

Even though this can be a sad book, it is ultimately life-affirming, and I think every animal lover will enjoy it. Perhaps those among us who aren’t animals, though, need to read it the most.

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BOOK REVIEW: You’ve Been So Lucky Already, a Touching Memoir of Illness and Depression

Black, Alethea - You've Been So Lucky Already (1)You’ve Been So Lucky Already
by Alethea Black

You’ve Been So Lucky Already, a memoir by Alethea Black, focuses on three areas of her life: her teenage years when her parents were getting divorced, her early twenties when she suffered a mental breakdown, and finally her thirties, when she was overcome with an illness no doctors seemed to be able to diagnose.

Black’s writing is poignant and at the same time very funny. At times, I found myself in tears. It was easy to relate to her teenage self who chose her boyfriend over her father, something she regretted as an adult. Having suffered from chronic depression, I truly felt her pain when she described her symptoms ranging from apathy to fatigue to despair. Being sick for over a year without any clear diagnosis, spending tens of thousands of dollars on alternative treatments, and ultimately losing everything except her dog, Black had every reason to fall into pieces but instead chose to start over with hope and optimism.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that some of my favorite moments had to do with her relationship with her miniature dachshunds. I love anyone who carries their dog in a doggy bjorn or purse; once, she took her dog to her to mass and put a drop of holy water on her snout.

Many individual moments in the book, then, are superb, written well and with observations and insight that resonated with me. One line I loved when talking about a song popular when she was a teenager: “Hearing it’s like being spritzed with a perfume called High School.” The book is also peppered with illustrations that I enjoyed. I couldn’t find the artist’s name in the book; maybe it was Black herself. This one really hit me; it captured how I sometimes feel:

Black, Alethea - You've Been So Lucky Already (illustration)

As a whole, though, the book has problems with flow and pacing. The three main sections aren’t adequately integrated. And the final third or so of the book, about her illness, jumps from topic to topic and from past to presents in such a way as to be distracting.

That said, many readers will empathize and see themselves in Black and her struggles. Her style reminded me a bit of Jenny Larsen, and I think her fans would enjoy this book as well.

Be sure to visit the author’s photo gallery on her website!