Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

callthemidwifeLike many readers, I came to Jennifer Worth’s memoir via the fabulous TV series based upon it. I’m happy to report that the book is as engaging and interesting as the series. It’s interesting to see how incidents described in the memoir were used as inspiration for episodes of the TV show, but there are added layers of spiritual depth to the story of a secular young nurse who goes to live among an order of nuns who work as midwives in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood in London’s East End. The reader gets a vivid sense of the work involved in midwifery, the conditions in that place and time, and most important, the love and commitment this diverse group of women brought to their work. It’s well worth a read — and don’t miss the TV show!

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Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking

travellingtoinfinityPurchasing and reading this book was a classic, “Saw the movie, now want to read the book to find out how right/wrong they got it” experience after I watched the excellent movie which is largely based upon this book, The Theory of Everything. While Jane Hawking is not a professional memoir writer, so there is no particular literary “flair” to the book, but it’s a clear, well-told story of someone who embodied the role of selfless caregiver and wasn’t treated particularly well as a result. This is an abridged version of her earlier memoir, Music to Move the Stars, and probably benefits a little from the distance that an additional decade could provide.

I came away from the book feeling that the movie had in fact been fairly faithful to Jane Hawking’s version of the truth, though with some of the rough edges smoothed a bit for movie purposes. The problem that faced the filmmakers was obviously how to tell a heartwarming story about a marriage in which a devoted wife supports her disabled genius husband — when the story of that marriage ends with the disabled genius husband dumping his devoted wife. In fact, what both the book and the movie did for me was made me reflect a little on some of my assumptions about marriage and what it means to commit to someone “for better or for worse.” Jane’s dedicated care for Stephen was obviously heroic and she believed strongly in fulfilling her marriage vows, but when he finally left her for his nurse (a process which is far more protracted and painful in the book than it is in the movie), my main feeling was relief for Jane. She went on to marry the dedicated friend (and possibly lover? Her book is as vague as the movie is on whether they ever slept together while she was still married) who provided such support to Jane, Stephen and the whole family for many years. Does dedication to one’s marriage vows require a selfless sacrifice with nothing in return?

The takeaway from this book and movie for me were: being the spouse and caregiver of a severely disabled person is really hard, especially if, like the Hawkings for most of the book, you’re not rich enough to afford a lot of home care. Being married to a genius is also hard — they tend to be demanding and self-absorbed. Being married to the world’s most famous disabled genius wasn’t easy, and for the fact that she stayed in the marriage until he left her, raised three kids, and remains on cordial terms with her famous ex today, Jane Hawking deserves great acclaim. I hope she and Jonathan have a terrific life together because she’s certainly earned it.

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Small Victories, by Anne Lamott

smallvictoriesIt was probably foolish for me to spend money on the e-book of Small Victories, since 2/3 of the essays in Anne Lamott’s new collection were previously published in her earlier books, and I’ve read all her earlier books. But I so enjoy anything by Lamott that it was worth the price just for the sake of ten new essays. As always Lamott is funny, honest, hopeful, angry and compassionate. While I’d have preferred a thick book full of entirely new essays, Small Victories is almost worth the cover price just for Lamott’s essay about online dating at age sixty. If you haven’t read her before, this is a great intro to her work.

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Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

notthatkindofgirlWell, here’s a case where getting a little behind on my book reviews has certainly had an impact on how I discuss the book. I read the memoir before the social media storm erupted around Dunham’s depiction of her seven-year-old self peering at her baby sister’s vagina and later, as a teenager, bribing the same un-cuddly little sister into being a more affectionate somewhat as “a sexual predator might.” A third controversial reference to her sister suggests that when they shared a bed, teenaged Lena sometimes masturbated while her younger sister was asleep in bed next to her. Never having had a sibling, I have no idea how normal or abnormal this behavior is, but it certainly has gotten the young actress, who is a polarizing figure anyway, into a huge controversy.

Before a right-wing website labelled her a pedophile for those scenes in the book, few reviewers seem to have commented much on those passages. Did they make me squirm a little uncomfortably while reading them? Absolutely. But did they make me squirm any more than various other things in the book — Dunham’s depictions of her family life, her boundary-challenged relationship with two different therapists, numerous sexual encounters with different men in her life? No. The entire book is witty, well-written, and eminently squirm-worthy. There’s no suggestion anywhere (to me, anyway) that Dunham is holding her own life up as anything but a complete mess. As the subtitle suggests, her experiences are more along the lines of “cautionary tale” than “role model.”

For my money, Dunham’s exploration of her baby sister’s private parts falls firmly into the category of childhood exploration (can a seven-year-old, who presumably has no sexual feelings herself, actually be a pedophile?); her reference to masturbating next to her sleeping sister is one of a thousand examples of stunningly poor judgement in the book; and her comparison of herself to a sexual predator while trying to get her sister to kiss or cuddle with her is a clear case of where her editor should have said, “Lena, cut this metaphor — you may love it, but it’ll cause you more trouble than it’s worth.”

I think the book suffers a little from the common problem of memoirs written by people under 3o — it feels as if Dunham is too close to the events she’s writing about to have any real perspective or insight into them. But she certainly is a sharp, witty writer who doesn’t mind shining a harsh light on her own faults and shortcomings. Whether that light will turn out to have been too harsh for her future popularity, only time will tell.

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Jew and Improved, by Benjamin Errett

jewandimprovedWith my well-known fondness for memoirs about spiritual journeys, I’d picked up Benjamin Errett’s Jew and Improved a few times, loved the title, and thought “Maybe I should read that,” but never got around to actually reading it. Then I read Alison Pick’s memoir Between Gods, and noticed on the author’s Facebook page that she linked to an article about her book by Benjamin Errett, which began: “When you convene all the Canadians who have written memoirs about converting to Judaism, there’s no need to book the restaurant ahead of time. Alison Pick and I easily found a table for two at a café on a recent Friday morning.”

That sentence convinced me I had to read Errett’s book — and if I was still in doubt, this passage, later in the article, sealed the deal: “Her book is as much about conversion as it is about depression, about searching for spiritual meaning to combat a biochemical feeling of meaninglessness. (My book? My book features brisket recipes.)”

That’s Errett’s authorial voice for you — breezy, funny, self-deprecating. He’s traversing similar ground to Pick here, in the sense that the book is about the conversion process, but he treads it with a much lighter foot. Rather than unearthing a painful and buried family history like Pick, Errett converts to Judaism for probably the most common of reasons: he marries a nice Jewish girl. There’s plenty of family dysfunction in Jew and Improved too, but it’s played for laughs rather than for angst. I highly recommended Between Gods, but if you’ve read that and you’re in the mood for something light and fun, while still thinking Jewish, try Jew and Improved. I liked it; you might too.

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Between Gods, by Alison Pick

betweengodsAlison Pick’s novel Far to Go explores through fiction her family’s long-buried past: her grandparents were Czech Jews who escaped the Holocaust only to convert to Christianity in Canada and hide the past. Between Gods explores that same territory through the (sometimes less forgiving) lens of non-fiction. In raw, lucid prose, Pick uncovers the years during which she converted to Judaism while marrying her longtime partner, having a child, and struggling with depression. There’s a lot going on here, and what holds it all together is Alison Pick’s luminous prose and unflinching honesty. The tone ranges from dark — sometimes very dark, as Pick plumbs the depths of her own depression and her family’s wartime experiences — to funny, as she navigates the process of converting to Judaism under the tutelage of the least empathetic teacher imaginable.

Judaism is well-known to be one of the few world religions that, far from actively proselytizing, actually makes it difficult for people to convert. Rabbis want to be pretty sure that becoming a Jew is no fleeting fancy before they accept you into the fold, and as Pick goes through this process, she is forced to confront her own feelings about her childhood Christianity and the faith of her ancestors. Perhaps appropriately, given the traditional emphasis on Judaism as a religion the focuses more on how you live than on what you believe, there’s little focus here on what Pick actually believes about God or anything supernatural. Though she is obviously a deeply spiritual person, her memoir contains little sense of the presence of a personal God. But then, one of the best-loved women’s stories in the Jewish Scriptures, the Book of Esther, famously never mentions the name of God at all, yet its story is not only a key piece of Jewish history but the basis for the feast of Purim. Alison Pick’s modern story echoes the Esther scroll in suggesting that while the existence of God may be peripheral to the story of a faithful Jewish woman, the question of identity –who am I and what does it mean to be a Jew? — must always be central.

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Girl at the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther

the-girl-at-the-end-of-the-worldElizabeth Esther grew up in an extremely conservative, narrow, closed-off fundamentalist Christian group started by her grandfather, a group whose doctrines may not have differed greatly from those of many other Protestant evangelicals, but whose methods involved extremely strict control over everything children thought, said and did. Her upbringing, as she paints it in this memoir, was clearly one of religious abuse from which she and her husband managed to break away only after marrying and starting a family of their own. The claustrophobic, controlling atmosphere of the family/church (there’s little distinction between the two, in this story) in which she was raised makes this a difficult read at times, but it’s refreshing to read such a story from someone who came out of it still holding to a strong — though very different — Christian faith. Many readers will find it surprising or ironic that Elizabeth Esther left a controlling and abusive religious organization to find wholeness and freedom in the Roman Catholic church (since that church has also been a source of spiritual abuse for many). For me, the takeaway lesson here was: most churches have pockets of darkness and negativity — after all, I experienced growing up in the Adventist church as a positive place with a great deal of freedom, but for other Adventists I know, the church and home were just as narrow and controlling as the sect Elizabeth Esther’s family belonged to. Within most faith groups there is space to find a place of peace and affirmation, but if your religious group (or sub-group) is focused on controlling behavior to the exclusion of all other values, you need to find the courage to walk out the door. Elizabeth Esther did find that courage, and her story will surely be inspiring for others who are abused in the name of God, no matter what sub-sect of what religion they belong to.

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