Take This Man

This cover is gorgeous in person

Take This Man
by Brando Skyhorse

It is a very strange experience to read the memoir of someone you know. I met Brando Skyhorse through a mutual friend who, several years ago, gave me his email address when I was working on my novel. (Thanks again, mutual friend!) She suggested that I contact Brando if I had any questions about writing or publishing. After working as an editor for many years, his first book (The Madonnas of Echo Park) was about to be released. He sounded like a great but busy resource and I hesitated to bug him. Yet soon I had a question that no one I knew could answer and it seemed foolish not to at least reach out to him.

Brando replied a couple days later with a warm, encouraging note that answered my question in detail. Since then he’s graciously responded to my occasional questions, helped me dodge more than one bullet and has given me what has been by far the most helpful feedback I’ve received on my book. He’s done all this with an empathy and humor that was always remarkable but is even more so after reading his memoir.

I had inklings here and there that Brando had had at best an unconventional upbringing and at worst a tough one, but I didn’t have any details. So it was with a lot of sadness that through his beautifully written book, I learned just how crazy his childhood was. I’ve read other memoirs like Brando’s (The Glass Castle kept coming to mind) but my experience of them was entirely different. I remember walking away from The Glass Castle astounded by the mental illness of Jeannette Walls’ parents and by the resilience she and her siblings had in overcoming their childhoods. Although there are similar ingredients in Take This Man, my sick fascination was replaced by heartache. It pained me to learn that the people closest to Brando had neglected to give him the same support and understanding he has offered so freely to me in our limited interactions.

But aside from being such a mensch, he also happens to be a darn good writer. Brando has taken what could have been another addition to the “misery porn” genre (aka author details dysfunctional childhood and his eventual triumph over adversity) and he’s created something that’s more like one part detective story and one part lyrical narrative and tossed it all with a splash of humor. Some of my favorite wry comments include, “On the day he left for good, he spent most of that final morning doing household chores—something that should have aroused immediate suspicion” or “When your father’s local is the first bar seen in Barfly, you know how this story’s gonna turn out.”

The past couple weeks have felt particularly brutal in the world affairs department. Lately things have seemed even more dire and troubling than usual and there was a part of me that felt a bit out of sync for hunkering down to read a book in the midst of a chaotic world. But Brando’s story was a reminder that in these moments, all we really have to fall back on is our shared humanity, a humanity that sometimes rises highest in the midst of chaos.


papa copyA Replacement Life
by Boris Fishman

Do you know the story of how your grandparents fell in love?

On my mother’s side, it goes something like this. It’s late 1930’s Milwaukee and my grandfather has invited my grandmother on a first date to a fair. At the top of the Ferris wheel, Gram becomes nauseous and is terrified that she’ll toss her cookies on my future grandfather. To her credit, she managed keep it together for the remainder of the date and when she got home that night, she told her mother that she was in love and wanted to marry my grandpa. My great-grandmother, speaking from her own experience, warned Gram that their relationship would not be warmly received in certain circles. You see, Great-Gram was Irish Catholic and had married a Jewish man in the early years of the 20th century, a pattern her daughter would eventually repeat. One would think that my great-grandmother’s warning would imbue the story with all kinds of danger and tension that would eventually play out in my family’s mythology, but the truth is that it was the image of my young grandparents on the Ferris wheel that always made the biggest impression on me.

Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life opens with the news that Slava Gelman’s grandmother has passed away and he realizes “the story of how Grandmother and Grandfather fell in love was the only story that Slava had.” As the sole member of her family to survive the Holocaust, Slava’s grandmother had focused on the present instead of the past, protecting Slava from her unhappy memories.

Days before Grandmother’s death, she had received a letter from the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany inviting her to submit a reparations claim. Slava’s grandfather wants to submit a claim himself despite having sat out the war in Uzbekistan, which doesn’t qualify him for reparations. But who’s to judge what qualifies as suffering? So with great reluctance, Slava invents a story for his grandfather and soon every Russian Jew in South Brooklyn wants Slava to write their reparations claims as well. What starts as a project laden with moral ambiguity eventually becomes an opportunity for Slava to connect with his late grandmother as he concocts all the stories his grandmother never told him.

This novel—like all good ones—is about many things: the Holocaust, the immigrant experience, American Jewish culture versus Russian Jewish culture, morality, truth and storytelling. And it is very well written, with lots of lovely images and intriguing metaphors. But for some utterly subjective and impossible to quantify reason, the book didn’t entirely speak to me. Technically and thematically it was all there, yet emotionally I just didn’t fully connect. But the theme that kept me going was this desire to understand what our grandparents’ lives were like and to consider where their stories end and our imaginations begin.

Who knows how much of Gram’s Ferris wheel story I have right. And while they did not experience the Holocaust directly, I’m sure my grandparents did face anti-Semitism here in the US. But they never really talked about any of that because I’m sure, like Slava’s grandmother, they wanted to protect me. And this leaves me wondering what my grandparents didn’t tell me.

Up Next: Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse. My first book on this blog written by someone I know!



My Struggle, Book One
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Any attempt to describe the surface story of My Struggle, Book One is bound to sound boring. On its most basic level, the memoir is 430 pages that primarily involve our hero hiding some beer for a teenage New Year’s party and cleaning his grandparents’ house. But 45-year-old Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard delves far below the surface in this first volume of his six-part memoir. (Correction to earlier post: all six books have been written, not all have been translated into English yet.)

In this book, Knausgaard takes seemingly mundane moments from his life and magnifies them with raw emotional detail, context and backstory so that his internal drama–his struggle–comes to the forefront and, believe it or not, keeps us turning the pages. Because these moments have so much meaning to Karl Ove, they mean something to us. And they remind us of all those seemingly mundane but emotionally remarkable moments in our own lives and why we still remember them 20, 30 or 50 years later.

I’ve mentioned before that this book has received a lot of acclaim – I think the hoopla stems from the fact that Knausgaard is creating a new level of intimacy with his readers that’s hard to compare to other memoirs (or “autobiographical novels,” as this series is being labeled). Such intimacy allows the author to pull off a few conventions that are typically considered writing taboos. One example of this is his dialogue, which often includes a lot of “hi, hi, how are you, I’m fine how are you,” etc etc. Typically, this kind of banter is discouraged because even though it’s true to how we speak to one another in real life, it doesn’t translate and lands flat on the page. Yet somehow in this context, that measure of realism seems to work, or at least feel tolerable. It’s almost like we’d feel cheated – like he’d skipped something – if he left out the “hi’s” and “how are you’s” in light of everything else he’s allowing us to experience with him.

In the midst of reading this book, I happened to see Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, a movie that, in a very different way, is also forging a new level of intimacy with its audience. Boyhood was shot intermittently over 12 years, picking up once a year in the lives of its characters, all of who are played by the same actors throughout the 12 years. This is not a documentary, it’s a scripted story, but the aging process is entirely real. Never before has a film portrayed the aging of its characters by following the actual aging process of its actors. The effect is quite powerful: like a concentrated version of observing our family and long-time friends grow older over many years. How can you not feel more invested in someone’s inner life after being so intimately engaged in their outer development?

Where My Struggle pushes its medium by using words to explore the feelings, memories and psychology of its story as deeply as possible, Boyhood breaks new ground by stretching the visual opportunities of film. In both cases the “plot” really occurs within the characters rather than via external events, but the impact is quite gripping.

So here’s a question to ponder: why are adults obsessed with adolescence? Whether it’s the entire YA genre, Catcher in the Rye or these two latest additions to the canon of adolescent journeys, why do we feel compelled to re-visit adolescence again and again? I have my own theories but I’m curious as to your thoughts. Leave a comment below, tweet me or, for those of you who prefer to remain anonymous, send an email to tina@ratherbereading.net – I’ll post your thoughts without an attribute.