Playing With Dynamite

Playing With Dynamite by Sharon Harrigan

Sharon Harrigan’s father was larger than life, a brilliant but troubled man who blew off his hand with dynamite before she was born and died in a mysterious and bizarre accident when she was seven. The story of his death never made sense. How did he really die? And why was she so sure that asking would be dangerous? A series of events compel her to find the answers, collecting other people’s memories and uncovering her own. Her two-year odyssey takes her from Virginia to Detroit to Paris and finally to the wilds of northern Michigan where her father died. There, she discovers the real danger and has to confront her fear.

Playing with Dynamite is about the family secrets that can distance us from each other and the honesty that can bring us closer. It’s about a daughter who goes looking for her father but finds her mother instead. It’s about memory and truth, grieving and growing, and what it means to go home again.

(A copy of this novel was provided in exchange for an honest review)

It’s always interesting for me to read memoir because I never really know what to expect. The execution is so widely varying, it’s hard to know what kind of story you’re in for before you read it. Whenever someone recommends a work of memoir to me or gives me one to read, I’m always a little hesitant. There’s this feeling that if you didn’t like the memoir for some reason, it’s kind of like you’re invalidating someone’s life experiences. I know it’s not exactly like that, but it feels that way to me.

Playing With Dynamite is one of the lovely ones. Sharon Harrigan’s style is so engrossing, it’s hard to extricate yourself from it and put the book down. I started the book with the intention that I would at least start it so I could judge how long I would need to finish it, but before I knew it, I had read half of it and hadn’t touched either of the books for my upcoming bookclubs.

In the acknowledgements, Sharon Harrigan mentions that parts of the book were published as individual essays. I can feel that. Sections of the book hang together really, really well. Which doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t work together. Quite the contrary. Somehow Playing With Dynamite seems to straddle a rare line in writing. Whether you have time for just a small section, a part, or the whole book, Playing With Dynamite manages to engage and delight at every reading experience, leaving you feeling satisfied no matter where you had to leave off.

Beautifully written, engrossing, and artfully structured, it reminded me a lot of The Glass Castle. Both stories feature dysfunctional families, so if you liked The Glass Castle, you will probably enjoy Playing With Dynamite, though Harrigan’s family is a lot less dysfunctional that Walls’.

This is Harrigan’s first book and I am looking forward to her future titles!

Summer at Tiffany

Summer of Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

Do you remember the best summer of your life?

New York City, 1945. Marjorie Jacobson and her best friend, Marty Garrett, arrive fresh from the Kappa house at the University of Iowa hoping to find summer positions as shopgirls. Turned away from the top department stores, they miraculously find jobs as pages at Tiffany & Co., becoming the first women to ever work on the sales floor–a diamond-filled day job replete with Tiffany blue shirtwaist dresses from Bonwit Teller’s–and the envy of all their friends.

Hart takes us back to the magical time when she and Marty rubbed elbows with the rich and famous; pinched pennies to eat at the Automat; experienced nightlife at La Martinique; and danced away their weekends with dashing midshipmen. Between being dazzled by Judy Garland’s honeymoon visit to Tiffany, celebrating VJ Day in Times Square, and mingling with Cafe society, she fell in love, learned unforgettable lessons, made important decisions that would change her future, and created the remarkable memories she now shares with all of us.

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I first heard about this book when I went to the SDSU Writer’s Conference in January. Marjorie Hart was one of the speakers, talking about how her book was discovered at the conference. She read a little section from the book and I couldn’t wait to pick it up and read the rest. I was excited when my bookclub chose Summer at Tiffany for our April read.

This was a lovely little memoir, a window into a different era. It really does seem like it was a simpler time, full of innocence and magic. This isn’t meant to be a deep, instructive memoir like The Glass Castle.

I enjoyed that the book came with a section of Marjorie and Marty’s pictures and illustrations of New York. I also found myself googling the famous people they met and learning their stories as well. Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Wallis Simpson…names I knew, but stories I knew precious little about. And the history they witnessed! Marjorie and Marty arrive in New York at the tail end of World War II…what a time to be alive!

This is an easy read that was over much too soon! It’s sweet, it’s fun, and it would make an awesome beach or summer afternoon read!

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings back in my freshman year of high school. I remember that, at the time, it was a somewhat of a scandalous choice because of it’s depiction of young Maya’s molestation and rape by an older man. That maybe fourteen-year-olds weren’t mature enough for its content. A look over a handful of my blog posts will reveal my thoughts on that. tl;dr the reading of children and young adults shouldn’t be censored.

I re-read it again for my book club recently.

I remember being really impressed by this book and liking it a lot the first time I read it. I didn’t feel that as much this time, but perhaps that’s because some of the magic has worn off. Re-reading it did remind me that I wanted to read the rest of Angelou’s memoirs at some point.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a quick and engrossing read. I wish it were longer though. It covers about sixteen years of Angelou’s life in only a few hundred pages. I especially would have liked to have seen even more of the Southern town and the store where she grew up.

One thing that was different for me about this reading experience, is that I lingered more on the last passages where she questions her sexuality because she thinks she “looks” like a lesbian and a more or less has sex to prove to herself that she’s heterosexual. This is quite a crazy line of thinking, but after all, teenagers have done worse. I don’t remember that section of the book and I don’t think I paid much attention to it the first time I read it. It seems gratifying in a way that Maya, such a revered and well-known author, could admit to acting so foolish. This felt like one of the most humanizing passages in the whole book.

One Writer’s Beginnings

By Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a “continuous thread of revelation” she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father’s coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother’s sturdy independence, Eudora’s earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction.

I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction, particularly autobiographies. I would not have picked out this book to read for myself if it wasn’t required.

It was well-written certainly, and the language was good. But I find my books like this really irritating where the author tries to retro-actively ascribe certain events to their development as an individual and writer. It just comes off as super-pretentious at best. This was one of those books where you want to wave your little “I call bullshit” flag.

This book really would have been much better as a straight autobiography, rather than this autobiography/writing memoir hybrid. The bits about her family and childhood and how everyone ended up doing what they did, was interesting. Unfortunately the reflections on her life as a writer took away from the book in my opinion.

It is a pretty short book, which made suffering through it a little more bearable. I do feel bad on some level being so negative about a book written by a Pulitzer winner, but then again, I’m pretty vocal about my dislike of Hemingway, so I suppose it’s all right. They might have lots of esteem and awards, but they’re just people, too, right?

Have you read this book? What was your opinion of it?

The Woman Warrior

By Maxine Hong Kingston

A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity.

I’ve always felt like books from certain cultures have certain flavors, that seem to be a product of the culture and language itself, rather than individual authors. Spanish and Chinese stories I’ve noticed exhibit this the most.

This novel, though non-fiction, felt very similar to Amy Tan’s fiction novels. Beautiful, lyrical, haunting, but also raw and a bit messy in what they describe. I’ve long thought of Chinese culture as being reserved and unwilling to really talk about the more personal aspects of human nature e.g. sex, childbirth, death, etc. But their literature is certainly unafraid to deal with these things, in a no-nonsense, get-your-hands-dirty way.

This seems to be a memoir of sorts, but it weaves in fictional stories and myths of ancestors and others in the telling of its author’s identity.

The book is divided into five sections that deal with different women: the author’s dead aunt on her father’s side, Mulan, the author’s mother, the author’s mother and her sister, and finally the author herself.

I found all of the stories very engaging and very beautifully written. The structure might seem odd to some readers, but if you just roll with it, it flows and fits together nicely. I read this all in one sitting on the plane ride back from California, which I felt was such a great way to experience this book, especially since it isn’t very long.

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town—and the family—Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

If that first line doesn’t make you sit down and take notice, nothing will. From the very beginning of the book, it is clear that this is an unconventional story. Made all the more unconventional by the fact that hers is a true story.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this book if you’re also working on/trying to write your own book: you might just feel like giving up. Walls’s writing is rich and powerful, sophisticated and tender. She tells a difficult story with a beautiful brush. As she moves from innocent child, for whom her parents are God, to independent adult, who almost pities them, her narrative style never wavers. Her story is generous and harsh in all the right places. While her parents were far from perfect and her childhood years even less so, we are never given the sense that Walls particularly regrets the past. Rather, she almost looks on it as a sad and distant adventure.

There is no question that it irrevocably shaped who she is. But perhaps, it was for the better. To triumph over such deep adversity, truly, that makes a person.

I loved the idea of “The Glass Castle”, what it represents, how it keeps coming back in the story, and ultimately, that Walls chose to title her memoir The Glass Castle.

Between that first line and this last line, lies an extraordinary book.

“A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.”

Marbles

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

Shortly before her thirtieth birthday, Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Flagrantly manic and terrified that medications would cause her to lose creativity, she began a years-long struggle to find mental stability while retaining her passions and creativity.

Searching to make sense of the popular concept of the crazy artist, she finds inspiration from the lives and work of other artists and writers who suffered from mood disorders, including Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Styron, and Sylvia Plath. She also researches the clinical aspects of bipolar disorder, including the strengths and limitations of various treatments and medications, and what studies tell us about the conundrum of attempting to “cure” an otherwise brilliant mind.

Darkly funny and intensely personal, Forney’s memoir provides a visceral glimpse into the effects of a mood disorder on an artist’s work, as she shares her own story through bold black-and-white images and evocative prose.

One of the things I really love about graphic novels is that it’s entirely possible to read them in one sitting, inside the space of an hour or two. I started this before bed and definitely finished it all that night.

If you’ve ever been curious as to what being bipolar feels like, read this book. Forney does a great job of conveying the highs and the lows, with text, images, and spatial representations. In a weird way, I think the bipolar disorder is uniquely fit to be depicted in graphic novel form. I don’t Forney could have communicated the vast difference between the two if this were just a novel.

This is the fourth graphic novel I’ve read, the others being Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (highly recommended), Maus by Art Spiegelman, and The Watchmen by Alan Moore. I enjoyed and loved all of them. Graphic novels are very interesting, especially studying in the context of art-as-literature and literature-as-art. While I say that you can read these novels pretty quickly, you can also read them very slowly. There’s so much to take in on each page, particularly in the case of Watchmen which is just intense. No wonder it’s held up as one of the greatest examples of the genre. It really is exceptional, especially on the level of detail.

I picked up this book after seeing a review of it in a magazine (Entertainment Weekly, I think it was). I was attracted to it because I, too, have long contemplated the associations between artists and mental illness. After being part of a pretty close-knit writing department at a large university, by the end, it almost felt like if you didn’t have something “wrong” with you, you didn’t belong. Mental illnesses were worn as badges of honor, in a way. Which is not to belittle people’s struggles. I also count myself into the above category. (Generalized anxiety, depression, and a spot squarely on the obsessive spectrum of OCD, if you’re wondering what my merit badges are). A couple sections in Marbles particularly resonated with me because of this. One, the author’s struggle to decide if treating her bipolar disorder was equal to killing her creativity. In other words, whether her creativity stemmed from the “crazy”. Two, there’s a particular section where she discusses how among the community of bipolar sufferers, the numbers of meds you’ve tried are clung to like hard-fought medals of honor.

There are a lot of facts in this book, both about bipolar disorder as a disease and about the relationship between artists in history and mental illness. It’s definitely not a coincidence. I don’t think there’s a person in the modern age who’s decided to devote themselves to some type of art that hasn’t thought about whether, one day, they might become another Sylvia Plath or Virgina Woolf.

One of my favorite passages in the book, is the section where she finally tells people about her illness. None of her friends ran away screaming. All were accepting, in their own way. The interesting thing is, I think this is pretty typical of people’s experiences. Maybe it’s still taboo, maybe not, but people who really love you probably already knew you had (insert mental illness).

A diagnosis doesn’t make you a different person.