New Memoirs Try to Get the Balance Right
“The longer I went without a ‘BM,’ the longer I could hold onto my Sick Girl identity, and the more of a quest I could generate for you,” Brandeis writes in a passage addressed to her mother. “You seemed a little lost without the constant demands of my illness. … I started to spritz Love’s Baby Soft every time I pooped to mask the smell.”
When Brandeis finally “traded in the ‘sick girl’ mantle,” her sister Elizabeth picks up right where she leaves off and begins projectile vomiting at the dinner table “like something from ‘The Exorcist.’” Elizabeth eventually lands in a hospital with a feeding tube up her nose, but a mere eating disorder is too prosaic for Arlene, who accuses the doctors of trying to kill her daughter. Years later, Arlene files a lawsuit against the doctors, but Elizabeth, summoned home from college for testimony, is still too loyal to her mother to tell the truth and admit she was making herself throw up.
“She doesn’t want anything to disrupt her own story line,” Brandeis writes of Arlene, “the story of herself as the heroic crusader, the warrior martyr of a mother who stood up to the big bad medical establishment and saved her blameless girls.”
Over the course of 16 years, Brandeis writes, the family entertained explanations for Arlene’s delusions that ranged from borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia to mismanaged diabetes to a brain lesion. During much of that time, Arlene was working on a documentary film about her medical journey, one for which she routinely sought out her daughters’ help and participation.
The film was clearly a vanity project, though Brandeis is careful to give it its due. As such, she incorporates transcripts and scene descriptions into her book, even giving it the same title her mother was using for the film. Borrowing the title works as a homage; not to mention that “The Art of Misdiagnosis” is a terrific title. But the shifts between first-person narration, film transcripts and letters addressed to her mother cause the book to buckle somewhat under the weight of its own confusions. Brandeis may have finally disrupted her mother’s story line, but that’s a separate matter from finding her own.
If the death at the center of Brandeis’s memoir stirred up more emotional detritus than she could possibly sort through in one book, Thomas Mira y Lopez may have faced the opposite problem. Framed around his father’s death following a massive seizure in 2006, THE BOOK OF RESTING PLACES: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead (Counterpoint, $26) is both a grief memoir and a travelogue through the afterlife — at least as it’s experienced by those left behind. In a series of 10 linked essays, Mira y Lopez treks across various landscapes — some real, some psychological — with an eye toward discovering what connects particular places to particular rituals or relics surrounding the dead.
At a construction site that once was Tucson’s National Cemetery, the author observes, astutely, that a cemetery serves a “civic function” but is more than just functional, in that “it disposes of the dead, yet also provides them a home. It’s built of the dead, but also for the living.” In Rome, where he was studying at the time his father had the seizure, Mira y Lopez visits the Catacombs of Priscilla and wonders why he does not immediately return home. “The tour guides told us about the walls,” he writes, “the soft volcanic tufa the Romans initially believed bees nested within. … I thought of the rehab ahead, of how my father’s body and mind would be permanently changed.” Later in the book, another kind of death comes in the form of a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance, whom the author must distance himself from when he discovers the man to be a raging bigot.
Mira y Lopez, who holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona, is a gifted writer. His ear for language and his ability to take ownership of ideas by finding the poetry in them rather than falling into didacticism — “A ghost is a manifestation of guilt,” he writes, “a forgiveness demanded, a memory contested” — is the kind of thing that cannot be taught. Nonetheless, “The Book of Resting Places” feels a lot like an M.F.A. thesis project stretched too thin in order to become a book. His father’s death having amounted to a rather narrow premise, there is a sense here of the author combing through every experience he’s had in recent years in search of thematically relevant material.
Not that the impulse to look outward rather than inward isn’t laudable. It’s refreshing to encounter a young writer who’s chosen to do some fieldwork rather than indulging a deep dive into his own limited personal history. But Mira y Lopez has the kind of talent that can be as much a burden as a blessing. Though it will probably be embraced by graduate school creative writing types, many of whom struggle daily with imposing deep meaning on what is exasperatingly mundane, “The Book of Resting Places” occupies that awkward literary sphere of books that seem on the surface to be more interesting than they actually are.
I actually sort of mean that as a compliment. Sure, Mira y Lopez relies too much on rigged-up profundities and allusions to Greek myth, but the dirty secret of completing a book is sometimes you have to shift your goal from writing a masterpiece to merely pulling things off. To that end, I have to begrudgingly hand it to the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, whose book of micro-memoirs is nothing if not a lesson in sticking to your aesthetic guns. HEATING & COOLING: 52 Micro-Memoirs (Norton, $22.95) contains essays that are sometimes as short as 10 words — “Swapped the rosary on my bedpost for Mardi Gras beads” (that’s the whole thing) — but add up to a surprisingly maximalist portrait of a life.
Fennelly writes about the tedium of conversations on airplanes, the unshakeability of a Catholic upbringing, the fact that she has an enormous bladder and can go for hours without urinating. In the title essay, Fennelly calls an air-conditioning repairman and, told that her ceiling must come down, wrestles with the “numerous subjects of which I’m ignorant.” It’s meant to be a reckoning with her perception of herself as a feminist but, as she does again and again in this tiny book, she’s really just owning up to the fruitlessness of trying to find meaning in every moment. And if the book feels familiar in places (“Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay” is both a title and trope here), it’s also a testament to the power of not unpacking at all but instead living out of a very small suitcase.