Review: In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish and Sinan Antoon (translator)

This will be my last memoir post for the year, just in case anyone was growing tired of them and wants to go back to the realm of fiction. This is also the last book club review of the year because for December our genre was Palestinian authors and this autobiographical book of poetry was the winner.

I was thoroughly unaware of Darwish when I read In The Presence of Absence, because my literary education has been comprised of primarily British and American authors. At first I was nervous about taking on the work because I don’t have a strong grasp of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and was worried I would need to do a lot of research to connect with the book. While I know the book would impact me on a deeper level more consistently if I was more educated about this issue, the book still resonated in many ways. I don’t feel incredibly confident about writing a review of a work by an author who means such a great deal to his country so I will simply state that it was a deeply moving book and provided a voice from a country whose pain I’ve only seen discussed peripherally by white news anchors in clips from CNN and it’s a damn shame there isn’t more space given to own voices during these conflicts.

As written in the Amazon synopsis:

“One of the most transcendent poets of his generation, Darwish composed this remarkable elegy at the apex of his creativity, but with the full knowledge that his death was imminent. Thinking it might be his final work, he summoned all his poetic genius to create a luminous work that defies categorization. In stunning language, Darwish’s self-elegy inhabits a rare space where opposites bleed and blend into each other. Prose and poetry, life and death, home and exile are all sung by the poet and his other. On the threshold of im/mortality, the poet looks back at his own existence, intertwined with that of his people. Through these lyrical meditations on love, longing, Palestine, history, friendship, family, and the ongoing conversation between life and death, the poet bids himself and his readers a poignant farewell.”

 

Review: No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a collection of blog posts by famed novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, lovingly curated and published shortly before her passing. It is divided into different subgenres including pieces about her cat, her experiences receiving fan mail, and takes on modern life.

I haven’t read many of Le Guin’s works, I think I may have read a couple of short stories in undergrad and that is probably about it. Her traditional genre, SciFi, isn’t one I often read so I don’t think that will change a great deal. But I am very glad I read this. Le Guin’s voice in these posts is sharply intelligent but not lacking the humanity we often associate with genius. They are also perceptive and poignant in turn. I especially loved her writing about her cat because I too am a cat lady and could relate to her on that point.

Fans of Le Guin’s work will greatly enjoy this book I think, especially reading about how she views her legacy and the work she’s done. But even for those of us who are generally unfamiliar with it, it’s a beautiful collection and made me feel that loss all over again. It is a bittersweet experience but one that shouldn’t be missed.

Review: Wildflower by Drew Barrymore

I grew up in a household that had strongly opposing views about Drew Barrymore. My dad hated her and considered her trashy liberal scum. My mom loved her and considered her fun, engaging, and liked her movies. I mostly struggled with feeling torn about whether I was attracted to her or wanted to look like her (answer: both). Suffice it to say I was interested in reading more about this person whose movies I grew up with and was told to reject/admire/maybe kiss a little I dunno.

Wildflower is a collection of vignettes from Barrymore’s life, recounting her youth pre-fame up through present day. The vignettes bounce around from years but cover a broad spectrum of time including her first steps into stardom at a very young age and memories of ET and Spielberg, to her complicated relationship with her parents and her father’s death, to becoming a mother and the concerns that also brought. She talks a bit about her experience developing her own production company and her goals and values. There is a section about her experience helping out children in Africa that felt a little bit white savior-y, especially as the focus was on how this changed her perspective and her life and just felt a little bit cringey. But I do feel that her heart was in the right place. I wouldn’t blame people, especially people from the country she visited, to be a little miffed by her representation of it though.

I usually like books where I feel a connection to the author and can sort of curl up in that world and this wasn’t the case at all. I definitely felt like an outsider looking in, but not in a cold or bad way. It didn’t feel distant, more like Barrymore was taking me through her memories like the ghost of hollywood past and I was along for the ride.

Ultimately, it’s a book that I would recommend my dad avoid and my mom read ASAP.

Review: Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Trigger Warning: This book is a dual memoir of two people who have an interest in true crime so heinous acts are referenced including sexual assault and murder. There are also stories shared about their own near misses with assault and child endangerment. People should also be aware that they both discuss addiction, eating disorders, and one of them relays the experience of losing their mother to Alzheimer’s which could be especially distressing to those with personal experience with that kind of loss.

I’ve been a My Favorite Murder listener for a couple of years now and my feelings about it kind of wax and wane, especially since it has become only about 50% murder and 50% sad/weird/disaster things. However, I still appreciate the podcast and when I heard this book was coming out I knew I’d read it but it took me til November to actually give it a read. I’m so glad that I did.

Even if you are not a listener of this podcast, the writing is solid and I laughed and cried at different times throughout. It’s not easy to get me to do either thing so the fact that they were both able to make me express both says something.

I also enjoy that it’s a unique format by writing a dual memoir. Even though there is a decade between the two, their stories and perspectives are very in sync and touch on broad human experiences. There is also less talk of murder than you would expect though they do explain how and why they came to love the macabre subject and what their friendship and its bond over true crime has meant to them.

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered is a poignant, well crafted memoir and stands alone as a work apart from the podcast or the true crime genre in general.

Review: I’ll Cry Tomorrow by Lillian Roth, Gerold Frank, and Mike Connolly

Trigger Warning: Alcoholism, child sexual abuse, adult sexual abuse, domestic violence, anti-semitism

 

I read this memoir by 1920s film star Lillian Roth for my final paper in my class on Addiction. This was not an easy read for content but the pacing was excellent and the story engrossing. At the time she wrote I’ll Cry Tomorrow, in 1954, Lillian Roth had been out of the spotlight for years and was only recently reentering the business though to a much different extent than before. She was 44 was it was published and through her book we’re given a new look into the life of the pre-code era in Hollywood.

She recounts her youth with her parents who desperately wanted her and her sister to be stars. She discusses her father’s alcoholism from the distance that time affords though with no less pain or poginancy than you would expect. Roth’s life was filled with trauma from youth from being molested to the sudden death of her first fiance who ended up being one of two men in her life who did not abuse her in some way. From a mental health perspective I found it especially interesting tracking her descent into alcoholism as it was thrust on her to shut her emotions down in lieu of actually supporting her. She also takes the reader through the expected social aspect of being a celebrity which also included a significant amount of drinking.

Roth’s many marriages and significant relationships are overshadowed by abuse, her growing dependence on alcohol, and her struggle to conceive or adopt a child. She suffers other losses including her career and her father and nearly her own life by the time she is admitted to rehab. In many stories rehab is where it ends but Roth also provides the perspective of someone who went through rehab, graduated out, and then relapsed and ended up working with an AA program. She credits the AA program as a driving force for her recovery and became involved in helping others who struggled with addiction. She also married and had a healthy relationship with a man after years of harrowing violence from partners.

When looking at clips of Roth in movies in the 20s and 30s, it’s hard to reconcile the peppy and professional dancer with dimples and all of the coquettish allure of the iconic flapper with the accounts she gives of her grief, trauma, and struggle with addiction. This is one of the reasons I think this book is so important. It highlights the fact that we cannot know what is going on beneath the surface and that the lifestyle that comes with celebrity is often rife with loss and pain. It was also powerful reading her account of how she did finally manage her addiction and enjoy sustained recovery.

Due to the troubling subject matters discussed in the book, I would advise that if any of those topics are triggers, especially the domestic violence, you skip this one. If you can manage reading this topics and have any interest in the impact of addiction and behind the scenes of Hollywood in this era, I highly recommend this book.

Lillian Roth
circa 1930: Lillian Roth, the Hollywood film actress, dancer and singer who appeared in ‘The Vagabond King, the Paramount picture. (Photo by Otto Dyar/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)