Tag Archives: nonfiction

Are You Somebody? – Nuala O’Faolain

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Ireland is such a myth of mist and legend to those of us whose ancestors made their wretched way here and promptly buried their secrets. We have no history but we have the legacy – the enchantment of stories, the entrancement of drink, the scars of deprivation and humiliation passed down for generations. Ireland seems to me to be a land of lilt and loss and Nuala O’Faolain’s unsparing memoir provides plenty of both.

She was one of nine children – I remember an Irish-American family in one of the parishes where I grew up who were admired for their twelve. As if the rest of the families hadn’t quite made the cut as Catholics, as if that family was restocking the ranks of the faithful and we fell woefully short. The Ireland O’Faolain writes about lived on in the diaspora, too.

Growing up she had a mostly missing, charming father, a mother who adored him but was quickly overwhelmed by babies, poverty, an absent philanderer and a retreat into drink. New siblings arrived year after year and Nuala barely got to know them. Mammy was a voracious reader. Daddy was a journalist and raconteur. Young Nuala absorbed their gifts, and the rigid definition of what it means to be adult and female and the blessed forgetfulness at the bottom of a bottle. Her escapades sneaking off to dances got her kicked out of the local parochial school and sent to boarding school where she failed to reform. She pitched her life against the constraints of a country in which women had few options and managed to win scholarships to university and to Oxford. She became a producer for the BBC and a columnist for The Irish Times.

It is to her credit that the litany of lovers–many lovers–and drinking and failures and rescues holds up. These are not revelations in any surprising sense. The society that shaped her was slow to accept the autonomy of women and to grant them options for work, for romance, for making meaning of their lives. But nowhere was it much better and families everywhere hold each other in the same suffocating thrall. So we travel her bumpy life with her and marvel at what she achieved and recognize in her stories our own.

O’Faolain the journalist does a good job reporting on herself without pity or embellishment. She traces the spiral that circles her back on herself through episodes, lovers and leavings and shares her hard won introspection without fanfare. “Are you somebody?” is a question asked when you might just be recognizable, maybe a minor celebrity, a person whose name might be known. But it’s the deeper question as well, one O’Faolain has spent a lifetime asking. In the end she still wants what she was trained all her life to want, the answer to the question revealed in the eyes of someone who loves her. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask but it is everything. People are each unhappy in their own way, lonely in their own lives, she finds. Extricating a life from the tentacles of family and society’s suffocating constraints is a life’s work.

O’Faolain died of lung cancer in 2008. Her memoir was a bestseller and she took some comfort from the outpouring of recognition and emotion that it generated among readers, especially women. But she claimed in the book and in interviews shortly before her death that she never felt like a success, always felt on the cusp of beginning her life. Despite the intelligence and optimism that she chronicled in Are You Somebody?, the story affirms that what goes missing in our earliest years creates wounds that never heal.

Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman   Nuala O’Faolain | Henry Holt and Company First Owl Books Edition 1999

Why Not Say What Happened? — Ivana Lowell

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Ivana Lowell is a person cobbled together out of careless bits of the damaged, larger-than-life characters who were her legendary family. The biological ancestry is the star-crossed and very alcoholic Irish Guinness clan, titled and landed British aristocracy, and some confusion in the region of actual parentage. Her revolving cast of relatives and serial stepfathers included the poet Robert Lowell, whose name she was given, and the colorful companions of her extravagantly social, unconventional and decidedly undomestic mother. Why Not Say What Happened? is a memoir sprinkled with high-profile names – painters, writers, filmmakers, actors, royalty, politicians – lists from social registers and from tabloid headlines, and rosters of the incredibly rich.

Lowell lived on estates that were grand and never centrally heated. The children were often housed in another wing, neglected, abused and gathered into the manic warmth of parental attention and parties just often enough to be imprinted with all of it. The child Ivana is molested by a servant, scalded, scarred for life and nearly killed in a kitchen accident and alternately fussed over and abandoned. But second-best caviar is all she knows so, like any child, she adapts. The theater that is her life is a perpetually alluring road show she learns to navigate and emulate.

Why Not Say What Happened? is a very sad chronicle of terrible tragedies and near criminal culpability that reads like a juicy novel. The rich are different—normal life is a money-fueled, exalted procession of privileged experiences, invaluable connections, flights to this and that exotic place and flights from uncomfortable brushes with reality. But Lowell is so resilient, or so enabled, that she prevails through bout after bout of drunkenness and rehab, madcap moments and memorable parties, screen shots of cinematic clarity and lucid introspection. All the broken people in her world adore and despise each other, cling to and castigate each other, love each other in some original fashion that usually looks nothing like love.

The mystery of Lowell’s father, a question raised in the beginning of the book, doesn’t begin to haunt her until after her mother’s death. But the truth of it, and the lies, deceptions and utter narcissism that hides from her a true identity informs her whole life. Money and position kept Ivana Lowell far from a dirty and seamy death in the streets. Her talent for telling a good story on herself gives us a glimpse behind the moth-eaten velvet curtain that hides her particular stage from view. It is an interesting mess of a life that was doomed from the start but spun itself out in joys and sorrows anyway. She’s a likable character in this book. A character from another world at once fabulous, appalling, fascinating and just plain awful. But eccentricity makes for page-turners and spilling secrets lures readers on. Why Not Say What Happened? is high-level gossip, engagingly divulged.

The death of Caroline Guinness, Ivana Lowell’s mother, is where it falters. Caroline was a destructive force as impossible to overlook as a Category 5 hurricane. Once she leaves the stage, the lurid headlines vanish, too. The encounter with DNA and finding a father, the ill-conceived marriage and the next generation of Guinness girls, the ongoing struggle with the family’s curses aren’t neatly resolved in a happily ever after. This tale full of sound and fury doesn’t signify nothing but it doesn’t deliver epiphanies either. Ivana Lowell’s life is what it is, spangled in glitter, weighted with regrets, some truth uncovered, a few more lies waiting in the wings to bring the curtain down.

 Why Not Say What Happened?: A Memoir (Vintage)   Ivana Lowell | Alfred A. Knopf 2010

The Tree — John Fowles

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On a wide swale in the center of a Little Havana side street, a gnarled tree spread its canopy over a motley collection of bright bits and foul garbage around its trunk. The tree stood a little ways down from my bel canto teacher’s rambling house, the neighborhood gone slightly seedy but the voodoo tree an anomaly nonetheless. Residents didn’t approve of it but they kept their distance. I ventured in to catalog the offerings now and again: a chicken head, two yellow feet with bloody stumps, random pennies and the odd silver coin, candle stubs, bits of paper with scribbled writing impossible to decipher, pictures torn from magazines, letters in sealed envelopes, plastic and glass beads, airline liquor bottles, mostly empty.

There was never any paper money under the tree, no headless dolls with pins stuck in them, but always the sense of someone watching, a sour sense of ill-will and desperation. It was Santeria, I learned, the Afro-Cuban animist religion of a poorer class of refugee. Neither I nor, apparently, the city parks department had the temerity to risk any engagement with that tree. I took nothing; I left nothing. The offerings rotted in the shade and sun.

I hadn’t thought of the voodoo tree in years, until something in John Fowles’ hardcover essay The Tree triggered the memory. No idea what that might have been. Fowles’ trees are a loftier sort, more apt to channel Tolkien than some demonic Orisha. But they are powerful beings in his world, symbols for all of nature, the vertical reproach to human alienation.

Fowles wrote this essay in the late seventies with a prescience about the current state of the environment that would be stunning if we hadn’t already known then what we know now. We are destroying ourselves. We are ravaging the planet, barricaded in our cities and living willfully blind. We have forgotten the mysteries of the dark wood, the truth of druids, the significance of a living tree. Science has given us names for the deciduous and the evergreen that can never capture the unnamable things that they are. We no longer believe in magic so magic has fled.

The Tree does not sentimentalize this. It is a cold, clear accounting of how we tame trees, prune them, harvest them, cut them down and make things of them. The tale tells of wandering in a numinous lostness, of forests as metaphors, of writing fiction as blind as owls in daylight, blinking at the blank page, wondering what will come next. Fowles finds solace and revelation in his forests and small copses and isolated stands of birch and oak. He scrambles with us over scraggy slopes and tors of granite and shale to a hidden wood–primeval trees stunted, intertwined and untouched, fraught with silence, alive with ferns, mosses and lichens–sanctuary for birds and old spirits. He tells us his writing is a pale thing next to a tree. That to capture a tree in words is as impossible as reproducing a symphony in a painting.

John Fowles has some glorious fiction to his name: The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, The Aristos. The Tree is an argument for the intuitive, the wisdom conferred only by presence, the acknowledgment that, refusing to see with the heart, we begin to die. Fowles called this encounter with trees, creature to creature, the return to “green chaos.” It is the place he went to find his stories, the wild, still, unpredictable woods that blur the borders between dreaming and waking.

We are losing this mysterious planet we only half-know. We have no name for the spirit in the tree that is our spirit, too, so we classify the tree, cull it or conserve it at will, espalier it, trim it, cultivate it in an arboretum, a tree museum. Maybe we need a return to gifts of chicken feet, copper pennies left in offering, midnight ululations. Maybe we need to sit with trees, walk among them, read at their feet, listen for the slight rustling that signals the beginning of a story, the invitation to green chaos, before it is too late.

The Tree   John Fowles | The Ecco Press 1983

Longitude — Dava Sobel

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Longitude is the story of a self-educated carpenter’s improbable invention of the marine chronometer, a saga colored by poisonously envious sabotage, heroic feats of astronomy and a lot of really bad shipwrecks. Dava Sobel has turned a dense thicket of scientific inquiry and discovery into a readable, revelatory tale of adventure that traces the interconnections of Captain Cook, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton and a number of key characters you likely never heard of. Money is a big motivator – no surprise – merchant trade and royal coffers were both impoverished by the uncertainties of the sea. Solving the navigation problem was critical enough to merit a prize worth the equivalent of millions.

John Harrison was a skilled carpenter who taught himself clockmaking and then set out to create a device that would keep such perfect time at sea that it could determine longitude. Latitude was easy enough. Star siting, sun angles, day length — even an unskilled sailor can find the distance from the fixed equator using those. But the long lines that curve from pole-to-pole were harder to pin down and a tiny mistake, an off-guess, could send you and your ship hundreds of miles off-course, onto perilous rocks in the dark or straight to the bottom of the sea.

The search for longitude inspired great observatories, led to advances in astronomy, engaged such luminaries as Galileo Galilei, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton and produced the British Longitude Act of 1714 with its enticing cash prize. Harrison set himself to win the prize and created four separate “clocks” that were marvels of technology for his time and that still work perfectly today. He succeeded in developing a workable and elegant chronometer, the first, but not in avoiding the backstabbing and manipulation that nearly cost him the prize.

The story tacks back and forth from Harrison and his endless tinkering to astronomers charting the path of the moon and the positions of the stars. Ships are lost, treasure galleons are pirated, men die of scurvy or go blind squinting at the sun to calculate position. It seems so long ago, in this day of GPS talking cars and satellite positions, that setting out from port meant you were as likely to get lost as you were to get lucky. But one determined, unlettered visionary changed all that and Dava Sobel’s Longitude sheds light on an obscure passage in history that produced important nautical instruments we still use today.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time  Dava Sobel | Walker Publishing Company 1995