Browsing Tag

memoir

Book Reviews

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen Reviews Dani Shapiro’s book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

July 18, 2019

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Dani Shapiro
Knopf, $24.95
272 pages

In her fifth memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Dani Shapiro is prompted by her husband’s interest in genealogy and takes a DNA test. The results delivered the shock of her life. 

Shapiro discovers that Paul, the Orthodox Jewish man who raised her, to whom she felt connected on a neshama, or soul, level is not her biological father. Belonging to a prominent Jewish family played such a major part in her identity that Shapiro begins to feel conflicted. Is her father still her father? Which of her qualities were inherited through her genes and which are a result of her nurturing father, his hug she waited for each day as a child? I was fascinated by this soulful detective story as Shapiro explores the existential quandary, “Who am I?” 

Shapiro is a mother to a college-age son, Jacob, and worries how the results of her DNA test will impact him, the next generation. How will he react when he learns he has a new grandfather who’s not Paul? “Does this mean maybe I won’t end up bald?” Jacob asks. I thought this response to her disclosure was surprising and comical, but as a parent myself, I related to Shapiro’s worry. My father died when my daughter was one year old, and when she asks me about him, I feel the weight of responding, the weight of holding the family narrative. 

As signaled by the word “paternity,” listed second in the subtitle, the exploration of Shapiro’s profound and loving connection to Paul, who died when she was 23 years old, holds a place of prominence.  Inheritance is dedicated to him, and one of the epigraphs includes the first two lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem“The Colossus,” written by Plath about her father. I imagine that many readers will find themselves searching for their own fathers—whether they’re alive or deceased, biological or soul fathers—as I did in the beautifully written passages. I was moved to tears by a scene in Chapter 25 when Shapiro visits Rabbi Lookstein. “We thought your father was a hero,” he says, and I felt the acute depth of the Rabbi’s grief and Shapiro’s loss. “Who was I without my history?” she asks, bereft. 

In the final chapter of Part II, Shapiro’s 93-year-old Aunt Shirley claimed my heart as much as the character of Paul had when Shapiro goes to visit her. Shapiro’s many books are proudly displayed in Aunt Shirley’s room and Shapiro worries if her aunt will get rid of them when she tells her aunt about the DNA results. Her aunt’s response, however, validates her existence. “You’re not an accident of history, Dani,” says Shirley. “You are an agent to help my brother express the finest kind of love.” Love infuses the pages of Inheritance: for Paul; for the teachers and spiritual leaders Shapiro seeks for help; for fellow writers and their work; for her husband and son, and lastly, for herself, as she questions, “Why am I here? How shall I live?”

Like the best memoirs, Shapiro’s story evokes universal themes and questions that a reader will relate to through the lens of their own lives. In Part III, for example, Shapiro wants to believe her parents hadn’t betrayed her by not disclosing to her that she was donor-conceived. Every child, by middle age, must reckon with their parents’ actions or inactions, in order to grow. It was only when I became a mother that I realized how challenging it must have been for my own mother to raise four children with an emotionally distant father. The memoirist documents change and the space of the page gives them an opportunity to remind themselves of their arc, their struggles, and where or how to move forward. 

As Shapiro winds her way to greater acceptance, a voyage as twined as a DNA helix, she offers the reader a personal understanding of Judaism and her Jewish identity. The book’s affirming final scene gives us the word hineni (“Here I am.”) It’s confirmation that her Jewish identity is intact, despite that fact that her biological dad isn’t Jewish. I enjoyed learning side by side with Shapiro, but it was my sympathy for her character that made me feel most connected to Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. Who among us hasn’t yearned for the finest kind of love? 

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Bio: Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is a co-founder of the nonfiction reading series Tell-All. Her writing has appeared in HeadspaceBREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Hippocampus and the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Poem Village. Connect @kpnwriter.

Book Reviews

Delia Rainey writes a hybrid personal essay and book review on Sarah Cannon’s The Shame of Losing

July 3, 2019

The Shame of Losing
Sarah Cannon
160 pages
Red Hen Press, $16.95

I sit next to my mom in a hospital conference room. There are gray walls and a long gray table, where we are all sitting, eating catered deli sandwiches. Each seat is occupied by an older woman in her sixties or seventies. My mom, with her brown curlicue hair and colorful T-shirt, seems to be the youngest caregiver here. In another room, the survivors of stroke, brain injury, and aphasia also sit and eat sandwiches, catching up or playing checkers. They are husbands, fathers, grandparents. In the caretaker room, the women chat about mundane aspects of their lives: a bad knee, a bothersome mother-in-law, the local news. One woman swivels her attention over to my mom: “We haven’t seen you here in awhile. How are you doing? How is your husband? Have you been taking time for yourself?” As my mom opens her mouth to speak, the women sit around her nodding, their eyes squinting in knowing empathy. 

Traumatic brain injury is not a very understood or visible disability in our world. My family’s story is very different from Sarah Cannon’s, which she recounts in her new memoir The Shame of Losing. But every family has an important narrative found in a book of letters, notebooks, internal and external hardship. While many stories stay private, rarely spoken about outside of support groups, Sarah Cannon lets us in. She gives us permission to read her candid journal entries following her husband’s arboriculture accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury.  In about 150 pages, The Shame of Losing compiles scenes from Cannon’s life in dynamic parts. As we read, we process these events with her. She reclaims the genre of diaristic emotional scrawl while also recalling her experience. The act of writing this book can be interpreted as an attempt of self-healing. 

Cannon brings the issue of our fragile bodies, our fragile lives, up to a personal microscope. However, this memoir does more than just highlight the aftereffects of a workplace injury. Cannon wonders throughout: do people really change over the course of their lives? Sometimes Cannon thinks, yes, we do, and “other times, I think our core is our core.” 

The Shame of Losing begins immediately in the moments before the accident. Cannon recalls herself as a suburban mother volunteering at a local arts center on October 30th, 2007. She received a frantic call from her husband’s arborist coworker, trying to explain the accident, caused by a fallen tree branch: “his cheekbones are sideways.” Throughout Losing,  “sideways” becomes Cannon’s least favorite word. She goes on to describe the feeling of entering the Level 1 trauma center for serious injuries: “sitting there alone, I felt abandoned by the world.” There is a sideways nature to the experience of grief. Nothing seems straightforward anymore, no part of our day can ever be predicted. Cannon sees her husband Matt in the hospital bed, his “skull crumpled, a blown-out eye, busted eye sockets, and a collapsed nose.” This is physical evidence of a much more invisible injury, an invisible story. 

 As readers of Cannon’s writing, we must always be prepared for a drastic change in tone and time. In this memoir, Cannon also writes about her happy Seattle childhood in poetic prose; her young love and marriage to Matt; and rearing two children together. These sections seem like diversions or distractions, but they lay real context: life was simple once. One moment, Matt and Sarah are in an airplane dealing with a fussy toddler and infant, and in the next, Sarah navigates the ICU: “I clenched my stomach in preparation for something I didn’t understand.” A journal entry from November 2007 switches to a letter to Matt that she will never send: “Hey, remember when we were first dating and. . . .” Then, we read a script for a fake suburban drama, starring Sarah, explaining to the neighbors how Matt lost his sense of smell. Mundane details shock and stir: winter air and the appearance of Christmas lights upon coming home from 42 days in the hospital. Forms shift again, when we are presented with an auto-fiction short story Cannon wrote, titled: ‘Man in the Woods with a Headache.’ By collaging notebooks, letters, screenplay, and short story, Cannon redefines the typical ingredients for a grief memoir. 

I recognized my own lonely experiences in The Shame of Losing. Cannon discusses how many of her friends kept a distance after the accident, or simply lost interest. She reflects on the old Matt, and how the “cute OT girls” would never “know my husband was once a helicopter pilot and that we used to call him a human compass.” One of the hardest parts of traumatic brain injury is letting go of our old lives and the person from “before.” Cannon wonders, and so do I, how do we mourn someone who is still here? A spritely, handy husband morphs into a loner with “brain drain.” As one year goes by, “Matt has fooled everyone that he’s okay.” But the healing of traumatic brain injury is a lifelong process. In a therapy session, Matt discloses that he doesn’t know how to feel love. In a metaphor that swims throughout the book like the word “sideways,” he describes that he’s in the desert. He’s so thirsty, and he knows there’s water somewhere, but he can’t drink it. 

A major strength of this memoir is Cannon’s passionate release of her voice, her shame. She speaks to us like we are confidantes over the phone late at night. We get to hear about the tedious woes of Workers Compensation, piles of paperwork, and pinching pennies. We nod our heads as Cannon complains about the easiness of other people’s problems and her jealousy of them. We listen as she screams in the hospital: “Get me the eff out of here!” In The Shame of Losing, we see a woman who is not a perfect mother, not a perfect wife. The family unravels even as they try to move on, going on vacations, watching their kids in school talent shows.

In my favorite moments, Cannon describes small, insignificant memories of solitude. She bites off a corner of one of Matt’s Oxy pills, and drives around aimlessly, listening to Frank Ocean. She goes to the grocery store after the kids go to sleep and lovingly picks out a tub of sour cream. She drives to the hospital, just one more time, trying to reclaim a ghost. 

Seemingly stitched together with journal pages, The Shame of Losing disclosed so much, yet many details were kept. This is only the tip of an iceberg of Sarah Cannon’s truth. I hope that with books like The Shame of Losing, the public will become more familiar with the impact and realities that traumatic brain injury has on families. Sarah Cannon is not a celebrity or a famous author. This is her first book. Through the genre of nonfiction, the stories of regular people gain power. 

Back in the conference room with my mother, I get up to leave, throwing away our paper plates, meeting up again with my dad. We leave out the back door of the hospital, back to a world that can never nod its head and understand.  I leave you with Cannon’s advice: “The best thing a supporter can do is understand the strangling effect the culture’s insistence on “getting over it” can have on mental health. It’s OK to be sad, and grief is ongoing. Have faith in your truth. Accept that there are no real answers. Healing can happen, if you want it.” 

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Bio: Delia Rainey is a musician and writer from the Midwest. She currently studies nonfiction in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. Her prose and poems have been featured in Hooligan Magazine, DIAGRAM, Peach Mag, and many others. Ghost City Press released her mini chapbook Private Again in August 2018. She tweets often: @hellodeliaaaaa.