Category Archives: Mariner Books

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas Title: A Three Dog Life
Author: Abigail Thomas
Publisher: Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0156033237
Genre: Memoirs
Pages: 208
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I chanced upon this book through “By the Book” and I think it was one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s favourite books and since I love what she writes, I went by her recommendation and read this one. This book is not a happy read. But it is honest, heart-wrenching, true and hopeful as well.

Abigail’s life comes to a standstill when her husband Rich gets hit by a car and his brain is shattered. He cannot comprehend anything. He remembers her in bits and pieces and her life is completely torn apart. She has to rebuild her life around this tragedy, and her new family is of three dogs and hence the title.

The book is deeply profound and emotional. Abigail’s views on life, death and continuing after the partner is no longer able to even recognize you is extremely touching and strikes a chord with readers. She grapples with guilt, with relationships that exist and with living a single life, thinking about the husband who isn’t dead but isn’t alive either.

The writing is so poignant and yet so hopeful with the dogs providing so much solace and comfort. The bonds that are formed between man and animal are so beautifully portrayed in this book. To me “A Three Dog Life” is a quiet meditation on what life goes through when it falls apart and how it heals and repairs beyond everything and more.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

This has been my first Fitzgerald novel and the story’s topic intrigued me more than anything else. Novalis, Friedrich von Hardenberg’s pen name, under which he became famous for his poetic and philosophical work at the end of the eighteenth century, has been a household name since high school. Yet, I knew little about the man himself or the hefty debates among early German Romantic writers and thinkers at that time on everything from “Weltschmerz” and nature-human harmony to gender relations and the role of poetry in life. With THE BLUE FLOWER Fitzgerald has made an important contribution to the literature on Novalis by creating a vivid portrait of the young von Hardenberg as he lived through a decisive period of his personal life which also saw him imagine “the blue flower” that became the central symbol of Romanticism from then on.

Central to the novel as well as to the man himself was his dramatic falling in love, at the age of twenty two with a twelve year old girl, Sophie von Kühn. Von Hardenberg, was already then a brilliant student of many subjects ranging from mathematics to biology, from literature and philosophy. Sophie, on the other hand, was a precocious child, “of ordinary looks”, without interest or promise in any of these fields. The unlikely match between the two, in terms of age difference, personalities and social status is expertly described by Fitzgerald and the different modes of the young man’s romantic obsession evoked. Livening the intimate and detailed, yet detached observations of the omniscient narrator with frequent lively dialog between the young hero and different close family members and other associates on all sides connected to either of the young lovers, the author also conveys a realistic sense their wider social circles. The author’s skill in conveying daily routines like the once in four months occurring “washday” is admirable. Her wonderful sense of humour is sprinkled throughout such descriptions.

Based on extensive research into von Hardenberg and his close family, using his writing, pertinent correspondence and diaries, official and private documents, Fitzgerald has not only realistically recreated his young adult years against a difficult family background, but also supplied us with glimpses into a politically and intellectually fascinating period of German (Prussian) history. At cultural centres such as Jena, young von Hardenberg encountered no lesser than Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel and other literary and philosophical greats of the time.

Fitzgerald makes THE BLUE FLOWER and interesting and intriguing book to read, in particular for readers with familiarity of the wider contexts, both in terms of philosophy and social politics or willing to explore these themes further. As a stand alone novel, without the reader’s knowledge of the time, it is not totally successful in my opinion. To derive full satisfaction the many insinuations and oblique references would have to be either better developed into the background, or the novel completely built as fiction without any intention to veracity and authenticity.

Save Your Own by Elisabeth Brink

The protagonist/narrator in Elisabeth Brink’s” Save Your Own” describes herself as “a full-grown woman who looks like a ten-year-old boy, and not even very handsome or cute one at that.” Gillian Cormier-Brandenburg is a twenty-six year old emotional wreck. Her overly controlling parents raised her to be a compulsive student and she has no friends, male or female. Gillian is enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, but her dissertation on secular conversion experiences is going nowhere; she is in danger of losing her fellowship. In addition, she suffers from narcolepsy; she tends to fall asleep during episodes of stress.

In a desperate effort to get her dissertation off the ground, Gillian takes a minimum-wage job at Responsibility House, a state-subsidized residential treatment program for female drug addicts and alcoholics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What a culture shock this proves to be! Sheltered, timid, tiny Gillian suddenly finds herself trying to communicate with profane, sexually active, and aggressive women (half are former prison inmates at the women’s correctional facility at Framingham) who are filled with rage and frustration.

“Save Your Own” is reminiscent of Elinor Lipman’s fiction in Brink’s depiction of offbeat individuals who are struggling to find their place in a tumultuous and hostile world. The residents of Responsibility House are vivid and fully realized. They include Janet Tremaine, a charismatic gay woman with a formidable physique and considerable self-confidence, Florine, a former streetwalker and addict with a secret ambition to be a professional baker, and Stacy, a sadistic and resentful individual with a talent for organization and a penchant for spying on her fellow Responsibility House residents. Gillian graduates from keeping tabs on her clients to being their counselor and confidante. She even fights to win them more autonomy, since she firmly believes that “a freer, less bureaucratic society would achieve greater therapeutic results.”

This is an entertaining, quirky, and touching coming-of-age story in which Gillian slowly changes from a terrified and dysfunctional mouse into an articulate and compassionate adult. Brink’s sardonic humor, lovely descriptive writing, and insight into the psychological lives of her characters make “Save Your Own” a satisfying debut novel.

Save Your Own; Brink, Elisabeth; Mariner Books; $13.95