Alexandra Fuller, although quite young, has written several memoirs (Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, my favorite, and others here and here) borrowing heavily from per parents’ lives to be sure, and the latest, Travel Light, Move Fast, follows the same formula of plentiful flashbacks to her childhood and even before, this time to talk about the death of her father, and how difficult it was for her, her sister and her mother. She tells of her father’s restlessness, the strong partnership he had with her mother, and their ability to create homes throughout southern Africa. It’s a wonderful mix of grief, battles with airlines, and crocodiles that eat farmed fish.
Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss stars an aging and famous economist who, after a bike accident in England, is told to reduce his stress. He has lived his whole life as a brainy professor, aloof, divorced from the real world, and, not surprisingly, estranged from his wife and adult children. Surely, it will be a cinch to show his children that he is smart and always right.
He arranges a sabbatical at what is clearly UC Irvine but very strangely called UC Bella Vista (why? not clear; there’s another passage in the book when he sees the Great Lakes while flying from Hong Kong to California, so the writer may be geography challenged). While there, he tries to connect with his struggling teenage daughter, attends a new-age retreat at Esalen, and tries to understand his son’s self-help business in Hong Kong (hence the strange plane route). The story exposes him, very sweetly, as the misanthropic, clueless person he’s always been, and delightfully does not end on a complete success, although he does take huge stride towards a more human version of itself. Very funny but also a very kind portrait of a nerd trying to reform.
When a serial killer is caught, what happens to his family? A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming shows us how harrowing it is to discover that one’s father killed (and tortured!) many people. Sure, he was a man with a temper, but no one in the family suspected him, and he seemed content to continue his relationship with them as if nothing had happened.
The story could have been edited to make for a much more solid outcome, but the theme is heartbreaking.
Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America mixes memories of the author’s father, a complicated man who eventually left the family, and the author’s own life as a adult. His father’s life made for the most compelling parts of the book, I thought. A smart man living in blatantly racist times, he had to fight for everything: his good government job (until Reagan fired all striking air traffic controllers), housing, and education for himself and his children. The author’s life, centered around his alcoholism, seemed a bit too navel-gazing, although there were some funny moments, as when he is asked to join a televised intervention for his alcoholic brother and wonders how he can be fit to do that.
Long-distance running has its fans, of which I’m not. I can’t imagine anything more tedious than running for hours (actually, I can: training for one-distance running!) and this book confirmed that the narration of long-distance races cannot raise above the level of tedious, for me at least.
That said, this book is a memoir, and long-distance running came rather late in the author’s life, helping her recover from the death of her father– thereby proving that it can be a useful activity. So we get a good 150 pages that are about her relationship with her father, who left her mother and her sister when she was a child and for whom she had fulsome and unquestioned love and admiration, until she finally confronted the not-so-perfect aspects of his personality as she cleaned up his archives. That part of the book is very touching.
Golden Child is the haunting tale of a family in Trinidad with twins, one conventionally brilliant and the other one quirky. When the quirky one disappears, the father tries to rescue him, unspooling the entire family story, and the story of a country controlled, it seems, by gangsters and corruption.
I particularly loved the description of the complicated relationships between the father, mother, and children, contrasted with their secret thoughts.
The hero of Memento Park is a moderately successful actor who leads a good life in Los Angeles with his model-girlfriend, while his difficult father lives in New York, far away that he can ignore him. But once he learns that he may be able to recover a painting that was stolen from his family by the Nazis, he tries to understand why his father will have nothing to do with the painting–and falls in love with his lawyer, creating all kinds of complications. It’s all quite fun and entertaining despite the very serious questions the book poses, mostly because the hero seems at a remove, somehow, maybe acting in real life as he does on the job.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a novel with evidently strong autobiographical themes, in which the hero finds himself caring for his newborn, premature daughter after his partner dies unexpectedly and suddenly. The first part, in which he finds himself literally running back and forth between the NICU and the intensive care unit, while trying to understand what the physicians are telling him and forgetting to take showers or change his clothes, is breathtaking. And his Kafkaesque battles with the Swedish social security administration, which does not seem to be able to recognize that his daughter is, in fact, his daughter, as proven by a DNA test, and needs to be placed in foster care, are terrifying. The rest of the book is not as accomplished, probably because the flashback memories are less exciting, but that first section is worth it!
Two half-brothers separated by age, wealth, and marital status come to grip with their father’s death in City of Strangers. Their dad was a Nazi sympathizer so the mourning is complicated, to say the least. And the younger brother gets attacked by a mysterious mugger seeking revenge (that part does not always make sense, I must admit). The book is essentially a rumination on what it means to be successful, and how we can be very alone in a vast city, with wonderful asides on what it means to be a brother.
The Italian Teacher is the son of a well-known artist and never quite manages to escape his father’s charismatic exploitation of everyone around him. It’s a little sad, and more and more surprising as the boy turns into a man. Eventually he will get even, using the very art milieu that his father is so good at manipulating, and the end is certainly sweet, even if it takes a while to reach it.