Jeanne McCulloch’s Riveting Debut ‘All Happy Families’ Hits Home

all happy familiesThis paid review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jeanne McCulloch‘s poignant debut memoir, All Happy Families, examines the precarious nature of familial life and love in the wake of her father’s fatal stroke on the eve of her 1983 wedding. The family’s excitement suddenly shifts into a haze of shock and numbness, but there is never any question about the wedding continuing as planned. Jeanne’s imperious mother, Pat, has only one instruction for the hospital on the morning of August 13: “If anything happens to my husband this evening, do not call this house. We cannot be disturbed…We are having a party.”

McCulloch hones in on dialogue like this and connects it to past and future moments throughout the narrative, deftly exploring the incidents that stem from that day in August. She chronicles the ripple effect of her father’s death without judgment, moving from her childhood on Park Avenue and her father’s descent into alcoholism to the courtship between her and her husband, Dean, and the tentative position she holds within his family.

If McCulloch’s memoir could be defined by any one line or moment, it would come from something her mother says during a hurricane season while the family is living in their Hamptons vacation home — a place that exists as its own character in the narrative. She says: “We live on such a perilous dune. All of this could just go, like that.”

Not only does Pat’s simple observation pinpoint the all-encompassing fact of our transience as human beings, but also the small ways in which love and the halcyon days of youth morph over time.  McCulloch points to the happy moments of her childhood when her father, John — an immensely wealthy hyperpolyglot — would take his daughters on trips all over the world, a chance for him to practice one of his many languages; or days after school when she and her sisters would style his hair into outrageous designs while watching sitcoms that would make him snort with laughter.

Looking back, though, McCulloch recognizes that her father was at the beginning of a steady decline as his dependence on alcohol worsens. Even the childhood stories John made up for his children featured an octopus named Franklin who frequents a bar and orders drinks for all eight tentacles. Nevertheless, the lucidity and precision with which the author recollects her past and deconstructs the multiple perspectives that layer each remembered encounter successfully avoids the hyper-sentimentality that often accompanies similar stories.

Yet it isn’t entirely clinical, either. There are moments when I wonder what she’s thinking or how she manages to keep herself together or she’s communicating with her husband during certain scenes since she positions herself as an observer in almost all situations, but she never dips into self-indulgence — everything pieces into the atmospheric and thematic prose that she’s weaved together. Best of all, the text never lacks for humor and grace in the midst of bad circumstance.

With spare and economical writing, she elucidates the ways in which the “perilous dune” crumbles. Whether we want it to or not. The point — which she gets at without making too much of a fuss–is that people go on anyway. Because that’s what life is.

On “An Education” by Lynn Barber

Image result for an education bookYes–I’m writing this today because of Lone Scherfig’s lovely film. I saw it twice without knowing anything about the source material, or that Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. Alas, it took a few more viewings before I googled the title and found that Hornby adapted his screenplay from a memoir of the same name by the English journalist, Lynn Barber.

Barber, who began her career at Penthouse magazine, went on to write for The Sunday Express, The Independent, and The Observer, with bylines in institutions such as Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times, and The Daily Telegraph. In addition to her memoir, Barber has published two books of interviews titled Mostly Men and Demon Barber (derived from her nickname as a deadly interviewer), a sex book titled How to Improve Your Man in Bed, and, interestingly, a survey of Victorian natural history writers titled The Heydey of Natural History–an ambitious feat, she admits in the memoir; one that took four years and extensive research to complete.

An Education is a slim volume that manages to span the length of Barber’s life via the medium of anecdotal vignettes. Each chapter highlights an important part of the author’s life, from her earliest years to her time at Oxford and Penthouse. We meet a dizzying array of notable figures who Barber interviewed over the course of her career, ranging from her first boss, Bob Guccione to Nick Nolte and scores of others.

Most of her stories are thoroughly entertaining and serve to highlight a golden era of journalism in which the boundaries of form were pushed beyond what had been seen and heard from previous generations. Barber certainly made a name for herself as a no-holds-barred sort of interviewer who pulled no punches when it came to getting to the heart of a narrative or profile.

She is unsentimental to the extreme. Nothing obfuscates her recollection of the past, and she is fairly open about her own shortcomings as a writer, a wife, a daughter, and a mother. For the greater portion of the memoir, such bluntness serves Barber well. But in the moments when she attempts to convey strong emotion–such as the events leading up to her husband’s death–she falters a bit. The strength of her plain dealing earlier in the book needs a softer hand towards the end, and I’m not sure she has the capacity to carry it off.

Fans of the Scherfig film will likely enjoy the memoir as a whole, but they might be surprised, as I was, to find that the source material on which the movie is based comes from just one chapter of the book. Silly me–I thought the entire memoir would be devoted to the Lynn (Jenny)/Simon (David) affair. Fortunately, the best details of the film are present in the memoir, and I found it amusing to see how they were adapted. But the complex relationship that develops between Barber and her parents is not something I think is properly conveyed.

Other than that, it’s a highly readable, funny and quick read for those looking for some light summer reading.

On “The Last Black Unicorn” by Tiffany Haddish

34974310__UY2113_SS2113_Anyone who’s seen the 2017 smash hit Girls Trip starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish will know that it catapulted the latter comedian into stratospheric success. Her high-energy performance is unceasingly funny, and most viewers will say, with confidence, that she makes the movie.

I found out about her memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, when Trevor Noah interviewed her on the Daily Show. It’s a relatively quick read comprised of vignettes that chronicle aspects of Haddish’s youth and her connection with comedy. Obviously, her account of various mishaps in her past are extremely funny, but are often equally painful. I would have loved to see more detail in some of her earlier memories, which would have served to flesh out the stories a bit more. Instead, most of them rely heavily on the distinct cadence of her voice. It does not always translate well to the page, and several passages jumped from one idea to the next with little to no transition.

Stylistic failings aside, the book is worth reading for no other reason than the reader’s exposure to Haddish’s indefatigable spirit. Despite the atrocities of her younger years, The Last Black Unicorn radiates positivity and vibrancy, and Haddish is consistently smart, observant, and hysterical.

I’ve heard the audio book is the best way to experience the book because hearing her tell the stories jives perfectly with her stand-up chops.

All in all it was a solid choice for my lazy weekend at home (which is every weekend…who am I kidding?)… 3/5 stars.

Reading Helene Hanff in 2017

hanff-1A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. (It doesn’t escape me that I’m always “getting around” to reading things, but here we are). It’s a slim text, comprised solely of Hanff’s correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer at the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co., and other members of its staff.

Hanff–whose reading tastes were heavily influenced by writer and literary critic, Arthur Quiller-Couch–had a fondness for the Classics and non-fiction accounts. (Don’t get her started on the journals of Samuel Pepys!) She quickly found that Marks & Co. could cater to her tastes. But what starts as a simple request for a specific text turns into a decades long correspondence.

Frank Doel, ever the professional, did not initially reciprocate Hanff’s teasing, lighthearted letters. At the time, Englanders suffered from post-war food shortages that required rationing essential everyday items. Hanff took the time to send various foodstuffs, such as meat and eggs, which the staff of Marks & Co. greatly appreciated. The softened Doel then became a confidant of sorts to the eccentric Hanff.

It’s difficult not to feel a great kinship with Helene Hanff. Good readers gravitate towards each other from across time and space, and the world Hanff created for herself through literature and the written word is everything I aspire to in my little life. Her greatest passions about this translation or that, or the quality of various editions are often humorous, something that clearly amused Frank Doel and his colleagues.

The most striking aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road, though, is the intimacy and sense of close friendship that comes through in these letters. Not only did Hanff build herself a world through literature, she built relationships across the ocean through a mutual love and respect for words.

At times when things seem overwhelming, books like this are deeply comforting. To relate to another person’s obsessive reading habits is one of my greatest pleasures when reading memoirs or non-fiction accounts. Helene Hanff’s particular brand of wise-cracking humor and unbridled enthusiasm just makes it all the better.