GHOST SONGS: A MEMOIR by Regina McBride

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Ghost Songs: A Memoir
By Regina McBride
Tin House Books — October 2016
ISBN 9781941040430 — 350 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


One dividend that comes from reviewing a wide spectrum of books (particularly when starting out) is that occasionally I discover a completely unexpected positive experience. Case in point: Tin House sends out a general call for interested readers in advanced review copies. I respond, with no particular idea of what they will send. But reading their literary journal regularly, I know to at least expect quality, whatever it may be. It’s what I precisely like about them, they publish a wide range of content, not eschewing genre, so long as it’s good.
And in my mail arrives Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride. I think I audibly sighed in disappointment. Of all the possibilities, I got one of the few kinds of literary works that I didn’t think I could appreciate much, even if done exceptionally well. I appreciate history and biography. My skepticism rises a bit if it’s an autobiography. But memoir? I actually don’t know as I’ve ever before read anything that qualifies as memoir. It has always seemed suspect to me — too loose in its organization, style, and possibly even facts. I didn’t know a single thing about the author, so I looked in hopes that perhaps the topics/themes would be something familiarly enticing. But I saw things like: Ireland, poetry, mental health… sigh. Most of the description left me indifferent, but poetry — I rarely seem to feel emotional connection or resonance with poetry.
Nevertheless, I picked this memoir up and began reading, convincing myself that at the very least I would have a new experience, a chance to learn and momentarily extend my zone of reading comfort. Against all my intuition, I rapidly became engrossed in McBride’s beautiful, reflective writing, in a world of unfamiliar thoughts and experiences far from the focus of my typical reading. The cover blurb by Alice Sebold is definitely hyperbole. But the sentiment is  precisely accurate. In Ghost Songs McBride weaves a tapestry of family, individuality, culture, and grief with a melancholy, fragile prose. Organized frequently as short paragraphs, her phrases echo the flow and tide of memory, driven by association and sense rather than time.
The memoir begins with an eighteen-year-old McBride, talking to a psychologist about the ghosts that haunt her, the uncertainty of who she is, and the weight of genetics and experience that define her. McBride’s parents both died by their own hands, suicides separated by a mere five months, mother following father. Coming from a culture of strict Irish Catholicism, the McBrides all share common pressures of guilt, depression, and a frequent struggle to continue on. Regarding the moment after her father’s suicide McBride writes:
“I sit on the floor of my old bedroom, listening to my mother on the phone in her room making funeral arrangements. My father has done something irreparable. There is a new trajectory in place. Every cell and every particle around me knows how things will end. Every bright dust mote rushing through the sunlight and disappearing in shadow rings with inevitability. The house, the furniture, the trees, my brother and my sisters, even my mother — we all know, but it is not possible to accept this and keep going.” — (p. 90).
The mention of ‘every cell and every particle’ in this quote bears specific mention. One of the recurring themes in Ghost Songs that did resonate with me (because of my science background surely) is McBride’s use of the molecular — in some instances more precisely quantum — as metaphor. In spots, the concept is utilized for viewing events as composed of an infinite number of smaller moments, paring down burdensome trials into short, bearable units. Even if tragedy makes this hard to achieve.

“…‘When you work on a play, you have to look at the dramatic arc. You break it down into manageable parts, into beats. See how every event leads to the next.’

…But it is as though each death were an explosion that erased the connections between things. In my mind a fizzing whiteness hovers, particles refusing to settle.” — (p. 85).

Yet it is poetry that seems to be the most effective means of coping that McBride can utilize to find comfort and feel peace from the ghosts of her past. Given her Irish heritage this comes particularly from the poetry of Yeats and the mythology of her homeland. Ghost Songs culminates with McBride’s pilgrimage to Ireland and the self discoveries she makes there while searching for a personal Tír na nÓg. In poetic irony, this comfort ultimately comes from the same source as all of her pain: genetic and cultural inheritance, with her father’s appreciation of poetry. Recalling a moment with him, McBride describes a mosquito landing on her father and his allowing it to bite him. McBride then crushes it and her father comments:
“Some of that is your blood” — (p. 232).
He then references The Flea, a poem by John Donne. McBride relates:

“I tremble with hopefulness, the lines suggesting a closeness between the poem and the person being addressed. A poem might help heal the rift between us.” — (p. 232).

I don’t think I ever completely emotionally connected to elements of Ghost Songs as many readers might. Those with a fascination/experience with Irish American culture, with Yeats, or those who suffer from depression or other related issues might find the memoir strongly resonant. Nevertheless, I could see, feel, and believe the emotional effects these elements have on McBride. I won’t be chasing after more memoirs to read, but I’m certainly more open to trying them than I was previously, and I’m reminded of how beneficial it can be to just give something a try, no matter the preconceived notions. I will certainly recognize the name Regina McBride when I see it again, and I will gladly dig into the writing it appears above. As long as it’s not poetry. Well, maybe even then.
“A particular memory preoccupies me… My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.” — (pp. 3 – 4).

“I sit up in the darkness in my room in Dublin and cry because I miss my mother. I cry because my mother died without a face.” — (p. 290).

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

THE DOORS YOU MARK ARE YOUR OWN, by Okla Elliott & Raul Clement

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The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
By Okla Elliott and Raul Clement
Dark House Press – 28th April 2015
ISBN 9781940430201 – 724 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


The Historical Literary Epic Meets the Post-Apocalyptic Future
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is the first part of an ambitious amalgam of literary fiction spliced with post-apocalyptic and historical genres. Written by Elliott and Clement with the conceit that they are ‘translating’ a historical account written in ‘Slovnik’ by the fictional Aleksandr Tuvim, the saga reads on one level as an engrossing biography and social commentary of a speculative, future city-state. On another level it contains rich, interconnected character-driven narratives. Balancing epic world-building and other science fiction genre traits with literary depth, the authors take some of the best elements from across literature to fashion an addictively entertaining novel…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH, by Jan Swafford

18222670Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
By Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 5th August 2014
ISBN 9780618054749 – 1077 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Passing a whopping 1000 pages (okay, around 900 minus the extensive endnotes) this Beethoven biography just kept me enraptured. Enough that I kept lugging the hardback to read at the bus stop and on the bus into work each day. Getting into work I began back diluting cultures to the compositions I had just been reading about. From this you can tell that Swafford has written a readable and inspiring biography of the Ludwig van.
Covering the totality of Beethoven’s life, Swafford also nicely givens contextual background from what is known about his immediate ancestors to the cultural and historical events that swirled around both locally and internationally. At times the biographical details on Beethoven’s benefactors seems a bit too detailed, though they are mostly discussed to highlight the ups and downs of Beethoven’s support, why he was appreciated by the upper class of the time and the limits of even their lifestyles to continuously supply patronage.
What really makes this lengthy biography work is that it isn’t merely a biography of Beethoven the person, but also Beethoven the composer in the sense that a good amount of space is spent both describing the process by which his major works were created and critique of the music itself. Swafford nicely attempts (and largely succeeds) at taking a step back from the long history of viewing Beethoven as a genius to to look objectively at his achievements.
For fans of classical music, serious or just vaguely familiar, this biography and discussion of his music will probably be appreciated. The musical analysis was at times more advanced than the basic music theory/history I was familiar with, but Swafford also does a fair job of explaining so that even the non professional musician will understand the main points, and a newbie will likely learn some wonderful things about music in general and about distinctions between different approaches (eras) of what is all lumped together as ‘classical’. In addition to covering the style of Beethoven’s output, Swafford also covers the basics of his contemporaries, particularly those he learned from.
If you are thinking about reading this but aren’t sure whether to commit to such a large work you can get a fair idea the whole thing by just reading a few chapters (interspersed with listening to some recordings I’d recommend). The first couple chapters are more laden with biography compared to a larger amount of musical focus further in, but you should still get a fair idea of Swafford’s scope and style.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400069726
432 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 1st July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I used to know a fair amount about the Civil War and Sherman, but not having read much about it in years, many things had slipped my mind. Having lived in St. Louis for a good time and knowing Sherman’s connection to the city I was interested in giving this biography a read. Overall it is a fascinating and very approachable volume, never getting bogged down in too many details and presenting the history and personalities in an engaging style. While not skimping on details and analysis, O’Connell effectively avoids academic tones, relating a good deal in almost conversational fashion. The writing makes it clear that he is really interested in this story and the character of Sherman.

The downside to the book, however, is its organization. O’Connell in the introduction makes the point of needing to separate the various aspects of Sherman’s complex character or personality and behaviors, which at times he feels could become seemingly incongruous or too scattered to follow as one coherent chronological line. This results in the book being divided into three sections: 1) a military perspective (campaigns and his relations with the military hierarchy), 2) another military perspective (his relations with the troops under him), and 3) his personal life. O’Connell’s previous work, which has focused on military and weapons makes the focus of this wartime hero understandable. But, a large amount of the introduction points out the important contributions that Sherman made after the war, which have often gone ignored, particularly in realizing or enabling the “Manifest Destiny” of the previous political years prior to the war’s outbreak.

Sadly, very little text is spent on this period. The bulk of the book is taken up just with the first part. The second part is really a continuation or a rehash of things already covered, but provides a slightly more detailed perspective of Sherman as viewed by his troops. In this way the two chapters of that second part feel more like a biography of the soldiers rather than Sherman. Additionally, much of the private life of Sherman in the final part (again only a couple of chapters) still gets discussed (just more fleetingly or generally) in the earlier sections. The entire end of the book thereby feels like a slightly more specific discussion of things already mentioned, leaving them feel tacked on and superfluous, too separated from the whole.

Despite my issue with the breakup of the organization, this volume would be a fine addition to the library or reading list of those interested in the Civil War and the people involved. O’Connell summarizes other historical accounts of Sherman’s life well within the entirety of his text, often analyzing conflicting views or offering up his own unique take on interpretation of events or beliefs that the historian can only speculate upon with the evidence we have. In all O’Connell seems well-reasoned and informed and he offers copious notes to original sources for those who wish to delve deeper.

Four Stars out of Five

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S. Purdum

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
by Todd Purdum
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 0805096728
416 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” relates the convoluted steps leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with the championship and oversight of the bill’s design by the executive branch (namely the Kennedy brothers) and its subsequent evolution through passage in the House and Senate. This political development, rather ‘dry’ in itself, is of course set amid the turbulent social upheavals of the era and that event that both helped propel this ‘project’ forward and led to new difficulties in its realization, namely the Kennedy assassination and the new leadership of Southerner Johnson.

Purdum does a fine job relating the details of the Act’s development and ultimate passage, and after reading about the many failed party compromises of recent years it is interesting to read about one instance where something substantial was achieved. Unlike recent issues, however, this Act had split support and opposition from wings of both Republican and Democratic parties, and thankfully the extreme wings of each party that fought against this Act were each in the minority, unlike today.

The majority of focus in the book is on the executive branch, pervading each step leading to the final passage, and as such the people involved in the legislative branch on either side get relatively less attention. Already less familiar with these people, greater biographical detail on these players and their pasts would have been nice.

While the book does an excellent and fair job of relating the history involved, it spends very little space on any type of analysis. Largely this seems to avoid any kind of bias or opinion, as opposed to just stating the facts or reporting the recorded opinions of those involved in the process at the time. This is not a fault, but if you are looking for something beyond a simple history of passage this may not be of interest. But if you are largely unfamiliar with the details of this period of history, Purdum’s work serves as an excellent primer and education, offering glimpses not just into politics, but the social situation of the United States in the early 60’s and the racial injustices so many citizens endured and fought to overcome.

Four Stars out of Five

John Snow, by Jack Challoner

John Snow, by Jack Challoner
Publisher: A&C Black (Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 1408178400
112 pages, paperback
Published March 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This short biography covers the work of doctor John Snow in investigating outbreaks of cholera in England, a key event in the development of the science of epidemiology, tracing an illness back to its source and ultimate cause. Although Snow was no microbiologist, and it fell to Koch to eventually clearly identify the bacteria Vibrio cholera as the causative agent of the disease, Snow’s work laid the foundations for establishing a way to control cholera, namely to focus on water supplies rather than the prevailing view of the time, ‘bad air’.

Challoner, an established writer of communicating science to a lay audience, particularly youth, writes this geared for older children and young adults, but for those unfamiliar with Snow’s work and epidemiology, it would be quick, highly readable primer on the topic. Challoner focuses on the cholera-related work of Snow, rather than writing an all-encompassing birth-to-death biography, though he does discuss tangentially Snow’s role as physician and pioneering anesthesiologist.

Despite focusing on this history of science and medicine, Challoner relates the story with descriptive warmth, including small details of everyday life at the time (mid-late 1800s) and conversationally, anecdotally through the thoughts of Snow and those he comes in contact with in his endeavors. Though fabricated in that retelling, the facts behind the story, the history, remain solidly accurate to my eye.

Beyond introducing Snow’s accomplishments, this book in general outlines the scientific process of mystery, curiosity, research, refinement, and ultimate success, but with more work for others to carry on. In this sense it is a good general introduction of children to science in general.

The only drawback to the book relates to who the audience may actually be. With text alone, it tends towards the dry and detail-laden, including some medical/scientific vocabulary, despite being related in a straight-forward way, more relatable perhaps to an adult. Yet, it is written in a short and succinct manner with phrases interspersed in the detail that seem geared towards the young. It thus seems most appropriate for a teen with a keen interest in science or medicine, or as a fine source for some school project or paper.

Four Stars out of Five