A Year in Reading: Hannah Nordhaus

December 15, 2011 | 4 2 min read

I am on a memoir kick. In the last couple of months I’ve plowed through Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and I recently started — not kidding — a book called The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, by Holly Robinson.

coverI read too quickly, and I often find that what I retain a few weeks after I’ve gobbled a book, is an image or moment that somehow encapsulates the work — the essence that stays behind when everything else fades. Suck City is a resonant, haunting story of how an abandoned son comes to accept the hugely flawed humanity of his skid-row dad. The image I hoard from that book is of the author walking down a Boston street with his “gnomelike,” almost comically diminished father — “cross-eyed, stiff gait, smaller and smaller.” I can’t stop thinking of it: the father—so grandiose, so damaged—tottering crookedly down the sidewalk, taking credit for the trees that line the street and the steps that anchor his building.

coverThe Liar’s Club is also about an unmoored parent and a turbulent childhood, and nobody who has read it can soon forget the terrifying sight of the author’s crazed, wasted, theatrically immoderate mother hovering in her daughters’ bedroom doorway with her “wild corona of hair,” brandishing a shiny kitchen knife. But I think back to a more intimate tableau: of the family eating dinner together each night in the parents’ massive bed, facing opposite walls, “our backs together, looking like some four-headed totem, our plates balanced on the spot of quilt between our legs.” The image is so familiar and sad and touching at the same time, and it says everything about how our weird family arrangements can break us, but also make us who we are.

coverFamilies are ecosystems unto themselves, and since I have written a book about bees and humans, I now see signs of symbiosis everywhere — flowers, bees, people, animals, families, all the dependencies that go into making a life. I’m particularly interested in how people coexist with pets, and that’s how I ran across Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter. It is also about, yup, a kid coming to terms with her unusual childhood, though as far as parental pathologies go, you could do worse than suffering through your father’s gerbil-husbandry fixation (the author’s Navy-commander father decides to stake the family’s future on raising gerbils). It’s a fun book, sad as well, though not so vivid and thought-provoking and lyrical as the two I read before. But then, those books don’t have gerbils: 8,700 of them. Now there’s an image.

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is the author of The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America. Her work has appeared in The Financial Times, The Los Angeles Times, SF Weekly, Outside Magazine, and elsewhere. She has been awarded for her writing by the Associated Press and California Newspaper Publishing Association. Her blog appears here.


  1. “I read too quickly” is the last complaint I thought I’d ever hear from a reader ;)

    Anyway, I read Liars’ Club last year, and I liked it a lot. I still wonder whether it’s a good or a bad thing for you if your parents are somewhat negligent of you / concerning ‘decency.’ What resonated most with me was the actual liars’ club and for some weird reason, salting your beer. I hadn’t heard of that before, but it turns out that it boils down to an “if life gives you shitty beer, salt it” ethos that I find charming. It just fit with the men trying to make their life a bit more awesome than it is through telling tall tales.

  2. I personally do not find anything interesting in these confessionals of a ‘crazy past’ like The Liars’ Club. Other quality stories could have been spun from family lore, etc., without burdening the reader with all kinds of craziness. I have not read it, and I do not doubt it is well written, but the subject matter is not something I want to waste good reading time on.

  3. Well, I guess we’re stuck with the families we get, some of whom provide fodder for books. But I don’t think your family has to be shithouse crazy to merit a memoir (I hope not, because I’m working on a memoirish project now and my family’s quite pleasant). Really, it’s in the writing, and that’s what Nick Flynn and Mary Karr both do so well, despite the shitty beer they had to drink!

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