I had the good fortune to have a lot of excellent books come across my desk. Some standouts from this year have been celebrated by many: Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Joshua Mohr’s All This Life, Alex Mar’s Witches of America…The list goes on and on.
At some point in the year I began seeing a theme arise in the books I was chasing down. Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, David Shields’s That Thing You Do with Your Mouth and Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife all tackled mothers or motherhood in an interesting way. Each function as a memoir, some testing the boundaries of the form, all while looking at the peculiarities and constraints of being a mother. (Or perhaps, that’s what stood out to me.) Although all three books are vastly different, each made me consider what we inherit from our mothers, through psychology and physiology. There’s a refreshing grimness to David Shields’s riveting conversation with his cousin Samantha Matthews in That Thing You Do With Your Mouth. The narrative asks the question whether or not we can get over early traumas, but the book evolves into a mediation on performative femininity and debasement, with Matthews’s candid account of a life where “My body was everyone else’s but mine.” Matthews, a voice-over actress who also dubs porn in Spain, offers a frank account of the struggles she’s inherited from her mother, with incisive observations about her mother (and herself), “She’s just lost and trying to pretend she’s not. I’m lost and trying to admit I am.” Shields’s slim book takes a fascinating look at Matthews’s own mother who harbors a sort of dual personality in Carol, “a repressed post-1950s mother,” and Kitty, a woman with a deep need to be desired by men. I thought a lot about this sort of inheritance and the inheritance of traumas from our mothers while I read Shields’s book. It came at a time when scientists discovered trauma can literally be passed along to our children through our DNA.
Antrim’s much lauded memoir, The Afterlife, explores his relationship with his creative, though troubled, alcoholic mother through her death. I had to read it in bits because the writing is so visceral and painful that I often felt overwhelmed by the intimacy of his grief. I read it while going through my own grief, or anticipated grief, as it were, and it felt necessary and comforting. In one section, Antrim writes about purchasing an expensive mattress after his mother’s death. One that felt like an albatross in his house in the absence of her. Antrim has the incredible ability to infuse even the most oppressive grief with a sense of humor. The frenzy in which Antrim navigates the purchase and return of this mattress was both crushing and hilarious. He had imbued it with his grief and he would have no rest until it was returned. “The bed was alive. It was alive with my mother,” he writes. In this book, it feels like Antrim is searching for himself, by way of looking at the evolution of his mother, and coming to understand her. The relationship he had with his mother, rueful and anxiety-inducing, felt so familiar to me.
In Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, Julavits navigates being an artist and a mother, and a woman and an artist, and a human being in this world who is filled with a familiar sense of longing. She ascribes importance to inanimate objects that hold mysterious power for her and I can so relate. “When things are going badly, I scan my life for the cause. Often that cause can be sourced to an object,” she writes. I laughed out loud because I understood this on such a profound level. Recently, my husband and I purchased a sofa from a couple divorcing. It was a great deal. After three days of having the sofa in the house, I felt agitated and angry. My husband kept calling it the divorce couch. I laughed at first but then it made me feel sad. The sofa had been purchased by the divorcing couple just six months before and was barely used. I began to feel as though the sofa was bringing us bad luck. It had been privy to other people’s unraveling. We argued over stupid things, inconsequential things. It was the sofa’s fault, I decided. I called my husband from work and demanded he sage it. Amused, he did. It worked. Besides the moments of superstition that made me relate to Julavits’s diary, I found her struggles and questions about how to be a woman, an artist, a wife, and a mother — as well as her fight for her own autonomy — deeply absorbing. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts looked at similar themes and is another book I highly recommend. I found myself underlining on nearly every page of both books. Perhaps the books I chose are not so much about mothers as they are a search for self through investigations of where we come from and what we inherit from those who came before us. All in all, a great year for books.
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