Review: Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman

Truth be told, I finished this book some time ago, but it's taken me awhile just to wade through all of the feelings it brought to the surface for me - I don't know that I've been so affected by a book since Atonement, and I honestly don't know if that says more about Francisco Goldman, about the book, or about myself. As with Ian McEwan's Atonement, the narrator has an overwhelming amount of survivor's guilt, though Goldman's approach is significantly more transparent than McEwan's fictional narrator.

Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman
Grove Press  |  2011  |  288 pp
I remember reading the New York Times review back in 2011 and feeling so compelled by Goldman's loss - his young wife died tragically only two years into their marriage in what authorities would call a freak accident - that I stopped into the Grand Central Posman Books (now gone) the next day to buy it. I couldn't remember the name of it (a fact which I acknowledge to be incredibly ironic) but I was able to summarize it (no response from the employees) and describe the cover - the guy helping me located the sea-blue hardcover with the shapelessly-draped wedding gown floating beneath the title, and looked at me kind of dubiously as if he either had no idea what I was about, or as if he was judging my choice of book.

Perhaps that's in part because this tremendous story of tragedy doesn't make for a great best-seller, or even a highly-recommended mass market beach read (actually, in the interest of taste, please maybe don't read this at the beach). It feels so much more niche and complex than that - not something the casual reader would or should pick up.

Honestly, I'm not sure I was at a point in my life in 2011 where I could have been prepared for it; now that I'm past 30 and have had my share of loss, I know that I appreciate it more than I could have then.

It's a commitment - truly, I think any memoir or biography or autobiography worth its weight requires more attention than most readers can give, but then I hate to call this novel any of those; it is without question biographical - but the way that Goldman breaks up the tragic tale of his short-lived ardent love and builds it strategically is much more like a fictional novel and, in that aspect, exceeds even McEwan in sparking my emotions. Goldman has even said this is not a memoir - certainly, these events happened, but the telling is him emotionally...not the real him - he cites Faulker to this point: "A novel is a writer's secret self, a dark twin of a man" and so that is how he proceeded with telling his story but also removing himself to a degree and allowing the catharsis to take on a life almost of its own.

By design (I imagine), their story arrives like waves as high tide approaches - you can see them in the distance as they surge and recede back and forth until the reader is completely saturated, drowning in stimuli. The Times reviewer called this oscillation "restless...the pacing of the grief-struck," which is terribly accurate in this case.

Goldman, who does not always present himself (or, shall we say, his fictionalish self) in the best light,
shames himself for his humanity in a way that makes it clear that he is (or, was, at least at the time of writing) still working though his grief. We see the denial, the anger, the bargaining and the depression and it seems, only when he begins to imagine Aura as a spirit in her tree, that he has begun to approach acceptance.

How can one explain death? How can one begin to understand it? And how can we move beyond it? Perhaps we never do or - as Goldman says - perhaps grief is eternal like a person's name - "Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always."

While I can't recommend this book for most readers, I encourage you to read about Francisco and Aura - you can read about the Aura Estrada prize here, and you can read an excerpt "The Wave" here.


Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams, by Lynne Withey

Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams,
by Lynne Withey
1981  |  Touchstone  |  369 pp
When my grandmother passed a few years ago, I inherited some of her books (as the big reader in the family, almost by default). Among them was this one - a book that my mother had given her to read with the note you'll find at the bottom of this post.

I honestly don't know why I put up with having so many biographies in my possession. I dislike them immensely. They rarely illustrate a full life, especially when it's the life of someone who lived so long ago; we are subject to what was left behind almost incidentally as opposed to recorded, on top of which the writer - who means to interpret and illustrate that life for the reader - often leaves off the least-appetizing bits and inflates the subject's importance.

I don't deny Abigail Adams her influence. She was assuredly one of the most influential women in early American history, and she definitely suffered for it. But in Dearest Friend Lynn Withey really makes it feel as if Abigail was the only influential woman of the time, which is incorrect. And while Withey does not shy away from Abigail's personal faults, she does gloss them over by focusing so strongly on her loneliness, as if that were an excuse.

And from this book, you cannot tell that Abigail and John had any real feeling for one another. The author describes letters between the two of them and often fills space by saying that John did not write often, but still insists that the feelings were strong. In 1981, when this book was first published, this might have been acceptable. In 2016, it doesn't pass muster. I would rather have just read their letters. Instead, it was just a lot of Abigail Adams feeling sorry for herself and trying to control everyone else.

She decides to add rooms to her house, but we don't get an explanation of why. She agrees with her husband's politics (Federalist) until suddenly neither of them do, and then she starts agreeing with the Republicans - but so little is said about what was happening at the time and what could have influenced that change in her vision other than a mention of John Quincy explaining something that we never get the benefit of understanding; it reads more like an outline than a true-to-life story. It's an illustration that is neither complete nor appealing and, as a reader, it is a bit of an affront to my intelligence.

One note: in the epilogue, Withey mentions that although Abigail did not live to see it (spoiler alert?)
she was the "first and only woman ever to be both wife and mother of American Presidents." In 2001, 20 years after this book was published and 200 years since John Adams vacated the Presidency, Barbara Bush became the second. Though I very much doubt that Mrs. Bush ever had to make as many sacrifices, or was ever called on to advise, as much as Abigail was. I also very much doubt that Barbara would ever be caught hanging her laundry in the east room of the White House.


Top 10 Beach Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature of The Broke and the Bookish.

I love going to the beach; I also just love sitting by the water in general. If I could safely have a kiddie pool in my apartment, I would lay out by it (but unfortunately, kicking up my heels with the sink full of soaking dishes just isn't the same!) I can pretty much read anything poolside, but here are some of my favorites:

1. Jaws, by Peter Benchley. 
Yes, seriously. I'm already semi-terrified of going in the water, so this one really doesn't do anything to make that worse. 

2. Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort-Of History of the United States, by Dave Barry
Apparently Dave Barry is not for everyone. This is not a concept I understand. He's the kind of writer that I find funnier every time I pick him up. So if you don't mind looking like an idiot cracking yourself up, this is (probably) for you.

3. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig
I've only read the first book in this series, but I have no doubt that Willig's historical flair runs through its entirety. I have to say, though, I'm a little concerned about her running out of color and flower names. Book 10 in the series is The Passion of the Purple Plumeria which just sounds awful, but then it's followed (Book 11) by The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, which sounds like something the Brontë teenagers made up. 

4. Actually, while we're on that subject - Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia (e.g. The Secret, Tales of the Islanders, etc.) which is fantastical and perfect for reading on and off while you doze by the water.  

5. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
But then, I recommend The Princess Bride for all kinds of locations. It's an awfully fun book to just lose yourself in when you're laying out. 

6. The Princetta, by Anne-Laure Bondoux
A children's epic with adult appeal. It's perfect when you're by the water. 

7. Mariel of Redwall, by Brian Jacques
You don't *need* to have read the first three books in the Redwall series to appreciate this one, but I strongly recommend doing so. Mariel is great for the beach, though, because we first encounter the title character in a shipwreck, and pirates (naturally) follow. 

8. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
McEwan is always a bit dark, but it's a great vacation read.

9. The Pirates of Barbary - Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean, by Adrian Tinniswood 
While it's a fair distance from the classically romantic notions of pirating, it's a great non-fiction read for your beach bag. 

10. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Thought I was going to leave Jane out, did you? Foolish mortals. Of course not. Persuasion is my favorite and, as such, I can read it just about anywhere. But the nautical undertones make it an easy to ones' beach reads.