I wanted to read this book from the moment I read a review in the New York Times. The title grabbed me by my inner truths and would not let me go, and I relate because my mother had the same philosophy, if she could even be said to have a "philosophy". It's the overall general sense of being "happy" vs being "normal" that got to me - not the specifics of Winterson's life. My mother, too, was big on being "normal" and also felt that being happy was an offshoot of arrogance - like "who are you to deserve happiness?" I am not attempting to define happiness here, just saying the idea was always presented as an unreachable ideal, only given to a privileged few, with the rest of us required to trudge along, suffering and miserable.
Anyway, the narration took some time getting used to - I initially found Ms. Winterson's voice to be a bit strident, with an accent I couldn't quite place, but I gradually acclimated and found a receptive space where I could listen with more peace. The accent and patterns of speech actually work to help create the ambience of mid-20th century Manchester, England.
I like that Winterson's description of the renaissance-like evolution and development of Manchester - from its dark days as Britain's foremost manufacturing town into a prosperous arcade of high-end consumer pleasures such as restaurants, art galleries, new housing created from vacated mill buildings - parallels her own journey of self-dicovery and reclamation.
The memoir proceeds chronologically, but sometimes it's not quite clear where we are in Winterson's life. Not a problem though, as things eventually do clear up, and the surface randomness of the story does not devolve into confusion for the reader; due to the beauty of the writing, sometimes it does not really matter. WInterson herself admits to not writing in a linear style, preferring a less structured way of selecting her scenes.
Although this is another story about growing up with a mother who is very odd in so many ways, unwilling and unable to show love, perhaps even to feel it, this narrative has its own animus, and I, as a reader, never tire of this subject nor of this genre. Winterson's rise from her very inauspicious and soul-destroying roots into triumph like the Phoenix from the ashes is a story that can be told again and again.
Talk about not wanting to turn the car audio player off...this is a minute-by-minute account, not only of a bereavement and of a death, but of a life as lived in each present moment. I'll never know why it is that some writers, and well-known, respected ones at that, can snooze me off with their painstaking detail (oh just get on with it will you?), and someone like Oates can mesmerize me, stun me with literary pleasure with her delicately nuanced accounts of the huge range of emotions encountered by one person, as they happen, moment by moment.
I am equally amazed at this "warts and all" presentation of Oates' self-doubts and insecurities, her lack of self-belief, and the meaninglessness to her of all her considerable accomplishments compared to the loss of her husband and soul-mate. That she can get this all down without appearing even mildly self-absorbed is another feat that impresses me.
As a memoir, this ranks up there with the best. The author successfully navigates the parallel paths of intellectual elitism, drugs, sobriety, family, relationships, sex, religion, financial dysfunction and everything in between. Her writing is smart and not always direct, and her language is surgically precise. This is not a sparse, lean style - it's more complex and indirect and you have to pay attention. Things are more rhythmic and measured as the book progresses, but the beginning chapters are not at all linear. Well worth the effort to stay the course, however.
Mary Karr as a narrator sounds rather harsh at the start - but after a few chapters one gets accustomed to the "lived in" voice. It's not a nice, crisp and correct "designer" narration - but it's emotionally riveting and very well matched to the material.
I am only giving this book 4 stars because of the lengthy epigraphs at the start of each chapter. Most of them are annoyingly long and oblique, and I started resenting these passages for taking up so much space in the book. When you like a listen, every minute counts, and I didn't think the quotes did anything to enhance the story. But, bottom line, this was excellent!
I have to admit that the Truman Capote story on Marlon Brando was a bit disappointing. But the rest, oh my! What a wonderful book of stories; it starts with Lillian Ross on Earnest Hemingway; then goes to Katherine White, one of the founding editors of the New Yorker; then goes on to profile boxers, "cool finders", a tightrope walker; Heloise (from Hints from Heloise); Edna Buchanan (Miami crime beat reporter); Isadora Duncan, and even a champion show dog. My two favorites were Mr. Hunter's Grave by Joseph Mitchell and A Pryor Love (about Richard Pryor) by Hilton Als. Mr. Hunter's Grave was not really about a person so much as about a small town on Staten Island; I know, I don't make it sound like much, but really, I hated to have it end. The story on Richard Pryor was insightful -- it showed the flaws in the man with such compassion and with enough understanding of Mr. Pryor's past to show how it all worked together first to make him into a celebrity, and then brought him down again.
The narration on all the stories is good, but it is the writing that really makes this book stand out. It is the sort of writing that transports you from where ever you are into the world being profiled. You come away wanting to know more about the people discussed, and feeling like you may have met some new friends. 10 hours is not enough for this book; I hope they will put out the unabridged edition. I will go back and listen to these stories again.