I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell

This is not your average memoir. With stark self-awareness and insight, novelist Maggie O’Farrell throws us into the middle of her life through 17 essays about life-threatening and often harrowing events that define how she became who she is. She lightly weaves her biography throughout, giving us enough of a glimpse of her personal trajectory to understand as much as we need to know about how she got from point A to point B and why. But the book is primarily a sensory exploration of how it feels to be Maggie O’Farrell.

Much of what happens in O’Farrell’s life stems from a case of encephalitis when she was eight, the effects of which she shows throughout the book. But she waits until the penultimate chapter to explain the disease, trusting her reader to stay with her. She shows before she tells. It’s risky, but it works.

Because of encephalitis, her brain can’t accurately place her in her environment, so she often fights for physical balance, her muscles cannot provide enough strength for childbirth, she can stutter at book readings, and simply walking up to the stage at an event is a feat in itself.  

Her life sometimes defies belief, and she seems to take questionable risks, but she says being so ill so young changed her and made her embrace life with a passion few possess:

I am desperate for change, endlessly seeking novelty, wherever I can find it. When you’re a child, no one tells you that you are going to die. You have to work it out for yourself.

She has survived assaults that could have killed her—one of her attackers murdered another young woman shortly after he put his camera strap menacingly around O’Farrell’s throat. O’Farrell outwitted him by doing what she does with remarkable power: using her words.

Other brushes with death include three near-drownings, two more assaults, a child with deadly allergies, and multiple “missed miscarriages” in which the baby dies, but the mother has no symptoms of the loss. All this both forms and is a result of a personality that embraces risk, requires change, and is deeply introspective. In a relatively short book, O’Farrell shows how she was molded into a woman, a mother, and a writer of courage and intensity.

— Pat Prijatel

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

This novel is based on true events that actually boggle the mind of the modern reader. Georgia Tann was a prominent maven of Tennessee society who sought to better society through the adoption of poor, underprivileged children into wealthy socially-advantaged families. Operating during the distressed times of the 1930s Depression, she established the Tennessee Children’s Home Society which operated orphanages across Tennessee and Georgia. That good intention went badly awry, however, and many of the children who ended up in these orphanages were never actually given up for adoption by their birth families. Some were snatched up on their way home from school. Others were taken from parents who were conned into signing away their parental rights by promises that their children would be returned when the family could get back on their feet. When the parents tried to reclaim their children, adoptions had been finalized, names changed, and records sealed. All of that is true and it is a grisly story that continued for more than a decade.

Against this history, Wingate structures her novel in two voices. The voice of 12-year-old Rill in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939 alternates with that of Avery, a 30-something daughter of wealth and privilege in modern-day Aiken, South Carolina. Rill’s story moves us forward in time. Avery’s story ultimately unravels backward through the unsuspected secrets of her family,

Rill is the oldest of five children who were taken from their family’s vagabond houseboat on the Mississippi River when their father takes their mother to the hospital. Her story and the story of her siblings unfolds over a three-month period in alternating chapters of the book as Rill, rechristened May in the orphanage, fights to keep her sisters and brother with her.

In the interwoven story, Avery encounters a woman, May, in a nursing home who grabs her wrist and takes a bracelet that was given to Avery by her grandmother.  Avery’s grandmother is in the dementia unit of a different nursing home. As Avery retrieves her bracelet, she begins to talk with May and sees a photograph that looks suspiciously like one that her grandmother has. 

We see where this is going. And it does go there, at a fast tempo, and with some riveting scenes and phrases (such as fans trying to move humid summer air that has no desire to be moved). 

Our book club mostly enjoyed reading this book and it is indeed a good tale.  However, many thought the “Avery” story was too pat, too romance-novel-ish and used unnecessarily stereotyped characters, particularly Avery’s fiancé and the man who helps her unravel her family’s past. Our discussions of the book mostly centered around the character of Rill and her mighty efforts to save her siblings and their memories of their “real” parents; and around Georgia Tann, who died before she could be charged with the crimes she committed; and around our society’s changing views about adoption. The book did push us to consider what we might have done in the circumstances that confronted families in abject poverty during the Depression.  What might we have done to save our children? The scene where a father comes to the orphanage to reclaim his children and is told that they are already gone “to a better life,” is riveting. 

Review by Jeanie and Bill Smith

The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

We first meet Katey at an art exhibit in 1966. It’s a show of photographs by Walker Evans from 1938 — portraits of New Yorkers riding the subway, a mix of that city’s rich, poor, well dressed, haggard, harried, hurried. Katey is there with her husband, Val. We know she has done well for herself because an aspiring novelist is also at the opening with his agent. When the agent sees Katey, his eyes light up, and he motions for her to come over. She nods politely and starts walking—and she and Val go right out the door.

That little scene tells us much of what we ultimately get to know about Katey—driven to inevitable success, living her life on her own terms, with no patience for anybody trying to take advantage of her.

At the exhibit, she notices photographs of an old friend, Tinker, and shows them to Val. In one photograph, Tinker is well dressed, looking like the affluent young banker she knew. In another he’s in threadbare clothes, even a bit dirty, but most important, happy. Katey tells Val she knew Tinker but the two don’t talk very much about it. Val can sense that there is more to the story, but he knows his wife, and doesn’t push. He thinks the scruffy photograph came first, but Katey clarifies that Tinker’s looks changed for the worse as the year went by. 

The rest of the book goes back to 1938 and tells us that story. Towles evokes images of pre-war New York that feel like old black-and-white movies—the light, the sounds, the energy of that city. It’s an especially vivid portrait, as seen primarily through the eyes of  Katey, 24 at the time; her friend, Evie; and of course Tinker. Nobody is who we think they are. They may not even be who they think they are.

Even though Katey is the narrator, this is Tinker’s story. As Katey’s trajectory points toward success, Tinker’s takes a turn away from glamour and toward a more honest, connected life. Judging by the photographs, a happier life.

The novel takes place almost entirely in 1938 with these young vibrant New Yorkers drinking remarkable amounts of alcohol and having witty Spencer-Tracy- Katharine-Hepburn-type conversations as they wander to speakeasies, bars, and fancy homes. We learn the least about Katey. As the narrator, she can tell us as much or as little as she wants. We get a sense of who she is professionally, but not a clear understanding of her personal background.  

The novel is a delight to read, even though at times you might challenge some of its assumptions. The images and the characters, including New York itself, will stay with you long after you finish the book.

To add authenticity, Towles uses photos from Evans’ exhibit throughout the book.

The book takes its title from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, 110 pieces of advice the future president wrote when he was 14. Tinker uses them to try to fit into a society to which he feels he does not belong. The last rule may say the most about his life choices as the year progresses:

Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

— Pat Prijatel