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Memoirs

Longings that never end.

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By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, December 21, 2008

FIRST DARLING OF THE MORNING Selected Memories Of an Indian Childhood By Thrity Umrigar | HarperPerennial. 294 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Thrity Umrigar's mother was abusive, her father often absent. She communicates her childhood longing for a cohesive family in deeply felt portraits of those she loves: Mehroo, the selfless aunt who provided nurturing and gentleness in an otherwise bleak household; her beloved Uncle Babu, who came up with the endearment that gives the book its title and whose death provides its most poignant moment.

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Umrigar, who grew up among the remnants of colonial culture of Bombay (now Mumbai) has thought about what it means to be "a cultural mongrel, the bastard child of history." She read Enid Blyton and listened to Western pop music, usually years out of date. She attended a Catholic school. Asked to write a composition using Indian instead of English names, she was puzzled: "Until now, my characters have eaten scones and blueberry tarts instead of chutney sandwiches and bhel puri, and to make that culinary and cultural leap seems impossible." As an adult, she discovered Salman Rushdie and was fascinated by the Bombay he saw as an Indian writer.

Even as a child, Umrigar was troubled by the poverty she saw around her and worried about the beggars who clustered around her family when they purchased food from a stand. She felt affection and respect for one of her father's factory workers and anguish when he joined a group of angry strikers; she tried to discern what he was thinking, questioning her former blindness and sentimentality in believing they could be friends, and finally understood the gulf that prohibited real communication between them. It is this combination of personal revelation and empathetic observation that makes Umrigar's memoir so appealing.

DESIRE Where Sex Meets Addiction By Susan Cheever | Simon & Schuster. 172 pp. $23

For a book about an activity most of us consider pleasurable, this is a remarkably grinding read. Susan Cheever first attracted attention with a memoir in which she revealed that her famous father, the author John Cheever, was bisexual. She got the idea for Desire while researching her biography of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson; once Wilson had his alcoholism under control, apparently, he turned to sex.

Cheever sets out to prove that there's a difference between being a sex addict and just liking a lot of sex, but after 172 pages she has neither defined addiction nor clinched the argument. Or rather, she has defined, asked, argued and sort-of clinched over and over again. She tells the story of her long affair with a journalist -- the book begins with their marriage, which occurred some 17 years and many betrayals after they met -- and she alludes to a lifetime of promiscuity but provides very little insight or detail.

So what do we get? Not an engrossing tell-all. But also, nothing deeper. Not the musings on the cultural meaning of sickness we discovered in Susan Sontag's Illness As Metaphor or the illuminations found in the addiction memoirs of other, more self-aware authors. Not a self-help book, despite the sections titled "what is it?" "what causes it?" and "what can we do about it?" Just a compilation -- well-written though never vivid -- of various people's theories about addiction, interspersed with Cheever's own musings. She doesn't seem to favor one particular theory over another, citing authors as different as surgeon-author Sherwin Nuland, writer bell hooks, evolutionary psychologist David Buss and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard without ever coming up with a coherent theory or indicating whose insights strike her as most pertinent.

TAKE ME WITH YOU A Memoir By Carlos Frías | Atria. 291 pp. $25

Carlos Frías is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post who was assigned to go to Cuba in 2006 when Fidel Castro became ill. His parents had left after the revolution; they had lost everything, and his father had suffered two years of imprisonment. As a result, the old man had vowed never to return as long as Castro was in power. But when Frías called to tell him of the assignment, Fernando Frías said simply, "Take me with you." And so Carlos did, though only in spirit.

For the younger Frías, this was an opportunity to learn about the country of his ancestry, to meet relatives, to assess for himself the state of things in Cuba. He reunited with family friends, including two women who once worked in a café the family owned: One was his father's old girlfriend; the other was still in love with one of his emigré uncles. He met the long-lost son of an uncle and eventually learned of a half-sister, fathered by Fernando before his arrest.

Frías's writing is emotional, his descriptions fresh. He provides telling details about the clothes, food and poverty of the Cuban people, the lack of amenities that almost all North Americans take for granted, the ancient cars nursed along year after year, the pervasive fear he senses in those he interviews. There's a poignant scene in which he treats a driver to a dish containing steak, which the driver cuts into postage-stamp sized pieces, eating each very slowly and finally staring at "the glistening empty plate for several seconds."

But the book eventually becomes repetitive. We read page after page about disintegrating buildings; Frías meets person after person, describing each in turn, noting caramel skin, wrinkles, black hair, the shape of a face. Almost every meeting is rapturous and painful for him; most cause a physical sensation -- tears, a queasy stomach -- that he dutifully describes. It becomes hard for the reader to keep all these people separate and distinct, let alone to share in the author's passionate feelings about them. ·

Juliet Wittman teaches writing at the University of Colorado.


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