Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book Review: The Sky Isn't Visible From Here

In a recent post I mentioned my love for memoirs. Done well, a memoir reads like carefully crafted fiction, redolent of storytelling at its best. (Done poorly, a memoir makes you want to throw the book violently, or perhaps have a book club session in which you roll your eyes a lot and seriously question the veracity of the author.)

The cool thing about a memoir is that it's not fiction. When we get caught up in fiction, we readers understand that, while the characters and events may be based on fact, it's still just a story. Happy ending or tragic ending, it's made up. But a memoir: this is real stuff. Felicia C. Sullivan is a real person (here's her blog to prove it) who survived an incredibly rough, volatile childhood only to battle her own drug and alcohol abuse, ultimately emerging—fiercely—into this "author, foodie, and rockstar."

The Sky Isn't Visible From Here alternates between Felicia's childhood in Brooklyn and her college and post-college years. Central throughout each chapter is Felicia's relationship with her mother: a manipulative, unstable, selfish, drug-addict. The chapters are neatly compartmentalized for much of the novel, just like Felicia's post-Brooklyn life:
I had been in perpetual chrysalis for most of my life, but during college I'd become an expert at transformation. I turned into a walking J.Crew catalog: preened, preppy, and audaciously New England. Lake a barnacle, I clung desperately to my affluent Waspy friends, most of them blonds who owned platinum Rolex watches that cost more than used cars. Unbeknownst to them, they were my teachers on all matters of etiquette and style. I mimicked their expressions and copied their wardrobes. … And I never let down my hair. Literally. I have curly hair— the kinky, unruly kind — but I wore it ironed straight. The difference between wearing my hair straight or curly was the difference between life and death.
Like Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle, Felicia Sullivan takes great pains to keep her childhood separate and secret from her Ivy League friends. Eventually, though, the two worlds collide and Felicia crashes, ultimately losing friends and love when her cocaine and alcohol use spins out of control. The scenes of alienating her friends and of her losing Ben are painful and heartbreaking:
I am afraid I'll never kow this love again; never hold it between two fingers, because I'm busy letting myelf slip away from myself. From a distance, love seems entirely too hard, always a mopping up, a sweeping down. Who you are is never enough. You need a catch phrase, a story that makes everyone laugh.
You can't help but root for Felicia. You might even stalk occasionally visit her blog, anxious to read that she is still okay. Her blog also has a great collection of interviews, including this one here at All Things Girl and this oneon Ploughshares Blog. Felicia Sullivan's story is fascinating in itself, but her writing makes the memoir breathtaking.

My creative writing thesis was a mixture of poetry and memoir. It was a requirement that we have one person outside of the English department be a part of our defense committee. One of my professors suggested a woman in the architecture department. She wore a shiny yellow rain slicker to my defense and looked angry to be there. Put out. "Why," she said, "Would I care about this? Why do I care about any of what you have to say? This has no relevance in my life." Both being writers of creative nonfiction themselves, my other professors/committee members were horrified and momentarily speechless (as was I). How do you defend the need to tell? How do you convince your readers that your memoir is worth reading--that you have something valuable to say?

I can't remember how the awkward silence was filled, but my major professor apologized profusely to me after my defense, assuring me that this woman obviously had no clue about writing and no lyrical gene in her body. And I know that this woman's reaction is every memoir writer's fear: that her work will be considered self-indulgent and irrelevant. A cathartic outlet.

But I think it is a risk that has to be taken. What do we as readers gain from memoirs? A greater sense of humanity. A reminder that the world is so much bigger than our own backyard. A gratefulness for our own lives, or perhaps a reassurance that others have shared the same struggles. A rejoicing in the strength of an individual, in one's ability to overcome adversity and not just survive, but thrive. Or in some cases, like in Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, a simple delight in ordinary things.

If you aren't much of a memoir reader, this is a great place to start. Other suggestions are here and in the comments of this recent post.


Anonymous said...

Oh, my! Thank you for your very wonderful review; your words (and support) really moved me. Thanks!!
Warmly, Felicia

Unknown said...

I think I will hahve to add this to my constantly growing TBR list, as it sounds very good from your divine review.

Anonymous said...

NICE post! I mostly read fiction; rarely memoirs. You've changed my mind about that, and I'm putting this book on my list.

Tracee said...

This sounds like and excellent book - it has a place waiting on my TBR list. Great review!

Anonymous said...

I am an avid reader - mostly fiction thought. Memoirs are just not that interesting to me. But based on your post, maybe I'll give them another college try.

Amy said...

This sounds like one I must read. I love memoirs too.

BTW, I nominated you for an award on my blog!

Anonymous said...

I read this a few months ago and absolutely loved it. Definitely a book everyone should buy and read.

Dave King said...

A really excellent post - so much more than just a review, though you have made me want to read the book. Way back I did a Dip course at London Uni as apsrt of which I did a special study on the development of the self-image. My main source was memoirs and autobiographies, so I understand where you are coming from, as they say. Thanks for the read.

Literary Feline said...

I've had my eye on this memoir for awhile. It does sound like its worth reading. Thank you for a wonderful review.

smallspiralnotebook said...

So glad you enjoyed Sky!
Warmly, Felicia