Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Not the Mother I Remember

I enjoy reading memoirs, but they typically have to grab me within the first few pages to pique my full interest, as I usually have a substantial stack of different types of books in my "to be read" pile. Not the Mother I Remember, by Amber Lea Starfire, passed this test immediately with flying colors.

I worked with Amber a few months ago on the blog tour for Times They Were A-Changing, and was impressed by her writing style in the essay she contributed to the anthology she co-edited, "Altamont." The essay was originally written while she was working on Not the Mother I Remember, but she realized it just didn't fit in with the narrative and instead included it in Times They Were A-Changing, where it had a much better fit.

I began reading Amber Lea Starfire’s book Not the Mother I Remember on a Saturday afternoon and was already halfway through it before I went to bed that evening. Simply put, I quickly became immersed in the story of Jacqueline “Jackie” Carr, teacher, writer, and mother of six, a woman determined to experience all life had to offer, despite how it affected her relationships with her children.

The memoir begins with a preface describing how Starfire and her brothers make the decision to place their mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, into an assisted-living facility. During the course of cleaning out her mother’s apartment, Starfire opens a storage closet and discovers boxes and boxes of her mother’s writing and correspondence. While elated at what she has found, she is also scarred from years of battling with her complicated mother and knows she is not yet ready to face the story behind who Jackie Carr really was. Only after her mother’s death in 2007 does she begin the arduous process of sifting through the letters and journal entries.

I found myself conflicted at different points in the book. For example, I was fascinated by the story of how Carr sold all her belongings after divorcing her husband and took two of her children (including the author, who was 10 years old at the time) on a 365-day world tour that included Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Japan and many other places. But that fascination turned to disbelief as I discovered that Jackie also left her children with virtual strangers at different times throughout that year as she went off on separate adventures of her own. I questioned how a single mother during that time period could balance supporting herself and her children and be actively involved in as many things as she was. (The progressive Jackie also earned her pilot’s license at one point, purchased a small plane, and took Starfire and her brother on a whirlwind summer flying tour).

Starfire describes the mixed emotions she felt toward her mother as “the Tar.”

“Sometimes, when she pushed me too hard, it cooled and solidified and shone like brightly polished obsidian, with painfully sharp edges. And during those times we tried to make up with each other, it became watery and brown, weak as tea.”

What makes this book unique is how Starfire layers her own narrative with excerpts from Jackie’s letters and diary entries, which takes the story to a whole different level. She also includes photos, copies of her mother’s typewritten work history, real estate transactions, publishing history, travel excursions and more. Readers can also get a glimpse of an obituary that Jackie wrote for herself in 1998.

In the words of Jackie Carr:
“I played life as if it were a race with “winning” as the goal. I won: twenty-five years with one man, several mad love affairs, six children and sixteen grandchildren, two advanced degrees, eight books, travel around the world. I wanted to be financially secure. I won that race too. I loved winning just as I loved loving—for the feel of it.”

Not the Mother I Remember is no ordinary memoir, and because of this, I highly recommend it. Starfire’s writing is clear and strong and she tackles this difficult subject matter in a way that is both poignant and cathartic.

To learn more about Amber Starfire, visit her website

No comments: