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Sarah Tomlinson

What I’m Reading

By Sarah Tomlinson | April 22, 2015 | |

If it’s true for athletes: you are what you eat. Then it’s true for writers: you are what you read. When I sat down to write my memoir, Good Girl, about my troubled relationship with my compulsive gambling, wannabe mystic dad, my literary agent had one directive for me: read the best nonfiction and memoir you can, and you’ll automatically up your game. He put me on a diet of the classics, including Joan Didion and Mary Karr (geniuses both). Some I’d already read, but not with the same attention I brought to bear as I attempted to tell my own story. Ever since that process, and even now that my book is in the world, I’ve had a passion for tell-alls about complicated families, especially father-daughter memoirs, including these:

When I told people I was writing a book about my dad and me, many immediately suggested books I should read. One dear friend was thrilled to put me in touch with her longtime pal, Alysia Abbott, who was about to release her own father-daughter memoir, Fairyland. Not only did this book provide an incredibly vivid portrait of her childhood in San Francisco, where she was raised by an openly gay poet and activist dad, but it was also a beautiful lesson in how acknowledging and forgiving our loved one’s flaws is actually a way to draw closer to them and love them more. I was so impressed with Alysia’s clear-eyed courage and compassion, and how gracefully she wrote about hard topics like AIDS and grief without ever being sentimental.

As if I was magnetized to attract all father-daughter memoirs, I also found myself suddenly turning up books on the subject myself. When I heard about Leigh Newman’s new memoir, Still Points North, about her summers with her dad in the Alaskan outback after her parents divorced, I was thrilled to learn she would soon be reading at the Brooklyn bookstore near where I lived. During my first introduction to her work, I was struck by the ease of her prose, and the way she infused humor into even difficult subjects, which is no easy feat. Her book also offered a fascinating introduction to a landscape unknown to most readers, making her story both deeply personal and totally universal, a must for a good memoir.

Nearly every dinner party I went to while writing my book seemed to yield a list of new titles by avid readers who all had favorite father-daughter stories. I can’t remember who recommended The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell, but they did so with such fervor that I immediately acquired a copy. While this book is a graphic novel, rather than a straightforward memoir, it had the same emotional resonance and narrative drive of any prose title. It also provided some surprising and fascinating insights into how a daughter can take on both negative—and positive—attributes when being raised by a fabulist father. I was not only thoroughly entertained by her honest, gripping self-portrait, but I saw much of myself in her book, which then informed my own writing.

It’s not only fathers and daughters who have difficult relationships, of course. When I discovered Rebecca Solnit’s nonfiction book, The Faraway Nearby, I was immediately compelled by her account of her mother’s retreat into memory loss, and her attempts to handle this difficult experience, as well as her own simultaneous illness, by drawing strength and understanding from stories and landscapes of suffering and loss. The book was so exquisitely written – its many intricate strands of thought drawn together so skillfully – that it not only expanded my ideas on how families function but also my knowledge and view of the world.

During my book tour, I’ll be sharing a podium with Melissa Cistaro, author of the forthcoming mother-daughter memoir, Pieces of My Mother. It’s always incredibly fortuitous to be drawn into the company of a talented peer. As my agent pointed out with my own reading, it can only expand our abilities. So I was thrilled to find that Melissa’s beautiful book is both an exploration of the lifelong consequences of a childhood loss, and a celebration of the many ways in which adults can draw strength from early hardships. Also, the honest but loving portrait of her mother is a reminder that, in the end, we are all heroes in the stories of our own lives. And sometimes, the most difficult people make for the most compelling characters.

Whether searching for a way to make sense of your own upbringing, or just the chance to eavesdrop on another’s life, family memoirs are healing and fascinating.

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