Now I’m the One Who is Gobsmacked

What a bummer. A downer. I’m gobsmacked (thanks, Kate, for your recent post).

So. I finished reading the memoir A Family of Strangers by Deborah Tall. Just my cuppa, let me tell you. (No, gobsmacked and cuppa don’t come from Michigan, where I originate–or from Arizona either–but I like them). In this book, Tall, raised by parents who tell her very little about family history and who seem to have no living relatives, is driven to research her family and discover their origins. Her journey takes her to the Ukraine and what is left of her Jewish family in a very small village–so small it isn’t even a shtetl.

The writing style is that of a lyric essay–the text lives at the edge where poetry and prose meet. So there is a lot of white space on the pages. It means that Tall didn’t have to add little physical details and actions to conversations. She summarizes sometimes instead of creating scenes. The book is full of non sequiturs. Instead of traditional transitions, she structures the book into tiny chapters. She re-uses chapter names to create connections across time and space. I’m fascinated by this style of writing and would like to learn how to do it myself, although not necessarily for my book.

When I got done reading the book, I thought about how I would love to work with her, wondering if she teaches classes anywhere online. I saw that she was editor of the Seneca Review and wondered if my new poems were a good fit since they reminded me a bit of this book. I wanted to find her other books and read them. Above all, I really liked the character Deborah in the book.

Now I’m wondering if I should even tell you why I’m gobsmacked. After all, if I tell you, you will know when you read the book.  I didn’t know when I read the book.  OK, spoiler alert.  If you don’t want the spoiler, just go get hold of the book and enjoy.

Here’s an image so that nobody’s eye accidentally reads the spoiler.

A Family of StrangersAnd here is a photo of Tall to distance the spoiler even more:

Deborah Tall

Although there are hints in the book about a family history of cancer, near the end of the book, Tall learns that the type of breast cancer she has been diagnosed with is not hereditary. I was relieved for her two daughters and allowed myself to be lulled into thinking all was well. But it wasn’t. She passed away in 2006, at the age of 55, of inflammatory breast cancer–just after A Family of Strangers was published.

I feel as if I found a friend–and lost her–in one week.



Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Literary Journals, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

41 responses to “Now I’m the One Who is Gobsmacked

  1. I read this book many years ago, and now would love to go back to it. It’s a great example of lyric essay, as you mention.

  2. Mom

    I have to get this NaNo thing off my back so I can jump into the Gobsmacked realm. I really want to see her style for myself. I love oddity and especially lyrical prose that occasionally stomps on your head. I think that’s how I’d like to write when I grow up.
    And…send…yes! Amazon will deliver it, but I will not open the box until 12/1.

    • I can’t wait to hear what you think about it. I do think it stomped on my head! Well, I will wait until December. You have much work ahead of you this month, Mom!

  3. I felt much the same way after reading “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I won’t say more since people may read the comments who haven’t read your “spoiler”, but we can connect on so many levels with what we read, that it feels like finding a friend.

  4. Aw..You know it’s as real as it gets, huh? So sorry to hear the news, but equally pleased that her daughters won’t necessarily meet with the same. Thank you for introducing us to such an awesome writer. She will forever through her words. I’m so very glad she made it happen.

    • Of many favorite parts, one of my favorite parts of the book is when she goes to Ukraine and sees the old Jewish cemetery and then meets her likely relative. And then the difference between the tiny village and Odessa and her imagining the grandmother whose origins she wouldn’t track down except to the city. Actually, there were so many parts.

  5. This happened to me when I found a young singer with a beautiful voice. Gob smacked indeed! (Oddly enough WordPress prefers it as two words.)

  6. What an intense experience. I’m sorry this wonderful writer is gone before her time and sorry you didn’t have a chance to work with her.

  7. I am so sorry! I know the feeling well since I’ve lived long enough that a few gob-smacks have come my way. In instances like yours and Kate’s, it definitely raises a lot of feelings, fears, regrets, and just utter surprise that things don’t “go” the way we anticipate. And we’re left wondering why – why them, why not us, why anyone, why, why, why.

    Something that has worked for me – with an author and singer I discovered only to find they were gone – was to continue to learn all I could about them, and to keep revisiting that information periodically because it helped to bring them back alive for me and eventually put their loss into a perspective that was less shocking.

    Totally unrelated, but where in Michigan? I’m from Marshall and met another blogger recently from Kalamazoo. I now live in Colorado and she’s in California. Fun to touch base with ‘my homies’.

  8. Never mind YOU ARE THE KALAMAZOO!! I got confused by the blog name because I thought I was following you under another blogname. Yikes.

    • Hah, I love this. My disguises are effective ;)!! Yup, I’m Kalamazoo. And Phoenix. And California, too. No wonder I have identity problems! That’s a wonderful idea you have. Once I get past my feelings I will read Tall’s book about her time living in Ireland.

  9. This is the trouble with memoirs – they’re true. Novels are more entertaining, especially if there are bad things happening because we know it’s all fiction. I think I’d find it hard to read memoirs. Fascinating and yet tough to take at times.

    • Anneli, so apt. Yes, they are true, so all the good and the pain comes at the reader as the real stuff. There is no curtain between fiction and fact. Sigh.

  10. ~ a lyric “voice”, structuring the book into tiny chapters, re-using chapter names to create connections across time and space… I must read this memoir. I agree with anneli’s comment re:memoirs- “fascinating and yet tough to take at times.”
    Thank you for sharing this post, Luanne.

  11. Sounds fascinating, Luanne, I’ll have to have a look at this book to see the way it’s written.

    • Let me know what you think about it, Andrea. What i am wondering is how someone who is very into reading dense long novels would react to this style of writing a memoir. The reader has to do more work in reading it, although of course there are much fewer words on the page.

  12. As usual, Luanne, you’ve piqued my interest on yet ANOTHER book! I didn’t read the spoiler alert, so I’ll be checking it out.

    • Jill, it is very different from other memoirs in style, I think. ALTHOUGH, I am planning to review another memoir that is a more lyrical style next Thursday! Stay tuned . . . .

  13. No wonder you’re gobsmacked. She was definitely a life taken too young, but it’s wonderful she shared her story with the world xxxx

  14. Oh Luanne this reminded me of a similar experience I had with a nationally acclaimed crime writer. I ‘discovered’ her when we first moved to Vancouver and was so inspired that I hoped to connect with her somehow through her website or blog or something only to learn she died of cancer years earlier 🙁 so sorry this happened to you too. Isn’t it wonderful though that she gets to live on through her words? I will add this memoir to my list.

    • Yes, it is wonderful. But I feel so creepy that she didn’t even live to see the success of her book. I’m so sorry about your crime writer. It’s a strange thing about art–that it lives on past the artist.

  15. I always feel conflicted to “Like” a post when the post is actually kind of sad … you found a kindred spirit and lost her before you knew she was gone. And so so young! It seems (is) cruel that she would worry that the breast cancer she had was hereditary and it wasn’t but she dies anyway, leaving her daughters without a mother way too soon. Thanks for sharing this, Luanne. For the reminder of this wonderful writer and what she was able to accomplish.

    • I am like that, too, about “liking” a sad post. She really had me fooled about her own health. Maybe it was her own hope–or maybe she and her editor decided it was better to end the book on a hopeful note. But, Marie, it does make me feel so sad for her, her family, and for all of us who can still benefit from her talents.

  16. Oh wow, what a sad ending to an amazing story.

  17. Oh my… that is incredibly sad. I completely understand why you feel gobsmacked and like you lost a friend all at once.

    • Isn’t it awful? When I read a book I tend to forget to look at the publication date, too. I never noticed it was published in 2006 and thinking all that can happen in 8 years!

  18. I can see why you are gobsmacked Luanne – and could use a nice cuppa after reading this book, as I feel after reading your post (and I did read it all, had to….) So, so sad about Tall and her family. I am intrigued by the style of her book and will have to read her story and the legacy she left behind through her words. Your words are very poignant about finding and then losing a friend all in the space of a few days…

    • Sherri, I would love to hear what more prose writers think about Tall’s style in this book. It truly isn’t poetry, but the way it’s artfully arranged in an impressionistic way is akin to poetry, ya know? It didn’t feel that different to me from reading a traditional story, but it has to do different things with the brain and the way the reader responds. So interesting. But that is all brain stuff. The heart stuff is the best part of the book–hence, the friend I found and lost. 🙁

  19. Luanne so sad, she must have been an amazing writer to make you feel such a strong link and those kinds of books are rare indeed. Thank you for sharing. Sorry to hear you found and lost a new friend. Kath.

    • Kath, I would say her book is a model for a certain type of memoir, so a very important writer. And because it was a memoir I felt I got to know her, too, which is such a bonus with the genre of memoir!

  20. Sad story. I love the word “gobsmacked.” Such a journey you had reading her book! Thank you for passing the information along to your blog readers. xo.

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