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A Memoir

Written by Nancy BachrachAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nancy Bachrach

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: April 28, 2009
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27197-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The story is so improbable, it can only be true:  A brilliant woman with a long history of mental illness—who once proclaimed herself to be "the center of the universe" — is miraculously cured by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning aboard the family boat.  Nancy Bachrach warns readers,  “Don’t try this at home” in her darkly humorous memoir about “the second coming” of her mother — the indomitable Lola, whose buried family secrets had been driving her crazy.

Aching and tender, unflinching and wry, The Center of the Universe is a multigenerational mother-daughter story—a splendid, funny, lyrical memoir about family, truth, and the resilience of love.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Bachrach: THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

ONE

Things Fall Apart

MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND, 1983

In the ancient forest on the Right Bank of Paris lies a jewel-like island where Napoléon, just back from the Alps, built a Swiss chalet. Emerald lawns and ruby flowers shimmer beside a sapphire lake as peacocks stride by. On a sunny Sunday morning in May, I am ensconced on the chalet’s terrace, now a café, replenishing more energy than my leisurely jog has exhausted. Around me, lazy hands stir sugar cubes in slow circles and spread butter on crusty baguettes. These are the only signs of industry in a city where the principal exercises are digestion and strolling, laissez-faire is practiced and preached, and intermission is the pace of life.

I saunter through the woods toward my apartment as the ladies of the night flee daylight like vampires stumbling upon a cross. I know one of the Brazilians by name, since I pass her most mornings as she’s wrapping up her night’s work in tissues. Alexandro has just become Alexandra. Like her, I came to Paris to reinvent myself three years ago. Although I had no surgery, I did change my name, and while no one calls me a prostitute, sometimes I feel like one, admittedly, in another old and unlofty profession, advertising.

I’ve been relocated from headquarters in New York to tackle a marketing emergency for an important toiletries client— the launch of France’s first sorely needed antiperspirant. Our team on the Seine—ninety-nine people smoking and loitering above a gas station—won the coveted assignment (code-named Stink-o) even though they’ve failed for a decade to browbeat their countrymen into American bar soap. Which is why someone very high up at bar soap headquarters, someone with a good nose but a rarely used passport, smells an untapped market for deodorants over here, and although I can imagine the logic that led to this conclusion (and my relocation), the person who reached it hasn’t had to sit through forty focus groups in unventilated conference rooms in the provinces. Getting the natives to “adopt” a roll-on, stick, or spray will require “a paradigm shift,” I’m learning, a long and winding road that’s synonymous with a huge media budget and then, usually, failure. What would make the French—who relish the bleu on their cheese and their skin, who have a whole class of things they fondly call “stinky”—what would make them plug up their pores with wax to placate and enrich our big American client? This is the onerous marketing dilemma I face daily in my otherwise idyllic life in the City of Light.

To help me think through the Stink-o conundrum, I have the Semis—a squadron of French semiologists, not just translators but also linguists and cogitators, who are deconstructing the semantics of our antiperspirancy muddle. Not solving it exactly, just scrutinizing it in the Gallic way, ad nauseam. For my edification, the Semis are writing a treatise on perspiration, its cultural heritage, its evolutionary value, its distillation of primeval body essences. My task is to develop a successful campaign against sweat, when it rivals the madeleine in the collective olfactory unconscious.

Tucked behind a manicured garden in the Sixteenth Arrondissement is the elegant rue where I live—in a Beaux-Arts town house with a tiny filigreed elevator, where I would imagine Maurice Chevalier crooning to Leslie Caron even if “Gigi” weren’t playing on the concierge’s stereo. From my apartment on the top floor—four rooms with high ceilings and crown moldings, eight times the size of my New York studio, thanks to the value of the dollar under Reagan—there’s a postcard view of the tip of the Eiffel Tower, which I am admiring through open windows, when my phone rings.

The connection has a bad echo, so it’s an overseas call, although it’s two in the morning in the States.

Surely, as the poet said, some revelation is at hand.

My brother, Ben, weeping hello, sounds both frantic and measured. He tells me he has “terrible news.” He says I’d better “prepare” myself.

I have never had any idea what to do after someone says “prepare yourself,” since the warning itself is an angst infusion.

Sssxxzzz is dead,” Ben says, but the ocean is sloshing against underwater cables, making puddles of noise in his words.

“Who? Who’s dead?” This is the moment when time collapses, when what hasn’t yet been said feels like déjà vu.

“DAD!” he shouts. “DAD is dead.”

The echo repeats his words. “Dad is dead—dad is dead.”

Our father is fifty-eight—a vigorous, athletic, handsome fifty-eight. “Boyish” is the first thing people call him, not always as a compliment.

“Dad is dead? How?”

“The boat—the boat.”

That is explanation enough.

Facing me is a photo of our father aboard his secondhand fourteen-year-old “cabin cruiser,” the Mr. Fix It, unwrapping my last birthday gift—an inflatable life raft. Spouting the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, he is, or was, constantly fiddling with nautical instruments whose failures are legendary. Last year’s close call came fifty miles off Martha’s Vineyard, with no land in sight, when he and my mother happened upon a “sudden” storm—which functioning radar or a transistor radio would have disclosed. It swept the deck furniture overboard and almost did the same to them before they strapped themselves into their seats. So it is easy to picture Mr. Fix It himself chomping on a cigar like Ralph Kramden, piloting blind from his flying bridge under a starless sky, next to a mute radio, as an unforeseen tidal wave washes over his boat (again) and drags him into the Atlantic. I glimpse his black hair bobbing in the ocean and his hands flailing as a shark circles and pokes him in the chest.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .


“He drowned?

“No, it was carbon monoxide. Dad was asphyxiated.”

I see my father get down on his knees in the galley, where he opens the oven door and puts his head inside. Resting his cheek on the oven rack, just for a moment. Deciding. He reaches for the knobs and turns them on, one at a time, and, squeezing his eyes shut, he takes a deep breath.

But the only oven on his boat is a toaster.

“How did he do it?”

“It was an accident. And Mom was with him. She’s in a coma.”

The second shoe. The widening gyre.

“How long will Mom be in the coma?” I ask stupidly. I have always trusted in the omniscience of doctors, especially when the doctor is my brother. Ben is a lung specialist in New York’s busiest emergency room, with a need to come to the rescue so old and so deep that only triage at Bellevue seems to satisfy it.

“I’ve done everything I can. It’s out of my hands.”

I am afraid to ask whose hands it’s in now. “Can I make it home in time?”

“She’s in a little Catholic hospital at the beach for Chrissake.”

Meaning what? Is this code for pulling the plug? Or for not being able to pull the plug? I want to ask, but I don’t want to ask—having come of age in the sixties, I always assume my phone is tapped. So I keep that thought and a whole stomach-ache of fears to myself—while I try not to think about Sunny von Bülow.

“I hate to say this—I know it’s awful—but you’ve got to prepare yourself for a double funeral.

How do I prepare for a double funeral? Pack two of everything? Pack clothes that are very black? The unimaginable has just happened, and the unpredictable is around the corner, and it feels like I missed my chance to prepare.

My brain screens an improvised documentary short, like a practice drill. His and hers coffins roll off an assembly line. Their sides touch in a final wooden embrace; then they linger at the edge of a double grave—a deep pocket of dirt for two. The Mourner’s Kaddish is sung, and God is glorified and sanctified for no reason I’ve ever been able to discern during a funeral. And then the twin boxes tip into the breach, headfirst or feetfirst—impossible to know which; maybe one of each.

Long drum roll. Fade to very black.

Telling the story in an orderly way oversimplifies it, since truth is less tidy than prose, and maybe less plausible. Were Madame Defarge to knit the narrative, the yarn would have a dark side and a light side, and it would flip itself over and over—a tale of quick reversals—full of snags and dropped stitches and tangled threads. Frayed and raggedy, perhaps, but lively nonetheless.

I began taking notes for a story about my mother the minute I could write. I wrote everywhere—on my school desk and in the margins of my books and notebooks, on paper napkins and garbage bags when there were no pads around because she was using all of them, and eventually into one diary after another. There are things I didn’t write down—not every story needs to be told—but I recorded plenty.

On my dresser is a family photo from the fifties, of me with Ben and our little sister, Helen. We’re sitting closer than we need to be in the spacious backseat of our father’s yellow Chevy, dressed identically in crisp white shirts and khaki shorts, three small slightly green faces—six, eight, and ten—set against the smoky haze of an airtight sedan. We’re on the road to summer camp in the Catskills, in uniform, with our father, Mort, behind the wheel, blowing smoke rings. Frank Sinatra is singing “Stardust” on the radio.


And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart.



Our mother, Lola, has been asleep, with her head in Mort’s lap, but she wakes up spring-loaded: Her auburn curls pop up above the seat, followed by an incandescent smile. Glancing down at us in the back, she blows a theatrical kiss and gets ready to tell us a story.

“I was dreaming,” the story begins.

She waits until everyone is paying attention. Mort turns off the radio.

“I am the center of the universe,” she says, looking at each of us in turn, making sure we appreciate the significance. “And everyone else is a star revolving around me.”

This is a confession. A revelation. A pronouncement. This is the way of the world.

She is Norma Desmond, descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard, eyes wide and frozen, getting ready for her close-up. She is Salome, stripping the veil off the face of the cosmos. She is my mother, Lola Hornstein.

And she is crazy.

Twirling her fingers in dainty arcs, she demonstrates the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat. Cupping her hands lovingly around a star to bring it closer, basking in its reflected light. She is Pivotal, the axis of a magical orbit, spinning, spinning, while the rest of us are drawn to her by gravity. I am as weightless as dust, sucked into her vacuum.

She giggles, then blushes, and her hands leave their stellar rotation to stifle a laugh. Then she chuckles and cackles until she roars.

“Cut it out, Lola.” Mort is weary.

“I am the brightest star,” she insists, peeved, since it’s obvious that my father doesn’t get it yet, that he needs further clarification.

But I get it: Lola could burn out fast, or she could burn out slowly. The speed is unknowable, but it’s certain that a firestorm is coming. And then it will get very dark.

“But it was only a dream,” Mort says.

“It was a vision!” she responds grandly, infuriated by his impertinence. “I AM THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE!”

Widening her sphere of influence to enclose all of us, she swirls her arms majestically, and her hand grazes the wheel accidentally, making the car veer into the next lane.

Mort pushes her away.

“Knock it off. I’m driving.” He sounds angry now. I’ll bet he’s scared, too.

“I command you to stop this car!”

He glances over at her, then back at the road, noncommittal, and turns the radio back on.


Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by.



“I’m talking to you, mister. You’d better stop this damn car right now, because I’m getting out.”

I’m rooting for getting out, too, and soon. But Mort doesn’t follow orders. Mort thinks he’s in charge.

So Lola leans over and reminds him who is the center of the universe—she beats his chest like a tom-tom, chanting that she hates him. She’s very convincing.

Down the two-lane road we drift, while Mort tries to bring Lola and the Chevy under control. Finally, he pulls over to the breakdown lane, and the right wheels end up on a grassy embankment like a Tilt-O-Whirl, so what seemed lopsided only a moment ago now truly is.

Lola throws her door open and runs off in her yellow sundress and sandals, weaving through thick hedges at the side of the road.

“Why is Mommy playing hide-and-seek?” my little sister asks.

Traffic slows down as people lean out their car windows, pointing at my father, who’s running after my mother, who’s puking tuna fish on rye, no extra mayo, please, in the bushes. When he catches her, he grabs her by the shoulders and wipes vomit off her chin with his sleeve. Then he leads her back to the car, puts her in her side, and locks her door.

Lola looks at herself in the visor mirror and reapplies her lipstick, moving the brassy tube around and around and around her thick red lips, getting ready for the next scene.

“Okay, everything’s fine now,” Mort announces as he gets in, transferring tuna vomit from his shirt to the front seat.

We are halfway to Camp High Peak, three hungry birds in a wobbly nest, imprinting on an ostrich with his head in the sand while a wild hyena nips at his tail.


From the Hardcover edition.
Nancy Bachrach|Author Q&A

About Nancy Bachrach

Nancy Bachrach - The Center of the Universe
Nancy Bachrach worked in advertising in New York and Paris, spinning hot air like cotton candy.  Before that, she was a teaching assistant in the philosophy department at Brandeis University,  where she was one chapter ahead of her class.  She lives in New York City. 

Author Q&A

Q: You worked in advertising. For how long? We’re all imagining three-martini lunches a la Mad Men. Was this your experience?
A:
Before I got into advertising, I taught philosophy, but I was barely a chapter ahead of my class, and it didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t serious enough for academia. A friend suggested I try advertising because it was “a business of ideas.” That sounded like fun, and it was, even though the ideas were mostly small. I worked on everything from denture adhesives to Star Wars, and during my thirty years in the business, I did witness a few liquid lunches. But if I’d drunk my way through them, I wouldn’t have remembered enough of my career to write about it. That said, I may have had a martini or two on the way home at night.

Q: Was there a moment in your advertising career where you thought to yourself: “I want to write a book”?
A:
The idea was anything but sudden—writing a book about my mad, brainy mother was a compulsion that began in kindergarten. I started taking notes the minute I learned the alphabet, and before that, I drew hieroglyphics that got me sent to the school nurse. I finished my first draft while I was working full-time by writing before dawn, during vacations, and in my sleep. The only way I could forget my crazy job was to refocus on something more lunatic.

Q: The dream of most people is to write the great American novel, yet you chose to write nonfiction. Why?
A:
Truth is stranger than fiction. My mother’s madness—and the freak accident that altered her personality and killed my father—were wilder than my imagination. To get to the bottom of an incredible story, I thought that fact would be a better route than fiction.

Q: Where does the title come from? Who or what is the center of the universe?
A:
My mother was the self-proclaimed “center of the universe,” a fact she declared when I was about ten. She was very convincing—brilliant, bigger than life and charismatic—but she was intermittently unhinged. We were in our old Chevy when she made the pronouncement, and she was twirling her fingers in dainty arcs, demonstrating the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat. She was the axis of a magical orbit—spinning, spinning—and I rotated around her.

Q: Perhaps the most surprising thing about your memoir, given the subject matter, is how funny it is. Have you always been able to laugh at the dysfunctions in your family—if I may call them that—or is this the gift of hindsight?
A:
I had some outrageous material. To paraphrase a famous quote, laughing well is the best revenge. It certainly beats self-pity.

Q: Was the process of writing this memoir painful? Cathartic? Did you feel like it had to be done?
A:
“Catharsis” is the right word. I won’t say that writing purged my feelings about my childhood, but it transformed them. The first draft erupted from me like a volcano. I had misgivings about writing anything so honest it would be cruel, but by the time I completed the second draft, the anger was gone, and it was replaced by understanding and forgiveness.

Q: You write in your Author’s Note: “Memory is so fragile that even perspective can distort it but this is a work of nonfiction, mostly about my mother.” How much of THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE is true?
A:
This story is as “true” as memory can be. I transcribed dialogue and incidents that were seared in my brain during childhood, but we’re not exactly disinterested observers of our own lives, and the passage of time airbrushes whatever we call “reality.” Telling a chaotic story in an orderly manner mutates it—since life is messier than prose. But no non-existent apple was thrown over a metaphorical fence.

Q: Are there any favorite anecdotes about your mother that got lost on the editorial cutting room floor?
A:
There’s enough material about my mother for a sequel and a bad cookbook. And I cut most of the prequel— the stories about her ancestral psychodrama, which resembled the chapter headings of a psychiatric manual—from Aunt Flossie’s vapors to Aunt Lily’s neurasthenia and Aunt Annie’s dipsomania. Uncle Larry (a sociopath?) was a jailed judge, Uncle Bill an assassin at large, and their nephew embezzled from the mob. What kind of people embezzle from the mob?

Q: What do you hope readers of THE CENTER OF UNIVERSE will take away from the book?
A:
Most families have their share of dysfunction, although mine is admittedly over the top. I hope readers will take away hope. No one should be counted out while they’re still breathing, even if they’re breathing on a ventilator. The brain is resilient, and despite what one well-meaning doctor told me, hope is never “counterproductive.” No one has a crystal ball.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Distinct and haunting. . . . Bachrach has channeled some of her mother’s madcap energy into a darkly comedic style that recalls David Sedaris. . . . Dazzling.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Bachrach is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read, period. Make room on the shelf next to Sedaris, Eggers, Wilsey. Our new bad boy of memoir is here, and she's middle-aged, mildly manic, and, my God, we've been waiting a long time for her.” —Alexandra Fuller, author of The Legend of Colton H. Bryant and Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight 

“If there’s a black-comic angle, Bachrach will find it. . . . Bachrach’s book—unsentimental and all the more moving for it—is ultimately about a universal condition: the renegotiation of the adult child’s relationship with her parent.” —The Austin Chronicle

“[Bachrach’s] acidly funny exasperation, her palpable pain, her volatile mixture of love and loathing for what her parents put her and her siblings through feels genuine. And it makes for riveting reading. . . . By the time the book ends, love has conquered chaos, tenderness flows like a healing balm and Lola’s insistence that she is the center of the universe doesn’t seem so crazy after all.” —The Hartford Courant
 
“You couldn’t make this up. . . . A hilarious account of [Bachrach’s mother’s] recovery . . . from ‘permanent, irreversible’ brain damage.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Hard to put down: This zany family memoir is the ultimate mother-daughter story.” —Rhode Island Reads
 
“Every once in a while you come across a memoir that resonates so true to your life that you think, ‘If I were only as witty and charming, I could have written that!’ Even if you are lucky enough not to over-identify with Bachrach’s completely crazy mother, you’re bound to be moved by this terrific book.” —Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
 
“Dad’s dead, Mom’s comatose: All you can do (mostly) is laugh.” —Newsday
 
“A fascinating blend of dark humor, stark reality and crisp writing.” —Tucson Chronicle
 
“That [The Center of the Universe] is harrowing isn’t surprising — but that it’s shockingly funny is.” —More
 
“A delightful memoir of a family’s response to a bittersweet tragedy. . . . Readers will rejoice with the family about the medical miracle that is Lola while laughing about the relative normalcy of a somewhat dotty senior citizen who decorates with frames still displaying the store photos, pitches her walker in a trash bin, and changes light bulbs in her underwear and heels. Readers will also end up loving Lola, and wishing they had a lunch buddy who can tell a funny story like Nancy.” —Curled Up With a Good Book 

“[A] sparkling memoir. . . . Vivid and vibrant. . . . Filled with wit and humor. . . . An eminently successful portrayal of a family, effectively combining cleverness with banter and grief with farce to demonstrate the close linkage between comedy and tragedy” —The Jewish Chronicle 
 
“Of the many ways to deal with a father’s sudden death and a mother’s injury and madness, Nancy Bachrach chooses breezy comedy. Like the best of the stand-ups, she pushes the wisecrack and irony to the outer limits in this smart, fast-paced family memoir of disaster.” —Alix Kates Shulman, author of To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed
 
The Center of the Universe is a beautifully written symphony of lunacy and hilarity.  Nancy Bachrach has the comic touch.” —Robert Klein, author of The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue
 
“Provides an honest look at mental illness, family, and true love.” —Charleston City Paper
 
“Marvelous. . . . A 5-star memoir of a difficult subject.” —Armchair Interviews

“Nancy Bachrach is a sharp observer of all around her and has a piercing ironic humor that serves as a dearly needed life preserver. The Center of the Universe is one of those stories that grabs you by the throat and leaves you proud of our capacity to survive and laugh and enjoy.” —Anne Roiphe, author of Epilogue: A Memoir
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Guide

   “I am the center of the universe,” she says, looking at each of us in turn, making sure we appreciate the significance. “And everyone else is a star revolving around me.”
   This is a confession. A revelation. A pronouncement. This is the way of the world.
   She is Norma Desmond, descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard, eyes wide and frozen, getting ready for her close-up. She is Salome, stripping the veil off the face of the cosmos. She is my mother Lola Hornstein. 
   And she is crazy. 
 
   The Center of the Universe is Nancy Bachrach’s marvelously witty memoir about life with her brilliant, irresistible, mentally ill mother, an unforgettable story of a family in transformation, and an unputdownable story sure to evoke both laughter and tears. 
 
   Nancy is an émigré in Paris, living the grand cru life when bad news comes from her hometown of Providence. Her father, Mort, has been found dead aboard his cabin cruiser, the aptly named Mr. Fix It.  Her mother, Lola, the self-proclaimed center of the universe, is at a seaside hospital, lingering in a coma. Nancy’s brother Ben (formerly Mr. Junior Rhode Island, a nine-and-a-half fingered piano prodigy and eventual surgeon) and their sister Helen (the wild child, who holds a doctorate in abnormal psychology) sit by their mother’s ventilator, waiting for signs of life while eyeing the plug. Thus begins a family reunion, where preparations are underway for a “double funeral” over Memorial Day weekend. The trip home leads Bachrach to ruminate on her mother’s larger ancestral psychodrama—from Aunt Flossie’s vapors to Aunt Lily’s neurasthenia and Aunt Annie’s dipsomania—as she remembers the chaos of growing up with the unpredictable Lola. But Lola has one more surprise up her sleeve: A miracle recovery so unbelievable it can only be the truth.

About the Author

Nancy Bachrach worked in advertising in New York and Paris, spinning hot air like cotton candy, glorifying her clients’ beloved denture adhesives and powdered orange-juice substitutes. Before that, she was, sequentially, a clumsy waitress at Howard Johnson’s, an overzealous customer service rep fired for making genuine apologies, a stenographer for an insomniac poet, and a teaching assistant in the philosophy department at Brandeis University, where she was one chapter ahead of her class. She lives in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1.       Tolstoy wrote that “All happy families are alike, and all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” How is the family in this book unique?
2.      Lola, the book’s main character, proclaimed herself to be “The Center of the Universe.” Why was this traumatic for her family?
3.      The author’s father, Mort, was nicknamed “Mr. Fix It.” Was his death just bad luck? An unavoidable accident? Predictable? Fate?
4.      “Lies have latitude and longitude. Lies can be extended, magnified, hedged, contradicted, circumvented, and denied. The truth, on the other hand, is a forkless road with a dead end.” Whose philosophy is this in the book? And how does it shape her life and her family’s?
5.      The author’s brother Ben—who was born with three thumbs—was a piano prodigy and eventual surgeon. Did his handicap add to his motivation?
6.      Ben “made Chopin the sound track of my childhood—and the melancholy nocturnes and heartbreaking ballades that poured out of him poured right into me.” What role does music play in the book, and how does it help heal the family?
7.      Writing about her little sister, Nancy says: “Poor Helen was born after the roles of ‘smart’ and ‘musical’ were already cast and had to create a new identity from scratch.” How did being the third child shape “Hellish”?
8.      This is a story about a family that healed itself.  What resources did the author and her siblings call upon to turn their dysfunctional childhood into highly-functioning adult lives? Do you think the problems they faced contributed to their close bond?
9.      “Play the hand you’re dealt,” Nana said. “Count. Don’t try to beat the odds. No bluffing. And you gotta know when to fold.” How were Nana’s rules of poker a metaphor for guiding her three grandchildren? Was she their “savior?”
10.  Describing Lola after the accident, Nancy writes: “Lola’s mind may lack torque, but her heart is a cheerful rudder.” Given a choice between brains and heart, which would you prefer?
11.  After all the years of treating her mother “like she was a virus I might catch,” what precipitated Nancy’s realization that she loved Lola?
12.  “This is a book about second chances,” the author has said. How does she use her second chance with her mother?
13.  Lola wanted the memoir’s title to be Love Story. In what ways is this book a “love story”?
14.  Nancy learned from a high school science experiment that “you never really know what’s going on inside anything.” How does that shape her thinking about Lola after the accident?
15.  After the accident, when Lola began to deteriorate, Nancy writes: “I may represent Disaster, but I am also Rescue.” Was this true?
16.  After the accident , the neurologist told Nancy that “hope would be counter-productive.” How would you react if a doctor said that to you?
17.  Despite the gravity of the subject—life with a charismatic but mentally ill mother—this memoir is filled with humor.  The author has commented that her family wasn’t laughing at the time, “but through a long lens (and after enough therapy), this tragedy revealed a comic underbelly.” How did her dark humor affect you?
18.  James Thurber wrote that humor is chaos in retrospect.  How did Nancy’s chaotic childhood shape her voice and her perspective?
19.  A reviewer commented that this book “says the unsayable.” Do you agree? Can you give examples? What impact did that have for you when you were reading the story?
20.  Another reviewer called the story “unsentimental – and all the more moving for it.” How did the author’s restraint (and lack of self-pity) affect your enjoyment in reading the book?
21.  During a radio interview with Nancy Bachrach, the interviewer asked whether Lola had ever “apologized” to her children.  Did Lola owe her children an apology for the way they were raised?
22.  One reviewer wrote: “By the time the book ends, love has conquered chaos, tenderness flows like a healing balm and Lola's insistence that she is ‘the center of the universe’ doesn't seem so crazy after all.” Do you agree?
23.  What role do dreams play in the story? Does Nancy’s dream on the plane home from Paris (about “the old woman in the hospital bed, and the blank newspaper that only the nun could read, and the clock without hands”) portend the future?
24.  In the Author’s Note, Nancy writes: “Memory is so fragile that even perspective can distort it.” What does it mean to write a memoir after admitting that memory is flawed?
25.  Nancy writes that her ancestors’ craziness was their “biochemical itinerary.” How much do genes control character? What role does experience play? And how did Lola’s childhood environment affect her sanity?
26.  The author summarizes a major theological argument: If God is good and has unlimited power, why is there evil in the world? “Is god up there listening, but not interested in helping? Or would he like to help but he’s unable to intervene? Which is worse? Does it matter?” How would you respond to these questions?
27.  “We all believe what we need to believe no matter how cultivated our skeptical principles.” Is this a definition of hope? Is it true in your own life?

 

Suggested Readings

Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors; Laura M. Flynn, Swallow the Ocean; Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother; Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter; Steve Luxenberg, Annie’s Ghosts;  David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day; Susanna Sonnenberg, Her Last Death; Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle.

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