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Unformatted text preview: Book Forum The books for this month are a holiday gift list: books to broaden the library and the mind, to provide pleasure and enjoyment, to give to oneself and others. LITERATURE Angelas Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996, 364 pp., $24.00; $13.00 (paper). A century has passed since Leo Tolstoy wrote the first line to Anna Karenina : All happy families are alike but an un- happy family is unhappy after its own fashion. Today, the word dysfunctional is often used to describe the unhappy family. However, as a clinical descriptor this term is sadly imprecise and trendy. Unlike a true medical diagnosis, it is a conveniently blurry label that sweeps across a broad array of human experience and clinical findings, suggesting an emo- tionally chaotic family lacking love, attention, and nurturing. At the most pathological extreme, psychiatrists encounter such families wrought in the chaos of addiction, physical and sexual abuse, and premature death. Angelas Ashes looks through a childs eyes at a family crippled by alcoholic havoc. In the second paragraph, the author recalls, When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. An unnerving beginning, dont you think? Frank McCourt is the oldest son in a family collapsed in poverty, gut-wrenching hunger, squalor, and paternal alco- holism. His was virtually a childhood where nightmares walked in daylight. The story begins a month after Black Tuesday, the begin- ning of the Great Depression. The place is Brooklyn, New York. A young Angela Sheehan arrives by ship from Ireland and soon, at a neighborhood party, meets Malachy McCourt. Frank McCourt describes him as having a hangdog look from the 3 months he had just spent in jail. Angela is attracted to the hangdog look, and the reader soon recognizes that life with Malachy McCourt will never be plain vanilla. After what the author calls a knee-trembler, a child is conceived; there is a walk up the middle aisle, and drunkenness, debt, destitution, and more children follow. Four years into the marriage, there are five children. Then the youngest dies. The cause seems multifactorial: infectious disease, malnutrition, parental ignorance, and neglect. An- gelas relatives know she is married to a man beyond control and recommend the family return to their native land. The immigrant dream has failed. Money is sent from Ireland for the family to return. What follows is a chronicle of a family barely holding on to a rim of survival in Limerick, Ireland, from roughly 1934 to 1948. Malachy McCourt seems never to hold a job more than 3 weeks. His alcoholism, even by the tolerant norms of early twentieth-century Irish society, is beyond the beyonds. Addictive irresponsibility creates unpredictable havoc for his family. Destitution and the deaths of two more children result....
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- Spring '10