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Mother of Sorrows Paperback – June 6, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Though it is a work of fiction, this slim volume of interconnected stories—a collection 18 years in the making by the codirector of the graduate program in creative writing at American Universityreads like a memoir; an unnamed first-person narrator leads the reader through meticulously constructed scenes from his past, musing on self, sexual identity and family dynamics. The earliest chapters are set in a suburb of Washington, D.C., in the 1950s. The narrator is a child, growing up gay in classic fashion, obsessed with his glamorous mother and chastised by his father for things like "cutting out Winnie Winkle fashion dolls from the Sunday funnies or designing elaborate ball gowns for my favorite movie stars." When he dresses in his mother's clothes with another boy, he is caught; a fishing expedition with his father is a failure. The narrator's transition into adulthood is hardly any easier: his father dies young; his brother, Davis, also gay, is arrested several times and eventually dies of a drug overdose. And in the final section, the narrator is revealed to have AIDS, a disease that has claimed the lives of many friends. McCann's calm, elegiac prose is lovely in descriptive passages, but turns stiff and self-conscious in the frequent explanations the narrator offers for his behavior and that of others. Still, McCann's graceful writing carries these bittersweet snapshots of a life plagued by self-doubt and yearning. Agent, Gail Hochman. (Apr. 26)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

In prose as silky smooth as the clothes from his mother's closetthat the protagonist covertly dons, McCann relates an Eisenhower-era coming-of-agein a D.C. suburb of trimmed lawns and station wagons. Civil defense leaflets picture moms in backyard bomb shelters, leafing through magazines stacked on Danish modern coffee tables. In the midst of the cold war, shootouts on Gunsmoke provide drama in the living room. Already more than a little fixated on Our Mother of the Late Movies and Cigarettes, McCann's narrator, when 11, becomes yet more so when his father, an officer assigned to the Pentagon, suddenly falls ill and dies. Overlapping flash-forwards and --backs show older brother Davis OD'ing at 35 and then as a laughing 6-year-old; the glamorous mother dressing for an evening out, then an old woman needing to check her blood sugar. Throughout, McCann captures the nuances of bonding, down to the elaborate "twin speak" the brothers, differing only 15 months in age, devise and ultimately provides insight into a gay man's development at a bygone midcentury. Whitney Scott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (June 6, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400096219
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400096213
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #895,313 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard McCann is the author of Mother of Sorrows, a work of fiction, and Ghost Letters, a collection of poems (1994 Beatrice Hawley Award, 1933 Capricorn Poetry Award). He is also the editor (with Michael Klein) of Things Shaped in Passing: More 'Poets for Life' Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic, Ms., Esquire, Ploughshares, Tin House, and the Washington Post Magazine, and in numerous anthologies, including The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 and Best American Essays 2000. He is currently working on a memoir, The Resurrectionist, which explores the experience and meanings of illness and mortality through a narrative exploration of his experience as a liver transplant recipient.

For his work, Richard McCann has received grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, on whose Board of Trustees he served from 2000-2008. He earned his MA in Creative Writing and Modern Literature from Hollins University and his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he was a Rockefeller Fellow. He grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and he has lived in numerous places, including Sweden, Germany, and Spain. He now lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University. He also serves the Board of Directors of the PEN Faulkner Foundation and is a Member of the Corporation of Yaddo.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Foster Corbin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Richard McCann has written ten fine short stories here, most of which have been published previously. Having read in a gay anthology the last story here, "The Universe, Concealed," is the reason I bought this slim volume of only 191 pages, proving once again that often less is more. While the stories can be read in any order as each of them stands alone, they are all related, a little like one of those David Hockney photographs where the frames are loosely connected to form one picture. There is the narrator, along with his brother Davis, who is 15 months older than he, and their parents. What makes these tender stories so heart-wrenching is that the family dynamics are completely accurate. I saw glimpses of both my parents and my brother in these characters, the competition between children for their parents' love and approval, the difficulties of growing up, the death of a parent or sibling-- and you don't have to be gay to experience that. The narrator is much taken with his mother, dresses in her clothes as a youngster, wants to spend time only with her, and she says things like he is her best friend, probably not the healthiest attitude for a mother to take. He also wants desperately to please his father but not if it means he has to go fishing with him or search for night crawlers. His father is mildly embarrassed with who his son is. "'He makes me nervous,' I heard my father tell my mother one night as I lay in bed. They were speaking about me."

Other passages-- or stories-- ring true as well. The narrator, like so many of us in the 1980's and 1990's, has attended far too many "gay" funerals.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Lewis DeSimone on December 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
McCann writes with a poet's grace--rhythmic phrases, language skating elegantly, leaving a trail of resonant images. This is a story unafraid of ambivalence--an adored mother who steals her son's childhood by making him her audience rather than the reverse; brothers who take separate paths even though they share so much at the cores of their being. The material is endlessly rich, and McCann's unique perspective does it justice: he is a courageous writer, unafraid to examine how one can continue to love despite imperfections, despite pain.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Gail D. Storey on November 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I became a fan of Richard McCann's writing when I read his story "My Mother's Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame" in the April 1986 issue of The Atlantic (still on my shelf). Since then I've eagerly read his poetry, essays, and fiction, and am ecstatic to find him at the height (thus far) of his literary genius in his collection of linked stories, MOTHER OF SORROWS. Were it not for the high art he brings to bear on profound human dilemmas--family relations, psychosexuality, societal pressures, desire itself--these stories would be unbearable in their heartbreaking poignancy. Fortunately, he transcends pain with his uncommon sensibility and gorgeous prose, deepening the reader's insight.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Phillip O. VINE VOICE on March 20, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The book is not a cheery one but it is so beautifully written and memorable that it is one that you will want to share with others after you have read it. The author has pieced together short stories from the last fifteen years which provide a cohesive narrative which reads like a novel. The stories are inner reflections from his life, growing up gay and under the spell of his mother and trying to make connections with his brother and father (who dies when the author is eleven). The brother is gay also but their lives are complete opposites - the author, struggling to come to terms with being gay and living in the closet and his brother, openly gay but living an aimless life filled with drugs and misfortunes. The slim volume is a haunting portrait of a fragile family coming to grips with life, love and loss. It is a book that you won't soon forget.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Karen Kevorkian on May 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is in no way simply "a book of stories" or a "memoir." It is stunning. It's in its own class. Quiet, precise, authoritative; this is an entirely dimensioned life. The narrator's need to document and understand, reflected in the meticulous prose, is heart breaking. The brother is heart breaking. The mother is monumental in her self containment -- you can only gawk at her like a piece of sculpture -- you don't judge her, though clearly she wasn't a "good" mother. If tragedy is contributed to by expectation and loss, then she is in her way tragic. But the word tragedy doesn't touch the atmosphere of the life of this narrator. All events are made to feel inevitable.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Little Old Me on October 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
More appropriate - Family of Sorrows. Richard McCann's book is a masterpiece, plain and simple. The narratives that make up the novel are gorgeous and whimsical, told from the perspective of a very lost boy who grows up trying to relate and connect with his suburban family. And these are memories that we may not have experienced personally, but feel very real: a disappointing comparison of what a sibling has grown up as and become; the realization that a father wanted to impress his son just as much as his son wished to impress his father; a mother who is still retreats into her glory days and becomes more of an idol than a parent. And while at moments, the narrator seems to watch his family life disintegrate in front of him, he grows and prospers almost without realizing it. Simply remarkable.

Mother of Sorrows actually feels more like a memoir than a work a fiction, a trait that many authors strive for all their lives. The young narrator will grow and change from his childhood as will his family. Both he and his brother will turn out to be gay, but will perceive that identity differently. Family members will die, some will be replaced - but the moments described here are relevant and create a narrator that almost any reader can invest in and care about.

Though I finished this book months ago, I've reread the chapter, "The Diarist" numerous times. It's the perfect example of McCann's talent to capture little slices of Americana, then dissect and gut them and make a very specific moment in a character's life feel universal. The narrator, his older brother and their father go on a camping trip - something the youngest son dreads.
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