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Reading My Father: A Memoir Hardcover – April 19, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The youngest daughter of the late novelist William Styron fashions a conflicted, guarded, ultimately reverential portrait of a deeply troubled artist. Dogged all his life by depression—which was not diagnosed properly until the devastating 1985 episode that later prompted Darkness Visible—the Virginia-born Styron was a difficult man to live with. Novelist Alexandra Styron (All the Finest Girls) delved into her father's papers at Duke University, his alma mater, to uncover the life and work of a man she never knew growing up in their Roxbury, Conn., home, along with her mother, Rose, and three older siblings. Styron was an only child whose mother died of cancer when he was 13, a Marine in World War II who never saw combat, and an abysmal student; though he was also a charming ladies' man and published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, in 1952 at the age of 26, to great critical acclaim. The author was born just before her father finished his third novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, in 1967, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the anticipation of his next work—"like a constant drumbeat under everything we did"—gripped her childhood, until Sophie's Choice was published in 1979. In this intimate portrait, William Styron emerges through his daughter's eyes as a towering talent who proves all too human. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* As renowned writer William Styron’s youngest child, Alexandra was often left alone with her hard-drinking and intimidating father and bore the brunt of his mercurial temperament, literary obsession, and casual psychological cruelty. The older she got, the more painfully aware she became of the deep divide between his private torments and star-studded social life as the feted author of The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979). Styron himself revealed his terrible struggle with depression in his courageous memoir, Darkness Visible (1990). Alexandra’s blend of memoir and biography and forthright inquiry into her father’s inevitable date with madness tells for the first time the full story of her father’s creative triumphs and anguished failure to complete another novel before his death in 2006. Readers passionate about American literature will be fascinated by Alexandra’s insightful tales about her complicated father and his circle, which included Peter Matthiessen, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Miller. Even more affecting is Styron’s candor about how startling discoveries led her from anger to understanding as she researched and wrote this exquisitely powerful portrait of her father, a seminal writer sustained and harmed by his all-consuming artistic imperative. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (April 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416591796
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416591795
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #323,064 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By TriciaTwo on April 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Anyone who grows up as the child of a successful artist generally has quite a struggle on his or her hands, and Alexandra Styron makes no secret of her own battle to make sense of a chaotic and relatively lonely childhood. I have read a few reviews that appear to begrudge her the possession of her own life, because those reviewers seem to believe she owes some sort of silence to the preservation of her father's reputation. It's an absurd idea--almost always reserved for the daughters of famous men. No one can damage an artistic triumph by dwelling on its creator's character. But the remarkable fact is that Alexandra Styron manages to tell the truth, even at the expense of her own nostalgia, revealing a good many unpretty but terribly human traits of both her parents, without destroying the idea of them as remarkable, hard-working, achingly talented, if, perhaps, not enviable. But, surely, most people instinctively know the cost of artistic success; whole industries have been based on, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald's self-destruction. The mystery to which Alexandra Styron puts forth a tentative answer is how any artist survives--including herself.

This is surely one of the most unself-consciously written memoirs I've ever encountered, and that's simply due to the author's own talent, which I'm embarrassed to say surprised me since I knew nothing about her. I found this memoir amazingly instructive in an effort to reconcile the conflict of egomaniacal courage, confidence, and euphoria, counterbalanced in the very same person by inevitable personal doubt, miserable reflection, and occasional self-loathing. I imagine it must be common to anyone who finds that he or she has no choice but to tackle a creative imperative.

This is a splendid book! I bought it for my Kindle, but now I have to have an actual copy so that it won't ever be lost somewhere in the ethernet. Those books I must own as objects are becoming few and far between, but this is certainly one of them.
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40 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Jesse Kornbluth TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Fathers who are writers and their daughters --- as a writer with a little girl in the house, I find that a fascinating topic. I should think any man who has daughters would, for it's generally understood that there is nothing more important to the development of a girl's healthy self-esteem than her relationship with her father.

And who would be more sensitive to that --- who would have more to teach us about that --- than a writer?

Then there's real life.

When a movie producer offered John Cheever $25,000 for a year's option on a novel, he rejected the offer. But it's how Cheever rejected it that was memorable --- indeed, thirty years after he told me this story, during an interview for a New York Times profile, I can still imitate his patrician honk. "My daughter wrote a book, and she got that much for six months," he told the film producer, "and she's still in the kindergarten."

Writing that, I imagined how Susan Cheever would feel about that cutting remark. Why did I leave it in? Because I was pretty sure it wasn't the first time he'd snarked at her.

John Updike was more paternal. After his death, his son David wrote: "....he was still asleep when we went to school, and was often home already when we got back. When we appeared unannounced, in his office -- on the second floor of a building he shared with a dentist, accountants and the Dolphin Restaurant -- he always seemed happy and amused to see us, stopped typing to talk and dole out some money for movies. But as soon as we were out the door, we could hear the typing resume, clattering with us down the stairs."

William Styron was also asleep when his four kids --- three girls and a boy --- went off to school. In the afternoon, when they returned home, he wasn't to be disturbed.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Halfway through READING MY FATHER, Alexandra Styron discusses Daniel. Recalling a vivid memory of having played with him when she was a little girl of no more than three or four, she listens as her mother admits to her that Daniel's parents, the father being one Arthur Miller, had him institutionalized because he had Down's Syndrome. That action in and of itself is not so shocking and was generally the practice of the day. What most stunned her is that Daniel was a complete and utter secret, not even mentioned in Miller's autobiography, and that secret was kept by her father, William Styron. And it brought her to a revelation: "It affirmed my suspicion that here, among all these people who traded in great truths, keeping secrets was still the coin of the realm. And that one could spend a lifetime examining the human heart but remain personally, confoundingly, unexamined. If you were good enough at the former, the world would always forgive you the latter."

Thankfully, Styron has done a remarkable job in examining her father, a man who suffered from debilitating depression and who equally confused and frightened his children while being a beacon on the pinnacle of the literary lighthouse of his time. This is not a simple rundown of the life of William Styron, as was already set down by James West in his 1998 biography of the literary icon, but instead is a more nuanced examination, focusing on her father's writing and where he was in life at the time of those projects. It is also the story of her own attempt to try and better understand him as she examines his work, truly, for the first time.

One of her early revelations in the book pertains to her father's unfinished novel, THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR. It was the great war epic in which he was always earnestly interested.
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