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Circling My Mother: A Memoir Hardcover – August 14, 2007

3.3 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Short story writer, novelist and memoirist Gordon honors her late mother, Anne. Though she died in 2002, Anne was gradually lost to senile dementia years before, stunting Gordon's grief. Now, she explains, I write about her because I am a writer and it's the only way that I can mourn her. Anne emerges as the progeny of her era—a daughter of working-class Catholic immigrants, a Great Depression survivor plagued by the horror of waste, a stalwart woman who provided for a long succession of family members that couldn't (or sometimes wouldn't) support themselves. For all her formidable strength, Anne was vulnerable—her body misshapen by polio, her mind tormented by alcoholism and despair, her tenderness of emotion only conveyed in song. Fans of Gordon's work will recognize familiar conflicts in the people who shaped Anne's life: sisters, friends, priests—men who served as ancillary husbands through her widowhood. As the title suggests, Gordon realizes that understanding Anne wholly is not easily done from any one stance, and so she opts to encircle her, weaving between the realms of memoir and biography. The result is a moving, affecting work on the tug-of-war between mother and daughter, between women and the changing world around them. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

"I had hoped to tell not only the story of my mother's life," writes Mary Gordon, "but a larger story, a story that had implications beyond her immediate biography." While highly personal, Gordon successfully places her mother's life in the context of immigration, war, working-class Catholicism, and economic depression. But critics disagree just how effectively-or compassionately-Gordon captures her mother. Part of the disagreement has to do with what some reviewers describe as Gordon's lack of empathy toward Anna's deformity and ugly final days, her jaded perspective, and the episodic, circular narration. For patient readers, however, Gordon offers a haunting, highly rewarding portrait of a complex woman.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (August 14, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424563
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424564
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,078,440 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I've loved all of Mary Gordon's work and it was with great anticipation I began this book. Ater five minutes I almost put it aside forever. Plowing through her heavy-handed attempt to relate her mom's 90th birthday with the work of the artist Bonnard left me wondering if Gordon had any way of accessing feelings--certainly a requirement in writing about one's parents.

I persevered and there were some absorbing anecdotes. But what I learned was about Gordon and not about her mother. Perhaps that was the point but it left an unfavorable impression of Gordon. Her many references to her mom's misshapen body were disturbing; her lack of probing into the reasons for things being the way they were left me with the impression that this book was an unequivical cry for attention rather than the exploration of her mom that it was presented to be. For example, she'd pose questions and never answer them. Did my mother "have a secret reading life?" Her answer? "I wouldn't know." Or "I can't imagine why she thought it would be desirable to go on vacation with us." or, "I don't know much about Rita...." We expect that writers will delve into the situation and give us insights into the why or what.

The book is well-organized by chapters into the parts of life that make up a person's life--My mother and her bosses; my mother and her words and music; my mother and her sisters (omitting almost everything about the brothers that must have played more of a role than Gordon presented). The chapters go on--friends; priests; my father; the great world (pretentious as can be); and finally, heartbreakingly, "My mother's body." Crippled. Alcoholic.
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Format: Hardcover
No one will ever fault Mary Gordon for a lack of frankness or honesty. In the past, she has mined her rather difficult upbringing and family life for short stories, novels, essays and memoirs. Now, with Circling My Mother, she shares intimate details of her often difficult relationship with her mother, a woman afflicted with polio as a young girl and who was looked down upon by most of her relatives despite the fact that she for long periods of time provided the bulk of their financial support.

Rather than using a straight chronological approach to recount her mother's life, Gordon chose to focus on specific ways through which her mother related to the world. In separate chapters she discusses her mother and her bosses, her words and music, her sisters, her friends, her priests, her father, her world view, and her body. However, as Gordon "circles" her mother and explores a different aspect of her character in each chapter, the reader comes to know as much about Mary Gordon as about her mother, Anna. Nothing less is to be expected of an author of Mary Gordon's honesty and, in fact, it is the revelations that Mary makes about herself and her feelings that make Circling My Mother such a powerful book.

Mary Gordon lost her father at an early age and, although her relationship with her mother was an uneasy one at times, the two were close. Mary suffered through her mother's often public displays of alcoholic self-pity and from her sharply critical way with words but, in the end, she is loyal to her mother's memory and defends her actions as only a family member can do it. She accepts criticism of her parents from no one, almost refusing to acknowledge that her mother and father were often as wrong as those she criticizes for causing them grief during their lives.
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Format: Paperback
"My mother's body is inexorably failing, but not fast enough. She is still more among the living than the dying, and I wonder, often, what might be the good of that."

Mary Gordon's question, coming in the first few pages of Circling My Mother, lets us know how direct her gaze can be. "I am afraid," she writes, "that the emptiness at the center of my mother's life is neither beautiful nor graceful but a blankness that has become obdurate, no longer malleable enough even to contain sadness... And there is nothing I can do about it. Nothing."

When someone writes as well as Gordon, I will follow her anywhere. I've read twenty-five memoirs on Alzheimer's, and never found anything as fierce and honest as the opening and closing chapters of Circling My Mother. Those chapters don't float there on their own, of course, they depend on the descriptions of her mother's youth and middle years. The great interior vault of the book is a perfectly-cadenced description of a parochial, judgmental woman consumed by her Catholic faith--but a woman who also had friends and siblings, who worked at a job for twenty-five years, who raised her daughter with a stubborn devotion.

We hear a great deal about the younger Anna Gagliano Gordon, as a spunky young girl and an opinionated woman. But it's her long decline and final years that gripped me by the throat. After eleven years in a nursing home, she no longer knows her daughter. She sits in a chair, her head in her hands, rocking among the other slack-jawed residents. "It is impossible," Mary Gordon writes, "for me to say that what has happened to these people is not a slow disaster."

We come to the end of the book, to the last forty pages, to the grimmest scenes. The author now finds her mother's presence unbearable.
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