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Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father Hardcover – June 3, 2013
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*Starred Review* The child of quintessentially 1960s parents, Abbott lost her mother to a car accident when she was only two. Determined to raise her, Steve Abbott took her along to San Francisco. There, he sparely supported her through the many moves consequent upon his bohemian lifestyle as a newly out homosexual and a writer-editor determined to make his mark on S.F.’s poetry scene. At last they settled into a one-bedroom place (she got the real bedroom, while the living room doubled as his) in the Haight-Ashbury district that she would call home for 17 years, until Steve’s death from AIDS in 1992. She resumed the life she’d started in New York and never returned. But no repudiation of her father and the unconventional circumstances in which he raised her was involved in her decision to relocate. She never doubted his love because he never gave her cause; he was a devoted, even doting parent despite his very open gayness. She has maintained his reputation for two decades now (see steveabbott.org), and she writes up to a standard that would do any writer-parent proud. If there’s plenty of emotion in her recollections, they lack all sentimentality, sensationalism, and special pleading. Like Ira Wagler’s Growing Up Amish (2011), a tale of another radically different, unusual upbringing, Fairyland is written in shiningly clear, precise prose that gives it literary as well as testimonial distinction. --Ray Olson
“Fairyland is [a] daughter's compassionate, clear-eyed reckoning with [the] truths that defined her singular girlhood at the dawn of the gay liberation movement.” (Alexandra Styron - New York Times Book Review)
“In Alysia Abbott’s gorgeous account of her 1980s San Francisco childhood, a whimsical gay poet becomes an intelligent father, his motherless daughter a forceful and articulate young woman, and a rich, dizzy fairyland is shuttered by a plague. As a chronicle of the moment when the San Francisco of Armistad Maupin became the city of Harvey Milk, when gay and experimental poetry flourished in California, Fairyland is vivid and indelible. As the portrait of a conspiracy of love between a father and a daughter, it is heartrending, a brilliant addition to the literature of American memoir.” (Honor Moore, Author of The Bishop’s Daughter)
“The striking photo on the cover of Fairyland looks like it could have been taken one hundred years ago. It gives a sense of the otherworldly childhood that Abbott recounts in this memoir about growing up with her openly gay, single father in San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. The memoir doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history. Her memoir is funny, strange, and sweet― she remembers playing dress-up with her father's flamboyant friends, learning about sex and gender without a mother, being immersed in art and creativity and, finally, watching as the AIDS epidemic decimated the life she knew.” (New Yorker)
“A vivid, sensitively written account of a complex but always loving relationship. This is not only a painfully honest autobiography but also a tribute to old-fashioned bohemian values in a world that is increasingly conformist and materialistic. I couldn't put it down!” (Edmund White, author of A Boy's Own Story)
“Generous, precise, and deeply moving, Fairyland is a love story that not only brings a new generational perspective to a history we’re in danger of forgetting, but irrevocably shifts the way we think about family itself.” (Alison Bechdel, author of Are You My Mother?)
“At once a father-daughter love story, a testament to survival, a meditation on profound loss, and a searing chronicle of a complex coming of age, Fairyland is a beautiful, haunting book that instructs, even as it breaks our hearts.” (Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion: A Memoir)
“Clear-eyed and heartrending, Fairyland captures a singular time and place in American history. It also captures something much more important: what it means to be truly loved―and to love truly. A beautiful book.” (Andrew McCarthy, author of The Longest Way Home)
“Insightful and well-crafted, this book is useful both as a memoir and as a historical portrait of one of America's oldest gay communities.” (Library Journal)
“Alysia beautifully remembers the innocence of the age between the disappearance of the Beats and the onset of AIDS.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“As a chronicle of American culture, Abbott's story matters.” (Boston Globe)
“Starred review. She writes up to a standard that would do any writer-parent proud. If there's plenty of emotion in her recollections, they lack all sentimentality, sensationalism, and special pleading. Like Ira Wagner's, Growing Up Amish (2011), a tale of another radically different, unusual upbringing, Fairyland is written in shiningly clear, precise prose that gives it literary as well as testimonial distinction.” (Booklist)
“What makes this story especially successful is the meticulous way the author uses letters and her father’s cartoons and journals to reconstruct the world she and her father inhabited. As she depicts the dynamics of a unique, occasionally fraught, gay parent–straight child relationship, Abbott offers unforgettable glimpses into a community that has since left an indelible mark on both the literary and social histories of one of America’s most colorful cities. A sympathetic and deeply moving story.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Beautifully written… a powerful portrait of a love between a father and his daughter, but also of San Francisco in the 1970s and ‘80s and the power of community, art, and love in the face of discrimination and death.” (Kasia Hopkins - News Gazette)
“Extraordinary.” (Jeff Calder - Chicago Tribune)
“I love the book Fairyland; it's a sweet and unique love story.” (Sofia Coppola)
Top Customer Reviews
I don't think I can discuss this book without a bit of a spoiler (forgive me, but this much is given away on the book jacket anyway). Abbot is raised by her gay father in bohemian circumstances in San Francisco. It sounds like the setup for a sitcom (imagine them critiquing each other's outfits, or boyfriends, perhaps), but there is little humor here. Abbott's story feels fraught with peril from almost the first page, though we already know the outcome -- that she survives and he does not. Abbot's approach to this story is relentlessly earnest, and some of the investigation of her family's past evokes the great "My Dark Places."
Her sense of time and place will resonate to anyone of her generation (those who went to high school in the 1980s); some aspects may be specific to struggling bohemians of San Francisco but it is a testament to the great leveling power of American popular culture that Abbott's preferences in music and blue jeans will be immediately recognizable to those of us who grew up in far different circumstances in other parts of the country.
Her father was an impoverished poet and cartoonist and sometimes gay activist. It is amusing, and really not surprising from the perspective of adulthood, that her family's bohemian status starts as a social liability but is an asset by junior high. She quotes some of his poetry in the story, and illustrates some episodes with his own cartoons about the same events.
The book is effortlessly political; Abbott refers explicitly to the campaign against homosexuals led by orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant, but otherwise she leaves our broader national debate on the subject in the background. It presumably informs the behavior of those of her mother's relatives who treat Abbott poorly, but it's not Abbott's role to argue that homosexuals deserve the same rights as everybody else, this conclusion is to her so fundamental as to be beneath articulating. Debates over homosexual rights in America often center around their threat to children (or more nebulously to "the family"), and so Abbott's experience is useful even if she does not explicitly hold it out to us as a political lesson. Reactionaries claim that homosexuals will be corrupting parents, and that they will, accidentally or deliberately, program their children to be similarly homosexual. Abbot would scoff at this of course. Her personal history does however demonstrate one drop of truth in reactionary claims -- her father was not ready to raise a child and if not for the generous involvement of her grandparents and a couple of adults outside the family who provided protection and guidance, the reader can not help but think that Abbott's life might have turned out quite badly. However, in the main Abbott's life stands as a powerful testament against the bigots' views -- you will not find anybody who was raised in more gay an atmosphere than she was, and she's grown to be an urbane and articulate writer and soccer mom in Cambridge, MA, married to a (male) college professor. She is, in a word, normal, and I suspect that any parent, whether gay, straight, divorced, widowed, or whatever, would be delighted to have a child turn out so well.
The cover photo is perfect. Not since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has a photo so well captured the complex themes of a nonfiction book.
I've only a couple of nits to pick. I wish Abbott had identified sources on the dialog she quotes but can't possibly have remembered herself. Did she speak with other participants? Did her dad summarize in his journal? Is she merely extrapolating? Note for example the discussion of the first poetry reading she attended with her father, at the age of six. Every participant is named, their outfits are described, she quotes their poetry, all as though she remembered it herself. Is this a fabrication? Did somebody film it? Why doesn't she just say "Remarkably, so-and-so was filming that night, and I could watch . . . "
Also some passages are perhaps overwritten. Never enough to say "the present tense" when she can say "that most exciting of tenses --the present."
These are however minor points, and will not derail a reader from rapidly completing, and discussing with others, this fascinating book.
"FAIRYLAND" is a memoir that I recommend to anyone unconditionally. Primarily, Abbott tells an excellent chronological tale of her girlhood, teenage years and young adulthood in a non-maudlin, often self-effacing and extremely loving manner toward her father, who raised her on a wing and a prayer all by himself. Her parents were educated and radical grad student activists and hippies in Atlanta who married young, lived fast and, in her mother's case, died very young. They married despite her knowledge that her husband-to-be was bisexual and, as it turned out, later to be exclusively gay. In fact, Steve Abbott was radicalized by Stonewall in 1969, so we're talking about someone who was "out and proud" very early, to his credit. Alysia Abbott writes very well, piecing together her father's recollections and journal entries, of her young mother's struggles with her new husband's boyfriends and about the almost monthly personal growth she was undergoing from 60s wild child to somewhat responsible mother.
That said, Alysia Abbott pulls no punches throughout this book on the shortcomings of her parents, and more importantly, those of herself. The pain she feels even writing about her teenage selfishness and her naive/fearful neglect of her lonely and eventually dying father, without her even having to say it, is obviously immense, and she reprints letters that she wrote him that must have been painful to re-read 20 years later, let alone share with the world. It's also clear that she was, on the whole, a wonderful and loving daughter, and the true light of her dad's too-short life. Steve Abbott is painted as a complex but exceptionally good-hearted man, one who was sure of his sexuality and creative calling as a poet/artist/bohemian, yet who struggled with feelings of self-worth and with loneliness. You wonder, as Alysia does, what their life might have been like had her mother Barbara lived. Would it have even been together? Not likely - but it is possible it would have made for a different, but equally good book.
The dissonance of being a gay man raising a daughter in free-swinging, liberated 70s and early 80s San Francisco must have been a minefield. Alysia Abbott writes of how jarring it was for her, simultaneously embracing her father's friends and lifestyle while often yearning for the quote-unquote normal childhoods she saw on TV and that she observed in her friends. Think, though, of Steve Abbott's uniqueness as a gay dad, back in a time when no one had a gay dad that they lived with. Marriages would instantly dissolve when one parent came out as gay in the 70s, and the children would almost always be placed with the straight parent. This was not an option in the Abbott household, nor would either of them ever wished for any alternative but the one they were given. Steve Abbott often found himself on the periphery of the gay community, wanting to be more active, to date more, to go out more - and yet wholly devoted to raising his daughter in the best ways he knew how.
The memoir also does a terrific job recounting young Alysia's humorous experiences with many San Francisco-centric touchstones: the poetry readings and internecine warfare amongst the literary set; "The Quake", the new wave/Rock of the 80s station that we both listened to in the Men Without Hats era; the gay scene in the Castro and at Café Flore; and the dawn of grunge in the Haight, with gutter punks, skinheads and street kids and late nights at the I-Beam and Nightbreak. That I myself was very much present for. I even drove past her old place at 545 Ashbury the other day while in the midst of reading the book, to get a better frame of reference for her San Francisco - wow. Regardless of her father's sexuality and their life circumstances, there's little doubt that her childhood would have had major and significant differences from mine in the safety and comfort of suburban Sacramento and San Jose.
It's touching and powerful when you realize toward the middle of the book that the "differently-parented" Alysia Abbott writing the book did not have to go through a crucible of drug use, depression and inner pain to write a memoir as powerful as she did. In fact, she seems to have turned out just great. She benefited from summers-long stints at her grandparents on her mother's side's house in Illinois, which provided her with a more conventional worldview to balance out her otherwise very unconventional youth. She was placed into a first-rate private French school, one that is still there now. Finally, Alysia Abbott had her father, who - cliché as it may be for me to write - helped shape her into the person and the writer that she is today. Her book ends with Steve Abbott's inevitable and exceptionally sad death, though she does not milk it any more than is necessary to cleanly wrap up this coda in her tale, and ends the book with a short epilogue that ties the story into an elegy for the many, many men that were dying in horrible ways across San Francisco in the 80s and 90s - when many of us were looking the other way. It's a powerful piece of writing, and a terrific memoir that succeeds on just about every level.
Alysia Abbott's father, Steve, was an influential poet, editor and organizer whose reputation today is overshadowed by better-known friends like Gregory Corso. Her daughter brings him to light amid kaleidoscopic descriptions of the Haight, the kindness of a host of relative strangers and the growing menace of the AIDS plague.
Literary offspring's memoirs can be mere interruptions in account s of the lives we're really interested in.
Not so here. The author's own story is fascinating. Unsparingly, Ms. Abbott details the myths she created (dad turned gay because mom was killed) and the detachment she needed (pursuing Paris amour as Steve's t-cell counts dropped) to survive in a lonely sea of Swanson's fried chicken dinners.
She writes beautifully. Here's a glimpse of her very young self with her father and one of his early lovers. "The three of us stayed in Golden Gate Park as long as the day would have us. When the light faded and the air cooled we began the long walk home together. The leaves of the eucalyptus trees shimmered in the early evening light, looking like rust-colored sequins."
Ms. Abbott's essays and selections from her father's poems and novels are available on [...]/ and [...]. "Fairyland" makes us eager to read more of those and of Steve Abbott's seminal, neglected work.