Friday, January 7, 2011

Bookshelf Bookstore: Annie's Ghosts

This is the first post in a series I’m dubbing Bookshelf Bookstore. I’m a bibliophile with a book buying problem, and as the new year starts, I’ve decided that instead of heading to my local Borders or even the library, I’m going to look first at my own bookshelf for a "new" tome to read. The Bookshelf Bookstore posts will include a short review, sans spoilers, for those also interested in finding a "new" read and rating of one of the following:

Keep: A book that I’ll re-read regularly

Pass it On: good enough to recommend to friends, but not to keep

Donate: This is for the books I can’t finish and/or don’t find worthy to pass on

The company that I spent the last year at, by virtue of being a media company, is always receiving books from an assortment of folks hoping that we would feature their titles in one of our publications or on one of our websites.

Since the majority of these books are unsolicited, they usually get put away in office corners and eventually moved to our giveaway bookshelves. I loved browsing the latter, because we did get an interesting range of titles.

The most recent find is titled, Annie’s Ghosts, written by Steven Luxenberg, a Washington Post associate editor. Luxenberg uses secondary and tertiary sources as well as historical documents to weave the history of his family.

Luxenberg’s family knew that Beth, Luxenberg’s mom, had a sister, but she had never been a topic of conversation because Beth had told them her sister had been institutionalized at a very young age. In fact, Beth introduced herself as an only child to all she met. But as Beth’s health declined in the late 90’s, several pieces of information came to light that her lifelong stories were fabrications. This previously unknown sister had been institutionalized as an adult, that she’d died in 1972, and their mother had known everything.

It’s hard to imagine how I would personally take this kind of news, especially in a family where deceased siblings, parents, and grandparents are still talked about today. I probably would have reacted the same was as Steve Luxenberg -- with lots of questions rolling around in my head and the need to know why.

Why did his mother create this secret, let alone allow it to take on the proportions it did? What societal and cultural mores were in place to affect both his mother’s subterfuge and his aunt’s life? And what about this mysterious aunt -- what was her condition for being institutionalized? What was her life like?

It can be difficult at times to follow the story because Luxenberg doesn’t arrange this history using a novelistic form. He tells his story chronologically, and any dialogue he uses is pulled directly from recorded conversations and historical documents. Many of his sources are old friends of his mother, and he has to comb through 60-year-old memories to find the truth.

There are also chapters interspersed within that delve even further into Luxenberg’s family history that can be distracting from the main story line of Annie and Beth. However, these chapters are important because they give insight into the older Luxenberg’s actions and context to the external forces that affected the family.

In finding these answers, Luxenberg maintains an interesting degree of objectivity and doesn’t share too many details about how he and the members of his family felt about his mother’s deception. I think that even if his family had been willing to share their full opinions, this story is about Steve's journey.

Luxenberg eventually comes to terms with his mother’s deception, but one question haunts him: how would his mother and aunt’s lives have been different if they’d been born at the end of the 20th century instead of the beginning? Throughout the book Luxenberg alludes to the answer, and I think that is the real tragedy of this family history.

Pass it On

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