09 October 2009

30. Family Sentence

Thank you to Beacon Press and LibraryThing for the opportunity to read and review the uncorrected proof of Family Sentence: The Search for My Cuban-Revolutionary, Prison-Yard, Mythic-Hero, Deadbeat Dad by Jeanine Cornillot. This is exactly the type of book I usually enjoy - as I tend more toward non-fiction and biographies in my personal reading tastes. In addition, I know a little something about the loss of a father with my own father disappearing during the Korean conflict when I was only two. So I was a bit surprised that I did not particularly like this book.

Jeanine Cornillot was only two years old when her Cuban father was arrested for anti-Castro revolutionary activities and imprisoned in Miami. Jeanine went to Philadelphia with her Irish-American mother and brothers where they lived in poverty and confusion regarding their blended cultural heritage. To further complicate matters, Jeanine spent her summers in Little Havana with her Hispanic relatives. Still this sounds like something I would enjoy. The problem was the whining! As the author sought to sort out her family problems, she whined and complained and whined. Or that is how the writing sounded to me as I read. I just never felt her pain; never mustered up what should have been natural empathy. I did learn some things about the culture of Little Havana, but ultimately I had to force myself to finish the book.

TITLE: Family Sentence: The Search for My Cuban-Revolutionary, Prison-Yard, Mythic-Hero, Deadbeat Dad
AUTHOR: Jeanine Cornillot
COPYRIGHT: October 1, 2009
PAGES: 220
TYPE: biography
RECOMMEND: Not my favorite although it does provide some insight into the Cuban-American culture


Eric said...

Shocking. Yes, shocking. You have equated your loss with that of the author's. Again,shocking. Cornillot's loss resulted in a daily reminder that she was neither smart enough, Cuban enough, pretty enough, etc. so her father rejected her - ignored her being alive. A child who loses their father to death, or war, has the luxury of presenting a father's absence as "he died as a hero saving America - he made the ultimate sacrafice." The loss of a father in war allows a child to present a playground narrative which is not filled with shame and embarrassment. It is a narrative which is easy for other to accept and elevates the stature of the surviving child. Painful as this loss may be it does not leave a child with a sense of scorn and embarrassment - daily. Nor is a father lost in war a narrative whereas the child is now left to grapple with not being smart enough, beautiful enough, ethnic enough, etc. as to bring her daddy home. The author's saga is one of daily rejection all while trying to create a narrative which is more acceptable than the obvious. The author has to struggle with daily rejection and creating a universe amongst children which allows for survival.

How anyone could perversly equate the loss of a father in war and that of the author's is curious. I guess that is why the reviewer thought the author was whining. "The author was lucky, her father wasn't dead like mine. She is such a whiner." Frankly, the two universes have little in common. The reviewer's mention of her own loss lets the "cat out of the bag."

This is a lovely book of how children struggle to create narratives which insulate them from the slings and arrows of poverty, rejections, abuse, etc. The narratives, as they bang up agains reality, are funny, tragic and illuminating. Cornillot's ability to retell the narrative as an adult, but from a child's vantage point, is wonderful. It makes me laugh down and think/wonder about my own creative narratives and where they came from and to what degree they are reality based. It was a wonderful jaunt through the creation of a mythology. We all got'em, we all create'em and yet we have a strong desire to believe the mythology to be something else - reality. That is where this book really shines. It explores our mythological narratives and from where they spring. It certainly hasn't even a hint of whining or self-pity. Unless of course you think your plight was bigger and better and thus, "why is the author complaining?"

Library Cat said...

I certainly respect your opinion and do not mind sharing it here on my blog. However, I would like to clear up some of your assumptions. My father did not die a hero's death. The Navy plane her was on went down in the Bermuda Triangle on October 31, 1953 (should you choose to check, this can be verified). At the time, it was the longest air, sea search in the Navy's history. So my family did not have any closure. After my father's disappearance, we lived with my grandparents. When I was six, my mother remarried and I forever remained not good enough - only a step-daughter - for my step-father's rather wealthy family. So I do know something about the emotions of a child who has lost someone and felt a sense of betrayal perhaps. But I in no way sought to diminish the author's very valid point of view or emotions. What I did not like was the repetitive nature of her story as she wrote it. Perhaps I should have made that more clear. What you might like to consider is that your condemnation of me was far greater than my condemnation of the author's writing - not her story.

Eric said...

Your review’s first, and only, critique is "The problem was the whining!...she whined and complained and whined." I understand - you "never felt her pain.” Yet, feeling her pain is not what the book is about. The author asks for nary a smidgen of empathy. The gift of this book is not the retelling of a painful story but rather, it is an exploration concerning the creation of mythical narratives. Something every person, family, and country engages in. On a micro level, the book explores the reasons and perverse imperfections of Hector’s mythological narrative as told by children, adults, and families alike. This is certainly not a book where the author begs to have us feel her pain. Cornillot has too may laughs for anyone to accuse her of attempting to inject us with “pain.”

Your last entry immediately shows us that you too, like all of us, have created a narrative about your father, stepfather, and family. It may be wholly mythological or partially so. You have told this narrative so often you must stop to ask where you emphasize, deny, exaggerate, and/or wish to create empathy, explanations and excuses for who and what you are today. It is a wonderful exercise all humans/families/countries engage in. It is not random and useless. Nor is it based solely on objective reality. No story is. It has become your mythology. This creative process has taken place since the dawn of time as we encircled the bonfire. That is what this book is about.

I bought Family Sentence at the local bookstore thinking it was going to be something else. I did not realize it was going to be a wacky journey with two clans (one Irish one Cuban), and a smattering of children, as they all create the absolutely necessary mythological narrative centered around Hector Cornillot. Is he a hero, criminal, immature man, or something from every category? Best of all I loved Cornillot’s childhood confusion, distortion, and obfuscation as she too contributes to the mythology. The author vividly gives us a front row seat as she retells, and explores, a little girl’s confusion as the child attempts to navigate this impossible mythological narrative presented by her wildly different clan(s). Naturally, each clan, in meeting their unique needs, has a different contribution when creating the mythology of Hector Cornillot. It was funny, sometimes sad, but never one where I felt a hint of “woe is me.”

I read Family Sentence before and during a reunion with my two older brothers. My brothers and I talked about our crazy childhoods and our father who has been dead for 37 years. We experienced the friction between our differing mythologies as we each engaged in the retelling of our family lore. Instead of arguing the differences I asked them “why did we each create such different/same stories?” “How has this narrative protected me and/or hurt me?” How can three boys, each 18 months apart, all share the same parents and yet, have different mothers, fathers and childhoods? Simply put, we each created our own very necessary mythology. How splendid - to recognize and rejoice in an age old human process.

I know this may pain you because you so disliked the book - it reminded me of Death of a Salesman. The notion of varied mythological narratives all centered around Willie Loman. Was he a hero, a provider, failure, skirt chaser, etc.? Most importantly, why did each family member glom onto, and then promote, their own mythological narrative of one man?

That is the question the book asked - what, and why, do we encircle the million(s) year old bonfire and listen to and create lore? The book should not lead anyone to ask about the validity of the author’s pain or do other children, such as holocaust survivors, have more legitimate gripes? It is not a question of who has the best painful story but rather it is a wacky ride as the funny little girl/woman creates/explores the age old process of lore creation? It is certainly not a question of her pain versus other’s pain.

Library Cat said...

Again, I appreciate you writing. I can certainly see how you experienced this book. And truthfully, I agree with you to some degree. There were moments in the book that caused me to laugh with glee - as I had city cousins and country cousins - which were often as far apart as Jeanine's two sets of families. And looking back, our interactions were interesting to say the least and certainly shaped who I am today. And perhaps I could have found the same experience with the book as you had, except for the writing which I did not enjoy. Funny that you mentioned the Holocaust because most of my academic career has focused on just that topic - not to pity those who survived and wrote their stories, but to learn from them. To learn grace in survival. And since you have chosen to share with me your view of this book, I can say that had the writing been more focused perhaps I could have enjoyed the book more.

Eric said...

"Repetitive nature" and lack of "focus" are certainly valid critiques. Since I read the book over more than a dozen sittings I may have missed these issues. I may have even benefitted from repetition given my poor memory and the hackneyed nature of my reading. I just do not have the time to sit and read for long hours outside of being a federal criminal defense lawyer.

This brings me to a second point - I have sat with thousands of family members who struggle with the ensuing decades of incarceration another family member faces. You can see the clan creating and/or adjusting their mythology from the very start of the process. They try and to assess guilt versus innocence, blame, justice, and result as they begin the difficult process of re-engineering the clan’s mythological narrative. Imagine the trauma of having a child or parent sentenced to decades in prison. Incarceration is such a horrifically forceful event it forces the remaining clan to significantly alter both the personal and collective mythology.

We have had tens of millions of men and women imprisoned in America over the last 50 years. In the history of the world no nation can hold a candle to our propensity to incarcerate. This has in turn influenced millions of family mythologies in a uniquely American manner. Those of us in lofty places like to ignore the devastation some communities have endured with mass incarceration. Yet, there is no country who comes close to the shear size of our prison population and in turn incarceration has created a uniquely American mythology on both a micro and macro level. As a librarian you will find no memoir like this - a child’s story of experiencing the pain of her father’s incarceration and the effect is has on the family’s mythology.

Despite the author’s repetitive nature and lack of focus I applaud this literary first step and hope the remaining/surviving clan members, nationally, see this story, as flawed as you may find it, as an invitation to explore personal, family, and national lore. We can certainly attempt to ignore the impact all these incarcerations have on our national bonfire gathering but that is an impossible task. I applaud this little step and hope for more.

Library Cat said...

Finally, something we can agree upon. I agree with you completely. Our system of justice is a travesty (no offense intended)and provides justice mostly for those who can afford to pay large amounts of money for defense. We incarcerate young men and women on minor drug offenses and then wonder why they cannot put their lives back together. We see families torn apart, trying to find blame or some level of acceptance. We spend millions of dollars to lock up people who could perhaps be productive members of society if given half a chance. But, I have no clue how to change our systems. I am just one person, too liberal for mainstream conversations. Like you said, at least Cornillot tried to sort out how her family wound up where they were and went beyond what any of her family could have expected in over-coming some of the events of her life.