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In this triumphant return to nonfiction after two critically acclaimed works of fiction, Mary Gordon gives us a rich, bittersweet memoir about her mother, their relationship and her role as daughter. Anna Gagliano Gordon, who died in 2002 at the age of 94, lived a life colored by large forces: immigration, world war, the Great Depression, and physical affliction--she contra In this triumphant return to nonfiction after two critically acclaimed works of fiction, Mary Gordon gives us a rich, bittersweet memoir about her mother, their relationship and her role as daughter. Anna Gagliano Gordon, who died in 2002 at the age of 94, lived a life colored by large forces: immigration, world war, the Great Depression, and physical affliction--she contracted Polio at the age of 3 and experienced the ravages of both alcoholism and dementia. A hard-working single mother--Gordon's father died when she was still a girl--Anna was the personification of the culture of the mid-century American Catholic working class. Yet, even in the face of these setbacks, she managed to hold down a job, to dress smartly and to raise her daughter on her own, and though she was never a fan of the arts which so attracted Mary, she worshiped the beauty in life in her own way, with a surprising joie de vivre and a beautiful singing voice. Gordon writes about Anna in all of her roles: sister, breadwinner, woman of faith and single mother. We discover Anna's wry and often biting humor, her appreciation of life's simple pleasures, her courage in breaking out of the narrow confines of her birth. Toward the end of Anna's life, we watch the author take on all the burdens and blessings of caring for her mother in old age, beginning even then to reclaim from memory the vivid woman who helped her sail forth into her own life. Bringing her exceptional talent for detail, character, and scene to bear on the life of her mother, Gordon gives us a deeply felt and powerfully moving book.


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In this triumphant return to nonfiction after two critically acclaimed works of fiction, Mary Gordon gives us a rich, bittersweet memoir about her mother, their relationship and her role as daughter. Anna Gagliano Gordon, who died in 2002 at the age of 94, lived a life colored by large forces: immigration, world war, the Great Depression, and physical affliction--she contra In this triumphant return to nonfiction after two critically acclaimed works of fiction, Mary Gordon gives us a rich, bittersweet memoir about her mother, their relationship and her role as daughter. Anna Gagliano Gordon, who died in 2002 at the age of 94, lived a life colored by large forces: immigration, world war, the Great Depression, and physical affliction--she contracted Polio at the age of 3 and experienced the ravages of both alcoholism and dementia. A hard-working single mother--Gordon's father died when she was still a girl--Anna was the personification of the culture of the mid-century American Catholic working class. Yet, even in the face of these setbacks, she managed to hold down a job, to dress smartly and to raise her daughter on her own, and though she was never a fan of the arts which so attracted Mary, she worshiped the beauty in life in her own way, with a surprising joie de vivre and a beautiful singing voice. Gordon writes about Anna in all of her roles: sister, breadwinner, woman of faith and single mother. We discover Anna's wry and often biting humor, her appreciation of life's simple pleasures, her courage in breaking out of the narrow confines of her birth. Toward the end of Anna's life, we watch the author take on all the burdens and blessings of caring for her mother in old age, beginning even then to reclaim from memory the vivid woman who helped her sail forth into her own life. Bringing her exceptional talent for detail, character, and scene to bear on the life of her mother, Gordon gives us a deeply felt and powerfully moving book.

30 review for Circling My Mother: A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carol Storm

    Mother, mother, your feet stink, You're old and poor and you like to drink, Still you're a Catholic, pure and true, Mother, mother, I hate you! Nobody reads Mary Gordon expecting warmth, insight, empathy, or humor. From the very beginning this renowned Irish-American intellectual has specialized in hate. But up until now, she's been smart enough to restrict her hatred to safe targets. In every book, whether fiction or non fiction, old Barnard warhorse Mary Gordon sidesteps the tough questions about Mother, mother, your feet stink, You're old and poor and you like to drink, Still you're a Catholic, pure and true, Mother, mother, I hate you! Nobody reads Mary Gordon expecting warmth, insight, empathy, or humor. From the very beginning this renowned Irish-American intellectual has specialized in hate. But up until now, she's been smart enough to restrict her hatred to safe targets. In every book, whether fiction or non fiction, old Barnard warhorse Mary Gordon sidesteps the tough questions about her envy, resentment and spite, and the vast half-hidden sea of her own unconquerable self-loathing. Instead of looking inward, she rounds up the usual suspects. Men, of course, first and foremost. But also "Protestants" (meaning American native born types, like Miles Standish or Bill the Butcher or Abraham Lincoln, but never well born female Protestants like Lizzie Borden or Susan B. Anthony or Jane Austen. Or the Protestant ladies who founded Barnard College.) And she takes cheap shots at the military, and the poor, and country and western music, and aging hippy chicks feel "empowered," and everyone goes home happy. But this time Mary Gordon bit off more than she could chew. This time she broke the unwritten rule. This time she turned on her own kind, made war on her own family. And the educated reading public was not amused! But if you know where to look, there's humor amidst the horror. The old lies contradict themselves in some surprising new ways. For example, there's a great deal of whining at the beginning of the book about Mary Gordon as a child being miserable at summer camp. And of course she blames it all on boys . . . horrible, dirty, evil-smelling boys who have unusually smelly s**t and talk about s**t all the time. Now, I think Mary Gordon is on to something here. I mean, I can remember being nine years old, and knowing certain boys who thought that going to the bathroom was the funniest thing in the world. Such boys exist, but generally they grow up. Is Mary Gordon grown up? Why is she still boiling over with hatred after sixty years? Come to think of it, when was her last bowel movement? Now skip forward to the Sixties, and the snotty, phony way Mary Gordon feels sorry for herself for having to "suffer" during the anti-war protests at Columbia University. Now, some real protesters at Columbia got their teeth knocked out. Black protesters got killed in cities like Newark and Watts. But then, combat soldiers in Vietnam got their legs blown off and worse. And what happened to Mary Gordon? She mumbles something about being "shoved." Oh dear! I think Mary Gordon got off pretty lightly in the Sixties. But I don't hold that against her. What I resent is that she's lying about her own motives. Hating the boys at summer camp led her to feel exactly what about the young men dying in Vietnam? Weren't they the same boys? Why pretend to care all of a sudden? Wasn't Mary Gordon merely looking to fit in with her wealthy -- and Protestant -- classmates at Barnard? In short, wasn't she motivated by hate before the Sixties, during the Sixties, and after the Sixties? Now let's go back to summer camp. Among the indignities of that terrible summer, poor suffering Mary mentions having to read a book she didn't like. Happens to the best of us, Professor Gordon! But the great literary scholar mentions a name, LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper. Now I know all about Mary Gordon's hatred of American literature. I've read GOOD BOYS AND DEAD GIRLS. I've seen her spit in Mark Twain's face and kick Herman Melville in the shins. Very heroic stuff! But at least in those days she was attacking male writers who excluded women, or trivialized their suffering, or something. Poor James Fenimore Cooper is no Mark Twain. He bends over backwards to make Alice and Cora sympathetic, and even heroic. They see all kinds of horrors in the wilderness and they remain pure and compassionate to the very end. So . . . what's the deal? Okay, skip to the very end of this hunk of cheese, and there's a passage where Mary is moaning and groaning about her coarse, unrefined mother who just couldn't appreciate the arts. (Moan!) So there's an intriguing passage where Mary's mother sees a Picasso nude and says something like, "I don't want to look at tits." And then there's a priest who talks about dealing with bare breasted black women in Africa and says something like "oh, their tits were like coke bottles." And Mary's mother laughs and Mary makes virtuous suffering sounds that indicate she's refined and can deal with tits . . . provided they're portrayed tastefully and with elegance. And it's art. But I think she's lying. I think Mary Gordon wants to be hip, but when push comes to shove she hits the panic button and turns into a pumpkin shell at midnight, just like her mother. You see, there's a passage in LAST OF THE MOHICANS that speaks to this issue. It's where Alice and Cora are in jeopardy and brave young Uncas has to swim for help. And as the young Mohican brave strips down there's a moment where refined, virginal Alice gets a really good look, and she very much likes what she sees. But Fenimore Cooper is quick to clarify that she *only* feels the same pleasure she would feel at beholding an exquisite Greek or Roman statue. As a kid I thought that was a silly cop-out. Now I'm not so sure. I suspect Mary Gordon hated and feared this book because Alice got to be pure and innocent and still feast her eyes on a noble Indian brave, without guilt and without shame. Mary Gordon didn't like that at all. I'm afraid that underneath the Barnard degree and the fancy perfume and the stale Sixties politics, she's still a mean, dirty-minded slob just like her mother. She tries to break loose, but she hasn't the courage, compassion or imagination to repudiate the corrupted values she picked up from her morally bankrupt father and mother. So instead of actually breaking free she keeps going around and around in circles, talking loud and saying nothing. Hence the title, Circling My Mother.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Suzy

    This is the second book I've read by Mary Gordon. I have an ambivalent attitude toward her as a writer. She writes well, but I think I don't like her as a person. (It would be interesting to see what I thought if I met her.) Mary Gordon's book about her mom is a lot about her herself, really. And she seems to harbor a lot of grudges and ill-will toward people in her family. Her self-pride--particularly about her childhood precocity--also seeps through a lot in an annoying way. I did the book int This is the second book I've read by Mary Gordon. I have an ambivalent attitude toward her as a writer. She writes well, but I think I don't like her as a person. (It would be interesting to see what I thought if I met her.) Mary Gordon's book about her mom is a lot about her herself, really. And she seems to harbor a lot of grudges and ill-will toward people in her family. Her self-pride--particularly about her childhood precocity--also seeps through a lot in an annoying way. I did the book interesting as a peep into mid-century American Catholicism. Finally, this book is a collection of essays and, toward the end, there is suddenly a chapter that was jarring to me insofar as it was written in quite a different style from the others--again with the chopped, free-associative phrasing (is this poetic, perhaps?) that makes you feel like you don't have the faintest idea what she's really trying to say and the sneaking suspicion that she doesn't either (much like my experience of her entire Reading Jesus). I hope I don't get drawn into reading Mary Gordon again because I will probably again find it compelling enough to read, yet distasteful (the old accident- on-the-side-of-the-road experience).

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kyla

    After reading this (actually 3/4 before I flung it down in disgust)I wouldn't shake Mary Gordon's hand if she held it out to me. A memoir is all about personal perspective but hers is so bitter and warped and skewed and I don't ask for facts in my memoirs, not necessarily, but it seems so EXAGGERATED. For proof read the chapter about her Aunts and how she paints them in the vilest, bitterest colors and how she is just a sensitive child who was so terribly treated - I think I threw it down after After reading this (actually 3/4 before I flung it down in disgust)I wouldn't shake Mary Gordon's hand if she held it out to me. A memoir is all about personal perspective but hers is so bitter and warped and skewed and I don't ask for facts in my memoirs, not necessarily, but it seems so EXAGGERATED. For proof read the chapter about her Aunts and how she paints them in the vilest, bitterest colors and how she is just a sensitive child who was so terribly treated - I think I threw it down after she complained in the most hysterical way about - horrors ! - being forced to help clean the house on Saturdays instead of being left alone to play or read. Dear Mary Gordon, I had to spend my childhood Saturdays cleaning the house too and I didn't like it, would rather have read, but guess what, it's called teaching a child responsibility and pitching in and helping with the house that they live in and it's not punishment among the "harsh chemicals" - it's life. Your single mother and working Aunts probably didn't want to clean on Saturdays either. Get over it, just not in print, thanks. Sincerely, Me

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sam Sattler

    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. R 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. Circling My Mother is Gordon’s attempt to reconcile the guilt that she seems to feel for “abandoning” her mother to a nursing facility in her last years, a facility to which she dreaded to go for the horrible one hour per week that she spent with a mother who no longer recognized her or had control of her mind or body. Her approach to her mother’s story paints a human face on a woman who was very much a product of her times but who still managed to achieve more than many women of her day. Anna spent a lifetime as a treasured legal secretary, raised a daughter on her own, supported her brothers and sisters financially until they could do it for themselves, was a staunch supporter of the more traditional Catholic church of the times, and had close friendships with several intellectual priests. But she could also be a vindictive woman and she resented the way that she was sometimes treated because of her handicap and “place” in life. Mary Gordon seems to have inherited that resentment and she does not try to hide it. Instead, she describes several key relationships in her own life, relationships which helped to make her into the woman that she is today but which she abandoned with little thought or guilt when she no longer needed them. Some of the people cut from her life, such as her truly horrible Aunt Rita, admittedly deserved that treatment but that others who at one time meant so much to Mary Gordon were treated the same way is as surprising as her willingness to expose this weakness in herself to her readers. Circling My Mother is not a sugarcoated, feel good memoir, the kind that often reads more as fiction than as fact. It is Mary Gordon’s honest assessment of her mother’s life and how she related to that life. It is the work of a woman not afraid to expose her own weaknesses as part of her writer’s craft and, although it is the kind of book that often makes the reader uncomfortable, it should be read especially by those who find themselves caring for elderly parents of their own.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    Well, I'm going to take a page from Kristi's book, and start a review mid-book. Circling My Mother is this year's One Book, One Saint Mary's book selection. And to be honest, I'm having trouble figuring out why it was chosen. Less than 100 pages in, the book comes across as incredibly bitter and self serving. The author appears to be using this book to express her hurt feelings and share the difficult times she went through, most of which she blames on her family. She spends a lot of space compla Well, I'm going to take a page from Kristi's book, and start a review mid-book. Circling My Mother is this year's One Book, One Saint Mary's book selection. And to be honest, I'm having trouble figuring out why it was chosen. Less than 100 pages in, the book comes across as incredibly bitter and self serving. The author appears to be using this book to express her hurt feelings and share the difficult times she went through, most of which she blames on her family. She spends a lot of space complaining that her family is the root of her problems, but I can't imagine that the publishing of this book will do much to endear herself to them. Perhaps she doesn't care. It's an outlet for her anger and resentment. Perhaps this is a way to help the reader understand why her mother is the way it is, but I'm having trouble getting past my dislike for the narrator. Lots of people go through difficult things every day, and are able to find the strength to manage without being a whiny complainer. I do hope this book turns around. Perhaps the next few chapters will elicit a less visceral reaction. I had hoped that this book would portray a strong female character, but right now she's just coming across as being helpless. I'm not impressed or inspired. I'll certainly pick the review back up when I finish. Okay - I finished the book. And it didn't get any better. I was actually compelled to take notes on my thoughts on how much I disliked it. My notes include the following descriptions: Vengeful Self-serving Unforgiving The narrator is quick to judge and refuse forgiveness, which is pretty hypocritical for someone who had an affair. Honestly, if it weren't for the narrator, one might see this book as an interesting dialogue on the lives of immigrants in America and their complicated relationship with the Catholic church - and more specifically, priests. But then the author comes in with her negative thoughts, blame, and self pity. My final note came from the last 2 chapters, which were the most disjointed in the book. Seriously - decide what you want to write, prose or poetry. Anyway, this line, relating to the authors feelings after writing her tome, fits how I felt after reading the book perfectly, "The task has exhausted me." A good book should not exhaust you. I realize it was probably difficult for the author to pry all of those hateful thoughts and memories from the depths of her brain, but I have no sympathy. So, that's my review. In total, the One Book, One Saint Mary's book campaign is 0-2 in my book, with this one really tipping the scales in favor of skipping the whole thing next year. My hope from this campaign was to be introduced to stories and characters with strength and perseverance - something I could learn from or strive to. In this case, I've been severely let down.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Joyce

    Public library copy. I was looking for something 'light' to read, ha! This is not light reading. I read it quickly because that is what I do when I'm not comfortable with what I'm reading. Some people don't finish the book; I read it quickly. Let me tell you why. My mother lived until just shy of her ninety-fourth birthday, and like the author's mother she lived with the insidiousness of dementia for the last decade of her life, although not in the nursing home that long. I am like the author the Public library copy. I was looking for something 'light' to read, ha! This is not light reading. I read it quickly because that is what I do when I'm not comfortable with what I'm reading. Some people don't finish the book; I read it quickly. Let me tell you why. My mother lived until just shy of her ninety-fourth birthday, and like the author's mother she lived with the insidiousness of dementia for the last decade of her life, although not in the nursing home that long. I am like the author the only child of my mother. There were similarities, and I am coming to terms with her death, so I thought it would be good to read of another's like experiences. And in that sense the book was very good for me. I racked with sobs at one point, but only one. The book did what I wanted it to, in giving me an outlet by which to let go of my mother to a greater degree; and let go of my guilt. Beyond that I have nothing in common with the author and could not relate to much of what she wrote. She has a gift with language in a different way than I am used to reading. But what bothered me most is the absence of faith and hope in God on the part of the author. It grieves me that her father was born Jewish and converted to the Roman Catholic church, that her mother was wholly devoted to the Roman Catholic church, and none of this seemed to have an effect on the author. It is difficult to read such strong language in reference to one's own mother and family, the author uses the term 'hate'. The concept of forgiveness is absent. The author deems that one can punish the dead by holding onto one's hatred of what was done in the past. Perhaps this is just for the benefit of the writing. I would not be functional in the present were I to hold onto the past this way. I learned from the book. I learned about life in New York, about Catholic immigrant families in America, about Catholic life in the last century in America. I can't say that I was endeared to them or to life in the city. I have a great appreciation for the fact that my mother and her immigrant family didn't teach me to hate, but instead taught me the personal love of God, my Creator and Redeemer. I am thankful that I know my mother is in heaven, that I will one day see her again. I cannot honestly recommend this book. There is, not surprisingly, a good bit of language in it in addition to the other reasons mentioned. It gave me much to think about in how to portray my own mother in memoir.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Patricia Murphy

    I'm nearing the 75 mark for memoirs read. Since I'm writing my own, I'm trying to read as many as possible to study form, language, characterization, setting, tone, etc. I have read about 10 that are stellar, and what I like about them most is that they are lyrical rather than literal--they are reflective instead of judgmental--they are embodied rather than summarized. So, the problems I had with this particular memoir were many and various. First, I don't like the organization by topic. It feel I'm nearing the 75 mark for memoirs read. Since I'm writing my own, I'm trying to read as many as possible to study form, language, characterization, setting, tone, etc. I have read about 10 that are stellar, and what I like about them most is that they are lyrical rather than literal--they are reflective instead of judgmental--they are embodied rather than summarized. So, the problems I had with this particular memoir were many and various. First, I don't like the organization by topic. It feels forced, and it makes it feel like the Bonnard study was tacked on to the beginning and the end. Next, there were full chapters that read like a list of complaints. We all have familial complaints, but they sure are more interesting when embodied than when listed. Finally, it feels like the first chapter was the most carefully crafted and that the energy was lost after that. I made several notes in the first chapter, and not in subsequent ones, since the language became more flat with lots of sentences like "I was entirely happy" or "She did not die well." Here are some lines that resonated for me in chapter 1: "My mother has erased me from the book of the living." "Toothless, no woman can be considered beautiful." "You weren't tempted by all that ardor?"

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    This was a book club selection. Some people loved it. Some disliked it intensely. Most were indifferent. I can't claim to have read this book. I skimmed most of it. The book is supposed to be a memoir of her mother. In reality, it is more about the author. The picture it paints of the author are vey unflattering. It starts and ends with short stories about the painter Bonnard. The chapter about her mother's boss starts the creepy part of the book. The chapter about her mother's sisters is one I This was a book club selection. Some people loved it. Some disliked it intensely. Most were indifferent. I can't claim to have read this book. I skimmed most of it. The book is supposed to be a memoir of her mother. In reality, it is more about the author. The picture it paints of the author are vey unflattering. It starts and ends with short stories about the painter Bonnard. The chapter about her mother's boss starts the creepy part of the book. The chapter about her mother's sisters is one I only read a few parts because it was mostly about how much the author hates her aunts. It details mean things the aunts did to the author and her mother. The chapter about her mother's friends is similar to the sisters chapter. The chapter about priests is just creepy. The chapter about the author's father is odd. He seems like a cardboard person. This was not a happy family. The underlying emotions are all negative. It was exhausting - even though I only skimmed through most of this book

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alice

    I did not particularly like this book. The relationship between Ms. Gordon and her mother is so strained and strange, as are her relationships with her extended family (aunts, cousins). Perhaps I could not understand the dynamics of a large Catholic family and the huge role the church played in it. I founds myself skimming paragraph after paragraph of interior dialog as Gordon attempts to explain herself in relation to her mother, both as a young woman and as she (the mother) became ill with alc I did not particularly like this book. The relationship between Ms. Gordon and her mother is so strained and strange, as are her relationships with her extended family (aunts, cousins). Perhaps I could not understand the dynamics of a large Catholic family and the huge role the church played in it. I founds myself skimming paragraph after paragraph of interior dialog as Gordon attempts to explain herself in relation to her mother, both as a young woman and as she (the mother) became ill with alcoholism and old age. A very sad tale indeed. The chapters can be read as self-contained essays, each focused on a different aspect of Gordon's mother's life. The only one of the chapters that resonated with me with any strength was the one that described Gordon's mother and her boss. My mom, also a single mother, worked at the same occupation (legal secretary) and had the same kind of idol-worship of her boss. That chapter rang true to me.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Peg Ward

    A memoir about a complex mother-daughter relationship, the author's tone is self-involved and excessively self-important. Even though each chapter's title begins with "My Mother and ___," the author makes this more a story about her own internal ruminations -- including an excessive use of literary/philosophical/artistic references -- and as a result provides a fairly two dimensional rendering of her mother. The author and her mother appear to have had a relationship that was part love, resentme A memoir about a complex mother-daughter relationship, the author's tone is self-involved and excessively self-important. Even though each chapter's title begins with "My Mother and ___," the author makes this more a story about her own internal ruminations -- including an excessive use of literary/philosophical/artistic references -- and as a result provides a fairly two dimensional rendering of her mother. The author and her mother appear to have had a relationship that was part love, resentment, respect, disgust, and everything in between. There are some interesting passages on her mother's relationship with the Catholic Church and her efforts to raise a child on her own, but overall it's a depressing and tiresome read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Julie Davis

    I already was not looking forward to reading this book as it is not the sort of book I generally enjoy. However, I have been proven wrong before by other book club selections, if for no other reason than talking about a book would help me to understand it better even if I did not enjoy it. There is no such redemption for this selection. My standard "trial period" for a book is the first 50 pages. After page 32 I could continue no longer. Hopefully the author redeems herself by the end but what I I already was not looking forward to reading this book as it is not the sort of book I generally enjoy. However, I have been proven wrong before by other book club selections, if for no other reason than talking about a book would help me to understand it better even if I did not enjoy it. There is no such redemption for this selection. My standard "trial period" for a book is the first 50 pages. After page 32 I could continue no longer. Hopefully the author redeems herself by the end but what I saw was a whiner who seemed incapable of moving past the usual ways to blame one's parent for being banal and not rising to the daughter's expectations. Granted, she did it using beautiful language and examples, with contemplations and comparisons to pieces of art (where she also enjoyed judging the artist, his family, and his life choices). However, that is not enough to justify my spending time on a navel gazing writer. Obviously, my attitudes are heavily influenced by the fact that my mother-in-law has recently gotten to the point where she no longer remembers having a big house with a large Christmas tree or what she habitually cooked for Christmas dinner. Also, I would be influenced by the fact that I love my mother and, although I had great difficulties with my father, a great many of those difficulties included struggling with myself and letting God work on us both. This is not intended to be a review of the book, obviously, but simply a commentary on why I just could not make myself read another page. Your milage may vary as obviously that of many others has since I believe the book is a best seller.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Wendy Brown-Baez

    This story starts with the heartbreak of Gordon's mother living in a nursing home and works backwards to tell her story as a working mother, as the sister who helped the family financially, as the breadwinner when her husband's ventures fail and after his death, and as the devoted Catholic, all while disabled from polio. Gordon is unflinchingly honest as she illuminates the context of her mother's challenging and yet often fulfulling life. She shares details that obviously has been incorporated i This story starts with the heartbreak of Gordon's mother living in a nursing home and works backwards to tell her story as a working mother, as the sister who helped the family financially, as the breadwinner when her husband's ventures fail and after his death, and as the devoted Catholic, all while disabled from polio. Gordon is unflinchingly honest as she illuminates the context of her mother's challenging and yet often fulfulling life. She shares details that obviously has been incorporated into her stories and her life as a writer. Because of the later years of her mother's drinking, a bitter taste is left from some of her experiences. Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry at Anne's responses to the world around her. But considering the times, the lack of family support and the challenges of her body, she is a hero until the end, when the determined, strong willed, practical seeker of beauty and spiritual transcendence is lost in dementia. This book is not easy to read and at times, Mary seems to be recording through the filter of her own hurt and oversensitivity. But within the theme of circling, she cherishes her mother as a vital and unique woman despite the underlying complaint that she didn't get exactly the kind of mother she wanted.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Debra

    This book was very difficult to get through not because it was poorly written, but because I felt very sorry for the author. I don't know how many times relationships died, resentments festered, and forgiveness wasn't even considered. Instead, we heard again and again, I could never forgive him/her for that. Every slight, cruel remark, injustice, hateful behavior was stored up and acted upon. I can't imagine living a life with such acrimonious, self-serving thinking, constantly playing the victi This book was very difficult to get through not because it was poorly written, but because I felt very sorry for the author. I don't know how many times relationships died, resentments festered, and forgiveness wasn't even considered. Instead, we heard again and again, I could never forgive him/her for that. Every slight, cruel remark, injustice, hateful behavior was stored up and acted upon. I can't imagine living a life with such acrimonious, self-serving thinking, constantly playing the victim instead of letting go. Setting boundaries is healthy, but staying stuck in the muck isn't. I have read many memoirs where horrible things happen, much worse than what this author experienced and the other authors are able to transform their pain and rise above their life circumstances to have healthy lives. As others have said, it was interesting to learn about the "Catholicism" of immigrants. I had no idea that there was such a thing as working women's retreats and think that this is a concept that should be resurrected. Her mother was engaged in inner work and outer service. I wondered why none of this rubbed off on her daughter. Also, the fact that her Jewish father converted to Catholocism didn't seem to impact her. I was disappointed that she didn't reflect on any of this.

  14. 5 out of 5

    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 "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.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Megan Uy

    Really struggled with whether to give this book a 3 or a 4--found it very compelling and identified with both mother and daughter and yet...it was at times difficult to read about these women. It seems to me that, in the name of "raw emotion" and "honesty," most memoirists seem to give likeability and positive character traits short shrift. I did appreciate the way the book was structured: thematically, illustrating the mother's relationships to significant others' in her life, i.e., her husband Really struggled with whether to give this book a 3 or a 4--found it very compelling and identified with both mother and daughter and yet...it was at times difficult to read about these women. It seems to me that, in the name of "raw emotion" and "honesty," most memoirists seem to give likeability and positive character traits short shrift. I did appreciate the way the book was structured: thematically, illustrating the mother's relationships to significant others' in her life, i.e., her husband, her family of origin, her friends, priests, etc. I often distrust memoirs that are written in chronological order--whose memory works like that? This structure led to some (probably inevitable) repetition, but also lent a feeling of sitting around the author's (or her mother's) kitchen table as she told stories about her mother.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    This book really makes one think about their relationship with their mom. I admired Mary's frankness. I wonder what her mother would have thought about all this? It was also interesting to read how Catholicism played such a huge role in how her mom saw the world, and those non Catholics who inhabited it. It made me remember the little Catholic girls in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her mom was really quite a remarkable woman. I am not sure that is what Mary believes, or wants us to believe. Mar This book really makes one think about their relationship with their mom. I admired Mary's frankness. I wonder what her mother would have thought about all this? It was also interesting to read how Catholicism played such a huge role in how her mom saw the world, and those non Catholics who inhabited it. It made me remember the little Catholic girls in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her mom was really quite a remarkable woman. I am not sure that is what Mary believes, or wants us to believe. Mary also tells us who some of her fictional characters are based on. Guess I'll have to reread that, and make notes, as I want to read more of her fiction.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Taylor

    Really having a difficult time reading this one. The author embraces hating her family members. Consequently hers is a voice which is hard to trust. She might as well have been writing fiction rather than memoir since I doubt her POV is accurate.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jen Knox

    Simply beautiful. Read it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    3.5 stars. This is less a memoir than a series of essays with the author's mother at the center. Each essay has a theme such as her mother's relationship with her own sisters or with her late husband, the subject of Gordon's earlier book Shadow Man. The writing is stellar, and I found it absorbing so I read this quickly. Mary Gordon writes with an honesty and lack of sentimentality that many find offensive, but I find her fascinating and would love to meet her. She had a strange childhood as the 3.5 stars. This is less a memoir than a series of essays with the author's mother at the center. Each essay has a theme such as her mother's relationship with her own sisters or with her late husband, the subject of Gordon's earlier book Shadow Man. The writing is stellar, and I found it absorbing so I read this quickly. Mary Gordon writes with an honesty and lack of sentimentality that many find offensive, but I find her fascinating and would love to meet her. She had a strange childhood as the only child of a late-in-life marriage. Her mother had a difficult life- afflicted with polio, marriage to a ne'er-do-well who dies leaving her to raise their six year old daughter alone, later, alcoholism. But she was a strong woman who took great pride in her work as a legal secretary. She was a devout Catholic and there's a lot her about her friendships with priests. Not being Catholic myself, I still found this interesting as the priests had this exalted status with a band of admiring women around them. You just can't imagine this in the aftermath of all the exposure of sexual abuse in the Church. The end of the book was a downer as the author's mother spends the last 11 years of her life in a nursing home, finally dying of dementia at age 94. Not pretty at all. It's hard to make any sense of that. Those looking some sugar coated writing about the virtues of motherhood won't find it here.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michele Wallace

    Circling My Mother The name Circling My Mother is a good one indicative of the many layers Gordon builds to reveal the many ways in which her mother’s life touched and shaped her. I was more than two thirds through the book before I could even begin to fathom the possibility that it was after all Mary Gordon herself, an accomplished novelist, not her mother or her grandmother, who had lived to be a woman of real distinction in the actual world for Gordon’s portrayal distinguished her. I have my m Circling My Mother The name Circling My Mother is a good one indicative of the many layers Gordon builds to reveal the many ways in which her mother’s life touched and shaped her. I was more than two thirds through the book before I could even begin to fathom the possibility that it was after all Mary Gordon herself, an accomplished novelist, not her mother or her grandmother, who had lived to be a woman of real distinction in the actual world for Gordon’s portrayal distinguished her. I have my many favorite parts, among them her descriptions of her trips to Europe with her mother. I suppose the part about Arpège as her mother’s signature perfume was wonderful. It took me a long time to really get into this book because I hadn’t realized that Gordon and I were so close in age and therefore share many generational similarities. When progress is so slow while reading many other books, there is the danger of losing the continuity of the book. For some reason the initial discussion of Bonnard slowed me down. Will probably need to read it all again. In any case I loved it. I am a great fan of complexity in memoir and can’t wait to read her prior memoir about her equally fascinating father. And perhaps have a run at the novels about which she also has much to say in this memoir providing a kind of key to them.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Joy

    This was a well-written memoir, but so hard to read. Lots of family sadness. Mary's mother grew up in a family of five girls. "Of the five sisters, three had a gift for cruelty and nurtured it; the other two suffered too much -- unarmed by cruelty, they turned to drink." "It was their hatred,their disdain, that destroyed her." "My mother never felt a responsibility to hide her unhappiness, certainly not from me." Such hopelessness!!!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dyan

    Familial Irish Catholic tribalism explored and analyzed by insightful Gordon, writing of her profound love-hate relationship with her mother, in particular, but including those adults in her history who shaped her worldview and this her writing.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Grier

    I can’t decide if I love or hate this memoir

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Buxton

    D. nonfiction, memoir

  25. 5 out of 5

    Laurel-Rain

    As a way of knowing and understanding her mother, the author of "Circling My Mother" takes us on a journey through the various phases of her mother's life. Her life in relation to her daughter, but also to various other people, including her parents, her siblings, her husband, her boss of many years, and even the priests she admired along the way. As a young woman, a young mother, a child among many siblings, and in relation to the other people in her life, her world. Also as a woman disabled by p As a way of knowing and understanding her mother, the author of "Circling My Mother" takes us on a journey through the various phases of her mother's life. Her life in relation to her daughter, but also to various other people, including her parents, her siblings, her husband, her boss of many years, and even the priests she admired along the way. As a young woman, a young mother, a child among many siblings, and in relation to the other people in her life, her world. Also as a woman disabled by polio she contracted at age three. How her disabilities affected her life, her perception of herself, and her daughter's perception of her. How do the various experiences of the woman, Anna, child of an Irish mother and Italian father, come together to create who she was in her life? Did the pain and anguish of her life turn her into a bitter drunk? Was the senility of her last eleven years a way of coping, of distancing herself from the pain? As suggested by the title, the journey is a circular one, beginning as the author visits an exhibition of Bonnard's paintings in a museum. His painting called The Bathroom, was created in 1908, the same year that Anna was born. And on the day of this museum visit, the author is also planning her mother's ninetieth birthday celebration. A celebration Anna will unlikely experience in any real way, because of her dementia. In the end, and after her mother's death, the author revisits Bonnard, and tries to make sense of the parallels she observes between the paintings and her mother's life. It is always difficult to truly understand one's parents, and especially when there were challenges in the relationships. Sometimes the ambivalence we feel for them distorts what we see. The author here has done a great job of trying to clearly deconstruct her mother's life and world, including the contradictions in her world view. Her Catholic experiences juxtaposed against her love of pleasurable things. Her work ethic. Her sense of responsibility and independence. The fears brought on by her body's betrayal, because of the polio, and then later, as she lost most of her abilities, and her awareness. When being independent is a strong value, the loss of it is especially painful. Sections of the book were tedious, in my opinion, but to give dimension to her portrait of her mother, each part had its place. But nevertheless, because of the tedium, I am granting three stars.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    I have to say, I find books about mother-daughter relationships weirdly fascinating. I like the title metaphor of this one: I can remember being a little girl who would wander away from my mother and find myself, moments later, drawn back into her orbit, a moon that could only stray so far and no further. Gordon's relationship with her mother is a trying one; her mother was a "working mother" when no mothers worked outside the home, and her father's premature death placed the mother and daughter I have to say, I find books about mother-daughter relationships weirdly fascinating. I like the title metaphor of this one: I can remember being a little girl who would wander away from my mother and find myself, moments later, drawn back into her orbit, a moon that could only stray so far and no further. Gordon's relationship with her mother is a trying one; her mother was a "working mother" when no mothers worked outside the home, and her father's premature death placed the mother and daughter into painful financial and emotional situations. The memoir is a series of flashback, but it opens with a current scene: Mary is planning a birthday party for her mother in the nursing home where she is an Alzheimer's patient. The distance between the two women could not be more blatant, and yet...you still feel that bizarre, ineluctable, almost gravitational pull between them. So kudos to Gordon for tapping into that. This memoir really resonated with me, even though my own relationship with my mother is utterly different from Gordon's; and I think that is because Gordon locked on to some universal truths about mothers and daughters. It's sad, though. I felt a bit weepy when I was done - not so much because of their tender love (nope, not that) but because of the sort of tragic mix of love and pain, pull-together and pull-apart.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Vivian Valvano

    I just re-read this for my upcoming presentation @ library; I had read it and presented a conference paper on it when it was originally published. I think it is an excellent memoir by virtue of its style ("circling" the mother via a series of chapters that can each stand alone as essays, providing differing, yet overlapping, views); Gordon's facility with language; her stellar use of the art of Vuillard and, especially, Bonnard, and of the artistic rendering on Lanvin's Arpege bottle to yield di I just re-read this for my upcoming presentation @ library; I had read it and presented a conference paper on it when it was originally published. I think it is an excellent memoir by virtue of its style ("circling" the mother via a series of chapters that can each stand alone as essays, providing differing, yet overlapping, views); Gordon's facility with language; her stellar use of the art of Vuillard and, especially, Bonnard, and of the artistic rendering on Lanvin's Arpege bottle to yield discoveries about her mother; and her decision to be so painfully and brutally honest in her revelations. It is not always comfortable to read her revelations. The book is almost as much about Gordon herself as it is about her mother, and that works very well here. With all the circling, I don't think Gordon can ever achieve full closure, and that does not surprise me. But what a noble undertaking. Even while remembering the hardships of Gordon's mother's life and the despicable treatment she suffered at the hands of family members, even while remembering the sad and awful depictions of Anna's/Anne's last years, I can never forget the portrayal of her "going to business" for many years despite her physical handicap, a beautifully dressed and extremely competent working woman, proud of her role.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kristine

    I read this at a poignant moment in my own mother's life and it resonated on many levels, though disconnected on others. in the introduction Gordon says “I came to realize that I couldn’t see my mother properly by standing in one place, by standing still. For the last eleven years of her life, the years marked by dementia, she was much more a problem than a joy. I wanted to move from the spot where I thought of my mother as a problem. To do this, I had to walk around her life, to view it from ma I read this at a poignant moment in my own mother's life and it resonated on many levels, though disconnected on others. in the introduction Gordon says “I came to realize that I couldn’t see my mother properly by standing in one place, by standing still. For the last eleven years of her life, the years marked by dementia, she was much more a problem than a joy. I wanted to move from the spot where I thought of my mother as a problem. To do this, I had to walk around her life, to view it from many points – only one of which was her career as my mother.” There were places I had to skip – too much to loathe about this remarkable mother – and places where Mary Gordon went on a bit too long with precious playing around in strings of language. Mostly, though, the poetry in prose was memorable: pp. 104-105: “(T)his hurt my mother deeply; it was one of the wounds she fingered when she was drunk.” 197: “I think there is a conviction, hoarded like a shameful and yet valuable secret in the breasts of Irishwomen, that men are something of a luxury item. This is the way my grandfather was regarded.” I’m glad I read it and I’m glad it’s over.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Nomi

    Ultimately I felt this book was a good draft, allowing the author the opportunity to play with a unique structure (as she presents it, neither memoir nor biography) and get some things off her chest about her mother, her mother's life (and decline), and others closely connected to both her mother and herself. For me, knowing neither the author nor her mother, I found the voice discontinuous, sometimes that of the small child, sometimes the adolescent, sometimes the adult, but only for moments th Ultimately I felt this book was a good draft, allowing the author the opportunity to play with a unique structure (as she presents it, neither memoir nor biography) and get some things off her chest about her mother, her mother's life (and decline), and others closely connected to both her mother and herself. For me, knowing neither the author nor her mother, I found the voice discontinuous, sometimes that of the small child, sometimes the adolescent, sometimes the adult, but only for moments the more objective, neutral voice of author. She seemed to continue to serve as the remaining living link in the key triangles of her life: her mother, herself and her mother's family; her mother, her father, and herself; and her parents, herself, and the outside world. For as brief a book as it is, I found some of the themes repetitive, and certainly unresolved. I am interested to see a next volume when she might have had more time to think about things and approach the topic with crisper prose, as herself.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    I read this book first and the memoir about her father (The Shadow Man, written in 1996) second. For me, that was the correct order. I think that if I had read the book about her father first, what I knew about the father would have gotten in the way of my understanding of the mother. Circling My Mother was a fascinating attempt by the daughter to try to understand her mother. The title is perfect as Mary Gordon never does entirely understand her mother as she keeps trying (circling), unearthing I read this book first and the memoir about her father (The Shadow Man, written in 1996) second. For me, that was the correct order. I think that if I had read the book about her father first, what I knew about the father would have gotten in the way of my understanding of the mother. Circling My Mother was a fascinating attempt by the daughter to try to understand her mother. The title is perfect as Mary Gordon never does entirely understand her mother as she keeps trying (circling), unearthing every memory, every tiny piece of information she can find. This isn't the kind of book that ties everything nicely together at the end, and the reader ends up liking the mother and the daughter. I empathized with the daughter to some extent but she also frustrated me. I admired Mary Gordon for, what I thought, was her total honesty, even when it almost made me uncomfortable Mary Gordon is a highly intelligent and beautiful writer who is not afraid to explore her deepest feeling and thoughts.

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