Friday, August 9, 2013

Gifts of Gratitude by Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker

Gifts of Gratitude:  The Joyful Adventures of a Life Well Lived by Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker is a memoir told in very short fragments that spans several decades, various states within the US, and explores the changes in a woman's life.  From single woman with dreams of being in the spotlight to married mother of two sons to divorced single-parent, Baker travels the spectrum of life's experiences and she shares them with a narrative voice that sounds conversational and relaxed.

Have you ever read a book you really wanted to like but found yourself struggling every turn of the page?  The problem is two-fold.  For one, the publisher deserves to be put out of business.  I cannot imagine ever consciously choosing to buy another book from this publisher, not if the quality of this book's publication is indicative of the "care" they give their authors and their readers.  This book is so poorly edited, with words dropped or mis-spelled, leaving sentences convoluted and confusing.  Even the layout is a disaster.  There is a chapter that begins on page 109 but only the title is there, the chapter itself begins on the next page.  Every page in this book looks like a thrown together self-published mess.  And any author deserves better than this.  A quality publisher would never allow such carelessness to reach final publication.

The book itself suffers from a desperate need of good editing, even if you can lay a lot of the blame at the publisher's doorstep.  The memoir is told in fragments, not following a strictly linear construction.  This can be used to very good effect; Susanna Kaysen used this method in Girl, Interrupted and it worked very well because the story itself is about a fracturing of a young woman's psyche and life.  Certainly it has been used brilliantly in novels.  To be effective, however, it is essential that the intention behind using a non-linear narrative frame makes sense.  Each piece should fit together in some manner, whether thematically or emotionally.

It takes a lot of skill to make this work and I'm afraid Baker lacks that skill. There are blatant moments of narrative disruptions that make the memoir feel thrown together rather than carefully constructed.  For instance, the chapter that has its title on page 109 "One Last Hawaiian Adventure . . ." tells about a canoe trip she, her husband, their two sons, and some friends took.  The very next chapter "Galen, Galen, and More Galen" discusses the deeper meaning of her name.  The chapter that follows that immediately returns to the a time closely following the canoe trip.  It would have made far more sense to put this chapter, "Careful What You Ask For," closer to the one describing the adventurous trip and either move the chapter about her name to a more logical and emotionally well-integrated point in her story or drop it altogether.

I am not one to argue for a strictly linear narrative, whether in a novel or memoir.  I frankly love seeing how post-modern literature is allowing authors to express themselves in unique ways.  Nonetheless, some stories do require a more conservative approach to story-telling.  An editor would have surely urged Baker to reconsider the placement of some of her stories, shuffling.  For instance, I would have encouraged her to try to merge the chapter about her name with the chapter "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" or drop the content altogether.  There is definitely room to pare some details with an eye to less-is-more.  She makes a lot of connections she finds profoundly meaningful without clearly explaining how one thing relates let alone weaves itself significantly with another.  The reader is left with her saying something is relevant but never feels the relevance for herself.  Baker tells but doesn't fully show.

For instance, we do "meet" the author's sons through her stories but I can tell you nothing about them.  Yet, they are now adults, living full, rich lives, presumably with well-rounded personalities but after reading this memoir they are nothing but ciphers, blank entities.  This in sharp contrast to the abbreviated yet richly-developed personas of Sonali Deraniyaga's children in her memoir Wave.  Nor does Baker offer the reader anything deeply universal, as does Winterson.  Adding insult to entirely too much injury, the book isn't even well researched.  She quotes von Goethe without citing the quotation and, sure enough, it's one of those ubiquitously misquoted internet things.  (Seriously, this is why every quote should be cited and if you cannot find a citation for a quote don't share it and certainly don't include it in a book you're planning to publish.  Or, if you insist, find a publisher who knows how to do simple research because this is where a good editor would have caught the problem before it reached the final printing.)  She also gets the name of one of Buckminster Fuller's children wrong.  These incidental mistakes throw doubt on too much and when she then throws out stories that she herself admits are hard to believe, going so far as to dismiss a rational explanation when one is offered (as in the case when she sees a spaceship which her husband suggests was a dream), it is hard to feel anything but an apathetic disconnection from the writer and her story.

And it's all so hugely frustrating.  Between the quality of the publication itself and the poorly edited manner in which the memoir is written, I am disappointed.  I feel that, with strong editorial hand and a little more spit and polish, this memoir could be profound and even inspiring.  Not all of the fault can be placed on the publisher but a better publisher would have helped this memoir to shine rather than dull down what might be a truly dynamic story.  Whatever else, if Baker does decide to try to her hand at publishing again, I hope she will seek out a good editor and a different publisher because Burman Books failed her utterly.

Still, I am grateful I had an opportunity to read this book and am thankful to goodreads for offering it to me for review.  It breaks my heart I could not have liked it at all or even a little more than I did.

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