Confessions of Joan the Tall Paperback – Nov 13 2012
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“An unflinching evocation of a Catholic girlhood. In short chapters that touch on nodes of great feeling, she summons up both torment and tenderness. The reader is ushered into a world which reaches from the rooms of her Irish immigrant house in the Bronx to the mysteries of religious feeling. The narrator is beautifully alive to the endless hazards, complications and indignities of growing up. So much of the wisdom of childhood lies in the strange blend of endurance and enchantment. Joan Handler has a sure feeling for both.” (Baron Wormser)
“We are engrossed by the often painful story of a child trapped in an obedience-based working class Catholic family, a demanding and usually unforgiving Church, and an environment seeming devoid of gentleness and pleasure. Unforgettable.” (Mickey Pearlman)
About the Author
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER, poet, editor and practicing psychologist, has two published poetry collections, five Pushcart nominations, and a Sampler Award from Boston Review.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Handler, a poet, chooses to write her memoir in the voice of Joan as an almost twelve-year-old girl, and it took me awhile to get used to that. I don't normally enjoy books written in the voice of children, but that conceit works very well for the book.
Joan has an older sister Catherine, an older brother Sonny, and a younger brother Jerry. Sonny physically and emotionally torments his siblings, with Joan getting the worst treatment. This is not just sibling rivalry, Sonny is a serious, scary bully. (Handler has said in this interview on her blog that the only sibling who has read her book is her sister.)
She is also dealing with the fact that at the age of 11 1/2, she is close to six feet tall, and that makes her the subject of ridicule in school. Her mother tries to make up for this torment by buying Joan beautiful clothes to wear, and the descriptions of her clothes are so vivid, I could picture them clearly in my mind. Her mother tells Joan that the others are jealous that Joan can wear clothes like a model.
Joan's mother tended to be cold and withholding, and sometimes beat the children with a belt, which was probably not uncommon in households in the 1950s when Joan was growing up. She idolized her father, a devout Catholic, and Joan tried desperately to live up to his high expectations.
The conflict between who she was and who she aspired to be led to physical ailments. Joan had bladder problems and developed colitis. A particularly bad case of boils is graphically described and sounded so painful, it nearly made me cry.
Anyone raised in a Catholic household and who attended Catholic school in the 1950s will be able to relate to Joan's upbringing. The nuns who taught were tough, strict and sometimes cruel. The nuns who showed Joan kindness made quite an impression on her, like the one who helped her after Joan wet her pants in the classroom.
Handler perfectly captures the angst of being twelve; the uncertainty, the need to please your parents, the desire to fit in with other students and have friends, to be just like everybody else. The funny thing is, no one ever was like everybody else. Reading it brought all those feelings right back to me.
The language here is so beautiful, it is quite apparent that Handler is a poet. It is written as if it were journal entries, most entries being just a page. You feel as is you are reading Joan's actual journal, although Handler said she did not keep a journal as a child.
As I said, if you grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, you will get so much more out this emotional book. Joan's struggle to be a good Catholic will resonate with many, as will her desire to be a good daughter.
This book is one that will appeal to people who came of age in the 1950s (Catholics in particular), but teenagers today will also relate to Joan's story. Some of the feelings of adolescence will never change, and a teen who feels outside of the norm (and that would be most) will empathize with Handler's story.
The cover of the book is visually stunning, and the title, Confessions of Joan the Tall, evokes the stories we read about saints in Catholic elementary school. This book would make a terrific gift for someone who grew up Catholic in the 1950s.
Handler writes very short chapters, sometimes a single page, each a mostly independent vignette, in the voice of her young self. I appreciate that the writing style as well as the short sections give us a sense of being inside the consciousness of Joan, the girl, rather than Joan the adult. It seems to me that there are really two types of memoirs, one that presents the perspective of the adult looking back over earlier experiences, the other that gives the impression of a kind of immediacy as the younger self experiences and narrates events in real time. Handler's memoir is of the latter type. And her writing style, her narrative voice lends a kind of immediacy to the work. Her short and nearly self contained chapters speak to the nature of memory and the young person's perception of her reality and experiences. In these ways, Handler creates a memoir that reads like an authentic experience of the world from the young person's point of view. The immediacy of the narrative--Joan, the character often speaks in the present tense--creates the sense that we, as readers, are experiencing things in real-time, as Joan does. I have to say, however, that while I appreciate and understand Handler's writing in the voice of the young Joan, there were moments when this voice struck me as not particularly authentic and believable. Joan uses syntax and expressions that just didn't seem to fit with this historical context, 1950s Bronx. For example, the repeated use of "totally" is, to my mind, reminiscent of the 1980s Valley Girl, while Joan's frequent "I think it's so cool. . ." also seems incongruent with the time, place, and ethnicity of Joan, the young girl.
Memoirs are interesting in that a well written memoir addresses something about the very nature of memory. And I think, also, that Handler's overall structure speaks to this very matter. Memory is both necessary and unreliable, full of holes. Memory represents not the factual, external truth, but the inner truth of one's own experiences. Memory retains those episodes that are infused with personal importance while letting fall by the wayside what the nonconscious deems unimportant. And Handler's short, seemingly disconnected chapters reflects all of this. She creates a window into the consciousness of her speaker, the girl Joan, that allows us to witness what her memory retains. We can only guess at those experiences that have been left out. This may be the distinction between memoir and autobiography. And this is, for me, what makes memoir, as a genre, so fascinating. We may or may not be given the factual truth, but we are allowed to observe the personal truth of our speaker as she grows up.
In Confessions of Joan the Tall, Handler also creates a nostalgia for a time when religious devotion and family life were somehow simpler, more wholesome, and closely linked. Although Joan struggles with attaining some of the standards that she perceives to be required by Catholicism, she is clear on her religious affiliation and is even aware of the ways that this structures her relationships and her life. This strikes me as much simpler than the lives of contemporary young people who often lack the structure afforded by a religious upbringing. Catholicism may not be perfect and may even have some adverse affects on Joan, yet the longing for a time when moral understanding and religious devotion were more definite is conveyed here. Closely connected to Joan's experience of the church is her family life and her devotion to family. Her relationship to her father is presented with particular warmth. Again, I sense a kind of longing for a time, not really that long ago, when in tact nuclear families were more the norm than they are now.
Confessions of Joan the Tall also works as a coming of age story. Joan struggles with nearly-universal (or at least common to middle class young people in the Western world) anxieties of fitting in with peers, being tormented (and loved) by older siblings, success in school, and relationships with the opposite sex. Her insecurity about her physical appearance is particularly poignant and strikes me as authentic. As Joan begins the painful and wonderful transition from childhood to adulthood in this book, readers can find much to relate to, even if their upbringings were different from Joan's in terms of religion, ethnicity, and even time period.
I'd like to add that Handler has a particularly lovely blog. Some of her posts overlap with the book; some do not. It's absolutely worth exploring.
This review originally posted on my book review blog, Speaking of Books. Please visit me there!
NOTE: A review copy was provided by the author and the publisher. No other compensation was received.
Cusack Handler's prose reverberates with evocative imagery, insight and emotion, conjuring not only the physicality, mystery and allure of the Roman Catholic faith of the 1950s, but also the authentic intensity and vacillation of adolescent feelings. The story, constructed in slice of life fragments and steeped in the present tense, deepens the intimacy of this well-drawn, psychologically astute narrative.
When I was approached to review this book, I asked the "tour" organizer if the book would resonate with someone who is not only not Catholic but who was raised without any real formal religion. She confirmed that they wanted a broad range of readers. While nothing closed the book off, I do think it would resonate more with a reader who shared the Catholic (or at least religious) upbringing. I couldn't really relate to Joan's worrying about the fate of her soul and her concern about sin. I do understand the desire to "be good," but it definitely went beyond my experience. While I enjoy reading about people who lead different lives, the book really did depend on relating to the narrator and the difference made it less engrossing and made me less excited to pick up the book and return to Joan's world.
That said, there were certainly plenty of concerns I could relate to in Joan's year and also plenty of places where she made me smile. I was never tall, but I think every adolescent feels like they stick out physically and worries over any form of difference. I felt for Joan in her social stumblings and desire to fit in. When the experience resonated, I could feel the particular angst of adolescence. I also felt Joan's joy in simple triumphs and in the few moments when self-confidence began to peek through the doubt. Joan's voice stayed consistent and genuine, more true to the age than most writers are able to stay.
This wasn't a complete "win" for me, I'd give it three stars, but I'm glad I got to "meet" Joan and spend time with her. I think this book would be ideal for someone who came from a very religious background and remembers reconciling that with the concerns of adolescence. I could also see it being an interesting read for a mother and daughter to share as the girl moves into her teen years.