BOOK REVIEW: Two Memoirs That Won't Make You Squirm

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: Two Memoirs That Won't Make You Squirm
I have a love-hate relationship with memoirs: I love to read them and hate to review them. They're difficult to review, especially if they deal with what I call inappropriate behavior, usually between fathers and daughters. Memoirs like Kathryn Harrison's 1997 "The Kiss," dealing with an incestuous relationship with her father, make me squirm, so I avoid them. I don't like anything involving wire hangers, either!  Call me a wuss or call me Ishmael.

Luckily, I've just read two memoirs that intrigued and satisfied me -- minus the squirm factor: "Into My Father's Wake" by Eric Best (CreateSpace, 302 pages, $15.95 paperback, available from online sites Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc.) and "Pitch Uncertain: A Mid-Century Middle Daughter Finds Her Voice" by Maisie Houghton (TidePool Press, Cambridge, Mass., 224 pages, photos, $24.95). 


Best's memoir can be read on one level as an adventure story of a middle-aged man sailing alone from San Francisco to Hawaii, and back, a 5,000 mile journey in a steel-hulled 47-foot ketch named "Feo." a deliberate copy of a solo-sailing ketch, "Joshua," built for Bernard Moitessier, who sailed "almost two times around the world" in the late 1960s.

With his limited sailing experience, mostly in calm water and lakes, Eric Best was an unlikely prospect for an open-water solo sailing adventure, something his father in Maine, an experienced sailor, repeatedly reminded him. Repeatedly enough,   I sensed, that it amounted to a dare that his son couldn't ignore, so he bought the boat and began his journey.

The book's prologue is worth quoting at length because it explains why he decided to do something that everybody told him he couldn't and shouldn't do:

 In the years before I finally went sailing alone I struggled with something nameless whose manifestation in my life I did not recognize for the longest time. Most of it was negative – a dull ache of some internal sort, sudden rage at conditions that would not submit to me, relationships that foundered in conflict or the effects of drinking, or drinking itself. This I had learned at home from a couple of experts and the traditions in which they came of age, where alcohol was just something one did at the end of the day. The drinking dulled but did not eliminate the background noise of the thing, which was perhaps the background noise of sadness, or echoes of irreconcilable conflicts, or the thing itself, whatever it might be. In matters of the heart, over time, I found I could only go so far and no farther, derailed or obstructed by something that must have been rooted in me early, if it was not my own by nature.
How much of this had to do with me alone and how much was a function of my family or the way I understood my place in it, or my father and mother, or the New England upbringing of my youth, I could not tell. It is easy enough to blame one’s troubles on others, particularly the people who brought us into the world and raised us. But surely I figured in it somewhere. Who expected to be fully happy, anyway? Perhaps it was all in the pursuit, as books on the topic seemed to say. For a long time I did not appreciate that most people were not raised as I was, and therefore had their own experiences of parental love and the frailties and failures that went with it. Some of those were devious and for me would be intractable to understanding without the help of others.
Not until my first experiments with psychotherapy (in which I was the lone family explorer) with a grey-haired woman in Cambridge did I suspect there was something to uncover in my family that might explain some of my conflicts. Early school reports documented me as very clever and engaging, but contentious and sometimes explosive. My years growing up on a former dairy farm in a small Massachusetts town, and later in private schools, were marked by more than my share of fistfights, confrontations on the soccer field and a record number of ice hockey penalties, though I never developed a taste for bar-brawls or street fighting. I could be very funny and entertaining – at least my family and friends generally said so – but when it came to being argumentative or provocative, few could match me in any grade from kindergarten on up. I despised authority in any form and if I felt the least bit trapped or pushed, in word or physical space, self-control was not my natural instinct. Call it spoiling for a fight, or a chip on his shoulder, or just a confused kid in pain, this tendency did little to endear me to my contemporaries, among whom I had a few but fortunately enduring friends.
If a turning point was signaled along the way it came without much notice during lunch in a Fifth Street bar in San Francisco in the mid ’80s. I was in my mid-thirties, stunted in some ways I could not name, drinking regularly if not relentlessly and slipping inexorably into the collapse of my first marriage. I remarked to another journalist and unrequited novelist – bound together as we were by the San Francisco Examiner, our unrealized ambitions as writers and a common tendency to fly into rages over trivial matters – that I didn’t think I could ever write my first book while my father was still alive. Why I said this at the time I was not sure, but I knew it was true and felt I was disclosing something powerful by saying it out loud to anyone. I was telling a truth without knowing why.
It would be about a decade before my father died in his waterfront bedroom in Cape Rosier, Maine, in the house my mother’s father had built 80 years earlier, overlooking the rocky shores of Eggemoggin Reach, where I did my first sailing and my father did his last. In the meantime I had sailed alone to Hawaii and back and struggled to write the story of that trip and the life that brought me to it. Expecting his death by congestive heart failure to arrive at any time, I invited him to read the first draft, about which he only said, with a grim, narrow look I knew too well, ‘So, you hate me, then?’ It defined the gulf between us more eloquently than anything I could have ever come up with on my own. A few months later, with that still between us, I drove him home from the Bangor hospital, knowing it to be the last time, so he could have a view of the water and his sailboat, ‘Enfin,’ idling at her mooring nearby. He died three days later in his sleep, just after I left on a business trip. A dozen years would pass – including my mother’s decline and death, and another failed marriage – before something moved me to finish the story once and for all – to try to accept and forgive and bury him with a decent tribute, and perhaps set myself free in ways I had never been.
It was my own act of faith that in finishing this story something crucial about my father and my relationship to him might finally come clear, although its manifestation would be a surprise. The manuscript that had gone on the shelf after he died suddenly demanded attention when my son turned five. That was about the same age that I had become consciously aware that my father was in my life. He had spent my earliest years commuting from Connecticut to a New York City bank and was seldom at home when I was awake, a condition I had recreated in my own son’s life. There was something about this age – five. My first daughter was five when my marriage to her mother broke up, and I felt compelled to get into the ocean alone, to get out there – maybe just to get out of here – to be truly alone to figure something out. This journey would not be finished, if I could call it so, for another 20 years. In truth perhaps it would never be.

 About the author: Eric Best is an author, speaker, and strategy consultant to individuals and corporations. Educated at Hamilton College, Harvard and Stanford Universities, his background as a journalist (Lowell Sun, USA Today, San Francisco Examiner), futurist (Global Business Network, Morgan Stanley), and solo ocean sailor (SF-Hawaii and back, ’89 and ’93) inform his insights. The father of three, he lives and maintains offices in Brooklyn, NY, where he currently consults for a global financial firm and is working on two new books. His website:   


There also a Maine connection that runs through Maisie Kinnicutt Houghton's "Pitch Uncertain." She spent many summers in the family's house in the town of Dark Harbor on Isleboro Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. I identified with Maisie because she comes from my largely neglected birth cohort, what I call the Sandwich Generation, because we're sandwiched between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers. Born in 1940, she shares many cultural experiences with a reviewer born two years earlier -- to an extent.

She grew up in cultured Cambridge, MA, while this reviewer grew up on a farm in Michigan and a small town in Illinois. She obviously had advantages I didn't -- although my mother was an academically trained musician at a time when few could make that statement, as well as an omnivorous reader -- as she associated with people like monologist Ruth Draper in Dark Harbor. Draper (1884-1956) -- best known for "The Italian Lesson," "Three Women and Mr. Clifford", "Doctors and Diets" and "A Church in Italy"-- dazzled playwrights and authors throughout the world.
 Despite the cultural advantages she experienced in Maine, Massachusetts and in trips to New York, Maisie had to struggle to find her own voice as the middle child of two parents whose marriage and lives she had to struggle to understand as she came of age in the 1950s. Her parents were an enigma, but aren't they all?

One of five sisters, Maisie's mother Sybil Jay was the "gentle doe" of an accomplished New York family that had morphed over the 20th century into an impressive matriarchy.  Maisie's father, Frankie Kinnicutt, was the handsome, fun loving son of stolid New Yorkers whose emotional reserve and perfectly decorated residences were a stiff contrast to the liveliness of the Jay household.

As parents, Sybil was diligent, caring and attentive—an anchor for the family, while Frankie was independent, playful, curious and remote—more sail than anchor. Maisie mentions Frankie's  Minox camera and includes in the book photos made by her dad, making me wish that she had supplied more details about a hobby Frankie Kinnicutt and I share, photography.

The title of the memoir came from an assessment of Maisie's music ability by a  teacher, but it could be extended to apply to Sybil and Frankie, her parents. I liked the way Maisie explores her appealing parents and their loyal relationship. Few music students possess perfect pitch, so "Pitch Uncertain" is probably as good an evaluation as any.

Did I like the memoir? I read it in one sitting and especially enjoyed how Maisie worked her way through the family relationship and has experienced a happy married life. 

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