Friday, April 24, 2009

Pathologies: A Life in Essays by Susan Olding (a review)

Pathologies: A Life in Essays by Susan OldingI first discovered—and fell in love with—personal essays when I read Remembering the Bone House by Nancy Mairs years ago in university. I was awed by her courageous truth telling about her life, partly because I grew up in a household where such truth telling wasn’t exactly encouraged: we could talk about ideas in the abstract much more easily than feelings in the here and now. As a result, Mairs became something of an inspiration to me. Although I’ve since devoured all of her books (except her latest), until recently I hadn’t found any other women essayists who write so honestly and unapologetically about their lives*—that is, until I read Pathologies: A Life in Essays by Susan Olding.

“Pathology,” the first essay in this book, chronicles Olding’s difficult relationship with her pathologist father, an alcoholic given to mercurial moods. This essay is so raw and clear-eyed, and yet completely unself-pitying that it literally took my breath away.

Another of my favourites is “On Separation,” a tribute to Olding’s sister-in-law, Jennifer. Olding alternates between meditating on separation using the metaphor of separating eggs to make almond cake and recording Jennifer’s losing battle with breast cancer. Although this may sound like an odd juxtaposition, this essay is one of the most moving pieces in the book.

Olding also writes a series of essays about her infertility, her decision to adopt her Chinese daughter Maia and her struggles as the parent of an adopted child. Of these, my favourite is “Mama’s Voices,” a wrenching piece about parental absence, writing about one’s child and Lana Turner. It’s hard to explain the structure of this essay, which alternates between sections called “Play,” “Fast Forward,” “Stop,” “Rewind” and “Record”—and I’m finding it equally hard to put into words the admiration I feel for Olding for writing (and publishing) this piece. In it, she contemplates reading a piece about her daughter at a writer’s conference:
That piece is too long, too personal, too difficult to excerpt, too domestic, too dependent on all its parts for a true effect, I tell myself. What I mean is, that piece is too revealing, too raw. Or maybe it’s just too real. (p. 201)
When she does workshop the piece, her classmates and instructors urge her to shelve her project and not write further about her daughter. All I can say is, thank you, Susan, for not listening to them.

One of my (minor) criticisms of this book is that I felt Olding overused the device of interweaving two or more elements in her essays. (Sometimes these elements are different narrative threads; at other times, she uses definitions or fictional passages.) It works brilliantly in many essays including the three I’ve already mentioned, but feels choppy and distancing in “How to Be a Volunteer,” for example (although maybe I liked this essay least of all because parts of it are written in the second person). I also don’t like the inclusion of fictional passages in a non-fiction book. Although Olding says in her notes at the end of the book that she trusts these passages will be identifiable from their context, I wasn’t sure they were fictional until I read her note.

I am in awe of writers like Mairs and Olding who transform the dross of everyday life into the gold of art—an alchemy I still aspire to. I highly recommend this book and hope Olding is working on her next one!

To read other reviews of this book, visit these blogs:
Rob McClennan’s BlogThe Owl’s Nest Blog

You can also read a review of this book at Quill & Quire.

Interviews with the author: Rob McClennan’s BlogWriting. Life. (part I)Writing. Life. (part 2)

Thank you to Freehand Books for sending me this book to review.

This is the first book I review for the Essay Reading Challenge.

*I’m sure there are others out there—I just haven’t come across them yet.


  1. Good post! I have never read any books like this...the essays sound interesting. Thanks for the review!

  2. This sounds really interesting to me! I'm going to look into getting it! Thanks!

  3. Thanks so much for this thoughtful and enthusiastic review. I'm so glad you mentioned Nancy Mairs, as she was an inspiration for me as I worked on this book.

    Another inspiration was Vivian Gornick. Try her memoir, Fierce Attachments. She's also an accomplished essayist.

    Best wishes,


  4. Hey Avis,
    I requested this book through the library after reading your first post on it (hopefully that means they'll buy a copy, because they don't have it yet) and now I'm even more excited to be reading it sometime in the not-too-distant future!

  5. Hi. I'm not sure if you've received this award before but I have an award for you here:

  6. Boy, this sounds good. Thanks for the great review.

  7. This caught my eye when you posted it in a mailbox listing a few weeks ago.

    Interesting that the device you enjoyed at first (weaving of metaphoric threads) felt over-used after a while.

    I'd assume it was all non-fiction, too. I wonder if the disclosure would have been better placed at the beginning of the book.

  8. i guess i'm in the minority because i lurve nonfiction--especially memoirs, essays, and travel essays. bill bryson, david sedaris, jen lancaster--love them all because they make me laugh like a hyena.

    this book sounds more serious...but your review is so good that i want to run right out and pick this one up. :)

  9. Thanks, Missy! If you enjoy memoirs, chances are you'd enjoy personal essays too.

    Jenners, I hope you do get it and enjoy it!

    Thank you for commenting on my review of your book, Susan. Fierce Attachments is now on my wish list!

    Brogan, I look forward to hearing what you think of it!

    Thank you so much, Ms. Ulat Buku! (I hope I thanked you on your blog too, since I'm a bit behind on my commenting!)

    Thanks, Elizabeth!

    Dawn, I would say that the device felt quite organic to some essays and less so to others (I became too aware of it as a device). And yes, I think the fiction disclosure would have been better placed at the beginning of the book.

    Natalie (booklineandsinker), I love nonfiction too, particularly memoirs and essays, although I haven't read many humorous ones so far. (After reading one of your reviews, I checked out Jen Lancaster on Amazon -- I read a couple of pages of one of her books -- and I can't say that she sounds like my cup of tea, unfortunately!)

  10. Thank you for reviewing and recommending this book Avis, it was a good read. My favorite essay was "The easy way", named after a casual comment someone made to Susan Olding about adopting being the 'easy way' to have a child.
    This essay reminded me of a day that my sister came to the library (where I work) with her son, who was then 1 and 1/2. Another couple of families were in the kids' section: M., with her two (adopted, Chinese) daughters, and S., with two of her daughters, who were born of her body but carry more clearly the physical characteristics of their Chinese-Canadian dad than of their French-Canadian mum. So anyway, M. says to my sister, "Are they yours?" about S.'s kids, with a huge smile on her face, assuming they are adopted, like her own. My sister says "No, this is my son," echoing M.'s smile. But M.'s face falls, and she turns away, immediately uninterested, to the point of rudeness.
    What struck me about this experience, as the essay, was the loneliness that we feel as mothers. In our struggles, we can feel so alone. Under the shadow of Assumptions, our own and everyone else's, we can feel so alone.
    I was thankful for the candour of these essays that made you feel like yes, secrets CAN be told, towards freedom and not towards betrayal.

  11. I forgot, I meant to comment on "How to be a volunteer"...I didn't like this essay either, but mostly because it felt undigested somehow... There was an undertone of bitterness to the whole essay, that made me think of Natalie Goldberg's suggestion to "write slowly about something difficult". I felt like I was constantly smelling something that wasn't quite ever stated...something more angry than weary, more human (or real?) than bitter, but it never quite came out.

    And then, on the fiction/non-fiction, I would recommend reading Ursula K Leguin's essay "Fact and/or/plus fiction" in which she vociferously defends the boundary between the two (and I rather agreed with her). The essay is in The_wave_in_the_mind:_

  12. Brogan, thank you so much for your comments. Thank you for sharing the library encounter. To me that story illustrates how much we want someone else's experience to be the same as our own in order not to feel alone. (Which is a feeling I completely identify with.) And yes, "these essays [make] you feel like yes, secrets CAN be told, towards freedom and not towards betrayal." That's a great way to put it! The Wave in the Mind is definitely on my wish list!