Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Book Review: Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art

Is anyone else proud of me for taking on so many non-fiction books this year?! I'm out of control! Even better? I have quite a few more for the rest of the year and I feel like this might be my record year for them. I'm definitely not hating it because I have read some great ones, so that's definitely been the bonus for me. 

Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art - Nancy L. Pressly

While recovering from a near fatal illness, Nancy Pressly discovers a treasure trove of family material stored in her attic. Haunted by images of her grandparents and her parents in their youth, she sets out to create a family narrative before it is lost forever. It takes several more years before she summons the courage to reconstitute a path back to her own past, slowly pulling back the veil of amnesia that has, until now, all but obliterated her memory of her childhood.

In this sensitive and forgiving meditation on the meaning of family, Pressly unravels family dynamics and life in a small rural town in the 1950s that so profoundly affected her—then moves forward in time, through to her adulthood. With an eye attuned to visual detail, she relates how she came into her own as a graduate student in the tumultuous sixties in New York; examines how she assumed the role of caretaker for her family as she negotiated with courage and resilience the many health setbacks, including her own battle with pancreatic cancer, that she and her husband encountered; and evokes her interior struggle as a mother as she slowly traverses the barriers of expectations, self-doubt, and evolving norms in the 1980s to embrace a remarkable life as a scholar, champion of contemporary art, and nationally recognized art museum strategic planning consultant. Full of candor and art-inspired insight, Unlocking leaves the reader with a deep appreciation of the power of art and empathy and the value of trying to understand one’s life journey.
Some of my favorite things are old photos and learning about the stories of people who came before us. It is weird sometimes to think the day-to-day boring details of my life might someday be interesting or strange to someone else. Maybe my great, great grandkids will think it is strange we had cell phones and cars, and see a picture of my car and think it's the most weird thing they've ever seen. It's always after I read books like this that I feel the urgency to start a diary to document stories of how we live life right now in 2020 (and wouldn't this be the year to start, right?!) but also take photos of everything. Heck, maybe refrigerators will be weird in sixty years! 

I was also drawn to this book because the author kind of digs deep into all of this with her family after a serious illness and she uses that time to dive into her family's history. I loved it. First off, the fact she had access to any of these kinds of records, photos, and information is astounding to me. I have no idea what my grandparents would still have, but I know my mom really doesn't have much (that I know of) that would help me piece together a family history. Second off, the author mentions she has so many questions she would have liked to have asked people before they passed away and I just wish there was a master list so that I would know what to ask! I don't know what I will wish I had known, if that makes sense. 

The best part of the book for me with the social relevance of her family's story to today's political climate. Her family were Jewish and left eastern Europe in the early 1900's (which the story of that alone is amazing, which was great timing for them given what would happen not long after. The history of them arriving in America, not just the process of doing that which was interesting, but what life was like once they settled into New York. The jobs they would take, how dangerous and difficult life was even in the best of circumstances but even that was decidedly better than what they came from. Stories like that are always fascinating to me because we complain of minor things like bike lanes being annoying (that's the popular complaint where I live because we're bougie like that apparently), but there were people working in absolutely unsafe, incredibly dangerous working conditions like it was no big deal. You just did it because it's not like McDonald's was hiring down the road. 

I have to also say that I was finishing this on the day Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away and somehow, it felt fitting. The author spends a good chunk of the book writing about her life and the struggles she had as a working mother but also being great in her line of work, and the difficulties of "having it all" without feeling guilty, but also, is that even possible? I think we all struggle with that so if you are a mother for sure this is one you might really enjoy.

I absolutely loved this book and it's probably fully because I like dreading about other people's history and being fully nosy, so if you're like me and enjoy that as well (no judgment) you will really like this. I'm also incredibly intrigued by old photos, or other people's photos in general (so yes, I'm on Instagram and Facebook looking at your photos, fight me) so I love that so many are included in this book, having a face to put to names was pretty amazing and I loved it. 

I'm curious to know, have you ever gone through and made a timeline or written down a family history? I guess I had never really put much thought into it but this book makes me want to do that while I still have the opportunity to do it with some of my family, so if you've done it, what kind of questions would you say are the most important? 

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for having me on this tour also to She Writes Press and Nancy Pressly for sending me a copy of Unlocking for review. 
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1 comment:

Why Girls Are Weird said...

I definitely don't read enough nonfiction, I think I'll check this out.