Thursday, October 16, 2014

Catch-up #3: Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming, The Giver (review and F2F report) by Lois Lowry

I am seriously going to have to start jumping on the reviews the moment I finish a book. Not My Father's Son is excellent, really one of the best memoirs I've read in the last few years -- and I love memoirs. But, I waited too long and I'm feeling like I can't do it justice. I'll do my best, though.

Not My Father's Son tells the unfolding story of events that took place a few years ago when Alan Cumming agreed to have his family history revealed in a reality show, the UK's "Who Do You Think You Are?"

The story pivots between "Then" and "Now", sometimes with specific dates added. The past that he refers to as "Then" describes childhood abuse at the hands of his father. "Now" refers to a time when he was preparing to appear on "Who Do You Think You Are?", a show in which a famous personality's family history is revealed. Cumming describes how he dealt with what he discovered about his immediate family and his family's history. The genealogical preference for investigation was his. What did Cumming want to know about his family? He chose his maternal grandfather's last years. Why did his mother's dad leave the family for Malaya? How did his early death occur? Did he commit suicide, die accidentally, or was he murdered?

Trigger warning: If you have difficulty reading about childhood abuse, you might want to skip this one.

Cumming's story is an extremely emotional journey. The reality show triggered memories that he, his brother and his mother had suppressed. As a child, his father abused them all. He had a ready excuse: Alan was not his son. But, if that was the case, why did he also terrorize his biological child, in addition to the wife he thought faithless and the son he refused to think of as his own?

As Cummings sought to both reveal the truth about his parentage and keep his own unknown story from being publicly revealed before he had firm answers, he was also gradually learning about his grandfather's death. Both a story of family events and how mental health has been treated, past and present, Alan Cummings' memoir reveals a man of surprising strength, joy, and love, especially given his painful childhood. You can't help but emerge from the book admiring its author, his mother, and his brother. They may have been treated badly but their unbending love for each other and Cumming's mother's amazing support throughout their ordeal is a wonder.

Highly recommended - Very skillfully crafted and moving.

I received a copy of Not My Father's Son from Dey Street Books (an imprint of HarperCollins) in return for an impartial review. It was released last week. Choosing a maximum of 2 or 3 books a month is going well, so far. I'm definitely glad I requested Not My Father's Son.

********SPOILER WARNING********

I've already read The Giver before and this time I want to talk about the ending. So skip my review if you don't want to know what happens.

The Giver by Lois Lowry was a book I reread for book group discussion; the meeting was held last night. 

The Giver is the story of Jonas, a boy chosen by the elders in his utopian, literally black-and-white world to hold the memories of the past for the people of his village. The old Giver is exhausted from holding the memories and the physical and mental pain that accompanies them. But, he's erred in the way he attempted to pass on the memories to a new Giver, in the past. So, he tries to be gentle when passing on memories of life and death, color and temperature, war and love -- all the things that have been eliminated in a structured, precise world where marital partners, children and careers are chosen based on personal attributes but deviation from societally-imposed strictures is deadly. In spite of gentle adjustment to the memories, Jonas still thinks things need to change and a baby whose imminent "release" (a euphemism for death) shocks Jonas will be the catalyst for change.

The Giver has what some people read as an open ending. Did Jonas really escape with baby Gabriel and find a place where Christmas is celebrated with color and cheer or did he fall into unconsciousness and dream of a place he wished to find? Apparently, the question of what really happened is answered in a sequel; there are 3 companion novels and I can't recall which one answers the question. I couldn't find our old copy of The Giver, so I bought the "quartet". I'll get to the other books, eventually. I had my own opinion of what happened.

The good and the bad:

I think everyone in my F2F group felt the same about the science fiction aspect of The Giver. There's no explanation as to how and why memories are held by a single person, how the people are restricted from seeing color, how their world is climate-controlled. So, I think everyone felt like there were aspects of the book that were difficult to buy into. What we loved about The Giver was the fact that it opens up so many different avenues for discussion. Jonas's father is a "carer" who works with children because he's a natural nurturer but his mother is a judge, for example, which brings up the issue of how gender plays into our expectations of character and career aspirations. The fact that nobody can see color led us to discussion about how color blindness allows for racial equality. The lack of pain leads to questions about whether or not pain is essential to growth. We also talked about how rigid structure didn't allow for creativity or individuality.

Highly recommended - No wonder they teach this book in schools.  At any rate, not everyone loved the story (I loved it every bit as much as I did the first time) but the conversation was lively and fresh. I haven't made it to very many meetings, this year, but our discussion of The Giver was one of the best I've experienced in recent memory so I definitely recommend it for group discussion.

Some of our group members have seen the recent movie release of The Giver, so we also discussed the differences a bit. I have not, but hope to view it in the future.

I call Jonas's world "utopian" early in this review but that's a question I neglected to ask group members. Is the story really utopian if people are being put to death for minor aberrations from the norm or is the village a dystopian world because many are unaware of its realities? Thoughts are welcome.

©2014 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. A utopian tale turned dystopian tale. I read The Giver for the first time this year and like its foreboding and warning. It's an interesting read, good for discussion. Here are some of my thoughts at

    1. Utopian turned dystopian works for me, thanks! I will read your discussion when I have a sec. Just getting back from a trip and, as always, I got a migraine from the change of air pressure. Thanks!


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