Books by Doris Grumbach

Released: Aug. 10, 1998

A disjointed but provocative account of a spiritual journey. Grumbach (Fifty Days of Solitude, 1994, etc.) has continued her recent spate of autobiographical writing with this brief but insightful glimpse into contemplative prayer. After losing her individual religious quest in the busy-ness of parish life, Grumbach quit attending church and focused instead on recapturing a certain spiritual epiphany of her young adulthood, never repeated since. In characteristic fashion, her quest brings us into dialogue with various poets, mystics, and philosophers; this memoir is particularly influenced by Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and Julian of Norwich. (Grumbach includes a helpful bibliography for further reading.) A hideously painful bout with shingles challenges her meditative practice, and she finds that prayer is often impossible under such circumstances. She thus eschews praying for healing to seek out God's presence and turns also to the discipline of daily psalm reading (—How long, O Lord, wilt thou forsake me?—). She expresses qualms throughout that her exclusive personal quest may be leading her further from true prayer, which others—including Norris, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and her own seminary-administrator daughter—attest can only be experienced in community. In truth, Grumbach's journey even borders on the cantankerous: —I wanted to use the time I had left seeking Him out intimately, and loving my neighbor at a distance.— Though brilliant, the writing is chaotic in its organization; the penultimate chapter succumbs to a mÇlange of quotations on prayer that Grumbach has collected on her journey. Even the author seems somewhat aware of her memoir's dissatisfactions: in the epilogue she notes that in her manuscript she came to replace every 'solid-seeming noun— with —tentative adjectives and gerunds.— Read full book review >
LIFE IN A DAY by Doris Grumbach
Released: Oct. 30, 1996

A diary of a day that encapsulates the memories, reflections, and yearnings of a lifetime as gracefully as a FabergÇ egg captures spring sunlight in its tiny interior. Of the several memoirs written by the author, a critic and novelist, this is in many ways the most successful. She has steadily decreased the time span she deals with, from her 70th year in 1991's Coming into the End Zone to 1994's Fifty Days of Solitude to this single, ``hypersensitive'' day, one ``in which I find myself unusually aware.'' Minimizing has become important to her—``staying put'' is a phrase that offers delight, as does the biblical ``Be still.'' The day begins before sunrise as the 77- year-old author makes her unsure way downstairs to the ``life- saving'' coffee pot and, en route, recalls the image of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. A ritualistic breakfast includes a personalized version of the confiteor in the Book of Common Prayer and an appreciation of the color and movement in a common potted plant. The pile of books near her breakfast table is Base Camp One, on the way to the summit of her computer station, where she is writing a novel. Her first choice of reading matter, the letters of Rachel Carson, leads to reflections on how biographers of women resist the idea that close relationships with other women may have been sexual. Sheep printed on her flannel nightgown send her into a travel reverie about Scotland; a trip to the post office, where a bad review of her latest novel awaits, finds her browsing for consolation in her own eclectic library. Most of the day is spent in a writer's favorite occupation: avoiding work. Her output for this day is one page—leading to an engaging digression on computers. Chefs call it a reduction—boiling a flavorful liquid to its essence. By reducing her framework—in this case, from a year to a day—Grumbach has produced a pungent essence of a long and flavorful life. Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1995

One's sexual nature and expression, inextricably bound up with one's creative destiny, can, when denied, result in a death-in- life. This cautionary conviction is underscored by novelist and critic Grumbach (the memoir Fifty Days of Solitude, 1994, etc.) in a multi-edged tale about four withered young lives. In the summer of 1929, Caleb (12) and Kate (10) Flowers live with their widowed, deaf mother in a large veranda-ed house in seaside Far Rockaway, N.Y. Then visitors arrive—bossy, 13-year-old Roslyn Hellman and timid Lionel Schwartz, 19—and soon Roslyn is leading games, including one disastrous (and foreshadowing) attempt to test the Book of Knowledge account of the behavior of lemmings. It's also that summer when Caleb and Kate, intrigued by their mirror-image intimacy, experiment sexually. The narrative then turns to another summer when Roslyn, now a bristly young teenager hooked on movies and rebel politics, is at a Catskill all-girls' camp, sneering at her lumpen peers and collecting material for her writing career. (Grumbach's reading of some earnest team efforts to regiment recreation in the early days of summer camps is both funny and touching.) Roslyn has a first serious crush on a counselor (handily rejected); then a few years later Caleb is at college, determined to deny Kate any hint of their childhood sexual games, and theatrically alone—until he meets Lionel. Their love is devouring, absolute. But like Roslyn (whose dreams of accomplishment began to wane after a stint in the wartime WAVES and another dose of the double standard), and like rejected, sin-ridden Kate, Caleb will make a socially acceptable choice. Only Lionel, by his death in the army, escapes the others' long, dry shrivelling of the soul: ``It is true of all human beings that they are dualities...herein lies all the bloody warfare in the person, to be who we are and not what we have been made.'' Immaculate in prose and tone: one of Grumbach's best. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 21, 1994

Graceful but essentially unsatisfying reflections on seven weeks spent alone in a house near the Maine coast. Novelist and critic Grumbach chronicled her move with her friend Sybil from Washington, D.C., to Maine in Extra Innings (1993), a memoir of her 74th year. A year later, Sybil hied herself back to Washington on an extended business trip—50 days, to be exact. Rather than accompany her, Grumbach decided to tough out a Maine winter alone, ``to move forward in my work and deeper into the chambered nautilus of the mind that produces it.'' Solitude is relative here. The author unplugged one phone but left another hooked to an answering machine, warning callers that she might or might not return calls. Recordings and radio broke the silence at home, trips to the post office and to church kept her in visual touch with other human beings, although she refrained from conversation. Nevertheless, long days passed when her only companions were birds, insects, books, and the two fictional characters who were the centerpiece of the novel she was working on. In this diary of her solitude, Grumbach ponders death (``...was I perhaps preparing myself for the final deep freeze...''), creativity, being alone, the search for self, and the consequences of silence—the cold seems colder, the space larger, and in the midst of a snowstorm, silence itself becomes noisy. Most rewarding are Grumbach's comments on books and authors; a lengthy reading list could be constructed from this small memoir. Vignettes of intriguing acquaintances are also deftly sketched. However, the brief journal-style entries, evocative as they often are, cry for further development. If Grumbach went to the bottom of her soul during her lonely winter, she does not take the reader with her. (b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
EXTRA INNINGS by Doris Grumbach
Released: Nov. 1, 1993

A meandering journal of novelist Grumbach's 74th year that chronicles a final move from Washington, D.C., to the coast of Maine, and that includes brief, often charming, reflections on such diverse topics as mayflies, oxymorons, authors, and death. A follow-up to Coming into the End Zone (1991), which recounted Grumbach's ``intensely despondent'' 71st year, these month-by-month notes seek to examine whether the author's despair has lifted—and whether ``I may come upon some answers to the insistent questions of old age. Or perhaps only succeed in recording the minor thoughts and activities in the life of an aging woman.'' Grumbach begins her journal year with the publication of End Zone and ends it with a ``meditation'' on home, in particular her home in Maine, where she's found ``an interior landscape of serenity, isolation and solitude'' and has become less ``grumpy.'' In between, she offers snippets from La Rochefoucauld, Emerson, Anatole Broyard, and others; descriptions of life in Maine; accounts of her speeches, meetings, and book signings along the Maine/Washington corridor; entertaining anecdotes about the famous and not-so-famous; glimpses of family matters, centered around a daughter's cancer; a musing on love—all nuggets from which novelists craft their tales, but here unconnected and unshaped. Grumbach's work here will inevitably be compared to that of her friend May Sarton: Both are novelists removed to Maine, both are publishing journals on aging. Grumbach, however—probably because she's relatively younger, healthier, and more active than Sarton- -offers an account that's livelier, more wide-ranging, and less self-absorbed, though not much more profound. Written with polish and erudition, here are some budding insights into—but no answers to—the questions of old age. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 30, 1991

Novelist/critic Grumbach (The Magician's Girl, 1987, etc.) confronts age and mortality in this rambling, if elegantly phrased, journal of the year following her 70th birthday. Stating at the outset that she is ``taking notes, hoping to find in the recording process a positive value to living so long,'' Grumbach proceeds with a month-by-month chronicle of a year in which, expecting little (``I'd be surprised if anything of interest happens...''), she instead experiences and learns quite a bit. Despite what seems to be an extremely busy life—writing fiction, reviewing books for National Public Radio, assisting her companion in their bookstore, traveling (to Mexico, Paris, Maine, New York, Boston, and Key West)—Grumbach feels haunted by death—in the daily reminders of her own diminished vitality and, more tragically, in the AIDS-related losses of several younger friends. And so, ``taking stock,'' she sorts through her life, recalling significant people, places, and events as they come to mind. She finds time to exult, writing lovingly about the Maya, the sea, finely printed books, writing, family and friends. More often, though, she grumbles—about ``shoddy'' new books, crowds in movie theaters, `` cars, planes, rapid talkers, swift up and down escalators, athletes, the computer's cursor,'' overly familiar attendants in doctors' offices. Throughout, the author's vigorous activities and opinions contrast oddly with her sense that ``it is too late,'' the final turnabout being her move from an established life in Washington, D.C., to face a ``chaotic'' future in rural Maine. Regrettably, the shapeless journal form allows neither writer nor reader a chance to savor the unfolding ironies. Enmeshed in her ``new era of self-indulgence,'' Grumbach has fashioned only what seems to be rough fodder for a full-scale autobiography, a novel, or perhaps a collection of essays. As is, we get jottings, we get pronouncements, we get bored. Interesting content, badly in need of form. Read full book review >