Books by Nancy Mairs

Released: Oct. 15, 2001

"Not self-help by any stretch, but it will be of interest to anyone recently touched by death."
A series of personal essays about death, by someone who has seen more than her share of it recently and who, due to her own advancing multiple sclerosis, has reason to contemplate her own. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 20, 1997

Ten more striking essays from the remarkable author of Ordinary Time (1993) and Voice Lessons (1994). A bare-bones description of Mairs's situation—she has severe multiple sclerosis that is progressively worsening, and her caretaker husband has cancer with an uncertain prognosis- -might well deter the reader anxious to avoid either a depressing soap opera or a sentimental feel-good book. Happily, this is neither. ``I ask you to read this book,'' says Mairs, ``not to be uplifted, but to be lowered and steadied into what may be unfamiliar, but is not inhospitable, space.'' With wit, wisdom, and candor she contemplates the body and world she inhabits. Among her concerns are sex, language, mobility, the rights of the disabled, caregiving and caretaking, euthanasia, and abortion, especially the implications for the disabled of the right to abort a fetus known to be defective. There's a certain amount of adventure here too, for which Mairs's wry tone is wonderfully apt. When she takes part in an undercover operation to gather evidence concerning a scam to bilk thousands of dollars from MS victims, truth and justice are among the losers. When she and her husband and daughter decide to take a week's vacation in New Mexico in a rental vehicle soon dubbed ``the Camper from Hell,'' the results are both poignant and comic. Perhaps the most unforgettable adventure, if one can call it that, is a day she spends alone when caretaking arrangements fall apart. Such seemingly simple tasks as taking a shower and fixing a lunch are revealed to be, for her, astonishingly intricate undertakings. At one point Mairs asserts that ``this is no piteously deprived state I'm in down here but a rich, complicated, and utterly absorbing process of immersion in whatever the world has to offer.'' What she offers here is a rich, startling, and utterly absorbing view of that world. Read full book review >
Released: June 6, 1994

A delightful collection of essays on becoming a writer, by the author of Ordinary Time (1993), which draws from literature, feminism, psychoanalysis, and life experience. Mairs's writing is a hybrid form of essay that can be both intellectual and abstract, as well as intimately autobiographical. ``I found my writing voice, and go on finding listening to the voices around me, imitating them, then piping up on my own,'' says Mairs, who began to find her voice as a writer only in her 30s when she was already a graduate student, married, a mother, and a survivor of a bout of depression that landed her in a mental institution. It was then that she began to listen ``to the words and intonations of women as women.'' The sources of her literary feminist awakening included the writings of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker, and French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva. But this slim volume is no academic tome. Her essays are grounded in experiences that are particular to her life—living with MS, or smaller moments such as a visit to a psychic who refuses to ``read'' her. In ``The Literature of Personal Disaster,'' which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Mairs writes from the singular vantage point of a woman who, having written about her own MS and suicidal depression, as well as her husband's cancer, is now frequently asked to review works in this ``sub-genre.'' She snappily takes on the harsh critics of these books, saying, ``The narrator of personal disaster, I think, wants not to whine, not to boast, but to is possible to be both sick and happy. This good news, once discovered, demands to be shared.'' Voice Lessons should be both a comfort and a spiritual guide to women writers in search of their own ``voices.'' Read full book review >
Released: May 19, 1993

This is no ordinary book. A ``spiritual companion'' to Remembering the Bone House (1989), it continues Mairs's intensely personal interior journey as it explores issues of faith and social conscience with edgy honesty and poise. Most often, Mairs begins, religious belief is something you keep to yourself, but, in any case, life forces the construction of a moral sense, however haphazard its defining moments. The author's own convictions evolved gradually, along with a creeping feminism, until both she and husband George left behind the comfortable shelter of Protestant childhood labels and celebrated a Mass marking their conversion to Catholicism. Now they belong to the Community of Christ of the Desert and pursue the social-justice commitment articulated by Leonardo Boff, making political choices independent of official Church policy. Theirs is a spiritual quest, a profound collaboration, a willed engagement with people in need: ``God was here, and the law was unembellished: take care of each other.'' Mairs's theology is by no means traditional, with unusual references to God (``she,'' always) and a stance that's ``both pro- choice and anti-abortion,'' but her expression of religious belief is a powerful statement presented, as in previous books, in the context of family history and ongoing calamity—George's third bout with melanoma, her own increased physical deterioration from MS. Surpassing earlier efforts, she writes with extraordinary grace of ``memory's malarial tenacity,'' of ``the passionate tenderness children evoke'' in their caregivers, or of the approach of death as ``a kind of conversion experience.'' Consoling and poignant: a Catholic feminist moral inquiry that resists New Age simplifications and shares its message of deep faith with courage and dignity. Read full book review >
Released: April 19, 1989

As brave and boldly candid as Plaintext, Mairs' 1986 collection of essays, this autobiographical ramble allows the author to examine even more closely the shaping forces of her life in a conscious effort to form a feminist memoir, concentrating not on the "logical coherence and rationalization" expected within "the ivory phallus" but on her own erotic development (banhus is Anglo-Saxon for the body as a dwelling place) and on feminine erotic development in general. Mairs reviews her own difficult personal history (menstrual misery, depressions, suicide attempts, multiple sclerosis) and less disturbing scenes (extended family benefactions) in the houses of her past, gathering up feelings and fantasies from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood with a sure hand. Although even this partial listing of her adversities might sound intimidating, her tone is neither recriminatory nor sorrowful but genuinely exploratory. Moreover, she writes poignantly about common epiphanies (boyfriends, prom dresses) as well as the first foot-drop fall presaging MS or husband George's pained response to her infidelities. Ultimately, Mairs learns to negotiate the misimpressions and failed dreams, to understand what her body represents, and to find validation—in fact, the center of her sanity—in writing. A remarkable woman's clouded life, rich in themes both unique and broadly familiar, contemplated in deeply involving detail. Read full book review >