By Sarah Baker
I am a sucker for good writing. That might sound obvious, but it’s not always easy to find. When I do, I feel transformed. Or maybe I should say transfused, like I have just received a fresh flow of blood to my brain.
According to an article in The New York Times in March, “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul, there’s some truth to that. “Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life,” Paul wrote.
This explains my excitement over the weekend while reading Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson’s stunning memoir. The second chapter of the book starts, “I was born in Manchester in 1959. It was a good place to be born.” Those two simple sentences lead into one of the most provocative where-we-come-from-shapes-who-we-are descriptions I have ever read. I didn’t think I cared about Manchester. I wasn’t sure I even knew where it is. I do now.
Winterson’s childhood is as grim and dysfunctional as any of the other best-selling memoirs — The Glass Castle, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, or The Liar’s Club. Yet the book is breathtaking, not only because of the author’s hopeful and resilient spirit, but because of the way she tells her tale. Each sentence is clear, simple, and yet replete.
Or, to borrow a phrase from my friend Constance Hale’s must-read series on writing for The New York Times, each sentence is a “mini-narrative.” That means by the end of this detailed, evocative, and emotional book, I should have one stimulated brain.