Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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Overview

Jeanette Winterson’s bold and revelatory novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most acclaimed books of the last three decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is considered one of the most important books in contemporary fiction.

Jeanette’s adoptive mother loomed over her life until Jeanette finally moved ...

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Overview

Jeanette Winterson’s bold and revelatory novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most acclaimed books of the last three decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is considered one of the most important books in contemporary fiction.

Jeanette’s adoptive mother loomed over her life until Jeanette finally moved out at sixteen because she was in love with a woman. As Jeanette left behind the strict confines of her youth, her mother asked, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

This memoir is the chronicle of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser drawer; about growing up in a north England industrial town in the 1960s and 1970s; and about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can guide us when we are lost.

Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging — for love, identity, and a home.

Winner of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson's] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is."—The New York Times

"She's one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time—searingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . She explores not only the structure of storytelling byt the interplay of past, present, and future, blending science fiction, realism, and a deep love of literature and history. . . . In Why Be Happy, [Winterson's] emotional life is laid bare. [Her] struggle to first accept and then love herself yields a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson's openness is all the more moving; there's nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind."—A.M. Homes, Elle

"To read Jeanette Winterson is to love her. . . . The fierce, curious, brilliant British writer is winningly candid in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . . . [Winterson has] such a joy for life and love and language that she quickly becomes her very own one-woman band—one that, luckily for us, keeps playing on."—O, the Oprah Magazine

"Magnificent . . . What begins as a tragicomic tale of triumph over a soul-destroying childhood becomes something rougher and richer in the later passages. . . . Winterson writes with heartrending precision. . . . Ferociously funny and unfathomably generous, Winterson's exorcism-in-writing is an unforgettable quest for belonging, a tour de force of literature and love."—Vogue

"A memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit], the rollicking bildungsroman . . . that instantly established [Winterson’s] distinctive voice. . . . It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her. . . . To confront Mrs. Winterson head on, in life, in nonfiction, demands courage; to survive requires imagination. . . . But put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds, but by their triumphs.”—New York Times Book Review

"Jeanette Winterson's sentences become lodged in the brain for years, like song lyrics. . . . Beautiful . . . Powerful . . . Shockingly revealing . . . Raw and undigested . . . Never has anyone so outsized and exceptional struggled through such remembered pain to discover how intensely ordinary she was meant to be."—Slate

"Bold . . . One of the most entertaining and moving memoirs in recent memory . . . A coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, and a celebration of the act of reading . . . A marvelous gift of consolation and wisdom."—The Boston Globe

"Unflinching . . . That Winterson should have survived such a terrible early immersion in darkness at all is a kind of miracle. That she should have emerged, if not unscathed then still a functioning human being and a creative artist, is an even greater accomplishment."—San Francisco Chronicle

“With raw honesty and wit, Winterson reveals how she fought her way to adulthood, finding success, love—and ultimately forgiveness.”—People (4 stars)

"There’s always been something Byronic about Winterson—a stormily passionate soul bitterly indicting the society that excludes her while feeding on the Romantic drama of that exclusion. . . . Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? restores Winterson to her full power. . . . This is a book that will inspire much underlining."—Salon

"[Winterson's] novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. . . . [A] proud and vivid portrait of working-class life . . . This bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, hard-won self-knowledge. . . . You're in the hands of a master builder who has remixed the memoir into a work of terror and beauty."— Bookforum

"Riveting . . . Beautifully open . . . Why Be Happy is a meditation on loss, stories, and silences."—Newsday

"Riveting . . . There's a lot of flinty humor here, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoption—and a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it."—Entertainment Weekly (A-)

"Arresting and suspenseful . . . Offers literary surprises and flashes of magnificent generosity and humor."—The Washington Post Book World

"[Why Be Happy] very possibly [contains] the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, bone-naked truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. . . . Her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"Captivating . . . A painful and poignant story of redemption, sexuality, identity, love, loss, and, ultimately, forgiveness."—Huffington Post

"Raw . . . A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Clarion, courageous, and vividly expressive, Winterson conducts a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self and liberating power of literature."— Booklist (starred)

"[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted."—The Seattle Times

"Winterson pulls back the veil on her life as she really lived it and shows us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more painful and more beautiful as well. . . . Searing and candid . . . Winterson holds nothing back. . . . Written with poetic beauty."— Bookpage

"Shattering, brilliant . . . There is a sense at the end of this brave, funny, heartbreaking book that Winterson has somehow reconciled herself to the past. Without her adoptive mother, she wonders what she would be—Normal? Uneducated? Heterosexual?—and she doesn't much fancy the prospect. . . . She might have been happy and normal, but she wouldn't have been Jeanette Winterson. Her childhood was ghastly, as bad as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent."—The Sunday Times (UK)

"Unconventional, ambitious . . . The experience of reading Why Be Happy is unusually visceral. Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest. . . . The prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty, and vigorous all at once."—Financial Times

"An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography."— The Guardian (Best Book of 2011)

"Searing . . . Winterson's truth is just as compelling as any fiction."—Entertainment Weekly (The Must List)

"Moving, honest . . . Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved."—Kirkus Reviews

"Compelling, in fact, perhaps even more so when compared to the fictionalized version written by Winterson as a twenty-five-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page. . . . Now comes [an] emotional excavation as a fifty-two-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye. . . . The specifics of [Winterson's] early abuse are vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for their familiarity. . . . If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her."—The Independent (UK)

"Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording can—and should—be."—Bookreporter

"Exquisite . . . About survival and triumph but also about deep wounds."—LAMDA Literary Review

"Winterson's memoir is a brave and searingly honest account of how she reclaimed her childhood through the power of language. . . . Rich in autobiographical detail, it is as wide and bold an experiment in the memoir form as any so far written. Indeed, one of the most daring—and riskiest—experiments this book pulls off is a sudden fast-forward from the world of the lonely, adopted child that we think we know from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, to the recent present where, in writing that is astonishingly naked and brave, Winterson reveals the legacy of that difficult childhood. . . . Why Be Happy is proudly, and sometimes painfully honest. It is also, arguably, the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years, and, as such, it really should not be missed."— The Times (UK)

"As compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's great memoir of friendship. . . . A tribute to the salvation of narrative."—Shelf Awareness

"At last—and essential new book by Jeanette Winterson. She is a natural memoirist. . . . Wry, urgent . . . Pressed on by the need for self-discovery, the prose doesn't miss a beat. . . . Winterson is frank about her own oddness, her fierceness. . . . If the first half of the book has been polished by retelling, the second half is raw, immediate. . . . Gone is the Nabokovian memoir in which the exquisite past is presented under glass, skewered by a pin. This is the age of instant communication, of forthright, unmediated responses. Winterson has her finger to the wind."—Evening Standard (UK)

“Provides a vivid picture of the grotesque behaviors of the lunatic mother she refers to as ‘Mrs. Winterson.’ This is a detailed portrait of a life that saved itself. The hard work Winterson did to find her place in the world after growing up as an outsider’s outsider is not exaggerated. We are lucky she survived to tell the tale.”—Library Journal (starred review)

"As beautifully crafted as any of Winterson's fiction."—Foreword

"Winterson makes the pages sing. . . . A moving, artfully constructed piece of writing that sustains tension until the last sentence."—The Globe and Mail (Favorite Book of the Year)

“Idiosyncratic . . . [Winterson] is intense on the page . . . [with] more charisma than a Pentecostal preacher. . . . A sad story, a funny story, a brave story.”—The Scotsman

"This is no narrative of victimhood, but one of gratitude. In its lugubrious humor, its striving to find virtue in unlikely places and in its willingness to try to understand the forces that damaged her mother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? recalls a feminine version of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. . . . Winterson lends all [her] fierce poetry, intelligence, and epigrammatic punch to [the] prose. . . Thrilling as the author may be in the denunciation of her mother, the tale as a whole foregrounds the woman's vulnerability; empathy keeps breaking through."—The Australian

"We are shown 'how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness,' and come to respect Winterson's psychological courage and her rage to love."— Sunday Telegraph

"This difficult, spirited, engaging book, with its touching openness and maddening lack of candor, is a resonant affirmation of the power of storytelling to make things better."—The Daily Mail

Dwight Garner
…singular and electric…Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages.
—The New York Times
Kathryn Harrison
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit] the rollicking bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson's youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the cleareyed free.
—The New York Times Book Review
Valerie Sayers
The first half of this coming-of-age story is arresting and suspenseful, even though we know perfectly well that Jeanette will remain a lesbian, despite her mother's best efforts, and will become a bestselling and influential writer. Winterson has a wonderfully off-kilter sense of humor about her dark past (Chapter 2's title: "My Advice to Anybody Is: Get Born"), but she is a loopy writer in the structural sense, too, preoccupied with the nonlinear nature of time. She swoops between present and past, between narrative and contemplation, with grace and economy…Winterson is always a pleasure. My advice: Read the memoir…
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
“What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us?” Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) asks of her relationship with her adoptive mother, questions that haunt this raw memoir to its final pages. Winterson first finds solace in the Accrington Public Library in Lancashire, where she stumbles across T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and begins to cry: “the unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day.” She is asked to leave the library for crying and sits on the steps in “the usual northern gale” to finish the book. The rest is history. Highly improbably for a woman of her class, she gets into Oxford and goes on to have a very successful literary career. But she finds that literature—and literary success—can only fulfill so much in her. There’s another ingredient missing: love. The latter part of the book concerns itself with this quest, in which Winterson learns that the problem is not so much being gay (for which her mother tells her “you’ll be in Hell”) as it is in the complex nature of how to love anyone when one has only known perverse love as a child. This is a highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Raised by adoptive parents in a grimy north England industrial town, Winterson endured a religious fanatic of a mother with two sets of dentures and a tendency to lock her daughter out of the house at night. When her past caught up with the author, literature saved her—a lesson worth repeating. For anyone who loves Winterson's scalding fiction and memoir generally; with an eight-city tour.
Library Journal
03/01/2014
An acclaimed British novelist, Winterson deftly writes of a rough childhood with her adoptive fundamentalist parents in a dark, industrial town. It's England, the 1960s, and the air is full of social change but not in her family. This is a bold, raw coming-of-age story of a girl who escapes and learns to accept herself and become a successful author. (LJ 11/1/11)
Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed novelist Winterson (The Battle of the Sun, 2010, etc.) revisits her difficult childhood as an adoptee, chronicling the search for her biological mother. The author ponders her youth and examines how those challenging years changed and shaped her as an adult. Frequently locked out on the doorstep by her abusive, Pentecostal, adoptive mother or often told she was "a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, and a fault to nature," Winterson wondered if she had ever been wanted, by her biological or adoptive mother. The author struggled with the ebb and flow of Mrs. Winterson's love, finding escape from her mood swings in the local public library, where she devoured a wide variety of literature. When her secret stash of books was discovered and burned, Winterson rebelled by claiming she would write her own books one day. At age 16, she was kicked out of the house and forced to live in her car. Books and words brought comfort and led Winterson to Oxford and writing, but she descended into a deep depression when her lover left her. The search for her true identity and her birth mother helped bring her back from the darkness. Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved. A moving, honest look at life as an abused adopted child.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802120878
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 183,325
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeanette Winterson
Born in Manchester in 1959 and adopted into a family of Pentecostal evangelists, Jeanette Winterson studied at Oxford University. Her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was selected by Michael Cunningham as one of the Good Men Project’s Best LGBT Books of All Time. Her other books include Sexing the Cherry and The Passion. Jeanette has won several prizes including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award.
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Table of Contents

1 The Wrong Crib 1

2 My Advice to Anybody is: Get Born 13

3 In The Beginning was the Word 26

4 The Trouble with a Book... 33

5 At Home 44

6 Church 65

7 Accrington 85

8 The Apocalypse 100

9 English Literature A-Z 115

10 This is the Road 131

11 Art and Lies 142

Intermission 153

12 The Night Sea Voyage 155

13 This Appointment Takes Place in the Past 178

14 Strange Meeting 207

15 The Wound 220

Coda 226

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Interviews & Essays

"The Past is a Negotiation": Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Jeanette Winterson

In 1985, twenty-five-year-old Jeanette Winterson published Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl named Jeanette, adopted and raised in northern industrial England by Pentecostals, whose plans to become a missionary are derailed when she falls in love with girls (prompting her parents to hold an exorcism) and goes off to Oxford and becomes a writer instead.

Although the rough outlines of Winterson's biography follow more or less the same as those sketched above, she has always resisted the idea that Oranges should be taken as a literal account of her childhood. "I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about 'experience' — the compass of what they know — while men write wide and bold, the big canvas, the experiment with form," she writes in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

Over the past two decades, Winterson's novels have been loaded with play, pose, and experiment, roaming through and remixing ideas about history, genre, and gender. Her characters include a Venetian gambler with webbed feet in a romance with Napoleon's cook (The Passion); a giant mother named Dogwoman (Sexing the Cherry); a lover with no identified name or gender (Written on the Body); and a scientist on a planet inhabited by dinosaurs (The Stone Gods).

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, begun almost exactly twenty- five years after she began writing Oranges, revisits the same territory as her first — Winterson World, as she calls it. As in the first time around, the story is dominated by her adopted mother, a "flamboyant depressive: woman who kept a revolver in the drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with...two sets of false teeth — matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for 'best.' " This time, however, there is a parallel narrative in which adult Jeanette searches for her biological parents.

The book makes a forceful argument for the necessity of art and in all lives, not just for those — like Winterson — who will grow up to be working artists but also for those like her adoptive father, a factory worker who reads the Bible and Shakespeare, and her biological family, who live in public housing and discuss The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I met Jeanette Winterson in late January 2012 at her hotel in Soho. She showed up in sneakers and workout clothes under a beautifully tailored wool coat — she had called to see if she might meet an hour later to fit in exercise — and we went to a local organic restaurant, where she ordered a lentil and sweet potato salad. An edited transcript of our exchange is followed by some "Outtakes": pieces of the conversation that address a wider range of topics. —Amy Benfer

The Barnes & Noble Review: You are essentially revisiting the same material of your first book, published when you were twenty-five, almost exactly twenty-five years later yet seen through a different lens, along with contrasting your adoptive family, the Wintersons, with your biological family, whom you meet late in life. Why did you have the impulse to do that?

Jeanette Winterson: I didn't. I was dealing with the search for the biological mother and that necessarily prompted in me all sorts of questions and reconsiderations of life with Mrs. Winterson; life in Winterson World. The past is a negotiation; it's not fixed. I was forced into another negotiation with the past. I thought, "Well, let me start writing through this again and see what comes out." I was doing it for my own sake, and not for anyone else. The trouble is that after two weeks, I had written 15,000 words. When that happens, you realize there is this enormous pressure building up to do something. So I thought, "OK, I'm just going to carry on with this."

BNR: So those two lines bring you up to basically sixteen, when you leave home to go to Oxford, then a quick jump to twenty-five, letting us know you wrote Oranges, and another narrative starts when you search for your adoptive mother and begin this new book. Yet there is still a twenty-five-year gap that both parallel narratives skip over.

JW: Yeah, I get myself to Oxford, and then I write Oranges, and then we arrive in 2008 and I'm going to kill myself and it's all gone wrong. Each half was written at the same time; they were two parallel lines that eventually converged. I didn't start at the beginning and end at the end. When do I ever do that? That's the story I wanted to tell. The rest was irrelevant. I'm also interested in what you can do with form and shape. And I thought, "Why should I write this in a linear way? I never do. So why start now?" I thought, "If I want to miss out on twenty-five years, I can. " Although it would have been an inefficient thing to do in a memoir, anyway.

BNR: Even the use of the word memoir is fairly loaded. You were very emphatic that Oranges was not a memoir but an autobiographical novel, with points of fact and points of fiction. Are you comfortable saying that this is the memoir?

JW: I don't even call it that. I just say it's a cover version.

BNR: I like that phrase. That's pretty wonderful.

JW: I really think, well... Let's not call this "sexism." Let's call it an "asymmetrical judgment" between men and women. If Henry Miller writes Tropic of Cancer and calls the hero "Henry Miller," he's still allowed to say these are novels, and none of the guys question it. Because a man is allowed to be bigger. A woman isn't. She can only possibly talk about herself.

BNR: Meanwhile, Anaïs Nin is just writing "journals."

JW: Journals, right, journals! If I want to use myself as a fictional character, why can't I? Over the years, it's been one of the most frustrating things. If you call yourself "Jeanette" in the novel, then it's all about you. And I'm thinking, No. This is a person I've invented. Why shouldn't I? That's what I mean by an asymmetrical judgment because Paul Auster, Henry Miller, Milan Kundera, any of those writers who quote themselves directly, Philip Roth, for God's sake! We all say, "That's so great! That's so interesting!" But if you do that as a woman, it becomes confessional and autobiographical.

BNR: In the book you make the distinction between "experience," which is what women writers are seen to have, versus "experiment," which male writers do.

JW: It's all just a way to make it small. If you are a woman, you've got to be a little one; you've got to be small. And if you're not small, you're a ball- breaker.

BNR: Was it at all problematic for you to decide to call this book a "memoir," then? Doesn't it seem to imply this is the real, factual truth?

JW: Well, I didn't decide that. My publisher did. They have to stick some bloody label on it. It's not my word and it never will be.

BNR: One of the most striking differences between the two books — Oranges and Why Be Normal? — is that the character "my mother" becomes "Mrs. Winterson." Meanwhile, your adoptive father stays "my father."

JW: I think I needed to operate at a distance, so it does shift from "my mother" to "Mrs. Winterson." But she never called any of her friends by their first name. She didn't let them call her by her first name. She very much was the lady of the house. She liked that formality and that dignity.

BNR: I assume that in your adult life, other people have called you "Ms. Winterson" from time to time.

JW: Yes [laughs].

BNR: So although referring to this same woman as "Mrs. Winterson" sounds more alienating than calling her "my mother," it also seems like a way to subtly state the connection between the two of you. Sons often talk about the experience about growing into being Mr. So and So, like their fathers, though with patrilineal descent, that is rarer for women. It almost seemed to underline the closeness between the two of you as adult women.

JW: Yes, she's an archetypal figure. The main model, the only one. She was a mother, and she's also a character in her own drama. But it's a sleight-of- hand. I think she comes off very well in this book. I think there's compassion for her and warmth and the reader will end up feeling rather drawn to her. Even though she's a monster.

BNR: She does come off as a monster in some ways. But she also comes off as being so important. There's a way in which the two of you seem twinned in a way that in the end you never even seem to have with your bio-mom. She just looms so large over your life in a way that no one else seems to come close.

JW: She is. The person you grow up with is really important. This biology business, it doesn't do it for me. And yes, she was the big-screen character in the small screen of our lives.

BNR: In the book, you connect her to the Dogwoman character, the gigantic, all-encompassing mother in your novel Sexing the Cherry. But in a way, she was the one who shrunk all of your lives down to the small-screen, too, right? She was very educated for her class. She seemed to be incredibly intelligent. There are so many ways in which the two of you seem like parallel characters. And yet, she seemed to limit herself: she married "down"; became a housewife; became a member of a very strict religion. It seems to go along with the stereotype you mention about the "Battleaxe" northern woman. These women are so huge, and yet their bigness is used to make them small.

JW: They have to know their place. And those women, those pre- feminist women, they did know their place. It might have made them depressed and miserable — it did — but they accepted it like a natural phenomenon, like gravity or something. It couldn't change. It was as pointless to them to wish that things were different as it was to wish that you could walk three feet off the ground. Because you couldn't. It was a law of nature that men were superior and that women had to know their place.

BNR: You talk about adoption as self-invention, and the idea that each adoption story introduces the possibility of a parallel life. There is a fabulous moment in the book when you find yourself sitting in the bar in your hometown, well dressed and inexplicably wearing a spray tan. One crucial question that you never did answer: Why in God's name did you have a spray tan?

JW: I'm not telling you! As I said in the novel, "for reasons that remain unsaid!" I shall never confess!

BNR: So unfair! But you do have this striking moment when suddenly you have this image of what your life might have been like if you hadn't grown up in Winterson World, left town, gone to Oxford, become a writer.

JW: It felt like a shadow passed across me, and I was like, "No!" It wasn't like a game I was playing in my head, like "What if?" or "Let's pretend." It did feel like I was looking through this door, this other possibility, this whole world within the universe. Having met my bio-mom and my family, I know it would have gone wrong. It would have gone wrong because I would not have been educated. I'm sure of that. But I'm clever. And I wasn't going to sit at home and do nothing, so I would have made something of myself. But there would have been more brutality than poetry in it. And that's kind of scary.

BNR: So you think part of the poetry, then, comes from being born into an evangelical household? You talk a lot about the poetry of the Bible and the deep search for philosophical meaning that it brings into working-class lives, like the one you were born into.

JW: I think it gives you a language for poetry. My nature is intense, and I think loss pushes you towards a search for meaning and a search for language. Poetry is very good at dealing with all of that. I was looking for a way to deal with loss even though I didn't call it loss. That's why I talk about in the book about "lost loss." When you can't even get at it; you don't even know it's there. I think that yearning, that search for meaning came out of that. My intense and solitary nature pushed me towards a poetics because I was looking for complexity. I didn't want the easy narrative. I really wanted to understand. And yes, my nature, fortunately met a situation that was going to nourish it, which sounds very odd, given what that situation was. I'm not going to go up and down and say it's good to lock your kid in the coal hole, or out on the front step or to give them Bible readings morning, noon, and night. But it seems to have worked for me. It did give me something that I would not have gotten.

BNR: It seems you wouldn't have had to struggle in such an epic, archetypal way. You wouldn't have had to struggle against such strict religious rules, they wouldn't have exorcised you for being gay, or likely even cared much, you wouldn't have been labeled a sinner...

JW: And it seems the spiritual damage made a difference. In either family, I would have been poor; there was no material benefit either way. In my birth family, I think my focus would have been on, "I have to get out of here and make a better life." There wouldn't have been the spiritual overlay. At least being brought up in the church, it's irrelevant, the money question. Nobody had any money and nobody cared about having any money, because our rewards were in heaven. And our riches were not of this earth. So that was not a suitable place to put your ambition. And so I didn't. But I think that's very interesting: the idea that it's much more important to pursue meaning, to pursue the inner life. So what began as a connection with God became a connection with life itself, to which art, poetry are central, but money never being a consideration.

Going to Oxford, all of my friends went off and got really good jobs. I could have done that too. This was the eighties for God's sake, and I had an Oxford degree. I could have gone anywhere. But I didn't. Because money continued to be of no importance. I think that was very much the spiritual teaching I grew up with: This is not a worthy endeavor. Which was directly at odds with the zeitgeist of the eighties, which was all about money.

BNR: So what we are saying here is that in many ways, Mrs. Winterson did give you the roots of your story and a reason to create.

JW: She did. I'm really a big believer in just working with what's there, with who you are and what you've got. And not putting happiness or success or achievement impossibly out of reach, which people do all the time. It's good to have ambition. But you have to work with what you've got and be in that place. I'm a realist as well as an optimist.

BNR: As you point out, in both of your families, the search for meaning and art and discussion and answering the question "Why are we here?" was very important, even though both were very poor. Many politicians right now are telling us that books and poetry and education are "elitist" pursuits. But you point out there is still a deep need for self-reflection and inner life and art, no matter what your day job is.

JW: I think that's right. I don't want to see that go. Young people now — this was supposed to be the post-ideological generation. When the money was there, no one was going to care. And that might have worked. So the fact that the money has run out, now, and the whole thing has been laid bare in all its goriness and its corruption and unsustainability, I think that's really good. This is going to radicalize another generation of young people. It's not just going to be Islamic jihad or radical Christian fundamentalism, these are going to be kids who want to get political because they can change things that way, who will want to find a new system. I always have hope for the human race like that. They will respond to our times, and then alter them. I can't believe that we won't.

OUTTAKES The following parts of our conversation wandered somewhat from our discussion of Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

BNR: What is your writing schedule? Do you have an intense daily schedule? Or do you write in short bursts?

JW: No. I'm in my study every day. I think that's important. I just go to work. You have to get up and go to work. I show up. It doesn't mean I do anything useful all the time. Very often I don't. But I divide my day. I try to keep the dreaming day in the morning. I get up straightaway. I pretend that I have to cycle to work. I don't, because my studio is in my garden. But I get on my bike and I do a circuit and come back. So I have cycled to work. If I don't cycle to work, it's so fixed in my head, I can't go to work.

BNR: You talk so much about poetry, both in your work, and even on your website, where you often post poems of the day. I can also see a poetic influence in the way your sentences scan: there is an intention to the rhythm; it is very spare; there are even many sentences that read almost as epigrams. Do you ever write poetry?

JW: No. But I read it all the time.

BNR: Do you think that the fact that you don't actually write poetry helps you to keep it in a space that is purely inspirational in a way that prose isn't?

JW: I was always clear that I wanted to have that intensity and that spareness for my prose. I didn't want to strip it out completely to an artful, i.e, artless, conversational style. I wasn't trying to do a Hemingway or Henry Miller or any of that stuff. I wanted to have something which used language in a way which had a certain artificiality to it, in that we don't speak that way. We're not that precise; we're not that complex. But I wanted to feel as natural as possible. And I thought I could do that, using the prose. That's always been what has interested me. To try to keep the complexity of language — the imagery, the symbolism, just the way the words work together, instead of trying to pull them apart, thinking how few can I get in there? That's not it for me. I need to know that they can make a different kind of landscape. That's what poetry does. So I thought, "Why can't you have that in your prose? Why shouldn't I work towards that?"

BNR: And you've never had the urge to start arranging any of your prose into verse or stanzas?

JW: No. It is rhythmic; it works well being read out loud. In that sense, I've achieved what I wanted. What it doesn't do is a casualty of speed reading. You can't read Jeanette Winterson just for the content. There's no point. No point. You can't read down the middle. I've built it. They aren't very long books anyway. They are as short as they can be. You can't make them shorter by reading them faster. That can be a problem, because we do surf. For me, the pleasure is actually in the language and in what develops through the language. That, to me, is what literature is. If we don't want it to be language, then let's go and do something else. But if we're only looking for the story, we can get that in many different media now. There's nothing wrong with that. But language has its own particular, specific idiosyncratic pleasures and challenges. It is language. So much as I'm using language, I really don't want to be told by anyone that it's elitist if you use it in a particular way, or that it gets in the way of just telling a story. Why can't we just go from A to B in a straight line? That's not interesting to me. I've been a critic of the realist novel for a long time. I think very often in fact TV and film can do that better. Docu-drama is also very good. We do have other mediums to take that burden away.

BNR: We are in a golden era as far as television is concerned. When I was growing up, it would never have occurred to me to think about writing for television, but right now it seems that's where some of the very best writing is taking place.

JW: I agree with you. I just think that we need to let a book be what it is and not criticize it for being what it isn't. It's there to tell a story, yes, but it's there to do many other things as well. That's what literature is. There has to be a place for the craziest imagination or fantasy or the strange circularity of fiction. It doesn't have to go in a straight line. My fights with the realist novel have always been, "Are you sure you want this to be a novel? Or could it really be something else? And are we losing language along the way if we are only reading for the story?"

BNR: You actually did adapt your first novel as a TV drama for the BBC. Did that give you a clear idea of the difference between drama and literature even when telling the same story?

JW: I like working for TV. You can do the dialogue and be very precise, and I like all of that. But it's no good at interior dialogue or monologue. Interiority just does not work onscreen. It's very hard to have those conversations with yourself and others that prose can do simultaneously, at the same time it's allowing you to locate within yourself and the landscape. But that's because it is essentially an introverted art form. And we're in a very extroverted world at the moment, perhaps the most extroverted the world has ever been. Everything happens on the outside and its all about display. That puts the novel and poetry in a very curious position. It's fighting for the inner life, the inner world, at a time when everything is pushing towards what's outside.

BNR: You say that you are an introvert, but one of the things that is very striking about you is that you are very extroverted on the Internet, much more so than many literary writers. You write journalism regularly, you have a blog and a website. Do you have a theory as to why it works so well for you?

JW: The Internet is curious in a way in that it is the ultimate introvert activity because you sit alone, at your screen. It's making people into sociopaths. They feel like they've got a million friends and they are all alone in their bedroom. How screwed up is that? I never use the Internet when I am working, because it is way too distracting. But I like the website. The world is as it is. We can work to change it. But we have to be in it. There's no point in lamenting that we'd like it to be otherwise. We have to be both politically and personally active to change the things we dislike, but also to work energetically with what is there. I have a Twitter account. That's fine. I'm here. But nobody will know if I'm just stomping up and down the pavement, being angry at the way the world is.

BNR: You have been a big supporter of the Occupy movement. In recent years, you have fashioned yourself as a public intellectual of sorts, writing and commenting on the news and world events. What do you think the role of writers and artists should be in politics?

JW: To do two things simultaneously: Everybody, regardless, has a duty to be active in our civic life, and to protest the things we don't want, and to actively support the things that we do want. Writers can be at the forefront of that, saying: "This isn't correct. We can challenge this intellectually."

But I think a writer has a second job, which is to support and protect the inner world that we talked about earlier, the inner life, the imaginative life; to support what it means to be a human being, not just the kind of work you do, or which political party you support but who you are, and how we develop who we are. How we develop ourselves, how we become more, so we can have a satisfying life. That has social ramifications, whether we are a good friend, a good parent, a good member of the community, but it's also about ourselves. Are we interested in ourselves? Do we have the tools for self-reflection? Do you have some Archimedean point where you can stand outside yourself and look in, and where you can stand outside and look at the world? That doesn't come naturally. We need to learn tools for self-reflection. That happens through education, through reading, and writers have a real duty, I think, to promote all of that, to say life has an inside as well as an outside, so let's put some energy there.

—March 14, 2012

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 34 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 22, 2012

    Boring, too much 'fluff', not enough stories of her life as a me

    Boring, too much 'fluff', not enough stories of her life as a memoir should have.

    I make it a rule to not make up my mind about a book until after I have read the first 100 pages. Getting through the first 100 pages (and the subsequent 67) was tedious and aggrivating. I truly enjoy reading memoirs, learning about other people's lives through their own self reflection and experience. Ms. Winterson, however, spent a vast majority of her book quoting the works of other great authors and poets rather than telling her own story. Her continuous and superfluous references to other masters in the craft of writing was aggrivating. Had I wanted to read Elliot or Stein, I would have purchased one of THEIR books and not hers.

    She ruined the truly remarkable tale of her survival in an abusive home and her accomplishments by not being genuine and using other writers to tell you how she felt.

    Toward the beginning of the book, it felt as though she were writing a sales pitch for her other works (namely Oranges are Not The Only Fruit), which I may very well have purchased had she not outlined the entire novel while trying to sell it in her memoir.

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012

    Reads too much like a blog.

    Jeanette Winterson has some wonderful sentences, but not enough to sustain a book-length work. This memoir needs organization and a good editor.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 22, 2012

    Where is the fascinating part?

    I am almost finished reading this book, and I have yet to reach the fascinating part of the story. Jeanette Winterson is a good writer, no doubt, but this memoir just plods along. Her references to her other books within the text also gets to be quite annoying. We get it, you've written other books. That doesn't make this one any more entertaining.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2012

    Highly, Highly Recommended

    Some aspects of this raw, and beautifully written memoir are devastating: an adoptive mother who is a religious fanatic who cannot receive, or give, love, and an adoptive father too sidelined to do much to counterbalance this formidable force. But this memoir is not concerned with the chronological recounting of horrors made all the more grim by their every day occurrence. Instead, representative details and key moments are revealed so that the author might spend most of her time reflecting on how she forged her identity, and made herself whole in the absence of her adoptive mother's love, and in this aspect, this work--and the spirit behind it--are luminous and triumphant. Fascinating exploration of the tension between Winterson's fury at being landed in her adoptive family, but also being glad, in a way, because that was what she had, and from what she fled to make herself whole. Moving meditation on love--how actually it can be hard to love, and be loved, if you have been mothered in a way that is wanting, and how deeply each of us need to feel we belong, and see our true selves reflected lovingly back to us in our mother's eyes. Relatively short book, but intense, with some absolutely stunning, gorgeous prose.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    This is quite a memoir! It is more of the author’s explana

    This is quite a memoir! It is more of the author’s explanation of how she dealt with her terrifying life that influenced her growing up. She was adopted by a woman obsessed with religion and most certainly mentally ill. She grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s among the hard-working poor. Looking back over thirty, forty years, she seems to have miraculously found some forgiveness for the woman apparently incapable of love. She relives brief insightful moments of her childhood. She reveals how she could not love anyone, or even befriend a classmate, despite desperately needing someone. She couldn’t allow love in…numb to it. It's a book for those who struggle with belonging and fear closeness especially after abuse. I am sure writing this book was cathartic for her. I hope it helped her. This is not one I would care to reread but I am glad for the experience.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2012

    Highly recommend

    I now want to read all her books. Very hard to put this book down. A must read for every young woman Searching for her life not someone elses life

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2012

    Didn't care for it at all

    I read this book for my book club, but was seriously disappointed in it. With only a few bright spots, it was an extremely long bout of "oh poor pitiful me." In the author's defense, she did have a very rotten childhood. Her adopted mother was abusive, often locking her (as a young child) outside on the front porch or in a coal bin. However, although Winterson claims to have found happiness, it doesn't really show up in this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2012

    boring

    reads more like a self-study in psychology, with the most interesting part being the inside cover--hated it and didn"t finish it

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Loved this book!

    This is not a normal or conventional memoir. But i loved how it bounced around just like I imagine the author's thoughts do. So much of this book resonated with me.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 19, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Wordy Self-Loathing

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? More like, Why Be Happy When You Could Feel Sorry for Yourself: All the Time? This memoir just did not resonate with me and there are definitely some aspects of it that I really should be able to relate to. I appreciate that the author occasionally had a sense of humor when discussing her horrible adoptive mother because it made parts of this book more bearable, but unfortunately her jokes cannot compensate for the other ninety-five percent of this memoir. I often found it mentally excruciating to read the long-winded passages about the author’s feelings that she’s apparently not in touch with…yeah, right.

    I guess, overall, this book is just okay. The author’s life is a complete rollercoaster of events and the bones of the story are pretty captivating, but I almost didn’t survive the pity quicksand around every corner. And, if the pity quicksand didn’t get me, it was the ten pages it takes for the author to complete a simple thought. If the author had cut about 150 pages of her incredibly wordy explanations of her feelings out of this book, I would highly recommend reading it. But, since that is not the case, I suggest reading it when there’s nothing left on your shelf and then only for the underlying story …or maybe you’re complicated and self-loathing too – in that case, you’ll love it.

    Reviewed by Brittany for Book Sake.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    This is an edgy, sharply honest story, (worts and all )  filled

    This is an edgy, sharply honest story, (worts and all )  filled with insight and understanding.




    If Winterson had not decided that she was the mistress of her own ship, her story could have turned out very differently.




    Winterson's memoir is an emphatic reminder that no matter what, each of us CAN earn our own autonomy.

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  • Posted February 11, 2014

    The book was a quick easy read while not as straight forward and

    The book was a quick easy read while not as straight forward and tear jerking as some memoirs it was an interesting blend of her story and relevant literary works of others. Those wee appropriate considering the impact literature had on Jeanette's life and it's positive outcome. This book was the first of hers I read and I will read another. Yes there are more gut wrenching stories out there but this one is heartfelt and well done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2013

    Disappointing

    I was hoping for more from this book. I was disappointed. There were few parts that i actually enjoyed. My favorite part was when it was over.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2013

    The best I've read in years. She has a beautiful way of explori

    The best I've read in years. She has a beautiful way of exploring complex concepts, I read several pages aloud to student groups.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2013

    Excellent literature review, intriguing story

    Author bares her soul looking at how she grew up and possible reasons for her unique perspective on life. Knowledge of literature really adds to the story. Very well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    What is time anyway?

    For those of you who appreciate the ebbs and flows of Winterson's work, this is the book for you. Fragmented thoughts, moments of joy and fear, this is what makes Winterson the writer and the woman that she is. I adored this book and only wish that she had embraced more of her life than she did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2013

    recommend

    More of a disfunctional family than a story of a gay person.

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  • Posted March 14, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Jeanette Winterson wrote a critically acclaimed novel, Oranges A

    Jeanette Winterson wrote a critically acclaimed novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, loosely based on her life growing up in a Northern England industrial town. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is the non-fiction version of that story.
    The looming figure in both books is Winterson's adopted mother, who is always referred to in the book as Mrs. Winterson. Her parents were Pentecostal and her mother raised Jeanette to become a missionary.  Mrs. Winterson was abusive, frequently locking Jeanette out of the house overnight, leaving her to freeze on the porch steps.
    During those long nights, it was books that saved young Jeanette. That was where she fell in love with language and books, and where she found truth, beauty and security in her lonely existence. Books saved her sanity and her life.
    Mrs. Winterson spent much of her time at church meetings, and was always angry and disappointed in Jeanette. At the age of sixteen, Jeanette told her mother that she was in love with a woman and Mrs. Winterson uttered the phrase that became the book's title, "Why be happy when you can be normal?".
    The fact that she was adopted affected her as well. Her mother wanted a boy and she finds some papers in her mother's things that confuse her. As expected, the confrontation with Mrs. Winterson about this does not go well.
    Jeanette decided to try and find her birth mother and that journey is interesting. She searches long and hard and eventually finds her mother, although her own reaction to meeting her mother is much more complicated than she imagines.

    Winterson's memoir, with its poetic language, gives hope to people who feel that they are different from everyone else around them, that life is too difficult. It can help them to find their own voice as she found hers. One of the passages I marked is this one:"A tough life needs a tough language- and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is a beautiful finding place for those who feel lost too.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2012

    Pretty boring read

    I wanted this book to speak to me... wanted to feel something! But instead i just could not wait to be done with it. This book is only 167 pages long and got good about page 150 and got boring again around page 160!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2012

    Great read-drawn in to this story

    Loved reading this book, as much of it is relatable to my own life. Very brave of Ms. W to put this story out there in the world so that those of us who can relate may feel less alone in our experiences in the world.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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