Monday, March 24, 2008

Off Kilter

First there was the house inspection, then the radon test, and by the time it was all over, it was time for me to get on a plane to fly out to San Francisco to give a paper at this year’s Popular Culture Association conference. The only problem was that the flight was delayed by about five hours, and the plane didn’t land until three in the morning. A scant five hours later, I was discussing the relationship between humanity, Daleks and television in front of a room full of strangers, and shortly thereafter, I received a message from my real estate agent stating that my roof needed fifty new slates, an oil tank had to be removed from my basement, my house had two cracked joists, and conditions in several spots on my porch were “conducive to rot.” Amidst all of this, I had the opportunity to read Linda C. Wisniewski’s memoir, Off Kilter, and have never been more thankful for the power of other people’s misfortunes to put my own concerns into perspective.

Writing in a style reminiscent of Frank McCourt, Wisniewski conjures the ghosts of a troubled and emotionally fraught childhood throughout the majority of her memoir so that she can exorcise them in the final chapters. As we walk with Wisniewski through her childhood, we come to cringe at every approach of her surly, eternally discontented father, to pity her long-suffering mother, and to admire the long journey the author has made from her small-town roots in upstate New York to the life she has made for herself in the present day. Indeed, what emerges most clearly throughout the memoir is the author’s ambivalence toward the economically depressed Amsterdam of her childhood: steeped in old-world Polish tradition, the town is both home and alien to her, the ground zero of an identity forged in self-conscious embarrassment and, ironically, the proving ground for the confident and self-sufficient woman she would become. Expertly balancing pathos and triumph, Wisniewski never wallows in self-pity. Rather, she gathers strength from her setbacks and finds a renewed sense of purpose with each curve life sends her way. In this sense, Off Kilter is a fine testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the healing power of the written word.

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