Excellent memoir, ‘Reading Lips,’ reveals a life, one kiss at a time
A funny thing happened to former Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Claudia Sternbach when she was making the dreary rounds of agents trying to get her novel published. Just for fun, she started writing short-story snippets of memoir, snapshots from her own life very loosely grouped around a common thread: each story contained a kiss. With no thought of publication or “the marketplace,” she delved into every aspect of her life’s experience: comedy, tragedy, romance, laughter, and every gradation in between. Imagine her surprise when the first publisher she showed it to offered her a book contract.
The result is “Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses” (Unbridled Books, 224 pages, $12.95), a slim volume that builds gracefully in both chronology and impact, from childhood whimsy to complex emotional maturity. It’s a wonderful book, full of insight, humor and honesty. Find out for yourself when Claudia reads from her book and signs copies tonight at the Capitola Book Cafe, 7:30 p.m.
With one or two significant exceptions, the stories here aren’t really about the kisses (or, in some cases, the promise or expectation of a kiss). The kiss motif in just an ingenious organizing tool. The early chapters are told from a child’s perspective: the tomboy third-grader who climbs up to the roof with the boys during recess; the 10-year-old whose bittersweet birthday dinner briefly reunites her divorced parents; the fifth-grader anticipating a kiss from an older boy (the mysterious “Teddy,” to whom the book is dedicated) on the last day of school. We meet the girl in danger of being outed in junior high for not being able to tell John from George when it’s her turn to pick a favorite Beatle, and the 12-year-old at her first sleep-away summer camp who gives herself the jaunty nickname “Corky” because it “sounds like somebody who knows how to do things.”
What also emerges is a larger picture of growing up in suburban Oakland with her fractious younger twin sisters and the only mother in the neighborhood who goes to work, trying to find her place as a woman in a rapidly shifting social milieu. As the stories deepen (and occasionally darken), as the adult Claudia drifts from cocktail waitress to airline stewardess to country club tennis director (where her job evidently includes taking her boss’ obscene phone calls every Sunday while his wife is in church), Sternbach confronts issues of sexual assault, death, childbirth, and breast cancer.
She describes with wry asperity her unfortunate choices in men; not only married and divorced twice by age 21, but, in the funny, harrowing story “Double Fault,” seized with a messianic need to attempt to rehabilitate a convicted murderer in San Quentin. (“An insecure child, I had always aimed a little lower than many of my friends,” she notes.) When at last she meets a soulmate in her third (and current) husband, Michael—which leads to the book’s first truly meaningful kiss—she reacts with blistering comic outrage when he explains he needs to spend a week’s vacation disentangling himself from his current girlfriend. Fine, thinks Claudia, “I’m going home right now to perform my own root canal with a wire coat hanger.”
The excellent final suite of stories deals candidly with the after-effects of cancer treatment (now missing her reproductive organs, Sternbach compares herself to a “disappointing hollow” chocolate Easter Bunny), and a loved one’s life-threatening diagnosis. “Islands in the Storm” is a powerful soliloquy on memory, love, life, and family. The final story, “Second Chance” wraps up not only the Teddy thread, but the entire story cycle with poignant grace.
There are a few false notes. It’s unlikely that a fifth-grader would refer to herself as “pathetically needy,” as little Claudia does here, and there are some clumsy flip-flops between present and past tense in the early stories. But these are very minor missteps in this evocative book, an emotional journey through a lifetime, one small epiphany at a time.
Claudia Sternbach reads from her memoir, “Reading Lips” on Thursday, April 14 at the Capitola Book Cafe, 7:30 p.m.n