Cover image for The stuff of life : a daughter's memoir
The stuff of life : a daughter's memoir
Karbo, Karen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Bloomsbury, [2003]

Physical Description:
280 pages ; 22 cm
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RC280.L8 K375 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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As a generation of baby boomers faces the aging of their parents, Karen Karbo's resonant new memoir tells the intimate story of one stoic father and wiseacre grown-up daughter navigating the last months of his life.

When Karen Karbo's father, a charming, taciturn Clint Eastwood type who lives in a triple-wide in the Nevada desert, is diagnosed with lung cancer, his only daughter rises to the challenge of caring for him. Neither of them is exactly cut out for the job. Karen is a Doc Marten-sporting freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon, the primary breadwinner for a slightly chaotic blended family of five, who has always steered clear of the "helping professions." Dick Karbo, a retired industrial designer and card-carrying member of the NRA, is an equally reluctant patient. As Dick's disease progresses, Karen finds herself sometimes the responsible adult, sometimes a stubborn teenager all over again, by turns grief-stricken, rebellious, and amused by the grim ironies of the situation. In the end what father and daughter discover more than anything is the love and the toughness that makes them alike.

Sensitive and ruefully funny, The Stuff of Life invites you into a family as complicated and real as your own, capturing a moment filled with all the sadness and warmth of adult life.

Author Notes

Karen Karbo is the author of three novels, each a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the nonfiction book Generation Ex: Tales from the Second Wives Club . Her writing has appeared in Vogue , Esquire , Entertainment Weekly , the New Republic , and the New York Times , among other publications.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

As in her popular Generation Ex: Tales from the Second Wives Club (2000), Karbo's latest finds wisdom and wild humor in "heart-crackingly sad" family stories. When Karbo's father is diagnosed with lung cancer, Karbo becomes his primary caretaker, shuttling between her family in Portland, Oregon, and his triple-wide trailer in the Nevada desert. A stoic, Clint Eastwood type, Karbo's father is a horrible patient, and Karbo, whose mother died of cancer when she was a teenager, doubts her own nursing instincts: "We're not a well-matched patient-nurse couple." In a narrative that loops back through family history, Karbo talks about her complicated relationship with both parents, her struggle to balance motherhood and her writing career, and what she learns about her dad as he moves closer to death. With generous honesty, Karbo describes nuanced moments of nearly excruciating tenderness, embarrassment, frustration, and love, balanced with passages of often side-splitting humor. A compulsively readable memoir about family and the writing life that will appeal to Anne Lamott fans. --Gillian Engberg Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Karbo achieves the near-impossible with this memoir: she wrangles the potentially depressing subjects of death and a dysfunctional family into a funny, uplifting page-turner. When her kindhearted but curmudgeonly father is diagnosed with lung cancer, Karbo begins the exhausting leapfrog between her husband and three children in Portland, Ore. and his triple-wide in the Nevada desert. Her attempts to discuss the rapidly spreading disease with the world's most uncommunicative patient are indeed valiant, but Karbo's honesty about her partial regression into adolescence is what will distinguish her story from the rest of the cancer caretaker genre. After all, what normal human beings in Karbo's position haven't found themselves "running on the fumes of maturity... still and always the long-suffering sixteen-year-old?" It's refreshing that our tour guide in this country of illness doesn't pretend to be a natural-born Florence Nightingale. Instead, she freely admits, "I have little patience with the necessary routines of caregiving. I trust doctors about as much as I trust mechanics or the retail associate at Nordstrom who tells me I look fabulous in a pair of $1,200 Calvin Klein capri pants, and am a barf-o-phone to boot." Karbo may occasionally hide out in the bathroom-reduced to reading the fake newsprint wallpaper during her father's hour-long coughing jags-but, as the end approaches, no one can argue she isn't a devoted, well-intentioned daughter. She may apologize for being a "blinking, flinching, grief-stricken fool," but this sense of fallibility and honesty could inspire an alternate subtitle for her book: a survival manual for the living. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Having endured her mother's death from a distance as a college freshman, Karbo (Generation Ex: Tales from the Second Wives Club) decided to be there for her ailing father after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As this intimate memoir reveals, the task of acting as her father's advocate turned out to be difficult, owing partly to his noncommunicative nature about his condition and partly to her own mixed emotions about the necessary physical intimacy. In addition, she had to travel from her home in Oregon to her father's in Nevada, which entailed both mileage and major climatic changes. Although Karbo often felt the urge to remove herself from this difficult situation, she hung on and ultimately learned to cope, succeeding in honoring her father and his lifestyle. Although the subject matter is the impending death of a parent, Karbo's subtle humor echoes throughout the moving narrative, making it both genuine and funny. It will resonate with anyone who has gone through the death of a loved one from a progressive disease and the emotions one experiences along the way. Recommended for all public libraries.-Gina Kaiser, Univ. of the Sciences Lib., Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.