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October 15th, 2003 12:00 am Ellen Fagg | Books

the stuff of life: a daughter's memoir

the stuff of life: a daughter's memoir
By Karen Karbo
(Bloomsbury Books, 256 pages, $24.95)

Karen Karbo's latest book starts off with a phone call and ends with the scattering of ashes, and the pages in between are stuffed with the details of everyday life--when you're a daughter whose father is dying of lung cancer, that is.

Stuff like visits to doctors who say a whole lot of nothing. Long periods of parallel play with your stoic former test-pilot dad who doesn't say much, either. Flying between Portland and Las Vegas, torn between missing the husband and kids and life you left behind, yet not wanting your father to die alone.

What sets The Stuff of Life from other recent dead-parent memoirs by youngish writers is that Karbo can't help herself--she writes funny. Her long, rambling sentences are filled with conversational digressions, eccentric observations and amusing bouts of self-deprecation.

Karbo's a novelist who supports herself by writing "guinea pig" adventure stories for magazines like Outside and Fast Company. Spending time with a dying parent is like a visit to a foreign country, she writes, some days filled with adventures, some filled with boredom.

Her book delivers the same kind of pacing as a magazine story. This is a storyteller who narrates rather than interprets, who keeps traveling rather than settling down to meditate on how she was transformed by her journey to the land of death.

Karbo claims she's short on care-giving skills, while her father is a stubborn patient short on patience. She imagines herself as a many-handed Hindu goddess as she waffles between buying or renting a cell phone for a man who might not be making many calls in the near future.

On one hand, she's a mother successfully parenting long-distance. On the other, like a teenager, she suffers "barf-o-phobia," reduced to hiding out in the bathroom reading the wallpaper to avoid facing her father's coughing attack--an attack he interrupts to send her on an emergency cigarette run.

Moments like these offer a view from the bedside, a look inside one complicated relationship between an only daughter and her only living parent. And that's a story with resonance, witty or not.

Karbo appears with Cathi Hanauer (Bitch in the House) at 7:30 pm Wednesday, Oct. 15, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651.

Karbo also reads at 7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 21, at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, 284-1726.

Both readings are FREE

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