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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl is a book that caught my eye when it came out. I skimmed a review (librarians do, you know — we have a lot of reviews to get through) and read that it was about monarch butterflies and birds and insects. That sounded good, and the subtitle, I thought, referred to species in decline, and someone who loved nature. Sounded great.

I missed the fact that it’s the story of Renkl’s family as well, mainly her family of origin but also somewhat about her life as a mother and spouse. When I started reading I was mildly annoyed by the structure, which weaves back and forth between natural history and family stories. But eventually, this grew on me, as the book seemed to weave themes together, like the spiders or birds whose webs and nests Renkl admires.

It’s a beautiful book, which is the other reason it grew on me. Renkle admires ” . . . he red-tailed hawk fluffs her feathers over her cold yellow feet and surveys the earth with such stillness I could swear it wasn’t turning at all.” And describes finding herself outside in college, when she “headed out” after weeks in which she “followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to crowded cafeteria.” As she walks away from the crowds and into “red dirt lanes” that remind her of her childhood, she says, “I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense of the glory that was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once — feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, where dark and light exist simultaneously.”

That is not precisely the way I picture eternity, but that’s a minor quibble. Renkl’s writing is lovely. I could see the places and creatures and relatives she described, and could empathize with the emotions she described. And she doesn’t glorify things; her descriptions of early motherhood, caregiving for frail and ill elders, and grieving are not prettied up, even if the words she uses are a delight. The experiences she relates are things most of us go through, but don’t necessarily reflect on the way she has.

A good read, thoughtful and serious, but also humorous in places, moving, and evocative.

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I know I’m late to the party on this one; it’s not that I didn’t want to read Educated, but I hadn’t, yet, even though a number of readers I know had recommended it. My son picked up on the fact that I hadn’t read it and got it for me for Christmas. Over the last two days I’ve read it at breakfast and lunch and in the evening. It’s a very compelling read.

Most of you have probably heard enough about it to know the gist — Tara Westover was raised by survivalist Mormons, in a family led by a patriarchal father who suffers from mental illness. Her siblings and she all suffer serious injuries working for him, but their mother is an herbalist and treats them at home. Her older brother manages to get out and go to college, and encourages her. Out in the world, Westover realizes, gradually that she has been living in a world of her father’s making, not in the real world. And that she is a scholar. These realizations cost her everything she’s known, but it’s not a tragic story. What she gains, in her own life and her coming to know her family better, seems to far outweigh what she loses.

In some ways this book is similar to KooKooLandwhich I wrote about last fall. A mentally ill father, a violent home, a girl who never even realizes education could be hers goes far because of the power of her own mind. Both Gloria Norris, who wrote that book, and Tara Westover seem to have a deep well of empathy to draw on, and both trust that their flawed fathers do in fact love their families, despite the harm they cause.

But Westover’s story is ongoing, while Norris’s story has more closure to it — she’s older, her parents have died, but she explains in KooKooLand that her parents and sister were supportive of her telling the truth in her memoir, even if it reflected poorly on them. Westover is younger and her family are still alive and in fact, disputed her story through their lawyer when the book came out. Both women are courageous, but I am especially admiring of Westover’s fearlessness in light of the fact that there are people in this world who wish her ill because she told the truth. And her compassion for those who hurt her, combined with this resolve.

I also find the narrative structure of Educated very compact and clear. This story takes us from Westover’s girlhood through most of her twenties, to the point where she has become educated, not only in the worldly sense, as a historian, but in a personal sense. There are no tangents, or loose ends, no over dramatization (honestly, Westover’s life is dramatic enough already) and a good deal of honesty about what she remembers, what she journaled about, what she consulted other family members and friends about, and what is disputed. It’s also a beautiful book; here’s a bit of the gorgeous prologue that describes the wind in a wheat field, “. . . each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, as is as close as anyone gets to seeing the wind.”

A really good read.

** I kept musing about this book — head over to Nocturnal Librarian to read more.

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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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My daughter gave me The Diary of A Bookseller by Shawn Bythell for my birthday. I’d first heard about it in some sort of media report about Wigtown, Scotland and it’s annual book festival. It’s a yearlong diary Bythell kept to share his life as owner of a large used bookstore in a small rural town.

I’ve worked in an indie bookstore and I felt fairly well aware of the threat Amazon has been to booksellers but I was thinking from the perspective of stores that primarily sell new books. I didn’t fully grasp the way Amazon has undermined the value of used books and made it harder and less profitable to run a used bookshop.

I used to fantasize about having a used bookstore and even had a book (which I think I bought at Powell’s) about how to do start and run one, right down to how to build the shelves. I let the book go a few years ago when we were having a big clear out (to make way for more books) and realized then that the business had likely changed so much I’d be better off learning from someone in the trade today.  The Diary of a Bookseller drove that point home for sure.

Some of what Bythell described is recognizable to anyone who has worked retail or in a library — the regulars who are both very familiar and complete strangers, the rude or demanding or opinionated people who feel entitled to provide commentary on the way things are run, the stock, the prices, the staff, etc. Other challenges I hadn’t considered, like the wear and tear on the body of lugging boxes of books, the difficulty of heating a very old building, and the fearful difficulty of clearing a clogged gutter in a downpour to stop it flooding the shop.

I admire Bythell’s desire to be independent, to quietly fight on against giants like Amazon and Waterstones, and to find hope in kind customers and in the beauty of living where one wants, doing something one values. It’s also really interesting to read the quotes from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories at the start of each chapter and realize that as different as the world was in the first half of the 20th century when Orwell worked in a bookshop, many things he wrote about are still true today.

This was an interesting and enjoyable read, and I hope to make it to Wigtown and The Bookshop one day! I also hope the Random Book Club re-opens for membership. In less than a year I’ll be done with my second foray into grad school and free to read whatever I want, so that would be a good gift to myself!

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Recently I’ve been digging into some climate change booklists.  The first book I checked out is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. I was drawn to the description in Michael reading list at Yale Climate Connections: “The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better.”

Kalmus is a climate scientist. He writes in a very personable way, not only telling the science like it is, in enough detail that I had to go back and re-read some of the more technical sections, but also telling his own story. The book is a sort of hybrid memoir-popular science-how-to. Kalmus writes of his own awakening to the reality of global warming, not only because he studied it but also because he began to practice meditation.

With his new awareness of reality, Kalmus felt called to live what he believes: that we owe it to all of life on Earth (including future life), to stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. Even though he has taken actions that will seem like too much for some readers he repeatedly suggests starting with what you can do and going from there. Humanure is probably a bridge too far for some, but he explains honestly that it was for his wife, until eventually, she used his “leaf toilet” too. But he goes on to say if you can’t imagine that, just compost. 

Kalmus offers lists of more accessible actions people can take and tips on taking them, not because he believes that individual actions will end global warming but because his own story illustrates the way his commitment to making changes grew as he continued to explore our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels. The book is as philosophical as it is scientific, grounded in Kalmus’s sense of justice and practical insights into human nature. He reminds readers regularly that his life is more rewarding, happy and fun since he began reducing his use of fossil fuels.

Towards the end of the book he describes bigger cultural and collective steps to take and alludes to his motivations:

“Our predicament is the result of a vast industrial-commercial system of living, which can be viewed in various ways. It’s the systemic fossil-fuelization of almost everything. It’s the replacement of interpersonal transactions with money and debt. It’s the redirection of distributed natural cycles with linear, centralized monetized flows of energy and resources . . . . It’s as if humanity’s cyclic connections to the land were cut by the scissors of the industrial system. We then plugged ourselves into the matrix, and we must now rely on that system for our survival.

Part of my response is to opt out of this destructive system. Opting out brings me the satisfaction of transitioning from consumer to producer. It can be playful, or delicious; sometimes it can be frightening; ultimately it’s fulfilling. Opting out is another form of reconnecting; as I lessen my dependence on global corporate systems, I naturally need to opt in to local biospheric systems.”

He goes on to say that imperfection is fine. He himself does “remain deeply intertwined within the industrial system . . . . But that’s OK; this is a path of transition . . . . Cultivate stillness, listen, go where your principles lead you — and do what brings you satisfaction.”

I’m not sure about this. I find it hard to reconcile being motivated by personal satisfaction with the kind of community building and awareness of the interconnectedness of living things that Kalmus espouses. I suspect doing what feels good is not necessarily going to lead everyone onto the path to doing what’s right, but I absolutely admire Kalmus’s commitment and conviction and the way he is living according to his values.

This is a very interesting book. It will (and should) alarm you, but it’s also very thought provoking and I don’t think anyone can come away from reading it without feeling at least slightly empowered to begin breaking fossil fuel’s grip on their lives and communities.

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I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

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I finished KooKooLand by Gloria Norris this afternoon, feeling like I just wanted to get it over with. One Book One Manchester has made KooKooLand our 2019 selection. It’s a good book, and the voice and writing are powerful. But it’s not the kind of book I usually seek out (although a quick perusal of my last several reads might cause you to question that — I seem to be on a literary tour of the worst of human nature lately) and for me finishing it quickly was like ripping off a bandaid — I wanted to get on with it so it wouldn’t hurt so much. That said, Norris writes about hard things with incredible empathy, never veering into sensation or trope. The humanity with which she portrays nearly every person in this hard story is truly admirable. And this book is about surviving about the most dysfunctional upbringing imaginable and becoming your best self anyway.

KooKooLand is Norris’s memoir of growing up in Manchester, daughter of Jimmy and Shirley. They were friends with the Piasecny family, whose patriarch, Hank, murdered his ex-wife and whose daughter, Susan, in turn murdered him years later. Norris got to know Susan again as an adult, and shares the story of this woman who successfully sued New Hampshire to force the state to build a women’s prison, and who struggled with the legacy of abuse and mental illness in her family until her final years.

One reason Norris is drawn to Susan is that she knows “That could have been me.” Jimmy is nearly as violent as Hank, and in fact threatened to kill Shirley and his daughters pretty regularly. He breaks laws regularly, and involves the rest of the family. When Norris was a child, Susan was someone she looked up to who seemed to have everything ahead of her. Once they reconnect when Norris is an adult, she realized Susan “had already given me everything I needed years ago — a road map for my life. Just because she didn’t follow the map herself didn’t make it any less valuable.”

Norris writes this graciously, as I said, about just about everyone in this story. She seems like a remarkably open-hearted and generous person. Which kept me reading. It’s a moving story. At the end she thanks her immediate family members who all supported her writing this book. Norris must be one incredible human to gain their trust to write so openly  and honestly about their lives. I can’t wait to meet her next fall!

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