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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

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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This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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I actually got The Water Is Wide a year ago at a library book sale. I have family in South Carolina and while visiting got to talking about Dafuskie island and when we saw thus book they explained that what Pat Conroy calls “Yamacraw” in the book is really Dafuskie. I’ve seen The Water Is Wide described as a novel and as a memoir, but other than changing the name of the island I’m not sure what else Conroy fictionalized. It’s the story of his time – just over a year around 1969 – teaching at the island’s small school.

At the time almost the entire island was black, except for an older white couple he describes as having both a “paternalistic” and a “symbiotic” relationship with the islanders. Much of South Carolina, and the South in general, was still reeling from the end of Jim Crow and the relatively recent integration of schools. Being virulently, openly racist was common. Not that racism is uncommon today — it’s still alive and well, it’s just hidden behind politer language. But that’s another story.

The Water Is Wide is shocking and anger inducing in some ways. Conroy relates that when he took over his class of 18 children, 6 didn’t know the alphabet. None knew who the president was. Several couldn’t count or spell their own names. When the superintendent eventually fired him for his radical views that children, including poor black children, should get an adequate education and not be beaten and screamed at (as a fellow teacher did) the school board upheld his firing, and so did a court. His draft board status was changed to intimidate him. One of the grandmothers on the island who defended him didn’t get her social security check for months after speaking out.

While that’s all terrible, Conroy is a consummate storyteller and he finds the humor even in the darkest situations. He’s also very observant and self aware and can poke fun at himself, and recognizes that at times he was young and inexperienced and self righteous but also that he learned a great deal. He relates not only mean spirited and prejudiced resistance to change but also kindheartedness and “gradual and slow change.” He also manages to be empathetic to some of the most dreadful people in the story – the woman who beat the children for example – contextualizing their lives for readers and analyzing what caused some people to have such blinders to basic humanity. But he pulls no punches either – I especially appreciate how he notes the irony of some of the blackest souled racist behavior coming from people who loudly proclaimed their Christianity as a badge of character.

So, this is a good read and I think helpful to understanding the ridiculously intractable grip of racism, and the legacy of the inequity in our educational system.

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Around ten years ago I read Anne Fadiman‘s wonderful books of essays, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. Those are both so delightful that I still recommend them to people — they make wonderful gifts for people who love reading and books, and they are smart, interesting, and won’t keep you up at night like so many contemporary nonfiction books might. I’ve also always meant to read her book about a Hmong family dealing with the American medical system The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. But I was in a bookstore in Vermont on Columbus Day and saw her 2017 memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, on a staff pick display and serendipitously, discovered it is in Overdrive (library eBooks).

This memoir is as much a book about Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman, as it is about her and the rest of her family. She talks about what it was like to have a well-known father, to both be writers, and to try to share his love of wine. In fact, much of the book is about the fact that Fadiman doesn’t really like wine, something she feels badly about and suspects her father knows even though she politely fakes it. Towards the end of the book, Fadiman looks into the physiological reason some people don’t like certain tastes, and that section is reminiscent of her earlier work.

I enjoyed both the personal reflections and the more straightforward nonfiction sections. It’s interesting to read about Clifton Fadiman, and his desire to make himself over from a Jewish child of immigrants into a man of letters. My own great-uncle, a chemist, changed his name to sound less Jewish, so the phenomena of distancing oneself from family history is familiar to me. And there is a good bit of information about wine in this book, especially French wines of certain areas and vintages that I didn’t know much about before reading it.  Mainly Fadiman’s writing is a pleasure, smart and clear and evocative.

This was a good read, but I admit I am a little tired of eBooks. There are a few more I’d like to read that are available on Hoopla and Overdrive but I may take a print break before reading those.

 

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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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I spent a gift card today that my now former co-workers gave me as a going away gift  yesterday — I got a few books that have been on my long term “to read” radar as well as a couple of books I heard about (or heard about the authors) on the most recent episode of The Readers. In the next week I will own (in no particular order; librarians do not, contrary to popular belief, alphabetize everything):

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban — heard about this years ago and have been meaning to read it; read and loved Linger Awhile recently after finding it at Book & Bar while the Computer Scientist and former Teen the Younger were shopping for records. Also, still haven’t gotten over how thrilling it was to see an exhibit of Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Library in February, when we visited the former Teen the Elder. Sorry about the glare, there’s glass between me and the manuscript.

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Heat Wave by Penelope Lively — have read her memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, her story collection, The Purple Swamp Hen, and her novel How It All Began and enjoyed them all.

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier — my grandmother introduced me to Du Maurier when I was still a girl, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything other than Rebecca, and possibly a short story here or there. Must remedy that! I believe it was Simon and Thomas on The Readers who mentioned this one.

Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse — we had another Hesse around here that the former Teen the Younger had to read in high school and probably weeded from their shelves, but I don’t see it. When I heard Thomas and Simon mention this one on the Readers and was intrigued

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel — I loved Station Eleven and again, when I heard Simon and Thomas talk mention that she’s written several other books, I thought to myself that I would keep an eye out for those.

Besides my new purchases, I still have the pile I got at the Five Colleges Book Sale last month:

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And two I bought in South Carolina:

The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy, which is set on a fictionalized version of Daufuskie Island, which is very near where my dad lives. I’m confused by this, because the book is called a memoir on the publisher’s page and Pat Conroy’s page, but when I look up Yamacraw, the island in the book, Google redirects me to Daufuskie and uses the word fictionalized. Perhaps that will be clearer when I read it.

The Enchanted Island by Elizabeth von Arnim — for no real reason, other than it was also at the library bookshop where I bought The Water is Wide and it looked interesting, plus had a beautiful cover.

I did a big book re-org when I came home with the pile on the couch, above. I have a number of other choices that came to my attention when I did that . . . but this is probably enough to choose from, for now.

What should I read next?

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