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Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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My coworker recommended Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard and I also read some compelling reviews when I ordered it for the library, so I checked it out. I admit that I thought it was going to be painful to read, like Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (which I loved). But while Emily Bernard does not shy away from painful things, and knows pain well — the opening of Black Is the Body is about the longterm scarring and pain she lives with from being stabbed — but this book is not painful to read.

It is, however, thought provoking, and beautiful, and wise, and Bernard is smart and witty and I could go on reading her writing for days. I identify with her love of reading, her admiration for Vermont, her love for her family, her experience of living somewhere that is home but isn’t. Obviously my experience is only tangentially like hers, but still, I feel  I’d like to talk with her about the ways our experiences are alike and not alike, and that is the feeling I want to have when I am done reading a book of personal essays.

I admire the way she doesn’t just write about good things but describes awkward or difficult or unpleasant ones as well. And the way she doesn’t just love Burlington and Vermont without acknowledging their faults. And the way she takes a hard look at many things that as a society we like to feel good about. Like this:

“Dr. King’s noble dream has degenerated into a cliche, a catchphrase, like ‘diversity,’ a way out of — as opposed to a way into — complex and textured conversations about race. At best, what the civil rights movement appears to have produced is a generation that is keen to look beyond race, but finds on the other side not freedom but a riddle.”

She writes so beautifully about her marriage, as in this passage about going to the airport after her mother died: “We held hands and drove in silence, both of us staring at the road ahead. This is marriage, I thought, or at least my marriage. It is not the stories of forbidden desire that thrilled me as a girl, or even magical rides through clouds and on dark waters. It is John’s right hand in mine, and his left one sure and steady on the wheel.”

And about her and her husband’s decision to adopt her daughters: “Adopting my daughters is the most self-centered thing I have ever done. It is the one decision I have made in my life that represents who I truly am, the only choice that aligns most squarely with my deepest and most fundamental belief about life on Earth: that we are here to see one another through this journey.”

Emily Bernard is a terrific writer, and this is a good read. Reading her essays, you can tell she is a scholar, but her writing is not only smart and deeply informed by her work, but also richly humane. Like I said, you’ll wish you could meet her and talk with her, or take a class from her, or both.

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I picked up My Life in France at last year’s Five Colleges Booksale, but it was something I’d been meaning to read for some time. Although it was written with and finished by her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, this is Julia Child‘s memoir of her years in France, from 1948 when she and her husband Paul first went to live in Paris, to 1992, when she gave up her small home in Provence after Paul could no longer travel. It’s a delightful book. How could any book about delicious food in a beautiful place, shared with interesting people, not be a delight?

But there’s much more to this book. Child was an amazing person who put her all into her life’s work — teaching people how to cook well. Until I read her memoir I had no idea how long it took her to research and test her recipes and how scientifically she worked to ensure consistent results for anyone cooking from them, and how carefully she explained why the recipes work. Her incredible work ethic, her astute observations of culture and society, her fond remembrance of people she knew well, from market sellers to her dear husband, make this book a really good read as well as a delightful one.

Paul and Julia Child were both very talented and were really a creative team, and the amount of work they did separately and together is quite impressive. Although this book only touches briefly on their time in the OSS during WWII, it does explore the bureaucratic mess of the postwar diplomatic service and the way McCarthy and his paranoia stretched across the ocean to impact longtime government servants abroad. Her observations are really interesting, and I admire Child’s lifelong efforts to learn and become better spoken about politics and culture as well as her own passions (food, restaurants, wine, cooking, and food production). As a lifelong learner myself, and as someone who didn’t begin to really form my own views until late in my 20s, I could identify with her sense that she hadn’t grown up in college, and she had not thought through her positions on important matters until she was well into adulthood.

I also think Americans who grew up knowing her PBS show don’t realize how much her initial “cookery bookery” as she refers to it was a partnership with not only her cookbook collaborators in France, but with the many French people who contributed to her culinary education — chefs, restauranteurs, shopkeepers, market sellers, teachers, friends, all of whom expanded her repertoire, her tastes, her knowledge and skill. Child’s ethos was her own, however: “nothing is too much trouble if it comes out the way it should,” and “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.” Towards the end of My Life in France she sums up her advice to people: “Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun!”

And that sense of practicality, fearlessness, and fun permeates this book.

 

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I broke my “read only Europa Editions ’til the end of the year” streak this week, because my local bookstore, Gibson’s, hosted Abdi Nor Iftin on Friday, so I wanted to read his book and hear him speak. Call Me American is the story of his growing up in Somalia, living through years of war and violence, and coming to America. Things are definitely not ideal in America right now, but if you want a fuller appreciation for why people around the world still look to us as a place to come and live in peace and freedom, you should read this book. If he’s touring near you, go hear him speak, too; there is nothing like hearing someone’s story in person.

I cannot imagine, nor can anyone I know imagine, what it was like for Iftin growing up in Mogadishu. Between the expectation that even as a small child, he must get water and food for his family, the requirement that he attend a madrassa where he was beaten when he didn’t do well enough or had done something considered evil (like watch American movies) out of a belief that this would make him a good Muslim, and the fact that he could not get an education (beyond memorizing the Koran) or a job and had to create his own, I was amazed with each chapter. Iftin didn’t even just survive, he survived with faith, hope and compassion intact. He still supports the imam who beat him, because he feels grateful that he knows the Koran and he understands the man sincerely believed he was doing right by the children he beat. Incredible!

So I have no doubt that Iftin is an extraordinary person, not to mention a very good storyteller, and that is part of what makes this memoir appealing. But in the back of my mind as I read, I thought about the grave injustice that our world flocks to the Iftins and abandons those who don’t have the charisma, grace, and strength he does. In fact, the only reason he is where he is today is because he made opportunities for himself at every turn — teaching himself English, introducing himself to a white man he saw on a balcony who turned out to be a reporter, and then working for both NPR and the BBC telling the story of life under warlords and Islamic fundamentalists. And it is right that people who heard his story through their speakers thousands of miles and a culture away rallied to help him and get him out.

But so many others are still living with the danger, fear, and deprivation that he grew up with and on the whole, Americans are fairly happy feeling good about stories like Iftin’s and then going back to our comfortable lives. We may give to charity and write to Congress when things seem really bad, but how often do we do any more than that? And what more can and should we do? In many regards, there is literally nothing we can do because the power systems in the world are completely aligned against the powerless and most governments adhere to a fear-based immigration system.

Maybe it’s a small thing, but one thing we can do is learn people’s stories. Learn about the systems that are hurting people and ironically building up the very extremism they are meant to protect against. I had no idea that Somalis in Kenya can’t work — I thought that the international refugee resettlement system was fairly consistent everywhere, and that if you are recognized as a refugee, you can start a resettled life. Iftin’s brother has been living in limbo for fifteen years in Nairobi, officially a refugee but not allowed to legally live there, or anywhere. That is the situation for Somalis — and there are refugees from dozens of other places, so it’s likely there are millions more who are not on the smooth path to resettlement. Especially now that the U.S. has decided to take thousands fewer refugees each year.

What can I do with this knowledge? I’m not sure. For starters I can keep contacting my elected officials and telling them I want America to remain a welcoming place for those who need a new home. I can learn about the places they come from, beyond the headlines. I can also make sure that beyond just saying hello when I hear someone whose accent reveals they are from somewhere else, I can tell them I’m glad they are here, and ask how things are going. That doesn’t seem like enough though. I don’t have answers. I just know this book made the world smaller for me. One thing I can do is write about how powerful it is and ask you to do read it. You’ll be glad you did and your view of the world will not be the same.

 

 

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of New Hamsphire authors Sy Montgomery and Howard Mansfield. I’ve written about their work several times on the blog and in the Mindful Reader column. Recently my good friend and fellow book lover Juliana gifted me with The Good Good Pig: the Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. We each had piles of books in our arms in the checkout line of The Five Colleges Booksale and when I exclaimed over her finding Sy’s book, she let me buy it instead of buying it herself. If that’s not friendship I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading my own “to read” books instead of library books lately, partly because I bought a lot of books this spring, and partly because I was changing jobs, and thus libraries. Last week was kind of an unsettled one, with some stressful stuff happening (such as becoming a library director) at work and at home, so I wanted a book I knew would feed my soul, and given that, I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Sy!

The only problem with The Good Good Pig is that I want to move to Hancock, New Hampshire, and since Concord is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose (we lived in Oklahoma twice, but only because the USMC sent us there both times) and The Computer Scientist says he is not moving any more boxes ever again, but instead will live here until he is the one being moved in a box (he has a morbid sense of humor), that’s not likely to happen. Really I just want to be Sy’s and Howard’s neighbor.

So, The Good Good Pig isn’t just about Christopher Hogwood, the runt piglet they adopted who lived to be fourteen and a valued member of their community. It’s about the many ways Christopher taught the people in his life all kinds of things — how to play, how to savor the sunlight and grass on a nice day, how to truly enjoy delicious foods, and simply, as one of Sy’s former neighbors explains, “how to love.” Sy notes that by living a long life, Christopher Hogwood showed everyone who knew him that “We need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate have written for us.”

This is not just a fascinating book about animals, peppered with interesting anecdotes about some of the many creatures Sy has loved, researched, communed with, written about, and felt an affinity towards, from pink dolphins to tarantulas and man eating tigers. It’s also a book about two people who fell in love with each other and the writing life and created for themselves a home and a community that fully embraced them and their work. And it’s a book about family in many forms — not only in the traditional sense of the people we come from and often find ourselves challenged by, but the family we make for ourselves, human and inter-species. Sy’s writing about her relationship with her mother is moving and inspiring — she is a model of radical acceptance even in the face of challenges, and the world would be a better place if more people were able to love their way through hurts the way Sy does.

The Good Good Pig  was just the book I hoped, soul filling, life affirming, smart, and thoughtful. We have so much to learn from animals, and although I can’t claim I am as connected to other creatures as Sy is (not many people are!) I am often impressed that my cats are so tuned into my feelings. For creatures who get a bad rap for being aloof, they can be remarkably supportive when I need it, especially the small grey tabby who will curl up against me or on me if she can sense I need her calming presence. As my Facebook friends know, she is also my zen master, running to the meditation cushion after dinner to remind me it’s time to sit and joining me as I meditate. So I totally understand how a pig could be “a big Buddha master” to his friends and neighbors.

I leave you with two peaceful cat pictures, because how could I not? They’re no 750 pound pig, but I think there are probably city ordinances against hog husbandry in Concord anyway.

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Cork Boat is one of the titles I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale. Yes, I am going to read The Scapegoat; it’s our June book club pick. It hadn’t arrived yet, anyway, so I decided this would be a good distraction from the various stressful things in my life. I was right.

John Pollack was a political speechwriter when, disgusted by the gridlock in Washington (sadly, about twenty years ago), he decided to take some time off to pursue a boyhood dream: building a boat made of corks. In Cork Boat he tells the story of how he organized dozens of people — friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers — to help him and his good friend Garth Goldstein bring the boat to life. Along the way, he took a job writing speeches at the Clinton White House, returning to his previous job working for Michigan Congressman David Bonior after the election, and even taking a job writing for an expedition to Antarctica. None of this kept him from pursuing his dream boat, and when it was finished, getting it shipped to Portugal where he and Goldstein and an assortment of friends and family members helped them travel from Barca d’Alva to Porto on the Douro River.

It’s an enjoyable book, one that might make you want to travel off the beaten path, or cause a little wistfulness for whatever you dreamed of as a child. It’s also a good reminder that in a world often fraught with conflict, hardship, struggle, and hardship, we could all benefit from paying attention to the cork boats in our lives. Maybe no one you know is doing something on this scale, but you probably know someone who is pursuing a hobby or past time just for the joy of it, or to prove to themself that they can reach a particular goal, or to bring people together around a common purpose. If you seek those stories, they’re out there to enjoy among the din of political rancor, intolerance, and human suffering. Cork Boat is a decent place to start.*

Quick aside: for May, my book club read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. It’s written in a style I didn’t enjoy — very brief chapters with questions at the end of each, which makes it kind of choppy and occasionally repetitive — but it was thought provoking, and led to a good discussion about white privilege and racism. We decided we’d recommend it to people who haven’t really explored these issues.

*Good News Network isn’t a bad place to look, either.

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When I was visiting family last week I was in danger of running out of reading material on my iPad (Quick aside: traveling is usually the only time I choose e-reading, and from my informal survey of fellow passengers, that’s pretty common. As I have frequently discussed over at Nocturnal Librarian, the book was not a technology that needed improvement, and e-books are kinda meh to many, many people). I checked for something else to download and found that Overdrive had it’s Big Library Read going on.  So I downloaded their selection, Flat Broke With Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha.

I am not always a memoir fan — I read bad news in the news, so I am not really interested in bad news in my books, too. This one has plenty, from McGaha’s youthful abusive (and thankfully, brief) marriage to the foreclosure that is the main catalyst for the story. But I finished it, and I found it readable and interesting.

It’s always good when a book challenges assumptions. I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the basics of the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis. And I feel for people who lost their homes, especially those preyed upon by the kinds of mortgage brokers and banks depicted in The Big Short. But I found myself feeling a little sheepish as I read about McGaha’s accountant husband, David, to paying taxes for a few years and getting them so far in debt they had to foreclose and work out payments for state and federal tax. I was shaking my head, thinking, “How could an accountant let that happen?” But McGaha writes honestly about how he intended to make everything work, they never expected their troubles to compound, and she trusted him to manage it all so didn’t pay attention.

In fact, her story, one of raising her kids, working part time, and trusting her spouse with the money hit a little close to home. I could definitely get where she was coming from. I could see how it could happen — good people, scrambling to make all the ends meet, stuck in a house that they bought from friends that had a number of major things wrong with it, trusting all the way around.

So, when they lost their house, they end up living in a cabin in the woods near a waterfall, not fall from Asheville, which I visited with my mom a couple of years ago. McGaha describes the woods and the falls, the cabin (pretty rustic for a house), the awful creepy things (snakes, spiders) and the wonderful animals they raise. Yes, goats. Also chickens and dogs and a cat, all in vivid detail. Again some of it will raise your eyebrows, but McGaha is so forthright about their situation, readers end up feeling for her.

My favorite sections were when she was more introspective about how she handled her radically new life emotionally, how she grieved her grandparents, especially her grandmother, and what she felt about her career, the land, and her family history. More of that would have been enjoyable. There are a number of recipes at the ends of chapters, but I felt like maybe an editor suggested those? Maybe not. They seemed a little forced into the narrative, and that’s a trend from a few years ago (tacking recipes onto chapters in memoirs) that seemed to me like publishers grasping at how to compete with blogs or something.

I learned a great deal about goat farming, and humanity, and expanded my view of the world. Not a bad “spare” read while traveling.

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