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Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

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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I got Believe Me for the Computer Scientist for Christmas, but he’s been working his way through the Smiley books so hasn’t gotten to it yet and I wanted something more uplifting than the tough fiction I’ve read lately. We really admire Eddie Izzard around here — last summer we sat in the front row at his show in Concord (I still can’t believe he came to Concord) and it was amazing. His humor is so intelligent and watching it happen up close was incredible. I hadn’t heard about the memoir, I admit, until Bill Gates posted about the top five books he read last year. I think generally Eddie Izzard isn’t as well known in the U.S. as he should be.

It took me longer to read than I expected because it’s written in similar style to the way Izzard does his comedy — a lot of thoughts coming at you and you just kind of have to hang on until they all come together. it was fun to learn more about his life and definitely the sheer determination he has had to accomplish what he wants in life is inspiring. It’s not a funny book — it’s not meant to be — and it was pretty heavy at times, as there has been some tough stuff in Izzard’s life. His idea that people are all pretty much the same everywhere and his faith in humanity are nice, although reading these thoughts with the world as it is felt a little disjointed. But it’s a good read and I enjoyed it.

 

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winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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I review books by two Maine authors in this week’s Mindful Reader column in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Kate Braestrup’s new memoir is Anchor and Flares and Robert Klose’s hilarious send-up of campus politics is Long Live Grover Cleveland.

Here’s the first paragraph for each:

Kate Braestrup is chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. Her new memoir, “Anchor & Flares,” deals with all of the things she’s written about before – family, love, grief, faith – and also service. Ranging across topics as diverse as the condition of a body that has been decomposing under a frozen lake and a study of the qualities shared by Germans who rescued Jews rather than turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, Braestrup talks about hope and despair, joy and devastation. And she writes of these things in the context of her eldest son’s decision to enlist in the Marine Corps.

and

University of Maine biology professor Robert Klose’s novel “Long Live Grover Cleveland” is a delicious farce. Grover Cleveland is a small college in Maine, founded during the Vietnam war by a distant relative of President Cleveland as a haven for students – and some faculty – who want to avoid the draft. When the college’s founding president dies, he designates his nephew Marcus Cleveland, a used-car salesman in New Jersey, as his successor. Marcus is a good salesman who doesn’t seem entirely in touch with the world.

You can read the entire column here.

 

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Thank you again to all of you who have responded to “On Being ‘Discontinued.'” The support I’ve received from all over the world has been quite surprising and gratifying. I’m happy to report The Mindful Reader will have a new home in print and online beginning Sunday, Feb. 15 in the New Hampshire Sunday News. My column will run twice a month in the paper’s new NH Life section. I’ll still be covering New Hampshire and northern New England authors and my goal will be to review books readers might not hear about elsewhere, or by authors who are visiting a bookstore nearby. Only nearby will now mean statewide. All of you from large states, stop snickering.

On to reading. This week as we waited for our firstborn’s passport to return from its tour of embassies in Washington and New York (he needed two visas for his upcoming study abroad semester, and he departs next week so the waiting was nerve-wracking), I needed an escapist book. When I was a young mother, we lived in Seattle and I fought the winter doldrums by reading about people chucking it all to live in a new place, often a ramshackle old home in a foreign country. At the library recently I came across Castles In the Air: the Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion by Judy Corbett. Here’s my CPL Book of the Week review:

In 1995, Judy Corbett and her fiancée Peter were looking for an old house to restore in Wales, where Judy grew up. When they heard that Gwydir Castle, an aristocratic home dating back to around 1500, might be for sale, they visited, only to find two astonishing things: it was the very house Judy admired as a child in a sepia photograph at her neighbor’s house, and it was a wreck. Part of the house had been turned into an underground nightclub, the rest had been left to crumble and rot. Judy and Peter were not only undeterred; they were smitten.

Judy & Peter shared Gwydir with all manner of flora and fauna when they moved in. Their wedding was nearly called off because of a haunting. They learned that some of the home’s original furnishings were in a Metropolitan Museum of Art warehouse (by way of Hearst Castle) and set about trying to repatriate them. Castles in the Air is part memoir, part history, part ghost story, and entirely delightful.Throughout the story of their “adventures” Judy focuses on her home’s wild beauty, “Sometimes it seems to me as though it had been conjured out of the damp earth by sorcery.” Reflecting on the lives of Tudor women who lived at Gwydir she notes, “I click the same latch and feel the heavy mass of oak drop slightly on the swing of the same strap hinges. To me, the continuity of such things is reassuring. I am reminded that we are the future the past looked forward to . . . .” A lovely book and a fascinating story told with warmth, humor, and good cheer.

 

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We just got back from a week in Isle la Motte, one of the Champlain Islands in northern Vermont. Even though this year we spent a day in Montreal, I still somehow read eight books and finished a 9th (and nearly a 10th):

I finished Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer, which I’m reviewing in September’s Mindful Reader column, and which I loved — Keizer writes about a year in which he returned to teaching high school after 14 years. He recounts a bit about his earlier years teaching, his writing career, and the changes he observes, culturally and in the world of education, in his small Northeast Kingdom town. And the day we were leaving I was up early and very nearly finished Every Day in Tuscanby Frances Mayes. She writes about post-fame life in Cortona and includes recipes as well.

I read (in no particular order)

Ben Winters’ World of Trouble, the 3rd in the Last Policeman trilogy. A friend told me before I left for vacation that it was the best of the three and she is right. She also warned me it’s sad; also very true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ending, which could have been awful, but Winters write it beautifully. One spoiler: it’s not set in Concord, NH, like the first two in the series. But Hank Palace is still the last policeman, and I continue to admire his heart and dedication, his refusal to quit in the face of ridiculous odds, and his selfless pursuit of the truth.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This book is a “big” novel from a “big” author (his latest book, out in September is already on the longlist for the Booker Prize). Various reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby and referred to it as a 9/11 novel, an immigrant novel, a great American novel, and a post-colonial novel. I thought it was an interesting story, well told, but I was a little doubtful about the marital problems of the main character, Hans van den Broek, and his wife Rachel. Basically she is so rude to him that I had a hard time believing he’d keep wanting to work it out, but I suppose love is strange. When the book opens, Hans has learned that an old friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket referee and businessman with dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York, was found murdered. He reflects on how his friendship with Chuck developed after 9-11 when Rachel moved back to London with their son.  If I had to boil down what I thought Netherland was about I’d say it’s about isolation.

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I loved Impunity Jane when I read it to my daughter years ago, and this book had been calling to me from the used book section at Gibson’s for weeks when I finally bought it. When the book begins, Louise Poole and her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, have arrived in India where Charles Poole has been living, estranged from his wife and alone for many years. As the novel unfolds, readers learn more about the troubled family as well as the agricultural college Charles has helped build. We meet Narayan Das, a veterinarian, who scorns traditional Hindu beliefs and traditions and despises the caste system. And Anil, a Brahmin student who is only studying agriculture because his father insists, but really prefers writing poetry. When Emily’s dog dies, all of these characters’ play a role in the drama; most of them experience an epiphany of some sort. A satisfying, evocative read, which left me with much to ponder.

Marrying Off Mother and other Stories by Gerald Durrell. Longtime bookconscious readers know I adore Durrell. My Family and Other Animals remains of my favorite memoirs ever.This collection of stories is based in fact; some of the pieces have the same tone as his memoirs. Durrell is a unique writer, whose work is suffused with his love of the natural world as well as his warmth and the joy he seems to take in his unusual life. He also has a terrific sense of pacing; I always imagine it would be best to hear his work aloud.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Another story collection, some of them linked, about people and their relationships with each other and with society. I liked it — not too dark, not too light, interesting characters. Kane’s stories remind me a bit of Ann Beatty’s. This is fiction about feelings, heavier on interactions than actions. But you don’t come away feeling like humanity sucks when you’re through reading this collection, which is good for a vacation read.

And the best for last:

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardamone of my favorite authors.  I was really looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Gardam’s writing is exquisite and this story really grabbed me. Gardam captures adolescence beautifully, and her main character, Jessica Vye, reminded me of myself in some ways — feeling different than everyone else and being both glad of it and repulsed by it. Every character is interesting, and not a word is misspent. I am not sure I can even put into words what it is about Gardam that I love so much; I always wish her books would never end.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Like a long, cool drink of water on a hot day.  Spufford is witty and clear, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless writes about contemporary faith in a way that is both reassuring and challenging. This book is his answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it would convince atheists to change their minds (at least not the ones I know) but it might convince them to allow that not all believers are mindless idiots, and that alone makes it a great contribution.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you’ve seen the BBC series, his is the first of three memoirs by the real Jennie in the series. She writes with great affection about the community of nurses and nuns where she lived and worked in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It was a perfect book to read after enjoying Alan Johnson’s This Boy. I intend to find and read Worth’s other books as well. She was a remarkable lady and her writing is vivid, cheerful, clear, and reflective.

 

 

 

 

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A memoir about the postwar London childhood of a Labour party politician doesn’t necessarily sound like a page turner, but Alan Johnson‘s charming and moving tale, This Boy, was indeed just that. Johnson’s mother Lily, a Liverpudlian who moved to Notting Hill (at the time not posh at all) with her husband after the war, was a hardworking and sickly woman whose heart was damaged irreparably by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. She grew up with a cold and irritable father who refused to let her accept a scholarship to further her education.

Lily wanted more for her children and raised them to be polite, caring, studious and hardworking despite numbing poverty — Alan recalls being permanently hungry, and notes that he and  his sister Linda did not have an indoor toilet until 1964. Linda is the real heroine of the story, as she cared for Alan almost exclusively during their mother’s hospital stays, and became the family breadwinner at age 16 during Lily’s final illness. Her fierce love and support of both her mother and brother are inspiring.

That Alan remembers his childhood with any fondness at all is remarkable; more than that, he is generous in his recollections of friends and neighbors who were kind to them. He manages to credit his father with a few highlights in an otherwise despicable fatherhood. And he lavishes praise on his mother, his sister, and the closest friends who made his life bearable. As well as on two pastimes that soothed his soul: reading and music.

It’s amazing to read about how very different the world was only about half a century ago. I was absorbed in the detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s London, its war-scarred buildings and racial tension, neighborhood grocers and nearly car-free streets. From his work assisting a neighbor with paraffin oil delivery to his obsession with Queens Park Rangers, Mod style, and the Beatles, Johnson evokes his childhood in small stories that illuminate a time and place, as well as a particular life.

If you like well-told stories of love overcoming hardship, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or James McBride’s The Color of Water, you’ll enjoy This Boy.

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