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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

veniceIt’s the dream of a lifetime for so many – pick some wonderfully historic city or region and move there for an extended time. Live elbow to elbow with the locals, find the hidden restaurants and best shops and become one with the people who lived there since the city was founded. Learn the byways and hidden jewels and play host to the friends who visit you bearing their not-so-secret envy.

That’s what Polly Coles thought she was headed for when she and her partner packed up their four children and moved from England to Venice. Ahhh, Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, hub of world trade, cosmopolitan, her ancient canals filled with … human and animal waste, garbage, enormous cruise ships, and lollygagging tourists taking all the seats on the vaporetti. A city not designed for moving your household unless you have both Atlas and Charles Atlas to carry your valuables. And when the seasonal high tides (the acqua alta) come in, your wellies had better come over your knees or you’ll be slopping through who knows what.

Perhaps worst of all is the attitude of the Venetians. There is a definite pecking order, starting with the people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, to the newcomers who’ve only been there around a hundred years, to the people who live there but weren’t born there. Bottom of the heap, of course, are those who are only visiting for a few hours.  On the other hand, there is an egalitarianism within the city itself – rich or poor, you have to walk the streets to get anywhere, and the woman in the subdued colors next to you might be a Baroness. (When you go out to the Lido, where all Venetians holiday, it’s another story. A beachfront capanna goes for around $20,000 for the season, or you can go in with your neighbors for around $7000. And the beachgoers know exactly where everyone belongs.)

There are also other currents in the social stream, including the foreign workers who commute from the mainland to the beggars who crouch humbly on the pavement and wait for alms. Coles makes an effort to understand these people, and does a wonderful job portraying the tragedies and small victories of their lives. She also delves into the culture of the common spaces, precious in a place that can’t grow outward or upward, and to the fabulous interiors hidden behind fortress-like walls and doors. And forget Carnival. Real Venetians have a much more varied festival season to mark the long history of the city, including a thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Plague which killed 50,000 people.

There are some shortcomings: Coles frequently talks about the Venetian dialect, which is different enough from “standard” Italian to make it difficult for non-natives, but she never really explains the difference. She also repeats some of the regular complaints about tourists, which can start to grate on the reader. But her strengths shine through, from her description of the obstinate bureaucracies to some beautiful descriptions of the setting and the residents. She also follows the debate about who is a “real” Venetian, and comes to an insightful answer. Still, it makes me rethink wanting to go to a place that has become a caricature of itself, at least until I can worry about where to hang my laundry.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Politics of Washing

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good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

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mayesFrances Mayes nurtures a sense of home wherever she travels and writes, frequently envisioning herself buying the rented house and settling in even while just visiting. Literal homes seem to blend and expand with a myriad of temporary residences as she reflects upon flavors, tastes, scents, scenes, poetry, cultures, and histories. She and husband Ed explore a rich variety of exotic as well as ordinary destinations, sweeping a wide radius from their Tuscan epicenter through a European, Mediterranean, Asian, and African playground.

Everything I pick up seems to lure me away. … A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.

The memoir hints that this year’s travel in the world is a means for Frances and husband Ed to escape the dust and chaos of the ongoing contracted work at their perpetually-being-restored ancient Tuscan home named Bramasole. Or maybe it’s the growing sense of danger, with the possibility of random violence invading their domicile in northern California that pushes them away from home.

I didn’t know how deeply refreshing the landscape could be. The place does seem familiar, perhaps at a genetic level, but in a a nourishing way. Or maybe I’m just familiar with these friends, and when one is at home with friends, the surrounding world becomes friendly, too.

Whether traveling with newly made friends or rendezvousing with dear old friends, Mayes reflects on their friendships and fond memories, predicting potential relationships with new acquaintances or expressing relief that she won’t have to sit next to such boors as some of the cruise ship passengers at each meal. I found her most humorous when describing the absurdities of cruise ships and their tendency to transform passengers into cattle, driven through crowded tourist traps. Mayes’ first choice for travel is definitely not the cruise, preferring to rent homes and literally plant roots for a while in one village.

My early impressions of A Year in the World were tainted by my annoyance with what seemed constant obsession with food, especially meat and meat by-products, all forms of dairy and excessive indulgence in pastries on the part of Ed. I could assume he is quite rotund, despite his apparent energy and enthusiasm for daily excursions, even long strenuous walks in extreme heat such as their daily hikes to see the architectural and earthly wonders along Turkey’s Lycian coast. Could they possibly eat such meals while at home and shouldn’t they be more cautious with regard to health? My perspective did begin to soften once I reached the chapter on the British Isles—as they romped through English garden after English garden, I became so interested in garden tours. I love, and now wish to adopt, their habit of taking notes for use in the improvement of their home veggie, fruit, and flower growing techniques and varieties of plants. She describes serendipitous moments, such as finally coming across roses similar to a mystery species thriving in their Tuscany garden that was inherited after 30 years of neglect.

The book comprises about a dozen or so travel essays. Each may be dipped into separately or in sequence, yet it’s not the type of book you’ll read straight through. I started it months ago and picked the book up for just a chapter or two at a time, escaping to fascinating travel spots such as Andalucia, Scotland, and Mani. Mayes’ brief yet insightful reviews of books she travels with tempt me to add her inspired selections to my personal reading list. You may find it surprising that the title belies the format; you’ll seldom be aware of the month or year of her travels, and it’s never clear whether each of these trips occurred within a single year. That doesn’t matter, since you will be mesmerized by the poetic and lyrical way in which she transports you to a place and a moment, enveloping you in her experiences.

Check the WRL catalog for A Year in the World.

WRL also owns this title as an e-book.

 

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Children are from HeavenMore than any other parenting book that I read and used while raising my now teens and young adults, this classic title made the most impact on my family’s life. Because of communication techniques learned from John Gray, my children commonly ask, “Mom, what may I do to help you?” Better yet, I often return home to find delightedly that the dishes are washed, the laundry done and put away, and the floors vacuumed or swept without even having asked the children to do it! They have learned to observe what needs to be done and to proceed to take ownership of the task. A household then becomes more efficient much in the same way a business may foster efficiency through employee ownership. Furthermore, I have found that my children love to be of service to other individuals and organizations without expectation of rewards or reciprocation, just for the joy of giving their time and effort for the benefit of others.

Something very significant in child rearing can be achieved simply by respecting kids’ opinions and viewpoints in the manner you would like to be treated, accepting who and what they truly are, listening to them well, and regarding them as innately benevolent beings who want to behave well and do the right things in a positive atmosphere. Most people realize that negative parenting can harm kids and may only achieve temporary control over children who learn to anticipate the age of 18 with a vengeance so that they can finally live the life they want! On the other hand, Children are from Heaven helps parents guide children toward a better quality of life and healthy relationships through encouragement, clearly described expectations, and positive statements that never shame, order, or demand in unreasonable tones. Children just cannot bear yelling without slipping toward rebellion. They’d truly rather be in your good graces.

A great example of how Gray’s book can help parents to elicit cooperation from their kids: “Ask but do not order.” This translates to avoiding a command such as “Don’t leave that there” by replacing it with a more positive request such as “Let’s now put our things away. Would you please put that away?” Instead of demanding, “Stop talking,” to gently say, “Let’s be quiet and listen to your mother. Please stop talking,” elicits a more enduring and peaceful compliance. Little by little, this style of communication becomes highly effective. Gradually, you discover that you no longer have to ask for good behavior as often; you simply witness it in action and will be praising your amazing children frequently! You find that this sort of gentle guidance works to develop children who begin to think on their own about how to live more peacefully and helpfully without waiting to do what they are told.

John Gray, a very experienced family counselor, happened to become a father and shares examples from the challenges of raising his children. The lovingly effective communication techniques he applies to parenting utilize much of the same psychology found in his bestselling marriage and relationship book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. In fact, using some of the advice I read in Children are from Heaven proved quite effective in improving communication with my spouse too! There are a few tricks found here that really work well when you have a “honey-do” list and want life-changing results. I am confident that this parenting book can help you to realize the great joys of parental involvement and to enjoy a higher quality relationship with your precious children.

Check the WRL catalog for Children are from Heaven

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salingerToday’s review is from Mandy.

Author Joanna Rakoff recounts the year she spent working as the assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in her new memoir, My Salinger Year.

Rakoff’s memoir opens in late 1995, when she decides that she’d rather write her own poetry and not “analyze other people’s poetry.” After making that fateful decision, she leaves her college boyfriend and drops out of her graduate program in London, England, and returns to New York, where she moves in with an aspiring writer named Don. A chance encounter with a friend of a friend at a Christmas party leads to a referral to a local placement agency. Rakoff visits the agency and soon lands an entry-level job as the assistant to a well-established and well-respected literary agent.

She is unfamiliar with the Agency, as she refers to it throughout the book, but she’s quickly enchanted by the peculiar and archaic office atmosphere. At a time when computers, email, and the World Wide Web were becoming ubiquitous, the Agency still relied on Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones, and kept submission records on pink index cards. Rakoff’s early assignments are unremarkable, consisting mainly of transcribing her boss’s letters to clients and publishers. Then comes the day when her boss tells her, “We need to talk about Jerry.” Jerry is a special client who fiercely guards his privacy. Joanna’s boss warns her that she will receive calls from students and reporters or producers trying to speak to Jerry or secure the film rights to his work. Joanna is admonished that no matter how persuasive the caller is, she must never give out Jerry’s address or phone number. At first, Joanna thinks that “Jerry” is the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, but on her way out of her boss’s office she spots a bookshelf containing The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Nine Stories and realizes that her boss represents the reclusive author J.D. Salinger.

Although Joanna was familiar with Salinger’s work, she had never actually read any of his books. Over the course of her year at the Agency, she not only falls in love with Salinger’s work, she also becomes fascinated by the letters Salinger receives from fans around the world, including a teenage boy from Winston-Salem, N.C., whose letters mimic the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield; a World War II veteran from Nebraska; and a girl whose teacher tells her she’ll raise her failing grade if she writes to J.D. Salinger and receives a response from him.

In addition to handling Salinger’s correspondence, and the occasional phone call from Salinger to her boss, Joanna also becomes involved in a curious chapter of Salinger’s publishing history. In 1996, much to the surprise of his agent, Salinger agreed to let Roger Lathbury, a professor and owner of a small publishing house called Orchises Press, publish his short story Hapworth 16, 1924 as a stand-alone book. Salinger developed an instant rapport with Lathbury, and publication of Hapworth was scheduled for January 1997; however, the deal fell apart as quickly as it came together.

Rakoff’s narrative deftly balances descriptions of the Agency and the publishing world of the late ‘90s with her own experiences as a young adult adjusting to life after college and her first real job. Her longtime friends are getting married and moving out of the city; she’s dealing with the fallout of leaving a secure relationship for one that’s a bit more tumultuous; and she’s also learning about the limits of an entry-level salary once you factor in student loan repayment and credit card bills.

Fast-paced and often poignant, My Salinger Year is an engaging look at first jobs, the publishing industry, and the powerful lure of literature.

Check the WRL catalog for My Salinger Year

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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Liars ClubMary Karr’s family was the family in your neighborhood that your parents warned you away from when you were a child. They’re volatile people, emotionally toughened one and all. Still, to get to know them through youngest daughter Mary’s 1995 memoir is a bittersweet pleasure for readers who can handle a walk on the dark and gritty side.

The Liar’s Club takes place in the 1960s in the Texas oil town of Leechfield and a few months in Colorado. Mary is nine and she and her twelve-year-old sister Lecia are wise beyond their years. They’ve been through some rough stuff: watching a sanctimonious grandmother die from cancer, sexual abuse from playmates and babysitters, and endless fights with other kids in their tough town.

Dad, doesn’t help. He’s an oil man who can be a wonderful father, but when life gets the most challenging he often turns into a distant, hard-drinking man known as the most dangerous man in town. He hangs out with the titular Liar’s Club (although by implication, this title also applies to the whole Karr family), men who tell tall stories with hard truths hidden inside them.

But Mom is the most problematic of all the Karrs. She’s a creative, independent, city woman trapped as a housewife in the 1960s in a small town. She’s carrying secrets from a painful past, details that aren’t revealed until later in the book. She tries to mask her pain with alcohol abuse, but that isn’t enough to dull her dark streaks. Her relationship with her husband alternates between passionate romance, sullen distance, and outright ugliness. For her daughters she is sometimes like a streetwise older sister, sometimes just plain dangerous.

As you can tell, this isn’t an easy book, but the lives feel authentic, and Karr leavens the pain with some hard-bitten humor. I’m often skeptical of childhood memoirs: Can authors really remember their youth in that much detail? I was at times dubious of a somewhat similar book, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which I enjoyed but took with a grain of salt. There’s a subtle difference in Karr’s approach that makes me trust this book more. She admits at times that her memories differ from those of her sister’s, or sometimes she just tells us when recall fails and she’s working from after-the-fact speculation. And don’t forget, this is The Liar’s Club; even when the absolute truth is stretched, there is painful but sparkling and hard-won honesty at the core of the story. Read the scenes where Mary’s mother starts to burn the contents of the house or where she fails to cope under the combined pressure of a hurricane and the last days of her mother, and you’ll understand what I mean. If you like this, go on to her other memoirs, Lit and Cherry, both of which have also received high critical praise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Liar’s Club

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