Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

ChrisHadfield You forget, sometimes, that there are people living in space.

During his 146-day sojourn on the International Space Station in 2012-2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield reminded me, and many others, about life in space, as well as the natural beauty of life on earth. While his crew carried out a record number of science experiments, Hadfield was also spreading curiosity and enthusiasm about life on the ISS through savvy use of social media.

He traded tweets with fellow Canadian William Shatner (“Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface”). He posted YouTube videos about working without gravity (why you can’t wring out a washcloth in space, for instance). And he used his enviable perspective from the ISS cupola to share photos, including a Valentine’s Day heart for the planet.

Hadfield’s post-retirement memoir is loosely organized around three missions in space: from his first flight to Mir on the Atlantis, both now retired; through a spacewalk from Endeavor, installing a giant robotic arm on the ISS; to his last landing, after five months on the ISS, in the Russian Soyuz—”a wild 54-minute tumble to Earth that feels more or less like 15 explosions followed by a car crash.” Mission anecdotes are mixed with advice on how to think like an astronaut, much of which boils down to extreme, obsessive preparation and attention to detail. Canada didn’t even have a space agency when 9-year-old Hadfield decided that he wanted to be an astronaut, but he set himself to acquire the flight and engineering skills that he would need, spending years as a fighter pilot and test pilot until reality caught up with his dreams.

I am too hard-headed to benefit from most self-help books, but apparently I will listen to motivational pep talks from people who have been in space. And Hadfield does have a gift for presenting his career of extreme competence without coming across as a braggart. He’s easy to relate to and has a clear calling for sharing his passion for the space program and involving readers in the sheer “wwooooww” factor of a spacewalk.

If you enjoyed Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, you’ll appreciate Hadfield’s wry descriptions of peeing for science. Astronauts on the ISS perform scientific experiments, but also they are scientific experiments—in how the human body reacts to long sojourns without gravity.

Check the WRL catalog for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

Read Full Post »

WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

Read Full Post »

Priceless is a memoir about the true crime undercover investigations carried out by FBI Agent Robert K. Wittman. Since the late 1980s, Bob Wittman was the original solo art crime investigator for what became the FBI’s Art Crime team in 2004, now numbering 14 agents who are well-versed in the fine arts, skilled with undercover work, and are prepared to rapidly deploy to any worldwide site for art theft recovery work and sting operations, often in cooperation with international law enforcement agencies. The FBI updates an online top-ten listing of art crimes and maintains a database of stolen art.

The book is arranged so that you’re following developments in FBI Agent Wittman’s career as well as some pivotal events in his personal life throughout the book. However, each chapter neatly portrays a particular case and its wrap-up. There is one thread running from the beginning through the end, the notorious unsolved 1990 case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. Wittman’s frustrating battle with the restrictions under which he had to work in the FBI’s bureaucracy, including power struggles with senior officials, seems to provide some clues as to why this case might have been solved long ago had it not been so botched by red tape.

The stories truly bring the high-stakes investigations of art theft to life for the lay reader, and open up our eyes to the realities of art crimes. The biggest revelation in this book is the fact that those who steal art are seldom glamorous, handsome and powerful art connoisseurs, as they have been portrayed in films such as Dr. No or The Thomas Crown Affair. That characterization may be true in some cases, although they are usually your typical thugs who can’t resist taking something that seems incredibly valuable yet easy to steal for even the dumbest of crooks. Some of the book’s photos of captured thieves make that contrast startling. As security systems and staffing have become more sophisticated today, even better organized art theft rings have staged some thefts on the level of Ocean’s Eleven style drama, but most of the crimes investigated by Wittman and told in Priceless are more a case of your average guy taking advantage of an opportunity to get away with something for money.

These are very interesting and sometimes thrilling tales.  They’ll take you behind the scenes of the FBI and around the world to exotic locations and scenarios, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Look for Priceless in the WRL catalog.

Read Full Post »

keithBeatles or Stones? Yes! This fall, about 50 years after the founding of the two bands, we’re seeing a new crop of books about their early years, including Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s planned mega-biography of the Beatles, and Beatles vs. Stones, a historian’s look at the public images of the two groups. But I doubt that any book published this year will have the impact, or the sales, of Keith Richards’s autobiography, which came out in 2010.

Life has to be one of the best books ever about the cultural and political explosion that happened in the mid 1960s—witnessed from the epicenter by a kid who just wanted to play blues guitar and ended up a pop superstar in the Rolling Stones. The book is raw and rude. Keith disses a lot of well known people, and reveals without apology the depths of his bad behavior: the groupies and girlfriend-swapping, the endless hard drugs and booze, the arrests and trials, the wild parties and trashed hotel rooms.

“Some of my most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence…  The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”

Fortunately, Keith is just as revealing about his music, documenting how he created his epic guitar riffs, and almost effortlessly wrote hit song after hit song with Mick Jagger. He has collaborated with everyone who is anyone in music, and tells good stories about his encounters with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, George Jones, Tom Waits, and many others.

If possible, don’t read Life in print; listen to the audiobook version instead. Its offbeat, somewhat laid-back production is oddly suited to the story and to Keith’s distinctive style. There are three narrators, each taking a turn at reading in the voice of Keith : Johnny Depp (a close friend and admirer of Richards), the Irish rocker Joe Hurley, and Keith himself.  This is disorienting for the listener, since the narration switches without warning from Depp, reading quite neutrally in his American accent, to Hurley, who does an over-the-top interpretation of Keith: slurring words, chuckling, and mumbling in a South London accent. At first I was put off by Hurley’s reading, but it grew on me and eventually I settled in to enjoy it. Keith narrates the final section of the book, covering his recent years, which are comparatively uneventful—oh, except for the time he fell out of a tree in Fiji and suffered a life-threatening brain injury.

Some parts are better than others, but the book, like a good album, opens with its strongest number. Superbly narrated by Depp, this is the story of the 1975 arrest of Keith, fellow band member Ronnie Wood, and two friends while driving a Chevrolet Impala packed with illegal drugs and weapons through Fordyce, Arkansas. This legendary culture clash between rural southern law enforcement types and long-haired British rockers can be read as hilarious farce, complete with a drunken judge and a victory parade for the bailed-out musicians. But there’s a dark heart to the story, a reminder that this was the Vietnam Era, the always-present backdrop of songs like “Street Fighting Man” and “Gimme Shelter.”

What a drag it is getting old… For years now, the Stones have endured writings in the press making fun of their withered appearance and calling on them to retire, for decency’s sake. So far, neither the band nor their fans are ready to pack it in. In the summer of 2013, the Stones rocked out in electrifying sets in Hyde Park and at the Glastonbury Festival before screaming crowds spanning three generations. You know what they say, baby: listen to your elders.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook version of Life

Check for the print version

Read Full Post »

MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

Read Full Post »

YearoftheJungle

Suzanne Collins achieved fame through her dark and dystopian Hunger Games series. Her latest offering is neither a dystopian tale nor a children’s fantasy series; instead she has written a picture book. Year of the Jungle is four-year-old child’s view of Suzanne Collins’s own experiences when her father was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.

Because Year of the Jungle is the newest book from a bestselling author, it has garnered a lot of attention. One review said that it would “bewilder” its intended audience of small children. Considering that over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, it must be a familiar story to many. Of course not all of them had exactly the same experience as Suzanne Collins, but many have had similar enough experiences that they will not be bewildered by this book.

Suzy hears that her father “has to go to something called a war,” leaving her not knowing “what anybody’s talking about.”  She also learns that he will be in a jungle. Suzy knows about jungles from cartoons so she pictures her father in a happy place among her favorite cartoon characters. In a strong portrayal of a small child’s misunderstanding of the passage of time, Suzy is confused about the length of the year he will be away. The book portrays Suzy’s growing unease as adults give her unlooked-for sympathy, showing how adults can make things worse, even though they are trying to be kind. Suzy loves getting her father’s postcards, but they start coming less frequently and start to change. But for a child about to turn five the most devastating thing is the realization that he sent a birthday greeting to the wrong sibling.  In the illustrations the cartoon jungle full of round and smiling animals changes into a far more sinister place with images of violence and fear.

It is hard not to speculate how Suzanne Collins’s early experiences influenced her imagination when writing her undoubtedly dark and violent Hunger Games series. As an excellent writer she has captured and condensed a world of childhood experiences into a very few words. James Proimos’ illustrations are of a rough cartoonish style that at first glance I didn’t find very attractive, but they do a great job of capturing Suzy’s innocence and her unusually early realization of the dangers of the world.

This is a picture book designed to be read aloud, and a parent or caregiver can judge if it is the right book for their child. I think it could be useful for young military children as it is ultimately comforting when her father returns safely, although it is so dark in places that an adult should read it first and decide if it is appropriate. I also recommend it for adults who are interested in Suzanne Collins, military children’s experience, or a darker picture book.

Check the WRL catalog for Year of the Jungle.

Read Full Post »

FryFor people familiar with British comedy, the name Stephen Fry is one that often brings a smile to one’s face or mention of any number of British shows with which he’s been involved. Known for his unique look and style, Fry bolsters his reputation as a man of eclectic intellect and delightful humor in this, his second autobiography. Before getting into details, the author warns his reader of his penchant for wordplay, “rambling” sentence structure and involved linguistics. His vocabulary is broad. There were plenty of words I could not immediately define. Despite what might be considered a complicated text, I found his writing to be engaging and entertaining.

To reveal the twists and turns of his life from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Fry employs an articulate, stream of consciousness writing style, sometimes going off on tangents, but not without reason. I am tempted to say the style is contrived to entertain and amuse the reader, since Fry only ever slips off for a paragraph or two before jumping right back into the middle of his main topic. Plus, when he does drift, he always has a cogent point to make. He’s not really changing the subject, just expanding on it to make the point all the more clear. I wonder if the stream of consciousness style is actually quite practiced and deliberate. Fry admits he enjoys language, its sounds, its formation, and its meaning.

While Fry mentions his childhood and teenage troubles in passing, he focuses this autobiography on his formative late teens and early twenties. He jumps forward and backward on occasion, but much of The Fry Chronicles focuses on his years as a college student at Cambridge and immediately thereafter. It was during college that he discovered his love of acting and comedy overshadowed his enjoyment of teaching. He spent most of his college years either acting in plays or hanging out with other actor friends between performances. It turns out that since college Fry has been chums with modern British comedic and acting luminaries such as Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson. Upon meeting, he and Hugh Laurie became instant mates and now have worked together professionally for decades.

Fry intertwines his college and post-college shenanigans and adventures with revelations of self-doubt, disappointments, and insecurities. He discusses his obsession with computers, his efforts to pursue a personal form of conspicuous consumption (buying cars, gadgets, a country house, etc.), and his adoration of radio. Fry has an ability to convey thoughts in a manner that requires the reader to pay attention. He incorporates a supreme honesty into his writing, admitting “…the business of autobiography is at least to strive for some element of self-revelation and candour” (pg. 224). The Fry Chronicles achieves this aim as far as I am concerned. This autobiography richly delves into the life and times of Stephen Fry, as perceived and presented by Fry himself. I do hope he pens his next installment soon (as he closed the book on a cliffhanger), but in the mean time I can enjoy this honest, earnest, irreverent, and wholly entertaining autobiography.

Check the WRL catalog for The Fry Chronicles

Read Full Post »

InfidelCoverOn the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s.  We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties.  Beyond that our lives diverged completely.

I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam.  She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.

Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh.  Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses.  The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador.  After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament.  Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.

Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation.  Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life.  Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches.  She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime.  She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.

Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story.  Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.

Check the WRL catalog for Infidel.
Check the WRL catalog for Infidel as an audiobook on CD.

Read Full Post »

grace_silenceToday’s review is written by Tova.

“How well do you know the people who raised you?”

Journalist Michele Norris presents this question to the reader in the epilogue of her book The Grace of Silence: A Memoir. In her work—as much an investigation of the painful historical realities of race in America as a memoir—Norris reaches deep into the depths of her own family history and illuminates this country’s racial past along the way.

Originally intent on writing a book about the “hidden conversation” on race taking place in a supposedly “postracial” America in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency, Norris changed course when she discovered that the conversation on race within her own African American family had not been honest. She discovered two family secrets: her maternal Grandmother Ione had been a traveling “Aunt Jemima” in the Midwest, and her father Belvin Norris had been shot in the leg by a white police officer in Birmingham shortly after his discharge from the Navy at the conclusion of World War II. Uncovering these secrets shakes Norris’s sense of her identity: “These revelations suggest to me that in certain ways I’ve never had a full understanding of my parents or of the formation of my own racial identity.” The majority of the book is devoted to discovering who her parents really are and, by extension, who she herself is. Why did her parents intentionally keep these secrets from her?

Most jarring about these revelations, for Norris, is that they are incongruous with her conception of her parents. Norris writes of her father: “how could a man who always observed stop signs, a man who always filed his taxes early and preached that jaywalking proved a weakness of character have been involved in an altercation with Alabama policemen? . . . Why would he impart life lessons to us about looking the other way, turning the other cheek, respecting those who lived across the color line in spite of insults hurled our way, when he himself had not?”

What Norris discovers along the way in her journey to answer these questions is surprising, revealing, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking for both her and the reader. I found myself getting emotional at times while reading the book. My eyes watered when Norris described brutal attacks on African American World War II veterans and their families. I found myself groaning inside when a relative of one of the officers involved in the shooting of Belvin Norris remarked to the author, “I don’t have anything against [African Americans], only the ones who are snooty or trying to prove themselves,” and then referenced President Obama as an example. But that’s what this book does. It hits you in the gut. I suspect that no matter your racial or cultural background, this book will “ping” your emotions in many different ways.

While this is not an “easy” book—as it challenges you emotionally and makes you think about certain ugly truths that some would rather not acknowledge—it has its moments of levity. You will smile wryly at the ingenious ways in which Norris’s mother foils the attempts of her neighbors to sell their houses and flee the neighborhood after the Norris family integrates it. You will also be touched by the loving relationship Norris has with her father. In a sense, this book is an extended love letter to her father. Even while championing an open dialogue about race, Michele Norris appreciates that her father early-on made the decision to remain silent as part of a strategy to ensure that his children would not be hindered by bitterness and acrimony in their struggle to achieve.

When I read the premise of the book, I was immediately drawn to it. I, too, am African American. I am familiar with the silences surrounding family secrets dealing with race. As a result, I found myself constantly comparing the strategies adopted by Norris’s family in dealing with racism to those of my own family. Norris’s mother and father concerned themselves with trying to be “model minorities.” My mother, a single parent and Black Power activist, made a different choice and took a different route in raising her children. My mother, just like her father, taught us that we should be angry about racism. This anger provides the fuel for my activism. Norris’s book exposes a particular truth, that we, as African Americans, have adopted multiple and varying strategies for navigating within a racially hostile world.

In the end, Norris suggests that we can come to a fuller understanding of who we are individually and as a nation by being more open about race. One thing Norris discovers is that white families also have their racial secrets and silences. Most of the families of the police officers involved in her father’s shooting either had no clue of their family member’s involvement in the shooting, or the family members did not want to talk about the incident.

How many of our families, regardless of our racial or cultural backgrounds, harbor secrets relative to race? What do these silences tell us about the state of race in America? Norris’s work, The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, is a call to all of us to sit down and ask questions. If we are to truly move racially forward as a nation, we must hear our family stories. We must question our elders, and we must listen to not just what is said, but what is not said.

Check the WRL catalog for The Grace of Silence

It’s also available as a CD audiobook, read by the author.

Read Full Post »

Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

Read Full Post »

The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

Read Full Post »

Just KidsPatti Smith is the proto-punk goddess whose music is fierce, but hardly every listener’s cup of tea. Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose most famous works were pictures of nude men, often depicted in sexually explicit poses and masochistic acts. I like some edgy things, but neither of these artists really do much for me, and a more conservative person might run the other way. I’m not even a huge fan of their scene, where style and innovation seem to matter more than substance, but I’ve always been curious about those magical moments in history where a group of creative people find each other and use the energy of their meeting to create something new.

Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, captures just such a time perfectly. Smith came to New  York in 1967 after giving up a baby to adoption upstate. She was young and looking for a fresh start. One of the first people she met was Robert Mapplethorpe, a minor acquaintance who became her fast friend after saving her from a bad date. The two moved in together and tried to make a go of a relationship, even though it soon became apparent that Mapplethorpe was obviously homosexual. Patti somewhat naively believed that their love would overcome Robert’s sexual preference, and so began several years of ups and downs. Robert could be incredibly supportive of Patti and her art, but substance abuse and a need for fame could make him neglectful at other times.

The background here is fascinating, as Smith and Mapplethorpe rub elbows with the artists and scenesters of the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the pioneering music venue CBGB’s. The story follows the early rise of both friends, then jumps forward a decade and ends poignantly with Robert’s death from AIDS in 1989.

Smith writes with real heart. The prose gets a bit florid at times, but that’s easy to forgive, as is her sometimes naive view of Mapplethorpe, as the author so clearly feels all of the emotions behind her story honestly. This especially shines through on the audiobook. Smith is a clumsy reader, a bit monotone and with funny pronunciations for some words (“drawlings” instead of “drawings”), but she’s so absolutely free of pretense that I found the awkwardness charming and authentic, not off-putting.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Kids

Or try it on audiobook on CD

Read Full Post »

It’s “Lost in the Stacks” week, and Bud is back with another post:

“Poppa, have you got any idea how a man took to jazz in the early days? Do you know how he spent years watching the droopy chicks in cathouses, listening to his cellmates moaning low behind the bars, digging the riffs the wheels were knocking out when he rode the rods – and then all of a sudden picked up a horn and began to tell the whole story in music? I’m going to explain that.”Really the Blues

So says Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow in the opening chapter of his strange but fascinating autobiography,  Really the Blues. Mezzrow, a white Jewish kid, was born in 1899. A wild child from the beginning, he landed in reform school at the age of 15 where he discovered and became completely enamored of black culture in general and New Orleans jazz in particular. He learned how to play the clarinet and immersed himself in the jazz world of the 1920s, a world that, for him, revolved around three big Ms – musicians, mobsters and marijuana. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about all three.

Really the Blues will appeal to music lovers because Mezzrow knew just about every famous jazz artist of the period. He jammed with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and many others. His unadulterated portraits of these talented people and their colorful milieu are fascinating.

The Mob also played a prominent role in Mezz’s life. He worked in some of Al Capone’s road houses, was turned onto opium by a member of Detroit’s vicious Purple Gang, and had Dutch Schulz try to muscle in on his marijuana distribution business.

And, yes, there is marijuana, lots of, as it was referred to in the ‘20s, muta, tea, reefer or muggles (the word pre-dates Harry Potter). In fact, Mezzrow was such a heavy user (a viper) and dealer that in his circle of acquaintances it became known by another slang term–the mezz–and was referenced as such in the song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The book contains gritty descriptions of the joys and subsequent lows of drug addiction. His four-year stint as an opium addict is particularly grim.

The stories are great, whether or not they’re all true is questionable, but what makes this book distinctive is the style in which it’s written.  As you can tell by the paragraph quoted above, the prose tends to flow like musical cadences and is rife with jazzy slang. This can make for disconcerting reading at first but it soon seems natural and appropriate to the author and what he’s describing.  If you have difficulty with the slang, the back pages contain a helpful glossary.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s a strange, often lurid tale, told in a distinctly unusual manner by an arch iconoclast. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy this ain’t it.  But if you have an interest in the history of music or the Chicago underworld or are just in the mood for something really unusual then give Really the Blues a try.  It’s a book you won’t forget.

Check the WRL catalog for Really the Blues

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 21,900 other followers

%d bloggers like this: