Saturday, December 13, 2008


I love to read the obituaries. For obvious reasons, they are an important vehicle to knowing what is going on in one's community. I often spot a friend's family member or an old co-worker who has died. I can more fully understand the story of my town that unfolds every day.

But in addition to that, obituaries are fascinating reading. Small stories of people's lives. Who were they? What did they enjoy? Who loved them? Who did they love?

In the olden days, the cause of death was always printed in the obituary but in the early 80's papers stopped the practice --probably driven by relatives who in the era of AIDS were embarrassed to have the cause of death publicly proclaimed. Cause of death became a private matter.

I love the long obituaries of women who you think never worked outside the home and there you find out they ran the PTO and the church bazaar and attended a book group and drove for meals on wheels and were active in the local historical society. I love reading professor's obituaries that list all the places to which they traveled and the books they wrote. I love the sweet tributes to young people who die. Touching people's lives for a small time but teaching them so much about the shortness and fragility of life.

People live such rich and full lives. I recently read that when George Harrison died the London Telegraph devoted 6 pages to his obituary. When Bob Hope died they devoted 2 pages to his. Most of us truly have a life story that could fill at least that much.

So, my early reviewer book for the month--interestingly enough is The Economist Book of Obituaries. This is a beautiful hardback book of 200 obituaries published by the Economist since 1994. This book is a obituary lovers dream and the writers of these mini-biographies painted fascinating portraits of famous and near famous people.

It is best read as a series of short biographies and it is fun to leaf through and pick out interesting ones. I have read about Brooke Astor and Alex the Parrot. I read the obituary of Steve Irwin and the guy who coined the term WASP.

If you like obituaries--you will love this beautiful book filled with well written stories of the famous and the near famous. If you like to write--take a turn at writing your obituary. What would you like it to say about you?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who is Joan Didion?

As a freshman in Journalism School more than 20 years ago, one of my professors produced a list of journalists, known for the literary style of their writing. He told us to begin reading these men and women. I noted that I had never heard of most of the names on the list and I also promptly forgot about it to go on to whatever was occupying my time in college. Imagine, time for reading, in college!?

The name Joan Didion was on the list and it has haunted me ever since. I saw her name everywhere and on everything. I began to understand she was a prolific writer but had no curiosity about her other than to note she must be pretty old.

Recently, I was reading someone's "top five books that changed my life" and here was a curious title: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by Joan Didion.

It was this very provocative title that finally prompted me to check out a book from the library. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live is a non-fiction collection of 7 of Joan Didion's books which were compilations of her long essays and journalism pieces written since the mid 1960's.

She writes of celebrities (John Wayne and Joan Baez and Howard Hughes) and the hippy culture of California and scandalous murder trials. Her writing is clear and her stories are tightly woven. The writing has a kind of 1960's feel to it--the style and the topics and at times it feels like a there are a few too many acid trips, but it is important writing and as the stories travel on through the years her writing stays fresh and original.

The title of the book aptly describes the power of storytelling to heal, to entertain, to inform and to paint a compelling portrait of the world we inhabit. We DO tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Ms Didion won a National Book Award for her most recent book The Year of Magical Thinking. This is the account of the year after her husband of 40 years died and her daughter was gravely ill. Joan Didion was in her 70s when she wrote this. I am finally reading my college reading list, about 20 years late.

Discovering Didion's work after all these years is really a perfect illustration of how the perfect book arrives at your door just when you need to read it. What books have you read at the right time?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Soldiers Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

I am part of an early reviewer program. Once a month, a website that I belong to, posts a list of about 40-50 books that publishers are offering for early review. I request the ones I think I would like to read and at the end of the month I am notified if I get a book. The publisher mails me a free book and in return I write a review and post it on the website

There is no expectation that I write a positive review--only that i read and write about the book. For awhile I was getting a new book every month. I got to read some really good books and a few dogs. One--a terrible mystery--I could not get through and thus, I did not write a review, but for the most part, I read and wrote about everything that I was sent.

After about 6 months of not getting selected to review a book, I received Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet. Soldiers Heart is an English professor's memoir about her life teaching the cadets at West Point about literature and poetry.

Here's the funny thing about the book: it is not a new book. It has been on the market since 2006 and has won several prizes. I can't figure out why it is an early review. It might be because the book was just released in paperback with a new afterward by the author, but really, it has been out for awhile and has been fairly well received.

How do I know this? Well other than the fact that it says so on the cover of the book I received, it turns out I already bought the book when it first came out in hardback!. I actually bought the book as a gift for my mother two years ago for Christmas.

The idea itself is fascinating. Lets take a look at West Point--the place where army officers are trained to go to war--and hear an expert tell how soldiers learn to appreciate poetry. How do officers become "warrior-poets"? The book illustrates perfectly one of the lessons I am always trying to teach my advisees: the liberal arts teaches someone to think. If I were on the battlefield, I would feel more comfortable if the man or woman I was following thought critically about his situation-largely as taught by reading and writing.

Ms Samet is an excellent writer. He work is infused with lessons taught and learned through poetry and prose. She examines West Point from the point of view of courage and faith. She examines the experience of women at West Point and tells of hearing about 9/11 and some of her students who were killed in Iraq.

I do not think the new afterward added much to the work but overall, readers should find this story of life at West Point a compelling one.

The memoir is a lovely thing and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing the inside of this military academy or is interested in the power and beauty of a liberal arts education.