Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Holiday Gift Ideas for Everyone on Your List


For the reader and literature fan:

People are abuzz over the new Raymond Carver biography written by Carol Sklenicka. Carver is considered the father of the modern short story. His biographer has shed some fascinating light on his writing and on the editor who made him famous. An avid fiction reader would enjoy a collection of Carver stories and this biography. Read all about it in this great interview by writer and IU Journalism professor emeritus Carol Polsgrove and in this NY Times article.


For your favorite feminist:

The New York Times op ed columnist Gail Collin's new book: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present looks like a fascinating modern history of people and events that happened just before I came of age. Our aunts and mothers and grandmothers fought battles to end sexual discrimination in the workplace, to be able to have their credit cards in their own names, or to be payed equitably with their male counterparts. This book should be must read for all of us. It is on my Christmas wishlist and I am 15th in line to get it from the library. Thanks for the recommend Marsha!




For those who like their narrative in graphic form:

American Widow looked like a compelling memoir of a pregnant woman who kissed her husband good-bye on September 11, 2001, as he left for his first day on the job with Cantor-Fitzgerald, and never saw him again. I ordered it in hardback from Amazon.com without looking at the fine print. The book is beautiful, but surprised me when it turned out to be a graphic novel. Alissa Torres's story is told frame by frame with speech bubbles and handwritten voice over narration. Not my favorite read of the year, but it may have been that I did not appreciate the format. You may have someone on your gift list that does and it is a unique way to tell the sad and tragic tale.




If you want to send a taste of Bloomington, Indiana to someone:

My favorite local book this year was Susan Brackney's lovely little story of beekeeping which I reviewed a bit earlier this year. She got a mention on an Oprah website as well. How about sending this fine book to friends along with some Southern Indiana honey?

And of course there's this little gem which includes many of my favorite writers in Bloomington. Get it on Amazon.com.




For the tween girl on your list:

Before you let your tween break open the covers of the latest vampire romance, give her this great story of Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet loves to spy and makes honest observations about her friends in her writer's notebook. She wants to be a writer when she grows up. Harriet inspired me to
start a journal at age 11. She will always be a very important character to me.

Add a beautiful p
en and a nice handmade journal to the gift. Tell her that in the olden days, when we wrote our secrets and thoughts, they were kept private and not broadcast over the internetz for everyone to read and talk about.





For the transformational leader on your list:

Women Writing for (a) Change is a grassroots movement that uses writing
as a tool to craft a more conscious life. Started by feminist, leader, and former English teacher
Mary Pierce Brosmer, the school has spun off 8 affiliate schools, dozens of teachers, and
programs that give voice to young women and girls, men, incarcerated women, and anyone who
has lost their voice. I'm a believer. When you give this book to anyone include a candle
and an invitation to a writing sampler class like this one.





A delightful choice for your mother or great aunt:


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is doing the go around at book groups this year. This clever piece of historical fiction and epistolary novel will be beloved by your grandmother, so if you need to buy her a gift look no further. The history of the Channel Islands during WWII is not very well known so the setting and place and time is fascinating to learn about. It's set in the past where we accomplished everything by writing letters, and I know grandmothers love to read and write letters and talk about the era before we were all facebooking and texting and communicating via the internet. It is also just a clever, albeit a tad predictable, tale of a woman who finds her true community in this odd little place in history.




A Copy of this in Everyone's Stocking:

On January 20th, 2009 Elizabeth Alexander made history by being the 4th person to write and read a poem in honor of a presidential inauguration. I fear that given the way people rushed off after President Obama's oath and inaugural speech many did not hear this woman's very beautiful tribute to a very important day in history. Praise Song for the Day is available as a chapbook from Graywolf press. It would make a nice addition to a stocking this holiday. I have read and re-read and written about this lovely poem. I am putting it on my list as well.



Esmerelda is going to take a few days off to get ready for the holidays and read some more. She will post again about great reads after January 1st. May your holidays be filled with poetry and good good stories.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Driving with Dead People by Monica Holloway

As many of you know I like cemeteries and funeral homes and obituaries. I am not all that morbid, I have simply discovered that the things that represent the end of life often have the most powerful stories contained within them.

When I picked up this book with a cursory glance at the back cover, it seemed to be about a young woman's coming of age as she worked at a small town mortuary and drove a hearse. About three quarters of the way through the book, while very compelling, I realized that this was more about a young woman's survival at the hands of abusive and neglectful parents. Although there was a thin thread running throughout this memoir about her friendship with the family who owned the mortuary and how she spent weekends driving a hearse to pick up bodies, the book really did not focus on that at all. It seemed a little like a bait and switch. What drew me to the book was not what kept me reading.

The beauty of this novel was that as more of Monica's life unfolded and the more you learned about her childhood of horrors, the more you realize on how many levels the family was and is Driving with Dead People. You realize that even though the thread of her job and the antics at a mortuary are only small stories in her memoir, they represent the happiest times of her life.

The writing is very compelling. It took me a few days to get into it, but overall, it reads very quickly and you will really root for the narrator and her sister. They are the true survivors and have managed to make it through the storm.

This book will remind readers of the Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Their style and storytelling abilities are quite similar.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

A fine first novel


Thanks to the recommendation of a friend and fellow reader (thanks M.) , I decided to check out The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Ms. Adamson is a poet by trade, so I figured that her prose would be magical. I find most poets know how to string words of prose together better than any writer. They have a real sense of rhythm and timing and cadence.

A widow is on the run from some menacing brothers after committing a crime. She manages to elude them and have some great adventures and find peace and contentment in a mining camp. She falls in love, makes great friends, and contemplates her sad childhood and even sadder marriage.

M summed my feelings for the book best when she said, "you just feel as though you want to keep following her on her adventure." You want to know what happens next. How will the widow escape? Will her true love find her? What lies in wait for her and the dwarf (yes, there is even a dwarf) as they head further west into the Yukon?

This is a perfect escapist read. A page turner and adventure about a strong woman and a very different time. Oh, and Ms Adamson's prose is like poetry. Every page feels perfectly narrated and perfectly told.

I don't read much fiction anymore, but I am very glad I took the time out for this one. It will stay with me for a long long time.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Our book has arrived!

I raced to the Poplar Grove school house last Sunday to be one of the first people to see the book that we have put together celebrating 5 years of Women Writing for (a) Change in Bloomington. Women with Wings features many women from the Bloomington School and from the circles we hold at the Monroe County Corrections Center for incarcerated women.

One of the exciting things for me was how much a labor of our community the book became. In addition to all the contributions by all the fabulous writers and getting the opportunity to work with Lauren (my co-editor) and Beth (the owner of the school who gave gracious blessings to our project), our cover designer and cover artist were both writers from the community. Thanks to Kim Evans and Yvonne Wittmann! Rebekah, Wednesday night writer, helped us with the books and accounting. The publishers, Paul and Dee Burt from Pen and Publish, helped us bring this book to reality. The day it was set to arrive from the printers fellow writers Kim and Greta tag teamed staying at the schoolhouse to make sure UPS didn't send it back to the warehouse. David and Joan Foor White from New Leaf; New Life very generously donated money so that each women from the corrections center who had a piece in the book could have one of her own . Deb Morrow, also from New Leaf; New Life, helped me track down all the women from the jail so that I could write them and thank them for their contribution and send them the book. Rachael, of Rachel's cafe, is catering a fabulous party for us in celebration of our 5th anniversary. Beth's husband Dan is going to play piano for us at the party. Friends are stepping forward to buy books. The list of support in this town is endless.
I feel so proud to be part of such an amazing community where writing and arts are part of everyone's life and where people care for each other and hold each other up to celebrate. Thanks Bloomington. Thanks Women Writing for (a) Change. Happy 5th Birthday to the Bloomington School. I look forward to many more years of writing in community with some of the finest women and men I know.
Please drop me a line if you would like to purchase a book. They are $15 plus tax and any money we make over and above the cost of the book will help us pay for scholarships for girls and women.
Write me at: amy@womenwritingbloomington.com

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A three dog life by Abigail Thomas

I was introduced to Abigail Thomas when doing research for a memoir writing class I led earlier this semester. She has written several small volumes (less than 200 pages) of memoir and a book about writing memoir.
She calls herself a memoirist.

Ms Thomas has an amazing ability to weave a coherent story out of beautiful fragments or short essays that loosely weave everything together. In this case, Thomas's husband Rich is in a horrible accident that leaves him permanently brain damaged. She spends the next 5 years reflecting on this and adjusting to her new, and she hates to admit it, lovely life which involves buying and moving into a house in upstate New York so she can be close to him in his nursing home, and keeping company with 3 dogs.

This is the type of book that you wish you had written. Ms Thomas is simply very adept at observations about life and making writing seem absolutely effortless. Even as she is a memoirist, you never get the impression that she is telling all or that she is narcissistic. In fact, upon reading some of these lines you become so wrapped up in her prose, that you feel certain she is writing about you.

Here is an excerpt from one essay that is written in second person. It was one of the many enjoyable moments in the book:

After 5 or 6 minutes you will tire and stand back from your work.
A tiny patch has been thinned. Perhaps you will now make coffee
and bring the cup outside. If all goes well, a perfect pink peony bush
will be revealed by lunchtime. There will be slim yellow irises too,
and the big throaty purple ones that remind you, alas, of an old man's
scrotum, but you will weed there too. By early afternoon the sun may
burn through what has been a heavy mist, and should you not be ready
to be dazzled, do not fret. It is time for a nap anyway. Inside you may
notice that what you thought was dust is instead a layer of golden pollen
blowing through the open windows. If only life were more like this, you
will think, as you and the dogs traipse up to bed, and then you realize
with a start that this is life.

She has a gift of storytelling and honesty that will take your breath away. Curl up with a cup of tea on a rainy Sunday with this one.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson

Hiding in the Spotlight has a local connection to Bloomington. The author, Greg Dawson, grew up in Bloomington and the subject of this book, his mother Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, was a music professor at the Jacobs School of Music.

As an adult, Greg was astounded to discover his mother was a Holocaust survivor, a secret she kept his whole life simply because she did not wish to talk about it. "Why would you tell your children such horrible things?"

Zhanna and her sister Frina were musical prodigies and managed to escape the fate of their Ukrainian Jewish countrymen by changing their identities and playing the piano for their would be executioners.

Her tale of war, survival and eventually arrival in America had me crying throughout the last dozen chapters. Her tale is one of happiness in light of so much horror and sadness and the written story of this tale was heart wrenching. I could not put it down. Mr. Dawson honors his mother and her family through this investigative memoir.

Mr Dawson interviewed some of the key players in their story. He and his family traveled to the Ukraine to see his mother's town and his grandparents gravesite, Drobitsky Yar, which is now marked with the names of all who perished there. In a chilling post script, he describes seeing his mother's and his aunt's names on that memorial. All believed they had perished with their family.

Mr. Dawson is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel and Zhanna Dawson is alive and well in Atlanta. This is a beautful story of survival.

Monday, November 16, 2009

All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg


Every so often I read a book that reminds me of why I want to write. Pulitzer Prize winning news writer, Rick Bragg, wrote a memoir about growing up poor in the South, and how he escaped poverty by writing and storytelling and pure dumb luck. All Over but the Shoutin’ is Bragg’s tribute to his mother and his southern roots and his story of 20 years of writing for different papers.
Part I of the memoir is the story of his youth in Piedmont, Alabama and the very best of the writing. He tells of his father’s abuse and drinking and repeated abandonment; his mother’s hard work and how she always ate last to make sure her growing sons had plenty of meat. Of her picking cotton for hours and hours just to earn a few pennies. Of going hungry and being given corn by neighbors on the street—who were black—in an era when most black neighbors did not have enough to eat. His prose is so rich and so beautiful, I am afraid I cannot do it justice. It felt southern and very full of the bittersweet marrow of life, but ringed in hope and love and also, this cannot be said enough, rooted in exceptionally strong and vibrant storytelling.
Part II continues the tradition as Mr. Bragg leaves his home to follow his journalism career. He eschews love and marriage and family of his own to chase the story for a series of better and better papers until finally he reaches the holy grail of newspaper journalism: the New York Times. In each place he writes stories about the worst of our society, the homeless, the victims. He spends time in Haiti and is witness to the horrors of a society gone mad with cruelty and killing. Each tale he tells in this section is the story behind the story, what he saw and what it taught him or how it helped propel him forward and what he gave up to pursue his life.
As he tells these tales he remembers his mother and he makes a promise to himself about her, and he also works very hard to overcome his prejudice about who he is and whether he fits in. As his career progresses he finds he does not fit in anywhere. He is embarrassed to be at home because people don’t know him or understand what he is doing, but he also does not quite belong in the exalted corridors of the NYT with all the “fancy people.” It is a familiar theme expertly rendered.
The shortest part, the end, tied it all together. He is able to fulfill his promise to his mother (even as he doubts his motivation for fulfilling the promise). He wins a coveted Pulitzer Prize, and in a three Kleenex chapter takes his mother to the awards ceremony in Manhattan where she rides in her first elevator and gets her first room service.
Rick Bragg spoke in my town last night, I couldn’t go, but I understand he is an even better storyteller in person that he is in print. That would have been quite a show. He has several other memoirs and books in print, and I am not sure if I could read them. I can’t imagine he could top this one.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

This is the story of the summer of 1996 NYC, Greenwich Village. A father witnesses his 15 year old daughter experience a psychic break and allows her to be admitted to a psychiatric ward.

He tells his story of his daughters first descent into and out of madness as it unfolds over the summer. He also weaves in the story of his brother's break with reality and how the brother lives his life in the city, another victim of mental illness.

This is an enjoyable story but almost barely a peak into the kind of anxiety and stress that mental illness can cause in a family. It felt like Greenberg was just skimming the surface. Perhaps the time frame made it feel like a "what I did over the summer" essay as opposed to an exploration of mental illness in a patient so young.

As a memoir, it was enjoyable but given that we learn later that his daughter, Sally, experiences several more psychic breaks throughout her life, you begin to wonder why he told this tale as a simple summer story. It felt almost breezy. Maybe that's okay...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Out in the Country by Mary L. Gray

Often it feels like the national ethos is anti-rural. We urban dwellers distrust the farm, the country and the small town. It comes across in our films, television and new reports. We like rural as long as it is safe and sanitized: corn mazes and pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms.

We also assume that anyone gay will leave the country immediately. No self respecting gay man or woman could stay in a rural place where they are hated and there is no support. Homosexuality and queer gender identity have no place in the country.

Out in the Country is an ethnography and cultural exploration of gay youth in Appalachia and rural Kentucky. It flips normal expectations about being gay and being rural on its head. While still an academic work and a cogent exploration of the gay cultural anthropology which came before this one, the author, Mary Gray, writes poetically about the struggle for equality and personal identity in the small towns of Kentucky.

I enjoyed reading about a local homemakers club which endeavored to present a forum for gay youth at the local public library and a gay drag show in the aisles of Wal-mart. One chapter in the book was devoted to how gay youth use the internet to connect and to understand coming out vis a vis their own personal identity.

Of course an anthropological look at rural gay youth is not going to come away with only happy endings or moral endings. Nothing in life has easy answers and no stories are necessarily ended happily or rightly. Gay people in the country do face challenges and battles to end discrimination, but they do everywhere. This book really helps to delve deeper into a place and a situation which is badly misunderstood and often stereotyped. In our age of culture wars and red states and blue states any narrative or study that helps us to think more fully about a place and a time is a welcome gift.

Full disclosure to my fair readers: Ms. Gray is a friend of mine, and she graciously offered me a copy of her book after I expressed skepticism that little old me could read and understand an academic work. I understand from the rumors that abound in my department that Mary is a gifted up and coming scholar, and her book is winning boatloads of awards from scholarly groups. As a reader of stories and narrative, I was not disappointed. There were pitchforks, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, there was tension and drama and there was literature review. I take it however I can get it.



Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte

Since the election of Barack Obama there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not we live in a post-racial America. Does race still matter? I have spent a lot of my professional career thinking about questions of race and diversity. Race does divide us and even the election of an African American president cannot erase years of prejudice and hatred. Sometimes, being a well-meaning white woman, I don't know what to say or do. Ignore someone who is different, ask about difference and acknowledge it, pretend like there is no difference. There are no easy answers and this memoir by poet Toi Derricotte does not give me an easy way out.

I loved this book because it explains a point of view about race and race relations that I can never understand because I have not lived it. It acknowledges racism and the burdens of hundreds of years of collective mistreatment of African Americans through the eyes of a black woman who looks white. Her discussion of race and it's implication in her life are very very compelling. She considers the subtlest of racist comments and how they make her feel to the barring of herself and her professional husband from a country club because of their race or even the utter isolation she feels at an artists' colony when she realizes she is the only black face among a sea of well meaning artists. She does not want to be branded as "being too sensitive" but it is hard not to see and hear and take in all of the racial divides at every turn.

What I understand best about race and about being black is that you cannot escape it. One is black 100% of the time, and I have the white privilege of living in a society where my race is not considered all the time. I had heard that before in diversity seminars which I have attended, but never really understood it until I read and thought about Ms Derricotte's story.

In some ways her story seemed hopeless. As if we will never escape these feelings for each other. We will never be able to join hands and take part in the famous dream, but I also believe that in reading stories like this and in striving to understand each other we take tiny steps toward healing and ending racial divides. The writing and the insights in this book are beautifully rendered and emotionally compelling. Ms Derricotte is a fabulous and insightful storyteller. I think white folks need to read this book.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lying by Lauren Slater

"There is only one kind of memoir I can see to write and that's a slippery, playful, impish exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark."
From Lying by Lauren Slater

I could puzzle over this fascinating tale for a long time. Lauren Slater has written a memoir about lying which isn't really true. It's a lie. So if it is a lie how can it be memoir? The truth is that Slater really writes as a metaphor. Her story, as compelling as it is, she claims as metaphor.

The tale she weaves is very sophisticated and full of subtle tricks and clever manipulations. The reader must constantly ask, is this true? Is this a lie? Does it matter?

At one point she observes that most fictions are made up of true events and most memoir has a lot of made up stuff. Who's to say what is true and what is not true?

The loose tale of this narrative which is also very interesting to me on a personal level is the author's coming of age beset by a very serious case of epilepsy. One of the side effects of this type of epilepsy is a propensity to lie. So is the story real or made up? At one time she lays all the possibilities out for the reader. All the different diseases she might have or might not and all the different ways this story might have been told.

This tale is endlessly fascinating...a puzzle within a story. Or a series of puzzles that make up a story...or don't. Everything is cast into doubt but everything seems true. The writing is so beautiful, the idea so brilliant, and the narrative so compelling that you can't stop thinking about it and flipping around her sentences and her words.

The story appealed to me because it is not boring and the words are carefully chosen and beautifully strung together. Some (like Oprah!) might get put off by the lying. Ultimately it raises important questions about the nature of truth and the difference between truth and fact.

Slater has a couple of other well known books about mental health and illness. I look forward to reading all of them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Its NANOWRIMO time again!

Dear Readers,

Apologies for not posting in awhile. I am embarrassed at my lack of posting. Most of my reading over the past month has been in the form of short essays and articles that I am reading for a class I am taking. I have also been doing a boatload of writing for this class, and some personal projects I have taken on. There will be lots more about some of those projects in future posts.

For now, any would be writers out there should remember the best kick-in-the-pants you will ever get for getting your novel off the ground is NANOWRIMO. National Novel
Writing Month is November and every day that month if you write 1600 words (or thereabout) you will end the 30 day month with a nice little 50,000 word novel.


Chris Baty, the founder and mastermind behind nanowrimo, has written a book on how to write your novel in just 30 days which I highly recommend. Because if writing a novel is on your bucket list, this might be the way to getter' done. It is fun. It is crazy, and the nanowrimo website has great chat rooms and writer support. I have participated 5 times. I won (finished 50,000 words) four of those five times. This year....I am not so sure. With my plate full of writing commitments that may earn me some actual money, I am not sure if I can nanowrimo. I'll keep you posted. But I may try that next best thing to nanowrimo and that is nablopomo.

Keep writing and stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rest in Peace Mr. Kennedy




We were visiting DC with our good friends the Vogelsangs during Spring break of 2006. When we left the Senate Office building we ran into Senator Kennedy. He graciously offered to pose for a picture with us, gave us tourist tips and talked with us about environmental legislation. It made our trip very special. Thank you Senator Kennedy. You were a good good man and a great statesman. We will always remember that special day.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Weekends at Bellevue

When I read the “about the author” blurb on the back page of the book, I could easily see Julie Holland, poised and perfect and sitting on the set at Good Morning America talking about psychopharmacology or the aftermath of 9/11. She has that polished professional look about her from her picture on the front cover.

So I loved getting to see the underside of that professional. I loved hearing her inner monologue about her treatment of patients, her fascination with psychiatry and her love of Bellevue hospital. I love the stories of strange patients and her fear of them . Working a psych ward is a very harrowing job.

She did an excellent job of explaining just what kind of person you have to be work weekend nights at the Bellevue Psychiatric Ward and what kind of person she really was inside.

She tried for a few story arcs within the individual chapters of the horrifying patients. The one that was most stirring was the story of her dear friend Lucy, also the head of the ER department, who died of cancer. The stories of her own marriage and motherhood were important to the overall arc of the story but not compelling parts of narrative. I was waiting and interested to hear what happened to her on 9-11 but since she only works weekends that was really a non-story in the narrative. What is interesting for her and for the reader about 9-11 is that she will feel the after affects of the event for years afterwards.

I think the piece that was missing was some sense of history or of the public reputation of Bellevue. I feel like Bellevue is this apocryphal hospital, and I wanted to know more about it. I got a glimpse of that history and reputation briefly toward the end when she tells a tale of a family trying to get their daughter out of Bellevue telling the good doctor that it is some sort of hell hole. The doctor makes fun of this attitude, but that belief comes from somewhere. If the book was a little long, I guess I would have liked less chapters on the nookie in the call room (I think I have seen all that on Grey’s Anatomy.) and more on Bellevue the institution.

This was an early review and I would be glad to share it if anyone is interested.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Year of Harry Potter


My dear sweet son started the 6th grade yesterday. Deep breath. I can hardly beleive I have an 11 year old son. (Of course my 70 year old mother can hardly beleive she has a 44 year old daughter either.)

My son goes to a special school for kids who struggle with language processing disorders. Grayson has a hard time with something the school psychologists and testing gurus call "fluency". This means that he has a hard time remembering order or remembering what came before and what comes next. Reading is very difficult for him as he often does not remember what happened on the page before the one he is reading now.

He loves story and he loves to be read to. I often re-cap and retell chapters so he can remember them. We still enjoy quiet time in the evening reading together before bed. I love it.

He decided a few weeks ago that he wanted to read all three of the Harry Potter books that he has not read (I have read the first four to him) himself--starting with the biggest and the baddest: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (number 5 in the series) He wants to finish them by the time the last movie comes out in the theaters in November of 2010. Many of you probably have very smart children and reading the Harry Potter series was easy for them, but for my kid, this is a big deal. It will probably take him most of the school year to get through number 5.

Stay tuned for our updates. Perhaps I will get him to blog about the experience. It should be a great party when we finish them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff

In college I had an acquaintance with a life experience very much like Mishna Wolff's. Mishna, like my friend Sarah, was white and raised in an all black neighborhood by white parents. Mishna grew up in Seattle, Washington. Sarah grew up in rural Mississippi. Unlike me, who grew up in an all white suburb and went to an all white high school, Mishna and Sarah both spent a great amount of their growing up years considering questions of race in ways that most of us have not.

When Sarah first told me about growing up in Alcorn, Mississippi, I asked her what it was like to leave rural Mississippi and arrive at Northwestern which is a predominantly white upper middle class university. Sarah said something funny like "white folk can't dance, play basketball or do hair." We also talked about academic preparedness. Sarah admitted that her black high school alone would not have prepared her for college work. She had an active reading and writing life outside her high school classroom thanks to her parents who were college professors. I did not ask her much more than this as race is often an awkward topic. I would hate to appear racist by asking the wrong question.

I always regretting not knowing more of Sarah's story. So when I spotted I'm Down by Mishna Wolff, a white girl whose white father, convinced he was black, raised her and her sister in a black neighborhood, I snapped it up and enjoyed every page of it.

Mishna tells her tales about being white in a black world with humility, humor and grace. The earliest chapters are the best. She learns how to fit in at summer camp by learning how to cap. She struggles with her father over what sports to take up by virtue of how black the sports are. Black people don't ski. It's too cold. She finds she has a hard time fitting in when she gets accepted to a predominantly white private school. Poor Mishna does not really fit into a white world or a black one.

In later chapters as Mishna begins to get a sense of both worlds and how to survive in each, I was amazed that her father and stepmother begin putting her down for her activities and honors which will in the end help her get ahead and get out of poverty. They accuse her of being snooty and elitist. They try to force her to quit activities so she can take up a minimum wage job at age 14. I fear that may be the biggest battle we fight when trying to overcome poverty, a sense that doing things like reading or playing an instrument or playing on a team is some how elitist. Accusing a 14 year old of snobbery when she likes to read is a good way to get someone to stop reading.

If the subject of race and class interests you or you like well told stories, you should enjoy this sweet memoir.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

To publish or not to publish

At a convivial gathering of fellow readers and writers last week, talk turned to whether or not is was necessary to publish one's memoir. Most of us agreed that writing memoir was an exercise in ridding our lives of the demons that have haunted us since childhood. Whatever the ailment, the simple act of writing it down helped us to understand and to deal with the bad memories or the hurt childhood. What do you do with it then? Do you try to publish it? What is the point?

Since most of my reading of late has been memoir, I feel eternally grateful for the writers out there who tell thier story for all to read. It is comforting to know stories that resonate with my own, but it is even more important that memoirists feed me with stories that have no bearing on my life. In order to understand humanity in all it's forms, I need to understand all stories from all perspectives.

I just finished a particularly compelling life story. Karen Armstrong, the famed writer of the History of God, has penned a riveting account of the depression that enveloped her after she had left the convent in which she was a sister for 7 years. It is not simply the story of a women who is regaining her foothold in a fast changing world, but it is the story of paradise lost and then paradise found again. Sometimes you have to loose your religion in order to get it back.

I loved her human frailty and her discovery of what was most important to her in early days again as an adult. I loved that she stumbled a lot before she found her way. It should give any woman hope and courage to face what is out there. Reading about finally being diagnosed with epilepsy after doctors kept telling her she was tired or crazy was especially enlightening for me given my son's struggles with epilepsy. Put this on your list of must read memoirs.

When your memoir is finished where will it end up? In your bedside drawer? In the trash? Or with a lovely cover for sale on Amazon? I hope on Amazon. All stories need to be told.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Let's Not Tell Anyone

Tonight my husband and I went to dinner at a new Bloomington restaurant called The View. It was a perfect summer night: balmy and warm but not too warm. The restaurant has a lovely patio which has a great--you guessed it--view of Lake Monroe and the hills of southern Indiana. They serve fancy pub food: hamburgers, veggie burgers, sweet potato fries, pizzas and salads with fresh greens. They have a great wine and beer list and Wednesdays are half price on bottles of wine.

This is the way a summer evening should be. Calm and breezy with good food prepared by nice people. Friends and family out on the patio enjoying the same summer night. I thought, as a gazed out on the beautiful hills of our lovely region, let's not tell anyone about how fabulous it is here. Let's keep it our little secret. Shhh...

Friday, July 31, 2009

Down Around Midnight


This book--captivitating, honest, poetic and well written--will live on for me for a long time because I read it aloud to my husband on our trip home from our vacation in southeastern Pennsylvania. The driving time was 8 hours, and as my son happily watched a movie on his DVD player, I read this haunting memoir aloud from cover to cover. We were both mesmerized. I finished just as we were heading up Boltinghouse Road into Bloomington and into our own driveway.

Robert Sabbag experienced a nightmare in the summer of 1979. He was returning to Cape Cod by plane when without warning the plane crashed into a vast forest. He and his fellow survivors--there were 9 including the co-pilot--waited in the dark injured and bleeding and in various states of consciousness for hours before rescue arrived. Then they all convalesced and went their separate ways. Robert tried to put it behind him until 30 years later he felt he he had to investigate the event and write his story. He managed to locate 4 of his fellow passengers from the horrible nightmare and a number of EMT's and hospital personnel who were on duty that night.

This story, as any good memoir reader or writer will tell you, is not a tale told in a linear fashion. It is a catastrophic event meant to be viewed from all sides as a whole piece of truth. The story and it's aftermath is witnessed mainly through Robert Sabbag's reliable eyes (or are they reliable?), but he does a great job of interweaving the stories of the families who were waiting at the airport and the pilot who should not have been flying and the paramedics who bushwhacked their way into the forest and had to carry them on stretchers a mile out of the forest.

This is also the story of a very particular place: Cape Cod. He creates a loving portrait of the peninsula he has come to call home, and as he is re-creating his story of crash and recovery he does it with the backdrop of this historic and eccentric place. I have been to the Cape only twice, but I felt the essential life of the Cape coming through in all the chapters.

This book was pure poetry and Robert Sabbag is a fantastic writer. It is worth noting, that the most haunting parts of the story are naturally the ones he could not tell--the four people from the crash--three young sisters and the co-pilot--who he did not get the opportunity to interview for the book. I hope they read it and understand.

This book also does a great job of presenting and talking about PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Not too much clinical information or psychological babble, but the poetry of living with PTSD.

I highly recommend this book. It is a fast and enjoyable read.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cocktail Play Dates


Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore by Rachel Brownell is my early review for the month of July. A forty something woman from Seattle who writes and blogs for a living, Ms Brownell told her story of recovery from alcohol addiction.

Lately, I have been interested in the idea of addiction. As I get older I discover that most of us do have an addiction of some form or another. Some people's addictions land them in jail, some just overweight, some strapped for cash and others are simply in a sorry mental state.

Whatever the addiction, if yours is one, like Rachel's, that beats up your psyche, your marriage and ultimately your relationship with your kids, getting help is imperative. Rachel sought out Alcoholics Anonymous and was able to beat her addiction to alcohol. She writes her story of how she got addicted to wine and her first year in recovery.

This very short memoir read like a series of blog posts combined with being a self help manual for recovering addicts. The entire story was a quick read and each entry--representing a chunk of time on the road to gaining her 1 year chip at the AA meetings--felt like something from a blog. Each entry left me wanting more. For example, one of the first people she called after she left her first AA meeting was her mother, who was also a recovering alcoholic. She did not recount any of the conversation or let us know what her mother said. As a reader, I missed this conversation. This is actually a testament to how good the writing was. It felt original and very raw. Her story was incredibly honest... for example, at one point she writes, "I'm proud to call myself an alcoholic, because I'd rather be something real than hide away any longer and pretend everything is just fine when it isn't..."

She successfully built suspense around whether her marriage would survive or not, and she really helped me to understand what it was like to be addicted to alcohol. I loved that for the first 90 days of recovery she wasn't even sure she was an alcoholic and how she came to the conclusion that she had a problem and the pain and grieving she went through as she said good-bye to her former best friend (wine).

In addition to the thought provoking testament to the hardships of addiction and recovery, some of her entries were about things you can do as a family besides cocktail play dates and how to know if you have a problem with alcohol. They seemed sweet to me because if you are not an alcoholic, they were self evident. Also, these entries and her revelations about the sweetness of motherhood were really lovely.

Ultimately I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in addiction and recovery. It is a great road map for success or could be a great support to someone struggling with the same issues. Mommy can be read in an evening.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Good Good Pig


"People ask, 'Will you get another pig?' This I don't know. But one thing I know for sure: a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature. I am keeping my eyes open." from The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood by Sy Montgomery.




So I picked up this curious little gem about, of course, a pig. The first fascinating thing I learned about pigs is that no one really knows how long they live, almost all pigs are slaughtered as soon as they are fat enough. The ones that serve as breeding sows are slaughtered as soon as they stop producing enough baby pigs--6 years at the most. Are there any other domestic animals that we treat this way?

So the hero of our story, lived an amazing 13 plus years and affected a lot of people in the process. The flowers and notes came from all over when Christopher Hogwood shuffled off this mortal coil. People loved and admired this pig.

This book isn't really about Christopher Hogwood, although he is a major player. This book is really an autobiography about naturalist and writer Sy Montgomery told through the lens of the life of her hog. She is the animal lover and she is the person who makes a life with animals. She understands them the way most humans do not. Her description of her affection for other creatures reminded me a lot of Temple Grandin who wrote Animals in Translation, another book about someone who can understand animals.

I recommend this book for Steph, for animals lovers of all kinds, for those who like a good story about pure love and devotion, and people who are seeking a great soul in any form.

Although I don't profess to have a kinship for animals, I did recently know a great good dog. Who are the great souls you have known--animal or not?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Little Bee


A friend recommended this book to me and suggested (as does the book jacket) that there is some big secret or mystery at the end that could not be revealed. This book was a lovely, almost poetic work, but it hardly needs a marketing ploy to keep the reader turning pages. Chris Cleave is simply a magical writer.

This is the kind of story which is almost impossible to get through because you can imagine the horrors that are perpetuated upon children in Nigeria pretty easily. You know that although this is a work of fiction--the rapes and murders are hardly fictitious.

So take a deep breath and read about Little Bee who escapes the madness, finds refuge in a detention center and then finds a place to call home in England. Read about the woman who she meets on a beach in Nigeria and the horrifying incident that draws them together.

I kept re-reading the end to see if I had missed something. I can often read too quickly and miss important plot points...did something twisty happen while I was thinking about white skin and dark skin together on a beach in Nigeria? I don't think so.

So, I recommend Little Bee. It is not beach reading but a thoughtful Saturday afternoon read. It goes fast--but you will note some very beautiful images and moving passages throughout. Let me know what you think of the ending...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Youth Sports


A local friend writes a parenting blog and does a weekly radio/podcast on the subject of empathic parenting, (Bonus points to Amy M. for the correct use of empathic!) She introduced me to Mark Hyman's book Until it Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Hurts our Children. (A sidenote: I am not particularly interested in youth sports other than to sign my kid up for soccer every spring and fall. Truth be told, I love my kid, but I find going to those games dreadfully boring. No big danger in me turning into a psycho parent.)

Mr. Hyman has written a very short book (no more than 150 pages) that really packs a punch. Youth Sports has become a billion dollar industry fueled by parents and coaches and big business who have taken over the games, all games, in an effort to prepare their kids for the big time. Not many kids are having any fun playing games any more. Well meaning parents and coaches who are past their glory days turn sandlot ball into mini-adult training grounds. What is sad, is that when the games were corrupted 50 years ago it involved only boys...in the advent of Title IX..now we drive girls too hard as well. Mr Hyman has even talked about a new video series for babies to watch to encourage them to become athletes! (As young as 3 months old. The market is there!)

Until it Hurts is quite a page turner and a must read for anyone who has kids, or grandkids or nieces and nephews in youth sports programs. Let's give the games back to the kids.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Alaska!


I both enjoyed and disliked this book.

I enjoyed it because Janice Schofield Eaton has an interesting story to tell, and I felt like she was someone who I could sit next to at a dinner party and enjoy hearing tales of adventure living in Alaska for hours. At the end of the dinner party I would tell her, "You really should write this all down. This is a fascinating story with amazing characters." She lived an exciting life as Alaska was coming of age, and she had the thought to capture it and share it. I was interested in how neighborly everyone was and how Janice and Ed became environmental activists after the Exxon Valdez spill. I was interested in how they got along in the wilds, using outhouses and stocking up on provisions for months at a time. I loved that Janice began to know and catalog medicinal herbs. Its a lovely, captivating story. It felt much the same way that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books felt: deep description about how they do things out on the Alaskan frontier (as opposed to the Prairie).

My problems with the book mostly have to do with her narrative style. It reads almost like a play-by-play book from someone's journal. The dialogue feels unnatural, and there is little personal reflection, simply a catalog on what they did and when. There were no dates until the oil spill, so it felt a little dislocated in time. I kept wondering, when is this going on?

I would love to know how native Alaskans like this story. I will also continue to hope to run into Ms Schofield-Eaton at a dinner party someday. Perhaps I will travel to New Zealand...

This book was part of the ER program on Librarything. If anyone would like to read it, I would love to share it. Just leave a note for me on the blog.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Book Versus Movie?

I work for an academic department that studies film, so I am attuned to the prejudice that book readers have against the movie version of their favorite book. Woe be the director who changes any part of a beloved book when adapting it for the screen! Academics who study film denounce that prejudice and believe, as I have come to believe, that you must rate a film on its own merits. To compare the two texts is inevitable, but you begin to wonder if people who do these comparisons understand that films and books are different mediums and are capable of very different forms of expression. Better to rate all the Harry Potter films against one another, rather than compare them all to their respective books.

Since I have so many books to read on my bedside table, and it is hard to find a good novel, I tend to leave the big blockbuster novels like My Sisters Keeper for the big screen, and so last Wednesday, I went with three good friends to take in this summer "tear jerker".

Apparently, according to my companions, the book My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picault had a very different ending than the movie did. What's worse, they would not tell me the ending and said I had to read the book! Huh? Read the book.

I won't bother with a review of the book. Jodi Picault has written dozens of books which have sold a million copies, no one hardly cares what I think at this point, but I will say this, the movie is much much better and is a good case about why and how movies can be better that books.



A movie does not have to be 100 % loyal to its source material. A script writer, director, and producer can feel free to experiment with different endings and add and subtract different scenes. This is helpful, mostly because to adopt a 300 page novel to a feature film, out of necessity you will need to cut some parts. If you want to have a reasonable length for a book you need to cut some of the subplots. In this case, I found a few of the subplots of the book to be trite, and they happily did not appear in the movie.

So, say what you will about the movie version of the book, they ain't all bad. I would love to hear reader comments on this topic. And your favorite book to movie adaptation...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Well said...

Mary Pierce Brosmer at Women Writing for (a) Change sent me this commencement address:

Well said, Mr. Hawken. These words were a gift.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine and the End of France

Remember back a few years ago when Americans all hated France? What was that about? We renamed french fries freedom fries and we wouldn't drink french wines. I think it had something to do with the French government's stance on the Iraq war. The French are just a little too superior to Americans, and we don't like that so we won't drink your wine. So there.

Michael Steinberger is an American who loves France. More importantly he loves eating and French Food and wine and has written a lovely memoir--almost an elegy--about the decline of French gastronomy. Fine french wines and restaurants and cheeses are all is various states of decline and ruin. And are being eclipsed by the English, the Americans and *gasp* Spain.

I approached this book feeling like it was something I needed to get through, but I came away very taken with the beauty of these timeless french industries and the history and culture behind them. The author really led me in to the French restaurant industry -- the three start restaurants and how they were earned and what they said about a man (no women here) and his love for fine cooking.

The book tries to explain what has happened to French restaurants and does so with loving care. While I lost interest during the long parade of french chef's and how they were inter connected, I loved the chapter called "The Last Gentleman of Europe" where Steinberger profiles the last of the big three star Parisian Restaurants to loose its star. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. I also loved the chapter about McDonald's role in France. Contrary to popular belief, the french love their McDo.

Steinberger points his finger at France itself for the demise of some of its most cherished industries (not at crass Americans or
stupid Spaniards.) He discusses French policy and politics towards industry and regulations, and calls to France for some basic reforms to save its own products and culture. One chapter is all about the Michelin guide and how it serves to encourage tourism, but is also filled with hypocrisy. After all, Michelin really just wants to sell tires.

I was surprised that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. The real story here is not that long parade of French chef's who cook and influence French culture, but the farmers and cheese makers and restauranteurs who are trying valiantly to remain French and carry on their long standing traditions. Each chapter surprised me a lot and taught me something new about France. Although this may not be your best summer beach read, it is a great story about France and its people. It will make you feel a little bad about all that French wine you do not drink.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Luck Factor


Several friends have been blogging about luck in the past few days. Steph writes of a formula to partially explain her luck. (Luck=opportunity + preparedness) Quite serendipitously, I was reading a book about luck. Richard Wiseman, a scholar from the UK, has spent his career studying the luck phenomenon and all things paranormal. In his work, he takes a hard look at serendipity, and one of the many conclusions that he reaches, that I love, is that serendipity is really not so serendipitous--it is really quite ordinary. We may not recognize it, but luck/karma/serendipity happens all the time. He teaches us to attune ourselves to it.

He asks readers to write down the memory of how they met their partner or spouse, how they found their current career, and how they met their closest friend. Was there some chance encounter at play in founding that relationship or causing the spark that made that decision for you? Most people begin to realize how lucky they are when they imagine how they met their best friend and realize that they wouldn't know this person if they had taken a different class or their car hadn't broken down in front of that store. When you take the long view of luck, you begin to see how lucky you really are.

Wiseman concludes that improving your luck is a factor of several things: 1) Opening yourself up to as many experiences as possible. Doing things, going places, meeting people, trying new foods. 2) Following your instincts and hunches. 3) Knowing what you want and going after it. 4) (My number one) Learning to recognize and appreciate how lucky you are. Becoming a glass half full kind of person goes a long way in making yourself feel more lucky.

So Steph and Dr. Wiseman and the Lucky girl seemed to have stumbled upon some great wisdom. I wish you all much luck and the wisdom to know when you have it. Please let me know about your lucky encounters. Or better yet, open up your journal and write about them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

This just in...

The local author I mentioned a few weeks ago has just had her book selected as one of the top 25 best reads of the summer by Oprah! She's number 14!

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Book We All Should Write


I picked up Not Becoming my Mother: and Other Things She Taught me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl after hearing her interviewed on NPR a few weeks ago. It is not your usual memoir. It is more an elegy for her mother. It is remarkable in several ways.

First, Ms Reichl has always known her rather colorful mother has kept a shoebox full of her letters and diaries but had never found it. One day she stumbles across this treasure trove of writings by her mother and decides she needs to write the book her mother would have written. What a gift for any daughter! To find your mother's letters and writings and to begin to understand her in a way that you had not before, would be a priceless treasure. Our mothers can be mysterious. At the same time, they are the women we are most like and we strive to most understand. We love them, honor them, respect them and cherish them, but as the author suggests, we try not to repeat the same mistakes they did. Relationships with mothers are always bittersweet.

Second, Ms Reichl makes an important argument for why women need to find important and fulfilling work. She writes of her mother's boredom at being part of a generation of women who were educated, but could not work because it was not respectable. Reichl knows after watching her mother and father interact that the true secret to happiness is having something meaningful for yourself. She knew this and sensed this from her mother and always understood that she would have a career. Her mother's gift to her, realized in the writing of this simple book, was that she wanted her daughter to do everything in her power not to be the same woman she was. A second amazing gift and understanding. From mother to daughter.

Last, it is a very simple and beautifully written narrative. It is short enough to finish in an evening, but it is so beautiful it will leave you thinking for hours. (or better yet , thinking about writing your own story for your own mother.) I would love to be so gifted that I could write a book like this.

So try to write your mother's story and see what it stirs up in you. Remember, we've come a long way baby!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Audio Books


I picked up The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell as a 6 CD audio book. I only listen to audio books on long solo car trips with much time and Interstate space to fill.

Sarah Vowell is a frequent contributer to NPR programs. I have heard her several times on This American Life and I love her voice (she voiced Violet in the Pixar animated film The Incredibles). Among other things, she writes about history with a twist, and I had just heard her read a great piece on This American Life about General Lafayette's triumphant return to America in 1824.

The Wordy Shipmates is a commentary and non-fiction account of the pilgrims and the puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid 17th century. I was looking forward to listening to this because she is very funny and very observant and again, she has this great reading voice and the CD's promised to bring in guest actors to read the parts of the pilgrims. (If you are marginally familiar with pop culture and look at the CD jacket you'll note an impressive array of guest readers.)

Well, I have to admit, it was not the most rousing work to listen to on a long car trip. My attention kept wandering. Yes, she used some of her characteristic humor, but I do not think she could decide if she wanted to book to be a funny piece that was a comment on history and the religious underpinnings of our nation or a serious historical work that happened to have some snarky comments injected in the narrative. As an audio book, it did not hold my interest for the 12 plus hours of driving I had to do.

Generally, I think that listening to a story and reading a story are different adventures in understanding a narrative so don't let me discourage you from exploring this work and others by her. She really is a quite astute observer of life and interpreter of history. Check out This American Life to listen to one of her many audio stories.

Do you have a favorite Audio book? Do you prefer listening or reading yourself?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Do Over! by Robyn Hemley

Over the past several years I have read dozens of memoirs (also known as literary non-fiction) and I have observed that they fall into one of two categories. One type of memoir is an adult’s reminiscences of child hood or a past chapter of their life—usually bad or awkward or troubled. In this first category of memoir, the adult is looking back to a childhood usually brimming with pain and viewing it with clarity and new insights. In this genre, I have read books about anorexic or alcoholic or promiscuous teen years. I have read tales of parents who are crazy or aunts who were missing or children who had radical surgeries performed upon them when parents thought they were doing it in the best interest of the child. Some of these tales are funny or sad or just plain self-indulgent.

The second type of memoir is what I like to call the “stunt” book. A writer sets parameters or rules by which they will live their life for a specified period of time (usually, one year) that are thought provoking and then writes about their social experiment. After a year, they write the “what-did-I learn-about-myself- my-world-and-my-community” memoir. Some I have read include: a year without electricity, a year with only eating locally grown foods and a year without buying anything made in China.



When I got my latest early review copy, Do Over: In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom and other embarrassments, from Library Thing, I thought I had picked up the “stunt” book type of memoir. It looked a little dull, and I was eager to read it and get it over with. The premise is that the writer, Robin Hemley, has decided to re-do parts of his childhood that were unhappy or did not go well. He picked 10 events or time periods from Kindergarten to High School and spent the better part of a year re-visiting those time periods in an effort to make better memories and learn something about himself.

He sets up a series of rules about how these events will transpire and writes 10 essays- one about each experience. He revisits Kindergarten, 6th grade and 8th grade. He re-does summer camp, study abroad in Japan, a school play that went awry, goes to his first prom and explores the notion of home for someone who never lived in one place for very long while growing up.

I was very surprised that this stunt turned into a poignant and charming traditional memoir. As he relived all his child-hood faux pas as an adult, he told his own story. It is revealed slowly and in roughly chronological order with the saddest and sweetest tales coming toward the end. The death of his mother, the feelings that accompany the notion of not really having a true place to call home, and regrets at youthful bad behavior.

Mr Hemley achieves something rare in almost every essay. He manages to meet his younger self while navigating the cafeterias and classrooms of his youth and come away with surprising clarity and insight about all his different re-dos. I found myself wrapped up in his little experiment and I cheered for him wildly as each chapter unfolded with minimal awkwardness and an unexpected amount of good karma and genuine interest in his project. His writing is both touching and at times very very funny.

As both a traditional narrative memoir and a “stunt” memoir it is effective and well thought out. Both types of story-telling are expertly woven together. I applaud Mr. Hemley’s courage. I tried to think of some way I might re-do something I hated about my youth and the only thing I could think of to do would not even be worth trying. If I was successful I am not sure how much it would mean to me.

I was pleasantly surprised by this well crafted work of non-fiction. If you enjoy well written memoir--this is a prefect choice.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Local Author


My local paper wrote about Susan Brackney's first book The Lost Soul Companion more than 10 years ago. She produced this lovely little book to help her nurture her starving artist within. I bought it immediately, loved it, and was always impressed that she was able to publish her dream. As a wanna-be writer, I sank right in to the idea and the book because she made it look easy. Hey I can do that!

Perigee books just published this next book of Susan's: Plan Bee: Everything you Ever wanted to Know About the Hardest Working Creature on the Planet. Susan is a bee keeper when she is not writing, and she managed to put a series of thoughtful, whimsical, personal essays together about the life and science of the honeybee. This beautiful book is filled with drawings, quotes and references to bees in literature. She even tells the reader the secret behind making a bee beard!

So if you are a locavore as I am, and love to grow buy and eat locally produced food, you should also give a little attention to your locally inspired writers. Who are the writer's that live in your community?

And for anyone blogging about color--This lovely little book is yellow!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Family Secrets


Here's a passage from pages 47-48 of Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxumberg:

Without really trying, I have become a collector of other families’ secrets. Whenever I tell anyone about my detective work, the first question is invariably something like this: “Can you tell me the secret?” Sure, I say. The next question often is: “Want to hear my family’s secret?”

There’s no shortage of heirlooms in this attic: Hidden affairs, of course, but also hidden marriages, hidden divorces, hidden crimes, even hidden families. I have heard so many secrets that I started a list. One of the most memorable: A man who learned, as a teenager, that his father was leading a double life—two wives, two houses, two sets of children, all two miles apart in a Detroit suburb. Perhaps it’s a testament to the insular nature of suburban life that this master of deception managed to straddle these skew lines for more than a decade before his double life came crashing down around him.


I caught a moment of Steve Luxemberg's interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and his voice and story compelled me to check this book out of the library. I was not disappointed. From the very first page when he discloses his family secret: he had an Aunt he never knew about locked away for more than 30 years in a state mental institution, I was captivated by his tale and more importantly by the investigative process he uses to uncover his mother's secret--never telling him or any of his siblings about the sister she had.

This is two stories: The sad tale of Annie Cohen and her invisible life while on this planet and the story of a middle aged man as he wends his way through a complex bureaucracy of health and medical records, meets relatives he never knew he had, and tracks down old friends and neighbors to check on their memories of the invisible Aunt. Each story, twined with the other, creates a compelling, can't-put-it-down narrative.

No big reveal in the end. This is not fiction. No final letter from his mother telling the story of why she kept this secret from her children. No big folder with pictures and stories from a nurse who cared for Annie. Simply a story of the hidden ones and a man's attempt to give some visibility to someone so invisible. The saddest parts of this narrative is his attempt to locate a picture of this women and none (that he can find) exists, and the image of the monument free cemetery where thousands of patients at Detroit's Eloise hospital died and were buried in obscurity.