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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Favorite Red Books

Steph over at Steph's Cup O' Tea is blogging about color and it prompted me to take a look at my library and think about my favorite books with covers that are red. The most important red book on my shelf is one I blogged about a few weeks ago, so if you want to read a book that is literally and metaphorically about the red see My Little Red Book. Funny and heartwarming. Every woman should own a copy.

Another book near and dear to my heart is Our Bodies; Our Selves and all editions are not red but mine "Expanded and Updated for the 90's!" just happens to be, so I will include it in this extravaganza of red. If there is a woman out there who has not read "Our Bodies; Ourselves" Go out right now and read it. For a few years in the early 90's it was like my bible. It is everything about a woman's body that you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask. You can't be a fully empowered woman without a fully empowered understanding of the inner workings of your body.

Now to turn topics 180 degrees, let me introduce any readers to one of the best books I have read in the past few years which also happens to have a cover that is red: The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime. This novel tells its story from the point of view of an autistic boy. He has a riveting perspective and he manages to unravel several mysteries, each one is as compelling as the one before it. This is a short, reasonably fast book to read. I guarantee you will enjoy it.

So there you are! Enjoy your many red reads! let me know if you have a favorite book that is red.