Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Motherland by Fern Schumer Chapman

At it's heart, this book by a Holocaust survivor's daughter, is a love letter from daughter to mother.  In 1990 Fern and her mother Edith, make a trip back to Edith's hometown in Germany.  The time has come for Edith to visit the past from which she was cut off 50 years before when her Jewish parents sent her to live with relatives in Chicago. The horrors being heaped upon Jewish citizens were growing every day.

The bulk of this memoir is the story of this trip and the memories that Edith relives by setting foot in her village.  This book is a powerful testament to memory and how we care for and shape our memories as we age.  Edith visits her family home and picks up dirt off the basement floor as she is overcome with thoughts of her past.  She visits an odd museum where she swears she sees some of her family's possessions including her school satchel.  These scenes filled me with sadness for Edith, long parted from her family.

Daughter Fern spent her life never really knowing her mother Edith.  Edith could never share with Fern her sorrows and her regrets. Fern never knew any of her mother's childhood or memories of life in Germany.

So there they were togther, building bonds about the past. Edith and Fern learned about all that had happened to Edith's parents after she was shipped from Germany to the USA.  Everything they see and do in Germany feels meaningful and filled with great sorrow.  Toward the end of their trip they hear a confession of a man who treated her family poorly. They meet an old family friend who was filled with vitriol and unhappiness of the time during the war.  Where Edith had shut off the past totally, Mina had lived in the past constantly.  The contrast between the two old friends couldn't have been more stark. 

I loved this story.  Every situation pulsed with meaning and reader's will have a richer understanding of the role that memories can play in all our lives.  It felt like Fern and Edith were solving a real life mystery that involved cemeteries and old photographs and haunting times.  Without spoiling too much, as a reader will want to let this interesting trip unfold to them without knowing much in advance, there is a conversation between Fern and her mother on the last night of the trip which changes the way Fern sees her mother after all these years.  It involves Edith's description of being placed on the boat to America and saying good-bye to her parents forvever. It broke my heart.

The writing was excellent and the story sweet and sad. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Extraordinary Ordinary People by Condoleezza Rice

Throughout reading Condoleezza Rice's memoir, I kept wondering why Republicans don't have more women like her campaigning and running for office.  Rice is bright, articulate and humane, and even though she is a prominent Republican she has always fascinated me.  How did she get to be National Security Advisor then Secretary of State and most importantly, how does a black woman get to be a Republican?

Rice's voice throughout this book was simple and clear.  I felt like she was sitting across from me having tea and telling me the story of her life.  It was all written in very plain language and yet so compelling.  What a life she has led!

But  this is really only her own story vis a vis the two extraordinary people she really wants to write about:  her parents John and Angelena Rice who raised her as part of a middle class black enclave in Birmingham, Alabama during the waning days of Jim Crow.  These two people are the glue that ties Rice's life together. They are the people that made her who she is.  She ends the book after her father dies just after George HW Bush is elected to office and before he is sworn in.  She hints at events to come and notes with sadness that her father never lived to see her as Secretary of State, but he did know she would be Bush's National Security Advisor.  (I needed a hankie for the last chapter.  Her love for her parents is palpable and important to the story.)

I found the story to be most interesting when she writes of her early days in the south and what was like to bear witness to the changing times during the civil rights era.  I also thought her involvement in the end of the USSR was equally as fascinating.  She really has seen and done a lot thanks to the values and education she received from her remarkable parents.

I will say that the only part I had trouble reading was the second to the last chapter titled Florida.  I'll allow the reader to figure out what that means.  Of course she was rejoicing, but I remember crying a little that day.

Condoleeza has seen the world, met many many important people, lived through tumultuous events and had a hand in governing the country in a very troubled time.   She is also an accomplished pianist, a figure skater and was Provost at Stanford.  Her remarkable life is worthy of reading about, even if you have to skip the chapter on Florida.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fat Girl by Judith Moore

"Even sad stories are company.  And perhaps that's why one might read such a chronicle, to look into a companionable darkness that isn't yours."    --Mark Doty, Firebird.

It took me less that 24 hours to read this tragic coming-of-age tale.  Fat Girl is by far one of the most well written contemporary memoirs I have come across in these past few years.  The writing is immediate and very very raw; it will tear your heart out as it draws you in. 

Judith Moore's ability to weave a rich haunting tale about her girlhood in a loveless home leaves me wanting so much more from this writer.  She uses every sense to evoke the feeling and the anguish of the girl at the center of the story.  I tasted food and felt repulsion at smells and empathized in every way with this honest account of growing up and being fat.  I could not put this down. I simply loved this story she wrote. 

This is not a happy story.  The writer warns the reader at the start that there will be no happy endings.  She gets no repreive, no prince in a white horse comes riding in, she doesn't magically loose a lot of weight.  But the truth is, in spite of the tragedy of this young girl's life, you know that the very act of writing this has brought the author to truth and healing.  Writing can cure our deepest wounds and somehow nurture us in a way that no one else can. 

In fact, Moore concludes with this:  I never turned suicidal, and I never jumped up happy.  As I recounted those boys in my second grade class or my terror on weigh-in days or the beatings with the belt when my mother hissed, "I'm going to cut the blood out of you," I felt relief.  Among reasons people keep sad stories to themselves is that they do not want anyone to feel sorry for them.  I don't, I don't want you to feel sorry for me.  I do not feel sorry for myself. I am what I am.  I am glad I wrote this, and I am grateful--very grateful--that you kept me company while I did. 

This book--and anything by Judith Moore--gets five stars.  Read this to learn about memoir and really amazing, immediate writing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

I've had a great few weeks reading with my son.  Usually he picks a fantasy novel where I have to keep track of various characters names Tryvar and Elred and who have magical characteristics or swords that keep them adventuring.  This time he chose a novel about kids involved in an art caper and it was a lot of fun.

The novel takes place on the south side of Chicago and follows the adventures of Petra and Calder as they try to figure out who stole a priceless painting by Vermeer and track it down.  The book is filled with coincidences and odd circumstances which lead the kids into mysterious mansions and in the basements of old schools.  There is code to decipher (Grayson loved that!) and pictures with clues drawn into them.  We spent several evenings playing with a set of pentominoes in an effort to understand one of the props with which Calder, the boy in the story, spent a lot of time playing.  

Sometimes it was hard to keep track of all the details and coincidences.  At first we would leaf back and forth through the chapters and try to remember where we saw a name or what the clue was referring to, after awhile we just kept reading.  

There were a few breathtaking observations about art, and what it could mean to our world if we actually started paying attention to art and gave it glory.  I loved the characters and setting and would love to see Petra and Calder involved in another great caper together.  This is a great gift for a young adult, a mystery lover or an art lover.  You also might get a kick out of it if you grew up on the South Side of Chicago. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Attention Please!

This early review book caught my attention because of the topic: a mother’s year of paying attention to her distracted son.  Paying attention and focusing  has been on my mind a lot these days because I feel I do everything at once.  I am the champion of multi-tasking.  Or rather, I do nothing well because I am distracted by everything else. What does it take to focus?

Katherine Ellison wants to specifically spend a year focusing on her son because he is diagnosed with ADD—Attention Deficit Disorder.   He is chronically misbehaving in school and fighting with his parents and brother.  Ms. Ellison realizes that she shares a lot of these problems with her son and thinks a year of learning to focus can be good for them both.

Each chapter is devoted to a different kind of practice and learning about ADD and the therapies that have arisen to teach people to focus in spite of ADD.  In the chapters we see a very interesting story of a mother and her real struggles with husband and children culminating in an emotional but successful Bar Mitzvah for the boy who is subject of this story.

The thread that ties most of the chapters together and the most interesting debate and argument that runs through the book is whether or not to medicate one’s ADD child.  It is a rancorous debate and one which I will need to stop pontificating on myself.  The author suggests that you can not really know what you will do unless you have a child with these problems. 

I did find this memoir to be very interesting especially if you are a parent who is struggling with these issues or thinking about medicating your child.  It got a bit dry at times—mostly when discussing various therapies and how they work or don’t work. The real interest for me was in her sweet relationship with her son and her own realizations about how to be a better parent.  The chapter when she went to the mediation retreat was funny.  I really related to her struggles with silence.

To be sure there are lessons for all of us in here about being a better parent, focusing on your life and what is important to you, loving your children in spite of who they are and a great discourse about the place of big pharma in all our lives.

How about you?  What do you pay attention to?  Ever been to a meditation retreat?