Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When Katie Wakes by Connie May Fowler

This book (a memoir) was a Christmas gift from my in-laws who saw Connie May Fowler speak and stopped to get a signed copy for me.  The lovely autograph and well wishes make the book all the more special.   I began reading it right away and was immediately drawn in.  Fowler is a superb writer and has a knack for  creating suspense.  I especially loved how she used present tense and second person to create this voice that put me right in the middle of every scene.

Since the book is a memoir and by the pictures on the cover we know that the writer is fine and happy, we guess that this memoir, as terrible and grim as it gets must have a happy ending.  The suspense becomes how will she finally develop some self esteem and extricate herself from this horrible abusive relationship? How will she transform herself into the writer that she is today?   I loved reading her story and understanding how it happened. She painted the picture so vividly and perfectly that I can hear the surf on the beach in Florida and smell the exhaust from the Audi as it drives away.  I cry over her inability to leave and get help and rejoice when she finally does.  Painful but uplifting. Certainly hard to read, but such a great voice and beautiful story that it was worth it.

Ms Fowler's book Before Women had Wings was chosen as an Oprah selection a few years ago and from the acknowledgements in Fowler's memoir it seems Oprah may have had some influence over her writing this memoir.  Oprah has a knack for spotting talent.  

I am going to find Before Women had Wings which I am pretty sure I own but never read before.  Watch for a review.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim

This unusual read about the life of Alison Arngrim who played Nellie Oleson on the TV series Little House on the Prairie, came to me by way of good friend and fellow reader Steph.   Neither of us is particularly the celebrity tell-all type of reader, but I think that her recommendation based on her love of the Little House on the Prairie books and TV series spurred me on to read as well.  I waited on the library list for a few months before it came to me.

I wasn't prepared to finish it or even like it, but I found myself really drawn into Alison's story and her life as a child actress before, during and after Little House.  I loved the observations about her fellow actors.  She is very candid and these were people I felt like I knew well.  She writes about the kind of work ethic Michael Landon pushed on the show, her friendship with Melissa Gilbert and observations about all the various characters and actors she came to know over her 7 years on the show.  She also talks about what playing Nellie Oleson did for her personally and professionally. She enjoyed playing the bitch and will be forever grateful to Nellie for teaching her how be a strong, resourceful and assertive woman.

Warning: The main story in this book is not  the behind the scenes look at the  Little House production and actors and sets.  The main story is about the horrors of childhood sexual abuse and how she eventually confronted her own tragic past and began to fight for the rights of other children.  Her story is painful to read but also important and triumphant.

Alison's a decent writer and also has another life as an activist and comedian.  If you watched Little House as a kid (as Steph and I did)  and don't mind being caught reading a celeb tell-all, I highly recommend this story.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Family, A Symphony: A memoir of global adoption by Aaron Eske

Here's one more entry in my never ending fascination with adoption memoir.  I spied this one on the table at  my local bookstore just before Christmas and lo and behold, Santa brought it for me.  Thanks Santa!

Mr. Eske writes this memoir at age 25.  Although his story is compelling, it felt like it could have gelled a few more years.  I never thought I would say this but 25 is far too young to write a memoir.  The book tries to do too much in a relatively short space.  My family, A Symphony is part adoption history (interesting), part global economic theory that leads to a the phenomenon of orphans in developing countries, Eske's own story of being the biological child of parents who went on to adopt 4 orphans from India and Korea, and a travel memoir as he sets about traveling the globe to visit his siblings' origins.  Got all that?

Although it is an interesting entry in the adoption memoir canon, and does have some really lovely moments, it felt largely thin and in need of so much extra story.  I really wanted to read so much more about his family as it was forming.  What were his siblings thinking and feeling as they came of age in that household?  His older siblings must have registered some immediate response to being moved from a life of poverty to a life of family and the riches of America, I would like to know more about those moments?  I felt that his own story, while interesting, was missing many  angles and details.  It was like being invited to a sumptuous buffet and being offered only some cheese and crackers.  Good cheese and crackers, but I knew there was so much more out there.

As someone who has been part of an international adoption myself, I was particularly interested in the works of Holt International and how they began the modern international adoption movement.  His stories of Grandma Holt and her eight Korean adoptions has lead me wanting to read her biography.  Also, his own travel memoir felt slightly abbreviated as well.  Again, I felt like it was just skimming the surface of what could be a fascinating travel story.

I will look forward to reading Aaron's next book and perhaps each of his siblings' books as well.

Monday, January 10, 2011

When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put by Vivian Swift

So here's this little gem of a memoir that I stumbled upon at a sale at my local bookstore.  It turns the concept of the traditional chronological memoir on its head by offering a kind of kaleidoscope of memories from the writer's past traveling life and her present staying put life.

She observes the seasons of her life month my month and each month she offers a wide array of watercolor paintings of her world plus observations about her town and her present life but then she writes what she calls micro-memoirs about her years of travel:  birthday memories, husbands and fiances, adventures in exotic locations, danger while traveling.

Each month is loosely thematic like March is tea month and November is good-bye month.  The whole book read like a poem.  It was peppered with quotes and ticket stubs and cats and odd people she met. I loved the drawing of the dozens of odd lost mittens that she had found in her town.

It conveyed warmth and sentimentality and a life really well lived.  It is possible to write an interesting memoir if you have a regular life and don't star in a movie or have some terrible disease.

This book reads quickly and it becomes a kind of almanac:  a book I could leave on my bed table and refer to again and again.  For this reason it is not a great book to check out of the library.  It is charming and worthy of an afternoon and a cup of tea especially if you are looking for ideas and inspiration and another way of telling a true story.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bill Bryson Love!

I had heard great things about Bill Bryson but he seemed like one of those writers that looked good but was always second or third on my list.  I heard him interviewed on NPR a few months ago about his latest book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and I decided it was time to tune in to Bill.

Bill Bryson is probably most well known for his travel memoirs like In a Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods which I have meant to read but never had the time.  Over my winter holiday I made time for this most recent book and enjoyed all of it.  He contends that we write history books over  monumental wars, elections and discoveries but really everything settles to what happens in the home.  He answers the questions behind the big question: how did our modern homes become the way they are?  Why do we sleep on beds?  Why do we put salt and pepper on our tables?  What are buildings made of and why?  What is the history of bathing?  He explores critters that live in homes, the history of childhood, gardening, servants and historic preservation.  It all comes together beautifully and is really very interesting and oh so readable. I am sorry I put him off  for so long.

I have put two more of his books on my list and would be interested to know if you have any favorite Bill Bryson books? Which one should I read next?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Being Grateful for a New Year

I received the book 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life by John Kralik  just a week or so after Thanksgiving.  In this year in which I have been counting my blessings daily, it seemed a very apt and profound memoir.  Mr. Kralik writes a very earnest account of his life which was sinking to new lows every day:  two marriages gone, rocky relationships with his kids, girlfriend left him, failing business and a pending lawsuit.  In the midst of his despair one New Years day he makes a commitment to be grateful for what he has and resolves to write a thank you note (a real hand written note put in and envelope with a stamp and an address) to someone every day.  Thus 2008 unfolds for Kralik as a drama of turning your life around by the simple act of of being thankful.  

I loved some of the simple observations he made.  For example, when Kralik traveled he took the time to learn people's names so he could thank them later.  He observed that he couldn't change the behavior of his clients who did not pay their bills but he could thank the ones who did and be grateful.  Even though it is an easy lesson, I am still amazed by what a hard time most of us have learning it.   It took Kralik the physical act of writing a note every day to help him remember all that is good in his life. 

There is nothing earth shattering here, and all the lessons are applicable to all of us. It should inspire people to consider their many blessings even in the bleak midwinter.   What do you have to be thankful for and how can you show that during this year?  Maybe we could all write about about how gratefulness  can turn our lives around. 

Happy 2011 to my readers near and far. I'll look forward to hearing about your next 365 days of blessings.  Keep in touch.