Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Following Josh by David Norman

As a twenty something traveler I always dreamed of doing what Dave Norman and his friend Josh do:  travel the world via the Trans-Siberian railroad.  Dave flies to Seoul, Korea where he meets up with Josh and together they form a roving fraternity duo heading their way through China, Mongolia, Russia and Eastern Europe to the tune of booze and bad moods.

I have read a lot of very good travel memoirs.  Most of them are extremely well written and full of witty observations and self-deprecating humor.  I love a wry take on the theme of a stranger in a strange land.   Dave Norman does not seem to understand the genre, rather he seems to have published his travel journal and included every whimsical thought and internal monologue that he had while trekking across the North Hemisphere.  Each page was full of half thoughts and slang terms and fevered experiences and elipses.  This book could have used a good editor. From the absense of any acknowledgements in the final pages (which I always love to read) I have to believe he forgot to run this by anyone.

This is why, strange to say, that in the parting pages of this book, when Dave Norman promises his next book will be about part two of this grand tour with another friend named Jake, I actually felt a little interested in it.  Was it true that I stuck with the writer long enough, through enough eye rolling, angst ridden travel that I actually want to see how this turns out?  Perhaps.

Also,  once I waded between the awkward prose, I did enjoy seeing parts of the world to which sadly, I will probably not venture.  My rugged, youth hostel, strange meat eating days are long past me. So Dave Norman, if you read this, I am one of those Saints who would sit with you at dinner and hear your whole travel story from first to last and ask you about all the crazy adventures you had and admonish you for having a perpetual bad mood all the way around the world.

This was an early review book and if anyone wants to journey on the Transiberian railroad please let me know and I will send it along.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Loud in the House of Myself by Stacy Pershall

You may know Stacy Pershall from her prior work, as she was an early internet sensation when she became one of those web cam girls who lived her daily life on-line.  She has written an interesting twist on the young woman/mental illness memoir in which the author recounts her years of struggling with both bi-polar disorder and undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. At the beginning of each chapter she recounts a story of how she got one of her multiple tattoos and what it means to her.  She reveals early on in her life chronicle that tattooing, getting to choose her own skin, seemed to be one of the only ways she could reclaim her sanity.  If you have ever stared at a woman who is covered with body tattoos and wondered how she could do that to her body, I think this might help shed some light on that phenomenon.

Stacy Pershall recounts her young life and her growth into a mature woman amidst the backdrop of self loathing so profound that it leads her to starve herself, treat the people who love her most very cruelly and eventually try to kill herself in a very public and humiliating way.  Her mental illness does finally lead her to work with psychiatrists and mental health professionals to get the drugs and behavior therapy that she most needs.  She writes about the life long and on-going struggle that she enters into daily.

I found Stacy's writing very tight and original.  I had sympathy for the character, and I enjoyed watching her struggle and gain footing as she escaped from her small town. I really cheered for her as she began to find her way at the end.  I like Stacy and found this to be a compelling personal narrative.

There is a thesis in here about how each of her mental illnesses is treated and one of them may be wrongly categorized, and one is also difficult to diagnose in the presence of the other.  The medical terminology lost me, but I have no doubt that others who find themselves dealing with these psychiatric problems will find her comparison and comments interesting.

The title drew me into the book originally.  If you enjoy memoir this is a fast and worthwhile read.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Better Late than Never

Has this happened to you?  You see a book that looks interesting at the bookstore, read the covers, and put it down because you think, not quite what I am looking for.  You see that book many times over the years, right at the top of the pile: you note positive reviews, it's place on the best seller lists and its general omnipresence everywhere, but still you decide not to pick it up.  You finally buy a copy at a used book sale for 50 cents, thinking, maybe someday I will read it, and after it gathers dust for a few more years, you recognize the author is coming to your town to speak and think, maybe now is the time.  Once finished, you crack yourself on the head and think, why did I wait so long, that was amazing!!!

I just finished James McBride's memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother.  It is the perfect example of why memoir can be better and more interesting than fiction.  A white Jewish woman marries a black man and moves to Harlem where she has 8 kids and then when that man dies, marries a second black man and has 4 more kids.   Her son James, always full of questions about his mother and her past which she refused to answer, tells the tale of his own upbringing and his feelings of love and shame for his unusual mother, a white woman in an African-American world.  He tells his mother's story of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household in the south, her leaving her home for New York, and her conversion to Christianity which went hand in hand with her marriage to a black minister.  This was more than 25 years before Loving v Virginia made anti-micegenation laws illegal.

McBride told his own story of being number 8 in the 12 child family and intersperses his story and memories with his mother's story and memories: both well written and compelling.  It seems that it does not matter what is the color of your skin, all you really need is love as Ruth McBride Jordan demonstrated over and over again.

My edition of the book was the 10th anniversary edition, which I recommend:  an epilogue to the epilogue. All 12 of Mrs. McBride's children went to college and most to grad school. She raised 12 successful children on the motto all you need to education and God. Money doesn't mean anything.

 Now that I have read this beautiful memoir, I am ready to meet James McBride.  If you live here in town I hope you will join me.  Perhaps it is true that when we are ready to read a book it appears before us.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Around the House and in the Garden by Dominque Browning

I was racing out of the house for a weekend trip this summer and could not find my regular book.  I glanced at one of the many stacks under my bed and grabbed the first thing I saw that looked interesting.  The funny thing is I do not know where I got this book originally.  I have no memory of buying it or borrowing it or finding it.  So there it was--the fairy book.

Ms Browning is the editor of House and Garden magazine and at the publishing of this book (2002) was the divorced mother of teenage sons.  The book was essentially a rough chronological collection of the essays and columns she wrote for her magazine.  Each chapter read like an 800 word column.  The chapters were short and pointed and sweet, and it really was the perfect summer read when my attention was busy slogging off into sun drenched beaches and amusement parks.

The general theme of almost every chapter was the healing she needed to go through as she was experiencing her first years as a divorced mother of two boys.  Each chapter focused on some part of her house or garden that she needed to fix up or she let sit in disrepair.  She wrote of her fireplace and her dining room and the need to curl up and wallow in her bed.  She wrote of the love and care she put into her garden and into the raising of her boys and the sadness of having to part with them for half the week as they traveled to their father's house.

It was a book about grief and lonliness, and I found its lessons sweet and comforting.  I liked it because I felt like it was something that I could write and that I could relate to.  Although it hasn't rained a bit around here for days, it is the perfect rainy day read.  It is gloomy, but there's plenty of hope, insight, and creativity to fill you up.

Since this was published in 2002 it might be a bit hard to find in bookstores. Try your library.  I would be glad to lend this one if anyone wants it.