Our local public library brings in a nationally recognized author
with something interesting to say, some relevance with current issues,
and who is on the speaking circuit. This year, it was Nicole Mones, who
I had never heard of, but since her fiction is about modern China, I
decided it was worth reading, in anticipation of attending her free and open to the public talk.
attended a party sometime ago where I spoke at length with the director
of the library about the author series which I love. But, I said, you really
need to bring in a woman next time. So far, all the speakers had been
men. So this was another reason I needed to attend. To support the
library who did just what I asked them to do.
Ms Mones has three published works of fiction so far and I chose to read this book, her third, The Last Chinese Chef. The book
itself was not a favorite by any means. Fiction feels very contrived to
me lately, and this book felt a little stilted in its writing and its
story. I liked it. It was interesting. But I did not love it. Mones'
research and attention to the history of China, in this case, Chinese food and restaurant culture, is evident, and for that
reason, I stuck with the book. I did look forward to hearing her
talk. Her other two books are about the porcelain industry and about archeology.
The talk was lovely. Nicole Mones is a very gifted story teller and speaker and has dedicated her writing life to telling little known stories about China and especially life during the cultural revolution. The bulk of her talk was about her new book, out in March, about Shanghai in the 1930's which became a sort of haven for African American performers who enjoyed money, success and fair treatment when they were invited from Harlem to start a big band type movement. She also talked very eloquently about a little known movement in Jewish history, that of the immigration of 25,000 Jews from Austria and Poland to Shanghai during the reign of Hitler. Her stories came with pictures and small movies of the era and overall it was a really smashing evening. I am now a huge fan. Bought one of her other books and will make sure to get a copy of this book when it comes out.
As a final coda to the evening, my husband and I were invited to a soiree afterward with the writer and I asked her about China's one child policy and if she had any interest in writing something about that cultural phenomena. She responded that she would need an American tie-in to make it work for her and she did not have a ready one. I wanted to ask her more about writing, but she was too in demand. I had to move along. What a great evening. Support this writer--buy her books!
September and October are flying by: kids, school, doctor appointments, writing circles, holidays on their way. All good, but all taking away from my chances to read and write about it. I did bring home a box of books from the Red Cross Book Fair, I still get books from my early reader program, and in my ongoing life with writing, buy books to learn about the art and craft of writing and holding space. So here, in brief, are a few of my favorite reads from the past month.
Wives often make it possible for men to be successful. I hate it when men step up to the podium to win huge awards for volunteerism, or community activism or heck get ticker tape parades for the first earth orbit, and no one mentions the spouse or partner--it was this woman who stayed home taking care of kids and household and everything that make his success possible. This is the story of just those women. There were first 7 original mercury wives, then came the 9 gemini wives, then 14 apollo wives, then the 19 apollo wives.
The bulk of the story focuses on the first 7-the ones who set the standard and traditions, but it delves also into the 9 who joined them and also into the first 14 apollo wives. The families had an exclusive contract with Life magazine so there is a great photographic record of these women and those times. It is very basic reporting but keep in mind it has to cover lots of time and lots of people. The story of how these women kept their spirits up and the home fires burning on the cusp of changing times is intriguing.
Women in jail seems to be my reading focus. This book was edited by a writing colleague in Burlington, Vermont. She has the women from her prison program submit hundreds of poems and prose pieces. I took it into my own writing program at the Monroe County Corrections Center and asked women to read and write in response to the pieces in the book.
To learn more about that process...here is another blog post I wrote on the experience.
Because I enjoyed the Netflix series and because I volunteer at the local jail, with the women's block, I checked out this very popular memoir written back in 2010: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. I just want to say, WOW! Much different than the series, very readable, and very interesting. I highly recommend you read this book. If you aren't on the restorative justice bandwagon and the anti-mandatory minimum drug laws lobby group after reading this, you are nuts. Our country has gone too far crazy with the punitive drug laws. They aren't serving anyone except the prison industrial complex. I would love to send a note to Piper Kerman to tell her about our little writing program. Her address wasn't apparent from her website (I am guessing she is wildly popular about now.) but if you have it, please send it to me, I would love to write her and let her know how much I loved this.
She Left me the Gun is the author's exploration of her mother's life before her. It is part memoir, part investigative journalism, part travel narrative, and part family history. It takes place in England and South Africa and it promised to be a very provocative story of a life left behind.
At the start Ms. Brockes explains that she had a very happy life, and that she had only the smallest of hints that her mother had a horrible childhood. When her mother dies of cancer, the author makes contact with her mother's sisters and brothers and attempts to discover a life that she really knew nothing about. It reminded me a bit of After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey which I read last spring and LOVED.
The thesis was that the mother, by not telling the author her sad story, was able to protect her from the sadness; she closed off this part of her life so that the daughter (the author) could have a happy life and a happy childhood. The author went to South Africa to meet her long lost family and try to capture the story that her mother never told.
The premise was intriguing and kept me interested to the end of the book. I was immediately captivated by the premise and couldn't wait to see how it unfolded. Unfortunately, it felt a little loose. She meandered and unfolded the story in a very disconnected manner. She hinted at the story through family members' silence and raised eyebrows, but no one talked about "what happened" and no one really described the father-the horrible man at the center of this story. A little about where he came from, nothing about where he went, just court records and quiet conversations and a few snapshots. It was unsatisfying: a great premise, the hint of a good tale and it all simply meandered away.
I did like reading about South Africa. Would love to go there again someday. The author created a lovely travel narrative with a bit about crime and history of South Africa and some tourist spots. Fascinating Country.
Spoiler alert: this is a book about childhood sexual abuse.
Did you ever meet a guy for whom nothing is sacred? He (and it is always a he) tells racist, sexist, homophobic jokes among many others and because of his attitude or demeanor or what, I don't know, can get away with it? That is this guy.
Andrew Hudgins Professor of Poetry at Ohio State (THE Ohio State University) has always been enamored of humor and since he remembers hearing his first joke (what is black and white and read all over?) he has been seeking out and dissecting jokes to understand what makes them funny.
This is an oddly fascinating memoir in which he tells the story of his life through the prism of joke telling. He carefully remembers and records all the jokes he's enjoyed and told and even hated over the years. Jokes correspond with an excellent anaylsis of racism and sexism and homophobia. They also play pretty heavily into his childhood and teen years.
Although he does bring his memoir into the present day, about 85% of this memoir is dedicated to his life at age 18 or before. I began to wonder if I would ever know what became of him, if he married (yes twice) or had children (no) or got a job.
Anyway, very interesting twist on the memoir. Fabulous discussion about humor--all of it, the good, the bad, and the racist. Thanks to Susan for the recommend. Available at the Public Library.
Lets just call this the Summer of the nurse. I seem to keep picking up books about the caring profession. This time the memoirs of Jennifer Worth who was a nurse-midwife in the east end of London in the 1950's. A remarkable account of the life and times of a particularly hard time in a hard neighborhood. I picked it up mostly because I am captivated by the series Call the Midwife that has been airing on PBS for two seasons and which is based on this series (there are two more) of memoirs.
Anyway, if you are a fan of the series the memoir adds enough extra material that you will find it interesting; it really explains things a lot more fully, and if you have not watched the series, it is really a fascinating read in the memoir genre. Very different from everything else out there. It was written in 2002. Ms Worth died a few years ago.
Easily picked up, in paperback, at Barnes and Nobles or you can borrow my copy.
Great travel book, current events update, and thoughtful consideration of the worldwide apparel industry written in language that holds interest for all readers. Writer, traveler Kelsey Timmerman takes his five favorite pieces of clothing: t-shirt from Honduras, underwear from Bangladesh, sandals from China, Jeans from Cambodia, and shorts from USA and does a global tour to understand the lives of the people who make his clothing. Are they really made in sweatshops? How do these people live? IS there some oversight of the conditions in which the people who make our clothes find themselves?
The author manages to enter almost all the factories to see where his clothes are made, and he meets people who make the clothes and talks with them, through interpreters, about their lives in the factories. He meets children in the factories and talks about the effects of boycotts on children specifically. He meets families separated by thousands of miles who work to send money home to their loved ones.
This book is assigned reading for the incoming freshman class at Northern Kentucky University, and I found out about it through my in-laws who read it in anticipation of the author's visit to NKU this fall to speak to that class. The assignment of the books seems timely given the recent fires at the clothing shops in Bangladesh (book was written in 2009).
I really love this book and this writer and look forward to reading his next: Where am I eating? Available at the library.
Whew! I've been reading this travel narrative/cookbook for about a month. It was a slow read, and I was often tempted to put it down, but yet there was something endearing about the author/traveler and her insights about food, travel, love and women.
Chinese American Jen Lin Liu founded a Chinese cooking school in Beijing and met an American journalist also living in Beijing who she marries. Upon traveling with him in Rome she conceives of an idea to trace the path of the noodle from China to Rome. She strives to understand where the noodle first originated and decides that following regional cuisine while traveling the silk road would be a fascinating travel memoir.
She travels through China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and finally Italy to answer this one question: did China invent the noodle that Italians have now perfected? The question, while somewhat intriguing seems (and I think proves to be) a mighty thin thread to hand a 300 plus page travel narrative.
Ms Lin-Liu does dig deep into some more interesting questions primarily about the place of women in most of the countries through which she travels. She also begins to ask difficult questions about her own marriage. She meets lots of friendly cooks and locals who introduce her to the cuisines of the region.
After struggling to get through this memoir, I started to really like this author and stuck with it to hear how her marriage ended up and read her conclusions about the noodle. I won't give it away--I hate to spoil it for others. I will say that while Central Asia seemed pretty bland food wise, she wrote food porn about the cuisines of Turkey and Italy that made me vow to travel to eat in both of those places.
In the end, some interesting observations in patches, a few recipes, an earnest author who you root for, and some good food writing probably salvaged this memoir. A must read if you plan to travel in this region.
Polly Moreland takes readers on a journey exploring bravery. She calls us Timid Souls, and we are welcome with her as she travels England and the US and other parts of the world interviewing and discussing bravery with brave people. She did not try stunts--like doing brave things herself (thank you!). Instead she examined courage and bravery from many many angles: approaching death, facing war, facing animals, acting courageously in sudden spontaneous life threatening situations, leaving war, and even criminality. And the ultimate in bravery--taking stands on moral issues. Civil rights leaders? Non-violent protesters?
She writes the book from the prospective of a non-brave person trying to understand what it means to be courageous. Some of the interesting questions she considers are: Can you be brave if you have no fear? Can the 9/11 hijackers be considered brave? What about animals? Can our pets be brave? Performers? She interviews dying men, men who ran away from war, people who stand up to criminals, matadors, the parents of a women who died fighting a fire, and a man who marched with Martin Luther King.
Her discussion of the subject was compelling, fun to read, and it had a small light hearted touch which hinged on the whole idea of a timid soul society. We all are rather timid souls, in search of lessons on how to be brave as the group that gave the book its title were called. Some classical musicians around 1942 formed a society for timid souls whose sole mission was to overcome stage fright. So we, like they, are part of this quest. We go along and investagte this phenomenmon with her.
It was slow going at times, but thoroughly enjoyable. Lots of stories to ponder and ideas about courage. If the topic interests you, it is worth having a look at. Due out this summer. I have this early erview copy if you want to borrow it.
Just a few words about this celebrity memoir written by spiritual guru and actor Shirley MacLaine. It is part of my summer long reading list involving books by pilgrims who have taken the famed Santiago de Compostela--the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James that I blogged about a few weeks back.
I think about a third of the book was dedicated to how she dodged reporters and paparazzi once they discovered who she was and what she was doing. Another third was dedicated to the mechanics and rigors of the trail and the remaining third was a detailed account of an on-going and recurring vision she had at various points on the trail. Some guy from a prior life kept appearing to her.
It all seemed a little crazy and whacked out to me. The most interesting part was how she avoided the media and the fact that she did it at age 60+, so I felt like there was some hope of me getting it done someday.
I picked up this page turner on my birthday, while I was away from home at a conference, my traveling companion was busy doing other things, and my family was far away. I needed something to draw me in and help me forget that I was missing birthday among friends. I am not sure where I first heard about this, but the minute I saw it on the shelf I knew it would be my birthday present to myself. I love reading journalistic accounts of real life events. I am interested and amazed to watch a writer recreate complex events and turn them into elegant narrative despite the fact the he or she was no where near the events of the story. This write especially was able to see and hear and interpret all that happens with his clever imagination and in the eye of his mind. The transformation and writing can be miraculous.
This story of an angel of death, a nurse who begins killing his patients, is a difficult story to tell for a host of reasons. Charles Graeber recreates the events of 16 years by reviewing police reports, hospital reports and interviewing the many many people why were involved, even the killer himself. The story is told in an exciting manner, first by following the nurse who is perpetuating the crime, and then by following the police who eventually clue in to his crimes. The difficult mitigating factor is the fact that the hospital was fighting the police who were investigating the crime. Hospital officials would never be complicit in investigating the system that allowed a nurse to kill multiple patients over and over. How bad would that look for the hospital?
The Good Nurse is a true life crime thriller complete with good guys, bad guys, and real heroes. It is scaring me away from hospitals for the foreseeable future. Who know how easy it would be to get away with murder? I highly recommend this true crime/hospital drama.
My life lately has been filled with nurses. Between my father going into a skilled nursing facility, my son needing lots of doctor appointments, and watching Call the Midwife, I think about and interact with nurses all the time. More than I realize. Funny that way, doctors are the important ones, the ones we see for problems, but nurses really have all the answers, comfort, and common sense.
Reading, I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse made me actually consider becoming a nurse. Each essay, written by a different nurse, was thoughtful, articulate and presented me with a side of nursing I had not before considered. The authors were mostly female, from all over the US and Canada, and most had discovered second careers in writing and had written about their working life with humor, pathos, and insight.
There were nursing students, nursing home nurses, pediatric nurses, ER nurses, nurses in rural china, and nurses on ships that sailed to impoverished nations to aid the poorest of the poor, suffering from common ailments that would never bother us. I read about nurses who dealt with AIDS patients in the era when no one would touch one and nurses who arrived at people's homes to check on them in their darkest hours. There were hospice nurses, and nurses who survived cancer to go on and become nurses themselves and one beautiful essay about nurse whisperers: told from the point of view of the person watching the nurse care for her aging parents. Great one!
I enjoyed every essay and would like to write to one woman who raises issues about HIPPA and confidentiality that I have always thought about and considered in my own career with writing circles and incarcerated women. She articulated some of the things I think about with regard to storytelling beautifully.
The epigraph on the front of the book says, "required reading for anyone going into healthcare" I would go one further and say it is required reading for anyone needing healthcare. Truly, that good. Good work. Thanks Nurses!
Odd little travel narrative about one woman's three trips on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela told in a kind of mixed-chronological order. First, the most recent trip, a weeks worth of the camino taken with her 12 year old daughter. I have been thinking lately this would be a fun trip to take with my daughter when she is about 12, so this part became a kind of cautionary tale. I pictured my sweet girl, age 12, wearing an i-pod for 200 km and rolling her eyes at me.
The next part was a short chapter, her first time on the Camino, which involved her arriving in Spain while 7 months pregnant to do some research for a book and stumbling upon the path, walking on it a bit, and then realizing she needed to come back someday. Walking the Camino while 7 months pregnant was not smart. Contractions ensued.
The last part was the second time she came, 7 years after her first try, and she walked to the end. I was a little unclear how many km she actually walked, but I don't get the impression she did the whole pilgrimage. It seemed like perhaps two weeks worth. It was a solitary journey and one she embraced even though it was often difficult and painful. She was not so much interested in the sites along the way as she was her own personal solitariness and the spiritual experience of walking the Camino.
At the end I realized this short narrative was part of a series published by National Geographic which included all manner of places around the globe. Somehow, the fact that it was a series kind of made it seem a little less that it should have been. Somehow, it explained why it was thin. But it made me want to go and try it myself. I have begun planning. I think my first goal is to simply get in shape. I have 8 more years until my daughter is 12. Think I can do it?
I heard Ms Schaap interviewed on NPR a few weeks ago and her take on life-- by the bars she frequents--seemed an interesting way to approach a memoir. She takes readers through her life from the bar car on the train as a teenager, to an Irish bar, college bar, grad school bar and various dives she has known and loved throughout the years.
Drinking With Men (because she finds women are often uninterested in bar culture) is a valentine to bars. She writes so poetically about what it means to be a regular patron of a bar in a city that I actually found myself envious that I have never been a regular in a bar. I am not even sure I have ever been in the kind of bar she frequents and has written about. Maybe, I thought, I should even consider opening my own bar.
So yes, I enjoyed this book. It was fun to read and enjoy her observations of life in the bar and watch her grow up in bars and with their patrons. I did observe early on, that she really did not seem like my kind of person. That for all her romance about bars and drinking, I didn't really like her. (Although on NPR she sounded quite likable.) I feel torn: interesting book, good writing, unlikeable narrator.
The biggest criticism I have of her memoir is that she unfairly dodged, what I would consider the central question of the book. About half way through the memoir, in a chapter about skipping all her classes in grad school to hang out at her current bar of choice, she is one day reading her roommate's journal and reads her roommate's observations that she, Rosie, is an alcoholic. It never occurred to her that she was an alcoholic, and she begins to consider the question. It is a moment for me that the memoir began to quicken and picked up my interest. I read it in rapt attention, how would this realization change her life?
But suddenly, she changes the subject, and meanders off to another topic, even though it seemed she was about to conclude she had a big problem. She never went back to the question again. So, although I certainly loved her stories in bars and her love of even the divey-est of them, I wonder if she will ever consider the big question again.
A good book, worth the read, available at your public library.
After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story by Michael Hainey, I found by accident when a friend posted a short article on fb about it. I requested my library purchase it. (I love doing that!)
Michael Hainey's father died when he was 6 and afterward he felt he could not talk about it. His mother and family, in their grief, had a kind of conspiracy of silence about that night and about the man. So for years he lived with this wonder of who his father was and how he died that night in 1972. When Michael finally begins to seek out answers, he delves deep into the Chicago newspaper world of the 1960's and 1970's: a fascinating time and a fascinating place.
His work takes him to hospitals and morgues and all over the city. It takes him back to his father's hometown in Nebraska and to a small town in Ohio. It takes him to San Francisco and he even meets a few people in Kentucky, New York and Wisconsin. He meets long forgotten family members and newspaper colleagues of his fathers. He meets the sadness of a life cut way too short.
It is beautiful writing and an amazing tribute to a time, a place, a family, and a person or rather several people. I loved everything about this book: the writer's pacing and sensibility. His honesty and his self-revelation. I loved how much he loved his mother and family and how much getting to know his father after all these years meant to him. All the passages about his childhood and adulthood and his unraveling the past felt poignant and purposeful. He wove all the stories of his life and his parents' lives together quite skillfully. I read it in two days. His last line in the book was the ultimate: "I went searching for my father and I found my mother."
My latest memoir read and early review installment is the captivating tale of Christa Parravani, one half of a set of identical twins.
Her book tells the narrative of two girls who go through life together and when one of them dies tragically, the other is left to discover what it means to be alone. I have never understood so thoroughly what being a twin must be like, and I found that the parts of the narrative that discuss the power of identity and the ties of love specifically between twins to be the most interesting part of this memoir. I felt real pain for Christa as she attempted to navigate life without her other half.
Reader's should be warned that there is a horrifying rape scene in the early chapters of the book, that was written by the rape survivor, Cara, the twin who died (by drug overdose). The author of this memoir included several excerpts from the deceased twin's journals to illustrate many points of their lives together. Among those excerpts is the description of the rape that led Cara to the circumstances of her eventual death. I loved the extra point of view of the twin's lives together. Cara had a captivating voice as well and it is a tragedy that her life ended early.
This book is scheduled to be released in March. I am thrilled to have an early copy and will certainly be glad to lend it to anyone with interest. This story is sad, beautiful and worthwhile reading. The message, corny as it sounds, rang clear and true: Love always wins over death.
A few weeks ago I expressed my love and appreciation for this book on the elegant art of listening. I was so impressed by the author's love of words and writing that I thought I would check out his new memoir 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared. It was not readily available at the bookstore, so I asked my public library if they would order it, and it showed up in about two weeks. (Love the public library!)
This is such a fine and exceptional book that I can't stop thinking about it. Stafford makes everything seem effortless yet profound. His writing is smooth and creamy and makes me want to eat it at every meal. He is writing about his beloved brother who committed suicide 20 years earlier. Mr Stafford remembers his brother in a series of stories from their youth together, their short adulthood together and the aftermath of living with such a tragic end to someone you loved.
Every week I sit in the company of great writers who pour their hearts out in short poems, and memoirs of their lives. Word upon word, each writer is building a series of stories and vignettes not unlike these. I loved this work. All the stories individually and as a collective quilt of stories, were without question true and beautiful: honesty that cut to the bone of life. My fellow writers and I can and do easily write this beautifully and could piece our pieces together to form a grand story, but something about the way he did it seemed profound and unreachable. He has left something tugging at my heart. Writing that is worth emulating in its candor and vulnerability.
God Bless my library for buying this for me, but I will have to buy my own copy. There are many writing lessons to be learned here.
For my reader that lives in Portland. This man runs the Northwest Writing Institute. You should check it out and take a class from him. Better yet, I'll come visit and we can both take a course from him.
A fascinating memoir about life in an Hasidic Jewish sect from Brooklyn, New York. Deborah Feldman is born to an Hasidic couple who for a variety of reasons do not raise their daughter. Instead, she is raised by her ultra conservative grandparents, and at age 17 is married to a man she has met only briefly. Deborah tells about the orthodox rituals and rites that she must obey to be a good daughter and wife. Throughout her life Deborah feels like she does not quite fit in and shortly after the girth of her son manages to start college and eventually gain the skills, means and courage to divorce her husband and leave the sect with her child.
For such a young writer, she astutely wrote and depicted her humiliating oppression as a girl and young woman. I raced to read to find out how she would escape her circumstances. In the meantime, I noted lots of intriguing details like how she had to sneak books to read because they were forbidden and how sad she was when her husband forced her to throw all her books away, claiming they were the cause of their unconsummated marriage. I will remember her description of the ritual baths women are supposed to take to purify themselves every month. Her rendering of events was clear and unsentimental, but vivid. All she needed to do was describe what was happening-no editorial necessary.
The drawback to this fine fine piece was that after such a great build up to leaving her home and family, she leaves many many posed and provocative questions unanswered. She says that she would never be allowed to leave her son, yet she is able to leave with her son. She writes briefly of a mother that abandons her and in the prologue we know she has re-established contact with her, but we never see how her mother figures into her liberation. We never know how her husband and family reacts when she leaves. She escapes to a new apartment--with a bed, but we don't know how she got that. One assumes that writing of these customs and rituals has left her permanently shunned, yet she does not mention the aftermath at all. (On her blog she writes of death threats from her grandparents.)
At the end she does spend a great deal of time discussing how much she values her freedom and how much she loves making her own decisions. I assume that the above questions may be answered in her next book, which is due out in 2013.
Still, it is a lovely story, full of surprises and honesty and insight. I loved it all and await the next chapter. It works well like the Jeannette Walls memoir Glass Castles. Get it from the library or your local bookstore. There may be a wait at the library.
When I was a child my parents would remind us, "Don't forget to talk to strangers." How could we be helped if we got lost, or were hurt? And how else could we be citizens of the world? Our millions of intricate moves may be as direct and simple as making songs and learning from strangers. ~ Kim Stafford
A good friend tuned me in to a slim book book by poet Kim Stafford. The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft spoke to me on many levels. There were a million passages to quote and use and copy in my work with women and storytelling. It is a useful book that promotes at its core--listening for words and stories and life. There were many chapters and ideas that took my writer's breath away. I feel certain I will return to it.
The punchline is that it is a library book, and I cannot write in (or for that matter keep) a library book. Do you? Written in 2003, it is largely unavailable except on Amazon. I am certain to place an order for this book so that I can remind myself how to be a good listener of the muse that brings us story.
The various essays include writing exercises, stories about the writer's life (including a magical moment where Dick Cheney is the poet's muse), advice about how to listen and find story in everything, and a chapter on where to write. (We devote a lot of conversation about ideal locations and conditions for writing in my writer's group.) He addresses fiction, non fiction and everything in between. It felt like the most random, yet eloquent and useful how to write book that I have ever come across.
You'll need to order this one on Amazon as well unless you are lucky enough to have it at your local library.
If you want to begin your writing practice in this new year--I recommend starting here.