rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2013-09-19 09:47

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories, by Ty Nolan

Many Native Nations begin a Coyote legend with some variation of “Coyote Was Going There.” Trust me—Coyote? Still going. It’s about time ebooks caught up with that crazy Trickster.

Nolan, a Native American Storyteller and therapist, retells traditional stories he heard from his relatives, with cultural commentary, stories from his life, explanations of how he used the stories in teaching or therapy... and recipes!

Nolan has performed these stories in wildly varied settings, from Head Start programs in reservations to international psychology conferences. He interweaves the traditional stories with the stories of how and where he’s told them, and with stories of food and culture and the culture of food. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this.

I really enjoyed it. The stories themselves are great – funny, powerful, resonant—
as is Nolan’s commentary on them. In one story, Coyote orders his woven baskets to fill themselves with salmon from the river. Oh yes, Nolan explains, in those days baskets had feet. Like a duck’s. And could walk around by themselves. I am still cracking up at that image.

Nolan’s wry, humane, erudite perspective on the power of stories to illuminate and heal reminded me a bit of Jane Yolen. But I don’t think you need a particular interest the use of stories in therapy and education to enjoy this. It’s kind of “An Evening with Ty Nolan, Storyteller” in written form. Though he does not mince words when discussing injustice or loss, the overall feeling of the book is warm and uplifting.

As the preface explains, the book is arranged so that you can read just the stories, or the stories and the commentary. Some of the commentary would probably go over kids’ heads, but stories plus selected commentary would probably make a great read-aloud.

I think a lot of you here would like this a lot.

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories. It's a self-published e-book, so it won't be in libraries. But it's only $4.99. Support your probably-not-local author!
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2013-02-11 14:43

Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson

Chef Marcus Samuelsson was adopted from Ethiopia to Sweden when he was two years old, along with his older sister. His mother had died of tuberculosis, and her children were incorrectly believed to be orphans. (I'm using the passive voice because Samuelsson never found out exactly how this came about, or if any of his living relatives would have been willing or able to take him in had they known what was going on or, for that matter, if any of them did know.)

Growing up, he wanted to be a professional soccer player but was too small (later, he discovered that he was a year younger than everyone thought), so he turned to cooking, eventually becoming a successful chef in New York. Due to his sister's detective work, as an adult he discovered that their father, whom he had thought was dead, was alive, and that he had something like a hundred relatives he'd never known about. His visits to Ethiopia inspired him to start cooking Ethiopian food. He won Top Chef Masters with an Ethiopian meal.

Great story. Samuelsson is an excellent writer, and his story is atmospheric, thoughtful, and honest. He's definitely of the "warts and all" school of memoir writing, which I appreciate. He's particularly good on his cross-cultural experiences, the complexity of his unusual racial and cultural status, and the connections between food, family, and culture.

Yes, Chef: A Memoir
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2012-08-25 13:26

Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich

[Catch-up review from Goodreads]

Rich spent a year in Udaipur (Rajasthan) studying Hindi; the book combines anecdotes from her stay with tons of information on the science of learning a second language.

It starts out strong, but the parts become increasingly less integrated and the memoir sections become increasingly disorganized as the book continues. There were a number of points where she referenced something as if she'd already told that story, only to explain it 50 pages later. The information was good and her prose, as in individual sentences, was good, but it probably would have worked better as nonfiction about second language acquisition with a few relevant anecdotes than as the awkward chimera it was.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2012-06-28 11:37

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, by Matthew Sanford

Recced by [personal profile] rydra_wong. Great rec, thanks!

Excellent, clearly written, honest memoir about the mind-body connection. My description is going to sound straightforward, but you really have to read the book to get what I got out of it. I've read a fair amount of memoirs and nonfiction about physical disability, mind-body issues, and even the type of paralysis Sanford has, and thought I understood much of what he discusses, at least on an intellectual level. After reading this book, I feel like I have a far, far better and more visceral understanding.

At age thirteen, Sanford was in a car accident which killed his father and sister, and paralyzed him from the chest down. He goes through puberty while still recovering from his injuries, which was fairly traumatic all by itself, and grows up seemingly doing fine, but inwardly suffering from being disconnected from his body. Well-meaning doctors told him that the sensations he had in the paralyzed parts were meaningless "phantom pains," and Sanford learned to dissociate himself from his body as a survival mechanism, to be able to endure otherwise unbearable pain.

Later in life, he begins studying yoga and learns that his entire body is still a part of him, and he does still have a perception of it and feelings from it. I already knew that people with spinal injuries do still have sensations below the point where the nerves are severed, but they're, essentially, transferred by indirect means and may be felt in other parts of the body or in different ways. Sanford explains not only what this actually feels like, but how important it is not only physically, but emotionally and even spiritually.

He is now a yoga teacher.

Fantastic book. Read it if you have any interest whatsoever in the subject matter, and by that I mean mind-body issues, not just physical disability or yoga.

Note that while Sanford doesn't get into tons of graphic details, there are fairly harrowing descriptions of injuries, medical procedures, and pain. The one that got to me the most was when he broke his neck a second time after the car crash, by tipping out of his wheelchair, and someone insisted on moving him despite his protests.

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence
rachelmanija: (Default)
2012-04-10 12:03

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, by Mark Vonnegut

Craziness also runs in the family. I can trace manic depression back several generations. We have episodes of hearing voices, delusions, hyper-religiosity, and periods of not being able to eat or sleep. These episodes are remarkably similar across generations and between individuals. It's like an apocalyptic disintegration sequence that might be useful if the world really is ending, but if the world is not ending, you just end up in a nuthouse. If we're lucky enough to get better, we have to deal with people who seem unaware of our heroism and who treat us as if we are just mentally ill.

This is Mark Vonnegut's second memoir. (Kurt Vonnegut's son.) The first one explains how he had a psychotic break while a young man living on a commune. Due to the circumstances, everyone at the commune just thought he'd become spiritually advanced. Eventually, his parents stepped in to rescue him. It concluded with the note that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia but apparently "recovered," which is unusual, especially given that it all went down in the 1960s. I had wondered if he'd been misdiagnosed.

His second memoir picks up many years later. He became a successful doctor... who periodically had psychotic breaks, to go with his drinking problem and falling-apart family life. But it's not primarily a story about pain and problems, but about one man's particular life. Every life has problems. Usually they don't involve being put in a straightjacket every ten years or so. But that's Mark Vonnegut's particular issue, or one of them, anyway, and he treats it very much in the manner of "everyone's got problems."

The memoir is at least as much about being a doctor as it is about having a mental illness of a somewhat mysterious nature. (He gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder later, but that might not be it either. Whatever he has, it's atypical.) It's also about life, and art, and being a misfit in a screwed-up society, and also about being his father's son (Chapter title: "There is Nothing Quite So Final As A Dead Father"). And accidentally poisoning himself with his shiny new hobby of mushroom hunting.

It's all over the place and hard to describe, but enormously funny, enjoyable, quotable, and wise. Its humane, humorous, epigrammatic tone reminded me a bit of James Herriot, and I love James Herriot. Unless you're really squicked by medical stuff or triggered by mental illness, this is the sort of book I'd recommend to just about anyone.

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2012-02-09 13:06

Semi-recently read round-up

Brief notes on books I read a while back but never got around to writing up.

A Taste of China: The Definitive Guide to Regional Cooking (Pavilion Classic Cookery), by Ken Hom. An evocative, hunger-inducing travelogue/memoir/cookbook/food history by a Chinese-American author. A bit of a period piece now, but much of it is historical anyway, and it's well worth reading if you have an interest in the topic.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. The classic nonfiction book on the value of intuition: specifically, that fear - especially women's fear of men - is often based on having subconsciously picked up subtle signals of very real danger. I've re-read this book a couple times before, and it continues to be valuable: honest, easy to read, thoughtful, and very usable. One thing I'd forgotten was that de Becker himself was a survivor of childhood abuse and trauma, and is writing not only from his experience as a security expert but from his experience as a scared little kid.

This would make an excellent paired reading with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which is also about how intuition works, but approached from completely different angles. Both books discuss false intuition based on prejudice or pre-conceived ideas versus true intuition based on the situation at hand, and how to tell the difference. Gladwell's book is more sociological, and de Becker's is more of a how-to.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. It's an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and we shared that, too.

Probably the best memoir I've read all year. I read it when it first came out, and then re-read it several months later. Though Knapp's death frames the memoir, it's not primarily about that, but about the intimate, twin-like friendship between two women. Writers Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp bonded over their careers, their alcoholism and sobriety, and most of all, their beloved dogs. The structure is complex but seamless. Caldwell traces her own life story and how it paralleled and diverged from Knapp's, weaves it back into the story of their friendship, and then continues her story without Knapp, but always with her memory. It's extremely well-written, intense, and engaging, and reminded me quite a bit of another favorite memoir of mine... Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story.

It also reminded me of Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, another intense and well-written memoir about female friendship, in this case with troubled author and cancer survivor Lucy Grealy. Though Let's Take the Long Way Home, despite Knapp's early death, is a lot less tragic, since Caroline Knapp sounds like she had a lot more happiness and satisfaction in her life than poor Lucy Grealy ever did. It's also got way more dogs. In fact, it has enough dog content that I would especially recommend it to anyone who loves dogs. it contains dog death by old age, but is much more about what it's like to live with and love and train dogs.

You can click on the author tags to get reviews of the books I mentioned in comparison.
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2011-11-29 10:54

Crazy for the Storm, by Norman Ollested

Yet another memoir in which a short but compelling story of survival is padded out with flashback chapters about the memoirist's life before his plane crashed/he got kidnapped by terrorists/etc, to make sure the story is book-length.

In this case, the story everyone wants to read is about how 11-year-old Ollested, one of two survivors of a plane crash in the snowy California mountains that killed the pilot and his father, hiked down a mountain while trying to help the other survivor, his father's girlfriend. She's badly injured, and since the jacket copy gives it away, I will confirm that she doesn't make it. The flashbacks, which take up way more of the story, detail how Ollested lived with his mother and her abusive boyfriend, while his father periodically swooped in to demand that Ollested ski and surf with him. The young Ollested idolized his father, but was afraid of skiing and surfing - unsurprisingly, given that his father regularly demanded that he do what sounded like pretty dangerous stunts at a very young age.

You will be unsurprised to hear that I was interested in the survival story (about one-fourth of the total length, if that) and not so much in the endless series of surfing and skiing trips, described in impenetrable lingo and excruciating detail.

Incidentally, while individual moments can indeed be recalled with brilliant clarity twenty years later, especially if they were traumatic or otherwise memorable I don't believe that every single incident worth recounting includes vivid recollections of everyone's facial muscles. Having written a memoir myself, I frequently boggled at how Ollested would recount some trivial childhood incident jazzed up with detailed descriptions of the exact clothes everyone was wearing and the gestures they made as they uttered each word. No way. I also question the ethics of his depiction of Sondra, the girlfriend who dies on the mountain. She comes across as a horrific, shallow bitch. I'm sure that's indeed how Ollested remembered her, but given that she was a real person who died under pretty awful circumstances, to which he was the only witness, and there must be many people still living who loved her, a better balance of honesty with compassion might have been to give his recollections, but also talk to some people who knew her and so give a more rounded portrait.

Ollested ends up deciding that his father's maniacal effort to force him to learn great skiing techniques was probably what enabled him to survive. Twenty years later, he recounts how he nevertheless decided not to push his son as hard as his still-idolized father pushed him... and so he doesn't teach his son to ski until he's four.

I listened to this on audio while driving to Mariposa. The author's decision to read the entire book with extremely portentous intensity - appropriate for a desperate struggle for survival, not so much for dialogue like "Let's catch some killer swell, and maybe we can get back into that radical tube," - lent parts of the book a humor which it otherwise completely lacked.

Too much Daddy worship and totally tubular surfing jargon, not enough insight and wilderness survival.

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival (P.S.)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2011-07-07 09:22

Walking Where We Lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family, by Gaylen D. Lee

I found this in my father’s library while visiting his house in Mariposa, near Yosemite. It’s an evocative and enlightening book which tells, in alternate chapters, the history of the Nim*, who are California Indians from the area I was staying in, and the personal history and experiences of the author, who grew up practicing many of their traditional ways. The non-historical chapters are arranged by seasons, beginning with spring and ending when winter begins to warm into another spring.

Lee’s style is alternately scholarly, poetic, personal, and frank. He wrote this, the first personal account of the Nim by a Nim, partly because the existing written material on them, compiled by white anthropologists, was misleading or outright wrong. Some information is left out because it’s “none of anybody’s business;” other material, mostly involving the medicinal or food use of local plants, is deliberately vague to prevent foolish and inexperienced people from accidentally killing themselves.

The history is the usual tale of stolen land and broken treaties, attempted cultural genocide and fighting back. (One of the lighter bits quotes John Muir’s horror at the incredible filthiness of some Indians he encounters while hiking in the woods; Lee points out that they were in a mosquito-infested area, and the Indians had sensibly covered themselves with a natural repellent – mud!) The personal narrative is written in a more intimate voice, sometimes earthy, sometimes funny, often moving. Lee’s love for his family shines through every page.

I liked this a lot, and I think anyone who likes memoirs or nature writing would enjoy it. My father, who doesn’t read much narrative non-fiction, was fascinated by it, and we had several long conversations about it as we hiked in Yosemite. If you have a particular interest in California history or California Indian culture, it ought to be essential reading.

*The I in Nim has a diacritical I can’t reproduce, but is pronounced like the u in put. Also, Lee explains that while the Nim and the Mono speak the same language and so have been lumped together by anthropologists, they do not consider themselves to be the same people. So the subtitle is a bit odd. Possibly it was added by the publisher.

Walking Where We Lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2011-04-23 13:36

Death Valley in '49, by William Lewis Manly

I haven't finished reading this yet - I've been reading it off and on, on my Kindle - but I'm doing a mini-write-up before I utterly forget all that came before.

It's the autobiography of an American pioneer, full of lively and sometimes horripilating details. He starts out in the East, where life sounds fairly decent but the earth is hard to cultivate, and then his family moves to Wisconsin, where life sounds great. This part is full of excellent details on life, food, work, social mores, etc. Then they all hear that life is even better in California. Plus, there's gold! Uh-oh.

He and some buddies go ahead of the general party to scout. They run into some Indians, and despite the buddy's reluctance, Manly hauls them all to go have a chat. Neither party speaks the other's language, but they communicate pretty well with gestures and drawings. They trade food and horses, then Manly explains their intended route west. The conversation proceeds, more or less, as follows:

Indian: "WTF!!! Are you serious?! THAT way???"

Manly: "Um, yes. Is there a problem with that?"

Indian: "Oh hell yes. There's no water for BILLIONS OF MILES."

Manly (to buddy): "Let's try a different route."

Buddy: "You can't trust Indians! Ignore him. He's probably trying to lead us into a trap."

Manly: "I dunno. He's been friendly so far. Plus, he lives here and we don't. It's possible he knows the land better than we do."

Buddy: "Never trust an Indian!"

Indian: "BILLIONS OF MILES. NO WATER."

Manly: "Thanks for the horses!"

Buddy: "Onward to Death Valley!"

I realize that the conversation as depicted in the book may have been informed by hindsight, but it remains one of the best bits of ironic foreshadowing I've come across, whether or not it actually happened. (And no, it was not actually named Death Valley until after most of their party died there.)

I've just gotten to the part where Manly and a different buddy have left most of the party behind in Death Valley, and pressed on by themselves in the hope of bringing back help. The descriptions of the desert and its privations are marvelous: great cubes of rock salt like blocks of ice, wine-red alkaline lakes, dirt soft as flour. They brought dried beef from the oxen they had to slaughter, but despite their hunger, their mouths are so dry that they can't swallow, and they finally spit out their mouthfuls of jerky and lie down for the night, wondering if they'll wake up.

Free on Kindle: Death Valley in '49

Hard copy: Death Valley in '49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2009-09-20 11:40

Bad Boy: a memoir, by Walter Dean Myers

A childhood/teenage memoir of growing up in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on Myers’ family and neighborhood, his early attempts at writing, and the pervasive racism that slowly poisons his life and dreams.

Myers’ relaxed, warm style and deadpan humor make this easy reading, though I suspect that the episodic structure and lack of emphasis on the moments of conventional action would appeal more to adults than to teenagers.

View on Amazon: Bad Boy: A Memoir
rachelmanija: (Heroes: Save the world)
2009-09-18 13:03

Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup

[livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks recommended this to me ages ago as one of her favorite memoirs. It’s excellent.

Braestrup’s husband, a cop, was killed in a car crash before he could retire and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Braestrup decided to become a minister herself, and ended up as the chaplain for the game wardens in her small Maine town.

This is a hard book to describe and make it sound as good as it actually is. It’s written in that deceptively simple manner which is so easy to read and so hard to write. It’s religious without being self-righteous, full of compelling stories of searches for missing people, loving descriptions of the Maine wilderness and wildlife, and an intimate portrait of a family. Braestrup’s brief dips into comparative religion, which she says herself were not thoroughly researched, probably should have been left out. But when it comes to her own faith, her writing struck me, a Jewish atheist with some serious bones to pick with organized religion, as accessible, unsentimental, and often wise.

Here If You Need Me: A True Story

This book was of particular interest to me as next month I will begin training as a volunteer crisis counselor, in association with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team,) and if I manage to make it through the training, which will no doubt include many instance of roleplaying (my least favorite thing ever,) will be on call four hours per month to assist people in various post-emergency situations.
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2009-06-22 11:51

Home to India, by Santha Rama Rau

A memoir of the author’s teenage years in India during WWII. Rau and her older sister grew up in London, but returned to Bombay with their mother when their diplomat father was stationed in South Africa. (They tried living in South Africa, but her mother packed them up when she went to a movie theatre and found a sign reading “Indians, natives, and dogs are not allowed.”)

It’s hard to review this in a way that differentiates it from the many other books about people grappling with cultural identity and loyalty during a return to their homeland after a long separation. I did particularly like this one, though. It’s not primarily a comedy, but there are many funny bits, often involving her deadpan sister and a grandfather who reinvents Descartes via musings on the existence or nonexistence of the Indian sweet on his plate. Rau’s ear for dialogue is as sharp as her observation of a country and cultures she’s more or less encountering as a newcomer, as she had left India when she was six.

Unsurprisingly, she gets involved in the political scene. Her mother is a friend of the politician and poet Sarojini Naidu, who comes across particularly vividly, reigning over a dinner party in a blouse printed with the cover of her favorite book! She also meets Nehru a couple of times. Rau captures the excitement of the political scene, as friends often call up to apologize in advance for missing dinner parties, as they’ve decided to get arrested for civil disobedience instead.

The book was published in 1944, when Rau was about 21. It feels very immediate, with little mediation by hindsight. Her thoughts on politics and identity are honest and serious: you can see her growing up intellectually as the book progresses.

But though the content is weighty, the touch is light. It’s a quick, easy, enjoyable read. I was not surprised to learn that Rau became quite a successful writer, author of a number of books and the film version of A Passage To India.

View on Amazon: Home to India (Perennial library)
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2009-06-19 11:37

The Opposite of Fate: memories of a writing life, by Amy Tan.

A collection of essays, many autobiographical. If you’re interested in Amy Tan and writing, this is a must-read. If you dislike her fiction, I hesitate to recommend this; the style and most of the topics not focused on writing are quite similar. I do generally like her fiction and I am interested in writing, so I enjoyed this.

A number of the most powerful and poignant stories focus on her remarkably eventful and often traumatic life, the equally eventful and traumatic life of her mother, and their difficult relationship. (Difficult is putting it mildly: when Tan was a teenager, her mother, who was frequently suicidal, held a cleaver to Tan’s throat.) I hadn’t realized quite how autobiographical some of her fiction was until I read this book.

I also enjoyed most of the pieces on writing. Tan is quite funny about detailing the neurosis-beset life of the writer. In more serious matters, she has several essays about the expectations put on her as a Chinese-American writer (she dislikes the term “writer of color”), both from white people and from people of color. Her essays on the matter are heartfelt and worth reading even if you totally disagree with some or all of her opinions, which are too complex to summarize here.

The last essay, about a mysterious chronic illness she develops which causes a cascade of horrifying symptoms which eventually include hallucinations, is both a compelling medical detective story and a good conclusion to the book, though I was not fond of her attempt to pull in 9/11, which occurred at the same time. (Moral: if no one knows what’s wrong with you and you have bizarre symptoms, online research is the next best thing to Dr. House.)

Like most essay collections, there’s some randomness and a couple of pieces that could have been dropped with no harm to the book. But it’s a strong collection overall.
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2009-06-11 12:00

The Dream of Water, by Kyoko Mori

A memoir about Japanese-American author Mori’s visit to her hometown of Kobe and other parts of Japan many years after her family was shattered by her mother’s suicide. Mori spends time with her dysfunctional family, tries to understand her long-dead mother, and grapples with her own cultural identity.

Well-written and thoughtful, but also a bit emotionally distant and with little variety of tone. I wasn’t bowled over, but my taste tends more toward brightly colored passions and humor than to delicate understatement. If you are more inclined to the latter, you would probably like it more. It did get rave reviews.

Check it out on Amazon: The Dream of Water
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
2006-10-07 15:53

Books: short takes

I abandon all hope of writing long reviews of any of the books I've read recently, except maybe Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Soul Kitchen, by Poppy Z. Brite.

A gripping installment of her series about Rickey and G-Man, New Orleans chefs and soulmates. Rickey injures his back, suffers chronic pain, and ends up hooked on Vicodin thanks to a doctor involved in some shady dealings; he also hires a chef who was unjustly imprisoned for murder for ten years, and ends up under the thumb of the man who actually committed the crime. For once, the crime element is integrated into rest of the plot rather than an add-on, and is also integral to the themes of racism and corruption in New Orleans. The writing is excellent, but I felt that the ending was overly cheerful considering how badly some of the characters other than Rickey and G-Man ended up.

Campus Sexpot, by David Carkeet.

A memoir about how a high school teacher in his home town wrote a steamy pulp novel based on actual town characters, then fled to Mexico, and how the locals reacted. This starts out well, with hilarious excerpts from the novel, but gradually loses steam. At the end it becomes a portrait of the author's father, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything that's been set up earlier. About the fiftieth memoir I've read which would have made an excellent long essay. Also, I am very curious as to how he got permission to do such extensive excerpts from the pulp novel, which is not listed where one normally lists permissions. Unless maybe the whole thing is fiction? But if so, you'd think he'd have made it more dramatic.

Scruffy, by Paul Gallico

Gallico used to be quite popular and is now pretty much forgotten. He wrote The Poseidon Adventure, but I think his best writing was in his portraits of animals: the cat who gets amnesia and believes she's a goddess in Thomasina, the street-smart and compassionate Jennie in The Abandoned, and the clever, vicious, utterly unredeemable eponymous Barbary ape of Scruffy, whose keepers love him precisely because he's so aggressively unlovable.

Scruffy is based on the legend that the British would be kicked off Gibraltar if its colony of imported macaques ever died out. It's set in WWII, when the apes are indeed dying out, and this is seized upon by Nazi propagandists. A crew of hapless officers must find a mate for Scruffy, the nastiest and ugliest ape ever to (literally) bite the hands that feed him. Dated, somewhat sexist, and colonialist, yet quite funny if you can get past that: re-reading revealed that it was not only a lack of mature judgement that made me like it when I was eleven.
rachelmanija: (Books turn brain)
2006-02-18 19:03

Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett

This memoir is about the friendship between two woman writers, the novelist Ann Patchett and the poet/memoirist Lucy Grealy. I randomly picked this up from my neighborhood cafe book exchange and loved it. I immediately vowed to find Patchett's novels, which is not always a response I have when I read a memoir I like, as I have not bothered to pick up novels by, say, Anthony Bourdain or Augusten Burroughs. Perhaps the difference is that in the latter two cases, the personality of the author and the milieu is half the charm, whereas the virtues of Patchett's book, which lie not just in the prose (which is excellent) but in the depiction of relationships and a character portrait of someone other than the author, would seem to translate more easily to a novel. So I was pleased to discover that I already had Patchett's The Magician's Apprentice, which I have no recollection of buying.

I had earlier read Grealy's memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which is about her diagnosis of jaw cancer at the age of nine, her horrifying and lengthy treatment with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery that removed much of her jaw, and of her experience growing up with a disfigured face. Though it was quite poetically written and the chemotherapy descriptions in particular were almost unreadably vivid, I had hoped for more of a sense of the author as a person, or more discussion of her experiences as an adult, or something-- it read to me as if large sections were missing or opaque.

When Patchett and Grealy meet in college, Grealy is famous on campus, for her talent, her charisma, and her tragic and dramatic life story-- much of her jaw is missing, she has undergone repeated unsuccessful surgeries to repair her face, and she suffers numerous health and living problems because she can't chew or swallow properly. Patchett is a bit of a nobody. But they end up becoming roommates, and bond instantly in the way that people do when they suddenly meet someone they can talk to about everything they always thought no one else could understand, and with whom the conversation flows. Besides that, they have chemistry. Though there are erotic elements in their relationship, at least in my view, what they mainly have is a friendship that's as lasting and passionate as a lifelong love-affair. In a sense, it is a lifelong love affair.

Oddly, reading the book convinced me of three things: that Patchett really did love Lucy and wrote the book out of love and grief after Lucy's death, that the book is honest to the best of Patchett's ability, and that though I have a lot of sympathy for Lucy Grealy, I don't actually find her likable. She comes across as needy, self-centered, a drama queen, and a bit of spoiled brat who never grows up. Granted, she had a lot to bear and reasons she was the way she was, but still. Patchett does her best to get across Lucy's personal charisma, but it's tough to fully portray a quality that's often solely in a person's aura and not in their words or deeds. Patchett herself is more in the background, but sees herself as the plodding ant to Lucy's charmingly feckless grasshopper.

But the relationship between the two of them comes across beautifully. Lucy loves to be taken care of, and Ann Patchett loves taking care; it's co-dependent, but it's also real love. This is a great character portrait, and a brilliant portrayal of a relationship that on one level makes no sense and on other levels seems inevitable and natural.

I was so curious about the background of the book that I looked it up, and found the swirl of intense and mixed feelings that so frequently surround memoirs: Lucy Grealy's sister is furious with Ann Patchett for writing a book that tells all about Lucy's less-than-stellar qualities, for priveleging her own grief above the family's, and for exposing the family to unwanted fame; readers on Amazon note that Lucy was a bitch who brought everything on herself, or else accuse Patchett of not coming clean about the clearly lesbian nature of the relationship, of cashing in on a dead friend's memory for money, of being a doormat, of allowing Lucy to die (of a drug overdose) through her failure to apply tough love, of making Lucy look bad, of deliberately making Lucy look bad out of spite or jealousy, and of failing to give the proceeds to cancer research; and other readers defend the book at some length.

I wondered, when I read all that, if Ann Patchett hoped that readers would see Lucy as she saw Lucy-- infuriating, irresponsible, but impossibly charming-- and would love her too, and if she was saddened that a lot of them didn't. I wonder if she wishes she'd exposed more of her own flaws for balance, or softened Lucy's. Or if, when she was writing, she left nothing out because it never occurred to her any number of flaws could prevent anyone from loving Lucy.
rachelmanija: (Default)
2005-10-12 13:16

Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell; Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl

Two foodie memoirs by talented female writers; two great big disappointments.

Julie Powell wrote a terrific blog called "The Julie/Julia Project" about how she relieved the stress from her horrible government job by cooking every single recipe from Julia Child's French cookbook, in one year, in her tiny New York apartment. Now the blog has been taken down and is forever unavailable, for it's been replaced by a book which is inferior in every respect.

What was fun about the blog was the crazy concept and Powell's excellent, funny writing about her kitchen mishaps and the food itself. Some of that has been preserved in the book. The parts of the book where she writes about food and cooking are quite good. Unfortunately, at least half of the total verbiage of the book is not about food and cooking, but about Powell's polycystic ovarian syndrome, Powell's relationship with her husband, Powell's nasty apartment, Powell's horrible job, Powell's friends and their love lives, how Powell felt about blogging, and how Powell became famous. Almost none of that material has any inherent interest or is written about in an interesting manner. (The exception, oddly, is Powell's horrible government job, which was to collect citizen's proposals for the 9/11 memorial.)

Few of Powell's original (and delightful) blog entries have been reprinted. Instead, in a jaw-dropping lapse of judgement, a great many of the totally uninteresting comments on her blog have been, along with Powell's annoyingly navel-gazing feelings about the blogging process. I don't care what people said to her about her blog, and I don't care how she felt about blogging-- I want to read more of her charming posts, the ones we all loved in the first place, and I was sad when I discovered that they have all been removed from the web.

The book is a smash-- she had a lot of fans from the get-go, and a million-dollar publicity budget-- but the cost was the replacement of a genuine, if impromptu, work of art with a dull and forgettable money-making machine.

ETA: Oh, wait, looks like at least some of the original posts are still archived in wayback: http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/

Ruth Reichl's first two memoirs of her education in food, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, are excellent, especially the first. Reichl is ten times the writer Julie Powell (especially book-Powell) is, and her food writing is sensual, evocative, and suggestive of larger themes. Unfortunately, Garlic and Sapphires, like Julie and Julia, is saddled with a misguided concept that buries the marvellous food writing under a lot of verbiage about something I didn't enjoy reading about. Apparently when Reichl became the food critic for the "New York Times," she became so famous that all restauranteurs knew what she looked like and treated her like royalty-- and unlike a normal customer-- every time she showed up. So she began dining in disguise. Several disguises. The concept here is that every time she donned a new disguise, she also donned a new persona, and so explored new aspects of her personality.

It's not that I think Reichl made all this up. It's just that it reads so totally unconvincingly that I kept having to tell myself, "No, really, I think this really did happen to her." So her restaurant reviews, many of which are reprinted within, are terrific. Her accounts of eating are terrific. The approximately half of the book that's about her disguises is strange, implausible, and dull.
rachelmanija: (Default)
2005-07-14 14:10

Candy and Me (A Love Story), by Hilary Liftin

I hate to go for the obvious line, but reading Liftin's memoir about how much she loves cheap, sugary candy really is very much like eating cheap, sugary candy: it's fun in small doses, but insubstantial and not nourishing, and will leave you nauseated if you devour too much in one sitting.

Liftin loves candy. Well, actually, I think what she really loves is sugar. She eats pure sugar as a child, then graduates to frosting, marshmallow eggs, circus peanuts, tootsie rolls, and many other forms of candy which I dislike because they mostly taste of sugar. Anyone who has no real preference for Jelly Belly jelly beans over the sugar-tasting generic thick-shelled variety is a person with whom any discussion of candy preferences would be limited to, "Really? That stuff? You really like that stuff? Wow."

Here is the condensed version of Candy and Me: I ate a pound of some type of sugary candy at a sitting. Meanwhile, something happened in my life. Then I got into another type of sugary candy, and ate a pound of that at a sitting. Meanwhile, something else happened. I worried that maybe I was eating too much candy, but since nothing bad ever happened because of it, I went on eating pounds and pounds of candy. Then I met the best guy in the world. Oh my God! I love him so much. He understands that I love eating candy. We got married and lived happily ever after and I still eat a lot of candy, though not as much as I did when I was young. The end.

Like many memoirs, the basic problem with this book is that it has enough content for an amusing feature article. The other problem is that Liftin's relationship with candy has nothing to do with her life in general, though she periodically tries to make it seem like it does by hazarding that perhaps she wants to find the sweetness in life or comfort herself or something. She's not professionally involved with candy, she doesn't have an eating disorder, and she doesn't write about the history of candy or how it relates to pop culture or her own culture. There's candy, and there's her life, and the two don't really have much to do with each other. This makes the book seem thin and gimmicky.

I was thinking about food memoirs or other personal food accounts that I have liked, and the ones that occur to me offhand were written by food critics (Ruth Reichl's Tender to the Bone and Comfort me with Apples and Jonathan Gold's Counter Intelligence), chefs (Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour), amateur chefs (Michael Ruhlman's Soul of a Chef), or by people who see food as being intimately connected to culture, and to personal and cultural identity ([livejournal.com profile] oyceter's food posts). All of these can be quite funny, but also (even Gold's book, which is actually a restaurant guide-- and is one of my very favorite books on Los Angeles) make the connection between the food they love and the most essential aspects of their selves, and I think that's what Liftin's book lacks. I know she loves sugar. But even by the end of a book devoted to her love of sugar, I'm not quite sure why she loves it, or what it really means to her.
rachelmanija: (Ed among the ignorant)
2005-06-22 10:18

Shutterbabe, by Deborah Copaken Kogan

In the highly competitive field of smug, shallow, self-absorbed memoirs by smug, shallow, self-absorbed people, Shutterbabe sweeps away all other contenders to win the prize for the memoir most likely to discredit the entire genre.

Kogan's memoir is about her experiences as a young female photojournalist who spends four years of her life photographing war zones and having affairs. Her system is as follows: she accepts an assignment to photograph some dangerous and newsworthy area. She shows up with no clue of what's going on over there or how she's supposed to find the war. She attaches herself to a male journalist or, occasionally, a local man and has him take her around or point her in the right direction. She has an affair with him, frequently of an abusive nature. She encounters sexism from other journalists and local men; sometimes she's physically or sexually assaulted. She informs us that this is the inevitable lot of being a petite woman in a man's world. She reminds us that she was a homecoming queen, that she went to Harvard, and that she's won a lot of awards. She takes her photos, brow-beats herself a bit for being unprepared and not giving a damn about the people she's photographing but only being interested in the voyeuristic thrills and career success she can garner, and goes home. Repeat.

The best parts of the memoir are the details of how photojournalists work: how they lug around and sometimes disguise their equipment, how their presence affects the events they're recording, and how they're wedded to exploitative agencies that tend to keep them poor. The best chapter is the one where Kogan visits Romania and has an affair with a local photographer. It's the only one where, due to her interaction with him, she seems to have any understanding of the people she's photographing. A visit to a nightmarish Romanian orphanage, described in surreal and horrifying detail, is the best piece of writing in the book, and also prompts her to do something far, far better than she has ever done: she gives up her photos of it to a more famous and connected photojournalist in the hope that he will be able to get them published or take his own and publish them, and so get conditions improved there.

But too much of the memoir concerns the increasingly insufferable Kogan's irresistability to every man she meets. She tries to connect her thrillseeking in wars with her thrillseeking in sex, but that just makes her seem priveleged, shallow, and exploitative of the people who are dying for her thrills; and she tried to draw a parallel between her personal experiences with sexual violence and the violence she photographs, but her incomplete understanding of feminism just makes her seem undereducated and clueless. She seems to think that feminism is the understanding that men are sexist and violent and there's a double standard, and that women are helpless and that a woman who has sexual and physical adventures is just trying to be a man, and that's just how it is. As Inigo Montoya might say, "You keep saying that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means."

And then there's the last chapter. The infuriating last chapter.

Kogan meets her True Love, marries him, realizes that what she really wants is to have children because Jews have a moral responsibility to procreate to make up for the Holocaust (I am not making that up), and is shocked, shocked, when she finds that journalism is not supportive of women with children. So she quits to be a mommy and a writer-- with "an angel of a woman from the Phillippines" to actually take care of her children.

Now, that's fine. I know many mothers who are writers. I support Kogan's personal decision. What I do not support is her insistence that having children is the best and most moral and most womanly and wonderful act a person can possibly do, and that if you don't marry and have children your life is empty and meaningless and stunted no matter what else you do.

"I see the middle-aged single women who work in my new profession, the often angry and sad ones who were born late enough to reap the early benefits of feminism but not late enough to give up the whole notion of pretending to be a man in order to succeed. These women have offices crammed with Emmys, but homes with rooms barren of possessions and memories save their own."

That male journalist who helped the Romanian orphans? His life is also worthless compared to that of any random person with a baby, because even though he helped save the lives of other people's children, he didn't father any of his own. And of course bringing more children into the world is ever so much more important than making sure the ones who are already there have a decent life.

And in the end, doesn't it all come down to biology?

"How many times did I regret the enormous trouble my body caused me, the way it bled and attracted assaults"

Note how Kogan, who earlier had refused to wear a burka when traveling in Afghanistan with mujahedeen, is using the same reasoning here as the Taliban.

"and made me an easy target for any man with a gripe and a will to act upon it? How many times did I wish my body weren't curvy? Or small and weak and useless as a weapon of self-defense?"

Kogan seems to forget that she knows men who were beaten or murdered by other men, despite having bodies that were big and strong and useful. And that, when she does decide to physically fight against an assault, she actually succeeds. Or what the real issue is here, which is the society, culture, and individuals who think violence is OK, NOT her body. Again, this is the same reasoning as the Taliban: women's bodies are the problem. No female bodies or presence, no violence. The vagina calls out to the rapist. No vagina, no problem.

"What an ingrate I was. What a unique gift to have a body that can serve as a vessel to a future life. What a stroke of good design to have breasts that will sustain it. What an important responsibility to be cast as the keeper of the flame rather than the igniter of the fires."

I could quote more, but I have to go fulfill my womanly duty and find some Jew to procreate with now.
rachelmanija: (Reading Man)
2005-06-11 15:33

Shooting the Boh : A Woman's Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo, by Tracy Johnston

Johnston is a middle-aged, married journalist who jumps at the chance to go on an adventure tour rafting an unexplored section of the Boh river in the Borneo rain forest, even though her husband is afraid for her safety and her back had just gone out. A horrendous series of mishaps and unexpected unpleasantries follow, starting with the airport losing her luggage (she spends much of the rest of the trip envying and attempting to borrow the other rafters' air mattresses), continuing with the river being far more dangerous than its advertisement suggested, and culminating in her hitting menopause in the middle of the rain forest-- a place which, if her description of it is even slightly accurate, I would pay to not visit.

The rafters spend the entire trip being plagued by sweat bees, stinging bees, leeches, and various forms of jungle rot. Poor Johnston faces some of my very least favorite experiences-- being attacked by bugs, being sick, suffering from ailments she's embarassed to discuss, being the only person there without a boyfriend or companion and having to watch a gorgeous younger woman kissing a handsome tour guide in front of her, being underequipped and unable to pull her weight due to her back injury, and not even seeing any picturesque wildlife until the very end of the trip.

However, despite her understandable misery which may have affected her reactions, I still wanted to give Johnston a primer in feminism. She keeps moaning on and on about how she'll never be attractive again and can never again have physically taxing adventures now that she's hit menopause. WTF? Did the Menopause Fairy hit her over the head with the ugly stick? Does she think that just because she felt physically unfit to go on one of the most physically taxing adventure trips I've ever heard of, she must now spend the rest of her life knitting?

The descriptions of the rain forest are fascinating, but the characters (except for the gorgeous French woman, Sylvie, whom Johnston is completely obsessed with as the foil for her own descent into cronehood) are not developed well, to the point where I kept having to flip back to the beginning to see whether the guy who got dysentery was the conservative Australian, the conservative American, or the gorgeous tour guide. The whole trip-- to call it poorly planned is like saying Mount Everest is tall-- is clearly a recipe for disaster, and they were luckily no one was killed or seriously injured. But not much is made of that in the end: the rafts arrive safely, and Johnston goes home glad she had the experience and glad it's over. This is an interesting account if you want to read about Borneo, but it lacks the writerly or introspective or muckraking pizzazz that would have made it memorable.