Category: Memoir


The Biography of a Cat

The Aprils have morphed into the Mays, but once the final push of the semester is over, I suspect that J and I will be back at reading the books. Right now it seems that we have both been swallowed by piles of papers and exams to grade. Anyway, with this in mind I deliberately picked up a light book to read the other day- something I saw a while back, and decided that it might be a fun book . So today’s book is Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter.)

The (true) story of Dewey Readmore Books starts when a small orange kitten is shoved into a library drop box on a frigid Iowa December day. He is found by the head librarian Vicki Myron, who nurses him back to health with the help of the library staff. Dewey then becomes the “library cat” for the town of Spencer, Iowa.

Okay, so you are probably thinking, “a library cat, really?” But this book is about much more than a library cat. Dewey’s story unfolds in little vignettes, and as that comes out, so do other themes. The town where this all takes place, Spencer, is a small  town center in a rural area, and Myron carefully plots out some of the problems that the town faced– the losses of the small family farms, the rise of big Agra, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and how life in a small farm-town is markedly different from that of big cities.  She also builds on the importance of the public library in the town, how it serves for a center of civic and public life, and how  libraries are instrumental for regular people. For instance- in many local libraries in small Midwestern towns, the libraries keep fancy cake-pans (yes, cake pans) for people to check out so that they can make a special cake for a birthday or celebration. Yup, Midwesterners do not mess around when it comes to food, and even the libraries embrace this fact.

Dewey, of course, is the star of this book, and much of the work centers on how he, as a cat, lives an extraordinary life. Those who live with animals and who understand animals, know that our cats and dogs humanize us, and that is, in one sense what Dewey did as the Spencer’s library cat. He gave joy to all who came to the library, including disabled children, homeless people, exhausted young mothers, and the elderly. He became a sort of mascot for the town, more popular than the local politicians, and he became Vicki’s cat.

Some of the more moving parts of the book center around how Dewey’s love and affection grounded Vicki— a single mom who escaped a bad marriage to an alcoholic, who managed to graduate from college as an adult despite numerous obstacles. As the book unfolds, you realize that it is about more than just a cat that came to live in a library– it is about ordinary Americans living ordinary lives (that are often filled with emotional and physical pain) but who manage to persevere– much like Dewey himself.

Interwoven into all of this are funny little stories about the cat himself, small-town politics, and how Dewey eventually became a media sensation (long before this book ever came out.) This is a sweet little book, one that could be shared with older children (not the whole thing, a few chapters are pretty dark) but is an easy read about how one little cat came to change the life of a little town in Iowa, and their head librarian. I enjoyed it– it was light and pleasurable and a good book to help get things rolling again.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll

We are still here! It has been quiet the last two weeks at the blog, J and and I know– it’s a case of the Aprils. You see in academia, April really is the cruelest month. Why? Well, everything culminates in April. Lots of grading to do, all these events to go, meeting after meeting, graduation coming up, preparing for any travel/research for the summer. It gets chaotic. So we are still here and still reading, just the pace is a bit slow, and might be for a few weeks.

Anyway today’s book is Life by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I have been on a memoir kick lately, and when this book came in from the library (I placed it on hold months ago) I just had to read it. It is a big, rambling book, with a distinctive story-telling style. The kind of book that is best read leisurely, which is part of the reason why it took me so long since it tops out at 600+ pages. But yes, what a life it is.

Richards is infamous for his life– his battles with drug addiction, his battles with the Stones’s frontman Mick Jagger (who despite it all, he clearly loves as family– but the thing about family is that sometimes they can get you pretty angry even when you love them.) His famous womanizing. It is all in there, with a great amount of frankness (this is not stuff your kid should read– although to be fair, Richards does not glamorize his junkie phase at all. Rather he comes to terms with it with a refreshing pragmatism.) The book is at times entertaining, thought-provoking and quite funny. It is also surprisingly touching, as when Richards addresses the death of his young son, who he clearly continues to mourn, and his relationship with his mom, who he adored– and he is certainly progressive. In an era when segregation was still the norm in America, Richards embraced African-American culture wholeheartedly, as well as the people.  Richards also admits that he has always played to his bad-boy image because it has been what people expect of him. The book is extraordinarily rich and I can’t do it justice really in a few paragraphs.

But the heart of the book is music. Although it was model Patti Hansen who tamed Richards and who pulled him out of his womanizing, junkie lifestyle, I think it is music that his one true love. This book is really great if you are a music lover, Richards goes over how he came up with some of the most memorable Stones riffs– for example, “Satisfaction” came to him in his sleep. He spends a lot of time going over his love of American roots music, both white and black, and he talks about the way that music soothes the soul and opens the heart.

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people became a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and take to heart is a connection, a touching of bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think song-writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”

This is a great read if you are a music or Stones fan. The book focuses more heavily on the earlier portions of Richards’s life, and sometimes you cannot believe that he survived it all. Richards is certainly (in many ways) a lucky man.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Food is where the heart is

My mother grew up in a large multi-generational Mexican-American household. The memories that she has shared with me often revolve around food– her grandmother rising early to make fresh tortillas every day, the chile being cooked on the stove– how they gave a bowl of beans to anyone who showed up hungry, despite the fact that they were not well-off themselves. Food is one of those defining cultural characteristics of people’s heritage. Often when language and even many customs are lost, people hold onto food. For me, Christmas would not be Christmas without the authentic biscochos and bread pudding I bake every year, the tamales that I sweat through the making of with my mom, and the big pot of posole that my cousin makes for Christmas morning breakfast. And so it is food that drives the memoir Bento Box in the Heartland by Linda Furiya.

Furiya is a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Bento Box focuses on her childhood in post-WW II Indiana. Yup, Indiana- where hers was the only Asian family in town, and where her father had settled when he came back to the US after the war.

This memoir is set up as a story of vignettes, usually revolving around one sort of food or a food theme. In those vignettes you find out about Furiya’s family, their history, and how food comes to be the main way that they try to told onto the culture in “whitebread America.” The book is brutally honest, and at times brutally painful. What is here is the voice of a little girl who never quite fit in– who was always aware of being Japanese-American, of being different (so afraid she would eat her Bento-box lunch in the bathroom rather than let the other students see the “weird” food that she ate.) As the book unfolds you discover her father’s hardship at having been a prisoner of war for years, and her mother’s hardship of giving up a career to marry a man she had never met in a country where she did not speak the language. Both grapple with the hard reality of being immigrant in America in a place where initially, they were seen with some hostility. And Furiya herself tries to make her way in a world with little extended family– most of them were in Japan, and she tried to move beyond her own narrow world and out into the greater world.

Furiya’s book focuses a lot of the act of eating, and getting ahold of traditional Japanese food (mainly when it entailed a 6 hour drive to Chicago) in a place where it was not easy to find the ingredients. There is a great chapter on a family vacation that they take just so her father can go fishing in Florida. Along the way, Furiya comes to grips with her Japanese past and her parent’s past, as well as the roles that they embody (fairly traditional.) There are moments when the book is heart-wrenching but it is also eye opening and powerful.

This is a really wonderful memoir about what it means to be a family and the immigrant experience in America. Highly recommended.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

You can go home again

If you were raised in a religious household, I think that you often spend much of your life living either in accord to what you were raised with, or in some tension with your tradition (whether you leave it altogether, join one that is similar but different, or decide to take an academic turn and spend your life studying it.)  Rhoda Janzen depicts this tension in her memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen, an English professor, hit a nasty patch during midlife. She survived the aftereffects of a major surgery that was botched, only to have her husband leave her (for a man), get into a nasty wreck thanks to a  drunk driver that slams into her, and is then left with a mortgage she cannot pay.

So what does one do when such a thing happens? Well, you go home for a spell, and let the people that love you take care of you. Janzen’s family are rather well-educated Mennonites, her father is a theologian and major leader in the church, and her mother was a nurse. As Janzen goes back home and begins to re-explore her relationships with her family and her community, details about her life emerge in a non-linear manner, and she begins to heal.

A few things about the book. First of all, it is a non-linear read- she digresses a lot– some of it is a bit stream-of-consiousness. And  is not an all-about-Mennonites book. Her family happens to be Mennonites and Janzen has rejected her childhood faith, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about Mennonite life/theology/etc. Her humor has a biting edge to it- although sometimes it is really gut-wrenchingly funny. While she makes fun of her Mennonite family it is pretty clear that she absolutely loves them. Really, truly, loves them and finds a certain amount of security in the faith that she left that they continue to embody– even though it is no longer hers.

As the book unfolds Janzen is pretty honest- she made some bad decisions- her marriage, which lasted 15 years was a rocky one, and her husband had always been iffy about his sexuality, was cruel and often emotionally abusive, but was also charming, smart, funny, and oh, yes, bi-polar. As the book unfolds Janzen realizes that the mess of her marriage was just as much her fault as his, because she allowed herself to get swept into this. Along the way, her family and friends help her sort it all out.

Janzen’s mom almost steals the book. She is caring, hysterical and earthy. I had moments when reading the book when I was reminded of my mom, and Janzen lovingly outlines all of her mom’s quirks, often for maximum humor potential. She also waxes on Mennonite food– and her love for it. So it is clear that even though Janzen became an urbane, educated, agnostic college professor, there are some things from her Mennonite past that she will never shake. Such as her love for borscht.

The book reads quickly and in places is very funny. It is a bit uneven, because I think this memoir in the end was more conceptual and stylized then perhaps a general audience would like. All the same, I really enjoyed it. Janzen has a great voice– honest, funny, and down-home and very real.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Reflections of a Pedro Pan Kid

“The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me.”  With those words Carlos Eire begins the moving story of his childhood in Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.  The incident that changed the world was, of course, Fidel Castro’s successful overthrow of the Batista-led Cuban government in January, 1959, and the change was a dramatic one.  The Revolution confiscated property, redistributing it to “the people of Cuba,” and would eventually tear children from their parents, as it did to Eire and his family.  Though he and his brother were eventually reunited with their mother, the last time they saw their father was the day they were put on a plane at the ages of 11 and 14, exiles from their homeland.

The majority of the book does not, however, dwell on this painful memory, but rather relates numerous tales from pre-Revolution Cuba.  Eire does not tell a linear story, but rather gives vignettes from his childhood, often interrupted by digression upon digression, as one memory leads to another, sometimes resulting in a lengthy trip down a rabbit hole, other times teasing the reader with hints of what is to come.  Through it all, Eire weaves a beautiful tapestry of Cuban life in the late 1950s told with poignancy and humor, often at the same time.  His was a childhood filled with eccentric characters and games that would make twenty-first century American parents swoon: a family whose house had a zoo of sorts, including a pet monkey that once bit Eire on the arse and a mynah bird trained to shout obscenities; a game that involved throwing rocks at one another, as the boys’ carefree father looked on, bemused; trying to blast a lizard into orbit with an enormous firecracker (a paltry English word for the explosives known in Spanish as cohetes, “rockets”); chasing after a pesticide jeep on their bicycles, grabbing on to the bumper, and hanging on for a ride, despite the DDT spewing forth from the truck.  These and other stories reveal the recklessness and zest for life that dominated Eire’s youth.

Other stories provide a fascinating snapshot of the melange of religious beliefs in the Cuba of the 1950s: a housekeeper who threatened Eire with voodoo curses if he should rat on her; a father who believed himself to have been Louis XVI in a previous life and his wife Marie Antoinette; the Christian Brothers who warned their students about the fires of hell and the dangers of dirty magazines at the age of 8.  Eire himself has a lively sense of the supernatural, but he’s not above discussing such matters with more than a touch of humor.  Take, for instance, his correction of Dante’s vision of hell:

“Dante was so wrong.  At the lowest point, at the nadir of the ninth circle of hell, Satan will be sharing eternally cold space with treasonous brownnosers who abandon their principles and do what is wrong for the sake of a good grade, or applause.  And these brownnosers will have to lick Satan’s razor-studded butt forever and ever, with their tongues.” (232)

Perhaps the most profound and moving aspect of the book, though, is Eire’s reflection on death in the last chapter, a reflection he gives in the context of describing his final day in Cuba.  Referring to that day as his first death, he notes, “There are many ways to die.  Only one kind is final, of course.  But before that one pulls you under, many others come along, like waves at the shore” (375).  If you read his story, you will understand what he means, and perhaps marvel, as I did, at his resilience in the face of such trials.  Perhaps you will also see the various deaths in your own life and resonate on some level with his experience.

I decided to read Waiting for Snow in Havana in part because my own mother emigrated to the States through the Pedro Pan program, probably around the same time that Eire did.  The book gave me a fascinating glimpse into the world of her youth and a deeper appreciation of how difficult this move must have been, a kind of death.  But as Eire asserts (and, indeed, shows through this beautifully written book), “Dying can be beautiful.  And waking up is even more beautiful.  Even when the world has changed.  Especially when the world has changed” (382).  Whether you have an interest in Cuba or not, I highly recommend this book, for the humor – I laughed out loud numerous times, for the deep insights into the human condition, and for the elegant prose.

Fifteen down, (at least) thirty-seven to go.

Ta,
J

UPDATE: In the small world category, it turns out my mother knew Eire and his mother when they lived in Chicago!

A Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land

Can a man who grew up in a climate of violence and hatred, whose father was repeatedly arrested and detained for years on end, who himself was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, escape the cycle of violence and become an advocate for peace?  Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of the memoir Son of Hamas, seems to be living proof that the answer to this heartrending question, thankfully, is “Yes.”

Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.  Son of Hamas tells the gripping tale of his upbringing in the midst of overwhelming suffering, his arrest and decision to work as a double agent for Shin Bet, the countless narrow escapes he managed as he gathered information for the organization, his secret conversion to Christianity, and his ultimate decision to abandon espionage and immigrate to America, convinced that the ordinary means would never bring a lasting solution to the sad problem that is the Middle East.

The story is filled with tragic accounts of the violence that plagues the Holy Land.  From an early age, Yousef witnessed the deaths of his fellow Palestinians, the periodic arrests of his father, the ostracism his family endured as a result, and the seeming impotence of Palestinian attempts to overthrow their Israeli oppressors.  Little wonder that by the age of eighteen he shared the same hatred for the Israelis that many (though not all) Palestinians feel.  And yet, despite this painful and traumatic childhood, in the midst of his trials Yousef realized that there was blame to be had by all, both Israelis and Palestinians.  At first this led him to give up his plan to use his cover as a Shin Bet operative in order to murder the people who had arrested him.  Yousef spent the next ten years collaborating with Shin Bet, in the process saving countless lives from terrorist threats.  Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that his spy work would never bring lasting peace to his homeland.  Part of what led him to this conclusion was his slow but gradual conversion to Christianity.  Gripped by the message of Jesus, particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, Yousef abandoned his ancestral faith and, at first secretly, embraced Christianity.  It was only after he left the Holy Land that he relayed the devastating news to his father.

Despite this dramatic change, Yousef maintains a deep affection for his father and the rest of his family.  To me, this was one of the most moving aspects of the book.  Yousef’s embrace of Christianity has not led him to vilify his past or his family members.  Throughout the book he reverently describes his father as a man of deep faith and integrity, a man he loves and respects despite their religious disagreements.  Happily, this love runs both ways.  As a leader of Hamas, if Sheikh Yousef were to disown Mosab, he would effectively be pronouncing a death sentence on his firstborn son.  Amidst the feelings of pain and betrayal, the elder Yousef has chosen rather to protect his son.  In a phone conversation between father and son after the younger Yousef had left for the U.S., the elder tells his son, “No matter what happened, you are still my son.  You are part of me, and nothing will change.  You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”

In a postscript Yousef talks about why he chose to write the memoir, addressing the common cynical evaluations of such books as bids for money, fame, and power.  He denies such charges, noting that he could have had more than his fair share of these had he stayed in his homeland, and that he has turned down similar opportunities since moving to the States.  Rather, he wrote the book as a sign of hope for those who despair of ever finding a resolution to the strife in the Middle East.  If someone as embroiled in an organization like Hamas as he could find a way out, then there is hope that some day that land may find a real and lasting peace.  For those of my readers who are people of prayer, may it be our fervent prayer that that day may come soon.

Ten down, (at least) forty-two to go.

Ta,
J

“Are They Artists?” “No, They’re Just Kids”

Today’s Review is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for Non-fiction this last year.

Smith, as some of you might know, was a pioneering feminist rock star from the 1970s, who became known for her tremendous lyrics and idiosyncratic delivery. When I heard that she had won the National Book Award I sort of paused– how often do Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers win major literature awards? But I was also intrigued, so I picked up the book.

And boy am I glad I did. Just Kids is an extraordinary work of art.

Smith is, along with being a rock star,  a published poet. Her penchant for poetry shows through in the book, as it is, in some way, an extended love poem to her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This is, however, an unorthodox love story, as Mapplethorpe turns out to be gay and Smith later marries a famous guitar player Fred “Sonic” Smith and bears him children– but is suffices to say that Mapplethorpe is the one who in the end, was her soul mate, and helped her find her way as an artist.

Just Kids chronicles Smith’s move to New York to find herself as an artist, and how after weeks of sleeping in Central Park, homeless and jobless, she runs into a young man named Robert, and how he in essence rescues her and her dream, and takes her home one night–something that culminates into a lifetime of love and friendship. “Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile and I knew he was my knight.”

The New York that Smith describes is as big a character in Smith’s memoir as Patti and Robert. It is a dirty, dangerous, living city, filled with late sixties and early seventies characters, ideas, and energy. Smith recounts how as a shy unknown, Jimi Hendrix stops to speak with her on his way into his new studio, how she sings to Janis Joplin one day to cheer the melancholy rock star up, how the beat poet Allan Ginsberg buys her a meal, because she was hungry and could not afford one herself.  Other artists help her in whatever way they can, herself a struggling artist, always searching for her true Art.

The love that she describes for Mapplethorpe, also a struggling artist, is searing. Despite the fact that eventually their intimate relationship ends because of his interest in men, she still loves him and holds fast to him, and he to her. Their love is what allowed them to grow into themselves as artists– they supported each other wholly– financially and emotionally, even when they were in relationships with other people. They were each other’s North Star so to speak. Because during this time period they were not Patti Smith “Rock star” and Robert Mapplethorpe “Photographer provocateur,” they were simply “Just Kids” trying to find their way.

The book revolves around Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s love, but it also has some other interesting facets to it. First of all, I did not know that it took Smith as long as it did to carve out her identity as a musician. For years she dabbled in other forms of art before she discovered her inner rock-star so to speak. Same with Mapplethorpe, who tried multiple mediums before settling on photography. Would they have gotten there without each other? I doubt it, because it was their relationship that eventually molded their art.

Another surprising theme in the book is prayer. Smith is not religious in a classical sense per say, but you do get the sense that she is close to God in some way. She constantly  recounts her prayers, her sense of God.  This relationship began when she was a little girl, as she recounts “Not contented with my child’s prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own…. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.”

At the end of the book Smith describes Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in the late 1980s. I knew that this part of the story was coming, but she write of it in such  heart-rending poetry that it is devastating. Smith’s grief carries the reader along with the  hope and her love for her friend, and the end of the book is soul-wrenching. Its been a long time since I cried reading a book but Smith’s prose caught me off guard and left me sobbing in my bed until the conclusion of her work.

Smith’s work is an extraordinary gift of love to the spirit of Mapplethorpe and to that great city, New York. The prose is so beautiful that you read it slowly, lingering over each turn of the phrase. Finally, she grabs hold of your heart and makes you want to search for that true love, to search for your Art, and to Live. This is an incredible book, the National Book Award was richly deserved. Do yourself a favor and go buy this book and savor it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C