Tag Archive: Memoir


Catch-up

Oh Boy.

I have been reading but not blogging. Am seriously, majorly behind on the blogging and realized that as my one-year book experiment is coming to an end that I need to catch-up NOW.

So unlike many of my previous posts, this one is going to really just be some quick thoughts on all the books that I have read recently.

The first two are Young Adult books, the start of a series written by Michelle Cooper. The first book in the series is called A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile. The books create a sort of alternate history within history– they focus on the children of the royal family of Montmaray (fictional)– an island between England and France, in the run-up to WWII (non-fiction). In doing this, they place the children smack in the middle of real historical events.  Told by the younger sister Sophie, the books capture both the importance of the historical events unfolding around her and her siblings, as well as the fantasy world of the made-up Montmaray island. The books are romantic (in the true meaning of the word) gothic, clever, and at times very funny and outlandish. The FitzOsbornes are quite the family, complete with a mad uncle (the King) and illegitimate offspring (the best friend of the Crown Prince.) While the books are in some way, a fantasy, they are in other ways, highly relevant– they show how WWII was a watershed moment for many of the smaller European royal houses, which did not survive the war. Loved both these books, savored reading them, and recommend them highly, for both adults and teens.

Next– I read two memoirs by people who grew up in religious sects.

The first is by Mary-Ann Kirkby, entitled I am Hutterite

Mary-Ann grew up on a Hutterite colony on the prairies of Canada. Hutterites are often confused with groups like the Amish, and while they are an Anabaptist group (like the Amish) they are very different. Hutterites hold everything in common– they are a sort of Utopian Anabaptist group. And I mean everything– everyone works on the common farm, eats in the common kitchen, etc, etc. While they dress “plainly”- it is distinct from Amish and Mennonite styles, the style of worship is different and they use modern conveniences like farm equipment, trucks and electricity. Anyway, Mary-Ann’s book is a beautiful memoir– she goes into great depth to help you understand her family’s history as Hutterites, the Hutterite lifestyle, her Hutterite childhood, and how eventually struggles over power (and to some extent, family) forced her parents to leave the colony– never having lived on their own in the real-world (like never having owned anything of their own, not even knowing the specifics of what a bank account is, etc.) The book is beautifully written, beautifully realized, and insightful.

The other book is Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler- also a memoir of life in a distinct religious group.

On the whole, I like the book but perhaps its title should be “Leaving the Amish” because it really focuses on Wagler’s tortured young adult days and the multiple times he left and then ended up coming back to the Amish. Although Wagler’s character is well-realized, I feel like his family isn’t (unlike in Mary-Ann’s book, where you get a tremendous sense of family and community. In Wagler’s book, you don’t, which is strange given the sort of community he grew up in). I had no sense of his father other than he was a strict man who was trying to hold his family together, and no sense of his mother other than the fact that she was clearly a long-suffering woman. I wish he had spent more time delving into his parents’ characters– to make them more multidimensional. I will give the author credit for being brutally honest– even when it did not paint him or his choices in a very good light.

I have two more books to catch up on, but that will be another post….. see what happens when I get behind?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

 

 

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!