Hippie Child: How a Young Boy Helped Parent his New-Age Mom


Think your childhood was non-mainstream? A little kooky? Perhaps on the bizarre side? Well check out the hand Josh Safran was dealt being born in the early 70s in a commune in San Francisco during the height of Flower Power and the counter-culture.

Safran makes his childhood—first in city communes; later in remote cabins in the mountain wilderness actually sound happy.  Credit his mother, Claudia, for that.  Highly intelligent, emotionally warm, full of passion for political change and hope for a just world, Claudia imparted to Josh many values.  Yet, she also barely kept food on his plate and never gave him a beautiful home. In fact for one three month period, they lived in a visqueen shelter on tree stumps in a rain forest. Yet these are failings of poverty not intent. Much worse were allowing her lovers to abuse him and to threaten them both by driving under the influence of alcohol on icy mountain roads, often in the dark.

The book is sad, poignant, funny, and a surprising page turner from beginning to end. Check out this hook of an opening sentence “By the time I was ten, I had hitchhiked thousands of miles and befriended hundreds of remarkably strange people.”  Here’s a short list of them: Crazy John, Uncle Tony (no blood relation), conniving Bob, deal-making Read more »

Comedy Memoirs for the Boomer Generation

Still Foolin EmOctober seems like the perfect time of year for dark, mysterious and brooding books. But I am still holding on to September! Something light might just be the ticket before the dark fall reads.

New release Still Foolin’ 'em by Billy Crystal has cracked into the top of the New York Times best seller list. After recently turning 65, Crystal tries to relate to the other millions of baby boomers who are also at or near this milestone often by portraying physical ailments through the lens of appealing humor. He also explores his long career starting off with stand up in New York to some beloved movies and stints on Saturday Night Live and hosting the Oscars. Crystal isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues, but also presents us with a belly laugh at a life well lived. There are numerous holds on the Crystal book, so while you are waiting for this book to come in you might want to try these other humorous memoirs. Read more »

An Enlarged Heart


Summer--a great time for reading novels--is also a good time to catch up on more episodic reading. This memoir is perfect for a short period listening to the cicada orchestra from the porch swing, or a quick read before bed.

In twelve varied segments, poet and former New Yorker/Talk of the Town writer Zarin shares important milestones in her life as well as a passion for several material objects that she has become attached to over the years.

The strongest and most emotionally-charged piece is the title one in which Zarin describes a typical day on the Cape with her and her husband’s assorted brood of kids, when the youngest gets ill. “It began with a cough. Her brother had a cough. And, after all, what was a cough?”  By this time, Zarin had treated countless upset tummies and sore throats. But two emergency visits later, she found herself kneeling next to her daughter while the ambulance raced to Children’s Hospital in Boston.

The diagnosis: the rare Kawasaki Disease, which is the leading cause of heart damage in children. This segment shows how quickly our ordinary lives can turn frightening and possibly tragic. Read more »

Parenting to the Very End


Imagine being told that your baby has a disease that will kill him, most likely before he turns three. Emily Rapp and her husband Rick were given that news when their lovely boy Ronan was only nine months old. He seemed to be having vision problems, and the eye doctor discovered cherry-red spots behind his retinas--a tell-tale sign of Tay-Sachs disease.

Emily, who had been tested for this disease, immediately knew the worst. Her husband did not. “Well, what can we do about it?” Rick asked the doctor. “Nothing,” was his reply. Soon the parents learned that the genetic test only checks for the nine most common mutations.

So begins their journey. Emily describes in detail what it is like to parent a child that she knows will die soon. When they see the specialist, they discover that babies born with Tay-Sachs progress until they are six-months old, then start to regress, eventually losing all sight, hearing, movement, and even ability to swallow. Read more »

Books Plus June

WildJoin us on Sunday at Books Plus to discuss Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed at 2:00 p.m.

This memoir/adventure book recalls Cheryl's odyssey on the longest and most difficult of North America's long-distance hiking trails. With no experience and little planning, she encounters immense heat, rattlers, bears, cliffs, and raging snowstorms. But her journey is internal as well as external. Shortly before leaving her mother died and her marriage broke apart. This book describes what she learned about hiking, nature, and particularly herself during this journey.

More information about upcoming Books Plus discussions below. Read more »

Roger Ebert: Film Critic and Writer

Life ItselfRoger Ebert, film critic extraordinaire and Pulitzer Prize winner, died last week after a battle with cancer.  Immediately following his death, there were lots of quotes circulating online from Ebert which reminded me what a great writer he was.  In writing about movies, Ebert was able often able to put his finger on the pulse of real life human behavior and articulate the human condition - both the happy and the sad.  I forgot how funny he was, and his reviews are a joy to read even if you disagree on the rating.

Those interested in starting with the basics, check out his Movie Yearbooks - complete with movie reviews, essays, tributes, journal entries, and new additions to his popular Movie Glossary.  If you are looking for critiques that might lead you to viewing of really good movies, try The Great Movie series. However, some of Ebert's best writing was in critiquing bad movies.  If you aren't looking for movie suggestions, but just some hilarious examples of his writing check out Your Movie SucksRead more »

Tsunami Trauma


In college, I often dreamed of tsunamis. The waves were enormously high and transported me far inland but were amazingly gentle behemoths that if I did not fight against, eventually landed me upon the shore without any damage. The tsunami that struck Sir Lanka the day after Christmas 2004 was nothing like these, but was instead brutal, fierce, and deadly.

Imagine losing your husband, two sons, and both parents on the same day. This unbelievable tragedy happened to this British economist.  The memoir starts quietly with her description of a typical morning at a beach resort in Southern Sri Lanka that her family had been visiting since her childhood. Sonali knew all the hotel staff and park rangers; the place meant home to her and her family. Ironically, the family was packing to go home later that day.

As her children are dressing, she speaks to a close friend who has accompanied them on their holiday outing. Suddenly, both women notice an unusual wave in the far distance. Sonali calls to her husband in the bathroom, but Read more »

Bad Parent, Good Child


I picked up Richard Russo's latest book with some hesitation. I knew Elsewhere was a memoir about his relationship with his mother, but I remembered that in his last novel, That Old Cape Magic, he had created a decidedly crazy "mother" character. But as is so often the case with memoirs, the first sentence hooked me.

Because he was an only child and his parents separated when he was very young, Russo and his mom shared an extremely close relationship. In the 50s she had a job for General Electric, dated engineers, and dressed elegantly. Her independence was extremely important to her, but it took Richard years to understand that she depended on her parents bail-outs to survive. It didn't help that Russo's dad contributed almost nothing to the household or that women were paid poor wages.

This book is also an exploration of a place - the town of Gloversville where Russo grew up and which he's fictionalized in his novels. It was a town built on making gloves; in fact, his grandparents did this. It was hard, polluting work and when the government cracked down on water pollution, the whole operation moved overseas. But in small-town Gloversville surrounded by relatives, Russo felt secure and loved. Read more »

Your Voice in My Head

Your Voice in My Head"Can I tell you what it's like to live inside Millais' painting of Ophelia"? asks Emma Forrest in her memoir, Your Voice in My Head.  Forrest is already a published author and journalist when in her early 20s moves from London to New York.  Her professional rise as a writer coincides with her extreme struggles with self-cutting, an eating disorder, mania, a suicide attempt, and depression. 

Forrest credits a lot of her survival to psychiatrist, Dr. R.  So when Dr. R dies suddenly, and then a famous Hollywood actor dumps her via text message shortly after, Forrest is left alone to pick up the pieces of her heartbreak and loss. 

This isn't the type of memoir I usually read, but I'm glad I did.  Forrest walks well the line of artistic genius and insanity.  You care for her, even when the choices she makes are hard to understand.  Rounding out the sympathetic characters are Dr. R, and Forrest's own parents who deal the best they can from London.  Read more »

A Cornucopia of Books


If you look back to those long summer afternoons of reading during your childhood with longing, this book is for you. Three years after losing her beautiful and talented older sister, Anne-Marie, to cancer, Nina Sankovitch decided to do something she had long dreamed of doing, making books central to her life again. Of course as the mother of three teens and one preteen - all boys - she didn't have much free time. But from Oct. 28, 2008 to the same date in 2009 Nina read and read and read some more.

In the intervening years after her sister's death, Nina had kept fiendishly busy, driving, cooking, cleaning, heading committees, and organizing literary projects--all the myriad duties of raising a family and being involved in her Connecticut community. But each day she felt guilty to be alive because her sister had died. This lovely book is both a tribute to a sister, and a memoir of their relationship. It's also a narrative about how concentrating on reading finally healed Nina, so that she was eager to go forward again.   

Nina resurrected (reupholstered) the big purple chair that one of their cats had made its own by spraying on it. Here in this regal chair for two, three, even four hours a day, Nina both lost and found herself through books.

Besides telling Anne-Marie's story, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair also relates the story of her father, Anatole, who lost three aunts and uncles in a shooting during WW II. All were shot in his family's kitchen in Poland while their terrified mother lay upstairs in her sick bed. Anatole also suffered from TB after WW II and spent over two years in a sanatorium in the mountains recovering after the war. Nina compares her year of reading to those years of rest and recuperation that her father experienced there. Read more »

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