Memoir

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN: 
9780307594037

You don't have to be in a book club to be touched and inspired by this generous, warm-hearted account of a son helping his mother through her last year of life with the help of books. Former teacher and refugee worker, Mary Anne Schwalbe, had always been close to her son, Will, who was an editor and worked in publishing. Not only did they constantly share books and recommend titles to each other, but they also had many discussions--some heated--about these same books.

After his mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Will spent a lot of time with her in hospital waiting rooms before her doctor visits and chemo treatments. On one of those trips they decided to pass the time by exploring the same books. "But how can we have a book club without food?" Mary Anne asked.

But The End of Your Life Book Club is so much more than analyzing contemporary literature à deux. Will also chronicles his mother's illness, her acceptance of her forthcoming death, and the effect these changes had on the family.

In one chapter Mary Anne and her husband revisit her favorite foreign city, London, where she lived as a young student. The book that mother and son shared that month was Felicia's Journey by Will Trevor. In another section, Mary Anne, Will and his brother discuss Russell Banks' Continental Drift while sharing a table with Mary Anne's birthday-bash barbecued pig. Will had stayed awake the night before regretting that he had encouraged his mom to read such a depressing book, but at the party, he heard her recommending it to many people. Read more »

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?

ISBN: 
9781455522606

Rhoda Janzen has a gift for describing an ordinary life in ways that make it seem extraordinary. Humor is key as in this chapter opener, "How do you tell your PhD friends, far-flung across the world at their various academic postings, that you are attending church on purpose?" And it's not just any church that this feisty ex-Mennonite has joined, but a Pentecostal one.

In Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? Janzen has interwoven two other threads: how she met and married a man very different from herself, and how she dealt with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Read more »

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

ISBN: 
9780802120106

If you think for a moment that you had a hard childhood, read this memoir. Mrs. Winterson, as Jeanette calls her adopted mother throughout this account, was incredibly tough, and often cruel. Routinely, she locked her young child out all night, so that Jeanette sat frozen huddled on the front stoop until her dad came home from his overnight shift. Other punishments included being locked in the coal bin and forbidden food. Repeatedly, Mrs. W. told Jeanette that the devil sent her to the wrong crib when she chose Jeanette for adoption. Even food was a scarce commodity in the Winterson home. When Jeannette attended the grammar school for older kids, her mother never applied for the lunch program even though they were poor and ran out of food and gas (to cook it) each Thursday before payday.

Books were not allowed, and when Jeanette became a teenager and found a job, Heaven was a bookshop filled with thousands of books. She brought a few home every week and hid them in the only place her mother would not check--under the mattress.  Alas, one night a copy of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love slipped over the Read more »

Against Wind & Tide: Letters and Journals

ISBN: 
9780307378880

These days not many people are familiar with the work of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. During her life (she died in 2001) she was most famous for her relationship with her husband, pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly between New York and Paris, to cross the Atlantic solo. There was also much publicity and notoriety about her firstborn's kidnapping and murder in 1932.  

Against Wind & Tide begins with Anne roiling with the news that she is pregnant for the seventh time. She's in her forties and her whole spirit rebels against another pregnancy. Yet, unless she has a physical reason for an abortion, she does not feel that can be an option. Much of the book is about motherhood. Charles once asked Anne what she believed the most important relationship in life to be--he said between husband and wife--but Anne said the relationship between mother and child was paramount.  However, even as a rich woman who could afford a housekeeper and a cook, she often felt divided between parenting demands and her own writing. Yet what a wonderful mother her letters show her to be. She relates to each child differently, extremely aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and always encouraging each to be his or her best.

Anne was an amazingly gifted writer and though she wrote extended book-length essays and fiction, she excelled at detailing the personal struggles and explorations of an individual. She did that throughout the 20th century.  Anne's writing is deeply contemplative. She does not skim the surface of life but burrows into it both seeking and answering some of the hard questions. Read more »

Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood

ISBN: 
9780393078282

Making Babies is a delightful book about mothering--not all flowers and grace--but a truthful and somewhat sardonic account about the joys and frustrations of new parenthood. Irish novelist Enright and her husband, Martin, a playwright, had been married eighteen years before having a child. In this book, she details the whole process, from the week she decided that they should try to have a child soon (when she was already pregnant) to the period after her second child was born.

Enright describes a photo of herself taking immediately after the birth. She looked "pragmatic and unsurprised," but then later when they moved the baby to their room down the hall, she noticed that, "The child looks at the passing scene with alert pleasure...She is saturated with life, she is intensely alive. Her face is a little triangle and her eyes are shaped like leaves, and she looks out of them, liking the world."

Contrast this with the chapter titled "Milk" where Enright discusses the absurdity of starting a new biological function in her late thirties. She also remarks that there's no quicker way to clear a room than to begin breastfeeding there. It's not the sight of the breast so much, as the loud raucous sounds coming from the infant. Read more »

Wife in the North

ISBN: 
9781586486396

Wife in the North is Judith O'Reilly's memoir about facilitating her husband's dream of leaving London and moving to the countryside in Northumberland. O' Reilly, who is literate, urbane, and immensely funny decidedly fits the city girl mold. She likes richly-frothed cappuccinos, museum meanderings, and rides on crimson double-decker buses. Several years before the start of this journal, O'Reilly's husband talked her into buying a holiday cottage near the sea. He promised to never consider living there full-time.

But two and a half kids later--while she's pregnant with their third child--he does beg her to move there, and overwhelmed by hormones, she reluctantly agrees with the caveat that after two years, if she does not like it, they can return to London.

In a previous life, before having children, she was an award-winning journalist who covered national education issues and hobnobbed with leaders. She enjoyed her fast-paced life and her cosmopolitan friends. This book is one of the best I've read about a career woman immersing herself in and adapting to domestic life.

And what a hard adaptation it is. Although Northumberland has more castles than anywhere else in England it has few bookstores and no decent cappuccinos. But it does have rocky crags, deep forests, and best, a wild seacoast. In the first six months after delivering her daughter, Judith rails against leaving the city but still cannot help admiring Read more »

Wild & Other Hiking Related Books

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,663 mile long trail reaching from the Canadian border in northern border in Washington, through Oregon, to the Mexico border in southern California.  Hiking this trail can take 4-6 months and it purposefully avoids civilization.  The Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains make for both difficult hiking and beautiful unspoiled scenery.

After a trying few years after the death of her mother, author Cheryl Strayed started her PCT trail hike despite her outdoor inexperience.  Her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail chronicling her hike came out this past spring and was well reviewed. I promptly put this book on my to-read list as doing a long hike lingers at the bottom of my life to-do list.  

Looks like I will have to wait to read this memoir a little bit longer as this past week Oprah selected Wild as the first title of her new Oprah Book Club 2.0.  As of this morning there were quite a few holds on this book, but I'm thinking the wait just might be worth it. Read more »

Blood, Bones & Butter

BloodBonesButterBefore I became a librarian, I worked in the restaurant industry for 10 years.  I learned to cook from my dad and had dreams of going to culinary school to become a chef.  Career changes happen, but I am still drawn to cooking shows and spend a lot of time reading books about food, food policies, eating, and food history --think Bittman, Kurlansky, & Kingsolver.  When it came out recently, I knew I had to read Blood, Bones & Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton. 

Hamilton is owner and head chef at Prune, a well-reviewed and established restaurant in New York. This book sets out her love of food from her parents to her on-the-fly education in New York City catering.  Her path to recognition and establishment later in life is both gory and determined. Being a woman in this business can be ugly and Hamilton both investigates and dismisses this fact.  What she does well is understanding the connection between food and family and what it means to be part of this process on both an intimate and grander scale.     

Read more »

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on EarthMicrohistories are a subgenre of non-fiction books which take a particular subject or single event and through intensive historical research try to contextualize the chosen subject within the broader picture.  Both Simon Winchester and Mark Kurlansky are well known microhistorians.  Kurlansky in particular is known for Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.  As a history nerd, I find that a well written microhistory uncovers a previously unthought-of subject or event and breathes life into the history cannon as a whole.  Curious?  Check out titles like Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, or Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  Several years ago I read and enjoyed a microhistory called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel. Read more »

Blue Nights

ImageOK. I confess. This book sat for most of its check-out period on my night table. I had read Didion's excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking but I knew that this new memoir covered another territory  of loss--not that of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, but of her daughter who had the wonderful name of Quintana Roo (a state in Mexico.)

And yes, Blue Nights is sad. As would be any book about losing your only child. But it's also amazingly human, full of insights and many questions, some of which go unanswered.

First the title. It comes from those late June, early July nights where twilight seems to linger for hours until darkness finally comes. The light is soft; the world is warm and alive. Didion speaks of them as occurring only in the north, not far south in LA where she spent much of her life as a screenwriter, essayist, and novelist and where Quintana grew up. No, the blue lights happen in New York City where Didion now lives now and where Quintana died young at the age of thirty-nine from a massive infection. To make matters even more tragic, she first got ill only five months after her wedding.

The book covers other things as well adoption, meeting with biological family for the first time as an adult, parenting, the failures of parenting, and, in particular, aging.  Didion writes with brutal honesty especially about this last topic. Read more »

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