Memoir

Tsunami Trauma

ISBN: 
9780307962690

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

ISBN: 
9780307959539

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

ISBN: 
9780061999840

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 »

Paris: a Love Story

ISBN: 
9781451691542

The defining moment of Kati Marton's life occurred when she was six and the police came for her mother during the Hungarian Revolution. Her mother was imprisoned for a year, joining her father in prison. The authorities forced Marton and her sister to move in with strangers. Before that their lives had been blessed especially by Communist Hungary standards. Kati's parents had hired a French nanny and she learned to speak French as a child.

If you love Paris or even if you are just curious about life in the famous city, this memoir makes a good read. I wasn't familiar with Kati Marton's books or journalism - she worked as a foreign correspondent for ABC news and NPR - so this memoir made a nice introduction to her work.  

Marton was one of the first women to be hired as an international corresponded for ABC.  She met Peter Jennings in London before beginning her post to German in the 1970s. They fell in love and began an international romance that was mostly centered in Paris. But before that Kati had studied abroad in the city of light during the momentous year of 1968. She came from the States where her parents had emigrated after leaving prison. Read more »

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 »

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