Memoir

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 »

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

Fire SeasonThis book describes my dream job, being a fire lookout out west. I could handle the wild creatures, the solitude, even the lightning strikes, but maybe not cleaning out the cistern after vandals pollute it. In the tradition of writers, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey and Norman Maclean. Philip Connors leaves his job as a Wall Street Journal editor and while on vacation signs up on the spot to detect fires for the National Forest Service, or as he jokingly calls it "The National Forest Circus."
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Half a Life

Half a LifeHow many times have you been distracted while driving and seen a cyclist jut into the road or a child chasing a ball, or even a scampering beagle? You brake and think, thank God. But for Darin Strauss, newly eighteen, setting out with friends for a game of Putt Putt on a warm spring day at the tail end of his senior year, things did not go that smoothly. A cyclist suddenly veered across a lane and a half--and as he braked all he saw was a yellow spoke reflector catch the light and a head crash into his windshield. For him, the worst had happened. The police cleared him, said it was not his fault. The local paper reported this, but Strauss has had to life the rest of his life with the guilt and pain of this accident.
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Me, Myself & Prague: An Unreliable Guide to Bohemia

PragueAt age 39, Australian Rachael Weiss takes a hard look at her life. On the plus side she's published one book; on the negative side, she works temp jobs, has no husband or significant other, and is just scrapping by. Though school counselors deemed Rachel the "gifted" one as a child, her younger sister is a very successful dentist who teaches fitness classes on the side. She's also raising a concert violinist and a miniature Beckham. Her brother achieved partnership in a law firm and has three beautiful, talented kids of his own. What's a gal to do? Rachel decides that a year hanging out in a Paris garret will help her pen the great Australian novel, plus find a handsome foreigner with high cheek bones. But alas, Paris does not fit her budget.
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Just Kids

Just KidsOne of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs begins with the lines,"I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were talking so brave and so free." Patti Smith's memoir of her coming-of-age with artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is partially set in this hotel with its unique history and cast of characters.
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Let's Take the Long Way Home

Let's Take the Long Way HomeWhat an incredibly moving testament to women's friendship. Two Boston area writers who met at a reading but only came to know each other when they were raising puppies at the same time and their dog trainer suggested that they would hit it off.

Caroline was a rower and essayist; Gail, a swimmer and book critic. Both were determined, competitive, tough, and shy. One of Gail's friends nicknamed her "the gregarious hermit." Caroline's dog was a shepherd mix. Gail finally adopted the pristine white samoyed she had always longed for. Caroline stayed in the Cambridge area where she had grown up, while Gail had left her beloved high-country Texas although she still pined for it.
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