Hungry for more true tales by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing by Jennifer Weiner

3 words: funny, frank, conversational

This was the book that kept me up past my bedtime because I just didn’t want to put it down.

Sometimes that was because the storytelling was so good, and sometimes it was because the stories were so surprising. And sometimes it was just because it was fun hanging out with Jennifer Weiner.

Even though it was my first experience spending time with her, because (shameful revelation) I’ve never read her fiction.

She’s well known for the Weiner/Franzen Feud, which she discusses in this book.

But the book is way more than that. It’s stories about her family when she was growing up, and her children, and her divorce, and her father’s mental illness, and her struggles with body image… and I know none of this sounds very funny, but it is. Even though it’s also dead serious stuff.

But when a situation is one of those “laugh or cry” scenes, she’s gonna laugh. And she made me laugh, too.

It’s like hanging out with a really funny friend who’s been through it and doesn’t mind spilling.

Big thanks to Bybee for sending this book my way via Bybee Book Mail.

Give this book a whirl if you like… unvarnished truth, some snark, memoirs of unconventional families, stories of writers’ lives, and feminism with a dash of humor
So folks… ever read Jennifer Weiner? If so, which novel do you recommend?

Ann Patchett for reals

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

3 words: warm, candid, conversational

Ann Patchett not only writes a wickedly good novel and owns a ridiculously beautiful bookstore, but the woman can scale a wall.

For reals.

Her dad was an LA police officer, and she went through the police academy there, which required that she leap over a wall. And she started training, and then she did that thing.

And that’s just one of the completely unexpected facts you learn when you read this book (or listen to it, which I recommend, because Patchett reads it herself and her voice is perfect for the reading of the books).

While the title essay is about her marriage (and the way, and the reasons, she resisted marriage for a long time), the other essays are about things like this: her loving care of her grandmother, and the time she drove around in a motorhome she was supposed to detest (but fell in love with it instead), and how she concocted the plot of her first novel while waitressing at a TGI Friday’s.

And one of the essays describes how she became a bookstore owner. And I was enraptured. And now all I can say is…

Nashville and Parnassus Books… I’m coming for you.

The Dear Man and I have a date with a donut, and we intend to keep it.

Last time we were in Nashville, we made these two mistakes: 1) I forgot that Ann Patchett and her bookstore live there, and 2) We blew past the very enticing Donut Den even though we really wanted to go to there. The Donut Den, which is like 3 feet away from the bookstore! We’re gonna fix this.

Give this book a whirl if you like… authors describing what it’s really like to do their work, memoirs of women’s lives, and some serious candor

What author do you wish would write a memoir?

On reading On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

3 words: sharp, encouraging, spare

 

So let’s just start with this: Stephen King scares the living daylights out of me.

When my book club chose to read The Shining, I got 3 tracks into disc 1 of the audiobook, sensed looming menace and unease, and bailed.

 

But I’ve been hearing about his book On Writing for years (it keeps showing up on lists of the best books about writing), and it seemed safe enough.

 

And so it was.

 

Until that very last section, in which King writes about the car that hit him. And while it’s not horror, it’s horrifying. He’s so matter of fact about it, which makes it all the more chilling.

 

So I got to experience some King fear factor after all.

 

But let’s talk about the bulk of the book, which consists of two parts:

  • a brief autobiography of his development as a writer
  • a handbook on the art of writing

 

The thing that blew me away was the strength of King’s writing. Of course, dude is writing a handbook about how to write well, so he darn well better have some game. But I still found myself surprised at his sentences and his paragraphs: fresh and succinct and perfectly formed.

 

He discusses some of the mechanics of writing (he hates adverbs, which kinda makes me adore him), but he also addresses how to actually be a writer. Which, of course, is by writing. Throughout the book, he’s encouraging, without ever being coddling.

 

And this leads us to my next surprise: Stephen King seems like a genuinely nice person. And he’s a man who loves — and likes — his wife. The way he writes about her… it made me happy that they’d found one another.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… workplace narratives, books about books, a peek behind the curtain, and a zippy writing style

 

OK, your turn. What’s your take on Stephen King?

 

Her hard-working honor

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

3 words: smart, introspective, revealing

I’m in serious audiobook withdrawal these days. I just finished listening to Sonia Sotomayor’s marvelous memoir, and I completely fell into it.

Way back in my pre-blogging days, I read Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day, and it had a similar effect. Though, as I recall that book, it focused primarily on Sandra Day O’Connor’s youth.

Sotomayor’s book covers her childhood, but it also brings her story into her middle adult years, concluding shortly after she became a judge. And, as in Jill Ker Conway’s first two books (The Road from Coorain and True North), I loved reading about the arc of her life and education. I’m a total sucker for that kind of story.

But the thing I loved most about Sotomayor’s memoir was her honesty. And also her humanity.

Here she is, having risen from a childhood in the projects to a seat on the high court, and she’s comfortable enough with herself to reveal the self-doubt she feels whenever she tackles something new. It makes her so relatable, even though her extraordinary work ethic makes her seem super-human.

And she describes how those two things go hand in hand: her insecurity about her ability to perform well drives her to work even harder to make sure she’s prepared.

It’s a heck of an effective formula.

When I read reviews of this book earlier, I focused on the hard parts: her alcoholic father’s death when she was young, her childhood diagnosis of diabetes, and her family’s financial hardship. And I thought: sad.

And she’s candid about all of these things, but people, she turns them into a triumph.

And she’s so darn likeable while she’s doing so. Oh my gosh.

Thank you — very much! — to JoAnn of Lakeside Musing for recommending this book in her Nonfiction November Supreme Court reading list. Your suggestion spurred me to read this book, and I am seriously hugely grateful.

So my friends… What’s the most inspiring true story you’ve read this year?

Hillbilly Elegy… but is it hopeful?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

3 words: unflinching, troubling, personal

OK, this one’s really something. I just keep thinking about it, and that probably isn’t gonna stop anytime soon.

Vance grew up in poverty in Appalachia, and he tells his story with some serious candor.

His family had it all going on: drug addiction, mental illness, abuse…  you name it, they had it. He grew up bearing close-range witness to a boatload of dysfunction.

And somehow, he got himself out and attended Yale Law School.

So the big question that pulls you through the book is: How did he do it?

(Answer: A dedicated grandma, plus the military)

This book’s primarily Vance’s personal story, but he interlaces it with some fascinating sociological facts and studies that give the bigger picture, as well.

(Every time I write the name “Vance,” I remember that he had to choose that name for himself, after years of surname changes due to his mother’s many marriages, his father’s giving him up for adoption, and oh my gosh this is a sad story in so many ways. Yet: then he claims a surname for himself that carries meaning, and that’s triumphant. So many feels to feel!)

I am decidedly not one of those people who loves to read the memoirs of dysfunctional families (my heart can’t take it), but I was able to stay with this one easily. I think it’s cuz we know Vance’s story has a mostly happy ending (though he still bears the emotional scars of his abusive childhood).

And it also strongly appealed to me because of the sociological/narrative nonfiction nature of the book. He makes this book about more than just himself, and that elevates it. Though, for some readers, this might be where the wheels come off. Citizen Reader conveys this nuance really well in her fine review.

Vance narrates the audiobook himself, and that worked out well. (It’s not always that way, when an author reads his/her own work.) Hearing the story in his own voice, with the emphasis placed exactly where he intended, added another dimension that enriched the reading experience.

Searing, stark, and extremely cautiously hopeful. A remarkable book that makes a person think.

Fixer Upper

 

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines

3 words: warm, revealing, personal

I’ve never met them, but man, I love hanging out with Joanna and Chip Gaines.

Yes, this is an HGTV thing.

And it’s probably psychologically unhealthy to say, “Hey, I think I’ll go hang out with the Fixer Upper people!” and then get all excited cuz I just made my Pilates session more palatable.

Or maybe it’s brilliant.

I’m really too close to it to say.

(Gretchen Rubin Better Than Before readers: I’m using the strategy of pairing!)

One of the things I love about hanging out with those two is that they’re such a great team.

This book describes how the team came into existence. There’s a whole backstory there that I had no idea about… Joanna meeting Chip while working at her dad’s Firestone, her early efforts at design, the financial struggles as they were getting their real estate business going… it’s all the real life stuff.

And the way they were really awkward when filming a demo, until they got into a huge fight because Chip had bought a horrible houseboat.

And then the TV people saw some potential.

It’s pretty good stuff.

Reading this book was a bit of a risk, because when you like somebody the way they appear on TV, sometimes learning more about their true story can be a real disappointment.

This book made me like them more.

And I’m totally serious, Joanna and Chip, about that invitation to stop by and re-make my house.

 

War? Pretty much hell

Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins

3 words: unflinching, immediate, direct

I seriously love a conversational first-person narrator. So when we were visiting Kennesaw Mountain battlefield and I saw Sam Watkins quoted all over the museum and then saw his book blurbed as one of the most compelling memoirs of the Civil War… I was there.

I nearly bought a copy right there in the gift shop.

But then I thought: audiobook.

And, in retrospect, that might’ve been a mistake. The thing is this: Watkins is a Southerner. And the narrator of the audiobook? Pure Yankee. It created kind of a strange disconnect.

But that’s my only quibble with this book.

Watkins wrote one doozy of a narrative.

Although he wrote this memoir a couple of decades after the war, his story feels fresh and honest and unflinching.

And there are moments that’ll rip your heart out. Moments like when he describes the horrible death of a fellow soldier in vivid detail, then states simply, “I loved him. He was my friend.”

And then he picks up the narrative as the army marches on.

There were moments I halted what I was doing, to just pause and feel all the feels.

Watkins doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. He lets us know how horrible that war was. He unsparingly describes the fury and the horror at the Dead Angle at Kennesaw.

(When we saw that place during our visit, I stood and gaped. It was hard to believe that soldiers mounted an attack on that ground. Sobering stuff, my friends.)

And call me weird, but I find it strangely comforting when someone speaks the full truth about something horrible. So I found Watkins’s memoir both moving and  refreshing.

 Anyone else like the full honest truth in their books?

 

I’m no Julia Child

 My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

3 words: enthusiastic, personal growth, amiable

OK, I’m seriously no Julia Child.

But I’m seriously part of her fan club.

That Julia, she’s all about pursuing her passions and personal development and learning. And I really love hanging out with people like that.

Lifelong learners, you are my tribe.

This book’s been around for years, and I only stumbled on it because Gretchen Rubin wrote that one of her favorite posts was the one she’d written about My Life in France.

And it made me want to read Child’s book. Bientôt!

And while I knew only a few facts about Julia Child when I began reading, I liked her immediately. And her story of self-discovery and self-actualization completely resonated with me.

Here’s what’s great about this book:

First, Julia’s voice is clear and brisk and confident and engaging. It’s fun to read her words.

Second, it’s also the story of a marvelous partnership. She and her husband Paul supported one another’s interests and worked together as a team.

Third, it’s a celebration of mentorship and collaboration. Julia gives full credit to her teachers and the other chefs who inspired her, and to her early co-authors and colleagues.

Finally, this is one joyful memoir. It’s downright jubilant. Once Julia found her passion, she threw herself into the hard work of mastery, and she conveys the delight she took in the work. It made me happy to read about it.

How about you — ever read a memoir that made you happy just reading it?

 

Bookish tourists on the Black Hawk Trail

Black Hawk: An Autobiography by Black Hawk

3 words: personal, dramatic, frank

While on a recent road trip, the Dear Man and I noticed a fair number of references to the Black Hawk War. And then we realized that we were living right in the middle of a place filled with history, and we knew precious little about it.

Being industrious, curious types, we set out to fix that.

The Dear Man asked the Librarian if she’d considered reading Black Hawk’s autobiography.

Flash forward one week, and I had a copy in my hands.

Flash forward another week, and he also had a copy in his hands.

And then we started learning all kinds of cool stuff about a nearly forgotten period of history.

If you’d asked me what I had on the Black Hawk war, I would’ve said, “Um… young Abraham Lincoln?”

Cuz, YEAH: dude served in the Illinois militia (never saw battle, but buried some scalped soldiers).

The cool thing about this book is that it’s told in Black Hawk’s words. Or at least, sort of. My only real complaint with the book is the inclusion of way too many exclamation points and italicized words for emphasis. And in some places, I doubted that Black Hawk would have spoken in the way the words were written on the page.

But at least we get his viewpoint.

And that’s explanation enough for this book to still be in print more than 175 years after its initial publication.

This is a book that doesn’t go down easy.

I found myself seething at the way Black Hawk’s people’s land was taken from them.

I kinda got worked up.

Then I recalled the passages where they’re doing the scalp dance, and I shuddered.

Then I thought about them approaching the militia with a white flag of peace and being fired on. And I got worked up again.

It was fascinating to see the episodes through Black Hawk’s eyes, and to understand it from his perspective. He’s narrating the story as an older man, near the end of his life, and while he’s faced plenty of hardship, his spirit is still lively.

Besides describing the battles and difficulties faced by the Sauks, Black Hawk also paints a detailed picture of their daily life.

Visiting the Hauberg Indian Museum, located at the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois, reinforced the descriptions of the Sauks’ annual cycle of farming, hunting, and trading. The museum has a fine display, some great artifacts, and some really good maps that helped us find our way to the area nearby where Black Hawk was born and lived.

We read the Donald Jackson edition, which is also the edition on display at the Hauberg Museum, so it’s got some decent cred.

The thing I liked about this edition was Jackson’s terrific introduction. He sets the scene, including some unexpected details, such as a riveting description of Black Hawk’s hair in comparison with the hairdo of Andrew Jackson.

And Donald Jackson analyzes the validity of the autobiography and its various versions over the years, and that’s good stuff, too.

So… what books have inspired you to take to the road?

Hoarders Not-So-Anonymous

Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act by Barry Yourgrau

3 words: snarky, self-effacing, personal

Reading the memoir of a hoarder is something that completely wouldn’t happen in my world, except that when Bybee wrote about this book, I knew I had to read it.

And then (this is so excellent I can hardly stand it), after I said so on her blog, she sent it to me!

Dang, I adore book bloggers.

Thank you, Bybee darlin’, for the book mail!

So: the book. This is the type of memoir that, if done badly, could devolve into whiny navel-gazing. Fortunately, this fellow can really write.

And he allows the reader inside his secret world of needless (my word) souvenirs and sentimental objects and piled-up paraphernalia. His apartment got so bad, he wouldn’t let his girlfriend see it.

I had an immediate Gretchen Rubin flashback: one of her secrets of adulthood is “Pay careful attention to anything you try to hide.”

And I thought, Dude, you are in some serious trouble.

But it turns out OK in the end, and I think it’s largely due to the fact that this guy really owns his crap.

Literally, figuratively, in all the ways.

And it’s kind of funny that he sort of wants to be identified as a hoarder, but also dreads that designation. It’s almost like he wants the diagnosis so he can name the Thing, but also fears that he’s One Of Those People.

If this book lacked a happy ending (he deals with his stuff), I think I’d’ve felt dissatisfied.

But since there was some personal growth going on here, including some interesting family revelations, the book had a nice — dare I say “neat”? — wrap-up at the end.

Now this girl is off to deal with that tote bag cache that continues to grow, despite my best efforts to keep it under control.

OK, guys… So what’s your not-so-shameful, quasi-hoarding weakness?