Romantic memoir

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Fifty Acres and a Poodle: A Story of Love, Livestock, and Finding Myself on a Farm by Jeanne Marie Laskas

3 words: humorous, personal, romantic

 

Don’t you love it when you find a book that keeps you reading past your bedtime? For me, this book was one of those.

The words that come to mind: delightful, engaging, romantic, funny, heartfelt, self-discovery, real.

It’s a classic romance, with a farm and a huge poodle. And it’s all true.

It’s also one of those stories I love reading about, but wouldn’t want to experience. I’ve never lived on a farm, and I never want to. Farms are a lot of work, and not the fun kind. The thought of being in charge of that much property—and the thought of needing a tractor… No, thank you. But I adored reading about it.

And there are parts of the story that are completely lovely and that I identified with in the nicest way. There’s a perfectly real and wonderful mid-life love story here, and there’s the story of finding one’s ideal home.

I knew Laskas from her fabulous book Hidden America, which Citizen Reader recommended. She’s a fun writer to read.

For example: “Probably I should pause here and explain the history of this poodle. Because it is important to note that Alex did not have this poodle when I fell in love with him. I did not know that Alex was a poodle person when I fell in love with him. Repeat: did not know. Alex dropped the poodle bomb about a year into the relationship.” (p. 25)

I was reminded of:

    • Amy Dickinson’s Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things because of the love story, the blend of humor and loss, and the sprightly writing.
    • Judy Corbett’s Castles in the Air because it, too, is a memoir about a couple moving into a bit of a wreck and turning it into the home of their dreams

All in all, a perfect delight of a memoir.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of city dwellers moving to the country, mid-life love stories, a light touch of humor, and compulsively readable writing

 

 

Great book discussion book: West with the Night

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

3 words: lyrical, understated, adventurous

You know that thing when you re-read a book and it’s even better than you’d remembered? That happened with West with the Night.

I kept thinking: my high school self was reading some intensely good writing.

The writing, people. The writing.

Markham (or whoever wrote it — there’s a juicy authorship controversy) had some serious talent as an author. There are sentences like this:

“I never knew what their digging got them, if it got them anything, because, when I set my small biplane down on the narrow runway they had hacked out of the bush, it was night and there were fires of oil-soaked rags burning in bent chunks of tin to guide my landing.” (p. 4)

I mean, that’s some gorgeous writing, and that’s some serious romance.

And this paragraph that I remembered from my reading of the book in my teens*:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep—leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.” (p. 131)

Lovely, right?

Not only is the writing lush, but the storytelling is incredible and nuanced and delightfully incomplete. (Memoir, you’re a book discussion’s best friend.)

Markham is attacked by a lion and nearly attacked by an elephant, she trains derby-winning horses from her teen years on, and she flew an open cockpit biplane in Africa. And she had multiple affairs (not alluded to in this book, but legendary).

It was not a typical life.

There’s just something enticing about stories of growing up in Africa. This book evoked Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Except Markham’s book contained some allusions to race that made me frankly uncomfortable. We can see these comments as typical of the time the book was written (1942), but that doesn’t mean a modern reader won’t squirm a bit. And that’s yet another topic of discussion: how do the treatments of race and colonialism affect our reading of the book?

Well worth reading—for the writing, the stories, the discussibility.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of a woman leading an unconventional life, the Golden Age of aviation, ex-pats in Africa in the early 20th century, reading about free spirits, sympathetic narratives about animals, tales of daring

What’s the book you re-read and found it better than you remembered?

*I might’ve even copied it into my Quotes notebook (such a dork)

Born to Run

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

3 words: lyrical, creative, personal

 

One of my clearest childhood shopping memories goes like this: My mom and I were at Target, and I made a very compelling argument for why she really should buy me the album Born in the U.S.A. And as we continued our Target shopping, I pushed the cart with the album facing me, and I felt so cool.

(Let’s be clear about this: I was in 7th grade and was the polar opposite of cool. I’d offer photographic evidence, except I’ve caused most of it to be either destroyed or hidden in a very safe spot. That crap’s classified.)

Anyway… point is: The Boss, even by association: COOL.

And we know the man can write. At least, we know he can write lyrics. Happily for us readers, he can also write some seriously solid prose.

I found his narrative voice real and compelling and lyrical. His writing is raw and it’s also beautiful. I love that combination.

What made it even better is that I listened to the audiobook, which he reads himself. He’s a little bit deadpan sometimes, but it’s real. And there were some inflections that made me laugh.

I really liked hearing him tell his own story.

What surprised me: I didn’t know he’d been basically homeless for a while (crashing on friends’ couches or living in a surfboard factory) when he was a young musician.

I didn’t know the musical influences that inspired the song “Born to Run,” but once he described them, I couldn’t believe I’d never caught on before.  I’d never listened to “Born in the U.S.A.” and listened specifically to the drums.

And while we’re talking drums, let’s also get back to what I said about writing style. This passage about Max Weinberg full-on blissed me out:

“There are twenty thousand people, all about to take a breath; we’re moving in for the kill, the band, all steel wheels on iron track, and that snare shot, the one I’m just thinking about but haven’t told or signaled anyone outside of this on-fire little corner of my mind about, the one I want right… and there it is!”  (p. 239)

He writes reverently about the people in his band, and even more reverently about his wife. And he’s fairly self-deprecating.

So reading this book means you get to hang out with one of the biggest names in rock and roll, and he seems like a pretty decent guy who can really spin a tale and make it worth hearing.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… celebrity memoirs, solid writing, the back story

 

My fellow readers… Any great celebrity memoirs to recommend?

Inspired: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

3 words: inspiring, youthful exuberance, triumphant

If I’m having one of those pitiful days when I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself, thinking about this book will pop me right out of it. Not because it guilts me that my problems are actually darn puny, but because this story’s as inspiring as all heck.

William Kamkwamba and his family and his village in Malawi faced hardships (think: near starvation in a drought year), and “he started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf.” (OK. That’s actually Hamilton, but: Same Concept.)

He had a fascination with science and a yearning to learn and a scientist’s mind. And he writes lovingly of the books he’d check out over and over again from the small school library, so he could learn about physics.

And then he decided to build a windmill.

(Side note: these rhapsodies about reading and windmills and learning occasionally had me verklempt.)

And to build the windmill, he had to work for it. There was garbage scavenging for parts like the soles of shoes — just to hook up a tiny lightbulb so he could read after sunset. (We can understand this, can’t we, readers?)

And then he dreamt of using windmills to pump water to help alleviate the ill effects of dry years.

From starvation to science. This is seriously inspiring stuff.

Give this book a whirl if you like… stories of hope in grim circumstances, the quest for learning, self-sufficiency, perseverance

What book has most inspired you lately?

Memoir of a super tough swimmer

Find a Way by Diana Nyad

3 words: forthright, vigorous, candid

Wow. I mean: seriously.

When I heard about Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida, I was impressed. But reading her account of the lifelong journey she took to accomplish this goal… Wow.

I’m not sure what knocked me over more:

  • It took five attempts (over the course of 30+ years) to complete the swim
  • She began training for the Cuba crossing after a 30-year hiatus from swimming
  • Nyad was 64 years old when she successfully finished the swim
  • The effort that went into engineering the swim so it wouldn’t kill her (a series of jellyfish stings nearly ended her life during a 2011 swim)
  • The sheer strength of will she personified

And then there’s her remarkable backstory. After doing several landmark open water swims in her 20s, Nyad left swimming and became a sports reporter.

It was only when she reached age 60 that she realized she needed to do something momentous to get her life out of autopilot. And then she set about doing that thing.

Nyad also addresses the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. And it’s both horrific that she had to experience such abuse, and inspiring to see how she overcame it. It’s an unexpected part of her story that surprised me and nearly broke my heart.

So when she goes on to live a big, bold life that she built with her own strength and with the love and support of her loved ones, it’s powerful stuff.

Nyad reads the audiobook, and I’m also glad she did. She’s a talented broadcaster, and she brings emotion to her reading.

Finally, this book is a remarkable thing because of the team Nyad assembled to help her achieve the Cuba swim. Reading about the way the team worked together–and especially the key role played by her head handler, Bonnie–I’m awed. It’s a beautiful thing, this story. There’s plenty of shadow, yes, but: the light, people! This story is filled with light breaking through the dark.
Give this book a whirl if you like… swimming, extreme sports, strong women, perseverance, stories of abuse survivors, senior power, living a bold life

 

So, folks… Whose stories have you found completely awe-inspiring?

Gilmore Girls withdrawal cure

Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (And Everything In Between) by Lauren Graham

3 words: quick, funny, entertaining

 

 

You know how sometimes, when you really love a TV show, you kinda dread it when one of the actors writes a memoir? Because what if you don’t like them? What if they’re arrogant or  unrelatable or otherwise incompatible with you? Or what if they simply don’t match up with the way you want them to resemble the character you most adore, and that’s just a big old disappointment?

Well, my friends… if you’re a fan of The Gilmore Girls, your mind can rest easy. You can safely enter into this reading experience, knowing that it will all turn out fine in the end.

Because it turns out that Lauren Graham–the actor and real-life human being–is delightfully similar to the fictional character Loralai Gilmore.

I know: weird.

But also: wonderful.

There’s lots of talk about the delight of creating The Gilmore Girls not only once, but twice. But also a candid (and often very funny) description of life as a struggling actor–the strange part-time jobs, the horrible tiny apartments, the hoping against hope.

And more funny stuff about the life of a reasonably successful actor–trying all the diets, being single for a long time (not necessarily totally by choice), and learning that your show’s reboot is happening by reading about it online.

If you’re going to read this book, don’t. Listen to it instead. Lauren Graham reads it herself, so it’s like you’re hearing Loralai telling you the story of Lauren’s life. It’s pretty terrific.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… celebrity memoirs, a chatty tone, and the quick wit of The Gilmore Girls

 

So tell me… what celebrity memoirs have caught your eye lately?

Strangers tend to tell her things… and I get why

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home by Amy Dickinson

3 words: sprightly, romantic, domestic

Sometimes life offers you a Perfect Book, and all you want to do is read it and read it and read it.

This is one of those.

I just kept flagging quotes (with these adorable little arrow sticky notes I picked up at Le Target) because Amy Dickinson’s sentences kept delighting me. Here’s a paragraph of good ones:

“I would lie in bed at night in our farmhouse and listen to my mother power up the pump organ by stomping on its wooden pedals until its bellows filled with air. Then she’d start to play the chords to Burt Bacharach’s ‘This Guy’s in Love with You.’ Given the organ’s overall creepy pipe tones and asthmatic volume changes as my mother pedaled faster or slower, it sounded like a lounge act in a horror movie.” (p. 16)

So this book is funny and romantic and light-hearted in parts, and then sad and overwhelmed and dealing with wrenching loss. It’s just like life!

I loved Dickinson’s first memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, which was the full story of her return to her small upstate New York town, to live among her extended family of women.
In this new book, she finds love mid-life (so romantic! so right!) and loses her mother (so sad and so stinkin’ difficult).

She writes things like this, which made me miss her mom (and mostly miss my own mom):
“There was a special quality and depth to her attentiveness. I often felt she paid better attention–or a better kind of attention–to me than I did to myself.” (p. 182)

And she writes all these things with candor and humor. Yes, she’s the nationally recognized “Ask Amy,” but she’s actually just living her complicated and beautiful and sometimes painful life just like the rest of us. Only she’s got the way of stringing together the words that makes her story absolutely entertaining and real and heartfelt.

And even though I’m kind of small-town-phobic (so many eyes watching a person’s every move), Amy (see how we’re already on first-name terms here? It’s that kind of book) loves small town living and it suits her well. She writes of her town with love and delight, and it almost makes me want to live there, too.

And that’s largely because of the people in this book, who obviously are real people, but the wonderful thing is the way Amy presents them to us, so we actually feel like we know them.

Give this book a whirl if you like… midlife romance, blending families, returning home, books that celebrate small towns and houses, and a mix of laughter and tears

What’s the best memoir you’ve read lately?

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?