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?

 

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?

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?

 

 

That sports book that’s way more

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

3 words: introspective, unflinchingly honest, surprising

The book I can’t stop talking about? It’s this one.

Ervin and Markides have written themselves one doozy of a memoir / biography mash-up.

This book’s got in goin’ on in multiple ways.

First, the structure is fascinating. If you like books with multiple viewpoints, you’re gonna love this thing. Ervin and Markides share the storytelling, and the story is so much more interesting than it would’ve been with only one viewpoint. Ervin tells his story in his own words, which brings an intimacy and an immediacy to the narrative. But Markides’s writing about Ervin is equally fascinating, because we see him from two angles.

Second, Ervin’s story is so outrageous and complex, it’s only believable because it’s actually true. No way you’d get me to buy this story if it were fiction.

Dude won the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, then fell off the face of the Earth.

Except really, he fell into and out of school, drug abuse, homelessness, tattooing, rock & roll, cigarette smoking, nearly every type of high-risk behavior imaginable, and all kinds of different belief systems. He nearly wrecked himself.

Then, in 2011, he started swimming again.

And by 2012, he qualified for the Olympic team.

Again.

It’s pretty stunning.

Roll in there, the fact that he has Tourette’s, is half African-American and half Jewish (but doesn’t particularly identify with either group), and is training for the 2016 Olympics right this minute, and People, We’ve Got Ourselves a Story Here.

This book is a very intriguing look inside the mind of an elite athlete who’s also a philosopher.

And the book contains remarkable descriptions of Ervin’s form as a swimmer. Markides had me breathless when I read these words:

“It was strange to reconcile the unhurried, cerebral Ervin I knew with the swift aquatic creature slicing toward me. But it wasn’t even his speed that astonished me so much as the way in which he traveled through the water–although ‘through’ isn’t even exactly right. There was something in his swimming I’d never seen before: he seemed to swim not through the water but over it.” (95)

Yowser, guys. That’s some good stuff there.

 

(He’s the one in mint green.)

 

So yeah. This book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not the usual heroic sports story; it’s way more more nuanced than that.

I’m grateful to Ervin for “torching his soul” to write this book, and to Markides for writing such a stunning, close third-person view of Ervin’s story thus far.

Anyone else gonna be watching the Olympic trials to look for the guy with the sleeves?

 

Lab Girl — an experiment that works

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

3 words: lyrical, poignant, personal

 

Oh, man, guys. A workplace memoir that’s smart and a pleasure to read, and it’s about a workplace I’d detest.

 

The recipe for my perfect book.

 

I so loved reading this thing.

 

Jahren writes (gorgeously) of her life as a scientist. She studies plants and trees, and her lab is her refuge and her true home.

 

And her lab partner Bill is her best friend and colleague. And they’re both quirky (especially him) and interesting to hang out with on these pages, even though sometimes they’re digging deep trenches so they can study soil (which sounds dull and tedious, except when Jahren’s writing about it).

 

Jahren’s passion for her work is a beautiful thing to read, especially since she’s quite a lovely writer. Take this:

 

“I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day’s green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.” (31)

 

So sometimes when she’s writing about plants, she’s also writing about life. But never in that treacly, sickening way that’s overly obvious.

 

I read this book while listening to Quiet by Susan Cain, and there was some really fascinating overlap. Hours after hearing Cain describe the phenomenon of solitary researchers making breakthroughs in the middle of the night, I read Jahren’s description of just such a moment in her research.

 

And there were moments when this book reminded me of one of my favorite memoirs of all time, True North by Jill Ker Conway, in which she describes her graduate school years with a good deal of joy.

 

This is a lovely book. Smart and also wise.

 

Me & Ben improve ourselves (mostly he does that, while I listen)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

3 words: literary, straightforward, ambitious

Before listening to his autobiography, here’s what I could’ve told you about Benjamin Franklin:

  • That electricity thing with a kite
  • That quest for self-perfection
  • Philadelphia boy
  • Dude went to France
  • Poor Richard’s Almanack
  • That really bad hair

 

As I listened, though, I remembered what I’d known and forgotten:

  • Founded one of the first lending libraries in America
  • Worked as a printer
  • Known for his writing (oh, thank goodness!)
  • Self-made man

 

And I learned things I never knew:

  • Dude was a wise, wily politician
  • Not into church-going
  • Founded a fire department in Philadelphia

 

I found his autobiography a rather uplifting reading experience. Granted, his life could be considered a success, but he describes his mistakes with honesty and humility. He owns that crap.

And his writing is clean and surprisingly straightforward for its day. I was prepared for all kinds of flowery speech, but he preserved us from that fate. (This might be one of the reasons this book is still so widely read.)

My favorite section was the part where he describes his plan to become a better person by observing the 13 virtues he identified and worked on, one by one: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Oh, I liked this part a lot.

I had all kinds of happy little flashbacks to reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Her formula for happiness is “being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

It appeals to me so strongly, that “atmosphere of growth” stuff. And Franklin’s life embodied that concept.

So hanging out with him while he told his life story was pretty darn inspiring. While I scrambled eggs, he described figuring out how to set up a fire department and save lives, all while living a life of frugal, tranquil sincerity.

So yeah, inspiring and enjoyable. Glad I read it.

 

Mennonite memoir

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

3 words: funny, frank, cheerful

When life hits you with a one-two punch (try: her husband of 15 years left her for a man he met online, then she was severely injured in a car accident), it’s not the worst plan to head home to Mom and Dad.

And if you have Rhoda Janzen’s parents… even better.

This memoir is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, and occasionally somberly self-reflective. (Why did she spend all those years with that less-than-wonderful husband, anyway?)

But mostly it’s a hilarious, warm-hearted account of life with her Mennonite family—a lifestyle she had fled.

But returning to a world in which the ladies whip up large batches of food at the drop of a hat (hot fruit soup—a specialty) proves comforting, and it’s easy to see why.

 

life-changing cookies at 2:00

(An aside about Mennonite food: Last fall we bought the world’s most amazing molasses cookies at a Mennonite bakery. Dang, people! Literally the best molasses cookies on Earth. [I don’t even usually like molasses cookies!] I should’ve taken a photo, but I was too busy devouring the things. We’re making do here with a stunt photo I found on the Interwebs. Back to the book…)

 

 

Janzen’s account of her family’s foibles is downright funny and wonderfully realistic and still kind-spirited.

And some of her sentences made me laugh out loud. For example, this one, which appeared toward the end of a chapter in which she outlined a variety of Mennonite customs…

“Perhaps you have been wondering, How can I join this attractive religious group?” (p. 239)

This book is pure delight.