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?

 

 

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.

 

Pizza Pizza!

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg

3 words: personal, cheerful, entrepreneurial

This book hit the sweet spot: pizza, plus entrepreneurship, plus a nice conversational style. I was happy every moment I spent reading it.

Delancey is the story of Molly and her husband Brandon opening a pizza restaurant in Seattle. It’s the story of the early days of their marriage, when she was pretty sure he’d bail on the restaurant idea before the brick oven arrived.

Surprise!


And while the tone overall is cheerful, Molly is candid about her not-always-positive responses to the stresses of opening and running a restaurant.

It’s exactly the type of book I love to read: people living an experience I’d despise if it happened to me. But give me a book about opening your own business (or traveling to the Arctic or working as a journalist or any number of things I’d hate to actually do), and I’m one happy little creature.

The entrepreneurship thing has really taken hold of my brain, even though I totally do not want to be an entrepreneur. I’ve been listening to the podcast Online Marketing Made Easy with Amy Porterfield, and I’m completely hooked.

It’s like a corollary [dang, people: I did not know how to spell that word!] to my watching HGTV obsessively, when actual house-hunting and renovation makes me break out in hives.

So, back to Delancey. Here are two things that carry this book’s story into the future…

  1. The Dear Man and I have added Delancey to our list of future pizza destinations.
  2. Molly also writes the Orangette blog, which has been on the periphery of my consciousness for years now. So if you want to read the ongoing tale, you can!

 

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.

 

True blue

(photo credit*)

The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop by Steve Osborne

3 words: entertaining, storytelling, honest

Ever love a book so much you keep talking about it until you become a total bore to
those around you?

Yeah, me too.

This summer, The Job was one of Those Books.

Why the introvert kept talking about it:

First, cops have the best stories.

Second, this guy’s a master storyteller.

Third, this guy’s one heck of a great writer. He does that thing I love, where a person
writes exactly the way he talks. So you can hear his voice.

(Before writing this book, he told his stories on stage for The Moth, and happily for us, he kept that same voice in his writing.)

His stories are an ideal mix of funny, heartfelt, sad, and unbelievable.

And some of the moments he describes are so weird they’re perfect.

His first day on a new assignment, he saw a guy march into the station house playing the bagpipes. “I glanced over to the cop on the switchboard, and he was still doing his crossword puzzle.” (p. 106)

Bagpipe dude was one of their regulars.

So there’s zaniness, and there’s adrenaline, and then there’s one chapter called “Cops Don’t Cry” that I can’t stop thinking about.

If you’re somewhere that people won’t see you cry, listen to it on The Moth.

 

*photo credit: Police Car @ Times Square via photopin (license)

 

 

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.