Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

–  Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle

Last year, I read a coming-of-age memoir that was disturbingly bizarre. No, not The Glass Castle, although it can also be quite accurately described that way. The book that I read, and disliked very much, was Running with Scissors. My childhood and teenage years were, for the most part, remarkably normal and quite secure, and therefore in complete contrast with the extraordinarily strange life that Augusten Burroughs describes in his book. My dislike stemmed not from the fact that I couldn’t relate to his singular childhood, but that I couldn’t find any humor in what was clearly intended to be hilarious. Instead of finding his account bizarre and witty, I found it bizarre and off-putting. And quite sad.

The Glass Castle, on the other hand, made me stay up till the wee hours of the morning, wanting to read ‘just one more chapter’. This book is author Jeannette Walls’ account of her itinerant childhood spent with a set of splendidly unorthodox parents, her siblings, an assortment of animals, and stubborn, stubborn poverty. Set mostly in the 1960s and 70s, in towns that few non-Americans would be able to point out on a map (though I suspect that many Americans might have trouble locating them as well), and always described in a matter-of-fact voice, when describing hardship, and fleeting moments of escape from hardship alike, Walls succeeds in making all the struggles, the adventures, the hunger and scavenging the trash cans for half-eaten sandwiches, and the relentless poverty sound almost comical.

The book begins with a three-year old Walls in a pink dress, standing on a chair in front of the stove, cooking hot dogs, and eventually suffering serious burns to her little body. From the first few accounts, a picture emerges of the Walls family: poor, eccentric and very unique. Walls’ father, a self-described entrepreneur, is best known as the ‘town drunk’ and shares with his kids his ambitious project and blueprints to build a glass house for the family in the desert. Undeniably intelligent, and quite effortlessly charming, he is almost always between jobs or urging his family to do the skedaddle when the town becomes too hot for him. Walls’ mother is equally unusual, an heiress who lives in abject poverty, a painter who:

…didn’t like cooking much – “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d ask us, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that can last forever?” – so once a week or so, she’d fix a big cast iron vat of something like fish and rice or, usually, beans. We’d all sort the beans together, picking out the rocks, then Mom would soak them overnight, boil them the next day with an old ham bone to give them flavor, and for that entire week we’d have beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the beans started going bad, we’d just pit extra spice in them, like the Mexicans at the LBJ Apartments always did.

Walls’ mother also did not approve of eye glasses.

 If you had weak eyes, Mom believed, they needed exercise to get strong. The way she saw it, glasses were like crutches. They prevented people with feeble eyes from learning to see the world on their own.

And so, Walls and her three siblings learn to fend for themselves, defending themselves and each other from tormentors in school, foraging for fruit and scraps when food was scarce at home, and in the process becoming incredibly resilient, protective, creative and unusually resourceful, such as when the author attempts to correct her faulty jawline by making her own braces with rubber bands, metal coat hangers and a Kotex sanitary napkin (for padding).

Moving from town to town, from California to Nevada to Arizona, from school to school, always not knowing where their next meal is going to come from, the family ultimately settles down in Welsh, West Virginia, in a house that can only be described as a dump. These desert kids, at home going barefoot in the scalding desert sand, collecting garnet, turquoise, granite, obsidian, geodes, fool’s gold and bull frogs, are seen as outsiders and freaks in this small, cold, racist mining town that they never really get used to. As their home situation gets increasingly impossible, these gifted children, who surely must have been a lot more troubled and less merry than the tone often implies, dream of escape to New York City and eventually live out their dreams (some of it at least). The story ends with the kids, now all grown up, living in New York City (with the exception of the distant Maureen, the youngest), sharing a loving yet difficult relationship with their ever singular parent(s), who continue to live exciting lives as homeless squatters, diving the dumpster for supplies.

Wall’s story of poverty and hunger is as poignant as her parents are memorable. Singular individuals with unique philosophies, they dole out entertainment, love and difficulty in equal measure.

“But Mom”, I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food [of a two-carat diamond ring that the kids found and that the mother decides to wear].”

“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.”

The Glass Castle is the first book I read (and tremendously enjoyed) this year as part of the What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book with a type of house in the title.


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A Year in Birds

When I was younger, much younger, reading James Herriot made me feel warm and fuzzy. I remember feeling disappointed later when I found out that Herriot actually wrote fiction, even though much of it is said to have been inspired by fact. Well, at least it wasn’t inspired non-fiction.

Savoring Pete Dunne on a cold winter afternoon brought back the warm fuzzies. There is, of course, his signature wit, which I sampled earlier  in Prairie Spring. But there is something else to his writing too. Something that inspires wonder, respect and understanding. Expertise and experience. His masterful identification of birds, whether he catches but a glimpse or not at all (purely by ear), whether he sees the birds high up in the sky where field marks are all but devoured by the sun, or camouflaged by tall prairie grass or lush spring leaves. And his rich experiences amidst all the bird wealth the world has to offer, in crowded national parks, and solitary corners of the world. And his lifelist and the glorious birds on it.

Rushing to look up goldeneyes and condors on All About Birds, I was reminded yet again why birds hold so much fascination for bird watchers and non bird watchers alike. They are alive, often colorful, they make music, they are elusive and yet, they are everywhere. Roger Tory Peterson sums it up very nicely:

As James Fisher[noted British ornithologist] commented, they [birds] can even be a bore if you are a bore.

Indeed. And so, just as birds are so many things, according to Peterson, “the observation of birds can be many things, depending on who you are and what you are”. It can be a science or an art. It can be a pleasant recreation if you are a backyard bird watcher or a source of passionate obsession, a game and a sport, if you are one of those listers, those birders. It’s no wonder then that birding is a popular outdoor activity in the United States (I was’nt able to find much more specific data – Is birding more popular than bicycling? Gardening? Fishing? Walking? I am not sure how these rank.)

Dunne’s Feather Quest is really a bird quest, a Pete Dunne’s life in birds circa 1989. With fancy typesetting, and a silhouette of a bird delineating each chapter adventure, the book makes me want to be Dunne’s invisible companion. It even makes me want to be the expert that he is, to effortlessly identify birds, to have all those colorful birding experiences, and that warm birding camaraderie. Dunne is humorous and philosophical and always environmentally conscious. So what if he has a strange proclivity to talk to trees and painted horses, or if he reuses his punch lines. The ‘Basset Hound’ line that I so enjoyed in Prairie Spring where Dunne refers to a Mountain Plover thus:

“a bird with a fawn-colored back, a cream-colored breast, and an expression so baleful a basset hound might die from envy”

…was sadly not all that original. Dunne had already used the same, now less funny, description in reference to a Ross’ Gull in The Feather Quest:

“a feathered figurine, pale as ivory, with an eye so balefully black that a basset hound would die from envy”

Well. It was a good one, even if a tad overused.

Having read Moonwalking with Einstein (more on that later in a separate post), I was struck by the integral role that memory plays in birding. What is a birder’s brain but a high-speed retrieval system that operates on a catalog of thousands of bird names, field marks, bird songs, calls and other tiny, important details polished by years and years of watching birds? Dunne talks about his own techniques (that no doubt every birder worth his salt has mastered):

It takes time to tune an ear, and effort, too. It means tracking down every unfamiliar song and welding the visual image of the bird to an ephemeral voice. Unless you are among the gifted few, someone with the auditory recall of Igor Stravinskly, the weld usually does not hold the first time, or the second time either. The bird with the short, bright phrases or the raspy vowels must be tracked down over and over and over. Then over and over again, until those phrases and the image of that bird fuse and become one.

Now, what is that if not an elaborate memory technique?

Novice bird watchers like me can also benefit from advice that Dunne sometimes dishes out, such as, “just as with foraging flocks of titmice and chickadees, if you want to find uncommon seabirds, search through the ranks of common one”. The next time I see a sea of gulls, or starlings, I will keep my eye open for that lone treasure. Dunne’s admonitions about pelagic birding also are spot on:

First, you are afraid that you are going to be sick. Then, you are afraid that you are going to die. Then, you are afraid that you are going to live. And if you are sick, in rough seas, one hundred miles from land, that is a long, long time to live.

After a painfully long (and empty, I might add) birding trip into the deep Atlantic, I have reconciled myself to the idea that I might never sight a whale or a porpoise or possibly even an albatross.

Finally, Dunne is critical about man’s impact (mostly negative) on bird ecology and the environment in general. While in Prairie Spring he speaks at length about the damage the grasslands have endured, in Feather Quest, Dunne touches upon the impact of birding on birds. While a lone birder or small group might not have a noticeable impact, hundreds (or even thousands) of over-zealous birders vying to catch a glimpse of that rare bird, might trample their way to a longer life list. Heavy birding can destroy vegetation and even disrupt the activity patterns of birds.

Feather Quest was the last book I read in 2011 and I completed it just in time to achieve my modest reading goal of 60 books for the year that was.

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A Widow’s Story

I spent these past two weeks on two books that are apparently in great demand at the local library (they are 2-week books, instead of the regular 4-week reading period). I went in to pick up Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and saw A Widow’s Story prominently placed on the 2-week shelf. And I picked that up as well (so what if I had three unread books waiting for me at home). I believe that one should not read books that one finds too hard to read, so hard that reading is no longer fun, that reading is a chore. And so I feel a little less guilty about not being to ever finish (or go beyond page 44) of Catch-22, after trying many many times. Sometimes, I just don’t get a book, and I let that be.

JCO’s book, I got. What I didn’t quite get is this review on NY times.

A Widow’s Story is precisely that, a fairly personal memoir of the time immediately following (and preceding) Joyce Carol Oates’ husband’s entirely unexpected death. JCO certainly rambles on quite a bit, but her ramblings are very readable – she describes her anguish and depression throughout the book, an emotion that certainly dominates the book. But this is a memoir of grief, so how can one say that this emotion was overused? Yes, there are other memoirs of grief that are witty, funny even, shorter, more to-the-point, but that doesn’t necessarily make one less or more readable than the other. Or one experience less or more painful than the other.

In high school, my favorite work of fiction was Jane Eyre. I was completely taken in by the dynamics between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, and played their conversations in my head many, many times. In one such scene, when Jane and a blind Edward have been re-united, Jane says to Edward:

“…I thought anger would be better than grief…”

And the statement immediately resonated with me. So, it was this passage from Jane Eyre I thought of, when I read JCO say:

“Better to be angry, than to be depressed.”

“I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilerating, such emotions [anger and rage] would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear.”

Very true.

The NY Times review takes issue with the fact that JCO doesn’t inform her readers about her impending engagement or second marriage (she does ‘hint’ about it in the very last page). And that the book doesn’t really talk  about the ‘dynamics’ of her first marriage or give the impression that JCO and Ray Smith were affectionate or close. In fact, JCO does delve quite a bit into aspects that Ray and she did not know about each other, and now never will. However, I do get the impression of a quiet intimacy, which may not sound exciting enough to some, but seems real enough to me.

Well. The book is about widowhood, and about Joyce Carol Oates as a widow, Ray Smith’s widow. I agree with her that details of her second marriage don’t really have a place in this memoir, and that the absence of this revelation does not make this work dishonest. Though, I admit, I think that JCO’s widowhood is hardly typical and might not reflect how other people feel or deal with their losses. For one, JCO has a lot of well-meaning friends, who not only send beautiful notes of sympathy (and rejected sympathy baskets), but do help her physically and mentally with the many death duties, driving her around, giving her legal advice, inviting her to dinners, and just being there for her. JCO also has a house, and a job, both of which, and especially the latter, help her through the days. And not many widows and widowers find love within a year of their loss. So, I think that JCO story is painful, but perhaps not typical.

JCO shares many of the condolence letters she received during the period. Many of these are very thoughtful and touching, though I’m not sure how much they help a grieving person. JCO herself relies a lot on the kindness and love of close friends, though she speaks of her

“Fear of draining friends’ capacity for sympathy”

Well, life goes on. Painful or not. And it’s time for me to move to a cheerful book or two. Or even one that makes me angry. But not sad. No, not sad.

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JCO on becoming a widow

On the whole, I must admit I am now quite curious about Joyce Carol Oates. I hadn’t read a single work of hers, and did not know what she looked like before I heard her talk with Tom Ashbrook one windy Spring day. And I learned that she was based just a few miles (in Princeton) out of where I lived and that she’d recently published her memoirs – specifically her memoirs on becoming a widow after 47 years of marriage to Raymond Smith. Ray’s death was very sudden, and JCO spoke about how his passing left her an emotional cripple, and how her professional obligations were really what egged her on during a very difficult period. She spoke often about her ‘target audience’ – widows and widowers, and ‘hoped’ that the book would help them in some measure.

What really stood out to me in those 40 odd minutes of the conversation, was her talking about, and reading a passage from the book A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, where she describes a voice memento of her husband’s – a recorded message on their home phone that she hung on to for a year or so after his death, dialing the home number a few times a day just to hear his voice. I was so touched by this admission, and I could easily picture it in my mind – as if a scene from a movie, of a widow frantically dialing her own number again and again, and trying to capture the essence of the dead person’s voice, etching in her memory the nuances of the voice, the words, and the cadence as the last, ‘living’, memory of this person no longer living.

I was now curious about the book, curious about JCO’s other books, having never thought of reading them. I then came upon a not very charitable review of his book, in New York Times, no less. Critic Maslin raises some questions: why does JCO who dwells on episodes such as that of the voice message, and yet choose to ignore her emerging relationship with soon-to-be second husband? (JCO, in the podcast, says that talking about her second husband in a book about her first husband, would not quite be right). Is JCO tapping into the “lucrative loss-of-spouse market”, she asks. I need to read the book and really see if JCO makes a less than complimentary allusion to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking – another memoir of grief.

I am now a great deal more curious about the book, and JCO’s other works, though I am not quite sure where to begin. Sourland? The Assignation? Give me your heart?

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