This Life Is in Your Hands

ThisLifeIsInYourHands

“Food for Mama was equal to love, and, though she might withhold it when fasting, she usually meted it out to Papa and me straight from her heart. The preparing, cooking, and storing of food made up the pulse of her days. I’d wake in the mornings to the sound of Mama grinding grain. Clamped to the kitchen counter, that steel mill from Hatch’s was her magic tool, transforming inedible whole grains into vital ingredients as she stood beside it, hair pulled back, working the crank. The groats went in a funnel in the top, to be ground by opposing metal wheels attached to the crank, and depending on the setting, meal or flour streamed or puffed from the spout into a bowl.” This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman’s parents were key figures in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, disciples and neighbors of Helen and Scott Nearing, who were activists and advocates of simple living. Scott Nearing wrote the classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World in 1954.

Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands, is about her childhood years with her two younger sisters on the Maine farmland her parents, Sue and Eliot Coleman, bought from the Nearings. It’s an ode to people in love with the land and a certain way of life; it’s also an elegy for a family and a time forever lost: when Melissa was seven, tragedy struck and her family splintered.

As I read the memoir, it dawned on me that I recognized the name Eliot Coleman, and that, in fact, I have one of his books, Four-Season Harvest, which I bought when I became interested in year-round gardening. From the standpoint of American history, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating look at the back-to-the-land movement. Regarded suspiciously as radical hippies by many in mainstream America, the Colemans and others like them pioneered an important movement flourishing on new fronts today.

Eliot Coleman criticized the ravages wrought by industrialized farming. He advocated small-scale, biological farming, which emphasizes high quality soil that eliminates the need for pesticides, and a return to ancient farming practices. When Melissa Coleman was a young child, Eliot went on research forays to Europe, where he observed French farmers cultivating gardens all year round. He began to import their age-old farming wisdom to America and has been influential in the organic farming movement ever since.

There is much to admire in This Life Is in Your Hands as a memoir, and there are limitations, too. Melissa Coleman’s writing is uneven, and her storytelling skills fall short in some readers eyes. But at her best she is exquisitely poetic about daily life on their plot of land.

“The cookstove was our most important possession, without which we would either starve or freeze to death. To my young imagination it looked like a black animal with four stout legs under a square body, a flat top with lids that opened to the fire, and one long tail of a chimney that curved through the wall to puff smoke outside. It had three mouths, a small one to make little fires for cooking, a bigger one for overnight fires, and the biggest of all for the oven, with white enamel around a temperature dial ranging from “cool” to “very hot” and the brand name, “Kalamazoo.” When the bread was done, Mama opened the oven door and the loaves came out golden brown and steaming, to be placed on the counter to cool.”

Of course, Melissa must also tell how this edenic existence fell apart. The lifestyle entailed constant, backbreaking work, and the Colemans did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The children were allowed to run free on the farm, and the constant work meant they weren’t attended to closely, which contributed to a tragedy: the accidental death of Melissa’s sister.

Coleman’s portrayal of her parents, Sue and Eliot, is mostly compassionate, but confusing, to me. From the beginning it’s drummed into us that Sue didn’t have the inner confidence and drive of her husband, Eliot. We’re told he was extraordinary, while Sue is depicted as lacking, and some of this judgement seems unfair to Sue. Understandably, Melissa suffered greatly when Sue fell apart and abandoned her role as a mother after the tragedy. But for a long time their farm and family flourished thanks to Sue’s efforts, not just Eliot’s. She gardened, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, hauled water, and gave birth to two of her children at home–one of those times she was home alone.

Sue suffered from bouts of depression and postpartum depression, but she was caring for three young children while adhering to superhuman lifestyle standards and married to an impossibly driven man. At one point, before the tragedy, Eliot procured a rental car and told Sue to leave with the children, that the marriage was over. It’s not clear to me why this was warranted–Sue’s worst sin seems to be what some might call neediness–unless Melissa left information out to protect her mother. I found Eliot’s actions harsh. The situation hints at sexism and unrecognized mental illness. Despite the sexual revolution and women’s lib, there were plenty of sexist marriages in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any young mother in her situation, Sue needed more support, although as readers, we may not know the whole story.

The Nearings apparently remained somewhat aloof after the tragedy. Helen Nearing, in fact, had not been pleased when Sue became pregnant the first time, telling her she should have waited because it was unrealistic to take on both motherhood and the farm.

The author’s conclusions about the meaning and fallout from her family’s grand experiment and tragedy struck me as pat. But telling the whole, accurate truth in these fraught family stories, from the point of view of the child and then as an adult with hindsight, is difficult. Memoir has pitfalls, but I think this one is an important and intriguing story on many levels.

Eliot and his third wife, Barbara Damrosch, currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, on the site of the original farm Melissa wrote about in her memoir. Today, many small organic farmers are flourishing in central Maine, some owned by apprentices who worked for the Nearings and the Colemans.

“Our staple was a yeast-free flatbread called a chapati, which Mama learned to make from David Hatch, who learned in India. Mama let me help mix the flour from the grain mill with water and salt to make a pliable dough, then kneaded it to bring out the gluten and let it set for an hour before making round gold balls of dough that she flattened with a rolling pin into thin, but not too thin, pancakes. She prepared the cookstove ahead so there was a bed of red hot coals in the firebox, and heated a greaseless twelve-by-sixteen-inch cast-iron skillet to sear both sides of the chapati and trap the steam inside. The chapati was then placed on a bent clothes hanger over hot coals inside the firebox, where it would blow up into a steamy balloon. Once it was removed from the flame, the air in the middle was released and the balloon flattened to form a perfect tortilla-like vehicle, warm or cold, for whatever you chose to put on or inside it.”

Here is a short video about Helen and Scott Nearing; Eliot Coleman appears in the opening:

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Have you read This Life Is in Your Hands or other books about sustainable living?

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

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“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”  – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.

Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.

NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”

I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.

I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.

“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978.  I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.

Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.

Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?

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“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone.”

 

(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)

 

The Shepherd’s Life

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Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

“…modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.”   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

I was so taken with James Rebanks’ recent column in The New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” that I requested his memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” from the library.

On a recent trip to the United States to promote his book, Rebanks toured Kentucky and saw the economic devastation and dying towns in rural America, caused in part by industrial scale agriculture that has put small farms out of business. In fact, Rebanks was here the week that Trump won the election.

He and his family are sheep farmers in England’s Lake District; they lead a centuries-old way of life. Rebanks is blunt in rejecting the American model of industrialized agriculture. He believes it has wreaked havoc on families, our health, and the environment.

His memoir is a fascinating, day-by-day account of what it means to be a shepherd and adhere mostly to the old ways in a modern world. He takes us through a full year of tending to 900 sheep with his close-knit family and community.

Woven into this shepherding story is a history of Lake District shepherds and a recounting of Rebanks’ coming of age and adult life path. Determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a shepherd, Rebanks ended up taking a brief detour to attend Oxford. Then, he recommitted to sheep farming. He went from being an uneducated local boy to a college-educated adult, relatively at ease moving back and forth between these two worlds, but still firmly committed to the old ways.

His views on the tensions between these two worlds makes for provocative reading. As a young boy, his teachers preached that staying on the farm was a dead end, and urged local kids to leave and make something of themselves. As I skimmed through reviews on Goodreads, I saw that some readers didn’t care for Rebanks’ tone, which can be highly critical of the world of so-called progress and intellectuals. But he does have important points to make about the value of his nearly forgotten lifestyle and the happiness and fulfillment it can garner.

He points out that shepherds possess knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, though they may never crack open a book.

“The great flocks of sheep are the accumulation of countless achievements at these shows and sales over many years, each year’s successes or failures layering up like chapters in an epic ancient poem. The story of these flocks is known and made in the retelling by everyone else. Men, who will tell you they are stupid and not very bright, can recall encyclopaedic amounts of information about the pedigrees of these sheep. Sheep are not just bought: they are judged, and stored away in memories, pieces of jigsaw of breeding that will come good or go bad over time. Our standing, our status, and our worth as men and women is decided to a large extent by our ability to turn out our sheep in their prime, and as great examples of the breed.”

And….

“They are sheep that show the effort several generations of shepherds have put into them. Each autumn for centuries someone has added to their quality with the addition of new tups from other noted flocks. There is a depth of good blood in them. They are big strong ewes, with lots of bone, good thick bodies, and bold white heads and legs. They return from that fell each autumn with a fine crop of lambs that are a match for most other flocks in the Lake District.”

I especially enjoyed reading The Shepherd’s Life on the heels of finishing Wendell Berry’s Our Only World, which I’ll write about next week. The two books go hand in hand, with similar themes and messages. Wendell Berry (who has been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau) has been a life-long farmer in rural Kentucky. On his visit, Rebanks saw the economic devastation there that Berry has written much about.

Here is another excerpt from The Shepherd’s Life that I like:

“I have met and talked with hundreds of farmers, stood in their fields and their homes, talked to them about how they see the world and why they do what they do. I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places. I see people growing sick of plastic phoniness and wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe in different things, and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation. All of this has made me believe more strongly, not less, in our farming way of life and why it matters in the Lake District.”

My favorite section of The Shepherd’s Life is about the spring, when the lambs are born– hundreds of them in the space of a few weeks. The shepherds and their families must work nearly 24/7 scouting their acreage for ewes and lambs that might be in trouble due to difficult births or inclement weather. Families must be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. It’s a matter of economic survival and an act of devotion. I was entirely caught up in the dramatic tension of these chaotic and miraculous spring days, as told by James Rebanks.

Some new “nature” words I learned:

Fell: An old English word for hill or mountain. A high, wild mountain slope or stretch of pasture.

Heft: to become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture. In The Shepherd’s Life, it refers to both the sheep and the shepherd.

If you like unusual memoirs and lyrical nature writing (although the editing of this book could have been improved), The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful read.

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

Have you read Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life or any of Wendell Berry’s work? Or do you have a favorite memoir with a similar theme to recommend?

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

the-oregon-trail “I turned left after the bridge over the Snake and headed east along the trail country. The basalt cliffs along the river gleamed in the sunlight, and the austerity of landscape reminded me of the austerity of mission.

Journey is all, and we did it, we made it, we got there. We had followed the Platte to the Sweetwater, the Sweetwater to South Pass, and then we slid the wagon down Dempsey Ridge to the indescribable beauty along the Bear. Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us.

The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

Things have been mighty serious here on the blog the past few months, so it’s time for a book that is guaranteed to make you feel good, satisfy your armchair travel cravings, and restore your faith in humanity. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is a perfect delight, especially if you love American history, travel, nature, a dash of memoir, and immersive, challenging expeditions.

Rinker Buck, a former reporter for the Hartford Courant, and his brother, Nick, crossed the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon a couple of years ago, along with Nick’s dog, Olive Oyl, and a team of three mules: Jake, Beck and Bute.

They probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t been experienced drivers of mule and horse teams. Even given their expertise, wagon transport presented scary and nearly insurmountable challenges along sometimes very hostile terrain. I don’t have a technical bent, so I wouldn’t have thought I’d be fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics between three mules and their drivers or the intricacies of harnesses and wagon paraphernalia. But Rinker Buck is an excellent writer, and he conveys beautifully how you have to get these important details right for such an undertaking, and the disasters that can happen if they go wrong.

Rinker Buck is funny and self-effacing, too. He gives just enough personal and family history to explain why two guys well past middle age might be inspired to take on the Oregon Trail. There are at least three levels of story braided together: Rinker and Nick’s personal, psychic journeys; the challenges and unexpected blessings of the landscape and people they met along the way; and vivid historical portraits of the colorful trailblazers who pioneered the trail in the mid 1800s.

 

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The Oregon Trail spans Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Up to 45,000 pioneers died along the trail.

 

I was especially taken with the story of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, an upstate New York couple who were among the first pioneers to successfully maneuver the trail. Narcissa was a missionary and Marcus a doctor. Both wanted to head west, and they married essentially for convenience and companionship so they could travel together.

Along the way, Narcissa fell in love with Marcus, and she wrote eloquent letters to family describing their adventures. Narcissa gave permission for the letters to be published in the local newspaper, and soon her latest installments were being read by people across the country. Readers were mesmerized, and the Whitman success inspired the great wave of pioneers who came after.

The Oregon Trail is a great read if you like a blend of travel, history, nature and adventure, and Rinker Buck is a wise, funny, unsentimental writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

If you have similar “epic journey” books to recommend I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

He said to honor ourselves

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Somewhere near Lake of the Coheeries, a place that can have cruel winters but is nevertheless enchanting. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

New Year’s weekend I retrieved from the closet the boxes of letters I’d saved from my younger days, back when people took up pen and paper to communicate. I thought it was about time to sort, organize, and purge.

I’m not sure why I saved these missives, but I’m glad I did, especially now that I write memoir. Picking up an old letter and hearing the voice of a friend from long ago can take me back in an instant and call up a stream of long-lost memories. After decades, I still recognize a friend’s distinctive handwriting.

You may be familiar with the mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which advises readers to keep only those items that “spark joy.”

Well, that’s great advice when it comes to saving or not saving old letters. I found many letters that sparked joy, so I ended up saving more than I discarded, but that’s OK.

I’d like to share excerpts from one of those letters with you. I’m quite sure the author wouldn’t mind.

The letter is from my first manager at Eastman Kodak. Ronn hired me into his department of instructional designers and media producers when I moved upstate, after 7 years in New York City and then grad school.

I was having a tough time getting acclimated to Rochester after the big city. It’s a family town, and I was single and lonely. I’ll give it a year, I thought.

I was lucky, though, to meet Ronn, a brilliant and eccentric outlier, and to get the interesting Kodak job that I did. To me, instructional design was ho-hum, but as one of the department’s media producers, I worked with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and other creative people. It was stressful, sometimes consuming, but fun, too. I remember visiting the photo lab one day at Kodak’s State Street headquarters, where one of the gigantic Colorama photos that always graced a wall of Grand Central Terminal was being assembled.

At the time, Kodak was the home of world class photographers and innovators who brought the science and art of imaging to the world. Rochester had reaped the benefits of the altruistic genius, George Eastman, and as I began to discover the riches here, I felt more at home. Rochester had art films, dance, world renowned schools of music and photography, and medical research. This was before cities marketed themselves, and Rochester had always been quiet about its cultural and technical riches and quality of life. If it tended to be overlooked, that was just fine with the people who lived here.

My old copy of Ronn’s letter was a photocopied good-bye and thank you to our department. After I’d been at Kodak about a year, Ronn took early retirement. I believe he was in his late forties or early fifties at the time. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of employees who would take early retirement or be laid off over the next decades as Kodak had to dismantle itself.

I would go on to have two other managers at Kodak, both male. All three of them made a point of paying me well. Kodak definitely had its flaws, but in the 1980s it was a progressive leader in employee development and training and equitable treatment of women. In my view, my years at Kodak would turn out to be the only time I was fairly compensated, except for when I was a consultant and could set my own rates. Although I’ve had other satisfying jobs, they did not pay well for a variety of reasons: they were more creative than technical; some were traditionally women’s occupations; I got further behind when I became a mother;  and we’ve had decades of stagnant or declining wages. I mention this in light of what Ronn had to say to us in his letter.

Ronn had never been a corporate type. He could get away with wearing jeans among the suits because everyone loved him. He’d been restless, and was eager to make a change so he could have more time to write, paddle his canoe, read, and go fly fishing, among other things.

When I hear Steve Jobs’ famous words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” I think of Ronn. He wasn’t hungry in the ambitious, Silicon Valley sense of the word. He was hungry for life, and he was never afraid to open himself up to others, even if some might see him as sentimental or naive.

winterstale2Before he left, Ronn made a point of spending some time with each of us. He wanted to introduce me to the founder of one of Rochester’s ad agencies, so we drove there one afternoon. On the way, we talked about Mark Helprin’s remarkable novel “Winter’s Tale,” and how it had affected our lives. I told him I’d been astonished to encounter one of my very own dreams among the pages of that novel, and we speculated on the meaning of dreams in our lives.

I remember Ronn speaking to us at his going away party, holding next to him the tall, graceful canoe paddle carved from hardwood that we’d gotten him as a farewell gift.

Later he sent us the letter which I ended up saving. He’d gone off to Vermont and had been consulting, reading fiction and poetry “like a bandit,” and paddling among the waterfalls, ponds, lakes, rivers and granite cliffs of Western Quebec and the Adirondacks.

He wrote:

markhelprin_winterstale“Please take care of yourselves (and I don’t mean that as a pseudo-parent statement.) Remember to honor yourselves. I know what it’s like to be a developer or producer. The crap can be overwhelming. And not all clients can recognize your talents.

Know that I think of all of you. (I truly mean that.) In fact, in a strange way I think that I see each of you more clearly than when I saw you every day. To be very old fashioned, I think that I see each of you as individual souls – which is very nice.”

If it sounds like I was a little bit in love with Ronn, I was, though I don’t think I realized it at the time.

There are some wonderful people in the world, aren’t there?

Do you save old letters?  Which remarkable people have you crossed paths with in your life?

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Another view, by M. Hallinan

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I met my husband here, and so I stayed. (He is a paddler, too, by the way.)

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A village near Lake of the Coheeries

2016 Favorite Books & Posts

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Under the tree this year

 

Several of my favorite books read this year were published in 2016. My top read, a memoir, was first published in Germany in 1938.

You’ll see plenty of memoirs on my list. Almost all the fiction is historical. Two are set in the northern Arctic regions.

Why I Write Memoir was by far my most popular post in 2016.

My Most Unusual & Memorable Read in 2016

A Woman in the Polar Nightby Christiane Ritter (memoir)

Favorite Fiction Read in 2016

To the Bright Edge#1 To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

#2 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

#3 Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (not yet reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

#4 My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout 

Favorite Memoirs Read in 2016

#1 Lab Girlby Hope Jahren

#2 Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston

#3 The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

#4 H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2016

67 Shots#1 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard Means

#2 The Road to Character, by David Brooks (not reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

Favorite Author New to Me

Sonja Livingston (Ladies Night at the Dreamland; Queen of the Fall; Ghostbread)

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS, 2016

#1 Why I Write Memoir

#2 A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold (memoir)

Also popular

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (memoir)

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS OF ALL TIME

Daughters of Madness book cover#1 Meeting the Dark Matter of Mental Illness

#2 Reading Junot Diaz

#3 Do Genes Shape Our Mental Health?

#4 Children of Mental Illness, Part I

What were your favorite books read in 2016, and what is on your list for 2017?

Upstream

upstream“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  Upstream, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a gift to the world.

I’ve learned many things from America’s most beloved poet, with honoring one’s creative impulse being the most important, followed by: pay attention. She has shown us, through her poetry and essays, how to do both of these across the span of a long and fruitful life.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, American Primitive,  and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems.

Her latest collection of essays, Upstream, (which contains both new and older work) is a look back at a life well lived, steeped in nature and literature. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller Nonfiction List for many weeks.

Oliver writes of the preoccupations and obsessions of the poets and thinkers that most influenced her, including Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You don’t have to like poetry to appreciate what she has to say about these fascinating writers.

I like those essays, but I love the more personal essays taken from daily life, my favorites being “Bird” and “Building the House.” I say personal, but Mary Oliver often shines a light on some miracle of nature – a wounded gull, or a female spider, or black bear – in a way that tells us much about her own life and her deepest beliefs.

If you have not yet read Mary Oliver, you could start by listening to a few of her most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” and “The Journey.”

 

 

Upstream is a beautiful little book for ringing out 2016, welcoming 2017, and reading on a cold winter’s night.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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We’ve had this little birchbark canoe for many years.

 

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A favorite house in our village, vintage upstate New York.

The Magic of Memoir

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San Francisco treasures

 

Excavating a Life

I’ll be taking a break from Books Can Save a Life until December so I can finish a draft of my memoir and get a good start on the revision. Before I go, I wanted to share highlights of my trip to San Francisco, where I attended the 2016 Magic of Memoir conference and spent some time with my son.

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Brooke & Linda Joy

The conference was fabulous, and left me with more than enough inspiration to see me through to the finish line of my current memoir draft. It was hosted and led by She Writes Press co-founder Brooke Warner and National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) founder Linda Joy Myers, who also happens to be my writing coach.

I’ve been working with Linda Joy for well over a year, and I had the chance to meet her in person for the first time. We had lunch together and talked memoir, of course. I was fascinated to hear about behind-the-scenes research she did for her second memoir, Song of the Plains, which will be published in 2017 – a delving into family history that took her to Oklahoma, Iowa, and Scotland. (Linda Joy’s first memoir is Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.)

Linda gave me a whirlwind tour of Berkeley, too, whisking me past Chez Panisse, a restaurant I’ve long admired, and other famous spots like Telegraph Avenue, the UC Berkeley campus, the Campanile, People’s Park, and the Berkeley Hills with their incredible views.

At the conference, I met many other writers who have memoirs in progress, which is one of the most valuable aspects of a conference like this. Memoir writing can be lonely, and it’s tremendously inspiring to meet others making the same journey.

We shared our writing with each other as we worked through the exercises and activities concocted by Brooke and Linda Joy to supplement their excellent instruction on the craft of memoir and developing an effective author platform.

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Several brave souls shared their work in progress during an open mic session hosted by Laurel Bookstore.

 

Brooke and Linda Joy are top-notch, experienced teachers in the art of memoir. Their discussions of memoir craft cover the important elements of theme, scene, narration, characterization, and takeaway. They demonstrate these elements with excerpts and examples from memoir classics, such as H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Duke of Deception by Gregory Wolff, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Also cited were some newer memoirs and others I haven’t yet read that you might want to check out if you enjoy the genre, including Body 2.0 by Krista Haapala, Drinking by Caroline Knapp, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, Dog Medicine by Julie Barton, and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming.

Here, for example, is takeaway – the heart of a good memoir, a big-picture message or moment of shared connection with the reader, from Body 2.0:

“Endurance pain will not relent with change, as indeed this flavor of pain has changed  you. Loved ones may find you unrecognizable. You will see life through different eyes. In fact, endurance pain affords us the incredible opportunity to shed many useless cultural constructs like superficial success, unfulfilling relationships, and external validation.”

To this list I would add another excellent, just-published memoir, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which I wrote about in my last post.

With that, I’m off to write. I plan to finish my draft in conjunction with NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November. Since I’m not working on a novel, I guess that makes me a NaNoWriMo rebel. I’ll see you all back here in December, when I hope to have plenty of books to recommend for holiday giving and receiving.

Do you enjoy reading memoir? If so, can you recommend some of your favorites?

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I stayed in Bernal Heights and made it nearly to the top of Bernal Heights Park, where I was treated to this view of the city.

 

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I love all the colorful, artistic touches.

 

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I explored Golden Gate Park with my son. This is Stowe Lake.

 

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At my airbnb, I found this wonderful surprise, a beautifully designed backyard retreat.

Lab Girl

lab-girl “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”  – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory.”

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Lab Girl is an extraordinary memoir, and Hope Jahren is an important new voice who breaks new ground in literary autobiography. We just don’t hear from enough scientists and researchers, and certainly we don’t hear from enough women in science who have struggled and prevailed at making careers in difficult, often male-dominated fields.

Lab Girl is for the lay person who loves plants, trees, and nature, and for the lay person who thinks plants, trees, and nature are boring and who wants to be dazzled, moved, changed, and reconnected with the holiness and mystery of life.

hopeLab Girl is for women in science and research, and women thinking of careers in science and research. But men in science and research will love the book, too.

Lab Girl is for anyone making a career and building a family in the face of a serious mental illness, and for those who want to better understand people with mental illness.

Lab Girl is for those who care about the environment and climate change, and who want to connect with someone of like mind whose passion and energy are contagious. Because, as Hope says, we won’t have any trees left in six hundred years if we keep on our current path.

Lab Girl is for anyone who has important work to do and wants to be inspired and emboldened by someone not afraid to be different and go her own way.

I have Katie at Doing Dewey to thank for letting me know about this book. I’ve included several passages from the memoir because I couldn’t decide between them. They make me want to read Lab Girl all over again. I’m sure I will, since I’m working on a memoir of my own. For those of you who are memoir writers, this one is both inspiring and a great memoir model.

Women, and men, doing important work in science simply don’t get enough attention in our culture, which is especially saturated by superficial drivel at the moment. Lab Girl is the antidote. When I was a clinical librarian at UR Medicine, I was always impressed and mystified by the grad students and faculty, the women especially, who had lives so different from mine, who spent hours and hours in labs and out in the field researching esoteric topics that had the potential to change lives.

We should know more about them, the important work they are doing, and how they navigate the challenge of carving out rich, fulfilling personal lives as well. There is a deep vein of fascinating life stories in science that appeal to experts and lay people alike, and I hope Lab Girl will inspire many more memoirs of this kind.

The excerpt below is a good example of the organizing metaphor in Lab Girl: the rich and evocative parallels between plant life and human life. Hope alternates between chapters about plant life and her own life, which makes for a satisfying structure:

“Every species on Earth – past or present – from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaur, daisies, trees, people – must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources, and defend itself….It seemed outrageous to hope that fertility, resources, time, desire, and love could all come together in the right way, and yet most women did eventually walk that path.”

Below are a few more quotes. Read the memoir!

“On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.”

The boldface in the next quote is mine; I think it is an important point:

“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.” 

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

“I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.”

Have you read Lab Girl? Do you have memoir favorites to recommend?

Read Harder 2016

Have you heard about Bookriot’s Read Harder Challenge?

I thought it would be interesting to see which books I’ve read in these categories, since Ann Patchett just wrote about her own progress in making her way through the list.

I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, too, so let us know in the comments. Book suggestions are appreciated and welcome, especially for those categories I’ve left blank.

commonwealthBy the way, Ann just released her new novel, Commonwealth. Many of you know she’s one of my favorite novelists, so I’ll be sure to get my hands on it as soon as I can.

True story, when Ann was a girl, one morning she woke up to find kids she didn’t know in the kitchen. Turned out, her mother had gotten remarried, and these were her new half siblings.

Ann has translated some of that strange family experience into a novel that isn’t, literally, a true story, but that I imagine has plenty of emotional truth, as writers of fiction often say about their work.

If you’re looking for other suggestions, check out the New York Public Library’s Read Harder recommendations. See also the reader-generated lists on Goodreads.

If I’ve left the category blank, it means I haven’t read that category and don’t have any particular suggestions. If you do, please let us know.

BOOKRIOT’S READ HARDER CHALLENGE 2016

Read a horror book

Read a nonfiction book about science: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. (I’m reading it now). It has gotten excellent reviews, a memoir about a female scientist. It’s an eye opener, in part about what women in science are (still) up against, but there’s a lot more to this memoir about a woman passionate about plants.

I just borrowed Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson from the library. Nearing the end of his life, Wilson felt compelled to sound the alarm once more. He proposes that we devote half the surface of the earth to nature.

Queen of the Fall book coverRead a collection of essays: Queen of the Fall, by Sonja Livingston; and Why We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran.

Read a book out loud to someone else: The Harry Potter series; The Giver; and Hatchet. Not this year, but when our sons were growing up, these were unforgettable read alouds. Harry Potter is especially captivating read deep in the woods at night when you’re camping.

Read a middle grade novel: see above, none this year for me.

Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography): Charlotte Bronté: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harmon is on my to-read list. See the feminist category below.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroRead a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Find Me, by Laura Van Den Berg. I read everything by Ishiguro. The latter novel by Van Den Berg was well reviewed and is excellent, though it didn’t really speak to me.

Read a book originally published in the decade you were born: I’ve been wanting to re-read Australian Neville Shute’s chilling dystopian novel, On the Beach. His  A Town Like Alice blew me away in 1981 as a 5-hour Masterpiece Theatre production, and I would love to watch it again. (It’s only available on VHS.) I don’t believe I ever read the book.

Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award: 

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. OK, I haven’t read this book or even listened to it, but I gave it as a gift to a friend who loves Teddy Roosevelt. It won an Audie in 2015 for the best History/Biography category. This would qualify for the over 500 pages category, too, which is reason enough to listen to the audio version. I should read this or listen to it, considering that I believe journalism today is in a sorry state.

There is an Audie Classic Category, which I didn’t know about but just may entice me to finally start listening to audio books. Here’s a suggestion that sounds intriguing, also an Audie award winner: The New York Stories by John O’Hara.

I will try audio books soon, but I resist them. I don’t want to constantly fill my head with media, I need plenty of silence to think and to let my own writing germinate.

I’ve read and hear often that print books will disappear. Some people announce this with a great deal of glee, and I don’t understand why. Can we have both? Why does it seem to make some people happy that print books may disappear?

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverRead a book over 500 pages long: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I’m counting this as a long read, even though there are four in the series. Had a great discussion about these books in a book club attended by many Italian-American women. One day I’ll read her other novels, which I’ve heard are rather devastating.

Read a book under 100 pages: Tribeby Sebastian Junger. (130 pages, close enough)

Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorites. Read this a few years back, superb.

Read a book that is set in the Middle East

Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia

To the Bright EdgeRead a book of historical fiction set before 1900: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eown Ivey; De Potter’s Grand Tour, by Joanna Scott.

Read the first book in a series by a person of color: Not a series, but this year I read and loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. 

Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years: This book is older than three years–I picked up Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, but didn’t finish it. I may get back to it someday. It’s becoming a classic.

Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better:

I did see the movie, Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, but didn’t read the book, don’t plan to. The movie was pretty good, mostly because of the acting, otherwise predictable.

I also saw this year the movie Carol based on the novel, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. I thought it was excellent, haven’t read the novel. I was flabbergasted when someone I know said the main character in the movie was a predator. That is not how I interpreted the character in this movie about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s. I saw her as sympathetic. If anyone else has seen the movie and can comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I felt the predator comment revealed perhaps unconscious LGTBQ bias; but then again, Highsmith’s novels have disturbing characters. Perhaps the actual novel was darker, and some of that came through in the movie?

Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes:

My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem is a big bio this year, though I haven’t read it. I HAVE read, this year, and in the case of Bronté’s novel, many years in the past:  Jane Eyre’s Sisters, by Jody Gentian Bower and Jane Eyre. These, because my memoir has a Jane Eyre theme. Last year I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Fabulous.

Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction): After Buddhism, by Stephen Batchelor. (On my to-read list)

67 ShotsRead a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction): 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard MeansThis one is personally meaningful.

Read a food memoir: On my to-read list is Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen. Classics I love are Laurie Colwin’s food memoirs. Elizabeth David was a superb food writer, though her books aren’t really memoirs. Ruth Reichl has come out with a new food memoir this year that I haven’t read, My Kitchen Life: 136 Recipes that Changed My Life.

Read a play

Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness:  A Common Struggle, by Patrick J. Kennedy. This is a memoir. I also read the riveting memoir, A Mother’s Reckoning. The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes is fiction, and it’s absolutely great.

Here’s a smidgen of The Masterpiece Theatre version of A Town Like Alice.

Have you read any books in these categories, or do you have any suggestions? Are you following the Read Harder challenge? Let us know in the comments.

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