The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

Handmaid's Tale

“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?

AtwoodAutograph

“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 Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly

The Monarch

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”   Margaret Mead

 

“The tag on that little butterfly sent me off on a journey of my own – one that would over and over again astound me at the miracle of it, the wonder of nature, the tenacity of living things. Over the next ten years I would continue to add to my knowledge and experience about something that had been going on for centuries, with a part of it still taking place right in my own backyard.”  The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, by Kylee Baumle

 

I had no idea monarch butterflies were so fascinating. I didn’t know there are such things as Certified Monarch Waystations and that I could easily create one myself, or that I could monitor monarch butterflies as a citizen scientist. I didn’t know there was a Beautiful Monarch Facebook group with 11,000 members. (As of this writing, I’m one of their newest.)

My favorite nature and gardening publisher, St. Lynn’s Press, kindly sent me a review copy of their new book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, by Kylee Baumle. I thought this would be the perfect time to feature it on Books Can Save a Life in honor of the People’s Climate March this weekend in cities around the world.

Kylee Baumle – a citizen scientist, lifelong gardener, blogger (Our Little Acre), and columnist for Ohio Gardener magazine – has written a beautiful book about the monarch butterfly, its perils, and what we can do to help make sure this magnificent creature is still here generations from now.

The author begins by telling a personal story about a monarch encounter that involves miraculous detective work and speaks volumes about her passion for this threatened creature. She follows up with fascinating chapters about monarch biology that focus on the miracles of its five-stages of development and nearly unbelievable cross-country migration.

“The monarch’s migration is extraordinary; there is none like it in the butterfly world. Think of it: A butterfly born in Canada or the U.S. begins an epic journey of up to 2900 miles south to a place they’ve never been before – a very specific place, where their great-great-grandparents went the year before, but never the other generations between them.”

(Baumle tells us that the winter location of the migrating monarchs was unknown until 1975. Now we know they overwinter in the oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Belt mountains in central Mexico. This location was first shared with the world in the August 1976 issue of National Geographic. Read more about the discovery here.)

 

IMG_4476.JPG

“The final generation of monarchs in late summer and early fall are called the Methuselah generation. Why Methuselah? The name is borrowed from the Bible, in which Methuselah was said to have lived for 969 years, much longer than his contemporaries. Migrating monarchs live five to eight times as long as their parents and grandparents.”

 

You don’t have to be an expert gardener – or a gardener at all – to enjoy The Monarch and find inspiration to become involved in its preservation. Baumle has carefully and thoroughly presented the most up-to-date research about the monarch, and she’s included a range of easy, fun activities that will appeal to all ages. This is an excellent book for the lay person as well as for teachers and students, young and not-so-young.

 

 

IMG_4479

Here are some things you can do to honor and help save the monarch butterfly: 1. Become a Citizen Scientist (8 programs are listed in this book.) 2. Create a Monarch Waystation with milkweed and other plants to attract and nourish monarchs. 3. Make a butterfly watering station. 4. Raise a monarch in your home. 5. Tag a migrating monarch. 6. Get a grant to plant a school garden. Several grant sponsors are listed in this book.

 

I admire St. Lynn’s Press for publishing books that encourage us to savor and preserve the natural world. They have an impressive backlist of gardening and nature titles, and they’ve done it again with The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. Kylee Baumle’s love for the monarch and enthusiasm for spreading the word is contagious.

 

IMG_4477

” A group of butterflies goes by several names. ‘Kaleidoscope’ is my favorite, but others have used the terms ‘swarm’ and ‘rabble.’ Take your pick.”

 

 

 

IMG_4480.JPG

“Where have all the butterflies gone? It’s a question I hear being asked quite a bit these days.”

 

For more about Danaus Plexippus (the monarch butterfly) and how you can get involved, here are excellent websites listed in The Monarch:

Make Way for Monarchs

Journey North: A Global Study of Wildlife Migration and Seasonal Change

Monarch Joint Venture

Monarch Watch

Monarch Butterfly Garden

Monarch Lab

Xerces Society

 

IMG_4469

“There aren’t many such widespread issues whose directions can be changed by ordinary people like you and me, or in which people truly believe that anything they do will have any measurable effect. But reversing the decline in the number of monarchs is one where we really can make a difference.”

 

Flight BehaviorIf you would like to read a great work of eco-fiction about the migration of butterflies, follow up your reading of The Monarch with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I wrote about it on my blog a few years ago.

“No one is an environmentalist by birth. It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you.”  Yann Arthur Bertrand, photographer and creator of the book Earth from Above and the film Home.

If you plan to participate in one of the climate marches this weekend, happy marching!

 

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”     
Wendell Berry, Our Only World

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.

I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.

I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.

For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.

He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.

Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)

There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:

“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”

“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:

“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….

….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”

A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.

The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.

*****

By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?

Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?

The Shepherd’s Life

The Shepherd's Life.jpg

 

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?

On enemies of the people, William Stafford, and writing

DailyWritingMuses

I was not happy when the President tweeted that our nation’s news media is the enemy of the people.

AmericanaseriesI am not a practicing enemy of the people, but as an undergraduate, my minor area of study was how to be an enemy of the people. I liked it so much I studied it in grad school, too. I have a brother whose previous job at a major newspaper was to help oversee the printing of work by enemies of the people for distribution to an entire city. When I was a librarian, my colleagues and I taught how to tell the difference between authentic enemies of the people and fake enemies of the people.

Given the President’s careless and disrespectful words, it was a comfort to be taking an online class with like-minded people, “Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford,” taught by his son, poet and essayist Kim Stafford.

A poet and pacifist, William Stafford was amazingly prolific, having written some 22,000 poems during his lifetime.

WilliamStaffordHe had an early morning writing practice, and he never missed a day. Kim Stafford introduced us to his father’s writing process, gleaned from the stacks of journals William Stafford left behind. Kim encouraged us to relax into our writing, to be seekers as William Stafford was, to experiment and explore.

Our only requirement in this five-week class was to maintain a daily writing practice and share one day’s unedited writing with the class once a week. As you can imagine, the daily post-election drama weighed heavily on many of us and showed up often in our writing.

I chose not to work on my memoir during the 30 – 60 minute daily writing practice I began in connection with this class. Kim Stafford believes that, though writing can be hard work, it can be a pleasure, too, something to look forward to. When the writing isn’t easy, Kim looks for ways to make it more easeful. Since working on the memoir is goal-driven and often difficult or stressful, I decided to see if I could make my early morning writing time something separate and satisfying.

It did become that, and I now have the beginnings of several writing projects that I could develop further if I choose to:

  • An essay on whether the President has a mental illness, drawing on my experience of mental illness in the family
  • an essay on dystopias – whether we’re in one now and how each of us is a kind of “hero” character with a role to play
  • a personal essay in which I remember a disastrous first-grade art class and contrast it with a watercolor class I’m taking now, my first art class in decades
  • a sample first entry for my next book project, in which I observe, moment by moment, the sunrise outside my window.

I met some wonderful people, writers of all levels, including: a poet who is also a traditional letterpress printer and bookbinder in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains; a professor of psychology and education with a background similar to my own (she also had a mother with schizophrenia) who developed a psychological tool to measure levels of humiliation that is used around the world; and another poet whose dream is to establish a retreat for artists and writers at her home on Whidbey Island.

If you are a writer and would like to know more about Kim Stafford’s approach to writing, you might enjoy his book of essays, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and the Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. My copy is marked up with several favorite passages.

This quote is on the Northwest Writing Institute website:

“The problems of our time are political, ecological, economic—but the solutions are cultural. How do people speak their truth? How do we listen eloquently? If communication is the fundamental alternative to violence and injustice, what is the work of each voice among us?”  Kim Stafford

For a time, twenty of us enjoyed communally “the daily bread of language,” as my new poet/printer friend would say.

Here is a link to William Stafford reading “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

You might enjoy these wise words:

 

It just so happened that at the close of our class, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Natural and Built Environment featured a fascinating interview with the Stafford family, “Talking Recklessly.”

FullSizeRender

A poem by printer Emily Hancock of St. Brigid Press. Emily refers to “the daily bread of language,” and that is what we enjoyed in Kim Stafford’s class.

IMG_4245

Visit the St. Brigid Press website, where you’ll see stunning photos of hand-set type, hand-carved illustrations, foot-powered presses, and hand-sewn books. If you frequently contact your representatives, consider ordering “The People’s Post Cards.” And be sure to see “This Is a Printing Office.”

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.

 

oregon-trail

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

taughfalls

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?

IMG_1522.JPG

Another view, by M. Hallinan

IMG_4036.JPG

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

IMG_4024.JPG

A village near Lake of the Coheeries

2016 Favorite Books & Posts

img_4093

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!

Canoe.jpg

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

 

Homefortheholidays.jpg

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

The Magic of Memoir

sanfran-treasures

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.

brookelinda

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.

readingmemoir

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?

SanFran.jpg

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.

 

BernalHeightsLibrary.jpg

I love all the colorful, artistic touches.

 

GoldenGatePark.jpg

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

 

Buddha.jpg

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

%d bloggers like this: