Tag: Bios / Memoirs

by Raynor Winn

After their long hike on the South West Coast Path, the author and her husband finally settled. No longer homeless, but not completely at ease. First they lived in a small apartment behind a church, where Raynor did research into his illness and started writing, while her husband attended university, working towards a degree. He struggled constantly with worsening symptoms, while she had her own issues with anxiety at being around so many other people after their long walk mainly in solitude on the path. The success of her first book’s printing was encouraging and brought them some much-needed income, but it was also stressful for her to deal with the public events and travel for book signings. Well, then someone local who read their book offers them another place to stay- on a farm that had been run into the ground and neglected. They’re supposed to restore it, and do work hard at that. It’s just starting to show signs of recovery when they decide to go on another long walk with two friends- in the barren and difficult landscape of Iceland. I didn’t realize how many volcanoes Iceland has- or at least, in the area where they hiked. This part of the book was a lot more like the previous one- focused on the rigors of the hike, interactions with people on the trail- in this case much younger fellow hikers who seemed to scorn them for their age- and remarkably, another visible improvement in her husband’s condition. The scholarly lifestyle he lead at university apparently was bad for his health, whereas the intense physical exercise on the steep paths soon had him limber and full of energy again. Still no explanation. But convinced by the results, they return to the farm ready to dive into outdoor work again.

It does have a lot more than I’m letting on here- musings on assumptions of strangers, interesting little exchanges, signs of the wildlife on the farm returning, incredible almost surreal landscape in Iceland, where the world seems to be continually coming into being. Also many segments about pieces of their lives from the past, and a very touching, sometimes hard-to-read piece in the beginning on her mother’s death in a hospital where she had to make difficult decisions for her care (which made me think of this book a lot). Somehow it all didn’t feel as intense as The Salt Path, or I’ve just been too busy this past week and a bit distracted from reading. I liked it, I just didn’t feel quite as deeply moved.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278 pages, 2020

by Raynor Winn

This couple was dealt a double blow in their fifties. After raising their children in a farmhouse they’d renovated themselves, they lost it all due to a bad investment with a so-called friend who turned out to be a bad business partner. House taken away, no livelihood, nowhere to go. All their attempts to find a place they could afford to rent with the little money they had left, failed. Public assistance was not really helpful, and the generosity of friends/family letting them stay wore thin quickly. Then in the same month, the husband was diagnosed with a serious neurological disease. He was told to rest and take it easy, but since they had no home, they decided to just take a long hike, on the South West Coast Path of England, from Somerset to Dorset, all of 630 miles. With two packs, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, not much else. So reminiscent of a few books I’ve read about hikers on the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and I also thought many times of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Though this book is really nothing like those. It’s so individual. It was tough. It was wild and beautiful, and the people they ran into were friendly or aggravating, encouraging or unkind in turns. Some just downright odd. They could barely afford food (often went hungry or picked berries, collected mussels on the shore, etc) and rarely pay for a proper campsite, so very soon were dirty and ragged. Fellow backpackers commiserated, but other people they encountered- usually tourists as many of the villages they passed through had long since lost their original occupations of fishing or mining and were now just surviving as tourist attractions- reacted to their appearance in one of two ways. If they said they’d left it all behind and were just walking the path- letting people assume they’d sold their house- they were admired for doing something inspiring. If they honestly said they’d lost it all and were actually homeless, people were immediately uncomfortable or disparaging. If it was by choice they were brave, whereas if by accident, they were pariahs. Why are people so judgmental. I’m sure their version of being homeless- not due to addiction or mental illness but just plain misfortune- is not all that uncommon.

It was a pleasant surprise that I’m vaguely familiar with some of the places they walked through (geography of foreign countries is not a strength of mine). They went through the village where Doc Martin was filmed, along the cliffsides where Poldark was situated, and also Tintagel- site of many King Arthur legends. Also very strange but in the end amusing, was how many people mistook her husband for a poet (apparently famous, but I’d never heard of him). It got to be a running joke between them.

I liked the author’s voice, and look forward to reading her sequel, The Wild Silence. I enjoyed the bits of humor, the interesting encounters along the way, glimpses of wildlife (birds, deer, seals, occasionally a badger), and thoughtful words. Although they’d anticipated the long hike would be a time to figure things out (facing her husband’s illness, grieving the loss of their home, what to do next) for the most part she said they spoke little, reminisced hardly at all, just were. Just surviving. Experiencing the weather, the difficulty of putting one foot in front of the other when tired, hungry and footsore. Finding to their surprise that her husband’s condition improved with the exercise, in counter to the doctor’s advice- I’d really like an explanation for that! And I’m glad that it had a good ending. Just as suddenly as their world fell apart at the beginning of the book, a few things suddenly came together at the end of their hike to put them back in the functional world again. Though- did they want it, now?

Some quotes:

But on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.

After meeting a man who was going blind from glaucoma:

The light grew, prizing the sky and the sea apart. Had I seen enough things? When I could no longer see them, would I remember them, and would just the memory be enough to fill me up and make me whole? 

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
271 pages, 2018

More opinions:
Book Chase
Read Warbler

A True Story of Love, War and Survival

by Amra Sabic- El-Rayess

Amra was a teenager living in Bihać when the Bosnian war began. She first noticed things were shifting when a close friend refused to speak to her- because Amra’s family was ethnically Muslim. Though they didn’t follow religious practices they were soon persecuted along with all the other Muslims in her city. It was under seige for years- bombs fell regularly, innocent people were shot in the street by snipers, and worse. Just a few pages in you get a sense of what reading this is going to be like- the author doesn’t hesitate to tell you the horrible things soldiers said to a young girl, her fears of being captured, of rape or torture. Her family lived in constant apprehension and suffering, as electricity was cut off, food in short supply, and soon little or no medical care available. She often thought they would simply not survive. Sometimes they had to do difficult things, to stay alive. Other times they stood their ground refusing to give in to inhumanity and maintain some integrity.

But her story is also one of hope, as they pulled together with neighbors and family members to find ways to keep going- growing vegetables in abandoned lots, bartering for goods, tutoring younger children who had no teachers, assisting in the war effort when they could. It was traumatic- there were days she couldn’t get out of bed, and not just from lack of energy because they were starving. She saw terrible things on the streets, and narrowly missed death more than once- attributing a lot of her lucky moments to the presence of a calico cat. It showed up as a stray one day and soon became part of the family (though her parents protested at first). Many times through the war, something happened involving the cat that saved their lives- coincidence or not. And its friendly calm presence definitely helped soothe their nerves and warm their hearts. Sadly, the cat also was a source of trouble later on, and Amra was heartbroken when they faced the possibility of loosing her. The cat proved her loyalty to them again and again, even under great duress.

You know that Amra makes it through all the horrors of war and privation, because this book is based on the author’s own experiences, but it’s harrowing to read of all the losses she witnessed and experienced. She fell in love for the first time during the war, too. There are tender moments, and funny ones, and plenty of teenagers just being regular teenagers, even in such circumstances. Eventually Amra got a remarkable opportunity to leave the country via a scholarship, and was able to start building a new life elsewhere. Her story is told in a plain, straightforward style- which might be dull in other cases, but here I appreciated it, as more detail would have been difficult to read. This line from the book has stuck with me: War does not leave anyone with good choices.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
370 pages, 2020

An African Journey Home

by Boyd Varty

Author tells of growing up in South Africa, on a wildlife reserve his family established. The land was originally bought from farmers that degraded it, and earlier generations had then used it for hunting. Boyd’s parents wanted to restore the land to bring back wildlife and run tourist safaris. At the time this was a new idea and they struggled to make it work. His heartfelt memoir tells what it was like growing up in such a place- surrounded by wildlife, baboons and warthogs on the lawn, going on drives with his crazy uncle to make wildlife films, learning tracking skills from local men and frequently running into lions, leopards, elephants, etc. Many narrow escapes (on rivers, in small aircraft, deadly snakes, crocodiles, you name it) and a healthy respect for the wild animals. Humorous stories about their visitors- lots of ordinary people and occasionally someone famous, once even member of royalty. He met Nelson Mandela as a young boy (and didn’t realize the significance of that until much later). Tells about his family, his stays at boarding school (frustrating as so completely different from life in the bush) and above all, how the lessons he learned from the land stood him well later on: to stay calm in a dangerous situation, to always have an escape route in mind, to study things carefully and make calculated decisions. Later he tells of grief and terror his family went through- especially an incident when they lived in Johannesburg, had their lives threatened and sense of security violated. It took him years to get over the trauma of that night, and he travelled widely across the world seeking out gurus in India, a shaman, various kinds of healers, and finally a Navajo sweat lodge in Arizona (often honestly skeptical about how these things would help). In the end, he returned home to his family’s reserve in Africa, finding his place where he had always belonged, settling the fear and stress out of his mind. The final chapters of the book explore spirituality quite a bit, but never veer far from the solace he felt rooted in nature.

I enjoyed this book so much. Incredible stories, amazing surroundings, riveting wild animals, a quirky family. Above all one young man’s search for meaning and sense of self, when tragedy and violence strain his equilibrium. It was at turns exciting, funny, and very thoughtful. He mentions meeting Peter Beard! and of differences of opinion with a nearby reserve that held elephants (I felt sure I’d read a book about Kruger National Park but couldn’t place it). Near the end he also tells of meeting Martha Beck, which took me completely by surprise. I was reminded of many other books I’ve read about Africa, or wildlife conservation: The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

I do have to note, one part made me feel put off- when he mentions going to Australia and how he’d been reading this book with his teacher and his sister. And how they absorbed the message of “the Aboriginal Australians’ plea to save the planet.” Well, I admired that book’s idea of harmony with nature too, but was upset to discover it was actually fiction. Dismayed to see it praised here. I assume he didn’t know.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
281 pages, 2014

by Raina Telgemeier

Very fun book- even though it also deals with some tough stuff about growing up. Based on the author’s childhood. Most of the story is about a long roadtrip she took with her family, how the sisters constantly annoyed each other. Then there’s bits of the past- showing how eager she was for a baby sister when she was little, and how differently that turned out (babies are no fun, toddlers are frustrating and annoying, they have different interests as they get older, etc). I was really amused by their various efforts to keep small pets- when I was a kid, we went through several goldfish that lived in a bowl, too (but no, they’re not ‘delicate’, it’s an very unsuitable habitat, ugh). I could really relate to all the ups and downs of getting along (or not, more often) with siblings- both from when I was young, and from seeing how my own kids interact. Long road trips trying to stave off boredom and irritating each other unintentionally- yeah, been there too. Even the places they visited on their trip were really familiar to me (Utah, Arizona, Colorado) and the little camping episodes too. In the end, the sisters find a reason to pull together and realize their family has bigger problems than their little squabbles. This is another one I will eagerly hand to my daughter (she recently read and really liked Be Prepared).

Borrowed from the public library. Can’t believe I never read any Raina Telgemeier before- I am immediately off to check what others my library has to offer.

Rating: 4/5
203 pages, 2014

by David Small

Another I won’t easily forget. So fraught and vivid with imagery. Love the way this artist handles line and expressions, I read several parts all over again after finishing. But- the coldness. It’s beyond depressing: growing up in a tough household, not like the last, but tough with bitterness handed down from prior generations, with physical punishments, harsh words, unspoken resentments. Meager meals, unloving hands, and an x-ray technician father who turns the machine on his own son hoping to cure his ailments, only to (probably) give him cancer. The boy needed surgery on his throat when he was a teenager, leaving him unable to speak for a long time afterwards. He plunged himself into his artwork (some of the drawings depict this quite literally). I was absolutely appalled when his mother burned his books (I don’t care for Lolita myself, but I wonder what else was in his collection). I was alternately saddened and horrified all through this book, but couldn’t look away. You really ache after reading this one. It’s another showing how the author practically clawed his way out of a bad situation (leaving home at sixteen), found his place at art school, made a better life for himself. Hard to believe he went through all that, and was able to rise above it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5
334 pages, 2009

by Jarrett Krosoczka

Another graphic novel memoir. This one very sobering. The author grew up in his grandparents’ home, because his mother was in and out of rehab (and jail) due to a heroin addiction. How different he felt at school, because of his unconventional family structure. His grandparents themselves were rough around the edges, but loved him and did their best to care for him. They had little appreciation for art, but still encouraged his interests, getting him into art classes at a local museum when funding for art programs was cut at his school. With their support, and that of a neighborhood friend, he made it through a tough childhood, not understanding or knowing what was going on with his mother until he was much older (she did encourage him from afar, sending letters asking for his drawings, etc). Never meeting his father until he was seventeen. At the very end of the book finding recognition for his art- getting cartoons published in the local newspaper and the school one. Then meeting half-siblings he hadn’t known he had, and starting his own life. The afterword by the author fills in some details and tells how he found the courage to tell the story of his family’s struggles with addiction, after doing a TED talk about it. It was heartwarming in the end, to see how he built a relationship with his half-siblings, made peace with his father, and a successful career out of his passion- but the novel doesn’t at all shy away from showing the troublesome and difficult things he faced while growing up. So just fair warning that there’s content depicting drug and alcohol use, other illicit activities, violence. I am sure this book is invaluable for teenagers and other family members going through similar things. To know they’re not alone, and that you can make something new and positive for yourself, no matter what your past holds. I won’t easily forget this one.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
320 pages, 2018

More opinions:
YA Book Nerd
anyone else?

Nine Months of Careful Chaos

by Lucy Knisley

Soon after getting married, Knisley wanted to have a child. Getting pregnant was difficult for her- she suffered two miscarriages then a severe bout of depression, and illnesses that doctors dismissed or failed to recognize the symptoms. After surgery to correct something, she was able to carry a child to term- but had more illness along the way, ups and downs of emotions, and then finally a very frightening birth experience with some serious complications. The ending had me biting my nails, even though I knew she would be okay and have a healthy baby boy. Throughout the story she not only shares with candid honesty her feelings (often negative or uncertain) and reactions to things, but debunks some myths surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, and shares bits of information on the history of women’s health that she learned. Her friends and family were amazingly supportive, and some of the scenes near the end of the book where her husband shared his part of the story- waiting to know if his wife was still alive- had me almost in tears. Then there’s a brief section about difficulties learning to breastfeed, the exhaustion of having a newborn in the house, and the joys too. Some of this memoir was tough to read- and I might caution any expectant mothers because the birth story was traumatic- but also delightful in parts, with her usual humor and fun drawing style. If she writes another graphic novel about new motherhood and her son’s early years, I’ll look forward to reading that.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
248 pages, 2019

Tales from a Makeshift Bride

by Lucy Knisley

I didn’t think I’d really be interested in reading a book about a wedding, even though it’s a graphic novel. But this one was on my TBR, and I did like a previous book I enjoyed by the author, so I tried it. While some parts really got into the minutiae of things that didn’t interest me as much (the history of wedding traditions, her rants about marketing ploys and expenses) most of it was so down-to-earth, honest and funny I laughed my way through, alternately nodding my head, or chuckling in disbelief. It’s a very personal story that’s also easy to relate to- trying on tons of fancy dresses you don’t really like and can’t afford to buy, headaches about seating charts and agreements with her family on small details, fretting over mishaps and late arrivals of needed items, etc. Tells how she first met and dated her husband, and the entire year of planning that went into creating a wedding that included enough of the traditions she felt were meaningful to them, while forging their own way with other aspects of their special day. Including how many things she made by hand! Pretty impressive. Plenty of pages that seem to be offering advice to other brides-to-be who might want tips on planning a wedding within a reasonable budget. I shared a few pages of this with my ten-year-old, who is also very far from any need to plan a wedding! but found it humorous as well. I think she liked seeing that there’s also adults who are annoyed at the lack of pockets in clothing for women, or can loose hours of sleep over worrying about disasters that are unlikely to happen. Next up on my reading pile: Knisley’s graphic memoir about having her first baby.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
304 pages, 2016

by Tillie Walden

Memoir about the author’s childhood, when she was immersed in the world of midlevel competitive figure skating. She got up at four a.m. for practice at one rink, and directly after school went to another to do synchronized skating with a team. She details the rigorous training, long hours, performance stress, the meanness of other girls who saw her as a threat, the way judges expected young girls to look very feminine, which made her uncomfortable. Gradually as the narrative unfolds she tells about why she really became a skater in the first place, and how as the years go on she realizes it’s not her main interest anymore, although she still loves the feeling of being on the ice, the freedom of motion, the thrill of getting a difficult move right, or passing a test. The competitions were another thing altogether. Especially tough since it seems she had little parental support- they drove her to practice and that was about it. Not a lot of explanation why her parents were so distant.

Also relates how she knew she was lesbian from a young age, but was afraid to let anyone know, and when she finally came out as a preteen, the varied and sometimes troublesome reactions of those around her. Falling in love for the first time and then loosing that friendship painfully. Realizing perhaps she enjoyed art or even her cello playing more than the demands of skating- and the solace she found in understanding and kindness from her cello instructor. (Although there was a gap there- a page where she was talking hesitantly about when a tutor attempted to assault her and the teacher asked what happened and the next page switches scenes- did she tell her teacher about it? or not?). There’s also a move to a different state where, in a manner that baffles me, she found that all the skating moves had different names! and the training didn’t seem to be taken as seriously. And a bully she has to deal with in school. And so much more. Skating is a main part of the story because it consumed her life for so many years, but it’s really mostly about finding herself- and a big part of that was finally realizing she didn’t want to be a skater anymore. She’d miss parts of it, but felt so much better when she abruptly left it behind. I know what that’s like, in a way. The artwork in this book wasn’t as compelling for me- I sometimes had trouble telling the faces apart, or reading expressions, but the story has so much to give I didn’t mind.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
396 pages, 2017

More opinions: Finding Wonderland
anyone else?


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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