Tag: Bios / Memoirs

A Dog and His People

by Rick Bragg

By the same author as All Over But the Shoutin’. Which I had forgotten about, but reminded myself of via my own review, and now I feel this one rounds the other out nicely. It’s kind of a memoir, mostly focused on the dog. The author lived with his mother and brother on a small farm, in his older age. Struggling with some health issues, just getting through each day and keeping the place more or less running. They took in a stray dog that had lots of problems. Half blind, loved to chase everything, always getting into all kinds of trouble. Author would tell everyone what a bad dog he was, worst dog he’d ever have. Never minded unless he had his own reasons too, that dog. At the beginning you get a sense they wondered why they bothered to keep him around. Then they started to tolerate his ways, quit expecting him to change (though he did mellow some after finally being neutered). And at the end, you get a sense that this phrase “he’s a bad dog” was said with pride, and even fondness. The dog really behaved awfully, but he needed a home after living rough for who-knows how long, and when he saw it was good here, he stuck by his people. Just sitting companionably on the porch when someone was too unwell to do much more than sit and gaze down the driveway. He spent hours in the house (though usually preferred being outside) being near his elderly mother, an ear to all her stories when she lost family during Covid. When folks needed him, the dog was there. I didn’t realize how recent this book was, how current to times, until I read about their fears of Covid, struggles with lockdown, grief that went unattenuated- no funerals or family gatherings to honor someone’s passing. That made it very much more real to me, but also kind of eerie, as I don’t often read books that echo so soon something I’ve gone through. (I didn’t loose any family members during Covid, but other aspects of that story, I could relate to).

It’s not all sad though, not by a long shot. There’s wry commentary and quiet moments and lots of humor, especially at the dog’s misbehavior. I think my favorite part was when the dog tried to herd kittens in the barn- the episode included a large paper sack- and I was laughing so hard. This author is a really good storyteller. I ought to read more of his work.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
238 pages, 2021

by Ellen Stimson

I thought this book would be something like Dirty Chick– but it wasn’t. Similarity: it’s about a family that decided to move to their favorite vacation spot, putting down new roots in northern Vermont. From city to rural area, with all the adjustments that takes. Everything else is different. This book isn’t nearly as funny as it wants to be, and a lot of it just rubbed me the wrong way. It doesn’t help that the author’s personality is the complete opposite of mine- though I can often like reading varied points of view. But the focus was all wrong here. Or at least, what the author thought readers would find interesting, funny and endearing, just had me shaking my head or cringing. Rather like my reaction to A Dog Called Perth. Let’s keep this painful thing short: I was expecting to read about the author’s attempt to embrace a rural lifestyle: raising chickens, chasing wayward goats, dealing with the weather, etc. And it is, but only in small bits. The best parts are mentioned in the blurbs, front jacket flap and intro- so there’s not much else to get to inside the pages. There’s an encounter with a bear, a fight with a skunk, the adopting of two bottle-fed lambs which ends awkwardly (they had no plans what to do when it grew up). There’s effusive descriptions of the scenery and the changing seasons- and that’s about it.

Most of the book is about their misguided attempts to run a local general store, their poor business decisions, their excitable plans that never quite turn out, and exactly how they made such a poor impression on all the locals. It’s the kind of book where the author obviously wants you to laugh along with her, at her (with plenty of oddly-placed footnotes tongue-in-cheek explaining that), but I didn’t. I got tired of reading about mismanaged money and ditching this attempt to start another before she’d even got the store off their hands. In the end I was skimming pages. There’s recipes in the back- they all sound delicious but also very dense and rich (I probably won’t try any). It is very readable, though. A light, breezy conversational style that you can get through quickly. Just not at all my cup of tea.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5

by Liza Ketchum

A nice, quiet, reflective little book. I thought momentarily from the title that the focus would be the garden the author planted in what she felt were her final years- but really, it glances back to many different gardens she had throughout her life. From ones she barely participated in as a child, to those of family members and neighbors she visited, but mostly the gardens she planted and tended in various homes she lived in through her adult years. Each chapter has a loose focus on a certain plant or flower, telling what it meant to her, what family member or friend it reminds her of, how cuttings or shoots of it were handed down through the family or among gardening friends. I expected to glean little bits of gardening advice and lore, but what more I picked up on was the closeness of family among many moves and restarts, new beginnings all over again. The comfort that came in growing things from the soil, that familiar work with hands in the dirt. Simply joys in seeing birds and butterflies visit her plants, reassurance in knowing she’d done some good to support the natural world, when all else around might seem to be falling apart with misuse, pollution and global warming. I felt a bit distracted throughout, not always following closely who the various people she spoke of were, and missing more depth and detail about the actual gardens (I could well have read this book were it twice as long)- but for what it was, very nice. The finely drawn, black-and-white illustrations by Bobbi Angell are lovely.

I received my copy from LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5
179 pages, 2020

by Peter Boal

Memoir from a dancer with the New York City Ballet. From an affluent family that lived in a mansion, sent their kids to private school, owned horses, belong to an exclusive Club, etc. Insider story about what it was like to grow up in those circumstances. A lot of it sounded pretty posh to me, but yes there were struggles and kids teasing each other and an argumentative, dysfuncational family and a father with alcoholism that only got more severe as the years went on. The author describes how his family was always a fan of the ballet, and took him to see performances at a young age, and he was so enthralled, turned to his parents and said: that’s what I want to do. And he did it. Starting at twelve. Taking the train into the city for ballet lessons after classes all through middle school, traveling with the company half of his high school years! Sounds like he had a natural talent, strength and flexibility- almost immediately singled out by instructors and mentors. I don’t know a lot about ballet (having only read a few fictional accounts of children in classes) so I was hoping for more, but feel like I just got the bare bones. All the ballet stuff was sketched over, or breezed through with technical terms I couldn’t follow, frequently mentioning big names, how he met certain people, how much he admired them- but not a lot of the details that get a reader to really sink into a story. Really more of the narrative was about his family life, travels, incidents and politics in his hometown. I did admire his family’s stance on certain things, and liked the stories from his childhood, but going into this book thinking it was mostly about the ballet, it came across as a disappointment.

Also a tad disjointed- it skips around quite a bit. More or less chronological, but then events fall out of order again. You’ve read all through his childhood and teen years into adult, and then suddenly the last few chapters tell about the pony he had as a kid, and how his sister got into competitive riding. I realized why when I read the acknowledgements at the end- seems like much of this book was originally written as short stories, which he then pieced together. So that makes sense to me now, but when I was reading it before knowing that, it kept throwing me off. Another thing that baffled me, was reading about how as a young man he first realized he was gay, about his first lover who became very ill, and another man he was with after that- and then suddenly at the end of the book it mentions his wife and children. What? I was very confused- there’s not even a brief sentence of explanation. Probably it’s too personal to be included, but I admit I was taken aback and can’t help wondering what changed. It’s the one thing that keeps turning over in my mind on finishing the book, and it wasn’t the most interesting part of his story.

I received my copy from the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5
318 pages, 2022

by Peter Jenkins

The title is a bit of a misnomer, because he doesn’t go all the way across the country, just from his home in Connecticut to New Orleans. Which is plenty far enough! But I thought the map look awfully truncated, and when getting close to the end of the book I realized this was just the first half of his trip. (There’s a second book that details the rest of his journey). Young man in the seventies, disillusioned with life and especially his own country, decided he better get out and see a good part of it, before giving up and leaving (to become an expat I think). Accompanied only by his beloved dog, he walked all that way, stopping at various small towns to find jobs when he needed funds to keep going. He worked in a sawmill in North Carolina, did farm labor in a Tennessee commune, shoveled out horse stalls on a Alabama farm, among other things. He camped where he could in a tent (which the dog usually torn down the next morning in his exuberance, ha), but often just stayed with people who warmly invited him in- sometimes for weeks on end. He lived with an old mountain man in a remote cabin in Virginia, walked part of the Appalachian trail, and got run out of more than one small town because the locals were suspicious of a long-haired looking stranger who looked like a disreputable hippie. (I know this isn’t in order). It was interesting. Especially the section where he lived with a poor black family for so long, he almost forgot he was the only fair-skinned person among them. Or the time he ended up at a seminary in a dorm room with space to write, feeling completely out of place but then falling in love with a girl the first time he saw her (end of the book). I liked reading about the characters he met, the small incidents of travel, the stories that honest hardworking people shared with him, how they lived their lives. But a big part of the book was also about his search for spirtuality (although he didn’t seem to realize he was seeking it)- attending Methodist church in small communities, going to a huge revival in Alabama, listening to the rambling commune leader preach. All that a bit tiresome to me, personally- I would have rather read more about the people he met, the wildlife he must have seen, even the weather. His personal take on a personal journey.

Note: don’t be like me, and look through all the photos in the book before reading it. You’ll give yourself a very BIG and SAD SPOILER.

Rating: 3/5
292 pages, 1979

Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer

by Antonia Murphy

About a young couple who love to sail, end up in New Zealand, and decide to stay. They had a few acres of land- at first a rented place, then later manage to buy their own. Start out by taking care of other peoples’ animals- an elderly dog, a few cats and chickens. Things do not go well from the start, from diseases attacking the hens, and a duck assaulting them repeatedly until one dies. Not at all for the faint of heart, full of disgusting descriptions of all kinds of things that can go wrong with livestock keeping- from terribly cute alpacas that spit deadly green goo at anyone they dislike, to sheep that need their butts shaved to prevent maggots from burrowing in, to midwifing a goat that eats her own placenta (normal, but rather gross the way it’s described). And just more from then on. I cringed at parts, was astonished and laughed out loud at others. Oh, and the descriptions of cheese-making attempts in this book, have made me not want to eat that product for a very long time. And there were some details about their neighbors, learning about the local culture- I did wish for a bit more of that, whereas usually I’m more keen on reading about the animals. This one was mostly focused on their children, and how they kept accumulating animals, learning to care for them, dealing with all the messiness and trials that includes. Goats, chickens, alpacas, cows, sheep. They drew the line at pigs after the husband helped someone else castrate a bunch of piglets. No go. Too much poop flinging for my taste.

Exacerbated by two little kids, one who talks easily about death and gross things, the other who suffers from seizures no doctors can find the cause. It’s sad to read about how they struggled to find treatment for their son, while accepting him for who he was and finding him a place in the coummnity. A bit alarming how much they let their kids just roam around- reminded me of the Slacker Mom, ha. Other books this brought to mind: the Bucolic Plague and Once Upon a Flock and The Dirt Life. I know there’s others, about raising chickens and taking up farming late in life, but can’t think of them now.

Had a recent knock to my health, doing some reading as I recuperate but not very keen on the writing right now- screens give me awful nausea and headache at the moment. So when I do manage to get on here a post something (so as not to forget what I’ve been reading) it will be short and to the point, for a while . . .

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
256 pages, 2015

More opinions: Book Chase
anyone else?

by Elspeth Huxley

Memoir that continues the story started in The Flame Trees of Thika. After the war, the author’s family did return to their farm in Kenya. It continues much the same- with the difficulties of raising crops- one attempt after another that failed to make the profit they hoped for (maize, almonds, coffee and so on- one neighbor was growing geraniums to distill essential oils) and the struggles to keep peace among their employees from different, warring tribes. The descriptions of the landscape, plants and wildlife are just beautiful, and the details about the various tribal cultures very interesting. Unlike the prior book where the author often seemed a nonentity in the background eavesdropping on adult conversations (and not really comprehending them), in this book she’s very much a personality and involved in all kinds of events on and around the farm. Efforts to make new enterprises work. Observing disputes among the natives (and how her family handles them). Raising orphaned wildlife- a civet cat, a cheetah cub. Going on hunts and near the end of the book, a longer proper safari after lion. Her unspoken but very evident crush on a young man from a neighbor’s farm. Her early attempts at writing seriously, publishing stories about their hunts and local polo matches in a magazine (which the family doesn’t take any interest in). Her attempts to learn and perform magic tricks, from correspondence kits. There are some very lively descriptions of people, some really colorful characters among her parents’ acquaintances. There’s a few chapters describing a visit from her mother’s cousin, an educated wealthy man, very kind and talks so poetically, but also something of a hypochondriac! which made him a difficult guest in their rough accomadations. The beauty of the land and freedom of the wide open space seems to make up for all the hardships and suffering they see around them- the awfulness of diseases for which there is little treatment available, livestock stricken by drought, insects and fire destroying things. Lots of incidents that end badly- and a few that come out surprisingly well. In the end, the book closes very similar manner to the first- the author now eighteen, has to leave for schooling in Europe, but vows she’ll return once again.

I appreciated seeing how her outlook on the use of the land and its wildlife gradually changed. When she was younger she admired the hunters and their trophies, and was eager to participate. But near the end she’s starting to see how uncontrolled hunting has changed the behavior of game animals- and in some areas depleted their numbers entirely. She thrills to see the animals in their native habitat, and doesn’t see the value in killing them just to display horns on a wall or show off a skin. People around her don’t understand her sentiment of preferring to see the land unspoiled as opposed to developed and civilized. She even noted how things the Europeans introduced had changed the native peoples. Insightful.

Rating: 4/5
335 pages, 1962

Memories of an African Childhood

by Elspeth Huxley

I wanted to read this book after seeing a film version, which my husband and I both enjoyed. It’s based on the author’s childhood in Kenya just before WWI, where her father was attempting to start a coffee plantation. Literally out in the middle of the bush- nobody else for miles around, a long rough journey by oxcart to reach the place. The story is about how they lived rough at first, then built a house and put in the coffee seedlings. Their difficulties in getting labor to help- most of the people from tribes nearby didn’t understand what they were trying to do, couldn’t comprehend the instructions (language barrier), had varying priorities and expectations about getting paid for their work (cultural differences), etc. Theft and intertribal conflicts were a constant problem. Differences between the Kikuyu and Masai, and a few other tribes they encountered. Eventually some other Europeans came out to develop land on other plots nearby, so they had neighbors of sorts.

The landscape is described beautifully, the encounters with wildlife (especially hunts for leopard and buffalo, a pet dik-dik, a giant python that supposedly swallowed a child) are interesting. The attitudes not so much- there were frequent remarks about how the natives had not improved themselves or their land in thousands of years, and praising the Europeans for turning the country into something productive- discomfiting. Sad to read about how the tribesmen would bring their injured and sick in once they heard one of the neighbors was a nurse- but the ailments were often beyond her skill level or limited supplies. Most intriguing and also what makes this book a bit difficult, is that it’s written from the child’s viewpoint- apparently she was only five or six at the time, so you have to wonder how much is embellished as I can’t believe she recalled all those conversations so precisely. But then there is so much you have to gather by reading between the lines. Notably the love affair between two of the neighboring adults- one whose husband was usually absent, away on hunting trips. I think I picked up on what was going on with that much better in the film than reading the book! where you only get the half-understood comments the little girl heard from the sidelines.

The illustration on my book’s cover is amusing- because while the narrator did often go out riding in the bush with one of her father’s employees accompanying, she had a short fat white pony, not a dark horse. Later in the book she has to live with friends of the family (her father enlists and her mother goes to help with the war effort at a hopsital) and rides a different horse- but this one is also white! And just like another reviewer has noted, this reader was also left wondering what was behind the boomklops– was it really a bird the man wanted to show her, or something sinister?

At the end of this book, I’m really interested to not only read the sequel, but also Out of Africa again. I recall that Karen Blixen wrote a lot about the differences between the Kikuyu who worked on her farm, and the Masai she often interacted with. I’m curious now how that description compares to Elspeth Huxley’s of the same.

Rating: 3/5
281 pages, 1959

and Find Yourself in Nature

by Marc Hamer

This book was just lovely, far more than I had anticipated. It’s a blend of memoir, natural history writing and poetry. The author was for many years a molecatcher, using traditional methods. He states at the beginning of the book that he’s going to tell you what he knows about moles and how to catch them (if you need to), but he goes about it in a very meandering fashion. There will be one little tidbit of information that starts off a chapter, then gently diverges into a story about how he wandered fields and hedgerows as a homeless young man, or how he feels about the current state of his family, or just observations on the weather and scenery about him as he does his work. You get one piece of the picture about moles every ten pages it seems, with a lot of musings and quiet observations on other nature things in between. Which I didn’t at all mind. For once I also didn’t mind the back-and-forth of the narrative- sometimes about his past, sometimes present tense, sometimes thinking on the future, and not at all in order. There are thoughts on gardening, on why he prefers solitude, on how the landscape has changed as the years pass, as housing and industry slowly replace the fields. There’s a lot about how nature recycles everything back into something new to grow again. I really liked that. In fact I tore my bookmark paper into little strips to mark pages to remember, and thought for the first time in a good long while of underlining passages that really struck me.

We don’t need to know everything . . . being comfortable with not knowing is an important part of hunting, as it keeps all the options open, offers choices. Not knowing is for me the best of all possible worlds; it contains a sweetness and a playful willingness to accept change and to enjoy the million-petalled flower of life without having the compulsion to know what everything is.”

I lost my self-importance early on and do not want to differentiate myself from the world around me. I am just another animal . . . among billions of others, each unique in their own way, each just like the others in other ways, each one just another expression of nature trying to survive. There is something deeply magnificent in being just ordinary.”

I once heard a friend…. with a broken relationship, say ‘The glass is broken, it can’t be repaired.’ But she was wrong. Things cannot be made as they were, but they can become something else. They can be re-made. All things are impermanent, and everything wears down to dust. Everything has its end and each things carries the beginning of the next thing. Healing is not about re-making things as they once were, healing is about acceptance and forgiveness and love and growth and beginning again.”

In the end, he finally tells about placing the traps and how his knowledge of mole behavior enables him to catch them without fail- and then why he no longer wants to do so.

I liked everything about this book. The voice and sentiments immediately resonated with me, the black and white woodcut-style illustrations by Joel McLaren are so nice, I even liked the parts expressed in poetry (which usually isn’t my thing). This is right up there with H is for Hawk, Braiding Sweetgrass and Bringing Nature Home.

I’m delighted to discover he’s written other books- Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens and Seed to Dust: Life, Nature and a Country Garden are two I’d really like to get my hands on someday now.

Rating: 5/5
240 pages, 2019

More opinions: Books Please
anyone else?

by Elinor Pruitt Stewart

Young widow with her four-year-old daughter decided she was tired of washing other people’s laundry for a living, and moved to Wyoming to claim a homstead and asisst on a neighbor’s ranch. She found she loved the hard work, and before long married the neighbor (their homestead plots shared a boundary). The book is a compilation of letters she wrote back home to a previous employer (who must have be a close friend). She tells about the weather, the landscape, the neighbors and acquaintances- none of them lived nearby so visits were always welcome and travelers always given whatever they could share. There is really not much detail about the day-to-day work of the homestead (though she mentions planting potatoes, keeping a large vegetable garden and tending flowers, canning goods, sewing clothes, etc) it is mostly about the people around her, interesting little stories and incidents of character. Some surprising, some quite touching. Lots of examples of making do- improptu weddings, helping at a birth, performing funeral services when nobody else was around to do so. Generosity, humor and plain old gumption are strong in these pages. She certainly was an admirable woman and had a lot of interesting stories to tell. I found out there’s a sequel- shorter, but still sounds good so I’ll keep my eye out for it.

One part that really amused me was about an overnight journey she took with some friends, to a “Leatherstocking dinner”. This reader was just as puzzled as the letter writer as to what a ” ‘stocking dinner” could be. I was surprised when she described with delight the spread on long tables- all the foods mentioned in the Leatherstocking Tales (ie venison cooked six different ways, beaver tail, grouse, and so on). My first thought was: wow, people back then must have really admired these books! it’s like nowadays when folks have a dinner featuring dishes from Jane Austen novels. My second thought was wonder, that the James Fenimore Cooper books had been so popular. I tried one of the more famous and found it very unreadable. So that got me to thinking why. Did people have bigger imaginations back then, with no smart phones or internet or television. Was it easier for them to focus on and picture the wordy flowery descriptions, sitting around in a small room after dark with someone reading aloud (so I imagine)? I also wonder what one of those Cooper fans from the 1800’s would think of today’s popular novels. They might consider that we’ve become less intelligent as a whole (just going by the extensively detailed wordiness those older popular novels had).

There was another bookish part that made me smile. Her daughter received a copy of Black Beauty from the friend, and loved it so much. And later described an incident just like one in the novel- where a man’s team of horses couldn’t pull a load up a steep slope but he got angry and refused offered help. This little girl went on and on about how she wished people would understand about the horses being worked too hard.

A bit more info here.

Rating: 3/5
282 pages, 1913

More opinions:
A Work in Progress
Project Gutenberg Project
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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