Tag: Bios / Memoirs

Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories

by Alice Walker

The chapters are very short, taken from the author’s blog (I didn’t know she had one). Mostly they’re about her chickens, but veer into other subjects as well, such as visiting the Dalai Lama. The quality- or at least my personal reaction to them- varies widely. On the one hand, her observations of chicken behavior, relating little incidents, bemoaning the death of some (one got its head shut in a door, another was eaten by a predator) and extolling the beauty of their feathers, made for a nice read. I even learned some things (chicken combs get brighter in color when they are laying eggs, which makes me think how fishes color up vividly when they’re breeding). On the other hand, she gets so effusively enthusiastic and emotional about the chickens I’m either scratching my head or feeling a tad uncomfortable. She ties chicken musings into spirituality and life lessons- some of which seemed spot-on to me, others left me baffled. I felt like I was reading a book written by someone whose life experience and though process are very different from my own- something to respect and admire, but I just couldn’t connect sometimes. Interesting that for all the love she has for her chickens (she writes them letters from her travels and calls herself their ‘Mommy’), the author will occasionally eat chicken. Sometimes she feels guilty about this, sometimes not. She writes a bit about the morality of eating animals, mostly leaning to the opinion that if they were treated humanely, it’s okay (as far as I could tell).

Some things that made me laugh, or sit up and think: she says gophers eat chickens (I don’t think this is true). She has a favorite emotion: astonishment. I have favorite books, foods, people, places to visit- but emotions to feel? Honestly I never thought about this before! She also kept using this term “space nuts” that she made up (referring to people) which she explained but I didn’t really get it.

Audiobook- read by the author herself, which was lovely. Three hours forty-five minutes listening time. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
208 pages, 2012

More opinions: Farm Lane Books Blog
anyone else?

(a true story)

by Joni Rodgers

This book is also about cancer. It has a completely different tone than the last one. The author’s personality is pretty much a polar opposite, she was an actress (teaching children theater classes, doing voices on the air, commercials, etc) married in a loving relationship with two children when cancer struck. It’s so similar to the last read in terms of describing the shock of diagnosis, the difficult treatments, the awkwardness of people not knowing what to say, absolute drain of being so ill for so very long. The strangeness she felt when it seemed to finally be over: she’d made it, she’d survived, but fighting off cancer had consumed her life for so many years- nothing felt the same. Unlike the prior read (I can’t help compare the two so closely)- which seemed to take place in solitude and hospital stays, not much family present in the book- this story is permeated with the author’s family. How terribly hard it was for them. How confused her young children were about some things, totally accepting of others, angry when she was unable to care for them, and so on. All the ups and downs, how they made it through. Especially with her husband. I admit, some of the parts about how cancer treatment affected their love life was told a bit too intimately for my taste! And for such a very long time her relationship with food was affected afterwards. What it’s like to go through this illness and survive it is described in such brutal detail, it can be hard to read- but it’s all lightened by her humor. Jokes everywhere. They didn’t always make sense to me (or make me laugh), but still I think this book might be a keeper, to stay on my shelf, just because it’s such a contrast to the other. Something else took me by surprise- her exploration of faith didn’t bore or exasperate me (my usual reaction nowadays to reading someone’s religious effusions). What she said made sense, I respected and appreciated how she worked her way through re-evaluating life, and also explored some alternative ideas and views along the way (once consulting a shaman, another time visiting a naturopath, for example). It’s a very candid, forthright story about one woman’s journey through the black gulf of cancer and out the other side.

Parallel read: Autobiography of a Face

Rating: 3/5
253 pages, 2001

by Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy suffered from cancer in her jaw as a child. It was treated with surgical removal (an entire third of her jawbone), chemotherapy and radiation. She survived the cancer but her face was forever disfigured. It sounds like she spent most of her childhood and young adult years in and out of hospitals, or convalescing at home- years and years of reconstructive surgeries that failed, when the grafts were reabsorbed by her body. It’s difficult to read about the loneliness and pain she endured (including a family that rarely discussed things). But to her those were almost nothing, compared to the mental and emotional suffering by how people saw her afterwards. Such was the internal life of a child, for a long time she didn’t even realize how sick she was, she had no idea what chemo and radiation would do to her body. She found comfort and security in the sameness of the hospitals, being surrounded by other patients, not seen as someone unusual or unattractive there. It was when she returned to school and other kids cruelly made fun of her, that she finally understood how her appearance differed. For a long time after she always hoped that the next surgery would be the one to restore her face, to make her look normal again. She was baffled by women in a plastic surgeon’s office who were there to alter their noses or breasts- thinking she’d be happy to have just regular features like them. College years followed, where she finally found friends who saw past her appearance, where she cultivated an air of otherness, honed her writing skills as a poet, and longed to be loved by someone.

There were also horses. She worked in stables, briefly owned a horse when a friend moved and couldn’t take him (it died suddenly), then had another years later when her parents were able to buy her one. She talks a lot about how comforting it was to be around the animals, to work closely with them. And how restorative the non-judgemental attitude of her co-workers in the stable, people who like her just mostly cared about the horses. On another note, she also found comfort in words, philosophers and poets, explored Buddhism, existentialism and even Christianity. I admit sometimes I didn’t quite get what she meant, her thought process was occasionally obscure to me, but her musings on the nature of beauty, the importance of knowing people for who they are, really struck me. So many painful words, insightful and beautiful ones too

She was friends with Ann Patchett, who wrote about their relationship in a memoir Truth and Beauty. However reading accounts like this makes me have some reservations on reading it or not.

There’s an interview with the author here.

Rating: 4/5
223 pages, 1994

More opinions:
Books on the Brain
Draft No. 4]
anyone else?

by Katie Green

Such a hard book to read- but I couldn’t put it down. One sitting, last night. It’s a graphic novel memoir about eating disorders and sexual abuse (from a trusted adult who was supposed to be helping the girl). The artwork is simple yet poignant, the story very expressive and honest about mental health issues. I can only imagine how difficult -and perhaps cathartic- this book must have been to write. She girl had so much to deal with. Body image issues. Skewed thinking. Obsessiveness over rules and restrictions. Hurting family that wanted to help but their efforts weren’t always helpful. Muddling through years of therapy until things finally start to get better- but even when she feels like she’s recovered, old habits and thought patterns recur- again and again. Flashbacks from the trauma. Is it ever really over? I was afraid that when she went off to college the story would take a bad turn, but she had good friends even if they didn’t always know what was really going on, or what she’d been through- and she had to find her way to be healthy. Then there’s the whole issue of this alternate “healer” guy who took advantage of her- just awful. That was another thing to overcome, to let time pass so she could feel distant from it and whole again. Painful story, but hopeful at the end and important to be told.

Brought to mind some other graphic novel memoirs I’ve read: Spinning, Stitches, Hey Kiddo and Blankets, also the book Wasted. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
510 pages, 2013

by Robyn Davidson

This book reminded me a lot of Wild, although the tone is very different there are similarities. A woman takes a very long walk across the landscape solo, to remake herself. Or so it seemed to me. That was a part of the story I couldn’t help being curious about at first, because it seemed such a strong undercurrent: what was the traumatic past Davidson was getting away from? or trying to heal from? but before many more pages I found myself respecting her privacy, especially seeing how she had to defend her need for solitude from so many people- local men in Alice Springs, tourists, National Geographic representatives . . .  She was a woman who got along better being alone or with her animals, not people- so deciding to walk 1,700 miles across the Australian desert with just four camels and a dog made sense to her. First she had to work for men in Alice Springs in order to obtain the camels- had no money, and needed some know-how. The magazine heard of her plans and wanted to do a feature on her trip, so sent a photographer to accompany her for certain legs of the journey, and of course she used the much-needed money to fund her equipment and supplies. But bitterly resented having to do so. Wanted it to be all her own effort. I admit, reading the first part of the book was difficult for me. Not only about how brutally (by neccessity, it sounds) the wild-caught camels are treated during training, but also how rough the scene was at Alice Springs. It’s very different from the picture I got of Alice Springs in other accounts. Also upsetting to read how systematically the Aborigional people were oppressed, and how racist many of the people Davidson met were.

But once she gets out in the desert, alone with her camels, things change. And not at all in the manner I might have expected. She had a lot of mental turmoil to work through, and the solitude and stress of the desert also worked upon her. She met and sometimes stayed with Aborigional people along the way- encounters she’d looked forward to, but they weren’t always as expected either. In fact a lot of things didn’t turn out as she’d planned or hoped. The way she became in tune with the landscape and learned to recognize, appreciate and use the native plants was part I loved reading about- though nearly all the plant life was totally unfamiliar to me, so I had a hard time picturing it. Very little mention of wildlife- not sure if because she didn’t encounter many animals, or just didn’t think to write about them. Overall it just sounds like it was an amazing, life-altering, and very strenuous and difficult experience- but at the same time, became very easy once she got used to the routine and rigors of the journey. She talks about social mores and niceties falling away, and how hard it was to readjust when she left the outback.

A book I definitely want to read again someday. And watch the film, though I know it simplifies the story and probably makes more of her relationship with the photographer.

Rating: 4/5
270 pages, 1980

A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See

by Robert Kurson

Part casual biography, part scientific explanation about how vision works, what it’s like to be blind, and to regain sight. Mike May was blinded in an accident at age three. He did not let lack of vision slow him down- hence the title of the book- plowing headlong through life as an inventor and entrepreneur, seizing opportunities and delighting in new experiences. As a teenager, he once tried to drive a car by listening to the sounds of traffic passing (on a very quiet street, but still!) He learned to downhill ski and held a world record in the sport. He once built a radio tower in his backyard. And that’s just mentioning a few of his accomplishments. Got around just fine with a cane and a seeing-eye dog, never felt that life was anything but great. Then he chanced to meet a doctor who told him about a new type of stem-cell transplant that might restore his vision. He decided to try it, even though the chances of rejection or risks of cancer from the medication he’d need were high.

I thought these were the best parts of the book, descriptions of what it was like to see for the first time- it was really interesting what things leapt out to him as novelties or worth study, that nobody had ever described to him, or that he just wasn’t aware of as a blind person. For example, he was surprised to see that carpets have patterns on them, and really bothered at seeing a homeless person on a sidewalk, that everyone else just walked past. (Less interesting for me, was reading about how much he wanted to ogle women, his constant and rather juvenile obsession with female bodies). He had to learn all over again to identify things he’d only known by touch or sound, to retrain his brain with his new perception. Fascinating the explanations of how the brain interprets vision and learns it categorically in infancy- for some (of the very few) people like Mike May who received their sight again as an adult, parts of the brain have literally forgotten how to see and have to learn all over again. Sometimes they can’t and the adjustment to receiving sight after a lifetime of being blind can cause stress and severe depression. In his case, May was able to see and understand some things, not others (very specifically- he couldn’t read or visually interpret faces). For months he hoped the ability would just come back to him, then decided to learn it by rote memorization. To the point where he could more or less see automatically instead of having to puzzle out what he was looking at over and over again. A thing which the doctors had told him would probably be impossible. Amazing story.

All that aside, this book was a new and uneven experience for me, because I thought I was getting a paperbound copy, but it came to me as an audiobook. I was initially annoyed. This was my first experience with an audiobook. With an older, used CD-player my kid didn’t want anymore, and an obviously used set of CDs that are the book itself. I missed large sections of the first few chapters because the CD kept skipping. The rest of the set was more or less okay, though it had lags or skips here and there so I’d miss a word or sentence. It was also hard to navigate where I was- the player couldn’t “remember” where I’d paused (like the one in my car does) so I’d have to skip through from the beginning to find the closest location to start again when returning to it- with a lot of overlap, listening to many parts over again. Sometimes I couldn’t get close at all- not sure if this is a flaw in how the player is functioning, or the CDs themselves. I should try at least one more audiobook, to see if the player was at fault or not.

I found it odd to listen to one person’s voice for so long. Definitely not something I could do while driving (too distracting) but it was kind of nice to listen to while doing simple chores around the house. I usually listen to music or a podcast when doing jigsaw puzzles, but now think it might be nice to do two things I enjoy at the same time- listening to a book while puzzling! However the voice really did drone on. Depending on my mood, sometimes I found it irritating, other days I was able to just focus on what the voice was relating, and get lost in the telling. It is such a different experience though, I find it hard to say “I read that book” when I listened to someone tell it to me. I’m game to try another few, but don’t know if this will become a regular pastime for me.

I did really like a special feature at the end of the audiobook, where the author himself interviewed Mike May, seven years after the book was first published. It was kind of awesome to hear the subject of the book talking about his personal experiences.

Rating: 3/5
336 pages, 2007

More opinions: RA for All
anyone else?

A Year of Keeping Bees

by Helen Jukes

Lovely book that came into my hands at just the right moment- I could not put it down, the past few days. Thoughtful memoir by a novice beekeeper. After accompanying a friend on visits to tend hives he keeps around a city, the author decided she would like to keep one herself. Friends pitched in to buy her a colony as a surprise gift, and feeling uprepared she started reading up on the history of beekeeping. So the book is part memoir, part information about bees, honey production, and how knowledge of them was gained slowly over the past centuries. It’s all seamless woven together with musings on the nature of relationships, between friends, between humans and wild things (I thought of falconry), and touching a bit on the influences mankind is having on the Earth’s ecosystems. There’s also a love story in here- an unexpected one, that she wasn’t really looking for when asked to meet a friend of a friend she thought was a beekeeper (he wasn’t, but they found a connection). There’s visits to natural history museums, dinner parties with friends, quite moments sitting in the back garden watching the bees travel to and fro, wondering where they go. Hoping they’ll stay in her hive, find it a suitable home. The final harvest of golden honey and the friends she shares it with. This wasn’t a deep dive into all things beekeeping, it’s more a personal account of how the first year keeping bees touched this woman’s life. I liked the way she shared her thoughts, her words resonated with me and I want to turn back to them again.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
234 pages, 2018

How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back

by Shauna James Ahern

This book is kind of scattered but I was enthralled with it anyway. Because for the past three months I have been trying my best to be gluten-free, and the different in my life is astonishing. I saw myself so much in these pages, it was really nice to be able to relate (more so than the first book I read about being gluten-free). Even though her writing is repetitive- the same anecdotes come up multiple times, the same food memories from her childhood, and so on- I didn’t mind because I was sinking into the words, absorbing the reality that what I’ve been going through, other people have too. I suspect the repetitive nature is from the book being based on her blog (which I would really like to read but can’t access- I arrived too late!) and it was confusing how the chapters kept switching back and forth, from describing how she ate and felt before realizing gluten was an issue, and after. I just do so much better as a reader when things stay consistently chronological. What I like most about this book, is how she delights in her new relationship with food. Her period of anger and disappointment at having to stop eating anything with gluten (this is far more than just avoiding bread btw) is markedly short, or at least she doesn’t dwell on it. Instead she revels in how wonderful it feels to not be achingly tired all the time, to not feel constantly sick and run-down, to eat food that tastes good and makes you feel energized and alive and healthy. And now I know exactly what she means.

I can’t afford all the fancy foodstuffs she dives into, but I’m definitely willing to try new things. Yes I’ve omitted one pervasive grain from my diet, and two minor ones (wheat, rye and barley) but on the other hand I’ve added eight new ones (and still have the old standbys of corn, rice and oats – though have to be picky about the oats). This doesn’t feel like a deprivation anymore. Because it’s just so nice to feel good. I’ve figured out how to make biscuits, banana bread and piecrust that have the taste and texture I like, am working on learning pizza dough, sweet buns, bread, tortillas from scratch, etc. I’m still shocked at how many decades I lived with all these pervasive symptoms, that I was so used to, they just felt like normal. Don’t have to feel that way! Changing the way I cook and eat is so very worth it.

This turned into much about me, ha. I would really like to find more books about the experience of adjusting to living gluten-free (as opposed to just books offering advice or recipes). Any suggestions?

Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
276 pages, 2007

More opinions: Sophisticated Dorkiness
anyone else?

Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

by Karen Auvinen

I’m disappointed to say this book didn’t really get a hold on me in any way. It reminds me of The Salt Path in that a terrible disaster strikes the author near the beginning, leaving her with almost nothing. It reminds me of Fox and I because it’s about a woman who felt she didn’t fit in, who needed to find her own way and much preferred living alone, in wild spaces. But sadly I didn’t get much sense of those spaces, or of her wildlife observations, even though she mentions taking copious notes of them, she never really shares them in detail. The book is more about her difficult childhood, uneven friendships with people in town, a man she briefly dates after being single for over a decade, amazingly delicious food she cooks, her writing, the many ways that snow falls and cold closes in, sputtering attempts at a garden in the brief season (too much shade and wild animals eating things), admiration of hummingbirds, and struggles to deal with her elderly mother’s failing health (which brings up close contact with her estranged siblings). In the few final pages she describes a disastrous mudslide and flood that buried much of her town and finally meeting a man who loved her completely and made her feel safe. She tends to her beloved dog through his final days, and then moves on to live elsewhere. It’s a book about someone’s life, and very much about the dog her close companion- though I admit the cover beguiled me, thinking there’d be a fox. Well there is– in the epilogue. A lovely fox that visits the cabin regularly for a while, and is featured on a handful of pages. I do really like that the cover image, and some watercolor paintings inside the book (reproduced in black and white) were created by the new man in her life. They’re of the actual place where she lived. I’m sorry this book didn’t resonate with me- it’s very nicely written, and is many things, none are quite what I expected though. Could just be wrong place, wrong time for this reader.

Rating: 3/5
302 pages, 2018

Tales from a life without technology

by Mark Boyle

Near the end of this book, the author says “I decided that instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life.” He left the city and job behind, built a cabin on a piece of land and committed himself to living without a phone, electricity, plumbing, etc. Doing all his work with hand tools. Living off the land, engaging in a bartering and gift economy with neighbors (though most of them had the usual conveniences). He deeply felt that this would make his life more purposeful, even though without internet or cell phone he soon lost contact with myriad people, remaining close only to those that lived nearby or stayed in touch via paper mail. I have to say I know what he means, feeling like doing things with your own hands and simple tools is more meaningful. I prefer an hour weeding in the garden or trimming shrubs to typing on a keyboard myself. I don’t know if I could go so far as to do without electricity and heating, though. It’s hard to eschew all the easy things most people take for granted, and live in a way that takes a different kind of work. Boyle doesn’t avoid admitting the difficulties, or things he has to do without. But he also waxes long on the rewards, which are of a different kind. Feeling tied into the seasons and close to the land. Paying more attention to the other living things around him- insects and plants. Learning skills that seem forgotten in this day and age.
His book doesn’t have a lot of day-to-day details (which I might have enjoyed) rather it’s a series of vignettes and noted thoughts on varied topics, as the mood took him to recount them. Sometimes he discusses how decisions were arrived at, where he came from, or how his thinking has shifted (he used to be vegan but now fishes and eats venison). Other parts of the book are little stories about things with his neighbors or specific pieces of the work he does around his land- planting trees, washing clothes by hand, cutting wood, building a hot tub (I wanted to see a picture of that!), foraging berries and greens, starting seeds, turning compost, making candles, etc. He also recounts a lot about visiting the Great Blasket Island, quoting from written works by the people who once lived there (in a very sustainable manner) and reflecting on why they eventually had to leave. I didn’t feel as immersed or connected to those parts of the book. Also some segments started to get repetitive near the end. He lives in Ireland, by the way. And now I’d like to read a previous book he wrote, The Moneyless Man.
I did notice, and appreciate, how old-fashioned this book itself feels as a physical object. It’s a clothbound hardback, without the slick plastic cover library books usually have. The paper is a nice muted off-white and has the texture of good recycled paper- or at least so I imagine. It felt like a book in hand I’d usually from a discard sale or found in a thrift shop, not a relatively new book produced just a few years ago! I’d like to think this was a conscious choice the author made in having his book printed- which seems very in harmony with his stated purpose and lifestyle.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 4/5
266 pages, 2019

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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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