Tag: Bios / Memoirs

by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

A very powerful book about such a tough subject. It switches back and forth between present-day, with the author visiting and interviewing an elderly Korean woman living in a “house of sharing”. The other, major storyline depicts what the elderly “granny” related of her childhood and youth- a terrible time from the beginning as she attested. Her family was very poor, on the verge of starving. She always wanted to go to school but never had the opportunity. When she was still a little girl, her parents basically sold her to a restaurant owner. She went willingly because she was told her stomach would always be full, and she’d be able to attend school. But she was basically a slave. That seemed bad enough, but then one day when she was just thirteen, she was abducted in the street and taken to a place out in the middle of nowhere that housed “comfort women” for the Japanese military. Beaten and starved if they didn’t submit, nowhere to go if they ran away, suffering for years with the humiliation and degradation. When much later the war finally ended, the girls didn’t even know, they were just abandoned. They finally started walking away, nearly died of hunger before reaching a town, ignored and shunned by the locals who knew exactly where they’d come from. Begging on the streets. Eventually the main character met someone who would take her in, and later she married (twice) but the men didn’t turn out to be as decent as they’d seemed up front. She trudged her way through a decades-long marriage and was glad when it finally ended. Reunited with her siblings but that was awkward and painful, they knew what she’d been forced to do during the war and were discomfited by it. It seems she finally found some peace living at the “house of sharing” but she was angered about the current government’s blind eye and unfulfilled promises to make right what had been done to her and her companions in the past- she protested over and over, publicly, even at such an old age. It was heartbreaking to read about what she went through, and admirable that she still had a sense of hope, enjoyment for life, and touch of humor. This one will weigh on my mind for a long time.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/15/24.

Rating: 4/5
480 pages, 2019

by Kristen Radtke

This one was difficult for me to appreciate. The images feel very- static. Precisely drawn, but somewhat lacking in emotion. Bleak would be a good word for it, and that fits the tone of the novel, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I felt so unaffected. It’s about a time when the author lost an uncle she had admired and was very close to. He passed away from a heart condition that ran in the family, after beating the odds for so many years. The loss affected her deeply, and the author found herself inexplicably drawn to modern ruins, abandoned and decaying buildings, which she would visit and photograph. She ended up traveling to seek out deserted towns and closed factories in all these places where other people go to see iconic landmarks and tourist attractions. There’s a disturbing incident where she finds a pile of photographs in one moldy building, and takes them with her- and even when later she finds out why they were there, she doesn’t return or discard them, but keeps carrying them around place to place with her. While they are getting more and more moldy. I have a thing about mold. So seeing the depictions in this book of black mold creeping up the walls made me feel very unsettled. Even though it was in monotone illustrations, it was captured well enough to make my skin crawl. And when later I read words written by the mother and friend of the person whose photographs she picked up in that empty building, and then portrayed in this book, well that unsettled me even more. I suppose she succeeded in making some readers feel as empty as she herself did, but it didn’t make me feel glad to have read the book. More the opposite. Yes, there’s bits about finding her vision, about her boyfriend who became her fiancé, but none of that touched me either.

Interesting that a lot of other reviewers waxed on and on about the depth of this book (see links below) whereas a few were not really moved by it, like me. I suppose your mileage may vary.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/11/24.

Rating: 2/5
292 pages, 2017

by G. Neri

A true story, written by the protagonist’s cousin. Gail was a horse trainer who followed unconventional methods- she believed that horses shouldn’t be run in races until well over two years old, to allow their bodies to be stronger and fully developed to handle the strain. She also objected to drugging horses, all too common in the racing world sadly. When she found a horse with a lot of promise, she became his part owner and worked hard to train him for his first race. But the original partner divvied up his shares, so there were more votes against her, and all the other owners wanted to run him too early, push him too hard. Against her protests and better judgement, the horse was entered into his first race before she felt he was ready. He sustained a minor injury that could turn into something worse- and the other owners insisted on running him again, foregoing the rest a veterinarian recommended (who then proffered her drugs that would keep him performing in spite of the pain). And that was part of the problem- this horse loved to run, was so eager to be on the track and go.

She was worried it would destroy him, that his legs would break or he would die on the track. So in what she felt was the horse’s best interest, she took him from the barn and moved him to a hidden location. This without the other owners’ approval- but of course they’d been racing him without her approval. She was charged with theft, and battled it out in the courts with the co-owners for years, first having a public attorney who took her side, then having to study up on law and defend herself in the end.

It worked out well for the horse, he did get the rest he needed, but he was never allowed back on the track. The trainer who “stole” him faced resentment and outright blacklisting for what she’d done, and for sticking to her standards, demanding better treatment for racehorses all round. What a fierce, determined, upright character. Though not without qualms to be a bit forceful when she felt it was merited. I think “feisty” would be the right word. Admirable. Really well-told story, even if it was a lot about the court battles and legal wrangling (which I usually find tedious to read about).

Illustrations by Corban Wilkin didn’t really work for me. They were quite expressive, but a bit rough around the edges- which I think was the style- however it also entailed some odd anatomy on the horse- not quite as bad as the Beastar Yahya, but still awkward in numerous panels (the cover image is good though).

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/7/24.

Rating: 4/5
228 pages, 2018

How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home

by Nicole J. Georges

Growing up from a dysfunctional childhood (she called herself a very feral child) in which she loved many animals but did not know how to properly care for them, the author latched onto a dog that she adopted intending as a gift for her boyfriend, but it turned out one of his parents objected. She convinced her own parents to let her keep the dog, but it had issues. Barking, resenting being touched, fighting with other dogs, fearful of men and children, the list goes on. Eventually the parents got so fed up with the dog that the author moved out to live with her then-boyfriend in a crummy apartment they could barely pay for. The relationship didn’t last, but her close tie with the dog continued for the rest of its life. Many ups and downs, struggling to make ends meet, dealing with a continual rotation of roommates and boarders, friends renewed and dropped again, realizing she was bi, attempting new skills, struggling to make her art and find her voice, and so on. It was not at all the kind of growing up experience I had, but in a very familiar location (Portland, OR- I didn’t live there but kinda nearby in the Pacific Northwest region, so the vibe felt familiar). Very gritty, down-to-earth, full of sadness and bittersweet comforts too. She deals with loving this anxious, ill-behaved dog while feeling anxious and sad herself, and finally getting help for that. Strange interactions with a woman who was a pet psychic and tried to train her to be the same, but she wasn’t quite into it. Lots of funny and also alarming scenarios. Long-lasting trauma from a car accident which hit a little close to home for me. Her commitment to this dog that is odd-looking (head too big for her body) might seem a bit over-the-top to some, but it was the one steady thing through all those rough years of being just past a teenager but not quite a fully stable adult yet. Lots of growth. And I have to give fair warning: the dog dies in the end. Her handling of that was also very heartfelt and a bit difficult for me to read, because we recently lost a cat at the end of a long life, and also had a backyard burial . . . so this book may induce, along with some astonishment and shaking of the head, tears in the final pages.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/4/24.

Rating: 4/5
320 pages, 2017

by Claire Lordon

Graphic novel memoir about the author’s struggles with a serious health issue during her high school years. She battled constant fatigue and depression, plus a host of other symptoms like hair loss, weight gain and skin changes. Doctors couldn’t tell her what was wrong. Focusing on school was nearly impossible. Eventually enough tests were done that they got an answer- she had a rare condition that required surgery to fix. Except it didn’t work the first time, so there were more exhausting trips to specialists for tests and procedures. At the end of the book, she’s not completely cured, but is starting on her way to recovery. There’s so much emotional expression in this story. From her anxiety over what other kids at school think, fears of falling behind in classes, suicidal ideation and basically drowning under the pain with horrific post-surgery headaches. The imagery reflecting her pain and darkest thoughts are very stark and unsettling, but it helped that they’re drawn in a simplistic style. I don’t know if I could have handled this book otherwise. One of the things that struck me in particular was how much it meant to her to receive well-wishes in cards and gifts, and how discouraging later when that tapered off as her treatments continued- not nearly as many friends and relatives stepped in to bolster her hope or express concern when it dragged on and on. The few friends who did visit to cheer her up meant so much, as well as the comfort of a pet and of course, the support of her parents. She finds success in continuing to pursue her artwork even while feeling overwhelmed by all the physical difficulties, and eventually getting back into sports as well (lacrosse). It’s hard to imagine what going through something like this is for a teen, and very sobering to read about it. Admirable.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/1/24.

Rating: 4/5
268 pages, 2023

More opinions: Bookworm for Kids
anyone else?

by Andrea Dorfman

Very short graphic novel memoir. About a woman with a very large nose. Who didn’t notice it until the awkwardness of puberty set it- along with thoughtless kids at school who would insult her looks. She was pleased to make a friend in class who also had a large nose- felt they really had something in common- and upset when after a summer apart, she didn’t recognize her friend- who had gotten a nose job. It immediately made her question her own appearance: should she get one too? how would altering her face change how she felt about herself? would she be the same person. She waffled about it for years, pretending she liked her looks when she didn’t, and bristling at advertisements and other things that constantly remind women they should look differently. Then as an adult she met and fell in love with a plastic surgeon. She really resisted this attraction at first- appalled at the idea of someone earning a living from making others more beautiful- because that’s all she thought it was. Until she got to know him better and heard about what he actually did all day. Not just nose jobs and chin tucks. Removing skin cancer. Repairing someone’s injured hand. And making a kid’s ears not stick out so much- merely because his mother worried he’d be teased in school. That one felt more bothersome. However as they continued to let their relationship grow (through some charming- and bluntly honest- long-distance postcards that became a form of art exchange) the author gradually came to feel better about her appearance, come to terms with her boyfriend’s occupation, and embraced the uniqueness of everyone’s individual appearance, that we shouldn’t all fit the same mold and look the same. Differences are good! I liked this one, even though it took a while for the art to grow on me.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/1/24.

Rating: 3/5
88 pages, 2018

a Childhood in China

by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

A beautifully illustrated book where the author reminisces growing up in China just after the Cultural Revolution. She depicts stories from her parent’s youth, and her bafflement at the death of Chairman Mao (adults weeping all around her at the loss). Traditional celebrations, New Year’s events, her youthful enthusiasm for school and doing her part to help rid the town of pests- in this case rats, because sparrows had all been nearly exterminated. This was a deliberate (and encouraged) killing of animals, but there’s another incident where the narrator and her sister have well-meaning intentions to give someone’s baby chicks water in the heat, but accidentally do them harm. My favorite part was in the final pages, the titular story where she goes with her father to visit his mother’s family in a poor rural village. She wants to wear her best coat and is advised not to, but insists. She’s shocked to see how different things are in the village, where people have very little and struggle day to day. The grandmother appears sullen and mean. The children outside- where Na is sent to play- are muddy and rough. Their idea of fun is to casually torture live insects. Na is appalled, and upset at how dirty her nice coat gets (especially when the curious children want to touch it, enthralled by the lovely texture it initially has). Realization of how much she has at home sinks in. Earlier lessons on avoiding food waste, and helping to plant the rice, seem to mean more now, too.

This is a slender graphic novel, and while it’s about a child, I don’t know if I’d read it to children- a lot of the nuances might go over their heads, and the part with the insects is rather upsetting- it made me feel distinctly taken aback. (It also for some reason brought vividly to mind the book A Child of the Northeast). Sensitive kids would probably have a similar reaction. But I don’t think this was necessarily written for children. And the pictures really are lovely.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
108 pages, 2012

a memoir

by Pénélope Bagieu

Stories from the author’s life, based on her actual journals. Not in chronological order. Loving and loosing a cat (poignant to us since we recently lost our nineteen-year-old cat). Awkward interactions with boys. Obsessing over some of them, never speaking to friends again over others, and then some awful moments- being groped on public transit by a stranger, assaulted after a party at someone’s house- that she never tells anyone about (until now I suppose). One strange single-page snippet about a girl she sits next to in band who has a strange patch of skin on her hand- and an obviously made-up story to explain it. Was it a burn from an accident? eczema? there’s no resolution to that one. How she tries to learn skiing, always finding it difficult, but everyone else seems to pick up the skill so easily. Her anxiety to develop breasts but then chagrin at the sometimes-unwanted attention they bring. Always feeling cold and this weird coin-pay heating system that sound totally archaic and aggravating, in places where she lived in London, as a university student. There’s a lot more, but not much else stuck out in my memory after completing the book.

Translated from French by Montana Kane.  Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
144 pages, 2023

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn

by Catherine Friend

I really liked this book. It’s about the author’s forays into farming, with her female partner. A big concern they had starting their farm, was how people in the small town would react to a lesbian couple as neighbors. Nobody batted an eye. Much harder was learning the skills- they’d had grandparents that farmed, but didn’t have any direct experience themselves. The author was a writer, her partner wanted to start a farm and she was supportive, so they dived in together. One of them a bit reluctant to get her hands dirty, prone to anxiety and a tendency to be controlling. The other enthusiastic and brave (lots of dangerous equipment and situations!) about all things farming, but easily angry- at immediate problems, at her partner, at the world in general. The story is just as much about the difficulties their relationship suffers through, and how they work through that, as it is about farming. First they raise chickens, then try their hands at sheep and wine grapes. Trying to do it all with the least negative impact to the land, few pesticides and chemicals, etc (but not strictly organic). With lots of pitfalls and a steep learning curve. And the author’s personal struggles realizing how much the farm work takes away from her writing, and figuring out how to balance that without leaving her partner all the heavy work. I loved how brisk and down-to-earth this book was. Grimacing and laughing at the mishaps, delighting in the new lambs and other joys, the satisfaction of good work done. Very honest about how hard it all is. I could relate far better to this book than Dirty Chick they have a lot in common, but the mindset and personality varies widely.

And then there’s all the animals! In addition to chickens and sheep, they had goats, llamas, ducks and geese. I was a bit baffled and disappointed not to hear more about the dogs. Several dogs from the start that were just pets, but then they got a young border collie. Reported feeling encouraged when he showed “eye” towards the sheep- but then no mention of the dog being used to move sheep, or getting trained- however lots of pages about the difficulties in herding sheep or catching them. I suppose they never found time to train the dog? or it didn’t work out? but there’s no explanation of that at all. I just found that a tad frustrating as a reader, because every time I read about how hard it was to catch an individual sheep or move them, I’d think: where’s that border collie? why isn’t he helping with this job. Would have liked to know.

Other similar books: The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell, The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, Shepherds of Coyote Rocks by Cat Urbigkit, Thoughts While Tending Sheep by W. G. Ilefeldt. I know I’ve read others about keeping sheep, and being new to farming, but these are the ones that came immediately to mind.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
240 pages, 2006

Living with Caribou

by Seth Kantner

The author grew up in Alaska, where his family (white folks) lived as the Natives did, in a sod igloo on the tundra, hunting and gathering food each year. Very close to the land. As he got older, his brother decided to leave for college, and when Katner had his own children, his daughter likewise left for the Lower 48. But he stayed in his father’s footsteps, only wanting to be an expert hunter, to know the animals and landscape more closely, to be there. The book varies widely in its focus: some chapters are about his family history, why and how they lived the way they did, the difficulties and sense of fulfillment in it. Other chapters are about the land, the history of people in Alaska, how arrival of Outsiders changed things, how wildlife management and land ownership has changed things, and most of all how climate shifts have changed and affected everything. But mostly it’s about the caribou. How much they depend on this one animal. Why it is so valuable to people living a subsistence lifestyle. Possible causes between a population crash in the past (which sounded like fable to Katner when older people told him about it in his youth), the abundance and growth he knew most of his life, and the troublesome reduction in numbers more recently. As much as this man loves the wildlife and hunting, he is honest about the choices he’s had to make to maintain it. Why they stopped using dog teams for the most part, and switched to machines. How thrilled he was as a teenager to finally own a modern (semi-automatic) rifle that had far more accuracy and ease of use than any weapon he’d had in the past. This was so effective in “harvesting” animals that most people overdid it. Or got careless. Leaving wounded caribou, or spoiling the meat with bad shots. How shameful that was, and yet he found himself struggling to resist the urge to continue, to just get another and another. The passage describing this impulse to keep killing and how he fought it off, was very sobering. It reminds me of reading accounts when a predator got into a pen of sheep, or a fox into a henhouse, how rampantly they slaughter- because the prey can’t flee, and suddenly it is so easy . . . 

There are stories in here of people he knew growing up, and the wisdom they shared. Interesting characters. Stories of how villages changed and grew with influx of new technologies and connections to Outside. Accounts of government and politics likewise getting involved, affecting the lives of people and animals too. The historical parts interested me more than I first expected them to. I didn’t know, for example, that reindeer were introduced from other parts of the world, when caribou scarcity threatened the lives of Natives decades ago. Or how different they are now, in spite of actually being the same species. Since this is a book about a hunter, there is a lot on how the animals are butchered and their bodies used, in plenty of detail- which might put off some readers.

I recall now having read Caribou and the Barren-Lands, but the details now unclear. I wish I’d read these books alongside each other.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
320 pages, 2021

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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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