Tag: Bios / Memoirs

by Betty MacDonald

Author of the famed book The Egg and I wrote this memoir about her time in a sanatorium when she caught tuberculosis in her thirties. She had to quit her job and leave her young children at home with her mother, not knowing if she would even return. The place sounded very dismal. No talking, laughing, even reading in bed! Sponge baths only once a week, hair getting shampooed even less frequently. Her greatest complaint was simply being cold all the time, even when hot water bottles were brought to her bed, they were lukewarm at best. The main treatment at the time (1930’s) was very strict bed rest- and there were a number of unpleasant-sounding surgical procedures that were done to intentionally collapse the lung in order to make it rest completely. I can’t imagine having to lie absolutely still in a bed for weeks or months on end. She mentioned quite a few patients who had been in the sanatorium for years. Rumors abounded among the patients of who had died, what type of surgeries or treatment they’d had, etc. Sounded like nothing was ever explained to the patients- where they were going when a nurse arrived with a wheelchair, what the results of tests were, what the doctor thought after evaluating their condition, etc. Always kept in the dark- and then lectured to constantly about the rules.

Well, eventually she healed enough to be allowed to sit up in bed for a short period of time per day, which was gradually extended until she earned the privilege to walk to the bathroom, or down the hall, or have a bed outside on the porch, etc. She gives lively character sketches about her fellow patients, roommates, the nurses and staff- sometimes not very complimentary, of course. Oddly enough, what I found most interesting about this book was simply reading about treatment for a disease that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem anymore- how archaic and long-suffering it sounded. How dismal the outcome for so many. While I could tell the author was attempting to put a humorous spin on everything, I only chuckled a few times, I didn’t really find it funny even when I knew she was exaggerating. It just felt- kind of dull. Might be my mood. Of course she was relieved to finally be declared healthy enough to go home- but then had to face a difficult adjustment period, still finding more to relate to with her prior roommates from the sanatorium- she stayed in touch with a few- disgruntled that her family hadn’t cleaned out the room she was going to stay in, and alternately annoyed or embarrassed that many people shunned her presence in public, fearful she was still contagious. It’s interesting for a glimpse into the past, but I didn’t find it much more than that. I think I ought to read it again at another time.

Rating: 2/5
226 pages, 1948

More opinions: A Penguin a week
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by Winefride Nolan

This was much more to my taste! Straightforward and down-to-earth, very much so in fact. The author lived on a farm in Ireland and wrote what it was like farming in the forties and fifties, how their farm gradually changed from using old methods of harvesting by hand, with horses and simple implements, to modern equipment and technology- and why they made that shift. She said she wrote the book so her grandchildren would know what farming used to be like- and the book is mostly just about the farm, how it was run and maintained, very little about the family interactions or characters of neighbors, etc- although a few little sketches and incidents are mentioned. Interestingly enough, it’s also about why this family farm shifted from being one that raised a variety of livestock and crops, to becoming very specialized- mainly for the profit margin. They simply could not make a success of it, otherwise. They quit raising pigs, chickens and sheep for various practical reasons, eventually gravitating to dairy cattle. (A very amusing but exasperating- sounding incident with one of their last pigs was related: the pig had rooted into a very large stack of stored straw and wound up against a wall, they heard it grunting when they called it to come feed, but the pig wouldn’t back out, so they had to climb the straw pile and dig down to get it free). It was a different kind of focus for a book about farm life- compared to others I’ve read- and I found I liked it very much. I think if I knew these people I would like them very much, too.

Added two more books to my list: the precursor to this one, called The New Invasion, and a book the author twice mentioned reading herself, Malabar Farm by Louis Blomfield.

Rating: 4/5
178 pages, 1966

trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road

by Margaret Roach

I tried harder than I should have, with this book. It is what it purports to be- a memoir by a woman who worked as an executive for Martha Stewart, then ditched the city life and her job to go live in a house in the country on her own, with a garden and a cat that slowly eased his way into living indoors (she claimed she was not a cat person). However the focus was all on things I cared little about or could not connect to- her efforts to find romance via a paid matchmaking service, her tears over getting a sub-par local haircut, her extravagant shopping sprees, the dinners she had with friends, the efforts she made to sort her plastic storage containers and move a heavy chair. It went on and on. I just did not care. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style peppered constantly with quotes not only from writers and poets, but also song lyrics, which got rather old. Aside from that, most of the time I simply could not focus or understand her line of thinking. It’s so rambling and incoherent and I can only assume that I do not operate on the same wavelength as this woman at all.

However I did skim most of the book, and paused to read the few parts that were actually about gardening. Apparently her garden was so lovely she gave tours, and stocked her freezer and had tons of fresh home-grown produce to choose from in her fridge, but she barely tells anything about it. So disappointing. There’s briefest mention of composting, of setting out garlic cloves, of bringing tender potted plants indoors for the winter and trying to oust the insects they harbor. I could relate to all that. But it’s so few pages among the many many many chapters of navel-gazing. She does go on about frogs, and likes observing the birds- so I learned a few new things about amphibians and chickadees. And I did like this bit:

“Your garden is amazing,” people say when they come touring by the hundreds on garden open days I’ve held for charity for the last thirteen years. ‘How did it get this way?” 

“This is what happens when you stay in one place for twenty years,” I tell them, “and just keep digging more holes.”

That made me smile and chuckle. My yard is not much to admire yet, but every year I add a few new plants, and work a bit harder on the cultivated garden. Maybe someday my garden will be so full of interesting and beautiful plants that I’ll have trouble fitting in anything new (right now there’s tons of empty and wasted space)- but the only way to get there is a few holes each new season.

Anyway, this book is a toss. Not staying on my shelf. The only word of praise on the back cover I can agree with is idiosyncratic. I suppose other readers might understand her rambling, or connect to her new-age style musings but I simply couldn’t. Final thought: probably she didn’t write much about the garden in here because she does have a garden blog, called A Way to Garden- seems this book was more focused on the personal inner journey she took from the fast-paced high pressure executive lifestyle to taking care of her own house and garden with lots of solitude and time to do whatever she wanted. Admirable, yes. Readable, no.

Rating: 1/5
264 pages, 2011

by Betty Macdonald

       You know a book is going to be good when you’re already laughing aloud on page four. Very lively and funny, this. It’s about when Betty Macdonald lived on Vashon Island (across the sound from Seattle) with two daughters and her second husband. Time period is the late forties. Some things like doing the cooking and housework for a family with reluctant pre-teenagers, are awfully familiar and relatable. There are awkward houseguests and kids’ friends coming and going, changing fashions you can’t make sense of, hectic rushes to get out the door for school or work on time (in this case compounding by the narrow margin of trying to catch the ferryboat) and lazy weekend mornings. Babysitting for the neighbors, kids navigating their first jobs, fibbing about trouble in school . . . I’d feel like I was reading about a family I might have known growing up, or my own. Then there’s details about using a phone line shared with fourteen other households, frequent power outages, using a washing machine that’s a huge tub with a wringer (filled by hand), war shortages and news from overseas, Japanese neighbors that are never mentioned again after being “sent to internment camp”, and an incredibly casual attitude towards smoking that soundly reminded me this wasn’t of my time. And of course the styles. It mentions several times plans in the making for a floating bridge from Vashon to Seattle, which apparently this family looked forward to, as the ferry could be unreliable. Turns out it never happened as enough Vashon residents protested the bridge plans, not wanting their island to become built up and “commercialized”.
This book charmed me as The Egg and I did, because it’s set in a locale I know well, having grown up in the Seattle area. It’s a lot more like Macdonald’s other book Anybody Can Do Anything in tone. I kept alternately picturing the beach cabin near Copalis that my family spent holidays in when I was a kid, and my great-aunt’s place on the shores of Lake Washington, while reading this book. The rain and slippery trails on bluffs thick with huckleberries and oregon grape. The rocky shoreline and beaches where they dug clams  (a few recipes are included, which sound scrumptious). Beachcombing forays and attempts to garden on the hillside around their house. The antics of their dog, the constant quarrels of their children, and yet how calmly things fall together in the end. It was familiar and curiously unique at the same time. Fun.

I also have her book The Plauge and I, which fits between Anybody Can Do Anything and this one chronologically, but I skipped and read them out of order. Because when my nine-year-old year old saw The Plauge and I on the shelf she asked me, sounding quite appalled, if it was about corona, or maybe the black plague? (which we’ve discussed a few times). No, it’s about when the author had tuberculosis. Somehow that put me off reading it right now though.

Rating: 3/5               242 pages, 1954
More opinions: Blue-Hearted Bookworm
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by Hope Jahren 

This was great. It was not what I expected all round- I delighted in reading about experiments on the lives and methods of plants (especially details about tree biology, which read as little independent essays), how Jahren and her fellow scientist Bill came up with their ideas, the meticulous work involved, the scrounging for lab equipment and funding, the long hours and sleepless nights, the road trips and field work . . . What took me by surprise was to find myself also reading about mental illness, the mania and depression of bipolar described very frankly. And to read a birth story when she had her son. It kind of all is one long birth story- the story of how Jahren found her life\’s work in science, and struggled to grow into the best person she knew to be, doing the best science, hoping it would all get seen someday. Some parts are laugh-out-loud funny, some parts are very tense, and some incredibly insightful. Definitely keeping this one to enjoy and learn from again. Wish I could say more about it but not finding a lot of words right now. It is rather significant the things the author did not tell throughout this memoir, but they didn\’t really bother me until I read some other reviews and thought about them more. For example: she tells about a nearly-disastrous, ill-planned road trip to  a conference where she\’s supposed to present a paper, but then there\’s nothing about the conference and only one comment about the presentation itself. Hm. Well, I liked it regardless. Might read it more closely next time. There will be a next time.

Rating: 4/5             290 pages, 2016
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From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail 

by Cheryl Strayed 

Adventuresome memoir by a woman who felt herself at a loss and at odds when her mother died suddenly of cancer. She freely admits that her life was rather a mess- she cheated on her husband and got into drug use, among other things. Then upon seeing a guidebook for the PCT in an outdoor equipment store, she spontaneously decided to hike it. All the way from the Mojave Desert in southern California to the border of Oregon and Washington – eleven hundred miles. I liked how honest the telling was. From the embarrassment and weight of her inexperience, to the tedium of freeze-dried meals, frequent discomfort and injuries, camaraderie with other hikers, spontaneous generosity of people who gave her lifts, meals, showers and sometimes a bed to sleep in, and the wonder of vistas and sights along the way. A lot of it is musing on her past as she walks- her troubled family, issues with her mother, poor choices… I did see the film a while back, so a lot of this was familiar. In particular I had remembered when a man stopped her on the road for an interview because he was writing an articles on hobo and thought she was a hobo- it made me laugh, and of course the scene where she lost a boot. I found two parts rather shocking- no, not all the stuff about men- I knew that about her personality going into this-  one involved a horse that used to belong to her mother, the other what she did with her mother\’s remains after cremation…  My older sister hiked the PCT several years ago, so I also enjoyed comparing what she\’s told me of it, to what I read here. 

Rating: 3/5               315 pages, 2012
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My Escape from North Korea 

by Eunsun Kim 
with Sebastien Falletti, translated by David Tian 

A simply told memoir about a young woman whose family was starving in North Korea. Her grandparents and father died during a famine, and she literally though she would also starve in their apartment. No food in the city. With her mother and sister, she made several attempts to cross the border into China, then make a difficult journey to South Korea where she hoped to live in freedom. They had to pay enormous sums to smugglers, suffered at the hands of human traffickers in China, and when finally reaching South Korea spent months in detainment as the government interrogated everyone to ensure they weren\’t spies, then gave them lessons on assimilating into South Korean society and how to live in a capitalist system. Eunsun Kim tells how she nearly died of hunger, was forced as a child to watch public executions, and only gradually realized afterwards that she\’d been brainwashed in her homeland, that life was really different elsewhere and the regime in power oppressed the common people. She relates how the trials of attempting to leave North Korea strained her family, and how desperate she felt to reunite with her sister who initially stayed behind in China. How confusing living in a new country with a totally different system was, let alone having to learn a new language. I have nothing but admiration for someone who went through such hard times, and kept trying again even when their first attempt failed, when they barely had any energy, when they had to wait months or even a year for the next step in their journey. And yet the book left me rather unmoved. Whether the plain writing style, or the fact that it\’s not only co-authored but also translated, it just wasn\’t very engaging and lacked depth. However there\’s others on my TBR list now about the same subject: The Girl with Seven Names, Nothing to Envy, In Order to Live or Under the Same Sky.

Rating: 2/5                 228 pages, 2015

by Lucy Irvine 

Fine adventure story, if a bit odd at times. In 1981 this guy who literally wanted to live like Robinson Crusoe, advertised for a woman to accompany him for a year on an uninhabited island. Lucy Irvine answered his query and went with him to Tuin Island, which is near Thursday Island (I\’d heard of that one) which is between Australia and Papua New Guinea. It sounds kind of crazy- they didn\’t know each other, and after a week of being together didn\’t even like each other (and notably had very different reasons for going to the island)- but had to officially get married or the Australian government wouldn\’t let them live on the island. They started out with meager supplies, knowing it was going to run out but planning to subsist on local fruit, coconuts, fish from the sea, and vegetables they would grow. It was far from easy. In fact, a lot of the time it was downright miserable. They soon suffered from heat exhaustion, tropical ulcers and malnutrition. Fresh water in the creek soon ran dangerously low. It\’s doubtful they would have survived the year except some people passing by in a boat spotted them on the beach and offered them some supplies. Not long after they were getting regular visits from Badu Islanders (in the Torres Strait). Eventually they visited Badu Island as Lucy\’s companion became known to the locals for his skill at fixing engines. His work was soon in demand, and they were able to trade the service for rice, flour and other goods- which changed the dynamics of survival mode on the island. It\’s interesting how their relationship also changed once he got treatment for the sores on his legs, recovered his energy (having been laid up much of the first part of the year), and made an occupation for himself repairing things. A lot of the book is Lucy writing vivid descriptions of the island\’s beauty and how deeply it affected her- she loved that island. It\’s also a lot about the friction in their relationship, and of course the survival skills they employed, how they simply adjusted and got used to doing without many things, and acted with ingenuity to overcome other hardships or lack. Pretty interesting the description of the local islander\’s lifestyle and personalities as well, once Lucy deigned to leave the Tuin and visit Badu- she refused for a long time, wanting to stick to her commitment to stay on the island for an entire year. I would really like to read the book her companion wrote about the same venture- The Islander by Gerald Kingsland (the whole time she only refers to him as G). Forewarning: this book has a lot of profanity, and Gerald addresses Lucy with awful words, though apparently meaning nothing ill by it (she took offense plenty of times, though).

Rating: 4/5                    288 pages, 1983

A Fearless Feline Tale

by Gwen Cooper

  or How I Learned About Love and life with a Blind Wonder Cat. Homer is a small, black cat. He was found as a very young stray and brought into a vet\’s office with a terrible eye infection. The vet had to remove his eyes to save his life, and then tried to find him a home. Gwen took him in. Even though he couldn\’t see, Homer soon found his way around the apartment by touch; his hearing and sense of smell were also remarkably sensitive. The story recounts his many exploits- some funny, others just amazing, or incredibly brave- he once chased an intruder from their home, and regularly would climb heights or leap up onto furniture, shelves, etc that he knew were there even though couldn\’t see it. Funny how Gwen was the vet\’s last resort before sending Homer to a shelter- nobody wanted a blind kitten- yet as Gwen\’s friends, roommates and family got to know Homer, everybody loved him. She always had offers to leave him behind if she couldn\’t keep him (she had two other cats). He was just so engaging, bold, inquisitive and amusing. Most of all, his audacity and eagerness to be involved in life inspired Gwen when she had difficulties of her own. I thought the book would get tiresome when it shifted from talking mostly about the blind kitten to going over Gwen\’s struggles to find a new place to live, deal with a string of job losses, relationships with different boyfriends, moving back in with her parents and then out again- but through it all, her concern for her cats, especially Homer\’s safety- and tying things she learned from them back into her own story kept it intriguing. Then near the end of the book, something huge happens which I did not see coming, and I suddenly could not put the it down. I knew (of course) of this incident but had never read the aftermath described in such detail. This was a much better read than I expected going into it. Even the final chapters, about a new relationship the author got into, and how her three cats won over her boyfriend-then-husband (who was much more of a \”dog person\” at first) was really good. Four stars.

Rating: 4/5               299 pages, 2009
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My Life with Asperger\’s
by John Elder Robison

I found another book on my shelf written by someone on the autism spectrum. It\’s the brother of Augusten Burroughs, who wrote Running with Scissors (which I tried to read once but failed to find it interesting). Look Me in the Eye tells about growing up in a dysfunctional family- his mother had mental illness and his father was an alcoholic. As a young kid, John Elder wanted to play with other children but didn\’t know how- his odd way of talking earned him labels of being weird and difficult, and for his inability to make eye contact he was called \”shifty\” and \”up to no good\”. He more or less got pigeonholed as a bad kid. This was in the sixties, Asperger\’s wasn\’t a known diagnosis back then.

Actually, I found a lot of the book kind of hard to get through at first, because I was expecting to read about what it\’s like to live with Asperger\’s, and instead I was reading about all these crazy incidents as John Elder dropped out of school, left home and started travelling with bands- he had a genius for designing things with electronics and made special effects with sound, lights and smoke bombs for several different bands including Pink Floyd and Kiss. Hard to put down, but also really far from my usual reading interests! The author was really good at what he did, and enjoyed the creativity, but had difficulty handling the close personal interactions living in close quarters with the road crew on tour. Eventually he left that scene and started working for Milton Bradley, making the first electronic toys that used motion and sound. That was also a creative environment and it\’s fascinating to read how he and the other electronic engineers came up with solutions to problems, within tight constraints. But promotions placed him in positions where he was managing a team, not doing the creative work himself, which he didn\’t like. So he left that line of work and started his own business rebuilding specialty cars- had interest in vehicles, fixing and rebuilding engines from a young age. That is still operational.

It was only in his forties that a close friend showed the author a book which described Asperger\’s symptoms, and he realized for the first time why he was different from other people. He relates how reading Born on a Blue Day and books by Temple Grandin helped him recognize and understand himself. I found the last part of the memoir more interesting, where the author describes his thought process, looks back on his childhood with new comprehension, talks with his estranged parents about certain things, relates how he parented his own son (who isn\’t on the autism spectrum but has some of the traits) and tells how he is continually working on social skills and \”emotional intelligence\” but that has changed his ability to do the amazingly creative electronics work that highlighted his youth. In fact, he looks back on designs he made when he did sound effects for bands, and says he could think those things up nowadays, but not execute them, because he\’s a different person now and has lost that laser focus on one area of expertise. He\’s happy with it though. Fascinating. I wasn\’t sure at first, but I think this one\’s staying on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5             288 pages, 2007

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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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