Biography & Memoir

Against Wind & Tide: Letters and Journals

These days not many people are familiar with the work of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. During her life (she died in 2001) she was most famous for her relationship with her husband, pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly between New York and Paris, to cross the Atlantic solo. There was also much publicity and notoriety about her firstborn's kidnapping and murder in 1932.  

Against Wind & Tide begins with Anne roiling with the news that she is pregnant for the seventh time. She's in her forties and her whole spirit rebels against another pregnancy. Yet, unless she has a physical reason for an abortion, she does not feel that can be an option. Much of the book is about motherhood. Charles once asked Anne what she believed the most important relationship in life to be--he said between husband and wife--but Anne said the relationship between mother and child was paramount.  However, even as a rich woman who could afford a housekeeper and a cook, she often felt divided between parenting demands and her own writing. Yet what a wonderful mother her letters show her to be. She relates to each child differently, extremely aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and always encouraging each to be his or her best.

Anne was an amazingly gifted writer and though she wrote extended book-length essays and fiction, she excelled at detailing the personal struggles and explorations of an individual. She did that throughout the 20th century.  Anne's writing is deeply contemplative. She does not skim the surface of life but burrows into it both seeking and answering some of the hard questions.

Escape from Camp 14

This terrifying book is based on the diary of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in a brutal labor camp in North Korea. In Escape from Camp 14 journalist and writer Blaine Harden tells this young man's story--the only person born in a labor camp to ever escape from one.

The writing in this book is mesmerizing, but warning: this is not a book you will want to read while enjoying a cool glass of lemonade or munching an apple. It's horrifying on so many levels. The first being that camps such as these still exist where people are forced to do slave labor even as children, where torture is routine, and where almost everyone including the guards are starving.  These camps have existed far longer than Soviet gulags but they are less well-known.

Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood

Making Babies is a delightful book about mothering--not all flowers and grace--but a truthful and somewhat sardonic account about the joys and frustrations of new parenthood. Irish novelist Enright and her husband, Martin, a playwright, had been married eighteen years before having a child. In this book, she details the whole process, from the week she decided that they should try to have a child soon (when she was already pregnant) to the period after her second child was born.

Enright describes a photo of herself taking immediately after the birth. She looked "pragmatic and unsurprised," but then later when they moved the baby to their room down the hall, she noticed that, "The child looks at the passing scene with alert pleasure...She is saturated with life, she is intensely alive. Her face is a little triangle and her eyes are shaped like leaves, and she looks out of them, liking the world."

Contrast this with the chapter titled "Milk" where Enright discusses the absurdity of starting a new biological function in her late thirties. She also remarks that there's no quicker way to clear a room than to begin breastfeeding there. It's not the sight of the breast so much, as the loud raucous sounds coming from the infant.

Wild & Other Hiking Related Books

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,663 mile long trail reaching from the Canadian border in northern border in Washington, through Oregon, to the Mexico border in southern California.  Hiking this trail can take 4-6 months and it purposefully avoids civilization.  The Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains make for both difficult hiking and beautiful unspoiled scenery.

After a trying few years after the death of her mother, author Cheryl Strayed started her PCT trail hike despite her outdoor inexperience.  Her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail chronicling her hike came out this past spring and was well reviewed. I promptly put this book on my to-read list as doing a long hike lingers at the bottom of my life to-do list.  

Looks like I will have to wait to read this memoir a little bit longer as this past week Oprah selected Wild as the first title of her new Oprah Book Club 2.0.  As of this morning there were quite a few holds on this book, but I'm thinking the wait just might be worth it.

Blood, Bones & Butter

Before I became a librarian, I worked in the restaurant industry for 10 years.  I learned to cook from my dad and had dreams of going to culinary school to become a chef.  Career changes happen, but I am still drawn to cooking shows and spend a lot of time reading books about food, food policies, eating, and food history --think Bittman, Kurlansky, & Kingsolver.  When it came out recently, I knew I had to read Blood, Bones & Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton. 

Hamilton is owner and head chef at Prune, a well-reviewed and established restaurant in New York. This book sets out her love of food from her parents to her on-the-fly education in New York City catering.  Her path to recognition and establishment later in life is both gory and determined. Being a woman in this business can be ugly and Hamilton both investigates and dismisses this fact.  What she does well is understanding the connection between food and family and what it means to be part of this process on both an intimate and grander scale.     

Dreaming in French: the Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

Confession: I tried to learn French once.  Years ago, I signed up for a New Orleans Free University class in what should have been a great place to learn French or at least Cajun. But each week the instructor came to class "under the influence."  Even though he shared some wild Paris stories and jumped on and off the teacher's desk, my French never improved.

I've always enjoyed books about experiencing the world through the lens of a new culture. Alice Kaplan's excellent Dreaming in French is a very fun and compelling read. In clear beautiful prose, she writes about how living in France changed the life courses of three smart and gifted women: Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. 

Each of them spent time in France on the cusp of womanhood. In many ways, France and French culture affected not only how they viewed the world but their entire lives afterward.

In 1949 Jackie travelled to Paris by ship as part of a contingent of Smith College students spending the year abroad. It was soon after World War II and she was placed with a former WWII resistance fighter whose husband had died in a camp doing slave labor for the Nazis.

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on EarthMicrohistories are a subgenre of nonfiction books which take a particular subject or single event and through intensive historical research try to contextualize the chosen subject within the broader picture.  Both Simon Winchester and Mark Kurlansky are well known microhistorians.  Kurlansky in particular is known for Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.  As a history nerd, I find that a well written microhistory uncovers a previously unthought-of subject or event and breathes life into the history cannon as a whole.  Curious?  Check out titles like Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, or Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  Several years ago I read and enjoyed a microhistory called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

Blue Nights

OK. I confess. This book sat for most of its check-out period on my night table. I had read Didion's excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking but I knew that this new memoir covered another territory  of loss--not that of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, but of her daughter who had the wonderful name of Quintana Roo (a state in Mexico.)

And yes, Blue Nights is sad. As would be any book about losing your only child. But it's also amazingly human, full of insights and many questions, some of which go unanswered.

First the title. It comes from those late June, early July nights where twilight seems to linger for hours until darkness finally comes. The light is soft; the world is warm and alive. Didion speaks of them as occurring only in the north, not far south in LA where she spent much of her life as a screenwriter, essayist, and novelist and where Quintana grew up. No, the blue lights happen in New York City where Didion now lives now and where Quintana died young at the age of thirty-nine from a massive infection. To make matters even more tragic, she first got ill only five months after her wedding.

The book covers other things as well adoption, meeting with biological family for the first time as an adult, parenting, the failures of parenting, and, in particular, aging.  Didion writes with brutal honesty especially about this last topic.

Half Broke Horses: a True Life Novel

This Sunday in our Booksplus program (Library Room 2B at 2p.m.) we will be discussing Jeannette Walls' rousing true fiction story Half Broke Horses about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a feisty woman who grew up in the still wild west of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the early years of the last century. You may be familiar with the author's first book The Glass Castle; it made many best books of the year lists when it came out in 2005 and still has a wide readership.

What a gripping opening. A flash flood rips through the family ranch one evening and Lily her brother and sister hear a loud rumbling as the earth shakes beneath them. Lily grabs the youngest and runs for the only tree in the field. They spend a harrowing night hanging on to branches as massive flood waters drown the field. Although Lily is only ten at the time, she keeps both children awake by making them say their math tables, the names of the states, and any other long list she can remember.

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

This book describes my dream job, being a fire lookout out west. I could handle the wild creatures, the solitude, even the lightning strikes, but maybe not cleaning out the cistern after vandals pollute it. In the tradition of writers, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey and Norman Maclean. Philip Connors leaves his job as a Wall Street Journal editor and while on vacation signs up on the spot to detect fires for the National Forest Service, or as he jokingly calls it "The National Forest Circus."

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