Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

The exertions of rowing crew under Title IX, as a means to overcoming one woman’s demons.

course

Ginny Gilder made her way from a privileged Upper East Side life in New York City to Yale University in 1975, in the early years of Title IX, which legislated equal educational opportunities for both men and women in all areas, including athletics. Ginny had never been an athlete; her family instead emphasized business success and keeping up appearances. But she was drawn to the grace, beauty and seeming effortlessness of rowing, and against the coach’s instincts, joined the Yale crew. The story she tells in Course Correction of collegiate competition, gender discrimination, the long road to the Olympics and personal growth, also yields Ginny’s eventual healing from the emotional traumas of a well-concealed family history.

In four sections titled Catch, Drive, Release and Recovery–the four parts of a well-executed rowing stroke–Gilder details the corresponding segments of her life. Rowing captures her passion; she drives herself through injuries and health problems to an eventual Olympic medal; she learns to let go; she forms a successful family of her own, despite a damaged past.

Gilder’s prose is earnest, heartfelt, expressive and clearly strongly felt. Her narrative will appeal to sports fans and readers dedicated to memoirs of pain and redemption. Course Correction touches on the injustices that Title IX was designed to correct (including a memorable scene involving a nude protest), and portrays a painful, affecting and impressive athletic career. But it is centrally a story of one woman’s lengthy and hard-won coming-of-age and coming home.


This review originally ran in the April 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 ankle bracelets.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Moving, charming, delicately lovely, this memoir of a husband’s death offers solace and even joy.

light world

Poet Elizabeth Alexander (Crave Radiance; the 2009 Inaugural Poem) was enjoying a loving, creative, exultant and full life with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and their two sons, when Ficre died suddenly. The Light of the World is her record of that man–a husband and father, an artist, activist and chef–and of Alexander’s grief and gratitude for the years she shared with him and the love and family they made.

This astonishing and naturally poetic memoir of love and loss is vivid and abundant with sensory detail and bright color. Alexander includes recipes–Ficre’s, and those that comforted her after his death; gives evocative descriptions of his paintings and the food and music they both loved; counts his scars; and recounts her dreams of him. But The Light of the World is not a dream itself: Alexander is lucid and absolutely present. Perhaps to ward off the end it threatens, the story she sets out to tell starts, and starts again, and starts again: at their respective mothers’ pregnancies; at Ficre’s 50th birthday, the week of his death; when they met at a coffee shop in 1996. Alexander then resolutely travels through the tragic center of her story and into the life that follows, when her family of four becomes “a three-legged table,” as she phrased it in her first poem afterwards. In this tender, perceptive portrayal, Ficre comes alive again: an Eritrean native, a peace-lover born into war, a painter also accomplished in photography, collage and sculpture, an eager reader fluent in seven languages and who “could say hello and thank you in literally dozens of other[s],” an activist and member of African, African-American and global communities. “Your life is just like a foreign film!” a friend rightly exclaims, and Alexander’s is just the voice to portray his broadly informed, musical, painterly existence.

Short chapters and language of unrivalled beauty ease a sad story, and Alexander and her sons do make a joyful noise in the end. She feels that she carries “a Santa’s sack of gifts” of Ficre’s thoughts and impressions that belong to her alone; she celebrates the time they had. Their shared dreams, scars, meals, songs, dances, history and family are fittingly and exquisitely honored here.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 red lentils.

Brian Doyle at Chuckanut Radio Hour

You will of course remember my glowing review of Brian Doyle’s most recent novel, Martin Marten, which remains the best book of 2015 to date (and may well make it through: I rarely award more than one *10* in a year). The same week that that review published over at Shelf Awareness (and my teaser posted here), he came to my little city to speak at a local event, the Chuckanut Radio Hour.

The Chuckanut Radio Hour is edited and aired on local radio a few times afters its live production, and it costs $5 per person (plus fees, naturally) to be part of that live audience. My parents and I went to see this edition, because Brian Doyle! I hadn’t been before (my parents had). The show describes itself as

…a radio variety show that began in January 2007. Each Chuckanut Radio Hour features a guest author and includes guest musicians, performance poet Kevin Murphy, Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, an episode of “The Bellingham Bean” serial radio comedy, and some groaner jokes by hosts Chuck & Dee Robinson and announcer Rich Donnelly.

(Chuck and Dee are the owners of Village Books, our local top-shelf independent bookstore.) I have wholesale stolen that quotation because it’s quite accurate, although in this edition we missed Alan Rhodes and instead took an extra musical number by guest artists 3-Oh. The band was good, and funny, with covers and originals; the spoken-word/poetry was good; “The Bellingham Bean” was quite funny (and guest-starred the versatile Brian Doyle to boot). The hosts’ jokes were, yes, groaners. But of course we were there for the author. Brian Doyle turns out to be a falling-down fine comedian in his own right, who knew? Also a very good storyteller, although that is less surprising. He didn’t really need an interviewer – just a microphone and a stage, and free rein. He monologues quite cheerfully, energetically, happily, and oh so funnily. He then continued this performance after the show was wrapped up, as we lined up to get our books signed (did I cheat by having him sign my galley?) and talk with him: the line was long because Doyle was so generous with his time and attentions, and I am grateful.

That’s two very good author-talk experiences in a row. If you get a chance to see Brian Doyle live, do! And for now, go get yourself a copy of the new Martin Marten: it’s outstanding and unique. And join me in investigating his earlier work, too, which includes two novels (The Plover and Mink River) as well as a bunch of essays. Here’s to local theatre etc.!

Teaser Tuesdays: The Secret Place by Tana French

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

It’s astonishing how long it’s taking me to listen to this book, isn’t it?* It’s certainly astonishing to me; and let me say that it’s no fault of The Secret Place itself, which is as wonderful as any of Tana French’s novels. (I’ll wait to rank it til I’ve finished, of course.) I’ve already teased you with it once, but here we are again.

secret

Today I’ll share with you a few lines spoken from Frank Mackey (who we remember from The Likeness and Faithful Place) to Detective Stephen Moran.

“Always fuck with people’s expectations, Sunshine. It’s good for their circulation.”

Good advice from Mackey, I’m sure. Keep that in mind, kids. And stick around: one day I will finish this book and review it for you.


*If you’re curious, my lifestyle is much changed these days, now that I don’t have a day job. I no longer have a lengthy commute during which to listen to audiobooks. I am clearly not spending nearly enough time in the gym or doing housework, either. I’m loving the new life; but it’s skewing me much more towards print and away from the audio. Bear with me.

coffee helps me read and write

Realizing the obvious: as a creative person, I have good days and bad ones. When I get discouraged, I get very discouraged, and feel unable to do the writing & editing I know I need to do; I want to give it all up. As my friend Liz says, though, some days we just need to lie fallow (and give ourselves permission to do so).

I don’t want to dwell on that negative side today, though: I want to talk about the other days, the hyperproductive ones, when I can write 3 book reviews, do an author interview, schedule 4 blog posts and finish an essay I’d been working on. That happens sometimes, too! And you know what those productive days have in common? Coffee.

Shelf Awareness shared with me the other day an article called 12 Literary Coffee Mugs All Book Nerds Need in Their Lives. I am tickled by the concept, naturally. Go ahead, click the link, and see the bookish, readerly coffee mugs on offer there. I have made my own collection, though, and naturally think mine are a better set of choices: readerly and writerly as well.

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a little humor - and truth

a little humor – and truth

a Sugar reference

a Sugar reference

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

What about you, dear readers? Coffee or tea? In what mug? Does it matter?

book beginnings on Friday: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

diver's clothes

I have you for today a most interesting new novel, which begins thusly:

When you find your seat you glance at the businessman sitting next to you and decide he’s almost handsome. This is the second leg of your trip from Miami to Casablanca, and the distance traveled already has muted the horror of the last two months.

I love that a lot is given away in these lines, and many mysteries are presented and left unsolved as well. Note also the unusual second-person voice: you are the star of this story, m’dear. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison brings a keen perception and lyrical voice to the veiled but lasting effects of childhood trauma.

god help

Toni Morrison (Home), winner of a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize in Literature, satisfies her fans with a searing, lyrical story about the power of childhood trauma.

God Help the Child centers on a woman who has left behind the “dumb countryfied name” Lula Ann to become Bride, “with nothing anybody needs to say before or after that one memorable syllable,” a successful California career woman with her own cosmetics line but who wears no makeup. Her mother was a light-skinned, “high yellow” woman dismayed by and unable to love her blue-black daughter, but Bride grows up to repossess her skin tone and every other aspect of her beauty.

From a childhood marked by rejection and terrible crimes, Bride remakes herself as an object of attraction and a financial success, but as the novel opens, she faces dual blows: her mysterious live-in boyfriend, Booker, leaves, and a prisoner is paroled with whom she shares an old bond. God Help the Child reveals these complicated paths in alternating perspectives, most frequently Bride’s first-person voice but also that of her friend Brooklyn; her mother (who taught Lula Ann to call her Sweetness, rather than Mama or anything else that would tie them too closely together); the new parolee; and a child Bride meets along the way. Eventually, after several oblique glances, Booker himself comes fully into sight, but his perspective is told only in the third person, as Bride goes looking for answers and Lula Ann threatens to reemerge.

Even Morrison’s minor characters are complex, intriguing people deserving of closer inspection, and as Bride’s journey acquires a momentum of its own, the magnetism of her troubles pulls the reader along. She suffers the coldness of both her parents, a harrowing court case, an assault, a car accident and a fire; but it is the traumas of her childhood that most torment Bride, and, as becomes apparent, the same is true for Booker. In the end, healing comes in a surprising form.

Beautifully composed in a variety of distinct voices and covering a range of family concerns, God Help the Child employs a hint of magical realism and explores issues of race and women’s lives familiar to fans of Morrison’s fiction. The story of Bride’s life and trials is sensual, both delicate and strong, poetic and heavy with sex, love and pain, exemplifying a revered author’s unfailing talent.


This review originally ran in the April 20, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 earrings.
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