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.

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

The pile of boxes dwindled at the bottom of the stairs and grew at the top. Ten boxes left, then four, then one, and I realized I should not have left the two bags of cement for last. I climbed eight hundred and ten stairs that day, hauled up nine hundred ninety-five pounds, nearly half a ton. The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.

The journey of a journalist-turned-carpenter, a woman in a man’s world, both thoughtful and spirited.

hammer head

Nina MacLaughlin studied English and Classics in college, and went on to work for a Boston newspaper. She spent her 20’s there, increasingly frustrated by pointing and clicking and sinking into her desk chair, so she walked away, unsure of what was next, until she spotted an ad for a carpenter’s assistant: “Women strongly encouraged to apply.” MacLaughlin relates the journey offered by that opportunity in Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.

MacLaughlin’s new boss, Mary, describes herself as a “journeyman-level carpenter and a slightly better tiler.” MacLaughlin doesn’t know what these words mean, but brings her strength, work ethic and quickness to learn, and finds an unexpectedly rewarding new life working with her hands: “The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.” She documents years spent learning and working in a male-dominated field, occasionally seasoned with observations referencing poets and ancients, but mostly living and reveling in the tangible: calluses, sinews, wood and sweat. That interplay of the physical and the intellectual centers this book, which is itself both intelligent and well-muscled, hardy and poetical.

Organized by tools that represent qualities of character, Hammer Head is unsurprisingly beautifully written, and well supported in both its structural and its cerebral elements. MacLaughlin’s voice is wise and playful, wondering and astute, and Mary is a marvelous character, levelheaded and non-demonstrative. The result is a charming, thought-provoking, utterly lovely ode to work and life and learning.


This review originally ran in the March 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: measure 9 times.

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

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.

course

I’ve only just begun this one, but it’s good from the get-go. How about this opening paragraph:

A well-rowed shell is art in motion. It moves smoothly. Stroke after stroke, oars drop in the water and come out together. The rowers’ bodies swing back and forth in sync, performing the same motion of legs, backs, arms at the same instant; no extraneous shrug of shoulders, flick of the wrist, turn of the head, shift of the seat. The result – perfectly spaced swirls of water trailing the shell’s wake – offers the only visual cue of the speed these on-water dancers live to create.

I’m a sucker for poetic praise of athleticism, and it looks like this story has a few other points in its favor, too. Stay tuned.

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

Maximum Shelf: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 4, 2015.


spinster

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… even if the answers are nobody and never.” Kate Bolick explores her own answer to the classic questions, arduously and over the years of her own life; she examines their place in society, and the way other women she admires have answered them, mining the lives of female writers who have affected her. The resulting book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is less a polemic than one might expect, and more a thoughtful, generous consideration of our world, and a woman’s best options to honor herself.

Bolick begins with her family background, her loving parents and brother, and her home in Newburyport, Mass. In a personal and family tradition of talking, reading, discussing and writing, Bolick naturally gravitates toward literary models for the life she hopes to build. After her mother’s death, she seeks to re-create the conversations they used to share, “not with other, real, live women… but real, dead women, whom I could sidle up to shyly and get to know slowly, through the works they left behind and those written about them.” In the opening pages, she introduces her five “awakeners,” women of the written word who have offered her lessons about how to live as a woman, married or not. These awakeners are an essayist, a columnist, a poet, a novelist and a social visionary (although each, of course, crosses over and between those categories).

Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), essayist at the New Yorker, offers a loving picture of single city life and an admirable sense of style. She will also come to provide a frightening negative version of the stereotypical single woman’s final days. Neith Boyce (1872-1951), columnist at Vogue and representative of the Bachelor Girl, supplies a glimpse into the life of working women, a novel possibility in her time; although as Bolick points out, the chance of sex or sexiness in the workplace presents a “negotiation [that] continues today.” Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), poet and legendary lover, brings revelations. “Her legacy wasn’t recklessness, but a fierce individualism that even now evades our grasp.”

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), novelist and grand dame (“society’s favorite version of the single woman”), built herself a house, the Mount, with two rooms of her own, a public “boudoir” for entertaining and a spare bedroom in which to do her writing. She represents a model for the prioritization of one’s work, and also for the work Bolick reluctantly takes on in editing a luxury decorating magazine: rather than mere frivolity, this focus offers another opportunity to get to know herself. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), social visionary and prolific writer (of The Yellow Wallpaper, for example), inspires self-improvement and a different way to go about making a home.

Bolick tells her own story chronologically. As she discovers each of her five awakeners (a term borrowed from Wharton) and the lessons she finds with them, she changes jobs, moves from Newburyport to Boston to New York City, and dates and cohabitates with different men (referred to only by the first letter of their first names). She started using the word “spinster” in her journals in her early 20s, and always considered it a positive appellation, one posing possibility. Her evolving interest in spinsterhood is tracked by all of these layered journeys, the lives and writings of the awakeners interspersed with her own. Along the way, she also makes brief calls on Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Anne Sexton, Annie Dillard and others. Bolick acknowledges that the subjects of her investigations are all like her: straight white women of New England; diversity is not her focus.

Spinster‘s tone is charming, by turns confessional, collegial and academic. Bolick’s erudition is leavened by a playful, casual tone, even as she references Shakespeare and the Lernaean hydra in a single page. Not only a memoir, Spinster employs research into the lives of the five profiled writers, as well as into history and sexual politics. As the narrator of this voyage, Bolick is amiable, credible and fun to know.

Interestingly, all five of the awakeners eventually married, in some cases more than once. While it thoughtfully contemplates the possibilities for and arguments in favor of women remaining unmarried, Spinster is not a mandate. Bolick does not insist upon spinsterhood for her readers. Rather, she offers assistance in “holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient,” whether single, happily or unhappily coupled. The word “spinster,” and all it entails–and Bolick makes great strides toward the proud and pleased application of this embattled historical term–is thus a tool for our individual contentedness.

Entertaining, wise and compassionate, Spinster is the result of Bolick’s lifetime of meditations, ruminations, angst and joy; of research, reading and appreciation of five intriguing lives; of dating, moving in with someone and time spent alone. While allowing that the coupled lifestyle is fine for some, Bolick’s message for readers is a celebration of the delights, challenges, and opportunities of remaining single.


Rating: 8 women.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Bolick.

Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

A poet’s quiet, beautifully composed, powerful story of self-healing by viewing the paintings of Vermeer will be a balm to troubled minds as well as satisfying to lovers of art and memoir.

travels

Poet Michael White’s unusual and riveting memoir, Travels in Vermeer, opens in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody battle. White lost his first wife to cancer, but counts this second marital tragedy as a “total loss,” of faith as well as of his partner. Reeling, he flies to Amsterdam (“all I’d wanted was an ocean behind me”), and heads to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandts. But what he sees instead is The Milkmaid, a tiny painting by Johannes Vermeer. The maid evokes a “tingling at the back of [his] scalp,” and this knee-buckling discovery inspires a plan, hatched on the museum grounds, to devote his breaks from teaching university-level creative writing to traveling the world viewing all the Vermeers he can. For the next 14 months, he chases the life-changing insights and soothing, healing effect provided by the Dutch master’s small-scale, intuitive paintings, in which he sees expressions of love.

White studies biographies and art criticism about Vermeer, while visiting museums in The Hague, Washington, D.C., New York City and London. The reader shares in this lucid examination of Vermeer’s remarkable lighting techniques, occasional trompe l’oeil and the solitary women who feature in his work (alongside a few group scenes and landscapes). White sheds light as well on his difficult childhood, including a scene when his mother dumps him unannounced at his father’s apartment, following their divorce: unlike White’s own daughter, he was an apparently unwanted son. While Vermeer occupies the bulk of this brief, eloquent book, a few scenes from White’s battle with alcoholism and his tentative success with Alcoholics Anonymous round out a self-portrait sketched with great feeling in few words. Only a poet could communicate so economically, in language deserving of contemplatively paced reading.

White’s descriptions competently guide even the most unfamiliar or untrained reader through an appreciation of the mechanics and mysticism of Vermeer’s art. Readers will regret the lack of reproductions of the paintings under consideration; but as he observes upon meeting Girl with a Pearl Earring, “reproductions are useless.”

Travels in Vermeer is a thoroughly user-friendly piece of art education, but it is even better as a thoughtful, spare memoir of pain and recovery, unusually formatted and exquisitely moving. For a companion piece, consider White’s previously published book of poetry inspired by the same journey, entitled Vermeer in Hell.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 daubs.

Teaser Tuesdays: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

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

spinster

There is a lot to love about this book, in which a fun, intelligent woman discusses singledom and the arguments in favor, while exploring the lives & writing of those who’ve gone before her. A Maximum Shelf is coming. For now, I wanted to share these charming lines.

Because I’d started contributing to magazines and newspapers as a graduate student, the transition was seamless enough, save for the fact that reviewing books makes it very easy to never go outside.

I certainly identify, Kate. Here’s to continuing to make an effort to go outside (& also loving what we do).

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

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