book beginnings on Friday: Origins of the Universe and What It All Means by Carole Firstman

origins of the universe

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.

I’ve just begun a new memoir, about the author’s relationship with her decidedly eccentric father, a gifted biologist with poor social skills. It’s a little playful with formats within the book, and ranges from the personal to the broad. It’s called… Origins of the Universe and What It All Means.

What a title, right? Wait til you see the opening page. I’ve zoomed in, but this is the entire content of page one and chapter one:

one

“In the beginning there was darkness.”

Don’t worry, though, it’s justified & appropriate for this book. Do I have your attention now? Stay tuned…

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

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

In this memoir, a young man with a Yale law degree and a promising career remembers the hillbillies he grew up with and makes a plea for improving their conditions.

hillbilly elegy

J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School with a promising career and a happy marriage, and roots “in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” Vance’s people were among the many poor who migrated along the “hillbilly highway” from the hills of southeastern Kentucky into the Rust Belt but always considered Kentucky home.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells of a poverty-stricken community distrustful of outsiders and plagued by addiction, self-defeating attitudes and chaotic home lives. He credits his Mamaw and Papaw with giving him the tools to move beyond that community. Vance graduated from college and law school and achieved a healthy relationship by the slimmest of margins, but not without paying a price: social mobility implies movement “to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” In Vance’s case, moving toward financial security and calm meant alienating himself from those he still identifies with: “I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.”

Mamaw and Papaw are not saints. Vance’s gun-toting grandmother was given to off-color language and threats of violence. Such vivid characters and an eye for nuance are among the strengths of this sincere memoir, an elegy for both the hillbillies Vance has loved, and a large population of struggling, working-class poor. He offers ideas for improving his people’s lot: cultural change from within rather than policy. But the bulk of Hillbilly Elegy is just that: a loving remembrance of imperfect but dearly beloved individuals, who did their best with what they had.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 trips to the holler.

guest review: Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert, from Mom

My mother is here today to guest-review a book to which she brings special expertise. Mom has a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Houston; used to teach English as a foreign language to adults in community college settings; and now volunteers her time tutoring English language learners one-on-one. The disclosure here is that I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for my mother‘s honest review. (It’s fun how that fact plays off this book’s title.) Thanks, Mom!

mother tongue

Christine Gilbert is quite the adventurous spirit. She tells the story in Mother Tongue about her quest to learn three languages – Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish – in less than three years, while living in three countries. This adventure includes a baby who acquires a sibling along the way. She and her husband have few ties to the U.S., and are able to work remotely. Thus they are perfectly placed for the language quest.

The quest is primarily hers, but includes her son as he grows and learns the local language effortlessly, as children do. (Her back-story includes a genetic disposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and she learns of brain research that suggests that young bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals that gives about five extra years before onset of Alzheimer’s.) She sets out to understand language learning theories, while researching all the logistics of moving house and choosing the places.

Gilbert does her homework on language acquisition theory, and she makes her case for total immersion (no hanging out with English speakers!). She works long days in language study. In the beginning – Beijing during a very cold winter with pollution too severe for the family to go out much – she chooses to hire a tutor for working at home, as well as a housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. When a crisis takes the family away suddenly, she reviews her experience and decides complete isolation within the foreign country is not the only way to absorbing language and culture. Each move and new setting will bring more lessons, and Gilbert gets quite good at her tasks.

This is not a dry tome about memorizing vocabulary for long hours. We make friends along the journey, we learn to talk and savor local food. Gilbert is a fun character, and her husband’s story is equally interesting; the book is a travel story on lots of levels. As a parenting and family dynamics study, Mother Tongue is yet another book. I’ve been involved enough in the bigger story to follow her adventures as told on her blog, and can reveal that this is an unending quest – two more countries appear there, and since I haven’t looked lately, who knows where they may be now.

book beginnings on Friday: Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

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.

wintergreen

I am reading this in preparation for the upcoming Chuckanut Writers Conference and a class I will be taking from Robert Michael Pyle himself. An introduction from David Guterson is intriguing, as is the Pharos Edition (same folks who brought Still Life With Insects back into print). It begins:

At any time of the year and in any weather, my bedroom window frames a green and pleasant country scene. Halfway open, it makes a Kodachrome slide of the bucolic valley below, bordered by white sashes and molding.

Lovely. And this setting is just a few hours south of where I live.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

another bullshitI read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City for class, and I’m glad: glad I read it, and glad I had a class to guide me through it. I think I got more out of it this way. It would have been a little opaque to me on my own.

Nick Flynn’s father Jonathan was mostly absent in his son’s youth, although sort of a towering absence. Nick met the father he scarcely knew when Nick was working at a homeless shelter in Boston, where Jonathan became a client. This is Nick’s memoir of his father’s troubled, mysterious life and ugly effects on those around him – his wives and children – and Nick’s search for answers. (If this sounds familiar to you, you may have seen the movie made from this story, Being Flynn, which starred Robert De Niro but didn’t do terribly well.)

As illuminated by my professor, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City pulls heavily from the themes and style of absurdist theatre and theatre generally. Nearly every chapter involves some form of stage setting, awareness of audience, or other element of performance. King Lear and Beckett’s Endgame are particularly present. I know almost nothing about absurdist theatre, and would certainly have missed this subtext without help; and it really did help me to see some of what Flynn was up to.

It is an unusually, but very carefully composed book. Chapters vary in format. Some are written as short plays; some take different hermit crab forms. One of my favorites is a list of “thirteen random facts.” An illustration or two and one very important diagram come in. Despite the differences in form, there is a fairly straightforward narrative at work: the life of a father as seen (therefore, in pieces) by his son, and the life of the son, at first as it applies to the father’s story but in bursts beyond as well. This narrative is not strictly chronological, but any disjoints in its telling only reflect the way it was lived, the way information about Jonathan came to Nick, in dribs and drabs and jolts.

Readers new to the varied forms Flynn uses may find them a little distracting, but I don’t think they’ll pose a real challenge. The scrapbook-feel echoes the subject matter, echoes real life. And despite looking at a glance like it was thrown together – indeed, like real life – there is extraordinary artistry and intention at play here. Look for recurrent images throughout, like the donut, and the life raft, which sometimes takes the donut-echoing shape of a lifesaver. Look for theatricality, framed stages, costumes and sets. And the question of caring about appearances, or designing appearances.

Obviously, Nick Flynn tells painful and personal stories in this book, raising some of the classic questions of the memoir genre: how much to share, how much is too much, and what reader response is appropriate. Flynn struggles with these questions, especially in the final section called “aftermath (one year later): questions often asked, and some possible answers.” I was reminded of a Bernard Cooper essay I read – I believe it is titled “Marketing Memory,” from The Business of Memory, a collection edited by Charles Baxter. It dealt with Cooper’s surprise at reader reactions, and his inability to control what those readers take away from his work, and what they are curious about. It might seem like some of these issues are obvious ones, but there’s no accounting for people, always and in all directions, and the possibilities fascinate me.

I found this a brave, complex and moving book, and I recommend it. For a little taste, here is the obituary written for Jonathan Flynn, nearly ten years after the book’s publication. As Brevity notes, it is unattributed but presumably written by Nick.

I look forward to finding time for a reread, for further study.


Rating: 9 circles.

The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang

In celebrating a father’s traditional Hmong song poetry, this memoir records the painful history of a loving family and a people.

song poet

In The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang related her family’s immigrant experience. With The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, she focuses on the life and art of Bee Yang: “my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of tradition Hmong song poetry.” The storytelling and emotional communication of that art form was a defining element of Bee’s contribution to his family and his culture, from their home in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and, finally, in the United States. When his mother died, Bee stopped singing, and Yang considers the significance of that silence as well.

As its title suggests, The Song Poet is lyrical and beautifully composed, with themes of loss and love, realistic and raw, but enriched by gentle metaphor. It is divided into “Side A” and “Side B,” the first told in Bee’s first-person perspective and the second in Yang’s. These points of view offer immersion in a Hmong culture that values family, and shares a complex system of spiritual celebrations and a way of life centered on the day-to-day necessity of growing and harvesting food. War and violence drive the family to Minnesota, where Bee and his wife do hard, dangerous labor, and are poorly equipped culturally to battle racism and exploitation. But they retain their reverence of family and tradition. The Song Poet is a message of love and thanks to a father who sacrificed for his children’s future, and a memorial to his art.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 flip-flops.

Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home by Amy Haimerl

This memoir of home renovation in Detroit delves into much more, including the importance of place, the meaning of urban revival and the building of lives and loves.

detroit hustle

Journalist Amy Haimerl and her husband, Karl, loved their Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., but were facing rising costs and considering relocating. Friends and family were surprised by their choice of famously struggling Detroit, Mich., but they fell in love with a 1914 Georgian Revival (lacking heat, electricity, plumbing, windows and much more), and took the plunge. The house they named Matilda cost them $35,000 to purchase–and exponentially more in renovations.

Detroit Hustle is Haimerl’s memoir of rebuilding Matilda and building her marriage to Karl in parallel. But it is also a musing on what it means for a girl from a working-class family in rural Colorado to move through Mississippi and New York to arrive in the gritty and disparaged city of Detroit. Five weeks after they buy, Detroit declares bankruptcy. Amy covers the court proceedings for Crain’s Detroit Business while researching her new city and its history. Her study of the city yields complexities and contradictions, a portrait of proud residents and the difficulties of gentrification.

Haimerl is thoughtful and reflective about her relationship to place and to the intricacies of Detroit’s past and future; quirky, funny and loving about her marriage; and by turns vexed and inspired by the process of home renovation. Her vivid personality pairs well with the rich, colorful, troubled city she loves. Detroit Hustle is a remarkable memoir spanning home repair, political and culture geographies, and the choices we make for the people, places and things we love.


This review originally ran in the May 6, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 dentils.
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