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"The Faraway Nearby" by Rebecca Solnit

March 13, 2014 by PatLeach
Rebecca Solnit's "The Faraway Nearby" exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association's Notable Books List--I find excellent books there that I hadn't heard about previously.

"The Faraway Nearby" begins with apricots, picked from Solnit's mother's tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer's to know. Solnit's preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

I was intrigued by the title, "The Faraway Nearby." Here is what she says about that, "After years in New York  City, Georgia O'Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, 'from the faraway nearby.'" (p. 108)

Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, "knot." The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother's story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. "People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully...Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you're lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run." (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she's right. It has changed everything a little.

At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won't recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.

Tagged in: nonfiction, memoirs, Notable Books, "The Faraway Nearby",
Comments: 0

Gere Books Talk, April 29, 2013

December 26, 2013 by Webmaster


PodcastListen now - 67:56, 51.4 MB

book coversKatie discusses and reads excerpts from a variety of memoir-style biographies. A booklist based on this talk is also available.

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Tagged in: podcast, podcasts, book talks, booktalks, memoirs, biography, biographies,
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Another Notable--"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

February 16, 2011 by PatLeach

This was my second try for "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, her memoir of friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York in the late 1960s and 70s. When I checked it out last fall, it hadn't yet been named a National Book Award winner, and it hadn't been included in the American Library Association Notable Books List.

Because I'd gotten at least halfway through the first time, I accomplished the reading quickly this time. (An irritating by-product of reading books off of a list is that sometimes I'm more invested in marking a title off the list than in relaxing and savoring the book itself.)

Patti Smith is a poet, artist, and rock star legend, enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Robert Mapplethorpe became a renowned and groundbreaking photographer (some might add notorious for the shocking sexuality of his work) before his death due to AIDS in 1989.

This true story of their friendship, if a novel, would seem past belief. They first met in New York City. Patti encountered Mapplethorpe when she was looking for one of her friends, someone she hoped might help her out and give her a place to stay. Instead at first she lived on the street, homeless. She ran into him again when she needed a friend badly. They became friends and lovers, people who saw possibilities in each other often unseen by outsiders, friends who nurtured the artist in each other. For a time they lived in the Chelsea Hotel. They rubbed elbows with the likes of Janis Joplin and Diane Arbus. But they had difficult times, with too little money for food or medical treatment. Smith describes those times straightforwardly, not romanticizing them except in the sense of how she and Mapplethorpe pooled what they had, and in the deepest sense, took care of each other. This story is before they knew success, though Mapplethorpe had a sense of his gift, and Patti gradually began to sense her own.

What a great book group book this is--issues of feminism, of artists developing, of following one's dream, of choosing to be vulnerable, of falling in love.

My own reservations about the book mainly involve writing that sometimes seems off-kilter. In general, Smith writes in a deceptively simple conversational way. However, she descends or ascends stairs, never just goes down or goes up. She often uses the "for" where typical conversation would use "because," as in, "I was good at tending the sick, bringing one out of fever, for I had learned that from my mother." (p. 97)

Now that "Just Kids" has won the National Book Award and is probably being read by a wide audience, I wonder whether it needs a foreward to provide context. People of a certain age or with a certain background know of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and are familiar with their remarkable positions in our culture. Some readers may need that context.

Given the attention that this book has received, I don't know that I'll much need to recommend it to others. I will keep it in mind for my friends who enjoy memoirs, for people who like to read about artists, and to those who will recognize and revel in the sense of being an outsider.

Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, "Just Kids", Patti Smith, memoirs,
Comments: 1

Julia Child's My Life in France

October 22, 2009 by PatLeach

Last week I spent an intense four-and-a-half days in Seattle at a Public Library Association Strategic Planning "Boot Camp." More on that later--for now I'll tell about the reading that I took along for my flights there and back, "My Life in France" by Julia Child.

I haven't seen the movie, "Julie and Julia" yet, but I have read "Julie and Julia," by Julie Powell which I enjoyed immensely last year. I was primed for reading "My Life in France."

My plane was late leaving Lincoln by at least three hours, and it helped that "My Life in France" was an excellent companion. I'd describe its style as conversational. Child recalls her impressions of France, of food, and of people, so well. It's hard to believe that when she moved to France with her husband in 1948, she didn't speak the language, and she knew almost nothing about cooking. She tells how she came to be in love with France. I'm still impressed with the way that she chose to embrace the culture, to get out there and interact with people even though communication was a struggle. She describes her first meal with her husband in France, and how it opened her eyes to a whole new way of thinking about food.

I became so intrigued with that part of her journey that it seemed almost jarring when they were once again living in the United States in the 1960s and she was becoming famous for her first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and her cooking shows on educational television.

This book reads quickly. I was sorry to come to its end.

I would expect that other lovers of memoir would enjoy it, as would various Francophiles, cooks, and world travelers.


Tagged in: Good Reads, memoirs, Julia Child, My Life in France,
Comments: 1

A Tale of Two Memoirs

October 09, 2009 by PatLeach

A few weeks ago I actually had some time at home to read! I had picked up two books (from Lincoln City Libraries, of course) to keep me in good reading, "Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World" by Mary Pipher, and "DV" by Diana Vreeland.

I don't think that I could have chosen two more different memoirs by women.  "DV" in breathless language tells all about the globetrotting, namedropping, stylish life of a fashion maven extraordinaire.  With almost not a single moment of self-reflection, she romps through her life story. I find her life on the cutting edge of twentieth century fashion fascinating, and I think that I'll look for a well-crafted biography that will provide a little more context, and a lot more evaluation of her impact.

On the other hand, "Seeking Peace" is all self-reflection. Mary is a friend, and I've heard her speak about this book, so I knew what I was in for. I found her description of her Great Plains childhood and youth, framed by the meltdown she experienced in 2002, absorbing and familiar in the best way. Although she tells an excellent story, she uses each experience to learn something about herself, to think about why what happened in her life at certain points, came to be so important so many years later.  When I consider the kind of public success that Lincoln's own Pipher has experienced, I'm delighted that she opened this window into her personal story.

I loved the crazy contrast of reading these two such different books back-to-back. It's one example of why memoir continues to be my favorite genre. 

Tagged in: Good Reads, Mary Pipher, Seeking Peace, DV, Diana Vreeland, memoirs,
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