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Tag Archives: memoirs

“Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

I can’t remember who first recommended “Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish to me. But to that mystery person–thanks!

Right up my alley–a memoir, in this case about growing up in Iowa during the Great Depression.

Kalish begins by recording the big mystery of her childhood–her father was banished from the family when she was five. She never hears from him again. She never learns why he went away.

Yet what I recall of her story isn’t a sense of sadness, or of dismay at the conspicuousness of having a divorce in the family. What I recall is that despite their lack of money and the absence of a father, Mildred considered her childhood to be full of interest and energy.

She details food, animals, school, swear words, bathroom behavior, and other aspects of life that were most interesting to children. She conveys the sense that I hear in my own parents’ recollections of that time, a sense of one’s own efforts being important to the family’s economy, and further, a sense that there was no shame in being poor at a time when just about everyone was poor.

I wouldn’t say that Kalish romanticizes that time, but she conveys how much she values that she grew up on a farm where day after day something interesting happened and where she learned to work hard. That background served her well when she set out on her own.

Kalish notes that it could be hard to be a child in a home such as her grandparents’, where fun took a far back seat to work. She doesn’t often seem to feel sorry for herself, but I was deeply struck by this passage that concludes the chapter on town school, “At home I couldn’t do anything right; at school I seemed to do everything right. So, school is where I wanted to be.”

I’ve recommended this book to many friends as a quick read that connected with me because Kalish’s young life in Iowa was so similar to that of my parents’ childhood in Nebraska. I think it would make for a good book group selection because plenty of serious themes arise even in stories of a happy childhood–fairness, whether we are loved, and how we find our place in the world.

“The Good Daughter”

The reading world is now my oyster–I’ve finished up my reading for this year’s Notable Books List! And a great list it was.

But now I can read whatever I want–and I chose “The Good Daughter” simply by searching on “memoir” as a keyword in our catalog, and sorting by date for a recent one.

This is Jasmin Darznik’s story of her mother’s life, and a whole part of that life that was unknown to Jasmin until she came upon a photograph in her mother’s belongings, clearly a wedding picture of her mother (then very young) and a man who was not Jasmin’s father.

Jasmin knew that she had come to America from Iran when she was three, with her mother and German father. She grew up an American girl.

Although her mother at first refused to respond to Jasmin’s questions, eventually she sent Jasmin a series of cassette tapes telling about her childhood and young womanhood.

This period of time in Iran, the 1950’s and 1960’s, saw great change and transition. Some families remained very conservative in their expectations of women, insisting on veils and staying mostly at home, while other women wore Western dress and held career jobs. What Darznik does very well is use her mother’s story to describe that period of uneasy “progress.”

But in the end, it is her mother’s story, and I enjoyed it immensely despite her sometimes bleak circumstances. Darznik tells the story well, filling in information where necessary, letting her mother often speak for herself. I came to both love and hate the characters she drew.

I came away with a better sense of the social history of Iran, and with much admiration for her mother, who endured so much, and who continued persevering in America.

I’ll recommend this to many of my reading friends–the rewarding story, the interesting setting, and the issues of families generally and families reacting to social upheaval in particular, will gratify many different readers. This would be an excellent choice for a book group, too.

Another Notable–“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

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.

And Now I Can Read What I Want!

I just finished my big reading project of the year–reading all (well, nearly all of all) of the titles on the American Library Association Notable Books list.  And a good list it was. I’ve made two presentations on the books, with high hopes that some readers in those audiences will try a few of my favorites. I’d be happy to speak to additional groups, so contact me if you’re interested.

I’m always trying to convince readers to take on a reading discipline–it doesn’t have to be a whole list, but maybe just the Pulitzer Prize novel each year, or the Hugo Award winner, or the Newbery Medal winner. I’ve loved the over-the-years perspective that I’ve gained from the Notable Books project.

I also LOVE having free choice. That’s where I am now–I can read whatever I want!

I started with “mennonite in a little black dress” by Rhoda Janzen. I’m a huge fan of memoir, and hoped for something a little quirky here. I scored on both counts. Janzen grew up in a Mennonite family in California. After her 15-year marriage came to an end and she was injured seriously in a car accident, Janzen returned home for a while. This is the story of her picking up the pieces and returning to the fold, sort of.

I’m not Mennonite, and can’t evaluate this as if I were. Janzen clearly loves her parents, loved her upbringing, and is in a position to poke a lot of fun. I don’t believe she’s disrepectful, though she is irreverent.  I haven’t laughed out loud so much reading a book in a long time.

Janzen’s reports of her conversations with her mother are drop-dead funny.

There’s also a maturation process at work. For instance, she describes how she once avoided serving the classic Mennonite foods of her youth…and then how she scored big at an English department potluck with a big pan of Hollapse. In many places she notes how she’s grown into a sense of herself that embraces her Mennonite heritage. She begins to find peace regarding her broken marriage.

This book works because Janzen is an excellent storyteller who laughs at herself as well as others. She’s got a great eye for the details that make a difference. She doesn’t shirk from the more ribald and absurd aspects of her life.

I’ll recommend this to my many friends who enjoy memoir, to people who enjoy a funny book, and to those who appreciate a great story.

And now that I’m free to read whatever I want…send suggestions my way, please.

“Stitches, a Memoir” by David Small

In just one evening last week, I read “Stitches, a Memoir” by David Small.

Readers of youth books will recognize his name as the winner of the Caldecott Medal (for the best illustrations in a children’s book for a given year) a few years ago for “So You Want to Be President?” by Judith St. George.

This memoir is written in “graphic novel” format, so it looks much like a comic book. Small describes a childhood where his parents kept him at a distance. His mother seemed often hostile or unhappy, with just a few windows into a different part of her life. His father was a physician who chose to keep critical information from Small when he developed cancer as an early teen. Art was Small’s escape.

As I’ve written before, memoir may be my favorite genre. There’s something compelling about reading a person’s view of how a portion of life shaped the rest of their life.

Parents often ask librarians for books for their children that tell about someone who overcame obstacles in order to be successful. Truth is, nearly every successful person overcomes obstacles. The lack of loving connections in Small’s life feels hopeless; this is not a happy book, except in the sense that we know that Small becomes a successful illustrator. Small points to a counselor who helped him to see the possibilities in his life.

In an afterward, Small writes how he learned more about his mother’s health situation that explained some of her personality. I would have liked for him to have included in the graphic format his coming to terms with learning more about her, and about how he came to terms with his father, as well. Those are brief text notes with photos at the end of the book.

This is considered an adult book, also of interest to teens.

I learned about this from Vicki Wood, the Youth Services Supervisor at Lincoln City Libraries. I would recommend this to my reader friends who also enjoy memoir, to people interested in children’s literature, and in general to people who enjoy coming-of-age stories.