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Category Archives: Memoir

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the LaneUnknown-1

by: Neil Gaiman

Harper/Collins New York, NY  2013

ISBN:978-0-06-225565-5

The latest novel from Neil Gaiman continues the theme of searching for identity common to MirrorMask, American Gods and many of his other works.  It has the same mythic scope and the ability to make us question the boundaries of our own reality.

The story is told in the first person and is written almost as a memoir.  The main character and narrator is back in his childhood haunting grounds “escaping” from a funeral.  He wanders back to an old friend’s farm and sits by the small pond she called her ocean.  The body of the story unfolds as he remembers back to his seventh year.

I was charmed by this book, even in its darker moments.  I too had a childhood landscape that was marked by pathways leading to “other” places and objects that appeared different than what I knew them to be.  The child in this story is led through the landscape by his new friend Lettie, who is eleven to his seven.  Lettie lives on the farm with her mother and grandmother where they have lived forever.  The farm is listed in the Domesday Book and occasionally Lettie makes a comment that leads the reader to wonder if forever isn’t literally descriptive.

Unlike American Gods, the mythology Gaiman draws upon isn’t laid out in neat pieces.  Unlike Mirror Mask it isn’t hidden away in the magic and mirrors of carnival entertainment.  These are the figures of the land and if you know the land, you know the stories.  Otherwise they are just those folks who’ve always been there, forever.  The things that become so familiar no one but the children ever look twice.

When we return in the tale to the day of the funeral the memories that have been reclaimed stay with our narrator, at least for a moment.  He recognizes the woman who greeted him, not as Lettie’s mother aged but rather as the Grandmother just as she always was.  He wonders if, when Lettie comes back to the farm, she will still be eleven.  It’s the question he asked her as a seven year old, not just how old was she but “How long have you been eleven?”

The dedication to this book is to Gaimen’s wife and performing artist Amanda Palmer.  The implication is that he wrote the book because she wanted to know something about his childhood.  Indeed Gaiman drew heavily on his childhood home and the country where he grew up.  He leave us to wonder how much of the mythic was a part of his childhood as well.  Especially since the main character is left with a scare where his heart was touched by the “other world” that would never quite heal over.

This too is mythic.  Those who wander into the realm of Fairy and who survive to find their way out often spend the rest of their lives searching for a means by which to return.  For Gaiman, clearly his means is in his writing.  Thankfully he seems willing to take some of the rest of us with him as he goes.

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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Fantasy, Memoir

 

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The John Carlos Story

UnknownThe John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World

by John Carlos with Dave Zirin

Forward by Cornel West

Haymarket Books Chicago, IL 2011

ISBN:978-1-60846-127-1

I am not a big sports fan.  I don’t remember the Olympic games from 1968.  If we even had a TV in the house that summer we were probably camping during the Olympics.  Dad probably listened to them on the transistor radio he kept plugged into his ear.

1968 Olympics

1968 Olympics

I do remember the photograph.  I do remember the political atmosphere.  I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot and Bobby Kennedy and the protests across the globe against apartheid and for civil rights.  I remember that what the papers, the news media were saying didn’t make sense but I had no alternative context.

I was little, my understanding of events was at a grade school level.  My parents were politically active so I had a more rounded education and experience with these matters than most of my white, suburban classmates.  Even back then I had direct experience with the difference between intention and motivation for an action and the media’s take on those same actions.

I called the library and asked what is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir.  It took them a while to come up with an answer.  Something about the entire scope of a life and chronological order make it biographical where reminiscence or the story of a single event falls into the memoir category.

This book is classified as neither an autobiography or a memoir.  It is considered to be a biography, presumably because the majority of actually writing is by Dave Zirin.  However it reads as though it is a memoir, with chronology and lifetime scope, in the voice of John Carlos.  It’s written in first person.  The stories come from a personal angle rather than a “historical” one.

This is not a book about the 1968 Olympics, although that event is clearly central.  This is a book about standing up and (to paraphrase Carlos quoting MLK) “Speak for those that can’t and those that won’t speak for themselves.”  Those words, according to John Carlos, gave him a center for his life and judging from the book they carried him far beyond the 1968 games.

The fact that the afterword, written by Dave Zirin, talks about the continued impact and importance of coming together and speaking out for what is right.  He talks about Wisconsin and Governor Walker.  He talks about  Arizona and immigration.  He talks about LGBT marriage equality.  He talks about workers rights in Egypt.  He says, “It’s not every athlete who acts like their life’s ambition off the court is to be featured on MTV Cribs.”  He says, “Since athletes are role models…….it’s worth asking the question: what are they modeling?”

John Carlos gives credit along the way to many athletes who stood up both before and after he and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman.   He talks about speaking with Jesse Owens, and accusing him of not doing enough in Hitler’s Berlin.  He talks about the support he got from Jackie Robinson and how, unlike Jackie, at least he had the support of his team.  He mentions George Forman, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Rosie Grier.

It’s also helpful that the small and ubiquitous acts of oppression in the world are simply laid out as a given.  This piece is carefully written to convey passion rather than anger.  It is a hopeful and painful read because he makes you understand why this struggle is so important and necessary.  He also makes clear that what happened in 1968 is a piece of our country’s history that many people have worked hard to gloss over.

As a non-sports fan I had no trouble with this book.  At its heart it is not a sports story, it is a human story told with a sports perspective.  It is a journey through history past and present.  It is enlightening and hopeful.  There is no question that we continue as a people to struggle with these issues.  John Carlos’ philosophy seems to feel that the struggle is worth it.  He makes a good case.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Memoir, Non-fiction

 

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Bossypants

BossypantsUnknown

by: Tina Fey

Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company NY,NY  2011

ISBN:978-0-316-05689-2

For someone who doesn’t read a lot of memoirs this seems to be my year.  Tina Fey writes a piece that is part memoir, part stand up routine.  It’s more like reading a series of short sketches than a story of someone’s life.  At the same time she does seem to cover the arc of her experiences in a somewhat sequential manner.

Reading this book it seems as though Tina Fey truly believes she has an ordinary life.  It is just extraordinary circumstances and people she works with who make her interesting.  There is a sense of the common man in her humor, especially when she writes about her feelings of guilt as a working mother.  At the same time she clearly holds the modern-day noblesse oblige when she debates quitting her job and leaving all those people without the paycheck that they need even if she doesn’t.

She does spend plenty of time talking about the serendipity that brought her fame;  Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee.  She talks about her reluctance to take on a character and how much everybody thought she should.  She talks about working with Amy Poehler.  She talks about walking the line as a writer between satire and political commentary.

As a whole this work is as delightful as I had hoped.  Tina Fey is a funny lady.  She is a comic writer by trade and it comes through in her voice as I read.  This is the kind of book that has you looking a little crazy while you laugh out loud on the bus.

Saturday Night Live

30 Rock

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2013 in Memoir

 

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Elephant Whisperer

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African WildUnknown

Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence

St. Martins Press NY, NY  2009

ISBN: 978-1-250-00781-0

I really wasn’t sure when I picked this up if I would like it.  Would it be a collection of stories about animals in Africa?  Would it be about training elephants to do work for people?  Would the elephants be a metaphor for the political situation in South Africa?  Would it be a memoir of safaris?  The answer to my questions turned out to be a delightful yes and no.

Our Lawrence Anthony and his lovely French wife, Francoise, have bought a game reserve in Zululand in South Africa.  It turns out that the idea is truly to preserve the species in a wilderness habitat rather than to create a zoo or a hunting reserve.  We learn that the animals are actually native to this area but were pushed out for so long that most of the local native tribespeople have never even seen things like an elephant in person.

Politically, Lawrence grew up in the area and was very active in the movement for civil rights for the South African natives.  He speaks the local languages and knows the tribal chiefs personally.  He dreams that the small reserve he has purchased could be joined into a large Royal Zulu game reserve connecting his little parcel Thula Thula to the National Forest.  That would not only allow for the return of the native species but also become a corridor for their natural migratory patterns.  This is a dream with serious political ramifications and the book holds stories that represent some of them.

The center of the book is Lawrence Anthony’s relationship with a herd of elephants.  He acquires them because they were unruly enough to warrant killing them, at least in terms common among small reserves.  Lawrence takes on the challenge and throws out the book.  He takes his cues from the elephants, particularly Nana the Matriarch, and works to establish trust.

It’s clear from the stories that Anthony Lawrence has a genuine love of nature in nature.  We hear not only about the elephants but also other animals the reserve acquires.  There are stories about the rhinoceros, the crocodile and even the family pets.  Max, his bull terrier, is clearly a partner in the process.  As this narrative covers several years time we are sad to see Max aging and eventually unable to keep up.

Developing this dream has its challenges.  There are stories about the staff some of whom are priceless and others who are problematic.  We see that part of the dream is to provide jobs, training and opportunities to the young tribesmen.  Those who are successful are also those who clearly share the vision of seeing the animals thrive, unencumbered in their native environments.

Of course a dream this large needs funding.  So there is an exclusive resort built on the property.  Camera safaris are conducted.  Tourists are wined and dined in high French fashion.  Still, it is clear that the animals are the priority.  When flooding creates new pools and pockets very near the resort and residence areas the crocodiles that move in are left alone.

So too, over time, are the elephants.  The close relationship Lawrence builds with Nana does not need to continue into the subsequent generations.  In the end the dream truly is to let the elephants and the other wildlife simply be.  Now I have a trip to South Africa and Thula Thula Lodge on my bucket list.  The stories have drawn me in and created a compelling picture.  It would be a delight to see it all in person.

Sadly, Lawrence Anthony died a year ago March 2, 2012.  The elephants he loved showed up to mourn his death.  Here’s the link to the article.  News: Elephants gather inexplicably to morn death of “Elephant Whisperer”

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Memoir, Non-fiction

 

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Expecting Adam

Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic51A3UmNH51L._AA160_

Martha Nibley Beck

Three Rivers Press NY,NY  1999, 2011

ISBN:978-0-307-71964-5

This is a memoir.  At the time they were expecting Adam the couple were both PhD candidates at Harvard University.  She finds out early on that he will be born with Down’s Syndrome.  Martha Beck writes this memoir ten years later with much help from her old journals, diaries and conversations with friends and family.  The narrative is centered at the time of her pregnancy with Adam.  She occasionally jumps through time offering an incident in Adams life that underscores her experience.

I find this an interesting story juxtaposed to The Fault in Our Stars.  There the author insists that he is writing fiction but his work rings true.  Here the author insists she is writing truth but her story doesn’t sit well with me. It is the fantastical and spiritual parts of the story that I believe and the truth of the tale that I do not.   I find her jumps in time between being pregnant and having a 10 year old son at the time she’s writing disconcerting.  That she occasionally tosses in a scene with her son at 2 or 5 or 7 doesn’t help continuity.  I see what she’s trying to do in making her points but I find myself lost in time.

Memoirs are interesting in the literary context.  They tell a true story but they can never be entirely the Truth.  Scenes are painted as though the author was a fly on the wall when truly they are pieced together based on likelihood, history and knowing the characters.  Memory is also not dependable and is clearly one sided.  I sympathize with the author’s feelings and experiences but I struggle with her judgmental attitude.

The magic referred to in the title is expressed as Martha’s sense that her life being controlled by divine beings.  She experiences moments of telepathy or astral projection.  She describes what is essentially a magical healing.  She talks about feeling surrounded by love and compassion in her most desperate moments, but she demonstrates no love or compassion for the other characters in the story.

I know what the tone of the world was like when Adam was born.  He’s the same age as my son.  I also got bombarded with medical studies and had specialty doctors explaining to me my son would be a vegetable.  But I am astounded that someone, who is so insistent that her credentials as a social scientist lend credibility to her observations, is unable to evaluate statistical information.  Even I knew that studies of children who were institutionalized at birth were irrelevant to a child who would be loved, held and given early intervention services.

Adam (and my Orion) was born in 1988.  Life Goes On, the TV series staring an actor with Down’s Syndrome aired in 1989.  The American Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990 but people had been working towards it since 1973.  I don’t understand the blame and resentment that ten years after the fact still comes out in the writing of this memoir.  I don’t understand the insistence on using words like retarded and mongoloid to describe your own kid even in the 2011 edition.  I don’t understand her inability to find real information and support even in the rarified university environment.  Surely she had access to a Boston phone book!

Adam (and my Orion) were born in 1988.  Life Goes On, the TV series staring an actor with Down’s Syndrome aired in 1989.  The  American Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990 but people had been working towards it since 1973.  I don’t understand the blame and resentment that ten years after the fact still comes out in the writing of this memoir.  I don’t understand the insistence on using words like retarded and mongoloid to describe your own kid even in the 2011 edition.  I don’t understand her inability to find real information and support even in the rarified university environment.  Surely she had access to a Boston phone book!

At one point in the book she and her husband are having a stress induced argument.  He barks at her, “You don’t want this baby to be normal.  You’d throw him in a Dumpster if he just turned out to be normal.  What your really want is for him to be superhuman.”  The argument, as many are, turns out to be more about the husband and his life experiences than anything else.  Still I have to wonder if he has a point.  This book seems an attempt to convince us, and herself, that Adam is indeed superhuman.  The author even goes so far as to suggest the chromosomal abnormality technically makes him a different species!

I said I wasn’t sure if I could review a book I didn’t like.  I think the reason is because then I’d have to finish the book.  This was a hard book for me to finish.   I know what it’s like to be exceptionally hurt by crazy insensitive stuff people say about your kid.  I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed with information and expert opinions that are not based in real life experience.  I know what it’s like to be extremely sick, pregnant and dependent on the support of people who don’t believe in your choices.

It doesn’t surprise me that her feelings about other people’s reactions were exactly as she’s conveyed.  But again her insistence that her degree allows her to pass judgments on people’s intentions is absurd.  I stopped speaking to my Mother-in-law because I heard her say, “Did the doctors tell you it was your fault?”   That probably is what she said.  She was actually trying to express concerned that any of the doctors were blaming me.  She didn’t think the situation warranted blame, but knew how people can be.  She didn’t want me to feel guilty.  Instead she devastated me.  We worked it out.  Clearly Martha Beck never did.

I suspect this is a book people either love or hate.  I’m not the right audience.  I don’t need to hear her story, I’ve lived my own.  I don’t need her to validate my experiences.  I know that we are not alone in experiencing discrimination and I trust my experiences with Divine presence.  (See my book Manifest Divinity for more on that.)   I know there are a lot of people out there who do need those reassurances and for them I can see this as an important book.  I think it would be better if Martha had learned to reflect the loving kindness that Adam continues to demonstrate toward her.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Memoir

 

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