There are also some experiences I will, I know, share with others (and still, we’ll experience them so differently): illness, probably; loss of loved ones, and the end of life. I’ve been drawn lately to writers sharing these sorts of stories (see last August’s staff pick: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World). This interest, I hope, isn’t too morbid. It feels part of the curiosity I have for all that I don’t know about—what lies close around me, or far from me, and what might lie ahead.
Here’s three from a booklist of memoirs on these themes: Roger Angell writes beautifully, wryly, intelligently on life in his nineties, along with “a dog’s breakfast” of other collected writing in This Old Man: All in Pieces. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and now memoirist) Tracy K. Smith writes about so very many things, including race, history, and faith, radiating from the death of her mother in Ordinary Light. And Katharine Norbury writes slowly, luminously on grief, family, and the wilds of Great Britain in The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. One day, in her meditative wandering outdoors, Norbury’s eye is caught by a bright gravestone…it’s a small moment in the book, but the simple last words carved on the stone stay with her, and also remain with me: Glad did I live.
One of the sculptors that I had learned about early in my art career was Alberto Giacometti. THE biographer of his life was acknowledged to be James Lord. His early piece, “A Giacometti Portrait,” was considered seminal, so imagine my joy when Lord did his opus: a massive tome on Giacometti’s life. I read the entire thing while bedridden with the flu. Lord’s writings are not the usual dry renditions of “first the artist went there, then he went over here.” Instead Lord manages to help you picture Giacometti’s life, as though Giacometti was not a legend, but a man you could identify with, and follow, until his breakthrough with the sculptures that he is famous for.
Maggie Nelson is a master of interlacing literary forms and defying expectations of genre. With last year’s memoir, she seamlessly moves across blurred boundaries of theory, poetry, and deeply personal reflection. The Argonauts queers everything you thought you knew about motherhood, gender, family, and the body while treating you to some fiercely gorgeous prose.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” ― Nelson Mandela
Honestly, if this book doesn’t lift you up and encourage you to get out and make a difference – I am not sure what will.
My choice is Girl in a Bandby Kim Gordon, because she has been a hero of mine since I was 12, both for style and substance. Sonic Youth is my life.
One unique aspect of this musician bio that I really enjoyed was that Gordon never talks about learning how to play bass. At one point in her life she doesn’t play music, and then she does. There is no explanation necessary. At first this bothered me, but then I got it, man.
This is also a book about dissolution of a long musical and romantic partnership, but Gordon keeps it classy and minimal. She somehow makes you feel the pain of betrayal with just a few key sentences peppered throughout.
This is an incredible story that I most recommend as an audio book. Hirsi Ali provides the narration herself, and her delightful accent infuses her experience of Islam with supreme gentleness. Hirsi Ali’s life was remarkable, and her courage and stubbornness served her well. This book is a history lesson in Muslim and African culture, and the author describes how she was able to learn many languages as her family moved to different locales in search of political asylum. She is a force to be reckoned with as she navigates her life and walks a thin line between terror and truth. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the outcry against violence and oppression of women. Hirsi Ali is a heroine for those who are voiceless.
What struck me the most was the fine writing, vivid detail, the stories themselves, the unbelievable characters (i.e. racist parents she loves deeply), brutal honesty, plenty of humor, and the sheer courage and heart of Alexandra throughout her adventurous life. I hate the “whine about, yet overcome weepers” popular now, but I love these. She had me with the great first two titles.”
Gloria Steinem has always been one of my heroes. I’ve read everything by her and this new collection intimately chronicling her Life on the Road is wonderful and engaging. She is very candid about her early years, what she gained and what she had to give up by living a nomadic lifestyle. Each of the seven chapters begins with a photo and each reveals something new about the author and activist. Steinem reveals her ties and relationships to other women and activists. My favorite was the chapter where she describes her friendship with Native American and feminist activist, Wilma Mankiller. For many people, we look at what she has done and that is how we define her. However, it seems that these relationships are how she defines her life. We should all be so lucky.
I wrote down many quotes from this book, this is one of my favorites:
“As Robin Morgan wrote so wisely, ‘Hate generalizes, love specifies.’ That’s what makes going on the road so important. It definitely specifies.”
This stunning book reaffirmed my love of memoirs. I finished it in less than one day. I always appreciate when an author takes the time to fashion a distinct approach to telling us their story (versus giving us a simple chronology of their life). Sometimes they break their story down into ideas and how their experiences helped them form these ideas, like Amy Poehler’s wise and interesting Yes Please. Sometimes, as Alan does here, they find one experience or person to use as a springboard for telling us their larger story. Alan uses his struggle with an abusive father as the entry point for us to learn about his life and thoughts. Alan seems like a beautiful person, he is a very talented storyteller and I hope he writes many more books. In this case, the cliché is true: “I laughed, I cried…”
I have come to believe that true wisdom and kindness spring from overcoming adversity, often with humor, and Alan’s story supports this theory. It was good for me to read this book and I think it would be good for you too. (PS If Alan’s introductions of Masterpiece: Mystery! always seem too short for you too, try the audiobook, which I imagine is also a wonderful way to experience this story.
Los Angeles, 1928. A single mother named Christine Collins returns home from work to find that her son, nine-year-old Walter, is missing.
A few months later, the police inform her that Walter has been found alive in Illinois, and they gather the media to witness the joyous reunion. In fact the reunion is a publicity stunt, meant to counteract the perception of corruption within the police force. Collins is prepared to play her role as the relieved and grateful mother, but there’s one problem: This child is not Walter.
So determined is the LAPD to preserve their image as honest and helpful that they do all they can to persuade Collins to just accept the child as her own and shut up about it. When she refuses to do that, they attempt to discredit her, ultimately having her declared insane and committing her to an asylum.
Folks, this is a true story.
Meticulously researched by J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote the screenplay. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie in one of her most heartbreaking performances.
As April comes to a close, our staff reflects on poets and poetry we love–and celebrate–all year long.
A poem and illustration from “Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It”
I knew from the moment this hilarious little collection landed in my lap (recommended by a friendly fellow Children’s staffer from a neighboring town) that it must be my selection this month: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Treat yourself to the delightful backstory of this style of poetry (detailed on pages 22 and 23), devised by the doctor and poet William Carlos Williams and involving stolen plums. It’s hard to pick one favorite from the bunch, so here are two. Notice the wonderfully similar structure of each:
(I will not be reciting that last one at my next story time.)
So next time you have to apologize for something that may or may not have been your fault…take a deep breath and compose a poem.
One of Erik Blegvad’s beautiful illustrations from “Hurry, Hurry…”
If you find an entire collection of poetry a bit weighty, try PPL’s lighthearted picture book, “Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear”. The book consists of a single poem written by N M Bodecker. Illustrations by Erik Blegvad perfectly capture the sly, witty tone of the poem, as Mary rushes about trying to finish all the chores the narrator thinks she should do before winter sets in. A great read-aloud for kids.
Wishes, Lies, and Dreams is an absolute goldmine of kids’ writing that boasts some of the funniest and wisest snippets of poetry I’ve ever read. Some are totally goofy and meandering, some are sharp and sincere, and many combine elements of both. A personal favorite:
I grew up in a very literary household full of thousands of books. Over the years, bits and pieces of these books flit in and out of my thoughts. My mother must have had a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies, as one poem has remained with me to this day:
If you enjoy Eastern poetry such as Rumi, I would highly recommend spending an afternoon with Tagore.
One of my favorite poems is Raymond Carver’s Waiting, from his collection All of Us. I first heard it at a friend’s wedding, and it seemed to perfectly describe the twists and turns that lead us to where we’re supposed to be.
My first pick is Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy. One of the reasons I like this poem so much is that pays homage to the unknown soldier, and couples the unknowingness of death with eternal aspects of life and the world. Hardy’s work was also a major influence on Dylan Thomas.
Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front is one of those poems I read when I’m aghast with the world. It seems to offer a guide to living, inspiring, actionable words that help the reader to remember what is really important in life. Listening more than speaking, being happy just noticing the movements of the earth, not needing dollars and fancy vacations to be at peace.
Finally, “Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani is another inspiring poem for me. I strongly encourage it to be experienced aurally, like this performance here. Mojgani is so expressive, and his words instill confidence, hope, and faith that every human experience has value, purpose, and importance. It gives me the same kind of foot-tapping excitement that a piece of upbeat music brings, and the phrase “shake the dust” is one I have come to hold as a special mantra for being fearless when I feel the most timid.
Good poetry is a subjective label. Sometimes it isn’t the poem itself that touches us, but the associations it has.
My mother passed away in April, five years ago. Standing by her grave in the mid-May blossom-filled Mount Auburn cemetery where John Ciardi, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are spending eternity, my sisters and I shared recollections of our kind mother, Marjorie.
The older of my two sisters told the story of her second grade school assignment: select, memorize and recite a poem, a process that had bogged down at “select,” driving her seven-year-old self to the end of her tightly-wound perfectionist rope as the deadline approached. In her trademark over-achieving fashion, she aimed way beyond necessity and expectations, fretting and sweating over pieces that were too long, too hard, too everything… until our mother, who always seemed to know how to make things better, offered an idea. A poem that was not too long. Not too serious. Just the thing.
55 years later, in the cool of a spring morning, my sister recited that poem again:
The May 1895 issue of The Lark in which “The Purple Cow” first appeared.
The Purple Cow
(Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least.)