Non-fiction

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book that landed in my hands this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. Each and every page of brown girl dreaming is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. After I read it, I rushed out to buy a copy for myself. I wish I could buy copies for the world.

 

The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA— A country caught

Between Black and White.

 

Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “...only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.

 

brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:

I am not my sister. Words from the books curl around each other make little sense until I read them again and again, the story settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says. Read Faster. Too babyish, the teacher says. Read older. But I don't want to read faster or older or any way else that might make the story disappear too quickly from where it's settling inside my brain, slowly becoming a part of me. A story I will remember long after I've read it for the second, third, tenth, hundredth time.

 

There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:

So the first time my mother goes to New York City we don’t know to be sad, the weight of our grandparents’ love like a blanket with us beneath it, safe and warm.

And of Brooklyn:

We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses to show off their fast-moving feet, the men clapping and yelling, Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.

 

 

You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.

 

brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.

 

Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.

 

Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.

 

As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.

Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.

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My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don't Have Time to Read.  

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O'Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn't connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I've pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don't know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like "beautiful" when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it's like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black's hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black's sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay's ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O'Sullivan's images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O'Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I'm still haven't found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won't even try. I'll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—that Tumblr photo collection of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a sociopolitical movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

 

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an everyday cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

 

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused, and STILL be a feminist.”

 

As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

 

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she's adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

 

Don’t look here for a historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

 

A pop culture enthusiast, Gay examines contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don't read fan-fic.

 

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets this is opinion, not gospel.

 

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:

The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.” 

But in a later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing that craps all over the black American experience.

 

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask those young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

 

In so many clever and self-effacing ways, Gay show us how we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”

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Aegean Dream by Dario Ciriello

Aegean DreamAegean Dream by Dario Ciriello My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are moments of pure magic in every life, glimpses of beauty no grief can tarnish, that live on in the sheltered niches and alcoves of memory. This was one of ours. Remember these places and their treasures, that you may find your way there whenever the darkness of the world presses too close. ~ Dario Ciriello, recounting a night swim in the Aegean, surrounded by bioluminescent plankton.

 

This quote comes late in Aegean Dream, Dario's story of the year he and his wife, Linda, spent on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos. Sounds like just the sort of reflection someone who lives on an island so beautiful it became the setting for the movie Mamma Mia can afford to make. But read it again. For there is such sorrow in Dario's phrases. By the time he comes to recognize this moment of beauty, he and Linda have already made the wrenching decision to leave Greece.

 

Linda and Dario had left behind a comfortable life in California to immigrate to Greece barely a year before. It was a bold move, but not a crazy one. They had spent time in Skópelos and Dario, a British national, had EU citizenship. They were assured by the Greek consulate that residency for Dario would be automatic and Linda would have no trouble obtaining hers once they were in country. They had thought through plans for small business ventures for soapmaking (Linda) and housepainting (Dario), as well as the opportunity for Dario to spend more time writing. They spent over a year in the planning, including intensive study of the Greek language.

 

Their motivation, besides envisioning a life in a whitewashed cottage, shaded by olive trees, perched on an island in the middle of the cerulean Aegean? Oh, man, I could have written this.

Why then fear moving to another country, shooting for the moon? Life was to be lived, and they knew how to do that in southern Europe, where people had time for family and friends, and didn't measure their worth by how many hours the worked. We knew there were risks. But the risk of growing old and having regrets because we'd been too timid to follow our dreams was the most frightening of all. What to others seemed like courage was, to us, necessity. It was survival.

Yes. This. ^^^

 

A year later they returned to California, on the edge financially and crushed emotionally. The same corrupt and convoluted bureaucracy that sent Greece into an economic tailspin and nearly took down the Eurozone not long after they left, slapped these two souls into a corner. Their only way out was to leave.

 

We're all familiar with the "Despite the infernal locals and all that annoying sunshine and cheese, we rallied and restored a medieval barn into the perfect home-within-a-vineyard residence in southern Europe" tale -- you know, those memoirs we love to hate: A Year in Provence, Under A Tuscan Sun, etc. We devour them like gluttons, unable to squelch our envy but helpless to stop building our own castles in Spain as we live vicariously through someone else's dreams come true.

 

But few of these stories have unhappy endings. It takes a very brave soul to admit when the dream has become a nightmare, it's time to cut losses, and move on. To turn back and reopen doors which you'd slammed shut and tossed aside the keys. It takes an even braver soul to release that story to the world.

 

Dario's recounting of their experiences is vivid and maddening, but fair. Funny. Honest. Reflective. There is so much affection for Greece and for the dear Greek friends who sheltered and tried their best to help usher the Ciriellos into the community and through the maddening maze of bureaucracy that you hold out hope it's not going to end the way you know it will (and this review is no spoiler-- even a cursory glance at the book's description lets you know what to expect). This is not a dump-on-Greece misadventure. This is the story of two smart, resourceful, courageous, and imperfect people trying to meet a culture on its own terms.

 

Aegean Dream hurt me with thousand tiny cuts. My husband and I left the Pacific Northwest for New Zealand just a few months before Dario and Linda left California for Greece. Our stories unfolded very differently--we had Permanent Residency and moved to a country where everything works with astonishing efficiency. I cannot fathom a place easier to immigrate to than the Land of the Long White Cloud. But we returned less than two years later, our hearts shattered. The how and the why shall become fodder for my own memoir that I'm still -- seven years after our return -- building the courage to write. But even though our circumstances were very different, our emotional journey has so much in common with Dario and Linda's. Aegean Dream was a cathartic and healing read for this traveler.

Others have had it far worse than us, and we count ourselves fortunate. Our trials have tempered us and made us realize how resilient and adaptable we are. We learned to live for the day, and to be happy with little. Would we risk such an adventure again? It's a question we don't dare ask ourselves.

A copy of Aegean Dream was provided to me by the publisher. My thanks to Panverse Publishing, founded by Dario Ciriello after his return to the United States. Now, there's a happy ending.

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The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of WaterThe Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is so fitting that the original cover of this book, which you see depicted here, arrives from the library marred by a plain, gray wrapper around the offensive bit—you know, a woman's bare breast. It is metaphor come to life for Lidia Yuknavitch's searing memoir, The Chronology of Water: hide and deny what is most natural, until it becomes a thing of shame.

Yet it would seem that Lidia Yuknavitch hides nothing. The Chronology of Water is ripe with shock-jock language and imagery. It is angry and lurid and reeks of booze and sex and blood. It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. The day I finished the book, I went and bought a copy of my own--no wrapper around the front cover, just a woman's beautiful body disappearing in a shimmer of torso, cut in half by the air above and the water below.

Water is the thematic structure around which this narrative is built—fluid from the body that spills in birth, in sex, in menstruation, in vomit and bile; water that offers healing and and generates power as a strong body sluices waves to win swim meets or meets an object of one's desire in a hotel swimming pool; water that can take life in a vulnerable moment as one's father collapses in the ocean.

But it's her body that Yuknavitch offers up for examination: a body that in the opening chapter is ruptured by birth. That experience is bookended by years of incest on one side and self-flagellation on the other, until the author meets herself full circle as a wife, a mother, a writer, a woman.

She conceals much in her narrative of abuse, but we are allowed a glimpse behind the wrapper of her shame and sorrow and witness a woman's soul torn in two by violence and fear.

In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.

I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.

Her father physically and sexually abused Yuknavitch and her sister; their alcoholic mother existed in a fog of denial. Yuknavitch became a woman full of rage. She turned on herself, turned against her body, which had been made beautiful and powerful by water. She squandered a college swimming scholarship through drugs, alcohol, and sex with anything that moved. She punished herself over and over, for years, trying to root out the evil that abuse had buried in her.

Writing became her salvation. Time and again, as she lurches from mistake to affair, from addiction and obsession, it is writing that buoys her above the waves of her own destructive seas.

Caution must be taken not to romanticize Yuknavitch's scary history. The author as addict, the notion that one must suffer to create great art, is a cliché that works because it is true time and again. But separate yourself from the literal and sink into the sheer beauty of her language, the way she wraps her arms around you and won't let you go, you will be rewarded with tears and laughter, with frustration and rage. You will feel. And isn't that why we read? To feel, deeply, achingly, painfully, blissfully.

The nature of memoir, as distinct from autobiography, is like looking down at your body in a pool of water: shapes are distorted, disjointed, appearing larger or smaller or not at all. Memoir is not a chronological connection of facts. Memoir is a work of prose, an interpretation of one's life just as a painting is an interpretation of a scene or a theme. Whether or not every event described by Yuknavitch, or any other memoirist, really happened is not the point of memoir; the point is to offer the reader a powerful piece of writing with experiences that elevate the personal to the universal. Yuknavitch says it best:

All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory...there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It's as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly, messy, and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. That's pretty much me, really. But something about this story--the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality--gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.

It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.

In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”

N.B. Lidia is a Northwest writer, one of our regional treasures. I had never read her writing until this memoir and I fell hard, fast. And was gutted to learn I had missed her 2-day writing workshop here, in my little village, by two weeks. Alas, she's hosting a repeat in October. When I shall be out of the country. Le sigh. Come back, Lidia. Come back when I am here. I'm ready for a swimming lesson.

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Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love and Loss by Sean Hanish My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean's original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors'journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell's poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief--the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin, the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog's death, or gerbil's. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: "I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them." In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman's What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body's own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child's body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I've always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn't that strange and awful and wonderful? I can't fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn't know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn't it? It's probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American TasteProvence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a run last week, I saw a hummingbird at rest on the bough of a blackberry bush. Such a rare treat to see this tiny thumb of shimmering green and red in repose instead of as a darting blur at the hanging basket of flowers on our front patio. I paused to watch him on the gently swaying bough. In three heartbeats, he was gone.

Provence, 1970 is about recognizing the hummingbird at rest. It is about capturing a moment in time and holding it in freeze frame, before it darts away to catch up with the world. The moment and place and (most of) the players are evident in the book's title. Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher's grandnephew and an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, offers a bird's eye view into a movement on the threshold of change.

The movement is, of course, America's relationship to food. The change afoot in Provence, 1970 is the shift away from European—predominantly French—sensibilities, toward an embrace of the organic, local movements combined with an increasingly global palate.

Food is perhaps the most vibrant reflection of culture and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

Most tender and intimate is Barr's treatment of M.F.K. Fisher. She is the central character, a women in her sixties on the cusp of a life shift. Her children are grown, her career is comfortable, she is content to be without a husband. But she does need a home. When her house in Napa sells, a friend offers to build her a cottage on his property in Sonoma. She'd long planned to live out her older years in Provence, but now that this time is upon her, she wonders if modern France holds the same magic as the one of her memory. Her months in Provence, while she awaits the construction of the Sonoma house, become a meditation on the acceptance of letting go of the past and embracing a fresh start.

The author's portrayals of M.F., the Childs, James Beard, Richard Olney and numerous secondary players are rich, savory, bitter and sweet. He shows the internal conflicts these talented and passionate chefs and writers wrestle as their relationships to food and France shift and indulges the reader with good old-fashioned gossip as he details their conflicts with each other. Julia's increasingly fraught relationship with her co-author Simone Beck is not news, but Barr shows how it is viewed through the eyes of her contemporaries. He shows what it means to be a snob (Richard Olney), a bon vivant (James Beard), and a sensualist (M.F.K. Fisher) and how a small group of Americans excel at being more French than the French themselves.

And the food. Some of Luke Barr's most delicious, vivid and even hilarious writing is in the descriptions of meals prepared and consumed throughout Provence during these winter months. It is at once a celebration of and a primer on Provençal cuisine, with unparalleled scenery, tart conversation and raw observation to set the mood.

Provence, 1970 shows the beauty of capturing time just at the moment it hovers between the past and the present. Of course, we never realize the importance of such moments until they are long gone. Luke Barr does the nearly impossible: he conjures up the hummingbird and holds it in his hand just long enough for us to recognize the wonder of stillness before change.

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Provence, 2009

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II): On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV): I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V): I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I'm ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he'd learned more about me from reading my review than he'd ever known. But isn't that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time there was a woman who dreaded the staff meeting roundtable, when each person had to share what was good or bad or on their professional plate that week or in their personal life. All five, nine, fifteen pairs of eyes would be upon her as she forced her voice to carry down the table, knocking off as few words as she could to express, “Everything’s great!” before turning her flushed face to the colleague beside her. This same woman could take the stage before an audience in the hundreds and deliver a speech with poise, loving every moment she was in the spotlight.

She’d spin around her shopping cart to avoid meeting an acquaintance in the produce department at the grocery store, then host a wine dinner that night for twenty strangers, the joy bubbling as much as the Champagne she poured, explaining to the assembled crowd the difference between méthode traditionelle and transfer method of production. She could spend hours waiting tables at a busy restaurant, engaging in happy grace and good humor with dozens of customers, but the thought of a Friday night party at a friend’s, hanging out in a kitchen drinking beer with a few people from work? She’d feign a sudden flu or a last-minute family obligation to avoid hours of mindless chatter.

That I am an introvert is not news to me. I can’t recall when I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test, but I should have INFJ tattooed on my forehead, for the results never waver. And at some point, I got the message that being an introvert doesn't mean I'm shy, for I am not. It doesn't mean I'm not a risk-taker, for I am, or that I don’t form deep personal attachments, for I have many. What it does mean, among many things, is that socializing wears me out. I abhor chitchat, loud people, group projects and “going out.” It means I love to lose myself in solitary endeavors. It means I love process, not reward.

It means I’d rather just sit and listen. And when I have something to say, please be patient. I’m not a fast talker and I pause a lot, searching for just the right word. And even then you’ll probably have to strain to hear me. Unless I’ve thoroughly rehearsed my responses, I’ll never deliver my thoughts with articulate confidence and my volume is usually turned to low.

There are parts of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking that made me laugh, even as tears stung my eyes. Knowing I prefer to be alone—that I have little tolerance for casual social situations—never released me from feeling I needed to overcome my social awkwardness and impatience, my thin skin and tendency to fret about the future and things beyond my control. I thought these were faults, not characteristics of a personality type shared by millions, most of us existing in contemplative, considerate silence.

Through research, anecdotal interviews and personal experiences, Cain explores the ways introverted personalities manifest themselves in the workplace and personal relationships. The section on “highly-sensitive” people struck home.

The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions—sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. They are highly empathetic…with thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world (pages 136, 137)

Yes, please. Reading this, I realized one of the reasons I tend to shut myself off and away is because I am overwhelmed by my own helplessness to change the world. I take things so personally and feel them so deeply that I become frozen in place, not knowing how to translate feeling into action.

When Cain, on pages 217-218, discusses her professional epiphany, I had another laugh/cry moment. Hers was realizing that she was never cut out to be a corporate lawyer; mine, a university or corporate administrator. There is so much about each profession at which we excelled, rising quickly through the ranks. But neither of us is cut out for committee work, for schmoozing and glad-handing, for blowing our horns—all required in legal circles and ivory towers and boardrooms. I loved the one-on-one time I spent counseling students, building relationships with individual faculty or business partners, developing administrative processes and procedures, doing research and yes, presenting at conferences and leading workshops, for which I rehearsed and prepared weeks in advance.

But I knew I’d never rise to the ranks of the one in charge; I simply wasn’t built for the social demands and networking required of a Director. So, for twenty years I left job after job just at the pinnacle of power and success—always the Bridesmaid, never the Bride. I never really knew why, except that something was inherently wrong with me. At long last, I accept nothing is wrong with me: denying myself the opportunity to advance is recognition that moving up meant moving into roles for which I was constitutionally not suited.

Now I am a writer. And a peaceful little clam. I work to create niches of social balance to avoid complete isolation—I belong to a book club, a writer’s group, I volunteer, meet friends for coffee. Social media is a great release for me, because I talk only when I want to, I have all the time in the world to construct my thoughts (which I can edit later!) and no one is looking at me as I speak. Quiet has given me permission not to regard my limited in-person social circle as evidence of a failure of personality, but as respect given to my true nature: “Love is essential: gregariousness is optional.”

In some ways, working through the theories and examples in this book is exhausting and dispiriting—if I’d had a better understanding of how I function best, would I have made different choices? Yet, the most important choices I’ve made—a life partner who is warmer and friendlier than I, but even more of an introvert; excelling at and loving parts of my profession that I’m built for and not being swayed by extrinsic rewards to pursue paths for which I am not; the dogged determination that puts me in front of a keyboard every day with few indications that I will be able to make a living doing what I love—I’ve stuck to my temperament. My life’s path hasn’t been without its stumbles, but even without knowing quite what makes me tick, I've been true to my nature. This is Cain’s consistent and loudest message, delivered with the gentle power of an introvert.

A Manifesto for Introverts (from Quiet) 1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: Thinkers. 2. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation. 3. The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths. 4. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There will always be time to be quiet later. 5. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters. 6. One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards. 7. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk. 8. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron. 9. Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. 10. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it's a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers -- of persistence, concentration, and insight -- to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems. make art, think deeply.”

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Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefBlood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three and a half stars. I can't quite get to a fourth.

My food epiphany occurred in France (of course), with food prepared by—wait for it—an Italian (of course). It was a three a.m., post-nightclub gathering of bleary-eyed, eardrum-collapsed international students, crammed into Bruno’s and Filippo’s kitchen in the Alpine city of Chambéry, where I had chosen to study because of its proximity to Italy (of course).

I was already half in love with Bruno from Ancona, but when he handed me a bowl of pasta glistening with sea salt and oil and tossed with tuna, capers, tomatoes, and Parmigiano Reggiano, its hangover-killing goodness transported me to a new sort of bliss. It took all of 20 minutes to prepare—most of that was waiting for the water to boil. Simple. And I’d never tasted anything as delicious.

A second light flashed fifteen years later, during culinary school in New Zealand. Pulling several kitchen shifts as part of my course, I realized the chef’s life was not for me. I hated the heat, the pressure, the clothing. My place was front of house, with the diners. As an introvert who loves a crowd, I adored the two-hour relationship with my tables, the way we could swap life stories over lamb shank and wine and, usually, never see one another again. It was the sharing of delicious food and the way the diners turned themselves over to me—trusting, expectant, curious, and delighted—that I treasured.

So, it was very easy to connect with Gabrielle Hamilton at the most visceral level. The psychology of beautiful food—the way it feeds our souls at least as much as our bodies, I get. It was even a vocation for a spell, from that glorious era in New Zealand where I waited tables and taught Hospitality, to the several years I spent working in Seattle as a wine and beer buyer and steward.

As someone who can’t tell a joke at a dinner table to save her life, but who feels the wonder of words in her soul and astonishment that she can weave them together in powerful ways, I connected with Gabrielle Hamilton as a writer. She made me feel better that my treasured acceptance to an MFA program this fall will go no further than a dream pinned to my bulletin board. Hamilton accepted that her soul needed the pan rather than the pen. Like me, she’s a doer, not a scholar.

This connection to her craft, born of nature and desperation, is the most powerful theme in Blood, Bones, and Butter. Hamilton's family celebrated food and loved to party. From her French mother she learned to cook and to revere the process; from her father she learned the crazy sort of joy that comes from opening your home and feeding the masses with fishes and loaves.

The desperation came when that family split apart, scattering like dandelion spores to the wind. The author entered the back door of the restaurant world, tethering herself to dishwashers and prep sinks as a way to create stability while her adolescence was crumbling beneath her.

And thus a memoir was born—Hamilton uses the broad outline of her résumé to structure her relationship with the world—her family, her marriage, her emotional development. This is less a memoir about the power of food than it is about the power of work, about one woman’s dogged determination to succeed on her own steam. Her industry could have been writing, or the stock market or real estate or teaching. The fact that her profession is cheffing is lucky for those of us who love the things she writes about so evocatively—food, travel, and the grit and grime of the restaurant world.

But I never quite trust her. Memoir is an eel—it’s either going to slip through your hands or shock you or, as is the case with Blood, Bones, and Butter, both. The danger for the contemporary memoirist comes in offering up course after course of one’s life, proffering it as a collection of tasty facts, then dropping the plates when real life catches up and contradicts you.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Hamilton appeared on “The Interview Show” and dismissed foodies as "a population that has kind of misplaced priorities." Granted, “foodies” is a tired moniker, but it’s an odd thing for a chef to give the finger to her most ardent fans. In the same interview, Hamilton declares "I'm barely interested in food....I love food but I don't like to talk about it very long."

Kinda weird. This tone of contrariness and defensiveness echoes in her writing, most notably during her years in Ann Arbor as she pursues her MFA at the University of Michigan and when she takes us down the short but winding road of her personal relationships. I ran often into the brick wall of Hamilton’s ego, erected and fortified against deep insecurities.

I was also perplexed by her marriage. Not the doing of it— she wouldn’t be the first to extend a generous hand to someone at odds with the INS. But she seemed baffled to find that love wasn’t waiting for her on the other side of the aisle. And yet, she stepped out on her long-term girlfriend to have a brief affair with her husband-to-be. And she cuckolded her own sister while writing this memoir. Hamilton’s disappointment felt very disingenuous, given her proclivity for infidelity.

I was also troubled by her mother-as-martyr routine. She chose to have two children, twenty months apart, with a man she was neither living with nor, if she is to be believed, hardly speaking to, all while in the early years of running a restaurant. These were choices. She had options, could have sought help, could have organized her life differently. She did not and I respect that. But her natural prickliness and independence read to me like a whole lotta “I’m such a badass, cooking brunch at thirty-nine weeks” self-back patting. It seems to run counter to her belief that we shouldn’t talk about “great female chefs,” we should talk about “great chefs,” period. A discussion, incidentally, that makes of one of the best chapters in the book.

Hamilton isn’t clear why she remained in a loveless marriage, nor why she drifted so far from her family, so the reader has a shadowy grasp on Gabrielle Hamilton, the woman. But in all fairness, this is the memoir of a chef. Touching on her two years abroad, on her summers in Italy with her now ex-husband’s family, her epiphany while working with the inscrutable Misty in Michigan, and her hardcore catering experiences, Gabrielle Hamilton—the chef and the writer—is a remarkable force. I’d welcome the chance to eat at her restaurant, Prune, and the opportunity to read more of her sparkling, no-holds-barred, angry, irreverent, and sexy writing. But I’d rather read it as fiction, because I think I might choke on her facts.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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The Writer's Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing LifeThe Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost - if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all'Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I'm not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open an author's literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I'm thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing.

Priscilla Long presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something -  I can't remember what  - but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago, yet I've forgotten already which came first. What I remember is finally giving in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job - writing every day isn't feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn. Earlier. I'm exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I'm having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I'm thinking that if you aren't heeding Priscilla's advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes. A random writing prompt leads me to ask questions about my plot, jotting notes in the margins of ideas to pursue, details to research. I regularly transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas and characters.

All that, just from reading Chapter One.

The Writer's Portable Mentor is to a writer - of any level of experience and ambition - as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work - there are no hypotheticals here. You take your own work, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them, rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking - after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord (Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times); words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I've forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I've chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long's guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, and revision, I'm tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit - even those previously published, where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there - the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will 'fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I'm in too much of a groove with my writing and I don't want to slow the momentum. You can't be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait...

This isn't the be all and end all of writing guides - there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread - several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision - if I could take only one book - my choice would be clear:

I'd take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

The Journal of Hélène BerrThe Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.

Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.

Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins. She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature. Hélène is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends; she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian cafés.

But she is a Jew. It is Occupied Paris, 1942. And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure: rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real-time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition.

The obvious comparison to Hélène's journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom. For the reader, this holds a particular pain: we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family's country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats. Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England. I whisper "Run, run, Hélène, run while there is still time."

Hélène's journal from April - November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends. The most unspeakable happens - her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city. Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that Hélène falls silent, for nearly a year.

It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman. The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:

'So why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say "Excuse me, miss" when they pass in front? Why? Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality. There is also the possibility that they do not know everything. The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.

Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.

Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène's true love, Jean Morawiecki. The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim. The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris's Marais district.

Hélène is an extraordinary writer - she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar. Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget View all my reviews

Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable FeastA Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven't been to Paris, you just won't get A Moveable Feast... If you aren't already a fan of Hemingway, don't bother reading A Moveable Feast

Look, I'm struggling to get a start on this review and those were the first two statements that popped into my head. I don't know if they are true. I don't know if they are fair. What I do know it that this work - fiction, memoir, sketches, a polished diary - whichever of these it may be - wouldn't exist without Paris. Obviously, right? No, that's not what I mean. I mean Paris is to writers as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. It's all about terroir - that sense of place, climate, geography, culture that shape the flavor and texture of a thing. You can make great wine out of pinot grown in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile - but it will never, ever approximate the glory of Burgundy. Writers can write with greatness anywhere in the world, but a writer in Paris - and goodness, a writer in the vintage years of the early-mid 1920's - is a singularly-blessed creature who may pour forth with words that change the world.

Hyperbole? Ah, well, I guess you've never been to Paris.

I bought a cheap, paperback copy of A Moveable Feast at Shakespeare and Company last winter. I'd spent the day retracing the steps of the Lost Generation through the 5eme and 6eme Arrondissements: the Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Rue Mouffetard, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, La Place Contrescarpe, Rue Descartes, Quai des Grands-Augustins -- the haunts of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford as they drank and smoked and wrote their way between the wars. Other than the now-phony tourist traps of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore and the relocated Shakespeare and Company bookshop (opened in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951 after the original shop closed in 1941 during the Occupation of Paris), much is as I imagined it was in 1924. The light shines golden and bittersweet in the narrow streets, landlocked Parisians flock to chaises longues in the Luxembourg Gardens to soak up an unseasonably warm February sun, students at the Sorbonne crowd the coffee shops in between classes, smoking, flirting and speaking in a rapid-fire Parisian slang that I was hopeless to comprehend.

My paperback copy of A Moveable Feast is now dreadfully dog-eared. I have marked passage upon passage in which Hemingway talks about writing - he was so disciplined and therefore so productive - that weakened my knees: "I would stand and look out over the rooftops of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence, and go on from there."

or about Paris: "You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen."

or about wine "In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary... "

This is a collection of sketches of a writer as he remembers his happiest, purest days spent healing from the injuries and horrors of World War I, in love with a devoted wife and a round, sweet baby, being discovered by artists of influence and nurturing others through their own addictions and afflictions. Of course we know that Hemingway's own story does not end well. As he pens what will become the final paragraphs of A Moveable Feast many years later, he recognizes how fragile and temporary were those years: "But we were not invulnerable and that was the end of the first part of Paris, and Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed.... this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."

Perhaps the one true condition of enjoying this memoir is that one must be an incurable romantic. An affliction I bear with pride.

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Book Review: Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life In Music by Judy Collins

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in MusicSweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music by Judy Collins My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The opening notes are unmistakable. The sweet chords in E pour forth from Stephen Stills's guitar, sounding like early morning California sunshine feels: warm and flirtatious, dancing on an ocean breeze as it kisses you awake. It has always been one of my favorite songs. It never fails to transport me to a time beyond my memory, a place that now fades into American mythology: California, late 1960's. It is "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", first performed by Crosby, Stills and Nash on August 18, 1969 at Yasgur’s farm, two weeks before I was born. Each time I hear this song, I feel I missed the best part of a generation.

How could I not read Judy Collins’s memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes? Stephen Stills vividly captured the passion and pain of their love affair in his joyful, yet plaintive epic song. Judy was his inspiration, his muse, the older woman who broke his heart.

Judy Collins’s music conjures up different images. Her voice takes me to the milky, muted greens and blues of my childhood in Oregon and on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in the early – late 70’s. She is pop radio on rainy Saturday afternoons. She is nap time and tomato soup. Comfort tinged with melancholy.

Ms. Collins, who was 71 when she penned this memoir, does a simple and lovely job of laying out her early years as a budding folk singer, first Colorado, then Chicago, before breaking into the folk scene in New York in the early 60’s. Other reviewers accuse her of name-dropping, but how could she not? She was hanging out with and performing alongside Joan and Mimi Baez, Peter Yarrow, Bob Dylan, Marshall Brickman, the Clancy Brothers, John Phillips- and this is the very early '60’s - '60-'64 - years before the Summer of Love. These were small clubs in Greenwich Village, before Dylan’s plugged-in performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that heralded a new era in music: folk-rock.

Judy was at the vanguard of the folk music revival, breathing new life into traditional and classic folks songs, and wrapping her rich, mellow soprano around new compositions by Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Sandy Denny and Leonard Cohen, among many others.

She was also at the forefront of the hard living, substance-abusing lifestyle that characterized so much of the 60s, and which killed many of its brightest hopes. It was lifestyle that nearly killed Judy Collins.

Her father was an alcoholic; Judy fell victim to the disease very early in her career. She became pregnant and married her first husband, Peter Taylor, in 1958, when she was 19. The marriage lasted until 1965, just as her career began to soar and her partying turned to alcohol abuse. Her son Clark committed suicide in 1992 at the age of 33, after a terrible battle with addiction and clinical depression, conditions that Judy fought from young adulthood until she sought treatment for her addiction to alcohol in 1978.

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes tells two stories: one of a long, dynamic moment in time and one of Judy’s experiences within this era. Most of the period she covers in her memoir she spent in an increasingly thick haze of intoxication. By the time she met and fell in love with Stephen Stills in 1967, she was drinking to keep sober. Collins tells her story so brightly, in such a matter-of-fact, linear style, it’s hard to fathom the depth of her self-destruction. There were suicide attempts, deep depressions, a divorce and custody battle and countless love affairs. Yet, inexplicably - because we never really get inside Judy’s head - her star continued to rise. Starting in 1961, she recorded an album a year until 1978 (then started again in ’79). She toured constantly, until the alcohol fried her vocal chords and she had surgery in 1977.

I have to think that the smooth reserve she displays while describing two decades spent on a physical and emotional roller-coaster is because she can hardly remember much of it. It may also be that the years and the happiness she has found since meeting her now-husband have softened her and calmed her need to tell-all; she paints her comrades, lovers and business partners in the softest of colors, and does not explore her despair at failing her son.

Judy Collins's story has the happiest of endings, despite the immense pain of her losses. She met her second husband in 1978, the day before she entered a rehabilitation facility in Pennsylvania. She has been sober and with Louis Nelson since; they married in 1996. She and Stephen remained friends, performing together on her 2010 album, Paradise. She is arguably a stronger, better singer now than she was forty years ago; only her dear friend Joan Baez can make the same claim.

I stopped several times while reading this book (which took but a weekend) to research some of the cast of characters: I read about the life of Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s long-time, angel-faced girlfriend, whom he left for Joan Baez in the mid-60s; about Joan’s ethereal sister Mimi and her charismatic husband Richard Farina; I discovered a YouTube video of Joan and Mimi performing live at Sing Sing prison in 1972 - God, they were so beautiful (Joan still is, sadly, Mimi died in 2001 of cancer); I watched an interview with Joan Baez talking about the twisted genius of Bob Dylan; I learned that Stacy Keach was once considered the preeminent American stage interpreter of Shakespeare. I knew him only as Mike Hammer!

I would give this book 3 stars for writing, for Judy's honesty and reflection; 5 stars for reviving my interest in the artists and events of the era. I've a lot of catching up to do...

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was A time of innocence, a time of confidences Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you

So sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. It’s a time I will never know, but which I adore reliving through someone else’s memories.

And now I know the way I feel when listening to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is exactly the spirit which inspired it: longing, tenderness, hope, innocence and love. All the best parts of a generation which lost so much to the worst parts: addiction, cynicism and simply growing old.

Remember what we've said and done and felt About each other Oh babe, have mercy Don't let the past remind us of What we are not now I am not dreamin' I am yours, you are mine You are what you are You make it hard

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Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Warmth of Other Suns is a transformative book, one that can profoundly change and shape the way we view American history. The list of awards and accolades is so long the book does not need my imprimatur, but I will echo each by saying, "Read this."

From 1915 to 1970, thousands of black Americans undertook a pilgrimage of hope and determination that led them from cotton fields, rice and tobacco plantations, from villages and towns in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to a new world in the north. They followed the trails and tracks of the Underground Railroad laid down by generations of escaped slaves and abolitionists before them, settling primarily in Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary, IN, New York, Newark and Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Oakland. It was, as the author states, "...the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in the country far longer than they have been free." (p. 10) It was an act of individuals and families - breaking free of the cruel grip of Jim Crow - that grew into an extended social revolution. It was perhaps the most significant event of 20th century America and few of us know anything about it.

That Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist is evident in her intense, encompassing and rigorous research. She conducted over twelve hundred interviews and spent several years examining primary source documents, scholarly and literary works that witness, analyze and recount the beginnings of Jim Crow South in the 1880's, through the end of the Great Migration in the 1970's.

But Ms. Wilkerson is also a consummate story-teller. The Warmth of Other Sons is one of the finest pieces of narrative non-fiction I have read. She takes the very difficult subject of Jim Crow - one that is so horrifying it is hard to absorb and accept - and humanizes it by telling the stories of three participants in the Great Migration. We ride a train north in the late 1930's from Mississippi to Milwaukee with pregnant Ida Mae Gladney, her husband and two small children, who abandon their lives as cotton sharecroppers and eventually make a home in Chicago's South Side. We escape from Florida's citrus groves to Harlem in 1945 with George Swanson Starling, who risks lynching by organizing his fellow fruit pickers to strike for higher wages. We travel the long highway miles between Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California with Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster in 1953 and imagine a life of respect and glamour that surely awaits an educated, handsome, well-spoken black man - in diverse, liberal Southern California.

Wilkerson weaves these narratives along parallel lines, taking us through each stage of the migrants' journeys concurrently, pausing to describe the social and political conditions that existed in the region or the era. Rarely have I read a non-fiction work that provides so complete a foundation and builds a structure without overwhelming the narrative in detail.

The author tells these migrants' stories with grace and empathy, but does not sentimentalize or over-dramatize history. She presents the ugliness and horror of Jim Crow and the racism that existed in the North - where discrimination could not be identified by a set of written rules and laws, but was nearly as prevalent and cruel as in the South - without making caricatures of its heroes and villains, as too often happens in literary works.

One of the vital outcomes of studying history is compassion developed through greater understanding and knowledge. Although the Great Migration nominally ended in the 1970's, after the Civil Rights Movement of the previous decade tore away the Jim Crow curtain from the South, it is a story without end. We are a nation of immigrants, celebrating the American promise of life, liberty, and happiness, yet we remain divided by class, color, economics, education and vision. We are largely integrated, but not always comfortably. Isabel Wilkerson offers a transcendent work that is epic in scope but relayed in the most personal, relevant way. It is the quintessential American story: perseverance and hope in the face of injustice and hate. With works as fine as Isabel Wilkerson's, it is my hope that history can light a way to a better future for all.

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Book Review: An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California, David Darlington

An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in CaliforniaAn Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California by David Darlington My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, in the fabled Land of Milk and Honey (1970's California), the Knights (and a few Maidens) of Vitis Vinifera vowed to champion beautiful wines that would express the true nature of the golden slopes and coastal valleys they called home. They armed themselves with degrees from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, they pulled stints in wine shops and wineries, they met to taste the great wines of the world, sharpening their palates on Bordeaux and Burgundies, Rieslings and Champagnes. They shared and stumbled together, battling the dragons of weather, pestilence, fungus, financial woes and burnout to create a stunning array of wines that would be celebrated across the world (I write of the legendary Judgment of Paris, at which a host of California wines bested French labels in a blind tasting in 1976).

Then one day a great shadow fell over the land. A cunning sorcerer - bearing the benign moniker of Robert Parker - and his sipping sycophants - sidled on to the scene. Slinging arrows in the shape of 100-point scale scores these sorcerers cast a spell, causing the people to believe that quality wine was plush, plummy, velvety, overripe, oak-laden, high-alcohol jam that bore no distinguishing characteristics of the terroir from whence it came. The people were deceived and began to shell out premium coin for ripe and fruity plonk. The Knights of Vitis Vinifera fell to their knees, proclaiming allegiance to the Dark Lords of High Scores. They were rewarded with riches beyond imagination.

The Court Jester, Randall Grahm, and the Court Wizard, Leo McCloskey are the central characters in this tale. The former, the iconic proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard and erstwhile owner of Pacific Rim, Cardinal Zin and Big House wines, took a tangled route through the California wine industry. He baffled and beguiled his counterparts, critics and devotees by reaching for the sun with his wings barely glued to his back. He grew everything, everywhere, experimenting with grape varities, sites and techniques in an astonishing display of fearlessness. His odd pockets of vineyards grew into an empire of brands and Grahm -- through his prolific newsletters and showboat style -- became the tail that wagged the dog. A master of marketing which grossly overshadowed the quality of his wine in the heady days the 90's, Grahm at last returned to his original, earnest goal of creating artisanal wines that speak of the true terroir of California. He is now a champion of biodynamic processes, committed to restoring winemaking to a craft of nature respectfully managed -- not manipulated -- by man.

Leo McCloskey, a contemporary of Grahm's, was a young, gifted scientist and winemaker who guided storied Ridge Vineyards to worthy acclaim. He pursued a doctorate in chemical ecology at UC Davis and Santa Cruz, and earned his reputation as a skilled winemaker and consultant. McCloskey recognized early that the rapid and massive growth of the California wine industry needed savvy businesspeople to manage the aspirations of idealistic entrepreneurs. He studied the ascending importance of Robert Parker, editor of The Wine Advocate and the world's most renowned wine critic, and of the luxury magazine Wine Spectator, which copied Parker's 100-point rating scale. McCloskey's genius revealed itself in the creation of a service that winemakers had no idea they needed: Enologix. Enologix is founded on the principle that wine quality can be measured empirically, therefore crafted chemically. He has created a metric which takes into account the tastes of Robert Parker and critics from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and other noted wine and spirits publications. The algorithms analyze a wine's flavor components at every stage of production, from growing, harvesting, and fermentation to aging and bottling. Used in conjunction with a market analysis, the Enologix metric is designed to ensure a wine will reach a target price, volume and critic score.

In An Ideal Wine, David Darlington pours out a sweeping history of the modern California wine industry, the one that began with idealists in blue jeans in the late 60's, through today's corporate megalopolises. Dozens of winemaking and kingmaking scions are introduced, though the two principals -- Grahm and McCloskey -- are featured as the Yin and Yang of the vast and complicated pursuit of the "Ideal Wine."

Darlington is comprehensive and fair, respectful of the access McCloskey and Grahm provided to their businesses and personal lives. He does not spare us Grahm's cringe-worthy self-absorbed silliness nor does he underplay McCloskey's appreciation of fine wine. But despite his journalist's quest for balance, it is clear which approach he favors: the artisan's, over the industrialist's.

And it is not hard to determine why. To the industrialist, the vine and its fruit are commodities. Remedial techniques, such as micro-oxygenation, spinning cone, reverse osmosis, and oak chips are regularly employed to correct what nature has wrought. The artisan has a "less is more" approach, adapting viticultural and oenological processes to the prevailing climate and terrain.

Of course, nothing is so black and white- there are no true villains or heroes. If one hopes to make a living making wine, business principles that recognize the consumer must be respected. The wine artisan's quixotic mission is to refine the consumer's palate; the wine industrialist admits that an American populace raised on high-sugar treats that are silky with fat will clamor for a wine that offers these qualities, year in-year out. Many will pay top-dollar if popular critics tell them so; otherwise bulk juice bottled by discount retailers or mammoth wineries will suit just fine.

An Ideal Wine is a ripe blend of anecdotal, wizard-revealing dish-outs and technical information, which will satisfy the wine geek without overwhelming with jargon.

I toast Darlington for revealing the reality behind the romance of winemaking, for underscoring the idea that winemaking is an incredible marriage of art and science, perhaps the greatest collaboration of man and nature that we know. It is also a partnership still in its infancy in the United States. Winegrowers and winemakers are yet in the early days of exploring, defining and working compatibly within the micro-climates and micro-terrains of California and the Pacific Northwest. Exciting, beautiful wines are being crafted throughout the region and there is a slight but growing shift away from the mammoth mouthfuls advocated by popular critics.

During a trip to the Languedoc region of southern France last spring, my husband and I spent a couple of days with biodynamic farmer and winemaker, Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine LaCroix-Vanel). We visited two vineyards that he had just purchased. The vineyards had been conventionally farmed and resembled moonscapes: the soil was brittle and dead, the vines were tired, flat and gray. Jean-Pierre caressed the vines, lamenting over their poor state like a nursemaid with a cherished charge. We then visited vineyards he has tended biodynamically for several years. They were green and lush in the early days of their ripening. Grasses grew underfoot, the soil was thick and richly-colored, flora and fauna abounded in harmony. Vanel's wines -- blends of the region's signature grenache, mourvedre, syrah, cinsault, carignan (reds) and grenache blanc, roussanne, terret (whites) -- are fine and pure, with angles and tannins, acids and structure: wines that fully express their terroir. Vanel's vision is to be a steward of his land, to allow the vines to create the wine. Not unlike the vision of that long ago, once upon a time, California.

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Book Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesLunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth BardMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be easy to begrudge Elizabeth Bard her lovely life. As New Yorker living in London in the early 2000's, she met a nice French man at a conference in Paris. They had lunch and fell in love. Ten years on, she is married to that French man and they split their time between a Parisian pied-a-terre and a home in the south of France. In between, Bard became fluent in the French language and French cookery, penned a best-selling memoir/cookbook, her husband launched a successful digital film company, and they have a beautiful young son. Her blog is rainbow of food porn, lit by Provençal sunshine and Parisian lights. Scroll past vivid photos of heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs, haricots verts, cheeses weeping from their casements and naked beasts ready for roasting and you will be seduced by a life that seems the stuff of dreams. Envy as green as those fresh beans would be perfectly understandable.

But instead you just want to curl up on a sofa with Elizabeth to share a pot of tea, nibble her chocolate chip cookies, and giggle like schoolgirls over the photos of Daniel Craig in Le Figaro: Madame. She writes with unselfconscious charm and honesty that makes Lunch in Paris pure pleasure. It is like reading a series of letters from a dear friend.

This is not always a light-hearted memoir, though Bard's breezy style often belies the very serious nature of her acculturation to France, the challenge of a cross-cultural marriage, and the loneliness of living in a city without friends or gainful employment. I have a sense that she made a deliberate decision to put the most positive "atta girl" spin on her period of solitude as she learned her way around the French language and culture and said goodbye to the career of her dreams for the man of her heart. She allows sparks of frustration and anger to glow brightly when she writes of the diagnoses and treatment of her father-in-law's cancer and of her determination to see her husband succeed in his business venture.

There are a few jangly notes, mostly around the issue of money. Although Bard takes pains to show that the advantages she enjoyed in childhood were the result of a resourceful mother, she has the means to attend graduate school in London, then to travel every weekend from London to Paris in the year before she moves to Paris for good. Her mother and stepfather visit frequently from New York and she to see them. At one point, she withdraws around $20k from an ATM (Her stash? Her parents?) to make a down payment on an apartment in the 10eme arrondissement. It's a bit of perspective that sets her apart from your average late 20s/early 30s-something single gal.

Bard centers her memoir around the theme of food and cooking as a means of discovering and falling in love with a place -  hardly new ground, particularly when the country in question is France. But Bard's bright writing keeps this well free of cliché territory. Bard does a lovely job of addressing her attitudes toward eating and body image, in a land where women maintain slim physiques on petite frames well into middle age. She uses gentle but candid humor and relates some painful stories of fitting her curves into French expectations. I have since read an essay Bard wrote for Harper's magazine about her struggles with her weight and emotional eating, a struggle that seemed to dissipate in a culture that regards food and mealtimes with reverence.

The recipes at the end of each chapter will make this book a permanent part of my cookbook library. She offers up an array of French home cooking, culled from her imagination, from meals at favorite restaurants and from French friends and in-laws who readily shared their culinary traditions.

I am now addicted to Elizabeth Bard's blog. Seeing her happy life unfold in living color makes my own dreams seem full of possibility.

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Book Review: "Life" Keith Richards

Life: Keith RichardsLife: Keith Richards by Keith Richards My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This rambling, vulgar memoir has received heaps of kudos. I'm hard-pressed to understand why. I found "Keef" remote, superior, and amoral. He has spent the better part of his adult life whacked out on drugs, banging any number of "bitches," neglecting his children, dissing his friends, dodging taxes- and treating it all like one giant frat-boy prank. I suppose his distance in describing the band's impact on rock and roll in the 60s and 70s is due to his inability to remember much of it. His guard comes down only when he is speaking about music (I hesitate to use the word "write" as I doubt he engaged in much writing; this read like one long ramble into a Dictaphone). Richards's musical genius is not in question, nor do I like the Stones any less (or any more, really- I'm not that big a fan- just big into 70s nostalgia).

"Life" was an entertaining read if I stepped outside of reality and pretended that this was a Tom Wolfe hyperbolic treatment of an imagined rock star. When I reminded myself that this was a real human being who was able to buy a life of debauchery and face few consequences, it just made me sad. It also made me reconsider the poignancy and honesty of Eric Clapton's 2009 memoir, and appreciate it all the more. Richards is the better storyteller, but Clapton is the better man.

The title of Richards's memoir should be "Life: Wasted"

Postscript to Goodreads review: Sheesh, I was pretty harsh wasn't I? Read the "final" 3/4 of this on Wednesday, when I was hungover from Adavan and Percoset- I hated the thought and feeling of that crap in my system and wondered with revulsion how anyone could embrace drugs with such gusto.

This late 2010 Fresh Air with Terri Gross interview is worth a listen. Fresh Air: Interview with Keith Richards A rebroadcast was on my ipod, which I listened to the day after I finished "Life."  The insight into music and creative process, as Maria notes in my review comments, is fascinating. Also v. interesting to listen to him backpedal on his criticism of Mick- it's pretty harsh in the book and delves into the cheap and petty (the size of Mick's dick, really?).

I know,  it's only rock-n-roll, and I like (most of) it, yes I do...

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Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Erik Larson assigns himself a Herculean task: to tunnel through the mountain of research on Hitler's regime and the circumstances that led to World War II and emerge with a singular, simple premise: What was Berlin like during the first year of Hitler's chancellery?

Overshadowing this relatively narrow context are the questions that plague anyone confounded and horrified by the Holocaust: How did things go so horribly wrong in Germany, in plain view of its citizens, and why were Europe and the United States so slow to respond? Larson shows us, through the eyes of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his grown daughter Martha, the events, the atmosphere, the characters, and the behavior of Berlin's citizens in the early days of Hitler's ascendency. The principal narrative takes place from the summer of 1933, when Dodd arrives with his family to assume the role of ambassador, to the summer of 1934 and the "Night of the Long Knives", Hitler's brutal purge of perceived enemies within the Nazi Party.

The perspectives of the mild, scholarly and overwhelmed Dodd (Roosevelt's last pick, after several others turned down the post, recognizing the storm clouds brewing in fractured Germany) and his intelligent but flighty daughter were unique and fascinating. Dodd was completely out of his element. He was an academic, not a politician, businessman, or social climber- the usual State Department profile for an important ambassadorial post. He shied away from confrontation, unless it regarded the administrative duties of embassy employees or the profligate use of embassy dollars on extravagant parties and overlong overseas telecommunication. Martha, who adored men to the point of idiocy, tumbled into German high society with glee. She loved Berlin and defended its nationalistic attitudes (while seemingly ignoring the violent acts against Jews, Communists, and other undesirables) as Germany's legitimate reaction to the stranglehold of the Treaty of Versailles.

We witness the dawning horror of Dodd and his daughter as Hitler's true ambitions come to light. We see the facade of graceful, elegant Berlin cracking under the increasing violence. We learn of the machinations within the Nazi Party as a host of men vie for their place within Hitler's inner circle. We cringe as the ridiculous Nazi salute and its accompanying "Heil Hitler" become the required greeting in hallways, in schoolrooms, restaurants, the street- and woe to the hapless or willful tourist who does not comply. And we are given the first glimpses into the hell of Dachau, among the first of concentration camps Hitler established soon after his appointment to the chancellery.

Larson does not attempt to answer how the Nazi regime soared to power with such monstrosity and to such public acceptance and acclaim. He does take us, in a real-time unfolding of events, to the heart of a city as it moves toward its destruction.

I was annoyed by and impatient with Dodd and his daughter- they were not empathetic characters, but perhaps my frustration was unfair. With the hindsight of history, I wanted to shake them out of their malaise and trip up their missteps, to shout "Can't you see what is happening?!" Yet, their roles in the course of history were largely insignificant. Dodd was a pawn in the game of international relations. At least he survived his ordeal. Millions of innocents did not.

Larson has the amazing ability to breathe suspenseful, vivid narrative life into his characters. Although not as gracefully rendered as his other non-fiction, In the Garden of Beasts is bold, brilliant, and unforgettable.

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