Biographies & Memoirs
While some memoirs are incredibly complex and intrinsically difficult to categorize, most of the ones I’ve read tend to fit in one of two general groups: the experience-driven and the persona-driven. Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books exemplifies the experience-driven category. Steinberg was an unknown when his memoir was published, and that relative obscurity meant that most readers were not drawn to the book because of his persona or celebrity. It was the topic of the autobiography that caught the public’s attention--the fact that this young man had worked in a prison library and found a way to describe the disorienting experience with both clarity and depth.
Sometimes life takes us in a direction that unexpectedly changes everything and alters all our future plans. Happily, this is just what happened to Conor Grennan, the author of Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal. It is necessary for me to state now that I know Conor and my daughter and her husband play the smallest of roles in Conor’s memoir. Perhaps because of this I took particular pleasure in reading this book, but I think personal interest was quickly overtaken by the value of his touching story.
Conor planned a long, world-wide trip after working in Prague for a couple of years. His adventure begins in Nepal at the Little Princes Children’s Home, where he volunteered to help the “orphans." The children turned out not to be orphans, but victims of child traffickers.
James Wallace McGinly visited the Central Rappahannock region several times. Nothing unusual about that -- except that McGinly visited in 1862, 1863 and 1864; he was wearing a blue uniform at the time; and he recorded the details of his visits in a diary.
CRRL has been given a photocopy of that diary, thanks to Edward G. Nix of Illinois. It will be cataloged, and placed in CRRL’s Virginiana Collection.
When the war in Iraq started, there were more than 600 animals being kept in public zoos and on private premises in and near Baghdad. Lions and tigers and bears…oh, no; were they safe? Were they being cared for? Were they hurt and in need of medical attention? Were they scared and hungry? Saving the Baghdad Zoo, by Kelly Milner Halls and Major William Sumner, is a wonderful story of the animals and those people who stepped up to the challenge of caring for them.
She was an educated daughter of the privileged class—granddaughter of two of Iraq’s heroes from its pre-Saddam era. A successful journalist and later owner of a printing business, she seemed to live a more charmed life than most of Iraq’s citizens. But as the door of the women’s prison closed behind her, leaving her virtually entombed, she realized that her sense of security had been nothing more than an illusion, and as one prisoner after another was dragged away to be tortured, she understood the true horror that underlay her world. Mayada: Daughter of Iraq: One Woman’s Survival Under Saddam Hussein is her story as shared with fellow writer Jean Sasson.
In Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, we are introduced to a young, wild Louie Zamperini, who stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (especially food) and loved to play practical jokes that had a way of spinning out of control. There didn’t seem to be anyone or anything in his small California town that could rein him in. Based on Zamperini’s many encounters with local police officers, it appeared that he was headed for a life of lawlessness…until he discovered the joy of running.
Zamperini's older brother first recognized his talent and convinced him to start training as a runner in high school. Race after race Zamperini blew away the competition, breaking records and setting new ones right and left. Eventually, he ended up going to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where he performed well and even shook hands with Hitler. He had his sights set on a gold medal at the 1940 Olympics when something occurred that changed the course of his life forever: World War II.
I’m going to Brooklyn to visit my daughter, and as with every excursion to the “Big Apple,” I make a list of must-see places. Usually I include a tea house, a photo gallery, and a farmer’s market. (If you’re a locavore, NYC’s markets are BEYOND compare!). But this time I’m making a reservation at Prune--Gabrielle Hamilton’s acclaimed West Village restaurant. Coincidentally, Hamilton is also the author of Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Her book, like her food (or so I’ve heard), is exceptional!
Hamilton’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania was unconventional and idyllic. Her father was a stage designer, frequently involved with Broadway productions; her mother, French and a former dancer, spent her days aproned in front of a six-burner stove. The clan lived in a crumbling, 19th-century silk mill. They regularly hosted legendary parties—complete with spring lamb roasting on a spit and an endless variety of creative themes.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always drawn to accounts of people who forgo traditional lives to pursue the unknown. Some make the move to remote locations; others choose to follow unusual career paths. In The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love, author Kristin Kimball leaves behind what many might label an enviable existence as a freelance writer in New York City to stake a claim on a 500-acre, ramshackle farm.
Kristin’s been assigned to write an article about Mark, who’s making a name for himself in the ever-changing world of farming. Rather than being able to interview her subject—who remains on a constant treadmill of chores—she finds herself hoeing broccoli and slaughtering pigs…all in her urban finest. The next day brings her no closer to Mark as she’s assigned to work the tomato fields. With time running out and only a few scribbles recorded, Kristin implores Mark to answer her questions. Their brief encounter will lead to a major life change for them both.
But not ON the beach: pages oily from suntan lotion; wind and sand. Nah, bad for paper. Watching pelicans cruise over the waves is preferred. Knowing we would hit the Beach Book Mart, a bookshop in Atlantic Shores with an interesting historical selection, I packed two books. One of those plus two of the three store-bought titles had a thread: Italy.
First down the chute is Norman Douglas’ Siren Land, a memoir of Capri and the Sorrentine Peninsula. Two previously read authors, Paul Fussell and Elizabeth Davis, quoted and discussed Douglas, and the library owns the title. I found his prose dense, witty fairly often, even had a couple funny bits. It is more than a travelogue: it is learned and chatty. Emperor Tiberius was the first famous Roman to retire to Capri; his stay is touched on. Douglas includes stories of saints, a single thread of the story of these siren lands. History and biology of the sirens is knocked off in the first couple of chapters, followed by a wandering over the land, a boat ride or two, and an island full of fleas...with gossip, lore, architecture, history, and memorable characters.
Years ago when researchers were in heated debates about whether or not animals can think, I could have told them that they do. When I was first married I had an incredible dog named Doctor. One day when I was young and stupid, I had a knock on my door. There was a man standing outside my door whom I didn’t recognize, so I locked my screen door to keep my dog in and stepped outside to see what this man wanted. He began to ask me some very bizarre questions about the neighborhood. He kept stepping back to draw me away from my front door. Suddenly I found that I had gone into my front yard to talk to this strange young man. Red flags were going off in my brain at this point. He was about to ask me another odd question when he suddenly stopped and said, “I have to go.” He turned around and walked quickly away. I thought, “What a strange man that was!” When I turned around I discovered that Doctor had jumped up, unhooked the screen door, and was sitting behind me with his lips curled back in a silent growl. Evidently, he thought that the man was odd also.
When my husband bought me Alex & Me, by Irene Pepperberg, last year and gently said, “I think that you would like this," I politely thanked him and stubbornly put it on the shelf. A year later I picked it up and now I grudgingly have to admit that he was correct. I do love this book!