Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Cannonball 31: The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal HistoryThe Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Discomfort Zone is author Jonathan Franzen’s personal memoir. In the book, he covers stories of growing up in a Midwestern, Protestant town with Midwestern, Protestant values.

The beginning chapters of the book really shine. They’re engaging and beautifully written. But, for me, Franzen starts to lose steam after the second chapter, and the book ends with a bit of a whimper.

Still, those first two chapters alone make the entire book worth reading. Given the chance, I’d love to drown in those words again.

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Cannonball 3: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

hipster kitty

They're not LOLcats, they're Hipster Kitties. Deal with it, Rowles.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Confession #1: I hate hipsters. I hate their skinny jeans and little, curly mustaches and pretentious music and smug sanctimony. I hate how they’ll ask you if you’ve heard of some band and, after you say you haven’t, their jaws will drop and they’ll gibber at you for thirty minutes about how awesome the band is and end with: “Seriously? You’ve never heard of them?” Well, I have now. For thirty minutes.

And the following week, after the band starts getting played on the radio, they’re suddenly lame because they’ve “sold out.”

I hate how they jump on you for eating at McDonald’s and shopping at Walmart. Pick something real to criticize me for.

I hate how they spend all their money on staying on the cutting edge of music and entertainment, act like martyrs when they can’t afford a nicer place because they’ve blown all their money on fair-trade coffee, and then look down on actually poor people for having bad taste.

Confession #2: I am a closet hipster. You almost have to be one to be a Pajiba regular and debate the merits of films with a healthy dose of snarky comments.

hipster kitty

I may not wear scarves in 87° weather, but I do wear my glasses every day and claim that it’s because I don’t want to waste money on contacts. I may not drone on and on about some indie film that none of my friends have seen, but I have seen it, and am secretly proud of myself for knowing about it (thanks to Pajiba). I may watch “America’s Next Top Model” religiously, but I also fill my Goodreads “To-Read” shelf with selections from The New York Times’ “Ten Best Books of 2010” and other book lists from sites that I respect.

… which is how A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius made it onto my reading list in the first place.

Dave Eggers’ parents both died of cancer within five weeks of each other. His mother’s death was lingering and drawn-out. His father’s was sudden and unexpected. Their deaths left him, at the age of twenty-one, to fend for himself and to raise his seven-year-old brother, Toph.

He has an older brother and sister, but their responsibilities at work and law school are a priority, and so it falls to Dave to take care of Toph. He wants to do right by his brother, but has no idea how to raise a kid while he’s still trying to become a man himself.

Eggers had an extraordinary burden to bear, and extraordinary circumstances often create extraordinary people, and I can’t deny that Eggers has talent. But the type of person that the young Eggers became was exactly the type of hipster that I hate. It made it difficult for me to like him. I know, he purposely made himself an unlikeable character. But that’s such a pretentious and hipster-cool thing to do that I just couldn’t appreciate it.

hipster kitty

Eggers’ writing is great; don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy reading McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (a daily humor site hosted by Eggers’ publishing house) every once in a while. His account of his parents’ last days was heartbreaking, and it made me dread the day when I will have to suffer the loss of my own parents — I already have twelve years on Eggers when he lost his parents, and I hope to gain many more before I lose mine.

But a lot of the novel struck me as self-important and indulgent; there were all these random flights of fancy that struck me as showing off: “Look at me! I can be deep!”

Once again, I understand that this was intentional, but I don’t think arrogance should be applauded just because it’s self-aware arrogance. It’s still arrogance, a trait that most people would admit that they dislike.

So if it makes me uncool for “missing the point” of this book, then so be it. You wrote a tongue-in-cheek memoir of the arrogant hipster that you were when you were twenty-one. Congratulations, you achieved your goal: you got me to despise you. But take comfort in the fact that I also sympathize with the young fool you were, having once been twenty-one myself, and desperate to be cool and relevant. Take comfort in the fact that, as I despise you, I must also despise that part of myself that made me want to read this book in the first place, and now finds a self-loathing satisfaction in being anti-hipster enough to give it a mediocre review.

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Cannonball 43: Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush

Spoken from the HeartSpoken from the Heart by Laura Bush
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Confession: I voted for George W. Bush. Both times.

Before all the Pajibans I know write me off as a narrow-minded, religious, right-wing nutjob (although I’m afraid that some of you already have), allow me to add that my politics have changed a lot since 2004. Now, I’m an open-minded, religious, right-wing nutjob (yes, we do exist).

But when I think about Bush and how easy it is to vilify him as this money-grubbing idiot who cares more about pleasing corporate America and carrying out a vendetta that his father started, I can’t help but to think that I’m not seeing the whole picture.

puzzle

Is that all there is to him?

I don’t think that any of our presidents have ever failed at patriotism. If you’re even going to run for President at all, I think you have to have at least a modicum of desire to see our nation thrive and prosper.

I don’t agree with many of Barack Obama’s policies, but I have no doubt that he loves this country and is doing what he believes will help it. And even after my politics changed, I still believed that Bush was a patriot and a decent guy, even though I came to strongly disagree with his politics.

So when my girl Jane gave me this book to read, I was determined not to judge Mrs. Bush’s memoir in light of her husband’s politics.

little laura

Laura Bush as a child, on the steps of the house her father built for their family.

It was a pretty interesting read. She had an interesting childhood, and she describes growing up in Midland, Texas, with great care and nostalgia. She described how she came to love books, her family life, the tragedy that shaped her young adulthood, and meeting George.

Then, she starts getting into the political stuff… without really getting into the political stuff. While she drops enough White House trivia to give you a comprehensive picture of life as the First Lady, she also hits all of the major events during her husband’s tenure as President. She could use this memoir as a way to tout her own political ideology, and even to defend her husband’s decisions. She does counter some of the criticisms that were lobbed at him throughout his presidency, though not really from a political standpoint. Instead, she shows us the heart of a wife who loves her husband, and how it aches when he’s faced with impossible decisions.

the bushes

George and Laura Bush.

I still couldn’t avoid the world of politics entirely. There are certain sections where she seems to presume political standpoints (the war in Iraq in particular) that I just couldn’t agree with. But that never got in the way of seeing these events through her eyes.

While this memoir was neither a page-turner nor a mind-changer for me, it did serve to confirm my opinion that, all politics aside, the Bushes seem like nice people. If they were my neighbors, I’d probably go to their barbecues and have a great time. It’s a good reminder that I don’t care as much about people’s politics as I do about their character.

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Cannonball 39: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s like I was born to read this book. Or that this book was written just for me.

I love, love, loved Julia Child’s memoir of her life in France. Not only was it a firsthand account of a remarkable experience, but her nephew, Alex Prud’homme did an excellent job of capturing her voice and personality in the book.

I never really thought about how much work goes into a cookbook. She not only had to research the recipes and make sure that they worked, but she wanted to explain why she did things a certain way and how things should look and feel and smell and taste.

This cookbook changed the face of the American home cook, and it amazes me to look at my cookbooks now and think about how she impacted the way that they were written and even how we look at cuisine today.

She made French cuisine accessible to the American housewife, but, in doing so, she opened a door. She encouraged cooking enthusiasts to be open to new experiences, to try new things, to fail miserably and try again, and to believe that they could create these culinary masterpieces with the right ingredients, a little know-how, and the confidence that anyone can be a good cook.

I want to be her. Like, I want to move to France and take classes at Le Cordon Bleu and learn how to break down chickens in nothing flat. I want to breathe beurre blanc and steam fish and make a really “chickeny” roast chicken.

julia child

This could be me. This SHOULD be me.

Unfortunately, my oven’s broken right now. But I’m excited about seeing all of the wonderful things I can do in my kitchen without one. Thanks for the inspiration, Julia. I owe you one.

On a side note: YAY!! I’m all caught up with my reviews for Cannonball Read!! No more backlogged reviews!! Now I can just review ’em as I read ’em.

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Cannonball 38: Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Mao's Last DancerMao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fact: I’m actually North Korean. My parents lived most of their lives in the South, but both of them originally hail from the North.

When we were kids, my dad would occasionally gather us all ’round the table and tell us tales of North Korea. He would tell us about how his family struggled to survive during the war, and how Communism had ruined the country so that everyone was poor. Families only got a small ration of beef every year, that they would boil over and over again in order to make it last. He would tell us harrowing tales of poverty and oppression.

Then, I grew up and studied the Korean War and realized that my dad wasn’t even in North Korea at that time. In fact, he was only an infant when his parents fled — before the DMZ was set up.

As a result, I grew callous to the suffering of people in Communist countries. In the back of my mind, I always just kind of thought that these tales of poverty were just over-exaggerated by people like my dad who wanted to scare their kids into behaving and being grateful.

But reading Li Cunxin’s autobiography set me straight. In a nutshell: Communism sucks.

Li grew up in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. His family did okay for themselves, and he loved both his mother (niang in Chinese) and his father (dia in Chinese) dearly. He particularly loved his mother and craved more time with her. But, as the sixth of seven sons, he didn’t get much.

He describes his parents’ sacrifices for their survival, and how they worked hard to keep everyone alive. The family, as well as everyone else in the area, survived on a meager diet of dried yams and the occasional protein.

Li’s life changed forever when he was selected to go to Beijing to become a dancer in Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was only eleven years old, and leaving his beloved niang was tortuous. But he knew that he had to do this for the family’s honor.

Li excelled as a dancer under the careful tutelage of many teachers. As he continued to excel, he was offered an opportunity to visit America.

One visit to America was all it took to shatter years of Communist propaganda. When he saw the freedom that the Americans had, he knew that he could never be content living in China again. Li eventually defected to the United States and became a principle dancer for the Houston Ballet.

Oh, and there’s plenty of ballet-stuff in the book, too. As an unashamed owner of Center Stage on DVD, that was super-fun to read.

Chengwu Guo plays Li Cunxin as a teenager in the film version of the book.

Li’s life is an amazing tale of courage and determination. But the parts that resonated most with me were his accounts of his family life. In Communist China, all the Li family had was each other. Their love and devotion to one another helped them to survive conditions that I can’t even imagine. Even after defecting, Li couldn’t be truly happy until he knew that his family was safe.

The writing’s a little clunky, but this isn’t a book written for the sake of literature. It’s the tale of a man, his victory over oppression and poverty, and how his family’s love for him made that all possible.

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Cannonball 32: My Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary

My Own Two Feet: A MemoirMy Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My dear friend Minna (mother to my buddy JN, the one who always lets me borrow his books) let me borrow this book along with The Luckiest Girl. She loved it and was certain that I would, too.

Being the anal reader I am, I had to read A Girl from Yamhill first. But, after having read My Own Two Feet, I have to say that I think it can stand alone without having to read Beverly Cleary’s account of her early life.

My Own Two Feet picks up where A Girl from Yamhill left off: young Beverly Bunn is leaving Oregon for sunny Southern California. She’s never been away from home before, but has been longing for freedom and independence for just about her entire life.

This volume follows Cleary’s college education, decision to become a librarian, her courtship and marriage, and living through World War II, and Cleary writes her account in the same unassuming, lively prose with which she writes her books about Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse.

She has really lived a remarkable life, and she writes about it in such a compelling way that I finished the book in no time. I love biographies that read like fiction. And Beverly Cleary is a master at that.

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Cannonball 31: A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

A Girl from YamhillA Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many other girls my age, I grew up reading Beverly Cleary.

Her books about Ramona Quimby spoke to me like no other books did. While I always told people that my favorite book was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a trip to a land of chocolate? Yes, please), I was always inevitably drawn back to Ramona and Beezus and Henry Huggins. While I loved the fantasy world of Willy Wonka, it was the realism of Klickitat Street that always called me back.

It’s a credit to Cleary’s writing that, as a child, I never questioned the time period in which her books were set. Of course, they were set in the present time — for me. I was later shocked (and by “later,” I mean “fifteen minutes ago”) to discover that the first Ramona book I ever read, Ramona and Her Father, was written in 1977, the same year that I was born.

Ramona was just like me. Her family was down on their luck. Her dad, like mine, was really an artist, but had to resort to working at a store in order to make ends meet. She wasn’t that cute. People thought she was a pest more often than not. She got into plenty of trouble when she didn’t mean to. I could identify with Ramona.

Reading Cleary’s memoir of her childhood was like a window into her writing process. You always hear that you should write what you know, and Cleary did just that. But she did it with a rare combination of matter-of-factness and sympathy that no one else seems to be able to do.

Writers these days seem to depend wholly on magic and adventure and angsty drama to captivate the reader. Cleary’s writing is remarkable simply for how unremarkable her subject matter is. She writes about ordinary kids living ordinary lives. But she writes in a way that kids can identify with, and it makes them feel understood. To me, that makes her worth ten J.K. Rowlings.

But I digress. Back to the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. Cleary writes about herself in much the same way that she writes about her characters: matter-of-factly, yet sympathetically. Many of the circumstances in which her characters find themselves were adapted from her own experience.

Despite her unassuming writing style, she lived through some remarkable times. She grew up during the Great Depression. Her father’s having to work at jobs he hated in order to support the family was the inspiration for Mr. Quimby’s job at the local ShopRite.

Cleary relates the stories of her childhood and adolescence in much the same way that she tells her audience about Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins. The book was a compelling read, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.

Now, I want to indulge myself for a moment, here, and take a minute to rant about a movie that’s scheduled to come out tomorrow. Ramona and Beezus claims that it’s going to show you Ramona like you’ve never seen her before. “This summer, imagination runs wild!” claims the trailer announcer dude.

Here’s the thing: Ramona didn’t have all that much imagination. Seriously, the extent of her imagination was to make an owl looking off to the side at anything but another owl, or to create a crown for herself out of burs. She didn’t take these huge flights of fancy. She got into scrapes, sure, and her dad thought she had spunk.

The Ramona in this movie seems to fit the generic Hollywood mold of “special” — that is, she has an overactive imagination, an annoyingly irrepressible spirit, and gets through all of her young life’s troubles on sheer sparkle.

But what allowed generations of kids to identify with Ramona was that she was so refreshingly ordinary. It made kids feel as though they were free to be normal. This new Ramona has little in common with Cleary’s Ramona.

And don’t even get me started on Beezus. Beezus is supposed to be depressed and afflicted with acne, not some generically pretty Disney drone.

Thanks, Hollywood, for reducing some of my most treasured childhood memories to a generic Hollywood fluff piece.

For the discerning reader, go read The Girl from Yamhill. If you’re anything like me, you’ll hope that our current recession will at least breed more writers like Beverly Cleary.

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