Love Warrior

love-warrior-fulldLove Warrior

By Glennon Doyle Melton

Just when Glennon Doyle Melton was beginning to feel she had it all figured out—three happy children, a doting spouse, and a writing career so successful that her first book catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—her husband revealed his infidelity and she was forced to realize that nothing was as it seemed. A recovering alcoholic and bulimic, Glennon found that rock bottom was a familiar place. In the midst of crisis, she knew to hold on to what she discovered in recovery: that her deepest pain has always held within it an invitation to a richer life.

 Love Warrior is the story of one marriage, but it is also the story of the healing that is possible for any of us when we refuse to settle for good enough and begin to face pain and love head-on. This astonishing memoir reveals how our ideals of masculinity and femininity can make it impossible for a man and a woman to truly know one another – and it captures the beauty that unfolds when one couple commits to unlearning everything they’ve been taught so that they can finally, after thirteen years of marriage, fall in love.

 Love Warrior is a gorgeous and inspiring account of how we are born to be warriors: strong, powerful, and brave; able to confront the pain and claim the love that exists for us all. This chronicle of a beautiful, brutal journey speaks to anyone who yearns for deeper, truer relationships and a more abundant, authentic life.

Via Goodreads

 

Love Warrior is a brutally honest book. Glennon Doyle Melton takes us through her early years and meeting her husband Craig, how she became an alcoholic and then decided to quit once she got pregnant. A hasty wedding and a decade later and her marriage is falling apart.

Without feeling like she’s trying to protect Craig, Doyle Melton is able to present what she learns about him and what he learns through his own therapeutic process while also owning her anger and betrayal. Having always lived in her mind and words, she begins a relationship with her own body, learning to simply be in then to acknowledge what her body feels. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been as she is a recovering bulimic and acknowledges the distance she put between herself and her body for so many years.

This is not a self-help book. It is a memoir of a woman in pain who is determined to acknowledge how she got to this point and to figure out what comes next. There is no advice or actionable items if these problems resonate with you. However, the books very existence is proof that work can be done to find your authentic self. Just be willing to put in the work and know that your path will be your own.

My wish is to someday write something as honest as Love Warrior. I am inspired by her candor.

An Idyllic Life Among the Savages

savagesLife Among the Savages

By Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day. “Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.

Via Goodreads

 

Life Among the Savages was originally published in 1948. Some parts fell quite dated – smoking while pregnant, being able to pay for things with nickels and dimes because some things only cost a nickel or a dime, being knocked out to give birth, the constant repair and reuse of clothing (although that’s not a bad lesson to pick back up – while others are timeless – the cacophony of children, mothers coming together to deal with a fight between their children, growing into a home, the entire family coming down with the same bad cough at the same time.

I find this style of memoir very charming. I typically stumble across them and find myself yearning for a raucous house full of children and a husband prone to retreating. Jackson’s style of writing provides the tenor of the household. Scenes around the table have people speaking over each other and small comments on peas that roll off plates. It’s a neat trick that doesn’t often appear in novels, no matter how realistic they purport to be. The dialogue is messy and overlapping, although never confusing. Her skill as a writer shines in this element.

She also uses long paragraphs of ‘what if’ style conversations with other women to show how the housewife is prone to lists and handling information. “I share this” and then “she’ll share that” with the husband’s piping up and being ignored because this is actually all during a bridge game.

These could be very distracting and confusing but she is adept at guiding the reader through her story to its conclusion.

Memoirs like these are lovely and idyllic. They are very different from a memoir about a difficult childhood or abusive relationship or even a life that has both highs and lows. This subgenre of memoir – I have no idea what to call it – revels in the charming parts of life; frustrating at times but still the stories to look back on fondly. I’m sure Jackson had plenty of rough patches in her life, her ability to see these stories shows she can keep her attention on the good parts when she needs to.

Some of the charming parts that made me want to live with this family:

  • The rundown house they rent in Vermont that has its own personality.
  • Her son Laurie’s tall tales about a bad boy at school. (Guess who’s really the bad boy?)
  • Her daughter Jannie’s vivid imagination – at one point she has seven children that she speaks of as if they are currently around her, frightening strangers at times, until the children grow up and move away.
  • Her husband who continues to read The Wizard of Oz out loud even after Jannie has left the room because one of her ‘daughters’ is sitting with him.
  • Her youngest child Sally’s constant talking and singing described as “part song, part story, part uncomplimentary editorial comment.”

Disappearing into a delightful world such as this is a wonderful gift on a tough day. My life looks nothing like this and may never but knowing that it existed, even if exaggerated or handpicked for maximum effect, is a balm. Life can be difficult but then your children put on a show in the living room to entertain you.

A fictional memoir just became the best memoir I’ve read

A Natural History of Dragons
(Memoir by Lady Trent, #1)
by Marie Brennan

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. 


-via Goodreads


This may sound strange but it takes a fictional memoir to help me figure out what I want from actual memoirs – perspective!! Hear me out.

Lady Trent is an old woman, one who has been called a “national treasure”, induced by a publishing house to write a series of memoirs chronicling portions of her life. A Natural History of Dragons is the first memoir and begins with her precocious childhood.

Isabella is fascinated with ‘sparklings’, at the time considered insects that resembled dragons, and learns how to preserve them in vinegar. She is curious about the natural world in general but in dragons in particular. Questions, such as why do chickens have wishbones, lead her to read books in her father’s library to find the answers. Through such machinations as leaving a book catalogue open on her father’s desk she is able to read “A Natural History of Dragons” which cements her love of dragons and the course of her life, although she wouldn’t have known it at the time.

At fourteen, she recklessly dressed as a boy to ride out with the men to hunt down a wolf-drake dragon that was savaging sheep. Turns out wolf-drakes prefer female prey which outs her to the group, including her father. A result of this misstep enters Isabella into her self-proclaimed grey years wherein she dedicates herself to more womanly pursuits. It also demonstrates her headstrong personality and unfortunate ability to bring on trouble due to her curiosity.

Soon it is time to enter Society and find a husband. Her father does her a solid and provides her a list of eligible bachelors who have excellent libraries, carefully noting which contain her favorite book on dragons. He may not be able to allow her to take more manly pursuits to further her education but he can help her find a husband who will allow her to study to her heart’s content. As luck would have it, she meets one of the men on the list during a visit to the king’s menagerie. Jacob Camherst overhears Isabella’s conversation with the menagerie’s naturalist about the dragons and quickly joins in. She enjoys his company and hopes to become his friend, one with whom she can discuss shared topics such as dragons. Jacob is known to not be pursuing a wife. It turns out that their friendship ends with a proposal from Jacob.

In a charming scene that demonstrates the path of their marriage, Isabella is blunt, asking why he would propose to her. He is equally blunt, stating that she is the first woman to have any interest in him for a reason other than his money. She admits she has heard about his library which makes him laugh. She agrees to marry him and so begins their life together.

I’ll interrupt any plot points to return to my original point. The narrator is an old woman looking back on her life. She is clearly choosing which memories to share and how to share them. She also applies a layer of analysis or judgment or learning on certain memories which, to me, flushes out Isabella even more as a realistic person. Take this paragraph after her nuptials.

“As absurd as it may sound, I think that was the moment at which I realized I was truly leaving. This is something the gentleman readers of this memoir may not understand, but the ladies will know it all too well. If they are married, they have been through it already, and if not, I am sure they have devoted some thought to the matter. To marry means to leave home for another, and often one place for another. My own experience was not so disconcerting as that of royal brides who depart for another country, but from my family’s estate in Tamshire, on which I had spent virtually all of my young life, I know left behind everything I knew and removed to Jacob’s house outside Falchester.”

It’s a small commentary but illuminating to Isabella’s experience at that time. Instead of merely saying where she moved to or describing Jacob’s estate, she ruminates on the heady realization that everything is about to change. Those types of pauses in the memories add depth to the tale, something missing in many memoirs of actual living people that I’ve read.

I’ll skip ahead to the interesting action that follows. Jacob and Isabella meet a Lord Hilford and through a developing friendship are invited on an excursion to Vystrani to study dragons. Isabella is able to convince both her husband and Lord Hilford that she will be an asset on the trip. She can sketch what they find and file their notes for the eventual paper or book that will be written. They eventually agree and the expedition departs.

The ‘memoir’ takes an interesting turn at this point. Remember, there must be a reason why this particular portion of Lady Trent’s life is being recalled. While in Vystrana, a mystery occurs including smugglers, local villagers and politicians. Dragons are tracked and found. Men are hurt, even killed. Through it all, Isabella acknowledges that several of her choices have jeopardized her life or the lives of those around her. However, those same choices often result in helpful leads toward dragons or toward solving the overarching mystery of what is going on in Drustanev, the village where they are staying.

I don’t want to spoil the mystery. Suffice it to say there is intrigue and plotting and dragons and a tragic death. Isabella’s commentary heightens the tension and deepens the emotions. I truly believe that the author’s choice to have Lady Trent looking back on her life was the best one for this story. A purely linear tale from her point of view at the time of the action, when she was nineteen, wouldn’t have been as satisfying or tantalizing. The conceit allows Lady Trent to drop hints at stories that will be told in future volumes and dismisses other tales or rumors outright with no further explanation. For being set in a world where dragons exist alongside bears and foxes and birds, the characters were very human, especially the narrator.

Here’s hoping Provence is the same today as it was in 1989

A Year in Provence

By Peter Mayle
In this witty and warm-hearted account, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provencetransports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.
-via Goodreads
I had first read A Year in Provence a decade ago, a random selection from a friend’s bookshelf. I was charmed by the tale and was charmed this time around as well. It is surprisingly easy to forget that Peter Mayle wrote about his first year living in Provence in 1989. The lack of references to cell phones would have been less obvious ten years ago but I found myself not even thinking about that as I read about his explorations of his new home. There’s no TV, but he mentions that at one point – Mayle and his wife chose to leave the TV back in England from whence they came. There’s also no internet.
Maybe because it’s a story about a place and the people and the food and the cafes. It’s about the relationships Mayle builds with his neighbors as he learns about wines and truffles and hunting season. There’s no reason to think about a cell phone when Mayle describes the grape vine planting process or the delights of eating in a local café.
A Year in Provenceholds up 25 years later because of the focus on location and culture. Not to say that Provence isn’t very different now and a memoir about moving to Provence in 2015 might be dishearteningly similar to moving to somewhere in California.
It reads like a land out of time. Sure, there are references (a few) to the goings-on in France, mainly about the tourist migrations across the country at various times in the year. It is clearly a real place but it is also such a dreamed about place that all the descriptions seem a big magical.
Which is not to say Mayle’s first year is perfect. There is the year-long work on his home that is only completed when his wife throws a party and invites the builders and their wives to attend. A flurry of work quickly occurs. There are all the visitors from England who want to crash at their home. Some are pleasant visitors; others are highly disruptive. The Mistral wind is a shock to their systems, and to the heating system in their home.
I prefer travelogues and similar first-person accounts to memoirs and autobiographies. Learning about a person through their worldview is very interesting. However, for being about Mayle and his wife’s new life in Provence, the book is quite vague about them. Mayle is the narrator and the protagonist who gains us entry into cafés and restaurants and vineyards and parties. He also translates and explains the nuances of the Provencal French as he learns. Example – how to properly speak with one’s hands. Mayle is more an observer than an active participant.
  
The book has twelve chapters, one for each month, that contain multiple anecdotes of what happened that month and miniature essays on related topics. Mayle is highly observant and has an enjoyable, detailed way of describing the landscape, the people he meets and the food he discovers. Trust me, you’ll want to live there after you read A Year in Provence. Everything trendy these days – farm-to-table eating, living more slowly, connecting with people IRL – was just what it was. And maybe (fingers crossed) it still is.
My only lingering question – is it appropriate in 2015 (and was it actually appropriate in 1989) to describe someone as a peasant? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Don’t be scared to look back

The Call of the Farm: An Unexpected Year of Getting Dirty, Home Cooking, and Finding Myself

By Rochelle Bilow
A tantalizing memoir of the author’s love affair with farming, food, and a freckle-faced farmer—and her journey of self-discovery along the way.

Rochelle, a classically trained cook and devoted foodie, was nursing a broken heart and frustrated with her yet-to-take-off writing career when she was assigned to write an article about a small, “full-diet” farm in central New York. It took just one day of moving hay bales, feeding pigs, and tapping maple sap for her to become hooked on farm life. The air was fresh, her muscles felt useful, and the smells from the kitchen where the farmhands gathered at the end of the day were intoxicating.

All these, plus a sweet, mysterious young farmer whose soulful gaze meets her own, set in motion The Call of the Farm. Rochelle Bilow’s enticing memoir charts the unexpected year that unfolds, as she immerses herself in life on the farm—helping to care for livestock, grow vegetables, work the farm-stand, and, as the designated cook, prepare each day’s meals. Bilow also sensitively portrays the arc of her passionate romance with that handsome freckled farmer. Honest, self-aware, and wonderfully tender, The Call of the Farm is for anyone who has daydreamed about farm life—or who has fallen too deeply in love.

-via Goodreads
I’ve mentioned before that I have trouble with memoirs. I have yet to fully put my finger on it. I know I dislike the ‘dropping out of life’ stories because, to me, that would be shirking my responsibilities. I admire people who are candid about their emotions but on paper that can come across as dramatic. It’s a strange perspective for me. I have had plenty of dramatic emotions and moments in my life and if I wrote them down they would come across that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t write essays or memoir myself. I find drama and strong feelings easier to swallow in person through conversation instead of in writing. I need to think about this more.
With this disclaimer of an obvious prejudice against a genre, I should say I picked up The Call of the Farm very easily. I saw it on the library’s new non-fiction shelf and it seemed interesting. A woman goes to live on a farm. Antics ensue. Maybe love. Sure.
Rochelle Bilow’s book is fine. As the subtitle states, she does get dirty and does some home-cooking (recipes included). But did she find herself? Putting that statement in a title sets a high bar, one which Bilow may have reached personally but that I didn’t see in the book.
I presume the ‘finding herself’ part relates both to her career and her relationship with a farmer named Ian. Bilow begins the memoir as a freelance food writer but can’t cobble together a steady income. While visiting a year-round CSA farm for an assignment, she finds herself wanting to be a part of the farm. Several more trips and she begins to insert herself into the farm life, including Ian’s bed. (I’m not implying she slept with Ian to get onto the farm. Although it does raise the fair question – did Bilow want to be at the farm because of Ian or was Ian a happy side benefit? That’s never clear.)
The descriptions of farm life are excellent. She doesn’t hide how difficult most of the work is or her own ignorance at many things that resulted in mistakes or something breaking. The appreciation of having a weekend off chores, of having a full day off, let alone a week’s vacation, is very clear. Also apparent is her appreciation of how good it feels to work with your body. It can be exhausting day in and day out but, especially in the beginning, she notes the satisfaction of feeling sore at the end of the day because she accomplished something. I personally love that feeling myself but am not sure if I could deal with 4:45am alarms to go feed the pigs or move the cows to a new field.
Bilow writes about how she talked about balancing her writing with farm work but it’s pretty obvious that she was quickly immersed in the farm and rarely addressing freelance work. There are a few times when she questions what she should be doing – making a stronger effort at writing, going back to cooking (she went to culinary school) or farm life – but even by the end of the book nothing was truly answered. I should point out that Bilow is 25 when she is on the farm which is a pretty standard age to wonder what the hell you should be doing with your life.
All right, time to say SPOILER. Ian and Bilow don’t work out. I think this is the reason the title says “Finding Myself” instead of “Finding Love”. Throughout, Ian is very consistent that he is reluctant to commit to Bilow. He’s monogamous but unwilling to move the relationship further, despite them living in the same room at the farm. It is very obvious to the reader what is coming but Bilow writes as if she is still in that moment so there is no knowledge of what is to come. And what comes is Ian’s admittance that he wants to break up because he’s not ready to never date anyone new again. Bilow cries a lot, talks to everyone on the farm about it, moves into the room across the hall but keeps climbing into his bed. Eventually she decides to leave the farm, a move that feels like it is borne out of the pain of the breakup than actually ‘finding’ out that she doesn’t want a farm life.
The memoir ends with Bilow driving away from the farm. The end. I only know, vaguely, what happens next because her bio on the book says she’s in New York writing for Bon Appetit. I guess she found out she wants to write full-time and live in the city. I don’t begrudge her that. I just didn’t enjoy the abrupt ending of the book without any resolution.

I think I may be realizing what I dislike about memoirs – or, I should qualify, most memoirs I have read, including Wild. When they are written in the moment of the past event, there is no acknowledgement of what was ridiculous or what was learned or the impact of that moment. I think I want a memoir that looks back and recalls a story with some color commentary. Any suggestions are welcome.