Unaffected, funny and very cool

March 14, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Posted in Biography | Leave a comment
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Rhoda Janzen, ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ , Atlantic Books January 2011

I would love to meet Rhoda Janzen. When I finished ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ (which is written with fantastic candidness and panache) I felt like I had been into Rhoda’s life, read her diary, looked at her credit card statements, seen the contents of her fridge, listened in to her phone calls, gone through her wardrobe, looked at her photo albums… and whats worse I want to know more! The more an author lets you in the deeper a reader will want to go into a story. What is even better than her honesty in this story is the fact that as a person and in her writing Rhonda is unaffected and charming and the same can be said for the story itself.

With  fluid humour and light self-deprecation ‘Mennonite in a little Black Dress’ is a super page turner of a book. Rhoda Janzen, a former poet laureate in the University of California, English Lecturer and all round academic, writes her life story so far (she is only forty-three) in this memoir of growing up in and returning to the Mennonite Community in which she was raised. Atlantic Books have been great for quirky accessible human interest stories (‘Cockeyed’ Ryan Knighton, ‘Fortune’s Daughter’s’ Elizabeth Keogh & ‘God is Not Great’ Christopher Hitchens) so it was very easy to make the decision to pick this one up.

Rhoda’s husband of fifteen years leaves her for a man named Bob whom he met on Gay.com. In the same week Rhoda is involved in a terrible car crash. Her physical and emotional injuries send her back home to the Mennonite Community from once she fled where she begins a sabbatical from her lecturing post. Nursing her broken bones and heart Rhoda reflects on her life spent with a bipolar husband who makes insane impulse purchases like a $385 pair of gloves on Rhoda’s credit card she also reflects on the heavy traditions of the Mennonite Community in which she grew up where everything from dancing to convenience food was banned but where love was abundant.

Rhoda’s writing had me sniggering and snorting ungracefully with outbursts of laughter. She is the kind of funny that can only be achieved with candid honesty and an appreciation for the unique problems that simply being human bring.  Many stories are worthy of being told but only a select few make it to the New York Times bestseller list and this book did I think because how much the reader is allowed in. There is nothing more fascinating than reading in delicious detail about someone else’s life decisions, finances and love life.

I highly recommend this wonderful story, it is so uplifting and bright I almost want to fashion a petticoat and bonnet….

Click here to borrow this book from DLR libraries

Haiku; Mennonites flourish, aetheist husband flounders, Rhoda’s true home found.

What to look for in a memoir…

February 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Posted in Biography | 1 Comment
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I would as a reader generally shy away from reading memoirs and biographies as often even the most interesting stories are so heavily grounded in narrative they become disengaging. Candia McWilliams memoir ‘What to Look for in Winter’ is movingly different. She sets the narrative of her suffering at the loss of her sight against the often tragic but beguiling story of her life producing a well paced and plotted memoir.

McWilliams was judging the Booker Prize in 2006 when she first began to lose her sight and when we meet her in the book she is Cambridge educated, part of the English aristocracy has been married twice  once to an Earl and emerged out of these relationships with three children and a wicked drinking problem.

I believe in person there is an other worldliness quality about McWilliams and a striking beauty , the same can be said about her writing. Her memoir has a detached tone when describing her experiences which mirrors McWilliams own withdrawal from the world. Throughout her life she gains and loses many things; husbands, homes, health, self respect….she probes each experience with her beautiful literary eye pulling together the sense of her life with the aid of a Cambridge inspired vocabulary.Her strong sense of self is paraded out through confident prose and language, meaning becomes jewelled in language. In one particularly beautiful scene McWilliams daughter asks here why she likes the royal family and her explanation encapsulates the ideology of the royal family with a very clever perspective.

Her experiences at times are physical (the loss and re-gain of her sight, horrific battles with alcohol), at times they are heavily emotional self-destructive, ugly, romantic, poignant but the eye with which McWilliams looks at her own life with is so probing that all these experiences and battles with herself are beautiful because they are self aware.

It is with deep self-awareness this memoir is written and that’s what sets it apart from the others. That and the extraordinary life McWilliams has so far led. One reviewer of McWilliams describes her like ‘a northern princess gazing  out of a cold castle onto icicles and pale eyed wolves’ and this is truly apt.

Haiku: Candia’s language, shiny diamonds in the dark, luminescent life.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

Only the locust can catch the bird….

July 11, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Posted in Biography | 1 Comment

Hanan Al Shaykh, ‘The Locust and the Bird’ Bloomsbury, April 2010

The Locust and the Bird is an interesting story for two reasons. It is the story of a mother documented by her daughter. This is more necessary than you think as the mother, Kamila, is illiterate. It is also an insight into an Islamic woman’s world in 1930’s Lebanon and Beirut as finally understood by her daughter in 2001, remotely both geographically and culturally in New York. It could have easily been different. As autobiographical stories that grow out of stories of suffering and diaspora can be hard to tell. But Hanan Al-Shaykh’s skills as a writer create a tender evocation of her mother’s life story.

Hanan Al-Shaykh is an accomplished writer with four novels and a short story collection already behind her. She explains in the prologue that each time she had a new book published her mother beseeched her daughter to write her life story until finally Hanan agreed.

It is Hanan’s reportage style that sustains this autobiography making it good reading. A poignant story of when Kamila was forced into marriage at the age of thirteen, subjected to brutality by many of the men in her life only to find true love in her later years. Having been denied an education Kamila’s ideas of love are developed through her visits to the cinema and the relationships she sees in the Arab language films in vogue at the time. Hanan paints an evocate portrait of south Lebanon where the mother grew up and balances the dark humanity in her mother’s story with the bustling noise and life of Beirut city.

At times my interest in the story waned I must admit and I believe it was my compulsion to Hanan’s style of writing that kept me turning the pages.  There is an eerie sense that this was the right time for Hanan to write her mother’s story after years of her mother pleading. It is appropriate and accomplished of Hanan to use New York of 2001 and modern life to finally interpret her mothers story of 1930’s Lebanon and to make it understandable by a wider audience.

As Hanan mandates at the beginning of writing her mother’s story ; ‘Wails and tales. My life story is one long revelation. Only the locust can capture the bird.’

Haiku; Using the present, to interpret the past, is interesting.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

Cometh the hour…cometh the man

February 16, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Posted in Biography, Great for Book Clubs | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Last American Man’, Penguin 2002

Who is your hero? I thought I knew the answer to this question before I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s  ‘Last American Man’.  This story is pure inspiration. It is the bountiful biography of a man called Eustace Conway who hails from a typical middle class background in America but after turning seventeen leaves polite society and his comfortable suburban home behind to begin living off the land in the Appalachian Mountains. Amidst the array of celebrity heroes America produces Eustace Conway really is an unsung hero. Eustace hikes two thousand miles down the Appalachian Trail and rides horseback across America all in an attempt to live a more fulfilled life away from the materialism of the society he left. Word soon spreads about Eustace and he becomes a high profile figure in America with Time Magazine doing an article on him. He is an enigmatic character to whom people flock. He is charismatic and falls in love about twenty times in the duration of the book. His upbringing was tumultuous and his personality is enigmatic. It sounds like a heavy going story but it’s not at all because of the author Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert’s two other books, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and ‘Committed’, are bursting with humanity, psychology, honesty and humor. She applies all of these qualities to Eustace’s biography so you understand the decisions he makes and feel the humanity in his mistakes and triumphs. Fans of John Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild’ will love this. Anyone who loves human interest stories will also love this. Still to this day Eustace lives off the land in North Carolina on a nature reserve he built. Read it to be moved and intrigued.

Haiku; Handsome naturalist, will make you want to leave town, and live off the land

Click here to view this book on Amazon.com

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