Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

Ree Drummond’s “The Pioneer Woman”

Pioneer womanIt’s hard to say what influences me to read a particular book. Sometimes it’s recommendations from friends or something I read, perhaps a review. Other times I may choose a book on a whim. That was the case with Ree Drummond’s memoir The Pioneer Woman. It was the illustration on the hardcover edition of the book that got my attention. I liked the image of the cowboy on his horse raising his hat and turning slightly in the saddle to smile at the woman riding with him. The woman, of course, is smiling up at him. The scene reminded me of the westerns I watched as a kid – Dale Evans and Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Annie Oakley. After all that reminiscing, I couldn’t resist the book.

The subtitle, “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels,” serves as a good summary of the story. Drummond was at a crossroads in her life. She had spent seven years in L.A. and was in a relationship that she knew was not what she wanted. She returned to her parent’s home in Oklahoma to think about what she wanted to do next. She had begun making plans to move to Chicago when she met the cowboy she calls Marlboro Man. Soon after that, her transition from “black heels to tractor wheels” began.

Drummond’s memoir covers a narrow time frame from meeting Marlboro Man to their wedding and the birth of their first child. On the surface, it’s a love story, but there are also subplots that give the book depth including details about life on a ranch. If someone cornered me at a party and started talking about ranching, I would probably yawn and make a quick escape. But it was fascinating to learn what ranching is like through the eyes of someone who is experiencing it for the first time and wondering if she can adjust to that lifestyle.

As Drummond contemplates marrying Marlboro Man, she finds it hard to accept that her parents are thinking about ending their marriage. There is also the ex-boyfriend who still has hope for their relationship. Drummond weaves all of those parts of her life together in a well-written story.

As I was reading The Pioneer Woman, I discovered that Drummond’s book The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinnertime was on the bestseller list. As a biographer, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about what she had done since the time period she describes in her memoir.

It turns out that the cookbook I saw on the bestseller list is her fourth one, and she has a show on the Food Network. She also has a popular website where she shares her photography and recipes and blogs about life with her family on the ranch. The blog is where Drummond’s memoir began with humorous posts about her transition from city life to country girl. Her readers enjoyed those posts so much that Drummond decided to tell the whole story in a memoir.

She also writes children’s books that feature her “very lethargic” Basset hound, Charlie. She has her own product lines, and in August, she and her husband are opening a mercantile store and deli/restaurant. Drummond has come a long way from the young woman in her memoir. In that book she wondered what she would ever do for a job when she lived on a ranch so far away from the nearest town. She has obviously figured it out.

Ali Wentworth’s “Happily Ali After”

Ali WentworthI admit that part of my interest in Ali Wentworth’s memoir Happily Ali After was the fact that she is married to George Stephanopoulos. I’ve often wondered about that partnership. As an outsider judging from what I’ve seen of them on TV, they seem totally different. First there is George, who chooses his words so carefully. Then there is Ali. The few times I’ve seen her on various talk shows, I felt like there was no way of anticipating what would come out of her mouth. Almost anything seemed possible.

It turns out that my judging the relationship of two people I don’t even know was playing right into Chapter 4 of Ali’s book. All of the chapters begin with a quote. Chapter 4 starts with this one by Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.” It seems that Ali, like me, has been guilty of judging someone from what she saw on TV and on the Internet. In her case it was Kendall Jenner, but when their paths actually crossed, Kendall surprised Ali.

I don’t expect I’ll ever meet Ali, but reading her book has helped me see her in a different light. There have been times when I watched her on TV and felt like I just did not “get” her humor, but her book is laugh out loud funny. I started it thinking I would read one chapter at the end of each day. It would be my reward for having a productive day even if the day was not as productive as I had hoped. After a couple of chapters, I was rewarding myself with three chapters a day. By that time, I was hooked. I ditched my rewards system altogether and just sat down and finished the book.

I enjoyed Ali’s humor, but I was also impressed with her insights into situations I had also experienced. As I read her thoughts about exercising, aging, and family, I realized that I actually had some things in common with her. I especially appreciated what she wrote about Ali McGraw’s famous line from Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I’ve always felt that is the worst line ever. In my world, love requires lots of apologies. I was happy to learn that someone else feels the same way.

I also liked the chapters where Ali wrote about her husband. I’m sticking with my first impression that they are very different, but I no longer wonder how they manage to stay married. Ali uses some great anecdotal information that clearly shows they care about each other and appreciate their differences.

There are some sections of the book that fall into the category of too much information for my comfort zone, but I give Ali props for being honest. I didn’t read her first book, Ali in Wonderland, but I plan to rectify that.

“Wild,” a Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

WildTP_Books-330[1]It was Reese Witherspoon who drew me to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon produced and stars in the movie based on that book. I like Reese Witherspoon, so I wanted to see the movie, but not until I had read the book. So often the movie is very different than the book and I wanted Strayed’s version of the story before I got the Hollywood version.

Strayed hooked me with a strong opening, and once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Yet the whole time I was reading I wondered what it was that compelled me to continue.

Wild as I’m sure most of you know is the story of a woman who hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. She definitely faced danger during her 90-day trek. There were rattlesnakes and black bears. There was the struggle to keep hydrated hiking in intense heat. Other times she hiked in the snow knowing that even one misstep could send her tumbling off the edge to certain death. But much of the story is about a woman on the Pacific Crest Trail putting one foot ahead of the other day after day. The book does not have the drama of a life and death situation. So it wasn’t the need to know what happened next that kept me reading.

In some ways, I had trouble identifying with Strayed. I understood her need for time alone. As a writer, I need that almost as much as I need coffee. But my idea of alone time is a week at a writing retreat in the mountains, not the isolation of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I also had trouble understanding Strayed’s self-destructive life style, which eventually led her to the Pacific Crest Trail. She tries to explain as she weaves in details about her past. The scenes where she writes about her mother who died way too young, her grief after that loss, and the breakup of her marriage are beautifully written. But I felt a little impatient as I read the scenes about her past. I liked Strayed better on the Pacific Crest Trail where she was starting to pull her life together.

It was hard to read about what the trail was doing to Strayed physically. She goes into great detail about blisters and places on her back and hips that were rubbed raw by the enormous backpack she named Monster. Strayed kept a running tally of the toenails she lost caused by ill-fitting boots. I wanted to turn away from those scenes and I worried that she might never recover from the damage the trail was doing to her body. But I kept reading.

What is the appeal of Strayed’s story? For me, it was the fact that she was a woman alone facing an incredible challenge. I believed that she needed that journey to get her life back on track and I wanted to see her succeed. I continued reading so I could be right there with her at the end.

Does the movie stay true to the book? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in an interview for the Seattle Times, Strayed said the movie followed the book closely. It was a promise Reese Witherspoon made to Strayed when she optioned the book. There is only one scene that makes Strayed uncomfortable. It shows her having sex with two men in an alley behind the restaurant where she worked as a server. Strayed says that never happened. It was the director’s idea as a way to show how low Strayed fell after her mother’s death.

I came away from the book feeling like I want to do something that will challenge me physically. I don’t know what that will be, but I guarantee it won’t be the Pacific Crest Trail. For now, I’m just looking forward to seeing the movie.

Regina Calcaterra’s “Etched in Sand”

9780062218834[1]Regina Calcaterra’s memoir, Etched in Sand, is a hard book to put down. For one weekend, I let everything else slide until I finished it even though I sometimes felt like I could not bear to read another page. Her story about the abuse she and her four siblings suffered at the hands of their mentally ill mother is heartbreaking to read. But Regina wrote about her childhood in foster care and on the streets of Long Island with unflinching honesty. She made me care about her and her siblings from the start, and I had to keep reading to find out what happened to them.

Cookie, as the children called their mother, self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. Her five children all had different fathers, none of which were in their lives. She often left the children on their own for weeks and even months while she was living with her latest boyfriend. They survived by stealing groceries and clothes and lying about their mother’s whereabouts when authorities checked on them.

Sadly, those were the best times for her children. The physical and mental abuse they suffered when their mother was with them was worse. They moved from one rundown house or apartment to another sometimes living in homeless shelters, trailers, or the back of a station wagon. Occasionally, they were put into foster care, but Cookie always managed to get them back.

The one thing the siblings had was each other, so they vowed to stick together no matter what. But children aren’t meant to be on their own. Eventually, the two oldest sisters moved in with friends. Twelve-year-old Regina was left to care for her younger brother and sister who were 10 and 6. Two years later, she suffered such a severe beating at the hands of her mother that it was impossible to ignore. The promise she had made to take care of her two younger siblings was one she could no longer keep.

The book gives readers a lot to think about such as child abuse, homelessness, poverty, mental illness and the foster care system. Regina notes that there have been changes since she and her siblings were in the foster care system during the 1960s-1980s. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is how the system handles older children. At age 18, they are aged out of the system with little preparation for the future. As a result, many become homeless and the cycle continues. It is why Regina has become a board member of You Gotta Believe, an organization that helps older foster children find forever homes.

The book also has a lot to say about family bonds, positive thinking, and how much even a small act of kindness can mean. Regina found refuge in public libraries and was grateful for the teachers who encouraged her to study hard. They helped her realize that an education was her way out of poverty. Unfortunately, not all of her teachers were helpful. Her second grade teacher introduced Regina to the class by explaining that she was a foster child and wouldn’t be with them long. He effectively ruined any chance Regina had of feeling like she belonged.

Regina said she wrote Etched in Sand because she wanted to empower others who are faced with difficult circumstances. She hopes her story encourages them to never give up and to never stop believing in themselves. Regina, who currently works as a lawyer for the State of New York, is a shining example of how to triumph against impossible odds. She has said that growing up with Cookie made her more compassionate. Hopefully, her memoir will have the same effect on readers. It should be required reading for anyone who works with or cares about children.

Running Away to Home, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about participating in a community reading program. The book the planning committee chose was Jennifer Wilson’s memoir Running Away to Home. The final event for the reading program was a presentation by the author. I was looking forward to that because I wanted to know what life has been like for Jennifer and her family now that they are home from their journey to Croatia. I especially wanted to know how the trip had changed them.

I didn’t need to ask the question. Another woman beat me to it. The nods from people in the auditorium clearly indicated that the question had been on their minds as well. Jennifer’s first response was that she and her family were relieved to be home again and they easily fell back into their regular routine. Her two children who had been homeschooled by their dad in Croatia were eager to get back to school with their friends. Jennifer was happy to go back to her travel writing.

Was I the only one who felt a little disappointed with that answer I wondered? So much had happened in Croatia, and Jennifer wrote about it all so eloquently in her book. I didn’t want to believe that the trip had not changed their whole family in some significant way. I was not the only one who wanted more. Someone else in the audience tried again asking the question in a slightly different way. Certainly the trip had changed them in some ways she suggested.

With the press for more details, Jennifer talked about small changes they had made. After spending four months in Mrkopalj where villagers raised almost everything they ate, the Wilsons started a garden in their yard. They have also learned to live on less. They no longer shop as recreation and they don’t hoard. More recently, they moved to a smaller home. But most of all, Jennifer says she has a new appreciation for her life in the U.S. She understands now how hard it was for her ancestors to immigrate to this country, and she fully appreciates the sacrifices they made. For instance, after her father settled in the U.S., he never again had contact with his family in Croatia. Jennifer has also seen how different her life would be if her ancestors had stayed in Croatia.

Another woman wondered about Jennifer’s children. They were only 4 and 7 years old when they made their journey to Croatia. “Do you think they’ll remember the trip when they’re older?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Jennifer replied. Then she expressed her hope that the trip will help them learn to value travel as she does because it’s important to see more of the world.

Jennifer ended her presentation with a challenge for all of us. She said she and her husband had spent nine months planning for their trip. There were many times during that period when they had doubts. But always at the back of their minds there was a voice urging them forward. She challenged us to listen to our own inner voices and to push doubts aside to follow our hearts. It’s a risk, but the rewards can be great.

 

Running Away to Home

Running Away to HomeThis month, I’ve been participating in a community reading program. For that annual event, people are invited to read a book chosen by the planning committee. There are activities such as book discussions and it all culminates with a presentation by the author. It’s one of those things I’ve always intended to do, but never got beyond the thinking about it stage. So I kind of surprised myself when I signed on. What was different this year? The main thing was that I was intrigued by the book selection, Jennifer Wilson’s memoir Running Away to Home.

The long subtitle pretty much sums up what the book is about: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters. Jennifer, a travel writer and mother of two, was frustrated with her frenzied, materialistic world of work, soccer practices, swimming lessons, and shopping trips to Target all fueled by caffeine from Starbucks. “Is this the American Dream?” she wondered. “Because if it is, it sort of sucks.” Her husband shared her dissatisfaction and her spirit of adventure. So they set off with their two young children, headed for the small Croatian village of Mrkopalj (MER-koe-pie) in search of Jennifer’s family roots and a simpler life.

Surprisingly, Jennifer, who is the most passionate about travel, is the one who had the hardest time adjusting to the unstructured lifestyle and to living on Croatian time where things get done whenever. (The rooms that were supposed to be ready for them when they arrived for their four-month stay were still a work-in-progress.)

Gradually, Jennifer did settle in and became immersed in the daily life of the village. She wrote with humor about the community and the friendships they formed there, and I loved her descriptions of the area. She also did a great job of building tension. At first, there are only roadblocks as she researches her family roots, but the story builds as she uncovers clues and begins to make progress.

I was tempted to skip some of the early sections about Mrkopalj’s history. I didn’t because I sensed it was an important part of the story, and I was right. I got more interested in the history as I learned more about Jennifer’s ancestors and began to see how the past had influenced their lives. I always say that I never cared much about history until I started writing biographies. But putting real people into the history makes it come alive, and that is the case with Jennifer’s story.

The book ends in Mrkopalj, so now I’m looking forward to the final part of the community reads program, Jennifer’s presentation. I’m hoping she’ll talk about what life is like for her family now that they are home again. I’m wondering how, or if, the trip changed them.

As much as I enjoyed Jennifer’s story and admire her spirit of adventure, I know I’ll never have a similar one to tell. I’m too much of a homebody. A week of vacation and I’m good for at least a few months. What about you? Would you leave everything behind to live in another country for a period of time? Would you make a journey like that with children, or would you prefer to travel on your own or as part of a couple? Or maybe you’ve already enjoyed your own adventure. I would love to hear about it.

One Funny Lady

A couple of weeks ago, I read a short paragraph in our Sunday paper about Allie Brosh’s graphic memoir, Hyperbole and a Half. The long subtitle – Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened – was my first clue that she is very funny. It’s been a cold, snowy winter and I needed something to laugh about, so I went to her blog. It is also called Hyperbole and a Half and it is where her book began.

Apparently, I’m one of only a handful of people new to her blog. She started it in 2009, and in less than a year, she was getting almost 2 million views a month. By 2011, that number had grown to between 3 and 7 million each month. It’s easy to see why. I spent a lot of time exploring her archives, and she had me laughing out loud with her twisted way of looking at events in her life.

Her essays are a combination of text and illustrations. On her FAQ page, she says she uses Paintbrush for the illustrations that look deceptively simple. Some may call them crude, but Allie notes that it’s a “precise crudeness.” She may revise one drawing many times. She also puts careful thought into deciding what sections of her posts should be text and what parts work better as illustrations. She’s a perfectionist, who has been known to delete posts from her site because in hindsight she felt they were not her best work.

Her blog also includes some serious posts, most notably the two about her experiences with depression – “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two.” Her serious posts are just as compelling as her humorous ones. “Depression Part Two” brought 5,000 comments from her readers who were touched by her honesty.

About the only complaint her viewers have is that her posts have been infrequent in the last few years – only 3 posts in 2013. Perhaps that is because she’s been working on her book. According to information from the publisher, the book contains some of her blog posts, but 50 percent of it is new material.

Of course, if you’re just discovering her work, as I am, it’s all new material, and I’m glad I read that small paragraph in the newspaper that introduced me to her writing. After all, it’s still cold and snowy, but humor is great medicine for cabin fever.

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