Archive for Memoir

Pennsylvania Reading….

To celebrate the record low temperatures in my part of the world (can one really celebrate that?), I have been catching up on some of my reading about books from my homestate.  Take a look at my Book Picks for reviews on Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns and Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman.


Welcome, 2015!

Happy New Year! Welcome, 2015! Are you making your resolutions yet? If one of your goals for the New Year is to read more, then try some of these books. I have compiled three lists of great reads from 2014. Authors include Elizabeth Blackwell, Natalie Harnett, Emily St. John Mandel, Roxane Gay, Beth Peyton, and Nicole Walker. Poets includes collections by Rochelle Hurt, John Repp, and January Gill O’Neil. The complete lists are listed here.  Happy Reading!

Summer Reading List

Are you looking for some great summer reads? I have posted my summer reading list — take a look! There’s a wide variety, and I am sure there is something for everyone!

Read This Book: The Girl Factory by Karen Dietrich

Factory Girl

I know the landscape of Karen Dietrich’s memoir, The Girl Factory.  It’s a small factory town in rural Pennsylvania.  It’s a household where parents work different shifts at the local factory — a mother who works days, while the father takes the “Hoot Owl” (A term used by my family for the night shift — also called The Graveyard Shift).  It’s a house filled with pets and superstition and complicated love.

Certainly, it was this familiar landscape that drew me into The Girl Factory, a memoir about a young girl growing up in the 80’s in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.  But it was the lyrical language that made me stay.

I knew Dietrich’s work as a poet (and because we both attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduates), but even I was surprised about how she was able to find poetic prose in a dusty and rusty small factory town, especially when the subjects found in her book lead to deeper dirt than what coats the physical surface.

Dietrich starts her book in 1985, when an employer of the Anchor Glass plant (the factory where both of her parents work) goes on a shooting spree killing four supervisors and then himself.  It’s this moment, when the family finds out about the shooting, that Dietrich explains: “There are moments that separate before from after, minutes in time that freeze like a photograph, capture a flash that indicates change.  I start to realize that everything I’ve lived so far has been the before. I don’t know what the after will be.”

What follows as the “after”  is a coming-of-age story about class issues and family relationships, a book that integrates the pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s, and a work that is able to explore even the darker findings of Dietrich’s childhood without losing the lyrical grace of her poetic language.

I have followed Dietrich’s work as a poet (see my review about her chapbook Anchor Glass here), and I preordered The Girl Factory over six months ago.  It didn’t disappoint.  In an age where memoirs are seemingly everywhere — this book certainly stands out as a must read. You can read more about Dietrich and her work at her website.

Read This Book: The Bridge To Take When Things Get Serious by Lori Jakiela

LJ's book

In Lori Jakiela’s second memoir, The Bridge To Take When Things Get Serious, she writes near the beginning,  “Whatever our problems, my mother has always made it clear she loves me.  And I love her, desperately, in the way that daughters with fierce mothers often do.  I can’t separate my life from hers.”

It’s this fierceness — both in language and in characterization that shines in this book, which chronicles Jakiela’s return to her hometown after living in New York City for seven years while working as a flight attendant.  On the home front, she takes care of her dying mother, struggles to find herself as a writer, and finds love that begins a new part of her life as both a wife and a mother.

Jakiela’s book runs the gamut of emotions: readers will laugh when her mother, (who is old and not physically well) attacks a garter snake in the front yard convinced that it’s a copperhead:  “She jumps back and brings the shovel down again, this time on the snake’s lispy skull.  My mother has never looked stronger or more determined in her life.”   Readers will flinch, when in an emotional scene, her mother strikes out, seemingly ashamed at the news that her daughter is pregnant out of wedlock

And readers will cry when Jakiela herself mourns the loss of her mother. In one of the most heartfelt scenes (but a scene that Jakiela carries off without sentimentality) she talks about her son’s reaction to this death, explaining that he often plays with an old phone to talk to his deceased grandmother :

Sometimes, he’ll come and get me to play too.

                    “My old grandma, ” he’ll say.  “She wants to talk to you. He’ll say, “My old grandma’s on the phone.

 Boy, are you going to get it.”

Sometimes, I pick up.

I say, “Hi Mom.” I say. “Where’ve  you been?”

I say, “Locklin’s good.  He misses you.”

I say, “This skirt does not make me look fat.”

I say, “I love you, too.”

I say, “Goodbye.”

The Bridge To Take When Things Get Serious is an exploration of loss and grief, but it’s also an exploration of what it takes to move on after someone who has always been part of your life is gone. Indeed, Jakiela quotes a friend in her memoir, a wise friend who says, “When you lose your mother, you have to remake yourself.”  I lost my own mother over five years ago,  I think about this line a lot — what parts of me disappeared when my mother died?  How have I changed?  How I have not changed and why?  How have I remade myself?  Jakiela’s answer to her friend, one she records for the reader is this: “I can’t understand this. I never want to understand this.”  And we watch as Jakiela is forced to understand her loss and move on with her own life.

For more information about this book (and other work by Jakiela) visit Lori Jakiela’s blog/website.

Read This Book: Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain

NavigatingWhen I was young, a category four tornado struck a small town located about 30 minutes from where I lived.  Four people were killed in the disaster.  This particular tornado was part of a tornado outbreak that struck Ohio and Pennsylvania in late May of 1985.  At least 30 storms were part of this tragedy that killed 76 people.

With the recent news of the tornado in Oklahoma, I’ve been thinking a lot about this event in my past, and in general, how we face disaster — both at a national level and at a more personal level.  I’ve also been thinking about a book I just read titled Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair by Sheryl St. Germain.

St. Germain is from New Orleans, and in her prelude, she tells the reader that she “didn’t want to write a book ‘about’ Katrina.”  Instead, she explains, ‘I wanted to see the catastrophe as part of a larger life story, one that might change that story, but was not the story itself.  We often tend to focus on catastrophe exclusively, making it the heart of a life or an existence. I resist that impulse: though we may be shaped by catastrophe, it does not, and should not, define us.”

Indeed, Katrina is very much part of this book, but it doesn’t define the author or her family.  Instead, St. Germain finds these defining moments in different ways, especially through travel. In her essays, she catalogs physical surroundings but also narrates stories of home. Often, these essays work with memory, negotiating the author’s present ideas to her thoughts of the past. In the first few essays of this book, St. Germain is traveling in Alaska, considering the similarities of her surrounding with her home.  In other essays, she returns to home through memory, contemplating the complex history of racism in her family or the role that the levees played in her life. In my favorite piece, “Why She Won’t Leave: My Mother’s Blues” the author gives us a love song in prose, celebrating both family, place, and home.

St. Germain is a master at the lyrical essay — so much so, that one will probably forget that the book (with the exception of one poem at the end) is a collection of essays and not a collection of poetic verse.  It’s easy to get lost (in a good way) in the places described in this collection, but not easy to forget that the stories being related are told out of love.  Navigating Disaster is a wonderful collection of strength, and a must read, especially in today’s troubled times.

A Summer Reading List

I know that summer is not quite here — but it feels like it will be soon.  This week, I will be buried under final classes, final papers, and final tests.  And after all these “finals”?  I want to attack the big box of unread books in my spare bedroom.  (Plus, I want to read all the unread books that are piling up in my Kindle!)

Every spring, my school compiles a fun reading list for the summer, and below I have listed my recommendations.  Alas, I don’t usually include poetry books (maybe I should!), but even poetry lovers/readers need to devour something besides verse!

The Age of Miracles Karen Thomas Walker

Part apocalyptic tale, part coming of age story, Walker’s novel follows a young girl named Julia, who with the rest of her family, awakens to the news that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow – days and nights grow longer and the natural environment is thrown into chaos.  In the middle of this world, Julia learns to navigate the normal blunders of everyday life, including cracks in her parents’ marriage, the bizarre behavior of family members and friends and the heartbreak of first love.  The Age of Miracles is both a disturbing and beautiful read – and the best novel I read last year.

Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland by Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf

On a winter night in 1900, a Midwestern farmer was murdered in his bed, killed by two blows of an axe.  Four days later, his wife was arrested for the crime.  Midnight Assassin is based on the popular play by Susan Glaspell, and this book not only presented the investigation of the case, but gave a lot of information about the bleak lives of women during this time period.

The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

In this novel, the narrator, Harry Collins, takes the reader back to his childhood days during the Great Depression.  Set in rural Texas in 1933, young Harry’s world changes forever when he discovers the body of a young black woman.  A disturbing story of race and class relations, The Bottoms is a great read.  Warning: This book does contain many scenes that are very violent, so if you do not want to read about violence, you may want to skip this novel.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed believed that she had lost nearly everything in her life.  Struggling to survive her mother’s death and a broken marriage, she makes the impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington state.  This book chronicles that journey in beautiful and thoughtful prose.

The Day After the Day After by Steven Church

At first, it’s hard to imagine that Steven Church and I would have anything in common, starting with the simple fact that he grew up in Lawrence, Kansas and I grew up in rural Pennsylvania – but we do.  We both grew up in the last days of the Cold War.  We also grew up with what he terms as “Atomic Anxiety.”  One of my first memories was the Three Mile Island meltdown in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Church also catalogs man memories dealing with the Nuclear Age.  His childhood was marked by the fear of Nuclear War and the Stress of Reagan’s America – these fears come to ahead when filming begins of The Day After in his hometown.  In spite of poor special effects and melodramatic plotlines, The Day After is still considered one of the most watched TV movies in history.   Church explores the meaning of Cold War fears along with their influences on his generation.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

While not a real “autobiography,”  Melanie Benjamin’s fun novel explores the life of Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren Bump, (aka Mrs. Tom Thumb) through a first person point of view narrative.  Only two feet, eight inches tall, Vinnie struggled to make her way America’s Gilded Age, eventually finding fame when she took part in P.T. Barnum’s shows and married Tom Thumb.

In a few weeks, I will post my Summer Reading List for Poetry Lovers! Besides poetry, do you have any great books you have read lately?  I would love to add more titles to my own list!

Three Poets, Three Memoirs

Obviously, I read a lot of poetry books.  But I also read a lot of books that fall into the literary nonfiction genre including history books, journalism, nature writing, and memoirs — especially memoirs.  So what better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than by blogging about three memoirs by contemporary poets?

Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley (Random House, 2011) Sandra Beasley is allergic to dairy, soy, egg, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cashews, cucumbers, and mustard.  As a child, Beasley was declared by a nutritionist as “not really designed to survive” — but she did survive, and her memoir is a journey about living in a world where a simple kiss, tinged with cupcake frosting, could kill.  Sandra Beasley is the author of the poetry books Theories of Falling and I Was the Jukebox.

One More Theory About Happiness by Paul Guest (HarperCollins, 2010)  When he was twelve years old, a bicycling accident left Paul Guest as a quadriplegic.  This memoir is a journey of sorts.  Never sentimental, but often times funny, Guest’s memoir explores the meanings of healing and hope. Guest is the author of the poetry books, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World, Notes for My Body Double, and My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge.

The Mountain and the Fathers by Joe Wilkins (Counterpoint, 2012) Joe Wilkins lost his father at a young age, and his memoir details this emotional loss in the prologue of his book.  However, this memoir is not written in traditional linear structure in order of chronological events.  Instead, The Mountain and the Fathers is a collection of essays about the author’s relationships with both the men in his life and the harsh landscape that makes up his world.  Set in the backdrop of the “Big Dry” of Eastern Montana, Wilkins book has been compared to the works of Norman Maclean and Jim Harrison. Joe Wilkins is the author of the poetry collection, Killing the Murnion Dogs.

All three books should be added to your reading list!  And if you have any suggestions for memoirs by poets, please drop me a note.  I’m always looking for more good reading.