Category Archives: Memoirs

Through a Father’s Eyes: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

cover image of Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a long essay written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, which won the National Book Award last year.

It’s as moving as you’ve probably already heard it is. Next, I need to read the author’s earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, about his relationship with his father and growing up in West Baltimore.

I marked so many passages as I read, I can’t quote them all. The author has written this short book in a style that is both mythic and realistic. He makes sweeping statements about history, society, religion, etc.  in one passage and addresses his son specifically in the next. Throughout the book, he calls Howard University “Mecca”, and refers to “the Dream” (i.e. the life he used to see depicted on TV, growing up) and “the Dreamers” (those who don’t recognize the roots of their privilege).

Throughout the book, he uses the phrase “people who believe themselves to be white” to encompass all who are not considered “white” (by the census takers? by the majority? by the “one-drop” rule?) and he frequently refers to “possession” of his “body” to get at the idea that for people without religious faith, this life – this body, brain, heart, soul, mind, spirit — is all we each have, and every “body” should matter as much as the others.

The author uses this unusual language to underscore the fact that “race” is a human construct, not a law of nature. We are one race – the human race; dividing lines exist only in our minds. Ideally, those lines will become so fluid in the future as to be nonexistent, even there.

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” — Between the World and Me, pp. 9–10

The author’s mixed feelings of hope and despair about the future are evident in this book, this letter to his 15-year-old son who responded with anguished disbelief to the 2014 grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Despair outweighs hope by a landslide. But there is a section describing the author’s first visit to Paris and the sense of freedom he experienced there, and, in fact, the author is living with his family in France, since writing this book.

Here’s a passage about the author’s time in “Mecca” (Howard University) where he fell in love, and fell in love with the school, if not with his classes:

I would take breaks from my reading, walk out to the vendors who lined the streets, eat lunch on the Yard. I would imagine Malcolm [X], his body bound in a cell, studying the books, trading his human eyes for the power of flight. And I too felt bound by my ignorance, by the questions that I had not yet understood to be more than just means, by my lack of understanding, and by Howard itself. It was still a school, after all. I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself. The best parts of Malcolm pointed the way. Malcolm, always changing, always evolving toward some truth that was ultimately outside the boundaries of his life, of his body. I felt myself in motion, still directed toward the total possession of my body, but by some other route which I could not before then have imagined. — Between the World and Me, p. 48

Between the World and Me
Coates, Ta-Nehisi
Spiegel & Grau, July 2015
9780812993547
176 pp.
$24.00, U.S.

Disclosure: I read a public library copy of this book. I think the author would approve.

Other opinions:
BlogHer
Book Journey
The Book Wheel
(audiobook)
Estella’s Revenge (mini review)
Lovely Bookshelf

Dining Out in Rome with Author Roland Merullo #weekendcooking @BethFishReads

cover image

I wrote briefly about Taking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo in my list of memoirs about traveling with family members, but I didn’t mention the author’s love of Italian food. He spends most of this family trip (so problematic that it’s funny, at least in retrospect) hoping for either a memorable Italian meal or a decent golf course — or, preferably, both  — but mostly finds only bad luck and disaster.

You feel bad for the family while reading about this ill-fated escape from the New England winter of 2003, but the author assures readers at the start that this trip with his wife, two young daughters, and his (sainted) mother was followed by a later trip to Italy (when the girls were a little older) that turned out great.

They travel to various spots in Italy — all much colder than they expected them to be — but eventually drive into Rome, where they take their youngest daughter, who can’t keep any food down, to be seen by a pediatrician. After a long day at the hospital, they head to a restaurant the author and his wife remember fondly from an earlier trip.

“To comfort ourselves after what might be described as a moderately successful day, we decide we will have a meal in one of our favorite Roman restaurants, a place mentioned in passing here already a couple of times. This place (which no longer exists) is called Il Sardo al Angolo in Trastevere, and specializes in Sardinian food.”

When they get to the restaurant, the waiter recognizes them right away, although it’s been two years since their last visit.

“We step through the door and see Angelo, the diminutive, mustachioed, white-haired waiter at Il Sardo who recognizes us immediately though he’s no doubt served a thousand or ten thousand customers since the last time we saw him. Angelo stands close by the table and chats for a while, moustache drooping, eyes sparkling, short thick fingers gently pinching Alexandra’s cheeks and resting on Amanda’s shoulder. ‘The little one is feeling not so good,’ he says, touching the side of Juliana’s arm. ‘Not so very good.'”

As is his style, Angelo takes our order without writing anything down, then brings us the wonderful unleavened Sardinian bread and clean-tasting white wine we’d had here on more than one occasion during our Rome visit. In a few minutes my mother is served a lasagna she describes as, “soft as silk. Delicious. The best yet.” I have a succulent roast piglet and a salad. Amanda goes with the eggplant parmesan. Alexandra likes the pasta. For the girl who is feeling not so good, the kind people at Il Sardo cook up a dish of plain rice (senza niente ‘without nothing’ is the way you say it in Italian) but Juliana sits in a sorrowful curl in her mother’s lap, refusing all food and drink.”

“Food heals. Nowhere is that true more than in Italy. I keep hoping to see Juliana accept one spoonful of rice, but she is buried in her illness, walled off from us. Still, the meal makes us hopeful — she’s taking medicine now. It’s a stomach flu. Whoever heard of a stomach flu lasting longer than a few days?”

Daughter Juliana gets better, but the author catches the flu, and the trip goes on…


On our own trip to Rome in October, my husband and I had two of our most memorable meals at Sapori Sardi, a small restaurant near our hotel that specialized in Sardinian cuisine, and the bread they served to us was incredibly good. It’s flat, thin, crispy, and seasoned with rosemary and salt and drizzled with olive oil — the first time we had it, we broke off a piece to taste it and quickly devoured the whole basket while it was still hot, even though we had been told that Italians don’t eat bread that’s brought at the beginning of the meal until the end.

I can’t find a photo of the flatbread  — pane carasau or “sheet music bread” in Italian — at Sapori Sardi, but I found one on Trip Advisor here.

We returned to this neighborhood restaurant for our final meal in Italy after a long day of sightseeing. Here are some photos from Sarpori Sardi:

Me with my first course and that "Have you taken the picture yet?" look on my face.
Me with my first course and that “Have you taken the picture yet?” look on my face.

 

Second course -- "Secondi"
Second course — “Secondi”
Dessert! I think I ordered panna cotta.
Dessert! I think I ordered panna cotta.
Steve had the tiramisu.
Steve had the tiramisu.
Choose your own digestif...
Choose your own digestif…limoncello or amari.

I read Taking the Kids to Italy after we returned from our trip to Rome — which is probably a good thing — but I like to think now that our own friendly waiter at Sapori Sardi, just around the corner from the Hotel Veneto, could have been the Merullo family’s angelic Angelo, or a relative, at a new restaurant in a different Roman neighborhood.

Taking the Kids to Italy: A Memoir
Merullo, Roland
PFP Publishing, 2013
9780989237277
$13.83, US

Happy Weekend Cooking!

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: Memoirs of Traveling with Family #books

Travel memoirs are one of my favorite types of nonfiction. There’s one on this list for every mood. Some of these are literally laugh-out-loud funny; others may start you bawling before the end, or will at least bring a tear to your eye.

The list is in alphabetical order, of course.

cover imageFour Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2007)
Before Anthony Doerr became famous for the novel All the Light We Cannot See, he had to write the book. He writes about working on it (and about not working on it) in Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir about the author’s year in Rome with a studio to write in and an apartment to live in, covered by a stipend.
Literary and lyrical except for a few episodes of parenting panic and moments when he wonders “what was I thinking when I accepted the Rome Prize with newborn twins?”, this book about reading, writing, and the terrifying and wonderful experience of being a new parent and living for a year in the heart of Rome when you don’t speak much Italian will appeal to readers of literary memoirs.

cover image audiobookIncontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy (Audio) by Jane Christmas, read by Eileen Barrett (PostHypnotic Press, 2009)
Incontinent on the Continent is a serio-comic travelogue about a six-week trip through Italy that the author, an adult (in her 50s) takes with her aging mother in an attempt to repair their fragile relationship before it’s too late. The dream trip turns into somewhat of a nightmare as the author’s expectations and what her mother wants to do (and is physically capable of doing) don’t coincide; the weather won’t cooperate; and the hoped-for mother/daughter bonding doesn’t come easy. The book is funny, but cringe-worthy in a lot of places.
The audiobook narration is great and, since the author learned conversational Italian in preparation for the trip, the book includes frequent snippets in Italian.
Read AudioFile review of Incontinent on the Continent

cover imageAn Innocent, a Broad by Ann Leary (William Morrow, 2004)
Back in 1990, when her husband Dennis Leary was an unknown comedian, he was hoping for his big break on a weekend jaunt to London. He got his big break, but his pregnant wife’s waters break while she’s walking down a London street. Only 26 weeks along, Ann Leary is put on bed rest, and due to the premature birth of their son, the Learys don’t return home to the U.S. for five months.
If you’ve read either of the author’s novels (The Good House, Outtakes from a Marriage) you know Ann Leary has a caustic sense of humor that manages to be essentially kind, and she writes about her experience figuring out the English people, the National Health Service, and first-time parenthood with a graceful wit.

cover imageTaking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo (PFP Publishing, 2013)
Originally published in serial form, Taking the Kids to Italy is the author’s account of a disastrous family vacation with his wife, two very young daughters, and his mother (who has the patience of a saint, and is a tremendously good sport). The humor that the adults can see in retrospect doesn’t always manage to cover the despair that seeps into the narrative, but I found myself laughing despite myself. The author has also written a memoir about a wonderful family trip abroad – The Italian Summer: Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como (Simon & Schuster, 2009) – which would probably make a good companion read.

cover imageThree Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks (Grand Central, 2006)
It’s been years since I read this with a book club, but I do remember being surprised at how much I liked it. The bestselling author of tear-jerker novels such as The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks has actually experienced more than his share of tragedy in real life, and this book is a result of realizing your world can change in an instant. In Three Weeks with My Brother, he and his brother – both in their mid-thirties and the only surviving members of their family – share their experience of traveling around the world, hitting major global landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, and musing on fate and faith. (The Christian or spiritual aspect of the book is very low-key, if I remember correctly.)

cover imageTraveling While Married: How to Take a Trip with Your Spouse and Come Back Together by Mary-Lou Weisman (Workman, 2003)
This is a collection of humorous essays, illustrated with drawings by Edward Koren, that are laugh-out-loud funny. (Or maybe you have to be married?, I don’t know!) From the publisher: “This is the real skinny on what happens when Mars and Venus hit the road. With a sly wink, a comic nod, and just the right amount of optimism, Weisman shows us that despite the shortcomings of one’s beloved, harmonious travel is possible.”
Written by a wife, but her own foibles and failings are just as funny as her husband’s.

cover imageUntil I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living With Joy  by Susan Spencer-Wendel (HarperCollins, 2013)
When the author, a journalist, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she has been in denial for some time, so her physical decline is steep and sharp after the diagnosis. If you choose to read this memoir, which she laboriously typed out first on an iPad and then on a phone, which was all she had the physical ability to manage, you will probably cry your way through it as I did, but you will marvel at the emotional strength she holds onto for the sake of her husband and three children. She decides to fill the year she has left with trips with family members – going with each child to a place of his/her choosing, and taking trips with her sister, her best friend, her husband.
While every page may not be beautifully written, the language she uses to tell the story of her final months spent making joyful memories for those she’ll be leaving behind is never sugarcoated and is very moving.

Nonfiction Friday badge with text listing different Dewey Decimal subjects, e.g. literature, religion, technologyThis post is linked up to Nonfiction Friday at Doing Dewey