Tag 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
176 pp.
$24.00, U.S.

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

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

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

Lithuanian Holocaust Heritage: We Are Here by Ellen Cassedy (Audio) @ellencassedy

cover imageLet me start with an apology to author Ellen Cassedy for taking so long to review the Audible audiobook edition of her memoir We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (published in print by the University of Nebraska Press) which she sent me many months ago.

We Are Here is a beautifully written memoir about learning to speak and write Yiddish as an adult.  Signing up for an intensive summer Yiddish language course and traveling to Lithuania to explore her Lithuanian Jewish roots leads the author into a deeper understanding of the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania under the Nazi regime, when over 200,000 Jewish citizens of Lithuania (94% of the Jewish population of the country) were killed. The Soviet occupation of the country after World War II led to more mass deportation and murder of Lithuanian citizens. This “second genocide” receives more attention in the history books and museums in Lithuania than the decimation of the Jewish population, suggests the author, perhaps because the Soviets are a simpler villain than the Nazis, who were aided by Lithuanian citizens in the killing of other Lithuanians.

This Audible audiobook is narrated by Suzanne Toren. I highly recommend it! In addition to We Are Here’s being a very well produced audiobook with an excellent narrator, it was great to hear how all of the Yiddish words in the book actually sound.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the book. (Read the full excerpt on the author’s Web site.)

A soft summer rain was falling as a white-haired woman made her way to the microphone. “Tayere talmidim!” she began. “Dear students!”  Through the pattering of drops on my umbrella, I leaned forward to catch her words. The old woman’s name was Bluma, a flowery name that matched her flowered dress. She was a member of the all-but-vanished Jewish community in Vilnius, Lithuania, the city once known as the Jerusalem of the North. “How fortunate I am,” she said in a quavering voice. “I have lived long enough to see people coming back to Vilnius to study Yiddish.”
Seventy-five of us – students of all ages from all over the globe huddled on the wooden benches that were clustered together on wet cobblestones. Around us, the damp walls of Vilnius
University rose into the heavens. As the rain continued to fall, I shivered. It was a complicated place, this land of my ancestors
– a place where Jewish culture had once flourished, and a place where Jews had been annihilated on a massive scale.
My reasons for being here were not simple. I had come to learn Yiddish and to connect myself with my roots – the Jewish ones, that is, on my mother’s side. (On my father’s side, my non-Jewish forebears hailed from Ireland, England, and Bavaria – hence my name, Cassedy, and my blue eyes and freckles.) But I had other goals,
too. I wanted to investigate a troubling family story I’d stumbled upon in preparing for my trip. I had agreed to meet a haunted old man in my ancestral town. And I planned to examine how the people of this country – Jews and non-Jews alike – were confronting their past in order to move forward into the future. What had begun as a personal journey had broadened into a larger exploration. Investigating Lithuania’s effort to exhume the past, I hoped, would help me answer some important questions.
Readers of memoirs…especially audiobook listeners, go ahead and add We Are Here to your reading list! If you have an interest in family history, languages, Yiddish, or Eastern Europe, this multi-faceted memoir will be of all the more interest to you, but the author’s compelling personal story of visiting her family’s past is enough on its own to draw you in.
We Are Here (audiobook)
Cassedy, Ellen, author
Toren, Suzanne, narrator
8 hours and 58 minutes
Disclosure: I received this Audible audiobook download free from the author for review.