TRIANGULAR ROAD by Paule Marshall

triangular roadThis is a memoir of sorts by Paule Marshall, who “ is an American author, whose novels emphasize the need for black Americans to reclaim their African heritage”.  That is from Wiki.   She is the author of Brownstone, Brown Girl, Praisesong for the Widow, among several other widely acclaimed novels.   Although she has been writing since the late 50s, she has not come across my radar before this.

She was born of Barbados immigrants, and lived in Brooklyn for a long time, much of it in the Bed-Sty section.

In this small memoir, she tells of the early life of her mother and her mother’s family in Barbados, of her father’s deliberately obscure origins, of the times she returned to the various islands of the West Indies on grant money to work on her novels.

She begins the book with a long homage to Langston Hughes, whom she knew well and traveled with on a cultural tour to Europe in the mid-sixties.  Hughes was a mentor to a number of Black writers in the time after his days as an activist in the Civil Rights movement.

I found it a less than enthralling book.  Interesting, yes, but not enthralling.  It felt like she was tired of telling her story, so just cobbled together a few episodes and incidents of her life and called it done.  Well, of course, by that time she was 80 years old.  The chapters would have made nice blog posts, but for me did not mean much as a book.  Perhaps it was published (in 2009) because she had not published any fiction since 2000 and was in danger of becoming irrelevant and forgotten, in the shade of so many up and coming women-of-color authors.   What do I know.  I am only a simple peasant who reads a lot.

However, it did introduce me to her, and now I have a couple of her books in the queue to read.   I may even live long enough to read them.

 

MARY HALLOCK FOOTE by Darlis A. Miller

mary hallock footeThe title and author’s names sound like a list of Facebook members.  Have you noticed how many women on Facebook use three names?

Well, anyway, who IS this chick, you might very well be saying to yourself,  as well you might, because although she was quite well-known in her day, her day was the last half of the 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s.  Her renown has faded, which is a shame, because she was a contemporary of  Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose works she illustrated.   Bret Harte and Mark Twain were also her contemporaries, as well as Helen Hunt Jackson, Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast), Rudyard Kipling, Winslow Homer and Henry James.   It seems this was the golden age of belles artes and letters.  Not only were these people her contemporaries, she knew personally a great many of them, and provided illustrations for many of their literary works.

I first became acquainted with her name when I read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner,  which is fiction, based heavily but not entirely on the life of Mary Hallock Foote.  In fact, there was some contention between him and the Foote family over this.

The young Mary, who was known as Molly all her life, grew up in the Hudson River Valley in the midst of a middle class Quaker household, and held those somewhat elite middleclass values all her life.  She married a young mining engineer and moved out West with him.  After her art training in NYC, she used her talent to bring in money to the always-economically shaky household.

She was the most significant woman writer and illustrator in the Local Color school. Her fame came from her work as novelist and illustrator of the American West, especially from a woman’s domestic point of view of the mining west, the irrigation projects west, and the agricultural west,  in contrast to those of the rollicking cowboy west.  She published 12 novels, four collections of short stories, more than a dozen and half uncollected stories and essays, and innumerable illustrations, all dealing with the American West.  In the early days, she drew directly onto wood blocks for the printing process, and was known for her graceful style and ability to portray minute detail.

It was her income that allowed the family to continue all their lives with at least three people in domestic help. In mid-nineteenth century America, hiring servants for domestic chores was a sign of middle-class success.  By 1870, as many as one in eight families may have employed domestic help.  Her notions about the country were skewed by her upper-class social bias, and she was against women’s suffrage and trade unions.   She deeply believed that a woman’s first duty was to her husband and children, and any possible career came second.

She lived in Colorado mining camps, in the arid area around Boise, Idaho as her husband worked on an irrigation project that would entail the building of canals to bring water, and in areas of California.

Molly Foote was a prolific letter writer, and Mz Miller’s biography of Mary Hallock Foote came from the various collections of these letters held by individuals and historical libraries of these letters.  She wrote over 600 letters alone to her best friend from her college days who lived in the East, and there are hundreds others, so her life and work is well documented.

I don’t know why I was (am) so fascinated with her; maybe because she lived in that particular era, an era which continues to intrigue me, or because she lived out West in some pretty rough areas and managed to make a home for her husband and children, and continue to use her special talents.  I just found it all so interesting.

Here are some of her illustrations:

foote 1 foote 2 foote 3

This was an illustration for The Scarlet Letter.

This was an illustration for The Scarlet Letter.

 

THE ATTIC by Guanlong Cao

The AtticGuanlong Cao grew up in Shanghai in the forty years following the Communist Revolution.  This book received the Shanghai Award for Literature.

In this almost lyrical memoir of his youth in the bustling bubbling city, the author tells of life with his parents, two brothers and a sister, all living in the attic of a building where his father worked pressing plastic buttons.   They were there because his family was relocated, his father being considered a ‘landlord’ because of his three meager acres in the far province of Jiangxi, and so they lived in the attic for over 30 years.  It was so steep that there was no room for beds under the slooping roof walls, and they slept on straw pallets.  Their only window looked out onto the roof, which they considered a bonus because it gave access to the roof for sitting, and airing the bedding.

It is all about the daily life in the city, the constant work to acquire enough food, education, and a peaceful life.  His older brother is jailed for two years without even being charged, another older brother makes a life in another far location where he eventually meets a young woman and marries.  His sister  is sent to work in some remote area tapping trees, but is so miserable there that she maims herself in order to be permitted to leave the place and return home.  She then marries a local farmer, but they live in the city in the attic with his parents.

He himself finally finds a young woman who is willing to visit the attic home more than once, and they eventually marry and have a child, and the narrative ends when he is able to leave China for the United States in order to attend university there.

Just a beautiful and profoundly story.

 

Opposite-of-FateWe lost the internet for a few days.  This being Mexico, we waited patiently a couple of days for it to return, then went to the cable office and pitched a fit.   The tech showed up that afternoon to set things right.  Guess the cable office didn’t want another appearance of the crazy Gringo in there ranting and raving again.

So here I am back with another interesting book for you.  A non-fiction offering by Amy Tan, she of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife fame.

This is a book of ‘musings’, as the author calls them; a collection of essays and other forms culled from various sources; as she says

I call this a book of musings because the writings are mostly casual pieces rather than formal essays. Some are long, versions of conversational talks I gave at universities. Others are short, particular to the desperate hour in which I wrote them, for example, the eulogy for my editor, the incomparable Faith Sale; or the e-mail sent to friends after an unexpected disaster resulting in my near-demise made the national news. There is also a love poem to my husband, which counts as my most difficult exercise in brevity.

She has a longer piece about the making of the movie of The Joy Luck Club, and a lot stuff about her life and her relationship with her mother, a relationship which informs just about all her fiction.

She has had quite an interesting life, and since I know nothing at all about her other than her four novels, (one of which I read in a Spanish translation), I found her various ‘musings’ fascinating and intriguing. She is a lovely writer, and even her non-fiction has a story-telling feel to it – easy to read and causing the reader to want to know what comes next.

The title comes in part from the dichotomy of her part-time Christian minister father, whose spiritual stance was hope, and from her Chinese mother, whose attitude was always one of fate. So as she tells us, the opposite of fate is not randomness, but hope.

Want a couple of quotes?  OK, here’s one:

Whether seemingly simple or fancy, the prose I like is such that everything is there for a reason — every word, every image, every bit of dialogue is needed; it adds, builds, and its dexterity is also transparent.  And yet it has a generosity, there;s no skimpiness.  That’s the craft part for me.

And one more, about fiction:

I think the best of fiction is its nature and its virtues. It can enlarge us by helping us notice small details in life.  It can remind us to distrust absolute truths, to dismiss cliches, to both desire and fear stillness, to see the world freshly from closer up or farther away, with a sense of mystery or acceptance, discontent or hope, all while remembering that there are so many possibilities, and that this was only one.

She has experienced ghosts in her home, escaped death a couple of times, was part of a rock band along with Stephen King and some other big names, and been very ill with Lyme disease.  She has had a big life.

 

 

MY SALINGER YEAR by Joanna Smith Rakoff

salingerI am a sucker for whiny stories of how hard recent college grads in the fine arts have it and have to work as receptionists or secretaries or ‘assistants’ and live in god-awful tiny apartments in Manhattan or Brooklyn and have NO MONEY.   Yeah.  Welcome to the real world.

Anyway, this is another of that type, and is not fiction, but a sort of memoir. The author has a masters from University College in England, and lands a job not waitressing or bartending, or as a barista, but as an assistant to a Literary Agent.  This was in 1996. Very different literary climate in those days, and in fact, all was on the cusp of changing even then.

Her agency had no computers, they only used typewriters, and quite a number of other anachronisms.  She works for the boss lady who is old school and represents such luminaries as Salinger and Judy Blume.  Salinger is a recluse, is deaf, and hasn’t written anything in years and years, refuses to accept fan mail, leaving it all to the agency to deal with by sending out a cold form letter advising that the author does not want fan mail sent to him.

This is the background for her life with a strange, Socialist young man for whom she had abandoned her boyfriend when he went to L.A. for a job.  It is the story of how she grows up.  Like the time she visits her parents in their well to-do home outside of the city, to be given the bills for her credit cards and her student loan payments and told they were now hers, since she had a job.  She is stunned – as most young people are when they find out that mummy and daddy aren’t going to support them forever so that they can spend their salaries on expensive coffee concoctions and $20 drinks at fancy clubs.

She and the socialist end up in a tiny apartment that turns out not to have a kitchen sink.  Well, it doesn’t have much of a kitchen, either, and no heat.  So they heat the place with the kitchen oven.  It’s the kind of life only a young person can live with aplomb, looking down on any of their contemporaries who cave by moving to midwestern cities where the salaries are higher and the rents so much cheaper.

The agency world revolves around Salinger, their biggest star client, and is a running commentary on what star power can do for a person.

I really liked the book.  It was an easy read, because it did not have that memoir feel to it;  it read more like fiction.  Just well done, and something that caught my fancy.

WHERE IN THE OM AM I? by Sara DiVelio

OMThis is a mostly irreverent and mostly  true memoir of a gal who climbed the corporate ladder in the world of finance, doing PR work.

As she warns us

This is a memoir based on my personal experiences working in financial services and attending yoga teacher training.  While the characters in this book are based on real people, names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy, and in some cases, characters have been combined for the sake of protecting privacy as well as for narrative purposes.

I found this book irresistible and I am not sure exactly why.   Well written?  Certainly.   Characters a little over the top?  For sure. Funny?  Oh, yeah.  But serious too, in a straight forward account of what she felt was a miserable, soulless corporate existence which she hoped to escape from time to time by attending yoga classes, and eventually signing up for yoga teacher training.  Self-deprecating in that chic lit kind of way, but insightful all the same.

I do admit to wanting to grab her by the shoulders, shake her and yell, WTF!   Get out of that career field, you dolt!  You paid off your student loans, you bought a condo, and a car.  Why get sucked in further into a lifestyle you obviously hate.

Productivity is the junk food of career satisfaction — it makes you feel full, but nutritionally, it doesn’t provide what you need.

Her hope for a haven of peace and Zen-ness in the yoga teacher training was dashed when it became clear that the folks involved in this scene were just as nutty and driven in their own wacky way as the people in her office.

She discovers to her surprise that the teacher training is all about inner training, and not physical yoga classes.  And she begins to struggle to bring what she is learning about herself to her personal and working life,  or rather to bring her personal and working life into alignment with her nascent yogic values; she realizes that it wasn’t all that easy.  After a confrontation with a very aggressive woman at a party, she falls back into the old habits:

And yet, what had I, who was supposedly pursuing the yogic path, done when confronted?  Why, I dumpster-dove straight into ego, material possession, and combative wordplay of course!  And beyond that, I’d retreated back to my corporate identity like a coward.

Change is difficult.  It is easier to keep on doing what you know than to make great changes in your life, no matter how unhappy you are.  And of course, the money didn’t hurt either.

You will be pleased to know that in spite of it all, she finds a nice guy, gets married, and gets pushed out of her job.  Well!  THAT made making those changes a lot easier!

Like I said, I really liked this book.  Perhaps you will, too.

Oh.  By the way, I wasn’t altogether clear on the difference between a memoir and an autobiography.  So I did what any other red-blooded ignoramus  person who did not know would do, I googled.  Seems that an autobiography covers your entire life, while a memoir is only about a certain portion of it.

So there you have it, folks.  Another day, another tidbit.

 

A SON OF THE MIDDLE BORDER by Hamlin Garland

Son of the MiddleHamlin Garland was hugely popular writer and speaker of the early 1900’s, although today you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has heard of him.   He was born in 1860, and wrote in the ‘realism’ school of fiction, depicting the difficult lives of the forward-moving pioneers, especially the lives of women.

His most popular books were his autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border , written in 1917 at the age of 57,  followed by A Daughter of the Middle Border, written in 1921 and which won a Pulitzer Prize.

He was always outspoken about issues of politics, the pioneering life, and Henry George’ single tax movement.  In his later life, he became interested in psychic phenomenon and in his final  work, The Mystery of the Buried Crosses ,he tried to justify the veracity of mediumship.

His father, newly home to their Wisconsin farm from the Civil War, has the soul of an explorer and pioneer, and is not content to work his farm, but wants to go further afield as the ‘middle border’ moved westward, out of the green farming country to the plains, and further to the arid regions.

Garland says:

My boyhood was  spent in the midst of a charming landscape and during a certain heroic era of western settlement.   The men and women of that far time loom large i my thinking for they possessed not only the spirit of adventurers but the courage of warriors.

His story is not only the story of his life but the chronicle of the era of settlement between 1840 and 1914.

It is a beautifully written account of the difficulties of his boyhood and of farm life, which in his later years he refuses to prettify in poetic phrases.  It was tough, harsh, and especially hard on the women.  He lived through the era of the ‘prairie schooner’ to the coming of the railroads and the car.  He saw it as a time of the breakup of the family,

I now perceived the mournful side of American ‘enterprise’.  Sons were desertig their work-worn fathers, daughters were forgetting their tired mothers.  Families were everywhere breaking up.  Ambitious young men and unsuccessful old men were in restless motion, spreading, swarming, dragging their reluctant women and their helpless and wondering children into unfamiliar hardships.  At times I visioned the Middle border as a colony of ants — which was an injustice to the ants, for ants have a reason for their apparently futile and aimless striving.

Can any other country on earth surpass the United States in the ruthless broadcast dispersion of its families?

A wonderful story of farming, migration, and of a country that is growing up.