Classics Club: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

The publication of Maya Angelou’s autobiography (which eventually took up seven volumes) was a real landmark in many ways. It was a frank and deeply personal exploration of the Black American experience, from the chaos following slavery to our own muddled times. It gave voice to hidden and repressed aspects of experience — abuse, violation, family dysfunction — that were barely acknowledged at the time. It was a woman speaking about human things, universal things, with power and authority, while embracing her own female sensibility.

Today, we could tend to forget how revolutionary this really was. We are flooded with all kinds of personal narratives, including every variety of harm and abuse one person can do another, and from many shades on the spectrum of gender, race, culture, religion. The abundance can be desensitizing, as well as enlightening. But Maya’s brave, brutal telling of her early life still has the power to shock and awaken us; it lifts up the messy and painful stuff of life as only a poet can.

I do not know why I never read this book until now. Published the year I was born, it was always there, hovering at the edges at my attention. I’m not sorry I waited. If it had been thrust upon me in school, even with an extraordinarily sensitive teacher, I think it would have been one of those books I pushed away because it opened up places I did not want to look into. It’s only now that I’ve been through a little bit of the mill of life — though not as much as Maya, who has gone through about 50 times as much as any ordinary human — that I can begin to appreciate some of what she is offering to us, the open wound that became her source of creativity, her song.

(I want to be clear that I am not in favor of censoring any book — the inclusion of this one in school curricula has frequently been protested based on its subject matter. But I’m also not much in favor of required reading for teenagers. Too many books were spoiled for me that way.)

After finally reading Caged Bird, I went on to read the other six books of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. This is the most brilliant, the most poetic, a real cry from the heart; that energy dissipates somewhat in later volumes, though they are still fascinating to read. There you will also find alternate and sometimes contradictory versions of various events — reminding us that memoir writing is not an exact science.

But it’s not for scientific facts that you will read the books. Read them for the chance to slip into another life, to look through the eyes of a woman who saw the greatest pain and suffering the world had to offer, and who responded by becoming a creator, an artist, a speaker of the message of love. That is something we could all stand to learn.

Classics Club list #58


The Shepard Touch: Drawn from Life

E.H. Shepard, Drawn from Life (1961)

Ernest Shepard, best known today as the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh and its companions, wrote two memoirs that have just been added to the lovely series of Slightly Foxed Editions. These small, colorful hardcovers, bound in the UK, are typeset in a clean, nicely balanced format that is a pleasure to read. The contents, aside from all being memoirs or biographies, vary widely, but some of my very favorites are the ones that include illustrations by the artist-authors: Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone, and now Shepard’s profusely illustrated pair.

As you might expect from Shepard’s masterful children’s book illustrations, which capture idiosyncracies of character with a remarkable economy of line, these are delightful vignettes of a Victorian childhood and adolescence. The writing style is straightforward, with an understated sense of humor. The narrative rambles along in an episodic, generally chronological way — as I described in my earlier review of the first volume (in another edition), Drawn from Memory, “there’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.”

I’d not yet been able to find the second volume, Drawn from Life, when I happily learned of the Slightly Foxed reprint. So I couldn’t wait to learn what happened next in Shepard’s young life.

The death of his mother is simply but movingly described, the young artist’s feelings too deep for many words. The family goes through several moves and upheavals after this, living with a redoubtable set of aunts before claiming their own new home. Shepard also changes schools several times before settling into the Royal Academy art training. One amusing anecdote concerns Shepard and several colleagues helping a friend to finish his painting in time for a deadline.

My favorite part of the book was probably the touching love story of Ernest and his wife, also a talented painter whom he admired from afar before he dared to tell her of his feelings. The book ends with their marriage — I would have loved to go on to learn more about the young couple’s married life and family, but since these books originated as reminiscences for the benefit of the author’s children, perhaps it was not thought necessary to carry on once they came on the scene.

This volume covers a much longer span of time than the first, which took place within a single year, so it has more breadth than depth, and sometimes I found the pace a little headlong. But it gives us a priceless glimpse of an endlessly fascinating era, and of the origins of an artist. Thank you, Slightly Foxed, for yet another gem.


Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016)
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)

This is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land  Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Also posted as part of Nonfiction November, hosted by JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Doing Dewey, and yours truly. Please visit these blogs for tons of wonderful nonfiction reviews, discussions, and more!

White Trash is subtitled “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which I find misleading. This is not primarily an overall history of class structures and conflicts throughout the entire United States, but a study of the origins and development of a particular group generated by a peculiar intersection of ethnicity, economics, and geography. Variously called white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, mudsills, and other derogatory names, this distinctively Southern underclass is an uncomfortable part of our national heritage. Through the years it has been reviled or celebrated, ignored or grotesquely exaggerated, but never integrated into our American self-image in a constructive way.

So, overlooking the grandiose subtitle, what does the book have to say about where this group came from and how it has developed? Starting with the early days of European settlement, it’s an absorbing and appalling chronicle of how our country was seen in part as a repository for the “waste people” of Europe, who were relegated to substandard, badly managed land and grew into their own caste alongside the institution of slavery. Shadowing the imported black race was a home-grown white race of uncivilized, illiterate, violent, promiscuous, lazy throwbacks, who had to be kept down so that the more palatable elements in American society could rise to the top.

The whole image of human waste, going along with the laying waste of the environment, rang true to me as something that we need to face up to right now. The so-called New World was once seen as a limitless field for exploitation, where people and resources could be discarded or pushed aside in order to create new possibilities for a certain portion of the population. But as we now know, our world cannot be exploited indefinitely, and human waste is as problematic as any other. The illusion of the “classless society,” Isenberg argues, was actually a way for those in power to mask their fear of class mobility and solidify structures that benefited them. Regarding the rural poor as a race apart was key to keeping them in their place.

An eye-opening point, which Isenberg traces in detail from its origins at the very beginning of colonization, is that the antislavery movement was strongly founded in the observation that slavery was pushing out and paralyzing the white laboring class. For many abolitionists, the goal was not to uphold the human rights of black people, but to give work back to the white underclass who were squeezed out of the Southern aristocracy. They, in turn, fought back against what they saw as a degenerate Northern rabble who would upend the social hierarchy within their own race. They argued that slavery at least provided a class above which poor whites could feel superior, and thus satisfied with their lot at the bottom of the (white) social ladder. Such cruelly tangled thinking is incredibly difficult to root out of the American soul, it seems.

Another striking section was about the eugenics movement that flourished here only a century ago. The solution to the problem of America’s “strange breed” was to be found in better breeding, in people of good blood choosing the right mates and in sterilization or even euthanasia of the bad seeds. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics, among many other prominent voices. Though we Americans like to feel we are on moral high ground compared to the Nazis, it’s important to realize that with a little push over the edge into mass hysteria, there could have been a kind of Holocaust here in the middle of the last century. There still could, as it feels as though we are treading very close to that edge right now, and any number of groups could be targeted.

Unfortunately, soon after this the final part of the book disintegrated into a confused muddle of reflections on trailer parks, Elvis Presley, LBJ, Dolly Parton, Deliverance, Sarah Palin, and other topics without a clear focus or conclusion. Perhaps that is not inappropriate, as there is certainly no way to wrap up this problematic segment of society in a neat intellectual package. But it proved something of a letdown after some of the earlier insights.

Isenberg herself starts to seem ambivalent in her view of the actual human beings behind the “white trash” label, distancing herself from them by only discussing public figures and pop culture phenomena, rather than ever actually talking to real people. In her over-the-top descriptions there is a certain amount of disgust and repugnance, even as she tries to point our attention toward an unjustly neglected population. Thus she demonstrates the very contradictions that have plagued our country from the start, the tension between fascination and repulsion that has prevented any meaningful change from taking place. Where do we find the compassion and true humanity to bridge the gap, and fully encompass this part of our being?

For this endeavor, a first-person account like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy can be a help. Vance grew up in Ohio, but his family was from Kentucky and retained strong emotional and cultural ties there. Vance movingly depicts his troubled upbringing with an unstable mother, the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and hopelessness, and the saving grace found through the love of his grandmother. “Mamaw” is an unforgettable personality, tremendously flawed but gloriously human. Her power to make a difference in her grandson’s life shows how love can bring transformation into the most unlikely places.

Vance is less successful when he tries to interject some political and historical commentary into the narrative. He often seems underinformed, and at times harmfully naive — as when he argues that his conservative social group were repelled by President Obama not because of his race, but because Obama was an Ivy League graduate who “didn’t talk like us.” (I doubt they would have quite the same reaction to a white person with the same credentials; antagonism aroused by people of color gaining education and social status is a very pervasive feature of racism.)

Though his early school career was difficult, after a stint in the Marine Corps Vance became a lawyer and thus made it into the promised land of the rich. Some find this an inspiring trajectory, but I had mixed feelings about it. Why is it that everyone who wants to “make it” has to become a lawyer? Vance doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field other than its money-making potential, and his description of his time in law school focuses mainly on how he had to negotiate the social hurdles of being with an elite population for the first time, bluffing his way through until he gained the knowledge and skills he lacked. Very likely there’s more to his inner life that he didn’t express, and I don’t want to unfairly denigrate his very real achievement, but as presented in the book there was something hollow about it.

A conversation between Nancy Isenberg and J.D. Vance would certainly be interesting, and maybe someday that will happen. In the meantime, both books are worth reading, especially in tandem. In different ways, each sheds light on a part of our national character that is hard to face, but dangerous to ignore.



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New Release Review: May Cause Love

Kassi Underwood, May Cause Love (2017)

At the age of nineteen, Kassi Underwood had an abortion. She was a directionless college student, drinking too much and pursuing a road-to-nowhere relationship with a drug dealer in the absence of her childhood sweetheart from her Kentucky home town. Abortion seemed the only logical, the only compassionate option, yet she could not let go and move on. Her choice continued to haunt her, especially after her ex had a child with another woman. How could she find peace, go through the grief and pain that the world told her she either shouldn’t be feeling or was feeling for the wrong reasons? How would she get through to the other side without losing her mind?

One problem was that it was so difficult to find other women who were willing to talk honestly about their abortion experiences, even though according to statistics they should be walking around everywhere. Kassi desperately needed to feel she was not alone, that she was not the only person who had terminated a pregnancy without wanting to either subsume herself in religious shame or toe a feminist party line. But those voices seemed to be silent, including her own.

I was sorry about the abortion, not necessarily because I’d made the wrong choice, but because other voices had been so loud that I hadn’t been able to hear my own. Nineteen years of listening to the schizophrenic collective conscience about girls and pregnant people and motherhood and money had filled my head with opinions that did not belong to me.

It took years and much searching and soul-work for Kassi to find her voice, but through many small steps she has come there — and in the process created the community she was looking for. Her account of her “unexpected journey of enlightenment” is woven of her learning from therapists and healers and religious leaders, from protesters and haters as well as listeners and supporters. It’s also an account of her life and love and work journey during this time, of her own growing confidence in writing and speaking about her abortion, of encouraging others to do the same, and of her evolving relationship with God. It moved me to tears at times, but also made me laugh at the ridiculous antics we go through in running away from who we were meant to be. With honesty and trust, Kassi lays it all out before us, and may help us to look at some of the buried truths that lurk in our own pasts.

Some will complain that most women don’t have the resources or the opportunities that Kassi did, that not everyone can attend multiple retreats or have personal rituals created for them or fly across the country looking for answers to their questions. But that doesn’t mean that Kassi shouldn’t have done those things. The fact that she needed to take extraordinary and sometimes expensive measures in search of healing simply indicates that finding our one true self is worth everything we can give, whether that everything be much or little. For Kassi to share her story lays her open to attack and misunderstanding, and may even endanger her life. She does it not as an act of self-aggrandizement or pride, but in the hope that it will empower and strengthen others, and for that I personally can only be grateful.

Not everyone will want to read a book like this. You’ll need to be willing to read at length about abortion, and to consider it not as a fixed, immutable watershed of moral virtue or political values, but as a gateway to the complex, unstable, confusing business of what it means to be a human being in this world. You’ll also need to be willing to contemplate the contributions of many different religious traditions to the journey, along with psychics, energy healers, and a “midwife of the soul.” There are swear words (even if some of them are disguised with asterisks). There are drinking and drugs and addiction and infidelity. But if you can keep an open mind and heart, as Kassi so beautifully does, you may find that it’s all part of the quest to disentangle the mixed-up mess of joy and pain and ecstasy and suffering that is this earthly life, and find the thread of love.

Why was I here? Because I had quit running. Because you can run from grief and sorrow and responsibility and rush headlong into a new relationship or a new city or stalwart friends who will love you while you run, but if you want happiness, if you want love, if you want to become the figure you see in the distance, the future self calling your name, if you want to live the life you chose, one day you will have to stand still and hold all of it — scorched heart and broken brain, bones and skeletons of the past, the black wave of grief and the lucid thoughts of forgiveness.

Like Jacob with the angel, Kassi has wrestled her torment to the ground and extracted from it a blessing of untold value. May her story inspire each one of us to do the same, knowing that truly, we are not alone.

Thanks to the publisher and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review May Cause Love. For more stops on the tour, click here.

For information from the publisher, HarperCollins, click here.


Saluting Slightly Foxed Paperbacks

As I’ve said before, the wonderful memoirs reprinted as Slightly Foxed Editions make terrific gifts. And if you’re looking for something a little smaller and lighter to slip into a stocking, or into your own pocket or handbag, take a look at Slightly Foxed Paperbacks. They have the same classic, elegant design of the hardcover editions, but are dressed in a high-quality cream-colored softcover binding with a touch of accent color, and sport French flaps (always a favorite feature of mine). Right now there are nine of these understated gems available, which you can purchase  individually, or as a complete set at special savings.

youngardizzRecently I had the chance to sample a couple of the titles on offer. The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone, the renowned artist and children’s book illustrator (currently the focus of a retrospective at London’s House of Illustration) is a marvelously observed memoir of an Edwardian childhood. As with E.H. Shepard’s Drawn from Memory (a book that I hope SF will take on one day!) the prose is charming in itself, but it’s the illustrations that really make the book stand out. Though Ardizzone claims he didn’t grow up with the idea of becoming an artist, only turning to it as a career after being rejected from the army and failing as a clerical worker, he captures his childhood memories with such vivid immediacy one can hardly believe he wasn’t sketching them as they happened.

Rosemary Sutcliff, another of the twentieth century’s great creators of literature for children (with no upper age limit), captured her own childhood in Blue Remembered Hills. Hers was a life marked by what some would call tragedy, as she suffered from an early-onset form of arthritis known as Still’s Disease. Painfully limited in her movements, and with corresponding constrictions in her social life, she yet developed extraordinary skills of observation and insight that allowed her to create historical novels of great imaginative power. Her love for people, places, and the natural world shines through every page of this memoir, as it does in her fictional work.

Some of Sutcliff’s “blue remembered hills” in North Devon – Source

I’ve also read two other of the available titles, although in different editions: Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith (a must-read for fans of I Capture the Castle), and My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt, a mesmerizing account of a very odd family. Based on these four, I can confidently recommend Slightly Foxed Paperbacks as sure to enchant, educate, and divert you.

The most recent SF e-newsletter features an excerpt from Look Back with Love, which will give you a taste of the delights in store. I do hope you will be inspired to dive further in.

Three by Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald, The Plague and I (1948)
Betty MacDonald, Anybody Can Do Anything (1950)
Betty MacDonald, Onions in the Stew (1955)

bettymacdonaldbooksSince reading the biography Looking for Betty MacDonald, I’ve been eager to read MacDonald’s lesser-known autobiographical works. And with the new editions from the University of Washington Press, now I can!

Originally published within the short dozen years between the smash success of her first book, The Egg and I (1945), and her sadly early death from cancer, these three books form a fascinating window onto the past of the Pacific Northwest, and still have the power to entertain and amuse us today.

The Plague and I was first to be published, in 1948, and its title was an obvious attempt to reproduce the success of the earlier book. But it’s not a direct chronological sequel — several years had gone by since Betty left her “Egg” husband and their chicken farm in the Olympic mountains, and returned with two young daughters to her mother and siblings in Seattle. These years are chronicled in Anybody Can Do Anything (see below), but as her biography reveals, Plague is based on a diary Betty kept during her subsequent time in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Thus she had a head start on it when a second book was demanded by publishers and public.

It’s certainly an unlikely subject for a humorous memoir, and I spent much of the reading feeling less amused than astonished and humbled by what many people had to go through in the days when the “white plague” was a real menace. There was no way to battle the disease except to give the lungs complete rest so that they would form barriers around the parts invaded by bacteria. Surgical procedures involved collapsing the lungs so they would be immobile (it is still an open question to me how the patients were able to breathe after this). In Betty’s sanatorium, patients were forbidden to talk, to cough, to laugh, even to read and write until they had begun to recover, and nurses enforced the rules with semi-sadistic military discipline.

bettyvashonCan you imagine writing a whole book about being forbidden to do anything other than lie in bed? But Betty does, and she somehow makes it a riveting chronicle. She’s helped by the presence of some memorable characters, including her Japanese roommate “Kimi,” one of the smartest and funniest invalids you could hope to have in the next bed. (Though Betty betrayed her unfortunate prejudice against Native Americans in The Egg and I, she shows more liberal views in this book — she’s placed in rooms with both Kimi and an African American woman because nobody else was willing to get that close to them.) Brave, foolish, rebellious, sly, charming, defeated, defiant — in the intense environment of the sanatorium, many different sides of human nature come to light. It’s not unlike a war chronicle, and like survivors of a war, Betty and her friends feel they are now members of a “club” that no one else can truly understand.

Humor, here, is not a matter of mere silliness or belly laughs, but a way of standing apart from overwhelming experiences, not letting them get the better of you. That ability also serves Betty well when she comes to record how her family survived the Depression in Anybody Can Do Anything (1950). Her older sister Mary is determined that Betty can do anything that she (Mary, that is) sets her mind to, and so she struggles through a series of odd and unsuitable jobs, from hand-coloring photographs to selling direct mail advertising to assisting a gangster. In the midst of these episodic reminiscences, the constant is the presence of Betty’s warm, loving, if somewhat eccentric family, who keep things lively:

In addition to good health, my family possessed a great capacity for happiness. We managed to be happy eating Grammy’s dreadful food or Mother’s delicious cooking; in spite of cold baths and health programs; with Gammy’s awful forebodings about the future hanging over our heads; in private schools or public; in large or medium-sized houses; with dull bores or bright friends; with or without money; keeping warm by burning books (chiefly large thick collections of sermons, left to us by some of the many defunct religious members of the family) or anthracite coal in the furnace; in love or just thrown over; in or out of employment; being good sports or cheats; fat or thin; young or old; in the city or in the country; with or without lights; with or without husbands.

Her final work, Onions in the Stew (1955), covers a more stable time in Betty’s life, the twelve-year period when she had remarried and moved to Vashon Island with her new husband and two teenage daughters. Each of her books vividly evokes a place where she lived, and this one’s location is particularly dramatic. Beautiful and a bit remote, with no road to their house and an adventurous commute to Seattle by ferryboat, it’s a marvelous but challenging place. The pieces in this book are more loosely connected than in the others, with the common thread being “life as usual in a very unusual setting.” They could have been published as articles in a women’s magazine, but thankfully Betty’s tart sense of humor saves them from being a run-of-the-mill chronicle of 1950s domesticity — in fact, one of the pieces is a sharp critique of the ridiculous food advocated by women’s magazines of the era.

The Vashon house is still standing and is known as the Betty MacDonald Farm; the current owners run it as a B & B, with a loft room or cottage available by the night. I’ll be longing to visit on my next trip to Seattle, and if you read all of Betty’s reminiscences, I’m sure you will be too. But even if you can’t get there in person, you can get a glimpse into her world through these wonderful books.


New Release Review: Unearthed

Alexandra Risen, Unearthed (2016)

unearthedSubtitled “Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden,” Unearthed is a gardening memoir that will appeal even to non-gardeners (like me). To start with, there’s the chance to vicariously experience taking an unloved, abandoned place and turning it into a magical place of refuge and healing — without having to actually get our hands dirty. When Alexandra and her family buy a house that backs up onto a ravine with traces of earlier gardening efforts, she can’t resist the project. Years later, after countless hours of toil and not a few misadventures, her dream comes to completion, and as readers we can experience her satisfaction.

Intertwined with that of the plants and animals is also a human story, of Alexandra’s growing up with her mysteriously distant Ukrainian refugee parents. Though her silent father is now dead and her mother sliding into dementia, as Alexandra works on her garden refuge she starts to find some measure of acceptance and understanding of her difficult memories. Her oasis in the middle of Toronto becomes a place to honor and remember them, with nature’s gift of peace.

Then there’s the way each chapter, named for a plant or element in the garden, ends with a recipe or project that can be taken up even if you have no land of your own. Often made from foraged or overlooked materials, they represent another way to create something of beauty and pleasure out of what might otherwise be considered worthless.

I enjoyed Alexandra’s voice in this book, as in spite of her painful early experiences she shared her story with honesty and also a quirky sense of humor. I felt that I was really working alongside her in a way, getting to know her personality along with the garden and its inhabitants. I loved her sense of wonder at the natural world, even at things to which we non-urban dwellers have become jaded — a single deer is no longer such a breathtaking sight when your garden is overrun with them, but Alexandra’s joy in the deer’s presence is infectious nevertheless.

So thanks to Alexandra Risen, her family, and all the trees, flowers, leaves, roots, raccoons, ducks, deer, and other creatures for sharing their garden with us. I’ll definitely be dreaming of my own “secret garden” now.


New Release Review: Marrow

Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow (2016)

marrowWhat are the ties that bind us as human beings? Can our thoughts and feelings influence our bodily well-being, even that of another person? How does releasing personal hurt, anger, and misunderstanding bring healing to our relationships and the world? When confronted with loss, betrayal, and death, can we learn to actually “love our fate”?

These are some of the questions that Elizabeth Lesser engages in with this memoir of the time she spent with her beloved younger sister during the last stages of Maggie’s long fight against lymphoma. To her own surprise, Elizabeth was found to be the rare “perfect match” for a bone-marrow transplant for Maggie, which meant that all of Maggie’s blood would be replaced with that produced by stem cells harvested from Elizabeth. It became more than just a medical miracle for both of them, as they sought to support the procedure with therapeutic conversations that strengthened their new identity as “Maggie-Liz.” By speaking their own hurt and forgiving one another, hearing and honoring the truth of each other’s experience, they come closer to the marrow of their true selves.

In recalling their journey, Elizabeth intersperses memories of her sister and other family members with the spiritual wisdom she’s gleaned from a lifetime of searching (she is the founder and director of the Omega Institute, a renowned center for spiritual development). She does not set herself up as an infallible expert or guru, and her way of writing about the soul and the human quest is humble, open, and honest. The truths of the spirit, which are in essence simple yet in practice so hard for us imperfect human beings to work out, are expressed in connection with her own experiences. Though in some ways these are extraordinary — not everyone can call up Deepak Chopra for advice — Elizabeth keeps the emphasis on the universal, everyday, basically human details that we can all relate to. For me, this was the most compelling aspect of her work.

tlc-logo-resizedThere are still failures and loose ends to take up — in caring for one sister so intensely, Elizabeth tended to come across as controlling to her other siblings, and that caused some further hurt. But what she learned from her time with Maggie only strengthened her faith in the power of the soul to work through such challenges, when we connect with our deeper selves. In the end, this is a story of hope, and of a love that truly became stronger than death.

Thanks to HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review this book.


New Release Review: Carry On

Carry On Fenn

Lisa Fenn, Carry On (2016)

CarryOnAt the rare times when I watch sporting events (mostly during the Olympics), I’m less drawn in by the goals and records scored than by the human interest stories that sportscasters concoct to tug at our heartstrings and make us feel the emotions we have in common with these amazing athletes. Even when they’re engaged in the most mystifying and uncongenial of activities to me — dashing about, throwing things and clouting one another — their passion, dedication, and overcoming of obstacles can be inspiring, as can the many different paths they take toward achieving their dreams.

So it is with Lisa Fenn’s memoir, Carry On, which takes the story of two teenage boys who meet on the wrestling mat (perhaps the sport, along with boxing, that I would normally find the most repugnant) and makes of it a most moving portrait of human resilience and the bonds of love. The two boys, Dartanyon and Leroy, are black, poor, and disabled, one legally blind, the other a double amputee; one would not expect them to try out for the school wrestling team, let alone win a single match. But they forge a friendship that boosts them beyond the limits life has made for them, and carry one another in ways neither could have dreamed of alone.

Fenn herself, who starts out recording the piece for ESPN, becomes more personally involved than is generally the wont of reporters. She realizes she cannot profit off of these boys without helping them in return, and also simply falls in love with them. She learns that part of what is holding them back is the untold stories locked within them by trauma and misunderstanding, and that as a storyteller it is her privilege and obligation to allow those stories to unfold, to give them wings. She shares the slow process of gaining the boys’ trust and understanding their real needs, which involved some triumphs but also many times of feeling as though they had been slammed to the mat by life, when simply “carrying on” was the most they could manage. And she also describes some of her own journey toward love and reconciliation, including her and her husband’s hard-won decision to adopt an infant while also opening their hearts to Dartanyon and Leroy.

tlc logoFenn finds in this journey a sign of God’s calling her to participate in the divine mission of love, but mainly she lets her faith stay quietly in the background of the story she has to tell, and readers of any religious persuasion can relate to the basic human emotions and experiences related here. Viewers of the ESPN piece certainly responded in droves, finding hope and inspiration and offering support of many kinds in return. But unlike many flash-in-the-pan stories of ephemeral fame and lost potential, this one resulted in real and lasting transformation of three individuals, and many more beyond that whose lives they touched. Read it, and your life will be touched and changed by them too.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review Carry On. For more information and tour stops, visit the TLC site.



Top Ten Funniest Books by Women


When I was writing my review of Lucky Jim, one of the most acclaimed comic novels of all time, I looked around to see what else was included on lists of the funniest books. I found that they were heavily dominated by male writers; this one from AbeBooks, for example, was chosen by British readers and only includes two female authors, Helen Fielding and Sue Townsend.

Now, it’s not to say that these women’s books are not hilarious, nor to denigrate the comic talents of Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Bryson, and Pratchett, all of whom I adore, but there are some other writers out there whose works really deserve our attention as well. I find it quite depressing that when New York Times editors were asked to choose the funniest novel, not a single woman made the list. I can only imagine that those editors’ reading habits are very different than mine, because when I started making a list featuring female authors who make me laugh, I found it difficult to stop. Here are ten or so of my personal favorites — sorry, I was laughing too hard to count.

BrandonsPeriod Piece – Gwen Raverat
Written and illustrated by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who became a fine artist, this marvelous memoir of the Victorian age affectionately pokes fun at the habits of our ancestors.

The Brandons – Angela Thirkell
For fans of Trollope, Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire with a social comedy full of witty phrases and sly allusions.

Friday’s Child – Georgette Heyer
One of Heyer’s funniest, sunniest Regency romances, this is about a young couple who have to grow up — and fall in love — after they get married.

Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim
When unsympathetic English relatives send a pair of half-German twins to America during World War I, nothing turns out quite as expected. The absurd dialogue of the Twinkler twins is the highlight here.

The Egg and I – Betty MacDonald
MacDonald turned a difficult life on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest into superb comedy. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children are also both hilarious and psychologically astute, with their magical solutions to child-rearing problems.

UnderfootShowPlease Don’t Eat the Daisies – Jean Kerr
The wife of New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr was a playwright and humorist in her own right. Some of the humor in her 1957 book of essays has dated, but it remains a lively and intelligent take on family life.

Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Hanff is mostly known for 84, Charing Cross Road (which is also a very funny book), but I wish more readers would pick up her delicious memoir of trying to make it on Broadway.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
For over sixty years, starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004, storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and wacky results.

Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam can take the painful realities of life and turn them into comedy like nobody else. Her early coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in a boys’ school is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

YearoftheGriffinYear of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’s delightful send-up of the “magical school” trope is also very likely the only book ever to feature a female griffin who goes to college. Please ignore the bizarre cover art; it makes Elda look like a menacing monster, but really she’s a sweetheart.

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I haven’t yet read Three Men in a Boat, a popular choice for funniest book of all time, though it’s on my list. Even so, I found Willis’s slapstick time-traveling homage to Jerome’s Victorian classic a hoot.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell
First in an all-too-brief mystery series, featuring a group of young British barristers and their older mentor — who, in a tantalizing twist, narrates their adventures without revealing his/her gender. As is appropriate to legal mysteries, a highly stylized, double-edged writing style is key to the humor here.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lisa Lutz, Margery Sharp, Maria Semple, Shirley Jackson, Susannah Clarke … just thinking about them makes me smile. What are your favorite funny books and writers?