The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (September 6, 2016)
Mary Karr is the author of three award-winning, bestselling memoirs: The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit, as well as The Art of Memoir, also a New York Times bestseller. She received Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships for poetry and is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.
The New Year can be a perfect time to reflect and/or start a memoir. What event or period in your life would you like to share? A memoir has a theme. It is not an autobiography. The reader wants to know how someone else faces challenges, learns and changes their life. Boomers are churning out memoirs all the time. It is time to remember.
While The Art of Memoir is not a current publication it stands out as a well-crafted guide to writing an engaging memoir. Mary Karr is an ultimate teacher. Mary understands how to use humor and insights from her own life to show us the way. She is a professor, therapy patient, writer, spiritual seeker, and recovered alcoholic. She has much to share, as do you. Read and follow Mary Karr’s key elements of a great literary memoir.
The Art of Memoir chapters range from “Don’t Try This at Home” to “How to Choose a Detail” to “Finding the Nature of Your Talent” and “Why Memoirs Fail”. Mary remarks, “You’re making an experience for the reader, a show that conjures your past—inside and out—with enough lucidity that a reader gets way more than just a brief flash of titillation.” Each of twenty chapters begin with an epigraph as in Chapter 12—Families exist to witness each other’s disappointments (Laura Sillerman).
Life is complex with so many events and thoughts to consider. Start by writing short pieces or make a list of events in your life that were significant. For example, when I was in college, I was part of a foreign exchange program to Japan. I took three semesters of Japanese in preparation. It turned out most of the program was cancelled and I was one of the 250 students cut. A road not taken could be a theme as there were others. Memoirs share dark times and, most importantly, victories.
Perhaps, you are writing for yourself or family and friends—you still want to craft it well. Reading other memoirs is a must. Deconstruct the arc of the story. Identify the theme(s). Highlight literary language. Truth is essential but so is creativity. Karr includes six pages of memoirs to read in the appendix.
Additional Memoir Books:
“One Writing” by Stephen King
“Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamont
“The Memoir Project” by Marion Roach Smith (currently teaches classes on-line)
“Old Friend from Far Away (The Practice of Writing a Memoir) by Natalie Goldberg
Another subgenre of memoir has become popular—poetry memoirs. Here are some titles that you may find interesting:
Memorial Drive (A Daughter’s Memoir) by Natasha Trethewey (winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
The Favorite by Lucinda Watson
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Ballantine Books 2021
Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney, and now lives in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia with her family and an assortment of animals. She has spent most of her working life as a social researcher, studying what keeps us well and what helps us thrive. Based on her original research in the Oxford English Dictionary archives, The Dictionary of Lost Words is her first novel. The Dictionary of Lost Words is the winner of the Australian Book Industry Award.
Confession—any book about books, dictionaries, libraries, or words—catches my eye immediately. Add the word lostand I can’t resist. When I realized this was a novel based on the origins of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), that sealed it for me. I listened to the audio book first as the narrator, Pippa Benner-Warner, is very good. Then I read the kindle version and have ordered the hardback copy. Clearly, it’s obvious, The Dictionary of Lost Words is my personal Book of the Year.
That said, let me tell you why I love this book. The setting is Oxford, late 1800’s. The main character is Esme. Her mother died and she and her father practically live in the Scriptorium—a small shed in an Oxford garden where lexicographers work on the dictionary. Early on Esme’s curiosity and love of words and their multipole meanings cause her to realize words have power.
Her love of words leads her to start her own collection—women’s words, ordinary people’s words, words ignored by scholars.
Back in the day, at the turn of the 20th century, women did work on the ODE—editing and providing new words. But they were rarely recognized. The character representing these women is Ditte, a longtime friend of Esme’s father and her mentor. Ditte steps in again and again to support Esme even though there are rocky roads in their relationship.
Along with the dictionary work, the reader finds a study of class structure of the time and women’s suffrage in England, as well as the looming Great War. It was a cultural revolution that reverberates to this day—equality for women. Esme runs on the edge and must find her own way forward even as her friend Tilda encourages vigorous action.
Intertwined with all this is a love story as we watch Esme grow from a child that sits under the word sorting table to a lexicographer in her own right. Here is where the character Gareth comes in, but I won’t spoil it by saying too much—only that you will love him. We also find out about how the printers worked at the time—laboriously setting type, letter by letter.
Highlights from The Dictionary of Lost Words:
Some words are more important than others—I learned this, growing up in the Scriptorium. But it took me a long time to understand why. [Esme February 1886]
Words change over time, you see. The way they look, the way they sound, sometimes even their meaning changes. They have their own history. [April 1891]
The Dictionary is a history book Esme. If it has taught me anything, it is that the way we conceive of things now will most certainly change. [June 1906]
“Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think?” she said … “They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge …” [March 1907]
Although the novel is populated by many quirky characters, there are also real-life characters who worked on the OED, like James Murray who was appointed editor in 1879, Henry Bradley appointed as second editor in 1887, and the word “bondmaid” (that started Esme’s journey into lost words) is discovered missing following a letter from the public. It is clear, that Williams has done her research about the OED and given us a novel where the setting and social events of the time provide a unique picture about words, word meanings, and the real people who spent 70 years completing their task. The OED continues to evolve, and you can find out more at oed.com.
The latest update to the Oxford English Dictionary includes over 1,400 fully revised and updated entries, and over 700 new words, phrases, and senses appear for the first time, including deepfake, antigram, and groomzilla.
Coming soon Pip Williams second novel: The Book Binder of Jericho Random House (August 2023)
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
Knopf May 2021
Suzanne Simard was born in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia and was educated at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. She is Professor of Forest Ecology in the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry. She is a pioneer on the frontier of plant communication and intelligence; her TED talks have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide.
When Suzanne Simard’s book came out in 2021, I read it immediately for several reasons. As an ecologist, I love the natural world. As a naturalist, I am very fond of trees and the forest environment. I live in logging country and have watched trucks with full loads heading down the mountain for 40 years. The timber industry is a complicated business, more now than ever as climate change collides with human activity. But that is not the reason I am rereading “Finding the Mother Tree”.
Sometimes we read a book that changes our perspective forever. Knowledge opens the door to a wider space. Once you know, you can’t go back. Simard’s book did that for me. I can never again see a tree or forest without thinking about her research—the underground world of interdependence between tree roots and fungi.
While she has been criticized for anthropomorphic references within the timber industry and scientific circles, her work has launched further studies. Her book is a memoir. It weaves her background into the story of how trees and other flora act like families in terms of communication through sharing resources. It is not like human conversations. It happens in another way. Her life in the woods of British Columbia and later work in the forest industry have one thing in common—Simard’s curiosity about the world around her--she is an observer who asks questions.
Her writing can be lyrical. It is written for us as readers. Though strongly grounded in science, her book is a narrative that tells a story. Here are some highlights:
My arms wrapped more tightly around the trunk. Mama settled under the ponderosas as her cubs slept. My tremble reduced to a quiver, my terror to mere fright. In the safety of my tree, I felt myself slowly grafting to its bark and melting into its heartwood, astonished at how calm I’d become in its branches.
My life had knitted together as tightly as the braid running down my back.
… knowing I had to keep going for my child. For all of the children, the generations to come. I had evidence that could challenge ecological theory, and perhaps also forest policy. I held small seeds of change.
The arc of Simard’s work was not easy. Her family and scientists along the way tested her courage to continue her questioning, continue to follow her questions about trees and illuminate how the underground mycorrhizal world works.
There are many books about trees, here are a few you might consider:
The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees by Stephanie Kaza, Ballantine Books 1993 (An older book but great for readers who like a zen approach to trees.)
The Hidden Life of Trees and Forest Walking (Discovering the Trees and Woodlands of North America) by Peter Wohlleben (Peter has many books out about trees and forest ecology although he doesn’t have the scientific background of Simard.)
For more on tree stories and conservation activism go to lindatoren.com, click on the radio icon and listen to Program 90.
Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR
by Lisa Napoli
Harry N. Abrams (March 2022)
About the author: Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lisa Napoli has had a long career in print, radio, TV, and online journalism. She has worked at the New York Times, Marketplace, MSNBC, and KCRW. She is the author of three previous books, Radio Shangri-La, Ray & Joan, and Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News. She lives in Los Angeles.
People who read a lot of books are prone to have two to three going at once. But in the end, one book takes precedence and outruns the others. This is a common occurrence for me, but this time I am really reading two books at once. One in my hands, Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR and the audio book, Dinner with Ruth by Nina Totenberg. The two books have merged quite nicely even though Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokieis a biography of women and radio while Dinner with Ruth is a memoir.
I will focus primarily with the Founding Mothers of NPR although Ruth may find her way into the review. The story of these four women of early radio is set in compelling times. NPR was a non-profit organization which came along in the 1970’s following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equality of women in the workplace was in its infancy (barely born) and NPR took the radical step of hiring women as lead journalists. Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie is as much a group biography as a biography of the times.
Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts were formidable pioneers in news reporting, wedging themselves into the DC press core, the halls of Congress, and the Superior Court of the United States. (This is where Nina Totenberg’s long-time friendship with RBG comes in.) Their story is not just about women in the workplace—it also chronicles the evolution of radio news before cable both of which are historically significant.
The struggle to be present and equal is a thread that runs through every woman’s story. Intelligence was not enough, they all had to have stamina and perseverance. As Ruth said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception.”
Friendship is another strong theme throughout. Pioneers need encouragement and support. Their friendships are deep and long-lasting. Even so, each woman has a different background. Susan Stamberg lived in India with her husband who worked for the State Department. She was the first woman to anchor a nightly news program. Linda Wertheimer, the daughter of shopkeepers in New Mexico, fought her way to a scholarship and a spot on-air. Nina Totenberg, the network’s legal affairs correspondent, invented a new way to cover the Supreme Court. It also should be noted that Nina’s father was violin virtuoso, Roman Totenberg, and she was privy to many talks by politicians and celebrities of the day. Cokie Roberts was born into a political dynasty, roamed the halls of Congress as a child, and was destined to be formidable force as a reporter.
Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie reads like a novel with challenges, tragedies, and accomplishments hard won. One might call it historical nonfiction. We love to read how each woman made their way in a man’s world at the time. They are inspirational and set the foundation for other women to follow in the journalistic world. Women writing and reporting on important national and global events is no longer an oddity. No more relegation to the “women’s page”. It is a story about radio as well, which is dear to my heart.
The long-running program, All Things Considered, and their presence reads like a timeline in the history of NPR. Of the many firsts of public radio, one can find Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie at the forefront.
In their own words:
Susan, “I always thought the difference between men and women was pockets.”
Nina (and Ruth), “And, in 1971, when she had questions about Reed v. Reed, the first Supreme Court case to declare sex discrimination a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Nina flipped to the front of the brief and sleuthed out its author, a professor of law at Rutgers University named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The professor was happy to give this young reporter an hour-long lecture about why the amendment, which Nina believed covered only Black citizens, also covered women.”
Cokie, “If you interrupt too much and are too aggressive and ready to get in there, you come across as a bitchy, shrill witch,” Cokie said. “And if you don’t talk enough and are polite and wait, then you come across as a wallflower with nothing to say.”
One Blade of Grass by Henry Shukman
Hodder & Stoughton Limited 2021
Henry Shukman is an author, poet, and is a Zen teacher of a small, but growing, community of Zen Buddhist practitioners at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
You might think—another memoir? I find I am addicted to how people overcome challenges in their lives. Pain, anxiety, and depression mark the early years of Shukman’s life. Chronic eczema plagued his childhood and young adulthood. Like many people with this condition, Shukman becomes shy and reclusive. His parents are academics and Shukman is expected to follow in their footsteps. Their lives are rational and ordered.
What happens when you don’t fit in? What happens when you have no idea of self or your place in the world? When Henry leaves England and finds himself in the outdoors and working physically in Argentina—he begins what will be a spiritual journey. The long road to Zen and the setbacks and revelations take time. One thing he notices is that his eczema goes away, only to return when goes home to England and his family.
From Shukman’s publisher—“He discovers in surprising ways the emotional, spiritual and even physical healing that he has been searching for all along.” One Blade of Grass” is a journey we take with the author. Metacognition, the process of thinking about one’s own thinking and learning, can be a perilous trip as one must face looking at faults and new understandings about self.
I was drawn to Shukman’s lyrical, descriptive language. He has published several books of poems. His new poetry collection, In Dr. No’s Garden, is available on Kindle and the hardback will be out in April. This explains his prose writing. Here is an example—
I fell in love with the hills around Santa Fe, hills of chunky read earth, fragrant with small pines and juniper. I fell in love with the town too, its ocher mud buildings sitting squat and hunched under the sky, fragrant with the woodsmoke that began to be burned as autumn rolled in, overseen every day by sunsets that are apocalyptic …
I loved when he described meeting Natalie Goldberg and their relationship, her influence on his Zen journey. Henry is also a dear friend of the poet David Whyte which was how I “met” Shukman on one of Whyte’s webinars. Henry’s tender demeanor was evident.
Perhaps this memoir will remind each of us to be inspired to deepen our commit to a daily practice or find a teacher and a community within which to be enfolded. Maybe you already have a community of family and friends that bring light into your life.
If you would like to hear Henry Shukman give Zen talks—check him out on YouTube.
TWO BOOKS TO WARM YOUR HEART
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Faber & Faber Ltd 2021
Claire Keegan’s stories are translated into thirty languages. Her other works—Walk the Blue Fields and Foster have won many prestigious awards. Foster was chosen by the NY Times as one of the top fifty works of fiction to be published in the twenty-first century. Small Things Like These is the winner of the Booker Prize 2022.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
Harper Collins 2019
Charlie Mackesy has been a cartoonist for The Spectator and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press. He collaborated with Nelson Mandela on a lithograph project—The Unity Series. He co-runs a social enterprise, Mama Buci,in Zambia which helps families of low and no income become beekeepers.
Before the New Year, I took a day to read. These two books were at the top of my pile and since both are short, I read one after the other.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is deceptively simple, but thoughts run deep. As a cartoonist, Mackesy knows what he’s about so the text and illustrations work perfectly together. My dear friend, Margaret, brought it to my attention. (If you want to hear our conversation about books go to lindatoren.com, click on the radio and go to program #48 … or 43).
The journey of the four friends is full of wit and wisdom. The boy and the mole are full of questions like—“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Kind.” said the Boy. Or wisdom—“Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses,” said the Mole.
There is a lovely feeling of Pooh and Owl in the text—"When the dark clouds come … keep going.” In the illustration, dark clouds swirl in the distance as the four friends take horse’s advice. Perhaps the book has gone viral sincethe notions of kindness and friendship are always needed.
One might say, I know this already. But do we really? Talk a deep breath, get cozy and be reminded. Enjoy the friend’s adventures. Hint: the horse has some magical powers. Also,
you may have the urge to eat cake. I wager you’ll want to gift The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse to a friend.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is as Hilary Mantel noted—“Wastes not a word … Exquisite.” It is rare that a book this short (114 pages) is the winner of the Booker Prize. It is 1985 and Bill Furlong, is a coal and timber merchant in a small Irish village. In the days leading up to Christmas he goes round the houses making deliveries. He is a kind and observant man and prone to generosity which his wife, Eileen, often admonishes him as they have five daughters.
In part, the dedication foreshadows the dark history of the Church in Ireland—This story is dedicated to the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and (infamous) Magdalen laundries.
The themes of responsibility and decisions dominate as Bill sees what shouldn’t be seen and can’t look away. Everyone in the village knows what is happening at the convent but the strength of the Church and sisters causes them to turn a blind eye. Bill must make a choice that will fly in the face of everyone in his community. How can one person act against social norms?
He found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another?
The details of daily life are poignant and carefully written. He sat on, not unhappily, listening to the clock ticking on the mantel and the wind piping, eerily in the flue. The rain had come on again, was blowing hard against the windowpane and making the curtain move.
The story closes with Bill knowing he will pay for his decision, trouble waiting for him behind the next door. This book could be a memoir rather than fiction since all great fiction starts with a kernel of truth as we read to find out how a person manages their life when it matters most.
These two books turned out to be great partners—full of sadness and hope. A way of seeing the world differently as we live our busy lives. I give them five stars out of five as important winter reads.