Two memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of).
Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.
Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren. Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.
How does a young mathematician on the cusp of a Yale doctorate end up as a journalist in one of the world's bleakest places? For Anjan Sundaram, it was a desire to experience firsthand the sights, sounds and emotions of a tormented and misunderstood country he only knew from passing news briefs. His story, recounted in his new memoir, Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo, calls attention to a region of the central African continent often on the world's radar for the wrong reasons.
Sundaram times his arrival well. It’s 2006, and there is cautious interest in the country's historic elections. Settling into the home of a friend's family in the lower class section of Kinshasa, he soon lands a job as a stringer for the Associated Press. Through his experiences, he conveys the turbulent, repressive history of this beautiful, yet troubled land beset by sexual violence, killings and mutilations. Despoiled by corrupt companies and governments, its abundance of natural resources has also cost the Congolese dearly. It is a place where death, as a rule, makes news only if it involves villages and armies or the U.N. Sundaram raises inexplicable contradictions as well, like a boy who dies of typhoid because his family had no money for treatment but whose elaborate, expensive funeral draws hundreds.
For a reporter with no previous journalism training, Sundaram tells a good story with his sharp first-hand narrative and careful observations, especially of children. He acknowledges missteps along the way, and his vulnerabilities become part of the journey. The author, who currently lives in Rwanda, turned down a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs to tell us about this downtrodden African nation, long gripped by civil war. For readers interested in world politics and humanitarian crises here is a rare look by someone determined to tell the story.
Today, the world lost Maya Angelou. Yet we will never lose the irreplaceable voice she used to shape our world to make it a more compassionate and stronger place.
She is most widely known for her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she reveals the hardships she endured being both an African-American and a girl in the Jim Crow South. In her memoirs, she expresses such complicated themes as race, identity and womanhood in an honest style that illuminates the human condition. In her last book, Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou investigated the loving yet complex relationship she had with her robust mother, an exceptional person in her own right.
Along with telling her own story, Angelou used her unique voice in other transformative ways. She was a poet. Her stimulating poetry is gathered in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. She was a singer, a dancer, an educator and her voice continues to reach far beyond the literary realm. Angelou was a vigorous civil rights advocate, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Multiple presidents honored her linguistic power by having her speak as the heart of the nation. In her words and throughout her life, Angelou proved "one isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest." She embodied these virtues and instilled them in others, to the benefit of us all.
Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American, a well-known and respected journalist who is critical of the Iranian government as well as the son of a high-ranking diplomat for the Shah. All of these factors would be good reason for Majd to limit his time in Iran. Majd has travelled in and out of Iran for years, often escorting U.S. journalists. He has published two previous books on the country, which were critical of the Iranian government. Majd grew up in the U.S. and Britain, but like many political refugees, he has always felt the pull of his home country. In his book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd recounts the nearly year-long stay in Tehran that he and his family embark upon.
This journey begins when his family moves there during a tumultuous time in Iran – on the cusp of the Arab Spring and the failure of the Green Movement reforms. Majd talks about the big issues while also discussing the minutiae of an American family trying to live in a country devoid of Starbucks and organic food stores. His narrative is often humorous, and it is at its best when discussing the average Iranian people, who have an incredibly self-deprecating view, a voracious love of politics and an admiration for American ideals.
Majd looks at Iranian cultural features like “sulking” and exaggeration and shows them in everyday life as well as how they play out in the domestic and international political arenas. What emerges is a portrait of a modern capitalist country that, while still repressive, has a very healthy political dialogue, including reporting on every juicy bit of gossip about leaders like they were the Kardashians. The people desire to stay Islamic but also to become more open and liberal. Majd sees the U.S./Iranian relationship as a version of a Persian “Big Sulk,” with an Iranian government ready to resume ties with the U.S., but only after the U.S. makes a demonstration of apology for past wrongs and expresses a desire for such a relationship. It’s an intriguing possibility, but one that the U.S. would be politically unable to explore. Ultimately, Majd is on a journey to discover the Persian identity, both his own and his homeland’s.
An inspiring coming-of-age story about the pursuit of a better life in the United States is the 2014 One Maryland One Book selection. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande describes her perilous journey of illegally emigrating from one of the poorest states in Mexico to a Los Angeles Latino neighborhood. Read the entire Between the Covers blog review here.
Upon learning of her selection, the Mexican-born author and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist said, “I'm humbled that my immigrant story was chosen to be the springboard for lively conversations on what the American Dream means today.” The Los Angeles Times called her book “the Angela’s Ashes of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.”
Now in its seventh year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people from diverse communities together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels, attracted thousands of readers to Maryland’s statewide book club. The 2014 theme is “the American Dream.”
Baltimore’s Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte was known as the most beautiful woman in the United States. Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, was more interested in women than war games. The pair fell madly in love, and in so doing, changed their destinies and affected international diplomacy. Carol Berkin shares the story of this remarkable woman in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
Born in Baltimore in 1785, Betsy was the eldest child of William Patterson and Dorcas Spear Patterson. Betsy’s beauty was renowned and coupled with her intelligence, wit and independence, it made her one of the most sought-after women in America. She refused marriage proposals from wealthy, powerful men, writing to her father, "Nature never intended me for obscurity." Her 1803 marriage to Jerome ensured her place in the spotlight and in history. Her father’s opposition to this union paled in comparison to Napoleon’s livid reaction. When the couple traveled from Baltimore to France, Napoleon banned the then-pregnant Betsy from disembarking in any European port. Napoleon also gave Jerome an ultimatum: Stay married to Betsy and get nothing, or marry a woman of Napoleon’s choice and enjoy wealth and power. Jerome ended the marriage in 1805 and was made king of Westphalia.
England welcomed the sensational Betsy with open arms, and it was there that she gave birth to her son and only child. She spent the rest of her life traveling between Baltimore and England and grew to admire the refined English society and despise America’s obsession with commerce. Despite her disdain for her country’s moneymaking mania, she fought for and received a pension from Napoleon that she invested, ultimately amassing a great fortune. Using Betsy’s letters, Berkin goes behind the tabloid-esque story and creates a portrait of an independent woman struggling to find her place in a changing world.
The Maryland Historical Society’s exhibit "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy” brings to life the two worlds that Betsy inhabited and showcases her jewels, silver, furniture, paintings and much more, including one of her scandalous gowns.
Some may remember him from The Carol Burnett Show where he played such absurdly silly characters as Mr. Tudball, while others will recall him as the bumbling Ensign Parker in the TV show McHale’s Navy. Then there are those who have seen his Dorf series of videos. However you remember Tim Conway, his book What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life will introduce you to aspects of the comic you may have never known.
Conway (born Thomas Conway in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio) loves to tell a funny story, and his book is full of them. Some of the stories involve his eccentric yet lovable family but most are about his life in show business. Being an only child, Conway had a kind of built in audience with his family. He used these early experiences at home, in the classroom, during his brief time in the Army and throughout his extended time at Bowling Green State University to hone his craft and become the comic legend that we know today.
Over the years, Conway has worked with many of the greats in comedy and is quick to give praise to those who helped him achieve success. Some of the celebrities he worked for or with include Ernie Anderson, Steve Allen, Ernest Borgnine and, of course, Carol Burnett. There are sides to Conway that are surprising (for example, being an avid horse racing fan) and some that you might expect (he and Harvey Korman really were great friends), but they all add up to an intriguing and funny memoir. Hopefully, Conway will be around to make us laugh for a long time to come.
Historian Jill Lepore eloquently pieces together the sparse writings of a little-known 18th-century American woman who also happens to be the favorite sister of Benjamin Franklin. In her meticulously researched work Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the Harvard University professor reveals a humble woman whose station does not dampen her upbeat and quick-witted spirit. The siblings emerge as two restless spirits, connected through their love of writing yet separated by their assumed roles of the time.
Born in 1712 in a two-story wooden house on Union Street in Boston, the youngest child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was expected to learn to read but not necessarily how to write. Her mother taught her, as did Benjamin, who was six years older. Married at 15, Jane Franklin Mecom's endless days of cleaning, washing and mothering were in contrast to her glamorous brother's life. She cherished letters from her brother. Their lifelong correspondence reveals a keen, opinionated woman who is a shrewd political observer and a lover of books. With 12 children, she came up with her own way of chronicling births and deaths by creating her own slim book called the "Book of Ages." The book became a remembrance and her story. It survives, while most of her letters to her brother do not.
Lepore, a National Book Award finalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, is passionate about her subject even when evidence is scarce. She explores the political, social and commercial sides of the times in compelling character-driven prose. And while she freely draws the parallel life of the siblings, it is the juxtaposition of men’s and women's roles in Colonial America that reminds readers of the extraordinary fortitude of women like Jane. With 148 pages of notes, source material, reproduced documents and time period detail and spellings, the narrative unfolds slowly. Readers of early American or women's history are rewarded with a fresh look at one of this country's most influential, iconic leaders and the sister in his reflection.
Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.
Blogger, mom and wife, and, in her own words, “recovering Jesus Freak,” Addie Zierman writes the story of her evangelical adolescence and young adulthood in When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. Raised by parents who belonged to an evangelical church, Addie caught “fire” in her sophomore year of high school when she and her friends became devout Christians, first joining and then creating their own Bible study group at their high school. These were the 1990s, the days of WWJD?, mission trips to save lost souls and contemporary Christian pop music.
Divided into four sections, Zierman provides the reader with a glimpse into the mind of a young evangelical woman who believes she knows the path that her God has put forth. Pressing her along this journey is Chris, a young man three years older, who seems to Addie to have it all figured out. But as she eventually realizes, nothing she does is holy enough for Chris while he is in his own state of “fire,” and they part on bad terms. This breakup points Zierman toward her disillusionment with her beliefs; nonetheless, she enrolls in a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities. She meets the love of her life, Andrew, who shares Addie’s propensity for standing out from the rest of their classmates. After their marriage, failed attempts to find a church that has everything they’re looking for results in her rebellion against everything. This includes forays into alcohol abuse, a minor infidelity and previously undiagnosed depression. Ultimately, she finds redemption in creating a spiritual center that is right for herself and her family.
Conversationally composed, with very little religious jargon that might bother the casual reader, When We Were on Fire is an exceptional memoir. Relatable to anyone who has ever become fixated on a topic, whether it involves matters of faith, a romantic interest or otherwise, Addie Zierman’s work makes her a writer to watch.