Memoirs Read in 2008

I read The Greek for Love: A Memoir of Sorrow and Joy by James Chatto because it was favourably reviewed in the Globe, and because it's set (is it called "set" when it's non-fiction?) in Corfu, a part of Greece I have some memoirish familiarity with due to my obsessive childhood love of Gerald Durrell. I thought it would be interesting to read a different, more modern perspective on the island. Also this book is about someone losing a child. Like most parents I am consumed with fear that I will lose (nice euphemism, as if I'm going to put them down in a restaurant and forget to take them with me, like a pair of gloves or an umbrella) one of my children and my life will be destroyed. I know I can't reasonably be assured that both my children will survive me, but the matter of whether or not I can go on with my life in the event of a tragedy is much more in my control. So I rather like to read about people surviving and carrying on after the death of a child.

This book provided admirably on both counts; it's an evocative sketch of Corfu in the seventies (? I think it was the seventies): the weather, the landscape, the crazy locals and the lovely ones. It was also a beautifully written story of loss and how the author and his wife dealt with it and moved through it.

So funny story. It was coming up to Blake's birthday and as usual I had no idea what to get him. Mostly Blake wants arcane pieces of electronic equipment that usually cost a few hundred dollars. So I buy him socks and underwear, and chocolate-covered marzipan. Well, he's a reader too so this year I went to the local second-hand bookstore and stood gormlessly in front of the SF/Fantasy section, apparently mistaking him for my first boyfriend who would read pretty much any SF or fantasy. After a few moments I came to my senses and remembered that if 80% of everything is crap, 99% of genre fiction is crap and likely Blake had already read the 1% of SF that isn't. So I shuffled disconsolately around the store until I got to the non-fiction section, which as you might guess is my favourite place.

Now the problem with buying books for another reader, especially when your interests overlap somewhat, is that it's hard to tell whether you have picked up a particular book because you think the other person would enjoy it, or because you want to get your own hands on it. (We actually have a convention in our family that it's fine to read a book, carefully, before you give it to someone as a gift.) So there I was standing in front of the non-fiction books trying to figure out what I could give to Blake that wouldn't be too transparently something I wanted to read myself, when a peculiar thought came to me:

"I wish Dave were here, he would know what to get."

Now why my brother, who lives on the other side of the planet and who hasn't seen Blake for years, would know better than I who spend every day with the man what Blake would like to read I don't know, but just then my eyes lit upon the Bill Bryson books and I remembered that Dave had said something favourable about Bryson recently in his blog. I also remembered that Blake had enjoyed another of his books, and so for Blake's birthday I got him The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson. And then read it. Well, I let Blake read it first. And it was very good, and I enjoyed it. Bill Bryson rocks, I should read more of his stuff.

Incidentally Blake really liked it too — I had forgotten that Bryson also wrote The Mother Tongue, a book Blake really enjoys. So apparently Dave actually is the go-to guy when I need a gift idea for my own husband. This is what happens when you marry your brother.

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama came to me in a package from my mother, who had received it in turn from my brother. I believe Dave either got it from a friend or lent it to a friend before sending it to Mum, so our copy has been read by four people on two continents. Right now it's stuck on our bookshelf because Blake wants to read it but hasn't gotten to it. If anyone reading this would like it let me know and I will send it on, because it's a fantastic book. (Blake can get it from the library if he really wants to read it.)

A while ago I posted about why I was happy that Obama won the election, and a large part of that post was informed by what I know about the man from this book. It's wonderfully well-written and Obama is clearly a very intelligent person who isn't satisfied with just seeing the surfaces of things or with simple explanations. This book is about identity and personal history and I found it particularly interesting because I related to issues of constructing identity from family, of being an immigrant, and of having a mobile, unsettled childhood. It was a wonderful read and I am looking forward to reading The Audacity of Hope, and anything else Obama has the time to write.

Long Way Down: An Epic Journey by Motorcycle from Scotland to South Africa by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman is the companion book to the reality series of the same name, about McGregor and Boorman's motorcycle ride from John O'Groats to Cape Town. Good book, pretty much like Long Way Round which I read in 2006. I liked reading a new perspective on Africa.

Morgan secured her nomination for Sister-in-law Of The Year when she gave me Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza for my birthday. (And now that I think of it, she borrowed it as soon as I finished it. I guess my new family is more like my old family than I sometimes realize.) I loved this book. This is going to sound odd, but it gave me new insight into the roots of the Guns N' Roses sound. When I started listening to them in 1988 or 89 I was basically coming to rock music cold, with a listening history of almost exclusively pop music. I've gained a clue or two since then but never re-examined GN'R, just maintained my uncomplicated love for their music. So it was very interesting to put that music into the context of the glam and punk scenes it was born from, scenes I didn't have Clue One about back when I was a pimply Good Girl teenager in northern Saskatchewan.

This book also gave me a more subtle appreciation for the contributions of the non Slash/Axl members of the band, who I had previously largely disregarded. Especially Steve Adler; I used to think he was pretty much an interchangable Lego-piece drummer, but Slash convinced me that his casually hyper rock style contributed significantly to the sound of Appetite for Destruction.

This book also made me appreciate just how much crap you can throw at a human body and have it survive. Well, more or less survive, if you have a pacemaker anyway. Slash had a weird, undisciplined childhood and a crazy life but he is grounded and disciplined and seems like a decent (in the "honest" sense if not the "proper" sense) guy. Fun book.

I took out The Vanished Landscape by Paul Johnson because I was looking for books about Staffordshire, where my mother is from. The subtitle of the book is "A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries", which is exactly what my mother had. Funnily enough, my mother's childhood and Johnson's couldn't have been more different. Johnson is the child of middle-class parents, his father an art teacher and his mother one of those women who does nice things for poor people. They moved from Manchester to Stoke when Johnson spent his early childhood.

My mother, on the other hand, is the child of working class parents and she grew up in a small town near Stoke, one of those pastoral Shire-like English towns, with hedgerows and sheep and little walls made of stones. The little towns that no longer exist because they've turned into exurbs of nearby cities. Anyway, Johnson is a beautiful writer and describes Stoke wonderfully, especially the "vanished landscape" of the title, the old potbanks and wastelands born of the pottery industry. His father taught him to see the Burtynsky-esque beauty in that kind of landscape. I also loved Johnson's descriptions of his family and other people, and his stories of a much more unfettered childhood than today's children are allowed.

My mother read this book, too, and it got her blood boiling because Johnson is an old-school English snob, going on about how the poor people (that's my Mum) are all dirty and ignorant and need charity. As it turns out Johnson (who I had never heard of before) came to America and was an advisor for the Republican party. No surprise there.

I will probably read more Johnson because I love how he writes, but I wish there were more memoirs of Staffordshire out there. Like Barack Obama, I am continually searching for my identity through my family history.


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