Tag Archives: autobiography

“The Book Shopper – a Life in Review” by Murray Brown

This book is fun, and useful to anyone looking for suggestions in the category of modern fiction and (to a lesser extent) non-fiction. Brown and I have several things in common. We’re both frustrated book reviewers. We both have blogs. His is at www.thebookshopper.org Neither of us is listed in Wikipedia. Or if Murray Brown IS there, he’s lost among a crowd of other people with the same name.

The memoir aspects of this book are as interesting as his opinions about books. One early influence was his grandmother, who loved books, patronized her local library and eventually asked her grandson to pass along his copies of the New York Times Book Review.

Did you ever hear of “competitive reading”? In eighth grade, Brown (unable to win distinction as an athlete) decided to read the most books of any pupil in his class. At the end of the school year, he received a trophy. Would he have been happier with a free meal at Pizza Hut, the bribe offered to my sons in elementary school?

One way or another, some of us get hooked on books.

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

“Beethoven for a Later Age – Living with the String Quartets” by Edward Dusinberre

This book is for the serious lover of classical music. Does that include me? Not quite, though I enjoy music and generally lean towards the classical. I wasn’t able to listen to the quartets as they were discussed in the book, nor was I close enough to a piano to pick out the measures included for illustrative purposes.

Why did I keep reading? Because this is one musician’s story, and I love autobiography. Edward Dusinberre joined the Takacs Quartet as a young man in 1993. The group originated in Hungary and now has its home base in Boulder, Colorado. They travel all over the world for many months of each year.

What’s is like to work with the same group of four people over years and years? How do they decide what to play? What to record, which is quite a different experience? How do they evaluate their performances? How often do they play something totally unfamiliar? In addition to discussing these interesting subjects, Dusinberre provides a great deal of information about Beethoven. Why did he write quartets? What else was he writing, and for whom? What happened as Beethoven suffered the loss of his hearing?

The title of the book reflects a comment by Beethoven, in response to criticism of his Opus 59 quartets. “They are not for you, but for a later age!” What on earth did he mean? Do we hear and understand music differently now?

I reflected a great deal on the difference modern recording technology has made for performers and audiences. At the time of Beethoven, very few people had any control over what they heard. The very richest citizens had musicians among their servants, and could arrange a concert at will. Most people would be lucky to attend a performance now and then. Perhaps they heard most of their music in church.

I can listen to whatever I want, almost anywhere. Sometimes I have chosen to listen to a piece over and over, to learn it for a choir performance or “just because”. Hayden’s “Creation” got me through a difficult time in my life. I put it on the car stereo and just let it cycle. There is beauty in it that wasn’t apparent on the first few hearings.

So who knows what I might hear if I did the same with the Beethoven quartets? I would try it, but my car stereo died…

If I ever face enforced immobility, I’ll return to this book and lose myself in the music.

“Faitheist – How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” by Chris Stedman

I didn’t like the title of this book. “Faitheist” sounds contrived, and the subtitle describes the book perfectly well. I relented a little on learning that “Faitheist” was first used to Stedman as an insult from an angry atheist who thought Stedman was “soft” on Christianity. Shows how little I know about contemporary atheism. It’s a movement, not a description.

But that’s not the point of the book, which is fundamentally an autobiography, a very lively and interesting first person text.

Stedman is young, born in 1987 in Minnesota, the kind of intense child who took EVERYTHING seriously. He joined a “born again” Christian congregation shortly before he recognized his homosexuality. His pain and distress at the prospect of eternal damnation drove him to consider suicide. His mother and a sympathetic Lutheran pastor dragged him back from the brink. Spiritually, he developed into an independent atheist.

The real purpose Stedman found in life was social activism at the intersection between different religious groups and, later, between the “religious” and non-believers. He reached the important conclusion that “tolerance” between those of different spiritual paths is not enough – genuine respect is needed. It can only develop from deep friendship and careful listening. Stedman now works as Director of the Yale Humanist Community at Yale University.

Oddly, he never mentions Ethical Humanism.

Recently, a friend of mine observed that when President Barrack Obama discusses religious diversity, he generally includes non-believers as well as practitioners of all the world’s religions. Did Obama pick this up from the Unitarian Universalist congregation his family associated with? Stedman, whose family was decidedly secular, passed briefly through a UU group before his conversion to Christianity.

I mentioned a prominent atheist in a blog post dated January 31, 2014. This was Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, whom I found to be unpleasantly condescending towards religion and religious people.

I looked a little into the controversy around Stedman. He has been accused of “shielding” or apologizing for Christianity and failing to acknowledge its problematic behavior.

The best thing about Stedman’s book is his willingness to tell his own story. I think he recognizes the equal importance of listening to others’ voices. The US is in serious need of this type of respectful dialog.

“Kiss Me Like a Stranger” by Gene Wilder

This hasn’t happened to me before: a famous person dies while his autobiography is in my “write a blog post” pile. Gene Wilder died yesterday.

The book is subtitled “My Search for Love and Art”. Wilder talks more about love than art, and occasionally provided more personal detail than I wanted to assimilate.

My favorite of Wilder’s movies (by far!) is The Producers. It’s “over the top” in so many wonderful ways. Wilder and Zero Mostel are an amazing comic duo.

I didn’t like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Too weird for me.

Some of the best writing in the book is about Wilder’s marriage to Gilda Radner. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1989 was tragic. Wilder’s subsequent accomplishments in fighting ovarian cancer and establishing the Gilda’s Club charities were notable. There’s a chapter of Gilda’s Club near me, and I took advantage of it when my best friend was stricken with pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Ironically, Wilder was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999. It was successfully treated, and his death was attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. As Gilda Radner’s alter ego Roseanne Rosannadanna said, it’s always something!

“Waiting for Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlos Eire

This book falls into two of my favorite reading categories – memoirs, and history I “lived through” but may not understand well. The history in question is the Cuban Revolution, which Wikipedia dates to January 1, 1959. Of course, what I remember best is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I expected nuclear war.

Carlos Eire is about one year younger than me. His childhood ended at age 11, when he was put on a plane from Havana to Miami, accompanied only by his 15 year old brother.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is an amalgam of memories, highlighting Eire’s parents, brothers, friends, teachers and neighbors. His father was a judge, hence a member of the “establishment”, but not so close to the old regime as to have been immediately targeted for execution by the Revolutionaries. Eire lived a life of privilege and received a good education. Catholicism dominated the culture in many ways.

The decision to send Carlos and his brother to the US on their own was made by his mother, who eventually followed them. His father never left Cuba.

Eire’s childhood memories are dominated by danger and death. Danger, because many of the pastimes and activities would put at contemporary parent into shock – rock throwing as a socially sanctioned game, surfing in rough seas… Death, because so many actions were thought to be deadly – going from a warm room to a cold room, etc.

The book is also permeated by anger, especially at the Revolution, at Castro and Guevara and the changes they imposed on Cuba. Eire is still angry. A quick Goggle search makes it easy to find out the details. Eire knows that his own adult voice permeates the book, although it is intended to express his childhood in its own terms.

If you like memoirs about childhood, read this book. It also sheds (some) light on the immigration and foreign policy issues we now face.

“Clinging to the Wreckage” by John Mortimer

A short time ago, on March 20, 2016, I reviewed the novel Quite Honestly by John Mortimer. Mortimer’s autobiography Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life just turned up on my bookshelf unexpectedly. I didn’t know I owned it.

My initial reaction was that Mortimer came across better in fiction (particularly in his wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey stories and TV scripts) than in this autobiography. The chapters about his family growing up and his education in liberal British schools that we would call “private” were the best part of the book.

Readers who want to learn about England during and after World War II will especially enjoy Clinging to the Wreckage, as would those with an interest in modern British law and courts.

Clinging to the Wreckage was written when Mortimer was only 59. He lived to age 85, producing a second autobiographical volume in 1994 (Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life) and a third in in 2000 (The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully). Both are available from Amazon used or on cassette tape. Considering the life he led, I hope to read these additional autobiographies even though I found parts of Clinging to the Wreckage to be rambling and somewhat disorganized.

I realized, glancing at a Wikipedia article, that a few years ago I read another of Mortimer’s novels, Summer’s Lease. I liked it, too. (Too bad I read it before I started blogging. It’s probably written up in a journal – somewhere…)

If Horace Rumpole was Mortimer’s only creation, he would be an author of considerable note, but he wrote so much more that he must surely be recognized as one of modern England’s most important authors. So much the better for all of us that he took neither England nor himself all that seriously.