Tag Archives: memoirs

The Monday Book: CALL THE MIDWIFE by Jennifer Worth

Worth imageOne of the nicest things about vacationing in Scotland is that the books landing in charity shops there are completely different from here. I must have counted six copies of Gone Girl and two of Divergent.

Jack and I scored several titles, including one I’d intended to get to since enjoying the series on Netflix. Call the Midwife is actually part of a trilogy of books Jennifer Worth wrote; the others are Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. (She also did one on hospice nursing later.)

I enjoyed the books, but this is one of the few times I have to say watching the series first helped. I’m not up on 1950s and ’60s medical parlance or practice, and there are details in Worth’s writing that I wouldn’t have understood without seeing them played out in pictures first.

Worth tells her story in simple, straightforward ways. It isn’t her writing that’s attractive so much as the details she gives, her way of understanding how humans are feeling. One might be tempted to use the word “clunky” once or twice on certain passages. She died in 2011, just as the series based on her books was coming to TV. Not having had the chance to meet her, I suspect she’d have proven a great humanitarian rather than wordsmith.

Still, who cares, because the stories in Midwife are fascinating, compelling, and lovely to read after seeing them portrayed. Some were taken straight from the book, others embellished from mere hints and whispers she included in passing. A lot of her descriptions were taken care of with just a couple of camera shots.

Let me say it again: it is the stories and not the storytelling that makes this book a great read. It is a methodical and prosaic capture of a way of life now over: one feels the pavements, smells the odors, and shares the fears and happinesses. Worth writes like a camera takes pictures, presenting snapshots, no corners left dark.

Worth’s life is in itself fascinating. She married in 1963 about ten years after she became a nurse, had two daughters, and left nursing in 1973 to teach piano and voice at a college. And she didn’t start writing until late in life. Midwife came out in 2002, and took five years to reach bestseller status.

Worth reminds me of another favorite book from a British author, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The older of its authors didn’t start writing in earnest until late in life; her book was also post-humous, and a bestseller, and took a snapshot of a terrifying yet exuberant time to be human.

Let that be a lesson to those of us who write; get going. Stories need to be told more than perfected. Think what else these woman could have given us if they’d started earlier.



Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Scotland, writing

What type of Type is your Type?

The other day I walked through the bookstore carrying–of all things–a book, and Jack said, “That looks your sort of thing.”

“Eh?”  I responded, blinking.

“That’s your type of book. I saw it when it came in and figured you’d find it before long.”

Gentle reader, I have never before considered that I have a “type of book,” believing myself more the cereal box variety of bibliophile. Granted, I avoid horror, romance and paperbacks bedecked with sword-wielding bikini-clad blonds, but that doesn’t mean I have a “type.” Of type.

Does it?

In the warm light of Jack’s “Sometimes the person on the other side of the bed sees things you don’t” smile, I assessed my reading habits. Gosh darn it, he’s right. Here are five things guaranteed to make me like a book:

1) It features a road trip. I don’t care where they’re going or what they do when they get there; if  the protagonists are driving, flying, walking, or boating across a big space, I’m in. Queen of the Road, The Great Typo Hunt, A Walk Across America, A Walk in the Woods, even The Long Walk (an escape book from the Gulag years). Heck, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music is Brendan’s Voyage, in which Shawn Davey scored the adventures of two modern guys replicating a monk’s coracle voyage from Ireland to Newfoundland. If the main characters are moving, it’s good enough for me.

2) It’s a fictitious story of a child growing up without recognizing what’s going on around her. I love stories that involve children’s innocence protecting them. Trezza Azzopardi’s Remember Me. The Murderer’s Daughters. Girlchild (a bit less innocent, perhaps). But it has to be fiction; A Child Called It left me cold. Sure, a psychiatrist could help me understand why, but I’ll stick with enjoying the never-ending stream of fiction traffic clogging dysfunction junction.

3) It’s a true story of simple living told with humor. Sweaterwise: My Year of Knitting Dangerously. The $64 Tomato. Farewell, My Subaru.  How Many Hills to Hillsboro. Mud Season. Heart in the Right Place. American Shaolin (although that’s maybe not so simple; the guy moved to Asia and enrolled in a monastery). One can get tired of yuppies run amok among the greener grasses on the fence’s other side, total life changes, or even strange gimmicky publicity stunts akin to reality television for the memoir market. (How low can one go to get a book deal? Don’t answer that.) The “at home” memoirs still delight me.

4) Any book with that gilt foil paint stuff on its cover. The Rose of Sebastopol wasn’t a favorite, but I read it because of its gilt flower frame. The Reluctant Fundamentalist sported foil letters. I even enjoy The Royal Diaries series for girls. Put gold on the cover, and you had me at hello.

This makes me shallow, right? I accept that.

5) Historic fiction with strong female leads. Yes, Philippa Gregory has a lot to answer for; I don’t even like the way Robin Maxwell writes; but if it’s about an ordinary woman caught in extraordinary times (Tudor dynasty, Spanish Diaspora, Druidic and Christian worldviews clashing) color me there. Caveat: the books in this camp range from brain bubblegum to intensely well-researched dissertations-as-narrative; choose wisely. I did once throw Katie Hickman across the room in exasperation.

So now you know: left to my own devices, these are the books I gravitate toward. What’s your type of type?


Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, publishing, Scotland, writing

9 Pieces of Memoir Writing Advice from 8 Great Sources

William Zinsser: “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives.”

Gore Vidal: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.”

Patricia Hampl: “You can’t put much on paper before you betray your secret self, try as you will to keep things civil.”

And also Patricia Hampl: “I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.”

Darin Strauss: “I think each family has a funhouse logic all its own, and in that distortion, in that delusion, all behavior can seem both perfectly normal and crazy.”

David Ben-Gurion: “Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”

Joan Didion: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”

Stephen King: “The scariest moment is always just before you start.  After that, things can only get better.”

Gloria Steinem: “Just remember, you can’t divorce a book.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”


Filed under book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, Uncategorized


If you’ve ever tried to write fiction, or a memoir, or even a popular culture book about something that’s not entirely academic in thrust (Once Upon a Quinceanera comes to mind) then the words “Narrative Arc” strike terror and despair into your heart. Unless you’re a really good writer, in which case they probably make you feel smug.

Narrative arc is basically your story line gathering itself on the runway, taking flight, and then coming down again into a gentle (or not) conclusion. There are milestones along the way: set-up, problem introduction, small resolutions, climaxes and final resolutions, also known by many other names. The basic idea is that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that you should be able to read it as a cohesive whole, with the bits that happened first up front, and the lessons learned from all those bits at the back.

For example, here’s a nice narrative arc about a couple opening a bookstore: couple prepares to open bookshop by finding space and inventory; couple opens shop; people start visiting bookshop; couple discovers they lack all skills necessary to running bookshop; couple hastily acquires skills; bookshop hits bump; bookshop rights itself and continues, filling with characters and fun, along its merry way. Bookshop owners sit on front porch, holding hands and reflecting on all the nice lessons running a bookshop has taught them about humanity and life.

That’s what it looks like when you’re finished sorting it out on the page and in your memory. What happens in real life is more like: couple decides to open bookshop; characters fill shop; couple discovers they don’t know how to value books, but before they can learn, more characters are in shop and shop hits crisis of funding; they rush to resolve funding and shop fills with colorful local characters suffering after fires and bereavements and divorces, who want to talk about them; they slowly figure out how to pretend they’re coping with all that but meanwhile they’re learning of new skills they need as fast as they’re trying to acquire ones they already knew they needed a year ago, and the shop is opening and closing, opening and closing, and plans to learn to value first editions are put on the back burner for six months, and people are starting to say nice things about the shop and its effect on the community, but they’re saying them six months apart and in very different ways. Couple winds up sitting on porch, nervous wrecks drinking whisky, trying to figure out what they might need to know for tomorrow.

Rather than one simple line taking neat shape in a half-circle, in life so many lessons are learned simultaneously and on the fly that each arc overlaps and coils back on itself until you’re really looking at something more like a narrative slinky, bumping merrily downstairs, away from you, out of control.

Which is kinda what it feels like while writing it all. Joan Didion says we write to organize ourselves, to make sense of our lives. I’ve certainly discovered, since working closely with my editor on the final draft for The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, just how important another set of eyes is. A story that makes perfect sense to you looks full of holes to someone who wasn’t there, in the storm’s eye. While I’m describing things that whirled and swirled around the edges, my editor is keeping her eye on the center of the story. Just another reason why me-me-me memoirs don’t work; to really get the details, you have to step out of your skin, walk away, and see it from someone else’s point of view.

Or have a really good editor. (Thanks, P and N!)

If you want to read a really good narrative arc, my friend Carolyn Jourdan just got listed as one of the 10 best memoirs to read when learning the craft. Steve Boga, author of How to Write Your Life Stories – Memoirs that People Want to Read, cited her in his book. Carolyn organized her stories by impact: funny, funny, sweet, funny, building on sweet, angering, funny, funny, romantic, and yet the whole arc gracefully rose and fell as characters came and went in completion. No loose threads–well, okay, one, but it helped build romantic tension. And some things are private. :]

Another good one, organized by a different principle, is Sarah Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time. She used a straightforward calendar approach, even when she sometimes jumped forward and backward in time, making each month a chapter with a specific something she learned (how to be happy, how to let go of the past, etc.) from the books she read. My favorite association was when she read James Frey’s (now discredited) memoir A Million Little Pieces during a time when she and her husband were fighting. Nice poetic touch to a prosaic timeline.

And then there are memoirs that just peter out about five chapters in. The story gets set up, you fall in love with the characters, they tell you what they’re gonna do, and then it just… stops. And you read disjointed essay after disjointed essay, cute little character sketches or moments, but they don’t build, connect. They are pearls in and of themselves, just not strung together into a necklace.

These are the books we stop reading about page 87, when we look past them one night at our bedside table, and rake our eyes over the stack of books waiting, full of promise, full of… narrative arcs.

Readers LIKE stories that have a beginning, middle and ending. And we really need that middle to have some sort of path forward–even Paul Coelho fans (The Alchemist or Eleven Minutes). There has to be a visible way out of the forest, or we get claustrophobic staying in it.

All lessons learned from reading memoirs as much as bloody trying to finish writing one. And all fun, despite the angst-edged madness one might sense here. Necessity may be the mother of inspiration, but you and I both know that desperation was her very pushy pimp.

Right. So I’m away to head that slinky off before it reaches the staircase….


Filed under book reviews, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized

You-you-you Memoirs

I had a lot of people respond to my earlier list of memoirs, and to the idea that books are most interesting to read when they are about someone else, and you run through them like a pale thread, holding the warp and weave together rather than dominating the pattern.

And it’s always fun to talk about what I’ve been reading – something that bookstore owners rarely get to do, funnily enough – so here are some more memoirs that made for ripping good reads. I call them you-you-you memoirs because… well, okay, sorry, but the fastest way to get that pun is to read my prior blog entitled “Me-me-me Memoirs.”

The $64 Tomato. I liked it not just because the guy writing it is funny, but because it’s one of several books that encapsulates the growing interest of Americans in our food sources, in handiwork, in taking care of ourselves for ourselves. He’s neither preachy nor preening, just fun to read and insightful without hitting you over the head with his thoughts about what it means to live off the land while holding down a “real” job.

Second Wind. Actually, it cracks me up that I left this off my first list, because the author, Cami Ostman, has been my friend since we were 18years old. That’s why I left it off, in reality; it was too familiar, too much a part of the social fabric of my life. Cami introduced me to my agent, who sold my memoir The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap so quickly and so well. As with many things in our lives, she went first. (That’s an inside joke; her birthday is the day before mine.) Cami’s book is very much about her fights with herself, mentally and physically, as she goes through a divorce, takes up running, and reinvents herself. And when I read her book – which got national publicity in Oprah’s magazine, and great media reviews, and literally changed some people’s lives – what I hear is her writing a letter. It’s so Cami, I can’t see it as a book. But I’m glad that thousands of other readers can. And I suspect she’ll have the same reaction to my memoir when it comes out this October. (St. Martin’s Press is the publisher, in case you’re interested! I’m in that euphoric stage where I think the whole world is interested; don’t mind me.)

Truth and Beauty. Ann Patchett’s friendship with her fellow author and Iowa Writers’ workshop attender Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face) has ripples for any writing friends, but it’s also just a lovely read about what it means to need someone, to love someone, when neither of you can be on your best behavior. How does competition enter, end, or endure in friendship? Patchett’s book explores this. Plus, she’s my new hero since she logic-ed Stephen Colbert into silence by explaining why independent bookstores are better than and will last despite Amazon. If you haven’t seen the clip, google their names. Priceless!


Filed under book reviews, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized

Who would you rather emulate: Lee or Rowling?

Okay, writers: who would you rather be Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling?

No brainer, right? We’d rather be ourselves. That’s why we’re writers. Yes, precisely, and now that we have that established, which of these women changed the world (more, or at all)?

J.K. Rowling went from1.50 (can’t get the computer to make a pound symbol) for a pot of tea, pushing her child’s pram back and forth with one hand while pouring out words with the other in an Edinburgh tearoom, to seven mega-hit books–books so powerful, she dragged a friend of mine along in her wake.

Theresa Breslin published one of her Dreammaster books in the year that Rowling actually dipped the annual projected publishing earnings by delivering her manuscript late. Ottakar Books, a chain in the UK, put up a display with Theresa’s YA fiction, and a sign: “Going potty waiting for Harry Potter? Try this instead!” And Theresa’s well-written, charming stories of a young boy and a crotchety old non-mortal who oversees his sleeping moments shot into bestseller status as well.

Did it bug her, a woman of great talent, to be handled this way, when her writing deserved recognition in its own right, I asked Theresa as we sat over our own cups of tea in Edinburgh one afternoon. I was fully prepared to be indignant on my friend’s behalf, but “I have no regrets,” Theresa said, smiling. A brilliant, savvy and kindhearted woman, Theresa is; if you haven’t read her books, you’d enjoy them.

The point being, J.K. Rowling broke into a rigidly self-contained industry and dominated it–but good.

Then there’s Harper Lee. A friend to the damaged (Truman Capote, among others) and a quiet woman, she coalesced a generation’s confusion into one heartbreaking, eminently readable novel. Did she change the American mindset? Or did she just describe it so well that we all got ashamed of ourselves and sought to change it? It’s well-known, that pop-psych wisdom about the first step being defining the problem and wanting to get rid of it. Did Lee launch that vessel? (Didn’t Samuel Clemens do that with Huck’s raft, some 75 years before? Perhaps Lee gave it a fresh head of steam.)

Mockingbird is loosely based on events Lee witnessed as a child growing up in Alabama.

Author Joan Didion says we write to get our thoughts in order and make sense of what’s happening around us. Did Lee ride the wave, or create it? And does it matter? She never wrote anything else (at least, not that her name was put to) but what she set down is still being read and studied and analyzed and held up as the Golden Mean. And it deserves to be.

Did Rowling ride a wave, or create it? It certainly looks as though she created one: a tsunami of interest in the supernatural, neglected children, and national health service owl-frame glasses. Seven waves, each white-topped with money, each exploring ever-darker themes of what it means to be loyal, to grow up, to go from a cupboard under the stairs to the most important person in the universe yet still be a nice guy.

Lee only wrote one, and also hit instant success. She won the Pulitzer. She was lauded as the voice of a generation about to change itself. And she stopped accepting public appearances about her book.

Did America change itself? Did she help? People with white skin and people with black, people who are paid to analyze what others write and people who don’t care to analyze much of anything, would answer that question differently.

But they’d all know what To Kill a Mockingbird was about, too.

I asked the “Rowling/Lee” question of a friend at lunch the other day–a woman high-powered in her profession but not a writer–and she said instantly, “Harper Lee. Duh.”

“Not duh. Think about it,” I shot back, launching into my diatribe: the waves were too murky, the issues less black-and-white than one might think. Marketing, money, the conscience of one generation to change the world, the longing of another to be special….

After five minutes of my onslaught, my lunching friend’s brow furrowed. “Hmmm,” she said.


Filed under book reviews, humor