Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Life Is In Your Hands (memoir)

In times of overload, I've joked about going to live "off the grid." Don't most of us, just once in a while, fantasize of abandoning the stress and frustration of modern, busy life in favor of something simpler, of getting back to basics? So when I read a book review of this new memoir recently about a family who did just that, I was intrigued. Plus, you know I have a weakness for a good memoir.

In 1968, Eliot and Sue Coleman, a young, idealistic east coast couple, both from white collar, middle class families, decided to shed materialism and modern living, with all its conveniences and pitfalls, and live by the fruits of their own labors, indebted to no one. They were part of a growing movement at the time of "back to the landers" or "homesteaders," people who were choosing to literally go off the grid and live off the land. The Colemans dreamed of a simpler and more fulfilling life, believing that being completely self-sufficient by way of living as completely as possible by the results of their own hard labor would be far more rewarding than living a typical modern life tied to materialism, economy, and unhealthful living. For $2,000 they bought sixty acres of land from Helen and Scott Nearing, natural living gurus at the time, who cultivated quite a following with their books, Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life. The young Colemans built a small house on their land with their own hands for $680, with no electricity or running water, and that would be their home for the next ten years.

The author, the Coleman's first child, born in that small cabin shortly after its completion, recounts her early childhood, growing up on that land, far away from modern society, as her parents cultivated what would become a very successful organic farm. Their idyllic life gradually gives way to its own strains and hardships, and finally tragedy, as the Coleman's second daughter, the author's younger sister, drowns in the pond her father dug for irrigation. You know from the beginning of the book that the baby sister drowns; it's just a matter of learning when. Soon after, an already strained marriage comes to a bitter end, and the author's mother retreats into depression. Finally, their "good life" on the farm comes to an end.

If there's any lesson to be had from all of this, it's that life follows you wherever you go.

Well worth the read.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Shape of the Eye (memoir)

The Shape of the Eye by George Estreich

A few weeks ago, in my email inbox was an email from a man I'd never heard of before, asking me if I would be willing to read a book he wrote and recently had published, and to write a review here on Book Lust. I still don't know how he stumbled upon my book blog, and I was flattered that a bona fide author would think that anything I had to say about a book might actually carry some weight with anyone. Without hesitation, I agreed to read and review his book because I was flattered to be asked, because I like the idea of having any sort of contact with an actual author (being a wannabe writer myself), but mostly because the subject matter of his book is near and dear to me.

I have read numerous memoirs about having a child with Down syndrome. The Shape of the Eye is, hands down, the best one I've read. Where Jennifer Graf-Groneberg's Road Map to Holland was a lifeline to me in the days and weeks immediately following my son Finnian's birth, diagnosis of Down syndrome, and major surgery as a newborn, soothing me and assuring me that the grief I was feeling was normal and that it would pass in time, The Shape of the Eye examines that grief, without judgment.

Like so many parents of children with Down syndrome, George Estreich and his wife were shocked by their second daughter's diagnosis soon after her birth, and like so many of us, they found themselves suddenly thrust into the alien territory of raising a child who is different, who is largely, in an abstract way, seen as defective by society. His book, which he spent nearly a decade doing research for and writing, is a personal, heartfelt, often witty, account of raising a child with Down syndrome. More than that, however, it is also a historical account of what has shaped our attitudes about Down syndrome - the truths, half-truths, non-truths, contradictions, and paradoxes. This is a book not only about Down syndrome, but about family, and ethnicity, preconceived notions, and what it means to belong.

Mr. Estreich, a stay-at-home dad and a poet by profession, is an extremely gifted writer. I could not stop turning the pages and throughout the book often felt as if I could easily sit down with him over coffee and shoot the shit about Down syndrome, about parenting, about family, about life.

Five stars. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Autobiography of a Face (memoir)

It's funny . . . I picked up a paperback edition of this book a couple of years ago and, like so many books I buy (buying books is a vice with me), it sat on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, untouched, while I made my way through dozens of other books. Eventually I did a book purging, as I occasionally do, attempting to honestly assess the likelihood of my ever actually reading each book sitting on my to-be-read shelf. This one was given away with a stack of other books, never having been opened by me.

Then my book club chose Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett for this month's discussion, and my interest in Autobiography of a Face was rekindled. Now I wanted to know more about this Lucy Grealy, the friend Ann Patchett wrote about, and the book that made Lucy famous. Fortunately, I didn't have to re-buy the book; a friend had a copy and graciously sent it to me. I started it yesterday morning and finished it right at dinnertime today. Yes, it was that absorbing; I couldn't put it down.

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

Diagnosed at age 9 with a rare form of cancer, Lucy went through a long, hellish ordeal of radiation and chemo, as well as an operation to remove the cancerous tumor from her face, which also necessitated removing a large portion of her lower jaw, leaving her disfigured. What followed were years and years of failed reconstructive surgeries and a self-loathing, both for being what she perceived as ugly, and for allowing herself to be so weak as to care that she was ugly.

What I found so engrossing was how deeply introspective she seemed to be at all times. Whether she actually was so clear of thought as a child experiencing the things she later writes about, or whether the insights only came to her later as she wrote of her experiences, it's hard to know, but in any case, her book is extremely reflective and insightful. A lot of it resonated with me, also, in the sense that she expresses very movingly how the aftermath of cancer can sometimes be more difficult, more painful, than cancer and cancer treatment themselves, and just how tied one's physical and/or aesthetic condition is to one's sense of worth.

When I read Truth & Beauty, I did not like the person Ann Patchett wrote about as her friend, Lucy Grealy. I feel like I have a much better understanding of Lucy now, and finally the compassion - and even admiration - I was unable to find for her when I was reading T & B. I really think that Ann Patchett's book should not be read without also reading Autobiography of a Face.

Movie Review: The Help

When a movie comes out based on a book that my book club has read, we like to get a group together to go see the movie. This past Friday night, a handful of us went to see The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel, which quickly became a bestseller and a book club fave. Without being redundant and giving a synopsis of the story again (which you can read here in my review of the book), I will say that the movie was very good - better than I thought it would be. I was expecting a sort of shallow, aesthetically pleasing version that only skimmed the surface of the original story; I don't know why, except that the movie poster gives the impression of light-heartedness and not drama or emotion. The movie was great, though: the characters were all believable (Ron Howard's daughter, Dallas Howard, did an amazing job as the horrible Hilly Holbrook), and the sets, costumes and script were authentic. I think this movie could stand on its own even without having read the book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Face of Hope (memoir)

Face of Hope by Carol Guscott

On an ordinary day in July of 1994, Carol Guscott went to work at her lumber yard in her native Jamaica, where two men attacked her, pouring battery acid in her eyes and on her face, leaving her blind and disfigured. This is her story in her own words of coming to America searching for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Over the course of many years, she faced the anguish of looking different, of learning to live without sight, of undergoing dozens of surgical procedures, and all the while, barely scraping by financially but for the charity of others through her own fundraising efforts and word of mouth. Through it all, she maintains an unshakable faith that God is looking after her, and her ordeal and trials serve a larger purpose.

In all honesty, this is not a book I would have sought out. It was given to me by the author herself, who is a friend of a friend, and she asked me to read it and review it on my blog and just generally get the word out so other people will read it. While I appreciate her perseverance in the face of so much adversity, the heavily faith-based flavor is not something that appeals to me, nor am I swayed to "see God at work in the course of my life," as she entreats her readers to do in the book's introduction. I think being so heavy on Christian faith, this book is limited to a very niche audience: like-minded Christians.

Nevertheless, read it and decide for yourself; it might just be your cup of tea.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (memoir)

What is especially unique about this memoir is that it's not anyone's life story, or even, really, an anecdote from somebody's life, as memoirs so often are. If this book could have another appropriately descriptive title, it might be Autobiography of a Friendship.

Still, it's not a typical friendship. It's the story - really, the complete life cycle, from beginning to end - of the friendship between the author, Ann Patchett, and Lucy Grealy, best known for her book, Autobiography of a Face, which recounts her experience with a rare cancer with which she was diagnosed in childhood which left her severely disfigured, and the physical and emotional aftermath. Ann and Lucy met in college, but it wasn't until they became roommates while attending postgraduate school that the friendship between them was really born. Spanning almost two decades, during which both women become bestselling writers, always underlying the friendship is Lucy's desperate, nearly suffocating need for love, acceptance, and adoration, and ultimately, her self-destructive behavior that ends the friendship with absolute finality.

Knowing the ongoing ordeal Lucy existed under as a result of her childhood cancer, I wanted to have compassion for her, and if looking at her through a black and white lens, it's very easy to chalk up her "issues" to her being so victimized by circumstances beyond her control. Just below the surface of obviousness, though, was a person I found very difficult to actually like. She was manipulative, selfish, demanding, insensitive, narcissistic, and irresponsible.

This is not an uplifting read, but it is very thought-provoking. In addition to the spotlighted theme of friendship, threaded throughout the story are themes like perception, beauty, addiction, codependency, enabling, and the price of unconditional love. Lots to ponder.