Category Archives: Memoir

The Reading Promise (Alice Ozma) – Review

The reading promise : my father and the books we sharedThe Reading Promise: My Dad and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma
Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir
Format: Audio-cd
Source: Library
6 discs
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What started as a span of 100 consecutive nights of reading soon became a streak that spanned almost 8 years. In this memoir, Alice Ozma recounts her memories of growing up with her father using their reading streak as a backdrop to the stories.

The title of this book is a LIE. A big fat LIE. I picked up this audio book with the impression that the stories would center around the books they read together. Their thoughts on the books, or how the books had an effect on their lives. Instead, all I got were touching, and nostalgic memories of growing up with a single father who tried his best to raise his highly precocious daughter.

As a father-daughter memoir, this book is top-notch. As a memoir about their reading streak…it strayed from its mark. I was hoping for more chapters like Ch.18, which centered around their reading of Dicey’s Song. Most of the stories centered around Alice’s youth. At times the stories felt very self-indulgent (ie the chapter in which she discusses changing her name from Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina to just Alice Ozma. I skipped the track about halfway through…)

Other times, the stories and the moments Alice and her father shared were touching; the day Alice’s mother moved out of the house, the day her sister went abroad to Germany for a year, the day she got a C in English class, her car accident, the last day of their streak. The reading streak did help the pair broach topics and get through life’s scenarios that would have otherwise been awkward for a single father of a teenage girl. The love and commitment the two put into the streak is admirable.

Ozma read the book, and her reading is really what kept me going. I might have put the book aside otherwise. Alice’s voice is youthful, and she and she paces the reading really well. I think her dad taught her well in that respect.

I think the entire concept of their reading streak is fantastic. As a bibliophile & as a children’s librarian. It’s incredibly important for parents to read with and to their children. It fosters a love of literature, creativity, reading comprehension and analytical thought. I would love to start a tradition like this with my kids. Although I never read with my parents, they did always make a point to take me to the library every week to feed my reading addiction, and they encouraged and supported my love of reading in other ways.

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The Story of My Life (Helen Keller) – Review

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
Age: 12 & up
Genre: Autobiography
Source: my copy
Publisher: Watermill Classics, 1994 (originally 1902
ISBN: 0893753688 / 152 pages

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Most people have first learned about Helen Keller when their elementary school teacher played The Miracle Worker one day in class. That was when I first learned about Helen Keller. Although, to be honest, I didn’t know much about her other than what was represented in the movie. I knew that although she was both deaf and blind, she learned how to use sign-language to communicate with people in her life.

Reading The Story of My Life was a very inspirational and eye-opening experience for me. Although its only a brief 152 pages, I really took my time with this book, trying to value and understand the struggles she went to educate herself. I was amazed to learn that in the course of her life, Helen Keller taught herself French, German and Latin. She even learned to use her vocal chords to speak and went to college at Radcliffe.

For all of her obstacles, to be so well accomplished is amazing and also shaming, I think, on today’s society. We have so much knowledge within a touch of a button, but who really strives to educate themselves anymore? How many people try to learn something new after the required four years of college. Often, when I would tell people that I get bored because of the free time I have due to working part-time, I hear a resounding chorus of “Find another job!” Granted, I already work 2 part-time jobs, so taking on a third just seems greedy. No one suggests learning just for the sake of learning. I’m bored because my friends all work during my off-days. I’m bored, because there is a missing stimuli in my life and I don’t have anyone with which to enjoy an intelligent conversation on those days.

This year, since coming back from Europe, I’ve really made an honest effort to learn French and I’m actually doing pretty OK (reading & writing at least. My accent en Francaise is just terrible). I can’t begin to tell you how many weird looks I get from all sorts of people when I tell them that I’m learning French for fun. The whole idea of “If it’s not for work, then what’s the point of learning” seems like the wrong motivation for education. If Helen Keller can learn to read and write in three languages, why shouldn’t I be able to accomplish something similar?

The Story of My Life is full of quotes and messages that I want to copy and paste onto every social media format that I’m a part of. They’ve all struck a chord with me, and I hope they would as well with others. One in particular really stayed with me:

I have learned many things I should never have known had I not tried the experiment. One of them is the precious science of patience, which teaches us that we should take our education as we take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort. Such knowledge floods the soul unseen with a soundless tidal wave of deepening thought.

This book is a great autobiography for kids doing reports, its great for adults who feel in a funk and need some motivation to accomplish a dream or goal that keeps getting postponed.

All You Need to be Impossibly French (Helena Frith Powell) – Review

All you need to be impossibly French : a witty investigation into the lives, lusts, and little secrets of French womenAll You Need to be Impossibly French by Helena Frith Powell
Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction / Memoir
Publisher: Plume (Penguin)
ISBN: 0452287782
222 pages

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I’ll give you 1 guess as to why I picked up and read this book. One guess. Take your best shot. =)

The title is pretty self-explanatory. The book is broken down into 12 chapters. Each chapter covers a different factor of what makes up a typical French woman. The chapters cover topics from style, exercise, beauty secrets, parenting, love and love affairs.

There were many things I liked about this book, and those factors separate this book from all the other How to be French books I’ve read this past year. For one, this book focuses almost solely on French women without comparing them to women of other countries. If there were any comparisons, they were to the author’s homeland of England. It was refreshing to read a book like this that did not beat up on the American way of life (it can be taxing on the American self-esteem).

The other element I liked is that this book did not glamorize the French way of life. In fact, this book was pretty bare bones about how frivolous and superficial French women can be in regards to appearance. Told as a memoir of her years living in French, we see Helena go to a number of shops and speak with beauty and fashion experts to find out just what gives French women that je ne sais quoi. Matching underwear is a pretty key element, as is having a heavily regimented beauty routine.

The third element of the book that I liked what that Powell touched upon the differences between a Parisian woman and a French woman. I think most people like me would think they are one in the same. But that’s like comparing a New Yorker to the rest of the United States. Apples to oranges. Parisians are bred to be more fashionable and more strict in their lives than other areas of France. I noticed traces of this in France during my honeymoon. That’s why I loved the Provence region so much more than Paris. Life and style were more relaxed and easy-going. Even in Paris though, the main fashion hot-spots were by the Champs-elysees.

Reading this book somewhat dampened my desire to want to live in France. I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with the lifestyle there, not that the French make it very easy for any outsiders to live and become citizens in the country. There is lots of jumping through hoops, hoops lit on fire at that.

This book also touched upon the more taboo elements of French society, that of the expected infidelity between men and women. Most other books I’d read tended to neglect this element, focusing solely on how ardently the French love and live with passion.

Powell’s writing was endearing and funny. There were moments when I felt she was a sap for falling for the marketing ploys of “buy this and you’ll be French” in regards to the lingerie and beauty supplies. But who am I to judge? I spent far more money on beauty products than I’m proud of to look stunning for my wedding. What I liked about this book, is that Powell honestly reflects on the changes she’s made to herself to be more French, but with still keeping her British roots alive. She’s inquisitive and adventurous, but knows when to draw the line. I’d love to read other works penned by the author and she has written a plenty.

– Ciao Bella: In Search of my French Father
– More More France Please
– More France Please, We’re British: 15 Lessons on life in France
– No French Please, We’re British: 20 Lessons in Living in France
– To Hell in High Heels
– Two Lipsticks & a Lover
 

Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes) – Review

Under the Tuscan sun : [at home in Italy]Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Age: Adult
Genre: Travel Memoir
Publisher: Broadway Books. 1996
ISBN 0767900383
280 pages

3/4ths of the year, Frances Mayes works as a professor for San Francisco State University teaching writing. The rest of the time, she spends in Tuscany with her husband Ed. The two purchased an old dilapidated Bramasole building that they carefully and lovingly renovated over the course of a couple of years.

A few things:

  1. The movie of the same name is loosely based on the book. Actually, the premise that Frances Mayes bought a house and restored it to its medieval vigor is the only part of the book that transferred to the movie.
  2. Lots of foodie talk and food discussions including a lengthy chapter full of Italian and Mediterranean inspired recipes.

This is a travel journal, not really a novel or a formal memoir. Reading reviews of this book on Librarything and Goodreads, I found that most people had a love it or hate it gut reaction to the novel. I actually liked it. I was aware of the differences from the movie going into the book, so that helped me not hate it right off the bat. I love food, so I adored the food chapters and portions of the novel. My only complaint is that Mayes writes in a stream-of-consciousness style. Her thoughts meander, and her endless descriptions of the quiet, ancient towns of Italy were just really repetitive. I couldn’t keep the cities straight in my head, they all became one big blur of olive branches, and sun-soaked buildings with lots of hidden Etruscan tombs. 

I did enjoy the first half of the book more than the second half. The first half deals primarily with the renovation of the Bramasole. Then there is a chapter devoted entirely to recipes. After that, the narrative drifts into its own little world leaving the reader behind scratching their head trying to assess which fork in the road. Go right: finish the book. Go left: abandon at all costs. I decided to go right.

If you loved the movie, be wary of the book, it’s not the movie. If you love books about Italy, dream about one day buying a home in a foreign country and love poetic and overly floral descriptions of simple country living, then this is the book you.

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Book 50 of 2011

La Grand Therese (Hilary Spurling) – Review

La Grande Therese : The Greatest Scandal of…La Grand Therese by Hilary Spurling
Age: Adult
Genre: History/Biography
Publisher: Profile Books, 1999
ISBN: 186197132X
119 pages

The author of a number of French history books brings us a neatly packaged tale of one of the greatest liars and swindlers of the Belle Époque era, Therese Humbert. A girl of poor means from southern France, Therese quickly developed a talent for creative lies and story-telling that elevated her family’s status among the eyes of their community. Wracking up a number of unpaid debts, Therese and her family eventually found their way to Paris. Through Therese’s ability to craft lies, charm vendors and blend in casually to any group, her family had the honor of hosting parties for a number of political and literary dignitaries, even associated with artist Henri Matisse through marriage. However, the well woven web of lies and deceit soon begins to unravel and Therese finds herself penniless and alone in jail. Her dream castles shattered into a million pieces.

I was drawn to this book for its size as well as its main feature, Therese Humber. The book is about 119 pages and roughly 4×6 in size. Its a small book, a quick expose of Therese’s life. There isn’t much meat in the book, and I’m sure much of it was left to the author’s imagination as the bibliography sources were quite limited and there were few if any citations in the actual book. Although Therese’s life seems to be incredibly interesting, her story was not told well. I found the narrative difficult to follow at times and I still can’t figure out how her lies almost destroyed the French Third Republic. The narrative felt more like a draft or outline of what could be a really interesting and detailed account of a rags-to-riches-to-rags Cinderella story.

This book is not available in the United States

Book 45 of 2011

French Women for All Seasons (Mirelle Guiliano) – Book Review

French women for all seasons : a year of secrets, recipes & pleasureFrench Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets: Recipes & Pleasure by Mirelle Guiliano
Age: Adult
Genre: How-To / Cooking
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf, 2006
ISBN: 0307265234
350 pages

Published a year after French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mirelle Guilano returns with more insight into why the French woman is thin and healthy and why Americans are fat and lazy.

I know that’s a terribly mean synopsis, but I found Mirelle to be a little high on her horse based on the success of Why French Women Don’t Get Fat. The same elements that bugged me in French Women Don’t Get Fat, bugged me in this book. Why did I pick it up then? For the recipes. For the 10+ instructions and methods of tying a scarf. For getting another reminder of the simple changes I can make to my diet and my habits to live a healthier life.

The recipes in the book were well written, easy to follow using basic and simple ingredients. I did skim the sections of the book where Mirelle would go on and on about how the French are better than Americans. I am aware of how crappy our processed foods and addiction to high fructose corn syrup is. All I really wanted from this book was the recipes, but I was pleased to see the various sections of scarf tying. If French women are known for nothing else, it is their love of scarves. That was something I saw aplenty when in Paris in April. So many different methods of tying scarves too! I love the way the book is divided into different seasons, with a week’s worth of menu options at the end of each chapter.

Living in California, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, I tend to forget how different the rest of the nation is from my little hub. I love going to farmer’s markets, to experimenting with food, walking, exploring, etc. I sometimes forget that the rest of the nation doesn’t have all the same options and variety that I have here. It is something I shouldn’t take for granted. California is one of those special states with a plethora of climates that make it a fantastic place to grow fruits and veggies. My husband even has a garden growing on our apartment balcony: basil, mint, tomatoes, oregano, rosemary, parsley,  green beans, bell pepper, etc. We are always picking leaves and sprigs from the containers to add to our meals. It’s not difficult to eat healthier. In a little over two years, I went from eating corn dogs for dinner, to making crock-pot dishes, and eating game hen at restaurants. Food is supposed to be fun and nourishing, not something to worry about.

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Book 38 of 2011

 Book 4

French Milk (Lucy Knisley) – Review

French milkFrench Milk by Lucy Kinsley
Age: Adult
Genre: Graphic Novel + Travel Memoir
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2007
ISBN: 9781416575344
194 pages
 

Part memoir and part drawings and scribbles, Lucy Knisley’s work takes us through the 6 weeks she spent with her mother in an apartment in Paris shortly after Christmas.

I’m not quite sure if the age difference (I’m 28, and Lucy is 22 in the book) or the fact that I’ve read a million Parisian travel memoirs this year, but this book is neither here nor there for me. Its funny, Lucy has a quirky sense of humor. But I found the book on a whole to be pointless. She either misses her boyfriend or constantly checks her e-mail. I found the book to be somewhat shallow with cutesy illustrations to soften the blow. I did appreciate Lucy’s visual inventory of all the food she and her mom ate during their stay. Its something I wish I paid more attention during my stay.This book would serve as a good resource for restaurant hunters in Paris.

Lucy spent more time whining about being homesick than enjoying the city. Its not the best way to start a travel memoir than with the perspective that the author would rather not be traveling. There was no introspective views into the culture differences, or even interactions with anyone other than her mother. I expected more from this book, especially when Lucy mentioned that this was her second time in the city of lights.

Its a light read, 193 pages and mostly illustrations. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone older than 25.

Follow Lucy’s Blog/Illustrations

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Book 37 of 2011
 
 

French Impressions (John Littell) – Review (Paris in July)

French impressions : the adventures of an American familyFrench Impressions: The Adventures of an American Family by John Littell
Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir
Location: Paris
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2002
ISBN: 9780451205346
368 pages

Written in a narrive based on the publishing writing and diaries of Mary Littell, her son John uses her voice to tell us the story of a year in their life, from July 1950 to July 1951, when his family moved from the United States to Montpellier in Southern France. Full of wacky antedotes about bumbling Americans in a foreign land, the novel is not only a story about France, but a post-war family trying something new in their life.

For the most part, I found this book to be really amusing. Other times, I felt it was very self-indulgent and flat. Mary Littell is a 1950s housewife, following her husband on his lifelong dream to live in France. Takng their two children with them, four year old John and 15 month of Stephen, the family, despite their best attempts, never fully manage to blend in with the French way of life.

What I loved most about this book is that it is a look into a life of a typical family in the 1950, an era I have an unhealthy obsession with at times. In a time before TV, before technology entered people’s lives, the family had only themselves and their imagination to rely on for entertainment. John’s father, Frank, always had a witty song ready for any moment of the day. Both Frank and Mary were well read and full of literary references made in sly and clever remarks. John is a sponge for the French language, and Stephen seems to only cry and cry all day and all night long. Written by John, I can’t help but wonder if he perhaps embellished his brother’s crying episodes at times. He was only 4 when the family lived in France, I wonder how much he actually remembers.

I think its wonderful he had access to his mother’s diaries of their time in France as well as her published articles about their exploits. I like this book because it is opposite of every other American in France book I have read. It is an honest account that just sometimes, France is not the country for the masses, no matter how hard they try to learn the customs and language to fit it. I felt sorry for Mary’s inability to grasp the language, relying on her son to translate. I felt bad for Frank, who spoke fluet French and would perhaps have had a grander time san la famile. I liked that French words were sprinkled throughout the book, and I think its amazing that they were able to see so much of the country during their time there.

This book may not be the France-won-my-heart type of memoir, but it is a special remembrance of a more simple time long gone.

Book 30 of 2011

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Lunch in Paris (Elizabeth Bard) – Review

Lunch in Paris : a love story, with recipesLunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir
Location: Paris
Source: Public Library
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company,2010
ISBN: 9780316042796
324 Pages

Lunch in Paris is not your typical love story. Lunch in Paris is about the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of being an American living in France. We follow Elizabeth’s life from when she first meets Gwendal to their dates, the proposal, the wedding, and life afterward. Their romance is not the center of the story. Elizabeth butts heads with France, she has a love affair with the food, carefully honing in cooking skills from her daily trips to the market. Carefully and thoughtfully woven throughout the chapters are Elizabeth’s insecurities, hesitations, successes and problems with assimilating into the French culture.

I connected with Elizabeth from the very moment she described herself as a “bit of an old-fashioned girl. I feel good in old places.” (page 6). As well as someone who was “born in the wrong century.” (page 19). I can’t say I’ve never felt the same based on my tastes in music, hobbies, movies and art. I felt she was very honest with her struggles in Paris. It seems to be every girl’s dream to fall in love with a charming, dashing Frenchman who just happens to be a good cook to boot. To get married and live in a little bohemian love bungalow with the Eiffel Tower in view from across the distance. Elizabeth fills us in on what happens after that happily ever after moment. The truth about the struggles of living in another continent from your family and friends and trying to start a brand new life.

I could readily identify with Elizabeth’s torn self between American and Parisienne. Although she sheds  a certain amount of American traits (talking loudly everywhere, buying less than quality foods, rushing through meals, etc.) there are some habits and rights of Americans that are not available in other countries. The right to a second, third or fourth medical opinion, the ability to get married and work in the country without any restrictions, optimism and a can-do attitude, the ability to rethink and reuse objects for something other than their intended use. Although France is highly cultured, part of that is the strict adherence to the mentality of stasis.

At the end of each chapter, Elizabeth pens a couple of recipes that she had discussed during the chapter. Food and cooking very important to her, as they were the stepping stones of her entrance into the French life. From her first introduction to her then boyfriend’s closest family and friends, to her ability to improve her French and order meat like a pro at the butcher’s. What I like about the recipes is that I already own most of the ingredients in my pantry. They are regular pantry herbs and spices and only the proteins used would require any extra effort to locate, even that effort is limited. The recipes are a mix of traditional French, recipes of Elizabeth’s Jewish heritage, and sometimes a cross between the two styles, with a little American classic comfort foods thrown into the mix. She begins each recipe with a little paragraph explaining its origin as well as how to change certain ingredients to get a more personal and unique flavor from the dish.

Book 29 of 2011

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  Book 3

Bossypants – Review

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Bossypants by Tina Fey
Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir

This memoir/autobiography by Tina Fey is really a series of essays detailing some of the more memorable akward moments in her life from  her childhood in Chicago to her rise in fame. Tina Fey takes us through the backroads of her life in and out of the spotlight. Written as a series of essays detailing various aspects of her life, Fey lets down her guard. Her breezy writing style, one-liner jokes and a slight spattering of childhood photos has the feel of an intimate side-by-side chat with the actress.

As much as I loved this book, there was still so much that I wanted after I finished each chapter. There were many hot button topics that she lightly brushed on with her trademark wit, but never really got any deeper than that. Although I felt like I was having a side-by-side talk with the actress when reading the book, I still felt like she was holding back.

I came across this breakdown on another review of this book on Librarything, and I thought it accurately captured the breakdown of Bossypants:

46% Celebrity memoir
28% Essay collection
12% Feminist manifesto
9% Stand-up routine
5% Self-help manual

Some of the topics that she covered in her book were homosexuality, her Sarah Palin impersonation, a honeymoon cruise from hell and the difficulties for female comedians in show business. I’m not really sure what the overarching message is from the book other than something close to “girl power.” There is no chronological order to the book, as each chapter jumps topics and is a mix of funny bits and stories. There were a few moments where I felt she dragged on certain topics and it came across as slightly preachy. There were moments in her career that I had hoped she would expand on, but never really got to, such as her work as a writer on SNL. As much as I admire Tina Fey’s hardwork climbing up the ladder to commercial success, this book still left me unsatisfied.

Bossypants
By Tina Fey
Little, Brown & Co, 2011
ISBN 9780316056861
277 pages
Book 21 of 2011
 
 
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Bossypants