Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris

An ardent reader who still remembers the glorious moment when I first decoded the black marks in a Golden Book and found a story waiting for me, I love books. And I love books about books.

This is the first of several essay collections from Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar and a founding editor of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. The essays here are about books—loving books, living with them, building castles with them.

In the first selection, Fadiman describes the hilarious and tender process of marrying her and her husband’s libraries after five years of marriage. First they had to negotiate how the books would be placed on the shelf. Like Fadiman, I organize my books by nationality and subject matter, while her husband lumped all under the heading Literature. And George could have been talking to me when he gasped and said, “‘You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?’”

But it was having to give up duplicate copies that brought home to Fadiman that they “had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.” She realized that taking this giant step meant that they were “stuck together for good.”

One essay explores inscriptions in books given as gifts while another hilariously exploits the charm and eccentricity of footnotes. To me, the most moving selection is about her father’s library, evoking memories of my own childhood. My love affair with books started early and quickly grew from valuing them as transportation devices to appreciating them as physical objects.

Like Fadiman, I look at bookshelves in homes I visit. She says, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.”

In the realm of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays have one foot in the province of memoir and the other in narrative nonfiction. By including personal details, they share some of the power of memoir and the way it welcomes the reader in. At the same time, they can convey bits of knowledge like tasty morsels hidden in a cake.

Fadiman is particularly adept at bringing in abstruse and amusing bits of information. Before now, I didn’t know that “Galileo compared Orlando Furioso to a melon field, Coventry Patmore compared Shakespeare to roast beef, and Edward Fitzgerald compared Thucydides to Parmesan cheese.” Nor did I know that William Gladstone invented the system of rolling bookshelves used in Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and other places, including some archives I’ve explored.

Most of all, though, the personal essay is a story and, as such, takes the reader on a journey. The journey may end in an epiphany or a comforting hug or a sad acceptance, but always in a satisfying way. Each of these small journeys rewards the reader with insights, images, and a chuckle or two.

What book about books have you read?

Home, Edited by Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer

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A friend gave me this enjoyable collection of essays, subtitled American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own. Each author takes a room as a starting point for remembering: the porch, the hallway, the dining room, the closet, and so on.

This structure is similar to a writing exercise I use in my memoir classes. I invite the participants to think about a room in their house, perhaps the living room or their bedroom. Then I ask them to stand in the center and mentally do a 360° turn around it, noting the pieces of furniture, the various objects on them, the pillows, the curtains, the pictures on the wall. Select one and tell the story of how it came into your life.

From there, I say, follow the trail of memories. Writing a memoir is like being one of those clowns pulling a silk handkerchief from your sleeve. It’s attached to another handkerchief, and that to another, and you keep pulling and pulling until you have a huge heap of linked hankies. Memories work that way. Once you start pulling on one, you’d be surprised how much it brings along with it, a bit at a time or all at once.

Here, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recollection of his childhood living room brings with it the solidarity of seeing any person of color on television—each siting was an event to be yelled out to the neighborhood. And then the television brings the drama of the Civil Rights Movement into their lives: watching the news “to see what ‘Dr. King and dem’ were doing”, watching black children walking up to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

Alex Kotlowitz uses “The Boys’ Room” to describe his relationship with his brother. It is a place apart in the first-floor apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The boys make forts and play at war. They raise hamsters, gerbils and turtle doves. They wrestle and box, all without adult intervention. Through all their fighting, though, there is a thread of caring and protection. They watch out for each other in little ways and big.

Given the allusion to Virginia Woolf, I expected these brief memoir pieces to relate somehow to the author’s writing life. The introduction by Sharon Sloan Fiffer does, relating how she would hide on the sixth stair down to listen to her parents and sometimes her older brother talk and argue as grown-ups do when the little ones are in bed. Then she relays these stories to her five-year-older next-door neighbor Nora. Trying to keep the older girl interested and therefore willing to let Sharon hang around, she learns when to tighten up a story and when to embroider it. She hones her comedic timing. Most of all, she learns to listen, not just to her parents and brother to gather material, but also to Nora, her audience to see how her story is going over.

The other essays don’t seem to go in this direction, but it doesn’t matter. They are heartfelt and true. They tell stories of other times and places. Most of all they tell about the families with whom we share these spaces, the love that lurks in every corner, and the memories that bind us together.

Look around your home and select one object. How did it come into your life, and what does it mean to you?

Timeout: 1968

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I’ve been thinking a lot about 1968. For one thing, I’m on the campus where I landed that year. Remembering what it felt like: all our dreams, all our resolves. Life was different back then. Rules on top of rules: no going barefoot, 10:15 curfews, sororities and fraternities, in loco parentis.

All that was a long time ago. Hard to believe I could be such a long way from 18.

There were drugs then, sure. My kids, when we had the drug talk said, “Your generation was so naïve about drugs.” and they were right. We never thought about adulteration, at least the people I knew. Or even about addiction. We wanted not oblivion, but the universe. We hoped we’d come to understand infinity. That’s what I hoped, anyway. I don’t know about the others, but I began to take myself apart and see where strength lay and vulnerability and love.

But we also lost so much that year. Martin. Robert. My heart still aches over the possibilities that were gunned down that spring.

This world could have been so different.

And on this campus too. We lost Hiro who might have pushed us further into the light. And me, I lost the place I loved more than anything, the only place where I felt I could be myself. When the call came I walked out into the darkness. I fetched up against a tree before I made it to the highway and learned something new about how to go on.

I know some people, like my parents, thought the country teetered on the edge of destruction in 1968, as our boomer-energy pushed for more than anyone wanted to grant us. I can sympathise now, but back then it seemed so obvious. Peace. Love your neighbor as yourself. Help those around you. Tread gently on our mother earth. Have a care for the future.

It was a rare time, fine as a beeswing.

People say we sold out, but the reality is that we still believe these things. We have kept faith with the vision.

We are still here. And we know how to speak out.

Life Work, by Donald Hall

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This slim book is part memoir, part meditation on the role of work in our lives from Donald Hall, who died this week. He and his wife Jane Kenyon moved from Michigan to his grandparents’ farm in 1975, giving up stable teaching jobs for the uncertain income of freelance writers.

Like Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” where he describes his father digging in the garden outside the window where Heaney sits writing, Hall compares his beloved work laboring with words to the more physical work of his grandparents. One thing he finds in common is that they do different tasks all day, unlike those who labor at repetitive jobs.

Hall gives us engrossing accounts of this grandfather’s work in the fields and barn and his grandmother’s work in garden and kitchen. He himself moves from one poem to another, one prose piece to another. He runs errands and handles the myriad tasks associated with the business of being a writer.

Writers are often asked about their routine. When do you write? Where and for how long? Do you write longhand or on the computer? Hall gives us answers to these questions, for both good days and bad days.

More importantly he addresses the bigger questions. What are you going to do? What do you dream of doing? What would be an authentic life for you? As Mary Oliver says in “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What his work and his grandparents’ work have in common is that they induce a particular state of mind. Asked by novelist Gurcharan Dar what contentment is, Hall answers, “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.” It is Dar who comes up with a term for this state: absorbedness.

Leisure or a life dedicated to enjoyment is ultimately not fulfilling. As John Fowles noted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the curse of the Victorian upper class was boredom. With no work to do, both men and women often entertained themselves to death—or near-death—through gambling, drugs, overeating, imagined illnesses, and so on.

Absorbedness is an answer to the question Fowles raises: When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

When asked by Hall about the secret of life, Henry Moore answered, “‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!'”

Hall’s meditations on work are sprinkled among accounts of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, his travels with Jane, the birth of grandchildren, the recurrence of his cancer, and his preparations for his possible death during surgery for that cancer.

I’m reminded of the Canadian film Last Night which follows several people on what will be their last night since everyone knows the world will end at midnight. The choices different characters make are funny and sad. Do you simply sit in despair waiting for midnight? Do you riot, or drink, or fulfill a longheld ambition to have sex with your high school French teacher?

I asked my son what he would choose for his last night. He described what was then a typical Sunday for us: sitting around the fire together reading and taking turns working the crossword puzzle. Similarly, Hall describes his best day as one filled with work and loving moments with Jane.

What would your best day look like?

White Dog, by Romain Gary

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A friend loaned me this out-of-print book after we’d had a discussion about race in the United States. The story takes place in 1968 and was published two years later in France and the U.S.

A Russian émigré to France, Gary was at that time the French consul general, living in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and civil rights activist Jean Seberg, their son and several pets.

One day their sweet-natured dog brings home a new friend, a German Shepherd who seems not only gentle but extremely intelligent. All goes well until a man arrives to clean the pool—a man who happens to be black—and the dog erupts into a vicious rage.

Gary eventually discovers that this dog whom he loves and who adores him is in fact a white dog, that is, a dog who has been trained and bred to attack black people and only black people. Such dogs were used at the time by law enforcement in the South, and also as protection by whites who feared a violent black uprising—a possibility that was certainly in the air in 1968.

Though he claims to be a cynical man, Gary is seized by a rare moment of hope and resolves to train the dog not to hate anymore. Perhaps he can prove that social behavior can be unlearned, not just by this dog, but by the country itself, which has been seized by paroxysms of rage, rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the resulting riots.

He takes the dog to a ranch owned by a friend of his who trains animals for the movies. A black keeper there, who is expert at milking venom from snakes, makes retraining the dog his personal mission.

Gary brings a European perspective to the issues of race that were roiling the country in 1968, a time I remember only too well. Mocking non-violent activists, he circles around the idea of violence as a solution. One of his close friends is black Muslim leader calling for war against the whites—the real thing, not a metaphor. At the same time, Gary mocks the liberals—including his wife who’s become involved with funding the Black Panthers—for their posturing and ineffectual swipes at the problem.

He is not ashamed to reveal his proclivity for running away from difficult situations and spends much of the book traveling. At one point he returns to Paris in time to egg on the students rioting in the streets.

I was dismayed to discover that this supposed memoir is in fact something Gary called a fictionalized memoir. To my mind, there is no such thing. Memoirs are nonfiction, so if it is fiction then it is not a memoir.

Deliberately fictionalizing things in what is supposed to be a memoir does a disservice to all memoirs. Their power comes from the fact that they are true. Certainly it is a particular person’s truth—and we all know how different that can be from one person to another—and they have been shaped by what is included and what is left out. Still, they carry the force of personal witness.

My opinion of this book went down when I learned that it was not true. I am not alone in my dismay at the mixing of fiction and memoir. Look at the howl of betrayal over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Still, it was enlightening to revisit that explosive year, and to compare it to today’s social justice movements.

Have you read a book, seen a film, or attended a lecture that has given you a different perspective on issues around race?

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, by Amy Dickinson

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There are many reasons to write a memoir: to work through a personal trauma, to leave a record for your family, to try to understand how you’ve gotten to this place in your life, to name just a few. Not all such memoirs are appropriate for publication, or in fact written with publication in mind.

While it’s true that for a few years there were quite a few illness and grief memoirs published that were thought to be useful to others suffering similar calamities, that time has passed. With such a glut of what my friend calls “woe-is-me” memoirs, publishers and the reading public look for something more than a sad story.

To be commercially published today, memoirs must be well-written—always a priority!—and addressing some larger social issue, something that the general public will find interesting. Take, for example, Hillbilly Elegy which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. True, it had a bit too much woe-is-me for my taste, but it hit the mark commercially by telling the inside story of what it’s like to grow up in the white working class in an environment where there’s not much work anymore.

You’re probably already raising your hand and saying, “But what about . . .?” Yes, the exception to this rule is a memoir by a celebrity. Fame is a peculiar sort of intimacy, where we feel we know someone from their shows or books, but at the same time know that we don’t know them at all. I recently devoured The Memory of All That, a memoir by Betsy Blair’s memoir of her marriage to Gene Kelly. As a huge fan, I was relieved to find him portrayed as the truly decent man I’d thought him.

Dickinson’s memoir wins on all three counts. Roughly chronological, the story flows well, written in forthright prose sweetened by a generous dose of humor. While pulling no punches in telling her own story, Dickinson invites us to look at families and small-town life, how we are different and how we are the same. And as the author of the syndicated “Ask Amy” column and a regular on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me . . . !, she has a legion of fans already.

And did I say it was funny? I actually laughed aloud, startling the cat into bolting from the room. Most of the humor is directed at herself and her own foibles, but she doesn’t hesitate to bring out the quirks in those around her. She says of her mother:

One of Jane’s primary modes of home decorating was to saw the legs off of things. You’d go upstairs to bed at night, and in the morning when you came back downstairs, the kitchen table had become a coffee table. Growing up, we got used to it.

People in my memoir classes often ask how to handle criticising family or friends. They want to tell their story honestly but avoid hurting or offending other people. I believe the key is to respect their privacy as much as possible and, when you have to show them in a bad light, do it with love. Try to understand why they behaved as they did. One factor in The Glass Castle’s success was the way Jeannette Walls told us all the horrible things her parents did, yet she always spoke of them with love and explained their reasoning.

In this book, Dickinson is generous and truly writes from love, even about her ne’er-do-well father who not only abandoned the family but sold off all their assets and absconded with the money.

When you need a laugh or reassurance that life can be crazy and good at the same time, pick up this book. It is an excellent read: honest, plain-spoken, and full of the humor found in daily life.

Can you recommend a warm and humorous book? Or share a joke?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

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As often happens when I get around to reading a much-hyped book, I was disappointed by this best-selling memoir. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town whose once-robust steel industry attracted many folks from Kentucky. Now a Yale-educated lawyer, his childhood was one of poverty, violence, drugs, and chaos—which he says is common in what he calls his hillbilly culture.

While he acknowledges the effect of a failing economy, Vance also says these evils are embedded in his culture. This balanced look at what holds people in poverty–both society’s structural problems and personal failings–is why the book appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Vance is the first to deny that he “pulled himself up by his bootstraps”–the conservatives’ solution–and to assert that it won’t help to simply spend more money on programs (jobs, training, etc.)–the liberals’ solution.

The major claim admiring reviewers make for this book is that it is, as Jennifer Senior in The New York Times puts it, “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Yet Vance himself is careful to say in his introduction that he is writing about a specific “group of people I know—working-class whites with ties to Appalachia.” It’s dangerous to assign a singular character to all the members of a group, and there has been pushback against Vance’s characterisation of all hillbillies as violent, unwilling to work, patriotic and proud while succumbing to welfare dependency and/or drug addiction. As one commenter on Rod Dreher’s interview with Vance said:

I worked as an ER nurse for several years in a mountainous region of upstate NY with lots of white poor people. There was also a small (less than 5%) population of poor black people. I saw the same pathologies in both groups of people: alcoholism, joblessness, domestic violence, broken families, drug overdoses, etc. I also saw people busting their butts working 2-3 jobs, going to church, and doing their best in very difficult situations . . .

As she asserts, there are plenty of “working-class whites with ties to Appalachia” who don’t fit Vance’s stereotype. And like her, some reviewers noted that the problems Vance sees for whites are similar to those that have long been faced by poor people of color.

I was mostly interested in the relatively brief sections of analysis in Vance’s book. The rest of the book is his account of his childhood and becomes what one friend of mine calls “another woe-is-me story”. The physical and emotional abuse is tremendous and I certainly feel for the child, but the unrelenting focus on his own hardships turns the other people in his story into one-dimensional stereotypes. His sister is an angel who protects him. His mother, a violent drug addict, seems deranged. Although they can be violent as well, his grandparents are always fiercely loving toward him. There is no attempt to understand the nuances of these people or the forces acting on them. Of course, one expects a child to be self-centered and not understand much about others, but Vance is writing this as an adult looking back.

What Vance does do very well, though, is to open himself up. He shares his fears and failures and weaknesses, something that’s awfully hard to do, but necessary if you want a memoir to work.

While the superficiality of the characters and the “woe-is-me” preoccupation disappointed me, I was more disturbed by his double standard. He’s extremely critical of people who take welfare, but is himself grateful to go to college on taxpayers’ money and to law school on scholarship. It’s okay for him to take handouts but not for others.

He has bought the conservative fantasy that people on welfare and food stamps are living high on the hog. Having been on welfare, I find this laughable. Vance is certain that undeserving people on welfare are getting much more than he is, citing his jealous anger that people on welfare had cell phones while he didn’t. Apparently he is not aware of programs that provide cell phones to poor people. His anger would be better directed at his mother for taking drugs and cycling through boyfriends and husbands instead of providing for him and his sister. What welfare does do–in its meager and grudging way–is to provide a little stability for vulnerable families, something that would have benefited his family.

He also trots out the urban legend of seeing someone on food stamps buying a steak, a favorite story among conservatives many of whom claim to have seen this with their own eyes or know someone who has. If it really did happen—and as someone who was on food stamps for several years, I find it extremely unlikely—and if he took a moment to think about it, he would realise that with less than $23 for an entire week’s worth of food, anyone buying a steak is going to be starving the rest of the week.

I do agree with him about the mix of structural obstacles (e.g., failing economy, shortage of good jobs) and the lack of what he calls individual agency. I call it personal responsibility. However, his path is not a solution for every child suffering in poverty, as another commenter on the interview quoted from above says:

Whether the kids are black, Hispanic, white, or Asian, the same dictum applies: if your solution to get the next generation out of poverty is be extremely smart, work incredibly hard at school, ignore temptations to stop working hard at school, and to take on thousands in debt or owe years to the military in order to get a 4 year degree, then you have no solution. Solutions can’t require extraordinary people. They have to work for ordinary people.

Vance is right to be proud of his accomplishments. And I agree with his recommendations for helping others to succeed. They are similar to those I made in my own memoir of poverty: instead of segregating the poor in ghettos, give them the opportunity to mingle with all levels including the middle class; make sure there are mentors who will help them envision a different future, believe it is possible, and then achieve it. He adds that the definition of family alternatives to foster care should be expanded to include grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I love that Vance credits those who helped him on his way: his grandparents, the Marine Corps, his sister, his aunt and uncle, teachers, and friends. As he says, “There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance.”

The beauty of memoir is that it enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Many people have found this memoir a valuable look at what is to them an unfamiliar culture. It’s always a bit dangerous to assume that your experience can exemplify an entire culture. Nevertheless, this book adds to the discussion of poverty in the United States.

What memoirs have introduced you to another way of life?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

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Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?