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?

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

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I’ve written about this book before. Rereading it nine years later for my book club, I was struck by the same things I mentioned then: the factors that led to the destruction of a huge ecosystem that had developed over thousands of years. It took only a couple of years for it be ruined, for the dirt to be lifted up into great clouds that blew as far east as New York and Washington and killed people and animals who tried to stay on in what became known as the dust bowl.

My book club discussed who was at fault. Although there were some “suitcase farmers” who tore up the sod for a quick harvest and then disappeared, leaving the ground without even a cover crop, most of the farmers just wanted what anyone might want: a place to work and raise your family.

We talked about how hard it is to weigh future damage against current needs. One person mentioned talking with a friend in Nebraska who works for a farm—a huge agribusiness, as most farms are today—who said farmers today make the same choice: if prices go down, they plant more to make up for it, even knowing that increasing the supply will drive prices down even further.

We talked about the complicity of the government, encouraging people to believe that “dry farming” could work and offering incentives to get people to move to areas previously designated as desert. We also talked about greedy capitalists, like the syndicate that owned XIT ranch who didn’t care if families starved and died as long as the syndicate could pay their shareholders.

So much here resonates with what is happening in the U.S. today. As regulations and rules have been decimated by successive “pro-business” administrations, banks and businesses have gone wild, not caring who gets hurt. Their reckless actions led to the depression of 2008 and to the enormous loss of jobs—real jobs, that is, with benefits and regular hours.

As one of the book club members pointed out, another parallel is the way hard economic times bring out blatant racism, blaming black people for taking jobs that should go to white men. Egan describes the harsh rules against people of color, including the case of two black men jailed for months simply for spending a night in a town where that was not allowed and forced by the judge to dance at their hearing. He quotes speeches by politicians such as “Alfalfa Bill” Murray railing against blacks, Indians and Jews. Sound familiar?

Another parallel was the difference between Hoover’s response to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Hoover believed the cure for the Depression was to prime the pump at the producer end, helping factories and business owners get up and running again. Goods would roll off the lines, prosperity would follow. Roosevelt said it made no sense to gin up the machines of production if people could not afford to buy what came out the factory door.

Trickle-down, anyone? What none of us could understand is why these lessons from the past don’t keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Is it ignorance of what happened not that long ago? Or something darker, that as long as someone has a chance at getting a bit of money or power, he will take it, regardless of who else suffers? Yet many people pulled together in these communities to help each other out.

One thing that is different today is that during the dust bowl years, people who received government assistance—“4,000 of the 5,500 families in six counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle were getting some form of relief” from the government—recognised where help was coming from. They praised Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, “nearly a hundred thousand people in a city with less than half that population” turned out for Roosevelt’s visit to Amarillo. Instead of railing against big government, they understood that the government was keeping them alive.

As a writer, I was struck on this second reading by Egan’s extensive research and by his deft weaving of information with the personal stories of a handful of people. The combination enables us to see the big picture of what was happening in the Great Plains, from Nebraska to Texas, as well as the impact on individual people.

Have you read a nonfiction book where personal stories have helped bring the narratives to life?

Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

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My friend Laura recommended Ehrlich’s work to me, and I enjoyed Ehrlich’s novel, Heart Mountain. However, this collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence.

Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. In the short essay that opens the book, “Looking for a Lost Dog”, she starts by grounding us in concrete action: “I started off this morning looking for a lost dog.” She uses a couple of sentences to bring the dog to life, with the surprising image of a saddleshoe to describe his markings and the quick sense of ranch life from learning that his right front leg is crooked because it froze to the ground on the thirty-below-zero night he was born. Clearly the stakes are high in this environment.

Then she tells us, “I walk and I listen.” This is a good description of her modus operandi throughout the book and, indeed, for the essays that I have most loved, like Barbara Hurd’s Stirring the Mud and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These writers combine close attention to the natural world with fragments of information and memory, not randomly thrown together, but carefully crafted to challenge us to open our minds. What we take away from this mosaic may be different for each of us.

Ehrlich in this essay never strays far from her concrete experience. She remembers another time when the dog was lost, and she found him by putting her ear to the ground to listen for him whining. This leads to thinking about what the construction of our ears, their limited range, says about humans, and the memory of a musician friend talking about the music of the world, “’the great suspiration of life everywhere.’”

But then she goes back to her search and describes the falls she heads towards, the raven overhead. From then on, she leaves the narrative only for a paragraph, a sentence, but each digression adds another dimension to the experience. We have all looked for what is lost, and sometimes tried to lose what has been found. Living through this essay awakened echoes in me, that resonated with the images she conjures up, deepening into chords, creating a new and strange music.

Many of the other essays in this book also take events on the ranch as their starting place. It is a life closely tied to the weather, as her explorations of the permutations within each season make clear.

It’s spring again, and I wasn’t finished with winter. That’s what I said at the end of summer too. I stood on the ten-foot-high haystack and yelled, “No!” as the first snow fell . . . It’s spring, but I was still cataloguing the different kinds of snow: snow that falls dry but is rained on; snow that melts down into hard crusts; wind-driven snow that looks blue; powder snow on hard pack on powder . . .

Other essays take us further afield: a search for the source of the Yellowstone River, a trip to Japan to follow in Bashō’s footsteps, a visit to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands to learn about the Chumash, a culture and language pulled back from the brink of vanishing by the work of a few dedicated people. I’d never heard of the Chumash before.

For eight thousand years or more, the Chumash lived in isolation and peace. One of at least sixty tribal groups in California, they once numbered fifteen thousand. They had no neighboring enemies and no warrior cult.

Their beliefs, their history, their experiences after being discovered are seamlessly integrated into Ehrlich’s journey to San Miguel, known to the Chumash as Tuqan.

In all of these journeys, Ehrlich’s gives her close attention to her immediate experience while layering in information, quotations, and feelings. Whatever conclusions she may have reached, whatever overall pattern she has found, Ehrlich does not force a lesson on us. We are left to draw our own conclusions from sharing her journeys. As she says in the brilliant first essay about searching for her lost dog, “I walk with a purpose but no destination.” Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

What have you learned from the natural world?