Ring of Fire, by Yenna Yi

Yenna

One reason I like to read memoirs and biographies is simple curiosity about other people’s lives. I even like reading memoirs that were written primarily to leave a record for children and grandchildren. Those of us who have been around for a while have seen a lot and thought about our experiences. Perhaps we’ve traveled widely or never left the county where we grew up.

Yenna Yi is one who has traveled much. In this memoir she describes growing up in Masan, a small village in South Korea, with her grandmother, mother, and cousins who joined them near the end of the Korean War. Her father died when she was one. The war and the poverty that followed it shaped her childhood, though she also recounts happy times playing with other children and shopping with her grandmother. Their one-room home was a clean and happy one.

After her first year at university, Yenna flew to Thailand for summer break to visit her mother who had remarried and moved there with her German husband. On impulse she transferred to university in Germany. There she met Steve, who would become her husband, and they eventually moved to Hawaii.

While curious about all of this, it is their life after the move to Hawaii that really fascinated me. They built a catamaran, which became home for them and their two sons for the next 12 years. They sailed around the southern part of the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped belt of volcanoes, some active, around the Pacific, taking in the costs of the Americas, Japan, the Philippines and New Zealand, with Korea barely outside.

With each island, large and small, Yenna gives us a bit of the history, some description, and a taste of their adventures: picnicking on Bora Bora, riding ponies on Niafu in the Tongan Islands, visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave on Western Samoa. I kept thinking of the children and what a magical childhood—despite gales and panicked moments at sea: wind-surfing and caving on Fiji, visiting a live volcano on Vanuatu, and skiing on Mt. Hood in New Zealand.

Eventually Yenna ended up in New England where I met her. So much living crowded into one short book! I especially loved all the photographs. Intriguing as it is, the book left me wanting to know more. And wondering if I’ve been too cautious in my own life. What a world of wonders there is out there that I, with all my traveling, have never explored!

I was interested, too, in her reflections on the effects of war and greed in the countries where she lived and visited. Those of us who live in the U.S. have been spared such experiences, but she describes things such as a once-thriving port city reduced to rubble, indigenous peoples decimated by disease and discrimination, corrupt dictators leaving their population mired in poverty.

If you’re looking for something different, something that will take you around a good part of the world and human nature, try this memoir.

Have you read a memoir that took you to other lands?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo

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Russo is one of my favorite writers. I’ve written about his first book, Mohawk. His second novel is also set in that fictional town and like the first is hilarious and true, full of flawed and damaged characters whom Russo treats with compassion even as he details their absurdities.

Ned Hall narrates the story for us. Although he uses the voice of an adult, he enters fully into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self. When he is six, Ned makes the mistake of telling people at school that his absent father was dead, thus bringing Sam Hall back into the lives of himself and his long-suffering mother. As a result, in addition to working at the phone company and raising a boy on her own, Jenny Hall has to suffer incursions that feel like raids by Sam, who manages to stay one step ahead of the local police and their restraining order. Then Sam kidnaps Ned. It’s just for an overnight fishing trip, but Jenny has no way of knowing that, and she is waiting for them with a gun.

Of course, my sympathies are with Ned’s mother, but this isn’t her story. It is Ned’s story of his tangled relationship with the father one of whose friends said “should have been issued with a warning label.” Like some New Englanders I’ve known, Sam manages to cobble together a ramshackle sort of life with seasonal jobs, unemployment, local bars, and the occasional girlfriend. His philosophy is that when things start to seem impossibly bad, something would “give”: a loan, a job, a lucky bet at the track.

Of course, what Ned really wants is for his father to love him. One of my favorite sections of the book is when Ned goes to live with his father for a few years; the culture shock is there but also the easy adaptability of a child. This coming-of-age story continues into Ned’s adulthood and beyond. Their curious relationship is epitomized by Sam’s usual “Well?”, expecting Ned to catch up on his own, without any parental guidance. Ned sees through his father, even at an early age noting the way Sam takes over a conversation about Jenny’s breakdown, and concluding “It will always be his story, about how he hadn’t believed it could be true.”

Even though Mohawk is in upstate New York, it and its denizens remind me so much of the milltowns I knew in Massachusetts that I kept forgetting where we were. It reminded me of Andre Dubus’s memoir Townie , both in its setting—in Dubus’s case Haverill, Massachusetts—and in the story’s focus on his relationship with his absent father. I also loved the way Sam’s friends, some of them stable but more of them disreputable, watch out for Ned and try to help him. This aspect of the book reminded me strongly of J. R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar. While Russo’s book is fiction, it has the strength and power of these memoirs. I admit to being a bit fascinated by these books about men and the way they are together when there are no women around. These stories depict a tenderness and a supportive web that are at odds with the stereotypes.

What coming-of-age story have you read that resonated with you?