REVIEW of an UNFORGETTABLE MEMOIR
I picked up a copy of Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive at JFK, starting a cross-country flight home just as Black History Month was drawing to a close. Somewhere over Kansas I finished it, wishing for a sequel.
Trethewey spells out immediately, in this brave and beautiful little book, that she is writing about her mother’s murder. So we know it’s not a happy story. But in that same introduction — a dream recalled — her lyrical prose assures us we will be uplifted, rather than weighted down by the tragedy.
Memorial Drive the thoroughfare is a major artery of suburban Atlanta and was the address of Trethewey’s last home with her mother. It’s also a pathway for the reader’s travel.
Memorial Drive the memoir is an eloquent coming-of-age story that explores the complexities of being Black and especially of being bi-racial in the U.S. Trethewey’s early childhood, living in Mississsippi with her educated parents — Black mother, White father — and surrounded by her mother’s extended family, is a happy one. But even in those early days there are foreshadowings of trouble. Trethewey sought to smooth the waters by excelling in all things — specifically school work; the gifts that would prove out in her adult success as a poet and writer are evident from almost the beginning of her life.
When her parents’ marriage falls apart it spells the end of Trethewey’s happy security. She tells the story of how childhood superstitions and obsessions guide her through these years in languid, masterful prose. Moving to Atlanta with her mother when that city and its suburbs were gripped by social and political change, she sees those 1970s days through the lens of a bright but struggling child, wondering always where she might fit in.
Less than halfway into Memorial Drive we meet the man who will become her mother’s second husband — and murderer. We know he’s trouble from the moment he walks in the door. Trethewey knows it almost at that same time. Her helplessness to forestall tragedy or to protect her mother from this monstrous new lover would be unbearable to read about were it not for the author’s skillful, haunting prose.
Memorial Drive is a tale of deep-rooted racial divisions, of family secrets and intrigues and the terrible waste of a tragedy that could easily have been prevented. Bravely and beautifully told, it is a book not to miss.
The Summer Book was recommended to me as an antidote to the fall blues: stressed over climate change, midterms, earthquakes, disinformation — I needed a little literary calm.
“You need to read this,” said a friend, handing me The Summer Book. Friends are the best.
This small gem of a book contains a large enough dose of beauty and calm to restore the soul of the weariest American. Or Swede, or any other citizen of the world for that matter. It’s been offering that calm for fifty years, since first published by Swedish author Tove Jansson and translated by Thomas Teal in 1972. London’s Sort Of Books published a new edition in 2003 that has so far been reprinted seven times.
In The Summer Book, six-year-old Sophia (inspired by author Jansson’s niece) spends the summer on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, in the company of her wise and often cantankerous grandmother. The two slowly build love and respect for each other and the planet. The novel unspools in a series of jewel-box vignettes that make for easy short reads, though you’re likely to become so entranced with the characters and their world that you won’t want to put it down.
Grandmother and granddaughter clamber over rocks and around rugged coastlines, watch storms at sea, glorious days and threatening skies. But they are noticing the tiniest specs of nature at the same time, and discovering lessons in them all. The book is a constant unveiling of wisdom and wonder. Moss, for example, will recover if stepped on once. A second time it will slowly recover. After a third careless footfall it will die.
As Sophia edges resolutely into life, while her grandmother winds her own way out, the two develop a ferocious attachment to each other and to the natural world. They build tiny boats of tree bark, study bugs and weeds, watch seabirds, listen for the breath of the wind. We readers are swept melodically along like invisible guests with VIP passes.
The Summer Book will have you smiling, laughing, nodding in appreciation and discovery — and feeling better about the world.
“Climate change is happening,” she says; “it’s real, it’s urgent.” The speaker is Paola Gianturco, a strikingly pretty octogenarian photojournalist/author, retired from a distinguished business career but decidedly not retired from anything else.
Adds her co-speaker ; “I learned about the water cycle (the continuous movement of water within the earth and atmosphere) and the carbon cycle (the process in which carbon atoms continually travel from the atmosphere to the earth and back) in fourth grade.” This would be high school freshman Avery Sangster, pointing out that those two cycles are keys to climate change.
The remarkable grandmother/granddaughter author/activist team spoke recently at an event celebrating their recently released book COOL: Women Leaders Reversing Global Warming
The two spoke of the urgency of climate change in real-time stories. Alaska’s indigenous Inuit people, for example, have lived for centuries on the ice of the Arctic and subarctic regions where temperatures now reach 78 degrees and higher. “I’m not paralyzed with fear,” Gianturco says. She and her equally fearless granddaughter don’t want anyone else to be paralyzed; what they want is action. In search of climate action — and stories — they interviewed and photographed women and girls around the world who are “using intelligence, creativity, energy and courage to help stop global warming.” COOL documents the dedication and successes of several dozen of those women and girls.
They found, for example, Erica Mackie, Co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. Asked what’s special about her company, Mackie told the authors, “Well, for starters, it’s the only nonprofit construction company on the planet that’s focused on combating global warming, racism, economic inequality and gender discrimination.” The COOL women don’t tend to think small.
In Sri Lanka they found several women working with Sudeesa (Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka) who were among 15,000 Sri Lankan women planting mangrove trees. Should you think these are simply pretty trees that help the local population by attracting fish, “mangrove trees sequester about five times more carbon dioxide than other tropical trees,” while also burying carbon dioxide under the soil.
The information and quotations in this article are all from COOL: Women Leaders Reversing Global Warning. And this is only a small piece of the climate education available in Gianturco and Sangster’s colorful book.
Back in the U.S. again the photojournalist/authors found Miranda Massie, founder and Director of the Climate Museum in New York City’s Soho district. Massie credits her own “climate crisis unease” to Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm — still the largest Atlantic hurricane on record — that, according to Wikipedia, left 233 people dead across eight countries and did more than $70 billion in damage. “Our genius, inventiveness, ambition and creativity caused this climate crisis that could obliterate civilization as we know it,” Massie says. “It’s the greatest challenge the human species has ever encountered.”
If the above isn’t enough to inspire you to become a climate activist, this reporter recommends ordering a copy (or two or three or more for your friends and family) of COOL. On the inside page there are even QR codes you can scan for six ways to help reverse global warming. Super cool.
I’m simply in love with the San Francisco Main Library. Yes, THAT library, with the rotating cast of questionable characters on one side and tent encampments on another. But how about the gleaming dome of City Hall lending a little majesty to the third side, just across the street from the proper front door?
It’s more of a crush, this thing I have with the Main. Presidio Branch was my true love for decades. It took some wrenching away when we finally broke up, after I downsized to the Western Addition’s neighborhood. But one should love one’s neighbor, and Western Addition and I have built a respectable relationship. It’s far more multicultural, as this new love offers affection in Chinese characters that Presidio barely knew. Plus, proud little Western Addition stakes its sixties-funk architectural claim to my affection in defiance of the multitude of branches in the classic Carnegie style. (Is there a Carnegie style? Well, Carnegie money built a bunch of those lovely branches. They’re just a few of the 1,689 libraries Andrew Carnegie built with his accumulated millions. Hardly an admirable man, but you’ve got to appreciate all those libraries.)
The Main, though, behind its politely classic exterior, has nothing but shiny, multi-floored open arms waiting for love. I mean. Not only the real people just sitting there ready to answer your questions or check out your books, those smiling faces also featured in my other librarian loves. Free wi-fi, with nobody spilling coffee on you! But at the Main are multi-story stairs descending (or ascending if you really want exercise) into floor after floor of collections and attractions. When this brief story appeared on another site (I get sidetracked onto Medium.com) one reader observed, about elevators at the Main, “You can’t get there from here.” I think the architect just intended for everyone to roam. Talking Books & Braille Center on the 2nd floor. Deaf Services Center on the 1st. Music on the 4th floor, History on the 6th. LGBTQIA on floor 3, Jobs & Careers on 4. What’s not to love about The Main Library of San Francisco?
Altogether, the Main is magic-making. Professor Harold Hill, though he might not find his Marian the Librarian, could stage a Music Man for the ages in the heart of downtown San Francisco. I’d be first in line for auditions.
“I can’t write STORIES!” I remember saying. “Real writers write stories!” This was about 30 years ago, early in my marriage to The Great Encourager.
“Sure you can,” he said. “You’ve got stories that deserve being written.”
I had written news, features and columns for newspapers and magazines. Political speeches, annual reports, a few easily forgettable books on commission because I needed the money. Almost anything nonfiction you can name – but stories??
Thus began a dream.
With a lot of encouragement I took a fiction workshop with then little known author/encourager Anne Lamott. And soon entered the University of San Francisco’s graduate school. The Great Encourager did all the cooking, looked after home and hearth, paid the bills, fielded calls and invitations while juggling his own commitments and took other women to concerts and gallery openings. Two years later I picked up an MFA in Short Fiction. Writing stories!
Some of the resulting Marshallville Stories won recognition and/or were published in print or online magazines. Some are better than others. But then they languished in a dusty drawer for years while I went back to nonfiction. Books. Activism. Nonprofits, talks, marches, letter to editors. You know, Life.
I think this is often the fate of dreams: Life happens, things get tucked away. And slowly, almost imperceptibly dreams begin to languish in dusty drawers. Obstacles pile themselves on top of the drawers.
One day a friend kicked at my #1 obstacle. “Here’s someone,” he said, “who could drag those stories out of their long-abandoned Word programs. Call her.” I did; he was right. Over the next year or so I edited them into a self-published book – a fascinating first for me, accomplished with a LOT of help from people who know how to do such stuff.
The Marshallville Stories collection has now been birthed. I hope you will pick up a copy and enjoy it.
Even if he’s a little older than I am
How do you thank a storybook character?
I need to send a giant hug to Allan Karlsson. You know, the 100-year-old man.
Yeah, that one, the one who climbed out the window and disappeared. (If you haven’t read it, just go pick up a copy of The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared.Skip the movie, read the book.)
Allan, who climbed out the window to escape a sappy birthday party in his Swedish nursing home, is my new BFF. I owe him big time.
I read the book (as have more than five million others around the globe) several years ago, but recently decided to listen to it through my earbuds while walking around San Francisco – something I do most days for three or four miles. So people gave me strange glances, as I burst out laughing in the middle of the crosswalk. It was entirely worth it. My friend Allan lifted me out of the doldrums, obliterated the daily news and generally made life better for weeks.
Hard as it is to choose, here are two favorite messages from my favorite fictional geezer:
Teetotalers (I’m one, thanks to unfortunate conflicts with booze) are generally a threat to world peace. And – this next is a little hard to condense, but until you get hold of the book:
Allan and friends at one point are raking in profits through sales of hundreds of beautifully produced Bibles that they fished out of the trash. Why were they trashed? (Spoiler alert!) Well briefly, the typographer slipped in an extra verse at the end of the book, creating a final sentence (Revelation 22:22) that reads And they lived happily ever after.
I do try very hard not to threaten world peace. But thanks to Allan Karlsson, and his Swedish author/creator Jonas Jonasson, I am laughing more happily ever after.