Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

Logical FamilyLogical Family follows the life of Armistead Maupin, who first made his mark in the literary world as the writer of a daily serial that began in the 1970s for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This serial would evolve into the long-lived and much-loved Tales of the City series, nine in all, that recount the juicy backstories of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.

Maupin has quite a backstory – originally from Raleigh, he grew up with a conservative southern father and somewhat more tolerant mother.  In his young adulthood, Maupin was politically conservative himself (he even pulled a stint working for Jesse Helms), served in the navy during the Vietnam War, then spent his post- military life writing for several jobs and generally finding himself, and his sexuality.

Maupin’s move to San Francisco in the early 1970s provided him with a much needed community; he found there his “logical family” that he lacked earlier in life.  And in writing the serial that became Tales of the City, he tackled a number of issues that pertained to gay life in San Francisco at the time – the shooting of Harvey Milk, the AIDs epidemic, etc.

Although he’s written a few standalone novels (The Night Listener comes to mind) and now this memoir, The Tales of the City series remains Maupin’s best known batch of work.  I can’t attest to the series as a whole, but I did read the first four books years ago, and then the final (The Days of Anna Madrigal) much more recently and enjoyed them all very much.

In Logical Family, I liked how Maupin chronicled his changing relationships with his family.  Even when he had differences with them (especially his father), he managed to maintain a sense of civility with his parents that was touching, and everyone involved grew with the years – there was way more endearment here than bitterness.

(William Hicks, Information Services)




Gone Feral : Tracking My Dad through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

After being estranged from her father for years, the author reassesses both her parentsgone feral and their roles they have played in her life as she reconnects with her father.

Carpenter’s parents lived the back-to-the-land lifestyle early on.  She and her older sister were born in the early 1970s, and spent their early childhood on a rural spread of land outside of Orofino, Idaho.  The idealism wore thin for their mother after a time, and she eventually moved her kids to Washington State for a more stable livelihood.

Solitary by nature, Carpenter’s father George continued to make a marginal living for himself on the same piece of land.  He would keep up with his ex-wife and daughters sporadically via phone calls and emails through the years.  Residents of the area knew his eccentric routines.

George goes missing for a longer period of time than usual, and when he turns up again, the author sees this as an opportunity to forge a closer relationship with her dad.  Reunions with him, however, tend to be brief, disturbing and scattershot, and Carpenter begins to fear for his sanity (and consider her own) as she goes about linking her father’s past with her continuing life story.

Gone Feral explores fringe lifestyles (urban farms, communal homesteading) and how family ties never completely disappear.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dimestore by Lee Smith

Although the award-winning writer Lee Smith grew up in the mountains of Virginia, shedimestore has lived in North Carolina, most recently in Hillsborough, for many years.  These essays about her life and writing are good reading, especially for fans of her fiction.  If you grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s, you’ll especially enjoy sharing her memories of these years.  If you’re familiar with Chapel Hill, you’ll want to see it through Lee Smith’s eyes.

Smith grew up in a rather dysfunctional but loving family and often spent time in the small-town dime store that her father owned.  There she observed the lives of many people and listened to their conversations, gaining insights that would later provide material for fiction.  She began writing as a child, getting into trouble with a neighborhood newspaper with editorials such as “George McGuire Is Too Grumpy” and “Mrs. Ruth Boyd Is a Mean Music Teacher.”  In her college writing classes, she wrote about alternative universes, stewardesses in Hawaii, and other topics far from her own life, ignoring her teachers’ advice to “write what you know” until the fateful day when she attended a reading by Eudora Welty and realized that good stories could come from a relatively uneventful life.  Smith’s first novel was somewhat autobiographical, and her mother, thinking that local folks might believe that every detail about the fictional characters was true of their family, made sure that no one in the small town where the family lived would find that book in a local store or library!  Smith has broadened her choice of topics, having long ago “used up” her childhood and adolescent experiences, but her own experiences still inspire her fiction.

Smith writes about the deaths of loved ones and the mental illnesses of family members, but her memories also include humorous events and times of great joy.

I could select a delightful quotation from almost any page, but I’ll choose just one, which describes her parents’ support for anything she wanted to do with her life: “I believe if I had told my mother that I wanted to be, say, an ax murderer, she would have said, without blinking an eye, ‘Well, that’s nice, dear, what do you think you might want to major in?’  My daddy would have gone out to buy me the ax.  Though my parents might feel – as Mama certainly said later – that they wished I would just stop all that writing stuff and marry a lawyer or a doctor, which is what a daughter really ought to do, of course, the fact is that they were so loving that they gave me the confidence, and the permission, early on, to do just about anything I wanted to do.”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

When in French : Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins

An American woman marries a Frenchman and lives happily ever after – but first, it helpswhen-in-french to learn French.

Lauren is living abroad for the first time in London when she meets Olivier.  She’s fine with dating him and Olivier, after years of study and exposure, speaks English well, although their differing approaches to the language make for some headbutting.  It’s when they marry and Olivier is transferred to Geneva, Switzerland that Lauren realizes two things:  A long distance marriage won’t work, and if she moves with him to Geneva, it’s inevitable that she learns to speak French.

Along her journey to be a competent Francophone, Lauren has plenty of time to muse on the complexities of language itself and how speaking (and living) in a different tongue than her own will change her perceptions.

So Lauren meets her in-laws (who turn out to be fabulous people, actually), struggles through French classes, and meets lots of other people who are outsiders like her.  She also comes to terms with her limitations.

When in French alternates between family narrative and explorations of human speech and culture.  The family and personal situations are funny, as when the author describes her early failures with summer camp or recounts her fears of culture clash when her parents come to visit her French in-laws.  Her ponderings on other things tend to get heady, but these sections are still worth reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Yokohama Yankee : My Family’s Five Generations in Japan by Leslie Helm

Tyokohamahe author’s German great-grandfather Julius Helm first came to Japan in 1869, and spent most of his life after that developing a thriving shipping business.  Being on the “ground floor” as it were, of Japan’s first major economic development since it was opened to outside trade,  his business was in a unique position to capitalize on Yokohama’s bustling port.  As a company, Helm Brothers existed throughout two world wars, fires, earthquakes, and Japan’s rapid postwar changes.

The author writes about his extended family and how they managed to coexist for over a hundred years in a culture that never completely excepted them.  The family was biracial (Julius had married a Japanese woman) and as the world wars entered their lives, certain members of the family wound up taking different sides in the conflicts.

Yokohama Yankee is a rich observation of what family and identity really mean.  The author has to come to terms with personal prejudices and attitudes to  Japanese culture and his own Japanese heritage, as he returns repeatedly to the country for work, for genealogical research, and for pleasure.  He and his wife also adopt two Japanese children, and it proves to be a challenge to raise them as Americans, and to have an appreciation for their birth country.

The book is beautifully illustrated with many paintings  and vintage photographs of Japan from the 1800s to the present.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Obama’s eloquent, thoughtful memoir begins with his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia and51LCJdzcSNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ continues with stories about his job as a community organizer in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods and about his visit in 1988 to relatives in Kenya.

A major focus of this book is Obama’s relationship with his Kenyan father, whom he knew only from conversations with his mother, his maternal grandparents, and his Kenyan relatives and from a one-month visit when Barack was ten years old.  From his father, the young Barack learned much about what he wanted to be like – and also about what he did not want to become.

Obama’s life story has been quite different from the biographies of other U.S. presidents, and, whatever your political views, I think you’ll find it fascinating!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer

jihadKrista, a middle-class American, writes about her marriage to Ismail, an immigrant who grew up in an impoverished family in Libya.  Their happy marriage is sometimes a struggle, as each tries to bridge the cultural gap.  She cannot fully understand his devotion to fasting during Ramadan, and each year he again makes the attempt to comprehend American Christmas customs.  When, shortly after their marriage, he impulsively took her into a jewelry store to buy her a diamond ring, the romantic moment was spoiled for her when he haggled over the price as he would in a Libyan bazaar.  Personal boundaries are foreign to him; for example, he’ll reach out to touch neighbors’ children, not noticing their parents’ nervousness.  Sometimes, despite her love for him, she has felt that they, unlike many married couples, are not a matched pair.

Several chapters tell about their trip to Libya to visit his large family.  Krista, while challenged by the language and cultural differences, found his family loving and welcoming.

Most of the book has a North Carolina setting; after Krista came to UNC to earn a master’s in journalism, she and Ismail met, married, and settled down in Chapel Hill.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, and Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, are among those praising this fascinating, thought-provoking true love story, a great read for anyone living in our diverse society.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)