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)

Orchard House by Tara Austen Weaver

orchardThe author and her mother see an overgrown yard and rundown house with gardening potential – and her mother buys the property, after an afternoon filching blackberries from the bushes there.

Making this unruly land an orderly place of vegetable plots and fruit trees turns into a daily ordeal.  Weaver’s mother, with her unbending work ethic, is up to it, at least at the beginning, but she is aging, and after a serious back injury, the author has to practically chase her mom away from gardening chores, and much of it falls on her.  After all, Weaver has her own vision of the place to maintain, one of an inviting home and yard for nieces to play in, and a gathering point for family and friends.

Weaver uses the setting as backdrop to her ruminations about her relationships with her mother and brother.  Their mom had to be the single parent raising them, and as such she has distanced herself from certain emotions.  Working the gardens allows the author to reconnect with her mother to some degree.

The author also learns the value of community, whether it’s from close friends or plant experts, and finds insight from others as she struggles with the garden, her mother, and herself.

Orchard House reminds me of another book I read several years back – This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow, in which she describes her trials in creating a garden next to the Hudson River.  I would recommend both.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Motorcycles I’ve Loved by Lily Brooks-Dalton

motorcyclesNew England in the hospitable seasons and the open road – two good reasons to acquire a motorcycle.

The author finds this out after spending four years of her early adulthood abroad – in Ireland, India, Thailand, and Australia.  After breaking up with her Australian boyfriend, she returns to her native New England to regroup, and motorcycle mania ensues.

By the end of the book, she has gone through four of them.  Well, three – one was not in running status.

Motorcycles I’ve Loved is a memoir of sorts, with each chapter named after a term in physics, and all pertaining to her life travels and newly mobile joy of cycling.  Thus we get “acceleration”, “propulsion”, “vibration” and a whole host of other aspects of physics, as the author explores the functions of her new-found machines and ponders her family – parents who are both free spirits in their own way, and an estranged older brother.

Initially, I thought the use of physics themes would be tedious, but no – it was interesting to read about these concepts and how they fit in with the mechanics of a motorcycle.

Along the way, Brooks-Dalton learns her strengths and limitations, experiences the sorrows of rain and breakdowns, and finds out that all kinds of things can go wrong – with relationships, brake lines, and inspection shops.

(William Hicks, Information Services)