Book Review: The Orchard: A Memoir by Theresa Weir

Title: The Orchard: A Memoir
Author: Theresa Weir
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
Year Published: 2011
Format: Paperback
Source: Advanced Reading Copy from Book Expo America.

The Orchard: A Memoir by Theresa Weir is a poetic remembrance of love, loss, and grief.

When Theresa Weir was 21, she met apple farmer Adrian Curtis. After a whirlwind romance, they were married three months later. Neither of them has any idea of what marriage means. They are too young and hardly know each other.

The farm has been in the family for generations, and Adrian is groomed as the heir apparent, even though it has a reputation as a “cursed” place. Theresa has no idea about what farming is all about, and she is rejected by her new husband’s parents because she is an outsider. She gradually comes to realize that his parents will never really accept her, even after she has two children. Her relationship with Adrian’s mother is particularly bitter. The mother-in-law is a woman whose husband avoids her, and manages to alienate even her grandchildren.

Another enemy is the codling moth. Adrian and his family wage a bitter battle to keep the moth from destroying the apples. The apples are continually sprayed with pesticides to kill the vermin. Throughout the book both Theresa and Adrian are uneasy about the continual use of pesticides. It is the 1970’s, and farmers know that pesticides are not particularly safe.

Will their marriage survive both family crises and the possible destruction of the orchard? Will the apples survive? What price does one pay for using chemicals against nature?

Theresa and Adrian forge a strong relationship based on love and family. Adrian is not particularly close to his mother, either, but he feels strong loyalty to take over the farm from his family. Surprisingly the marriage survives, but what will be the cost of Adrian’s loyalty to his parents?

Through the years of raising children, Theresa does discover a true vocation: writing. She becomes well known for the books published under her own name and that of a pseudonym: Anne Frasier. This gives her great satisfaction and something that she accomplishes on her own.

I found this book haunting and moving. There was a tone of heartbreak throughout, but I had a curiosity to find out what would happen. The book kept building to the inevitably tragic climax.

It was interesting to find out that farmers are not naïve about the use of pesticides, but feel it is their only hope against such destructive enemies such as the codling moth. Adrian acknowledges however, that he would have preferred to use organic methods. But it was too late.

The only thing that puzzles me about the book is the lack of reference to Rachel Carson’s classic treatise against the indiscriminate use pesticides, Silent Spring. Surely Theresa Weir must be aware of that groundbreaking book. Carson’s opus appeared in the early 1960’s, and was strongly responsible for the banning of DDT and was a critical factor in the emergence of the environmental movement. I kept thinking of “Silent Spring” as I read this book.

I am amazed that Theresa Weir is sane after her very difficult childhood, complete with a mother who resented her, and an equally difficult marriage because of the family issues and the struggles of farm life.

Adrian comes across as quite a nice man, but rather weak in his inability to stand up to his mother and make his own life. He pays a high price for that decision.

Book Review: Reluctant Hero by Michael Benfante

Title: Reluctant Hero: A 9/11 Survivor Speaks Out 
Author: Michael Benfante
Year Published: 2011
Format: Paperback
Source: I picked up this book as an ARC at Book Expo America.

On September 11, 2011 Michael Benfante reported to his job as a manager at a telecommunications firm on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center. When the planes crashed into the building,Benfanteand his co-workers started working their way down the stairs.

When they reached the 68th floor Benfante and one of his co-workers encountered a woman in a wheelchair. There were female co-workers staying with her but it was impossible for them to carry her down 68 floors. Benfante and his co-worker carried the woman down to the bottom and out of the building.

Reluctant Hero: A 9/11 Survivor Speaks Out About That Unthinkable Day, What He’s Learned, How He’s Struggled, and What No One Should Ever Forget is Benfante’s account of not only what happened to him on that tragic day, but what happened to him in the ten years since September 11th, 2001.

Benfante became a celebrity for his actions on September 11th; he was showered with awards, feted on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and mentioned in a speech by the President of the United States. Almost one year to the day Benfante got married with the woman in the wheelchair as a guest at his wedding.

But while all this was going on, Benfante was grappling with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He refused to go get therapy and kept his feelings inside. He resorted to alcohol and other ways to keep his demons at bay.

This book is gripping. I really felt as if I was on the journey with him down the stairs of the World Trade Center. I was shocked when I realized that even after they got out of the building, he was almost killed by the tower collapsing.

Benfante has written this book as a kind of catharsis to finally come to grips with what happened on that day. The book is touching and he is unflinching as he admits that he hasn’t always handled things very well.

Book Review: Borneo Tom by Tom McLaughlin

Title: Borneo Tom: Stories of Love, Travel and Jungle Family in Tropical Asia
Author: Tom McLaughlin
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir, Travel
Year Published: 2010
Format: Large Paperback
Source: I was sent this book for review.

Borneo Tom: Stories and Sketches of Love, Travel and Jungle Family in Tropical Asia by Tom McLaughlin is a surprisingly delightful book concerning a part of the world that most people know little about.

After American science teacher Tom McLaughlin was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, he decided to not let it stop him. He had long been fascinated by Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, having spent time there as a young Peace Corps volunteer.
But Tom decided to move there, not just visit as a tourist. He was fascinated by the people, the lands, and the cultures and customers he found, particularly in Borneo, where he settled down.

This book is a cheerful and unusual record of his travels throughout the area. Each section is a separate essay with a certain angle. This unusual approach does break up the continuity of the narration, but is also lets Tom explore different subjects, particularly his fascination with the naturalist Alfred Wallace, who was overshadowed by Charles Darwin. I had never heard of Wallace before, and it made for interesting reading.

Tom is unafraid to encounter leeches, monkeys, and anything in the jungles — of course, as a biologist he is fascinated by the different species. Tom is especially partial to orangutans!

What I really like about Tom is his openness to learning the language and respect for other cultures and other religions. He has a wonderful sense of humor including poking fun at himself.

There is a surprise ending to the book that I will not spoil for you, leaving you to find out for yourself! No one was more surprised than Tom!
The book is a large format paperback with delightful drawings by Waterfront Niki, which add to the humorous slant of the book.

That is what really is the best part — that Tom shows a part of the world that is largely unknown — in a lighthearted way that shows his deep love for the native people.

What could have been a boring travelogue becomes a charmingly original tale of life and love in the tropics.

Book Review: Perfection by Julie Metz

Title: Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal
Author: Julie Metz
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2009
Source: I purchased this book.

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, by Julie Metz, is about the sudden death of the author’s husband and what happened when she learned some dark truths about her marriage. Metz’s husband Henry died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism at 44. Was it purely medical reasons that killed him? Or was it something else? Metz had noticed that her husband seemed tired and was listless. Since Henry was the type that liked to pack every minute of the day with activity, she knew something was wrong, but was still stunned by his sudden death, dying in her arms in their kitchen.

Several months later, Metz discovered that Henry had been conducting several extramarital affairs, including a married woman who was supposedly Julie’s “friend”. The woman, Cathy, lived in the same small town and was the mother of one of Julie’s daughter’s best friends. The affair had been tumultuous, and had lasted several years. Henry had left behind numerous emails that he had exchanged with this woman and several others.

As Julie worked through her anger and grief, she came up with an unusual idea. She had already confronted Cathy, but what about the others? She actually called or emailed the other women in her husband’s life. She wanted to know exactly what it was that Henry was in compulsive searching for other women. Was it purely sexual? Was he searching for something that Julie could not offer him? Was he always looking for something else in each new woman? As Metz says:

I thought about that idea of perfection. Every woman he fantasized about was a new opportunity to imagine perfection, just as every meal he prepared was another opportunity to reach a kind of nirvana. But just as shallots burn in overheated butter, so these relationships disappointed.

It became obvious to Metz that Henry had begun to feel overwhelmed by all the different women in his life, and the strain had begun to wear on him.

Strangely enough, all the other women actually contacted Julie back. She surprisingly began to feel somewhat of a strange sort of friendship with some of them. However, she simply could not tolerate being in the same small town as Cathy, and knew that eventually she would have to leave, especially since almost everyone in their tiny town knew about the affair. She was also overwhelmingly lonely.

Julie knew that if she was to heal, that she would have to move on, both physically (by moving back to Brooklyn), and by moving on to other men — men that would not be secretive and would be more supportive than Henry ever was. She now realized that she needed to find a man that was not necessarily her “type” — because she realized that she wasn’t always the best judge of character, since even during their courtship Henry had left plenty of warning signs that his idea of a relationship was not the same as hers.

Metz does not spare herself either. She is brutally honest about herself as a sexual being. She does become intimate with a male friend very soon after the death of her husband and even before she finds out about Henry’s infidelities. She also inadvertently hurts several other men in the process of finding a true life partner.

Perfection is a very unusual memoir in that Metz did not simply suffer from the anguish that end of her marriage had caused, but used it to build a better life for herself and her daughter. It is a book that I definitely recommend. 

Book Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Title: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Author: Alexandra Fuller
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
Year Published: 2003
Source: I purchased this book

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller, is the author’s account of growing up in the countries of Rhodesia , Malawi and Zambia. Fuller’s family was originally from England, where Alexandra was born. Her family moved to Africa during a time of great unrest. Rhodesia was still white-ruled, but at the tail-end of British colonialism. The parents like to live in isolated areas, far away from towns and cities.

However, Fuller’s parents were not rich, titled landowners, but rather poor farmers barely eking out an existence. Of course, they still had black servants. Even if Rhodesia didn’t have an official “apartheid” which in Afrikaans means “apartness”, everything is separate. The different races go to different schools, stores, and hospitals.

Alexandra and her sister Vanessa are shaped by the racist attitudes of their parents and the white society around them. After all, why would she question it? That is all she knows. Even though she grows up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there is no television in her house, the only radio broadcasts seem to be from the BBC, and most of the people she meets on a daily basis are her family and the black servants.

Those blacks fighting for independence are considered “terrorists”.

So life is tough for everyone:

Vanessa and I, like all the kids over the age of five in our valley, have to learn how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill.

Fuller also loves Africa. The book is filled with rich imagery and poetic language:

What I can’t know about Africa as a child (because I have no memory of any other place) is her smell; hot sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.

This story is fascinating, mostly taking place during the time of the Rhodesia Civil War, when blacks decided that they wanted their land back and to rule, which is what eventually happened (Rhodesia is now called Zimbabwe). Eventually, their land is taken away from the family and eventually the Fullers move first to Malawi, and then to Zambia.

The book is not heavily political, however, as it mostly concerns what happened within the Fuller family, and that story is almost unbearably tragic at times. Out of five children born to the family, only two survive. Alexandra blames herself for the death of her sister, and I strongly suspect that she still is bearing that terrible burden today:

No one ever came right out and said in the broad light of day that I was responsible for Olivia’s death and that Olivia’s death made Mum go from being a fun drunk to a crazy, sad drunk and so I am also responsible for Mum’s madness. No one ever came right out and said it in words and with pointing fingers. They didn’t have to.
Fuller also makes no apologies for or commentary on the racist attitudes of the white Rhodesians, including those of her own family. Is that a weakness of the book? Perhaps, or else she just feels that it is unnecessary to do so. She prefers to write about it as she saw it at the time when she was a child. After all, it does not show these people in a very flattering light. She doesn’t spare herself, either.

However, I still highly recommend this book. It is very funny but also achingly sad at times. You will be a richer person for having read it.


It’s a Blog Hop!

Book Blogger Hop

Every weekend, Crazy for Books has a Blog Hop for Books Blogs!

The question of the week:

Q. Do you use a rating system for your reviews and if so, what is it and why?

A. No, I don’t. I find it hard to compare totally different books with each other. If I was writing a books blog reviewing books all from the same author, I might very well rate them. But how do I compare a very serious, tragic book with a light-hearted one? Or a book that has a message with a book that is light-hearted and fun to read. I do admire those book bloggers who rate books, but I have decided not to do that.

Book Review: Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Title: Books
Author: Larry McMurtry
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2008
Source: I purchased this book.

 Larry McMurtry is the author of many fine books and screenplays, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. He has won both the Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.

What many people don’t know as that during his very successful writing career he has also worked as a professor, a bookseller, and a rare book collector. He has also owned antiquarian bookstores. His current shop is Booked Up in Archer City, TX, the town in which he grew up.

Books: A Memoir is a most unusual autobiography. It rarely discusses his family life or his writing or his Hollywood career. It is mainly concerned with his career as a rare-book seller and dealer. Although not a particularly long book, it is written is very short chapters — 109 chapters in all!
McMurtry fell in love with reading at an early age despite growing up in a house that contained virtually no books. In his twenties he started scouting books and then selling them. As he says:

For the first twenty years of my career as a book hunter I actually read almost all the books I had gone to such trouble to find. Getting the books I wanted to read was the main reason for the pursuit.

But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain. 

McMurtry goes on to tell interesting stories about the books he had bought and the eccentricities of the book sellers he has encountered over the years. Many of these buyers and sellers are not interested in reading the books but only in making a profit from them, since some rare books can sell for many thousands of dollars.

McMurtry really loved the business. Despite his great success as a writer:

Sometime in the mid-seventies I began to view myself as essentially a bookseller — or maybe just a book scout. The hunt for books was what absorbed me most. Writing was my vocation, but I had written a lot, and it was no longer exactly a passion. 

I was mystified at first why McMurtry rarely discussed his life outside of book selling and collecting, because he must have led a very interesting life. Then I discovered that this book is part one of a triology. The second part, Literary Life: A Second Memoir, came out last December, and the next volume, Hollywood: A Third Memoir, will be published in August.

Books: A Memoir is very interesting reading if you are interested in book collecting or in rare or old books. If you are not, then you might not find it interesting. I also found the extremely short chapters a little irritating. I did at times put the book down for a few days only to come back to read more. 

I am definitely interested in reading the sequels, because I want to know McMurtry’s memories of writing bestsellers and Hollywood screenplays!

Book Review: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

Title: Drinking: A Love Story
Author: Caroline Knapp
Genre: Non Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 1996
Source: I purchased this book

Drinking: A Love Story is a book about alcoholism and about one woman’s fight to get her life back. For 20 years Caroline Knapp drank and drank and drank. She loved drinking — almost everything about it. The sound of the cork being pulled from the wine bottle. The sound of the liquid being poured into the glass. She loved it all. 

It made her forget her troubles, at least temporarily because she was able to melt into the liquid, and it made her calm and relaxed. The trouble was that she simply could not stop at one drink, or even two. This is the story of one woman’s triumph over the bottle. It was truly a love story until near the end, when she finally realized that she wasn’t drinking because she was unhappy, but she was unhappy because she was drinking.

Caroline Knapp was the daughter of a famous psychiatrist father. and an artist mother, and grew up in an intellectually stimulating but emotionally deadening environment. There was always an unspoken but clearly felt tension in her home. She was a top student, graduating magna cum laude from Brown University. She appeared to have a bright future. But Caroline was already drinking heavily, and it was affecting her personal and professional lives. 

After graduating, she worked as a waitress in Providence, Rhode Island, and had affairs with men who were wrong for her. She also had eating disorders, as it not uncommon for alcoholics to have other addictive behaviors. Her weight dropped to about 80 pounds. She also suffered from an intense, crippling shyness, and extremely low esteem. Caroline was also a very heavy smoker, which many alcoholics are (you could smoke in bars back then.). Alcoholics who drank in bars usually would sit for hours, drinking and smoking.

Caroline finally got a job as a newspaper writer, and she was good at it. She eventually moved to Boston and worked as a writer and editor at the Boston Herald. Caroline was the epitome of the professional alcoholic, because she never did anything to affect her work, she never killed anybody, despite driving drunk numerous times, and she appeared, on the surface, to have it all together. She would head out after work to have drinks at the bar across the street from her job, and then head to a liquor store to pick up more liquor. She continued to have damaging relationships with men.

Finally, two catastrophic events occurred: her parents died approximately one year apart. Caroline fell to pieces and drank even more heavily. She finally hit bottom and realized that she had to get help. She already had a therapist, but she needed a place that dealt with alcoholism. Talk therapy alone rarely helps alcoholics much because it does not take into account the overwhelming physical need for alcohol. She also did not believe that simply going to AA meetings would be enough. So she went to a well-known rehab center in New Hampshire.

Caroline received help in rehab, and after finishing rehab she then attended AA meetings every night, realizing that the meetings “provided relief the same the drink used to.” Caroline still struggled with extreme shyness even after this book was released to huge critical acclaim. After the success of this book she wrote other books about dogs and eating disorders.

This book is poignant for several reasons. One is that the book describes poetically just how a person can become an alcoholic, that while there is a strong emotional reason there is also an incredible physical need for the booze. Alcoholics appear to be wired differently. Perhaps that is why alcoholics tend to run through several generations of families. Caroline’s own father was probably an alcoholic.

The book has a hopeful ending, but is also sad because of reasons that Caroline could not have known about at the time she wrote the book. At one point her mother takes her for a walk on the beach and tells her that she’s terribly worried about her daughter’s drinking. “This is very serious. It’s more serious than smoking.” After Caroline’s father died of cancer, and while the mother was dying of cancer herself, her last words to Caroline were: “Stop smoking.” Caroline continues:

Two months after she died, I enrolled in a smoking-cessation program at a local hospital, aware on some level I was tackling the wrong substance. I dropped out within three weeks and continued to smoke, but the words stuck with me. Stop smoking. I think she meant: Stop suffering. Stop being so self-destructive. Stop killing yourself.

But Caroline’s mother was right. Caroline apparently did not drink again, but she continued to smoke. In 2002, six years after the publication of the book, at the age of 42, Caroline Knapp died of lung cancer.

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child

Title: My Life in France
Author: Julia Child
Genre: Memoir, Non Fiction
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2006
Source: I purchased this book.

After reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, I knew that I had to read My Life in France by Julia Child. I wanted to know how Julia became a great chef.

Julia had not had much interest in cooking until she went to live in France with her husband Paul. She certainly enjoyed eating, however, and was never afraid to try new foods. Her first meal in France literally changed her life. She was enchanted with the food and how it was prepared and how it tasted. 

She became obsessed with all things French, but especially the food.Julia had not found what she really wanted to do with her life, but it slowly became apparent to her that she had to learn to cook French food. 

She wanted to become a great French chef and possibly open her own restaurant. She studied at the most famous French cooking school, the Cordon Bleu. She learned a lot and also practiced obsessively at home. She had an enthusiastic partner in her husband Paul. He supported her in everything she did. They were true soul mates.
Eventually she became friends with Simone Beck, and along with Louisette Bertholle, formed a cooking school in Paris. Together they published the instant classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was geared for an American audience.

Julia explains how this all happened in her book. The book eventually lead to her television series, The French Chef. Here is the legend in action:

You can’t help but love Julia because she was an original. She really didn’t judge other people, and she was always open to new ideas. She also was able to add her own touches to her recipes, and make them uniquely her own. The reason her television show was so successful was because here was no one else like her — ever. 


Book Review: Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Title: Julie & Julia
Author: Julie Powell
Genre: Non Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2005
Source: I purchased this book

The somewhat controversial Julie and Julia tells the now-famous story of Julie Powell, who was working as a secretary in New York and living in Queens. She was miserable in her job, and didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. On a visit to her parents, she borrowed, er, stole her mother’s copy of the Julia Child classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
After making one of the dishes in the book, Julie decided to make one recipe a day in one year. Her husband suggested that she start a blog. Julie had never even heard of blogs. However the Julie/Julia Project was born.

The book details how Julie managed to finish every recipe within the time allotted. Some turned out very well, and some were disasters. She immediately became an internet star with her blog, which was an instant hit (this was in 2002, and there weren’t many blogs yet). 

Part of her popularity was due to her unusual approach to cooking — her blog was full of feisty, foul-mouthed observations. The book is very interesting, although sometimes her bluntness is quite brutal. She’s not afraid to be heavily self-critical, either. She was so obsessed with the project — because with the popular blog she was afraid not to finish by her self-imposed deadline — that other things suffered. For instance, her kitchen was so dirty that maggots invaded the kitchen. 

Apparently Julia Child did NOT approve of the project, but it brought Julie Powell a book and movie deal. Here is Julia apparently attempting an audition for The Food Network:

If you are interested in Julia Child and/or cooking, I would recommend that you read it. Julie Powell is a rather controversial figure, because some people think that she became famous from some other person’s talent, so your tolerance for the book is based on personal tastes.
The book was eventually combined with Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France to form the film Julie and Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

Book Review: Save Karyn by Karyn Bosnak

Title: Save Karyn
Author: Karyn Bosnak
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2003
Source: I purchased this book.

I really like reading classic British novels such as books by the Brontes and Jane Austen. I also like reading modern American classics by Salinger and Updike. But probably my favorite type of book to read is non-fiction, especially memoirs. I really love any book that makes me think hard about the choices I make. If the book also makes me laugh, I will really love it!

Save Karyn by Karyn Bosnak is one of my favorite books. I wore out my first copy and had to buy another. I’m constantly recommending the book to my friends and even to my boyfriend (he’s read
parts of it). I have re-read it many times from cover to cover and frequently will read parts of it over and over.

Why does this book mean so much to me? Because I can really relate to Karyn’s story.

When Karyn Bosnak arrived in Manhattan in 2000 to be a television producer, she came to the big bad city to “find out who I was”. She immediately embraced the expensive Manhattan lifestyle, living in the ritzy Sutton Place neighborhood and buying designer clothes and purses. 

Karyn LOVED to shop! She made a very good living as a television producer — but not enough to support her lifestyle. Her favorite stores were places like Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s. Every time she had a date, she’d buy another outfit. She spent money on bikini waxes, haircuts, take-out food, and fitness training (probably to make up for eating so much take-out).

But Karyn shopped too much. She was spending far than she earned, and soon had trouble paying the rent and all her other bills. She charged just about everything on her numerous credit cards.

Eventually Karyn lost her job, and as it was soon after September 11th, 2001, she had a very difficult time finding another one. She owed well over $20,000 on credit cards. The unemployment insurance didn’t begin to cover her debts. What to do?

Karyn started a website (really an early version of a blog), asking people for money. Because she was funny and people enjoyed the website, it worked! She was able to pay off all her debts. Her original website is here: Save Karyn

Since then Karyn has become a very successful blogger, in addition to writing books. Her current blog: Pretty in the City

Why do I relate to this? Because I know what it’s like to be drowning in debt. This has happened to me, and most of it was my fault, but some of it was because of circumstances I could not control. Now some people may not like someone asking other people to pay her debts, but least Karyn found a funny and creative way to deal with her debts. She was proactive about it, and I admire that.

This is the only book I have read that was humorous about being in debt. It made me feel that I really wasn’t such a bad person because I owed money on credit cards. I didn’t really hurt anything except my credit rating, and that will eventually be straightened out.

I really recommend this book. It takes a serious subject and puts it into perspective.