Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Beaufort Books • $24.95 • ISBN 9780825306938
published June 10, 2013
As a fan of Becoming Odyssa, her memoir of first hiking the AT after college, I was thrilled when I learned that Davis had written a new book, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, about her recent record-breaking experience. Certain to entertain readers—fellow hikers or not—this is a story of perseverance and grit, love, dedication and sacrifice. It’s not so much about being the fastest AT hiker ever, as about taking on a challenge, consistently doing your best and allowing yourself to rely on other people to help you along the way.
Readers feeling unsure of themselves or frustrated by societal pressures regarding what they should look like, act like and/or focus on would benefit from reading Davis’ story, which offers plenty of inspiration for becoming a better "me."
Here are Davis’ thoughts after Anne Riddle Lundblad, an accomplished ultra-runner, tells Jen she’s a role model:
"I mean, how does hiking the Appalachian Trail in a short amount of time positively impact anyone? But Anne made me realize that being a role model isn’t about inspiring other people to be like you; it is about helping them to be the fullest version of themselves. The main legacy of this endeavor would not be to encourage others to set a record on the Appalachian Trail, but to encourage them to be the best form of their truest selves. And it just so happened that my best form was a hiker."
"No one seemed interested in what I'd learned or what the most valuable part of the experience had been. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about how I averaged 46.93 miles per day. . . . Why didn't anyone ask about the notions of living in the present or choosing something purposeful and fulfilling over something fun and easy? Or the idea that persistence and consistency can be more valuable than speed or strength? . . . Why did no one realize that the most miraculous part of the summer was not the record, but how well my husband had loved me?!"
If you’ve read Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, you know it is about much more than just hiking. Such is Davis’ story, too. The white blaze and rolling mountains on the cover will pull you in, and by the time you reach the end of the trail atop Springer Mountain, you’ll be wondering how you, too, can find your best self.
Next week, I'll be hiking in the Tetons with my husband, and, having read Called Again, I know that I'll be a "better me" while I'm there. What book(s) have inspired you to become a better version of yourself?
The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era
by Jessica Fellowes & Matthew Sturgis
St. Martin's • $29.99 • ISBN 9781250027627
On sale November 13, 2012
And then I got hooked.
And now I can't wait until January 6, 2013, when "Downton Abbey," Season 3 premieres on PBS in Nashville.
If you've also got "Downton" fever, I'd recommend you check out our Brit lit roundup in the January issue of BookPage, in which we sing the praises of Habits of the House By Fay Weldon, a comedy of manners that takes place in 1890s England. (Even better: Weldon is the author of the first episode of the original "Upstairs Downstairs.") We also recommend Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden, which traces the history of a grand British home from the 18th century to the present. Read about both of those books here.
Or you could also do what I'm doing: flipping through The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era, a photo-heavy tribute by Jessica Fellowes (niece of the creator of "Downton Abbey" and a writer in her own right) and Matthew Sturgis. There are chapters on all the major characters, and enough full-color pictures to make you drop everything and go shopping for hats.
Here's a short excerpt from the foreword, written by Julian Fellowes:
Over the last two rather extraordinary years, at the risk of sounding vain, I have often been asked why I thought "Downton Abbey" has been quite such a success. Of course it is hard to be definite about these things. If television were an exact science, there would be nothing made that did not break records. But supposing I were to put my finger on one element, it might be that we have made the decision to treat every character, the members of the family and the members of their staff, equally, in terms of their narrative strength. they all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions and disappointments, and with all of them we suggest a back story. So this book, which is an invitation to get to know the characters and their backgrounds more fully, will, I hope, build on that and allow the reader to develop his or her relationship with the figures in our landscapes.
Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
Doubleday • $25.95 • ISBN 9780385535632
On sale November 20, 2012
We interviewed Tomsky for the December issue of BookPage. You can read that Q&A here for a preview of what you'll learn in Heads in Beds. I love his answer to the question, "What are the most annoying words a guest can say to a front desk agent?"
Here's an excerpt from the book—and an example of how not to act in the lobby:
There are a thousand ways to complain, a thousand ways to have your problems instantly solved. As far as the most effective tactic, would I suggest screaming at an employee? Obviously, I would not.
Here is what I would suggest: Before approaching any employee, try to pinpoint exactly what the problem is (You were promised one rate and charged another / A bellman was rude to your wife / Someone must've thought you were finished with the pizza box you left on the floor of the bathroom and threw away the last cold slice), and then, if possible, what solution would make you feel satisfied (Having the rate adjusted to reflect the original booking / Being assured that the issue will be investigated and the bellman will be spoken to / A pizza slice on the floor? It's gone. Let it GO). Though most complaints should be delivered to the front desk directly, in person or on the phone, keep in mind that most issues you present will not have been caused by the front desk at all. So briefly outline your problem, offer a solution if you have one, and then ask whom you should speak with to have the problem solved. "Should I speak to a manager about this?" "Should I speak to housekeeping about this?" Those are wonderful and beautiful questions to ask. Most of the time the front desk will be able to solve the problem immediately or at least act as proxy and communicate your unrest to the appropriate department or manager. Want to make sure the agent doesn't nod, say "certainly," and not do a damn thing? Get his or her name. Nothing tightens up an employee's throat like being directly identified. You don't have to threaten him or her either, just a nice casual "Thanks for your help. I'll stop by later to make sure everything has been taken care of. Tommy, right?" Whatever you asked me to do I am DOING it.
Lastly, let's try to keep fiery anger out of the lobby. Almost 100 percent of the time the person you are punching on had nothing whatsoever to do with your situation. It's a hotel; nothing's personal. Here is a nice rule of thumb we can all try to remember: a person of culture should make every effort to hide his frustration from those who've had nothing to do with its origin. Boom.
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Scribner • $37.50 • ISBN 9780743236713
On sale November 13, 2012
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon is the most fascinating book I have read in 2012—or at least it is so far, and I'm only 120 pages in (out of about 700 pages of text . . . there are also 701 footnotes and an extensive bibliography and index). The book explores "horizontal identities" and how parents, children and the world at large respond to difference. This might sound a little dry, but stick with me.
Vertical identities are identities that are naturally passed from generation to the next. For example: Most Jewish children also have Jewish parents; most parents who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too; most African-American kids have African-American parents. Families can relate to each other based on these shared identities that they've passed through the generations.
People with horizontal identities were born with (or acquired) traits that their parents don't have, so they had to form identities from a peer group. People with horizontal identities might include: deaf people, dwarfs, people with Down syndrome, people with schizophrenia and transgender people.
Solomon is gay (he was born to straight parents) and writes poignantly of his own horizontal identity in the first chapter. Then, in chapters grouped by type of exceptionalism he profiles hundreds of families, provides historical context and shows how many, many ways there are moving through this world. Yes, some of the stories are depressing or sad, but so many are hopeful and beautiful. This book is messy and it will make you think.
From what I've read, each chapter feels like a book in itself. (Besides the horizontal identities I mentioned above, Solomon writes about autistic people, severely disabled people, prodigies, people born of rape and criminals.) Far From the Tree is thoughtful and respectful and encourages readers to make their own conclusions. I am enjoying it very much and can't wait for some extended reading time over Thanksgiving.
It's hard to choose an excerpt for this post, since the real value in the book comes from taking in the many different experiences of the families Solomon talks to. But those stories are long and nuanced and don't lend themselves to a short excerpt. So, here's an excerpt that might make you think a bit about cochlear implants and the experience of children born deaf. (I had always assumed that the implants were a good thing—full stop . . . and had never considered the devices as a threat to Deaf identity and community.)
The question, really, is how we define the relationship between parents and children. A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them. Now, children are empowered. But parents still decide what their children should wear, what they should eat, when they should sleep, and so on. Are decisions about bodily integrity also properly the province of parents? Some opponents of implants have proposed that people make their own choice when they turn eighteen. Even putting aside the neural issues that make this impractical, it is a flawed proposition. At eighteen, you are choosing not simply between being deaf and being hearing, but between the culture you have known and the life you have not. By then, your experience of the world has been defined by being deaf, and to give it up is to reject whom you have become.
Children with implants have experienced social difficulties; if the objective of the implants is to make the children feel good about themselves, the results are mixed. Some become what William Evans of the University of California has called "culturally homeless," neither hearing nor Deaf. The population at large does not like threats to binaries; binaries drive homophobia and racism and xenophobia, the constant impulse to define an us and a them. The wall between hearing and deaf is being broken down by a broad range of technology: hearing aids and implants that create what some activists call the "cyborg mix," bodies that are physically enhanced in some way.
Though some implanted adolescents disconnect them in their teen years, most perceive them as extremely useful. In one study from 2002, two-thirds of parents reported that their children had never refused to use the implant; there is presumably more adolescent resistance to, for example seat belts.
What are you reading today?
The Orchard by Theresa Weir
Grand Central • $24.99 • published September 21, 2011
Ever since reading the first paragraph of Kelly Blewett's review of The Orchard, I have wanted to read this memoir. Here's the part that caught my eye:
Theresa Weir, better known as prolific suspense writer Anne Frasier, admits she received a lukewarm reception when she approached her publishing contacts about her latest book idea. “They wanted thrillers, Anne Frasier books,” she explains in the acknowledgements. Instead, Weir offers readers a heartfelt story about her own life. In fact, though the book is categorized as a memoir, the recognizably gothic feel of the descriptions and the suspense-filled plot, as well as the extensive disclaimer in the opening pages, make it clear this finely wrought story portrays a particular, and partly fictionalized, perspective.
"Come live with me."
Had I heard right? I had a buzz going, and maybe the roar in my head had distorted his words.
"There's a house on the farm that's supposed to be for me." He took a drag from his cigarette. The tip glowed, and I could briefly see his face, his eyes squinted against the smoke. "It's tiny. Originally built for apple pickers."
What I had known as my life changed in a matter of seconds. Like finding out you'd put a puzzle together all wrong. I dumped the pieces and began reconstructing, creating a completely new picture.
Did he mean what he was saying, or was it something he wouldn't give any thought to, come morning?
I didn't want him to think this was what I'd been angling for, because it wasn't. "Move in together . . . Wow. I don't know . . ." My response was cautious with a touch of disinterest.
"Not move in together. Get married. We'd have to get married."
If we hadn't been the only two people there, I would have looked over my shoulder to see if he was talking to someone else. Married. We'd barely just met. "You're drunk." I held my breath.
"Not that drunk."
Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
Grand Central • $27.99 • ISBN 9780446584975
on sale September 13, 2011
Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has written more than 15 books, worked for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967 and been on television for 40 years. While his memoir Life Itself covers every major moment in Ebert's life, it is more than anything an example of why he has become such a preeminent cultural voice.
On the set of the show, between actually taping segments, we had a rule that there could be no discussion of the movies under review. So we attacked each other with one-liners. Buzz Hannan, our floor director, was our straight man, and the cameramen supplied our audience. For example:
Me: "Don't you think you went a little over the top in that last review?"
Gene: "Spoken like the gifted Haystacks Calhoun tribute artist that you are."
"Haystacks was loved by his fans as a charming country boy."
"Six hundred and forty pounds of rompin' stompin' charm. Oh, Rog? Are those two-tone suedes, or did you step in some chicken shit?"
"You can borrow them whenever you wear your white John Travolta disco suit from Saturday Night Fever."
Buzz: "Yeah, when are you gonna wear it on the show?"
"He wanted to wear it today, but it's still at the tailor shop having the crotch taken in."
Buzz: "Ba-ba-ba-boom !"
Will you be reading Ebert's memoir when it comes out in September?
Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich
Doubleday • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385533928
on sale July 12, 2011
Sex on the Moon is about Thad Roberts, a bold, geeky NASA intern who falls in love—then steals moon rocks to prove it. (According to the book's subtitle, this is "the most audacious heist in history.") BookPage contributor Jay MacDonald interviewed Mezrich for our July issue, and the piece is worth a read for the behind-the-scene glimpse at what goes into writing such a complex, true-life story (a challenge when NASA names you persona non grata).
This book doesn't go on sale until next week, but read this excerpt for a taste of Mezrich's artful storytelling:
It was a moment every true scientist knew well—although it wasn't something quantifiable, it wasn't something you could predict or reverse-engineer or data-map or even really describe—but it was a moment that anyone who had spent time sequestered in a lab or behind a computer screen or at a blackboard, chalk billowing down in angry stormlike clouds, could identify, if not define.
Thad has his own word for it: serenity. The moment when the act of science organically shifted into the art of science; when even the most mundane, choreographed procedures achieved such a rhythm that they became invisible chords of a single violin lost in the complexity of a perfect symphony. Minutes shifting into a state of timelessness, where the world seemed frozen but Thad was somehow moving forward: content, fulfilled free.
The project itself was far from spectacular. Slicing away at a piece of volcanic rock using a tiny diamond-tipped saw while keeping track of every microscopic wisp of volcanic dust—accurately documenting the final weight of the sample that was left behind. The work was painstaking, but the volcanic rock was just a stand-in, like the mocked-up cockpit of the space shuttle. It was supposed to represent something infinitely more valuable. A chunk of the moon, hand-delivered more than thirty years ago by men whose names were enshrined in history books. For Thad, it didn't matter that the procedure was little more than a dress rehearsal. The process itself had overtaken him, and in that moment he was truly lost in the art of the science.
The Girl's Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp
Harlequin • $16.95 • ISBN 9780373892358
Unable to find work after losing her job during the recession in 2008, Brianna Karp moved into a trailer in a Walmart parking lot. She spent her days applying for jobs thanks to Starbucks' internet connection, figuring out where to shower for free, refilling water jugs and otherwise trying to make a life without an address, electricity, a water hookup or any family support.
Karp's memoir, The Girl's Guide to Homelessness, chronicles this difficult experience. You'll get sucked into this unconventional survival story because Karp has an intimate and direct voice from page one.
In this excerpt, Karp reflects on her own ideas about homelessness—before she joined the ranks of the homeless herself:
I had never much thought about homelessness or homeless people. Sure, there was the occasional "hobo" on the street, perhaps lounging on the sidewalk outside a 7-Eleven, begging for change, ragged, perhaps with a worn ski cap on, maybe missing a few teeth, with scraggly hair and a wizened visage.
"Don't make eye contact with them," my mother would say, jerking me to her side, not even bothering to whisper or even lower her voice. She spoke about them as if they couldn't hear or understand her, or as if they had no feelings to hurt. I never really thought to question that. It was just another stereotype repeated to me, ad nauseam, from infancy . . .
I was ashamed of myself, thinking back on it. In a way, this was my atonement, my penance for being so self-righteous all those years. Serves me right, I realized wildly.
It was Thursday, February 26, 2009. I was homeless.
What are you reading today?
Townie by Andre Dubus III
W.W. Norton • $25.95 • ISBN 9780393064667
February 28, 2011
Set in a depressed Massachusetts town, Andre Dubus III's memoir is tough and poignant and hard to read. This is a world where kids get beat up and stolen from; they attempt suicide, deal drugs and have casual sex, and parents struggle to provide three (even one) meals a day. Though we know the outcome of this story going in—Dubus III eventually writes House of Sand and Fog—you'll read with the same anticipation you might feel while watching a hard-scrabble sports movie (think The Fighter). And it doesn't hurt that Dubus III writes clean, beautiful sentences. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the iron-pumping, class-skipping kid with the man who becomes a writer.
In Townie, the narrator's dad, short story writer Andre Dubus, moves out after he and his wife divorce. Dubus III and his three siblings live with their mom in a series of small dirty houses in rough neighborhoods while their dad lives in faculty housing at a local college. The book's title comes from a derogatory term used by students at the college:
One morning between classes I cut through the student union building, its pool table and soft chairs, its serving counter where you could order a cheeseburger and coffee or hot chocolate. A group of them were over by the picture window which looked out onto the raked lawn. I heard one of them say, "That's Dubus's son. Look at him. He's such a townie."
I'd heard the word before. They used it for the men they'd see at Ronnie D's bar down in Bradford Square, the place where my father drank with students and his friends. It's where some men from the town drank, too—plumbers and electricians and millworkers, Sheetrock hangers and housepainters and off-duty cops: townies.
What are you reading today?
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure
Riverhead • $25.95 • ISBN 9781594487804
April 14, 2011
If you can relate, then have I got a book for you. Wendy McClure's charming new memoir is about her obsession with "Laura World," and her search for the truth behind the beloved series.
It's a fascinating read, and it's also quite funny. For example:
And, oh my God: I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll all my own. I wanted to wear a calico sunbonnet—or rather, I wanted to not wear a calico sunbonnet, the way Laura did, letting it hang down her back by its ties. I wanted to do chores because of those books. Carry water, churn butter, make headcheese. I wanted dead rabbits brought home for supper. I wanted to go out into the backyard and just, I don't know, grab stuff off trees, or uproot things from the ground, and bring it all inside in a basket and have my parents say, "My land! What a harvest!"
What are you reading today?