Don’t expect great literary style, clever construction, or deep philosophy of like in My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. What you will find is a great story of a Communist country refugee (from the Istrian peninsula of Italy, which was annexed by Yugoslavia after WWII) who found great success in the US as an Italian restaurateur and TV chef. The best parts of the story are when she describes her childhood experience of moving first to a refugee camp and then to New York. An intriguing personal story, especially at a time when refugees are not always welcome.
With JELL-O Girls: A Family History, I was expecting a history of the brand and the book provides some glimpses of it, but it’s really an opportunity for the author to tell the sad story of her mother’s life, molded (pun intended) and limited by the expectations of the time much more than the family inheritance, and ended prematurely in a protracted, wretched bout with cancer. Basically we are reminded that money does not deliver happiness, especially when health is lacking.
The author of In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult grew up in an evangelical cult that kept its members separate from the world, which they saw as controlled by Satan and harshly shunned anyone who broke rules that became more and more restrictive. Her father eventually left the cult and the book reflects on a child’s experience of living in a closed community and then breaking out of it. It’s a very hopeful book, since the author was able to build a successful life and even reconcile with her father, but a great reminder of the danger of communities where absolute power is held by a handful of men.
It’s probably cruel to say that a memoir that includes cancer treatment and a family’s barely avoiding annihilation during the Holocaust feels very thin, and yet that’s what I concluded after reading There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story. I’m no fan of the author’s dismal Bringing up Bebe, but I was hopeful that her thoughts about aging would be less grating. They are, barely. She opens with a banal musing about being called “Madame” rather than “Mademoiselle” (does it sound less trite in French? I think not) and then shares a series of not particularly original thoughts such as “Wisdom can increase with age, but it’s not a given.” The main course is organizing a threesome for her husband’s fortieth birthday, a disturbing and voyeuristic description that I’m afraid her bebes may wonder about in a few years…
Don’t get me wrong, there are some sharply observed comments (about fashion for the no-long young in particular) and very funny moments about awkward social occasions. But surely as midlifers we know we could be reading something better.
The author of No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming of Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine tells of her medical school years in Galveston, Texas, working at a free clinic that treats patients with sometimes life-threatening diseases on a budget that prevents much meaningful care. She alternates between sometimes hilarious stories of her training (the description of the training for gynecological exams is particularly amusing), personal calamities, and the work at the clinic, which inconveniently suffers major damage during a hurricane. She of course attacks the US medical system, with good cause. What made the book valuable for me was the direct, personal experience rather than the (occasional, and well-deserved) rants.
Can I say that a book is hilarious when it talks about the lonely death of the author’s addicted sister? And his late mother, who seemed to have drunk herself to death? That’s part of the charm of David Sedaris’s latest collection of stories , strangely named Calypso (he has a track record of strange titles): he is not afraid to talk about the sad parts of life, and talk about them again. That’s not to say that there are not purely (or mostly) happy moments in the book: playing Sorry with his ruthless niece, feeding the neighborhood fox on the sly, or constructing a perfect couple for the benefits of house guests. The descriptions of the relationship with his boyfriend is indeed one of the pleasures of the book, with all the silly little wars that long-term partners can wage in between the realization that he is, actually, a very good person.
Clemantine Wamariya was only 6 when the Rwandan genocide started, and she and her older sister took off on what would be an eight-country odyssey, eventually resettling int he United States after years of living in refugeee camps. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After alternates between the present and the past, with her older sister marrying an aid worker because she saw no other safe outcome for her and her sister (the man turned out to be a cad and a violent one at that), and constantly hustling for survival. Clemantine is ultimately adopted by a generous American family and attends a prestigious university, while her sister cleans hundreds of hotel room to feed her three children, and they both find it very difficult to reestablish a relationship with their parents, who turn out to have survived as well.
The story speaks eloquently of refugees and how we could (but don’t) help them, and even more sadly of the emotional consequences of conflict long after buildings have been rebuilt and prosperity restored.