Category Archives: True story

** Air Traffic by Gregory Pardlo

Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America mixes memories of the author’s father, a complicated man who eventually left the family, and the author’s own life as a adult. His father’s life made for the most compelling parts of the book, I thought. A smart man living in blatantly racist times, he had to fight for everything: his good government job (until Reagan fired all striking air traffic controllers), housing, and education for himself and his children. The author’s life,  centered around his alcoholism, seemed a bit too navel-gazing, although there were some funny moments, as when he is asked to join a televised intervention for his alcoholic brother and wonders how he can be fit to do that.

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* Running Home by Katie Arnold

Long-distance running has its fans, of which I’m not. I can’t imagine anything more tedious than running for hours (actually, I can: training for one-distance running!) and this book confirmed that the narration of long-distance races cannot raise above the level of tedious, for me at least.

That said, this book is a memoir, and long-distance running came rather late in the author’s life, helping her recover from the death of her father– thereby proving that it can be  a useful activity. So we get a good 150 pages that are about her relationship with her father, who left her mother and her sister when she was a child and for whom she had fulsome and unquestioned love and admiration, until she finally confronted the not-so-perfect aspects of his personality as she cleaned up his archives. That part of the book is very touching.

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*** The World According to Fannie Davis by Bridgett Davis

The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers is the story of a fascinating woman, the author’s mother, who ran a successful (illegal) lottery in Detroit for decades. In a less racist environment, she would have managed a much larger business. She is shown balancing her work and her family, including a disabled husband and five children, and helping quite a number of young women through tough times.

A second, strong theme is the sad transformation of Detroit into a violent and very poor city, adding to her private problems in addition to her business problem, competition from the state lottery. The story meanders and repeats itself at times, but it’s well worth reading.

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*** The Elephant in the Room by Tommy Tomlinson

The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America starts with a startlingly candid self-assessment of the author’s body as a sphere, he who can only shop in the one store that carries size 6X clothes, and has trouble fitting into restaurant booths, or climb stairs. Shaken his sister’s death, he undertakes a slow diet and describes his progress, along with his life as a journalist and husband, and various observations of what it’s like to live in a very large body. It’s a good story for thin people to read.

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** Old in Art School by Nell

The author, a retired historian, decides to go to art school, and describes her experience of getting both a BFA and an MFA. She astutely shows how difficult it can be to be so much older than the other students in  Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. While she is adjusting to her life as a student, including the ruthless (and apparently unstructured, and quite biased) critique sessions, she also has to contend with her aging parents, who live on the other side of the country and need her, again and again, as they become sicker (and eventually die). She also explores the big question of what art is. Who decides? and who makes the rules of which artists will encounter success.

I found it ironic how, in the midst of her very real struggles coping as a student, she often feels the need to remind us of how established she is, prizes she’s won, historian associations she has chaired. Surely part of being a student is having to leave the string of achievements from our prior life, right?

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*** Solitary by Alfred Woodfox

The author of Solitary spent over 40 years in the Angola prison of Louisiana, most of it alone in a cell 23 hours a day, and almost all of it for a crime he did not commit. He freely admits that his life pre-prison was mostly spent on the wrong side of the law, but nothing that would send him away for that long, or under such a harsh treatment. Racism was at the center of the prison (just as a very mild example, the guards were called “freemen”) and institutional racism meant that framing an African-American man for murder was swiftly arranged.  It’s a miracle that he got out, and as undamaged as he did.

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* Joy Enough by Sarah McColl

The author of Joy Enough was unlucky enough to see her mother sicken and die and her husband walk out on her at the same time. Such bad luck! And there are a few heart-melting moments in the memoir, as when the members of her mother’s book club show up, spontaneously, to clean the house after her death. But the story, however tragic, seems rather ordinary otherwise.

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