Memoir I have loved…
Is it any surprise that I love books?! The honest truth is that, after my mother took me to the library (which was often, bless her!), she let me choose a few from the stack and then hid the rest to dole out so they would last until the next library trip. (Yes, I thought this was quite cruel at the time, but to be fair, it was hard to get me to do anything but read!)
So I am very excited to get to share my favorites — and other WordPlayer’s favorites — with you. You can click on a book and learn more about it on Amazon.com, and and/or order it if you like.
I’ll be adding more books to this page soon, and creating pages for other categories as well. I’d love to hear which books you think WordPlay writers should read. Please share by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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THE GETAWAY CAR
“Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car doesn’t offer prospective writers a step-by-step guide to the craft of fiction. Instead, this primer from the highly-respected novelist mostly shares her own experiences–her childhood dream, her life as a struggling writer who sets aside her work to make ends meet, and her ultimate success, reached with the help of teacher/mentors like Russell Banks and Grace Paley. Though Patchett attributes much of her achievements to good luck and hard work, her story contains enough specific advice (“The ability to forgive oneself” is crucial, Patchett writes) and words of encouragement to make it worth a read”
— Shirley Hong
THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE
“Reading Patchett is like spending time with a deeply perceptive longtime pal, or a new friend that one instantly connects with.”
— USA Today
MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSINGS: STORIES OF STRENGTH, REFUGE, BELONGING
“Through a series of unpretentious, affecting vignettes, the author of the bestseller Kitchen Table Wisdom encourages readers to recognize and celebrate the unexpected blessings in their own lives…She gently illustrates her advice through simple yet powerful stories…[an] exceptional book.”
— Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Rachel Naomi Remen is nature’s gift to us, a genius of that elusive and crucial capacity, the human heart. She has much to teach us about healing, loving, and living.”
— Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence
One of my favorite excerpts:
After listening to Patricia’s fears for more than six months, one day I told her that for the next four weeks she was simply not allowed to be afraid. She had looked at me in confusion, unable to imagine what I had meant. Carefully I explained that I had observed that her first reaction to just about everything was fear and that when people had one reaction to everything, that reaction became suspect. In short, I did not believe that all her fear was true.
Abruptly she had become angry, telling me that I was not compassionate and indeed did not see her or understand her. “No,” I said, “I believe that after all these months I do see you. This fear that has so little to do with who you are got in the way.”
Calmer, she asked again what it was I was suggesting that she do. She reminded me that she experienced fear many times every day. “I know,” I told her, “and I am proposing an experiment.” I suggested that whenever she felt fear that she think of it as only her first response to whatever was happening. The most familiar response, as it were. I encouraged her to look for and find her second response and follow that. “Ask yourself, ‘If I was not afraid, if I were not allowed to be afraid, how would I respond to what is happening?’” She was reluctant, but she agreed to try.
At first, Patricia had been discouraged to notice how many times she experienced fear every day. But she was surprised to find that often she could step past her initial stab of fear with some ease and that then she had a wide variety of different reactions to the events in her life. It had never occurred to her to challenge her fear in this way before.
After a few weeks, she even began to wonder whether she, herself, was afraid. For the first time she questioned if the fear that had been her life’s companion was just a sort of habit, a knee-jerk response to life that she had learned years ago. Over the next few months whenever she felt fear, she would stop and ask herself if it were true, looking closely to see if she really was afraid. Surprisingly often, she discovered she was not.
Over time, she found that she was not afraid to submit her work to others, not afraid to try when she was not sure she could succeed, not afraid to speak out in defense of her values, not afraid to introduce herself to someone and offer them her help, not afraid to confront an angry person. Her mother had been afraid of all these things.
Staying safe had been the most important thing in her mother’s life. Slowly Patricia came to realize that it was not the most important thing in hers. Her mother had lived a narrow and unhappy life. It had been a close call. “Rachel,” she told me, “if you carry someone else’s fear and live by someone else’s values, you may find that you have lived their lives.”
As a child, I was surrounded by my father’s fear. Many years ago as I was trying to sort myself out from the ways I had lived and inhabit the way that I am, my companion in the process, a therapist, had given me the gift of an exquisite antique silver bracelet. She had it engraved with the single word clear.
She had known that a silver bracelet was something that I would take seriously. For more than a year I never took it off. A few months after she gave it to me, I asked her why she had had it engraved with the word clear and not with my name. “Look it up,” she said, “but only in a very large dictionary.”
I looked it up in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language and found that it had more than sixty meanings, many of which have to do with freedom: free from obstruction; free from guilt; free from blame; free from confusion; free from entanglement; free from limitation; free from debt; free from impurities; free from suspicion; free from illusion; free from doubt; free from uncertainty; free from ambiguity; and so on. And, of course, its ultimate meaning, which is “able to serve perfectly in the passage of light.”
Sometimes it takes a lifetime to become clear. No matter. It may be the most worthwhile way to spend the time.
from Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging
— Maureen, WordPlay facilitator
ONE HUNDRED NAMES FOR LOVE: A MEMOIR
— Abraham Verghese, New York Times Book Review
“A testament to the power of creativity in language, life―and love.”
― Heller McAlpin, Washington Post
One of my favorite excerpts:
There was a time, long ago, when all names described personal attributes, origin, or the hopes of parents, when names could be allegories that determined someone’s fate. A time when naming was magic, knowledge, possession, and a shaman could inflict injury by mishandling someone’s name. A time when you only shared your true name with someone you completely trusted. What spells Paul and I had cast with our secret names for one another.
Passing by the back door, when Liz [a caregiver who helped with Paul’s caretaking as he recovered from a severe stroke] and Paul were wading at the shallow end of the pool, I heard her ask him, “Do you have a pet name for Diane?”
His face fell as if touched by a taser. “Used to have . . . hundreds,” he said with infinite sadness. “Now I can’t think of one.”
It was true. Once upon a time, in the Land of Before, Paul had so many pet names for me I was a one-woman zoo. Now it was as if a mass extinction had taken place, all the totemic animals we shared had vanished. The veldt of our love was less noisy, the fauna of the watering holes sparse. He understood how much I missed the romantic, frisky hobgoblins like Elf-heart he used to invent for me, the strange cuddly creatures of forest and sky he tricked out with diminutives and recruited for our private fun. In our mythology there were golden baby owls, ring-tailed lemurs, axolotls, shoulder rabbits, honeybunnies, bunnyskins (a.k.a. peaux de lapin), hopping spiders, roseate spoonbills, and many more.
He wished he could revisit that private bridge to the supernatural world, which we had crossed and recrossed with ritual devotion. But he couldn’t find it in the mob of words elbowing one another for attention.
So I began teaching him some of his old favorites—swan, pilot-poet, baby angel—and he recognized them. Other times he sighed “my precious,” “my little sweetheart,” or “my cute.” Was he really once master of the piropos, that adorable Argentine courtship game? A secret poetry of amorous, flirtatious compliments, piropos are public yet private, usually whispered to a woman as she passes close beside an anonymous admirer.
“If beauty were a sin, you’d never be forgiven,” a man might sigh to a woman in Buenos Aires. Or: “You move like the Bolshoi Ballet.” Or: “So many curves, and me without brakes.” Or, simply: “Goddess!”
“My legume,” Paul murmured romantically, trying to say “My Lady,” and I giggled before I could stop myself.
Then we both slid into laughter at the thought of his romantic inclination for a lima bean or lentil. But slowly, heartfully, the endearments were beginning to emerge again. Aphasics are often good at echoing, and if I told him that I loved being his little bush-kitten, thus prompted, he’d repeat in imitation “my little bush-kitten,” and I’d coo appreciatively to reinforce his efforts. I knew Paul needed the tangible bond of naming during his famine of words; and he knew I needed the nourishment during my long days of caregiving.
“Why don’t you make up some brand-new names?” I suggested to Paul one morning.
His first offering—after ruminating for a few minutes—was: “Celandine Hunter.” Not a deliberately chosen twosome. The words just tumbled out like dice.
“Celandine? . . . Oh yes, buttercups. How sweet! “We had celandine sprouting wild in the garden, and I often strolled to gather them in springtime.
“Where on earth did that come from?” I asked.
He didn’t know, but was pleased and surprised by it. This was a new pier where aphasia’s merry-go-round of words could be welcomed in a colorful and creative way. Instead of trying to block wrong words from popping out, he made space for them. Before the stroke he would have had to purposefully “free-associate” to do the same thing. Now he opened the floodgates in order to create. In search of a piropo, he could unleash the hounds of aphasia for a second or two. One piropo was all he could manage at a time, he told me, it was too taxing. But I think the truth lay deeper, that it was too frightening to invite the aphasia any more than that. Turning it off and on like a valve empowered him. What he didn’t want was the leaky trickle of chaotic words.
The next day, on waking, I cajoled Paul for another and he chewed his mental cud and provided: “Swallow Haven.” He didn’t always have a sassy sobriquet for me each day—”Sorry, later,” he’d say to excuse not being in good tune—but on many mornings he was able to freshly mint a new pet name. When they started following a pattern too much, such as the “__ of __,” I’d protest and beg him to conjure up a novel variation. My intent, along with added play time, was fun practice at creative imagery, a seemingly lost gift. Since aphasics’ brains often snag on one word or sentence or way of doing something, this wasn’t always easy few him. (I wondered if, with the usual pathways broken, some signals looped round and round in a cul-de-sac.) But from then on names arrived, spoken as we snuggled in bed, such marvels as “Little Moonskipper of the Tumbleweed Factory,” “My Snowy Tanganyika,” “Spy Elf of the Morning Hallelujahs,” “My Little Spice Owl,” “The Epistle of Paul to the Rumanian Songthrushers,” “Blithe Sickness of Araby,” “Baby Angel with the Human Antecede Within,” “Little Plavanoid Wonder,” “Rheostat of Sentimental Dreaming,” “My Remains of the Day, My Residue of Night,” “Lovely Ampersand of the Morning,” and “0 Parakeet of the Lissome Star.”
What a surprise! I cherished these riotous, spell-cast endearments and wondered what fantastic gallantry he might utter anew each morning. Even if some seemed to go awry, like “Blithe Sickness of Araby!”
“I love Blithe and Araby,” I said, but . . . could you maybe find a word other than sickness?” When nothing sprang to mind, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “Best can do.” They only emerged as amalgams.
“My little corn-crake,” he whispered tenderly, and I made contented creatural noises into his neck as he caressed my cheek and ear, then wrapped both arms tightly around me, locking me into our circle of love. In those moments, which were really hours, I came to rest, warmed by his irregular heartbeat, free of worry’s albatross, feeling safe at last.
Whether whacky or tender, the names spiraled in ways that always made me laugh and feel loved, courtship restored. The old pet names and piropos from before the stroke—”Swan heart,” or “Park” (short for “You are a park for my eyes”)—had evolved over time, acquiring layers of meaning. But I also treasured the new, more hallucinatory ones, forged on demand, as aphasic telegrams from his phoenix-feathered brain.
And Paul loved playing the swain again, even if it meant difficult and tiring word-craft, and he had fun concocting verbal novelties, offered to me as miniature gifts. It also guaranteed that, whatever else might unfold, each day would begin with closeness and a dose of laughter. (from chapter 26)
— Maureen, WordPlay facilitator
AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD
“A vivid and thoughtful evocation of particular personal experiences that have an exuberantly timeless appeal.”
— Chicago Sun-Times
Two of my favorite quotes:
“What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.”
What’s a heart for?”
— Maureen, WordPlay facilitator
THE BARN AT THE END OF THE WORLD:
The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd
One of my favorite quotes: “…I do not think, however, that a memoir is intrinsically more truthful than a novel. Indeed, the diarist should remind herself daily how subjective her occupation is, because she the overwhelming advantage and responsibility of inscribing her version of events. She should keep in mind, at least—as should her readers—the old country-and-western song, ‘We live in a two-storey house. She has her story and I have mine.'”
Another of my favorite quotes: “…I can leave a new dress hanging until it goes out of style. That crisp sizing puts me off. Drive a pickup over something a few times and I may put it on.”
Yet another: “…God sides with the weird—whatever is “spare, strange,” “fickle, freckled,” writes Gerard Manley—but humankind does not. Remember junior high?”
— Maureen, WordPlay facilitator
“Author Mary Rose O’Reilley is decidedly eclectic. She confidently blends sheep tending with her Quaker background as well as her passion for Mahayana Buddhism (a form of Buddhism taught by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh). This may sound like the recipe for a soup of spiritual mush, but nothing could be further from the truth. Like Anne Lamott, O’Reilley also happens to be a hysterically funny storyteller who understands the importance of humility when writing spiritual autobiography. (One reviewer called O’Reilley a “social anthropologist from the Planet Mongo, a stand-up mystic going for the belly laugh…”)
Whether she’s talking about grief over dying lambs, the plague of Monkey Mind, flipping sheep, or a barnyard fashion crisis, O’Reilley keeps her metaphors down to earth and her epiphanies humble. The structure is especially inviting: a collection of brief essays of only about three to five pages each. But this collection also reads like a journey with a beginning and an end. It starts with O’Reilley as a college professor who decides to try some part-time animal husbandry at a local farm and ends with her finding a new direction in life that we can only hope will inspire her to write a sequel.”
—Book Description on Amazon
SAFEKEEPING: Some True Stories from a Life
“Safekeeping is written in a completely unexpected form—it is comprised of small, astonishing moments which have been strung together in a wholly fresh and gorgeous way. Many of these moments are handles in the brevity of a paragraph, consistently humble and beautiful; a palm which has been opened for us. . . What’s so amazing about this book is its refusal to contain life within a neat, linear framework . . . Thomas has given an honest shape to the fluidity of memory . . . I gobbled this book down, all in one sitting. And then in did it again, wishing there were more of it.”
A friend of mine gave me a copy of this amazing book after she encountered it in her MFA program. “I think you’ll love it,” she said. I did. And I do. I turn to it over and over again to show my students that you can tell a whole story in tiny, lyrical pieces–and mixing points of view can be illuminating. Warm. Funny. Honest. Messy in the best way. Poignant.
— Maureen, WordPlay facilitator
BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
“In the more than twenty-five years since she co-founded Omega Institute—In the more than twenty-five years since she co-founded Omega Institute—now the world’s largest center for spiritual retreat and personal growth—Elizabeth Lesser has been an intimate witness to the ways in which people weather change and transition. In a beautifully crafted blend of moving stories, humorous insights, practical guidance, and personal memoir, she offers tools to help us make the choice we all face in times of challenge: Will we be broken down and defeated, or broken open and transformed? Lesser shares tales of ordinary people who have risen from the ashes of illness, divorce, loss of a job or a loved one—stronger, wiser, and more in touch with their purpose and passion. And she draws on the world’s great spiritual and psychological traditions to support us as we too learn to break open and blossom into who we were meant to be.”
— Book Description on Amazon
My book club is reading this book, which I could describe as, to borrow a line from an iconic movie “like a box of chocolates.” Rich. Flavored with the salty, the sweet, a haunting depth of spirit. Studded with delicious chapter titles, like “What Einstein Knew,” “Fierce Grace,” “Chimidunchik” (Yiddish for baggage). Wow! I got my money’s worth from this chapter alone. I love books that make me laugh, make me think, bring tears to my eyes. This is one of them.
— Maureen, WordPlay facilitator
WHAT COMES NEXT AND HOW TO LIKE IT
LOOKING BACK: A Book of Memories