Tag Archives: memoir

Finding Elevation by Lisa Thompson

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Finding Elevation by Lisa Thompson

Thompson, Lisa. Finding Elevation. Girl Friday, 2023. 244 pp. ISBN 9781954854673. $25.95

****

As of of February 2021, 377 people have completed a summit of K2, while 91 have died trying. Clearly, author Lisa Thompson lived to the tell the tale, but the question of “did she summit?” will pull you through this fascinating book.

Mountaineering is so foreign to me that books on the topic read almost like fantasy novels–the icy, alien, high altitude terrain, the endurance of climbing for twenty hours straight, the sheer psychological willpower over the elements. And yet… I have been fascinated by Mount Everest since Into Thin Air was published, and there is no better armchair travel for me than reading about climbing 8,000 meter tall rocks. Thompson, hailing from the plains of Illinois, has peakbagged not only the tallest mountain in the world–Mt. Everest–but also the slightly lower, more deadly K2 in Pakistan. This succinct and well-written memoir follows her journey from a challenging family life with an alcoholic father to a crumbling marriage to an alcoholic husband; from a career competing with boys in tech to the freedom of climbing mountains alongside hiking bros who aren’t much better; from backpacking trips in the late 1990s along the River Hoh to Mt. Rainer to K2.

While Mallory famously said he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there,” it takes Thompson many years, a lot of money, and a lot of steps to get to her WHY, but she does get there, and what a ride she takes the reader on. If anything, she is so honest and matter-of-fact about the deadly realities of hiking in icy, below-zero, low oxygen conditions that it is almost downplayed. She isn’t in it for fame or the adrenaline rush and(though it would have been nice to be the first, not second, American woman to summit K2. Those not familiar with hiking terminology may have to do some googling, but most things are defined in context fairly well, without a hiking jargon tone.

In addition to the climbing narrative, Thompson drops in personal details, also in an almost detached, just the facts manner. OH–and she’s a breast cancer survivor. Basically had surgery and kept training, and then got reconstructive surgery right before hiking Everest. She doesn’t seem to need our empathy, and thus earns it, but also? She is a badass, and this memoir from a woman lifts up other women, brings feminism and misogyny into the hiking elite conversation, and does it with class. Never feeling like she belonged, was valued or was good enough was hellish to go through, but it built a woman with massive accomplishments and thanks her detractors for the motivation provided by hearing “no” or “you can’t.”

The design is clever – each chapter is headed with an elevation, and a line graph of the two major mountains in her life. It is a visual progress and puts the journey into context. Some breathtaking landscape photos at the end, and one satisfying selfie from the summit of K2 are appended. Even though I knew how this was going to end, I could not put it down once I started it.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #FindingElevation from #NetGalley.

Fly Girl by Ann Hood

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Fly Girl by Ann Hood

Hood, Ann. Fly Girl. W.W. Norton & Company, 2022. 288 pp. ISBN 978-1324006237 $26.95
***

You’ll never forget your first (flight). It was 1986. My dad and brother got to come all the way to gate to see us off, and my mom and I flew to Ohio from Boston’s Logan International Airport over April vacation when I was in sixth grade (I missed a Girl Scout field trip to Martha’s Vineyard to go). I had a bag of second-hand books to read, we were seating the smoking section to accomodate my mother’s vice, and I got to peek in the cockpit before getting pinned with a pair of gold plastic wings. I immediately wanted to be a stewardess when I grew up. Since then, I’ve flown countless times in the contintental US and Canada, on standby for free courtesy of a friend who worked for Delta and always make a point to park and go when I’m picking someone up. Post 9/11, you can’t go all the way to the gate anymore without special permission, but I think it’s nice to see a friendly face waiting as close to the arrivals gate as allowed.

I’ve been a fan of Hood since I heard her keynote at a MA Library Association conference luncheon, which lead me to her book Comfort (about the loss of her five-year-old daughter quite unexpectedly to a virulent case of strep), and then on to read two of her historical novels, The Italian Wife and The Obituary Writer. In her new memoir Fly Girl, she details her coming of age as a young flight attendant for TWA in the golden age of aviation from the glamour: exotic destinations! handsome strangers! the chateaubriand and made to order sundaes in first class! brushes with celebrity! to the gritty: the sexism! the strikes! the passenger who OD’d in the restroom! the men who one after another followed a “colleague” into a restroom for their turn to join the mile-high club.

Eye-opening for present day travelers, Hood recalls the grueling job application process (more like a casting call), the weigh-ins, and the write-up for not wearing lipstick; the expectation that the average stewardess would find a husband in less than a year and a half;

More compelling is the grave reminder that flight attendees are highly trained to act in an emergency, highly skilled at negotiating tense situations, and there to serve as first responders, FIRST–and THEN as the people who kindly bring a beverage or airsick bag.

Buckle your seatbelts: while this tell-all tastefully refrains from mentioning specific names or flights, it is a bumpy ride through a few short years. The air travel becomes fodder for not only her writing (drafts were penned from a jumpseat on flights) but her knitting (which other novels center around), and art imitates life as a character in the Obituary Writer was a flight attendant for a short time before meeting her husband. This is a compelling story but could have used with slightly stronger editing. Told mostly chronologically, I would have loved even more detail about places, people and food; some details are redundant. Still, this is a strong addition to library collections; recommend alongside popular pilot podcasts (my favorite is 74 Gear) and flight attendant podcasts (my favorite is Fly With Stella).

I checked Fly Girl out of my local library.

Life After Windows by Inez Ribustello

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Life After Windows by Inez Ribustello

Ribustello, Inez. Life After Windows. Redwood Publishing, 2021. ISBN 978-1956470079 280 pp. $15.99

**

I was expecting a memoir in tribute to the personalities, survivors and victims, that worked in the esteemed restaurant and bars at the top of the World Trade Center, with more insight on how 9/11 shattered and rebuilt the sommelier author’s life. There was a lot of wine and restaurant and culinary character name-dropping, a lot of detail about training to become a sommelier that would have been a great book in it’s own right, and not enough juicy details of a failing marriage to understand what put it on the rocks and the struggle to get back, and way too much about IBS.

Mostly, the book suffers from poor editing. It presents as a chronology, but gives away details (like that Inie had a second child, when it’s clear the first was unplanned and not wanted), and repeats details, as if chapters were not written in order and assembled without a final close read. The author doesn’t present as particularly likeable – an entitled party girl unaware of her own privilege who attempts to redeem herself at the end of the book by referencing the diversity of Tarboro and Black Lives Matter. The tenses change – past tense until Sept 11, and then present test for the grueling weeks that follow. A long letter to the The Court of Master Sommeliers is a meandering side note, as are sample? verbatim? emails and Christmas greetings.

I’m so sorry for so much loss, and what the author experienced, and it’s amazing she refound faith in Jesus and ending up making a culinary career even if she never achieved Master Sommelier status. That said, I hope her children are compassionate when they read this memoir and learn their dad vehemently was opposed to kids… or when they revisit the time after she took her 10-year-old son to see Pitch Perfect 3 he made a joke about his cranky pubescent sister being on her period, their mom thought that was hilarious, instead of teaching him about rape culture and why that’s not a funny joke.

My Life in Plants: Flowers I’ve Loved, Herbs I’ve Grown, and Houseplants I’ve Killed on the Way to Finding Myself by Katie Vaz

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My Life in Plants: Flowers I’ve Loved, Herbs I’ve Grown, and Houseplants I’ve Killed on the Way to Finding Myself by Katie Vaz

Vaz, Katie. My Life in Plants: Flowers I’ve Loved, Herbs I’ve Grown, and Houseplants I’ve Killed on the Way to Finding Myself. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2020. ISBN 978-1524859602 144 pp. $

***

Short sweet vignettes, in chronological order, of plants loved and lost, given and received. Charming illustrations, simple writing, nearly graphic memoir.

Alone Together: My Life With J. Paul Getty by Theodora Getty Gaston

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Alone Together: My Life With J. Paul Getty by Theodora Getty Gaston

Gaston, Theodora Getty. Alone Together: My Life With J. Paul Getty. Ecco, 2016. ISBN 978-0062219725 320 pp. $

***

This memoir by the fifth! wife of oil baron J. Paul Getty reflects on their fabulous and charming relationship. He was a miser and flirt. She was a trained opera singer. It was attraction at first sight when he saw her singing in a nightclub. The passion was real, but Getty, the nation’s first billionaire, was a tycoon first, and the couple spent almost as much time apart as together.

Told with the long view of nearly 100 years on earth, the breathless stream of consciousness style of the telling propels a dramatic narrative of the glitz and glamour of the gilded age is tempered with the death of their son from a brain tumor. This tale is a glimpse into not only a bygone era, but a woman’s heart.

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell

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Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell

Julie Powell. Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.  Little, Brown and Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0316042512 400 pp. $12.99

****

Julie and Julia is a little like a meta book; the book deal was landed because of Powell’s blog, documenting her self-imposed challenge to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol 1. and document it. I had thought the book would just be repackaged blog entries, but it wasn’t–I almost wish they had been juxtaposed, along with actual recipes, but I supposed the rights would have been hard to get. Instead, Powell fills in more the details about the process, talks more in depth about her friends and family, and finds parallels between her life, and Julia Child’s. It’s far from a biography, but the speculative bits are based in some degree of research and add a nice dimension to the text.

The writing is a bit uneven but I like Julie Powell’s voice a lot, she’s pretty charming. The food descriptions are seductive. And, I like that she’s often pretty raw and honest – about her marriage, her shortcomings, her language. By the time I finished this book, I wanted to read Powell’s new book, Cleaving, and make eggs en cocette. Which turned out shitty, but ah well. I just had another (vodka) gimlet and ate the potatoes, which came out great.

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman

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The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman

Silverman, Sarah. The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. Harper Perennial, 2011. ISBN 978-0061856457 240 pp. $16.99

****

I tried to resist Silverman’s memoir The Bedwetter. It isn’t particularly remarkable writing in terms of eloquence, but it is highly engaging and appealing in spite of (or perhaps because of) the toilet humor. The short cleverly titled chapters are punctuated with sub-headed section breaks and photos and realia like diary entries, email exchanges and photos. I chuckled aloud at some of her stories and only the photo on page 209 gave me reservations.

The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back by Kevin Salwen & Hannah Salwen

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The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back by Kevin Salwen & Hannah Salwen

Salwen, Kevin & Hannah Salwen. The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. ISBN 978-0547248066 242 pp. $

**

This motivational tale of a family who, spurred on by their teen daughter Hannah’s altruistic desires, sold their McMansion in Atlanta GA and donated half of the proceeds to the Hunger Project is meant to demonstrate a relatable way to make a difference: choose a number, like 50%, and commit to donating or cutting that amount from your life. There are going to be some who just can’t relate to what the Salwens were are to sacrifice, or having generous neighbors who agree to slash the price on a property they are selling and donate an additional $100,000 to a charitable endeavor.

Dad Kevin shares getting caught up in the rat race to improve/upgrade with each promotion, and how being more “successful” served to fragment the family in ways they weren’t even really aware until they made changes. I read through the first half of the book, which covers the background of the family, incorporates facts about everything from world hunger to how much people donate to charity, and includes the details of what may be, to some parents, a unique and visionary decision-making process for making immense lifestyle changes: letting the votes of the children count as much of that of the parents.

High schooler Hannah lends her voice in suggesting activities for readers at regular intervals, to help them begin to make a difference in the world around them. Sharing that the son Joseph used the project to enter a documentary competition (that he won) and then squandered the majority of the prize money on a new guitar (with the agreement of the rest of the family) doesn’t sit well with me–their reasoning was it was his money, and their project was about the money from the house.

I think this could have used stronger editing. I found it repetitive in details and slow moving, and the parts by Hannah didn’t seem strategically placed, often breaking up the narrative. I don’t think her enthusiasm comes through, and she is the driving force behind the project. Tighter editing and more Hannah would make this more appealing, and convinced me to see it through all the way to the end, but I’m setting it aside.

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad

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Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad

Ollestad, Norman. Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival. Ecco, 2009. ISBN 978-0061766725 288 pp. $

***

Norm grows up on the Los Angeles beach, with a lawyer dad who worked for the FBI for awhile under Hoover, and his mom, a second grade teacher, who seem to be into CA counterculture. His stepfather Nick is a mean drunk, and he dad pushes Norm to surf and ski and road trip and experience new things, often against his wishes. On a trip home from a ski competition, the propeller plane that seems to be lacking a flight plan, appropriate equipment and instruments, and a competent pilot crashes into a mountainside. The pilot and Norm Sr. are killed on impact, leaving 11-year-old Norm Jr. alone with his father’s girlfriend. The tough life lessons imparted by his (questionable) father figures are ultimately Norm’s salvation.

The construction of the narrative, with the juxtaposition of events leading up to and following the crash–Norm’s day to day survival–with the plane crash.

While I didn’t find the writing even remotely “Hemingwayesque” as promised by the blurb on the jacket (or even good enough to hold my attention unless it was really sensational), I had some trouble picturing the mountain landscape. I liked the conclusion, with the perfect storm of coincidental and unexplainable events that lead to Norm’s rescue. Overall, this didn’t hold my attention like some of the other memoirs I’ve read recently (namely, Tattoo Machine and Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks) and it seems like it should have been riveting.

I can sense some teen appeal for those who might be into surfing or skiing, but it’s a little too much about to consider recommending it as a survival fiction read alike to say, Hatchet.