Tag Archives: memoir

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.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Kamkwamba, William and Bryan Mealer. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. William Morrow, 2009. ISBN ‎ 978-0061730320 273 pp. $

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind chronicles the story of a determined young man from an impoverished African village where people who go to bed at 7:00pm when it gets dark, who teaches himself how to build a windmill that will generate enough current to light up a lightbulb and charge cell phones. Kamkwamba overcomes adversity, schooling himself with books found in the local library, and is eventually invited to come give a TED talk in the US.

I found The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind very readable and relatable. It’s hard not to like a book about a self-motivated student who discovers the library when he can’t afford a formal education!

I liked the tone in a lot of places, like where Kamkwamba says you’ll learn more about maize reading this book that you thought possible, or something like that. There was a lot of good natured, self-deprecating humor. I also liked that he wasn’t explicit about things like prostitution, there seemed to be an underlying subtlety to some of the storytelling, that I appreciated, not that I’m one to shy away from gory details. I especially love his description of Vegas ” …women in their underpants serve free soda.”

Reading about the famine was heartbreaking and horrifying. The science stuff didn’t bother me, I liked reading about transistor radios. Processes like the scientific method are clearly and simply explained without using scientific terms, I don’t think youth will have any problems with it. I love how “What will spin the pedals so I can dance?” becomes a scientific inquiry. I did have a little trouble picturing the bird trap with the rope and rubber and bricks, even with the illustration.

I did spend some time wondering when were getting back to the engaging scene presented at the beginning of the book, where the protagonist tests the windmill for the first time. There was a VERY slow build, but given that he talks about how his father would make up stories that went on for hours, I recognize this as both a cultural thing, and maybe as a learned experience thing, and that deterred my enjoyment of the
narrative. It did pick up around chapter 9, and I found the whirlwind (ha!) of events leading up to the TED talk interesting and inspiring.