Monday, August 22, 2011

Found, by Jennifer Lauck

Jennifer Lauck comes full circle in this latest -- and self-proclaimed last -- memoir offering. Lauck's first book, "Blackbird," rightfully included on many must-read memoir lists, tells how, through a cascade of tragic childhood events, she was left to raise herself. In "Blackbird" Lauck's prose beams as she unsentimentally recounts the gruesome illness that took her adoptive mother's life, and the out-of-nowhere heart attack that killed her adoptive father. All this, and she was only ten. Left in the care of an unstable, uncaring woman, she was ultimately abandoned at a commune, where she worked while attending school.

Lauck's subsequent memoirs tell of further struggles, and how, as an adult, her life was impacted by earlier events. Lauck was separated from her brother when her adoptive parents died. As a young adult her brother commits suicide, and Lauck, then an investigative reporter, delves into her brother's story, searching for answers to the riddle of his life. She struggles in her relationships, but ultimately marries, and has two children.

"Found" is made up of small slices-of-life chapters, and speaks to Lauck's journey to address her simmering unhappiness. In first part of the book she takes us back through her complicated history -- necessary for readers new to Lauck, and nicely wrought reminders for those of us already familiar. Lauck goes on to tells us of forays into Buddhism and a niggling urge to know her birth mother. To her credit, Lauck relays the birth mother reunion part of the story unflinchingly; it's not a running-across-a-grassy-meadow coming together; it's fraught.

"Finding yourself" stories are a risky proposition. They're inherently heartfelt, but because they shine a spotlight on emotion, they can be pedantic and self-involved. Commendably, Lauck's honesty is brazen. Occasionally her passion overshadows the plot, as she casts judgment on uncaring caretakers, and describes her beliefs about a baby's biological need for his/her birth mother -- her stance, basically anti-adoption, is extreme and is sure to ruffle feathers -- but these are understandable, if minor, infractions. Mary Karr, a beloved memoirist, is so dispassionate in her stories that, at times, I feel a disconnect, held back from knowing what she went through. Not so in "Found," a magnetic chronicle of Lauck's struggle to shed her past and find her way back to herself.

Check out Jennifer Lauck's blog, Prolifically Raw, a great resource for memoir writers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, by Reyna Simnegar

My ancestors' old country is Eastern-Europe -- Poland and Ukraine. Nevertheless, the synagogue I belong to is Sephardic, representing Jews from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Arabic and African countries. The ladies at my shul are no shrinking violets; they're a force to be reckoned with. I'm pretty sure that if they had been around to help during the first days of creation, G-d wouldn't have needed to rest that seventh day.
I ponder this now, getting ready for the shul's big fundraiser: The Annual Bake Sale. Trying to get the ladies a little publicity for their herculean baking efforts, I've written a few pieces advertising the sale. A researcher by nature, I ordered seven Sephardic cookbooks from the library -- just to get in the mood. Let me be clear, though. I'm not a cookbook afficionado. Following recipes is too much trouble and fuss. Despite my family's complaints I've stuck with a few tried and true dishes. Perusing cookbooks, I see pages of impractical, complicated recipes, chock full of ingredients my family, whose tastes run to the pedestrian, wouldn't touch. Still, once in a great while a cookbook reaches out and grabs, not my stomach, but my heart. "Persian Food" is one of those. Like "The Gefilte Variations," the only other cookbook I've reviewed, this one is a work of art -- heavy paper bordered with Indian-style designs, gorgeous photos of the recipes and nicely voiced stories. Simnegar, herself a Sephardic Jew from Venezuela who grew up loving shmaltzy, Ashkenazic cuisine, tells of moving with her Persian-Jewish husband to Irangeles. (Los Angeles is home to a large and prosperous community of Iranian Jews.) Persian Jews are proud of their culture, and Reyna found that cooking non-Persian food was no longer an option in her new household. Throughout the cookbook, with an honest and engaging voice, Simnegar sprinkles fun anecdotes and lots of great cooking tips. As a testament to her undying love for the Ashkenazi dishes she grew up with, she slips in a few classics, like Hamantashen, noting with irony, that all the events that led to our celebration of Purim, the holiday of Hamantashen eating, took place in Persia.
"Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride" would be a great birthday gift for your favorite foodie, and a lovely addition to any Jewish household, whether Sephardic or Ashkenzi.
P.S. For those jonesing for a taste, the bake sale is Sunday, September 18th, from 11am-1pm at the Jewish Community Center's Laikin Auditorium. Bring your checkbook and get there early. Bourekas sell out fast.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

My husband doesn't care for travel, so early in the summer when he suggested we take a family vacation, he caught my attention.
"What?" I asked.
"I know, you're surprised to hear this from me," he answered. "It's just that Rachel will be going off to college in two years and I realize we may not have many more opportunities to travel together as a family. What about the Outer Banks?"

Although I have fond memories of each of our family trips, they've all been low budget affairs, with three young kids in tow. The thought of another labor intensive vacation exhausted me.
"What's the matter?" asked Charles. "Don't you want to go?"
The truth of the matter was that No, I didn't. I didn't want to spend a week in a rented beach condo shopping, cooking and cleaning. Marital negotiations ensued. Despite my misgivings, I acquiesced. Rental agreements were signed.

Turns out all my misgivings were unfounded. The kids, now teenagers, carried their own gear and picked up after themselves. Charles shopped and cooked. Now that we're back, and have shaken out the sand from our suitcases, all that's left are our memories of boogey boarding, nighttime games of Scattergories and luminous red beach sunsets.

Unfounded misgivings almost cost me precious vacation time with my family, and are also the reason I'm probably the last person around to read Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone." All my reading friends insisted this novel is a must-read, but I couldn't. Not another African story, I thought. They're just so heart wrenching. Inevitably I'm left feeling so powerless. Months passed, with "Cutting for Stone" shuffling, time and time again, to the bottom of my reading pile.

Finally, last month, I held Verghese's book and, not having the heart to bury it one more time, cracked open the spine. It wasn't long before I a goner, my mouth set in an O shape that didn't release until the last page. The lyrical prose, engaging characters and complex, compelling narrative sucked me in. "Cutting for Stone" is an elegant, winding story of twin brothers, Shiva and Marion, born to a nun and the surgeon she has nursed back to health. Verghese, a physician, uses his medical knowledge to add verisimilitude and texture, without overwhelming the story with technical jargon. This is a big scope story, expertly set in time and place, so perfectly rendered that it's hard to find adjectives that do it justice. If you have misgivings, set them aside. You won't be sorry. Like a week at the beach with your family, Verghese's novel will stay with you a long time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dark Memoir: Darkroom, by Jill Christman

Behind on reviews (and why the heck is this text coming out underlined?) so I'm pulling one out of hopper. I wrote this at the end of winter, when it seemed like the sun would never come out again. Right now it's overcast in Indy, which eases the 90-plus degree temps, and it's funny to remember my blue, winter self looking onto a parking lot from the front window of a Starbucks, writing this.

It has been raining for more days than I can count. Gray. Wet. I must admit I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Sometimes the 1970s motors forward, the past leaving the realm of memory and entering the realm of the present-day. For those of us who have "significant" pasts -- and really, who among is survived childhood unscathed -- there are triggers -- sights, sounds, smells -- that can take us back us back to a time where our emotional palettes were as gloomy as the Indianapolis sky.

Sometimes, well often really, I like to read the stories of others who have lived through horrific times. Why? Mostly, it's knowing I'm not alone. It's feeling a connection to others who understand. And it's fascinating so see what we humans do to one another, even when we treat each other abominably. It's heartening to take notice of what can be endured, and how we make it through.

Jill Christman, the author of Darkroom, is a local author, and I was lucky enough to take a memoir workshop with her last fall. Jill's memoir illustrates the "trash in, trash out" concept -- a shabbily labeled idea of mine, based on personal experience, that when your early life is characterized by basic needs unmet, neglect and abuse, you can pretty much count on fallout showing up in your adult life like an unwelcome house guest. As a child Christman suffered horrifying abuse, and the consequences surfaced in her teens and early adult years. What a beautiful, shocking, stunningly honest account of a life. If you're a lover of dark memoir, wait for a gray day and open Christman's memoir.