Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sweet and Low, by Rich Cohen

On the Sunday after the holiday, my family was still celebrating Thanksgiving. A half-full pan of leftover turkey sat on the middle shelf in the fridge, and the beds in our basement and spare rooms were still warm from out-of-town relatives, my mother-in-law and cousins. Every year on Thanksgiving, my family dines on a meal featuring a giant roasted bird, marshmallow-topped sweet potato and orange-cranberry-apple relish, but what we really look forward to is gathering with family. Expectations like these can be a recipe for disappointment.

This year, the holiday served as a nudge, a reminder, to keep my expectations in check. To stay flexible. The cousins who always come in from St. Louis had to leave early to attend a friend's wedding. My West Coast father had to cancel his visit when he came down with a bout of arthritis so severe it sent him to the hospital. My mother-in-law made the trip from Cincy, but not until turkey-day-plus-one -- she couldn't find anyone to feed the stray cat she's been giving bowls on tuna to for the past few years.

Since we're talking Thanksgiving, I'll segue into being thankful for books -- which is what I'm supposed to be writing about, anyway. For instance, Rich Cohen's family memoir, "Sweet and Low." Cohen is a grandson of Ben Eisenstadt, the man who invented sugar packets (Am I the only one old enough to remember the sugar crust on the metal-topped glass pourers that sat on tables in diners next to the ketchup and mustard?), and Sweet 'N Low, the artificial sweetener in the little pink packets. This family memoir may not feature early-departing cousins, arthritic fathers, or cat-obsessed mother-in-laws, but Cohen's got his own cast of zany characters. And his journalism background -- he's written for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair -- serves him well. The dialogue in "Sweet and Low" will slay you. His rich uncles are machers and his great-aunts are nuts, which is how it is in all families, right? Cohen shows us a version of the Amercian Dream, a small family business that serendipitously finds a way to fill a need. But things don't stay sweet for long in "Sweet and Low." Scientists uncovered evidence that saccharine may be carcinogenic, there was family infighting, the business developed ties to the mafia, and there were troubles with the government. Cohen gives his family's story context by peppering the text with cultural touchpoints -- the advent of the country's dieting craze, how takeovers took over America's business landscape, and how government regulations serve to protect the public while crippling business.

"Sweet and Low" is a loving look at family, and a nice reminder that even when my kin can't join me for the holiday, there's still plenty to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Natural Woman, by Carole King

Thanksgiving road trip? Looking for a compelling and fun audiobook to pass the time? Here's what your dashboard CD player's been waiting for: Carole King's memoir, "A Natural Woman."

King turned 70 "One Fine Day" this year -- a fact guaranteed to make a boomer like me feel old. Born Carol Klein, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, King's known for the saxy hit "Jazzman," but has led a rock 'n roll life. In "A Natural Woman," a double your fun read/listen, King dishes on her tumultuous, celeb-studded life. Her honeyed, New Yorky voice takes the listener back in time. A key bonus of the audiotape is that she belts out song snippets. Want to revisit the druggy sixties and feminist seventies? King's memoir will not only take you there, but leave you feeling "You've Got a Friend."

As is required in memoir writing, King gives us the dirt -- four marriages, including a first husband who became mentally ill and a later marriage to a charismatic and charming man who would eventually emotionally and physically abuse her. A staunch liberal and environmentalist -- the title "A Natural Woman" couldn't be more fitting -- King spent years raising her kids in a cabin in Idaho. Sprinkle these gems with tales of performing with James Taylor, and of social drama with John Lennon, and you've got a virtual "Tapestry" of juicy listening.

On the downside, King often comes across as opinionated and preachy, and at times I wanted her to stop explaining and just TELL THE STORY! This sometimes detracted from the fun of listening to the drama of her life.

"A Natural Woman" is the perfect book for a road trip. I bet the music of King's life will render rough roads so smooth you'll never think "I Feel the Earth Move." And if you're already on the road, en route to your turkey day destination, you can listen to King's memoir on your winter break trip. "It's [never] Too Late," baby.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading My Father, by Alexandra Styron

One of the history teachers at my kids' high school gives off such a calm and friendly vibe that within minutes of first meeting him, I could tell my kids would be in good hands in his class. I often have the same experience when I meet a new book. My hands flip the cover open, and from the page one, chapter one, I get that vibe. Well-crafted prose shows that the author is deft and trustworthy and that what's to come will be a pleasure.

It didn't take me long to realize that Alexandra Styron's one of these authors.

Ms. Styron, the youngest daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner William Styron (author of "Darkness Visible" and "Sophie's Choice") has penned a daughter's memoir, one that succeeds on many levels. It tells us her story, of growing up in the most privileged pockets of the East Coast. It also takes us deep into the glittery life of her famous and mercurial father, one of the Big Shouldered Authors of the '70s, a contemporary and friend of Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller. And most compellingly, Styron takes us deep into her volatile yet loving relationship with her dad.

Despite being a tad turned off when Ms. Styron recounted stories of the brushes she had as a younger adult with the rich and famous -- a minor complaint I'm more than willing to overlook -- Styron shows us the way memoir should be done, with brazen honesty and unwavering generosity.

If you're a memoir lover, you'll love "Reading My Father." Enjoy.