Posts Tagged With: memoir

Book Review: Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac – 3 of 5

Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac

outwitting

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lucie Aubrac was one kick-a, bad-a lady.

Germans on my doorstep? Whatever, I’ll just lie to their face.

Nazis capture my (Jewish) husband? NBD, I’ll just march up to Klaus Barbie and give him a piece of my mind.

Pregnant? Psh, I’ll go on raids and rescue missions until I start having labor pains.

Seriously, there’s a book (and I guess, a movie) about Lucie Aubrac (aka: Catherine, Lucie Bernard, Lucie Samuels, etc) for good reason. She did some incredible things as part of the Resistance in France in WWII. Add on top of it that this diary-style book captures the nine months of her pregnancy – when her husband is captured and she helps mastermind his rescue – and you have one hell of a story.

So why only three stars? Unfortunately, this book is a prime example of how poor writing can turn something as exciting as Lucie Aubrac’s life into a history book. I don’t know if Lucie’s writing style was a bit silted or (what I think is more likely) the translation was poor. Excitement comes across as corny and all of the events are discordant and often confusing. Everything felt like it was in fast forward. Before the emotions of fear or anxiety or hope could squeeze in the action had already changed. I ended up skimmed much of the end of the book.

I’m pretty die-hard when it comes to WWII memoirs – if you’re that way too, you may find this enjoyable. If not, I wouldn’t recommend picking it up. I think ti’s important to know who Lucie Aubrac is – do a little research – but, unfortunately, her memoir falls flat.

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Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – 3 of 5 stars

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

wind

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished reading this book while sitting on my couch, stuffing my face with Starburst jelly beans (side note; best candy ever). Needless to say, I don’t have any freaking clue what Kamkwamba’s life was like growing up. Or now, for that matter. I have no real concept of how hard farming in Malawi is. I don’t know how hot the sun gets or what it’s like to not have light after dark. I don’t know what it means to be hungry even for a day – much less an entire country being hungry in a famine. I don’t know what it feels like to have no money for school, to teach myself science, or to build something great.

What I’m trying say is, Kamkwamba and I don’t have a lot in common. I therefore feel like a D for not rating his book 5 stars. Oh well, it is what it is.

I certainly am glad I read it. There were many parts I won’t forget – particularly how he describe the famine in his country. It was incredible and he did such a great job at pointing out the parts of being hungry that became normal life. It made even a well-fed lady like myself feel cold all over. But that all fell away to the great joy I felt when he spoke about his first TED conference. Kamkwamba’s memoir does a great job at highlighting the highs and lows of his life.

Still, I don’t think this book is for everyone. If you like memoirs, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re not a huge memoir fan, you might want to pass. I found the beginning cumbersome with the stories of his family and the belief in magic in Malawi. I also found many of his descriptions of his learning and actual building of the windmill to be too detailed (probably because I didn’t understand it). I think they were valuable parts to write about and helped to round out the story, but it didn’t make for action-packed reading.

Regardless of the number of stars, I finished this book feeling inspired. I feel humbled and encouraged by the fact that there are people out there doing great things. Even though I know I will never achieve that kind of greatness myself, I hope I help a little just by hearing his story.

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Book Review: The Lost Girls – 3 of 5 stars

The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World. by Jennifer Bagget

lost

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There a lot about this book that I love – there is so much to be jealous of. These girls found the time and dedication to travel for an entire year. It’s something I would love to do and it’s also something I know I will never do. It’s just not my life. So living vicariously was exactly why I picked up the book. These girls traveled to places I have never been and say such amazing things. I really loved reading about it.

Still, I just can’t rave about the book. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, it’s just a little bland. Vanilla. I can tell these girls are used to a very journalistic writing. Their prose all sounds exactly the same and, with names like Jennifer, Holly, and Amanda, I found it impossible to keep them straight. I was constantly mixing up who was who. I feel like the book would have really benefited if they could have figure out a way to develop different writing styles. Some visual aides could have really helped – you know they took a million pictures. I would have loved to have seen the beat-up van, Esther, the yoga retreat, etc.

Despite the adventures and nice mixture of this-is-what-I-saw and this-is-what-I-felt, it took me a really long time to get through this book. This is something I should be devoured. Besides the lack of voice, I’m not sure what was missing – other people maybe? One of my favorite memoirs is Somebody’s Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa because of the author’s incredible ability to observe others and bring them into the story. This memoir is firmly on these three girls and, despite being a young white woman traveler myself, I just couldn’t quite get invested.

Still, it’s certainly not bad, and it’s a great thing to read if you’re itching for a trip of your own but can’t get away. There are nice tid-bits along the way, too, that give some good perspective.

“After all my searching for something to believe in, what if taking the journey itself were the highest act of faith? Traveling anywhere that was foreign inevitably meant I’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. To venture out in the world, I had to have faith in the goodness of people – and to be open to the lessons that every new person might bring.

Amen, Holly. Or was that Amanda who wrote that? Jennifer?

Oh, who cares. Amen, sister.

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Ashley’s Top 5 Favorite Travel Memoirs (So Far)

Work has been SO busy lately. Whenever that happens I just want to get away and enjoy something new and wonderful.  Unfortunately, what with buying a house and all, money is a little tight so gallivanting off to a foreign country just isn’t in the cards.  At least not without some serious deal hunting.

Instead, I’ve decided to live vicariously and seek out a memoir or two.  For those of you who might be in the same boat at me, let me draw you attention to my five all-time favorite travel memoirs (so far).  In case you’re wondering, Eat, Pray, Love is not on the list.

1) In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams by Tahir Shah

inarabiannights

If you’ve read a few other posts of my blog, you’ll probably have already heard me gush about Tahir Shah and Arabian Nights. I can’t help it, this man just speaks to me.  Shah is such an incredible writer and when you add that in with his reflection on his move to Morocco… well, it’s magic to me.  This book might not quite fit the category of “travel memoir” like some of the others, but the core is the same.  It’s a book about discovering a new land – and therefore discovering yourself.  Everybody and their brother needs to read this book (IMHO)!

2) Wall to Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail by Mary Morris

  walltowall

For me this book is the definition of the perfect woman travel memoir. This book was phenomenal – not only is Mary Morris probably the most self-honest person on the planet (I don’t think I could write my actions with truth like she, does even if I wanted to) but she’s a fantastic writer. Her personal struggles combined with the fascinating travel events make this a truly enthralling read. It’s set in such a dramatic time in history – Morris was in China, Russia, and Germany in 1986. Seeing some of those historic events happening through her eyes is unbelievably interesting. Great read!

3) Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer In Africa by Tanya Shaffer

HeartBurning

Shaffer’s memoir seemed very familiar. Woman travel memoirs tend to have a similar theme – the driving force in these stories is often a man back home. Why does she travel – is it because she’s running away or does she just love and enjoy what she’s doing? It’s hard, of course, to know. Part of a person, as a traveler, loves it. But the other part is exhausted. When you’re away from the place you grew up, even if you’ve been there for quite some time, you never can quite let down all of your guard.

There are two things very unique and refreshing about this book – the pictures and people. Shaffer had snapshots scattered throughout and it was fascinating for me to go back and forth between her descriptions and compare them to the face in the photograph. And she described people a lot. In fact, every chapter was focused on someone else – someone she met along the journey. She didn’t so much analyze them as she did talk about her experience with them and by the end of the chapter you realized how Shaffer felt changed by them. It was a very refreshing way to read a memoir.

4) Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer by Barbara Sjoholm

Incognito

You can probably tell from the title that I’m a bit biased by the plot of this story.  It’s about travel, and writing, and it’s set in Spain.  Clearly, I’m going to love this.  Sjoholm doesn’t disappoint.  She does a great job about remembering herself in this time the way she took chances, the people she met.  She really learned who she was in the process of this journey and it wasn’t until later when she was reflecting and writing this story that she was able to understand the way her life was affected by this trip. It’s such a beautiful thing to be let in on – and my main reason why memoirs are some of my favorite reads.

5) Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan

littleprinces

Like Arabian Nights, this book has more to it than just the travel bit. but it still will pull at your travel bone if you take it in.  Grennan did what I would love to do – do something crazy because you feel like it’s the right thing to do and let it change your life. He has had such an incredible journey and has been able to take his travel to a new height.  His book highlights that journey in of himself but he doesn’t forget to talk about the travel and country and people he met either.  Did I mention, to, that this book is funny?  Not something I expected from something about orphaned children!  I read his via audio book and Grennan narrates it himself – so good!

So, what’s next?

The best part about travel is that there’s always more to see – and the great thing about memoirs is that there’s always another one to read.  I’ve narrowed down my choices to these three – any suggestions to which one I (hopefully) enjoy first?

Don lost NoHurry

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Book Review: A Woman in Berlin – 5 of 5

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary by Anonymous

berlin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book. Just wow. I don’t know what it is about WWII stories, but I love them, and this one is no exception. There are so many things that make this a must-read. It’s a side that we don’t always see when it comes to WWII literature – this diary takes place in Berlin, from the perspective of a German woman, as the Russians come in. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve really started to hear about the horrible things that happened in Germany, to Germans, because of the war. This gives the reader just one horrifying glimpse.

This book is by anonymous. This woman was having a hard time dealing with what she knew would be her fate and started to write it all down. She was some kind of journalist, or in publishing, before and must have found writing comforting. She chronicled her life as the Russian victors came in and took what they wanted – namely the beds of every female. It’s a story about survival. She chose one path to stay alive and she made note of the paths others took. She wrote about what went right and what went wrong, she wrote about being hungry, about not having light, about not being safe, about where life might go. This diary feels like it was written from the soul and it’s amazing that we can all now read it.

It’s not just about the occurrences of the days. It about some of the fascinating things she mentions. She hypothesizes on why the invaders rape, why they choose who they do, why they have to be drunk, how the community reacts to the rapes, how the ration cards can still be so organized – any number of things. She talks about grander ideas of war and masculinity –

“These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men – and the feelings of all the other women – are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment… Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.”

It’s just such a great, short, chronicle of a horrible time in history. Highly recommend for everyone, but especially anyone who is fascinated with WWII.

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Book Review: A House in the Sky – 5 out of 5

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout

Print

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a reason why this book is so popular – Lindhout’s courage to tell her story is something people should pay attention to. Few who go through her distress live, and even fewer are willing to open their experience to the world. It can’t have been easy but I’m really glad Lindhout did. This is an excellent book which, for it’s length, depth, and emotions ties I read it very quickly.

Lindhout’s personality really came though and I identified with her so clearly. She loves to travel and see the world. She has the pull to go anywhere and everywhere. I can 100% understand. I can understand the thrill of traveling somewhere “off the grid,” where your presence as a tourist is a curiosity instead of an expectancy. Where you can accidentally see what real life is like instead of a show. I haven’t traveled the way Lindhout has, and I doubt I ever will. I think it’s testament to Lindhout’s writing style that, even though I know she gets into a horrible kidnapping situation, when she’s telling me about her initial trips and all she sees and the “risks” she takes, I all I feel is jealous and envy, not fear of the unknown. She’s lived and seen amazing things. It’s incredible.

So, there’s that piece to the book. It’s the unexpected wonderful part of this story – understanding her before the kidnapping, seeing through the lens of a backpacker. There’s also the terrible part when she is kidnapped. Lindhout holds little back. She manages to take this long kidnapping step by step and not a moment of it is boring. She’s able to pull us into her mind, to see her hopes, scares, wonders, and realities. To see her struggle between hatred for her captors and understanding, to see her strategies. What I like best is that Lindhout has showed what worked – but also what didn’t. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. She makes some awful, horrible errors. Errors that I myself could have easily done in her place. It’s a gripping, terrible reality.

It’s no spoiler that Lindhout survives. What I’ve often found reading memoirs is that sometimes this does ruin things. Because the author is the main character we know they are going to make it. That doesn’t hinder the suspense in this story. I found myself wondering how it was going to work, feeling her true despair. That’s all testament to just how well this story was put together by Lindhout and her co-author.

Excellent memoir and well worth all its praise!

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Book Review: First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria by Eve Brown-Waite

First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and A Third World Adventure Changed My Life by Eve Brown-Waite

malaria
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Man. What a good title. It’s catchy, it’s nimble, and it’s accurate. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Brown-Waite knew what she was doing when she wrote this book. Her writing style just flows; her pacing is done exceptionally well. I’ve found that somewhere in a memoir things can start to drag and, while Brown-Waite is no exception, she knew how to keep the process moving. I found that pretty impressive considering how many years this spanned with really no large breaks in between.

It’s also nice to read a book where a young woman really goes somewhere with some adventure. Brown-Waite spends part of this book in Ecuador and another part in Uganda. She integrates the beauty and extreme poverty of the locations she experienced along with her own life. Sometimes I felt like she did a great job with this – sometimes she would tell a story that showed her own emotions right alongside with what life is like there.

However there were other times when Brown-Waite got in her own way of the storytelling. She relied heavily on self-deprecation for her humor which, while often funny, sometimes became redundant. She talked about her whining and inability to figure out how to cook, or really exist, in Uganda a lot. Believe me, I would have been terrible about it, too, but it wasn’t until the very end that I realized maybe she was more self-reliant than she led us to believe. I think I missed some of the parts where she is a woman who has the ability to live and make decision on her own… something I would have liked emphasized.

Still, overall it’s a quick read for its size and interesting to boot. Another good travel memoir to add to the list!

View all my reviews

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Memoir Book Review: Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach


Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman
by Alice Steinbach

withoutreservations

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the kind of memoir I hope I never write.

As cruel as that sounds, it’s what was going through my head as I read Steinbach’s tales of her so-called “Year of Living Dangerously.” (Actually, she may have called it something else but I really don’t want to re-read any of the book in order to find the correct wording.) Steinbach’s telling of her “adventure” consisted almost entirely of pre-made plans that were completely safe and her being chatted up by entirely harmless and friendly people who somehow were all the same.

I consider myself a traveler. I think I have made a great effort in my life to not only see new places but to experience them as well. Because of this, I felt a sharp tang of disgust as a I read Steinbach’s supposedly risky adventure. I’m going to go right ahead and sound pretentious and say there really wasn’t much risk involved. This woman went to Paris, England, and Italy, staying in hotels and often participating in tour groups. To top it off she clearly had no financial concerns even with being away from work for an entire year.

Please note that, in direct contrast with the book title, she wholeheartedly made reservations for every stop on her trip.  Yawn.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for traveling in ways that best suit you. My own “adventures” are in many ways not so different. But if you’re going to write a memoir about, there needs to be some pizzazz. By the end of the book I could guess what was going to happen – somewhere in town someone was going to randomly speak to her, they would talk, get tea, connect, maybe hang out for a couple more days, and then the cycle would repeat in another location. Oops, maybe I should say spoiler alert.

Sorry, I didn’t even realize how much this book bothered with me until I started writing this review. I should pull back a little because I don’t think it’s entirely useless. I think Steinbach had a great year of travel and I love that she did it. I just regret I had to read about it in the way I did. I think Steinbach has a good writing style (if quite clipped, likely from years in her profession as a journalist) and she did make some wonderful observations from time to time. Sometimes she really made me think and there is one particular chapter about rain in Rome that allowed me to connect with her.

But one chapter out of an entire book just isn’t enough.

If you want a good travel memoir, bypass this book. On that note, in case you were wondering, bypass Eat, Pray, Love, too (I swear, they are almost the same thing). There are so many wonderful tales out there about women adventuring and traveling alone – like Somebody’s Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa or even, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone.

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6 Books to Remind Us of Bigger Problems Than Bad Calls in Football

Last night, my Facebook news feed exploded. It was one in the morning and almost everyone I knew was up in arms – the most horrible thing had happened. They were tearing their hair out, cursing their lives, rolling in agony. The Wisconsin Badgers lost to Arizona State University on a terrible call – or lack of call as it may be.

Now, I am guilty of this behavior as well. I even woke up still angry about it. (Really, it was crap – the refs just walked off the field! I mean – well, never mind. You can read about/see the madness here. )

That being said, I felt a bit sheepish this morning.  How is it that football is the only thing about which we can jointly get overwhelmed?  Shouldn’t we be much more upset about the lack of world peace and starving children?  I’m no bleeding heart, but sometimes there are just bigger things in life.  To make up for my own shortcomings, I decided I would make a short list of books that have helped to give me a bit of perspective.

1) The Road of Lost Innocence: True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam
www.somaly.org

   somalymam

Sometimes it’s not about the quality of the writing, or the style. Sometimes it’s just the purpose of the story, the reason for writing it. That alone makes this book worth reading. Mam’s ability to tell her story and the stories of others with a real, intricate, and critical eye just makes it that much better.  I don’t think I need to give you any more information about that – I think this book should be read in an effort to make people, especially those in the west, understand that human trafficking and forced prostitution is a huge and horrendous problem and there are people out there still living with it, and people like Mam, who are actively fighting against it.

2) Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan
http://www.nextgenerationnepal.org/


littleprinces

This book is unbelievable – it is SO good. If you can listen to the audio book version; do it. Conor Grennan narrates it himself. He’s fantastic at it and unbearably funny – something I did not expect to find in a book with such a serious and heartbreaking subject. It adds a great element to reading non-fiction like this and I really appreciate it. He had such an incredible experience and story. There are so many parts that will make your heart stop. Wonderfully done.

3) Wine to Water by Doc Hendley
http://winetowater.org/


winetowater

I saw Doc Hendley speak at a conference, prompting me to buy his book. Why did I buy it, you ask? Well, I’m a sucker for any memoir, particularly one where the individual goes off and does something pretty awesome. So I know I would like this book before I even read a single word. Doc Hendley is obviously an amazing person. I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly and sneak a picture with him. He’s a guy who decided to get passionate about helping the world. I’m both envious and guilty/thankful that I haven’t done the same.  It’s definitely hard work to go out there and do good.

To the point of the book itself, I do have to say he’s obviously not a writer. The book isn’t painful, and it’s really quite quick for how reasonable thick it is, but I didn’t find it completely drew me in like other books I have read that take place in the area. To me, the book seemed repetitive – certain stories and situations came up numerous times without a clear distinction of their difference. Plus – since I saw him speak – I had heard some of the stories before (obviously that won’t be most people’s problem but it still challenged my reading).

That aside it is worth reading the book just to understand how lame most of us are in comparison. It’s also worth reading the book to persuade you to donate; or volunteer somewhere yourself.

4) A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah


alongwaygone

Ishmael Beah told his story straight up – this is what happened and this is what he felt. This is one of those stories where I had to keep reminding myself, “This is a memoir, this is not fiction.” I honestly can’t say much about this other than that you should read it. It is one of those books that really means something. Great memoir.

5) Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi


survival

“If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”

I found this to be one of the most powerful lines out of a book that, if you let yourself really see, always kept you gasping for air. This is a book that never should have been written, because it is a tragedy that never should have happen. But because it did, we must all read and never, ever understand.

5) We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch

rwanda

“Odette nodded at my notebook, where I was writing as she spoke. ‘Do the people in America really want to read this? People tell me to write these things down, but it’s written inside of me. I almost hope for the day when I can forget.'”

Mind numbing, mind boggling, and mind blowing. Gourevitch manages to write this book with clarity and depth and in a way that tells me all the brutal facts but without completely overwhelming me as a reader. I really appreciate that I felt he was able to really convey to me the horrors and emotions but didn’t do it in such a way that I had to put the book down for a while. Because this is kind of lengthy, I really value that aspect.  Well done and I think a great reminder that while this was published in 1999 there are still horrible things happening in that region.

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