Tag Archives: memoir

Living in Alaska, she’s got a prayer

August 25, 2013

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107633I’m just catching up with a book that’s been in print for seven years, but the lag in time doesn’t do anything but add richness to Heather Lende’s fine work, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska.”

Haines might be any hamlet in a unique geographic environment, but Lende lifts the southeast Alaska coastal area and the people who live there to a level that turns her writing into a literary classic.

The fact that Lende writes obituaries for the local newspaper isn’t the only reason this ought to be on the required-reading list for journalism majors. How she gathers the details of the deceased lives — face-to-face with the people who knew the person best — is a lesson to be remembered, and the quality of what she learns about them is evidence that her methodology isn’t to be ignored.

Sprinkled through chapters with titles like “Nedra’s Casket” and “When Death Didn’t Stop for Angie” are snippets of her column, “Duly Noted,” tasty snacks to enjoy between the meals that are the satisfying entres. They’re newsy bites, subtledly humorous, frequently ironic, and help give a fuller picture of the goings on in this neck of the woods, from the mundane to the fascinating.

The picture includes spirituality in a variety of traditions, including a mention or two or three of the ministry of Father Jim and Sister Jill from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. In how many other books that make the N.Y. Times bestseller list do you think you’ll read the “Hail Mary” or about the author’s discovery of the rosary and learning how to pray it from a parish prayer group. “The rosary prayers are directed to the Virgin Mary,” this Episcopalian author wrote, “I liked that. It would be easier to talk to a woman, a mother like me, than to God himself.”

Living simply, living in tune with nature, caring about environmental issues, hunting, fishing, family, snowshoeing, skating and life-and-death drama — it’s all in there.

The uniqueness of Alaska makes great copy for those of us in the lower 48, but how Lende tells the stories of life there, that makes great reading.

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Vern Schultz has saved glimpses of St. Paul back in the day

November 15, 2011

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If you’d enjoy a trip down memory lane through St. Paul 60-70-80 years ago, you might look for Vern Schultz’s “Memoirs of a Left Hander” (Amazon.com).

The self-published book about growing up in the Frogtown neighborhood preserves some history worth saving about the 1940s and ‘50s.

Schultz, who lives in Prior Lake now, taught at St. Agnes High School in the early 1950s, and for many years officiated sports, including in the Catholic Athletic Association.

Catholic to the core, Schultz recalls both highlights and low-lights of Catholic life in those pre-Vatican II days. In more recent times, room in the Schultz home was rented to the pastor of St. Michael Church in Prior Lake!

No abortion for them

Schultz’s faith pours through when he writes about how he and his wife Toodie reacted when, after a genetic disorder took the lives of their first two children and a doctor recommended she have an abortion when they found themselves expecting again.

There is their gratitude, too, when Catholic Charities came to their rescue to help them adopt the family they so wanted.

Writing a memoir is no easy task, of course, and while the middle years of Schultz’s life get short shrift, that weakness doesn’t detract from the very pleasurable reading of his earlier years. Those are great memories of a time and place that need to be remembered and cherished, a Schultz has a nice writing touch.

Allow me, though, to offer advice for others putting down their life history: Get a proofreader. My teeth grind when I read “to” where “too” is required and “complemented” when “complimented” is the proper word. — bz

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Small-town editor, big-time stage

July 16, 2009

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“Picking the bones of Eleven Presidents and Others,”
by Jerry Moriarity

The subtitle of Jerry Moriarity’s self-published collection of notes and anecdotes identifies it as a work “By a Journalist with Presidential Credentials.”

That’s both the good news and the bad.

Working for and editing small-town newspapers like the Star-Courier in Kewanee, Ill., Moriarity was able to get press credentials to cover presidential events — including White House press conferences. Over a 40-year newspaper career, that gave him the ability to collect a double-handful of interesting stories about U.S. presidents from Truman through Bush II.

You got to hand it to the guy, a self-proclaimed Irish Catholic Democrat who lives half the year on Little Pine Lake near Perham, Minn.: He was there, he was paying attention, and he kept great notes. Along with those interesting anecdotes, Moriarity pulled together a fun and insightful bit which he called “creating an ideal president.” Naming each of the 11 presidents he interviewed, he offered his opinion about the characteristic of each that he valued.
For example:

  • Truman — feisty decisiveness;
  • Eisenhower — popularity;
  • Reagan — intuition.

Too close to the newsmakers?

As good reading and as insightful as “Picking the Bones” is, I couldn’t help but get the sense that at some point Moriarity’s “covering” the presidents wasn’t more about his own being near the seat of power than about reporting. I’m not sure what the editor of the Kewanee, Ill., Star-Courier gets for his readers by being at a presidential press conference.

I have a hard time with all the posed photos of a newsman and the person he is supposed to be writing objectively about.

And some of the questions that Moriarity writes that he asked those presidents made the journalist in me squirm.

There’s a wonderful little story about the author being in the right place at the right time to show Sen. John F. Kennedy — campaigning for the presidency in Peoria, Ill., in 1959 — the way to the men’s room! Moriarity says he’ll direct him if Kennedy will answer a question for him. The future president comes out of the restroom and makes good on his promise to answer a question in return for the favor.

So what does Moriarity ask? “What is Peter Lawford really like?”

Yikes!

Balance, for the most part

Moriarity doesn’t pull punches for the most part, telling it like he saw it. He calls Lyndon Baines Johnson “a dangerous egotistical hypocrite,” but one who knew how to wield power and did some good by pushing civil rights legislation through Congress.

Moriarity himself became a bit of a celebrity by writing an editorial that called for reasonableness in judging a disgraced Richard M. Nixon. The piece was carried — by Moriarity’s count — in 573 newspapers across the country.

The chapter on Nixon is where a touch of hypocrisy blooms. Moriarity acknowledges that he “supported Nixon,” but them is critical of the folks at National Public Radio when, touring NPR studios, he sees a sign that reads “Impeach Nixon.” Pretty hard to charge others with being biased when you are, too.

On balance, though, by publishing this memoir Moriarity has preserved some great anecdotes and given a glimpse of a world of reporting that is no more, for better and for worse. I’m glad he did. — bz

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Don’t fear reading memoir of life with the mentally challenged

November 7, 2008

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“Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark,”
by Kathleen C. Berken
Some people can flat out write.


Kathy Berken is one of those people.

You might be the kind of reader who shies away from stories about the mentally challenged, adults with Down’s syndrome, the cognitively disabled, because Berken’s book is a memoir of her time serving God’s children who fit those categories. If you do you’ll be missing a truly remarkable piece of literature.

“Walking on a Rolling Deck” has drama, empathy, irony, humor and insight into the human character of every one of us. Developed from her journal during nine years at The Arch, the L’Arche (rhymes with “marsh”) community in Clinton, Iowa, Berken’s short book — published by Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minn. (http://www.litpress.org/) — opens her life to us, and in doing so touches ours.

And, Lord, can she write.

Page after page she paints word pictures that will have those who love good writing going back to re-read and re-read again. Finding a link with Mother Teresa’s admitted dark night of the soul, Berken writes:
“The serpent of loneliness can and will slither up the tree of despair and hiss in your ear words of doubt that burrow deep into your soul.”

She describes her years there as both growth-filled and as scary. There’s wiping butts and brushing teeth, and heart-warming, sacred moments. A spiritual person, she seeks God in all she does, and sometimes she finds him. If Kathy Berken is anything, she’s honest. She writes not about a sugar-coated experience but about real life with real people.
She puts it this ways:
“Living in a L’Arche community isn’t always like taking a vacation with your lover God to an idyllic Caribbean beach. Some days it’s more like climbing to the top of Mount Everest with God as your Sherpa, with times of feeling that the Sherpa has wandered off.”

Apt maritime metaphor

Berken plays on the translation of L’Arche as an ark, and she uses that sea-going metaphor well to describe the reality of life in a home with four people who need help with many of life’s tasks, who have a variety of pathological issues, and who have the strength of an adult but the mental ability of a four-year-old. But she says it so much better than I:
“When I came her I had this fantastically idealistic notion that God sent me to live for a while on this ark, and I had an image in my head of people like me walking up the gangplank, meeting God at the top, and being given a clipboard with the day’s assignment on it. . . . That’s a wonderful fantasy – to be the cruise director with a loveboat smile pasted on my face – but I can’t live it because the ark I’m on is rolling and heaving and I’m sick to my stomach, not to mention sad and lonely. I feel like the galley slave, the grunt who swabs the deck, the second to last to go down with the ship.”

Berken writes conversationally, like your best friend telling you all about her day but in brief, well-edited chapters that are never more than a few pages.
You’ll love the poignant story about being served Christmas breakfast by one of the people whom she served everyday.
You wonder how she ever stayed nine years – and how she survived, to be frank – when she learned first that she had breast cancer and later when a core member (that’s what L’Arche calls the mentally challenged) turns violent.
Read “Walking on a Rolling Deck” to find out.
And to be inspired by a great story well told. — bz

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Lovers of the written word will love “The Florist’s Daughter”

May 23, 2008

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THE FLORIST’S DAUGHTER,
by Patricia Hampl

Scanning through radio stations while driving, I happened upon Patricia Hampl reading from her latest memoir. The life she brought to the words she read instantly made me stop the scan function, and for the next I don’t know how many minutes I was mesmerized by her storytelling.
I knew I had to get the book.

“The Florist’s Daughter” proved even better as a read.

The woman can flat out write.

Details of her life growing up in St. Paul, Minn. after World War II serve as the structure for Hampl to tell us what she really wants us to know, and that’s who her parents were and what her relationship was with them.

She does that so well that you feel you know her chain-smoking Irish-American mother and her handsome, reserved Czech father — the florist of the title — well enough that you could write their obituaries if asked to. In fact, maybe that’s what Hampl has done — at book length.

So much of the book is about what the author was thinking during the events of those growing-up years, how she reacted to the events of life that her family lived, and especially how she both remained the same and yet grew.

How many adult children might empathize with Hampl when she writes about agreeing out of a sense of duty to travel with her elderly mother to Ireland — to “offer it up,” as she inserts — only to acknowledge afterward that her mother turned out to be the best travel companion ever.

Can’t you just picture a middle-aged woman sneaking a bottle of chardonnay and a pack of Merit 100s into the senior living center so her mother can enjoy those forbidden pleasures?

Later on she tells of visiting her mother on her death bed this way: “She would hang by her fingernails from the ledge of life.”

Hampl makes it ease to picture the flooded streets of St. Paul’s old Italian levee neighborhood by describing them as “suddenly Venetian.” Minnesota itself, she writes, is situated “at the nosebleed north of the country.”

During car trips in the family Ford, she and her brother would be “enacting the turf wars of the backseat.”

Catholics will be teased throughout as memories of religious practice float through the text, and — because she grew up in its shadow, the Cathedral of St. Paul almost takes on the role of a character as Hampl crafts this wonderful story out of, to use her phrase, “the delicate scrim of daily life.”

There is a sense of place that this University of Minnesota professor has preserved for us, first for the very Catholic hometown of her childhood, perhaps best explained with this quote from the book:
“Ours was a pre-freeway St. Paul, a time-place where it was possible to spend an entire lifetime without straying over the Minneapolis line where the Scandinavians went about their Lutheran business.”

But there is another sense of place Hampl brings us to, the place of a daughter, the roles that fall to daughters, and maybe this paragraph sums it up:
“I sit with my mother, as has been destined since time began because a daughter is a daughter all her life. We stay like this, hand in hand. We have all the time in the world — world without end, amen. Words we recite by heart when she asks me to say the Rosary with her, the last phrase of the Gloria, the little prayer at the end that puts to rest all the Hail Marys.”

Thanks, Patricia. — bz

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