Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.


(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.


The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

34802624John Hodgman has written a memoir about his cursed travels through two wildernesses: from the woods of his home in Massachusetts, birthplace of rage, to his exile on the coast of Maine, so-called Vacationland, home to the most painful beaches on Earth

Vacationland is also about Hodgman’s wandering in the metaphoric wilderness of his forties, those years when dudes especially must painfully stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weirder dads that they are.

Other subjects covered include the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison, and advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Short review:

Do you like John Hodgman?  Then you’ll like this book. Go get it!

Longer review:

You’ve probably heard of and like Hodgman already via This American Life, the “I’m a PC” Mac ads, or his podcast Judge John Hodgman.  I was lucky enough to meet him at a book signing years ago and can confirm that he is a stellar human being.  (He signed my book “I know you are not a villain”, so it must be so.)

I am I biased? Sure. But his awesome human-ness is what comes out in this memoir essay collection. And first up is that he recognizes his white, upper middle class privilege and calls himself out throughout the book.

I am grateful to be reminded at how vigilant I need to be about my skin and its thinness and the responsibilities both entail.

The essays range over the course of Hodgman’s life but concentrate on his second act, namely being a middle-aged, once-kinda-famous dad who vacations in Maine. Come for the stories, stay for the amazing writing, humor, and insight.  It’s very Ira Glass-y in that bits of story are followed by pulling back to get a wider view.

We said good-bye to our new friends, who seemed happy to leave.  I do not know where they went in their lives after that, but I have learned to be comfortable with that.

A turn away from his books of fake facts, the essays of Vacationland are funny and earnest and make you glad that there’s a guy like John Hodgman out there, sharing his thoughts with the world.  A must read for Jh fans as well as a starting place for those unfamiliar.

Thanks to Viking and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).


This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen after I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

31021280When Betty MacDonald married a marine and moved to a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, she was largely unprepared for the rigors of life in the wild. With no running water, no electricity, a house in need of constant repair, and days that ran from four in the morning to nine at night, the MacDonalds had barely a moment to put their feet up and relax. And then came the children. Yet through every trial and pitfall—through chaos and catastrophe—this indomitable family somehow, mercifully, never lost its sense of humor.

A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier.


I was excited to find that the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books wrote a memoir about chicken farming in the Pacific Midwest, complete with “The Enduring Classic” blazed on the cover.  But this doesn’t feel like a classic at all, with MacDonald’s sharp wit aimed at people who least deserve the jabs.

She moved to the wilds of Washington with her husband, determined to be the best wife she can by doing whatever makes her husband happy, no questions asked.  Let’s count that as Anger Runneth Over #1 – woman with zero agency.  She hates the chicken farming her husband loves and seems to find no joy in life on the mountain. Sometimes the barbs are funny and telling of how awful she found things.

In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths; “Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmiling erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own business.

But these moments are few and far between. More often MacDonald lights into her neighbors and people in town, judging them by her city standards of culture and erudition.  Whole passages are written phonetically to exaggerate their manner of speaking and, apparently, the humor.

Charlie wath butchering and I athk him for the thpare ribth becauthe they kilt two pigth and I knowed that the two of them couldn’t eat all them thpare ribth, but that thtingy thkunk thaid, “The reathon I’M BUTCHERING, MR. KETTLE, is becauthe I need the meat,” and I wath tho mad I forgot the egg math I had borried.

Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.  This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.

It’s not that MacDonald is incapable of nuance – if she gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother the book would be much more readable.

Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced, and dear.  She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use.

Instead we run into Anger Runneth #3, her view and treatment of the Native Americans of the area.  I went into the book knowing that racism of this sort would be an issue and prepared to see the book as of its time, but it’s hateful and awful even for the 1940s.

Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.

It hurts me so much to even type that.

There are a couple of chapters that are funny if separated from all the rage-inducing passages but I doubt it’s worth the effort.  Consider The Egg and I a classic you can safely skip.

I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back by Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster


18668201Ben, a sports analytics wizard, loves baseball. Eric, his best friend, hates it. But when Ben writes an algorithm for the optimal baseball road trip, an impossible dream of every pitch of 30 games in 30 stadiums in 30 days, who will he call on to take shifts behind the wheel, especially when those shifts will include nineteen hours straight from Phoenix to Kansas City? Eric, of course. Will Eric regret it? You might ask, Are Dodger Dogs the same thing as Fenway Franks? As Ben and Eric can now attest, most definitely.

On June 1, 2013, Ben and Eric set out to see America through the bleachers and concession stands of America’s favorite pastime. Along the way, human error and Mother Nature throw their mathematically optimized schedule a few curveballs. A mix-up in Denver turns a planned day off in Las Vegas into a twenty-hour drive. And a summer storm of biblical proportions threatens to make the whole thing logistically impossible, and that’s if they don’t kill each other first.


A fun look at doing the impossible – seeing a game in each of the 30 major league baseball parks in 30 days.

Like: Ben and Eric own who they are: white guys who just graduated from Harvard with a once in a lifetime shot to do something this crazy. They got a lot of help along the way and everyone is appreciated and thanked in the afterward, down to the police departments that wrote them tickets.

Interesting: I’m not sure what to call this voice… they use “we” but never “I”. It’s Ben thought this and Eric said that. It took a few pages to fall into the groove but I think it was the best way to handle the narrative.

Meh: While most of the numbers and itineraries are neat it did bog down in a couple of places. If you’re a baseball person and therefore have a high tolerance for crazy stats you won’t even notice.

Like: The prose isn’t literary by any stretch, but it’s readable and interesting. It also strikes me as fair and honest, as Ben and Eric are pretty good at pointing out each other’s faults and graceful enough to accept their own (sometimes).

Don’t Like: This feels like it was written right after the trip, before they completely processed all of their experiences. While there are insights, they were pointed out by Eric’s mom and rehashed in the last couple of chapters. I would have loved to see another chapter about life after the trip and how it changed them (or didn’t).

If you’re into baseball or road trips or books that follow crazy self-imposed journeys you’ll enjoy I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back.

The Job by Steve Osborne


22822859Steve Osborne has seen a thing or two in his twenty years in the NYPD—some harmless things, some definitely not. In “Stakeout,” Steve and his partner mistake a Manhattan dentist for an armed robbery suspect and reduce the man down to a puddle of snot and tears when questioning him. In “Mug Shot,” the mother of a suspected criminal makes a strange request and provides a sobering reminder of the humanity at stake in his profession. And in “Home,” the image of his family provides the adrenaline he needs to fight for his life when assaulted by two armed and violent crackheads. From his days as a rookie cop to the time spent patrolling in the Anti-Crime Unit—and his visceral, harrowing recollections of working during 9/11—Steve Osborne’s stories capture both the absurdity of police work and the bravery of those who do it. His stories will speak to those nostalgic for the New York City of the 1980s and ’90s, a bygone era of when the city was a crazier, more dangerous (and possibly more interesting) place.


Think of Steve Osborne as a regular at your neighborhood bar. Not a fancy place with strobes and a dance floor but a grimy hole in the wall with good beer, a decent pool table, and a temperamental jukebox.

After twenty years on “the job” he has a raft of stories that are funny, shocking, and tragic in turns. Each time you see him you ask for another. Today he leans back and says, “Did I tell you the one about the hotdogs?” Continue reading “The Job by Steve Osborne”

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson


18934820It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of chasing flavors had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.


Before reading this book I had never heard of Samuelsson, as his rise and career in front of the camera came after I moved halfway across the world. I’m glad that I now know who he is but I feel oddly disconnected from him as a cook… not what I was expecting from a food memoir.

Continue reading “Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson”

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch


9476292Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading. For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.


Many “stunt” memoirs are about doing a crazy, unsustainable thing – making every recipe from a huge cookbook, living to the letter of the Bible, going without or making do with.

Sankovitch makes it clear from the beginning that she will not fail. For her reading a book a day isn’t a trial, but an escape and path to healing after the loss of her sister. By giving herself permission to take a year “off” and simplify her life she finds what she was looking for… and what she was running from.

If I found this book at a different point in my life – after a profound loss of my own, say – it would have been more meaningful. I live on the other side of the world from my family and have no sisters nor kids of my own, making it hard for me to identify with much of what Sankovitch talks about. Even so I was left misty eyed repeatedly… not good when you’re reading in a restaurant. But hey, at least it wasn’t crowded.

This would be a great read for someone that’s looking to restart their life after a death of a loved one. While many works are mentioned if you’re itching for book-on-book action you’ll probably be disappointed.

Fire Season by Philip Connors


9341909A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job far from the streets of lower Manhattan: working as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Spending nearly half the year in a 7′ x 7′ tower, 10,000 feet above sea level in remote New Mexico, his tasks were simple: keep watch over one of the most fire-prone forests in the country and sound the alarm at the first sign of smoke.

Fire Season is Connors’s remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude. The landscape over which he keeps watch is rugged and roadless — it was the first region in the world to be officially placed off limits to industrial machines — and it typically gets hit by lightning more than 30,000 times per year. Connors recounts his days and nights in this forbidding land, untethered from the comforts of modern life: the eerie pleasure of being alone in his glass-walled perch with only his dog Alice for company; occasional visits from smokejumpers and long-distance hikers; the strange dance of communion and wariness with bears, elk, and other wild creatures; trips to visit the hidden graves of buffalo soldiers slain during the Apache wars of the nineteenth century; and always the majesty and might of lightning storms and untamed fire.


This summer I decided to tackle a bunch of fire-related books I’ve been meaning to get to.  I figured that with the AC pumping and typhoons doing their best to aim at the island I call home they would be less threatening, and they sorta were.  Next up – Fire Season.

The book covers one year of lookout duty by Connors, starting with a five mile hike up the mountain with his dog, Alice.  His food and other supplies will be brought in by mule.  The wet spring quickly turns dry and he spends his time reading, writing, entertaining thru hikers, and looking for smoke (natch).  This account is interspersed with asides about the history of the area, the Forest Service, other writers who were lookouts, and the author’s personal life.  Forest management has changed a lot over the past 100 years and it got me thinking about public lands are being taken care of all over the country

Sometimes I liked these diversions better than the main narrative.  Connors talks about his mountain, his tower, his experience.  I would have liked him to take a step back and muse about, say, the human need for solitude instead of just his need for solitude.  Other lookouts are name checked but I’d like to know more about them and how their experience differs.  Is the female lookout as eager to invite hikers up to her tiny tower?  Connors makes it sound like you need to be like him in order to do this job when obviously that is not the case.

Faced with the prospect of training a relief lookout he says,

…the skills required of a person here, aside from the use of the Osborne Firefinder, are more intuitive than mechanical and therefore difficult to impart.  It’s one of those jobs you can learn only by doing.

Despite this we don’t get to see him mess up or learn much of anything.  The book covers his eighth season – he has all the mountain and valley names memorized, he knows exactly when he can get away with taking a nap, he clears rat nests out of his cabin without even wrinkling his nose because hey, he’s done it for the better part of a decade.  Connors meets bad circumstances but they’re acts of nature, not due to a misstep or bad planning on his part.  The whole thing comes off as macho and annoyed me more as the book went on.

I may sound negative but all in all I enjoyed the read.  Now I want to go on and read more about the history of the area as I’m woefully ignorant about the Southwest.  It also persuaded me to extend the Summer of Fire by one book – Smokejumper, here I come!