The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw

The Hungry Ocean was published in 1999 and became a New York Times bestseller.  Recently I found it while looking for something totally different to read and I was not disappointed.  This riveting tale of a woman swordboat captain is the reason I love reading non-fiction.  Linda Greenlaw leads such a different life from me and any of my landlubber friends that I can’t imagine she lives on the same planet.  What an amazing story of a gutsy lady from Maine who spends her life on the ocean.

Linda Greenlaw is captain of the Hannah Boden, a sister ship of the Andrea Gail, a boat that was lost in the horrible storm of 1991 and portrayed in the movie The Perfect Storm. Captain Greenlaw is in command of five men who spend month-long trips fishing over 1000 miles off the northeast coast in the Grand Banks.  She has to fight weather, mechanical failures, close quarters with very little time for personal hygiene, disagreements, illness, and all the decisions of where to fish in order to bring home a full boatload that will pay their expenses.  The story of her personal experiences in how to run a complex operation is fascinating.

Ever By My Side

 Ever By My Side: A Memoir in Eight Acts Pets by Dr. Nick Trout is much more than a veteranarians account of his daily life.  It is a story of relationships, of hope, and of hurting.  The senior Mr. Trout had Nick pictured in a “James Herriot” type practice, so when Nick decides to go to America and practice, his father is disappointed.  Another disappointment came when Dr. Trout married a woman with cats and they didn’t add any dogs to their family home.  Dr. Trout tells how the pets in his life help him understand, enjoy, and get through hard decisions.  When his daughter became very ill, it took a pet to help him through her illness.  Of course his memoirs include animal antics that are hilarious and heart warming as well as sad.  You’ll enjoy this book if you like animals, but even if you aren’t an animal lover it’s a great story for everyone.

Rurally Screwed: My Life Off the Grid with the Cowboy I Love by Jessie Knadler

Jessie, a thiry-something New York City girl, editor for a splashy women’s magazine, describes herself not as “happy,” but caustically content with her life–work, parties, and  drinking and has a long-time relationship with a guy who at best is a jerk.  Assigned to go to Montana to do an article on rodeo, she meets Jake, a twenty-five-year-old bull rider.  Jake votes Republican, listens to Garth Brooks, owns guns and is a Christian.  Jessie is blindsided by a genuinely lovable, optimistic, old-fashioned gentleman.  After a short long-distance courtship, she impulsively ditches Manhattan, and finds herself living in backwoods Virginia, canning, sewing, and raising chickens.  After a time, she asks, “is it worth it?”  The answer comes among war, Bible clubs and moonshineRurally Screwed is a hilarious true-life love story, reminiscent of Macdonald’s The Egg and I.  Take a peek at Jessie’s website, www.rurallyscrewed.com with pictures and funny comments on life in the country.

Imperfect: an Improbable Life by Jim Abbott

  In this extraordinary memoir, Jim Abbott tells the story of his life as a child and of the years before and after becoming a major league pitcher. Not just a biography nor just a baseball story, Imperfect: an Improbable Life is the story of a  man’s perseverance and dedication to overcome his physical disability and to gain acceptance for his achievements as a player and a person, not only as a disabled person. Abbott was born without a right hand and was raised by two young parents who provided unconditional love and  who taught Jim to regard his disability as an opportunity and a challenge. As a child, Abbott hides his right arm in a pocket, enduring the teasing of other children for being different. He plays baseball and football with neighborhood children and gains acceptance for his abilities on the playing field. Hours of throwing a ball against a wall improve his pitching and his technique to throw then place the ball glove on his left hand for fielding. Abbott eventually plays high school baseball and football, wins an Olympic Gold Medal for baseball, was an All-American player the University of  Michigan and is drafted by the California A’s baseball team. The book follows the ups and downs of his baseball career, and chapters about his life alternate with chapters describing each inning of the no-hitter that he pitched while playing for the New York Yankees. Inspiring is Abbott’s humility, and his belief that his example of achievement despite obstacles will inspire children with disabilities to reach for their own dreams. The most touching moments in his story are those before and after each game, when Abbott spent  countless hours signing autographs, talking with families of children with disabilities, and answering hundreds of letters from disabled children.

Told with honesty and humor, this is a memoir not only about a career in baseball but of a life that inspires us all to overcome the burdens and challenges of living.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit by River Jordan

“But one thing is for certain – our need for love, our need for each other does not change. And that’s the painful truth, the raw beauty of being human. We hurt, we love, we endure, we continue – and on any given moment of any given day – we rejoice. Praying for Strangers has allowed me those moments of rejoicing in being human.”  So says the author River Jordan one year after the debut of her second book, Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit.

I appreciated this book for the motivation instilled in me to think more of my fellow people each day.  I may not take the challenge of praying everyday for a stranger as River did, but I have been more cognizant of my interactions with those around me.  River chose to begin this resolution one New Year’s when she had much on her own plate that needed prayer.  She selfishly could have focused on her own needs such as her two sons being deployed, one to Afghanistan and one to Iraq.  Instead River began praying every day for someone she crossed paths with and then telling them she would be doing this.  Many times she approached them with, “Would you mind telling me your name?  I have this daily resolution to pray for a stranger and you are my person today”  The reactions and responses she received were nearly always of gratitude and love.  The short converstaions that followed were such a boost to her spirit that River was encouraged to continue all year.  Many shared particular prayer needs and their short interactions became sweet memories and wishes to see them again.  We go through life depersonalizing those around us by never acknowedging their existence.  The clerk at Wal-mart checking us out could be a robot for all the human interaction we have with them. River Jordan’s book helped me to realize the worth of each person and the hope we can give those around us just by sharing a smile, a few words and a prayer.  Praying for Stangers is one book that won’t be read and forgotten.

Kosher Chinese

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Jewish American Michael Levy recounts his time spent in Guiyang, China teaching ESL as a Peace Corp volunteer in Kosher Chinese. This is a humorous, yet often touching memoir of the many cultural differences between America and the “other billion” Chinese (those that live far from Beijing or Shanghai that are not usually portrayed in the media). Surprisingly, Levy’s Jewish status is advantageous in forming relationships with the students he teaches at Guizhou University, like when faculty members inform him that he will be leading the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club. There were many scenes in the book where I was laughing out loud, such as Michael’s first experience using a squat “toilet,” spontaneously joining in with strangers singing John Denver tunes, a neighbor who sings Chinese opera at 6:30 every single morning, and the highly inappropriate English names some Chinese students adopted in his classes. In between these humorous anecdotes, Levy is able to convey the culture of western China where many feel they are caught in between the socialism of Mao and capitalism, and between traditional Chinese culture and Western society. No where is this portrayed more fittingly in the book than a description of a park in Guiyang with a gigantic statue of Mao just steps away from a Wal Mart. This is a quick, fun read particularly for those interested in other cultures and what those cultures think of Americans.

Marzi: A Memoir by Marzena Sowa

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This simply but beautifully illustrated graphic novel tells the story of Marzi, a young girl coming of age behind the Iron Curtain. Marzena Sowa was born in 1979 in Stalowa Wola, Poland. The majority of this graphic novel, written as a series of vignettes, takes place in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ms. Sowa manages to demonstrate both the uncertainty of the time and the joys and wonder any child can find in the world. She and her friends often act out the visit the Pope made to Poland. She talks about her anxiety when her father is away from home for days at a time when he and his fellow factory workers go on strike. She also describes carefree summer days visiting her grandmother and playing with her cousins in the country. Presenting this story as a series of vignettes is very powerful. These snippets of a childhood spent in a country with stores filled with empty shelves and celebrations where people only show up and cheer because that’s what’s expected provide a unique perspective of a country that was shrouded in secrecy for decades.  

Some other wonderful memoirs told in graphic novel form are Persepolis and Vietnamerica.

If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t)

>My first encounter with Betty White was on the Password Game Show with Allen Ludden, back in the early 1960’s. Just recently I came across a DVD of Betty White in Life With Elizabeth, which was done in the mid 1950’s. I missed Betty’s special Saturday Night Live performance back in May 2010, but I’m sure that was delightful, too. Betty’s sense of humor that I saw in Password and Life with Elizabeth, still shines through in her book, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t). If you are or have been a fan of Betty White, at anytime in her career, you are going to want to read her latest book. It is a delightful quick read. But be forewarned; when you pick up this book, be prepared to finish it before setting it back down.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–A Love Story

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In this memoir, popular blogger and cookbook writer Ree Drummond, better known as The Pioneer Woman, tells the story of how she met and fell in love with her cowboy husband who she calls Marlboro Man. After attending college in California, Ree made what she thought would be a pit stop in her home town in Oklahoma while she made plans to start a new life in Chicago. While out with friends one night, she meets Marlboro Man, a rugged and handsome rancher from the next town over who turns her plans to move to Chicago upside down as their love continues to blossom. This true tale follows Ree as she makes the hilarious transformation from country club city girl to rancher’s wife all the while serving up a generous helping of romance. Black Heels to Tractor Wheels is a delightful read for the warm summer days to come.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

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Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants is an hysterically funny reflection on her busy and chaotic life. She offers fascinating glimpses into her life as a performer with Second City, as a writer on Saturday Night Live and the creation of her hit show 30 Rock. Most interesting were her descriptions of her experiences as a female working in the world of comedy. Fey’s love of comedy and performing is apparent through out her stories. Her observations on the hectic life of a working mother juggling schedules, in-laws and holidays are ones that all working moms can relate to–and laugh about. This is a smart, interesting and laugh-out-loud funny book.

The One-Week Job Project by Sean Aiken

> In 2005, Sean Aiken graduated from college. He spent the next year and a half traveling and avoiding making a decision about finding a job. In 2007, he decided it was time to find a job about which he could be passionate, so he started The One-Week Job Project. He built a website, sent an email to all his friends and family then started taking jobs that lasted for one week doing a wide variety of things for an entire year (his first job was as a jump master for bungee jumpers). He didn’t ask for any wages, just that whoever employed him for the week donate some money to a campaign called ONE that fights extreme poverty.

Aiken garnered media attention and started doing guest spots on radio programs and being featured in segments on local television stations. He landed a sponsor who donated $1000 a month to help with travel expenses after week 5. The job offers rolled in and over the course of the year, Aiken tried jobs ranging from florist to computer-software sales to aquarium host, preschool teacher, and finally mayor of his home town.

It was interesting to read about the variety of jobs Aiken tried. His journey led to a number of discoveries about himself and a wide variety of insights from the people who employed him along the way (most of the people who offered him jobs were individuals who love what they do).

As one of Aiken’s employers pointed out, the project gained as much attention as it did because so many people settle for careers they don’t love. It was refreshing to read about someone with the drive (and willingness to live with uncertainty) to find his passion.

Aiken’s website is still up and can be viewed at http://www.oneweekjob.com/.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

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How the west was won with the help of women comes to mind as I read Jeannette Wall’s latest novel. The Glass Castle, an award-winning memoir by Jeannette, told her hardscrabble life story. Now Jeannette tells the story of Lily Casey Smith, her maternal grandmother born in 1901 in the southwest. The trials Lily had growing up during those hard times will make any one appreciate life today. Her unconventional father kept the kids running the ranch while he wrote letters to congressmen and pursued his own interests. Lily took to ranch life and yet knew there was more to life. She loved school and was able to teach school at the age of 15 when she traveled on horseback 500 miles to her first teaching post in the Arizona frontier. Lily became known as “the mustang-breaking, poker playing, horse-race-winning school marm of Coconino County”. She married twice, once to a bigamist with several children, the second time to a solid older man that was a highly respected rancher. The thousands of acres of land they ranched for owners in England, kept them leading a very hard, lean existance as they saved money for their own ranch. To make money, Lily tried everything from selling bootlegged whiskey, to driving a hearse as a taxi and school bus, she learned to fly planes, trained horses and raced horses and taught school at numerous isolated locations sometimes taking her two children with her.
Jeannette ends Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel explaining that she didn’t think of the book as fiction, ” Lily was a very real woman and to say that I created her or the events of her life is giving me more credit than I am due. However, since I don’t have the words from Lily herself, and since I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing…..the only honest thing to do is call the book a novel.”

Need a Good Laugh?

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In the midst of life’s challenges nothing helps like a good laugh and Manhattan Library Association would like to give you just that. This year’s TALK (Talk About Literature in Kansas) series is “That’s Funny: Books that Make Us Laugh“. We’ll discussing four books through the spring. The first meeting is Thursday, January 29, at 7:00 pm, in the Manhattan Public Library Auditorium where we’ll talk about The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald with Trish Reeves of Haskell Indian Nations University.

In The Egg and I, MacDonald writes about her years as a young bride in the late 1920s, which she spent with her less-than-realistic new husband on a very primitive chicken farm in rural Washington state. Copies are available for check-out at the Information Desk on the first floor of the library.

The Longest Trip Home: a memoir

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John Grogan’s first book, Marley and Me was a success story because of a wonderful, goofy dog that claimed our hearts. The cover art showing adorable Marley would grab the attention of any dog lover. When I read that John Grogan had another book coming out for adults I couldn’t resist seeing what else he had to share.

The Longest Trip Home: a memoir is another heartwarming story of family that draws parallels for many of us lucky enough to be part of a family. We laugh at Grogan growing up in Detroit during the baby boomer years as he discovers girls, smoking and how to annoy his teachers who are nuns in Catholic parochial schools. We struggle with him as he shares his departure from his parent’s values and the disappointment he causes them. His departure from his parent’s Catholic faith, marrying outside the faith and raising his children outside of the church all cause him guilt when he considers his parents wishes.

I found this book to be a departure from Marley and Me but a very moving tribute to how an American family loves and loses and learns how to grow together through the years.

Slave by Mende Nazer

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Her fate is a domestic prison in an alien world

In Slave, Mende Nazer has written a straightforward, harrowing memoir. Born into the Karko tribe in the Nuba mountains of northern Sudan, her story first concentrates on Nazer’s idyllic childhood. In 1994, Mende, age 12, was snatched by Arab raiders, raped and shipped to the nation’s capital, Khartoum, where she was installed as a maid for a wealthy suburban family.

She’d never seen a spoon, a mirror or a sink, much less a televison or a phone. The pampered housewife, affluent, petty and cruel, beat her frequently and dehumanized her in dozens of ways. After seven years, Nazer accompanied the family, as a “maid” to Great Britian. She was able to contact other Sudanese and eventually escaped to freedom. Her book is a profound meditation on the human ability to survive virtually any circumstances.

Slavery still exists today and needs to be stamped out