Journalists writing memoir

I’m reading a book my mother really would have liked. Waking Up in Eden is about a woman who leaves her job in journalism and attendant East Coast urban lifestyle to become a fundraiser for an obscure (to me, anyway) botanical garden in Hawaii. I love the book because (and this is probably a holdover from my single days) one of my favorite genres is “woman leaves everything behind to do XX.”

I often do not like memoirs written by journalists because journalists are trained not to talk about themselves, and sometimes that discomfort shows up loud and clear in their writing. Also, sometimes journalists overwrite. I still haven’t forgotten “my father’s favorite tipple in his sunset years” by a woman who is probably in her forties or “it was a journey as madcap as it was bumptious.” But this one hits all the right notes.

Fleeson talks about being interested in women living alone in their forties. She mentions all sorts of books I love in the Woman Leaves Everything Behind genre. She talks about the environment in a way that is convincing and nondogmatic. She mentions Isabella Bird, a Victorian woman who left her comfortable home to go trekking in Hawaii, the Rockies, and the Far East. My mother was always trying to get me to read Isabella Bird too.

I used to talk to my mother on the phone several times a week. When we ran out of things to talk about, or were skirting things neither one of us wanted to talk about (my love life, her grief over losing my father, her health), we would shift to books. She would tell me all about what she was reading, and I would do the same. Just before I’d go down to visit her, I’d pace the bookstore where I worked.

“I can’t go home without a book for my mother,” I’d tell a coworker. “She’d make me sleep in the garage.”

I bought her Penelope Lively (whom we both confused with Penelope Fitzgerald), Bill Bryson (whom she would berate for hiking the Appalachian Trail with so little preparation), Gail Tsukiyama (whom I once met at the bookstore and who is charming as well as a fabulous writer). I knew not to buy her novels with too much sex or family strife. She loved nature writing, and thick biographies about composers. She read food writing and travel memoirs. Laurie Lee was a favorite, along with Henry Beston. I can’t remember if I read The Outermost House first or she did.

And now I have a new book for her, and of course, nowhere to send it. Three years after my mother died it’s the little things that make me sad. But it also makes me happy. I can love this book and think of her. And maybe after all these years I’ll read a little Isabella Bird too.

What makes you think of your mother?


18 responses to “Journalists writing memoir

  1. It’s more like what doesn’t. This past weekend I went home and, with a few friends, took a bottle of champagne to the cemetery to toast a friend who recently died. We then carried our glasses over to my mom’s grave and did a toast to her headstone. “Cheers, Mama.”

  2. I sound exactly like my mother, every once in a while, especially when laughing with my daughters, or trying to fix their problems. This is far more comforting than hearing her, as I sometimes do, in my angry voice.

    And then, there’s the family mole . . .

  3. I’m dodging your question to talk more about books. I, too, love the “woman leaves everything behind for XX” genre. My first book like this was “Nothing to Declare” by Mary Morris. I love that book, and I still have a copy that I’ve been meaning to re-read. I also love Isabella Bird, particularly “A Lady’s Life in the Rockies.” It’s fantastic. Several times, I’ve given it as a gift to my kids’ teachers. Right now, I’m reading “Yoga Bitch,” which is in this genre and which is very funny.

    I also love the sub-genre that involves home renovation (e.g., “Under the Tuscan Sun”). I’m reading a male version of this (I often have a couple of books going at once): “I’ll Never Be French.”

    Lately, I’ve become interested in a particular twist on this “leaving it all behind” genre: it’s the “simplify while still at home so you feel like you’ve left it all behind” books, especially those which include children. There are not many of these, but “Notes from a Blue Bike” is a recent one that I enjoyed.

    If you have other recommendations, please offer them!

    • Hey GEW, good to see you! I too loved “Nothing to Declare,” which I read when I was a teenager (probably because my mother made me!).

      Hm, I loved “Going to Ground” by Amy Blackmarr, very semi rural Southern, lots of snakes. You might also really like Eliza Thomas’ “The Road Home.” She’s in the “build your own cabin” subgenre. I’ll think of some others.

      Is it possible to like Yoga Bitch if you aren’t a yoga type?

      • Yes, I think it’s possible to like Yoga Bitch if you aren’t a yoga type. The author, herself, is only barely a yoga type, When the author told her sister she was going to the retreat, her sister said, “You’d better not come back one of those yoga bitches.” Thus the title.

        Thanks for the recommendations! They sound spot on.

      • I also just finished the food-type memoir called “A Homemade Life” by Molly Wizenberg, which I thought was very well written.

      • The Wizenberg book looks great. (I might be too impatient for Yoga Bitch, but maybe not, I’ll flip through it and see.) Thanks!

        On the subject of food lit, one of my very favorite comfort reads are Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking.”

  4. I just read this

    and it seems to chime with your post:

    “When I turn to the last pages of Middlemarch and read about Fred and Mary,” she writes, “I think of my parents, who met when they were barely past childhood, and who grew white-haired together; until in the hours before dawn one winter morning, nearly sixty years after their wedding day, my father died with my mother at his side, holding his hand and speaking softly to him of sweet memories in common. Middlemarch gives my parents back to me. In the pages of my imagination they are still together, watching me and watching over me from the window of their lives, under the pale sunlight of the place I came from and still call home.”

    • YOU make me think of my mother (as does my hair, my hands, my chin, my furniture, writing emails, what I say to my husband, how I talk to my children, the pictures on my wall, the books I read, my other sisters, family pictures, cook books, but NOT my mountain bike).

      And what do you mean you have nowhere to send that book? Send it to me! I am calling you tomorrow to remind you what my address is.

      • Why did my reply turn up under Downith’s message? She doesn’t make me think about my mother, Indy does.

        But Downith makes me think about Indy who makes me think about my mother, so maybe it’s OK…

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