Memoirs & Biography: Jesmyn Ward, Michael Morton and Margaret Fuller

My reading lately has tended toward nonfiction.  I especially enjoy personal memoirs and biographies of intriguing and somewhat lesser known individuals.  My husband recommended Michael Morton’s memoir and I found it riveting. Morton Called Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace, it is his account of his conviction for his wife’s murder and his long years in a Texas prison.  He is a white man who finds himself surrounded by blacks in a tough and bleak environment; he had naively assumed (numbed by her sudden and horrific death) that he would never be a suspect.  Due to politics, sloppy  handling of his case and some illegal case work, he found himself imprisoned.  How he deals with the endless tedium, loneliness, and inhumanity of the prison system speaks mightlily to his strong character.

Young black men in many parts of the U.S. face challenges and temptations that are beyond the ken of most of us.  Somehow, I missed Jesmyn Ward’s memoir when it came out last year and only just discovered it in paperback.  Men We Reaped is a haunting, painful and incisive portrait of five young men—poor and black with no real role models and few opportunities or support— all of whom died too young in the space of a few years.  They were cousins, friends, and a brother of Ward’s. The combination of grinding poverty, no full-time parents, the easy availability of drugs, and little sense of self-worth made for hard

JWardlives and early death.  In chapters alternating with accounts of each man, Ward chronicles the turmoil of her childhood, how her perspective on her parents, particularly her mother is revised over time, and her own struggle to value herself as a worthwhile person.  It’s amazing to me that Ward went on to success as a novelist (Salvage the Bones) and also returned to DeLisle to live.  She is now a professor of creative writing.




Retreating to an earlier time, I’m finishing up Megan Marshall’s evocative biography of Margaret Fuller.  Marshall previously wrote a biography of the Peabody sisters (19th century New England education reformers) which I read and enjoyed about 10 years ago.  Getting deep into Fuller’s life, I am re-appreciating what she was able to accomplish as a woman in a very male world.  She had been tutored and schooled  by her father, a harsh taskmaster. So it is not surprising that her primary  intellectual friends included the noted men of the day from Waldo Emerson to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thoreau, as well as others whose names are less know to us today.  She did have friendships with other women and she offered a series of Conversations in which they could enroll.  These get-togethers seem to be the precursors of the women’s clubs–with names like Fortnightly, Roundabout, Current Events–that flourished late in the 19th and early 20th century and provided stimulation and brain food, as it were, for smart women who weren’t allowed professional jobs.  Margaret with her coterie debated philosophy and other topics and she encouraged them to speak out and share their thoughts with one another.

MFullerWhat is also fascinating is how Fuller’s view of the plight of women (property of their husbands) and their potential for a greater place in society and a more equal role in marriage went so far beyond what any other American was proposing. The Dial and later the Herald Tribune, gave her platforms from which to expound; later the publication of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, an expansion of an earlier essay, increased her standing and brought her invitations to speak.  She was a woman of big ideas and both voluble and forceful in conversation and in advocating her views.  I imagine some of her female friends found her a bit too much “in your face.”  Tragically, she died in a shipwreck at the age of only 40.

A Room of One’s Own

It is now 2 weeks and a day since the movers and we arrived at our Florida place!  And what a whirlwind! We unpacked and sorted, made 2 trips to Ikea, and delivered ten loads of kitchenware, linens, and books, etc.  to Goodwill continuing our downsizing from a 4-story home to a spacious 2-level townhouse.  And we thought we’d given a lot of books away on the west coast—and we had, hundreds of them.

Now I’ve had the pleasure of arranging our remaining books, quite a few, on the shelves.  Deciding which books should be downstairs on the den shelves, which on the common shelves in the 2nd floor loft area and which ones in my, note that, my, study. I found old favorites like Cold Sassy Tree,  thought-provoking and insightful books like Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life, and the perturbing but elegant memoir, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison.  As well as many books I have not yet read.  Some of these get prime, front and center space on the shelves, to remind me of their presence and to nudge me to make the time to read them.

Almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had a desk of my own, from the time I was about seven or so, with drawers in which to secret away pens and papers and stuff.  In our various houses, I’ve generally had some sort of space for my desk and a few shelves for favored books.  On Thayer Road, that desk was in a room my spouse and I shared and each of us had a desk facing the window separated by a file cabinet.  In the Bethlehem house, he had a generously-sized study and I had the servant’s cubbyhole. It was connected to a bedroom, but had room enough for a desk, file cabinet and chair, with some lovely old-fashioned built-in cabinets and blessedly, a door.  Cozy, but functional.  In San Francisco, the top floor was wide open space and I claimed the smaller end of this room for its windows and its peephole view of the bay.  My spouse had more space (he has more things), but less of a view.  I think I won out on this one!

Here in Florida, I have a room that was a bedroom, now my study, all to myself.  I have my working desk and computer, a desk chair, a tripartite bookcase seven shelves high on one wall, two file cabinets, and a very simple table-like desk with just a center drawer.  This simple desk is where I write personal notes or work on my laptop.  There is a window and a door and the whole thing is just heavenly!  I truly have “a room of my own.”  My husband says I can close the door and write a novel.  I probably won’t do exactly that, but I will revel in the space, the quiet, and possibly be inspired to do more than just write this blog!

Foodie’s Farewell to San Francisco

August 2014

After seven and a half years in this fair city, my husband and I are moving back east.  We won’t miss the fog or the lack of a real summer, but we will miss the fresh fruits and vegetables and the abundance of wonderful restaurants that make this such a satisfying place to eat.  Just eat.

In our last two weeks as residents, we’ve been dining around at old and new favorites.  Top of the list is SPQR.  It’s superb—creative, always crowded, and challenging to the palate.  Their pasta dishes always tempt me and usually win out over any of the entrees. We will have our second dinner there in as many weeks.  My latest favorite is the lasagnette with the mini meatballs.

Enjoying SPQR
Enjoying SPQR

Newer on the scene and also a favorite for repeat visits be it lunch or dinner is Coqueta.  Located at Pier 5, a short walk from the Ferry Building, Michael Chiarello riffs on Spanish tapas in the most appealing way.  We love Padron peppers and his preparation with salt and slivers of prosciutto is addictive.  The menu changes frequently, but we also are fond of the chicken and pea croquetas (a   soothing counterpart to the peppers), the little lamb and duck meatballs, and the pinxtos (tiny bites on a skewer).  Recently we discovered the smoky homemade potato chips.  I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, sharing is the order of the day and the perfect way to sample a wide range of hot and cold dishes.  And there are plenty of wine, beer, and sangria choices.

We live just two blocks from Fillmore Street where you can find everything you need from supermarkets to trendy fashion boutiques, a proper bookstore, many coffee shops, and of course, a number of very good restaurants.  Besides SPQR, we have been regulars at Curbside Café, great for comfort food tinged with French ambiance (short ribs and the fish of the day always reliable and Olivier and his staff always welcoming) and also at Troya. Troya’s Turkish/Mediterranean menu offers a variety of vegetable dishes—we especially like the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower preparations—along with generous portions of kebabs and traditional Turkish manti, little meat-filled dumplings in a creamy yogurt sauce.

Another night we dined with friends at L’Ardoise in the Castro, a place we had frequented several times before.  This French bistro is cozy and a popular neighborhood spot with menu classics such as escargot, cassoulet, and steak frites—all delicious.

On our last night in the city, when we were staying on Nob Hill, we returned to Ala Romana on Russian Hill.  This is a friendly place—the host practically sweeps you off the corner with his enthusiastic greeting—and the service and food are both very good.  Continuing our pepper theme, we enjoyed their tempura pepper appetizer (which, by the way, we had indulged in the week before with friends) followed by their prosciutto and burrata plate, the tortellini pasta with a balsamic reduction and the roast chicken.  All tasty and filling.

Besides dinner, there is lunch, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my favorite lunch places in the Sunset.  They are Park Chow, for their smiling noodles with shrimp and chicken and their salads, especially the Thai chicken salad, and Sai Gow.  This attractive Thai spot is perfect if you are by yourself and I find their curries both comforting and addictive.  My personal favorite is the green curry with chicken.  Lastly, the arrival of La Boulange on 9th Street is an added plus and they offer a healthy salad nicoise.

Bon appetit!  We’re off to the other coast.

Julia Glass triumphs!

We have re-located in Maine for our last week (“different house” as my granddaughter would say) and are finding it all very peaceful. It is a serene spot with stunning views toward Squirrel Island punctuated only by lapping water sounds and the early morning squawks of a jay.  Random sailboats ply the blue waves and a yellow kayak provides a jolt of color.

i have been immersed in And the Dark Sacred Night and have just emerged after several days.  A fan of Julia Glass since Three Junes, I  think this is her best novel yet.  Now I must go back and re-read Junes since some of those characters, Mal, Lucinda, Fenno, and Walter figure prominently here.  Glass draws male characters exceedingly well—perhaps it’s because she has several sons and a male partner—and I was fully engaged with and charmed by crusty Jasper.  Likewise, she captures 40-something Kit’s diffidence, inertia, timidness and neediness as he reluctantly embarks on a search for his biological father.  His wife, Sandra, has thrown him out, in essence, and his first step is visiting Jasper, his sometime stepfather.

JGlassGlass captures the tensions, the hesitations, the undertones and the undercurrents in relationships—the what is not said which can be so much more than what actually is.  Several families here become entwined—Daphne and Kit, a single mother and son;  Jasper, a widower who was then divorced with two sons and a stepson; Zeke and Lucinda, an impaired senator and his aging wife and their daughter and sons; and Fenno and Walter, a couple who nurture through food and compassion and can also rise to the challenge of entertaining 9-year old twins.  These are lives that are separate, then entangled, and then untangled, and then finally entwined for the long haul.  I found this novel to be rich in substance, tinged with humor and humility and thoroughly engrossing.  I loved the writing as well as Glass’s depictions of our all too human foibles and frailties.

I heard Glass read from her previous novel at Book Passage in Marin several years ago and would also recommend that novel,  The Widower’s Tale.