Memoirs: Four Gems for Your Summer Reading Pleasure

If you are of a certain age and disposition, Helen and Scott Nearing and later Eliot Coleman had an impact on your life, or if not an impact, if you did not try in some way to be them, you were at least aware of their ideas and ideals. The Nearings came first, with their notion that you could be self-sufficient on your own land without too much work, a notion that resonated with a whole generation of younger followers. Later Eliot Coleman, one of those young followers, wrote The Four-Season Harvest, which continues to inform serious vegetable gardeners today.

Melissa Coleman, the daughter of Eliot Coleman, lived through those years as a child and saw them in a way only a child could. Her memoir, This Life Is In Your Hands, is her brave and heartbreaking account of the seventies. She portrays her youthful parents, their idealism and dreams, and the bucolic setting where she spent her earliest years. Yet she doesn’t spare us the hardships, the nonstop labor, the at time brutal realities of farm life – for me reading about the fate of the baby boy goat was tough — and finally, the wrenching tragedy that tears the family asunder. She tells it all with compassion and understanding in prose so clear you have to catch your breath. This is a truly extraordinary work.

Margaret Roach also moved back to the land, but the times have changed and hers is a very different story. Roach was a high-powered, highly compensated, fashion conscious member of Martha Stewart’s staff when she left the city and her steady income to build a life for herself in rural New York State. She gardened. She blogged. She made friends with the neighboring farmers down the road.

And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road is her account of this transition. She watches the frogs, takes in a very independent cat, learns to drive a tractor and creates a beautiful garden. The book is meditative and upbeat and by the end, you feel you have a new friend. If you want to know what’s going on in Roach’s garden after you have read the last page, you can follow her popular blog, A Way to Garden.

Katharine Greider went in the opposite direction. She moved to the city and with her husband, bought into an old tenement house on the lower east side of New York. It’s a perfect life. She has a nice husband, delightful children, and she and her husband both write, though they have enough money from their dot come years not to have to worry much. Then one day, they learn that the underpinnings of their house are compromised and it is unsafe. They must evacuate immediately.

A house is one of the biggest investments financially and emotionally that a family makes. We expect it to shelter us. Learning that it is falling in on itself and a menace to everyone residing within its walls is devastating. Greider shares how they dealt with this ordeal in The Archaeology of Home: An Epic set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side. More importantly though, she digs deep into the history of this particular non-descript building that she called home, and the slip of land it was built on. The book is a chronicle of New York City itself, from the salt marshes that early settlers filled in barrow by barrow, to the earliest road-making, the creation of wealth, the divisions of the land, the poverty, politics, influx of immigrants: it’s all here, a microcosm. It’s a good book, a pleasure to read, and even if you are well versed in the history of New York, you will appreciate the scale of this, and the very humanness of it.

Nina Sankovitch stays put. Her landscape is interior. Her beloved older sister has been dead three years, too young of cancer, when she embarks on a year of reading a book a day. Sankovitch lives in suburban gold coast Connecticut with her four sons and husband. In 2008 she founded ReadAllDay.org and began chronicling the books she was reading. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading she shares how she managed to achieve her unusual goal, despite the constraints of only 24 hours in a day and the distractions of a busy household.

In the book, she wanders from her memories to her sister’s short life, to the wisdom she takes from the words she is reading. It is a contemplative piece, probing, reflecting. An extra treat is the
list of the titles of the books she read.

***

In some ways you never know a memoirist as well as you know the people in your life, because the memoirist is framing her life, honing and polishing it. Yet in other ways, we know her better, more intimately, because she writes of things few talk about. A well-written memoir with something to say is a treasure. I can say that all four of these books are indeed treasures. Suzy

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