Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dederer, Hall and Howe: Three Good Biographical Reads





After finishing my novel-reading duties for the TLA Lariat task force, I have (finally) found more time for reading memoirs and biographies. I've got three good ones to tell you about today: Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) by Claire Dederer, The Best Day The Worst Day: My Life With Jane Kenyon (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) by Donald Hall, and My Korean Deli: Risking It All For a Convenience Store (Henry Holt, 2011) by Ben Ryder Howe.

Indeed, my favorite YMCA yoga teacher liked Claire Dederer's book so much, she read us a short excerpt in class one day. But you don't have to be a yogini to get into Poser. Although the topic of yoga gives this book much of its structure, topics such a marriage, motherhood, and individuation make it the touchy-feely memoir it is. Dederer, a New York Times journalist is one of those brooding, cerebral types who definitely needed to get out of her mind and into her body; thus the yoga. Sampling various yoga classes and calming herself down, Dederer gains in both strength and spirit. Bonus asides include her prickly analysis of popular culture, especially involving the crunchy granola crowd she and her husband find themselves living among in both North Seattle and Boulder.

I remember being so struck and upset by the early death of poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia in 1995 at the age of 47. Although her husband, poet Donald Hall's biography was published ten years later, obviously it took me awhile to get around to reading it. The Best Day The Worst Day reconstructs their marriage in alternating chapters between sickness and health. What a privilege it was to step into their shared life in the New Hampshire farmhouse they loved so much. Read Kenyon's poem "Otherwise" (also the title of her posthumous collection) to sample her deceptively spare yet potent style. I know so much more about both poets after reading Hall's bighearted biography. See also the Bill Moyers documentary, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon: A Life Together.

My Korean Deli is a book perhaps best enjoyed by those who have some familiarity with New York City and Brooklyn. What an offbeat book. Why? Because Ben Ryder Howe is not the kind of person you'd expect to own a Brooklyn deli. He also had a day job as an editor at Paris Review. He and his Korean-American wife, Gab (a lawyer) buy the deli for Gab's mother, Kay, whose work ethic demands but cannot afford such a business opportunity. Howe and his wife move into the basement of Kay's home on Staten Island in order to save money for their convenience store project. Of course, such an undertaking has disaster spelled all over it, not that they don't enjoy some level of success. Even George Plimpton, the infamous editor-in-chief of the Paris Review, asks if he can play stock boy for a day, although in the course of the book he dies before this fantasy can be played out.

One of the things I most love about biographical nonfiction is the way such books integrate disparate elements of one person's life into a whole narrative. Interweaving the strands of multicolored lives, the best biographies and memoirs remind us that life is a tapestry whose pattern, however random, can indeed be made sense of when reflected upon and shared.

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