Book review: Richard Ford’s Between Them

July 22, 20177 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, writing

Al Hippensteel is the editor of The Dearborn Express, our free neighborhood newspaper, and he’s in the memoir-writing class I lead in Printers Row, too.

Before class one day Al asked if anyone might be interested in writing book reviews for the paper, and his fellow memoir-writer Lorraine Schmall jumped at the chance.

Her latest review is about a new book by Richard Ford, one of my favorite short story writers. I was so flattered to have Lorraine mention a writing prompt of mine in her review that I asked for permission to publish it here, too. Enjoy!

Richard Ford, Between Them: Remembering My Parents

by Lorraine Schmall

There’s a popular memoir-writing teacher whose assignments are simple phrases capable of many meanings in many contexts. For example, “What My Parents Believed” could be about parents’ beliefs in a higher power– or in aliens; in American cars or the Farmer’s Almanac; in sparing the rod or spoiling the child; in education or an afterlife; in fidelity or free love. Like a required ingredient in a TV cooking contest, the right phrase encourages creative thinking.

Image of book cover.

Richard Ford employs the same technique with the title and the content of his lovely memoir, Between Them: Remembering my Parents. He plays with the phrase “between them” to look back at his parents from different, and fascinating angles, in a way, that he hopes, “gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”

He writes chronologically, so this intimate portrait begins with his concession that, as soon as Edna and Parker met in Arkansas, between them was something powerful and forever unknowable to a son, something which drew them together tightly and swiftly and intentionally apart from others; something he doesn’t begrudge them. He recognizes that between them and before him, was a carefree decade, most of which they spent together in an automobile or in diners or motels subsidized by the national company whose starch his father sold state-to-state. Ford wonders, and worries, whether he came between them, and forever changed, and maybe diminished what was before, after they were forced to make a home and a decision to live apart all but a few days a month after he was born.

A wordsmith who won the Pulitzer and has books made into movies, Ford cannot describe how his parents felt when he dropped into their lives: “It could only have been strange.” But he writes with some conviction: “They loved each other. They loved me.” From the stories he tells, it certainly seems so. Richard lived, trusting and sheltered and safe, between them.

And between them—and Richard’s sometimes close, often estranged and always unusual grandparents, he got all he needed and learned about the world. A once-restless mother whose own mother pretended they were sisters, and a father who could have been but never was more, they were in many ways like most parents—and Ford’s conclusion that he could never really know what they believed is a universal truth. “They elude me, as parents do” he writes, and so deftly encourages readers to reconsider their own memories of growing up.

Mondays with Mike: At home with the Roosevelts

July 17, 20175 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics, Uncategorized

One more post about our trip to Maine and I promise we’ll stop.

On our last morning, we packed our bags and headed to Campobello Island, over the border in New Brunswick, Canada. We had a long drive to Boston after Beth’s last workshop session that morning, so we wanted to leave out directly from Campobello.

While Beth was doing writing exercises with her classmates, I took one more walk—this time I headed to the Roosevelt Cottage. Cottage is a bit of a misnomer—the Roosevelt Cottage has dozens of rooms. Yet, because it’s not winterized (and summer only), and because it doesn’t have a basement, it’s called a cottage.

Photograph of a sprawling Dutch Colonial home on the waterfront.

Not bad for a summer place, eh?

The Roosevelt Campobello International Park is operated jointly by the U.S. and Canadian governments, which in itself is novel and heartening. A tour guide was standing in the foyer when I entered and immediately launched into an intro to the substantial history of the cottage, and of the island. The Cliff’s Notes: FDR summered on Campobello Island with his parents as a boy. He learned to sail, fish, and shoot a bow and arrow. In the beginning they stayed in giant luxury hotels, but they eventually built their own places, as did other wealthy families from the Northeastern United States. They’d take the train as far as they could go, then board steamships to the islands.

As the guide talked, a few other people filtered in and joined us before we left for a walk through the cottage. At the first stop, a little nook where FDR carved little boats out of wood, a fedora and pipe sat next to some carving tools. The guide said that the legend is that in 1939, his last visit to the island, FDR left his hat and pipe fully expecting to return.

Photo of FDR's hat and pipe.

FDR’s hat and pipe on the left side of the table.

I don’t think I can do the rest of the tour justice. But you’ve probably had that feeling—where you stand where a hero, a legend, once walked and you just feel something. The Park staff has done a marvelous job retaining or reacquiring original furnishings and belongings: There’s Eleanor’s writing desk. The bed where FDR convalesced after polio struck. And that’s the adjacent daybed that Eleanor slept in. The kids rooms, the kitchen. The giant megaphone FDR used to converse with fisherman on the water out front, sometimes asking if they could bring a NY Times back from Eastport, the town visible across the bay.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s writing desk.

The tour guide, who had been raised on Campobello, loved her work. She’d first worked there as a teenager, and she told a story about Franklin and Eleanor’s surviving sons visiting the cottage in 1979, and carrying on the way siblings do: Arguing about accounts of bygone days.

On the one hand, it was inspiring. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their children were flesh and blood, just like everyone. They survived and led the United States and the world through hardship I can’t fathom. The history of their time was the history of my mother and father’s time, and I draw a straight line between it and my own history. As I walked through I felt proud and awed and hopeful.

But as I left, I couldn’t help thinking: Sorry, we’ve let you down.

I’m in a Lubec state of mind

July 16, 20177 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, memoir writing, Mike Knezovich, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Whitney, writing
Maine lighthouse on a crystal clear blue-sky day, photo by Mike Knezovich

One of a gazillion lighthouses in the area known as Downeast.

I’m just back from the Iota Short Prose Conference on Campobello Island, where I was a student rather than a teacher.

Mike flew with me and Whitney from O’Hare, rented a car at the Bangor Airport and drove us to our destination: the easternmost point in the United States.

We settled right in to our quiet little inn in Lubec, Maine. Without the racket of air-conditioners in the way, we’d wake up each morning to the happy sounds of birds and enjoy a cup of coffee downstairs before heading outside so Mike could drive Whitney and me a couple miles to Canada.

That's me, author Beth Finke, with Seeing Eye dog Whitney in front of the Roosevelt Cottage at Campobello Roosevelt International Park

That’s FDR and Eleanor’s summer place in the background.

Those morning drives would start with a cheery, “Hello! Bonjour! Passports?” from the lady at the customs booth, then into Canada we’d go. Mike described the scene as we’d cross the water — often foggy, always beautiful — and I’d open my window to take in the mixed scent of sea and pine. After kissing me goodbye at the conference cottage, Mike would spend his days at lighthouses, on beaches, whale-watching, or visiting historic Roosevelt sites.

And me? I’d spend my day with writers at Campobello Roosevelt International Park, the site of the workshop. Some of my fellow Iota attendees were Canadian, and some were from the United States. One had come all the way from Jerusalem. one thing we all had in common? We all were accomplished writers. Some of us had published books, some taught English and creative writing at the college level, some wrote weekly columns for local newspapers, many had blogs. Sessions were led by authors Abigail Thomas and Debra Marquart. Their presentations and sessions were rich and pushed me out of my comfort zone — in a good way.

Abigail (I call her Abby now) is the author of New York Times bestseller A Three Dog Life. She fell in love with Whitney, the first service dog to ever attend an Iota Conference. And while she thanked me politely for signing a copy of Writing Out Loud for her, she couldn’t fool me: the thing Abby was really excited about was getting my Seeing Eye dog’s pawtograph (I stamped Whitney’s paw-print inside the front cover of Abby’s copy of Writing Out Loud).

Debra Marquart (Deb to me now, of course) is the author of a memoir, too. The Horizontal World is available from the Library of Congress talking book program free of charge to people who are blind, and I read it right before we arrived. Deb teaches at Iowa State University and must have had experience there with students who have disabilities — she thought to send her printed handouts to me online. I read them before class using my talking computer.

I used my talking computer to write my asignments in class as well. My laptop came in handy when it was my turn to read those assignments out loud, too: headset on, I’d listen quietly to my piece while simultaneously repeating the words I was hearing out loud for my classmates. That was, perhaps, the best thing about the entire conference for me: for a wonderful four days, I felt like I was in my own students’ shoes. Sitting around a circle, reading my own assignment out loud, hearing others read theirs, it helped me understand why the memoir classes I lead mean so much to the writers who sign up here in Chicago. My dozen or so fellow classmates and I developed trust and empathy — a community, really — through our writing. I’ll be using that trick –listening to my computer via headphones and reciting what I’m hering out loud — at my appearance at The Book Cellar in Chicago this Wednesday, too.

Delicious lobster roll on a rustic tabletop with Maine shoreline in the distance, photo by Mike Knezovich

A lobster roll. In the background, lobster traps. Did I mention lobster?

But back to Maine: the food wasn’t bad, either. Mike was invited to join us at the Iota Conference farewell dinner. Whole lobsters, literally fresh from the sea that day, for everyone! Mike and I were on our own for dinner on the other nights of the conference, and we feasted on lobster rolls, fresh haddock, salmon — you get the picture.

If you’re a writer who needs a shot of energy, I highly recommend Iota. And if you need a change of pace, scenery, and state of mind, I highly recommend Lubec and Campobello. For more, see my and Mike’s recent blog posts.

PS: If you’re curious about the in-class assignments I wrote and read out loud during the Abigail Thomas workshop at Iota, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be publishing one of the impromptu essays I wrote at the writing workshop in my Writing Out Loud newsletter tomorrow.

Come see me at The Book Cellar in Chicago this Wednesday evening, July 19

July 15, 2017CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, public speaking, Whitney
Picture of me at The Book Cellar for an event a few years back.

That’s me at The Book Cellar for an event a few years back.

One of my favorite Indie bookstores in Chicago (outside of Sandmeyer’s, right down the street here in Printers Row) is The Book Cellar in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. The Book Cellar is my kind of store. Suzy, the owner, is a caring woman who supports local authors, the thoughtful bookworms Suzy hires are happy to suggest new books to read or help you find what you are looking for, and hey, who can argue with a bookstore that encourages you to enjoy a glass of wine while you’re doing a presentation?

Which is exactly what I’ll be doing at The Book Cellar this Wednesday night, July 19 at 7 pm. If you live in the Chicago area please join me at The Book Cellar to celebrate Writing Out Loud with a glass of wine, a mug of beer, a cup of coffee or tea at Local Authors Night:

Wednesday, July 19, 7 pm
The Book Cellar
4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

You can all sit back and listen to four local Chicago authors — Alex Higley, Nicolas Aharon Boggioni, and Dr. Sheldon Hirsch will also be there to talk about their writing.

I don’t know which one of us is going first, but I do know this: we are each limited to twelve minutes. Gee, maybe I’ll bring the kitchen timer I use for my memoir-writing classes along!

Mike Knezovich of Mondays with Mike fame will be there to cheer me on from the audience, and Whitney the Seeing Eye dog will be at my side when I’m standing in front of you doing my very short reading, of course.

But wait. There’s more: I include a writer from one of my classes in every Writing Out Loud event I do, and Regan Burke from my Grace Place class has graciously agreed to be at The Book Cellar with me to read a short excerpt from Chapter 82 (The Regan Era).

The Book Cellar is a great independent bookstore in a lovely neighborhood of Chicago. I hope some of you will come, and by all means, bring friends. Read, drink and be merry!

Mondays with Mike: At land’s end

July 10, 20178 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, travel, writing

When last Beth posted, we’d just had a lobster roll in Machias, Maine.

That’s Cohill’s Inn, our home away from home in Lubec.

It only got better. We’re in Lubec, Maine, billed as the easternmost point in the United States. We’re staying at Cohill’s Inn where Glen checks you into your room, mixes your drink, makes your coffee in the morning, and advises on which boat tour to take. You may know I’m a big fan of the movie Local Hero. If you’ve seen it, think Gordon Urquhart.

There is one ATM in town. Cell service is Canadian, so we’ve turned off roaming and are limited to Wifi at the Inn. And that ain’t bad.

The tides are dramatic here, they say 19 feet, and up to 50 feet in Canada. And I believe they’re not exaggerating. Enormous expanses of rock and soil and flotsam and jetsam are exposed and then they disappear, each day.

Photo of foggy bay.

The mist comes and goes.

The tides create Old Sow, the second largest whirlpool in the world according to locals. And I saw it on a boat tour this morning, a wondrous thing. Also wondrous were the seals, the bald eagles, the porpoises and the whale we saw.

Everywhere trees grow out of rocks. It’s verdant and lush and craggy and severe, all at the same time.

Fog comes and goes on its own schedule. One evening a mist rolled in and at sunset the pastel hues floated over forested islands in the distance. It was like living in an impressionist painting.

All reminders that the soul needs natural grandeur. It is informed, enriched, and humbled by the wild.

At the Lubec Brewery, where they add spent brewery grain to sourdough to make pizza crust, we met a man named Roger (that’d be Rah-Jah in localese) who is a roofer by summer, and a fisherman by winter. Roofing is the easy part, the one he likes best. His eyebrows don’t ice up. But he fishes because there isn’t much other work up this way in the winter.

We cross the Canadian border each day when I drop off Beth at her IOTA writing workshop. The Canadian border checkpoint looks like a welcome center. The U.S. checkpoint looks like a rusty toll booth.

Beth’s workshop is at Roosevelt Campbello International Park, where FDR summered with his family as a boy and later with Eleanor and their children. It’s operated jointly by the U.S. and Canadian park services. It’s delightful in the present day and provides some great history lessons.

Photo of the trailer that houses Becky's seafood.

That’s Becky’s.

Back in Lubec, running wild on my own, I’ve had lunch twice at Becky’s, a little trailer supplied with electricity by heavy duty extension cords from Becky’s house. The trailer and house are bayside, that would be Johnson Bay. Beside the trailer is a picnic table, where I ate my lobster roll on day one, and my fried clams on day two. Between the picnic table and the bay were a heap of lobster traps and other fishing gear. My lobster roll was really good. As were my clams.

Photo of lobster roll on picnic table next to bay.

That’s my lobster roll from Becky’s.

The air toggles between the scent of trees and the scent of the sea. I believe I’ve added a few days to my life just by breathing.

On Saturday morning, as we walked to our rental car to head to Campobello, a woman stopped us and asked, “Are you looking for something to do today?” I said I was open to suggestions. She told me that the West Quoddyhead Lighthouse was open for free tours that day, and that there was a small festival celebrating the lighthouse.

After dropping Beth at her workshop, I drove to the lighthouse. I set out in bright sunshine, wishing I’d brought the sunscreen. Two miles later I saw fog ahead. And another three miles later, I arrived at the lighthouse, which was visible, but the waterfront—just 20 yards away—was not. And I could see my breath.

Only five people at a time were allowed to climb the fairly treacherous spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse. That meant a fair amount of waiting, but time passed quickly because two U.S. Coast Guard members were at the bottom regulating the line. Regaling was more like it. One was from Long Island, and had a tattoo of the Island on his forearm to prove it. He’d started college in Florida as a mechanical engineering student. “But,” he said, “every day my friends would drive by on their way to the beach as I was walking to class. ‘Beach?’ ‘Chemistry class?’”

“And that’s how I joined the Coast Guard,” he laughed. He said he’s eleven credits away from getting his degree. “But I love what I do. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

He asked where I was from and when I told him, he said he’d been stationed in Peoria, of all places. His unit keeps shipping lanes clear and safe, and so they had the Illinois River to worry about. We went on at some length, and to the amazement of others waiting in line, about the invasive Asian Carp and how they fly through the air and sometimes into boats.

His buddy was from Bangor (that’s Bang-gore I’ll have you know), Maine and had been stationed in North Carolina on the Outer Banks, so we had a lot to talk about, too.

They were two of the smartest, nicest, most articulate young men I’ve met. They reminded me of our friend’s son, Scott, who also served in the Coast Guard.

And it occurred to me: The world should seek a treaty whereby the only armed forces and weapons permitted would be equivalent to our current USCG. Just enough to keep people safe and the waters navigable.

It’s a nice dream.

Meantime, there’s Downeast Maine. Which is pretty close .