Review by New York Times Review
At their worst, there's little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional. At their best, memoirs burn through the "me" of the genre, and into the universal of the human experience. Those masterly memoirs are rare: Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" comes to mind. "Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse," Angelou tells us in that debut autobiography, thereby generously bestowing her readers with the precious key to her own liberation. In other words, a beach read offers escapism; an excellent read offers the means to escape. Enter, then, into my reading nights this dark winter season three memoirs written by women who have in common their gender but little else. Gallingly, none of the works rise very far above this special-interest corner; they're neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape. "If you don't like something, change it," Angelou famously advised. "If you can't change it, change your attitude." Of the three memoirs under review here, the most successful - by which I mean the one that does the most to reach beyond itself - is Reema Zaman's "I Am Yours." Zaman, raised in Bangkok by a Thai mother and a father from the ruling classes of Bangladesh, is both privileged enough to receive an education and female enough to have that education compromised by the usual means. When a teacher stalks Zaman, everyone, including her father, dismisses her objections. "Power only responds to power. I have none. The predator is protected. I am a stain, initially irksome, ultimately forgotten," she writes. Still, Zaman doesn't turn cynical or bitter, just increasingly anorexic. Zaman can write beautifully about the frustration and pain of being a woman in a man's world, an immigrant in a world suspicious of outsiders. In the States she finds not only the promise of liberation, but also its opposite. A colleague rapes her; a man she has trusted. She decides to keep the assault to herself. "I cannot jeopardize my chances at staying in America," she explains. "I'm profoundly American. I'm independence, grit and freedom of speech, personified. Staying here is crucial for the life I want, to be a voice for those without one. The irony is acutely painful." Still, a glorified journal is confined by the limits of its own scope. Zaman's writing seems to have inspired her - she tells us so - but it's too navel-gazing to inspire the reader. "I have lived a startling, beautiful life. I have survived and continued not because of confidence but because I have a confidante. Call thyself any name thou wish. Imaginary friend, art, muse, reader, guardian angel, higher self, inner voice, God_You, myself, this, we are a truth." Zaman's memoir is merely good, but it's streaks ahead of Sophia Shaimiyev's "Mother Winter." Shaimiyev has a lot to say: She is a Russian immigrant to America, the daughter of a lost alcoholic mother and a dark, abusive father. But what she says she says with so much I-am-womanhear-me-roar abandon, it was all I could do not to avert my gaze out of delicacy for her, if not for myself. "That night, in bed with my boyfriend," she writes at one point, "I felt a certain kind of desperate passion - like a cheetah attacking a water buffalo - amplified by him being monotone and withholding." Cheetahs and water buffaloes don't exist in nature together, for a start. Still, not 30 pages later we're told: "A rhino hunted for its ivory runs in fear of captivity. She knows not whether the gun pointed at her from the chopper is to kill her or is a stun gun to knock her out and take her to safety." Rhinos have horns, not ivory. These are pointless, sloppy sentences, and they highlight the central problem of this book. Shaimiyev has plenty of genuine self-concern, but beyond herself she seems capable of thinking only in stereotypes ; she can't see beyond her own suffering let alone get her readers there. "What if the name of the town and country you were born in changed after you left? What if you lived in three different countries within a year right before you hit puberty?" This reader's response to that rhetorical question is: It's the memoirist's job to figure out those basic questions, and then write us your considered answers. Which brings me to Pam Houston's regrettable "Deep Creek." It's ostensibly the story of the lifesaving properties of her high-elevation ranch in Colorado, although there's not much to cultivate up there in the long winters except, apparently, self-delusion and acres of self-satisfied contradictions. Houston begins her narrative by telling us, in her introduction, that she's "happiest with one plane ticket in my hand and another in my underwear drawer. Motion improves any day for me - the farther the faster the better." She ends the book by recounting her boat trip through the Fury and Hecla Strait. "I was face to face with my familiar koan: how to be with the incandescent beauty of the iceberg without grieving the loss of polar bear habitat." She's learned nothing, in other words, between the first pages and the last. In the meantime, however, we learn that social media too makes Houston grieve: "Facebook has already made me cry four times this morning," she writes roughly a third of a way through a tedious missive. "First it was Ursula Le Guin reminding me we don't write for profit, we write for freedom; next it was a video of the Unist'ot'en indigenous camp resistance trying to stop the Keystone pipeline; and then it was the state of Nevada electing a man to their house of representatives who said 'simple-minded darkies' show 'lack of gratitude' to whites." The social and environmental injustices that reduce Houston to tears are no accident; they're a fairly widespread global arrangement in which many of us are wittingly or unwittingly complicit. Houston has always wanted to be "a child of the wilderness," she tells us, but she's now an elder; it's time to do the hard work of connecting the dots between cause and effect. She might, for example, have scrutinized the roots of racism and indigenous American resistance in and around her beloved patch of barbedwired-off paradise. She might have told us what she herself was doing to combat this climate change she so laments. That would have been the beginning of a decent, possibly instructive memoir, or at least something beyond these sleepy musings. ALEXANDRA FULLER is the author, most recently, of "Leaving Before the Rains Come."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 30, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review
*Starred Review* Houston's (Contents May Have Shifted, 2012) latest essay collection wields scorching honesty and heartfelt reflection that will certainly be welcomed by her many fans. Channeling Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud (2011), Houston writes of her 120-acre homestead in Creede, Colorado, in bracing prose that brings alive her love of the West as a place of headstrong break-your-heart-blue that captured her soul when she acquired it after the success of her best-seller, Cowboys Are My Weakness (1992). Whether chronicling the threats in wildfire country or the poignant joys and sorrows of life with pets and livestock, Houston firmly establishes herself as a key voice from the rural West. Even more significantly, she writes of the blistering wounds that linger from her childhood, the burden she forever shoulders, carrying that different brand of love for a parent you can't ever trust. Her search for a home to make her own, far from memories and deeply entrenched in the history of the land's pioneer past, took Houston through a literary reckoning that cuts to the bone while offering succor for a shattered youth. Always impressive, Houston is in striking form here. Her talent remains remarkable and her words extraordinarily affecting and effective.--Colleen Mondor Copyright 2018 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Houston (A Little More About Me), a professor of English at UC Davis, brings compassion, a deep sense of observation, and a profound sense of place to essays centered around the 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies that serves as home base in her busy life of travel and academic commitments. Houston's descriptions of ranch routine, which "heals me with its dailiness, its necessary rituals not one iota different than prayer," leads her organically toward graceful, "unironic odes to nature." Intimate but not sensationalized stories of Houston's upbringing in an unstable suburban household with an abusive father and a neglectful, alcoholic mother set off her gratitude for an adult life lived in the midst of a sometimes perilous but beautiful landscape. "Ranch Almanac" entries that alternate with the essays offer delightful appreciations of the ranch's other residents, including wolfhounds, lambs, chickens, and miniature donkeys; its human visitors, including her all-important "wood guy"; and the natural wonders visible there, notably including the Milky Way. Houston's vision finds a solid place among the chronicles of quiet appreciation of the American wilderness, without the misanthropy that often accompanies the genre; her passion for the land and its inhabitants is irresistibly contagious. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Novelist and essayist Houston (Contents May Have Shifted) turns to personal territory in this memoir of more than 20 years of ranch living in Colorado. Practical details, including chores, weather, and isolation are interspersed with chapters on seasonal change and natural beauty. Houston builds an ecosystem of dogs, horses, sheep, chickens, and miniature donkeys among native elk and coyotes, and peoples her wilderness with friends, visiting writers, helpful neighbors, and ranch sitters. Her breathless day-by-day account of a series of wildfires in 2013 that burned thousands of acres, including the mountains and valleys surrounding her land, demonstrate her fervent respect for nature. She also offers tender recollections of difficult topics such as child abuse and grief. Her travels as a teacher and writer to support herself and the ranch help to bring a global range to her observations and experiences. Houston discusses a deeply personal environmentalism that impacts her neighbors, her home, and her worldview. VERDICT Highly recommended as a memoir that combines nature, writing, and personal reflection.-Catherine Lantz, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A collection of essays about finding and maintaining one's place on our changing planet.In her latest, Houston (English/Univ. of California, Davis; Contents May Have Shifted, 2012, etc.) writes with the same unvarnished, truth-loaded sentences that made her short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness (1992) a contemporary classic. Her nonfiction persona, like many of her fictional narrators, is tough and full of gumption. "Did I ask myself whether putting 5 percent down on a 120-acre ranch I had no idea how to take care of and no foreseeable way to pay for might have been taking the idea of retethering to the earth to a radical extreme? I did not," she writes, continuing, "if buying the ranch was a gross overreaction to either my mother's death or my book's [Cowboys] unexpected turn, it was a secret I kept from myself." Of course, the author made it work, and the ranch served as a connecting point between seasonal teaching and her many travels. The author's affinity for the place is clearly powerfuland infectious for readers. "Ranch Archive," which mostly recounts the history of the ranch itself, is the least engaging piece, but the rest are excellent, as the author enthuses readers through her prose and attitude alike. Writing in the face of climate change, she refuses to shrink. "I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration," she writes. "I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?" By the end of the book, she has been through it allfires, blizzards, murdered animals, and moreand we understand when she writes, "when you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree."A profound and inspiring love letter to one piece of Earthand to the rest of it, as well. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.