friedagJanuary 17, 2014

How well do you like reading memoirs?

Love 'em.
Can take or leave 'em.
Little or no interest in 'em.

Have you read any memoirs that you would recommend?
Or have you read any that particularly exasperated you -- perhaps some of the most self-indulgent in your opinion?

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I love memoirs, depending on the subject of course. For a long time I was a fan of the "I bought a house in a foreign country" memoir, which included Peter Mayle, Chris Stewart (Driving Over Lemons), Annie Hawes (Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted), etc. I also enjoyed My Life in France by Julia Child -- for some reason she fascinates me, and I do not cook. I also really enjoy A.J. Jacobs' books, I'm not sure they qualify as memoirs, but he sets out to do something a bit wacky and writes about his experiences (A Year of Living Biblically, The Know-It-All, etc.).

I am generally more interested in a memoir that recounts an adventure entire life, and I am definitely NOT a fan of lots of doom, gloom and angst. I like a memoir with a sense of wonder and humor. I guess I read them to live vicariously, and I'd like a happy adventure, please.

Two memoirs that everyone seemed to love and I loathed were Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach -- I found both women whiny and self-indulgent, but that's just my opinion and I know I'm in the minority.

Frieda, what would you recommend?

    Bookmark   January 18, 2014 at 1:37PM
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Sheri, someone mentioned to me that about fifteen years ago memoirs started flooding the market, and now it seems that everybody or his dog has a memoir either published or in the works.

Oh yeah? I hadn't realized it, but I got to thinking about all the ones I've read in the last decade or so and wound up with a list that runs on for several pages in a Word document.

I've gone through seven or eight phases of memoir-reading, perhaps more, since I first picked up Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes (F. Gilbreth Jr. & E. Gilbreth Carey) when I was nine or ten years old. I went on to Betty MacDonald's memoirs: The Egg and I, The Plague and I, Anybody Can Do Anything and Onions in the Stew; Louise Dickinson Rich's We Took to the Woods, et al; and Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons (the savages and demons being her own children). There were probably others too. I think what delighted me, as an adolescent, about memoirs -- besides the inherent humor of these particular writers -- was they were talking about real things, but not just dry facts. I came to differentiate autobiography (you better be able to prove what you wrote) and memoirs (blurring might be okay because it's memory and not necessarily cold hard facts being dealt with).

Drat! I have to stop for now.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2014 at 6:59PM
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I'm sure I'm not the only one that remembers the weird Egg & I thread. Save us!

I run hot and cold with memoirs. I have read dozens and enjoyed them thoroughly and I have read some that I threw across the room in ten pages or so. Overall I really like them. And I'm with you on the Gilbert and Steinbach. Yech.

I'm probably different from some in that I don't expect a memoir to be totally factual. I expect the author to take some license to entertain and spice things up a bit. Unless they are actually recounting an historical event, I'm okay with a little fiction thrown in. Keep in mind that I just recently informed a colleague that the film The Sound of Music is actually not fact, it is merely loosely based on actual people and events. She actually cried and did not believe me. I'm just a meanie!

    Bookmark   January 18, 2014 at 7:58PM
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Oh my, yes, that idiotic thread was supposed to be some sort of Betty MacDonald fan club, but it probably caused many potential readers to avoid Betty Mac's books like they were the plague. Which is a shame! Those of us who fondly remember reading Betty before that thread are still fuming.

You are a meanie, Siobhan. ;-) Actually, I didn't know The Sound of Music was just loosely based on The Von Trapp singers, but I'm not really surprised.

I was trying to think when I got into reading travelogue-type memoirs. It must have been in the 1980s. And the "I bought a house in a foreign country" ones shortly after. Peter Mayle wasn't my first, but I thoroughly enjoyed his first couple of books and then they trailed off, for me. Sheri, I'm with you about the memoirs that are about adventurous highlights and not a person's whole life.

As mentioned in another thread, I have read some of the my-life-was-tougher-than-yours memoirs, but unless they display some sense of humor while remembering all the roughness, I'm not going to inflict them on myself very often.

However, for some months now, I've been reading memoirs about the early 1900s, WWI, the interwar years, WWII and post-war years, particularly in the UK, and I can't seem to get enough of them. Evidently, in the UK Saga Magazine runs some sort of competition for 'life stories' and awards a winner (yearly?). One was Far from the East End by Iris Jones Simantel. Her cheekiness begins with the first paragraph: It all began on 5 July 1938, and it's 'God's honest truth', according to my mother, that my first life-journey almost terminated in a toilet bowl. Thinking she needed to move her bowels, she sat straining on the porcelain throne until caught there by a vigilant nurse, who threw up a verbal roadblock: 'Stop pushing, Mother.' I can only imagine what a sh**ty view of the world I might have had were it not for that nurse and her timely intervention.Another book about the East End, but in the early 1900s, titled Four Meals for Fourpence by Grace Foakes fascinates me because Grace was obsessed with food (she was hungry most of the time) and she goes into great detail about what she and her fellow East Enders ate at the time. It's not a poor- pitiful-me book, though. Grace was quite cheerful about recounting it, albeit in a rather sentimental way that no writer of today would assume.

For some reason, American memoirs about the same eras aren't nearly as cheerful. The sentimentality is not the same either, although 'we were poor but happy' reminiscences do occur.

I still haven't received my copies of the Call the Midwife books, but I'm expecting a similar memoir-ish style.

A couple of American memoirs about the 1950s have entertained me: Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, about her growing up in Pittsburgh, PA and Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid about his childhood in Des Moines, IA. Bill gets a bit silly, but since he and I...

    Bookmark   January 18, 2014 at 9:07PM
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I've read a few memoirs. Not a lot. I usually won't read celebrity ones because I think most are probably self-serving. and anyway the people are usually boring. Last week I saw that Elizabeth Smart had written one about her ideal with the abductors with serious mental health issues. Why oh why would she want to write a book about that? And go on talk show hosts to relive the whole thing? Just baffles me and there is no way that I would read it, let alone buy it.

I did read Angela's Ashes which was good albeit depressing. Also I read the Sound of Music one, the real story of the Van Trapp Family Singers and Maria in the real story is night and day from a nun twirling around the alpine singing her heart out and bursting with love and joy. Do not read it if you want to retain your fantasy...and it is a pretty good fantasy.
I confess to buying the Keith Richards one because I have always been fascinated with the Rolling Stones and their steamy lifestyle. An alien world to me. Truly that is the only celebrity one I have read. I'd probably read the Beatles for the same reason.
I agree that a memoir is not the same as a biography. I do not expect facts, I expect memories which by the definition are totally different.
I thoroughly enjoyed Call the Midwife and would definitely read more of the same. Just no celebrity tell alls which are either designed to further a lagging career or make money..

This post was edited by janalyn on Sun, Jan 19, 14 at 11:42

    Bookmark   January 19, 2014 at 1:16AM
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I read the Betty MacDonald books when I was young but I didn't think of them as memoirs, just stories!
I read some of the reminiscences of actors when I was studying drama at evening classes, like David Niven and Noel Coward who said that there would be some bad biographies written about him and he was right. One book 'outed' nearly all the people in his life, I was surprised that his dog wasn't!
I like the memoirs best that are amusing even if not strictly true!

    Bookmark   January 19, 2014 at 8:45AM
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I really loved Marlena diBlasi .
Her four books begin with A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE.

I also enjoyed Marcella Hazan's memoir AMARCORD.
( she was to Italian cooking as Julia Child was to French cooking)

    Bookmark   January 19, 2014 at 10:09AM
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I don't read memoirs for the same reason I don't (usually) read historical fiction. I read not only for enjoyment, but also to learn something. If I read about a person I do want to know it's fact and not some embellishment they've added. By the same token, with historical fiction, if I'm not familiar with the depicted time or event, I want to know that what I'm reading actually happened, not just in the writer's mind. Memoirs make me distrustful of the author.

I do believe an autobiography can include memories, which certainly adds depth and interest, but with memoirs you just never know how much is true.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2014 at 4:19PM
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Sheri, as a genealogist, have you run across any memoirs written by your family members or others? Sometimes there are letters, scrapbooks, documents, and photos that can piece together histories, but I think it's wonderful when someone (usually an older person with a long memory) writes a narrative that ties things together (or at least gives clues) that otherwise would only be guesswork when there's no direct documentation. Some of my family have written such memoirs, including my mother. My kids, nieces and nephews have encouraged me to do so as well. I'll do it for them, although I can't imagine anyone finding my life especially interesting compared to other people who have lived through a lot more fascinating times and experiences. But one never knows what will interest future generations...

Ann, I view memoirs as stories. Do you mean the memoirist as a sort of raconteur? Well, why not? Back when all history was oral, that's the way things got told and remembered. Perhaps not entirely accurately, but close enough for things to remain in the pipeline. Think of all the history that has been lost because there's no way to verify it. I think the preoccupation with 100% authenticity is mostly a 20th/21st century phenomenon.

Personally, I greatly enjoy listening to people talk about their memories, and I view reading memoirs (at least the kind I've described above) as the equivalent of listening to folk who aren't available for me to sit with face to face -- maybe I'll never get a chance to meet them, or maybe they are already deceased. When I was a kid, I had very long ears and I loved to eavesdrop on the adults until I got bored because I didn't understand what they were talking about. Still, I learned more than I realized at the time. Did you all do that too?

Maxmom, yours is an interesting take. It made me think. I have to admit that my BS detector doesn't always work as it should. What sets off your skepticism? I suppose the very word memoir -- if a book or piece of writing is labeled as such -- could be warning enough. I think I key off the tone the writer sets, but it's usually an accumulative effect for me. Sometimes I can tell pretty quickly whether the writer is going to be trustworthy or not. But other times I can read through a whole book, only to close it and conclude: That was hogwash! Maybe I won't even care if it's out and out humbug, if I'm entertained. :-)

That said, though, I don't usually read memoirs of celebrities and politicians. They are never as interesting to me as they think they are.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2014 at 11:12PM
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I think memoirs are just another way to tell a story.

Honestly, how accurate is anyone's memory or recall.
If you read anything about how the brain works , it would seem we create and recreate memories at will.

Perhaps a memoir like any novel is loosely based on an idea ...except perhaps in the memoir version, an idea that once might have happened in reality.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 7:16AM
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I had forgotten both Betty MacDonald and Bill Bryson -- I loved The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and I did read some MacDonald after that crazy thread went away.

Frieda, I *wish* I had more in the way of family memoirs. I do have one letter written by my great-grandmother to her son (my great-uncle) describing her ship voyage to America from Lithuania, her arrival at her brother's house, and going to work immediately the next day. She also wrote a little about her marriage and a lot about his birth and what a wonderful child he was, but nothing much more. I am so grateful to have it, but I still wish for more detail -- names of towns and streets, a more exact explanation of how she met my great-grandfather, a description of where she came from, what family she left behind (all I have are names), what life was like before she came to the US, more about her ancestry ... oh well! A time machine would be lovely, right?

I do have a ton of family photographs, and after going through boxes of them with my mother who could identify perhaps one or two (or none!) of the people in them, I've developed an almost pathological habit of writing names and dates on the backs of all my pictures.

I have been urging my FIL to write at least a little something of his memories. He is almost 90, and in his lifetime went from living on a farm in the boondocks of New Hampshire to the Pacific in WWII to running a company that worked on the space shuttle.

In fact, I'd urge everybody to write at least something down -- there will be a genealogist somewhere in the family and he or she will be thrilled to have it!

Janalyn, I thought that Keith Richards book looked interesting. I'd also like to read Just Kids by Patti Smith about her early days in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 8:46AM
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I'm no fan of celebrity memoirs as a rule (e.g. the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, most footballers, models, etc.), but I have read the occasional one that surprised me in a good way.

For some reason actors' memoirs tend to stand out among the celebrity genre. Alison Arngrim's "Confessions of a Prairie [female dog].: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated" was one - her memoir of the time she spent acting in the Little House on the Prairie series was fascinating and heartbreaking.

David Niven's memoirs are nicely chatty and really more about his celebrity friends than himself.

Patti Smith's "Just Kids" was fascinating, not just because of the relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe she describes in it, but for the portrait of the artistic community in New York in the years leading up to the AIDS epidemic and for her own development as an artist. I would love to see a sequel, about her career in music and as a poet.
For the most part I prefer memoirs by "ordinary" people and people famous for something other than just being famous, e.g. people who lived through extraordinary things. Examples of the former would be James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Jennifer Worth and of the latter Anne Frank and spies, war heroes and police officers involved in famous cases.
My favourite type of memoir is the travelogue. They tend to show people under extraordinary or at least unusual circumstances and the best ones can open one's eyes to new things and experiences and some of them are portraits of people and places in a particular time that will, in time, be invaluable for historians. Others are just highly entertaining.

Addendum: This is taking a ban on bad words too far: I am barred from posting the B-word in a perfectly legitimate context, which is why Alison Arngrim's book has a [...] in it. I am sure you can insert the proper word (5 letters, refers to a female canine and also means 'termagant').

This post was edited by netla on Mon, Jan 20, 14 at 9:56

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 9:49AM
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I don't usually seek out memoirs, so I don't have many to report on, but one that I enjoyed quite a lot was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. She had such an unusual childhood, and serves as an example of the good old American dream of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 10:07AM
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I just wrote a brilliant erudite piece here and the whole thing has gone up in smoke; enough to make a saint swear.
I must agree with maxmon and say I read for more than entertainment as I always hope to learn something along the way, so am disappointed when a memoir turns out to be little more than a vanity fest
Some time after reading B MacD's book Anybody can Do Anything I found that the first couple of chapters, which describe her 'escaping' from the hated chicken farm carrying her luggage, a baby and dragging a toddler to a remote bus-stop, followed by a ferry journey before reaching the safety of her Mother's house was made up. In fact her sister had driven to the farm to collect her! Probably more prosaic than the story she told.
Sheri, I think you and I have had the 'conversation' about ancestor tracing and the accuracy thereof, before. ;-)
I have a distant US cousin who has been 'left' many many letters from long-dead forebears. She has posted some of them on one of the 'ancestry' sites. I would love to actually look at them as I'm sure there is a wealth of American history held within and this is from someone who, many decades ago used to teach history. They date from the 1840's/50's and detail buying and selling land, crops and cattle. Trips from VA to GA hoping for a railroad to speed things up. The tutor to the sons of the house, writing from a very early San Fransisco, letters of condolence on the death of a baby and the death from measles of their two little 'negro children'. Missives to a wayward son (my G G Grandfather) about settling down to a useful occupation. All everyday stuff that makes up so much of social history.
Sheri, we too have many photos of long-gone family members some labelled 'Brother' 'Sister' 'Mother' with no dates or other clues.
The same cousin has copied old photos 'on line' with totally inaccurate information (which is worse than useless). One such is captioned Henry Z as a young man in 1830. I wrote in some frustration and told her that photography hadn't been invented then! Another cardinal sin (in my book) is the 'doctoring' of photos by drawing an outline in black crayon or using one of the photoshop re-touching devices, rendering Great Aunt Mildred and Second Cousin Percy as almost indistinguishable.
So far none of our children have shown any interest in their antecedents but I still force the information on them hoping something will stick.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 11:15AM
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Sheri, indeed a time machine is what we need. But it would be my luck that I would be transported to observe some inopportune moment, such as the yearly cleaning of the privy or during certain connubial 'obligations'. I'd probably learn quite a lot, but I'm not sure I would want to know that much. :-)

Oh, the unlabeled photographs drive me nuts, so I'm always appreciative when I turn over a photo to find that someone took the time to write the date, identify the people and place, and maybe mention the reason the picture was taken.

I have a studio photograph of my grandmother's family in the late 1890s. They were a splendid group in their Sunday best: distinguished-looking father standing behind his young, beautiful (to my eyes) wife who was seated in an ornate chair, two angelic-looking pre-adolescent boys bookending the group, and a four-year-old girl perched on the arm of her mother's chair. The little girl (my grandmother) has the sourest expression on her face and I often wondered why the photo wasn't rejected by the family. After my GM's death, I happened to remove the photo from its frame and on the back found that someone had written in pencil: Iva scowling because Clarence [the brother just older than her] was pinching her. The photo and the comment are both priceless to me.

I have another photo from the 1890s of a different grandmother with her cousin, ages about 3 or 4. The two girls are very striking together. One has a poised, plump-cheeked smile and the most beautiful dark hair that falls at least to where she could sit on it and her light-colored eyes (probably blue) are so attractive that you can't help staring at her, while essentially ignoring the other skinny girl with scant light hair, startled eyes, and scared open mouth. When I tell people the identity of the girls, they nearly always say: "Your grandmother was beautiful." Then I tell them that my grandmother was "the little ugly one." The beautiful cousin was a spinster her whole long life, and as far as I know never accomplished much of anything. The "little ugly one" was a go-getter.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 1:26PM
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Kathy T, I now remember comments about The Glass Castle and thought it sounded like good reading. Thanks for reminding me of it.

Netla, I like the "ordinary" people's memoirs best, too.

Of course readers who want well-written, well-polished, well-edited memoirs will probably be disappointed in the humble, not-so-well thought out, imperfect grammar, rough styles of some memoirists. But the spontaneity of these efforts seem to indicate to me a greater trustworthiness than the slickly produced, so-called memoirs of celebrities that I bet were mostly written by ghostwriters anyway. However, I think probably Keith Richards and certainly Patti Smith are capable of writing their own stuff, and I have to say I'm intrigued by your recommendations. Thanks!

Yvonne, do you have any more food-memoir suggestions? I've already got A Thousand Days in Venice ordered and Amarcord is on my list.

Vee, you've suggested more memoirs for me to read than practically everyone else. I thought it was because you read and liked them yourself.

Learning is good. I learn something (probably many) things every day, but it's not always from my elevated reading habits. Sometimes I just want to read entertaining things without a particular agenda, and I often wind up learning new things anyway. I am past the book report, take-a-test, got-to-keep-current phase that once drove my reading habits. :-)

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 2:34PM
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Frieda, I always had trouble telling the difference between autobiography and memoir, unless the book actually had 'memoir' in the title. Someone here at RP pointed out to me that memoirs are not necessarily the whole truth, just possibly the 'interesting' parts of someone's life. Certainly if I suggested a memoir to anyone here it is because I did enjoy it . . .I wouldn't add a comment otherwise.
As for elevated reading habits (except for a childhood habit of climbing on the flat garage roof for a quiet read) I have to admit to not being interested in the Rolling Stones/Beatles/name a pop group/motor racing/football/deep sea diving, so wouldn't bother to read something along those lines. It isn't because I feel in some way superior towards those subjects/interests it is just that when I choose a book to read I want more than just words on a page.
Sorry if this sounds garbled. I am competing against the TV and a loud phone conversation in the background. ;-(

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 3:36PM
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Frieda, you mentioned food memoirs ... have you read the three Ruth Reichl books? Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires. They are memoirs of her growing up and of her life as the restaurant critic for the NY Times. I think she wrote a fourth one, too, specifically addressing her relationship with her mother.

Vee, if your US cousin posted the family letters on Ancestry or another site, she could probably email the scanned documents to you without much trouble. It sounds like a treasure trove!

Frieda, I love your photo stories! I wish someone had written on some of mine, I have several daguerreotypes of various ancestors, and while the men were labeled, the women were not. It absolutely kills me to have the images and still not know who is who, or if any of them are my G-G-G grandmother.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 4:38PM
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Well. All this talk of family pictures and memoirs made me recall an inheritance I received back in 1986 from a Cornwall relative. I got a letter in the mail from solicitors in Falmouth or Plymouth saying that I would be receiving 2000.00 Canadian pursuant to a will. Apparently this relative had died and the will (done by a solicitor who should have known better) left a large residue of the estate to "issue." It took forever and ever for this estate to be distributed because I think the law of perpetuities was involved somehow and the law firm had to track EVERY single descendant of this person. Must have been astronomical legal fees because some were traced to the States and Ontario. I bought my first real computer with that money but I have no idea who the person was. So I talked to my dad on the phone today (he was born and lived in Cornwall til he was 20) and he isnt even sure who the person was, so he is going to talk to his sister. The upshot is my dad and I are planning a trip to Cornwall in the fall to visit everyone and that mysterious ancestor will be discovered. I just did a quick search on the web for our surname in Cornwall and someone in 1964 wrote an extensive family history, including a web page, dating back six hundred years. He included copies of wills from the 17th century etc.
Odd how these threads develop.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 9:29PM
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Sheri, I read Tender at the Bone and remember enjoying it, but I haven't read Reichl's other books. I'm sure I could reread TatB with pleasure, and I probably should if the books are interrelated or continuations. I'm bad about reading book 1 of several and then drifting off to the next thing that grabs my attention. But food is something that will always interest me -- especially reminiscing about it -- and bring me back round. Great suggestion!

Netla, it's been a while since I read a particularly interesting travelogue. I did get a bit burnt-out on them. I went through all, I think, of the vintage Marlboro Travel series because I like old-fashioned travel writing, probably, as you mentioned above, for the historical value. I especially enjoyed Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco (1890s) by R. B. Cunninghame Graham and The Sea and the Jungle (early 1900s) by H. M. Tomlinson, both great adventures and, in the case of Tomlinson, downright hilarious.

I suppose I like off-the-wall travelogues best, not the typical tour-of-Europe sort of thing. One that I liked very much: Caroline Alexander's The Way to Xanadu which starts with the premise of S. Taylor Coleridge's poem fragment: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure-dome decree. Alexander actually went in search of Xanadu.

Well, I will have to cut this short, so I'll get to my point of asking you, Netla, what sort of travelogues do you like most? And if you know of any you think I might like, based on my choices above? I'm open to just about any except the insipid I've-got-to-find-myself sort. ;-)

    Bookmark   January 20, 2014 at 9:58PM
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Frieda, I prefer the adventure travel, slow, off the beaten track travelogues best. I too enjoyed The Way to Xanadu. It was such a delightfully skimpy excuse to go travelling and resulted in an enjoyable mixture of history and travelogue.

Other travelogues I have particularly enjoyed were:
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron.
The News from Tartary by Peter Fleming (in my TBR stack I have Forbidden Journey, the book his travel companion, Ella Maillart, wrote about the same journey).
The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark.
Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy (her first travelogue, Full Tilt is in my TBR stack).
Travels on my Elephant and River Dog by Mark Shand.
My journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel.
Inca Kola by Matthew Parris.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby.
A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.
Michael Palin's travelogues, especially Around the World in 80 Days, Sahara and Himalaya.
By Gerald Durrell I particularly enjoyed Three Singles to Adventure, The Whispering Land, The Bafut Beagles and The Drunken Forest. I regard my favourite Durrell book, My Family and Other Animals, as more of a memoir than a travelogue.
Most of Colin Thubron's travel books, especially the ones about the USSR, Siberia and China.

This is just a partial list...

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 3:19AM
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Netla, that's quite a list to be a partial list! I'll give it a good perusal. I've read a few of them. The Colin Thubron books stand out because I'm currently entranced with that part of the world due to the recent genetic studies that point to a large segment of Native Americans being kin to the peoples from around Lake Baikal. It has been suspected by anthropologists for a long time, and now the genetics seem to prove at least part of the migration theory.

One of my favorite books is Benson Bobrick's East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia. It's straight history, not a travelogue or memoir, but Bobrick's reason for writing it was inspired as he said in his dedication: In Memory of My Mother,
who bravely crossed Siberia alone
in 1929 In North America there was the Wild, Wild West and in Russia there was the Wild, Wild East, and further parallels of the two are striking. I was especially interested in how pioneering women, who were initially in such short supply in both places, affected the settlement and development. One story Bobrick told: A petty bureaucrat posted to Siberia decided to take his wife and infant daughter with him, but he was dismayed by the admiring attention they received by the men starved of female company. He became obsessed that some man was going to lure his wife away from him, so he took to locking her and the child in a tiny room and wouldn't even let her venture to the privy without him going with her. His self-fulfilling fear drove his wife to break out of her prison and she was seen running very rapidly with daughter in tow toward the edge of town. The husband eventually found his wife, with another man, of course, but he was unable to convince her to return to him. Small wonder!

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 8:46AM
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Vee, it does'nt bother me that Betty MacDonald changed her story somewhat. When I wrote a regular column in a local paper, which I tried to make humorous, I wrote about personal things that had happened and glossed them a bit to make them seem more amusing! Why not?
My GD has asked me to write about my life as she is interested in our family history but it doesn't seem that special to me.
I didn't really do anything exciting apart from emigrating to Australia and a lot of people do that!

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 8:51AM
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Oh, Annpan, do it, do it! Write your memoirs. Your life story may not seem particularly special to you, but your experience is fascinating to me so I imagine your granddaughter, and eventually others of your family, would find it doubly so.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 9:03AM
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I was very skeptical of both "Angela's Ashes" and "the Glass Castle." I felt there had to be exaggeration for effect. Maybe my BS detector was working overtime?

Here are some memoirs I have greatly enjoyed:
"Silence Will Speak" by Erol Tryblinski (about Dennis Finch Hatton)
"West With the Night " by Beryl Markham
"The Joy of the Snow" by Elizabeth Goudge"
"A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep" by Rumer Godden

Frieda, I agree with your assessment of Annie Doak Dillard's "An American Childhood." I think she is one of the finest writers living.

I must not forget the writings of M.F.K. Fisher. She is well known as one who wrote lovingly of food and of her travels. But her personal memories of her childhood and marriage are exquisitely written, in my opinion.

I am a writer, myself, and have written several memories of my family and my deceased relatives, including ancestors, which might become a book, when put together. They are in essay form, and might form chapters in a "memoir". I based the information on my ancestors from family history, old letters, old photos, and genealogical notes.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 9:42AM
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Sheri, when we were discussing how adopted children are considered in family history, genealogically, I began to wonder how multiple marriages are noted on, say, family trees. I can see when there are progeny from multiples, making half-siblings, but what about stepchildren and step-siblings?

My son, when he was about thirteen, asked me whether my first husband was his stepfather and what he should call him. I said, no, he wasn't his stepfather. I said the proper way to refer to him would be "my mother's first husband." My son said okay, but why were my first husband's parents his grandparents, as he had always called them grandpa S and grandma T? Kids and their logic! I told him that they weren't his real grandparents, but they were his honorary grandparents, because they had in essence 'adopted' my children because I was their former daughter-in-law and because they would never have any biological grandchildren of their own. That satisfied my son (and other son too), but how do you explain these very important, but peripheral, relationships except perhaps in memoirs that you hope will stay attached to future family research? Do you have similar circumstances in your family?

Janalyn, your 'unknown' relative story is very intriguing!

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 9:47AM
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Frieda, good question! It's easy enough to construct family trees with multiple marriages and children, and I as my immediate family does not include any step-anythings, I only have family members related by blood and those directly adopted in my trees. Others may handle this completely differently, I don't believe there are really any hard and fast rules here.

I know there are differing points of view regarding strictly "biological" trees vs. all-inclusive family trees. Family societies tend to be sticklers for the blood-relative view. The DAR, for example, would not accept an adopted child for membership despite a proven family line. (And this may have changed, I have a friend in this situation and I haven't asked her about it recently so I'm not sure what their current practice is, but I do know historically this has been their stance.)

I like your "honorary" grandparent status, that's a perfect solution. And to explain more complex relationships is definitely the job of a memoir or some kind of note in the tree itself.

As most of my data gets entered via Ancestry and then merged into Family Tree Maker, I've included the word "adopted" with the name of the person if applicable. As far as step-children go, you can simply include them as children of a former spouse. They will all (steps & half-sibs) show up with the mother. I have some people in our tree who have three or four wives (sequentially, not all at once, lol) and the children are sorted by wife. Is that what you were asking? I do tend to ramble and I'm not sure I've answered your question at all clearly.

Janalyn, what a great family mystery to solve!

Annpan, please write your story for your GD, she will treasure it! And emigrating anywhere is always fascinating -- such a big move may seem simple to you, but it's amazing to your descendants. There's a value to knowing where you came from and why you are where you are, both physically and metaphorically :)

Netla, I had forgotten Gerald Durrell, I read My Family and Other Animals after you'd suggested it here a while back and I loved it. I'm delighted to have other titles of his to find, thank you for that list.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 11:46AM
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Just curious...a few of you spoke disparagingly of ghost writers. Don't they serve a purpose? Some people with interesting lives and great stories to tell are just unable to write well.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 4:01PM
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Ann, yes do write about your early life and going out to Australia and keep it somewhere safe so there is no chance of it getting thrown-out in the far far future. Our everyday lives might seem mundane now but will be a great historical source in years to come.

Sheri, an excellent idea re. getting those early US letters. What I love about the few I have seen on line so far is the casual spelling employed (and this is from someone who was away from school on those days the subject was taught). It helps to 'hear' how GG Grandpapa must have spoken.

Frieda, on the photo topic. We have one 'family shot' from about 1910 just before my grandfather (to be) left VA for London. The story goes that he refused to walk with the rest of his siblings and kept several paces ahead on the way to the studio. He is wearing a very stiff and shiny collar, his five sisters have enormous bows in their hair and the two youngest brothers are well-scrubbed and being clutched by their parents to avoid wriggling. I have his diary from that year describing his voyage to Plymouth (he stayed up late one night and had a few drinks . .. ) but tails off once he started work in the London office (for the Burroughs Corporation)

netla, I have a 'war-time' copy of Freya Stark's A Winter in Arabia. She had been sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, the Ashmolean Museum Oxford and Cambridge University and travelled with a couple of female archeologists. Large parts of the journey were taken up with illness, having to spend time in the 'women's quarters' and being starred at by all and sundry; obviously a female was a sight of great curiosity.
I tried unsuccessfully to follow the map she provided . . it looks as though a spider has crawled out of the inkwell and over the page. The only clear place-name is Gulf of Aden. I have since found in tiny writing a note explaining the the map refers to a journey Miss Stark made on another occasion. :-(

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 4:01PM
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Sheri, your explanation is very clear. Thank you! Whatever fuzziness exists is my part. It's interesting that the trees are matrilineal when traditionally the preoccupation has been with the male line. But grouping the offspring with the mothers makes sense because 'mama' is more likely to know that the kids are really hers. (At least that's the way it was before genetic testing.)

Mary, I've liked several of your favorites, too. Your family members are lucky to have your research, memories, and writing skill.

Janalyn, ghostwriters do serve a purpose, as you say, because not every person is able to write effectively, for what ever reason -- maybe illness, lack of education, or an incomplete knowledge of the language they want to communicate in, such as English when the person's first language -- the language they think in -- is something else.

However, when a ghostwriter is used, that person should be acknowledged. Many celebrities don't mention their ghostwriters, leaving the impression that everything written is their own, although surely edited by a professional editor for publication. (There are good editors and, as we all know, not so good ones. Some good editors. themselves, are actually lousy writers, in the creative sense.)

There's also the danger that a ghostwriter can unduly influence what is written, which winds up not being 'true' to the originator, in either substance or style. When someone else writes something of another's life, it should be called biography, not autobiography or memoirs.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 5:18PM
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Vee, the 'cleaning up' of spelling and grammar in publications of original letters, diaries, and other casual writings is a major pet peeve of mine. Print those as the originator wrote them, then supply editorial asides, annotations, or footnotes for clarification.

I'm delighted with offbeat spellings because, as you say about your GGGP, they give clues as to how that person pronounced words that may now be considered non-standard; thus we're not "hearing" those persons accurately. Overzealous spelling and grammar corrections can take the very life out of the original narrative, in my opinion. And grammatical constructions that we now consider substandard were not always thought wrong.

It's okay for a reader who just wants a quick rundown or overview to have the writing in a heavily modified modern form, but for those who do want to retain the authenticity, it's a blight. My favorite example: I hate, hate, hate when American publishers 'translate' British English words and phrases, and vice versa..

    Bookmark   January 21, 2014 at 6:01PM
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If you are interested in a combination of journalism, travel and food you must read the memoirs and/or recipe books of Elizabeth Luard.
I have only read
Family Life: Birth Death and the Whole D*amn Thing

these were followed by

Still Life: Klipfisk Cloudberries and Life After Kids
My Life as a Wife: Love Liquor and What to do About Other Women

She has also written about food and cooking from several other countries.
Frieda, you probably were familiar with Nick Luard part owner of 'Private Eye' and the 'Establishment Club' . . . though perhaps familiar is not the best choice of word . ..

Here is a link that might be useful: Elizabeth Luard + Obit for Nicholas Luard

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 5:05AM
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Vee, I knew of Nicholas Luard but never knew him, in either the usual or implied sense of the word. ;-) I was warned that with him a conversation would be a 'come on', as I was female, young and reasonably attractive at the time.

My impression of Elizabeth, in one word: brittle. But reading her memoirs gives a good indication why, if she had to contend with everything she says she did with Nicholas and other tragedies in her life (I don't have any reason not to believe her).

As for her cooking: It's fun to read her recipes and I probably would have enjoyed eating at her table, but some of her ideas and presentations just strike me as bizarre. I read the piece you linked to and the octopus recipe was described that I remembered for the advice of catching your octopus and then beating it against a rock forty times.

Elizabeth employs irony, sarcasm, and snarkiness in the way the English have cultivated to art. It's funnier in print than real life, I found out. When many Americans are confronted with it, we feel the discomfort of "Was I just insulted?" Yes.

Talking about the Luards brings Jeffrey Bernard to mind, he who 'celebrated' his alcoholism. His Reach for the Ground: The Downhill Life of Jeffrey Bernard, a collection of his Spectator columns, helps define the differences between autobiography and memoir, I think.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 7:43AM
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Vee, your 'family shot' photo and your grandfather's diary reminded me that I have my Norwegian great-grandmother's diary. That's what she titled it anyway, but since it's mostly daily observations of: "Cold today," next day "Colder," and the day after that "Milk froze," that it might be of some use to a meteorologist studying North Dakota weather conditions but it's not much enlightenment to her descendants. She was as taciturn in conversation as she was pithy in her writing. She's our family enigma.

I've probably mentioned too many times that tallness runs in our family -- the men at 6 1/2 feet, the women near 6 feet -- but I'm short comparatively (5 ft. 6 in.). I think I can blame my French great-grandfather who married my Norwegian great-grandmother. The photo taken on their wedding day shows her sitting in a chair and he's standing alongside her. I thought that was odd, but my mother says it was because GGM was 6'2" in her stocking feet and GGF might have been about 5'8" in his shoes. We'll never know how they met or what the attraction was between them. I've always wished that GGM had been less concerned with the weather.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 11:47AM
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Frieda, your story reminds me of one of ours. My FIL has three of his grandfather's yearly diaries and they are of the same brevity and type as your G-grandmother's. When he bothered to note anything at all it was mainly weather-related. His entry during the blizzard of 1888 reads only: "Snowed today." Pithy indeed!

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 1:47PM
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Friedag, wasn't that the normal pose for photos in Victorian times? I recall seeing that kind of arrangement in old albums. To my regret, my mother never kept the scrapbooks, photo albums and portrait photos that my grandmother left. I used to be allowed to look at the albums of postcards when I was ill in bed as a child. The cards were very elaborate, often with embroidery and lace on them. I believe they were made in France and sent back by soldier relatives in WW1
I think that all these treasures were stored in a cupboard that got damp so were thrown away. I have just a few pieces of my grandmother's crest china and jewellery to pass on.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 12:52AM
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Annpan, I don't know whether it was the usual pose for newlyweds in the 1880s in the American Midwest. I have seen similar poses of husbands standing and wives seated, but these were usually older couples, probably longer married, and usually with their offspring clustered around them or a baby in the mother's lap.

We have wedding portraits of other grandparents and relatives from the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, that show the new husbands and wives standing side by side as if they were younger versions of Grant Wood's 'American Gothic' couple (the one with the farmer husband holding a pitchfork and the wife looking as if she would like to skewer him with it).

None of my relatives appear to have been fashion plates. In fact, their wedding attire seems to have been eccentric and probably decades out of style, as if they had been retrieved from a mothbally old trunk. One of my favorites is of a great-aunt wearing something or other that looks like a man's cravat fashionable in the early 1800s. It resembles a modern neck brace so much that I wonder if she had a neck injury. No one knows.

I've strayed from memoirs, but I don't care. :-)

Annpan, my grandmother had a tin filled with the most marvelous buttons that she would let me sort through when I stayed overnight at her house. There were brass ones, glass ones, carved ivory, bone, jet, sodalite, hematite, cloissone... But my wickedest pleasure was looking at the 'smutty' postcards that her soldier brothers had sent her during the Great War. They weren't pornographic or they wouldn't have made it through the mail, just suggestive and cartoonish. They were from France, ooh la la!

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 2:36AM
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I've been trying to find the memoirs about London's East End on this thread and cannot. Will someone please repost the titles and authors?

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 9:38AM
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Mary, I mentioned a couple of 'slight' but charming memoirs about the East End:

Four Meals for Fourpence by Grace Foakes, centered on Wapping, c. 1900 through 1930s, but mostly about the author's childhood in the first two decades

Far from the East End by Iris Jones Simantel, centered on the Dagenham Estates, although Iris was born in Poplar in 1938 within the sound of Bow Bells making her a Cockney girl instead of 'an Essex girl', the latter considered "of lower-class origins and a reputation for being fast and loose," by Cockney standards! Iris concentrates on the war years before she was evacuated to Wales when the bombing had devastated so much and her mother was too frazzled to contend with her children (Iris's older brother had already been evacuated). At war's end she returned to East London and her narrative continues until she was in her teens in the 1950s.

Interestingly, Grace Foakes after she married also lived at the Dagenham Estates in the 1930s when they were 'brand, spanking new'.

Maybe those are the ones you tried to find, Mary. I looked through this thread again and didn't find any other specific mentions of the East End. I think others have been mentioned in different threads.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 11:24AM
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Mary. I think the 'East End' stuff is on the 'Call the Midwife' thread.

What is it about journalists and booze?
I haven't read anything by Jeffrey Bernard and am surprised he was able to remember enough about his life to produce a memoir of any kind.

Well-know UK journalist and TV 'personality' Anne Robinson wrote Memoirs of an Unfit Mother. Not a rags to riches tale as she came from a comfortably-off home in Liverpool, was privately educated and went into 'Fleet St' . .. and for a woman in the late '60's in a man's world did very well; though rather too well at the bar after work.
The title of the book refers to the court case is which she lost custody of her daughter through her alcoholism.
She has since 'dried out' and heads various consumer programmes on TV and had a very successful quiz show The Weakest Link which went over to the US.
Don't know if you knew her, Frieda. A very assertive character: a biter-off-of-heads, swilling with vitriol, taking no prisoners . . . but, of course, this could all be an ACT.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 11:45AM
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Frieda, I used to work in Dagenham in the early '70's. The houses had originally been built by the Thames on what was little more than a muddy flood-plain and families were 'resettled' there from the London slums. In the '30's no provision had been made for the male population to find local work and without cars or many buses it wasn't easy to get back into London. It was apparently a coincidence that Ford decided to build its giant motor works by the Thames and thousands of jobs became available.
I remember it as a windy, flat, rather desolate place with a tough working-class population frequently 'on strike'. Even the local kids 'knew their rights'. "My Mum says them shoes from the Welfare aint good nuf" "My dad's a docker and 'e don't care abart nufink."
Not really cherished memories!

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 12:01PM
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Vee, re journalists and booze: This is my opinion from my experience and some would probably disagree (there's always some who will disagree about anything), but journalism is a 'hurry up and wait' profession. Journalists thrive on the hurry up but the wait kills them. Boredom and tedium send many to 'belly up to the bar'. Anyone with a genetic predisposition for alcoholism (that I firmly believe exists and seems now to be proven) is inviting disaster.

I'm fortunate that I have absolutely no inclination to drink because alcohol doesn't interest me one whit. Never has. I have no objection to other people drinking if they can handle it, but I'd happily be a teetotaler for the rest of my life. I could go to a cocktail party and carry around one drink the whole time, never even sipped, and then set it down somewhere and walk out when time to go.

The trouble is drinking in a social situation probably does start out fun: people loosen up, the camaraderie is good, and, as they say in Louisiana, it's a fine way "to pass a good time." And that's what many journalists want.

Oddly, for some people, journalists included, whose livelihood depends on words, many really do not like to read and wouldn't think of reading anything for pleasure or during leisure. Reading is for work. I can't imagine an unfilled evening stretching on without a book. That's why I say I'm never bored when I'm alone and I've got something to read or I've got paper to write on. (My favorite way 'to think' is still on paper.) But I've known plenty of journalists who think, and have told me: "You ain't normal!"

    Bookmark   January 23, 2014 at 5:48PM
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Vee, apologies for the gap between my posts.

Anne Robinson has banked on her trademark nastiness, so I suspect a lot of it is an act. I'll read Memoirs of an Unfit Mother for the 'hell of it'. Maybe I'll be surprised, though. Thanks for the suggestion!

Vee, I found poignancy in the descriptions of Dagenham by both Grace Foakes and Iris Jones Simantel. For Grace it was 'moving up in the world' to a place that was new and clean, with an indoor tap (cold only) and even a WC. By the time Iris lived there a decade or so later things had deteriorated but not just from the effects of war. The attitudes of the inhabitants you described in the 1970s were already in evidence.

I'm currently reading another sentimental-style memoir, Full Hearts & Empty Bellies by Winifred Foley, about her childhood in the Forest of Dean in the 1920s until she was fourteen and was sent off to London to earn her keep in service. If I hadn't been told by you and others that the F of D people have the reputation of being a mite peculiar, I would have the impression that they were some of the jolliest people, living in the loveliest bucolic spot in England. Well, actually Winifred admits at the beginning of her reminiscing that outsiders thought the place remote and the people primitive, but the F of D dwellers didn't really care. She tells of "one visitor expressing pity" to an elderly villager "who had never been outside the Forest" and the old man replied: "Doosn't thee fret for I, my booy; I bain't tired o' round 'ere yet."

Do you think the F of D folk still feel that way, mostly?

    Bookmark   January 25, 2014 at 1:12AM
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Last things first. The older generation from the F of D still think of themselves as special if not superior to the rest of the UK and mostly tolerate 'incomers' such as us. Luckily our village is on the main road and near a railway line so the locals were able to travel to faraway places and, like Winifred, girls went 'into service' to better themselves and often marry strangers.
Some people "Born and Bred in the Forest" (a much over-used phrase) even hanker for the 'good old days' of coal-mining and stone quarrying. I wonder if it isn't/wasn't similar to areas of say, West Virginia, with pockets of 'heavy industry', a strong sense of belonging and quite a bit of Methodism to lighten the poverty and drudgery.

re booze/drink. Alcoholism, I'm sure runs in families. In the photo of Grandfather mentioned above the two younger boys took to drink. One, in middle age, locked himself in his bedroom with a crate of what we call spirits and didn't live to open the door. The other led his wife a terrible dance and hid bottles all round the house. One sister was a secret drinker but the family accepted it largely as a result of her having taught fist grade for about 50 years. :-(
My own family had a laid back attitude to 'drink' probably because on the paternal side they had been hotel/inn/pub keepers (known over here as licensed victuallers) for generations. But being intoxicated and rolling around in the street/fighting/being abusive was frowned on. Those unable to 'hold their drink' were looked down on as a sign of a weak character (it being an illness was not considered). Drunken women were beyond the pale.
Today in the UK I think booze has become a real problem. It is SO easy to buy, the licensing laws are over-relaxed, so that weekend nights in every city and two-bit town are a no-go area for anyone other than youths who have the one aim of getting drunk as quickly and disgustingly as possible.
Others will point to the growing 'problem' among the middle/chattering classes who come home after a hard day's work and open a bottle or two of indifferent red which is then followed by a couple of sniffers of the hard-stuff.
Personally I can take it or leave it and might have no more than the very occasional G&T before Sunday lunch, not encouraged by the DD who was brought up in a strict Methodist home where drink was the Devil and pubs were avoided at all cost.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2014 at 5:57AM
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Thanks for posting those titles re the East End. I'm intrigued and would like to find them.

Vee, you took the words right out of my mouth, re the Forest of Dean folks being compared to parts of rural Appalachia, in the US. Having lived in West Virginia, many were isolated for generations in the remote "hollers" and "coves." For a long time, coal mining was the norm and one could see "company towns" everywhere. The people were very proud of their heritage, however, and of an independent spirit.

As for Methodism, I can still recall, in the 1950s, in the Methodist churches of the deep South, a yearly "pledge" was passed around the congregation, which many would sign as a promise never to touch a drop of any form of alcohol during the coming year. I doubt very much that the modern Methodist church still has that custom.

A factoid on Methodism and its founder, John Wesley: I recently learned that he was not well-received in Savannah, Georgia, when he came to the Colonies to preach, with his brother Charles. The townsfolk wanted none of his message, so he returned to England where he founded a Protestant sect which thrived....

    Bookmark   January 25, 2014 at 11:16AM
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Vee, what you and Mary say about the similarity between the F of D folk and those of West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia rings true. My D-I-L who is from eastern Kentucky has a comparable way of stating things when she gets to pinin' for home and kinfolk.

I've visited Australia (the east coast states) several times in the past few years, and my Australian hosts and acquaintances have always offered me beer, wine, and liquor. One host, after noticing that I always declined those as well as coffee, tea, and colas, asked me: "Are you 'Adventist', Jehovah's Witness, or Mormon?" I was tempted to say "I'm part Mormon" (a jest that I will explain below), but I thought better of it and told him that I was brought up a Lutheran. "Oh," he responded, "Lutherans don't consume liquid stimulants?" He was being very careful with his wording. I had to laugh: "American Lutherans are known to consume all the stimulating beverages. Many, perhaps most, of my generation have a Germanic background and were weaned from mother's milk or infants' formula to kids' beer." I assured him that I was an unusual German-American Lutheran. He relaxed then and said he had been worried about offending me.

Explanation of my "I'm part Mormon" joke: When I was living in Colorado, I had neighbors who were LDS and lovely people. I got to know the wife very well. She was a fabulous cook so she showed me her very well-stocked pantry. This pantry was bigger than her kitchen. Then she showed me her basement with two large freezers and more shelves with cases and cases of food. I was amazed. She enlightened me as to why her family was so well provisioned: A couple of times a year their LDS church printed a bulletin that listed the names of the families who were expected to use the food supplies they had been collecting. I think it was two or three months that they were not supposed to buy any food and they would eat only what they had. They had plenty! They probably could have lived three years instead of three months on the amount of stuff. I gather it was a sort of survivalist training for any disaster, and the LDS had been doing it for a 150 years, or so, in response to the hard times their forebears had once suffered.

Anyway, my DH and I were fascinated. And since we also like to have a plentiful larder, although nothing to the scale of our LDS friends', we began to call ourselves 'part Mormon'. We even shared the joke with our friends who were good sports and thought it was funny.

I think nowadays the Methodists are one of the most liberal Protestant denominations, a far cry from the old 'fire and brimstone' -- at least in the U.S. That's an interesting bit about the Wesleys in Georgia, Mary.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 1:51AM
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This may be a longshot plea, but do any of you know of memoirs where the authors describe their everyday clothing and what it felt like to wear it? Lots of memoirists dwell on food but I haven't found many who talk much about clothes. Some will detail special garb, e.g. June Goulding in The Light in the Window tells about her nurse's uniform in 1950s Ireland and the 'dinner-gowns' she wore to formal dances and dinners with her dentist fiancé, including one frock that was made for her by a nun who still had a vicarious interest in couture. Others make fleeting mentions of clothes or, more likely, the clothes they didn't have and what they had to 'make do' with.

A morbid but fascinating inventory of the clothing worn by the pathetic victims of the Whitechapel murderer includes the one for Catherine Eddowes that says she wore several petticoats, old skirts, a bodice, jacket, an apron, stockings and boots, but no drawers. But the items that interest me most were her pockets which at the time were not sewn into seams of skirts but were bags with long strings that tied around the waist, leaving the pockets to dangle inside the wearer's skirt, accessible by a slit in the side seam. I wonder what that bulky, lumpy arrangement felt like to wear.

The talk of old photographs upthread and how the posers were attired has led me to look more closely at old pictures. Btw, if anyone recognizes the cravat-like thingy I tried to describe that one bride was wearing, please let me know what it is properly called.

I can find plenty of books on fashion history and they are interesting, but what I want is a more intimate, personal view. Many writers, especially during the Victorian age, seldom wrote about 'unmentionables', but some did and those are the ones I want, if I can locate them. Any leads? Do you have a fondness for a particular clothing era as shown in photos or a particular clothing item? Hobble skirts, anyone? How did the women walk in them? My grandmother loathed 'em.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 10:37AM
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I've a preference for womens' clothing in the Edwardian era in America. I've a lovely photo of my grandmother in such garb and she looks so graceful, yet dignified, with her slender neck and waist.

One thing I will never, ever understand is how women in the deep South survived the hot summers of high humidity before air conditioning, with all the anti-bellum layers of clothing they were forced to wear. Not to mention the tight corsets.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 11:34AM
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Frieda, I can give you a lead on reading matter for what you call "'unmentionables". Three of them, in fact, and possibly a fourth if I can find the title in my reading journal.
The three are small books of about 130 pages each, all by fashion historian Rosemary Hawthorne. The titles are Bras, Stockings & Suspenders, and Knickers. The publisher is Souvenir Press.

Here is a link that might be useful: Youtube interview with Rosemary Hawthorne

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 12:58PM
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Frieda, I have a picture of my mother's family when Mama was about six. My grandmother, who died of pneumonia following surgery for a benign tumor at age 32, is seated holding her youngest in her lap and wearing a full-length skirt that appears to have a few wide pleats at the skirt band, but unpressed, and a high-necked, full-gathered-sleeved blouse with lace around the stand-up band collar and cuffs. My grandfather is standing beside her, and the older children are standing around their knees.

I suspect my grandmother made her clothes. I know she made dresses for her four little girls and baby boy. My mother told of one summer when she made white dresses for all the girls. She said when one was dressed, she had to sit in a chair until all four were dressed. Wonder why?

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 2:54PM
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Mary, would that be the 'Gibson Girl' look that your grandmother wore? Did she have her hair up in that loose poof that was all the rage? I think its such a becoming style, especially to show off a slender neck. I tried wearing my hair that way, but mine was never poofy enough and usually drooped within fifteen minutes. Since they didn't have hairspray, how did they keep it from sagging? I know that women often 'enhanced' their hair with what they called 'rats', pads of their own hair that they collected from their hairbrushes and kept in a 'hair receiver' on their dressing tables. When they got a large enough wad, they stuffed it into netting to make the pads. I inherited a 'fashion doll' from that era with a china face sewn to a cloth head with swatches of human hair attached and a soft body. I noticed that a seam in the body had ripped out, and when I went to sew it up I saw that the body stuffing was also human hair, several different colors, obviously from several people. I was a bit grossed out at first, but the more I thought about it, the more fascinating I found it to be, handling the 'remains' of long-dead people.

Netla, the YouTube video with Rosemary Hawthorne is a hoot! Thanks loads for the link and the book titles. That's exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for.

Oh, Carolyn, that's so sad about your grandmother dying at 32. I wonder where she got her ideas for her dressmaking? Did she look at magazines, peer at the window displays of shops, or did she design it herself? Those ladies were very resourceful. I guess they had to be. I'm not sure that I understand about getting all the little girls dressed: Who had to sit in a chair, your mother or her mother, until all four were dressed? If it was your grandmother, I think I could understand it best: maybe she was exhausted. I think I would be! If it was your mother (one of the little girls), I can only guess that maybe her mother wanted her to stay still so she wouldn't mess up her dress before she had even finished dressing the others. My mother always made sure that I was dressed last because I seemed to always get my clothes wrinkled or messed up in some way if left too long to my own devices.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 4:26PM
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Friedag, could that neckpiece you mentioned be a "jabot"?
My grandmother told me that she made a fashionable hobble skirt out of a bell bottomed trouser leg cut from a uniform she got from her sailor brother! She had a 20" waist!
I used to sit my small son, a dirt magnet, on a chair while I finished dressing before we went out. I heard him once taking stock of himself as he looked into the wardrobe mirror.
"My shirt matches my socks, my tie matches my pants and shoes and my knees match each other!"

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 6:40PM
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Umm, Annpan, the neck thing of the 1880s wasn't what I called a jabot in the 1960s, but I may have been using the wrong term all these years. A jabot, as I've known it, is a frilly bunch of wide, loose ruffles down the front of a blouse, dress, or even a foppish man's shirt. I know the style of the 1960s was a resurgence of an earlier style but I'm unsure of which era. I had a couple of blouses with jabots and a mini-dress with a jabot of white voile with large red polka dots. My daddy hated that dress because of the sheerness of the fabric (although it was partially lined) and because, as daddy said, there was more upstairs than downstairs -- it barely covered my butt when I was standing and only half covered it when I was sitting.

The 1880s piece was rather like a turtleneck or a cowl-neck dickey (remember dickeys from the 'sixties?), but I don't know if ladies wore dickeys in the 19th century. In the photo the bride's chin is mostly covered, as if she was attempting to snuggle down into it. Maybe she was cold, but the date says May 30th which even in North Dakota should be warm enough for exposing the throat unless she had tonsillitis or something.

The hobble skirt has to be in the running for the most ridiculous style women have fallen for. My grandmother once demonstrated to us the technique of walking in a hobble skirt without falling over. She usually had the sense of humor of a fencepost, but even she smiled when we fell out of our chairs laughing.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 1:10AM
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Friedag, It is a bit difficult to imagine the neck piece without a picture! I have seen photos dating from Edwardian times where the fashionable women are wearing high collars with straw boater hats.
Speaking of hats....A local department store has stocked retro straw hats and I bought a 1920s cloche one that fits very snugly and defies the strong hot winds we have sometimes. I look like my mother's photos taken when she was a young girl!

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 2:32AM
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Ann and Frieda, the 'high-neck' look in the UK usually dates back to the fashion set by Princess/Queen Alexandra from the 1870's onwards. She had had an operation on her neck when young (possible TB glands - guessing here) and covered it with a high neckline and those heavy be-jewelled chokers for evening wear.
Your description of the turtle-neck sounds rather like what is known as a stock and is still worn in formal settings by Olympic show-jumpers, the fox hunting fraternity and similar, by both sexes.
A long band of white linen/cotton that goes round the neck a couple of times and is held in place by a tie pin. It used to be worn by men as 'day-wear' with a very stiff collar with points that came up under the ears. You also see it in pictures of clergymen before the dog-collar/Roman collar came into general wear. It pre-dated the neck tie.
Below is an interesting but rather 'wordy' item on Edwardian fashion.

Here is a link that might be useful: Edwardian Fashions

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 4:59AM
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Vee, I had a friend who had the neck operation for TB glands and it does leave a scar. The explanation I heard was that Alexandra had tried to commit suicide by cutting her throat because of her husband's womanising!

Friedag ..Jabots do seem to be frothy lacy things but can also be plain. I found a lot of images on Google of different styles but I was thinking more of the stock style as Vee described.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 7:27AM
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Yes, Frieda, my grandmother wore the "Gibson Girl" look, and had her hair put up in that pouffy fashion, as well. (Although, I have inherited her thin hair, alas!)

Your mention of the hair stuffed doll reminded me that people in Victorian and Edwardian days often wore "hair pins". These were brooches with interiors containing entwinements of the hair of the beloved, whether dead or living. Some were quite lovely. They can be seen in museums, today.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 9:37AM
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Thank you, Annpan and Vee, for helping me narrow down what exactly to call the neckwear in that old photo. It's a lot easier to find images on the Internet when you already have the proper term to plug in! I looked at jabots and cravats, and you're right, Annpan, jabots can be plain as well as frilly. It was harder to find images of the stock style because 'stock' has so many different meanings, but I did find a few of the garment kind. I see a similarity, and I'm beginning to think that great auntie's was an idiosyncratic, exaggerated attempt to copy that style. Why she would have wanted to will stay a mystery, I suppose.

That's interesting about Princess/Queen Alexandra being the inspiration for the fashion of neck covering. Was it she who had the magnificent bosom and sway-backed posture that Edwardian fashion emulated? The turkey breast look of some of the 'waists' (blouses) of that era always struck me as absurdly overemphasized -- women appeared to not have two breasts but one great big one!

Rosemary Hawthorne, the fashion historian that Netla turned me onto above, has now got me seeking the innovations in men's undergarments and trousers (pantaloons, as they were first called), principally the development of the 'fly' from the codpiece and other nether garments. Levi Strauss & Co. saw the utility of the fly in creating their denim workpants. Workers didn't have to drop everything to relieve themselves, thus they could get back to their jobs quicker. I can remember when women's trousers always had the opening in the back or on one side, because, as I was told, it was unseemly for a woman to be seen in fly-front trousers. It was 'nasty' and risqué.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 12:35PM
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I think women's bosoms were often known as 'bolsters' in those days.
Ann, I'm sure Alexandra would not have been driven to attempted suicide by her husband's infidelities. It seems women, of that class, put up with what we now consider totally unacceptable behaviour. In the photos below I notice that even as a young woman her neck was covered by her hair, and once she put her hair up she wears high collars and chokers.

Here is a link that might be useful: Alexandra of Denmark

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 5:25PM
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Frieda, the little girls from the oldest down had to sit in chairs until they were all dressed so as not to get dirty.

One of my own little brothers, told not to get dirty while the younger one was being dressed, came back slightly soiled and said, "I didn't get dirty, Mama. I just come dirty." Meaning became.

My grandmother must have gotten her dress ideas from magazines or the Sears and/or Montgomery Ward catalogs because there were no shops near her in those days. My mother told of running to the road to watch a car pass. My grandfather only had a horse and buggy. Neither of my GFs ever owned a car. Mama lived from horse and buggy on dirt road days to moon walks and jet planes, surely the most changes of any century. She was born in 1906 and lived to 2000.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 8:44PM
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While viewing the photos of Alexandra, I was reminded that one of the chief roles of Royal women, it seems, is that of a mannequin. What a gaudy age was the Victorian! Victoria herself influenced the styles of mourning for decades. I've heard of Prince Albert coats and dressing gowns so the Royal men had influence too. What are some of the other associated styles? The Duke of Windsor was famous for his style, if I remember correctly, as well as giving his wife fabulously designed jewelry. I think the Duchess of W was partially responsible for the tanning craze and for the notion that a woman "can't be too rich or too thin." In the case of Wallis Simpson, though, she didn't have to be too beautiful -- or beautiful at all.

Bolsters! Vee, that's the perfect one-word description of the most-admired bosoms of that time.

Carolyn, your mother in her lifetime did witness more changes than practically any other age group ever has, either before or since. I've read your mentions of your mother being a schoolteacher, but I'm not sure if I've ever read how she came to be one. Would you share that story with us -- again, if you've told it before? I'd love to read it. I love those schoolteacher stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Hannah Breece, and Max Braithwaite, among others.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 12:39AM
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Frieda, I think teaching was probably the only occupation available to women in my mother's community; that and the fact that what is now Western Kentucky University was then Western KY State Teachers' College, cranking them out in two years on a teaching certificate, and it was only 50 miles from home. My mother, her three sisters, and her brother all went. Only my uncle never taught school; he enlisted in the Army and was a career man.

One of my aunts got a full degree, but the rest of them went back to school after WWII when the pay offered for a BS Degree was so much greater than for the two-year certs. In fact, my mother began taking Saturday classes the year I started college (at Western) and graduated from college the year my younger sister graduated from high school and my youngest brother from eighth grade. She did Saturday classes, summer school, and correspondence courses while teaching full time; but it paid off.

When she began teaching in a one-room school with pupils from first grade through eighth but having only 20 or 25 kids all together, her pay was $68 a month. Then the banks failed after the '29 crash, and she made $56 a month. It took a long time to get back up to the $68 mark, and when she retired in 1972, she was making $350 a month. This was for a school year only, no pay in the summers.

She taught eight years in one-room schools and then 22 at a larger one, first having Grades 1 and 2 until the year she had 50 pupils. She asked the county school superintendent what she was going to do with 50 children, and he told her to just do the best she could. After that year, each grade had its own teacher, and she taught first grade until her retirement.

As I'm sure I've told you all, I went with her to school when I was four because I didn't like being left with the (very nice) woman they had chosen for me and it got too cold for me to go cattle dealing with my dad. When I saw that all the other little ones had a book and got to go up to her and read, I wanted one, too. She gave me one, and I took to it as they say "like a duck to water" and have been reading ever since.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 7:09PM
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Carolyn, thank you for posting about your mother's teaching career and how she got into it. I appreciate the monetary details (it's the sociologist in me). I don't know exactly how to interpret her early pay, but I'm assuming it was meager because historically teachers, especially female teachers, were seldom well compensated.

However, I can relate to her 1972 paycheck. I made $75 a week in my first professional job, beginning in 1971. Previously I had worked in a drugstore for my dad who paid me whatever he felt like; waitressed at a Mexican Cafe for $1 an hour plus tips; and during the summer of 1969, I worked in the newly initiated Head Start program which gave me $700 for two and a half months and enough experience to know that I was not suited for working with children. Anyone, like your mother, who can deal with kids -- other people's kids -- for thirty or forty years should be declared a saint, imo.

Did you say upthread or elsethread that you are your family's historian? If not, you ought to be, I think. Surely, as a former executive secretary, you've got it all written down and properly filed somewhere. :-)

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 12:46AM
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Frieda, it was my mother's oldest sister who was the historian and before the internet. I think often of how she would have loved the online ancestry sites. I typed her material for her once and so do have a copy, properly filed. Our great claim to fame is that she found one of our girls married a Prince of Orange back in the 1600s and then came to the "colonies."

My first job as a stenographer paid me $195 a month before taxes. That was in 1956. I got paid every two weeks, and the first time I cleared $100 on a paycheck, I thought I was rich.

Enough! I think I'm hogging the thread.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 7:04PM
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I rarely read memoirs. For the most part they do not interest me. I read the Keith Richards one for my book club and it was actually interesting. Next month we are reading the Shirley Jones one, which I do not expect to like as much.

But I do have in my possession a handwritten memoir of someone who was not related to me. My grandmother came across it once in an old drawer and she passed it along to me when I was about 12 years old. I'm sorry to say that I don't remember exactly where she found it, but possibly 37 Gleason Street in Medford Massachusetts, an 1890s house she and my father once owned before he met and married my mother. Anyway, it is written in longhand on a lined notebook, and the first page has disintegrated. Because I read it long ago, I remember that the author was a woman named Ella Augusta Smith. Her father was a professional lecturer, and when she was a young woman she used to travel with him and give lectures, too. They traveled all over the country. She was probably in her 80's when she wrote it. I seem to remember the date of 1913 or 1917, but that part has dissolved. I would dearly love to put it into the hands of an appropriate archive, because owning it feels like a responsibility to me. Somewhere, someday, someone might want to read it. I'm not exactly sure how to find that archive, though. Possibly a university back in Massachusetts would be a good place.


This post was edited by rosefolly on Sun, Feb 2, 14 at 1:32

    Bookmark   January 31, 2014 at 9:06PM
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Rosefolly, there is a Historical Society in Medford, MA, and that might be the perfect place for your memoir.

(Notebooks like that are a genealogist's dream!)

Here is a link that might be useful: Medford Historical Society

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 4:16PM
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Sheri, that is perfect, exactly what I needed! Thank you so much.


    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 7:07PM
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Rosefolly, I don't remember hearing anything about that; when did Dad tell you about it? I wonder if it was the same family who owned the clock Dad and Grandma found in the attic there.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 7:11PM
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Rouan, Grandma sent it to me when I was about 12 or so. I think it came from the same place, 37 Gleason Street if I am not mistaken.

I have sent a note to the Medford Historical Society. I also looked on and found a mention of her. She apparently married at age 19 and had 3 children. She was born in 1859 so if she wrote the memoir in 1903/1913/1917 (I can't remember exactly which year and that page is gone), then she would have been younger than I am now. Somehow I had the impression she was much older than that, but the dates tell me that I was mistaken. Well, I originally read it when I was in my early teens. Probably then a woman in her 50's did not seem much younger than a woman in her 70's or 80's to me! The latest mention of her on was in 1916. It was rather exciting to see documentation of her life other than the notebook I have had all these years. It makes her seem more real. I always had the impression that she thought she had had a remarkable time in her early years, something no one else now understood, and that she was documenting it so that it would not be completely forgotten. I hope the historical society wants her memoir.


This post was edited by rosefolly on Sun, Feb 2, 14 at 1:35

    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 12:36AM
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Rosefolly, finding her on Ancestry is wonderful! Was there a family tree attached to her info, or did she just pop up as an individual record? If the historical society doesn't want the notebook, the family tree owner probably would, especially if he or she is a direct line descendant. Or perhaps a copy to each?

I had a very lucky experience like that, myself. An antique dealer who buys old photos came across a picture of my husband's 3rd great grandparents. As there were names written on the back of the photo she was able to look through Ancestry, track me down, and give me a digital copy of the photo. This was especially wonderful as it answered a long-standing question of whether or not Grandma was a Native American (she was most clearly not despite family stories saying she was full-blooded) and Grandpa was almost a twin to my FIL.

Please let me know what happens with the notebook :)

    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 10:14AM
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Sheri, she is mentioned in one family tree, and also there are several records of census, city directory, and her marriage. No date of death, but with her last appearance being 1916, I could not help wondering about the great flu pandemic of 1918. I sent a note to the creator of that family tree asking if he would like a copy of her memoir. She did not appear to be a close relative, but he is the only relative in my awareness! And yes, when I'll post something when there is a result.


    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 9:06PM
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I prefer travel memoirs.....especially about France or Italy.

I am currently enjoying NOT IN A TUSCAN VILLA by John and Nancy Petralia

    Bookmark   February 7, 2014 at 2:44PM
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