February 28, 2006

The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family

The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Finished on 2/23/06
Rating: A+ (10/10 Superb!)

I generally don’t read nonfiction. It tends to feel too much like school work and I usually like to read to relax or escape. However, there are a couple of nonfiction areas of interest that do appeal to me. I enjoy reading about World War II, but what I really like is a good memoir from just about any time period. Just barely out of high school, I stumbled on a copy of Yeager: An Autobiography and while it was obviously a self-serving work, I was new to the genre and instantly hooked.

Over the years, I’ve read dozens of memoirs, several of which I’ve raved about to anyone who will listen. And while doing just that during a dinner party this past weekend (hey, books make good conversation!), I had an epiphany of sorts. Almost all of my favorite memoirs are written by professional writers: All Over But the Shoutin’ (Rick Bragg), Wait Til Next Year (Doris Kearns Goodwin), Around the House and In The Garden (Dominique Browning), Birdbaths and Paper Cranes (Sharon Randall) and Fifty Acres and a Poodle (Jeanne Laskas). Sure there are others written equally well: Rocket Boys (Homer Hickam), The Road From Coorain (Jill Kerr Conway), and A Year By the Sea (Joan Anderson) but these folks aren’t columnists or magazine editors and are the exception to the rule. In my experience, most memoirs written by non-writers (e.g., politicians, scientists) seem stilted and contrived.

So what makes a good memoir? For me, it’s the author’s ability to draw me into his world, evoking a sense of time and place with a lyrical turn of phrase, a bit of humor and a touch of tenderness. When a memoir resonates with me, I’m tempted to dash off a fan letter and invite the author to dinner. These are people I want to know – to discuss their favorite books & authors over sea bass, risotto, and a nice bottle of wine.

I’ve just finished Jeanne Laskas’ second memoir, entitled The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family, and can’t praise it enough.

Laskas is a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine (“Significant Others”) and I first encountered her writing last February when I read Fifty Acres and A Poodle. I absolutely loved the book and gave it a perfect A+ rating (placing it in my Top Ten List for 2005). So, what a pleasant surprise to read such a satisfying follow-up this past month. It was such a pleasure to return to her family, friends, and menagerie at Sweetwater Farm in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania.

From the opening pages, I was roaring out loud with laughter, stopping to catch my breath, wipe my eyes and share the passage with Rod (who had already read the book, but enjoyed – or pretended to enjoy – hearing it again). Jeanne and Alex have quite a brood – dogs, horses, mules, you name it - with marvelous names like Marley, Betty, Wilma, Sparky, Sassy, Skippy, Maggie, and Cricket. And as if that weren’t enough, they borrow some of their neighbor’s sheep to help maintain their fifty acres of alfalfa. Animal antics always provide fodder for humor and dogs are the best, although losing a mule (especially one that happens to be wearing an orange scarf resembling a babushka) on opening day of deer season is pretty darned funny.

But life isn’t always a barrel of laughs. Still in the process of learning how one actually lives on a farm and managing her four-legged motley crew, Jeanne is abruptly forced to deal with issues of aging parents, in addition to her rather sudden decision to have a child somewhat late in life. Both situations are described with a gentle blend of humor and tenderness, often bringing a lump to my throat, as well as an occasional tear or two.

This is unquestionably a book to savor and I have to confess that after reading the last line, I hugged it to my chest while whispering, “good book!” Always a good indicator of an A+ rating.

I hope this isn’t the last we see of Jeanne Laskas. She still has so much more to share about her family, new friends, and of course the animals. However, if this is it, I still have her weekly columns, thanks to Google Alerts. And… I just happen to know a certain somebody who fits the criterion for a high-quality memoirist. He’s got a great sense of humor, can turn a beautiful phrase, and just happens to write for a living. Guess we’ll have to get to work on that menagerie, though. I’ve already got several names picked out.

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