Two memoirs today: One from down south; the other from close by.
"House of Prayer No. 2," by Mark Richard (Doubleday, $23.95), is a honey of a book.
Richard tells the story of a "special" kid. "Special" is what they called people with disabilities in the deep south. Writer Richard is such a person. He was born with bad hips and was told early on that he would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.
In spite of his alcoholic father and his religious fanatic mother -- or probably because of them -- Richard had different ideas.
So he became a disc jockey, a fishing trawler deckhand, a house painter, a naval correspondent, an aerial photographer, a private investigator, a foreign journalist, a bartender and an unsuccessful seminarian.
Richard is the author of two award-winning shortstory collections, including "The Ice at the Bottom of the World," and a novel, "Fishboy." He's the recipient of a PEN/Hemingway Award and his articles have appeared in many prestigious magazines.
How did this "special" child make it so far?
Richard tells us in a breathless style, much of it in second person.
Here's a sample:
"You are working digging irrigation ditches, and one day you go into a convenience store to buy some beer and check out the magazines. There's an Atlantic Monthly in the rack and you are surprised to see that you are a finalist in their American short story contest; the judge is John Updike. Boatwright (your teacher) had entered your story without telling you. You swing the nose of your truck homeward....A publisher sees the Atlantic Monthly and sends you a letter asking if you have a novel, so you write a science fiction novel called 'The Bug Hunters.' It's about shrimp farming in space on an aquatic planet where a father and a son shoot it out with .38 revolvers and there are Brazilian seafood pirates devoured by large eels. You send it to Boatwright for his opinion, and he sends you a note telling you, 'You're wasting your time and your talent.'"
So it goes and Richard eventually does become a writer. On the way, his earlier revulsion to his mother's religious fanaticism has been replaced with a religious urge, from which comes the biography's title:
"It is about this time that you are finishing writing a movie script about some Army veterans returning home from the war in Iraq. On the day you sell the script, you are pleasantly surprised at the selling price and neglect to thank God for your good fortune, and when you do get around to thanking God, you immediately remember your pledge to tithe ten percent of your earnings to House of Prayer No. 2 (a church for ex cons he's helped to build). And the small heart in you cringes, wondering if that is ten percent of gross or ten percent of net."
Herb Ruscin is a printer by trade, but since he has retired, he's taking to writing stuff that other people have to set in type.
His first book, a ramble of great recollections about small town life in western Wisconsin is "A Step Inside My Altoona" (Instantpublisher.com, $20). Altoona is a railroad town, just outside Eau Claire, and Herb Ruscin writes about it with great affection, telling stories many of us can remember from our own childhoods.
One of my favorites is his gang scavenging leftover materials from a building site and finding five perfect rolls of Campbell Soup wallpaper.
He writes about beer drinking once your 18 back in Wisconsin's good old days and about drinking before you're 18, as well. He writes about attending Regis High School in Eau Claire and what a great guy his principal, Father John Rossiter, was and how the good father made him get a haircut.
I remember Father Rossiter from my days as a student at Eau Claire State and also the saloons Ruscin and his pals didn't attend because they didn't like us college kids. (Actually, Herb, Corky's was a pretty nice place.)
Oft times nostalgic books like these are too sentimental.
Not Ruscin's book. He tells how his little brother, age 4, was run over by a speeding Dodge Dart and ended up in the hospital for a summer. When he returned home, he had changed from a nice quiet kid to an insufferably demanding brat because the nurses had been so nice to him.
Ruscin's account of how older siblings got even with him is priceless.
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