University of Texas Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-292-72306-1.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 12/30/2010
Wishing I could find a unique word to describe this book that didn't pull from the title, I consulted my thesaurus. I found these to use in place of extraordinary: unexpected, surprising, amazing, uncommon—but now how to choose? For this book is all of those and more. An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days was the most pleasant surprise I've had in a long time in a book.
The book is written in journal format, the recording of the year 2008 in the life of author Susan Wittig Albert. It is an honest accounting of her activities, her travels, and her feelings. The reader learns what she is working on—her books, her reading, her gardening projects.
We accompany her on her walks and see her world through her very observant eyes. There is very little that escapes her notice—the temperature, the humidity, what is in bloom, which critters are afoot, the level of the creek—and in contrast, what is missing due to drought or season or act of nature. She is intimately acquainted with every aspect of her surroundings, whether in Texas or New Mexico. Her sense of place is elemental and complete. She knows and shares the history of her home places, knowing that to appreciate and care for a place today it is essential to know its past inhabitants, its past uses, and how it came to its present state.
For me, an extra treat was the inclusion of quotes in the margins of the book. These were chosen for their relevance to the day's thoughts, or because they were from a current reading project. Good authors have much to share and good writers are not intimidated by showcasing their fellow authors' words. It added special emphasis to what Albert was saying.
Albert followed the politics of the day, little knowing just how unusual the year would prove to be in that arena. Her honest opinions and observations were very refreshing. Not concerned with what might be considered correct, she shared opinions and reflections on what it all meant, and will continue to mean for the country.
Current events came to the forefront not only in politics but also in Albert's growing recognition of what was happening in terms of climate change, the energy depletion crisis and how it all affects our food supplies. I appreciated this relevant quote from Barbara Kingsolver: "Small changes in buying habits can make big differences. Becoming a less energy-dependent nation may just need to start with a good breakfast." She set for herself a daunting reading regimen on these issues, and shared her insights, educating the reader as she did so. She made it real and relevant.
Although the journal was written to be published, I never had the impression that any content had been edited or deleted because of this fact. It came across as an honest, heartfelt, straight-forward endeavor. As an avid lifelong journaler, Albert brought years of experience to the project. The result is unexpected, surprising, amazing, and uncommon—all those thesaurus choices—an extraordinary work by an extraordinary writer.
It took me some time to read the book, not because it was heavy or boring. Heaven forbid! It was, in fact, the kind of book to read slowly and savor. There is so much here to take in. As a matter of fact, I plan to re-read it, making it a sort of "book of days" for the upcoming year. It is that valuable, and that good. I recommend it to all who enjoy memoir, and to anyone interested in a fine commentary on the state of the world we live in.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Susan Wittig Albert is a prolific author, having penned several series: the popular China Bayle mysteries, the Cottage Tales featuring Beatrix Potter, and with her husband, a Victorian mystery series—and early works for young adults. 2010 marked the debut of a new mystery series, the Darling Dahlias. Her nonfiction includes her first memoir, Together Alone as well as Work of her Own and Writing from Life. Albert holds degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Berkeley, and was a university English professor and an administrator. She is the Founder of Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization which promotes women's lifewriting. She lives in the Texas Hill Country with her husband and sometimes co-author, Bill Albert. Learn more on her blog, Lifescapes, and her website.
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