Post #107 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler
We’re pleased to share Lanie Tankard’s book review with you. She has taken a book that might be considered purely political and examined it from the perspective of a woman’s life and a woman writing about her life. It is a great reminder that when we write about our lives, we acknowledge the influences on it and we reach inside us to better understand the impact on others and on ourselves.
Publisher-New York: Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“Our lives are lived in story. Story is how we organize experience. In the constant stream of things happening, what we remember are the interactions we cull from our experience and call into our story. And the stories we remember are the ones in which we made a significant choice or decision about what things mean.” —Christina Baldwin in Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story (p. 76)
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent memoir, Hard Choices, hearkens back to traditional oral storytelling that occurs when one person shares life events with another. It’s a ritual as old as the hills, this custom of processing our experience through language and passing on the wisdom we gained. Andrea Lunsford of the Stanford University English Department suggested in her book The Everyday Writer:
“Literature might be called the art of story, and story might in turn be called a universal language, for every culture we know of has a tradition of storytelling.”
I spoke to Clinton about this idea at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, as she signed copies of her memoir for the sold-out line that wound round the block and stretched all the way up the hill. Security was tight. We could carry absolutely nothing into the room. I had my hands clasped behind my back as I chatted with people around me. An agent came over and asked me to keep my hands in front of me so they could see them. Hence, all I took with me was a question.
And my question?
I asked Hillary Clinton why she thought it was important for people to write their life stories—particularly women. “Because those stories need to be heard,” she emphasized, pausing in her book signing to set down her pen and speak earnestly and directly to me. “They should be told to the whole world. They’re important. I’ve written about my mother in this book—how her story really inspired me, how she raised me as a single mother without help and triumphed over all kinds of obstacles along the way. You know, we’ve actually lost the storytelling tradition and we need to get it back.”
Clinton’s clear voice in her memoir is just as conversational as it is in person. Reading her book, I felt as if I were sitting across from her at an outdoor café sipping espresso and munching madeleines. If I’d asked her to help me make sense of this planet upon which we both whirl, the memories she shared in Hard Choices would have kept us at that café table for days. In the book, however, 656 pages held her intriguing encounters with the people in charge of these tracts of land dotting the globe that we call nations. The book is not a fast read. It’s one to break off in sections, go away and absorb, and then return—lest one feel jet-lagged. I was mesmerized, but I spaced out the reading to ponder what I’d read.
Clinton as memoirist
As a memoirist, Clinton offers the backstories of world events and the diplomacy behind them in which she played significant roles. Because she also placed these occurrences in historical context through a manner that’s easy to follow, readers like me who’ve never been in such situations and never will can understand them and possibly gain insight into the next breaking news bulletin. As an author, she’s a natural teacher because she utilizes the book as a way to educate. By coupling this forum with memories from her childhood and family, she hits the right combination. To veer too far in either direction would render the memoir either too dry and dull or too emotional and fluffy. It was none of these for me.
We live in an increasingly complicated world. I see into the abyss a bit more deeply after reading Hard Choices. Clinton’s clear presence on the pages led me, never flaunting high-level gibberish but rather speaking straight to me as she had in person during the book signing. I met her one other time a few years earlier, and also asked her a question then, about caregivers. Her response was quite similar—immediate, heartfelt, and educated as she spoke directly to me about a bill they’d been trying to get through the Senate. On both occasions I’ve asked Hillary Clinton a question, I’ve gone away feeling listened to, heard, and answered. Somehow reading her memoir gave me the same sensation.
The whole woman revealed
Each of our lives is unique. They’re composed of the sum of our experiences and the people we’ve encountered along the way. Clinton’s life happens to be brimful. In Hard Choices, she has mulled them over and offered readers an interpretation of the wisdom she’s acquired via the positions she’s held, sprinkled with personal recollections sparked by these encounters. She tells of working in Alaska after college, gutting fish and washing dishes. She writes of lessons learned from playing softball as a girl in Illinois. When Clinton reached back to her formative years and wrote of her girlhood, I saw the whole woman. For that little girl is still inside every woman, guiding her when she has to make difficult choices.
Clinton shares some of the most personal and moving stories toward the end of the book. With unabashed honesty, I confess I had trouble seeing the pages as the tears began to roll down my cheeks. What unleashed them, do you suppose? Perhaps it was the fact that I can relate to so many of the touchstones in her personal life. Because I had been a Hillary Clinton delegate to the 2008 Travis County Democratic Convention in Texas, I donned objective metaphorical blinders and set as my goal to read Clinton’s memoir only as a woman’s memoir, rather than a political memoir. I’m neither a politician nor a diplomat. I’m not deeply versed in history, world events, or legislation. I’d fall flat if I tried to discuss Hard Choices on those grounds.
How I relate to the memoir
What I am, however, is a woman—one who had a great relationship with her father, was very close to her mother and cared for her as she aged, enjoyed long walks with her husband to talk about ideas, loves her three daughters deeply, and is awaiting the birth of a granddaughter this fall. These relational touchstones in my own life, then, are some of the common human denominators by which I can relate to Hillary Clinton’s life, as far removed as it is from mine. My relationships have defined who I am and how I view the world.
I came away from Clinton’s memoir believing the same is true for her. I got the impression she seems to understand herself better by processing her experiences through words. In fact, she notes in Hard Choices that “words constitute much of a diplomat’s work.” She developed insight to her core being by connecting to memories from her earliest years. Perhaps that’s why women find memoir writing so powerful. Knowing who we are as we move through life strengthens us, shaping the way we deal with the hard choices life hands all of us at one time or another, no matter what our work or position. She shares how she’s able to deal with criticism. Clinton also describes the resilient lessons she’s drawn from losing during various situations she’s encountered in her well-publicized life. In discussing her 2008 presidential campaign loss, she says she felt she “had let down so many millions of people, especially the women and girls who had invested their dreams in me.” Clinton’s passion and dedicated stance on behalf of both women’s rights and LGBT rights, framing them both as human rights, comes through strongly in the last chapter. Again, my tears rained down as I read.
In viewing “women as agents of change,” Clinton stresses the importance of communicating tales of women “whose stories would not be heard” unless others narrated them. She describes her writing area at home, and discusses in her acknowledgments “what it takes to write a book.”
She also offers incredibly helpful tips about how to stay awake when you arrive jet-lagged. I made note of them, even though I’ll never meet with heads of state. She mentions that she watched the body language of world leaders during meetings. Clinton’s descriptions of some of her global encounters are just downright funny while others, such as drinking fermented mare’s milk in a Mongolian ger (tent) with a family of nomads, are visually rich.
A quick organizational overview
Over 100 photos enhance the book, presented in three sections within the text plus more on the covers and jacket. Clinton’s memoir, bookended by an author’s note at the front and an epilogue at the back, is narrated in six sections:
A helpful two-page map of the world appears at the beginning.
Clinton dedicates the book to “America’s diplomats and development experts, who represent our country and our values so well in places large and small, peaceful and perilous all over the world” and to the memory of her parents. Skillfully woven into the chronicles of her far-reaching travels are stories of Hugh Ellsworth Rodham (1911–1993) and Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham (1919–2011).
Clinton speaks about the role of Secretary of State as one in which “the baton is passed.” Hard Choices joins memoirs by the only other two women who have held this position. Madeleine Albright’s Madame Secretary came out in 2003 and Condoleezza Rice’s No Higher Honor was published in 2012.
Other writings by Clinton
In addition to articles, newspaper columns, and a book chapter, Clinton has also written another memoir, Living History (2003), plus An Invitation to the White House: At Home With History (2000), Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets (1998), and It Takes a Village (1996, now in its Tenth Anniversary Edition).
Clinton on stage in Austin
Hillary Clinton gave a keynote address the evening she was in Austin on her book tour. I was in the packed house at the Long Center to hear her speak. The Austin Woman magazine offers excerpts from that event here.
The term glass ceiling appears in Hard Choices from time to time, held up there by those invisible rafters that serve as informal barriers to the advancement of women, particularly in traditional male occupations. Indeed, under one memorable photo of a meeting in Qatar, in which she is seated in the center of a room surrounded by men—many wearing the gutra headdress—Clinton simply notes: “As was so often the case, I am the only woman in the room….”
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling wrote that. I wish he could read Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. I bet he’d never forget it.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
The Ready for Hillary bus parked on the street during the book signing, run by a political action committee in McLean, Virginia, “not affiliated with any candidate or candidate’s committee.” PAC representatives handed out stickers, buttons, and posters to people standing in line.