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American Lives

A Reader

Edited by Alicia Christensen, Introduction by Tobias Wolff

Publication Year: 2010

Memoirs are as varied as human emotion and experience, and those published in the distinguished American Lives Series run the gamut. Excerpted from this series (called “splendid” by Newsweek) and collected here for the first time, these dispatches from American lives take us from China during the Cultural Revolution to the streets of New York in the sixties to a cabin in the backwoods of Idaho. In prose as diverse as the stories they tell, writers such as Floyd Skloot, Ted Kooser, Peggy Shumaker, and Lee Martin, among many others, open windows to their own ordinary and extraordinary experiences. John Skoyles tells how, for his Uncle Fred, a particular “Hard Luck Suit” imparted misfortune. Brenda Serotte describes a Turkish grandmother who made her living reading palms, interpreting cups, and prescribing poultices for the community. In “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” Dinty W. Moore views fatherhood through the lens of pop culture. Janet Sternburg’s Phantom Limb muses on the dilemmas of a child caring for a parent. Whether evoking moments of death or disease, in family or marriage, history, politics, religion, or culture, these glimpses into singular American lives come together in a richly textured, colorful patchwork quilt of American life.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: American Lives

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v

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pp. vii-x

It was my great fortune to work as Ladette Randolph’s assistant when I first joined the University of Nebraska Press. Not only was I able to learn from this talented and highly regarded editor who conceptualized and developed the press’s American Lives Series, it was part of my job to read memoirs...

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pp. xi-xv

Several years ago, in his Harper’s essay “Autobiography in the Age of Narcissism,” William H. Gass came to this judgment: “He who writes his autobiography is already a monster.” I admit I laughed out loud when I struck this line, partly no doubt from discomfort...

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“Long Live the Red Terror!”

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pp. 3-14

Chairman Mao, the Great Leader, officially launched the Cultural Revolution in his May 17 proclamation in the People’s Daily, calling for the masses to smash the five-thousand-year-old Chinese culture and to rid the country of any foreign influence...

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Moving Water, Tucson

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pp. 15-18

Thunderclouds gathered every afternoon during the monsoons. Warm rain felt good on faces lifted to lick water from the sky. We played outside, having sense enough to go out and revel in the rain...

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Winter 1997

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pp. 19-27

Here in our house in Vermont, Tom ran a wire from a pine tree to our living room window, hung bird feeders. Squirrels were the first to find them. We had to slide the feeders farther along the wire so the squirrels couldn’t jump from the tree...

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The Weight of Spoons

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pp. 29-43

Eight days later, on a Monday morning, I was reading over the weekend’s football scores in the newspaper when the telephone rang. It was Nick. His voice was different. He was crying. “Charlie, did you hear?” “No,” I said...

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Hard Luck Suit

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pp. 45-61

"I have a tip on a horse,” Fred said on the phone. “Want to get in on it?” I said I did. “How much can you get?” “Money?” “Of course ‘money!’” I could hear him chuckling...

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pp. 63-88

When my father was a very young child, acutely ill with spinal meningitis, his own mother saved his life. To cure him she performed a “secret ceremony” that involved heating a lump of lead in a special bowl, uttering holy prayers known...

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The Boys of Summer

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pp. 89-97

They came in April, the boys of summer. Resplendent in pastel-colored gabardine suits, wearing faded winter tans, they were the first wave of a two-part pilgrimage that took place yearly, as my father would say...

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Excerpt from “Winter”

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pp. 99-127

Walking our gravel road early in the morning, the sun so slow to rise into the silence, slow to ignite the pure fuel of the air. This is a morning like a roadmap, pink and blue, the destinations only lightly penciled...

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Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers

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pp. 129-138

Best known as the father on ABC’s Home Improvement (1991–99), the popular comedian was born Timothy Allen Dick on June 13, 1953. When Allen was eleven years old, his father, Gerald Dick, was killed by a drunk driver while driving home from...

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Good, Alright, Fine

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pp. 139-156

It’s a winter Tuesday night. I’ve skipped school to drive north and trip on acid with my best friend, Dean. The day has been more than unnerving; it has suggested something occult and sinister is happening in our lives, and the chill that laces my spine doesn’t feel like a mere effect of chemicals...

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pp. 157-164

I get my call time from Cracker. Wednesday midmorning I’m due to drive up the Golden State Freeway to the flats of Valencia to play a scene with the star; he’s the genius detective, and I’m a psychiatrist to a transsexual killer with baby lust...

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And There Fell a Great Star

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pp. 165-181

I was leading the cool-down in am Aerobics when someone announced that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up in the sky. Not only were seven talented people struck down in their prime, but school children had to watch their beloved...

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Not Coming Out

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pp. 183-189

"Hi, Paul,” I said. “Boy, what a beautiful day. Look at those trees. When did everything get so nice?” Paul gave me his best Disapproving Look. “Your mother called,” he said. “What did she have to say?” “She wanted to know where you were...

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Excerpt from Phantom Limb

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pp. 191-194

'Excuse me . . . excuse me,’ I call out, trying to get the attention of the woman I spotted in the rearview mirror on the way to meet Ellie. I run to catch up with her. ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking but . . .’ She swings around, pivoting on a crutch...

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Alternatives, 1979

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pp. 195-203

Three years later whenever John asks, after a long day, “Swim with me?” I shake my head. I have to admit my sweet remission has vanished, lingering no more than a year. Sarah has turned ten, and my old premarriage desire...

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Excerpt from “The Second Trimester”

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pp. 205-227

The next few hours we did better. We were relieved that the end had begun. Dr. Bowden came in after visiting a delivering mom down the hall, gave Amy a quick check-over, told us the labor was progressing, then plopped down...

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A Measure of Acceptance

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pp. 229-244

The psychiatrist’s office was in a run-down industrial section at the northern edge of Oregon’s capital, Salem. It shared space with a chiropractic health center, separated from it by a temporary divider that wobbled in the current created by opening the door...

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The New Kitchen

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pp. 245-249

Aft er five months of cooking in a dark makeshift pantry with a ten-inch sink and a hot plate, we now have a brand-new kitchen with everything working and in place: spices in the spice drawer, knives in the knife rack. Even the garbage...

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One I Love, Two I Love

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pp. 251-278

The facts are these: On February 28, 1848, in Lukin Township, Clarissa Ridgley married Jonathan Inyart. Eleven months later, on January 13, 1849, she gave birth to their only child, Mary Ann. Jonathan died soon aft er from summer complaint...

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Excerpt from“The Promise of Power”

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pp. 279-300

I see Heina as a boy-man caught in a swirling torrent. War’s burdens pushed many Germans to raise their voices and their weapons against the government. Putting myself in Heina’s shoes, I hear voices from above, the confusing tumult of men...

Source Acknowledgments

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pp. 301-302


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pp. 303-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780803234833
E-ISBN-10: 080323483X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803228054
Print-ISBN-10: 0803228058

Page Count: 326
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: American Lives

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Autobiographies -- United States.
  • United States -- Biography.
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