Customer Reviews: The Summer of Ordinary Ways: A Memoir
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on June 15, 2007
I didnt pick this book randomly off the shelf, I work in Sleepy Eye MN, closely with the people. I did not grow up in Sleepy Eye, but in another small farming community. I know some of the people who she is talking about, although I do not know her or any of her immedate famliy. There was a huge uproar here about this book when it came out and I had to see what it was all about, of course!

What I found was someone I knew, a girl raised with the same type of envirnment I think most of us were raised with in small midwestern farm towns. The local stories, small town attitude, where everyone knows everyones business and you are judged by your last name, relatives and great-grandfathers history 'all those Haalas are crazy'. I found myself and my friends in her stories, my sister, my parents. Its a story about life, the memories of a girl and a kid becoming a woman the fast way, by becoming a mother. She made me feel I was with her @ the nuns retreat, when her dad shot the puppies, on her uncles bike. I was rereading a story I already know. It was creepy, but comforting. I think thats talent.

I really enjoyed this book, the style is different, jumping around, even mid story, to different, semi-related stories, different then what I'm used to, I guess. Her discriptions make me see the tree, the barn, her uniform, blue and white on the steps of St. Marys Catholic School. Beautifully discripted. Definately not the brutal, horrible book some people 'couldnt even finish'.

If you grew up in a small town, or in a large close-nit family, you will relate to Nicole. A glimps of snipits of small town life, real or imagined by her, is truely what this novel is.
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on January 12, 2006
I had no idea that this book elicited so much controversy. I read the article another reader linked to in his/her review, which, while interesting, did nothing to sway my high opinion of the book. How can anyone fault someone for writing about her life the way the writer remembered it? Who among us hasn't been absolutely certain about the way an event transpired, only to be unequivocally told that's not how it happened? And if there is some fiction or wishful thinking thrown into this story, well--life isn't often very exciting, and I bet you can't show me ANY memoir that is without embellishment. I have yet to see a reader's critique that bears negatively on my opinion of this stunning memoir. If I were to later find out that this entire book was in fact a novel and not a work of non-fiction, I wouldn't appreciate it any less--it is that well-written.

Helget's prose is descriptive and beautiful, and her words leap off the page. I devoured this book in one sitting, thinking to myself, "I wish I knew how to do these things with the English language!" One reviewer wrote that the book is "graphic," like it was a bad thing. It certainly is graphic, but it is wonderfully so, and the story wouldn't be nearly as powerful if it was any other way. The first and last chapters are so good, they're jaw-dropping.

"A Summer of Ordinary Ways" is one of the most compelling memoirs I read in a long time. I recommend it highly.
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VINE VOICEon January 25, 2009
"Memoir is recreation of memory in a literary form," writes Nicole "Colie" Helget in the Acknowledgement section of her unusual, telling memoir. Helget, the eldest of six Catholic girls raised on a farm in rural Minnesota, waxes poetic at times in these spectacularly written recountings of her youth. Nine of the ten selections took place when she was six to twelve years old. The most recent, Burn to Black, in which she recalls her mother's incineration of her adulterous, family-deserting husband's prized and otherwised possessions, took place in 1993 when the author was seventeen. But the last (and title) story brings the reader closer to the present with a sort of summary of her later life (love, marriage, motherhood) interwoven with a graphic memory of what my own former-farmer father used to refer to as "getting rid of the puppies." Throughout, her tales tell that her dad could be, and often was - cruel, but also had a kind side as shown in Cockleburs in the Laundry and her acknowledgement, "Bless you for your generosity, loyalty, and storytelling." He's unlikely to feel the same about her after reading of his portrayal. Subjects range from a crush on a milkman, experiences with moonshine (complete with recipes for wine and whiskey), a "religious retreat weekend with the Sisters of Schoenstatt" with friends, playing Chicken with a "slow-witted" maternal uncle, and the first fabulous story, Stain You Red, which contrasts facts about her sort of famous former baseball player father's career with an incident involving an uncooperative cow, a pitchfork, and lots of blood. The book's no holds barred format is as spectacular as it is sometimes squirm-inducing. But you have to give the gal credit for her fabulous writing, poetic at times, and honesty in the face of certain small-town familial embarrassment. Abuse, abandonment, and Catholic inculcation failed to "take" in this self-reliant, defiant young woman (p 165) "What if, instead of discovering the Truth, you are told the Truth, and are told any variance from it will result in Hell?" whose claim to fame, I hope, will be as an excellent short-story writer. Also good: The Horizontal World by Debra Marquat, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and The Mother Garden by Robin Romm.
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Ever since the 'scandal' regarding James Frey and fact or fiction novel 'A Million Little Pieces' caused such a ruckus, writers who dare to attach the term 'memoir' to their books are under fire. There is something wrong in the attitude of the country when readers and PR people and talk show hosts take such umbrage with writing. Where is freedom of speech? Frightening.

It matters very little whether Nicole Lea Helget has written a memoir or a novel in her hugely satisfying THE SUMMER OF ORDINARY WAYS. What does matter is that here is a debut novel with a writing style that is as fine many of our established artists. The book is episodic in that Helget divides her chapters into summers that range from 1982. 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988 to 1993 and in no particular order. What Helget explores is a Minnesota family fathered by a frustrated sports hero stuck with a moody wife and a gaggle of daughters, the eldest of whom is expected to fall into line as the man of the family. This family has problems and disintegrates as a unit, but not until we hear all the reasons driving the various bizarre behaviors that sound all too familiar to family life today.

But from summer to summer Helget isolates some of the most interesting stories of growing up, from summer camp under Catholic sponsorship, the coming of age of girls and their friends, infatuation with the milkman, the backstage breweries that flavor the countryside, tales of child ghosts supposedly returned from old times of being buried alive (!), and ultimately the arrival of the narrator reliving her childhood as she discovers the pregnancies and the stresses of marriage from the first person singular, somehow placing the whole of her recall of growing up into perspective.

Helget's language is rich and visceral on some pages and inordinately fine and poetic on others. Describing the ghost of Annie Mary: "The foxtails, those long summertime grasses that take over the ditches and lean toward the road as if to pass gossip, sway with the swirl of her dress, and her long hair whips in the wind. At night she cries because of the dark. She never liked the dark. And to hear her is worse than seeing her. That's what the neighbors say." And when our narrator is pregnant: "The first hint of a baby in your nineteen-year-old belly comes as a memory of yourself as a girl hiding behind the house, picking soft clumps of soil from beneath the patch of lilies of the valley and placing them under your tongue, sucking the water and mineral and blood from the dirt. This baby, this daughter, in your stomach requires more energy than you have, and so the cravings for the earth on your tongue begin again."

It seems that some readers, especially those fellow Minnesotans who take exception with the veracity of Helget's writings, forget that even autobiographies are remembered 'truths', that life modulates perceptions and memories, and in the hands of a poet supply fodder for rich and eloquent writing. Nicole Lea Helget has the gift. Highly Recommended reading. Just think of it as a novel! Grady Harp, January 06
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VINE VOICEon November 8, 2005
This memoir by Nicole Lea Helget reveals her powerful prose, polished by her years of writing classes and literary efforts. She is a writer who should move to fiction; her prose is captivating, poetic, and simple. Want a reason for publishing this book? Choose any of the small vignettes told by this powerful writer. This is a work of art.

This memoir is written through a glass darkly -- the story telling is beautiful, her portrait of her troubled father disturbs and compels. Her memory is a player here, she offers the voice of a survivor to stories that have resonated in her thoughts for years. The result is layered, and point of view is to be watched. Yet she captures the farm and the silent mother and drunken father, she captures the skinny-legged scared girl one sometimes sees in the backdrop of a father gone awry, and breaks your heart.

In a large family, no one person gets to tell the story or even knows more than their piece of it. This is her memoir of a small farm, the unevenness of living life with the rough edges on. Hard to read, hard to forget.
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on December 20, 2005
This is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. The prose flows so beautifully that I was spellbound for many sections of the book. Helget moves back and forth between different time periods so smoothly that I wasn't confused one bit. (Another reviewer was confused by this.) Good writing doesn't necessarily follow a linear path. As for the reviewer claiming that an article said this memoir was inaccurate: Memoir is solely the author's story--every detail, every memory, every feeling. The author has the prerogative to write the memories down as she saw them. I also am very careful about believing everything an article in a newspaper says.
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on January 24, 2006
I read the reviews here and on other sites before I read the book. Seems relatively split between those who love the book and those not liking it at all. Interestingly, with people who would seemingly be in the know giving it the lower marks. I received a copy from a friend, and was disappointed at the foreword. (I was even more disappointed when I later learned it was not part of the original printing, but had to be added later in an effort to satisfy complaints... and then read newspaper articles questioning the credibility of this book). Reading between the lines, this foreword basically states that the stories in the book are her version, giving her license to embellish and twist facts at will, similar to the author's quotes in the local newspapers. All in all, this foreword lends much credibility to the reviews that say this book is embellished and over-dramatic. Admittedly, a lot of the details are a bit of a stretch to be considered believable. So bottom line is that I found this `memoir' to not be that honest of a look or genuine tapestry of small town life, and, as the foreword states, not really telling it like it is. In my opinion this book is a collection of stories loosely based on actual events. Probably too loosely to be considered a memoir, and definitely too loosely to be part of the Minnesota Historical Society. At the end of the day, I'm embarrassed my tax dollars helped fund this book.
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on November 2, 2005
This book is incredible. It captures a side of rural life that is rarely seen. It will stay with you. A must read.
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on February 15, 2015
A wonderful read. Dark, at times, but it paints a true view of one person's experiences.
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on November 24, 2005
The Summer of Ordinary Ways is a memoir like no other I have ever experienced. This is real life - REAL LIFE - something that is so hard to capture for a reader because, after all, we all have our hardships. The skill of Nicole Helget is not just the power of her writing; it is the emotional impact behind it. She never has her reader feel sorry for her, instead we identify with her survival. This is a powerful writing who will hopefully have much more to come.
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