Fulcrum Publishing, 2008 (paperback original) (ISBN 1555916929 / 9781555916923)
Memoir, 256 pages
First sentence: "Buffalo, New York, probably turns out more priests and nuns than any other city, except perhaps Rome." (That's the first sentence from Chapter One, "God's Frozen People" - but since there's a preface, that's technically not the first sentence in the book. That is: "I was fourteen years old when I first stepped onto the trading floor of the American Stock Exchange in downtown Manhattan.")
Book description: Growing up in the snowblower society of Buffalo, New York, Laura Pedersen's first words were most likely "turn the wheel into a skid." Like many families subsisting in the frigid North during the energy crisis, the Pedersens feared rising prices at the gas pump, argued about the thermostat, fought over the dog to stay warm at night, and often slept in their clothes. While her parents were preoccupied with surviving separation and stagflation, daughter Laura became the neighborhood wild child, skipping school, playing poker, betting on the horses, and trading stocks. Learning how to beat the odds, by high school graduation Pedersen was well prepared to seek her fortune on Wall Street, becoming the youngest person to have a seat on the American Stock Exchange and a millionaire by age 21. Combining laugh-out-loud humor with a slice of social history-her hometown was a flash point for race riots, antiwar protests, and abortion rallies, not to mention bingo, bowling, and Friday night fish fries-Pedersen paints a vivid portrait of an era.
Comments: I'd never heard of Laura Pedersen before I was offered this book for review, but she's written several novels, and this is actually her second memoir. Her first, Play Money, talked about her career on the American Stock Exchange, where she was the youngest trader in its history and became a millionaire by the time she was 21. This memoir is about how she became the person who did that.
In some respects, this is what I was looking for in the last book I read. Pedersen is roughly my age (three weeks and one day older than my younger sister, actually), and we both grew up in the Northeast, although she somewhat convincingly argues that Buffalo, NY has more in common with Midwestern cities. She clearly remains fond of her hometown, and is aware of how its history has influenced her own. This memoir isn't just her personal story - it's also one of the town and times in which she grew up.
The mid-sixties through the early eighties were an odd time to be a kid, in some ways. The world was changing quickly, and we were surrounded by technology and issues that our parents wouldn't have even imagined when they were our age, but we were too young to experience it all first-hand - we were being kids, and we may have been the last generation to be kids before the computer revolution. I recognized many of the pop-cultural touchstones Pedersen mentions, and yet that also caused me some quibbles with the book - in at least one case, her chronology was wrong. Granted, I was reading an ARC and this might have been corrected in the final copy, but the band Alice in Chains didn't form until 1987, long after both of us were out of high school, and she referenced them twice. I have to wonder if she meant Alice Cooper, who did use chains in his stage props... If I weren't such a pop-culture junkie, that wouldn't have bothered me, but I should note that it didn't bother me enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book.
Aside from my little quibbles, though, it's clear that Pedersen is a fine observer, and her account of growing up as the only child of two loving, yet detached, parents in the suburbs of Buffalo is enjoyable from start to finish. She is inventive and resourceful, resilient and self-aware, and uses her well-developed sense of humor very effectively in telling her own story. That story is influenced by her parents, of course - and their long, drawn-out divorce during her teens (as an aside, state laws that make it difficult to get divorced may help "protect marriage," but they just make the process even more painful for those who decide they must go through it anyway) - but also by her friends, including the girl next door and the gay theater teacher at her high school, and by her city itself.
I liked this book a lot - it's funny, it's interesting, it's well-written, and it's not just about a life, it's truly about the "life and times" of Laura Pedersen, 1965-1983. I'm going to keep my eye out for her other books - now that I know her, I'd like to know them, too.
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