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Ordinary Light

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  1,541 ratings  ·  272 reviews
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet: a deeply moving memoir that explores coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter.

Tracy K. Smith had a fairly typical upbringing in suburban California: the youngest in a family of five children raised with limitless affection and a firm belief i
Hardcover, 349 pages
Published March 31st 2015 by Knopf
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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 ·  1,541 ratings  ·  272 reviews

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Aug 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Tracy K. Smith is the current poet laureate of the United States. A product of a Harvard and Columbia education, Smith has won numerous accolades and awards for all three of her poetry collections. Life on Mars: Poems won the Pulitzer five years ago and it is by far the most ambitious poetry collection that I have read this year. Smith is well deserving of her position as poet laureate as her writing is exquisite. In addition to the poetry collections, Smith took on the ambitious task of penning ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I read this because it was longlisted and then shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2015. The author is best known for her poetry but I'm sorry to say I am not familiar with it. I would like to read some in the future.

The first chapter, a prologue describing when her mother died, really drew me in. It was written so beautifully and captured the pain and confusion of those kinds of situations (her mother having died of cancer and suffering a very long death). I found myself wishing more of
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars

About midway through (poetry) Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy K. Smith's touching memoir Ordinary Light I was starting to think I'd have to decline rating the book, fearing that my meh rating would reflect badly on Ms. Smith the person, or even her book. Generally when a memoirist writes, she's got enough life experiences to fill a book. All I got from the first half was an impeccably written book about a girl's very ordinary family (read: dull, Norman-Rockwell-as-filtered-through-the-Hux
Jan 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, arc
I was interested in this book after reading so many of its positive (truly, gushing) reviews. So I'm somewhat surprised to say that I thought Ordinary Light was, well, just okay. There is no doubt that Smith can write. She is a wonderful storyteller, and I would argue that the more ordinary a moment, the more vividly and effectively she can describe it. Large chunks of this memoir are devoted to Smith's day-to-day observations of and interactions with her family while her mother is dying from ca ...more
Jennie Leigh
Apr 06, 2015 rated it it was ok
It truly saddens me to say I stopped reading this 50% of the way through, because Smith just seems like an unbelievably kind and sensitive person. But I was very, very, very bored by her memoir. I kept waiting for something to HAPPEN - some type of challenge or trial. In a memoir, the readers interest is held if the author went through something tough and shares what they learned with you. In the absence of something challenging happening, did they have some great insight about life? In the abse ...more
Joshunda Sanders
Mar 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
I became familiar with Tracy K. Smith from a poem I could not forget that I read over and over again that I discovered during a subway ride in New York. None of those poems tend to stay in my brain but what I loved about the way she uses language is that it is both simple and profound without being haughty or inaccessible. So I was delighted to read Ordinary Light, to find the same delicate honesty and light, lovely language rendered to something as profound and heavy as the loss of a mother. Th ...more
Rachel Green
Feb 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: black, giveaways
First I would like to note that I won this book via a Goodreads Giveaway! Thanks guys!

So, before I jump into the meat and potatoes of my review, I just want to say that Tracy K. Smith can write. Trust me, her books of poetry will be added to my to-read list; I've never been a huge fan of poetry, since it seems like most of it goes over my head, but I'm willing to branch out in this case.

You know, if you asked me what I would have rated this book at 50, maybe even 100 pages in, I would have proba
DNF at page 192. I put this down months ago and have no desire to pick it back up. I had very high hopes for this memoir. I expected to find something quite different than what this is. The writing wasn't nearly as beautiful as Smith's poetry (which is why I picked this up in the first place). I also was hoping race to be a main point of discussion in the memoir, but religion was discussed far more often, which I'm not interested in. I'll probably read more of Smith's poetry in the future, but I ...more
Daniel Casey
Mar 12, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I was surprised by just how bland this was though well-crafted. I never felt at any moment an urgency to the prose, I never felt like it mattered if I was reading this or not.
Jun 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
On the rare occasions that I read memoir, it is usually the memoir of a writer. Not only are they better written, but I like learning when and how they felt the calling to write, what books shaped their world view, etc. I had read Smith’s Pulitzer-Prize winning poetry book, Life on Mars, so counted on a good read. Except for a brief prologue about her present life, we follow her through her early years, growing up in an African-American, Southern Baptist home in California, where most of her fri ...more
Jun 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Despite being a memoir, Smith's poetry is present in every sentence. Lines so beautiful I sighed after reading them, ideas so true I teared up, and a life so beautifully examined I was speechless. ...more
May 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
I rarely stop reading a book but I gave up on this memoir 1/3rd of the way through. I didn't find the memoir interesting. The first third was about Smith's childhood filled with childhood detail, relatives, and many references to religion. I understand Christianity is an important part of her parents life, but as a reader there was no value add for me. I understand Halloween could be a challenging event for her to participate in due to ghost costumes being similar to KKK, witchcraft, and superst ...more
Apr 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Awesome, this book is awesome. It's amazing how Smith is able to bring so much of her childhood and adolescence back to life; she really evokes what it's like to be her at that age. It reminded me of myself sometimes, the insecurities I used to have. The thing I liked about her writing was that she very rarely, or perhaps never, shamed herself: she always accepted her feelings as they were and stood by herself.

I also really liked her straightforward musings on the role of faith/God, really reson
Jun 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
If I cannot go to the mountain, I will bring the mountain to me.
Maria Menozzi
Jun 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I am coming to believe that poets are better memoir writers than straight memoir writers. You definitely have to digest this book as the prose is unpredictable, effortless and fluid. Smith takes seemingly mundane details and creates such vivid imagery evoking the experience for the reader of a complex emotional landscape that is not easily comprehended or embraced for the writer and for the reader as she writes of these very beautiful, poignant, and sometimes sorrowful events. I took this book o ...more
Leigh Anne
Jul 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
Pulitzer prize-winning poet Smith delivers a thoughtful, meditative memoir of her childhood, up through her acceptance to graduate school at Columbia.

Style-wise, this book is great for people who consider themselves introverts, because it mimics the patterns they often follow. A tiny thing happens, and Smith reflects on it at length. Most things she notices stay with her for a long time, and she connects them to other things that happen, then ruminates on THAT. It's the introspective person's dr
May 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015-books
I picked this up as I had a chance to meet the author and is always true with me, I liked it more after listening to her discuss it. I do not read a lot of memoir and I didn't want to read this story of her and her mother and her mother's death, but I am so glad I did. We would not seem to have much in common, but I lost my mother soon after I graduated from college as Tracy did and her descriptions of her feelings of loss and grief mirrored my own. She is a beautiful and eloquent writer and thi ...more
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
No fireworks, but a very enjoyable memoir from our poet laureate about growing up the youngest of seven children in a loving family, coming into her adult identity as her mother, a woman of great faith and rectitude, is dying of cancer.
Nikolas Kalar
I was lucky enough to win a free copy of Ms. Smith's memoir through Goodreads First Reads program, and I'm very glad that I did. I became a fan of Smith's after reading her Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection Life on Mars last year. That collection originally attracted me because of its Bowie-infused words, but soon proved that it was a powerful entity within itself, and stood on its own, as a testament to, and because of, Smith's incredible use and understanding of language, and the type o ...more
Jaclyn Day
Oct 28, 2015 rated it liked it
A deceptively quiet book, Ordinary Light becomes more potent the longer you sit with it. Smith is a lyrical, descriptive writer, and her exploration of her relationship with her mother is the best part of this memoir. From the sad events of the opening prologue, to her musings about what her mother might have been like while she was away from her children, there is a lot to dive into here. Faith played a large role in Smith’s upbringing and it’s interesting to read about how she moved away from ...more
Mar 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A well written memoir by a young Black woman whose central glue is her relationship with her mother until he mother's untimely passing. This book transcends race and gender and settles on interpersonal relationships with family members and acquaintances that have made Ms. Smith the woman she is today. It is not melodramatic or depressing but more of the celebrations and struggles that many families have to go through. The book is well worth reading and worthy of the acclaim it has received. ...more
Julieann Wielga
May 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
I read this during April of 2020, when we were all "safe at home".
My daughter and I were planning to go to the University of Missouri book festival, "UNBOUND". Tracy K Smith, former US poet laureate, was going to be the key note speaker. The festival was cancelled. So my sister, and two of my kids read Ordinary Light and had a remote book group together.

This is a memoir.

Tracy K. Smith's family fits into many categories: middle class-upper middle class, military, Baptist, Californian and black.

Jul 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In this extraordinary memoir, Tracy K. Smith takes us not only through her own life, but into the complex relationship she shared with her mother. It was the death of her mother from cancer that motivated Tracy to take on this project, and the sorrow and searching in the wake of this loss are tangible throughout the work.

Raised in California, Tracy was instilled with a sense of religious sensibility. She was the doting daughter, getting good grades, rarely getting in trouble. She wholeheartedly
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A great memoir takes us inside the mind and experiences of someone whose life differs substantially from our own, yet occasionally articulates something that resonates deeply with our own past. Smith's memoir met those criteria beautifully. As for the differences, I'm a generation older than she, and I am caucasian (God, I hope I've never inadvertently and metaphorically asked friends whether they wouldn't rather be white.) The "ah-ah; me-too" moments came when I read about how her mother morph ...more
Mike Zickar
May 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, poetry
A very interesting memoir with an appropriate title. Although Smith has won a Pulitzer for Poetry and is the current Poet Laureate of the US, this memoir focuses on ordinary events, the first romantic obsession, the first heart break, struggles with religion, the death of a parent.

The events of the book are ones that nearly all of us have experienced and at times I grappled with continuing this memoir in that there were no driving conflicts that made me want to "turn the page" (I listened to th
Oct 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2017
IQ "I remember the sorrow in my mom's eyes when she told me Daddy Herbert had died. I was only four or five years old, but I recognized a heartbreak so undisguised it collapsed me in tears. [...] But really, what I was crying for was myself and the fact that my mother, having come from a man who was susceptible to death, might one day die herself. I wept and wept, my body buckling under a weight I was too small to have ever considered before, a weight that pushed in from all sides. My mother had ...more
Jul 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Tracy Smith, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 'Life On Mars' is a craftsman. Words flow smoothly and the story seems somewhat ordinary, but lovingly laid out and engaging for the reader. Her parents are present, dependable, and very capable. Dad had been in the air force and then went to work on the Hubble Space Telescope and her Mom taught for a bit in adult learning, a devoted Christian, and came from Alabama. Tracy was in a gifted program and school and eventually was accepted at Harvard. T ...more
Mar 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Her writing is a cut above my usual read--I'll be reading along and then stop. What did she just say? What does it mean? How is her experience of losing her mother and finding herself similar to or different from my own? What about her experience and my daughter's own journey toward independence?

P.311 "When I felt the presence of that other thing--the voice that seemed to be speaking to my hand as it moved across the page--I became clearheaded and steady, richer with something I hadn't known I p
I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I haven't gone out of my way to read many memoirs for the sole reason that extended first-person narratives often seem self-aggrandizing to me. However, having been a long-time admirer of Tracy K. Smith's poetry, I was eager to learn more about the making of a poet in her own words. Although few chapters in Ordinary Life address poetry directly, I was consistently intrigued by Smith's ability to question the roles we play in our immediate families without exp ...more
Tracy K. Smith reveals our vulnerabilities and the incredible depth of impact our Mothers have on our lives with her beautiful prose. I recognize her in her voice, I recognize her Mother from my own and from this writing, which developed, as does her poetry, from questions and from love.
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Tracy K. Smith is the author of Wade in the Water; Life on Mars, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Duende, winner of the James Laughlin Award; and The Body’s Question, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the editor of an anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, and the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. From 2017 to 2019, ...more

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"Behind all your stories is always your mother's story. Because hers is where yours begin." -Mitch Albom The bond...
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“Wasn’t it strange that a poem, written in my vocabulary and as a result of my own thoughts or observations, could, when it was finished, manage to show me something I hadn’t already known? Sometimes, when I tried very hard to listen to what the poem I was writing was trying to tell me, I felt the way I imagined godly people felt when they were trying to discern God’s will. “Write this,” the poem would sometimes consent to say, and I’d revel in a joy to rival the saints’ that Poetry—this mysterious presence I talked about and professed belief in—might truly be real.” 11 likes
“I shut my ears, averted my eyes, turning instead to what I thought at the time was pain's antidote: silence. I was wrong... Silence feeds pain, allows it to fester and thrive. What starves pain, what forces it to release its grip, is speech, the voice upon which rides the story, this is what happened; this is what I have refused to let claim me.” 6 likes
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