Biographies & Memoirs
I’m pretty certain I must have been an explorer—famous or otherwise—in a past life. Reading the globe-trotting adventures of others can entertain me for hours as I practically salivate over the descriptions of the sights, the culture, the food…you name it; hence my interest in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Author Susan Jane Gilman details her story of what started as the trip of a lifetime for two recent college graduates, until something went terribly wrong.
Baby's in Black drops you into a smoke-filled club in Hamburg. Despite the German locale, the band on stage is wailing in English about doing the "hippy hippy shake". Everyone's moving except for the bassist, who looks cooler than James Dean.
The band has been playing for hours, and they will continue for several hours more, as per their contract. They pop pills to stay awake for that long. The group is the Beatles. The year is 1960. The bassist is Stu Sutcliffe.
If memoirs are written to both connect with the reader and exorcise the writer's personal demons, then Moshe Kasher had one gigantic, stinky, firebreathing, sword-wielding demon.
His debut book's title says it all: Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. Sure the Salinger-inspired pun is as obvious as a rhino stampede, but Moshe Kasher has had quite a colorful life. A life that I would not want to wish on my worst enemy.
Now a stand-up comic, Kasher was born to not one, but two, deaf parents. Mom and Dad separated within a year of his birth, and his mother took him and his older brother from Brooklyn to Oakland where a life of food stamps, less than stellar public schools, and years of therapy awaited them. This menagerie of elements was perfect for young Moshe (who at the time went by the less-Semitic name Mark) to rebel.
I’m a photographer. Since I carry some expensive equipment (AND I’m a woman), I’m leery about shooting by myself. But the best light is often around dawn and because Autumn has been so spectacular this year, I’ve seen more than my share of sunrises. One morning in particular, I decided to let my hardworking husband sleep in and I left to hike by myself along the Rappahannock River. Apparently no one else had the same idea. I found myself alone with the trees and birds for company. Or was I alone? The imagination is a powerful tool and, with every unexpected noise, I was certain I’d see a bad guy around the next corner. I forced myself to think of Cheryl Strayed and decided I’d just have to (wo)man up to enjoy my excursion. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed, a novice hiker, walks eleven hundred miles (!!!!) SOLO from California to Oregon on the above-mentioned trail. Did I mention she was by herself??
When David Gilmour's son decided to drop out of high school, his father could have screamed at the top of his lungs about ruining one's future and the misery of being a lifelong freeloader. Instead he created The Film Club.
Fifteen-year-old Jesse could leave school under a couple of conditions. One: he had to avoid getting involved with drugs. Two: he had to watch three movies a week with his father, a former film critic. Dad picked the films, and all Jesse had to do was pay attention. What followed is one of the riskiest experiments in alternative education I have ever seen. Was David 100% sure this was an ideal solution? Heck no, but he thought it was worth a try.
"One of the most eccentric and accomplished politicians in all of American history, John Randolph (1773--1833) led a life marked by controversy. The long-serving Virginia congressman and architect of Southern conservatism grabbed headlines with his prescient comments, public brawls, and clashes with every president from John Adams to Andrew Jackson. The first biography of Randolph in nearly a century, John Randolph of Roanoke provides a full account of the powerful Virginia planter's hard-charging life and his impact on the formation of conservative politics."
Of the eight memoirs I’ve read so far this year, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is definitely the funniest. Fans of Laurie Notaro and Jen Lancaster will probably adore Lawson’s spirited descriptions of everything from her father’s affection for armadillo racing to her encounter with Stanley, the Magical Talking Squirrel.
Nina Sankovitch is an avid reader as is her whole family. They have turned to books for generations for joy and comfort. When her sister Ann-Marie dies from cancer, Nina goes into a depression until she decides to take steps to get her life back in order by giving up her job as a lawyer and reading a book a day for a year. This memoir is the progression that she makes from grief to joy over the course of the year. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is so eloquent, so beautifully written that it has become one of my favorite books. Nina shares so much wisdom that it is the kind of book that you would like to keep to read over and over again. There were many times that I wanted to stop reading long enough to yell out, “Yes, Nina!! You are so wonderful!”
Nicholas Flynn’s life has been a motley assortment of personal loss, substance abuse, inertia, and petty crime, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to write his way to clarity and perspective. Despite the seemingly endless barrage of set-backs, Flynn has been able to craft his experiences and thoughts into an intense, complex memoir – Being Flynn.
“Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa at Christmas time when he comes down the chimney. I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
When I picked up a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, I couldn’t wait to start the first page. I’ve been fascinated by Winterson’s novels for years, but never imagined she would narrate her life in the coherent, linear style associated with memoirs. In Winterson’s fiction, she constantly manipulates the boundary between fantasy and reality, integrating personal experience, mythology, and philosophy into a fluid conglomeration. Although Why Be Happy does feature some of Winterson’s trademark structural experimentation, it is also an engrossing story about one woman’s experience of dysfunction, madness, violence, love, and religion.