Category Archives: Memoirs

More memoir quotes

Many people find this site when they’re searching for quotes about memoir and autobiography, so I’ve added several more of my favorites. I’ll continue to add them to the quotes page as I find them, so feel free to check back periodically and see what’s new.

While you’re waiting…

..for your public library’s copy of Roseanne Cash’s new memoir Composed: A Memoir, you might want to try some of these older, also wonderful memoirs by singers,  songwriters, and other folks in the music business that are probably waiting for you on your library’s shelves.  
Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr. A good companion to Roseanne’s memoir, Cash writes about the ups and downs of a very public life.
Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Jennings. Growing up in hardscrabble, rural New Hampshire, born to parents in their late teens, country music  was the background to Jennings’ life.
Society’s Child: My Autobiography by Janis Ian. Success at 15, with the song that matches her book’s title, brought Ian into a world of fame that was too hot for her to handle. She endured years of off-stage hardships, all told here in a heartfelt and very honest memoir.
Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield. The story of Rob and Renee and their shared passion for the music of the 1990s. Sheffield’s a funny, insightful, and affecting writer; he captures the role that music plays at a certain time in our lives. Sheffield has a new memoir, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut . I’m still on the reserve list for that one.
Extreme: My Autobiography by Sharon Osbourne with Penelope Dening. Osbourne tells a raunchy insider’s tale, filled with the violence and music of marriage to shock rocker Ozzy Osbourne.
Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton. A major player in the music of the 1960s and 1970s, Clapton tells the story of those sex, drug and alcohol-filled years, when he jammed with everyone, from George Harrison to Muddy Waters.
Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn and George Vecsey. One of the most influential country music singers, Lynn’s memoir tells how she grew up in Appalachia, was married at age 13 and a grandmother at age 29. Her affecting story was made into a movie of the same name.
And if you haven’t read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, you’ve missed one of the loopiest, most enjoyable novels about music.

Matchmakers

On Tuesday, April 27th, I’ll be speaking about how memoirs can be paired with fiction, to encourage librarians to suggest memoirs to their genre fiction readers. For example, if you enjoy reading fiction about different cultures, you might like  Marie Arana’s American Chica or Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between. Our handout lists the fiction-memoir matches we’ve suggested; it’s posted here.
The occasion is the New Jersey Library Association conference. Yvonne Selander, from Somerset County Library is the fiction expert. We hope our audience enjoys it as much as we enjoyed putting the talk together. I’m planning to add other lists that match memoirs and fiction in the next few weeks, so check back to see what’s new by clicking the Memoirs tab above.

Explosions

Some of the most compelling memoirs don’t follow the rules–I’m thinking of Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb, which I read in one great gulp yesterday. Flynn’s narrative may be episodic, but he leads you straight to the heart of his life and the things that make him tick–and burn.

While Flynn is waiting for his first child to be born, the photos of torture committed at  Abu Ghraib prison are released. The book explores the coexistence of these two events, which define the heaven and hell of human behavior. His daughter Lulu brings redemptive love into his life, a fresh start, a chance for a stable family life to follow from his own shattering history. The Abu Ghraib photos, with their mockery of human interaction bring out a white-hot passion in Flynn. He goes to Istanbul with a group of lawyers and artists who interview Abu Ghraib survivors and collect their testimonies. 

In this riveting memoir, we do learn about Flynn’s childhood, his struggles with drugs, alcohol, and relationships, but those facts are not the point, or, they’re only part of the point. Flynn’s short chapters fly off the page at the reader, forcing us to make connections between the ordinary and the unthinkable.

There are several other unusually good episodic memoirs that I’ve recently read and enjoyed:
Jennifer Brice. Unlearning to Fly University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Michael Chabon. Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Harper, 2009
Michael Greenberg.  Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life. Other Press, 2009.
Floyd Skloot. In the Shadow of Memory. Bison Books, 2004.

A great Booklist review for my book…

Last Friday I was delighted to learn that the March 1st issue of Booklist has a review of my book Read On…Life Stories.  To avoid bragging, I’ll just say that the review definitely made my day. Here it is:

“Who sits around and reads a bibliography? Unlikely as it seems, pretty much anyone who picks up this entry in the Read On . . . series. For all those who enjoy reading memoirs, the 450 cogent annotations in this collection offer a wealth of options. The book is divided into five sections by defining characteristic—“Character,” “Story,” “Setting,” “Language,” and “Mood”—and more specific subsections further narrow the type of memoir. Categories include “Passage to Adulthood: Coming-of-Age Memoirs,” “Dishing: Stories from the Kitchen,” and “Taking It on Faith: Spiritual Journeys.” The recommended authors range from the absolutely classic (Mark Twain) to the contemporary (Augusten Burroughs), and all are annotated in stylish, attention-grabbing prose that could sell pretty much any book. Like others in the series, this is a readers’-advisory title that could be handed off to patrons to browse on their own—if you can get it away from the librarian. With both a detailed table of contents and an excellent index, this is a must-have tool for public libraries.” Ann Welton

A Piece of the Action

Harold Evans’s autobiography My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times carries the reader along with the velocity of a reporter on deadline, which of course Evans was for most of his career. As the former editor of the London Sunday Times and The Times of London (along with many other accomplishments on both sides of the Atlantic), reporting the news has been his lifeblood. As a child he met survivors of Dunkirk on the beach at Rhyl in North Wales. Their accounts were at odds with what he read in the newspapers and so started a lifelong interest in the role that journalism played in exposing propaganda and special interests. As a boy from a working class family in Manchester, he had to work hard to finesse the English school system in order to get the college education he knew he would need to become a reporter. 
He began working at newspapers in and around Manchester in the late 1940s, at a time when local newspapers competed fiercely for readership. It’s hard to summon up that time when print was the primary source of news; it was important for a paper to have a distinct  “voice” that would drive circulation. Evans was always looking for the scoop, the crusade, the expose, the local advocacy that would distinguish his newspaper from the rest.
Evans tells terrific stories about those scoops and crusades, but what I enjoyed most is his writing about the reporter’s craft and how rough facts and reportage are translated into print by “subs” (copyeditors in the U.S.). Evans himself admits that he is “addicted to print,” by which he means the actual sight of words on a page. In the front of the book is a full-page graphic called “The Vanished Newspaper Office” a wonderful representation of  how a newspaper used to be written and produced in the days of the linotype machine. He loved the pulse and flow of the newsroom, “…a news hub, a big central arena where people could be seen at work to the same clock and you could feel news rippling across the floor, a place for newspaper shoptalk and gossip, a place where directions could be defined, instructions shouted, enthusiasms raised, arguments concentrated, layouts examined, and disputes resolved by crossing a few feet to another desk.”
There’s something fascinating about that frenetic newsroom culture–and its hard-bitten, eccentric, often boozy participants–that’s why we love movies like The Front Page and Citizen Kane. There are several other memoirs about the newspaper business that capture some of that excitement of hunting down the story. Katherine Graham’s Personal History and Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures are both about the Washington Post and both cover the story of the Pentagon Papers. Bob Green’s Late Edition: A Love Story is another paean to the joys of newspapering as does Edward Kosner’s It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor.

Sink or Swim Parenting

In Norman Ollestad’s riveting memoir Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival, you’re not sure if  “survival” refers to the plane crash he walked away from, or the fact that he survived childhood at all. I’m sure the ambiguity is intended, since Ollestad’s parents were spectacularly unconcerned about pushing their son into life-threatening situations to toughen him up.
At age 3, he began surfing off the California coast clinging to his father’s back. His father also pushed him early into competitive skiing with training that took them only on double black diamond trails, or to those slopes that were pristine because no one else was crazy enough to ski them. Ollestad idolized his father and feared his accusations of wimpiness when Ollestad was frightened, frustrated, or expressed his own needs.
His mother appeared unfazed by the extreme challenges, unwilling to interfere with her divorced husband’s adventures with Ollestad, and also unconcerned about the sporadic violence her son suffered at the hands of her alcoholic boyfriend. For most of  his boyhood they all lived in a laid-back California beach community, where surfers were stars and the state of the waves was the most important news of the day. It was a world where a conventional childhood was unlikely.
For me, maybe because I’m a parent, this is a memoir about parenting and the way that children accept what they’re handed, at least when they’re young, too young to know how it could be different. Ollestad believes that his father’s regime of toughness saved his life when their small plane crashed in the snowy mountains. That’s a good thing for Ollestad to help preserve the myth of the charismatic father who only had his son’s interests at heart. The Talmud tells us that one of a parent’s 3 most important responsibilities is to teach a child to swim; but there are many ways to teach survival skills. Ollestad alternates chapters about the crash with chapters about his childhood, a good device that keeps the tension ratcheted up. This is an engrossing addition to the already rich genre of father-son memoirs.
The Three of Us: A Family Story,  by Julia Blackburn looks at frightful family dynamics from a daughter’s point of view. Blackburn’s parents had their own demons and didn’t have a clue how their actions affected their young daughter. Her father, addicted to sodium amytal and alcohol for decades, was a poet, whose non-poetic rages eventually drove her mother away. But as Blackburn says, she wasn’t afraid of her father since he never struck her. It was her mother, an artist, who took in male lodgers for sex and confided in Blackburn like a sister, who did the real damage. In 1966, when one of the lodger-lovers began an affair with the 18-year old Blackburn, it was too much for her mother, who drove her daughter away. Blackburn’s writing is dispassionate, almost clinical.Her words are made all the more effective by illustrations–family pictures that look almost like photos of happy times and her mother’s bleak paintings which reveal the ugly reality under the surface. It’s one of those memoirs that had me studying the author’s picture, trying to see in her face some indication of how she lived through it.

My Favorite Books of 2009

‘Tis the season of best lists, so I’ll chime in with my own. It covers books I read this year, regardless of when they were published. I’ve divided it into fiction and nonfiction and provided publisher and date of publication.

FICTION

Arana, Maria. Cellophane. 2006. (Dial)

Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. 2009. (Nan A. Talese)

Boyle, T. Coraghessen. The Tortilla Curtain. 1995. (Viking)

Byatt, A.S. The Children’s Book. 2009. (Knopf)

Carleton, Jetta. Moonflower Vine. 2009 reprint of 1962 title. (HarperPerennial)

Grodstein, Lauren. A Friend of the Family. 2009. (Algonquin Books)

Hoffman, Eva. Appassionata. 2009. (Other Press)

Kline, Christina Baker. Bird in Hand. 2009. (Wm. Morrow)

Livesey, Margot. The House on Fortune Street. 2008. (Harper)

Moore, Lorrie. A Gate at the Stairs. 2009. (Knopf)

Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kittredge. 2008. (Random)

Petterson, Per. Out Stealing Horses. 2007 (Graywolf)

Robinson, Roxana. Cost. 2008. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Walbert, Kate. A Short History of Women. 2009. (Scribner)

NONFICTION 

Alison, Jane. The Sisters Antipodes. 2009. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Austin, Paul. Something for the Pain: One Doctor’s Account of Life and Death in the ER. 2008. (W.W. Norton)

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. 2009. (McSweeney’s)

Fiennes, William. The Music Room: A Memoir. 2009. (W.W. Norton)

Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. 2009. (Doubleday)

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. 2001. (Random House)

Rogers, Douglas. The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe. 2009. (Harmony)

Simon, Rachel. Building a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love. 2009. (Dutton)

Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. 2009. (W.W. Norton)

Tamm, Jayanti. Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult. 2009. (Harmony)

Umrigar, Thrity. First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood. 2008 (HarperPerennial)

Warmbrunn, Erika. Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China & Vietnam. 2001. (Mountaineers Books)

Very English Childhoods

I was snowed in this past weekend–we had an unusual 2 feet of snow–and I was lucky to have several fat novels and memoirs waiting for me. I chose to read A.S. Byatt’s new novel The Children’s Book, which weighs in at 675 pages; it kept me completely absorbed for 3 days. It’s a sprawling historical and family saga, set in England in the period from 1895-1919 and filled with a huge and diverse cast of characters–artists and writers; bankers and anarchists; upper and lower classes; children and adults. 
Byatt does a wonderful job juggling their intersecting lives and tying them together with the fairy tales Olive Wellwood writes for her children and to support her family.  At the beginning, the Wellwoods, their extended family and friends all seem like a warm and welcoming clan, but, like Olive’s fairy tales, things are not what they seem. Some of the characters will break your heart, some will make you angry. Pottery, puppetry, madness, the rights of women, and a devastating war all mix together in this absorbing tale. I sensed echoes of the Bloomsbury group–the shifting relationships and fondness for country house parties with elaborate costumes and playacting.  Byatt, the omniscient narrator, provides a running commentary on the cultural and social changes in this era. 
If you want to know more about this period, I would recommend  The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson. It’s an engaging romp through social, cultural, and political events in England in a pivotal season.
Byatt’s story exists very much within its time period and it made me think of memoirs I’ve read of English childhoods throughout the twentieth century. Click here for an annotated list of titles.

Standing Fast in Zimbabwe

The albino frog on the cover of Douglas Rogers’s book The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe is barely keeping his head above water. The same can be said for Rogers’s parents and their friends, who carry on despite constant threats of violence and loss in a country that no longer wants them.
Rogers grew up in Zimbabwe, on various farms his parents owned, but he’s been gone for some time, working as a journalist and travel writer in London and New York. His parents stayed on, living at Drifters, a popular backpackers’ lodge and game farm that they ran successfully for many years. In the current political situation, with the government encouraging blacks to freely appropriate white farmers’ lands, inflation running at thousands of percents daily, and gangs of thugs terrorizing blacks and whites alike, the country is in shambles. It’s clearly unsafe for Ros and Lyn Rogers to remain where they are. It’s also clear that they’re not going to give in–Zimbabwe is their home. Rogers writes about his frequent trips back to Drifters to visit and each time there’s new and fiendish turn in the already-nightmarish situation. The lodge turns into a brothel, then a hangout for illegal diamond dealers; the cottages that used to hold vacationers are now rented to friends who have been dispossessed. Government ministers and spies move into the area with designs on the Rogerses property. Through it all, his parents plan and hope, hatching schemes to carry on and survive. It is, after all, their beautiful home.
Rogers writes about what it was like to grow up in Zimbabwe; he also writes about the current political situation. But the book is is really Rogers’s poignant and funny tribute to his parents and their incredible resilience and optimism, their love of a beautiful place that was once a flourishing community.  The albino frog sits above the coffee pot in his parents’ kitchen, witness to the chaos and a touching symbol of their refusal to be dislodged.
There are many wonderful memoirs written by people who grew up in or spent time in Africa, revealing the incredible diversity of cultures, landscapes, and histories. For an annotated list of titles that I have enjoyed, along with some novels set in Africa, click here.  More about Rogers and his indomitable parents is at www.douglasrogers.org