Category Archives: Memoirs

Writing About the Past

Later this month I’ll have the pleasure of moderating a panel on historical fiction, a genre that seems to have taken over the fiction lists this year. The New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association is sponsoring the event and I’m thrilled to be the moderator of a stellar panel. The evening is free to WNBA members–a good time to join–and $10 in advance if you’re not a member. It will be at the Wix Lounge, 10 W. 18th St, 2nd floor, from 6-8pm on April 26th. We’ve subtitled the evening An Enduring Genre in a Changing Landscape since it’s about both writing and publishing.

We’ll have 2 authors on the panel, an agent, editor, and reviewer. I’ll write more about the panelists later; here’s the link to information and registration for the evening which will give you the cast of characters and all the details.

Since I’ll be asking the questions, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction and what questions would spark good conversation among our panelists. I’m a firm believer that if you need something, ask the universe, and true to form, I’ve found food for thought about the topic almost every place I turn. For instance, in the past week I’ve been re-reading Amos Oz’s masterpiece A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz’s descriptions of the way memories surface, persist, and mutate in his writing is breathtaking as is the re-creation of his childhood in pre-statehood Israel.

There are many wonderful passages in the book about reading and writing, but the one that grabbed me is “…that selfsame urge I had when I was small–the desire to grant a second chance to something that could never have one–is still one of the urges that gets me going today whenever I sit down to write a story.” Isn’t writing historical fiction providing a second chance for characters to take the stage? That goes on my list of questions to ask.


Last Friday, Jan 14th, Shelf Awareness reviewed the new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua and called it one of the growing genre of “momoirs,” memoirs about motherhood. It made me think about the other side–memoirs written about mothers, also a huge genre. Mothers loom large in our lives, so I began to think about what titles I would put on a short list of compelling mother-focused memoirs. These are older titles that bear reading in any year:
Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’
Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments
James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
Jackie Lyden’s Daughter of the Queen of Sheba
John McGahern’s All Will Be Well
Terry Ryan’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother

My Top 20 Faves from 2010

Everyone’s been posting “best” lists so here’s mine, but it’s a little different than most. It’s not my take on the best books published in 2010. It’s  a list of some of the most memorable books of fiction and nonfiction I read this past year, no matter what year they were published. There are so many others, but I feel it would be overwhelming to list any more than this. So here they are, alphabetically by author, grouped into fiction and nonfiction. Forgive me for not ranking them, but they’re so diverse it just wasn’t impossible.


Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Doubleday, 2010, 293p. A heartbreaker of a story told by a young girl who suffers from exquisite sensitivity to the emotions of the people around her. It’s haunting and lovely. This is on the Great Group Reads list for 2010.

Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road. Penguin Canada, 2006, 400p.
Thanks to Katherine Johnson at NoveList for directing my attention to this remarkable novel about two Native Americans who enlist in the Canadian army in World War II. Spare and very affecting.

Gwin, Minrose. The Queen of Palmyra. Harper Perennial, 2010, 432p.
I’m so sorry this came out hard on the heels of Stockett’s The Help. I liked that one, but I liked The Queen of Palmyra even more. It’s set in the summer of 1963, in a town in the Deep South, where racial prejudice rules the lives of black and white like a nasty, pervasive drug. This is also on the Great Group Reads list for 2010.

Daniel, Susanna. Stiltsville. Harper, 2010, 310p.
When Frances Ellerby  goes to Miami for a wedding, she makes a best friend, Marse, and falls in love with Dennis DuVal, whose family owns a wonderful beach house on stilts in Biscayne Bay. No plot to speak of, except life itself with all the subtle and seismic changes that come from marriage, motherhood, and friendship. An author to watch.

Jones, Sadie. Small Wars. Knopf, 2009, 352p.
Hal Treherne, a young British soldier and his wife Clara are stationed in Cyprus in 1956 as part of the British occupying force. As the terrorist campaign escalates, Hal finds that his responsibility to quell the violence puts him in untenable moral situations while Clara feels the effect on their marriage and young daughters.

Lamott, Anne. Imperfect Birds. Riverhead Books, 2010, 278p.
Lamott’s a great, insightful prose stylist and this dissection of the life of a family in Marin County, CA is a stunner, a painful account of high school senior Rosie, drug addicted and unmoored and how her parents are unable–or unwilling–to push through the layers of lies and deceit that are dragging her down.

Moody, Rick. Four Fingers of Death. Little, Brown, 2010, 725p.
The story is loosely based on the 1950s scifi flick The Crawling Hand, but Moody turns it into a serio-comic dystopian tour de force. It starts with a voyage to Mars that goes horribly wrong; back in the U.S. we are treated to an outrageous vision of our future. You’ll love it—or not, but you won’t be indifferent.

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. Random House, 2010, 334p.
This almost indescribable sad and hilarious novel tells the story of 39-year old Lenny Abramov and his doomed love for Eunice Park. Lenny and Eunice live in some not-so-distant future USA where books are considered smelly artifacts and a constant stream of data from a device that you wear around your neck sends your rankings to everyone you pass on the street. Just read it.

Soli, Tatjana. The Lotus Eaters. St. Martin’s Press, 2010, 384p.
Soli recreates the moral quagmire that was the Vietnam War from the perspective of a group of photojournalists caught up in trying to convey the horrors to the folks back home. Unfortunately the concerns about war reporting that she raises are still quite relevant. This is on the Great Group Reads list for 2010.

Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn. Scribner, 2009, 262p.
Toibin tells this haunting story from the point of view of a young Irish woman, and it’s a triumph of character creation that we are completely inside Eilis’s head, seeing, hearing, and feeling what she does. Eilis leaves her village to come to Brooklyn in the early 1950s in hopes that she’ll have more opportunities here. Loneliness and inexperience combine to change her life. See my review.

Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. Orig. published 1875, many editions.
I read one of Trollope’s Barchester Towers novels a few years ago, but it just didn’t grab me. This is brilliant, with a cast of characters from all social classes, satire that’s still timely, and a plot that barrels along propelled precisely by the foibles and pretensions of the characters. It was the first book I read on my nook and I was totally absorbed. I’ll eventually get to the TV movie as I work through my Netflix queue, but I’m glad I read it first.


Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Harper, 2009, 320p.
I listened to Chabon read this collection of memoir-essays and was charmed by his voice, candor, and scintillating prose.

Flynn, Nick. The Ticking is the Bomb: A Memoir. W.W. Norton, 2010, 240p.
Riveting and raw, Flynn manages to combine some unusual topics. See my review.

Kennedy, Edward. True Compass. Twelve, 2009, 544p.
I listened to Kennedy’s memoir, written shortly before his death in 2009, and loved hearing his stories about growing up as the youngest brother, idolizing his older, charismatic brothers Joe, Jack, and Bobby. The portion about the 1960s is riveting; Kennedy’s recounting of his family’s losses in this decade is painful to hear but it also recalled for me the incredible energy of this time and our certainly that we were on the cusp of momentous change–in politics, personal relationships, and culture.

Pan, Philip. Out of Mao’s Shadow: the Struggle for the Soul of a New China. Simon & Schuster, 2008, 448p.
Pan personalizes issues of human and civil rights in China by telling the stories of people who have defied the government. My book group read it and loved it.

Skloot, Henrietta. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown, 2010. 369p.
There’s hardly a “best” list that doesn’t include Skloot’s book and deservedly so. It has everything for a compelling read. See my review.

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.


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.


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.