My father loved to tell a good story and what made a story good for him was if it was about someone’s life: where it started, what happened, how the person reacted and how it all ended. It was so interesting to hear these stories as a child around the dinner table, but what is equally fascinating is to read someone else’s story of their life in their own words- in their memoir.
Many people interchangeably use the terms ‘autobiography’ and ‘memoir,’ but they’re different. An autobiography is factual and is typically written by famous people. The thing that sets a top memoir apart from other literary works such as biographies or autobiographies is that it includes the personal experiences and first-hand accounts of the author. It feels more personal and can be written by anyone. For example, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl only discusses key experiences she lived through during the Holocaust, and the effects it had on her as a child.
Some of my favorite books have been memoirs. To me they seem to be divided into two categories: the really funny and the sad, but meaningful. Let’s look at both groups and also some of the latest memoirs published just this year.
A very gritty but ultimately uplifting memoir written by Liz Murray is Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homelessness to Harvard. This is the story of a young girl born to loving but addicted parents who finds herself homeless in New York City. She somehow manages to complete high school even though she must ride the subway at night for a safe, dry place to sleep–thus the title: ‘breaking night’.
I loved Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller. She was just three when her parents moved from England to what was then Rhodesia. They bought a farm and fought to eke out a living in an environment hostile in more ways than one.
Her prose is simple and compelling, addressing with equal clarity the richness of growing up in Africa and the instability brought on by having hard-drinking, openly racist parents who were fighting on the losing side of Zimbabwe’s war of independence. She gives us a unique view into a moment in history, made accessible and almost normal-seeming from the perspective of a child.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby is a beautiful book. Letter by letter, the Editor-in-Chief of French Elle, dictated his life story with winks despite being totally incapacitated by ‘locked in syndrome’ following a stroke. The diving bell and the butterfly are powerful metaphors that bespeak the triumph of the human will over physical disability of the highest order.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a widely read story that illustrates the resilience of children. In the beginning I truly loved the way her parents looked at life, and how the family dynamics were endearing even if life was tough. Later on, when both the father’s alcoholism and mother’s obvious mental illness progressed, things went from bad to intolerable. The sheer tenacity of the kids is amazing. It’s hard to understand the hardships others may have endured, yet reading about it puts you into their shoes. This is an incredible read and I loved it.
Now for the Funny! I loved The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson because it is, after all, Bryson! He is hilarious! He tells of his childhood growing up in the middle of the American century (1951) in the middle of the United States (Des Moines, Iowa) in the middle of the largest generation in American history (the baby boomers). As one of the funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his all-American childhood for memoir gold and here he strikes it rich with this memoir.
Have you read A Girl Named Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel? I read it years ago and still smile when I see the cover. I love the narrator’s clear-eyed child’s view of the people around her, and the fact that her memoir tells the story of a different world than most of us know: the mostly idyllic small town of many years ago. Serious issues are hinted at, not avoided, but neither are they dwelled upon. I loved the characterization of Zippy’s family, particularly her father, and also that of her friends, since friends are such a huge part of the universe to a kid in grade school. This book is laugh-out-loud funny and sweet, just like Zippy herself.
I recently listened to Amy Poehler read her funny memoir called Yes, Please! and that’s the way to ‘read’ this one if you ask me. She is just so funny and hearing it in her voice makes it all the more delightful. If you’re feeling blue and need a lift, or want some good life advice delivered with humor, this’ll do it. This is one of the best comedian-bios I’ve read/listened to yet. Yes, please!
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys is by Viv Albertine who was in the British punk rock band The Slits. Not only is this a great reflection on an influential moment in time, but there are so many great bits about being a woman, artistic inspiration, and how to keep your identity intact while having a family. My heart was kind of breaking for girls in the first part – the expectations heaped upon them, and the boxes they are expected to stay in. It was a real delight to see her break out of that and bust some stereotypes. When she comes to the realization that she doesn’t need a man to believe in her but rather can inspire herself, it is just a real delight. Read it.
A fellow librarian recommended Bettyville by George Hodgman who writes about taking care of his 90-year-old mother, Betty, in his hometown of Paris, MO. Hodgman grew up in middle America during a time when the word gay was never spoken aloud. The message he received from everyone but his parents was that he was wrong. His parents avoided the subject altogether. As an adult, he escaped to New York City where he began his career as an editor. But now, years after his father has passed, his mother needs 24/7 care. This book would foster a good discussion in a book club and will be of interest to even those without aging parents.
Leaving Before the Rains Come is the new one by Alexandra Fuller and has already been highly acclaimed. She writes of her marriage and divorce from Charlie, an American rafting guide. Filled with wise gems like: “The problem with most people is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without any idea how to live,” and “There are no bad words, only bad ways to use good words,” this memoir was powerfully written and inspiring. Alexandra Fuller, both as a woman and as a writer, is a force to be reckoned with.
For these and other great stories to tell around your dinner table, come visit the Everett Public Library!