I seem to quietly be reading my way through my one wild and precious life, and I feel lucky for it. For those of us who wonder over all the unknown roads diverging in yellow wood, memoir is the great life-broadening, wisdom-dumping genre. Will I ever cook with my mother-in-law in Beirut? Will I grieve my father’s death as I train a goshawk? Sketch pictures of the honeybees I keep at my farm in the Ozarks? I won’t. But others will, do, and have done.
There are also some experiences I will, I know, share with others (and still, we’ll experience them so differently): illness, probably; loss of loved ones, and the end of life. I’ve been drawn lately to writers sharing these sorts of stories (see last August’s staff pick: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World). This interest, I hope, isn’t too morbid. It feels part of the curiosity I have for all that I don’t know about—what lies close around me, or far from me, and what might lie ahead.
Here’s three from a booklist of memoirs on these themes: Roger Angell writes beautifully, wryly, intelligently on life in his nineties, along with “a dog’s breakfast” of other collected writing in This Old Man: All in Pieces. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and now memoirist) Tracy K. Smith writes about so very many things, including race, history, and faith, radiating from the death of her mother in Ordinary Light. And Katharine Norbury writes slowly, luminously on grief, family, and the wilds of Great Britain in The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. One day, in her meditative wandering outdoors, Norbury’s eye is caught by a bright gravestone…it’s a small moment in the book, but the simple last words carved on the stone stay with her, and also remain with me: Glad did I live.
Giacometti, a Biography, by James Lord
One of the sculptors that I had learned about early in my art career was Alberto Giacometti. THE biographer of his life was acknowledged to be James Lord. His early piece, “A Giacometti Portrait,” was considered seminal, so imagine my joy when Lord did his opus: a massive tome on Giacometti’s life. I read the entire thing while bedridden with the flu. Lord’s writings are not the usual dry renditions of “first the artist went there, then he went over here.” Instead Lord manages to help you picture Giacometti’s life, as though Giacometti was not a legend, but a man you could identify with, and follow, until his breakthrough with the sculptures that he is famous for.
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson is a master of interlacing literary forms and defying expectations of genre. With last year’s memoir, she seamlessly moves across blurred boundaries of theory, poetry, and deeply personal reflection. The Argonauts queers everything you thought you knew about motherhood, gender, family, and the body while treating you to some fiercely gorgeous prose.
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” ― Nelson Mandela
Honestly, if this book doesn’t lift you up and encourage you to get out and make a difference – I am not sure what will.
My choice is Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon, because she has been a hero of mine since I was 12, both for style and substance. Sonic Youth is my life.
One unique aspect of this musician bio that I really enjoyed was that Gordon never talks about learning how to play bass. At one point in her life she doesn’t play music, and then she does. There is no explanation necessary. At first this bothered me, but then I got it, man.
This is also a book about dissolution of a long musical and romantic partnership, but Gordon keeps it classy and minimal. She somehow makes you feel the pain of betrayal with just a few key sentences peppered throughout.
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This is an incredible story that I most recommend as an audio book. Hirsi Ali provides the narration herself, and her delightful accent infuses her experience of Islam with supreme gentleness. Hirsi Ali’s life was remarkable, and her courage and stubbornness served her well. This book is a history lesson in Muslim and African culture, and the author describes how she was able to learn many languages as her family moved to different locales in search of political asylum. She is a force to be reckoned with as she navigates her life and walks a thin line between terror and truth. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the outcry against violence and oppression of women. Hirsi Ali is a heroine for those who are voiceless.
I thought all of the memoirs of Alexandra Fuller were marvelous. They are: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight–her wonderful/horrible childhood in Africa; Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness–her mother’s experiences in Africa; Leaving Before the Rains Come–married life which dissolves in Wyoming, mostly because of her life in Africa.
What struck me the most was the fine writing, vivid detail, the stories themselves, the unbelievable characters (i.e. racist parents she loves deeply), brutal honesty, plenty of humor, and the sheer courage and heart of Alexandra throughout her adventurous life. I hate the “whine about, yet overcome weepers” popular now, but I love these. She had me with the great first two titles.”
My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem has always been one of my heroes. I’ve read everything by her and this new collection intimately chronicling her Life on the Road is wonderful and engaging. She is very candid about her early years, what she gained and what she had to give up by living a nomadic lifestyle. Each of the seven chapters begins with a photo and each reveals something new about the author and activist. Steinem reveals her ties and relationships to other women and activists. My favorite was the chapter where she describes her friendship with Native American and feminist activist, Wilma Mankiller. For many people, we look at what she has done and that is how we define her. However, it seems that these relationships are how she defines her life. We should all be so lucky.
I wrote down many quotes from this book, this is one of my favorites:
“As Robin Morgan wrote so wisely, ‘Hate generalizes, love specifies.’ That’s what makes going on the road so important. It definitely specifies.”
Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming
This stunning book reaffirmed my love of memoirs. I finished it in less than one day. I always appreciate when an author takes the time to fashion a distinct approach to telling us their story (versus giving us a simple chronology of their life). Sometimes they break their story down into ideas and how their experiences helped them form these ideas, like Amy Poehler’s wise and interesting Yes Please. Sometimes, as Alan does here, they find one experience or person to use as a springboard for telling us their larger story. Alan uses his struggle with an abusive father as the entry point for us to learn about his life and thoughts. Alan seems like a beautiful person, he is a very talented storyteller and I hope he writes many more books. In this case, the cliché is true: “I laughed, I cried…”
I have come to believe that true wisdom and kindness spring from overcoming adversity, often with humor, and Alan’s story supports this theory. It was good for me to read this book and I think it would be good for you too. (PS If Alan’s introductions of Masterpiece: Mystery! always seem too short for you too, try the audiobook, which I imagine is also a wonderful way to experience this story.
As always, thanks for reading.