In a 1975 interview with Playboy, Muhammad Ali said:
“I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could–financially and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t hurt his people’s dignity by doing anything that would embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
We believe Ali will be remembered exactly as he wanted to be. He was a man of uncompromising principles and convictions, an inspiration to people all over the world. Stripped of his title, threatened with imprisonment, openly mocked and reviled, he never backed down, and he never gave up his fight for justice, equality, and peace.
Fortunately for us, he lived in a time when all of his work and achievements could be well documented, so we’ll never forget his strength, his courage, his determination.
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.
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.
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.
“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 Bandby 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Los Angeles, 1928. A single mother named Christine Collins returns home from work to find that her son, nine-year-old Walter, is missing.
A few months later, the police inform her that Walter has been found alive in Illinois, and they gather the media to witness the joyous reunion. In fact the reunion is a publicity stunt, meant to counteract the perception of corruption within the police force. Collins is prepared to play her role as the relieved and grateful mother, but there’s one problem: This child is not Walter.
So determined is the LAPD to preserve their image as honest and helpful that they do all they can to persuade Collins to just accept the child as her own and shut up about it. When she refuses to do that, they attempt to discredit her, ultimately having her declared insane and committing her to an asylum.
Folks, this is a true story.
Meticulously researched by J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote the screenplay. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie in one of her most heartbreaking performances.