Posts filed under ‘Memoir/Autobiography’
Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself…. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our experience.
— Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (16)
One of my favorite authors, Anne Fadiman, edited a collection of essays some years ago called Rereadings where she asked various authors to revisit a book from their past and write down their impressions. The first time I read Rereadings, I hated it, plain and simple, and felt the essays “ruined” perfectly good stories with their intrusive dissections of literature. I shook my adolescent fist at literary criticism, grumbled about the book, and shelved it.
Inevitably given the title, I ended up rereading Rereadings over the years and, every time I did, I found the essays more thought-provoking (and significantly less ruinous) than I had in my previous reading of the book. How could that be? I started giving other books second chances and lavished long-held favorites with new attention. The very idea of rereading became a fascination for me — books don’t change, in theory, but somehow every time you read them, they’re different.
And, crucially as far as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is concerned, you are different.
As I continue to read and think and reflect, I realize [George Eliot] has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. (266)
Not to beat around the bush, I must now note that Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is terrific. It’s a memoir of the best possible kind. It’s a biography researched and presented with vigor, sympathy (in the most Eliotian sense*), and clarity. And it’s the most warmhearted form of literary criticism I’ve ever encountered. No sterile dissections here; no, instead we’re treated to a wonderful entwining of life, books, theory, relationships, and, of course, Middlemarch itself. (more…)
Am I terrible person for not loving Bossypants? I feel like I’m a terrible person and probably a bad feminist and quite possibly not human since literally everyone I’ve met who read this book, adored it. Bossypants was pretty much universally lauded when it came out — “Hilarious!” “Feminist!” “And so self-effacing, too!” Everyone seemed to rally around this panacea of a book, so I probably should have expected some Toogoodtobetrueitis.
While the book was certainly funny at some times and feminist at all times, it was also very chatty. It felt more like a transcribed autobiographical monologue than a thoughtfully crafted memoir. And maybe that’s my own problem — I went in genuinely excited to learn about Tina Fey and her story, not to read a narrative joke book. Thus, by the end of it, I was left mostly disappointed. (more…)
The only thing I could feel when I finished Kimberly Rae Miller’s Coming Clean was a sense of profound gratitude and awe. Really and truly, this brought home to me the resilience of children and humans in general in a way that books about outright abuse and violence often don’t.
Miller’s work, which was released to much fanfare, is a memoir about her childhood as the offspring of a hoarder. She describes in great detail how her father collected papers, electronics, odds and ends, surrounded himself with news and information in a way that, if all of this information had been electronic, might have been a precursor to the Internet. As it was, it just created a ton of clutter. To the point where Kim felt, sometimes, like she was living in a dumpster.
The memoir is quite short, but packed full of experiences; Kim recounts moving from an apartment to a house to another house to college, recounting each time her attempts to try to make her parents shape up and her parents’ further decline into hoarding. She has dogs that died because of her father’s hoarding.
This is pretty much my worst nightmare. (more…)
I’ve decided to start a new genre I’m calling “Odyssey Years Reads.” This genre will feature books that deal with the evidently timeless problem facing twentysomethings of what to do with your life, where to focus your energies, and what is really imporant. If in the midst of a twentysomething Life Crisis, Odyssey Years Reads will make you feel better since, even if everything seems to be all at sea for you, at least others in the recent and distant past have felt exactly the same way.
My list of Odyssey Years Reads includes Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer, The Odyssey itself, and, my newest entrant, Lucy Knisley’s marvelous An Age of License.
An Age of License is a particularly aspirational entry in my new Odyssey Years Reads category. It is a “follow your passions and see where things take you” book. It is a “give it a try, what’s the worst that could happen?” book. It is an “overthink everything” book. It is, quite simply, a great book.
In it, Lucy Knisley continues her travelogue series with a jaunt through Europe as she seeks to reconcile her career (comics artist) with her hopes for the future (stability, love, family). Along the way, she attends a comics convention and sees visions of her future as a professional artist, has a fling with a Dutch philosopher and recognizes what she doesn’t want in her future, and spends some time in France with her mother and various friends. Throughout, Knisley tries on different futures through the lens of the people she encounters and constantly questions what she wants for herself.
Coming from such a whimsical artist with such a clear and witty sense of humor, An Age of License is a fairly serious and thoughtful book. But that’s the best kind of Odyssey Years Read: one that manages to tackle the big issues while keeping a sane head. Knisley never goes too far down the twentysomething rabbit hole and tackles big questions with grace, intent, and humor. (more…)
The book was given to me by someone with the best of intentions following a recommendation from someone else. This book apparently “changed” this person’s whole life, so that was a ringing endorsement. I dug in.
However, unless you are a woman who is actively leaning out, there might not be a lot in this book for you. Are you a woman who actively thinks about the amount of maternity leave you might get when taking any given job? Great! Are you a woman attended an Ivy League School and are therefore particularly well-connected, but you are wasting your education? Awesome! Read this book. It’s going to tell you to stop dicking around and make the most of the opportunities with which God has seen fit to bless you.
Conversely, are you a woman whose financial situation means you can’t afford to pay for child care, and you therefore must leave your job to take care of your kids for a few years? Then this book is not for you. Sorry.
Are you a woman not at risk of leaning out because you are not having children? Not for you, unless you needed the message to work harder (did you?).
Are you a woman who is working her heart out, but opportunities don’t seem to come for whatever reason? Maybe because you are a minority? Again, not for you. (You’re already leaning in, kiddo, but careful — you might fall off the cliff.)
In short, there are some poignant bits of wisdom in this book, a few one-liners you want to print out on note cards and tape to your computer monitor at work. But I was already a woman who didn’t need to learn to balance children and career, already a woman determined to succeed and already a woman ready to leap at every chance I got. According to Sandberg, I should be working at Google by now.
But I don’t know, what did you think? Did you read it? Do you feel like you are changed for the better?
Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book. I listened to it on CD in my car while driving back and forth to work and to a freelance gig. And while there is much debate about whether or not audiobooks should count as reading, I think the format actually worked very well in this case. I got to hear Kaling read her own words in her own voice, much the way I imagine she’d sound if we were just chatting — though her “list” pieces may have worked better in book form.
Still. The book is sort of a memoir and sort of not. I’m not really sure what to call it — Kaling says it’s a series of short essays on her life and other “list-type pieces” such as a recitation of things that make her cry and things stylists try to make her wear. She talks about her childhood, about how she came up in comedy, how she started working at The Office, and how she is different from her character, Kelly Kipoor.
It does seem a little disjointed, but I think that’s because of the episodic nature of the stories. They start in roughly chronological order, but, when she reaches the present, it kind of turns into a ramble, like…like you’re on the phone with your best friend and suddenly the conversation has gone on too long and you’re both running out of material. If I was reading this book, I would have gone through it so fast that this wouldn’t have mattered, but in audiobook form, it was harder.
Still. I ended this book feeling like I’d just spent several hours with Mindy Kaling, which was delightful. She is insightful and smart and funny, and since she read her own book, I felt there was some added value from her acting, eliminating ambiguity in meaning.Even B. J. Novak got in on it. And I learned something! I had no idea that the executive producer for The Office created King of the Hill. I feel more culturally aware already.
If I had one criticism, it’s that I’m not sure what the goal was. Was it meant to entertain? Wreak revenge on those who have wronged Mindy Kaling? (If so, too bad she wrote it before that guy thought she was Malala.) Provide a road map for young women who are funny/big boned/smart/Indian and want to make it in comedy or screenwriting? To build the Mindy Kaling brand? I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, but I wish it had had more direction. Though maybe I’m missing the point.
While on a trip with her husband, Kate picked up (appropriately or ironically, whichever you prefer), What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, a single girl’s travel memoir by sitcom writer Kristin Newman. She subsequently recommended the book to Corey, who legitimately is a single-girl traveller, and the rest is history!
Kate: Apart from the sex, I feel like this book actually has a few good lessons about travel. Do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it is amazing travel advice, in my opinion, and her list of what to do in order to be a good travel companion is spot-on (if a little nit-picky). Though I didn’t love her characterization of her travel companions, especially the one who left her dog with a sitter, I found myself looking to Kristin as almost a travel role model.
Corey: That is great travel advice. If only our heroine didn’t seem to apply it exclusively to doing the person you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do him. To give Kristin the benefit of the doubt, I like to think she did lots of other things in various places she was supposed to do them than are discussed in this book. I like to think her travels were an amazing cornucopia of localized experiences, which would live up to the “do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it” mantra she spouts throughout the book.
Kate: Do you think it’s just that sex sells? There was so much mention of sex on the back and front covers that I was actually a little weirded out that I hadn’t noticed it when I first picked up the book. I really just thought it was going to be a “single girl travels” book, not a “exotic men and the sex I had with them” book. But you get hints throughout the book that she actually did learn something about herself in there somewhere.
Corey: One can only hope she did! However, since there isn’t much focus on non-amorous activities (except on her sexless New Zealand journey—where sex evidently didn’t happen because a) all the handsome guys were taken and b) Kiwi genetic history precluded any native sons from being hot enough to tempt Kristin), I found myself rather uninspired.
If we’ve come so far that an intelligent, successful, single woman can travel the globe alone (three cheers!), why haven’t we come far enough that she can’t write a book about those travels without focusing on her singleness and love life? Is that still the only thing that makes a woman interesting and discussable? (more…)