books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: memoir

Memoir Monday: A book and its film.

Two years ago, I read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which catalogues her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. And last night, I saw the movie based on the book.

I had read a few reviews when the book was released, but wasn’t inspired to pick it up until one day I held the book in my hand at the bookstore and read its opening pages.

“I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with two many men…As a teen, I lived back-to-the-land style in the Minnesota northwoods in a house that didn’t have an indoor toilet, electricity, or running water. In spite of this, I’d become a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, and then I went off to college and became a left-wing feminist radical. But a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? I’d never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.”

And with that, I was hooked. I will tell you what it is not: it is not a saccharine, feel-good book about someone who decides to embark on a “life adventure” with book advance in hand and then write about it. Instead, the reader understands that this was a journey that the author had to take—to save her life.

The memoir Wild is beautifully written and emotionally evocative—so too is its film representation. Reese Witherspoon pulls off the role of Strayed convincingly (note that Strayed herself appears in the opening scene as the woman driving the pickup truck that drops RW off!) and the visual rendering of the narrative and landscape are real and resonant. Some of the flashback scenes are actually hard to watch as they don’t shy away from the gritty reality of the author’s experience previous to her four-months-long hike.

Read the book, if you haven’t yet—and then go see the movie. Both are very much worth your time.


Memoir Monday: Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable.

I clearly remember the moment I first picked up Meghan Daum’s book My Misspent Youth. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I had walked to Brookline Booksmith from my apartment when it started to rain. I had come to pick up a special order (Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, which I was using to write my thesis), but I decided to wait out the weather a bit and browse around the store. I wandered over to memoir and essays and a cover caught my eye. Its faded photographic image of a beach scene immediately conjured up memories from my childhood. And I suppose, that in that moment, the title itself called out to me. I wondered in that moment if my own youth was being “misspent.” I was turning twenty-five that month after all, and was about to embark on a nearly decade-long academic odyssey that would nearly kill me (hyperbolically speaking, of course). As I stood in the aisle, leaning up against the wooden shelves, I looked up the title essay in the Table of Contents. I opened to page 41 and started reading, “Earlier this summer I was walking down West End Avenue in Manhattan and remembered, with a sadness that nearly knocked me off my feet, just why I came to New York seven years ago and just why I am now about to leave.”

I was hooked.

Over the years, I have taught that essay to freshman college students more times than I can count. It remains, for me, the ideal model of a personal essay. Anchored by knowing details–like the dollar amounts and street addresses that give structure to an essay that could be otherwise unwieldy as it is so full of youthful longing and sadness and recall. I can recite whole passages of this essay by heart—so much has it become a part of my consciousness over the years. And the collection as a whole is one that I treasure—in fact, this is the only book that I would never loan to a friend.

And now, thirteen years later, there is a new collection of essays titled The Unspeakable that is just as beautiful as the last. I preordered this over the summer and when it arrived last month, I immediately started reading. Though I had to put it down while making dinner and tending to the business of children, I finished it that evening once the house had gone quiet.

The book contains ten essays, all of which are loosely organized around the idea of “the unspeakable,” that is, the truths that we all know but seldom say. Daum unflinchingly goes to the place of the real—where honesty and authenticity dwell. She writes about the complexities of mother/daughter relations (both specifically and universally) in “Matricide”; of not feeling compelled to motherhood in “Difference Maker”; and of her boundless love for dog Rex in “The Dog Exception.” While each piece functions as a discrete entity, together they form a cohesive whole that I believe is best read in sequence.

In the essay “Not What it Used to Be”—which speaks about memory, nostalgia, and moving on, I found this passage (about what one’s Older Self speaking to one’s Younger Self), “But here’s what Older Self will not have the heart to say: some of the music you are now listening to—the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go—will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them. It will be as though you’d never thought of them in the first place, as if they were never meant to be anything more than passing thoughts you had while playing your stereo at night” (85-86).

Daum has the ability to cut right to the truth.

Read The Unspeakable. And if you’ve never read My Misspent Youth, read that too. Just don’t ask to borrow my copy. 😉

Memoir Monday: Flirting With French.

This week, I am reading this memoir Flirting With French by William Alexander about his experiences (and challenges) of learning the French language. I am generally interested in the study of foreign language—and believe that it is such a wonderful endeavor for any individual. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, only 10 percent of native-born Americans reported speaking a second language. This compared to the European Union where according to a 2006 European Commission report, 56% of residents speak a language other than their mother tongue. Further, 28% of those had mastered two foreign languages. Additionally, in 2009, about nine times as many Chinese students study in the U.S. as compared to the reverse. But I digress.

This book is great so far—so funny (as Alexander’s rigorous attempts to master the language seem to bring him far afield from fluency) and fascinating (as it offers a solid overview of linguistic theory for the layman).


Learning a language after what linguists call the critical age of acquisition (roughly age 7, but definitely before puberty) is difficult—and nearly impossible. And by learning a language, I mean mastering the ability to function at a native or near-native level of fluency. William Alexander is undeterred, however, in his pursuit!

A funny aside about this book: my son, who attended a French immersion school for the last six years happened to see the book on my night table when he went into my room to get something. Our conversation went like this:

B:         “Mommy, I saw that book on your night table. Are you trying to learn French?”

Me:      “No, it is just a memoir about someone who is studying the language.”

B:         “Oh, I saw the title and I thought that maybe you were trying to learn some cheesy pick up lines.”

Me:      “Um, why would I be looking to learn some pick up lines?”

B:         “Good point. Well, is it for one of your gal pals planning a trip to France?”

Me:      “Um, no.”

B:         “Oh, OK. Can I read it when you are done?”





Memoir Monday: Anne Sexton’s Confessional Poetry.

Though Anne Sexton (1928-1974) never wrote a memoir in its conventional sense, the confessional nature of her collected works constructs a sharply drawn portrait of a multifaceted woman who experienced a range of emotions that hit each end of the spectrum. Sexton, who studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University, had the gift of lyric expression. But her battles with depression and lingering sadness (not unlike her contemporary Sylvia Plath) imbued her work.

This weekend, I reread some of her poems from The Complete Poems. In particular, one—“The Double Image”—stayed with me. Written for her daughter Joyce after their separation following Sexton’s suicide attempt, the lines are heavy and redolent of regret. The poem, in seven movements, begins with clear contextualization:

I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain,
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.

And after taking the subject through a catalogue of explanations of her absence, her final movement opens this way:

I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good…

Another poem, “Young,” captures girlhood (on the precipice of adolescence) perfectly, I think:

A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.


Memoir Monday: Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable.

“New England can be as stingy with its welcome as it is with its weather. But catch a New England town on a good day and there is a cozy uplift to the scene that takes the breath away. The sight of schoolchildren running through the town green on a perfect September afternoon will draw even the most confirmed West Coaster to the window of a local real-estate agent. Still, New England is an unforgiving place. Like a disapproving mother, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations.” So writes Sarah Payne Stuart in The New Yorker as she considers her decision to relocate to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts with her husband and two young children. For born and bred New Englanders, the landscape that Stuart paints in her new memoir, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, is a familiar scene.

Though mores and customs inform the geographic culture of every US region, it may be true that those behaviors are more implicit (and as such, ingrained) in New England more than anywhere else. As Stuart suggests, this is no doubt due in part to the Puritan history that casts shadows (and limits) on the bounds of “acceptable” behavior—including just how much one is permitted to upgrade one’s living quarters—especially if one lives in a historical district. And as the author’s mother points out, it is in poor form to do too much—one might insult the previous owners, after all. Talk about Anxiety of Influence to contend with! There are the Puritan forebears, the Yankee savers, the DAR, and, of course, the ultimate: the watchful eye of one’s own mother. (Note: this book is just as much about the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters as much as it is about contemporaries and ancestral forebears.)

I enjoyed this book, as I could relate to its context—though for those outside of these Northeast parts, it might not be as resonant. Also, the allusions to Alcott’s Little Women throughout work better in some places and not others. Further, for non-NE-natives, Stuart’s pieces in The New Yorker, “Pilgrim’s Progress: On God and Real Estate” and “Pilgrim Mothers: The Ladies Four O’Clock Club,” might serve as good preliminary reading.

Memoir Monday: Should there be a Q-School for memoirists?

Yesterday I came across a 2011 New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger titled “The Problem With Memoir.” The online text features a graphic with the word “memoir” in large block letters with a red pen correction crossing out the last four letters and inserting a period after the “me.” We get it, we get it—there is an overabundance of memoirs out there—and many of them are not very good.

First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

But we have a choice of what to read, just as editors have a choice of what to publish. Chances are, particularly in today’s publishing market, that editors are only taking what looks to be a good risk. Meaning, if a major publishing house publishes a book, market research likely suggests that there is an audience out there that is looking for that kind of book.

Even if it is one that some of us wouldn’t choose.

Genzlinger comments that historically, a writer had to “earn the right” to publish a memoir, “by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” He goes on to note that “anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

Wow. I am not sure that I agree. Part of the reward for the reader is to read about an ordinary life made extraordinary through the artfulness of its prose. Further, who decides what qualifies as a “noteworthy accomplishment” or writerly “brilliance”? I am not sure that those are objective categories.

Sure, some memoirs can seem self-indulgent. Even still, some others don’t exhibit the artfulness upon which the genre insists. But without the sea of unremarkable memoirs floating about, we wouldn’t get to experience the pleasure of discovering a autobiographical gem like Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, Frank Bruni’s Born Round, Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, or Patti Smith’s Just Kids—and readers for sure would be missing out.

Memoir Monday: Domenica Ruta’s With Or Without You.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Tolstoy in Anna Karenina and in With Or Without You (2013), Domenica Ruta takes the well worn story of familial conflict and oppression and reworks it into a story that is hers and hers alone. With its concrete details and ugly honesty, it pulls the reader into a world where a daughter is forced to grow up much too soon alongside a mother who is stunted in her own adolescence.

Domenica (“Nikki”) Ruta might have been just like any other Italian-American daughter coming of age in the close-knit working class community of Danvers, Massachusetts, except her home life was different. Raised by her mother, a drug user, dealer, and eventual millionaire, Ruta experienced the kind of chaos familiar to readers of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire.

Mother Kathi snorts coke off the coffee table and stuffs a teenaged Nikki’s stocking with bags of pot. Yet she also works the system to make sure her daughter gets a private school education—from Catholic school to Andover to Oberlin—because she believes it is her birthright. She is loving one minute, cruel the next, and always ruled by her own code of skewed ethics.

In her introduction, Ruta writes of Kathi, “What else do you need to know about this woman before I go on with the story? That she believed it was more important to be a interesting person than it was to be a good one; [she] allowed me to skip school whenever I wanted to, and if there was a good movie on TV she wouldn’t let me go to school because, she said, she needed me to stay home and watch it with her; that, thanks to this education, I was the only girl in the second grade who could recite entire scenes from Scarface and The Godfather by heart; that she made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine; that her ability to make money was alchemical; that she was vainer than a beauty queen, but the last time I saw her she weighed more than two hundred pounds and her arms were encrusted with purulent sores; that she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me; that at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me.”

Like other memoirs of its genre, With Or Without You offers just a part of the author’s whole life—and in this case, it shines a spotlight on the relationship between one mother and daughter who want the same things, but take very different paths to get there. Ruta’s prose is clear, restrained, and unapologetic in its honesty as it moves through difficult (and often horrifying) territory. A recommended read for sure.

Memoir Monday: Two tales of addiction.

A lot can go wrong with the literary memoir. Even more of a risk is the subgenre of addiction or recovery memoir. They can come off as too rosy (laden with 12-step hyperbole) or as too eager and overdone (think James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and his subsequent dust-up with Oprah Winfrey). But Bill Clegg manages to walk the tightrope and stay on center—not just once, but twice. Which is no small feat.

Clegg was a well-known and successful literary agent in New York (representing the likes of Nicole Krauss and Nick Flynn) who had a boutique literary agency with partner Sarah Burnes when he crashed and burned from his addiction of crack cocaine. His downward spiral is documented in the first of two memoirs: The Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (2010) and his ascent to sobriety is relayed in its follow up, Ninety Days (2012).

The author’s story is not a new one. Young man makes it to the big city. Feels that everyone is smarter, richer, better connected, more educated, so he works harder, and achieves success beyond his imagining. With that success, however, comes money and access to excess of all kinds. Some acquire luxury properties or lavish niceties that their increased spending power will afford—but in Clegg’s case, his nagging insecurity moved him toward less socially-acceptable means of escape. Of New York, he writes, “This is a place for a sleeker, smarter, better-educated, and altogether finer grade of person.” And: “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.”

Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man is raw and ugly—the harsh truth of addiction that touches even the well-heeled and well-coiffed. Clegg leaves broken relationships in his wake (his business partner Burnes and his loyal boyfriend, Noah) and loses everything when he trades it for quick hits and anonymous couplings with strangers. Despite the fact that the book closes with Clegg’s journey to rehab, it is only half of the whole.

Ninety Days picks up where the first volume leaves the reader—the first three months after rehab. It is not easy—and Clegg relapses at day 87 and again after five and a half years with a sip of wine—but as he notes toward the close of the book, “there are no finish lines. No recovered, just recovering.”

These are not easy reads. They are brutally honest and do not pull back from the ugly truths of addiction and all of its accompanying behavior. But there is value in reading Clegg’s experience. An understanding, perhaps, of the real struggles one faces in staying sober–and a deepened empathy for those struggling with these demons.

Photo Credit: New York Times.

Photo Credit: New York Times.

Memoir Monday: Gail Caldwell on changes.

“Solitude makes you stretch your heart,” writes Gail Caldwell in her latest memoir, New Life, No Instructions, a slender volume that is quietly introspective as it surveys the period of the author’s life where loss is abundant. Caldwell, former senior book critic for The Boston Globe and the author of two previous memoirs, opens up about the year when, fresh after the loss of her best friend (writer Caroline Knapp, former Boston Phoenix columnist and author of one of my favorite memoirs Pack of Two), she loses her father and then her mother–parents about whom she writes movingly.

Like Knapp, Caldwell is also a dog lover, and the book is as much of a reflection on her connection with her beloved Samoyeds as it is her healing process. The healing documented in the book is not simply emotional, either. Caldwell also describes her decision to have a hip replacement surgery to remedy a mobility issue that lingered from a childhood bout with polio. The larger metaphor of vulnerability casts a long shadow on this work, yet within it, there is hope that shines through.

There’s a lot of ground covered here, for sure–but Caldwell handles it with concision and grace–leaving the reader to feel that she is in able hands.


Memoir Monday: Aspirational Reading Like a #GIRLBOSS.

Even though in the opening to her book, #GIRLBOSS, author Sophia Amoruso tells the reader that it is “not a memoir,” it bears some resemblance to the form because it focuses on a part of the whole life–in Amoruso’s case, the founding of her company NastyGal.

For those that don’t follow fashion, NastyGal is an online purveyor of apparel and accessories that Amoruso started in 2007 as an eBay store selling vintage clothing. At the time, she was making $13/hour checking student IDs at an art school in California so she could get health insurance.

In 2012, NastyGal had over 100 million dollars in sales. Amoruso did this on her own–leveling the power of social media (My Space, back then) to work for her, and with not one penny of debt. Amazing. She is referred to by some as the “Cinderella of tech” and has been endlessly profiled and lauded for her focus and work ethic that has made NastyGal one of the fastest growing retailers in the industry.

In #GIRLBOSS, Amoruso explains how she did it–and she offers advice for women (and men) that translates to any industry.

Part manifesto, part personal narrative, #GIRLBOSS is the perfect book for a Monday morning to get you thinking about how you are going to grow your business, shine at the office, or start your next project. Amoruso shows that it really is possible to succeed without a college degree, a trust fund, or a start up investor (Amoruso had none of these). It is said that the internet may well be the great leveler, and NastyGirl’s success would certainly serve as Exhibit A for that argument.