Memoir

When Breath Becomes Air

ISBN: 
9780812988406

As a young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi had the difficult task of preparing patients and their families for death. As a brain surgeon his patients included everyone from young children with epilepsy, to teens shot in the head during gang violence, to people of all ages suffering from brain tumors.

Then there was the man who spoke only in numbers. He enunciated well, and spoke with a conversational lilt to his words yet no one understood him. The numbers signified nothing, and left him feeling more alone.

Unlike many doctors, Dr. Kalanithi enjoyed the challenge of discussing death with his terminally-ill patients. His undergraduate and graduate studies of philosophy and literature helped him make these talks both meaningful and helpful while always being cognizant of where the patient and family were coming from in their understanding of the patient’s condition.

But then in his last year as a resident when he was the chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford, he woke one day with intense back pain. He had a checkup but nothing serious showed, so he flew to upstate New York for a reunion with dear friends that he had long been anticipating.

M Train

ISBN: 
9781101875100

This absorbing new memoir by artist, poet, performer, and rock star Patti Smith provides a personal take on her daily life: her dreams, philosophical musings, friendships and myriad exotic journeys.  Favorite black jacket, check.  Watch cap, check. Black coffee at Café ‘Ino, check.

Unlike Just Kids, which focused on her past, her life with artist Mapplethorpe in the famous Chelsea Hotel, in this book the past and present intertwine. Coffee, the connecting themes.

Appropriately enough, it begins with a dream. One of many that thread through the book. Next Patti describes her trip to French Guiana in the 70s. After her husband promised her a trip anyway in the world. Patti--idiosyncratic as always--chose the place where French writer Genet was imprisoned. They were almost jailed themselves on the way back when their driver was caught ferrying a man in the trunk to the airport.

The Light of the World

ISBN: 
9781455599851

You might recall Elizabeth Alexander—she read the poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. This memoir by the prize-winning poet covers a much more private, interior space. It tells the story of her love, marriage and family, and especially the jagged rent in her life caused by her husband’s death.

The first chapter queries where the actual story begins. Is it the beautiful April morning in Hamden, Connecticut when Ficre Ghebreyesus returns to his younger son Simon’s trundle bed, saying, “This is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.”? Is it when Ficre ran out of the house to buy three dozen lottery tickets on a hunch, wanting the win the lottery for Elizabeth? Or is it way back in ’61 when two women on opposite sides of the earth become pregnant, one carrying a first-born girl, another carrying a later-born son?

The couple met in a New Haven coffee shop; Ficre came over and introduced himself.  He was a chef who had escaped from war-torn Eritrea, Africa at age sixteen.  He became a refugee in Sudan, Germany, Italy and finally, the States. Torn from his family for many years, he ended up in New Haven and in the 90s began painting.

He later said he would never marry a woman who did not honor and love her parents. Luckily, Elizabeth more than fit that bill.

The Art of Memoir

ISBN: 
9780062223067

Mary Karr is known for her series of memoirs about her difficult childhood. In this new book about how to write a memoir, she quotes from some of the best works in the genre including McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by a former student of hers, Cheryl Strayed.

What exactly is a memoir? The name is very descriptive. It’s a work based on memory. But it’s not the same as an autobiography for it concentrates on a specific period of life and is centered by a theme. For instance, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit chronicles a teenager’s adoption into a strict fundamentalist family, her adopted mom’s mistreatment of her, and her eventual rebellion from this way of life. It’s a memoir about a young woman discovering her true self.

Karr has plenty of what she considers the prime ingredient for a memoir—voice. She defines voice as “not just a manner of talking, It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving…” You could describe Karr’s voice as sassy, informal, sometimes even, badass.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

ISBN: 
9780393089998

This is a hard book to categorize. Is it a dual biography? A history of a region? An environmental paean to a place? A literary memoir of the West? A road book to both grand and despoiled places?

It’s all of the above and more. Gessner began the book as a tribute to two western writers who have inspired him: Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Gessner went to grad school in Colorado and fell in love with the southwest. Abbey and Stegner became his heroes and teachers, although not literally—he learned through their writing.

He compares the more revolutionary-seeming Abbey who broke laws (trashed earth-moving machines to stop development and threatened to blow up dams) with the more straight-laced Stegner.

H is for Hawk

I almost became a falconer once. The ad promised you hands-on training for catching raptors, and you would be working with ones needing care, so it seemed like the perfect volunteer gig.  However, our time in California was drawing to a close, so I never got to experience the drama and force of a raptor landing on my gloved hand. But, wow, did I love this book.

This memoir artfully intertwines three stories: Helen’s experience training her first goshawk, her grieving for her father, and author T. H. White’s mixed results raising falcons and hawks. All these stories are told powerfully, and the subject is so interesting that I found the book riveting.  

Training the small fierce goshawk Mable (the author chose the name as something opposite of what you’d expect) for a few hours every day away took Helen from her disabling grief over her father’s sudden death on the street taking pictures for his job. At one point, Macdonald describes his last photograph--at street level, a line of blurs and a patch of sky as her father fell and died from a heart attack.

Around the World in 50 Days: my adventure to every country on Earth

ISBN: 
9781250051981

I’m not one for doing the whole of anything: the Appalachian Trail, canoeing the Amazon, skiing across Antarctica, but yes I can see the attraction of visiting every country in the world. The problem is that it is a moving target. Governments change, countries come and go, and unless you are super rich “doing” the world in a timely fashion is not possible.

Yet the inventive, gutsy, rule-breaking Podell finally managed to complete them all though it did take a half century. He began his foreign travels with a quick trip to Canada when he was 24. And yes, he considered this international travel light.

He just completed a degree in international studies. A few years later, as editor of an adventure magazine, he decided he was tired of sending people off on exotic jaunts and staying home, so he set off with a friend to complete the longest land journey ever attempted with his good friend Steve. They got sponsors to pay for the trip and hired a photographer.

Between You & Me: confessions of a comma queen

ISBN: 
9780393240184

Are you a grammar aficionado? Do you love learning the ins and outs of different jobs? Do you like reaffirming that your grammar and punctuation is spot-on, or why and how it has strayed from the path of correctness?  If so, Mary Norris’s Between You & Me is exactly right for you. 

Norris describes her life before and during her thirty year tenure at The New Yorker as a copy writer with the detailed knowledge to make sure that the correct word, usage and punctuation is always employed. To accomplish that, her best tool (other than her comprehensive knowledge of grammar) was her noteworthy stash of No. 1 pencils. What an odyssey it was to keep a supply of the best proofreading pencil in the world. And those in a perfect working state.  Solution: a passionate epistolary correspondence with one manufacturer of the yellow-painted rods.

With humor and great descriptive ability Norris describes her first jobs, as a foot checker at a public swimming pool (checking for Athletes foot before swimmers entered the pool), and milkman—make that milkwoman--a job those under fifty may not even know existed. Later, she went to graduate school in literature, and  moved to New York where she took a few lowly desk jobs before she scored an interview at America’s most prestigious literary magazine, The New Yorker.

Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

ISBN: 
9780307720658

This well-written memoir about teaching in a college in North Korea the year Kim Jong-il died sent shivers up my spine. The author, Suki Kim, an American writer, who spent part of her childhood in South Korea and is fluent in the language, had visited North Korea several times. Each time she felt divorced from the people and prevented by her “minders” (they were actually called that) from getting a true understanding of what contemporary life was like in the country.

Emotionally, Kim felt connected to the country because part of her family lived there. Kim’s mother had often told her stories about how her eldest brother disappeared and was never seen again when he was taken from a truck during the Korean War.  The family was divided from other aunts and uncles and cousins who lived across the divide.

Kim, primarily a journalist, had taught at a college in the states and sometime around 2010 heard that a Bible college, financed by Americans, was soon to open near Pyongyang. The very idea sounded strange—a culture that scorned religion was allowing westerners to open a bible college by the capital?

Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback

ISBN: 
9781571313140

De Grenade brings to vivid life a remote cattle range in the far reaches of Australia, just a boat journey away on the Coral Sea from the Indonesian island of Papua New Guinea. Stilwater, this remote ranch bounded by seas on two sides and by the curvy Solomon and Powder Rivers, was until a year before the author’s arrival mostly uncared for, its cows and bulls, unbranded and roaming free. Not only free but feral on this ranch of a thousand square miles.

De Grenade, adventurous and stubborn, and an excellent horsewoman left school at age twelve to cattle ranch in Arizona. There she buffed up her horse and animal skills.  In her young twenties she asked family members for contacts in Australia, and through them found a distant connection who offered her free room and boarding in exchange for work.  At the end of her gig, they gave her an airline ticket and as she wandered around “this island between two oceans” as she calls Australia, she found a notice to work on Stilwater.

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