Category Archives: memoir

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford

Between Them

This slim memoir includes two essays by the writer about his father and his mother, written thirty years apart. Ford does an admirable job of illuminating his parents’ “ordinary” lives and breathing life into the black and white photos included in the book. He is clearly a fond and devoted son, yet I enjoyed watching him wrestle with the question of whether a child can ever truly know who his or her parents are. The untimely death of Ford’s father when the author was a teenager lends great weight and power to the work as Ford wonders what his life — and his mother’s — might have looked like had his father survived. I really appreciated this book as brief but moving meditation on the bonds of parenthood.

 

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Recommended

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts

I read this book on the recommendation of my wife. It’s a memoir, published in the 1970s, of the author’s walking trip across Europe, from the coast of Holland to Constantinople, in the early 1930s. (This volume takes us as far as Hungary.) In addition to serving as a sort of chronicle of a lost world, it shows us the Continent through the eyes of a well educated British teenager of the time. When one reads about halfway through, “It had struck me in Holland that an average non-expert, gallery-sauntering inhabitant of the British Isles would know the names, and a little of the work, of scores of Dutch, Flemish and Italian painters and of twenty Frenchmen at the very least,” one can 1) pause with amazement, marveling at the loss of cultural literacy since then, 2) think about what it means to be entitled, and/or 3) roll one’s eyes. I did my share of each but found myself migrating from 1 to 3.

The book is full of lush descriptions and the joy of being young and ready for whatever the road ahead offers. Because our traveler is so well versed in European history and culture, there’s a running undercurrent of expectations met and baffled as the landscape becomes gradually more exotic, and we witness him communing/grappling with figures of the past, getting into the mind of Shakespeare or Dante or Bruegel. The narrator has a gift for befriending people from all walks of life and benefits from an almost universal inclination to help the young traveler via various traditions of hospitality, a notable exception being one of Hitler’s brownshirts he encounters along the way. You might find this travel companion fascinating or tiresome (or both), but there are plenty of memorable moments if you’re willing to indulge and occasionally share in his enthusiasms.

Availability:  USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Recommended with Reservations

Persepolis by Marjane Santrapi

Persepolis

Persepolis is the most compelling graphic novel I’ve read since Maus. It follows the life of the young Marjane (the author), a spunky and independent six year old who is living in Tehran during the start of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The revolution unfolds before Marjane and her parents, who are committed Marxists and initially thrilled about the deposition of the western-backed shah, who tortured his dissenters in his secret prisons and got put in power through a western-funded coup. Marjane soon learns that life is much different under the new regime. She is forced to wear a veil at school, which she rips off at recess because it’s hot and oppressive. She is forced to beat her hand against her chest and chant funeral hymns for the “martyrs” of the revolution who are killed in the war against Iraq. She is forced to knit hats for the male “martyrs”- boys as young as 13 who get sent to the front lines of the battlefields in Iraq. She watches communist relatives and family friends disappear in Iran’s secret prisons, only to never emerge again. Throughout the horrors of the regime, Marjane never loses her fighting spirit. She stands up to her religion teachers, idolizes Western fashion, and hangs ACDC posters on her wall in defiance against the regime’s anti-Western rules. You can’t help rooting for her to escape the clutches of the regime and the terrifying police who snatch up dissenters in the night.

This book is written for young adults and is an easy read. I recommend if for anyone who wants to understand the history of the U.S.-Iranian conflict, and for anyone who likes reading about girls with chutzpah.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Andrea Gesumaria
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

This is one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time. It is the memoir of a woman wrestling with grief over her father’s death. It’s the story of the same woman, a falconer — more precisely, an austringer — who immerses herself in the training of her goshawk, Mabel, to channel her pain. It’s also a portrait of T.H. White, author of the The Sword in the Stone, who turned to falconry to wrestle with his own demons and whose life is presented as a tragic counterpoint. Finally, it’s a reflection on the tenuous divide between civilization and the wild, between solitude and loneliness, between death and life.

The author’s prose is poetic and evocative, offering the reader vivid images of Mabel at rest and on the hunt. Macdonald is amazingly effective at making the reader feel that they too are beside her in the English fields, damp, sweaty and exhilarated. More than once I completely lost myself in this book, which is all I can ask for.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Highly Recommended

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

WildCheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild begins with herself at 26. Broke, addicted to heroin, and newly divorced because of her unfortunate habit of cheating on her husband with many men, for reasons unknown to her, she decides to hike the entire length of the Pacific Central Trail (PCT) to learn how to be something other than “the woman with the giant hole in her heart.” Strayed realizes at the start of her hike that her downfall began at 22, the year her mother died of cancer. She looks to the PCT for a means of salvation, but there is only one problem: she’s never in her life backpacked on a long-distance hike.

What follows is a deeply honest, reflective journey through hot and dry California and green, wet, Oregon, where she encounters a charging bull, dwindling water, kind strangers and brown bears. As a Washingtonian whose most terrifying hiking moment was encountering a coiled rattlesnake in Catoctin, I was floored by the relative placidity that Strayed uses when describing her multiple encounters with rattlesnakes, including one that she nearly stepped on in a dust storm. Strayed’s deeply honest writing is moving, and her journey – harrowing and beautiful, is hard to stop reading. I challenge you to not want to put on a pair of hiking boots and get outside after reading this book.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by: Andrea Gesumaria
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

This is a memoir by a New Yorker staff writer about his lifelong passion for surfing, from his boyhood in Hawaii to his recent years off the coast of Long Island. I know nothing about surfing, but this book, and its incredible prose, gave me a completely new understanding and appreciation. I read this book at the beach, which was absolutely perfect. Finnegan’s writing is elegant and rhythmic and it was a joy to explore his life of adventure and travel. I was most impressed by his ability to recapture the spirit of adventure and restlessness that propelled him across the South Pacific during his early twenties. Such freedom! This is a book about youth, single-mindedness, and risk-taking, gradually giving way to adulthood and rootedness.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Highly Recommended

Confessions of Congressman X with a foreword by Robert Atkinson

Confessions of Congressman X

This short memoir is a documented collection of conversations over many years between an unnamed, Democratic congressman and Atkinson. The congressman was originally angered when he discovered that Atkinson recorded the details of their conversations over the years, but he was mollified by the knowledge that his secrets had been kept. The congressman agreed to publish this book because of the “public’s ‘surprisingly boisterous disdain with Washington” that’s bubbled forth during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

The book is a sickening confirmation of what many of us have suspected for years about Congressional representatives. They are controlled by special interests, PACs, and billionaires who can line their pockets. They are for the most part keenly deceitful with their constituents and are primarily concerned with fundraising for their election campaigns so they can keep their cushy jobs. They rely on staffers to tell them how to vote on bills they don’t have time to read, and they know that the system is broken but aren’t motivated to fix it. He also notes  apathy and lack of knowledge in the American voter. Even though the electorate is seemingly fed up, 90% of those elected are incumbents. “I understand the lack of trust and resentment voters have in Congress’ ability to do its job. But let’s face it, there’s no real incentive for us to change. Creative gerrymandering and the polarized electorate’s propensity to vote the party line pretty much guarantees the reelection of incumbents.” This book raised a new level of disgust with Congress within me.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Sandi Hauenstein
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Book read in one day; book printed by a small press.