The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Book – Jeannette Walls recounts her unique and unstable childhood in The Glass Castle: A Memoir. From the outside, life looks like a never-ending adventure for Jeannette and her siblings.  On good days, her father Rex’s wild imagination takes his family across the United States, a family of vagabonds high on wanderlust. But then the bad days came; the money ran out and all their dreams seemed to have expired.

Confined to a dismal town, Rex became a constant drunk, stealing the family’s dinner money to feed his need.  Meanwhile, Jeannette’s mother, Mary was lost in her own world, an artist obsessed with a need for excitement, such that couldn’t be filled by caring for her young children. It was up to a young Jeannette and her siblings to take care of themselves, learning how to live and survive amid the escalating dysfunction and chaos.

Jeannette recounts her youth in a way that retains her parents’ dignity, as unstable as they were.  Readers are able to see her parents as lost souls failing to reach their dreams, forced into a life they didn’t want.  This struggle to find fulfillment in life is something we can all relate to.

Jeannette also wrote Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel, a prequel of sorts to The Glass Castle.  The subtitle, A True Life Novel, gives readers a clue as to why the book is noted as fiction.  The book was originally intended to be a biography on Jeannette’s grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, but the author was missing too much information for it to be categorized as completely biographical.  However the powerful character  of Lily Smith comes across just as vividly as the characters in Jeannette’s first memoir.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Book – As a children’s librarian, there is no doubt that I am biased in favor of children’s books, but you don’t need to take my word for it that this one makes a fun read even for grown-ups. Besides the vote of confidence from the Newbery Committee, I have the testimony of my grandparents–neither of whom is a children’s book reader in general but each of whom devoured this one in a day, laughing all the way–to back me up in that claim.

1962 is the summer of eleven-year-old Jack Gantos’ perpetual grounding. With a nose that won’t stop bleeding, on the outs with both his parents and forbidden from playing baseball with his friends, Jack might have a grim few months ahead of him if not for his feisty elderly neighbor. Mrs. Volker, the resident historian of the small town of Norvelt, needs the loan of Jack’s hands to type up obituaries of her fellow orginal Norvelters, the rare task for which Jack is released from house-arrest. But when those obituaries start coming a little too thick and fast, Jack and Mrs. Volker become an unlikely team of sleuths, and fast friends into the bargain.

Part mystery story, part fictionalized memoir, entirely small town slice-of-life, Dead End in Norvelt explores questions of community and memory without ever feeling preachy. Centering as it does on an inter-generational friendship, it’s a great choice to share within families–but even if you don’t have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin to pass it on to, it’s well worth the rollicking ride.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

1451666179.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – I don’t know what it is about Allie Brosh’s style that is so deeply hilarious. Is it the choppy storytelling, half-illustrated and half in prose? Is it the expressions on the faces of her MSPaint-drawn characters? Is it the stories themselves? Or is it a combination of all three that so regularly leaves me giggling helplessly for minutes at a time?

I first discovered Hyperbole and a Half as a webcomic in 2010, when it was still being updated semi-regularly. Then Brosh took a long hiatus due to a bad bout of depression, and then she came back with two outstanding comics about it (both of which are included in the book). There are a few other extras in the book as well, stories that were never published on the website, so ideally you should read both: once you’ve polished off Hyperoble and a Half, head over to the website and work your way through the archives. It’ll be fun, I promise.

The Other Side: a Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson

other sideBook – Lacy M. Johnson shares her haunting experience with readers in The Other Side: A Memoir.  Within these pages is the terrifying account of Lacy’s kidnapping and rape by her abusive ex-boyfriend.  It details the events leading up to, and following her escape from the brutal imprisonment.  The book begins in the middle of the night, where a beaten and bloody Lacy bangs on the door of a police station, finally free from her abuser.  Lacy shares her story with startling honesty, revealing the raw, horrifying details of her kidnapping and rape.

Something I thought was simple yet very well done in the memoir was the use of anonymity.  Lacy addresses no one by name instead calling the array of characters by their roles/titles, such as: The Detective, My Older Sister, My Handsome Friend, and My Good Friend.  I haven’t encountered an author who does this and I think it works exceptionally well.  I am curious to know why Lacy chose this method to identify her characters, perhaps to put distance between herself and the characters, or to simply give anonymity to the real people she writes about.

I also felt that this memoir was highly relevant in our society today.  Violence against women is so prolific in this day and age; it’s crucial to raise awareness of the issue in order to fight against it.  Lacy is one of many victims, who has bravely come forth with her story.  One voice, of many, giving more women the courage to tell their own experiences.  However, there are still many obstacles in the fight against violence against women.  Rape Culture shows how society has normalized the occurrence of violence and rape against women. On the Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) website, rape culture is described as a “term..designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence.” This view of rape as inevitable, something women deserve to happen to them still exists today, and voices like Lacy’s raise awareness to the reality of violence against women to readers.

The Other Side: A Memoir, is in no way an easy read, nor an easy story for anyone to write but Lacy’s story deserves to be heard

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Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

dead endBook – This is the memoir of the great-great-great granddaughter of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Burden’s look back at her life contains very little warm sentiment. Perhaps her writing is catharsis for dealing with painful memories. She is the product of a dysfunctional family and a distinctly un-maternal mother, yet she recalls her past with acerbic humor. That sense of humor, and material drawn from the lifestyles of extremely privileged relatives combines for an interesting read.

Burden’s biography is populated with over-the-top characterizations of her family, servants, and numerous pets. These descriptions are often un-flattering, scandalous, and frequently successful in their aim to amuse. I admire the fact that she does not spare herself from this lampooning treatment. Burden begins her chronology at a point immediately after her father’s suicide, when she was approximately six years old. Her forthright portrait of her youthful self as a troublemaker who strove to emulate Wednesday from The Addams Family is disturbing and intriguing. Perhaps these traits are understandable for an individual who felt impoverished of family love.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes pleaseBookYes Please boldly presents personal stories and thoughts from the star of Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and Baby Mama. Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, this autobiography humorously weaves through short chapters on topics such as being a teenager in the eighties, personal beauty, and her bond with her sons. Her passion for improvisational comedy is evident from several anecdotes relating to her starving artist days spent learning from “gurus” of the craft, co-founding The Upright Citizens Brigade, and working part-time at Chicago’s Second City.

It was refreshing to listen to this memoir narrated by a quick-to-laugh author and her assorted celebrity-friends that included: Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, and Poehler’s parents. Poehler’s levity obviously infected them as well. Utilizing humor she effectively communicates deeper emotions when describing the difficulties of divorce, traveling in a third-world country, and dealing with guilt. Another advantage of the audiobook is the final chapter, which is recorded in front of a live audience at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Choose Your Own AutobiographyBook- You are Neil Patrick Harris. You’ve been on Broadway, starred in 2 wildly popular TV sitcoms, are breaking into the movies, and have a loving husband and twins. You are Neil Patrick Harris. Magician. Actor. Husband.

A choose your own adventure style is an interesting and intriguing choice for a memoir. The reader picks and chooses what parts of NPH’s life to read about. But if they choose incorrectly, they die a horrible, horrible death. Usually right before an imaginary sequel. In that sense, it’s a lot like a choose your own adventure work of fiction.

NPH’s life comes with a lot of privilege, and it’s a very feel-good story. I listened to the audiobook version, and even though I lost the ability to choose which parts I wanted to listen to next, I still got to listen to the trick endings, and was given options. Rather than, “…turn to page 65,” I got, “…be patient, it’s coming.” It’s littered with celebrity testimonials, crossword puzzles, and recipes, which can be found on the bonus PDF CD and downloaded to your home computer. The audiobook is also read by NPH, so if his voice soothes you, like it does me, listening is the preferred method of enjoying this book.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

funGraphic Novel- Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir depicting the childhood of author, Alison Bechdel, and her relationship with her father, Bruce. Bruce is obsessed with restoring their Victorian home, is a third generation funeral director, a high school English teacher, and a closeted homosexual. He has a wife, two other children, and several male lovers. This novel takes the reader on a journey through the last few years of his life, up until he dies because of a freak accident. Or was it suicide?

Bechdel inserts many literary references into her narrative, which, in my opinion, diminishes the story and the characters. I think the story had more potential than what was transcribed, and I would have liked it more if the writing wasn’t so erudite. I attempted her second graphic novel memoir, Are you my Mother?, but found it written in the same style, and quickly abandoned it. If you are intrigued by scholarly and intellectual writing, this novel is for you.

The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

big tinyBook – Dee Williams lived in Portland in a 1927 three-bedroom bungalow she spent six years restoring. She began to reflect that most of her time was consumed with commuting, working as a State Hazardous Waste Inspector and maintaining her home and property. She didn’t have time to relax and do the things she enjoyed and she worried about juggling bills for her home, utilities, taxes and various other needs and wants. She was always tired and then, suddenly, she found herself confronted with a health issue. Waiting in the doctor’s office, she read an article featuring a man who’d built a tiny house on wheels and moved from his 1200 square foot home to live in it. She was drawn to the concept of planning and building her own tiny house and to live with only the essentials. She pursued her dream and, in this book, shares the process, her successes, her worries and the daily practicalities of living in a small dwelling. I was amazed by how resourceful and determined she was. She was passionate about her vision. She hauled lumber, learned (often by reading library books) how to analyze building codes, install electrical wires and plumbing and how to manage other projects related to building her home. She and her dog RooDee moved into her 84 square foot house in 2004. Its effect on her life was profound and she now writes and conducts workshops about small house living, green building and community design. This was an interesting book, written with candor and humor,  about establishing your own priorities and lifestyle and I enjoyed and was inspired by her journey.