Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.
But somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.
A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.
Movie – Amy Winehouse lived a short life. In the documentary Amy, the director, Asif Kapadia tries to tell a story of someone looking for help but not being able to help herself during good times.
The documentary follows the short life of Amy Winehouse as told through clips of personal home movies, pictures, performances, interviews, and backstage footage at the Grammys. Winehouse was a troubled soul trying to make it through a life that may have been more than she could handle. Her music came from the depths of emotional suffering. Her gift to transfer those emotions into song gave her the break she was looking for into the music scene. It was also the reason she could not continue.
Throughout the film, the director uses interviews with Amy’s parents, husband, and friends to narrate Amy’s story. They paint a picture of someone who was a free spirit, a good singer, and a troubled person looking for some guidance. The director paints her family as people who did not step in when Amy needed them the most. Her parents, mainly her father, did take offense to his portrayal in the film. Her mother did not object to her portrayal.
The film will cause you to analyze Amy’s life and those around her. Questions will arise about the role her loved ones played in her life. Finger pointing will definitely happen. In all the viewer will need to come to their own conclusions on why Amy’s life was cut short. Fans of the singer, and people who enjoy biographies of celebrities will enjoy this film. There is no speculation of who is to blame in the death, only a story being told of someone who was enduring deep sadness and how she coped with it.
Book – Kate Mulgrew, best known for playing the first female Star Trek captain on Voyager and as Red on Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black, has not published a typical celebrity memoir. It has no co-writer, no gossip, and very few references to any costars. She does not dwell on those who helped her, or how lucky she is. The emotional center of Mulgrew’s story is the difficult choice she made at the age of 22, at a crucial stage in her career, to give up a daughter for adoption, and her successful attempt to get in touch with her daughter many years later. Despite having many lovers (sometimes simultaneously), a successful career, and two sons, Mulgrew always felt a regret for this loss that haunted her. Mulgrew’s story ends before the present, just as she has reconnected with her daughter and come to an agreement with the man she (currently) loved, but I hope she will write another chronicling the rest of her career and providing closure that I felt this memoir lacked.
Those reading for insider details of her career on Voyager, as I initially was, will be disappointed, as only a chapter covered this entire time in her life, but fortunately, the details of Mulgrew’s personal life are just as satisfying. Born With Teeth is an entertaining and poignant read even if you’ve never heard of her before.
Book– Munchausen by proxy is a rare form of child abuse characterized by faking or exaggerating symptoms of illness in a child, usually to gain attention from the medical community. Gregory recounts a harrowing childhood spent in hospital rooms, performing illness (or actually being made ill) to satisfy her mother’s craving for attention. Her mother alternates between deliberately starving and abusing her, turning the rest of the family against her, including her helpless father, and cossetting her with attention. Gregory focuses on the strategies she used to survive, such as stealing food from other students’ lunches and from convenience stores.
The writing is at its best when Gregory is understating her situation; like most works of this kind, overly dramatic language can often actually take away from the impact of the story. She includes scans of her own medical records from the time and it is chilling to see how willing some doctors were to believe her mother’s stories. While Gregory obviously escapes her mother’s orbit, as of Gregory’s memoir, there are still children in Gregory’s mother’s care.
Sickened will appeal to fans of memoirs chronicling mental illness, complicated family relationships, and difficult upbringings.
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.
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.
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.
Book – 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
Book – 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.
Book – Yes 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.