Memoir Review: “Brain on Fire”

Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Free Press, 2012
ISBN 978–1–4516–2137–2

Highly Recommended

One day in 2009 Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed, unable to speak, move, or remember how she got there. As she stared at an orange band around her wrist, the words FLIGHT RISK came into focus.

Cahalan’s journey to that hospital room had begun weeks earlier. Out of nowhere she began having paranoid thoughts; for example, with no evidence she suddenly believed that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and the voice in her head nearly overpowered her: Read his e-mails. The paranoia was rapidly followed by other symptoms: slurred speech, over-reaction to colors and sounds, nausea, insomnia, wild mood swings, uncontrollable crying, lack of focus, inability to write, facial tics, drooling, involuntary muscle movements, and seizures.

Physical examinations and extensive medical tests revealed no discernible cause for her symptoms. Various doctors prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications and used phrases ranging from all in her head to psychotic break as Calahan’s family and friends watched her condition continue to worsen. Finally, a new neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined the medical team and did one more medical test that saved her life. Dr. Najjar tested Cahalan for a newly discovered, rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to react against the brain. The disease causes inflammation that Dr. Nijjar explained this way: “Her brain is on fire.”

This book differs from most memoirs in that Cahalan has almost no memories of what happened to her during the period she writes about. Her father, who spent most days in her hospital room, kept a personal diary of the ordeal (hers and his own). In addition, her father and mother left a notebook in her room in which both documented what had gone on during their visits; the purpose of this notebook was to keep both parents informed about their daughter’s condition. Cahalan used these two documents, her medical records, and interviews with family, friends, work colleagues, and medical personnel as the basis for the book. Her journalism background enabled her to do the extensive research necessary to supplement those sources.

Despite the absence of her own memories, Cahalan maintains the focus on personal experience that’s necessary in memoir. When she can’t focus on her own experiences, she frames the story with the experiences of the people close to her: her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and her colleagues at the New York Post.

Cahalan excels at describing complex, arcane medical material for a general reader. Here, for example, is her description of how memory works:

My short-term memory had been obliterated, a problem usually rooted in the hippocampus, which is like a way station for new memories. The hippocampus briefly “stores” the patterns of neurons that make up a memory before passing them along to the parts of the brain responsible for preserving them long term. Memories are maintained by the areas of the brain responsible for the initial perception: a visual memory is saved by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, an auditory memory by the auditory cortex of the temporal love, and so forth. (p. 101)

After Cahalan was successfully treated for her brain inflammation, there remained questions about how much of her former self, particularly her mental faculties, would return. This book, with its extensive research and clear writing, demonstrates that her brain is now back to functioning quite well.

Brain on Fire has been made into a movie that will come out on February 22, 2017. You can find information about the film, including a link to the official trailer, here.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

With the Trump era now a week old and storm clouds gathering, many decent, salt-of-the-earth Americans not previously given to shows of popular unrest, never mind civil disobedience or outright vio…

Source: 11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

Review: “H Is for Hawk”

Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk
Grove Press, 2014
ISBN: 978–0–8021–2341–1

Highly Recommended

When Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly, she was nearly overcome with grief. She cancelled an upcoming teaching assignment and struggled to find a way to reconnect with the world. An experienced falconer, she decided to fill her days by training a goshawk, the wildest, fiercest, most difficult to train bird of prey.

Macdonald had trained other hawks, but never a goshawk. She knew well the literature of falconry and followed The Goshawk, by T.H. White (well known author of The Once and Future King, a tome of Arthurian legend), as she progressed through her own training program. White’s book is a narrative about his experiences trying—and failing—to train a goshawk during the mid 1930s (although the book was not published until 1951). The comparison between her progress and White’s lack of progress in the difficult task of training a goshawk provides the underlying structure of Macdonald’s book.

Macdonald obtained a female goshawk, whom she soon named Mabel. As Macdonald became acquainted with Mabel, she realized “without knowing why, I’d chosen to be the hawk” (p. 58). Her identification with Mabel became stronger as the training progressed:

I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”(p. 85)

The hawk became a symbol “of things that must be mastered and tamed” (p. 113).

As she trained Mabel, Macdonald read about White’s fits and starts with his goshawk. In her book she examines White’s approach to training for clues about the mind of this brilliant yet troubled man, whose unhappy childhood underlay life-long insecurity and difficulty fitting into the world. Implicit in Macdonald’s process of understanding White through his book is the realization that readers will understand Macdonald, just as she comes to understand herself, through hers.

H Is for Hawk contains that necessary ingredient of a good memoir, an epiphany—something missing from many memoirs, such as the much over-hyped Wild. Macdonald’s epiphany begins with this realization: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all” (p. 195). She knew that she had wanted to slip onto the wild world of the forest with the hawk:

part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home (p. 220)

In the end she realized that she couldn’t overcome her grief by abandoning the human world to become a wild, feral hawk. Rather, she had to bring the lessons of the wild world back into the human sphere:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171)

The key to a memoir-worthy experience is not simply to endure, but to learn, to change, to grow.

Part of that growth is the ability to see new meaning in other aspects of the world. The broadly educated Macdonald fills her book with
details of the natural world: fields, flowers, bushes, trees, animals, rocks. Nature takes on new meaning because of the experience rendered in this moving and enriching memoir.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

10 Memoirs That Explore the Mother-Daughter Relationship (in remembrance of Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher)

Shortly after the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds on subsequent days, Susan Dominus examined the strained relationship between this mother and daughter in the New York Times: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, a Mother-Daughter Act for the Ages. Dominus writes:

There is something about celebrity mother-daughter acts like the one lived by Ms. Fisher and Ms. Reynolds that capture the imagination in a way that famous father-sons simply do not.

I’d say we can leave out the words celebrity and famous. Even the most ordinary mother-daughter relationship is archetypal, fraught with push-pull, attract-repel, love-hate, bond-reject, up-down, engage-disengage, support-undermine dynamics.

The HBO documentary Bright Lights, first aired on January 7, 2017, further reveals the intertwining lives of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

And here are 10 memoirs that focus on the relationship between mothers and their daughters:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Returning to My Mother’s House by Gail Straub

Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Then Again by Diane Keaton

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

We may be able to tap into our memories from infancy

Our inability to remember incidents from the first two or three years of life is known as infantile amnesia. It’s possible that such memories are lost, but some recent research suggests that we might be able to recall those memories with proper prompting. The research was done on rats, and much more research is necessary to discover whether the results apply to humans as well. If they do, it may be possible to devise ways to block out traumatic early memories.

Writing our life story — memoir or autobiography?

Put simply an autobiography tends to be a linear record of the events of our life and requires attention to the accuracy of the memories and the detail of each event while a memoir is more free form and is usually based around a theme or themes that have meaning for us in some way.

This article offers some advice on how to write about personal experiences in a way that connects them “with the bigger picture of human experience or history.”

Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back

Whether they are writing full-blown memoirs or more modest sketches or vignettes, many older people … are telling their life stories. Some are taking life-story writing classes at local colleges, libraries and adult learning centers, while others are hiring “personal historians” to record oral histories or to produce videos that combine interviews, home movies and family photos. Some opt to write a “legacy letter,” which imparts values to the next generations.

This article explains how autobiographical writing can help people gain perspective on their lives and come to acknowledge and understand how past experiences have shaped their lives.

Can a Rosy Outlook Ward Off Illness?

Some recent research suggests that optimistic women tend to live longer than less optimistic ones. This article is informative nut just for these research results, but for its look at how to interpret research reports. Learn why these study results are limited by the participant pool and why they may or may not be applicable to people generally.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Memoir

Vivian Gornick, The Art of Memoir No. 2

One of the best books for writers of memoir is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. In addition to being a memoirist, Gornick is also an essayist and literary critic.

We all know the term “personal journalism” thanks to Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and other celebrated practitioners. Gornick would ­develop for a new generation something you might call “personal criticism,” a first-person style that draws on the tradition of essayist-critics like William Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf while also reflecting a very contemporary hunger for ­personal testimony. Indeed, the “I” of The End of the Novel of Love seems continuous with the “I” of Fierce Attachments, of her personal essays, and even of the biographies she has written (of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emma Goldman). Whatever Gornick’s subject, her writing relies on direct, lived experience.

In this article from the Winter 2014 issue of The Paris Review, Elaine Blair interviews Gornick about her parents, her education, and the books and writers who influenced her.

Nothing But The Truth?: On Lying And Memoir-Writing

Maddie Crum examines the recent popularity of memoir—though this popularity has now gone on for so long that I find it difficult to continue to refer to it as _recent_—and the central question that all memoirists must confront: What, exactly, constitutes the extend of truth in memoir?

When we tell stories — in writing, out loud to our friends, in the form of jokes with a punchline — we owe our listeners the good feelings that come with dramatic timing, with building anticipation and providing welcome release. The desired effect is to allow listeners, and readers, to feel how we felt, not to merely be aware of the literal circumstances lending to the feeling. If a memoirist can achieve that — and if she must take a few liberties in truthfulness to get there — then she’s done something right.

Sex, drugs, honeymoon, motherhood – what if my child reads my diaries?

Nicola Skinner has nearly 29 years’ worth of diaries. And suddenly she wonders what to do with them now that her her four-year-old daughter, Polly, is learning to read.

After much lamenting, she arrives at this decision:

But I think the best thing to do is to lock them away until she reaches adulthood – or motherhood, whichever she fancies. Then, both armed with a stiff drink, we can read them together. I can put things into context. I can say – yes, I was having a bad day when I wrote that. But look! The next day, I wrote about your dad’s homemade chicken curry, and that time you gesticulated around yourself excitedly and said: “There’s so much to like!” (3 April 2015). I’ll explain that writing a diary is like sketching: you only see a fraction of reality. If all else fails, I’ll tell her that my diaries saved me thousands of pounds in therapy – money that was spent on eating Portuguese custard tarts every day of our holidays and buying amazing films to watch together. I’ll look her in the eye and say that I wouldn’t swap one single day, not even the worst ones, for my old life, if it meant not having her. And then I’ll give her a diary, and tell her to write her own story, and never be afraid of her feelings.

30 Memoirs You Have To Read

Inspired by the recent publication of Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, Erin Donnelly has composed a list of 30 must-read memoirs.

While individual tastes will undoubtedly vary, I was gratified to see that I’ve read 13 of these books and have another five on my TBR list.

What about you?

How many of these memoirs have you read? What other titles would you add to the list?

Last Week’s Links

I’m trying out something different this week. I have three blogs:

Because of these wide-ranging interests, I often end up with lots of open browser tabs containing quite a variety of materials.

Since sorting all these materials out for the individual blogs can be quite time-consuming, I’m going to try to streamline my blogging process by putting together a weekly list of all the interesting articles I come across and publishing the same post to all three of the blogs. Feel free to click on whichever links interest you and to ignore the rest.

Note: In compiling this initial list, I discovered that I’ve actually been holding many of these tabs open for two weeks. Therefore, this entry is longer than future ones will probably be.

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Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life

While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on Ph.D.s [in their 60s], but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some … are headed for academic research or teaching positions.

This article caught my eye because I started working on a doctorate at age 57 and finally received my degree on my 63rd birthday. About 30 years earlier I had completed the course work but not the dissertation for a doctorate in English and American literature. My main motivation for returning to school was to fulfill a life-long dream of earning a Ph.D., but I also benefitted from being able to focus my studies on the particular area I was interested in (life stories).

You Can Go Home Again: The Transformative Joy Of Rereading

Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.

Juan Vidal explains why he rereads three books every year: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, and Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar.

Michael Kinsley’s ‘Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide’

Longevity breeds literature. As people (including writers) live longer thanks to medical advances, we can expect many more books contemplating the vicissitudes of aging, illness and dying. These topics, previously thought uncommercial, not to mention unsexy, have been eloquently explored recently by Diana Athill (“Somewhere Towards the End”), Roger Angell (“This Old Man”) and Christopher Hitchens (“Mortality”), among others. Now that the baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, “enter life’s last chapter,” Michael Kinsley writes, “there is going to be a tsunami of books about health issues by every boomer journalist who has any, which ultimately will be all of them.” Hoping to scoop the others, he has written “Old Age,” a short, witty “beginner’s guide,” with an appropriate blend of sincerity and opportunism.

100 MUST-READ WORKS OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE

Literature of the American South comprises more than just Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of William Faulkner. Here Emily Gatlin provides a class list of the full range of works that illustrate the Southern literary experience.

‘Literature about medicine may be all that can save us’

A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art

In telling the stories of illness, we need to tell the stories of the lives within which illness is embedded. Neither humanism nor medicine can explain much without the other, and so many people ricochet between two ways of describing their very being. This is in part because medicine has become so much harder to understand, with its designer molecules, bewildering toxins and digital cameras inserted into parts of ourselves we have never seen, nor wanted to see.

Telling the stories of illness has given rise to a movement known as “narrative medicine,” or, more broadly, “medical humanities.” We are seeing more and more memoirs by patients about their experiences of illness and by doctors about their attempts to understand their patients’ stories. Many of the books by physicians include their authors’ own experiences of being ill.

Books by physicians concerned about understanding patients’ stories of illness discussed here include the following:

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
What Doctors Feel by Danielle Ofri
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

The Best Music for Staying Productive at Work, Backed by Science

I always used to want complete quiet when reading or concentrating, but when I went back to school I discovered that certain types of music could help me focus. This article summarizes the research demonstrating how music can increase concentration and discusses which types of music work best for this purpose.

The best part of this article is the links to examples of music for focus in these categories: classical, electronic, video game soundtracks, ambient noise, and “everything else.”

Neuroscientists create ‘atlas’ showing how words are organised in the brain

Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.

Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.

Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement

After a career of working, scrimping and saving, many retirees are well prepared financially to stop earning a living. But how do you find meaning, identity and purpose in the remaining years of your life?

WOMEN DETECTIVES IN FACT AND FICTION

This excerpt from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik discusses the female detectives, real and literary, who preceded Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

How Many of These Memoirs Have You Read?

Lately I haven’t been keeping up with the field of memoir as closely as I’d like. When I came across the article 100 MUST-READ MEMOIRS by Kim Ukura on BookRiot, her list provided me the opportunity catch up on what I’ve been missing.

This list is particularly good for my purposes now because Ukura “decided to focus this list around contemporary memoirs – those written within the last 100 years, with a pretty heavy skew towards those from the last 20 years.” She also has some advice for anyone wanting to brush up on memoir as a genre:

If you’re curious about the history and evolution of memoir as a genre, I can’t recommend Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda enough.

After Ukura’s complete list, I’ll create some lists of my own:

  • those from her list that I’ve read
  • those that I started but did not finish
  • those on my TBR shelf
  • those I should add to my TBR list
  • other recent memoirs I recommend

Here is Ukura’s chronological list:

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (1937)

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston (1948)

Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

Paper Lion: Confession of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton (1966)

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (1968)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (1976)

Wild Swan: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang (1991)

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen (1993)

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (1994)

Dreaming by Carolyn See (1995)

The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr (1995)

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (1995)

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)

Lucky by Alice Sebold (1999)

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (2000)

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (2000)

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (2000)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller (2001)

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan (2003)

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (2003)

Dry by Augusten Burroughs (2003)

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni (2005)

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl (2005)

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres (2005)

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron (2006)

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (2007)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)

Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah (1997)

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks (2007)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (2007)

The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn (2007)

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2007)

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison (2007)

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets by Bliss Broyard (2007)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2008)

Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent (2008)

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White (2009)

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen (2009)

I’m Down by Mishna Wolff (2009)

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)

The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (2010)

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell (2010)

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt (2010)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (2010)

Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White (2010)

Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto (2010)

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman (2010)

Devotion by Dani Shapiro (2010)

Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (2011)

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone by Melissa Coleman (2011)

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch (2011)

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes (2011)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling (2011)

Life Itself by Roger Ebert (2011)

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid (2012)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (2012)

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen (2012)

One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman (2012)

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan (2012)

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (2012)

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky (2012)

Do You Dream in Color? Insights from a Girl Without Sight by Laurie Rubin (2012)

Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu (2013)

The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (2013)

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield (2013)

Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller (2013)

Prairie Silence by Melanie Hoffert (2013)

Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice by Katherine Preston (2013)

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)

Delancy: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg (2014)

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (2014)

Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (2014)

The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi (2014)

Daring: My Passages by Gail Sheehy (2014)

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow (2014)

Negroland by Margo Jefferson (2015)

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario (2015)

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon (2015)

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein (2015)

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2015)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (2015)

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (2015)

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (2015)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen (2015)

Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin (2016)

Love, Loss and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi (2016)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

There are 17 books on this list that I have read (links are to my reviews):

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston (1948)
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (1976)
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (1994)
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr (1995)
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (1995)
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)
Lucky by Alice Sebold (1999)
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (2000)
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (2003)
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks (2007)
Devotion by Dani Shapiro (2010)
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch (2011)
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (2012)

And I found a couple that I started but did not finish:

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)

I have 7 titles from this list on my TBR shelf:

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen (1993)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
Dry by Augusten Burroughs (2003)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2008)
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan (2012)
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2015)
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

I also found 3 that I should add to my TBR list:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (2015)

Finally, here are some other memoirs that I recommend:

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd
Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet
Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders by Joy Ladin
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood

What About You?

What memoirs do you especially recommend?

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Memoir

All of these articles are from a collection called Self Portrait. There are more articles in the collection than the four I have chosen to focus on here. All of the articles deal with how or why to write about oneself, and what happens when someone does.

25 Famous Women on Writing Their Own Stories

Whether writing a memoir, personal essay, confessional blog post, or private journal, examining your own life is far from easy — even for the professionals. For this week’s Self-Portrait series, we’ve rounded up 25 women’s thoughts on the joys and struggles encountered by female writers in telling their stories. Read on for their wisdom on everything from the tricky nature of memory, to sexism in the literary world, to the question of other people’s privacy.

Read more of what these women have to say:

1. Maya Angelou

Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me.

2. Cheryl Strayed

I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently.

3. Lena Dunham

I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences.

4. Zadie Smith

I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person. And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.

5. Nora Ephron

In the way I grew up, we knew that you might write about almost anything if you could just find a way to tell the story.

6. Roxane Gay

Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable.

7. Joan Didion

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.

8. Elizabeth Wurtzel

The reason it’s very easy for me to write about myself is that I know I’m just like everybody else. I know when I describe what’s happening with me that it’s going to ring true to other people.

9. bell hooks

One of the things that I found, as I tried to cross boundaries, was that I had to give people something that allowed them to identify with what I was saying, and not just offer some abstract idea that might not have any relevance to their lives.

10. Elizabeth Gilbert

It just so happened that every single one of my questions and desires and fears intersected with like ten million other women who have all of those same questions and fears and desires.

11. Maxine Hong Kingston

What is universal? There could be some peculiarity that you have in your self, but if you can make it an art, make it part of a story, then when another person reads it, it becomes part of his or her life. And so one’s odd self and ideas become part of the human universal story.

12. Meghan Daum

Honesty is not the same as confession … Confessing means asking the reader for something — for forgiveness, for punishment, for some kind of response that makes you feel less alone. Honesty means offering something to the reader — a piece of yourself or a set of suggestions.

13. Alison Bechdel

For most of the time I was working on this book I found myself in varying degrees of self-loathing.

14. Jesmyn Ward

The memoir is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It was so hard for me that I plan to never write another memoir again.

15. Mindy Kaling

You can choose not to write about your embarrassments and things that make you feel vulnerable, but it’s not like people can’t see them anyway.

16. Diane Keaton

I did discover things about myself in the process of having made the choice to write a memoir.

17. Sandra Cisneros

The only reason we write — well, the only reason why I write; maybe I shouldn’t generalize — is so that I can find out something about myself.

18. Janet Mock

I wrote Redefining Realness because not enough of our stories are being told, and I believe we need stories that reflect us so we don’t feel so isolated in our apparent ‘difference.’

19. Sloane Crosley

There is a difference between asking for permission and giving someone an ample warning. I’ve always given a warning.

20. Audre Lorde

With any oppressed people — and this is true of women, although it started with the Black poets — the ability to speak out of your experience and see it as valid, to deal with your definition of self and recognize that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem.

21. Leslie Jamison

I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.

22. Janet Malcolm

Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. … The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins.

23. Marjane Satrapi

Here’s the problem: today, the description of the world is always reduced to yes or no, black or white. Superficial stories. Superhero stories. One side is the good one. The other one is evil.

24. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Of course, not all fiction is honest, but fiction, by its very nature, creates the possibility of a certain kind of radical honesty that memoir does not.

25. Stevie Nicks

I won’t write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care.

How to Write Someone Else’s Memoir

Maureen O’Connor writes about the ghostwriters responsible for a lot of the celebrity memoirs that we read:

Intimacy is the currency of memoir, and to preserve that feeling of direct access, the ghost’s job is, quite literally, to disappear.

While some ghostwriters have enough credentials to land them co-author status, most must accept a contract that pays well but requires them to keep their authorship a secret.

Isn’t a memoir written by someone else actually a biography? No, one prolific ghostwriter told O’Connor:

“Biographies are about looking at that person from the outside,” whereas “memoir is really trying to give the reader this person’s experience.”

How many celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten? A senior editor at a major publishing house told O’Connor, “I’d reckon 95 percent of memoirs by public figures involve a ghostwriter to some degree.”

O’Connor also discovered that “The problem with writing an article about ghostwriters is that nobody will go on the record.”

I Made Sense of My Childhood by Reading the Memoirs of Maya Angelou and June Jordan

Naomi Jackson pays tribute to the women whose memoirs taught her that she, “the child of working-class West Indian parents,” could become a writer.

About Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she read at age 12 or 13, Jackson writes “Her book showed me that it was possible to survive the scrapes of a rough childhood and to come out on the other side as a whole person.” In college Jackson came across June Jordan’s Soldier:

Reading Jordan’s memoir prodded me to consider writing about my own life; it convinced me of the value of my story, which I wasn’t sure anyone cared about until then, and illustrated the benefit of writers’ bravery in breaking the taboo, especially strong in Caribbean communities, of telling family secrets.

The lesson that Jackson learned from reading these two memoirs was that “books could help heal readers.” Those books taught Jackson that writing the truth would make her stronger and would also help strengthen readers of the books she wrote.

What I Left Out of My Memoir

Mac McClelland’s memoir, Irritable Hearts, is “about grappling with post-traumatic-stress and major-depressive disorders.” She wrote the book because “reading it from someone else during the grappling would have helped me feel less ashamed.”

Yet there was one detail in the original manuscript that a friend warned her about:

“You and I both know that some people won’t bother reading beyond that. It’s easy for a reviewer to pull that detail out of the book and throw it into a review, out of context.”

McClelland never tells us what that detail was, but she does explain why she chose to leave it out because its inclusion would have detracted from the larger story about the nature of trauma that she had to tell.

The point of a memoir is not just to narrate events that occurred, but rather to shape those events so as to find their meaning. Sometimes figuring out what to omit can be just as hard as—or even harder than—knowing what to include.

Memoir Review: “Little Heathens”

little-heathensKalish, Mildred Armstrong. Little Heathens: Hard Times and HighSpirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
Bantam Books, 2007

Some time around 1930, when the author was “little more than five years old” (p. 6), she, her mother, her baby sister, and her two brothers went to live with her mother’s parents in the town of Garrison, Iowa. The children’s father had committed some unnamed infraction against their mother and was consequently banished from the family and never spoken of again.

When Millie and family arrived, their grandparents had retired from farming and were living in a house in town. But they still owned several outlying farms, and Millie’s family was given one to live on and work, across the road from another farm occupied by an aunt and uncle and their children. Millie’s family spent summers on the farm, then attended the rural school through December, when winter shut down the farm. They then moved into the grandparents’ house in town and attended the town school from January until school ended in May.

Grandma and Grandpa Urmy were “two very strict and stern individuals. For us children, building character, developing a sense of responsibility, and above all, improving one’s mind would become the essential focus of our lives” (p 6). In contrast to the regimented and regulated life in their grandparents’ house in town, life on the farm was much more easygoing. Their mother allowed them to roam freely as long as they did their chores—and they had lots of chores—and they spent much time exploring with their cousins.

In chapters about topics such as chores, school, cooking, and holidays, Kalish describes how she learned the lessons of pioneer thrift, proper work ethic, and acceptable behavior that allowed her family to thrive during the difficult times of the Great Depression.

In looking back, I realize that I have had the good fortune to have absorbed the events that transpired during my childhood years into my very being, as if no boundary exists between then and now, as if the past had not really passed… . I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone, nearly forgotten by the world, but still indelible in my memory. It is my hope to resurrect them, to make them live again. (p. 7)

In this book Kalish has successfully resurrected her childhood experiences and made them live again. There are no surprises or revelations in this book, but it contributes much to future generations’ knowledge of what everyday life was like at one particular point in history.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown