A myriad of memorable memoirs

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve read several very different memoirs.  Unlike novels, I’m tough on memoirs — they must grab my interest almost immediately.  I find if a memoir is boring or uninteresting, then so is the the author. Yes, I’m that brutal.

However, I found each of these memoirs engaging from the first pages, despite their widely differing approaches and themes.

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Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I heard about this book on NPR and filed it away in my mental list of books I may want to read  — someday. Then a friend raved about it and gave me her copy.

I was instantly laughing in my tea at the opening “Reader’s Agreement”.  In this agreement (with spaces for you to sign and date), Ms. Rosenthal has a range of requests — from agreeing to refrain from taking on your cellphone while working out to giving her your credit card number so she can shop to her heart’s content at Anthropologie.

The book is called an “encyclopedia” because it chronicles the small moments of her ordinary life in an alphabetical, short-entry structure.

She has collected thoughts, observations, and decisions to create an alphabetized personal encyclopedia, complete with cross-referenced entries and illustrations.   Like this…

Ms. Rosenthal reveals the minutiae of her life, from pumping gas:

Every. Single. Solitary. Time I go to get gas I have to lean out the window to see which side the tank is on.

to toast:

I cannot stress this enough:  One second your toast is fine, golden brown: the next second it is black.

But then she stops the reader cold with a profound and insightful observation. There’s a touching entry on her need to complete things quickly to get them over with – eating dinner, when she’s out she wants to be home, etc..  She laments on how she can’t experience the full pleasure of an act or task until she has crossed it off her list.

Each entry reads like a short story – witty, sad, insightful and peculiar…many very peculiar.

There are some entries I found mundane and the part showing her high school yearbook signatures I found just plain boring, but then I perked up with this:

In most cases, it is more satisfying to get a friend’s answering machine and leave a cheery, tangible trace of your sincere commitment to the friendship than it is to engage in actual conversation.

There’s a section on how she contested a parking ticket on the grounds of Karma, complete with photocopies of the paperwork she submitted and the check she wrote for the 25 cents she should have put in the meter.   Spoiler alert – she won.

Yes, this really is an encyclopedia of the author’s life – her hopes and dreams, childhood experiences, loves and hates, daily routine.  It’s the sort of thing you can pick up and dip into to relate, laugh and even ponder — perhaps just as the author wanted.

Sadly, Ms. Rosenthal died of cancer in 2017 and she wrote “You May Want to Marry My Husband,”http://nyti.ms/2mFk0fE in her final days, some wonderful, but heartbreaking, writing

As one reviewer on the book jacket says:

An ordinary life, perhaps, but an extraordinary book.

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Am I Alone Here?

by Peter Orner

This wins the most unconventional award, as it’s described as “a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” (Say what?)

Mr. Orner, a professor, poses questions on literature and life and the reader is invited into this, at times, existential exploration.  At first blush the book appears pedantic, but have courage readers, Am I Alone Here? is affecting on so many levels.

The author’s true love is the short story, mixed with poetry and the occasional novel.  Each chapter shows a rendering of the book cover, reviews the story (or poetry), gives background on the author (many of which were unknown to me) and then, how the story relates to Mr. Orner’s own life. 

Mr. Orner is a thinker — a ponderer and as with many artists he struggles with the meaning of his life as it relates to his gift…and gifted he is.  There’s some staggeringly beautiful writing on display here. 

On reading a book of poetry by an obscure poet:

Books pursue us.  I’ve always believed this.  I dug Herbert Morris out of the free bin outside Dog Eared Books (San Francisco).  What compelled me to stop that day?  How can I express my gratitude to a poet who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator?  An how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, tell us things we need to hear?

I must admit I skipped around while reading Am I Alone Here? and found some bits more interesting than others. The format is unusual which allows for picking and choosing chapters to suit.  And the chapter titles — so intriguing:

Euroda Welty, Badass;  Shameless Impostors; Surviving the Lives We Have; My Father’s Gloves; Night Train to Split: Unforgiveable

Don’t you just want to see what they’ll offer?   My Father’s Gloves is a tender tribute to his father and, unless you’re a hard case, will bring tears to your eyes.

Sometimes heavy, often cynical, but always probing, and insightful– Am I Alone Here offers plenty to think about long after you’ve finished. An as an added bonus, if you’re like me, you’ll come away with a whole new list of authors and poets to explore.

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The Outrun

by Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot has returned to her childhood farm in Scotland’s remote Orkney islands, after suffering a horribly-gone-wrong life in London.

Her London life spirals out of control as she falls deep into alcoholism.  She finally agrees to  rehab (national health funded) and slowly works herself out of her addiction.

When I first left Orkney, my friend Sean gave me a compass. I used to wear it round my neck at parties, and when people asked about it, I would tell them it was so I could find my way home. I left the compass somewhere one night, then I was totally lost.

But go home she does.  To her family farm on Orkney with a large coastal grazing area called an “outrun”.  Slowly she adjusts to a gentler, slower life — sans alcohol and discovers an new equilibrium.

Eventually, Ms. Liptrot ends up on the even smaller island of Papay, population 70.  She gets a job working for the RSPCA counting corncrakes (an endangered ground bird) as well as puffins and arctic terns.  Her new life opens her eyes to the healing power of nature.

She joins the local swim club and finds that breath shattering cold sea swims are a new way of getting the high formally gained from drinking.  (See me shivering as I write this.)

Ms. Liptrot re-discovers an interest in astronomy, as the island is one of the best places to see the stars with almost no light pollution and there are the occasional glimpses of the Northern Lights.

I’ve swapped disco lights for celestial lights but I’m still surrounded by dancers. I am orbited by sixty-seven moons.

There is a memorable passage about the rare and beautiful noctilucent clouds.   These clouds are invisible most of the year, but in the summer, in this far northern latitude, they catch the sun’s rays in the last stages of twilight, as the ground grows dark. Then they burst into brilliant colors.

The first half of The Outrun was beautiful and fascinating, but by the second half, it became repetitive with the author’s “self help” observations. I must admit I skipped over much of the latter half of the book — but greatly appreciated the totality of the work.

Ms. Liptrot is an exquisite chronicler of island life so near the Arctic Circle, with starkly beautiful passages on island life, sunsets, waves and even shipwrecks

The Outrun is a brave memoir, unvarnished and beautifully written. I closed the book picturing the author living her life — strong and clean:

I stride onwards… I am a lone figure in waterproofs walking the coastline, morning after morning, miles from anywhere, at the north of nowhere. But down here, inside myself, I feel powerful and determined.

 

A digital review copy was provided by W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley

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The New Old Me 

My Late Life Reinvention

by Meredith Maran

We’ll end this myriad of memoirs on a lighter note — this unexpectedly funny and uplifting memoir.  From the cover blurb

Maran writes “a poignant story, a funny story, a moving story, and above all an American story of what it means to be a woman of a certain age in our time” (Christina Baker Kline)

Meredith Maran’s marriage has dissolved, her Victorian house on the edge of Berkeley lies empty, and her free-lance writing life is in shambles – so what does she do?  She accepts a full time writing job at a start up firm in Los Angeles.   And thus begins one woman’s story of starting over at 60 in youth-and beauty obsessed Hollywood.

One can imagine moving to a new city, making new friends, trying to find love while in your twenties, but Ms. Maran makes this move in her sixties.

She’s alone, missing her friends, her estranged wife (yes Ms. Maran is gay), her family (yes she has children from a previous heterosexual marriage) and terror-struck at having to work with millennials (remember she’s 60 – a very good looking 60 — but still it’s that number 6-0, a great distance from the twenties).

We ride along as she finds a cute and somehow affordable apartment in Los Angeles, granted it overlooks a convenience store air conditioning unit, but its hers and we delight as she decorates it from found objects and little bits from here and there.  But still there’s still the bittersweet-ness of being alone:

Biggest. Surprise. Ever. That cheery feminist crap is true. For the first time since childhood, I’m responsible to no one. I can be Helena’s girlfriend or break with her without upsetting my kids or my own living situation or my finances. I can make money or rest on whatever laurels I’ve got without depriving anyone of anything. I can binge-watch Girls till midnight or go to sleep at nine. The bad news and the good news is the same. I have nothing and no one to lose.

Ms. Maran does make friends, discovers joy walking in the hills, and eventually goes on dates – once with a man, which turns into a teeth clenching experience for both her and the reader alike.

She faces death in quick succession, her best friend back in the Bay Area and then her father. During the trips back, she sells her house, finalizes her divorce, and rids herself of belongings from her her former life.  A roller coaster ride of emotions which Ms. Maran somehow makes both funny and heartbreaking.

Once in awhile a writer’s voice will enchant a reader and Ms. Maran does just that.  She twists what is actually heartbreaking loss into a story of resilience, love and humor.  She never takes herself too seriously and her story of re-invention, re-discovery, and recovery is told with grace, wit and compassion.  I adored this memoir.

 

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