Tag Archives: memoir

‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J.D. Vance

Narrated by the author this memoir is a heartfelt journey of a man through the labyrinth of his own life and culture. It reminded me a little of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. What a child grows up with is intrinsic and woven through their personality and psyche. To the child it just is. But when as an adult that person gains a curiosity to look back and step back far enough to gain an objective understanding of the effects those growing years had on them, it is powerful indeed. Vance grew up as a “hillbilly”: a poor white person from the American south. But I loved what he says about that moniker: “Americans call them ‘hillbillies, white trash, rednecks’ but I call them ‘neighbours, friends, family.'”

Vance very poignantly and honestly tells his own story of growing up in white working class culture in the Appalachia region, and in so doing, describes a culture marked by economic decay, poor self-esteem, and lack of agency. He loves his family deeply, but was also scarred in many ways by them and had to wake up to this reality to begin to understand his own tendencies and motivations. He had good people in his life who fiercely protected him and loved him, like his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw– very vivid and colourful characters! Would I ever have loved to meet them! “If you harm that boy you will answer to the barrel of my gun!” says Mamaw to her own daughter about her grandson J.D. It made me think of the sitcom we grew up with called Beverly Hillbillies.

Vance doesn’t criticise, he analyses. Hard working Scots/Irish immigrants came for the American dream which became overshadowed by abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma. How that happened is complicated, and Vance very ably articulates his chaotic family story with humour and insight.

I’m getting to this book a bit late, but when it came out it was hugely instructive in understanding the populism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which sped it to the top of the bestseller list at the time. I do recommend listening to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself. Ron Howard has created a movie adaptation with a star-studded cast, coming out soon on Netflix.

‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed’ by Lori Gottlieb

“We grow in connection with others.”

Lori Gottlieb is an American psychotherapist who writes the weekly ‘Dear Therapist’ column for The Atlantic magazine and has been a TV screen writer. I’ve never read a memoir quite like this. It’s very personal about the author of course, but also opens the door to therapy sessions which are usually private and confidential so it felt like being a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ but also I felt like I learned something about how people gain self-understanding. I don’t have much experience with this myself but the few sessions I have had with a naturopath who utilised talk therapy, I was amazed at her skills of perception and intuitiveness in a relatively short amount of conversation time.

The first half of the book hooked me in with Gottlieb’s self-deprecating humour. She is honest and funny and refreshingly unafraid to doubt or question herself. The fact that she needs therapy herself gives the book a ‘real’ feel. Towards the middle I was wondering where all of the seemingly random stories about her clients/patients were going, but hang in there. The second half of the book is where the magic happens, the wisdom and understanding arrives, and there are satisfying outcomes, even in difficult and tragic circumstances. I guess in that way the book mimics a real therapy session. She highlights Viktor Frankl’s emphasis on finding meaning and quotes from his book Man’s Search for Meaning which is a lifetime favourite of mine. She also talks about how love wins. Here’s an excellent interview with Gottlieb which captures her perspective on therapy: click here.

Apparently this kind of view into ‘both sides of the couch’ is also TV material, ABC is already developing a series based on this book.

Here is the author in a TED talk with the title: How changing your story can change your life.

‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death’ by Maggie O’Farrell

“The best way out is always through.” Robert Frost

But O’Farrell says, oh well, if you can’t go through you can always go around! 🙂 I’ve read one novel by this author, now I want to read more. There were things in her life that she would clearly have gone around, but had to go through and now they have been revealed.

What a unique memoir. It is so astonishing, so elegant and beautifully described, and yet so terrible all at once.  Somehow she makes these seventeen stories chilling and eloquent at the same time. In the audio version, Daisy Donovan captures and conveys the vulnerability and strength of the author. O’Farrell knows how to tell a story and Donovan knows how to read it. I hesitate giving this five stars, only because some of it may be triggering for those who have experienced similar trauma. People will need to talk about this after reading it, so it’s perfect for book clubs.

We are never closer to life than when we brush up against the possibility of death.  There was the childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, from which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. Her heartbreaking struggle with fertility and miscarriage. Scary near accidents. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter — for whom this book was written — from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life’s myriad dangers. Seventeen discrete encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. The message is simple. Life is precious.

Here’s an excellent review in the Guardian: “I’ve revealed the secrets I’ve spent my life hiding.”

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

This memoir about Michelle Obama is deeply personal and refreshingly honest and forthright. She talks about her roots, her time in the White House, her role as a daughter, mother, and wife, and about what she was able to accomplish as a professional and during the years she was First Lady. It’s a lengthy book but listening to the audio, narrated by Michelle herself, didn’t feel long at all. I appreciated her candidness, her good humour, and her ability to relate. I respected her dedication to striving to being the best possible person she could be, in all areas of her life, despite the changes that rocked her world.

“As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.”

Her descriptions and stories are compelling. She gives insight into how to cope and survive while living an unexpected life. The Obamas were a class act in the White House and this book underscores how they were dedicated to doing good and promoting decent values with dignity.  Their vision of the United States included a celebration of diversity and a seeking to promote unity and prosperity for all, in a time with increasing polarisation and partisanship. Speculation continues to circulate about whether she might herself run for president one day–she answers that question very definitively at the end of this memoir, and gives some sound reasons why. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

‘Feeding my Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as My Mom Lives with Memory Loss’ by Jann Arden

“You are not supposed to get it right out of the gate. My favourite people in the world, my dearest friends, all rattle when you give them a shake. They have little pieces that have broken off inside of them that are a constant reminder to them, and me, of how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned and what they have survived.”

Canadian singer/songwriter Jann Arden has written a heartfelt book about walking along side her mother through Alzheimer’s. It was surprisingly good and I appreciated her honesty and wisdom as she shares this diary-style journey of caring for both of her parents in their twilight years. Although I’ve listened to Jann Arden’s music, and even met her once in Tanzania, I didn’t know much about her and didn’t expect to find her writing so inspirational. I ended up jotting down a lot of quotes and really appreciating her perspective. A quote that will stick with me: “My Mom says tears are God’s lubricant to get you through the tight spots.” And I always love books with easy tasty recipes! Jann says, “There is something about feeding people you care about that is extremely comforting for both of you.”

From the publisher: “When beloved singer and songwriter Jann Arden’s parents built a house just across the way from her, she thought they would be her refuge from the demands of her career. And for a time that was how it worked. But then her dad fell ill and died, and just days after his funeral, her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In Feeding My Mother, Jann shares what it is like for a daughter to become her mother’s caregiver–in her own frank and funny words, and in recipes she invented to tempt her mom. Full of heartbreak, but also full of love and wonder.”

‘Homes: A Refugee Story’ by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

“That’s how it was in Syria; when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulances were late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care  of each other.”

This is an important memoir written by Iraqi teenager Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah (pronounced: Abu ba-CAR al Rah-Bee-ah) with the help of his teacher Winnie Yeung. It is a book that I think every Canadian would benefit from reading and I think it deserves to win Canada Reads 2019.

Whenever we see news footage of Syria, with all the broken buildings, bombed out neighbourhoods, and hear about the random violence that the place has suffered from for so long, it seems impossible to imagine how it was for people to be living there in the midst of a civil war. Bakr has done just that. He has told the story very honestly and vividly. “We all gained skills that we could not have imagined. Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick out the differences between mortars, grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble.”

Wise beyond his years because of his circumstance, Bakr also speaks simply as a normal teenager about going to play video games with his cousins and soccer with his friends. He was just 10 when the conflict began and his memories are childlike, yet riveting because his days were marked by the juxtaposition of living the life of a normal teenager in the middle of a war zone.

What I like most about the book is his honest perspective about how it was when he came to Canada as a refugee. When he was living in constant danger he dreamt of a life where he could safely live and move and go about daily activities. But when a new home in Canada became a reality, it was far from easy, albeit safe. He speaks of homesickness and a host of unexpected and different fears to deal with like fitting in, learning language, and building a new life in a foreign culture. Though totally understandable, these emotions also made him feel ashamed and ungrateful for the opportunity he had been given to begin a new life in safety. Homes features a remarkable young man and a compassionate teacher who have given Canadians a window to understanding the refugee experience.

‘By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz’ by Max Eisen

“If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.”

These were the very last words that Tibor “Max” Eisen ever heard his father speak, and he spent the rest of his life fulfilling that promise. At the age of fifteen, Eisen entered Auschwitz and lost everyone he loved in a matter of months. Now at the age of 86, he says his heart is full again. Retired from business, Eisen works harder than ever as a Holocaust educator in schools and other institutions throughout the country. He also accompanies groups to Poland, all to ensure that the collective suffering of so many will never be forgotten.

For those of us who have European roots and family members who themselves went through WW2, this will be a hard one to read. His story is undeniably compelling, but for those of us already familiar with the atrocities, it may be difficult to face again in such detail. However, for young people who have never encountered war or for whom the Holocaust is unfamiliar, it is an important book to keep historical memory alive.

Eisen believes strongly that putting his story out there goes beyond historical education. Learning about the Holocaust for young people is crucial because it “puts their own struggles in perspective, encourages the protection of a democratic society, and helps them speak out when they see injustice.” Though Eisen has been speaking about his survival for many years, this book is the permanent contribution to that cause. He includes a number of pictures that personalise and enhance the story he tells. Will this one win Canada Reads 2019?

‘The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family ‘ by Lindsay Wong

Canada’s Annual Battle of the Books has as its theme this year “One Book to Move You.” This is the first of the five shortlisted books I’ve read so far. Since I have tickets to be in the studio audience once again this year, I want to read as many as I can before the CBC debate starts in March!

Like Educated, this is the story of an incredibly horrible and abusive upbringing. When Lindsay Wong, often troubled by dizziness and nausea,  finally breaks away from her family and is living in NYC, she discovers that she actually has a neurological condition that has been causing her crippling symptoms–so, not the woo-woo after all. Lindsay Wong shares her dysfunctional family’s mental health struggles, where illness and weakness of any kind was nothing more than ghosts and demon possession.

It’s meant to be darkly comedic, but her writing style and humour just didn’t work for me. Even though she holds a BFA in creative writing from UBC in Vancouver (which she calls University of a Billion Chinese in Hongcouver) and an MFA from Columbia University, she says this in her acknowledgements, “Writing makes me want to gouge out my eyeballs.” Why would a writer say that when the book was meant to be cathartic? No doubt it was difficult for her to be honest about her upbringing and though I commend her for raising awareness within her culture about mental illness, I hesitate to recommend that this should win Canada Reads 2019 and be a book that all Canadians should read. Though the story is eye opening and harrowing, I found the book to be repetitive, disconnected, and just not that well written. It’s not even clear to me how she survived and how her obvious strength and resilience helped her overcome, which means all that remains is nothing more than a horrible story trying to be funny.

‘The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism’ by Ken Becker

“The answers are in the journey, every step and mis-step. As it happened. No punches pulled.” 

Ken Becker often started stories with a quote, so I thought it fitting to do the same. How did a young man who couldn’t type and couldn’t spell become a journalist? How did a college dropout become a college teacher? Reading this book appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, the title intrigued me because I am married to an international aid worker, and I have also been an expat for most of my adult years (US, UK, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone). Second, the topic was interesting to me because in addition to being a teacher librarian, I am also a writer. I’ve never made much money at it, but I love it. Third, and finally, with full disclosure, Ken is my neighbour and who doesn’t want to know more about their neighbours? When Ken kindly put an offer of Life Story writing in our mailboxes one summer years ago, I kept the paper which included his website and blog link (thebeckerfiles). When I recently went back to check them out, I discovered he’d written a book, which I found out was available at the Mississauga public library (and also on Amazon). I couldn’t resist, and put a hold on it right away.

Becker, a rugged non-conformist New Yorker, pulls no punches as he recounts his rocky road in life and journalism in this readable memoir. I appreciated his honesty, humour, and short snappy writing style. I’ve always found journalists to make good authors, because they know how to be compelling and avoid boggy writing. Becker was indeed, always striving to cut through the  b*llsh*t to get to what really mattered. Unfortunately, with his acerbic wit he may have p*ssed off some people in his life, burned some bridges, perhaps not realizing that his manner could be off putting. Or else he was just being recklessly forthright, in an effort to be true to himself. Either way, he also made a lot of friends, and it is evident from the book, that he is clearly devoted to his craft and to his family. He’s always been a pleasant neighbour, even though our dogs don’t get along.

His craft is writing, and he has written about an impressively wide variety of subjects: crime, travel, sports, politics, entertainment, etc. There are all kinds of interesting stories about famous people he has interviewed and private anecdotes that never made it to press. The inside scoop is why we love memoirs so much. A good memoir should also point to something beyond the individual, and this one does that as well. It gives a veteran’s view of journalism over the last 50 years. Being a journalist requires curiosity, grit, determination, hard work but also vulnerability. Putting your hard won well-crafted words ‘out there’ can be scary. I’ll end with another quote from Ken because it speaks to the value of memoir and passing on our stories. “While most people make arrangements to pass on accumulated riches, whether substantial or meager, many fail to recognize the value and uniqueness of their life stories.” Thanks for your contribution Ken! It’s inspiring.

‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

This non-sentimental and non-judgemental yet very personal story has rendered me speechless and yet I am compelled to discuss it with others who have read it. I keep thinking about it. It was gripping, I had to put it down once in awhile, but then I had to pick it up again. It’s best, I think, to not try to describe it, but to let you discover it on your own. I will say that this remarkable true story not only speaks of family, mental illness, survival, resilience, and child development, but also points beyond (as all good memoirs should) to the vital importance of education.

You may not want to watch this until you have read the book: