Tag Archives: memoir

‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’ by Barack Obama

An interesting and unsentimental portrait of a man who was the first black president of the United States. I think we all remember the hope we felt at that time, now somewhat dampened by recent events. It was fascinating to learn about his childhood and what made him as a man and prepared him for leadership. He is a gifted speaker and this book shows that he is a reflective and highly esteemed writer as well. The book is enlivened by a narrative structure with dialogue and conversation.

A devoted father, husband and family man, even though his father was largely absent in his life, Obama received nurture and love from his mother, his grandparents and his Kenyan relatives. His community work in Chicago introduced him to many important issues and caused him to be fair-minded in his approach to politics. I ‘read’ the audio book version which is narrated by Obama himself! He even does fun accents for his Kenyan cousins. Audio books have never been my favourite for fiction because if I miss something it’s hard to stop and go back, but I realized that listening to non-fiction is really quite nice!

‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ by Alison Bechdel

This is the second graphic novel memoir I have read in the last year and I found it every bit as captivating as the first one by Roz Chast–she did a great job of tackling the topic of the difficult task of caring for aging parents in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? I love the tragicomic approach which uses humour in cartoon to broach a sensitive and poignant topic with honesty and sensitivity. The same is true for this one by Alison Bechdel.

Fun Home is a coming-of-age story that talks about the cartoonist’s memories of her closeted gay father and the fraught relationship she had with him, and her own coming out story. It is raw, and real and explicit, but deeply personal, giving insight into a troubled family during a time when being openly gay was not acceptable, leading to some tragic and difficult circumstances. Her father died at a young age in a mysterious accident. The author says, “And in a way, you could say that my father’s end was my beginning, or more precisely, that the end of his lie concluded with the beginning of my truth.” The family’s business is a funeral home (thus the title), and themes of death and dying are frequent. The writing is quite intellectual at times, with multiple allusions to literary works. Bechdel later traced her mother’s relationship in Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama.

Fun Home has been adapted to a stage musical, which actually just finished in Toronto and had rave reviews. The Guardian has a great article about the musical and the author’s reaction to it.

‘How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem’ by Rod Dreher

This book demonstrates a wonderful thing in reading: how the right book can fall into your hands at the right time.

Rod Dreher is the New York Times bestselling author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which I read not long ago. It was a sweet tribute to his sister who sadly died of cancer at an early age. Writing that book coincided with a return to his hometown, but that was not to be a happy ending to the story. Dresser spiralled into a depression that caused him to be completely out of sync with his family, his faith, and his health. Help came from an unexpected source: Dante’s Inferno. It was ‘divine timing’ with the Divine Comedy.

In a highly readable memoir, Dreher describes his journey back to health and restored relationship, especially with his father, in this companion volume to Ruthie Leming. If you have read one, you really ought to read the other.

No better words can describe the perspective in this book than with this quote from the author himself:
“This book is for believers who struggle to hold on to their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it. This is a book about sin, but not sin in the clichéd, pop-culture sense of rule breaking and naughtiness. In Dante, sin is the kind of thing that keeps us from flourishing and living up  to our fullest potential, and it’s also the kind of thing that savages marriages, turns neighbor against neighbor, destroys families, and ruins lives. And sin is not, at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. In Dante, sinners–and we are all sinners–are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way. I had never thought about sin like that. This concept unlocked the door to a prison in which I had been living all my life. The cell opened from the inside, but I had not been able to see it.”

‘Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things’ by Jenny Lawson

“When we share our struggles we let others know it’s okay to share theirs. And suddenly we realize that the things we were ashamed of are the same things everyone deals with at one time or another. We are so much less alone than we think.”

Jenny Lawson, author of a famous blog called, The Bloggess, writes with flagrant humour about mental illness. She herself suffers from a few things: rheumatoid arthritis, depression, anxiety, phobias, insomnia, panic attacks, self-injury, avoidant personality disorder, autoimmune disease, and mild OCD. Yikes! Her work is undoubtedly fearless and honest, whether you find it laugh-out-loud funny or annoyingly irreverent. When she portrays herself as weird and unbalanced, she gives anyone else permission to be weird and unbalanced too (and certainly not as bad as she is), thereby busting the stigma of mental illness.

As you skip through the lightheartedness of this memoir, you do come up against the terror and tragedy that mental illness can bring, and her voice is clear and helpful. Lawson says, “I’ve been there. I’m broken too. I hear you. You are enough. Live your life as best you can, while striving to be furiously happy. Do what you can but don’t settle for less.” When she goes on speaking tours, Lawson’s audiences burst the venues–clearly she is hitting a nerve.

Lawson’s reference to Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory* towards the end of the book, was particularly helpful–we all have a limited number of spoons that we start each day with. Some of us have more than others. Just being aware can make a big difference.

*The spoon theory is a disability metaphor and neologism used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. … A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.

 

‘Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration’ by Ed Catmull

Need a Christmas gift for the ‘business/leadership’ person in your life? I really enjoyed this memoir by the head of Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull’s personal story is engaging and well written. It is full of great advice about how creativity and excellence can be fostered in the workplace. As head of Pixar (later bought out by Disney Studios), Catmull was a good friend and partner of Steve Jobs and other great talents in computer technology. He had an intuitive sense about how to give storytellers and filmmakers the freedom to develop ideas and make mistakes, and how to get these diverse people to work together, thereby arriving at the creative culture that brought us great films like Ratatouille, Up, Toy StoryFinding Nemo, and many more.

Even though there are lots of background reveals about the makings of these much admired animated films in the book, the focus is primarily on how the business evolved. There are amazing insights and sound advice along the way for leaders in any business or industry, who are interested in being intentional about managing innovation.

‘Undone’ by Michele Cushatt

“Maybe you’re not supposed to manage all this. Maybe, instead, you’re supposed to experience it. Walk through it. Do the best you can.”

To be honest, what drew me to this Christian memoir was the cover art…I loved the upside down-ness of the idyllic pastoral scene which seemed to speak of what the title was already hinting at…making peace with an unexpected and imperfect life. With real vulnerability and honest fear, Cushatt talks about her life which has included its fair share of messiness: divorce, remarriage, blended family, fostering children, and recurring cancer. What seemed to add insult to injury was Cushatt’s cancer–she is a public speaker and she had to part with her tongue. Doesn’t seem fair at all! Of course life isn’t fair, and this memoir is hopeful and inspirational about how to find strength and grace in even the worst moments. Sometimes life’s greatest beauty shows up in life’s greatest chaos. She doesn’t have all the answers, but her grappling with the questions is reassuring and real.

 

 

 

This trailer for her next book I Am gives a good introduction of the author.

‘They Left Us EVERYTHING’, by Plum Johnson

“…thinking about all the things we’ve inherited, all the carefully saved fragments from another time…each generation preserving them in turn, wanting future generations to know of this long, braided chain of genes, habits, and attitudes that binds us together as a family: our history and stories.” 

This is a memoir about a woman who takes on the task of clearing out her parents’ house after they have passed on. When we die we don’t take anything with us, and everyone else gets to go through what we have left behind! Johnson grew up in this house in Oakville, Ontario, and as she handles objects from the past, she reflects on her life, her relationship with her parents and siblings, and the life her parents had before they moved into this house. She had a disciplined British father, an exuberant Southern mother, and four siblings, all living together in this 23-room house. Johnson has a warmly candid writing style that is at once funny and poignant, but also delves into serious issues of managing loss and grief.

What I didn’t notice about the title when I first came into contact with this book was that the word EVERYTHING in the title is capitalized. Yes, the house was FULL of STUFF and for anyone who has done it, removing it all and making decisions about what to throw and what to keep, is a colossal task that does take one on an emotional journey. I’m glad Johnson shares hers. She also raises some interesting questions about whether it’s better to clear out your own mess before you die, if possible, or if it’s somehow therapeutic for your children to do it. Despite the fact that it can be frustrating if story-less objects are left without the ability to ask questions about them, there is value in reliving the memories and there may even be some surprises!