Last month I found something in blogland that summed up the ideal of memoir writing so elegantly that I have to get out of the way and let Dani Shapiro—whose memoir Devotion you should all run out and read right now—do the talking.
What is the job of the memoirist? Is it to tell all? Or is it to carve a story out of memory? … [M]emoir is story-telling.…Part of the art of memoir is seeing, and recognizing the story itself. Life is messy. Art takes gathers up the chaos and gives it form.
I’ve said it over and over: memoir is all about the stories. Maybe Dani Shapiro can convince you if I cannot. Check out her blog, mull over the difference between autobiography and memoir (don’t worry, there isn’t a final exam), and then enjoy a few of this month’s selected memoirs.
Aghdashloo, Shohreh. The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmine. HarperCollins. Jun. 2013. 288p. photogs. ISBN 9780062009807. $26.99. MEMOIR
Aghdashloo, the first Iranian actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in House of Sand and Fog and the winner of an Emmy for her work in House of Saddam, renders her wide-ranging life accessible in this detailed journey from a privileged childhood in prerevolution Iran to a career as a Hollywood actress. Her clearly described passion for acting carried Aghdashloo across continents, out of an oppressive regime, and finally to Hollywood but she also communicates an abiding affection for a cosmopolitan way of life that no longer exists in Iran. VERDICT Many of Aghdashloo’s references to Iranian playwrights and artists will be lost on American readers and there is not all that much Tinseltown gossip. Still, her tale of a lifelong search for artistic freedom distinguishes this from a run-of-the-mill movie memoir.
Grimes, Martha & Ken Grimes. Double Double: A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism. Scribner. Jun. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9781476724089. $25. MEMOIR
Mystery author Martha (Richard Jury Mysteries) and son Ken share narrative duties in this dual memoir of their respective battles with alcohol and diverging roads to recovery. In alternating chapters, the Grimes illustrate that there are as many ways to be a drunk as there are ways to quit drinking, and that one size does not fit all in the world of rehab and recovery. Family history, the psychology of drinking, and methods of treatment are all discussed from two quite different points of view. VERDICT The double memoir format results in sometimes jarring transitions between scenes and changes in narrative voice. The intended audience of this book will read it for the hope it provides.
Hafner, Katie. Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir. Random. Jul. 2013. 288p. bibliog. ISBN 9781400069361. $26. MEMOIR
Freelance journalist Hafner (A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano) turned her reporter’s eye on her own home in this chronicle of a year-long experiment in multigenerational living when her long-estranged and emotionally needy mother moved in with Hafner and her teenaged daughter. Employment woes and widowhood complete the mix, which was combustible from the start. Hafner’s complicated family history provides the backdrop to this frank retelling of a year in the life of an articulate member of the sandwich generation. VERDICT What obligation do you have to an aging, unusually difficult, parent? When does nurturing a teenager become enabling? Most importantly, what do you owe yourself? Hafner’s midlife juggling act, presented here warts-and-all, will appeal to an army of readers whose major difficulty will be finding time in their day to read the book.
Hudgins, Andrew. The Joker: A Memoir. S. & S. Jun. 2013. 352p. ISBN 978147671271. $28.99. MEMOIR
It took poet Hudgins (American Rendering: New and Selected Poems; English, Ohio State Univ.) a long time to decode the meaning of words in childhood. Once he did, Hudgins embarked on a compulsive course of using those words to tell joke after joke. Racist jokes, misogynistic jokes, religious jokes, dead baby jokes—you name the joke, Hudgins has told it at some point during his awkward childhood, uneasy adolescence, or imploding first marriage. In fact, he’s still telling those jokes today, only now he’s explicating them to ensure that readers understand why boys from farms tell jokes about sheep that may leave some…uncomfortable. VERDICT A former girlfriend and psychologist speculated that Hudgins might have Tourette’s syndrome, which could explain the almost mantra-like repetition of non-PC jokes and language all through the book. Ultimately, the difficult family situations and early life experiences Hudgins recounts fade deep into the background—overshadowed rather than illuminated—by the endless flood of jokes that Hudgins keeps telling us are funny.
Walker, Ray. The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France. Gotham. Jul. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781592408122. $26. MEMOIR
Walker, a California native, worked in finance till he discovered a love of all things grape-related on a wine-tasting junket. A growing infatuation with wine production motivated Walker to give up his day job and learn about winemaking from the ground up (not a figure of speech—there’s lots of talk about soil here). The tension between following your dreams and not knowing the least bit about the language of those dreams (French, in this case) forms the basis of this unpretentious story of a man on a mission. VERDICT Walker’s enthusiasm for Burgundy (the wines and the region) and his resulting relocation to France will appeal to baby boomers and readers who suspect there is some better life out there, somewhere. His completely nonsnobbish, plain-English approach to discussing wine is refreshing.
Wesolowska, Monica. Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. Hawthorne. 2013. 199p. ISBN 9780986000713. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780986000720. MEMOIR
With a heartbreaking clarity and precision, Wesolowska (Univ. of California, Berkeley) retells the story of the 38 days of her son’s life. Silvan, her first child, suffered a catastrophic brain injury at or before birth and Wesolowska and her husband soon found themselves immersed in a world of pain, ethical decisions, and uncertainty. The facts of Silvan’s short, hard life are almost too difficult to read, but Wesolowska doesn’t flinch in their retelling. VERDICT This is a brutal story, beautifully told. When the only question you can answer on behalf of a beloved child is “What would be a good death?” The only rule that remains is love, and Wesolowska leaves readers with no doubt that 38 days of love can be a whole life.