Laughing at Life | Memoir

All but one of the memoirs this month are by writers better known for work in other genres—fiction, mostly—but they all indicate that the modern American memoir is alive and well. The authors of these titles are preoccupied with coming to terms with the impact others, especially family members, have on us. But there’s a lot of humor here, too, which goes to show that laughing at life is sometimes the best way to get through it.

Connors, Philip. All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found. Norton. Feb. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9780393088762. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393246483. MEMOIR
Connors’s memoir describes his efforts to make sense of All the Wrong Placesthe suicide of his brother, Dan. They were not very close at the time of this event, but he gradually comes to find that Dan’s death, especially the manner of it, has become the defining moment of his life. Almost as a way of avoiding writing directly about the suicide, the author spends the early part of his book discussing his experiences as a copy editor at the Wall Street Journal immediately following his brother’s death. Gradually the details of Dan’s suicide are revealed as Connors begins looking into the events surrounding it, searching for any clues as to why his brother killed himself. He eventually travels to New Mexico, where his brother was living at the time of his death, to obtain legal documents and talk to legal experts about the suicide. The author eventually moves to New Mexico to work as a fire lookout (as detailed in his previous memoir, Fire Season), in effect connecting with his brother and making peace with his death. VERDICT Though at times too revealing about his life (his need to tell us about his phone-sex experiences struck this reviewer as odd), this is an honest account of one man’s coming to terms with a tragic personal event. [See Prepub Alert, 8/4/14.]

redstarHodgman, George. Bettyville. Viking. Mar. 2015. 277p. ISBN 9780525427209. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698158450. MEMOIR
BettyvilleThis is a superior memoir, written in a witty and episodic style, yet at times it’s heartbreaking. It’s also, though just under 300 pages, an especially dense one, filled with a lifetime’s worth of reflection and story after fascinating story. Starting out rather conventionally as the tale of a son’s return home to rural Paris, MO, to take care of his ailing mother (the “Betty” of the title), the narrative slowly begins to delve into Hodgman’s difficulties accepting himself for who he is, particularly as a gay man. While his relationship with his mother is a close one, it quickly becomes clear that his sexual orientation is just the most significant of many things that he and his family do not discuss. Hodgman is also very good at detailing how much rural America has changed, almost never for the better, in the last 30 years. VERDICT Readers from many backgrounds will be able to identify with the author because his book is really a plea for us to accept everybody for who they are, no matter what their story may be, or what kinds of lives they may lead. [See Prepub Alert, 9/21/14.]

Kurzweil, Allen. Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully. Harper. Jan. 2015. 304p. illus. photos. ISBN 9780062269485. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062269508. MEMOIR
Novelist Kurzweil (A Case of Curiosities) has given us a Whipping Boystory too strange not to be true. As a ten year old attending boarding school in Switzerland, he was the victim of an especially cruel bully with the improbable name of Cesar Augustus. Then one day, Cesar was gone. Kurzweil finished out the year, and he, too, left the school, never to return. But he is nagged by memories of Cesar, and with his wife’s encouragement, he begins to search for him. In the process he comes across a financial scheme that makes Bernie Madoff’s look positively banal. One of the major players in the scheme is Cesar, whom Kurzweil eventually confronts. One flaw of the book is that, though what Cesar is described as having done to Kurzweil is horrendous, we are given an inadequate subjective or introspective sense of how the bullying made Kurzweil feel as an adult. For a memoirist, the author is unusually distant from himself, making Cesar and his fellow schemers the true subject of this book. In that sense, Cesar still has the final word. VERDICT Criticisms of this memoir qua memoir aside, Kurzweil paces his book beautifully. Recommended even for those who normally don’t read nonfiction or memoirs. It reads like a thriller, is very funny, and in the right hands, would make a great movie. [See Prepub Alert, 7/7/14.]

Screening Room Lightman, Alan. Screening Room: Family Pictures. Pantheon. Feb. 2015. 272p. illus. notes. ISBN 9780307379399. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101870037. MEMOIR
Lightman’s acknowledgements section reveals that he has made up two key characters in his book—an “aunt” and an “uncle.” He then makes the more typical disclaimer about stories being compressed, combined, etc., in order to not impede the flow of the narrative. These two details may lead readers to question if this is a memoir at all, if by “memoir” we mean a more or less true accounting of events in one’s life. Those considerations aside, this is a fairly straightforward book, written in a discursive style. The focus is on Lightman’s grandfather and father, especially the harsh influence the former had on the latter. Lightman’s own relationship with his father is conflicted, but he increasingly comes to sympathize with him. Later chapters relate conversations he had with his father shortly before his death. Ultimately his father becomes the centerpiece of this book, a sensitive and artistic man compelled to work in the family business—managing and operating movie theaters—with his domineering father as his lifelong boss. VERDICT A fine addition to Lightman’s oeuvre, this work is a great story tinged with nostalgia for an America that no longer exists. The author grew up in Memphis, TN, and the book is full of quirky history and details about that iconic city. [See Prepub Alert, 8/4/14.]


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Derek Sanderson About Derek Sanderson

Derek Sanderson is currently Assistant Librarian for Instruction Services at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. When not reviewing books or at the library he enjoys spending time with his son, reading, listening to the Grateful Dead, making mix tapes, and watching whichever sports are in season.