Well-Read: 8 Great Memoirs

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


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As much as I enjoy a great novel, I am also drawn to the memoir. Thanks to books such as A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, the genre has taken a bit of a beating in the past few years but this does not deter me from continuing to enjoy a well-told story. Memory can be a tricky thing, and given that I read some of these books months and years ago, my recollection of what they’re about might be a little bit hazy. But that's the beauty of memoir! I'm happy to be sharing my 8 favorites of recent memory. 

Don’t Sing at the Table – Life Lessons From My Grandmothers—Adriana Trigiani

I am such a huge fan of Adriana’s fiction (Big Stone Gap, Very Valentine, Lucia, Lucia) that when the galley copy for her memoir arrived I sat down and read it almost in one sitting. An incredible storyteller, Trigiani weaves together the stories of her beloved grandmothers, Viola and Lucy, and through these stories we see how family tradition is carried through the generations. Both of these women managed a business as well as their families and showed Adriana how to be a strong, fearless and loving woman. There is much to learn from these very wise women and it will get you thinking about your own family stories.

Please Excuse My DaughterJulie Klam

Funny, witty, sarcastic, and entertaining storyteller, Klam grew up as the only daughter and one of three Jewish families in the exclusive town of Bedford, New York. With a traditional family—a father who earned the living and a mother who was content to be pampered and raised—Julie grew up to expect the same, skipping school to spend the day shopping or having lunch with her mother. Though lots of fun, this left Jullie indulged and unprepared for

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entering the ‘real world’ which she finds out on job interviews and when she ultimately marries and has a husband who expects something entirely different. Realizing she needs to be a grown-up when her own daughter is born, Klam realizes that she might just need to teach her daughter a few hard-learned lessons.

This Life Is in Your Hands—Melissa Coleman

The most recent in this list of memoirs, Melissa Coleman writes about her family’s life in the 1970’s on a back-to-nature farm in Maine. This is a beautifully written story about the ideal life in which her parents are striving to raise Melissa and her sister. There is much to celebrate and learn from this lifestyle, but the tragic loss of Melissa’s younger sister at the age of three when she wanders off and drowns in a nearby pond changes the course of the family. ”As a memoirist," Coleman writes, "my approach was to first, do the necessary research to get the events and details right, second, strive to write my perception of the events from a place of honesty with myself and compassion for others, and third, respect that others may have a different perception.”

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White DressSusan Jane Gilman

A graduate of Brown University, Gilman’s entertaining stories detail her life beginning on the Upper West Side of  NYC in the 1970’s where she lives with her less than conventional family. With an incredible ear for dialogue and a sharp sense of humor, Susan shares the stories of her family’s week at a Socialist retreat, her nights hanging out in the popular clubs of the time period and her meeting with one Mick Jagger at a party of her friend’s parents. Hysterical, a laugh out loud read and one of the best descriptions of the last person you’d expect to find upon a pedestal admiring herself in a pouffy white dress. (Legend has it that Susie needed to be coaxed down with chocolate and wine!)

Devotion—Dani Shapiro

Shapiro takes a long, hard, mid-life look at things in this highly praised memoir which examines the author’s relationships with family and her religion. When her young son begins to ask questions about God, religion and what they believe in, Dani is forced to search for answers. Written in the beautiful style she is known for, the reader is swept up in Shapiro’s journey which brings her to her Orthodox roots, yoga, meditation and ultimately to the exploration of

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the early loss of her father and the troubled relationship with her mother. Dani is brutally honest with herself and her readers, which of course makes for a compulsively readable memoir. (Tip: Dani is teaching a Memoir Workshop September 23-25 at Kripalu in Stockbridge, MA)

Everything is Going to be Great—Rachel Shukert

After graduating from NYU, Rachel Shukert was determined to stay in Manhattan in pursuit of working in the theater, rather than return home to Omaha, Nebraska. But when Shukert received an unpaid and silent role in a play scheduled to tour Europe she jumped at the chance, despite her mother’s not-so-subtle guilt and nagging. Upon arriving in Vienna, Rachel realizes that her passport went unstamped and thus, has the ability to go cavorting around Europe unchecked. A young actress’ dream, no? From Vienna to Zurich and ultimately Amsterdam, Shukert is spirited and full of sarcasm and wit as she takes her audience on a wild ride of mishaps in order to find herself.

Infidel—Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Born into a Somali family of devout Muslims, life seemed predestined for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Throughout her childhood Ali seemed to be going through the motions and was in acceptance, more or less, of what her life would become. It wasn’t until she was placed into an arranged marriage that Ayaan realized she was leading a life in which she did not believe.  Fleeing to Europe and settling in the Netherlands undeniably changed the course of Ali’s life as she was exiled from her family. This was, however, the main impetus for her involvement in political activism, fighting primarily for women’s humanitarian issues.

House Rules—Rachel Sontag

In this incredibly moving memoir, Sontag shares her story of the emotional abuse she was subjected to by her father, Stephen, a respected doctor. As Rachel tells her story, it is undeniable that emotional abuse can be as devastating as physical and or sexual abuse. From the outside it seemed an idyllic, suburban life but there was so much people outside of the Sontag home did not know. A father obsessed with control and Rachel who fights to escape his far-reaching grip. Sontag’s writing is so compelling that I felt like I was within the walls of the family house; all the while hoping for Rachel’s liberation to what hopefully awaited on the other side.  
Reading enthusiast and all around "book-pusher" Robin Kall can be heard live Saturday mornings from 7-8am on Reading With Robin WHJJ 920AM. Also streaming live at www.920whjj.com. Follow on Twitter @robinkall, and Facebook - Reading With Robin.


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