Award-winning novelist, poet, and MacArthur Fellow Cisneros (Have You Seen Marie?, 2012, etc.) describes her first novel, The House on Mango Street (1983), as a series of discrete vignettes that could be read as a whole “to tell one big story…like beads in a necklace.” That description is apt, as well, for this warm, gently told memoir assembled from essays, talks, tributes to artists and writers, introductions, and poems, most previously published over the last several decades. “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything,” Cisneros once wrote as a contributor’s note. But she admits her identity has been shaped, as well, by her proud, stern Mexican father, “intelligent, self-taught” Mexican-American mother, and by her childhood in working-class Chicago. Although she exalts in her identity as a Latina, she realized on a trip to Mexico, when she was 30, that like other “naive American children of immigrants,” she was “filled with nostalgia for an imaginary country—one that exists only in images borrowed from art galleries and old Mexican movies.” Cisneros chronicles the creation of her first novel, begun in graduate school at the University of Iowa, when she was 22, and completed on the Greek island of Hydra in a whitewashed house with “thick walls, gentle lines, and rounded corners, as if carved from feta cheese.” Homes feature in many pieces: the apartments her family moved into, always looking for cheaper rent; the house they finally bought, where the author had a closet-sized bedroom; her house in San Antonio that she painted purple, raising objections from the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission. Besides reflecting on her writing, Cisneros discloses a period of severe, suicidal depression when she was 33; a tantalizing family secret; and eulogies for her parents.
A charming, tender memoir from an acclaimed Mexican-American author.
This boyhood memoir reveals much more than it ever explicitly states, with its tight focus on boyhood, brotherhood, estrangement, and reconciliation.
An art professor and National Book Award–winning illustrator (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 2011), Moser writes that his older brother, Tommy, was actually the better artist of the two. He was also more troubled, though when Tommy gets the climactic chance to speak (or write) in his own words, a different perspective emerges. “Most of my memories of that time have the visual qualities of dreams: the images are slightly out of focus and dissolve at the edge,” writes the author. “The palette is muted and nearly void of color.” With a prose style that is precise, understated, and that rarely veers toward sentimentality, Moser describes coming of age in Chattanooga in an era permeated by racism and where any sign of oddness or weakness encouraged bullying. Both boys carried a “chip of inferiority”—the author was fat, dyslexic, and not athletic; his brother had developmental problems that kept him behind in school. With his brother as instigator (in the author’s memory), they fought so hard that the police once were summoned. Tommy dropped out of military school, remained an apparently unrepentant racist, and enjoyed more of a successful life than one might have expected. The author rejected the racism of his upbringing, studied theology, and became a preacher before he found renown as an artist (his illustrations highlight the chapters). Yet the narrative isn’t simply that black and white—their mother’s best, lifelong friend was black, and both boys enjoyed playing with a black friend—and a climactic exchange of letters suggests how deeply each brother had misjudged the other through their extended estrangement of adulthood. Before Tommy’s death, they enjoyed eight years of a brotherhood they had never known before, and the author describes the book as “an homage to him as well as a history of our burdened brotherhood.”
With masterful narrative control, Moser reveals the narrowness of perspective as well as the limitations of memory.
A razor-sharp memoir that reveals the woman behind the wine glass.
Addiction’s death grip and the addict’s struggle to escape it is an old story, but in Salon personal essays editor Hepola’s hands, it’s modern, raw, and painfully real—and even hilarious. As much as readers will cry over the author’s boozy misadventures—bruising falls down marble staircases, grim encounters with strangers in hotel rooms, entire evenings’ escapades missing from memory—they will laugh as Hepola laughs at herself, at the wrongheaded logic of the active alcoholic who rationalizes it all as an excuse for one more drink. This is a drinking memoir, yes, and fans of Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story (1996) will recognize similar themes, but Hepola moves beyond the analysis of her addiction, making this the story of every woman’s fight to be seen for who she really is. Generation X women, in particular, will recognize an adolescence spent puzzling over the rash of parental divorces and counting calories as a way to stay in control of a changing world. Hepola strews pop-culture guideposts throughout, so any woman who remembers both Tiger Beat magazine and the beginning of the war on drugs will find herself right at home. It was an age when girls understood that they weren’t destined to be housewives but were not so clear on the alternatives, and it’s no wonder the pressure led many to seek the distance that drinking promised. Promises, of course, can lead to all sorts of trouble, and Hepola tells the naked truth of just how much trouble she got into and how difficult it was to pull herself out. Her honesty, and her ultimate success, will inspire anyone who knows a change is needed but thinks it may be impossible.
A treasure trove of hard truths mined from a life soaked in booze.
Bookslut founder and editor Crispin’s account of how she set off in search of meaning by following in the footsteps of dead writers, artists, and composers.
After confiding suicidal impulses to a friend and then being confronted with a possible trip to a psychiatric hospital, the author knew she had to act. So she packed her suitcases and left for Europe to be among the “wandering souls who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere.” With mordant wit and a dash of bravado, Crispin interweaves the story of her journey to commune with the spirits of men and women who shared her existential crises with autobiographical details and astute critical insights. In Berlin, she meditated on the despair that sent William James fleeing from the United States while contemplating her own sense of personal failure. In Trieste, she reflected on the life of James Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, a woman who loved a man she could not count on. In the south of France, Crispin mused on the life and work of another kindred spirit, Margaret Anderson, a fellow Midwesterner who founded and co-edited the Little Review, one of the most influential avant-garde literary magazines of the early 20th century. After years of struggle, her work would all be destroyed in a court battle over her serialization of Ulysses, a book deemed too obscene for American readers. Constantly questioning the choices of her “guides” and finding no easy answers to her own concerns about life and love, Crispin continued to travel and “chase discomfort.” Yet by the time she reached the last destination in the book, the Greek island of Zakynthos, she could embrace the randomness of a life journey that was now literally lived at the flip of a coin. Through moments of ennui, drunkenness, and intense joy, Crispin had unexpectedly discovered meaning in the ever renewing possibilities of a life lived in fluidity.
From a Pulitzer Prize–winning theater and book critic, a memoir about being raised in upper-class black Chicago, where families worked tirelessly to distance themselves as much from lower-class black people as from white people.
Born in 1947, Jefferson (On Michael Jackson, 2006) has lived through an era that has seen radical shifts in the way black people are viewed and treated in the United States. The civil rights movement, shifting viewpoints on affirmative action, and the election of the first black president, with all the promise and peril it held: the author has borne witness to changes that her parents could only have dreamed about. Jefferson was born in a small part of Chicago where a “black elite” lived, to a father who was the head of pediatrics at Provident, the country’s oldest black hospital, and a socialite mother. The author describes a segment of the population intent on simultaneously distinguishing itself from both white people and lower-class black people and drawing from both groups to forge its own identity. She writes about being raised in a mindset that demanded the best from her and her family, while she also experienced resentment regarding the relative lack of recognition for the achievements they had earned. Jefferson tells a story of her parents seeing Sammy Davis Jr. on stage, early in his career, when he hadn’t yet established himself enough to completely let his own unique style shine through. Her parents could see the change coming, though—the self-assuredness in his performance—and they saw that as emblematic of their own rise.
Jefferson swings the narrative back and forth through her life, exploring the tides of racism, opportunity, and dignity while also provocatively exploring the inherent contradictions for Jefferson and her family members in working so tirelessly to differentiate themselves.
An Atlantic contributing editor’s refreshingly bold and incisive account of how she came to celebrate her status as a single woman.
As a young woman, Bolick was in turmoil over the “dual contingencies” that govern female existence: “whom to marry and when it will happen.” She had always believed that she wanted marriage; yet even her earliest relationships revealed that while she enjoyed loving men, she was “most alive when alone.” Continually questioning how she wanted to live her life, she spent her early adulthood in and out of committed and noncommitted relationships. But it wasn’t until her 40th birthday that the still-single Bolick had the insight that would change her attitudes toward spinsterhood and show her that she “was now in possession of not only a future, but also a past.” In looking at the biographies of literary women she especially admired—most notably, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Neith Boyce and Maeve Brennan—she realized that all had lived full and vigorous lives that included loving across genders or within the context of open marriages. Moreover, she also discovered that these women were part of a larger history of women who had actively chosen to seek alternatives to traditional heterosexual/monogamous lifestyles. As Bolick traces her evolution into a woman unapologetic for her choices and unafraid of her own personal freedom, she also reclaims the derogatory term “spinster” for all females, married or not. For her, the word is “shorthand for holding on to that…which is independent and self-sufficient” rather than one that gestures toward prudery, coldness and repression. Ultimately, to be a spinster is to be part of a distinguished sisterhood of women boldly “living life on their own terms.”
A sexy, eloquent, well-written and -researched study/memoir.
An award-winning staff writer for the New Yorker offers a probing account of his lifetime passion for surfing.
Though Finnegan (Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, 1998, etc.) was not “a beach kid,” family friends showed him how to enjoy riding the waves of the nearby Pacific Ocean. Eventually, surfing became an interest he pursued with growing avidity as his parents moved between Southern California and Hawaii. Between detailed accounts of his encounters with the waves of San Onofre and Honolua Bay, Finnegan interweaves stories of growing up a bookish boy among Hawaiian natives who hated him for being haole (white) yet also finding friendship among fellow outsiders who saw beyond race and bonded over surfing. A “sunburnt pagan,” Finnegan was gradually initiated into the deeper mysteries of the ocean that created the waves he rode with such dedicated absorption. He became like the early Hawaiian pioneers of surfing: not exactly “barbaric” (as these practitioners were considered by Christian missionaries) but still part of a group “typecast as truants and vagrants.” In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the author pushed the limits of freedom by experimenting with sex and drugs and dropping in and out of college. Yet surfing remained a constant throughout the chaos of his youth. In his mid-20s, he began an epic quest for the ultimate wave that took him to Guam, Samoa, Fiji, Australia, Java, and, eventually, Africa. Finnegan’s journals of his experiences form the backbone of his minutely detailed rendering of days spent sizing up swells and riding to glory. As brilliant and lucid as some of these descriptions are, they sometimes overwhelm the rest of the narrative, which includes, among many others, stories about the life-changing experiences in apartheid South Africa that turned him away from fiction and toward a career as a prominent journalist. The book nevertheless provides a fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession.
A writer and professor’s account of the trauma she suffered in the wake of a murder committed by a close friend.
Defunct magazine editor Butcher (English/Ohio Wesleyan Univ.) met Kevin Schaeffer, the sweet-faced boy who would become her best friend, three days into her freshman year at Gettysburg College. They were kindred spirits who “enjoyed familiarity in all things,” found solace in each other for being social outsiders and knew “absolutely nothing of loss.” Then, less than two months before their graduation in 2009, Kevin suddenly snapped and stabbed to death his ex-girlfriend, Emily Silverstein. Like the rest of Gettysburg, Butcher was stunned. But what she found especially disturbing was that two hours before the murder, a normal-seeming Kevin had walked her home from an evening out. The aftermath of the murder caused chaos in the author’s personal life and relationships, yet she stubbornly refused to abandon her friend when almost everyone else did. Tormented by survivor’s guilt and eventually diagnosed with PTSD, Butcher became obsessed with the incident and with trying to understand the reasons behind her friend’s behavior. She scoured her memories and public documents for clues. What she discovered were dark truths about the nature of their relationship. Kevin was a depressive who had tried to commit suicide during his junior year. When he murdered his girlfriend, it was after he had stopped taking his antidepressants. Butcher had understood Kevin’s impulse toward self-destruction because she had experienced it as a young teen. Yet she had done nothing to help him. Ultimately, the author realized that her distress came from the fact that her best friend’s actions had presented her with a mirror image of her own heart. With equal parts horror and anguish, she understood that “the chain of events that led to Emily’s death [were] events that could happen to any of us.”
In June 2000, diagnosed with an extremely rare appendix cancer, Lea’s husband chose to undergo an experimental surgery to excise cancerous growths filling his abdomen, followed by several days of hot chemotherapy. Post-surgery complications resulted in his suffering an “anoxic insult,” loss of oxygen to the brain. After the siege to his body, he emerged weak, disoriented, and unable to remember anything. In her candid, unsentimental debut memoir, Lea tells the story of two survivors—her husband, Richard, and herself—as they have confronted changes in their identity, relationship, and family as a result of his trauma. She interweaves a chronicle of Richard’s medical challenges with her account of a 23-year marriage that was often infused with anger: Richard’s erupted in violent attacks on their young son, Lea’s in rebellion against responsibilities as a wife and mother. Yearning to be wild, she turned to drink, often blacking out, sometimes for minutes; “other times, most of a night would go by and I wouldn’t know what had happened.” She was an alcoholic for years before she finally went to Alcoholics Anonymous; by the time of Richard’s operation, the marriage had improved. As Richard’s caregiver, though, anger surfaced again: she admits that she does not like “leaving the role of his lover to take on what feels like becoming his nurse, teacher, and mother.” But she is “determined to become the fiercest, most virtuous caregiver anyone has ever seen.” Their daughter accused Lea of controlling Richard’s story by publishing her version, and sometimes her assertions are troubling: Lea writes, for example, that “Richard isn’t experiencing grief for a lost self” because he is “helpless to find that former being.” But readers will get little sense of what Richard truly feels, and grief seems a distinct possibility.
A forthright memoir that narrates an engrossing journey of self-discovery and fierce devotion.
Agent and producer Phillips begins her candid debut memoir by recounting three miserable years as assistant to Judy Garland, “a demented, demanding, supremely talented drug addict,” a self-destructive drunk who lived on a cocktail of pills downed with limitless bottles of liebfraumilch. Enraptured with Garland from childhood, Phillips quickly became disillusioned with the woman she was charged to travel with, minister to, dress, feed, and, most of all, manage to get on stage. Despite feeling exploited and angry, Phillips admits that Garland served as “the lens through which I have seen, lived, and dealt with my life” and gave her “the armor to face the world.” As this sometimes-venomous and often very funny memoir shows, there were many deep chinks in that armor. After leaving Garland, the author became an agent at Creative Management Agency; her first client was 16-year-old Liza Minnelli, Garland’s “brilliant and lovely” daughter. Phillips took her under her wing, starting her on a dazzling career. After seeing her perform on TV variety shows, producers and directors clamored to hire her, and Phillips saw her own reputation rise. Along the way, she signed Robert Redford (“an actor who has both good looks and real ability”), Peter Sellers, David Bowie, and Barbra Streisand, among others. Planning to represent Liza exclusively, she resigned from CMA, where she had worked for 15 years. But Liza suddenly, and without explanation, dumped her, leaving her stunned, depressed, and unemployed. When friends invited her to see a musical production at the Actors’ Studio, she reluctantly dragged herself out of the house. That evening changed her life, and she decided to reinvent herself as a producer, starting with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
An unsparing look at the dark side of show business.
One man’s search for his childhood bully, who turned out to be far more than that.
Sent to a Swiss boarding school run with clocklike precision at the age of 10, Kurzweil (Leon and the Champion Chip, 2010, etc.) endured a year of torment, especially from one student, a bully named Cesar Augustus. Thirty years later, the author’s nemesis appeared as a character in one of his children’s books, an event that triggered him to search for Cesar, as he still remembered the pain and shame of the verbal and physical abuse he suffered. Over the course of 10 years, Kurzweil became a master sleuth and discovered that Cesar was far more than a bully. Using the Internet and many other resources, the author discovered that Cesar had been involved in a major advance-fee banking scam, fronted by the Badische Trust Consortium, which involved millions of dollars, fake princes and knights, high-profile lawyers and gullible clients longing for the funds to finance their dreams. Kurzweil explores his longing to connect with and confront the bully of his childhood, who had become an adult con artist convicted twice yet still seemingly intent on scamming people in one way or another. His story reads like a European version of American Hustle, complete with men in monocles and silk ascots, fancy dinners in expensive restaurants and his own methods of espionage that he used to obtain information. His fast-paced narrative, with its rich details of the intricate nature of the scam and his uncanny ability to ferret out the truth, almost masks his underlying desire to talk to Cesar about that year in school. When he finally does, readers receive a satisfactory ending to this 40-year drama.
Full of intrigue and suspense, the story follows the bizarre twists and turns of one man’s journey to find and confront his childhood tormentor—ready-made for a film treatment.