I know that the first two letters of “memoir” spell “me,” but the kind of memoir I like best is one that goes beyond being simply a personal account but rather tells a larger story. The Map of My Dead Pilots by Colleen Mondor (Lyons Press, 2012) does exactly that. From 1993 to 1997 the author worked as the dispatch coordinator for an air transport company headquartered in Fairbanks, Alaska. This isn’t a neatly narrated, chronological account with a clean beginning and a clear end. Rather, in lyrical, impressionistic prose she relates the stories she tells of the pilots she knew—some still living and some now dead—to the myth and the reality of Alaska. It’s a story of danger, of loss, of courage of unsavory landing strips and forbidding mountains, of delivering mail and making mercy flights, of adrenaline and prayer, of unpredictably changeable winds and oncoming storms, of snow, of difficult decisions, of good fortune and bad luck, and, always, of the unbelievable cold. But it’s also about why we choose the lives we do, how we rewrite our pasts to make sense of ourselves to the person we’ve become, what we choose to remember and how and why we forget what we do: it’s about mythmaking, storytelling, and memory. Mondor says: “If I remember the stories, then I know the life I lived was true; I know it happened; I know that once upon a time this is was who we were and how we lived.”
In Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, Patricia Volk delivers an affection-filled tribute to both family and food. In a series of vignettes, she lovingly describes her adored extended family. Each chapter, titled for a different food, from Butter Cookies to Caviar, is primarily devoted to one of her relatives. Among them are her great-grandfather, who was the first to import pastrami to New York; her grandfather, who invented the wrecking ball; her mother, forever trying to improve her daughters (“Mom made me, and now she will make me better”); her beautiful and best beloved older sister, Jo Ann; her embittered Aunt Lil, who embroidered a pillow with the phrase, “I’ve never forgotten a rotten thing anyone has done to me”; and her magnetic father, who taught her:
…how to swim, speak French, drive, eat using the utensils American-style (which nobody in America seems to do), spot welder, solder, emboss, ride English, ride western, merengue, sing pop songs from World War I’s “Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy” up through his favorite—the one that chokes him up, although he’s not sure why—“Younger Than Springtime,” remove a splinter, sap a blister by sticking a sterilized threaded needle through it then tying the exposed ends in a knot, carve a Thanksgiving turkey, chop, dice, and mince, make canapés, deglaze a pan, suck meat off a lobster a lobster doesn’t know it has, blind a mugger, kill a rapist with a rabbit punch, remove stains, cloisonné, and intimidate a tennis opponent by clenching my teeth then drawing my lips back and growling like a gas-station dog.
Volk’s family is sufficiently odd enough to keep anyone’s attention, while her writing (she’s also the author of a novel and two collections of stories) is both witty and tender. I pored over the all-too-few family photographs, and wished that that I, too, could be part of the whole Volk/Morgen clan.
Darin Strauss’s moving memoir, Half a Life ,is painfully honest and inherently dramatic without seeming either precious or self-pitying. When the car he was driving hit and killed Celine, a high school classmate whom he knew only casually, Strauss’s life was, as one might suspect, altered forever. Although he was held to be blameless in Celine’s death (what insurance companies refer to as “a no fault fatality”), Strauss found that this event—which occurred nearly 20 years ago—has now shaped almost half his life. In prose that is introspective, evocative, and unaffected, Strauss shares with us his musings on life, death, blame, and self-doubt. I wondered, as I read it, how I would have lived the rest of my life after the parent of someone for whose death I was, however innocently, responsible, says this to you:
I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault . . . But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now . . . Because you are living it for two people . . . Can you promise me? Promise.
So how do you live your life after that?
There are so many memoirs being published these days that the ones I read sometimes blend into one gigantic life story in my head, but there’s no way I’m going to confuse Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life with any other memoir any time soon. I had forgotten, until I reread it recently, what a delight it was to spend time with this self-described “ordinary” person, learning her quirks and hang-ups, her likes and dislikes, her everyday (and not) adventures (including the inspired way she attempted to get out of paying a parking ticket—you’ll love it, trust me), all arranged, encyclopedia-style, from A (“Amy” ;“Anxious, Things That Make Me”; “Ayn Rand”) to Y (“You”), with appropriate cross-references and clever drawings to supplement the text. To get a sense of Rosenthal’s writing style (and humor), here’s how the Foreword to the book begins:
I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.
I am not a foodie, although some of my best friends are. Thus, there’s no way I would have picked up Kate Moses’s Cakewalk to read but for the photograph on the cover, which made me smile. (See, you can judge a book by its cover!) I continued reading it because Moses is a writer of salutary talents. And if I hadn’t read it, I would have missed not only an affecting memoir, but also some recipes that I feel sure—if I were a baker— I would immediately try out. If my oven works. Luckily, those friends of mine who do bake have—in return for lending them the book—let me try samples of the ever-so-tasty results of several of Moses’s recipes. Mainly focused on her life during the 1960s and 70s, her memoir is marked by parental discord and differences (her mother and father were spectacularly unsuited to one another), frequent moves, and a thorny family history. Cooking (and reading) were her lifelines out of the unhappy situations she found herself in. Each chapter includes a recipe, and each—from cheese cake to linzer tort, from spiced pecan cake to chocolate truffles—sounds more scrumptious than the one before. One bit of advice I feel compelled to give: brownies, page 209. Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I know the first version (with walnuts) is amazing.
Anyone with the least interest in 20th century history shouldn’t miss Eugenia Ginzburg’s two memoirs, Journey Into the Whirlwind and its sequel, Within the Whirlwind. I first read them about a quarter of a century ago. I still remember how reading them knocked the breath out of me, as though I’d been run over by an out-of-control truck. I first learned, from reading them, of the true horrors of Stalin’s reign of terror. As I turned the pages, I was forced to consider how one can never predict how a friend or a foe, or oneself, for that matter, will behave under the most extreme circumstances. In Ginzburg’s accounts, she presents both the highs and lows of human behavior, and by extension, humanity itself. Ginzburg spent 18 years caught up in the nightmare that gripped the Soviet Union during the height of Stalin’s powers, when he turned on loyal Communist Party members, religious minorities, and anyone else who displeased him. The picture I have in my mind is that of a paranoid Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, screaming almost randomly, “off with his head,” in a world in which nothing makes sense. Only Stalin’s era was no fantasy, and the consequences of his paranoia were terribly real. The great, staying power of these accounts arises partly from the stark facts of history, but mostly from Ginzburg’s unadorned and unaffected writing about her situation. From her arrest (for not speaking up against a colleague who was later accused of being a Trotskyist) to her incarceration in prisons and jails and huts (unheated) in Siberia’s Gulag, we are with Ginzburg every step of the way. And I was struck by how often she finds consolation in the poetry she remembers.
Every once in a while, I run across a book that has such wide appeal that I can easily imagine giving copies to nearly everyone on my gift list. One such book—and my favorite work of non-fiction this year—is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. The author, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, contemplates the history of his ancestors—a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family—from the latish 19th century through World War II. He uses as the linchpin for his discussion a collection of 246 netsukes, miniature ornamental carvings (including one of a hare with amber eyes), which were originally collected by the first Charles Ephrussi, and handed down from generation to generation. In the process, the collection moved from Japan to Paris to Vienna, back to Japan, and thence to the author, in London. The Ephrussis were a cultural force both in Vienna and Paris. You can see what was once their house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse even now. Charles was a patron of many artists and writers; he was also the model for Swann in Proust’s great novel, and he appears in Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he’s the man in the back, in profile, with a top hat and a reddish beard). I’m giving this book to friends and family who love history or biographies or art or visiting and/or reading about Paris or Vienna; to those who enjoy family sagas and, especially, to anyone who appreciates graceful, understated writing. And those who love books with family trees. Kudos to the publisher, FSG, for producing a book that’s both a pleasure to hold and behold.
by Bernard Cooper
In The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper takes a familiar trope—a complex and unreliable parent—and gives it a unique spin as he looks back on his stormy relationship with his father. Edward Cooper was a prominent Los Angeles divorce attorney, once seemingly invincible (at least to the author) but now sinking into dementia, whose constant philandering was hardly a secret from his sons (or presumably, his wife). Now, with his mother and all three of his older brothers dead, Cooper attempts to understand the complicated bond with this most difficult man, which means trying to come to grips with his father’s strong disapproval of both his choice of career as a writer (the elder Cooper wanted Bernard to become a lawyer, as all three of his brothers did) and his homosexuality. As you might imagine, the father/son relationship did not noticeably improve when his father sent him a bill for nearly 2 million dollars—the cost of raising him. This moving account is liberally leavened with humor and never morphs into the oh-poor-me school of autobiography.
Truth to tell, I have a real love/hate relationship with memoirs. Because I very much enjoy reading about people’s lives (an unappreciative therapist might term my predilection voyeurism), I gravitate toward the biography and memoir section of libraries and bookstores. But despite the fact that memoirs are, by definition, self-referential and are therefore—to one degree or another—filled with variations of me, me, me, I don’t really enjoy (and therefore tend not to read) what I call the “Children of Job,” sub-genre of memoir-writing. You know the type, and I don’t need to name any names. Rather, what I’m looking for are engaging characters, enlightening and/or entertaining stories, and good writing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. Here’s the first:
If you, like me, could watch “Law and Order” reruns eight hours a day, or if you’ve ever been curious about the inner workings of police departments, you’ll want to rush right out and read Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood. After graduating from Harvard, Conlon came home and joined the New York City Police Department, walking a beat in some of the worse housing projects in the South Bronx. His wide-ranging book is partly a memoir of his experiences (he is now working as a detective for the NYPD); the effects— pro and con—of the Giuliani anti-crime years; the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases; 9/11; and the scandals and the triumphs, both large and small, that mark the history of the NYPD. Nicely written (some of it appeared in the New Yorker as “Cop Diary,” written under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey) and filled with interesting characters (both cops and perps— wait, make that suspected perps), this is both a pleasure (and an education) to read.
Over the last decade or so, Diana Athill has written a series of well-reviewed accounts of her life as an editor and writer in London. It’s hard to see how any inveterate reader wouldn’t devour them with joy. Yet each time a new book was published, I wondered anew why her first—and to my mind, still her best (as much as I’ve enjoyed the others)—memoir, Instead of a Letter, had never been reprinted. I loved it when I read it in 1962 and lent copies to all my friends until it went out of print and I sent my last remaining copy to a friend in Australia a few years ago. But now, mirabile dictu, her publisher, W. W. Norton, has remedied this situation and made Instead of a Letter available for a new generation of readers. I have to admit that I had some misgivings as I opened the new edition to the first page; I worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it. (As all re-readers know, this happens frequently.) But, to my great relief, I was quickly reassured that the book had not lost any of its appeal for me. Athill grew up bookish in a large country home outside of London that was owned by her grandparents. When she was 15, she fell passionately in love with a young man, whom she calls Paul, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford and a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force). When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, however, Diana knew that nothing would (or could) ever be the same. Does Paul live? Do they marry? Are they happy together? Readers of her later memoirs like Stet and Somewhere Towards the End will already know the answers to these questions; but even they, I think, will enjoy this early, sterling example of what a memoir can and should be.