Best Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.

 

Rising Out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow****

RisingOutOfHatredDerek Black was the heir apparent to the White Supremacist throne, godson of David Duke, and the son of the founder of the largest hate site in the U.S. This gripping biography tells the story of his transformation, from racist wunderkind to social justice proponent. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As a young person bent on following his family’s toxic legacy, Black felt that part of the secret to gaining support was in softening the language that went with it. Rather than spewing angry racist jargon around, he argued, Caucasians should instead point to their own pride in ancestry. Everybody gets to be proud of who they are and where they came from, right? So his people just happened to be proud of being from Northern Europe. And then it follows that of course they would prefer to be surrounded by others like themselves. Thus, the call for a Euro-American homeland was, he argued, a reasonable demand.

Later he would hear some of his own catch-phrases used by members of the Trump cabinet.

Derek had never known anyone that wasn’t white; his parents had seen to that. When he went to the New College of Florida, he escaped the terrarium in which he’d been home-schooled, and he came to know a more diverse set of people. This story tells us not only of his own inner struggle and evolution, but also of the painstaking manner in which his new friends cultivated him and became an undeniable part of his life. They invited him to Shabbat meals regularly, gradually breaking down his resistance. In time he came to see the contradictions between the ideology in which he had been raised, and the reality of the real human beings that were now part of his life.

I am amazed at the patience and perseverance of the young people that changed his thinking. I myself would have beat feet far away from a character like this guy, particularly given the enormous stake he had in remaining exactly who he’d been raised to be. Befriend this person? Why would anyone? But they did it, and they met with success.

Black was inclined to withdraw from public life, to fade into the general population as quickly as possible, but his girlfriend persuaded him that since he had made a difference in the wrong way, he owed it to the world to counter that with a more public repudiation.

Saslow is a Pulitzer winner, and his writing is tight and urgent. I didn’t put this story down often once I had begun it. At the same time, Black’s story is told so intimately that it feels a little strange to suddenly realize that Saslow is in it, and we don’t get much information as to how he got there. I would have liked to see a more natural segue from his development, to his conversations with his biographer. It felt a bit abrupt to me.

This, however, is a small concern. The book is fascinating, and you should get it and read it.

So Close to Being the Sh*t Y’all Don’t Even Know, by Retta**

SoClosetobeingtheshHuh. Go figure.

Although I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, the television show for which this comedic actor has become famous, I thought I would enjoy her memoir. For one thing, she’s a big woman, and I love it when well-padded women have the courage to go on stage for a purpose other than disparaging themselves. At least one reviewer on Goodreads hadn’t watched her program, yet loved this book. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC; I want to like this book too, but I don’t.

Retta is the child of Liberian immigrants who sacrificed a great deal so that she could receive a stellar education. They had no clue that life would lead her to show business instead of medical school. She began her career by doing stand-up routines, and so I went to YouTube and watched a clip from Comedy Central, and I thought it was pretty good. But much of the humor she uses is in the delivery. Without the pauses, without the facial expressions and other body language, things that cannot be conveyed in writing, that routine comes out flat. I watched her perform her signature line, and whereas I didn’t feel the magic, I suspect context would improve it.

If the memoir were simply a little dull, I could likely go with a third star here, but there are aspects that I found abrasive. I don’t need to know all about the many thousands of dollars apiece that go into her handbag collection, and I wonder why anyone would find that kind of self-indulgence amusing. How many good causes could use that money? I don’t need all the details of what she does on the toilet; ew. And why insert a chapter complaining about the gifts she has received from others? Was she raised to be so ungracious? So much of the collection includes her great love for booze that I found myself wanting to hire a skywriter to fly over Southern California to say, GET HELP.

On the other hand, I’m a member of the Boomer generation. I suspect that a lot of Retta’s fan base is younger than I am. So if you already a big fan, you may like this book, but unless your pockets are deep—not deep enough for fifteen thousand dollar purses, but deep—I suggest waiting until you can get It free or cheap. Others may want to read something else. 

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.

Educated, by Tara Westover*****

educatedTara Westover’s memoir has created a lot of buzz, and all of it is justified. It’s the story of one woman’s journey from a fundamentally loving yet untenable home life, to the civilized world she has been raised to fear. Each chapter focuses on one meaningful event in the author’s life, and it’s told with sensitivity, grace, and yes, also a sprinkling of rage, because how can she not? But all told, Westover permits the balm of time and distance to balance her perspective.  This book is for sale now, and it’s going to be read for a very long time.

I received my copy of Educated free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley. That said, if you have to pay full jacket price for this book, your money will be well spent.

Westover grows up in a large family that is nominally Mormon (Latter Day Saints, or LDS), but she and her siblings are denied the tight-knit communal bond that most members of that faith experience.  Their father is deeply suspicious of the outside world including other church members, and as his pathology grows, they are increasingly isolated. Basic social expectations such as personal hygiene and clean clothing; inoculations against deadly diseases; a birth certificate; and an understanding of how to navigate within the greater society are denied her, as Dad’s survivalist views kick into gear. She is told the story of Ruby Ridge from the time she is tiny, but grows up believing this is an event that has happened to her own family, and that Federal agents might break into her own home at any time.

Veteran teachers like me are fascinated by the differences in how students process traumatic events, and Westover is a strong case in point. Some students experience the death of a beloved grandparent or divorcing parents, and they come undone and aren’t able to function normally for several years. Then there are remarkable young people like Westover that experience horror after horror exponentially and yet somehow, with little external assistance, they are able to claw themselves free of the rubble and become high achievers.

As Westover leaves home against the strident objections of her father, she struggles to reconcile the wider world with everything that she has been taught from the cradle, and she also struggles to win her family’s forgiveness and acceptance. As she is battered, sometimes physically, by one cruel rejection after another, a friend asks her, “Have you ever thought maybe you should just let them go?” And yet, for Tara, this is unthinkable.

There’s a lot of gritty material here, along with a number of experiences that are just weird, such as Tara’s brain-damaged mother becoming a local folk hero with her own brand of witch-doctor medicine.  There are also moments of dark humor that break up the misery and terror, along with an occasional kind or enlightening act on the part of a family member or member of the public that is able to wink through for a brief time in Tara’s life. But ultimately the thing that makes it possible to wade through the nightmare that constitutes much of Tara’s childhood is our knowledge, set within the book’s title and author description, that she will emerge triumphant.

Westover tells us that the bizarre system of beliefs and taboos practiced by her family are not typical of Mormon families, and in fact a bishop that counsels her once she arrives at Brigham Young University tries to help her separate herself, to some degree, from the madness that awaits her at home during school breaks.  This reviewer grew up alongside a number of Mormon classmates, and I have to agree that none of the things Westover’s parents brought down on her and her siblings is attributable to that church. That’s not how they work.

I highlighted dozens of passages that range from the wry, to the stupefying, to the outrageous, but when all is said and done, each is better when read within context. Go out and get this book. You won’t be sorry, and at the end of it, you’re almost guaranteed to look at your own family in a gentler light.

 

Interview with Westover:  https://www.cbsnews.com/video/tara-westovers-journey-from-off-the-grid-childhood-to-cambridge/

Hank & Jim, by Scott Eyman****

HankandJimFans of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart will want to read this biography, written by the author that recently wrote a biography of John Wayne. I was invited to read and review by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, and so I read it free in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale now.

The book is well crafted, and multiple aspects contribute to its success. The first is the unglamorous but essential research. Eyman used extensive interviews with both actors’ families as well as directors and other actors that had worked with them. The second is the thoughtful analysis. Eyman’s insights are intelligent and fairly measured, never becoming prurient, gossipy, or mawkish. The third is his friendly, congenial narrative, peppered with telling anecdotes that keep the pages turning.  It’s well organized and doesn’t rely on photographs to tell the story.

These actors belonged to my parents’ generation, and so for a long time I was not much interested in them. More recently, though, I’ve found it’s interesting to see their craft, their lives, and their work  as creatures of the time in which their careers blossomed, and as part of American entertainment history.

The truth is that I never cared much for Henry Fonda. The only one of his movies I saw in the theater was On Golden Pond, and the harsh way he spoke to his daughter on the screen—who was also his daughter in real life, Jane—was so brutal that I never wanted to see anything more that he’d done, apart from the occasional old movie I ran across on television.  Learning later that he was more or less the same father to her in real life didn’t help much. Eyman is unsparing as he describes this aspect of the Fonda family, but he also points to the mellower man he became later in life, and to the tremendous loyalty he showed his friends, Stewart foremost among them.

I was more interested in Jimmy Stewart, who left a more timeless body of work. Harvey is a film I loved enough to search out and watch in turn with each of my children.  Of course, at Christmas time I am inclined to pull out It’s a Wonderful Life, although none of my kids would watch it with me more than once. There was such heart in his roles.

Because I like Stewart’s work, I had already read one biography fairly recently. Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe dealt well with his war years as well as the early years of his life, and so I didn’t enjoy the first half of Eyman’s book—which covered the same ground again—as I did the second half, which I found both comforting in places as well as mesmerizing.  The second part also has more quotes by his children, who weren’t around for much of the stars’ earlier lives. And I came away with renewed respect for Jane Fonda, who had a harder road than I had previously understood.

Now I have half a dozen movie titles I want to watch, or watch again; that’s a sure sign of a strong biography. And it makes me think warmly of my own longstanding friends, some of whom I’ve known and loved almost as long as the 50 years that Hank and Jim were friends.

Recommended to fans of Fonda and Stewart, and to those that love good biographies; this would also make a nice Christmas gift for older relatives.

Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, by Jeff Fager*****

“‘Wille Nelson?’ Mike said in disgust. ‘Willie Nelson? I said Winnie and Nelson–as in Mandela!’ And then with real attitude he snapped, ‘Heard of them?’ He ended with a classic Mike Wallace line: ‘Excuse me, I didn’t realize I had wandered into the toy department.’ Mike then left the office and, walking down the hall, shouted back to Josh, ‘Good luck with your next career move!'”

FiftyYearsof6060 Minutes first aired in 1968, a year for news if ever there was one. It was brilliantly conceived as a television news magazine, covering multiple unrelated news stories in a single broadcast. Executive producer Jeff Fager offers the reader an insider’s peek; lucky me, I read it early and free thanks to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s for sale today.

60 Minutes did the stories nobody else was doing, and its correspondents were geniuses at persuading their subjects to open up and tell the world what it wanted to know. From President-elect Richard Nixon, who promised to ‘restore respect to the presidency’, to the torture of prisoners at Abu-Ghraib, 60 Minutes has been there and spoken to those that have done these things or borne witness to them.  I’ll bet I am not the only viewer that remembers the interview with the bitter, dying tobacco executive with throat cancer, rasping out what he knows on television. From Miss Piggy to the Ayatollah Khomeini, from Lance Armstrong to Khadafi, everyone has 15 minutes of fame…did they interview Andy Warhol? I’ll bet they did.

Just as on the show, the book touches briefly but meaningfully on each subject, complete with lovely color photographs, both formal and candid, and then moves on before one can become bored. The careers of the professionals that worked on the show, behind the scenes and on it, are also described. Perhaps the most poignant anecdote is when ancient Andy Rooney, past 90, developing Alzheimer’s, but still in the saddle, keeps forgetting that he is supposed to give a farewell address. He keeps returning long after he was going to get gone, and finally his son has to write cue cards for him to read on the air. Rooney seems vaguely puzzled when he discovers he has retired.

The whole thing is organized in congenial sections, decade by decade, but it’s the sort of book you can leave on your coffee table for guests to flip through.  If they are adults, I can almost guarantee they’ll say, “Oh hey. I remember this!” What a wonderful ice breaker.

Highly recommended; buy it in the hardcover format.

Petty, by Warren Zanes*****

pettyI posted this review almost two years ago, and at the time most of us considered that Petty had a lot of gas left in his tank. Of all the musical memoirs and biographies I have read–and there are many–this is the one I loved best. The loss of this plucky badass rocker hit me harder than the death of any public figure since Robin Williams died, so reposting this here is my way of saying goodbye to him. Hope he’s learning to fly.

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/11/02/petty-by-warren-zanes/

The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin*****

ThePriceofMySoulDevlin write this, her autobiography, when she was all of 23 years old. Had it been anyone else I would have considered it ridiculous, a juvenile pretention, but Bernadette Devlin was one of the primary fighters for Irish freedom during the tumultuous 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and given how events played out, it is likely that she wrote this while fully anticipating that she’d be killed in the struggle fairly early on. Goodness knows, the British cops tried. Here’s a bit of background information from Wikipedia:

 On 16 January 1981 she and her husband were shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who broke into their home near CoalislandCounty Tyrone. The gunmen shot Devlin fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers were watching the McAliskey home at the time, but failed to prevent the assassination attempt, indeed it has been claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, entered the house and waited for half an hour. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has claimed they were waiting for the couple to die. Another group of soldiers then arrived and transported her by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The paramilitaries had torn out the telephone and while the wounded couple were being given first aid by the newly arrived troops, a soldier ran to a neighbour’s house, commandeered a car, and drove to the home of a councillor to telephone for help. The couple were taken by helicopter to hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care.

 Soon after her recovery, the author-activist went on a speaking tour, and this reviewer was able to hear her talk when she came to the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.  Her intelligence, eloquence, and fierce, courageous nationalism left me spellbound. And yet, it was only recently that I learned she’d written a memoir over a decade earlier. I was even more amazed to find that it was available for sale, albeit used and fairly banged up; all praise to the internet. And so this time, instead of heaping praise upon the publishers, I will thank my youngest son for securing a copy for me at Christmas. It was worth the wait.

Devlin was orphaned, along with her sisters and brothers, when she was still a teenager. She and her siblings had a conversation and decided that they would raise themselves, rather than be parceled out to relatives and neighbors, broken up like pieces of a candy bar to be distributed willy-nilly by the church. But her parents left her a legacy, one that said not to let anyone shove a Devlin around. One of my favorite moments in her engaging narrative is early on, when her mother is being attended by a physician for a fallen arch in one foot. The doctor’s solution is to tightly bind it in hopes it will grow back to its proper configuration, but instead it becomes desperately deformed. One day when the doctor is rebandaging it, her mother complains of pain, and the doctor replies that there is no real pain; he says her mother is merely neurotic. In response, her mother raises her good foot and kicks the man across the room.

A woman after my own heart.

But the best passages, as the reader might expect, are those detailing the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and in particular the struggle based on social class regardless of religion. She tells of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful parade including small children and babies in their strollers is gunned down by cops. Devlin speaks of the “evil delight” she sees on the faces of violent cops as they beat people down at an earlier demonstration.

There are lessons to be learned here, and now is the time to learn them.

Remarkably enough, there are still copies of this historical treasure for sale, used. Anyone that is interested in the Irish freedom struggle; cop violence; or Irish history should find a copy now, while you can still get them cheaply.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance*****

HillbillyElegyI confess I was miffed when I wasn’t granted a DRC for this title, and after reading a couple of reviews, I decided I could live without it. I began to wonder about my choice when I saw it hover on the best seller lists where it remains as of this writing nearly a year after its publication, But the clincher came when my younger daughter came to me and said that she had read it digitally and believed I would enjoy it. She said it had to do with the culture of mining families, and that the dedication was to the writer’s “Mamaw and Papaw”.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

A personal note of explanation: I am a grandmother myself now, and my own Mamaw and Papaw were both dead and gone by the time I learned that this was not a set of names that belonged to my family alone. I was the youngest among my cousins and siblings, and had somehow assumed that these grandparents’ names were the result of something said by one of the older kids when they were small. By the time I came along, they had left the mines of the rural Rust Belt and purchased a small working farm in central California. No one else I knew had grandparents with those names or had heard of them. Later my grandparents, aunt and uncle (who—I am not making this up—were an Aunt Sister and Uncle Brother) would relocate to the mountains of Southern Oregon, to the farthest outreaches, secret places up barely-there dirt roads that would make a survivalist happy. Neither California or Oregon is mentioned at all in Vance’s memoir, and so it makes me wonder just how far this culture has permeated across the USA.

Vance tells us that his memoir is particular to the culture of working class Scots-Irish people, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. But of course, when one mine closes, miners follow the work, and so the culture has spread quite a long way. He himself didn’t grow up in Appalachia, because his grandparents had made a point of moving away from there when a factory opened in a small Southern Ohio town, and so that was where he spent most of his childhood. But the roots ran deep, and they often returned to the West Virginia area where most of the family remained.

The memoir itself is fascinating. His grandparents were enormously tough and tremendously loving. He recounts one experience in which a drug-addicted visitor appeared to be dying of a PCP overdose in the front room, and Mamaw ordered that the person be dragged to a nearby park, because “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house!”

Another time, the author’s immensely unstable mother had beaten JD, and Mamaw persuaded him to lie to the cops, who could never be a part of any solution to their family. Instead, once in the car, “We drove home in silence after Mamaw explained that if Mom lost her temper again, Mamaw would shoot her in the face.”

I am amazed at the similarities that exist between Vance’s culture and that of my father’s family. Over the years succeeding generations have become more educated and moved, for the most part, out of the tulles and to suburbs and cities. But many of the values and cultural nuances remain. And if this is true for me, a Seattle resident of nearly 30 years, how many others across the nation will recognize it as well? Perhaps this is part of the book’s tremendous success.

In closing I want to give a shout-out to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, the city where I grew up. Powell’s has a daily drawing for its reviewers, and each day someone wins a $100 gift certificate. My prize is what made it possible for me to purchase this glorious brand new, hard cover edition.

Highly recommended to those interested in the culture of Scots Irish mining families and their descendants, and to those that love excellent memoirs.