Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Dan B’s Picks

December 18, 2014

Some of my favorite books that were new to me this year include a space adventure with hostile aliens, the memoir of a comedy legend, a dystopian teen novel, a fantasy with a magic-wielding librarian, and a story of super heroes in the big city.

DreadnaughtDreadnaught by Jack Campbell
Admiral Jack Geary was rescued from cryogenic sleep several years ago to lead the Alliance Fleet to victory over the Syndicate. Now, however, humanity is also up against an unknown and hostile race of aliens on the far side of human colonized space. Geary also has to deal with a government that fears and resents him, as well as the remnants of the Syndic forces. This is the first in the Beyond the Frontier series, which is a continuation of Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, which starts with Dauntless.

What's So Funny?What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life by Tim Conway
Whether you know him from McHale’s Navy, The Carol Burnett Show, Dorf, or any of his numerous other appearances on TV and in film, Tim Conway is one of the great funny men of the last century. His touching memoir gives readers insight into his Midwestern upbringing, his Army service, and his career from the middle of the Twentieth Century through recent years. Anecdotes along the way will have you smiling, laughing, and genuinely appreciating Tim for all he’s given us. My only disappointment was that he didn’t narrate the audio book.

For the WinFor the Win by Cory Doctorow
In this dystopian future teens in countries like India and China must work for the corrupt bosses of huge corporations “gold farming” from massive online video games. The large cast of characters, each struggling to make enough money for their families, begin to learn that their plight is not unique. They start to form relationships online while also forming unions for this new kind of labor. The story is compelling as Doctorow blends a tech-heavy dystopia with real world lessons about economics. It’s also a great audio book.

LibriomancerLibriomancer by Jim C. Hines
What’s not to love in a book about magic wielding librarians versus evil vampires?! Isaac Vainio works as a librarian in Michigan, but, he also catalogues books for a magical group of libriomancers. Those are people who have the magical ability to draw forth objects from inside books. This branch of magic was founded by none other than Johannes Gutenberg. But what happens when Gutenberg goes missing and vampires start attacking libriomancers, leading to a war which could expose all magic to the rest of the world?

After the Golden AgeAfter the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn
Celia West knows that her lack of super-powers has always been a disappointment to her father, billionaire industrialist Warren West, a.k.a. Captain Olympus. Celia is an accountant whose firm is working with the D.A.’s office to prosecute The Destructor, her parents’ arch-nemesis, for tax evasion. While he’s behind bars, a new crime wave breaks out, and though her parents think he’s behind it, Celia isn’t so sure. Is there a new evil at work in Commerce City, or is what’s going on now related to events from over fifty years ago?

Best New Books of 2014: Emil S’s Picks

December 2, 2014

When a book calls my name, I will not turn it down. Somehow, the books know how to find me.

No Place to Hide No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald
“Cincinnatus” was the alias Edward Snowden used when he contacted Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian and a former constitutional lawyer. Cincinnatus referred to a real life hero, a farmer who in ancient times defended Rome against foreign forces, and then voluntarily gave up absolute power and returned to life on the farm. Edward Snowden was a former National Security Agency contractor, and the revelations brought about by him altered the course of history. This book – a curious blend of real life thriller, lecture, moral-ethic discussion, and petition – shows how invasive U.S. surveillance capabilities have become, and what it means in a world in which people increasingly find and display their inner lives online.  See my full review.

War of the WorldsWar of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz
Whales and other marine mammals are under severe threat from a number of human activities, not the least mankind’s insistence on waging war and preparing for war. The navy use of sonar creates noise storms that again and again cause atypical mass strandings and deaths of whales. The U.S. government regulators have become captives “to the interests they’re supposed to police,” and it is up to individuals and private organizations to help protect life in the oceans. War of the Whales is the true story of how environmental law attorney Joel Reynolds (of NRDC), marine biologist Ken Balcomb, and many others did everything in their power in order to reduce deadly, man made noise pollution and save some of the magnificent creatures that humankind share this planet with.  See my full review.

Everything Leads to YouEverything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
Emi’s goal is to become a set designer in Hollywood, and as an intern on a movie set, she visits the estate sale of a legendary Hollywood actor. When Emi and her best friend Charlotte find a letter hidden in the jacket of an LP, the two of them – without knowing the content of the letter – begin searching for the intended recipient. The mysterious letter leads her to the alluring Ava, and life begins to take on film-like qualities.  See my full review.

Cycle of LiesCycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur
If the mountains of Le Tour de France are the dragons of that particular classic, then the riders are the knights. And when Lance Armstrong started slaying and devouring these opponents he seemed to be living a real life heroic poem of epic proportions. Armstrong had bravely defeated a monstrous cancer, made a mind-boggling comeback, and then developed into one of the most revered and remarkable athletes in the world. However, the tale took a nightmarish turn as evidence of highly advanced and organized doping mounted. Here is the story of Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall as understood by New York Times journalist Juliet MacurSee my full review.

Little FailureLittle Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart
American author Gary Shteyngart was born as Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad (now [again] St. Petersburg) in the Russian empire that went under the name of Soviet Union. When he was seven years old, Gary and his family moved to the United States as part of a Jews-for-grains swap between the two superpowers. The Shteyngarts ended up in Queens, New York, and life in the land of the free was not easy for a “Socialist” boy with a weird accent. This memoir investigates a troubled family’s adventures and misadventures in two cultures, and it is moving, poignant, and at times outrageously comical.  See my full review.

The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer

September 23, 2014

I have been looking for a read alike to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand for a while, and I finally found it in the compelling memoir, The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith H. Beer.

Edith was a young woman, Jewish by birth but without any real knowledge of the religion. She was a bright, studious, feisty, and on the verge of finishing her training to be a judge in 1940’s Vienna. Flush in her first romance, she decides to not flee Vienna when the Nazis take over Austria so she can stay near her boyfriend. Her sisters fled (to London, and Palestine), and Edith’s decision to stay put in Vienna lands her in a forced labor camp, picking asparagus in back-breaking conditions. In a poignant passage, despite being forced into farm work because she is a Jew, when Edith and her fellow laborers decide to celebrate Yom Kipper, they realize not one of them knew the Kol Nidrei, the prayer which ushers in the holy day. She is released from the camp months later, but her mother had already been shipped to Poland for “re-education.”

Edith ends up becoming a “U Boat,” a Jew who goes underground to live as a non-Jew, with forged paperwork. She became Grete Denner, a German friend who lent her papers. Edith/Grete ditches her mama’s-boy boyfriend (who is half Christian and a spineless character) and falls in love with a German, Werner Vetter.

She confided in Werner that she is indeed a Jew, in a terrifying passage in the memoir. Werner kept her secret, and they married and had a daughter in the midst of the war. Edith/Grete hides in plain sight, working for the Red Cross, all the while living as a Christian woman (a religion about which she knows nothing), and as the wife of a Nazi.

While Unbroken is a testament to physical strength in the face of incredible conditions, The Nazi Officer’s Wife is the story of a strong woman’s mental and physical fortitude while having to hide her very identity, her history, her language/accent, her education, her name, and her ancestral background from the Gestapo.

This is a survival story, beautifully told. The author’s papers are now part of the collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life by Tory Johnson

April 3, 2014

The Shift by Tory JohnsonThe subtitle of this book is, “How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life,” but this is not a “diet” book. This is one woman’s narrative on how she shifted her entire life, her way of eating, and her place in the world, all in one year. Oh, and by the way, lost the 70 pounds that had dogged her for 40 years.

Tory Johnson is a successful media presence, who has a longstanding gig with the “Good Morning America” show with features on how to save money finding bargains and using coupons. It was suggested to her by a supervisor at the show that Tory begin paying more attention to “flattering” on-camera clothing, that she wasn’t looking as “photogenic” as she could, and maybe a wardrobe change was needed. Feeling the pressure as the main income provider of her family of two teens and husband, Tory took the criticism to convey that she needed to lose weight to keep her job. The book is then her realizations of how she need to not “lose weight,” but shift her entire outlook on food, exercise, and the how she views her body. The fact that she lost 70 pounds is commendable, but how the author shifts her brain is more exciting than how she changed her body. Her writing is solid, and many women will relate to desire to make positive changes in health and career. This is an interesting memoir that resonates.

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Wild : From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

March 28, 2014


It’s 1995 and Cheryl Strayed is floundering. Still grieving the untimely death of her mother, Cheryl is in the process of divorcing a husband she loves after sabotaging her marriage with meaningless affairs. She has lost touch with her siblings, has never been close to her biological father, and the once fond relationship she enjoyed with her stepfather has become distant. A promising student, she has allowed herself to come within one paper of graduating college. One five page paper she somehow can’t seem to write.

Then by chance, she picks up a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Suddenly Cheryl has a goal in life: to hike, alone, this trail made famous by naturalist John Muir. It doesn’t matter that she has no real hiking experience. She has her guidebook and the friendly, knowledgeable staff at REI. They will help her choose the best equipment to take. What more could she need?

The answer to that question forms the basis of this fascinating, inspiring true story. Hunched under a too heavy backpack quickly nicknamed Monster, Cheryl begins a journey that is spiritual as well as physical. Her plans for her hike are soon revealed as inadequate (who knew water weighed so much?) and she must improvise as she goes along—much as we all have to adjust when our best laid plans go awry.

As she hikes the PCT, Cheryl finds her experience of the land changing. As she gains elevation, her view expands and she is stunned by the beauty of the wild and humbled by her place in it. She is alternately spooked and soothed by the solitude and grateful for the perspective it allows her to gain, not just on the horizon, but on her life, even the painful parts.

I loved this book. Strayed is an engaging protagonist. She tells her story beautifully and honestly, allowing us to feel her stubbornness when she refuses to give up, her fear when as a lone woman she encounters strangers, her joy and surprise at discovering her own capabilities. Her naiveté is endearing (for who among us has not gone off on a project half cocked?) and all too human; her struggle to succeed in spite of it inspiring. Highly recommended.

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Marbles : Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me : a Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney

March 21, 2014

Ellen Forney is a successful comic artist in Seattle, Washington. She embraces the creative life and all it has to offer. One day, her therapist clues into her constantly “jazzed” state and refers her to a psychiatrist. Unfortunately, her creative life was being fueled by a manic episode. The psychiatrist diagnoses her with manic depression as they go down the DSM-IV checklist of criteria. This shatters Ellen’s perception of herself and her future as an artist.

She struggles with coming to terms with a disease that has a terrible grip on her. At first she resists being medicated but when the mania finally bottoms out into a deep, dark depression, she finally concedes to the much feared and maligned gold standard: lithium. The side effects are harsh especially for an artist so in tune with the world around her. Memory loss, tremors, weight gain are just the tip of the iceberg. Her psychiatrist switches her to different medications although Ellen is not being 100% honest with her psychiatrist about her more than occasional use of marijuana. Eventually, through much trial and error they find the right mix of medications.

Luckily, Ellen has supportive friends and family. She does a great job holding on to whatever she can when her life is at the lowest. She still manages to swim a few times a week and reads books from her childhood to occupy her mind without overwhelming herself with the paralytic depression that encompasses her. She looks closely at the lives of many great artists who very possibly suffered from mood disorders and looks at their art with new eyes. She studies intensely the link between mood disorders and creativity.
This is a beautifully written and illustrated graphic memoir about Ellen’s journey to find the balance she once disparaged as boring, but needs so that she may exist as an artist.

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A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

February 26, 2014

There are different editions of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, but there is no definite version of the book. The reason for this is simple. Hemingway died before he had finished work on the memoir. A Moveable Feast was first published in 1964, three years after the author’s death, and a so-called restored edition reached the public in 2009.
After Hemingway’s death, his fourth and last wife, Mary, handed manuscripts and notes over to the publisher Scribner in New York City, and editor Harry Brague went to work on the account Hemingway had referred to as “my Paris book.”
According to Hemingway’s friend, A. E. Hotchner – who came up with the title of the book – the manuscript “was not left in shards but […] ready for publication,” and the publication of 1964 was essentially the draft that he had read as early as 1957.
The memoir concerns the years 1921 to 1926, and the locale is mainly Paris, France. The French capital attracted great artists from all over the world at this time, and legendary names – for example F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein – fill the book. But Paris and the Hemingway family are the main characters of the memoir, which glows with a lust for life, writing, and literature.
In the preface, Hemingway says: “If the reader prefers, this book can be regarded as fiction,” and the omissions the author decides on have the characteristics of fiction. Hemingway was a master of “less is more” when he was writing well. He offered less, which ignited the imagination of the audience which could then give the tale depth. This is what Hemingway is doing in the 1964 edition of A Moveable Feast; which may give storytelling precedence over what actually took place.
People who knew Ernest Hemingway have stated that he could return to a tale of actual events over and over again, and each time the story would change a bit. To write a true sentence, to Hemingway, was a matter of staying true to the art of storytelling. And when Hemingway stayed true to storytelling, he managed to capture the deeper truths about the world as he experienced it.  So, even if A Moveable Feast may be a fictionalized version of Paris in the 1920s, it is also a book that offers readers the gist of the Paris of that era.

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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

February 19, 2014

I first heard of Commander Chris Hadfield on Twitter, when he replied to William Shatner, aka Captain Kirk.  Shatner asked if he was tweeting from space.  Hadfield replied “Yes, standard orbit, Captain, and we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.”

I was amazed.  This man was tweeting from outer space, and doing it with a sense of humor! When I looked at his other tweets, I was hooked.  Not only was he regularly posting pictures taken from space, he was making videos to answer students’ questions about what life was like on the space station, such as, “What happens when you cry in space?”  (The tears don’t fall; they just hover in front of your eyes). What a wonderful resource and a great way to get children interested in space travel!

Hadfield’s book tells his story of how he became an astronaut, and what he learned along the way. He first decided what he wanted to be when he saw the men walk on the moon.  As a young boy, he didn’t realize how much the odds were against him.  There were no Canadian astronauts at that time.  Later, when he learned how difficult it would be, it only made him work harder.

Hadfield discovered many things while he was training, some of which went against what is considered common sense.  For example, as an astronaut you have to sweat the small stuff. A very small error can have big consequences in space.   Also, helping a coworker perform better will help you in the long run, even if you are competing for the same job.  In space, having the best possible team is crucial to your survival.

The most important thing he learned, however, was that one must enjoy the journey.  It would be ridiculous to work so hard for so long with the goal of getting into space if you hated science, piloting, or any of things you must learn before your flight.  It is quite possible to spend a lifetime learning all of these things and never make it into space, just by accident or bad timing.  Would you feel your entire life was a waste if this happened?

I found Hadfield’s book and attitude to be very inspiring.  It is a great reminder not to focus so much on the future that you forget to enjoy the present.  And all his stories of daily life in outer space are fascinating.  I think we have become so accustomed to seeing men and women in space that we forget what an amazing achievement it is.

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The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

October 2, 2013

Honest and funny best describe this memoir. Kristin Kimball was living the single urban life in New York City in 2002. She had worked at a literary agency and taught creative writing. Now she was a freelance writer and about to interview a farmer who represented something that was just beginning to burgeon onto the American food scene: local and organic fruits, vegetables, and meats. She drove six hours for their first meeting in Pennsylvania, and was whirled into the vortex of his world that very day. They did not do the interview; instead, she helped him slaughter a pig.

The memoir proceeds at a breakneck pace, full of the wonderful details of the urban hipster falling for the “wingnut” (Kristin’s word!) farmer Mark and vice versa. They courted over bicycle rides, farm implements, setting traps for rats, and the amazing meals that Mark prepared for both of them from the fields. The course of their true love is strewn with the usual difficulties of learning each other’s foibles, follies, and facts of life. Kristin and Mark have the added twists of choosing land on which to start their own farm, finding their places in their new community, purchasing equipment and animals, and quickly becoming business partners. Mark has lived outside of “the American dream”- state, relying on the earth in ways Kristin (or most of us) have not encountered or attempted. Kristin has never farmed, and must to come to grips with the sheer physicality and sometimes heartbreak of the stunning change in her life’s path.

The writing is clear, warm, and personal. You don’t want the book to stop at the end of their first year on Essex Farm. You want to know more about the horses, neighbors, crops and babies. You want to sit right down and write a check for a share in their full-diet CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farm and move to New York state to help them weed and harvest. Let’s sit down together and share a meal!

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The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne

August 12, 2013

“You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.”

This is one of my favorite quotes, made by a very funny man, Stephen Colbert. I was reminded of it while reading this memoir.

Josh Hanagarne has a great sense of humor, forged in the crucible of a loving family fond of practical jokes — and he needs it. Diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome as a child, he faces extra challenges. Tourette’s affects his school life and his stint as a missionary. He must persevere to find love, to finish his education, and to establish a career. The incongruity of becoming a librarian is not lost on him. He writes:

“One of the reasons I work here is because I have extreme Tourette’s syndrome. The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones, the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can’t sit still. Who can’t shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.”

Tourette’s isn’t Josh’s only medical challenge; he and his wife also struggle with the pain of infertility. His honesty in examining the effects of these difficulties on his relationship to God and his church is engaging and moving.

Then there’s the weight training. Worried about his son, his father bundles him into the car and takes him to the gym. Dad’s instincts are good.  Josh finds the focus of weight training helpful for coping with Tourette’s. Then one day at the library a book by Pavel Tsatsouline, aka “The Evil Russian”, crosses his desk. Pavel is a proponent of training with kettlebells (“essentially a cannonball with a handle”) and advertises his methods with such catchy phrases as “Try it if you think you’re so tough. You’ll wish you were dead.”

Have you ever seen a movie you liked so much that afterwards, when telling friends why you like it, you find yourself practically reenacting it? Saying things like: oh, wait, I can’t believe I almost forgot to tell you about this scene! That’s how I feel about this book. I haven’t even touched on Josh’s library life, or what happens when he and his wife try to adopt a baby, or several other key sections. But maybe it’s best if I leave some things for you to discover.

I loved this book. It had a lot to say to me about family, love, marriage, faith, libraries, and weight training. I thought it fitting that it ended with a challenge met with laughter.

Check out Josh’s blog at

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