Biography & Memoir

Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

Can’t say when the last time I read a book written by a seventeen-year old, but this memoir by a high school student was touching and well-written despite Nicolaia Rips' youth. Growing up in New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel gives one a head start, at least when it comes to knowing interesting characters.

The Chelsea’s fame reached its ascendency in the 60s and 70s with noteworthy residents:  Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Patsy Smith, who wrote her own memoir about it, Just Kids.

First Nicolaia describes how she came into being. Her mom was a globe-trotting artist, and her dad had zero interest in raising a child, but somehow the artist got pregnant, and the couple began a new way of life. Though not immediately.

While pregnant, her Mom traveled through Europe and along the Silk Road in Asia. Her dad, a non-practicing lawyer and writer, stayed in New York and added a psychiatrist’s office to his daily rounds of coffee shops. He also denied that he was the father, accusing a gay friend for parenting the child. However, once Nicolaia was born, he came around and warmly embraced being a dad, but still the family remained footloose, decamping for several years in Italy, and then roaming North Africa and India, before returning to NYC and the Chelsea Hotel.

Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

Gene WilderI can still remember the first time I saw Gene Wilder in a film.  He was playing a mousey accountant by the name of Leo Bloom who, while going over the books of once-famous Broadway Producer Max Bialystock makes the casual observation that it would be possible, though dishonest, to make more money with a Broadway flop than a successful production.  The film was “The Producers,” and the rest they say is history and Gene Wilder screamed his way into being one of my favorite comedic actors as Zero Mostel stood over him while he lay on the floor in a panic screaming, “Don’t Jump on me. Don’t Jump on me.”

Gene went on to star in many well-known comedies: Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Stir Crazy, Silver Streak and many others.  His role as candy maker Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory will likely never be forgotten. The library owns a number of Gene Wilder’s Films and books. You did know he was also a writer, didn't you?  The link below will create a list of items to choose from.   He will be missed.

 

The Films and Book of Gene Wilder

When Breath Becomes Air

As a young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi had the difficult task of preparing patients and their families for death. As a brain surgeon his patients included everyone from young children with epilepsy, to teens shot in the head during gang violence, to people of all ages suffering from brain tumors.

Then there was the man who spoke only in numbers. He enunciated well, and spoke with a conversational lilt to his words yet no one understood him. The numbers signified nothing, and left him feeling more alone.

Unlike many doctors, Dr. Kalanithi enjoyed the challenge of discussing death with his terminally-ill patients. His undergraduate and graduate studies of philosophy and literature helped him make these talks both meaningful and helpful while always being cognizant of where the patient and family were coming from in their understanding of the patient’s condition.

But then in his last year as a resident when he was the chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford, he woke one day with intense back pain. He had a checkup but nothing serious showed, so he flew to upstate New York for a reunion with dear friends that he had long been anticipating.

Alan Rickman 1946 – 2016

Allan RickmanJanuary 14, 2016 marked the passing of Alan Rickman.  Rickman was best known in recent years as  Severus Snape in the Harry Potter Movies.  One of his earliest roles to command attention was that of the villain Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard. You might also remember him as Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest, the classically trained actor resigned to be forever remembered for playing an alien in a television series.     Like his Galaxy Quest character Alan Rickman was a classically trained actor who was equally at home on stage as he was on screen, though he preferred the stage and often passed up choice movie roles to appear on stage.  

The link below will provide a list of films and other materials featuring Alan Rickman.

 

Alan Rickman

David Bowie 1947 – 2016

David BowieOn January 10th of this year we lost one of the most the most innovative musical performers of the late 1960’s on: David Bowie.  David Bowie managed to re-invent his stage persona and musical style to fit the times and keep himself relevant.  Bowie was not just a talented musician and singer.  He was also a talented actor and he starred in a number memorable and now classic films.  In his first major role his acting ability and unique looks brought the alien character of Thomas Jerome Newton to a life in The Man Who Fell to Earth.  And few who have seen the film Labyrinth can forget him as the King of the Goblins in his M.C. Escher inspired castle.

Below I have provided a link which will bring up a list of Monroe County Public library’s holdings wish feature the music, writing or acting talent of David Bowie.  Mr. Bowie, you will be missed.

 

David Bowie

M Train

This absorbing new memoir by artist, poet, performer, and rock star Patti Smith provides a personal take on her daily life: her dreams, philosophical musings, friendships and myriad exotic journeys.  Favorite black jacket, check.  Watch cap, check. Black coffee at Café ‘Ino, check.

Unlike Just Kids, which focused on her past, her life with artist Mapplethorpe in the famous Chelsea Hotel, in this book the past and present intertwine. Coffee, the connecting themes.

Appropriately enough, it begins with a dream. One of many that thread through the book. Next Patti describes her trip to French Guiana in the 70s. After her husband promised her a trip anyway in the world. Patti--idiosyncratic as always--chose the place where French writer Genet was imprisoned. They were almost jailed themselves on the way back when their driver was caught ferrying a man in the trunk to the airport.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

While I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I learned in my history classes about the horrors of what happened in Germany during WWII.  However in these classes the German people were painted with broad sweeping strokes of black as supporters of the Nazi movement and Hitler.  I never learned of people such as Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who managed to save the lives of so many of the Jewish people.  Nor had I heard of groups, such as “The Swing Kids,” “The Edelweiss Pirates,” “The Solf Circle,” and “The Kreisau Circle.”  All of these were groups of German Nationals who were either vocal opponents of the Nazi doctrine or actively fought against them as part of the underground resistance in Germany.  In fact there were a lot more “subversive groups” in Germany than I was aware existed.  Another group I had never heard of was one founded by Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie known as “The White Rose.”

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

The sound of a projector is heard as an old 8mm home movie is projected on to a screen.  They show a young father playing with his children, making faces at the camera, laughing and enjoying his life.  The camera pulls back behind an older couple watching the film from their couch.  Then a close up. The older man is biting his upper lip then asks, “Who is that?”  “That’s you honey” comes the reply. A pause then, “Oh, there I am.”  And he laughs.  Another pause, “Who’s that with me?”  “That’s your daughter.  Your first daughter Debbie.”  And so begins this 2014 documentary on the life of Glen Campbell, now in his 70’s, struggling with Alzheimer’s and preparing to go on one last farewell tour. 

The Light of the World

You might recall Elizabeth Alexander—she read the poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. This memoir by the prize-winning poet covers a much more private, interior space. It tells the story of her love, marriage and family, and especially the jagged rent in her life caused by her husband’s death.

The first chapter queries where the actual story begins. Is it the beautiful April morning in Hamden, Connecticut when Ficre Ghebreyesus returns to his younger son Simon’s trundle bed, saying, “This is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.”? Is it when Ficre ran out of the house to buy three dozen lottery tickets on a hunch, wanting the win the lottery for Elizabeth? Or is it way back in ’61 when two women on opposite sides of the earth become pregnant, one carrying a first-born girl, another carrying a later-born son?

The couple met in a New Haven coffee shop; Ficre came over and introduced himself.  He was a chef who had escaped from war-torn Eritrea, Africa at age sixteen.  He became a refugee in Sudan, Germany, Italy and finally, the States. Torn from his family for many years, he ended up in New Haven and in the 90s began painting.

He later said he would never marry a woman who did not honor and love her parents. Luckily, Elizabeth more than fit that bill.

The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr is known for her series of memoirs about her difficult childhood. In this new book about how to write a memoir, she quotes from some of the best works in the genre including McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by a former student of hers, Cheryl Strayed.

What exactly is a memoir? The name is very descriptive. It’s a work based on memory. But it’s not the same as an autobiography for it concentrates on a specific period of life and is centered by a theme. For instance, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit chronicles a teenager’s adoption into a strict fundamentalist family, her adopted mom’s mistreatment of her, and her eventual rebellion from this way of life. It’s a memoir about a young woman discovering her true self.

Karr has plenty of what she considers the prime ingredient for a memoir—voice. She defines voice as “not just a manner of talking, It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving…” You could describe Karr’s voice as sassy, informal, sometimes even, badass.

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