Biography & Memoir

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.

   
M Train   

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.

   

Wes Craven: 1939–2015

Wes CravenThe month of October is one of the most popular months for watching films of the horror genre.   It also seems a suitable time to post a tribute to the August 30th passing of director Wes Craven who did much to influence the direction of the modern horror film.   His 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street introduced Freddy Krueger, one of the longest lasting and memorable horror characters since Boris Karloff’s monster in the 1931 movie Frankenstein.  In 1996 he introduced us to “Ghostface” in Scream, a second horror creation destined to become almost legend.  Yet it would be wrong of us to limit Wes Craven’s talent to only the horror genre.   He was also known for films such as Music of the Heart starring Meryl Streep as a music teacher struggling to teach violin to inner city children and as one of twenty directors of Paris, je t’aime a collection of stories about the city of love.  

This month is a perfect time to explore the legacy of films that we have been left by this notable director.  The link below will create a list of DVDs owed by the Library for your enjoyment.

The Films of Wes Craven

   

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

This is a hard book to categorize. Is it a dual biography? A history of a region? An environmental paean to a place? A literary memoir of the West? A road book to both grand and despoiled places?

It’s all of the above and more. Gessner began the book as a tribute to two western writers who have inspired him: Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Gessner went to grad school in Colorado and fell in love with the southwest. Abbey and Stegner became his heroes and teachers, although not literally—he learned through their writing.

He compares the more revolutionary-seeming Abbey who broke laws (trashed earth-moving machines to stop development and threatened to blow up dams) with the more straight-laced Stegner.

   

Hissing Cousins

This double biography of two famous first cousins, both belonging to the famous Roosevelt clan, brings the early 20th century to life in both Washington DC and New York and gives us a fascinating peak into two strong women’s lives, both of whom married or were born into politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her first cousin Alice were born just eight months apart. Alice came from the Republican Oyster Bay branch of the family and Eleanor from the Democratic Hyde Park (NYC) branch. Not only did they differ in political and social outlooks, but they even pronounced their last name differently. Alice’s family said Rose—evelt. And Eleanor’s pronounced the same name as Ruse-evelt.

   

H is for Hawk

I almost became a falconer once. The ad promised you hands-on training for catching raptors, and you would be working with ones needing care, so it seemed like the perfect volunteer gig.  However, our time in California was drawing to a close, so I never got to experience the drama and force of a raptor landing on my gloved hand. But, wow, did I love this book.

This memoir artfully intertwines three stories: Helen’s experience training her first goshawk, her grieving for her father, and author T. H. White’s mixed results raising falcons and hawks. All these stories are told powerfully, and the subject is so interesting that I found the book riveting.  

Training the small fierce goshawk Mable (the author chose the name as something opposite of what you’d expect) for a few hours every day away took Helen from her disabling grief over her father’s sudden death on the street taking pictures for his job. At one point, Macdonald describes his last photograph--at street level, a line of blurs and a patch of sky as her father fell and died from a heart attack.

   

Around the World in 50 Days: my adventure to every country on Earth

I’m not one for doing the whole of anything: the Appalachian Trail, canoeing the Amazon, skiing across Antarctica, but yes I can see the attraction of visiting every country in the world. The problem is that it is a moving target. Governments change, countries come and go, and unless you are super rich “doing” the world in a timely fashion is not possible.

Yet the inventive, gutsy, rule-breaking Podell finally managed to complete them all though it did take a half century. He began his foreign travels with a quick trip to Canada when he was 24. And yes, he considered this international travel light.

He just completed a degree in international studies. A few years later, as editor of an adventure magazine, he decided he was tired of sending people off on exotic jaunts and staying home, so he set off with a friend to complete the longest land journey ever attempted with his good friend Steve. They got sponsors to pay for the trip and hired a photographer.

   

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