Biography & Memoir

Comedy Memoirs for the Boomer Generation

Still Foolin EmOctober seems like the perfect time of year for dark, mysterious and brooding books. But I am still holding on to September! Something light might just be the ticket before the dark fall reads.

New release Still Foolin’ 'em by Billy Crystal has cracked into the top of the New York Times best seller list. After recently turning 65, Crystal tries to relate to the other millions of baby boomers who are also at or near this milestone often by portraying physical ailments through the lens of appealing humor. He also explores his long career starting off with stand up in New York to some beloved movies and stints on Saturday Night Live and hosting the Oscars. Crystal isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues, but also presents us with a belly laugh at a life well lived. There are numerous holds on the Crystal book, so while you are waiting for this book to come in you might want to try these other humorous memoirs.

America's First Tornado Scientists and What They Taught Us

I was afraid this would be another macho book about reckless men roaming the plains chasing tornadoes during storm season. Instead it turned out to be a wonderful compendium of tornado lore through the centuries. Also included are biographies of some of our most  important weather scientists.    

Storm Kings begins with a description of how during the 1600s New England settlers called any phenomenon that happened in the sky meteors including: meteors (of course), lightning, thunder, rainbows, comets, clouds in the shape of hands and faces, etc.  Although the science behind tornadoes was not understood and barely documented then, many colonists recognized that the weather in America was much more violent than in their home countries.

When a tornado swooped down near Cambridge, MA in 1680, two farming families were shocked when one lost a servant and another a barn during the storm.  They were so frightened by this event that one wrote to Increase Mather (the father of Cotton) asking about it. Increase, who was a self-educated weather expert, had no answers so he wrote to a scientific association in Europe. No one replied to his inquiry, but Benjamin Franklin found this letter seventy years later when he became interested in the study of weather and electricity.

Always Heard, Never Known

This is the story of a band that everyone has heard and yet most people don’t even know their name.  They played on more hit records than Elvis, than The Beach Boys, than The Rolling Stones or the Beatles ….combined.  They were responsible for the driving beat of the Motown hit factory.   The riffs you remember to so many songs were arranged and performed by them;  yet  if I mentioned some of their names, James Jamerson,  Richard Allen, Joe Messina, to name a few there would be no flash of recognition in your mind.

Parenting to the Very End

Imagine being told that your baby has a disease that will kill him, most likely before he turns three. Emily Rapp and her husband Rick were given that news when their lovely boy Ronan was only nine months old. He seemed to be having vision problems, and the eye doctor discovered cherry-red spots behind his retinas--a tell-tale sign of Tay-Sachs disease.

Emily, who had been tested for this disease, immediately knew the worst. Her husband did not. “Well, what can we do about it?” Rick asked the doctor. “Nothing,” was his reply. Soon the parents learned that the genetic test only checks for the nine most common mutations.

So begins their journey. Emily describes in detail what it is like to parent a child that she knows will die soon. When they see the specialist, they discover that babies born with Tay-Sachs progress until they are six-months old, then start to regress, eventually losing all sight, hearing, movement, and even ability to swallow.

How Gutenberg Changed the World

While some predict the imminent demise of the printed book, some profess that the printed book will continue on in perpetuity. I stand with the second group. As much as I enjoy the convenience of ebooks, there is a majesty to a beautifully illustrated and bound printed book that not even the most colorfully animated ebooks can equal. There is so much ephemeral electronic correspondence today that a printed book, by its sheer mass and substance commands a certain amount of respect. Or, perhaps it's simply the history of the printed book that I revere.

From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World lavishly presents the early history of the printed book as pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.  Categorized as a biography, this new picturebook by James Rumford focuses more on Gutenberg's revolutionary invention of the printing press, than on the life of Gutenberg himself. Each richly illustrated double-page spread describes the process of creating a book as a mystery of sorts, asking the reader to guess the elements that formed the finished product: "What was this thing made of rags and bones?" and answering on the next page: "It was paper, and it was ready."

The epilogue to this book notes that Gutenberg's invention remains a bit of a mystery, as no one knows for sure how he was able to produce such beautifully crisp and clear letters in the 1400s. But some of the books he produced more than 500 years ago endure to this day. In fact a copy of one of those books resides in Bloomington at the Lily Library on the campus of Indiana University. The Gutenberg Bible rests in a glass case on display in the Lily Library, open for anyone to visit. 

From the Good Mountain concludes with an illustration of computer circuitry, suggesting that as hand copied books gave way to printed ones, and printed books give way to ebooks, perhaps it doesn't matter at all what books look like -- what form they take -- as long as people keep writing and reading them. What are you reading today?

A Story of New York City When Robber Barons Were Kings

Mark Twain christened the years between 1877 - 1900 the Gilded Age. Through business enterprises such as, railroads, oil and real estate, families were able to amass enormous personal fortunes. This book is the story of a daughter and a son of two of these wealthy New York families, the Minturns and the Stokes.

Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes were childhood friends. At age 28 Isaac convinced Edith to marry him. Neither one was particularly interested in wealth and making money. She worked as a social reformer. Isaac trained as an architect but was more interested in history especially New York City history. They were products of their time and environment and when the stock market crashed in 1929, they crashed with it.

Photographing a Vanishing America

If you've ever seen any of Edward Curtis's photos of Native Americans, you cannot forget them. Not only did Curtis capture members of various tribes with respect but their individuality and humanity stares at you from the page. He also recorded many spiritual ceremonies and active shots that give us some insight into what daily life was like for these people.

This excellent biography tells the story of the famous photographer's life, how he came from utter poverty in Wisconsin, then provided for his entire family as a young teen-ager, to a hardscrabble existence fishing and crabbing near Seattle. But in his late teens, he buys something for himself - a rare occurrence. He purchases a lens for his dad's old camera. 

Soon he manages to round up $150 - a large sum for a young man supporting an entire family in those days--and buys into a photography business in downtown Seattle. In a mere two years, he becomes the most famous photographer in the Northwest, in high demand to immortalize society and business leaders. But though the work makes him rich and feted by society, it's the Native American culture that draws him. He realizes that the country has finished expanding, that the westward migration has ended, and that the native tribes will have less and less space to call their own. Curtis understood that their way of life-- the clothing, the hunting, and especially the spiritual ceremonies--will mostly cease to exist.

Roger Ebert: Film Critic and Writer

Life ItselfRoger Ebert, film critic extraordinaire and Pulitzer Prize winner, died last week after a battle with cancer.  Immediately following his death, there were lots of quotes circulating online from Ebert which reminded me what a great writer he was.  In writing about movies, Ebert was able often able to put his finger on the pulse of real life human behavior and articulate the human condition - both the happy and the sad.  I forgot how funny he was, and his reviews are a joy to read even if you disagree on the rating.

Those interested in starting with the basics, check out his Movie Yearbooks - complete with movie reviews, essays, tributes, journal entries, and new additions to his popular Movie Glossary.  If you are looking for critiques that might lead you to viewing of really good movies, try The Great Movie series. However, some of Ebert's best writing was in critiquing bad movies.  If you aren't looking for movie suggestions, but just some hilarious examples of his writing check out Your Movie Sucks

Tsunami Trauma

In college, I often dreamed of tsunamis. The waves were enormously high and transported me far inland but were amazingly gentle behemoths that if I did not fight against, eventually landed me upon the shore without any damage. The tsunami that struck Sir Lanka the day after Christmas 2004 was nothing like these, but was instead brutal, fierce, and deadly.

Imagine losing your husband, two sons, and both parents on the same day. This unbelievable tragedy happened to this British economist.  The memoir starts quietly with her description of a typical morning at a beach resort in Southern Sri Lanka that her family had been visiting since her childhood. Sonali knew all the hotel staff and park rangers; the place meant home to her and her family. Ironically, the family was packing to go home later that day.

As her children are dressing, she speaks to a close friend who has accompanied them on their holiday outing. Suddenly, both women notice an unusual wave in the far distance. Sonali calls to her husband in the bathroom, but

Bad Parent, Good Child

I picked up Richard Russo's latest book with some hesitation. I knew Elsewhere was a memoir about his relationship with his mother, but I remembered that in his last novel, That Old Cape Magic, he had created a decidedly crazy "mother" character. But as is so often the case with memoirs, the first sentence hooked me.

Because he was an only child and his parents separated when he was very young, Russo and his mom shared an extremely close relationship. In the 50s she had a job for General Electric, dated engineers, and dressed elegantly. Her independence was extremely important to her, but it took Richard years to understand that she depended on her parents bail-outs to survive. It didn't help that Russo's dad contributed almost nothing to the household or that women were paid poor wages.

This book is also an exploration of a place - the town of Gloversville where Russo grew up and which he's fictionalized in his novels. It was a town built on making gloves; in fact, his grandparents did this. It was hard, polluting work and when the government cracked down on water pollution, the whole operation moved overseas. But in small-town Gloversville surrounded by relatives, Russo felt secure and loved.

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