Category Archives: Memoir

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was the 26th book of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting On My Shelf For 2+ Years category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

INSIDE OUT by Demi Moore

One book genre that has unexpectedly been holding my attention during quarantine is what I call pop culture nonfiction. The Office was an engaging audiobook, one of the few books I finished in April, and after finishing it I turned to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out. It turned out to be surprisingly interesting, and was a book I returned to eagerly whenever I had the chance. (I know I’m into a book when I bring my iPhone in the shower to get a few extra minutes of listening in. Weird?)

Inside Out is the story of Demi Moore’s chaotic childhood, entry into acting, rise to superstardom and experience as a wife and mother. As a child of the 80s, my Demi Moore consciousness was shaped by movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night, but her bigger hits – movies like Striptease and G.I. Jane – and celebrity marriages propelled her into the echelon of highest-paid actresses and cemented her place on Hollywood’s A-list. In recent decades Moore has perhaps been best known as the mother to her three daughters with Bruce Willis, as Ashton Kutcher’s wife – and ex-wife, and for her well-publicized struggle with drugs, topics she covers with honesty in Inside Out.

Moore was born to two alcoholic parents who provided their daughter with an extremely unstable home life punctuated by frequent moves and school changes, separations and reconciliations, exposure to drugs and alcohol and a complete lack of parenting and guidance. Moore’s crazy childhood and adolescence, coupled with her complicated relationship with her troubled mother (her father committed suicide in 1980), formed the root of problems that would follow her throughout her life – alcoholism and drug addiction, lack of self-confidence, disordered eating and issues with intimacy and reliance on others. Moore is very honest in the book about her doubts about her acting ability and her attitudes about her body, exercise and dieting. She also goes deep into her relationships with the men in her life – Emilio Estevez, Willis and Kutcher, explaining what attracted her to them, what worked, and what eventually broke them up.

I found the sections about being a mother to her three daughters especially poignant, as Moore identifies parenting as the one activity and accomplishment in her life that she is most proud of. After a drug overdose in the early 2010s, she endured three years of her family not speaking to her, a very painful time for Moore. After reconciling with her daughters, she embarked on the book project, publishing Inside Out in 2019.

Moore does like to play the blame game, shifting responsibility for some of her poor decisions onto her parents, her exes, her critics, Hollywood’s expectations, etc. That got a little tiresome. But I liked a lot of what she had to say about pay equity, balancing motherhood with career and not losing your identity in your relationships.

I listened to Inside Out on audio, narrated by Moore. I couldn’t imagine hearing these words in anything other than Moore’s signature raspy voice. Great audiobook (and pretty short too, at 6.5 hours).

Inside Out was Book #20 of 2020 and satisfies the Celebrity Memoir category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

8 Awesome Books About The 80s

This pandemic has made me nostalgic. Something about quarantine has made me – and clearly other people I know – reach out to old friends and set up Zoom reunions to get back in touch. Seems like we’re all casting back to easier and happier times. If you find yourself in a similarly nostalgic mood… here are my favorite books about my favorite decade, the 80s. Pick up one of these and take a trip back to a really different time.

  1. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave: Oral history of MTV’s early days told by Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. From my review: “Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.”
  2. Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins. Memoir of Collins’ life, from childhood through his Genesis and solo careers. From my review: “I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.”
  3. Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn. Woman in late thirties returns home to parents’ house in this funny novel about the dangers of romanticizing high school in the 80s. From my review: “Dunn is an entertaining writer, and the book was perfectly paced. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and didn’t want to put it down.”
  4. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. Detailed, juicy and insightful chronicle of the making of the great teen 80s movies. From my review: “It’s definitely a trip down memory lane, but also a compelling look at a decade of filmmaking that transformed a genre and made a permanent impact on the directors and actors we watch today.”
  5. In The Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. Memoir by Taylor, the bass player for Duran Duran who is thankfully on the other side of a bout with coronavirus. From my review: “Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had.”
  6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This is a beautifully written book about Chicago in the mid-80s and how AIDS ravaged the gay community there. It is not a light read, but it is an excellent one. From my review: The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.”
  7. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. I never reviewed this book, but I love it. From Amazon: “Mad World is a highly entertaining oral history that celebrates the New Wave music phenomenon of the 1980s via new interviews with 35 of the most notable artists of the period. Each chapter begins with a discussion of their most popular song but leads to stories of their history and place in the scene”.
  8. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my TBR and I will get to it at some point soon. It’s about “how the changes between movies in the 80s and movies today say so much about society’s expectations of women, young people and art.”

8 Excellent Memoirs

Here’s another quarantine reading list for you: my favorite memoirs. A good memoir can be incredibly enriching, transporting readers into another life through personal perspective and storytelling. And we could all use some transporting right now.

Becoming by Michelle Obama – the mother of all memoirs
Open by Andre Agassi – I still think about this book, years after I read it
Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen – long but entertaining the whole way
Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson – memoir of a military widow
Maid by Stephanie Land – necessary perspective on low-wage jobs
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro – midlife DNA surprise
Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson – heartbreaking memoir about loss of son
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan – sandwich generation + cancer

Perhaps one of these memoirs will give you some hours of escape.

MAID by Stephanie Land

When Stephanie Land was in her 20s living in the Pacific Northwest, she got romantically involved with a man and ended up getting pregnant. She hadn’t planned on becoming a mother then – and was in fact planning to go to college in Montana – but she decided to have the baby and try to make it work with her boyfriend. They ultimately broke up, sending Land down the path of trying to support herself and her daughter Mia as a single mother with no safety net from her family or other means of income. Maid is Land’s memoir about her years working as a housecleaner and living off of the very low wages she earned doing physically exhausting work while trying to keep a roof over Mia’s head and furthering her own education and a career as a writer.

While Maid is a very personal account of Land’s life, it is also a look at low-wage jobs in America and how poverty leads to a precarious existence that is one bad stroke of luck away from homelessness. Land writes about her hopelessness after a car accident that left her without any means to get to and from the houses she cleaned, the black mold and frigid temperatures in the studio apartment she rented (the only one she could afford), and the disdain she felt from those behind her in line at the grocery store when she used public assistance to pay for her food. The chips are stacked against single mothers, and Land’s everyday existence was a struggle, from trying to get access to the welfare money for which she qualified to finding care for Mia when she was sick and Land couldn’t miss work.

So Maid is a pretty controversial book. Some readers have very moved by it, while some found Land whiny and entitled. I fell into the first camp. Land is not perfect and sometimes made some bad decisions, but generally I found her very compelling. She clearly wanted the best for her daughter and did the best she could to provide it. She worked hard, despite hating the work itself, and always had Mia’s best interests at heart. Land was alone, without financial or emotional family support, and her existence was often a lonely one. She bore sole responsibility for Mia’s health and enrichment, except on the weekends when Mia saw her father, and she did it on a very low income. I tried to imagine myself in her position several times, and it was hard – I have family nearby and backup funds and the means to provide basic things that Land had to work so hard for.

Maid provides needed perspective and insight into an often invisible demographic. It made me think harder about the people who do the menial jobs we take for granted – cleaning and custodial work that. How many times have I passed my office’s cleaning staff on my way out the door without giving them much thought? Since reading Maid, I’ve tried to be more aware, more mindful and more appreciative of the people who do these jobs, working very hard to make ends meet and often falling short.

I listened to Maid on audio and I highly recommend it. It’s narrated by Land, and she’s a clear, precise performer. Some listeners complained that she was whiny, but I don’t agree. My only complaint is that there are a lot of unanswered questions about her own family and why they were so unhelpful to her. The sections about her family seemed most unsatisfying on audio, where her narration seemed almost too dispassionate on this topic. Overall, though, I am really glad I opted for the audio version.

Maid was Book #11 of 2020.

UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener

Anna Wiener was a twentysomething living in Brooklyn in the 2010s and working in publishing when, on a whim, she applied to work for a tech startup in the e-book space. After a few months there, she decided to move to San Francisco and try her luck in the promised land of tech. Uncanny Valley is Wiener’s memoir about working at two startups in San Francisco and her take on the digital economy and what it’s like to experience it from the inside.

Why I picked it: I love memoirs, and I work for a tech startup so I figured I’d recognize some of what she describes. I am fascinated – always have been – with anything Internet-related, so this was a no-brainer.

Off the bat: Wiener is a beautiful writer. What I would give to have her talent! She writes so eloquently about San Francisco, her colleagues, the work she did – she made it poetic. About SF: “The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected heterosexual masculinity.” About a cabinet secretary: “I wondered what it was like to lead a life of public service – climbing the ladder, accumulating credentials, walking the thinnest lines, probably owning a tuxedo – only to find himself catering to the growing power of Silicon Valley, with its baby tyrants, all the one-hit wonders who had dropped out of school and become their own bosses and thought they knew how the world worked.”

So I thought the first half of this book was brilliant. Wiener depicted so well the culture shock in the tech world, her vacillation between wanting to belong and questioning the value of her work, and the occasional absurdity of the digital economy. She also raises legitimate questions about privacy and the amount of personal information available to employees at all levels of the companies she worked for, a data analytics startup and an open source sharing site (unnamed, but it’s Github). I relished every page, nodding in recognition at times, eagerly absorbing information at others.

The second half of the book took a turn, though, and became somewhat meandering and lost its purpose. Wiener has general complaints about how women are treated in tech, but she doesn’t base them in her own experience beyond a few limited examples. She is restless in her customer success manager role, far removed from and considered less important than her developer colleagues’, but she doesn’t seem to have a sense for what she’d rather be doing. She’s sort of along for the ride. Aside from Weiner’s high-level doomsday warnings about the dangers posed by “the social network everyone hates” and the monetization of data and erosion of privacy, it’s hard to get at her agenda.

So Uncanny Valley was a mixed bag for me. I *loved* a lot of it, but in the end was left a bit empty. On balance, though, I’d recommend picking it up.

Uncanny Valley was Book #2 of 2020 and also satisfied the Non-Fiction category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

IN THE PLEASURE GROOVE: LOVE, DEATH AND DURAN DURAN

I am a sucker for rock memoirs (ie Born To Run and Not Dead Yet), and I’ve had In The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death And Duran Duran by Duran Duran bassist John Taylor on my TBR for a long time. I listened to it on audio this summer, and am so glad that I did. This may be a top 5 read of the year!

John Taylor was born Nigel Taylor to a working class family in Birmingham in 1960. He got into music as a young teenager, traveling around England with his best friend Nick Rhodes to see his favorite bands and rock idols (people like David Bowie), while cultivating his own dreams of rock stardom. While he had other interests like art and design, he convinced his parents to bankroll him for one year while he tried to make it as a musician. The Pleasure Groove takes readers through the earliest days of Duran Duran, how the band (Simon LeBon, Roger Taylor, Andy Taylor, Rhodes and J. Taylor) was formed, how they developed their sound and how quickly they got popular. The book follows the usual Behind The Music chronology – the first breakthrough single, the early success, the tours, the meteoric rise, the drugs, the fame, the women, the inevitable band tensions, the apex (Live Aid, in this case), the rift, the breakup, the spinoff projects, the rehab, the tentative reconnection and the band reunion. It’s all here. (I don’t think I have spoiled anything – this all really happened, decades ago.)

Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had. While the intensity of fame was difficult for him to handle at the time, he’s also very appreciative of his fans, then and now.

Plus there are lots of DD details, like how the band was run (as a democracy), what the album titles mean, the stories behind many of their hit songs, their various romantic relationships, etc. I loved that stuff. I decided I wanted to have a copy of this book for my shelves, so I ordered a used print copy since I only had the audio, and there are lots of photos included too. The photo quality isn’t great, but there are many pictures sprinkled throughout the book.

If you do The Pleasure Groove on audio, you get John Taylor himself as the narrator. He’s awesome. Funny, self-deprecating, eloquent. Just what you want from the guy who used to hang on your bedroom wall when you were a pre-teen. I caught Duran Duran in DC when they were on their reunion tour several years ago, but having Taylor tell me his life story in the car with me for 8 hours was also really fun. I highly recommend this book and audiobook.

BELONGING by Nora Krug

Belonging: A German Reckons With History And Home by Nora Krug falls into a new book category for me: graphic memoir. The author is a woman in her thirties who was born in Germany long after World War II, and Belonging is her quest to understand the role her family played in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Nora Krug grew up in the south of Germany in a town that housed an American air base after WWII. Throughout her childhood, the Holocaust was not discussed or addressed by her family or friends. She recalls a strong feeling of shame about being German, despite having only a vague understanding of what had happened in her own country. She moved to America as a young adult, but remained both homesick for and intensely curious about her home country and her own family tree. She decided to return to Germany to trace her predecessors on both her mother’s and her father’s sides to learn what responsibility they had in the killing of Jews.

There are two elements to Belonging: the research and storytelling, and then the unbelievable visuals that go with them. Krug spent years tracking down her cousins and aunts – estranged on both sides of her family tree – to learn more about her grandfathers and a great-uncle who died in Italy fighting for Germany. Krug, now married to a Jewish man, seeks any evidence she can find that these men were not Nazi supporters, and evem that they had worked to help Jews survive during the Holocaust. She places this quest in the larger context of exploring how Germany as a country dealt with its own responsibility for what happened, and how that sense of responsibility has changed from generation to generation.

Belonging is also a love letter to Germany, one that Krug had clearly suppressed for a long time. She singles out certain objects from her homeland – a special kind of bandaid, a hot water bottle, the forest – and perhaps for the first time, publicly expresses how much these mean to her. I confess that, as an American Jew, I have had little curiosity about German, nor any desire to visit. By showing me Germany through Krug’s eyes, Belonging softened my views and at least piqued my interest.

What’s most compelling about Belonging, though, is the graphic part of the graphic memoir. This is a gorgeous book. It is hand lettered in a clear, consistent type (across 288 pages), interspersed with photographs, drawings, memorabilia, letters, maps and clippings. Krug scoured flea markets and eBay for photos and letters from the time periods she wrote about, so when she didn’t have artifacts from her own family, she borrowed those of others’. What a labor of love this book must have been. I tried to appreciate every page, thinking about how she chose the content she did and how it affected the reading experience. I am not well-versed in graphic novels or memoirs, but I was extremely impressed with Belonging. It reminded me of The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston (which I also loved), but in format only, as this one is non-fiction and intensely personal.

Belonging was a bit of a departure for me, but I am really glad I picked it up.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated, the juggernaut memoir by Tara Westover, needs no introduction, but for those who may have just returned from time travel or a few years of hibernation, it’s the story of the author’s life growing up in a extreme, survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. At 17, Westover managed to separate herself from her family and go to college at BYU and graduate school at Cambridge. The book is about how education – she never attended school until college – opened her mind to understand her family and how her upbringing had affected her, often negatively.

Educated is a harrowing read, as there are many times when Westover and her parents and siblings were in grave physical danger, whether from a car accident or a gruesome accident at her father’s junkyard. Her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine and were deeply distrustful of government institutions like schools or hospitals. When her brother Luke suffered a horrendous burn when a fuel tank exploded, he was treated with natural remedies and painkillers. When her mother suffered severe head trauma in a car accident, she recovered at home, treating her frequent migraines with herbs.

Westover also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and one of her brothers, leading to a near-constant atmosphere of fear and tension at home. She is honest about the impact this abuse had on her as a young woman: she tried not to feel anything at all so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain that they caused.

I admire Westover’s remarkable resilience, as well as her clear, unflinching writing. Her ability to teach herself all that she missed growing up without schooling is astonishing. And her loyalty to her parents, despite their repeated failure to protect her from dangers at home or to take responsibility for the pain suffered by her and her siblings, is a testament to the power of family and upbringing.

I am glad I read Educated, but I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not an enjoyable read, for sure, given the nature of her upbringing. But even beyond that, there is a coldness there, a distanced retelling of her family’s stories that makes it hard to appreciate their full impact. Westover is probably still processing all that happened to her, and the book is clearly part of that process of coming to terms. I am not sure that she is fully on the other side yet. I wonder whether the book would feel more complete if she had waited a few more years to write it, when everything was a little less raw.

I listened to Educated on audio, and it was narrated by acclaimed performer Julia Whelan (aka the author of My Oxford Year and Grace Manning on “Once And Again”). Whelan won an Audie for Best Female Narrator for this performance earlier this year. Her narration was measured and unemotional, almost bordering on angry. I wonder how much her performance contributed to my sense of remove from the book, and whether reading it in print would have made for a different experience.

INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro is a memoir about the author’s discovery that the man she had always considered her father was not, in fact, her biological father. An Ancestry.com DNA test she did on a whim – her husband was doing one, so she decided to do it too – revealed that Shapiro and her half-sister were not, in fact, related, setting into motion an intense quest for truth and answers surrounding Shapiro’s conception. When Shapiro made this discovery, both her parents were already dead, forcing her to piece together the circumstances of her birth with little help from others.

I’ve read a few of Shapiro’s novels, but she is best known for her memoirs. And I can see why – her writing is clear and precise, honest and compelling. She takes her readers through each step of her path to understanding how she was conceived via a sperm donor – and whether her parents knew. She flashes back in time to instances during her childhood where she felt she somehow didn’t belong with her Orthodox Jewish family. Shapiro adored her father, and Jewish culture and custom were something she shared with him (even though she doesn’t really consider herself a religious person). Despite her fair complexion and blonde hair, Shapiro identified as a Jew growing up and resented when people pointed out that she “didn’t look Jewish”. Yet learning that her father was not her biological father explained confusion and distance she felt growing up, but also left her feeling rootless and without an identity.

I think I would enjoy reading about Shapiro’s trips to the supermarket – that’s how much I enjoy her writing – but this story of secrets and discovery was engrossing. You might be tempted to ask whether, at age 54, this news should really have had this much of an impact on the author, who is, after all, a successful, married author and writer. Yet whenever I had those thoughts, I kept reading, and really came to understand just how disorienting the discovery was for her, and why it was important for her to find her biological father. Good writing will do that.

I listened to Inheritance on audio, narrated by the author, and it was excellent. I feel lucky to have heard such a highly personal story read by the person who experienced it. Shapiro’s narration is like her writing: consistent, clear and eloquent. The audio was easy to follow and I was always eager to return to it.

Inheritance was a very good memoir and a good read – well worth the time.