Susan Gerhart, Nederland. “I will say, with memoir, you must be honest. You must be truthful.” Elie Wiesel
With few exceptions, the memoir genre has always struck me as self-serving and redemptive, especially when written by someone in the prime of life. Here are some of the exceptions that are worth your time.
Paul Kalanithi was finishing decades of training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He was thirty-six, married, and on his way to a brilliant career when his life was turned upside down as he became the patient rather than the doctor. What do you do when there is no future? Kalanithi and his wife chose to have a child, a kind of future. Kalanithi lived for twenty-two months after the initial diagnosis, and in that time, he wrote an exquisite memoir of his life and his dying in When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi shows us the way when death comes too soon.
In A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, renowned author Ayelet Waldman recounts a life disrupted by mood swings. Conventional therapy and drugs did nothing to alleviate the anxiety and depression that dominated her and her family. As a last resort, this criminal attorney turned to microdoses of LSD, a Schedule 1 illegal drug in the U.S., like marijuana.
Both were classified as such during the Nixon administration, many believe to criminalize the behavior of certain groups. But Waldman reports that it works for her, and she’s not seeing pink elephants. LSD has allowed Waldman to resume a normal life and to produce a book on the history and use of LSD that is both educational and funny. The doses arrive anonymously from a friend of a friend, one “Lewis Carroll.”
After the breakup of her thirty-year marriage to experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, former local Jane Wodening got in her car Bobo and started to drive. She recounts her adventures, her thoughts, and her eventual healing in Driveabout.
Battleworn: The Memoir of a Combat Medic in Afghanistan is Chantelle Taylor’s account of the seven weeks in 2008 that B Company of the British Army struggled to hold a dusty Afghani town from the Taliban. What started as a routine patrol turned into a siege with Taylor, a medic, and her fellow soldiers facing death daily. The battle was so intense and the casualty rate was so high that Taylor was both fighter and caregiver. This is a good look at the daily life of a soldier under fire, the fear, the humor, and the comradeship.
My favorite memoir remains Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club published in 1995. The title refers to her hard-living father and his friends who would gather to drink and tell stories when not working the East Texas oilfields. Her much-married mother harbors secrets that threaten to destroy Karr and her sister. In the current edition of the book, Karr discusses the effect her book had on her family.
I reviewed Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance in a previous column. In light of current events, if you haven’t read it, you should. Although written twenty-one years apart, it shares subject matter with The Liar’s Club. Something to think about.
See you around the stacks.