Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Waiting for First Light, by Romeo Dallaire

waitingRomeo Dallaire’s memoir about surviving not just the Rwandan genocide (in his incredibly frustrating role as commander of the UN forces there), but living with the ravages of PTSD for the 20 years after Rwanda, is not an easy read. But it is a compelling one, and a necessary one. Dallaire intersperses his story of trauma and survival with brief chapters that flash back, as his own memories do, to the horrors of the genocide.

Dallaire is unsparing and scathing in discussing some of the things that contributed to his struggle, particularly as concerns institutions and their blind spots — the U.N., the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian government and its treatment of veterans. He is much more cautious when writing about individuals, especially his own family. He and his wife remain married after all these struggles, but lived apart for many years after Rwanda — ostensibly due to Daillaire’s work and his wife’s desire to raise the kids in the same community they had grown up in, but it’s clear that his PTSD put a huge strain on marriage and family life, and I actually respect that every didn’t write a tell-all memoir exposing a lot of personal information about his wife and kids — these are really people he loves, and I’m glad he showed some discretion there. The one person Dallaire is truly unsparing in writing about — even moreso than, say, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs — is himself. While recognizing that he suffered terribly, he also acknowledges that in dealing with that suffering he made many poor choices and hurt others as well as himself.

Dallaire’s hope in writing this book was to shed light on the struggles with PTSD that so many of our modern veterans experience, and I can’t imagine it will fail to do so. This is a very compelling book.

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Hungry Heart, by Jennifer Weiner

hungryheartAppropriately, given the book’s title, I devoured this book in a couple of days, pausing to laugh out loud often and sometimes share a thought with someone nearby while I was reading. I love Jennifer Weiner — I like her novels a lot, but I like her even more, through her social media presence and her non-fiction essays about everything from weight and body image, to gender bias in literary reviews. Many of those essays are collected in Hungry Heart, interspersed throughout memoir chapters as Weiner tells her life story and examines what made her the writer she is today.

It’s funny, challenging, thought-provoking and heart-warming (and occasionally — look out for the chapter on her miscarriage! — a bit more graphic than you might be expecting). I have never read anyone who has written as well as Weiner does here about the pain of being unpopular as a teenager, and believe me, it’s a subject I know a lot about. Even when she writes about subjects I couldn’t care less about — like her obsession with the TV show The Bachelor, a perfect example of everything I hate about reality TV — she’s entertaining and engaging. I couldn’t get enough of Hungry Heart.

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Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

borntorunRock ‘n’ roll memoirs are not generally my speed, but if it’s Springsteen, I have to make an exception, because I love the man and his music. This is a very obviously not ghostwritten memoir which sounds like it was written by a rock poet who has beautiful turns of phrase but also overwrites a bit — there are lots of rambling sentences, multi-hyphenated passages of description, and long-winded philosophizing. But there’s also plenty of insight here into Springsteen’s early life, his roots in the music business and how he and the E Street Band got famous, his struggles with mental illness, and much, much more. I can’t imagine anyone who’s not a Springsteen fan really loving this book, but if you are a fan, you shouldn’t miss it. You’ll definitely come away with a deeper insight into the man and his music.

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When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

breathbecomesairI’ve seen this book referenced by a lot of people and was glad to finally have a chance to pick it up. It’s a short but powerful read, published posthumously, so you know going in there’s going to be no happy ending.

Paul Kalanithi was an extremely successful young doctor, finishing a residency in neurosurgery and looking forward to a brilliant career, when he got the news that he had cancer. His career, his marriage, and most importantly his whole view of who he is and what his life is about are shaken by the news. Well, they would be for anyone, wouldn’t they? Getting cancer in your mid-thirties is disruptive to any life. But if you’ve based your whole life around training for a career that takes years and years of exhausting preparation, and you’re just at the cusp of finishing that preparation and ready to reap the rewards when you’re diagnosed — then that’s going to lead to some deep soul-searching.

That’s what Kalanathi does in this book, and it helps that he considered a career as a writer and studied English literature before specializing in neurosurgery, because he tells his story well. An afterword by his wife brings the story up to and beyond his death. It may be trite to say that reading someone’s cancer memoir delivers the message that you should live every day to the fullest, but this one does a good job of making that potentially tired message come alive.

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This is Not My Life, by Diane Schoemperlen

notmylifeThe short version of This is Not My Life (which is, in fact, writer Schomperlen’s life over a period of several years) is intriguing from the start: how does a Governor-General’s Award-winning Canadian novelist end up in a long-term relationship with a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? But when you strip away some of the descriptors and realize that award-winning writers and convicted murderers are basically just human beings, it becomes a more common and recognizable situation: what happens when two people with extremely different backgrounds and life experiences fall in love? Can that gap ever be bridged?

It’s not a spoiler to say that Schoemperlen’s answer to that question is “no,” and that this memoir of her several-years-long relationship with the man she calls “Shane” is raw, difficult and sometimes painful to read. She and Shane met while she was volunteering at a charity where he was working on a prison work release program. Despite their differences, they were attracted to each other and Schoemperlen began the surreal experience of life as a prisoner’s girlfriend, the relationship unfolding through phone calls, letters, supervised chats in the prison visiting room and eventually overnight stays in a prison-provided trailer.

As Schoemperlen depicts her toothless, tattooed, tough-guy lover, it’s hard to imagine that this story could ever have a happy ending; we readers, like Schoemperlen’s real-life friends, are often shaking our heads going, “How could she not have seen that this was a disaster waiting to happen?” If there’s a takeaway lesson here it’s one that we all knew anyway: smart people can sometimes make very poor choices, especially when emotions and hormones are involved. There’s also a good bit of insight here into Canada’s corrections system and its often byzantine and illogical ways, but what I read for were the personal elements of the story, Schoemperlen’s honest and unflinching view of her own faults as well as Shane’s. A very well-written memoir.

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Allan Square, by Shirley Murphy

allansquareStill with my project (see the review, below, of Greg Malone’s You Better Watch Out) of reading through memoirs about growing up in St. John’s, Shirley Murphy’s Allan Square was another one that made me pause and read it all the way through rather than skimming. This was not because, as with Malone’s book, it was a such a well-constructed piece of literature. Murphy’s prose style is breezy, conversational, and anything but literary — but it is compelling and highly readable.

When this book was first published it caught my attention (though I didn’t read it at that time) because my husband also grew up on Allan Square in downtown St. John’s, albeit a couple of decades later than Shirley Murphy did. Pretty much any story of growing up in that neighbourhood is going to be a story of growing up in at least some degree of poverty, and in Murphy’s case that poverty was sometimes extreme during the years of the Depression and the Second World War. She is also pretty frank about describing her family dynamics, which ranged from neglectful to downright abusive. What kept me interested is that there’s no sense of “Oh, poor me, I survived a childhood of such hardship” in this memoir. Rather, the breezy and often funny tone seems to suggest, “Life on Allan Square was pretty awful a lot of the time, but that’s life, isn’t it?” Interwoven with perceptive and sometimes funny details of everyday life at the time, Murphy’s story was a surprise hit with me.

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Filed under Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Writing Out the Notes, by Bob Hallett

writingoutthenotesAlthough (see my last post) I had been on-and-off reading a memoir by Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett’s “Great Big Sea” bandmate of many years, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to pick up Hallett’s Writing Out the Notes if I hadn’t been looking specifically for books about life as a musician in St. John’s. There aren’t a lot of such books, and the glimpses Hallett provides into his early life and musical influences were really helpful to me as I was researching the local music scene for my own current book.

This is not a memoir in the same sense that Doyle’s Where I Belong is; readers looking for a detailed account of Bob Hallett’s life are looking for a book he didn’t write. Writing Out the Notes is, instead, a collection of short vignettes, mostly about music and the influence both listening to and playing it has had on Bob Hallett. In the edition I read, the subtitle was Life in Great Big Sea, and a sticker had been added with the words and other musical misadventures. As you can see from the cover image here, it seems that a subsequent edition of the book corrected the subtitle without the need of a sticker. If you’re looking for behind-the-scenes tales about life in Great Big Sea, you’ll find very few of them here (although the tale of the band’s German tour, early in their career, will offer a few good laughs). Rather, you’ll find a working musician’s thoughtful reflections on listening to and playing music, and probably (if you also love music) a few things you can relate to.

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Filed under Canadian author, Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir