Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Fathomless Riches, by Richard Coles

fathomlessrichesAlthough I love memoir, two sub-genres of memoir I don’t read much are the celebrity memoir, and the “I once was lost but now am found” type of Christian conversion memoir. I’m willing to make an exception for celebrity memoirs if the celebrity is a British comedian, preferably one who’s appeared on QI. And apparently that leads to a second exception, if for “comedian” in the above sentence you replace “funny gay pop star turned C. of E. clergyman.” Hence, the Reverend Richard Coles’ autobiography turned out to be just my cup of tea.

Since I’d never actually heard of the band he used to be in, the Communards, I wasn’t totally fascinated by the story of his early rock-and-roll years, but Coles is an engaging, self-deprecating author and he describes his coming to faith with a refreshing honesty. I’m quite interested in his post-conversion life in the ministry, as he’s anything but the typical clergyman — but apparently I’ll have to wait for a second volume in 2016 for that story!

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Off the Road, by Jack Hitt

offtheroadI picked up Off the Road after watching for the second time the very underrated movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen as a grieving father walking the Camino de Santiago with his son’s ashes. I love the movie, and noticed on my second viewing that it was “inspired by” (not “based on”) Jack Hitt’s book about walking the Camino.

The connection between book and movie is fairly tenuous, although a couple of minor episodes from the book are included in the movie. Hitt’s story is the tale of a modern-day pilgrim, driven not by the religious faith that has motivated people to walk this trail for hundreds of years but by — well, he’s not sure what motivates him. And by the end of the book, he’s still not sure, but he’s certainly met some interesting people and had some memorable experiences along the way.

One of my life bucket-list items is to walk this ancient pilgrim route, so I always enjoy stories about it, and Jack Hitt’s book is an interesting addition to that list of stories, even if it doesn’t offer any particularly deep insight.

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Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

searchingforsundayI’m probably always going to love anything Rachel Held Evans writes. It was more or less inevitable that after the incisive questioning of her childhood faith and its values that she chronicled in A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Evolving in MonkeytownHeld Evans would have difficulty remaining in her church home or finding a new one. Searching for Sunday chronicles her struggle with church — leaving a church, leaving church altogether, starting a new church, watching that church fail, church-shopping, seeking and (perhaps) finding a new church home.

While the title falls oddly on my Adventist ears (surely we are all searching for Sabbath, aren’t we?), her struggle resonates. Like many people, I too have seen a lot of changes in my faith throughout the long years of this spiritual journey, and sometimes those changes have made me feel uncomfortable in the church home that birthed and nurtured me. At the same time I’ve been keenly aware, as Held Evans is, of all the ways that church home has nurtured me — how church people, even when you disagree with their theology and their politics, can simply be there for you and your family at times when no-one else would.

All this makes for a messy struggle, and Rachel Held Evans locates her personal struggle on a map of other people going through similar struggles with church, including those who have far more at stake than she does. She talks, for example, about LGBT people who have been rejected and condemned by their churches, yet somehow managed to hold onto some faith. She, too, holds onto a core of faith and to the need for a spiritual community, a need that has led her (as it has led many progressive evangelicals) into the more sacramental and liturgical worship of the Episcopal church.

Rachel Held Evans does something that I usually don’t like, but she does it well, and I’m trying to figure out why. I try not to be that crotchety middle-aged person who says “People under 30 shouldn’t write memoirs!” but I am wary of memoirs that are written in the midst of experience, without allowing the writer time to reflect back. Authors like Deborah Feldman suffer from this, I think — their work would be richer if they allowed more time to elapse so they could better fit their experiences into the framework of their whole lives. But from her first book (and, of course, on her blog) Rachel Held Evans has been writing right out of the middle of her faith journey, as she’s living it — and it works for me. Maybe because she’s honest about the fact that she, and her faith, are works in progress, and that she doesn’t have all the answers. But she’s asking the questions a lot of us are asking, and I think that’s why so many of us are happy to come along for the ride.

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So, Anyway … by John Cleese

soanywayThis memoir by comedian John Cleese focuses on his early years, stopping just about the time he joins the Monty Python troupe that made him famous — though he does flash-forward to the future long enough to tell us a little about the 2014 Python live reunion show. He’s funny, as you would expect, sometimes acerbic, occasionally insightful. I didn’t learn anything startling or revealing here, but it was an enjoyable read with a few laugh-out-loud moments.

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Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

yespleaseMost people tend to mention Amy Poehler in the same breath as Tina Fey, and I’m here to tell you that Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please is every bit as funny and insightful as Fey’s Bossypants. It’s a great memoir about the comedy business, and specifically about a woman’s path through that business. It’s always entertaining, it’s fresh and quirky, and Poehler is loudly and unabashedly feminist. She’s also discreet about her divorce from Will Arnett, which I think is tasteful in this day and age. Her language is going to be a little raw in a few places for some people, but it’s a great read, and if you’re a fan of Poehler’s comedy, it’s a must-read.

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Shakespeare Saved My Life, by Laura Bates

ShakespeareSavedMyLifeThis memoir tells the story of college professor Laura Bates’s experience teaching Shakespeare to inmates in prison in the U.S.  While there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about the writing here, the story feels fresh and honest in its revelations about both the conditions in which prisoners live while serving life sentences, and the degree to which it’s possible for those prisoners to become engaged with, and relate to, the study of Shakespeare.

The book focuses primarily on the story of one prisoner, Larry Newton, a man serving a life sentence with no possibility of appeal or parole for a murder. Newton is the one who makes the claim that “Shakespeare saved my life.” He not only returns to the general prison population after ten years in solitary confinement, he works towards a college degree in hopes of becoming the first prisoner to earn a PhD (a hope that’s thwarted when funding is cut for college courses for prisoners); he teaches Shakespeare to other prisoners and writes introductions to a series of reading guides for prisoners.

While I don’t know anything about working in prisons, I’ve taught Shakespeare to young people coming from some very challenging backgrounds, though certainly none as challenging as Newton’s.  It’s amazing to me to think that so-called “hardened criminals” could engage with Shakespeare’s text as deeply and meaningfully as Newton and the rest of Bates’s students did. I found this book really interesting and challenging.

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Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

callthemidwifeLike many readers, I came to Jennifer Worth’s memoir via the fabulous TV series based upon it. I’m happy to report that the book is as engaging and interesting as the series. It’s interesting to see how incidents described in the memoir were used as inspiration for episodes of the TV show, but there are added layers of spiritual depth to the story of a secular young nurse who goes to live among an order of nuns who work as midwives in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood in London’s East End. The reader gets a vivid sense of the work involved in midwifery, the conditions in that place and time, and most important, the love and commitment this diverse group of women brought to their work. It’s well worth a read — and don’t miss the TV show!

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