Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Home Sweet Anywhere, by Lynne Martin

homesweetanywhereHome Sweet Anywhere is a memoir about a couple, Lynne and Tim, who get together later in life after a brief romance years earlier. When Tim has been through a divorce and Lynne’s husband has died, they fall in love all over again — but discover that the last thing they both want is to settle down to a quiet retirement. Though they both have adult children and grandchildren they love, they’re not ready to stay close to home — they both love travel. So rather than buying a retirement home, they sell everything they can, put the rest into storage, and hit the road, spending weeks or months at a time renting apartments in whatever country takes their fancy.

Obviously Lynne and Tim’s plan only works for retirees who have two things that not all elderly people are blessed with — a healthy retirement savings fund, and good health. Assuming those two things, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a lot of us would-be gypsies who look forward to travelling more in our golden years. While I wouldn’t enjoy their solution of having no permanent home to stash my stuff and come back to — I hope to always have our house in the centre of St. John’s as a home base — it’s not hard to indulge in my own fantasies while I read about Lynne and Tim’s Dublin apartment or their Portuguese beach house.

I’ve seen this book criticized because of Lynne Martin’s everyday, somewhat bloggy prose (the book deal grew out of an article which in turn grew out of the blog she kept while on the road). It is fair to point out that as travel writers go, Lynne Martin is no Bill Bryson and no Elizabeth Gilbert either — but she doesn’t have any pretentions to that kind of literary travel writing. She’s a fairly ordinary (though well-off) traveller telling a pretty straightforward story — how she and her husband made this unconventional retirement plan work for them, what they saw, what they liked and didn’t like, with a few tips on what others might want to do it they are interested in the same kind of adventure. The fact that the book has succeeded as well as it has is not a testament to any brilliant narrative skills on Martin’s part — she makes it clear she lays no claim to those — but rather to the fact that her story touches a chord with so many of us who would like to do at least some version of what she and Tim have done with their retirement years.

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The Bassoon King, by Rainn Wilson

bassoonkingI may as well just stop posing the disclaimer “I don’t normally read celebrity bios, but ….” I’ve read a lot of really great ones over the past few years — all by comedians, and all really funny and insightful. From Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to David Mitchell and Rob Brydon, there are actor/writers out there who are really raising the bar for what we think of as “celebrity bios.” These people are either great writers or have the sense to hire great ghostwriters (but given that so many comedians write their own material I’d assume the former in most cases). Now we can add to that list Rainn Wilson, famous for playing Dwight Schrute in the American version of The Office

Wilson’s engaging memoir covers his childhood in a very unconventional family, his awkward bassoon-playing teenage years, his early struggles as an actor, and his return to the Ba’hai faith of his childhood — all before we get into behind-the-scenes tales from the set of The Office. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir.

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Disrupted, by Dan Lyons

DisruptedThis is a book my husband Jason read first, mostly because after ten years of futile resistance he finally got on to social media. That is, he joined LinkedIn — or, as you may know it, Facebook’s boring cousin who spends way too much time at work. That said, I can’t be too hard on Jason’s LinkedIn life, because it was through that site that he discovered Dan Lyons’ book Disrupted,  which we both read and enjoyed. 

Disrupted is a caustic and funny memoir about journalist Lyons’ experience going to work at a tech start-up company, getting immersed in the youth-focused culture of start-ups at the age of 52 (as he notes, twice as old as his average co-worker). Behind the shiny facade of the postmodern workplace with its free candy, open work areas, and exercise balls in place of chairs, Lyon finds a culture that not only openly discriminates against older workers, but treats even its bright young things with surprising contempt, seeing them as disposable cogs in the machine rather than valued members of the team.

Disrupted pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Lyons makes no effort to disguise the identity of either the company he worked at — HubSpot — or the real names of most of his co-workers (some are given made-up names in the book, but the real identities of many of these people are revealed in the epilogue, so any disguise that is going on here is paper-thin). It’s also quite clear that this is his personal take on the experience and that other HubSpotters will tell a different story (and have done, in the media and on social media, since the book came out). But the book, which is always witty even when it’s cranky, and is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, is more than just the grumblings of a discontented ex-employee (though it’s clearly that too). Lyons sees real problems with the culture of start-ups (and with economics behind them — how is so much money being made investing in so many companies that never actually show a profit? Is this sustainable? Lyons warns it’s not), and Disrupted is his effort to call out and address those issues, against the backdrop of his own curmudgeonly tale.

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Sixty, by Ian Brown

sixtyI guess I should be interested in the topic of this memoir, since I just turned fifty and, if I’m lucky, sixty will be the next big milestone. I borrowed this book from an actual over-sixty person, and haven’t yet had a chance to ask if the original owner thinks it’s accurate, but what it mainly underlined for me is how young I still feel at fifty, and how much inevitable deterioration is likely to happen in the next ten years. Ian Brown seems like a pretty active guy, with all the skiing and biking he’s doing throughout the book, but he’s still definitely falling apart, physically, and spends a lot of time reflecting on this throughout the book. The rest of his time is spent reflection on 1) how old he looks (apparently it’s not just women who worry about this as they get older); 2) whether women still find him sexually attractive; 3) whether he’ll have enough money to live on in retirement (he thinks not, after a career in journalism, but seems to be living an extremely comfortable lifestyle during his sixty-first year, so maybe his standards for “enough” are higher than mine); and 4) whether he’s done the best work he could do, and whether it’s too late to do more (like write a great novel).

Does all this sound a little self-absorbed, maybe even boring at times? To me, the sign of a great memorist is someone who can make the book interesting to read even when the subject matter could be mundane. The other Ian Brown book I read, The Boy in Moon, had an inherently fascinating subject — caring for a profoundly disabled child. This one is about the more routine business of getting older, something we’ll all face if we’re lucky, but Ian is an interesting, thoughful, and funny enough writer to make the ride interesting, at least most of the time.

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Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

furiouslyhappyIf you’re planning to pick up the latest book by Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess, you should expect more of what you get on her blog, or what you got in her first book, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened. That is to say, you’ll get laugh-out-loud funny tales of situations so bizarre, painful and twisted that you almost feel guilty laughing at them. It is, as the subtitle says, “A Funny Book About Horrible Things,” so don’t say you weren’t warned. This is almost certainly the funniest book ever written about living with mental illness (or at least, it’s on a par with Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half), so if you want to laugh at the things we don’t usually talk openly about, this is the book for you.

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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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