Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

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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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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Where I Belong, by Alan Doyle

whereibelongI got this book quite awhile ago and started reading it, and then somehow put it down and didn’t pick it up for awhile. It’s certainly not that I wasn’t enjoying it; Doyle’s memories of growing up in Petty Harbour, a fishing village half and hour’s drive from downtown St. John’s, are engaging and often very funny. For some reason I just found it a book that was easy to dip into for a short read and then lay down again for awhile. Then, all of a sudden, I picked it up again after several months and finished it in a day.

Alan Doyle is younger than I am, but reading his memoir I often get the feeling that he grew up a generation earlier. This is what we in Newfoundland know as the townie/bayman divide; even in the 1970s, life in the outports (“around the bay”) was several decades behind life in the city a short distance away. Doyle’s memories include cutting cod tongues for pocket money, living without indoor plumbing, and being warned to stay away from Protestants. (He’s especially good, and funny, on the Catholic vs. Protestant religious divide of the community he grew up in, and his story of discovering the doctrine of transubstantiation made me literally LOL).

But it’s also a very modern story, of a boy who grows up loving music, learning to play the guitar, and eventually starting a junior high band. The story of how he gets from there to frontman of the most successful band ever to come out of Newfoundland takes up fewer pages of the book than Doyle’s childhood memories, but is no less entertaining. This is a good read, and you should not judge it by how long it took me to finish, because I thoroughly enjoyed it! 

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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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