Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierly

longwayhomeSaroo Brierly’s story recently came out as a movie called Lion, which I haven’t seen, but on hearing about it I wanted to read the book. It’s a simple and yet amazing story of a poor boy from India who got separated from his home and family at age five by the simple act of getting on the wrong train. Finding himself in a big city with no idea how to find his way home, Saroo ended up first in an orphanage, then in Australia, adopted by a couple there.

Though he adapted well to his new home and new life, Saroo never ceased to be curious about home. But not even knowing for sure the name of the town he came from, his family name, or many other details, he had no idea how to begin looking. Until, when he was a young man, the internet came along.

The story of how Saroo used Google Earth to match pictures of places with his memories from more than twenty years earlier is incredible and heartwarming. This really is one of those stories of survival that’s so unbelievable, it has to be true, because you couldn’t make it up.

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Where I Live Now, by Sharon Butala

whereiliveSharon Butala is an award-winning Canadian writer, but I’d never read  her work before randomly picking up a copy of Where I Live Now. For some reason, although I enjoyed this book, it took me forever to finish it — I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then getting into a different book and coming back to this one later. It’s a memoir of her life on a Saskatchewan ranch with her rancher husband, his death, and her attempt to make a new life for herself away from the ranch where she’d lived for thirty years. There’s some good material in here about marriage, change, grief and again, but I think where Butala’s writing really shines is when writing about the natural landscape, which she obviously loves and describes with great care and tenderness. While this may not have been a book that compelled me to devour it quickly, it was one that rewarded my many visits back to dip into its rich, descriptive detail.

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Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

badfeministUnlike a lot of Roxane Gay fans (among whom I would definitely count myself), I came to Bad Feminist after reading her more recent book, Hunger, which I thought was amazing. Bad Feminist is a different kind of book: it’s not really a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir and reveals a lot about Gay’s life. It’s not focused on a single issue as Hunger is; despite the title, Bad Feminist is not solely or even mostly about feminism. Feminist thought, and what it means to be a feminist (and why you might sometimes be thought of as a “bad” one) permeates the book, but so do issues around race, literary criticism, critique of TV, movies and other elements of popular culture, and Gay’s trenchant observations on many quirk and foibles of contemporary American life. She is often funny, very often biting and satirical, always thought-provoking. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays rather than a single, compelling story like Hunger is, and nearly all of them are interesting and worthy of sparking a lively discussion. If you’re interested in the intersections of feminism, racism, and popular culture, you will definitely want to read this book.

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We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby

wearenevermeetingMany readers probably picked up this book because they’re familiar with Samantha Irby’s blog, but I just saw the description of the book and thought it sounded interesting and funny, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Irby is indeed a very funny writer, of the “my life is actually objectively terrible but I’m writing about it in a funny way” school of humour. She writes about an impoverished and abusive childhood, the death of her parents, chronic illness, and a string of failed relationships — as well as her adoption (and subsequently the death) of an antisocial cat who, like Irby herself, is plagued with medical problems. Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? This could just as easily have been a heart-rending memoir (and sometimes it is) but in a humourist’s hands, it’s easy to laugh at the funny side of a life pockmarked by misfortune and failure. (Some things have clearly gone well for her, like a wildly popular blog, a book deal, and the one relationship that didn’t end in disaster, so there’s that, too).

Irby’s humour is sometimes a little too raw and graphic for me in dealing with sex, bodily functions and illness — but I am a noted prude and squeamish-person, so that reflects more on me than on her (but is a warning worth noting for other squeamish prudes). Still, despite a few cringes I found this an enjoyable read.

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this memoir (or collection of essays — it doesn’t unroll in the continuous flow you’d expect from a memoir) to Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I also read recently. There are definite similarities between the two writers: both African-American women who write about body image, food, sexuality (including bisexuality), physical and mental illness and disability. Gay is a very serious writer who can at times be quite funny; Irby is a humour writer who brings a sardonic eye and voice to very serious topics. (Apparently Gay and Irby are friends in real life, and this article about Irby begins with a funny anecdote about a reader confusing the two, so it’s clearly not just a case of lily-white me thinking All Big Black Women Who Write About Their Bodies Look Alike).

What is the mysterious alchemy that makes one book an acclaimed literary soon-to-be-classic, and another a fun, commercial read? I’ve always struggled with this question in reading fiction, as I read both popular and literary fiction, and I still can’t pinpoint the difference. It’s there in non-fiction too — I can see that Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby are doing different things with quite similar material, but I can’t quite explain what the difference is, apart from the fact that Irby plays her experience for laughs. But as with popular and literary fiction, both are great reads, as long as you know what you’re getting. If you’re not too squeamish about sex, swearing, and (especially) poop, you’ll enjoy We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

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Hunger, a Memoir of (my) Body, by Roxane Gay

hungerEveryone I know has been talking about this book lately, largely because an excerpt from it published on The Guardian website was being widely shared and discussed online last weekend. I was intrigued enough to immediately buy and download the book, and read it in less than 24 hours. It’s relatively short, but that’s not why I read it so quickly: Gay’s voice is so compelling that the book is hard to put down.

The book is essentially a memoir about Gay’s lifelong struggle, not only with her weight, but with the fat-shaming and hatred that go along with being extremely overweight. It’s also a memoir about surviving trauma: Gay traces her hatred of her own body to a horrific incident of sexual assault at age 12. 

Throughout the book she is brutally honest, both about the way she has mistreated herself and the ways others have mistreated her, and her efforts to care for herself — sometimes successful, sometimes not. At times there’s a wry humour to her writing, but much of it, especially the parts dealing with the aftermath of rape, are painful to read, as well they should be.

If you’re interested in issues of weight, body image, and sexual assault, then you’ll definitely want to read this memoir — but honestly, even if you didn’t think you were deeply interested in any of those subjects but just love to read a powerful, compelling, brilliantly-written memoir,  you should still pick up Hunger. Roxane Gay has a voice that will echo in your head long after you put the book down.

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The Reason You Walk, by Wab Kinew

reasonyouwalkOne-time rapper, long-time CBC journalist, and now politician Wab Kinew tells the story of his father’s time in one of the notorious residential schools that First Nations children in Canada were forced to attend, and the impact of that abuse on his family throughout the next generation. The Reason You Walk is also a memoir about Kinew’s own life as well as his father’s, about the relationship between the two men, and about the search for healing, peace and reconciliation for Canadian First Nations people who were subjected to the residential school system. There’s a lot going on in this book, and while the writing is straightforward and workmanlike rather than literary or showy in any way, it’s well worth reading. I learned a lot.

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Hallelujah Anyway, by Anne Lamott

hallelujahHallelujah Anyway is trademark Anne Lamott — funny, wry, wise and insightful; a Christian spirituality that’s very open to non-Christians and maybe even non-believers. Everything I’ve said in reviews of her last couple of books (see Stitches, for example) is true here too: always an enjoyable read, but not as meaty or engaging as her earlier books which included longer, more memoir-style essays. Still, there’s no such thing as a bad Anne Lamott book, and I found this reflection on the concept of mercy to be as good as most of her writing.

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