Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

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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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

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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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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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

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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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir