Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

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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Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking

travellingtoinfinityPurchasing and reading this book was a classic, “Saw the movie, now want to read the book to find out how right/wrong they got it” experience after I watched the excellent movie which is largely based upon this book, The Theory of Everything. While Jane Hawking is not a professional memoir writer, so there is no particular literary “flair” to the book, but it’s a clear, well-told story of someone who embodied the role of selfless caregiver and wasn’t treated particularly well as a result. This is an abridged version of her earlier memoir, Music to Move the Stars, and probably benefits a little from the distance that an additional decade could provide.

I came away from the book feeling that the movie had in fact been fairly faithful to Jane Hawking’s version of the truth, though with some of the rough edges smoothed a bit for movie purposes. The problem that faced the filmmakers was obviously how to tell a heartwarming story about a marriage in which a devoted wife supports her disabled genius husband — when the story of that marriage ends with the disabled genius husband dumping his devoted wife. In fact, what both the book and the movie did for me was made me reflect a little on some of my assumptions about marriage and what it means to commit to someone “for better or for worse.” Jane’s dedicated care for Stephen was obviously heroic and she believed strongly in fulfilling her marriage vows, but when he finally left her for his nurse (a process which is far more protracted and painful in the book than it is in the movie), my main feeling was relief for Jane. She went on to marry the dedicated friend (and possibly lover? Her book is as vague as the movie is on whether they ever slept together while she was still married) who provided such support to Jane, Stephen and the whole family for many years. Does dedication to one’s marriage vows require a selfless sacrifice with nothing in return?

The takeaway from this book and movie for me were: being the spouse and caregiver of a severely disabled person is really hard, especially if, like the Hawkings for most of the book, you’re not rich enough to afford a lot of home care. Being married to a genius is also hard — they tend to be demanding and self-absorbed. Being married to the world’s most famous disabled genius wasn’t easy, and for the fact that she stayed in the marriage until he left her, raised three kids, and remains on cordial terms with her famous ex today, Jane Hawking deserves great acclaim. I hope she and Jonathan have a terrific life together because she’s certainly earned it.

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Small Victories, by Anne Lamott

smallvictoriesIt was probably foolish for me to spend money on the e-book of Small Victories, since 2/3 of the essays in Anne Lamott’s new collection were previously published in her earlier books, and I’ve read all her earlier books. But I so enjoy anything by Lamott that it was worth the price just for the sake of ten new essays. As always Lamott is funny, honest, hopeful, angry and compassionate. While I’d have preferred a thick book full of entirely new essays, Small Victories is almost worth the cover price just for Lamott’s essay about online dating at age sixty. If you haven’t read her before, this is a great intro to her work.

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Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

notthatkindofgirlWell, here’s a case where getting a little behind on my book reviews has certainly had an impact on how I discuss the book. I read the memoir before the social media storm erupted around Dunham’s depiction of her seven-year-old self peering at her baby sister’s vagina and later, as a teenager, bribing the same un-cuddly little sister into being a more affectionate somewhat as “a sexual predator might.” A third controversial reference to her sister suggests that when they shared a bed, teenaged Lena sometimes masturbated while her younger sister was asleep in bed next to her. Never having had a sibling, I have no idea how normal or abnormal this behavior is, but it certainly has gotten the young actress, who is a polarizing figure anyway, into a huge controversy.

Before a right-wing website labelled her a pedophile for those scenes in the book, few reviewers seem to have commented much on those passages. Did they make me squirm a little uncomfortably while reading them? Absolutely. But did they make me squirm any more than various other things in the book — Dunham’s depictions of her family life, her boundary-challenged relationship with two different therapists, numerous sexual encounters with different men in her life? No. The entire book is witty, well-written, and eminently squirm-worthy. There’s no suggestion anywhere (to me, anyway) that Dunham is holding her own life up as anything but a complete mess. As the subtitle suggests, her experiences are more along the lines of “cautionary tale” than “role model.”

For my money, Dunham’s exploration of her baby sister’s private parts falls firmly into the category of childhood exploration (can a seven-year-old, who presumably has no sexual feelings herself, actually be a pedophile?); her reference to masturbating next to her sleeping sister is one of a thousand examples of stunningly poor judgement in the book; and her comparison of herself to a sexual predator while trying to get her sister to kiss or cuddle with her is a clear case of where her editor should have said, “Lena, cut this metaphor — you may love it, but it’ll cause you more trouble than it’s worth.”

I think the book suffers a little from the common problem of memoirs written by people under 3o — it feels as if Dunham is too close to the events she’s writing about to have any real perspective or insight into them. But she certainly is a sharp, witty writer who doesn’t mind shining a harsh light on her own faults and shortcomings. Whether that light will turn out to have been too harsh for her future popularity, only time will tell.

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Jew and Improved, by Benjamin Errett

jewandimprovedWith my well-known fondness for memoirs about spiritual journeys, I’d picked up Benjamin Errett’s Jew and Improved a few times, loved the title, and thought “Maybe I should read that,” but never got around to actually reading it. Then I read Alison Pick’s memoir Between Gods, and noticed on the author’s Facebook page that she linked to an article about her book by Benjamin Errett, which began: “When you convene all the Canadians who have written memoirs about converting to Judaism, there’s no need to book the restaurant ahead of time. Alison Pick and I easily found a table for two at a café on a recent Friday morning.”

That sentence convinced me I had to read Errett’s book — and if I was still in doubt, this passage, later in the article, sealed the deal: “Her book is as much about conversion as it is about depression, about searching for spiritual meaning to combat a biochemical feeling of meaninglessness. (My book? My book features brisket recipes.)”

That’s Errett’s authorial voice for you — breezy, funny, self-deprecating. He’s traversing similar ground to Pick here, in the sense that the book is about the conversion process, but he treads it with a much lighter foot. Rather than unearthing a painful and buried family history like Pick, Errett converts to Judaism for probably the most common of reasons: he marries a nice Jewish girl. There’s plenty of family dysfunction in Jew and Improved too, but it’s played for laughs rather than for angst. I highly recommended Between Gods, but if you’ve read that and you’re in the mood for something light and fun, while still thinking Jewish, try Jew and Improved. I liked it; you might too.

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