Memoir

  • Life in Code

    Ellen Ullman

    After reading Ellen Ullman’s novel By Blood, I’ve been meaning to get to her memoir Close to the Machine, but before I could get around to that, she published another book centered around her experiences as a programmer, from before and during the early years of the internet. These essays were written from that inchoate era of the 1990s to today and build on each other excellently. Ullman has both a personal and critical perspective on how technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, at least for those of us with access to the internet.

    In “Programming for the Millions,” she digs into this question of accessibility, not just to get on the internet, but to understand...more

  • The Chronology of Water

    Lidia Yuknavitch

    I thought I would love this, based on recommendations. But I did have one friend say she wasn’t as entranced as she expected, and I found my reaction much the same. A memoir told in vignettes that roughly progresses chronologically, Lidia Yuknavitch grew up in an abusive, neglectful household, and her one escape was swimming. At the end of high school, she pursues a scholarship in hopes of escape, yet despite her success in securing her independence, she struggles with addiction and self-destructive habits for many years.

    There are some really hard parts to read in this, most especially the one where Yuknavitch writes of causing a head-on car collision with someone she describes as “a 5′ tall brown skinned...more

  • Devotion

    Patti Smith

    Compared to Just Kids or M Train, this little book feels so slight and incomplete. But as a small continuation of the themes of creation and artistic drive, it’s a pleasure. Devotion is an expansion of a talk she gave at the 2016 Windham-Campbell Lectures, published as part of the Why I Write series.

    I could probably read about Patti Smith’s travels to artists’ homes and grave sites for a thousand pages. Here she takes a spontaneous trip to Simone Weil’s grave and later accepts an invitation to visit Camus’s house in the south of France, the latter of which prompts her to question:

    Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the

    ...more
  • I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

    Grace Jones

    As celebrity memoirs go, this one is fully par for the course. Rock writer Paul Morley has shaped Grace Jones’s life stories into somewhat of a narrative, but it still has a tendency to ramble back and forth over time, likely from hours and hours of conversation that did just that. Her stories are fascinating, no doubt, even more so if you have any interest in the Studio 54 era and reading about people doing tons of drugs.

    The book opens with Jones’ troubled upbringing, she and her siblings are left with their grandmother and their abusive, strictly religious step-grandfather in Jamaica while their parents move to the US to establish themselves before bringing their children over, having no...more

  • Brown Girl Dreaming

    Jacqueline Woodson

    Memoir in verse, telling the stories of Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood. The poems impart an impressionistic narrative, focused more on the small moments amidst the larger transitions — like the end of her parents’ relationship, moving with her mother and siblings to her grandparents’ home in Greenville, SC, then moving again to Brooklyn — and on the gradual development of Woodson’s path to becoming a writer. Since it’s written from her perspective as a child, it’s published as a middle reader book, but it’s a beautifully rich experience for grown-up readers too.

    Writing #1

    It’s easier to make up stories

    than it is to write them down. When I speak,

    the words come pouring out of me. The story

    wakes up and walks all over

    ...more
  • Are You My Mother?

    Alison Bechdel

    Reviews were so mixed on this graphic novel that I had decided not to read it, until recently when I started reading a borrowed copy and couldn’t put it down. A follow-up to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which focused on her relationship with her father, this one turns to her relationship with her mother. And several of her therapists. Most people I know who didn’t like this book especially did not enjoy the pages of therapy sessions drawn into the story, but for me those parts fit in cleanly to the rest of the narrative.

    In a similar way to Fun Home, Bechdel excerpts other texts frequently in this story, including psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Miller,...more

  • Reading My Father

    Alexandra Styron

    Alexandra Styron is the daughter of William Styron, the novelist best known for Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Her book Reading My Father is part memoir and part biography, focusing at times on her experience growing up with a well-known writer as a father, and at other times providing a straightforward narrative of his life. Every so often it gets meta and zooms in on Styron’s research of her father while writing this book, finishing with a few chapters that detail his long decline in health related to two episodes of severe depression and his long-time alcoholism. All these different parts are interesting individually, but they don’t entirely cohere.

    Though the general conceit of this...more

  • When Skateboards Will Be Free

    Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

    “A memoir of a political childhood,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh writes of growing up as a child of an Iranian father and a Jewish mother who are members of the Socialist Worker’s Party. His parents separated when he was very young, so for most of his early years, his father was absent fighting for the revolution, while he stayed with his mother attending party meetings and selling The Militant on street corners. It’s an intriguing look at how political ideology can be confusing to a child, as when Sayrafiezadeh doesn’t understand why he can’t eat grapes during the 1965 boycott in support of striking workers. Eventually his mother relents, to a degree, by encouraging her son to eat them in the produce...more

  • The Mother Knot

    Kathryn Harrison

    It felt appropriate to read this directly after Annie John since they are both beautifully spare books about difficult mother and daughter relationships, although they are very different stories beyond that. Twenty years after the death of her mother, Kathryn Harrison weaned her third child, setting off a depression with unclear origins. She begins to unearth feelings and experiences from her past — eventually in a very literal manner. Her mother had essentially abandoned her to her grandparents when she was a child, going so far to phrase it as providing Harrison as a stand-in hostage for her parents to control, although this hadn’t turned out quite as her mother planned. Inevitably Harrison’s experience of being a mother pulled her back...more

  • The Odd Woman and the City

    Vivian Gornick

    I picked up a dog-eared copy of this book from the library, which came in handy, as I didn’t have to feel too bad about refolding corners down on the existing creases as I made my way through it. A memoir of New York City and walking and relationships, both romantic and platonic, Gornick meanders through the divide between the fantasies of our lives and their actualities through vignettes of experiences of those themes, quotes from writers, as well as overheard conversations. She takes a lot of walks with her friend Leonard, referring to she and him together as “a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer...more

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