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...more
“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
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
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
Ta-Nehisi Coates has contributed some of the more tendentious analysis on African-American identity and history in the US, including his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” This book came about after he reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which includes, in part, an open letter from Baldwin to his nephew.
Between the World and Me is written in a similar style, but as a letter from Coates to his teenage son in which he speaks frankly about the plight of being black in America, including stories of his West Baltimore upbringing and the idealism of his college years at Howard University. Despite dips into history and memoir, the book is rooted ﬁrmly in current moments....more
“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” As M Train opens, Patti Smith enters a dream set in an isolated landscape, trying to get the attention of a cowpoke, “vaguely handsome, intensely laconic.” He ignores her and claims her dream as his own before declaring, “The writer is a conductor.” The book proceeds through eighteen “stations,” rather than chapters, though its linearity remains dreamlike, touching on themes of solitude, grief, and the creative process. The cowpoke recurs, as does Smith’s habit of visiting the café across the street from her apartment to drink black coﬀee and follow her meandering thoughts.
I closed my notebook and sat in the café thinking about real time. Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present...more
In the summer I read Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, and struggled to write anything about it. The book is broad and scattered, attempting to establish Gordon’s roots as an artist while also covering basically every side project she took on while she was the bassist for Sonic Youth for twenty years. She seems to write the least about her experiences in the band, even insisting she doesn’t primarily consider herself a musician. Her approach felt emotionally distant, though she acknowledges that people tend to see her that way; yet then she delves into raw, gossipy detail on the dissolution of her marriage with Thurston Moore after he was unable to end an aﬀair with another woman....more
Reading this immediately after Frank Bruni’s memoir, in which he is so open about his life, Nina MacLaughlin seems very guarded in comparison. She has some funny and touching stories to tell about leaving a career as a journalist to become a carpenter, responding to a Craiglist posting almost on a lark, but while she attempts to make clever literary statements by referencing other texts and going into the etymologies of terms, something seems oﬀ about her approach. At one point she criticizes an interview with Gabriel García Márquez in which he described writing being the same as carpentry, “With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”
García Márquez admits a few sentences later...more
Frank Bruni is best known for the ﬁve years he spent as restaurant critic for The New York Times, but while this memoir is very food-focused, only a sliver of it is about his tenure in that position and funny stories of his challenges in dining incognito. Though he opens with the ﬁrst phone call he received about the job, he quickly contextualizes the signiﬁcance for him in considering the position by relating another phone call with a colleague who asks him bluntly, “Are you sure that you’re willing to sacriﬁce the good shape you’ve gotten into?” After a lifelong struggle with overeating and discomfort with his body size, Bruni had only recently found some balance while working as the...more
Most often classiﬁed as a memoir, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon feels like a novella-length personal essay that starts with Mark Doty’s interest in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings and moves through an elegiac exploration of objects and intimacy. It’s surprisingly expansive for its length, and Doty manages to suggest a lot of detail in his descriptions and narratives. Writing about paintings seems at ﬁrst like it could be a terrible idea — something along the lines of dancing about architecture — yet here it leads to graceful, compelling prose.
The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part...more