Memoir

  • The Principles of Uncertainty

    Maira Kalman

    Maybe you saw these when they were posted as Maira Kalman’s blog on nytimes.com and now it’s only available as this book, which is not such a bad thing. It’s kind of a comic of paintings while also somewhat of a general elegy on the finiteness of life. People who have died are a recurring theme; even some of the people she mentions visiting back in 2006 have since passed on — Louise Bourgeois, Helen Levitt. But her sense of humor particularly tickles me. I read half of it before bed and the rest with breakfast.more

  • Just Kids

    Patti Smith

    A memoir for anyone who gets a little romantic about New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, Smith sketches out her early years in the city and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Early on they were lovers, but for most of their time together (and up until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989), they had what could be called an artistic partnership. They shared their early, struggling years, both knowing they wanted to be artists but not knowing exactly how to go about it. The process of their experimentations and insertion of themselves into the art scene as well as the battle to just stay afloat with very little during a time of growing crime make up most...more

  • Plainwater

    Anne Carson

    After Anne Carson won me over at her Nox reading, I finally put this collection of poetry and essays on hold. It seems like several people have noted it as their favorite volume of hers. Right now I was drawn more to her essays than the various sections of verse, especially the two pilgrammages within “The Anthropology of Water.” But there was also this afterword to “Canicula di Anna”:

    After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to

    ...more
  • Elegy for Iris

    John Bayley

    I never saw the movie version of Bayley’s recollections of his life with Iris Murdoch. Just like Strange Big Moon, I got halfway through this book before I just didn’t want to pick it up again. In this case, I think only have read Murdoch’s novel The Sea, The Sea so got lost in talk about specific works, many of which was not about that one that I’ve read. But also it’s just exceptionally sad in a way that doesn’t pair well with the dreary end of winter. As much as I hate to say it, I’d almost rather watch the movie because then it will only take me an hour and a half....more

  • Strange Big Moon

    Joanne Kyger

    I got really excited when I first got this book and read this on the first page:

    Confession merely enables you to go on acting like a coward, behavior does not change. As self awareness then condones further actions of the same sort.

    At the time this resonated strongly, but over time I lost interest and the book wound up getting buried on a horizontal surface, half-read. Maybe I’ll come back to it sometime, as Kyger’s day-to-day reactions to life in Japan are definitely interesting on some level, including how it came to be that she married fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder upon their arrival. It might be that it was all too “daily life” for the time being....more

  • The Sweet Life in Paris

    David Lebovitz

    Only recently did I get with the program and start reading David Lebovitz’s blog — I’ve tried to make up for lost time by making his butterscotch pudding several times in the last few weeks. I assumed this book would basically be a printed “best of” the blog (which would further help me catch up on what I’ve been missing), but actually the essays are original to the book, though many of the topics were probably mentioned.. like, most of the list of 15 unlikeable things about Paris shows up in expanded form in the book.

    Following a similar approach as his blog, there’s a lot about food (including many recipes) and insider scoops on places to go...more

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran

    Azar Nafisi

    An intriguing concept, pairing a memoir about living through the Iranian Revolution and the resulting totalitarian regime with literary criticism of Western literature as an attempt to put it all into perspective. Unfortunately Nafisi’s effort fell flat to me, mostly because the writing feels too weak for the task.

    The structure of the book itself is confusing, as she shifts around just enough that it’s hard to follow the sequence of events, plus there are many little digressions within chapters that don’t seem to add to the story. Though the book is ostensibly centered around the reading group she begins with some students after leaving her teaching position at the University of Tehran when the veil is imposed on all female...more

  • Make it Bigger

    Paula Scher

    An attractive tight-back bound book with edge-stained pages, Make it Bigger is at its heart a survey of Scher’s work from the 70s through the 90s. Yet it feels more like a memoir or a study of process than just a portfolio of her work. I loved her discussion of discovering how to “sell down” designs at CBS Records (get the highest decision maker on your side and everyone else will fall in line). The various hierarchies of her different positions and the diagram of a meeting are some of my favorite parts of the book.

    I felt she was a little more humble than some in talking about her career — Chip Kidd often sounds a tad self-congratulatory in his,...more

  • Where I Was From

    Joan Didion

    Maybe I’m just a hater this week but I couldn’t find much to latch onto in Didion’s exploration of her history with California, including her pioneering ancestors’ treks to get there. Though it’s kind of a personal history placed within a larger context, even the parts about her family read strangely impersonal. It seems like each chapter starts out interesting and then gets laden down with too many facts without any real narrative structure. One begins looking at the painter Thomas Kincade — and I love her description of his paintings:

    A Kincade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed

    ...more
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

    Haruki Murakami

    I really loved this memoir, though I have to say that the translation probably isn’t the best. It’s hard for me to be entirely certain since I can’t read the original in Japanese, but I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that Philip Gabriel has translated two of my less favorite Murakami novels (Kafka on the Shore and Sputnik Sweetheart). I kept feeling like there were nuances that I was missing.

    Even still, I found this little memoir inspiring. It’s about running, but it’s also about writing. It’s about finding focus and keeping momentum. I kind of wanted to start running right when I finished it, even though I’ve never been able to figure out how to breathe right. I...more

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