Category Archives: True story

*** Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims

The author of Real American has a British and white mother and an African-American father, and was raised in a very white suburb where racism was rarely blatant but could pop up at any time — and where it was difficult for her to find belonging. She blames her parents for their lack of forethought, a little too much in my mind since they likely did not have much of a blueprint to work from (and seemed to have otherwise treated her family well).  Her work on behalf of first-generation college students is remarkable, above and beyond the story of her upbringing.

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*** The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine

The author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts has a very, very sick mother — but most importantly she has decided to join the circus! After practicing fire eating, she signs up and discovers stupefyingly long hours, dangerous working conditions, certainly unpleasant ones, and an unforgettable cast of characters and situations.

This is the book for you if you’ve always wondered how to carry a snake on your shoulders, or light lightbulbs with your tongue. Also how a season with a carnival troupe can be exhilarating and perhaps life-changing.

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*** I am I am I am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a memoir in the form of, yes, 17 brushes with death! The stories alternate from recent to distant past, and as they unfold we discover more details about the author’s disastrous childhood encephalitis, her worldwide wanderings, and her daughter’s deathly allergies. So yes, you DO want to read about 17 brushes with death; don’t be squeamish.

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*** A Forest in the Clouds by John Fowler

A Forest in the Clouds: My Year Among the Mountain Gorillas in the Remote Enclave of Dian Fossey is the raw account of a year the author spent at the research center headed by Dian Fossey, filled with the abusive and disordered antics of its head. (It’s quite a relief when she leaves for several months for a trip around the world!) The author manages to convey both the magic of working with the animals, including an orphaned baby he helped raise, and the hardships of working for a very difficult boss. The book could use a good editor, but the story is fascinating.

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** And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell

And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready is the story of the author’s unplanned pregnancy (note to your women out there: contraception exists for those who don’t want to get pregnant!) and start with a rather tiresome woe-is-me description of the early days, followed by an equally tiresome description of the intense planning effort that follows — but the rest of the book I found excellent, as she describes what it feels to treated like a tiresome patient in the hospital, then a milk cow afterwards. I’m a little leery of recommending the book to moms-to-be, since it can be a little over-sensationalized, but it’s certainly much more vivid and accurate that the pabulum of pamphlets commonly found in doctors’ offices (and much better written!)

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*** Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner

Defying Hitler is an unusual memoir, written by a man who was just 7 at the start of WWI and whose main concern that late summer was that the horses he loved in the place where his family was on vacation were taken away. The book starts with WWI and ends before he left Germany, ultimately for England, where he was able to marry his Jewish wife, something that was illegal in Germany, and welcome his son into the world, the very son who published this memoir that his father had abandoned — after some very uncomfortable months as what we would not call an undocumented immigrant.

The memoir describes the experience of a middle-class family in the midst of extraordinary events. Hyperinflation means that the father’s salary is immediately spent not just on rent and a bus pass but also the purchase of groceries for the entire month. The Reichstag may be dissolved but his Jewish colleague keeps officiating as a judge (not for long, as SAs soon march into the law library and ask everyone, point-blank, whether they are “Aryan”. Some newspapers, titles unchanged, become Nazi organs (the others disappear). And our hero is sent to a military camp along with other law students, which unsettles him most when he actually enjoys some of the activities there.

There are some attempts at explaining and taking a higher perspective, fortunately few of them as the direct experience is what gives the book its power. We can all be very glad that the lost manuscript was found and published.

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* Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella

If you have heard interviews of Satya Nadella, you know he is a thoughtful and refreshingly humble CEO with lots of good ideas on how to get large organizations to make good choices by treating people well. His book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, is a bit of a mess. It tries to blend three narrative: a personal memoir, the story of the changes he made at Microsoft since taking over as CEO, and a full-length ad for Microsoft and its products. The personal memoir is interesting (and poignant, as he has two special-needs children). The transformation story could be more inspiring if it had fewer business-speak clichés. The ad is insufferable. Maybe listen to an interview instead?

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