Truth to tell, I have a real love/hate relationship with memoirs. Because I very much enjoy reading about people's lives (an unappreciative therapist might term my predilection voyeurism), I gravitate toward the biography and memoir section of libraries and bookstores. But despite the fact that memoirs are, by definition, self-referential and are therefore -- to one degree or another -- filled with variations of me, me, me, I don't really enjoy (and therefore tend not to read) what I call the "Children of Job," subgenre of memoir-writing. You know the type, and I don't need to name any names. Rather, what I'm looking for are engaging characters, enlightening and/or entertaining stories and good writing. Here are some of my favorites.
By Edward Conlon; paperback, 576 pages; Riverhead Trade, list price: $17
If you, like me, could watch Law & Order reruns eight hours a day, or if you've ever been curious about the inner workings of police departments, you'll want to rush right out and read Edward Conlon's Blue Blood. After graduating from Harvard, Conlon came home and joined the New York City Police Department, walking a beat in some of the worse housing projects in the South Bronx. His wide-ranging book is partly a memoir of his experiences (he is now working as a detective for the NYPD); the effects -- pro and con -- of the Giuliani anti-crime years; the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases; Sept. 11; and the scandals and the triumphs, both large and small, that mark the history of the NYPD. Nicely written (some of it appeared in The New Yorker as "Cop Diary" under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey) and filled with interesting characters (both cops and perps -- wait, make that suspected perps), this is both a pleasure and an education to read.
The Bill From My Father
By Bernard Cooper; paperback, 256 pages; Simon & Schuster, list price: $14
In The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper takes a familiar trope — a complex and unreliable parent -- and gives it a unique spin as he looks back on his stormy relationship with his father. Edward Cooper was a prominent Los Angeles divorce attorney, once seemingly invincible (at least to the author) but now sinking into dementia, whose constant philandering was hardly a secret from his sons (or presumably, his wife). Now, with his mother and all three of his older brothers dead, Cooper attempts to understand the complicated bond with this most difficult man, which means trying to come to grips with his father's strong disapproval of both his choice of career as a writer -- the elder Cooper wanted Bernard to become a lawyer, as all three of his brothers did -- and his homosexuality. As you might imagine, the father/son relationship did not noticeably improve when his father sent him a bill for nearly $2 million -- the cost of raising him. This moving account is liberally leavened with humor and never morphs into the oh-poor-me school of autobiography.
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century Of Art And Loss
By Edmund de Waal; hardcover, 368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $26
Every once in a while, I run across a book that has such wide appeal that I can easily imagine giving copies to nearly everyone on my gift list. One such book -- and my favorite work of nonfiction this year -- is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. The author, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, contemplates the history of his ancestors, a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family, from the latish 19th century through World War II. He uses as the linchpin for his discussion a collection of 246 netsukes, miniature ornamental carvings (including one of a hare with amber eyes), which were originally collected by the first Charles Ephrussi and handed down from generation to generation. In the process the collection moved from Japan to Paris to Vienna, back to Japan, and thence to the author, in London. The Ephrussis were a cultural force both in Vienna and in Paris. You can see what was once their house on Vienna's Ringstrasse even now. Charles was a patron of many artists and writers; he was also the model for Swann in Proust's great novel, and he appears in Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he's the man in the back, in profile, with a top hat and a reddish beard). I'm giving this book to friends and family who love history or biographies or art or visiting and/or reading about Paris or Vienna; to those who enjoy family sagas and, especially, to anyone who appreciates graceful, understated writing. And those who love books with family trees. Kudos to the publisher, FSG, for producing a book that's both a pleasure to hold and behold.
Journey Into The Whirlwind
By Eugenia Ginzburg; paperback, 432 pages; Mariner Books, list price: $16
Anyone with the least interest in 20th century history shouldn't miss Eugenia Ginzburg's two memoirs, Journey Into the Whirlwind and its sequel, Within the Whirlwind. I first read them about a quarter of a century ago. I still remember how reading them knocked the breath out of me, as though I'd been run over by an out-of-control truck. I first learned, from reading them, of the true horrors of Stalin's reign of terror. As I turned the pages I was forced to consider how one can never predict how a friend or a foe, or oneself, for that matter, will behave under the most extreme circumstances. In Ginzburg's accounts, she presents both the highs and lows of human behavior, and by extension, humanity itself. Ginzburg spent 18 years caught up in the nightmare that gripped the Soviet Union during the height of Stalin's powers, when he turned on loyal Communist Party members, religious minorities and anyone else who displeased him. The picture I have in my mind is that of a paranoid Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, screaming almost randomly, "Off with his head," in a world in which nothing makes sense. Only Stalin's era was no fantasy, and the consequences of his paranoia were terribly real. The great staying power of these accounts arises partly from the stark facts of history, but mostly from Ginzburg's unadorned and unaffected writing about her situation. From her arrest (for not speaking up against a colleague who was later accused of being a Trotskyist) to her incarceration in prisons and jails and huts (unheated) in Siberia's gulag, we are with Ginzburg every step of the way. And I was struck by how often she finds consolation in the poetry she remembers.
Cakewalk: A Memoir
By Kate Moses; hardcover, 368 pages; The Dial Press, list price: $26
I am not a foodie, although some of my best friends are. Thus, there's no way I would have picked up Kate Moses' Cakewalk to read but for the photograph on the cover, which made me smile. (See, you can judge a book by its cover!) I continued reading it because Moses is a writer of salutary talents. And if I hadn't read it, I would have missed not only an affecting memoir but also some recipes that I feel sure -- if I were a baker -- I would immediately try out. If my oven even works. Luckily, those friends of mine who do bake have, in return for lending them the book, let me try samples of the ever-so-tasty results of several of Moses' recipes. Mainly focused on her life during the 1960s and '70s, her memoir is marked by parental discord and differences (her mother and father were spectacularly unsuited to one another), frequent moves, and a thorny family history. Cooking and reading were her lifelines out of the unhappy situations she found herself in. Each chapter includes a recipe, and each -- from cheesecake to linzer tort, from spiced pecan cake to chocolate truffles -- sounds more scrumptious than the one before. One bit of advice I feel compelled to give: brownies, page 209. Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I know the first version (with walnuts) is amazing.
Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life
By Amy Krouse Rosenthal; paperback, 240 pages; Broadway, list price: $13
There are so many memoirs being published these days that the ones I read sometimes blend into one gigantic life story in my head, but there's no way I'm going to confuse Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life with any other memoir anytime soon. I had forgotten, until I reread it recently, what a delight it was to spend time with this self-described "ordinary" person, learning her quirks and hangups, her likes and dislikes, her everyday (and not) adventures (including the inspired way she attempted to get out of paying a parking ticket — you'll love it, trust me), all arranged, encyclopedia-style, from A ("Amy," "Anxious, Things That Make Me Anxious," "Ayn Rand") to Y ("You"), with appropriate cross-references and clever drawings to supplement the text. To get a sense of Rosenthal's writing style and humor, here's how the foreword to the book begins:
I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.
Half A Life
By Darin Strauss; hardcover, 204 pages; McSweeney's, list price: $22
Darin Strauss' moving memoir Half a Life is painfully honest and inherently dramatic without seeming either precious or self-pitying. When the car he was driving hit and killed Celine, a high school classmate whom he knew only casually, Strauss' life was, as one might suspect, altered forever. Although he was held to be blameless in Celine's death (what insurance companies refer to as "a no-fault fatality"), Strauss found that this event — which occurred nearly 20 years ago — has now shaped almost half his life. In prose that is introspective, evocative and unaffected, Strauss shares with us his musings on life, death, blame and self-doubt. I wondered, as I read it, how I would have lived the rest of my life after the parent of someone for whose death I was, however innocently, responsible, says this to you:
I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault. ... But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now. ... Because you are living it for two people. ... Can you promise me? Promise.
So how do you live your life after that?
Stuffed: Adventures Of A Restaurant Family
By Patricia Volk; paperback, 256 pages; Vintage, list price: $13.95
In Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, Patricia Volk delivers an affection-filled tribute to both family and food. In a series of vignettes, she lovingly describes her adored extended family. Each chapter, titled for a different food, from Butter Cookies to Caviar, is primarily devoted to one of her relatives. Among them are her great-grandfather, who was the first to import pastrami to New York; her grandfather, who invented the wrecking ball; her mother, forever trying to improve her daughters ("Mom made me, and now she will make me better"); her beautiful and best beloved older sister, Jo Ann; her embittered Aunt Lil, who embroidered a pillow with the phrase, "I've never forgotten a rotten thing anyone has done to me"; and her magnetic father, who taught her:
how to swim, speak French, drive, eat using the utensils American-style (which nobody in America seems to do), spot weld, solder, emboss, ride English, ride western, merengue, sing pop songs from World War I's "Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy" up through his favorite — the one that chokes him up, although he's not sure why — "Younger Than Springtime," remove a splinter, sap a blister by sticking a sterilized threaded needle through it then tying the exposed ends in a knot, carve a Thanksgiving turkey, chop, dice, and mince, make canapes, deglaze a pan, suck meat off a lobster a lobster doesn't know it has, blind a mugger, kill a rapist with a rabbit punch, remove stains, cloisonne, and intimidate a tennis opponent by clenching my teeth then drawing my lips back and growling like a gas-station dog.
Volk's family is sufficiently odd enough to keep anyone's attention, while her writing (she's also the author of a novel and two collections of stories) is both witty and tender. I pored over the all-too-few family photographs, wished that there was a family tree that I could refer back to, and most of all wished that I, too, could be part of the whole Volk/Morgen clan.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Librarian Nancy Pearl is with us once again. She's sent along a list of reading recommendations and they are memoirs this time, a series of memoirs.
Ms. NANCY PEARL (Librarian, NancyPearl.com): Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: She's in our studios. And do you mind if I just get a little exercise here by lifting this stack of - it's pretty big stack of books...
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: ...as it often is. The first one is "The Hare with Amber Eyes" by Edmund De Waal.
Ms. PEARL: Yes, and I have to say first that I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs. I know that memoirs are inherently filled with ego and the me of memoirs...
INSKEEP: It's all about me, yes.
Ms. PEARL: Yes, and memoir is. M-E-M-O-I-R...
INSKEEP: There you go.
Ms. PEARL: ...so that makes sense. But I tend not to read and I certainly don't like, what I call, the Children of Job Memoirs.
INSKEEP: Which is?
Ms. PEARL: Oh, I'm suffering. I'm suffering.
Ms. PEARL: I'm suffering. Oh, how I've suffered. What I'm looking for in a memoir is really interesting characters and very, very, very good writing.
INSKEEP: And do you find it then with "The Hare with Amber Eyes?"
Ms. PEARL: "The Hare with Amber Eyes," I have to say is the best work of nonfiction I read this year. It's the story of the author's ancestors who were very wealthy Jewish bankers in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The founder, the main character of his ancestors that he talks about, is his great-uncle named Charles who collected 246 netsukes - the Japanese carvings that men used to wear on their sashes.
Ms. PEARL: And this is a story of how, through the tumult of World War I and World War II, those netsukes were passed down through various family members. So looking at the path of those, he can chart what happened to his family.
And his family, Charles Ephrussis was the model for Swann in Proust's "Swann's Way." There's so much art. There's so much culture. And it's so wonderfully written.
INSKEEP: Here's another book on the stack, "Half a Life" by Darin Strauss.
Ms. PEARL: Oh, Darin Strauss's book is wonderful. When Darin Strauss was a senior in high school, he was driving a car that hit one of his classmates on her bicycle and she died. And although the accident was officially termed a no-fault liability, it changed his life.
INSKEEP: May I read a couple of paragraphs here?
Ms. PEARL: Please.
INSKEEP: And they've been placed individually on a page, on otherwise white page.
(Reading) My surest memories of that day are the reflector running up the windshield and the sunshine in the cracks, as Dad got me home. I can imagine the flash of impact, of course, even if I'm unable to really call back much about it. But it's not hard to guess at the terrible scratched-out details.
The truth is anyone with a TV can fill in this scene, taking snippets from the editing floor, plug-ins from the visual and sound effects library we all carry; pretty girl on bike, a shy little thud, hysterical windshield. And I'm somewhere in there too trying to swerve, trying to disappear.
Ms. PEARL: I know. isn't that - and this event took place more than half his life ago and he's still, of course, coming to terms to that. He goes to the funeral of his classmate and he goes back to talk to her parents. Her mother says to him: I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault. But I want you to remember something, whatever you do in your life you have to do it twice as well now, because you are living it for two people. Can you promise me? Promise.
I mean that's just like, oh, my gosh, heart-wrenching to read and to have that responsibility placed on you.
INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is giving us some memoirs here. Let's go to a book where the title is "Stuffed" by Patricia Volk. What's happening here?
Ms. PEARL: Oh, this is a fabulous. This is another family history. And I think what just sets this book apart from many other family histories is the love that Patricia Volk has for all of her extended family; even the weirdest ones. Her family did have restaurants in New York, so there is that kind of food connection. But you don't have to be a foodie, which I am certainly not, to love this book.
There's this wonderful quote where she talks about her really beloved father, and how her father taught her how to swim, speak French, drive, eat using the utensils American-style - which nobody in America seems to do - be a spot welder, emboss, write English, ride Western, meringue, sing pop songs from World War I - "Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARL: Up to his favorite, the one that still chokes him up although he's not sure why - "Younger Than Springtime," - remove a splinter, sap a blister by sticking a knot, carve a Thanksgiving turkey, chop/dice mince, et cetera.
And it's wonderful to read a memoir where the family, for the most part, was very close and really loved one another. And certainly, in Patricia Volk, they have the perfect chronicler.
INSKEEP: Here's one called "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life."
Ms. PEARL: Yes. This is one of my all-time favorite books by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. And here's what she says in her foreword. She says: I was not abused, abandoned or locked up as child. My parents were not alcoholics nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty or in misery or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity or the child of a celebrity.
INSKEEP: This is going to be a short book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARL: I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If, indeed, I had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARL: I mean how could you resist a book like that? And it's arranged in a very, very nice way. It's arranged...
INSKEEP: Alphabetical order.
Ms. PEARL: Alphabetical order, so it's like you're reading the index headings to these particular chapters...
INSKEEP: You go to the letter D, the first entry is there's an entry for deep massage...
Ms. PEARL: Yes, right.
INSKEEP: ...it's part of her life. Deli trays, the dentist, depressing, comma, things that I find depressing.
Ms. PEARL: Right. There's a wonderful, wonderful chapter in there of how she talks her way out of a parking ticket. It's great.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARL: I loved that book.
INSKEEP: Okay, the next one here, "The Bill From My Father," Bernard Cooper.
Ms. PEARL: And Bernard Cooper in this book takes a familiar trope: Difficult father; son trying to develop a relationship when the son is an adult, knowing all the time that he's disappointed his father entirely, by not becoming an attorney, and also by his homosexuality.
Their relationship is not made any better by the fact that his father, at one point, sends him a bill for $2 million, which is the cost of raising him.
Ms. PEARL: You kind of shudder at the things his father did. But the way Bernard Cooper has come out of it and come to terms with who he is, is really a testament to him.
INSKEEP: Nancy, thanks for coming by.
Ms. PEARL: Oh, you're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl's own new book is "Book Lust To Go." the title there amounts to a four-word memoir of Nancy's life, I think. All of her recommendations along with our Best Books of 2010 roundup are at NPR.org.
You can follow this program on Twitter. We're @morningedition and @nprinskeep.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.