Friday, June 7, 2019

Memoir-palooza: 3 Terrific Recent Personal Stories

When I was a dumb young (young dumb?) book blogger, I wrote an awful post about the difference between autobiography and memoir.  You know how you often look back at stuff you wrote awhile ago and cringe really, really hard. That's that. Anyway, I just mention that because, for whatever reason, maybe mid-life self-reflection or maybe because they seem to be the genre du jour and there are a lot more really good ones published these days, I've read a ton of awesome memoirs lately. I never used to be a big fan, but the more I read (Educated! Becoming!), the more I love them. Here's a rundown of three recent ones I really enjoyed.

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah — A memoir that alternates between serious-as-a-heart-attack and shoot-Coke-out-of-your-nose-hilarious (which I did reading this on a flight), this book is always immensely entertaining. It combines a chronicle of Noah's South African childhood, mixed with his commentary about the absurdity, stupidity, and cruelty of apartheid. There is religion and mysticism, terrifying mini-buses (I dare you to read the first chapter and NOT continue with this book, as he tells a story about having to jump out of a moving minibus with a particularly scary driver), a fiercely strong mother, a burgeoning comedy and DJing career, and so much more. I still watch The Daily Show most nights, so it's a little embarrassing it took me until now to read this. But I loved it!

Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Reichl, a beloved food writer and frequent memoirist, chronicles her nearly 10 years as the editor of Gourmet magazine before its untimely demise in 2009. While most readers will probably pick this up to read Reichl on food, I read this for a different reason: I wanted to get the inside scoop on the magazine business. And that's fascinating — how Reichl, who was a restaurant critic prior to landing the editorship of Gourmet, didn't know about adjacencies or the "tee-oh-cee" (TOC - table of contents) or any other cornerstones of the nerdy world of magazine editing. But she learned quickly and had massive success changing the magazine from a stuffy pub for high-fallutin' richie-riches to a magazine for everyone. It began running articles about things like whether it's moral to eat lobsters if they feel pain. (There's an entire chapter dedicated to David Foster Wallace and his "Consider the Lobster" essay, which is another reason I read and loved this book!) So yeah, I loved reading about the day-to-day of running a hugely popular consumer magazine — dealing with publisher (is it the editor's job to go on sales calls or not?), the accountants, the art directors, and everyone else that makes a magazine successful (or not). But I also gained a whole new appreciation for food culture. I am far from a foodie, but the way Reichl writes about food is so personal and intimate, you can't help but taste, smell and, savor it along with her. I really loved this book — a favorite of the year so far.

All That You Leave Behind, by Erin Lee Carter — If you've seen the terrific 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, or if you're a long-time Times reader, you probably know David Carr, the irascible, fascinating journalist who built a huge social media following in the early years of Twitter. His daughter, now a successful documentarian, has written this intimate memoir about Carr, who died in the Times newsroom in 2015, mentoring her as she strives to make her way in New York media herself.

Culled from emails, gchats, and texts between the two, the memoir is a touching look at their immensely close relationship and how great of a mentor he was for her, even when he'd fly off the handle in one of his signature fits of rage. But Erin also has her own demons, struggling with a sense of adequacy and with bouts of alcoholism. The book reads part like an intimate biography of David Carr and part Girls-esque coming-of-age in Brooklyn. The latter gives this more than the occasional feel of self-absorption (Lena Dunham herself even makes an appearance or two!), but overall I really enjoyed this. It's a well-written, brave memoir.

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