• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go I wanna be sedated

Dear Betsy:

I just read a review of a new book by Tom Bissell, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter . My question: How many bad habits does a memoir need? Judging from the excerpt, nowadays you have to at least spice your memoir with some kind of overuse or abuse of drugs, and this is on top of what looks like overuse or abuse of video games.

Sincerely, Name Withheld

Dear Addict:

As David Carr pointed out in his review of the addict-du-jour memoir, Portrait of the Agent as a Young Addict, we love to watch car wrecks. So I suspect that as long as that is true, and I know I haven’t tired of bending my neck for even a nothing crash on the Merritt Parkway, there will always be room for narratives of self-destruction. When I think of memoirs that felt like game changers (and I am well aware that only assholes use the term ‘game changer’), I think of (in some kind of rough chronology): Anne Frank’s Diary, I Am Third, Papillon, Mommie Dearest, Sybil (not a memoir per se), The Words to Say It, Hope Against Hope, The Thief’s Journal, The Basketball Diaries, Shot in the Heart, The Kiss, Lucky, Autobiography of a Face, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, One More Theory of Happiness, Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea (okay, I haven’t read it but I love the title), and Just Kids.

In my own rich contribution to the genre, I wrote about the crossroads of bi-polar and food issues as the main course. I threw in as side dishes: promiscuity, suicide, shrink rage, prescription drug abuse, hospitalization and an abortion. It sold 16,000 copies. Hardly worth it.

What memoirs rocked your world with or without addictions?


43 Responses

  1. Mark Vonnegut’s The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity. Kurt Vonnegut’s son.

  2. I read memoirs when I was little – Joni, Diary of Anne Frank, some other one I used to read over and over that was about someone with multiple personality disorder… basically I read naught but tragedy. Which. Sorta explains what I write.

  3. On the Road (I tend to think of this as a memoir – roman à clef – whatever), The Bell Jar, This Boy’s Life, The Year of Magical Thinking, Never Cry Wolf (one of my all-time favorites), Oh the Glory of it All, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and Eliot’s collected poems, esp. Four Quartets, which I think of as a memoir in verse.

  4. Off the tippy-top of my head:

    With: Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, also his The Ticking Is The Bomb; Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries; Cheryl Strayed’s insanely good short pieces–any of them, but especially The Love of My Life; Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club (sshh, don’t hate); all of Kathryn Harrison’s other books, too, because I love me a fucked-up mom story; 9 million other books I can’t think of right now, and

    Without: Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping, also her Three Dog Life; Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth; Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land, and another book that was really good but I hate the fucking bitch who wrote it so much I’m not going to name it. Bitch.

  5. I am not necessarily a fan of the form, but one work that comes to mind was written by my former poetry professor, the late Deborah Tall, A FAMILY OF STRANGERS (she lost her battle with cancer about a month after publication). It’s a lyric memoir in which she “explores the genealogy of the missing. Haunted by her orphaned father’s abandonment by his extended family, his secretive, walled-off trauma and absent history, she sets off in pursuit of the family he claims not to have. From the dutiful happiness of Levittown in the 1950s to a stricken former shtetl in Ukraine, we follow Tall’s journey through evasions and lies. Reflecting on family secrecy, postwar American culture, and the urge for roots, Tall’s search uncovers not just a missing family but an understanding of the part family and history play in identity. A FAMILY OF STRANGERS is Tall’s life’s work, told in such exacting, elegant language that the suppressed past vividly asserts its place in the present.”

  6. Angela’s Ashes. (So sue me. I’m Irish.)

    • I loved Angela’s Ashes (and I’m not Irish).

      • Very belated, but I passed on a comment when I first read this. I enjoyed Angela’s Ashes up to the point where the stupid shit lit a kerosine stove that he could not control. It was glowing red and about to explode, so he fled the apartment house and sat in a bar waiting to see if the apartment house and it’s inhabitants burned to the ground.

        Come to think of it, sitting in a bar was the answer to a several of his problems.

    • Agreed. I had a giant crush on Frank McCourt when I was 27.

  7. All Over But the Shoutin’ – it was like I was there…..I’m calling my memoir – “Stop Chewng that Ice” or
    “I Can’t Eat Pudding Anymore”

    • I’m partial to Rick Bragg myself and have gobbled up all of his stuff. Check out Ava’s Man and The Prince of Frogtown. I love Dorothy Allison as well, and for some of the same reasons I love Rick.

  8. Performing Flea. Only for those with an iron stomach, though. That shit is brutal.

    And I’m thinking of re-writing Anne Frank, except she’s promiscuous, addicted to cutting, and suffering from Cotard’s syndrome .

    • I like your Anne Frank: she sounds sweet.

    • I had to look up Cotard’s. Finally I can tell the shrinks how to diagnose me!

    • Possible bestseller August. Jane Austin and Lincoln with Zombies, Pride and Prejudice with bedroom scenes…. Except I’d probably read yours.

    • My wife just told me someone already wrote a novel in which Anne’s a bit of a slapper. I searched and found this headline: “Sexing up’ of Anne Frank angers Holocaust victim’s family.”

      Cotard’s is one of my favorite syndromes. I’m planning a thriller in which the main character has Cotard’s. Makes him hard to intimidate. On the other hand, his personal hygiene is not good.

      At first I thought ‘Anne Frank, Vampire Slayer’ or ‘Anne Frank vs. Dracula’ was the way to go, Deb, but then I realized that I need to think of a few more historical dead girls and do something in the vein of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Tentatively titled “The Dead Girls’ Action Justice Club.”

  9. Autobiography of a Face, Anne Frank, and, most recently, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken. Powerful, amazing, beautiful – and very sad. But the author and I have babyloss in common. Despite that commonality, it was a powerful, lovely book.

    • I love Elizabeth McCracken, and I loved that book even though I have no babyloss. It completely transcended the need for commonality of experience (is that even a word?), like all good books, I think.

      Hey, Betsy, did you see that she retweeted your last tweet?

  10. I rarely read memoirs. I prefer them at least thinly disguised in fiction, like Alice Walker’s Now is the Time to Open Your Heart. But Basketball Diaries blew me away. And though on some level I consider it a guilty pleasure, I loved Eat Pray Love.

  11. Here’s an unusual memoir I liked: PERFECT STRANGERS by Elyse Schein about identical twins separated at birth (because of a bizarre scientific study going on at the time with adoptees in New York City) who discover each other as adults…fascinating.

  12. Lauretta Hannon’s The Cracker Queen. Even though I’ve chosen to live in the Deep South, I’m not really a fan of southern lit. But Hannon is fucking hilarious. I couldn’t put her book down.

  13. the year of magical thinking
    LIT (just recently)
    wishful drinking
    mum & pup
    just kids (i loved it so much i cried like a big baby when it was over)
    The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth
    floor sample
    scar tissue
    Food & Loathing (of those 16,000 copies sold, I bought at least five. one for me, one for my therapist to loan out, and a few for friends who needed it as much as i did)

  14. Postcards from the Edge and something by the name of Food and Loathing.

  15. The usual suspects: Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night…, Stephen Elliott’s Adderal Diaries, Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, Basketball Diaries, Burroughs’ Junky.

    Also: anything by James Baldwin, Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish (book length prose peom about the 1982 Isreali invasion of Beirut– Amazing), Jamacia Kincaid’s My Brother. William T. Vollman (Riding Towards Everywhere, Poor People).

  16. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel; Haywire by Brooke Hayward

  17. All my crushes are on British writers: C. S. Forster, “Long Before Forty” (“There is, I think, an undoubted instinct for storytelling in the human race. It is noticeable enough in children, and it is the mainspring of the obscure motives which inspire the needless lying so amusing in a few adults.”)

    Johnny Rotten, “Rotten, The Autobiography”: “The Arsenal lot from Bethnal Green dressed in boiler suits. All the Boreham Wood Arsenal had tatoos. Newcastle fans used to come down all dressed up like Alice Cooper, with all the black make up…Man United fans dressed like David Bowie.” This is useful info: also, he hates looking at photos of himself as a child. I get that.

    Nick Hornby, “Fever Pitch”. I don’t even like soccer but that book inspired me to take a trip to London just to see the old Arsenal pitch in Highbury before it was razed. (I also think that traveling in the footsteps of your favorite memoirist’s life is creepy, like those people who go to Indonesia after reading Eat, Pray Love (another book I loved, but wouldn’t travel for). But at least I got a GREAT souvenir sweatshirt.)

    Bill Drummond, “45”. The manager of Echo and the Bunnymen turned 45 and wrote a book the exact size of a 45-record. And he defines the meaning of pop music: “Revolutionize the minds of a generation, define an age, and find a cure for boredom.”

    Russell Brand, “My Booky Wook”, but it’s only good for the first 2/3s, when he’s writing about his very ordinary English boyhood. I like it the way he finds meaning in the insignificant details of life. He’s vey smart. The grown-up fame and self-destruction is just exasperating to read.

  18. I think the BEST memoir I’ve ever read is “Shot in the Heart” by Mikal Gilmore. Now there is a soul-wrenching, agonizing look into the heart of family darkness.

    I do prefer a memoir that doesn’t flinch in the face of disturbing issues, has a gritty real-life feel (and of course, reveals secrets some would prefer to keep hidden). Will not read a memoir that is basically, “Wow, what a great childhood/life/whatever I have and let me tell you how you can do the same.” Far too many of those around!

  19. Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” (it made me want to move to London), and a new memoir by Beth Raymer, “Lay the Favorite,” (it made me want to move to Vegas). Both writers are very humorous are exceptionally talented at evoking a strong sense of place.

  20. The lure of the smash-up may be eternal, and yet for some reason (excess sensitivity? laziness?) I’ve mostly been inclined to avoid reading such stories in the past. While pondering an answer to this post, though, I located and read the three Esquire essays by Fitzgerald later published as “The Crack-Up,” and I found it both breathtaking and disturbing–without aid of any addictions on the author’s part. (Anyone who wants to follow my lead can find them online, with a few confusing typos, at http://shar.es/mFge5 .) That has certainly shaken my mood for the day.

    To second one of Betsy’s remarks, _Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea_ is one of my favorite all-time titles. Another, of course, is _A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius_.

    As for Betsy’s “own rich contribution to the genre,” I’m beginning to think I should buy copy number 16,001, in part because bipolar disorder figures indirectly into something I’m working on.

  21. My memoir faves in no particular order:

    Nuala O’Faolain, Annie Dillard, Maxine Hong Kingston” The Woman Warrior”, Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, all of M.F.K. Fisher, Nabokov’s “Speak Memory”, Anthony Bourdain, Haven Kimmel’s “A Girl Named Zippy”, Fitzgerald’s “Crack Up”, John Rechy’s “City of Night”, early David Sedaris, Gilmore’s “Shot in the Heart”, Rick Bragg’s “All Over but the shoutin’”, Elizabeth McCracken’s “An Exact Replica..”, Smith’s “Just Kids”, “Walden”—duh, Harrison’s “The Kiss”, Frank McCourt, Stein’s “Everybody’s Autobiography”, Betsy Lerner’s “Food and Loathing”, Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life”, Hellman’s “An Unfinished Woman”, Benazir Bhutto’s “Daughter of Destiny”, and “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous”.

    All embody what moves me most expressed in a section from the last book listed:

    “This painful past may be of infinite value to other families still struggling with their problem. We think each family which has been relieved owes something to those who have not, and when the occasion requires, each member of it should be only to willing to bring former mistakes, no matter how grievous, out of their hiding places. Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life so worthwhile now. Cling to the thought that in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have—the key to life and happiness for others. With it you can avert death and misery for them.”

    • My favorite among CJ’s favorites: “all of M.F.K. Fisher.” I’ve read only her _Consider the Oyster_, plus numerous cited passages elsewhere, but as far as I’ve seen she never wrote a bad book, paragraph, or even sentence.

  22. Madeline Albright. I never expected her to be funny, but her anecdote about using her femininity on Arafat has got to be the most hilarious thing I’ve ever read. She’s got quite the biting wit some times.

  23. 16,000 copies isn’t worth it?

  24. Mark Doty: Heaven’s Coast; Marya Hornbacher: Wasted; Dave Eggers: AHWofSG; Patricia Hampl: The Florist’s Daughter; Kathryn Harrison: The Kiss; James Frey (Insert groan here): A Million Little Pieces.

    Don’t miss Paul Guest’s “One More Theory About Happiness.” Congrats, Betsy.

    And I’m proud to be one of the devoted 16K.

  25. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

    A Childhood by Harry Crews

    • Forgot about dear dead Truman! One of my favorite things (I know, I know) is to read that whole story out loud each year. (A Christmas Memory). Wonderful stuff.

  26. I don’t know to what degree people accept his work as memoir-ish, but I think David Sedaris does an amazing job of writing riveting books about his own life that (okay, while exaggerated for humor) are based around nothing more scandalous than day to day life. Extraordinary circumstances can make for a great read, but i’m more amazed when I read something that doesn’t rely on extremeties to be compelling.

  27. Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. Love the language. Do Anaïs Nin’s Diaries count?

  28. Nuala O’Faolain- Are You Somebody?

    Alice Steinback -Without Reservations,The Travels of an Independent Woman

  29. This Boy’s Life
    Autobiography of a Face
    Time on Fire
    Angela’s Ashes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: