“So, really, what’s a nice girl like me doing working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” Caitlin Doughty asks near the beginning of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, her by turns shockingly gruesome, mordantly funny and, ultimately, richly thought-provoking memoir about working in an Oakland, California, mortuary and crematorium.
Eighty-six-year-old personal shopper Betty Halbreich stole the show in a 2013 documentary called Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s. Her slightly haughty demeanor was belied by a twinkle and a smile playing at her lips. There’s more to this story, she seemed to be saying.
In most biographies, an epilogue provides the story of what happens after the subject of the book has died or somehow left the scene. It’s a wrapping up, a life-after-life afterthought.
Pioneering journalist Gail Sheehy has lived a life jam-packed with work, love, politics and writing. Best-selling author of 1976’s Passages, which revolutionized the way Americans thought about the phases of their adult lives, Sheehy has spent a lifetime documenting American culture. Now in her 70s, she casts a retrospective eye on the chapters of her own life in an absorbing new memoir.
In a Rocket Made of Ice is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary place. Wat Opot Children’s Community is a Cambodian orphanage started with $50 by Wayne Matthysse, a former Vietnam medic driven to make life better for children in war-torn countries. The orphanage is home to children and women affected by HIV and AIDS, where they can get the powerful antiretroviral drugs they need to stay healthy, as well as education and a community in which they belong.
Journalists typically don’t like to write about themselves. It comes from years of writing in the third person and striving for objectivity. And with so many critics of the press, reporters assume no one likes them. Robert Timberg grapples with this issue in his moving memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy. After nearly 40 years as a journalist and three noteworthy books, perhaps he has a story to tell. But he also has self-doubts. Then he looks in the mirror and sees his disfigured face. It is an image he has been trying to forget since 1967, when as a young soldier in Vietnam, just days away from the end of his tour, he suffered third-degree burns from a land mine explosion. He finally decides to confront this defining moment of his life. “I want to remember how I decided not to die,” he writes. “To not let my future die.”
Although he speaks repeatedly of his “two Italies”—a phrase he borrows from the poet Shelley—Joseph Luzzi is neither fully at home among the coarse elements of Calabrian culture his immigrant parents brought with them to America nor within the borders of Italy itself, what with its infuriating mix of high art and low purpose. But it is this unresolved quality of Luzzi’s musings—the back and forth tugging of a splendid mind—that makes this book so alive and such a pleasure to read.
Amid the 21st-century glut of overindulgent memoirs, The Removers is a poignant, near-perfect addition to the genre. Andrew Meredith writes of growing up in a crumbling Philadelphia neighborhood, his family quietly imploding in the wake of a scandal that cost his father his university job.
There are many reasons to love a good misery memoir: In my case, reading about other people’s dysfunctional childhoods offers a sense of community, a sisterhood of resilient Gen Xers who survived a 1970s childhood. Cea Sunrise Person’s engaging new memoir, North of Normal, evokes both the miserable excesses and occasional beauty of growing up in a counterculture family in the wilderness of the Me Decade.
Brian Benson’s new memoir about the journeys we take and how they shape the people we become is not to be missed. Going Somewhere begins in South America where, as a young college graduate with a liberal arts degree, Brian decides to spend a few months backpacking. He’s stopped in his tracks by Rachel, an American making her living as a singer. He joins her band. They fall in love. And a few months later, they decide to ditch Guatemala in favor of a different adventure: biking from Wisconsin to western Oregon. He’s a lanky, six-foot-tall athlete; she’s a diminutive beauty with a plus-sized wit. They buy matching bikes, and their love seems to be in full bloom. But what happens on the trail?