BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2014
It was on a gray December day that 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff, nestled into her couch rereading Persuasion, received the call that she had gotten the job. Fresh out of grad school and without much of a game plan—aside from a deep-rooted desire to become a poet—Rakoff landed a position at one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City, one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume.
Ah, WASPs: Those guilt-ridden, uptight, real estate-obsessed traditionalists. In Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart captures the essence of this distinctive culture, tracing both her own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, and the lives of some of Concord’s famous residents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott.
Fond looks back at profound dysfunction have become so commonplace, it’s a wonder there’s not a “crazy parenting” section in bookstores to help the next generation of memoirists get a leg up. At this point, crazy itself is not sufficient reason to publish. In Take This Man, Brando Skyhorse, who won a PEN/Hemingway Award for his first novel (The Madonnas of Echo Park), captures the details of his dysfunctional upbringing with note-perfect language and does so in pursuit of the truth about his family.
Young Saroo loves his older brothers, especially Guddu, who at 14 is less and less at home. One night in 1986, Guddu comes back to his family’s poor village in India for about an hour, and 5-year-old Saroo can’t contain his excitement. When Guddu announces that he’s leaving, Saroo declares that he’s going off into the night with his older brother.
In her lovely new memoir, My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff takes readers on a tour of mid-1990s New York City—from the hallowed halls of an esteemed literary agency to the not-yet-gentrified streets of Williamsburg—as she settles in to her first real job.
What inspired you to write the book? Is there any significance to the timing of the publication?
This is a surprisingly difficult and complicated question, as My Salinger Year could also be called “The Book I Kept Trying Not to Write!”
Tom Robbins had no intention of writing a memoir. “I was conned into it by the women in my life,” he says with a laugh during a call to his home in the small town of La Conner, Washington.
“They had been pestering me to write down the stories that I’d been telling them—bidden and unbidden—over the years. I wrote 20 pages and showed it to them, thinking that would shut them up. But it had the opposite effect.”
In the same soaring voice that has made her one of the world’s most beloved opera singers, Norman delivers an inspiring memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, in which she reveals her deep love for her family and community and the many ways that music is the thread woven through all aspects of her, and our, lives.
It was summertime, the world slow and hot, when I first learned Grandma’s shocking secret. My baby boy was almost three months old. He and I had not yet gotten the hang of breastfeeding, but were getting there. I was exhausted. My brother Grant called with the news.
Fans of Roz Chast’s cartoons in The New Yorker will not be surprised to learn that her parents were an unlikely couple: Her mother, Elizabeth, was a bossy perfectionist. Her father, George, was a sensitive man often gripped by anxiety.
In her first memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast captures her parents’ long, painful decline and her struggle to deal with their descent—from their cluttered Brooklyn apartment to assisted living and eventually to hospice care.
Two excellent crime novels and a polished memoir on dying make for great listening.