As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
I don't read a lot of nonfiction (for no other reason than I devour novels like candy, and there are only so many books a girl can read in a year). That said, Townie, Andre Dubus III's memoir about a hard life in a poor Massachusetts mill town is one of my favorite books I've read in 2011—full stop, novels included.
There are a lot of interesting contrasts in the story: Gorgeous writing combined with a bleak setting. The man who becomes an iron-pumping boxer (and vicious brawler) must be reconciled with the man who writes House of Sand and Fog.
Most of all, I liked Townie because of the extreme emotions therein—rage and disappointment, embarrassment, loneliness, misery, love, joy. It's a tough book that may have you doing a few fist pumps during scenes of redemption. I really loved it. (And I agree with New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner, who wrote, "It could become, and I mean this fondly, one hell of a Ben Affleck movie.")
As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
To travel in Africa with Alexandra Fuller is to see the continent and its recent history through a very personal lens. In her first memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, she explored her childhood in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Zambia and Malawi. In her latest, she looks at her parents' lives, their eccentricities, their accomplishments and their unimaginable tragedies, from her mother's childhood in Kenya to their current home on the fish and banana farm they own in Zambia. They are fascinating characters in their own right (particularly Fuller's mother), but what is most compelling about their story is the way in which they have finally come to embrace, rather than fight against, the Africa they live in today.
When I moved to the South when I was 12, it was the first I had ever heard of revivalist churches or speaking in tongues. Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson takes that controversial sector of American religion and sticks it all right on the page.
As a young girl, author Johnson became a part of cult leader David Terrell's traveling ministry when her mother became his organist. Traveling around the country with Terrell, she “witnessed miraculous healings, speaking in tongues and the casting out of demons.” It was an unstable and wild childhood that Johnson now presents with a "clear-eyed and compassionate view." Read more in our review.
It's both historical and personal, and it sounds just like the type of memoir I'd enjoy.
Holy Ghost Girl comes out this Thursday, October 13. Are you interested in learning more about growing up under a revival tent?
The Orchard by Theresa Weir
Grand Central • $24.99 • published September 21, 2011
Ever since reading the first paragraph of Kelly Blewett's review of The Orchard, I have wanted to read this memoir. Here's the part that caught my eye:
Theresa Weir, better known as prolific suspense writer Anne Frasier, admits she received a lukewarm reception when she approached her publishing contacts about her latest book idea. “They wanted thrillers, Anne Frasier books,” she explains in the acknowledgements. Instead, Weir offers readers a heartfelt story about her own life. In fact, though the book is categorized as a memoir, the recognizably gothic feel of the descriptions and the suspense-filled plot, as well as the extensive disclaimer in the opening pages, make it clear this finely wrought story portrays a particular, and partly fictionalized, perspective.
"Come live with me."
Had I heard right? I had a buzz going, and maybe the roar in my head had distorted his words.
"There's a house on the farm that's supposed to be for me." He took a drag from his cigarette. The tip glowed, and I could briefly see his face, his eyes squinted against the smoke. "It's tiny. Originally built for apple pickers."
What I had known as my life changed in a matter of seconds. Like finding out you'd put a puzzle together all wrong. I dumped the pieces and began reconstructing, creating a completely new picture.
Did he mean what he was saying, or was it something he wouldn't give any thought to, come morning?
I didn't want him to think this was what I'd been angling for, because it wasn't. "Move in together . . . Wow. I don't know . . ." My response was cautious with a touch of disinterest.
"Not move in together. Get married. We'd have to get married."
If we hadn't been the only two people there, I would have looked over my shoulder to see if he was talking to someone else. Married. We'd barely just met. "You're drunk." I held my breath.
"Not that drunk."
Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
Grand Central • $27.99 • ISBN 9780446584975
on sale September 13, 2011
Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has written more than 15 books, worked for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967 and been on television for 40 years. While his memoir Life Itself covers every major moment in Ebert's life, it is more than anything an example of why he has become such a preeminent cultural voice.
On the set of the show, between actually taping segments, we had a rule that there could be no discussion of the movies under review. So we attacked each other with one-liners. Buzz Hannan, our floor director, was our straight man, and the cameramen supplied our audience. For example:
Me: "Don't you think you went a little over the top in that last review?"
Gene: "Spoken like the gifted Haystacks Calhoun tribute artist that you are."
"Haystacks was loved by his fans as a charming country boy."
"Six hundred and forty pounds of rompin' stompin' charm. Oh, Rog? Are those two-tone suedes, or did you step in some chicken shit?"
"You can borrow them whenever you wear your white John Travolta disco suit from Saturday Night Fever."
Buzz: "Yeah, when are you gonna wear it on the show?"
"He wanted to wear it today, but it's still at the tailor shop having the crotch taken in."
Buzz: "Ba-ba-ba-boom !"
Will you be reading Ebert's memoir when it comes out in September?
One of my favorite documentaries (and movies, period, if you want to know the truth) of the past couple years was The September Issue, the behind-the-scenes story of the September 2007 issue of Vogue.
Even if you aren't particularly interested in fashion, or you don't understand Anna Wintour's fame, I think you'd still be intrigued by the dynamics of the storied magazine—and appreciate the creative process of putting together an 840-page publication.
This is relevant to book lovers because yesterday Publishers Marketplace announced that Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington will write a memoir. The book will be about "her modeling days in Sixties London, the car accident that changed her career path and her ascendancy through fashion's ranks as a stylist and editor at British Vogue and, later, its American counterpart." Random House reportedly paid a whopping $1.2 million for the book. The editor is Susan Kamil, who has worked on such recent BookPage favorites as The Imperfectionists, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.
But back to The September Issue. The eccentric Coddington—who wears all black, has wild red hair and doesn't mind sparring with Wintour to advocate for a spread she's passionate about—completely stole the movie. On YouTube you can watch one of my favorite scenes, of Coddington at Versailles.
I am so excited to read Coddington's story. Which artist or creative person would you like to write a book?
A fact of life of working at a book review is that I am often asked for book club suggestions.
True story: My typically easy-going grandmother once left an "urgent" voicemail. Channeling Miss Clavel, I had a sinking feeling that Something is not right! I called her back immediately . . . and it turned out that her book club's title nominations were due that week, and she just wanted some last-minute recs. (Whew.)
You can find three book club recommendations in every issue of BookPage. In June, book clubs columnist Julie Hale suggested The Nobodies Album (Carolyn Parkhurst), Private Life (Jane Smiley) and Lives Like Loaded Guns (Lyndall Gordon). In July, the picks are Healer (Carol Cassella), The Distant Hours (Kate Morton) and The Widower's Tale (Julia Glass). Each of these books are available in paperback.
There is no way BookPage could recommend every book club-worthy book every month, but here I'd like to give a shout-out to a book I'm currently reading for my book club—and loving.
Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman is a memoir of the author's year in a women's prison. It is a fascinating story—first, of how an upper-middle-class Smith graduate ended up in prison in the first place (it was for a 10-year-old money laundering crime), and then, how she fared in the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
If you have ever wanted to know more about the daily life of a prisoner, how our legal system works or why the number of women incarcerated has increased by 300% in the last 10 years, then you have to read this book.
Kerman is skilled at depicting the dynamics within the prison and the vast variety of emotions she felt while she was incarcerated. This is the perfect book club book: It's a page-turner in its own right, but it will also lead to conversation about justice and current events. The paperback of Orange is the New Black (Spiegel & Grau) came out on March 8 of this year.
What has been a successful pick for your book club? Does your book club tend to have better discussion about fiction or nonfiction?
Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, the memoir from Bristol Palin, came out on Tuesday. Her "behind-the-headlines" memoir focuses on what it was like to go from average kid to spotlight -- and everything in between. She discusses faith under pressure, death threats while learning to dance, and how she grew up amidst a pile of scandals. It also includes a hefty amount of hindsight toward her baby's father and a scathing depiction of Meghan McCain.
She writes as a single mother, the oldest daughter of Sarah and as a former contestant on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. It contains 16 pages of full-color, intimate pictures of Bristol's life, including special moments with her son and snowmobile family photos.
Here's an excerpt from the opening:
I lied to my mother.
"We're going to stay the night at Ema's house," I nonchalantly said as my friend and I headed toward the front door. Mom was busy paying bills and didn't really look up from her work. There was only one week left of school, and the weather was warming up in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
"Okay," she responded, not suspecting a thing. "Do you need me to drop you off?"
"No," I said. "Her mom's in a hurry, but she's going to pick us up at the end of the driveway."
"Have fun," she said casually and waved good-bye.
That deception would affect my life in ways a teenager could not comprehend...
Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid by Simon Pegg
Gotham • $27.50 • ISBN 9781592406814
on sale June 9, 2011
It was never my intention to write an autobiography. The very notion made me uneasy. You see them congesting the shop shelves at Christmas. Rows of needy smiles, sad clowns and serious eyes, proclaiming faux-modest life stories, with titles such as This Is Me, or Why Me? or Me, Me, Me. I didn't want to do that, it's not really me. And who cares anyway? I don't, and I'm the faux-modest sad clown with the needy smile and serious eyes who has to write the damn thing. . . .
What I wanted to do was write fiction about a suave, handsome superhero and his robotic butler. The story of a tricked-out vigilante, with innumerable gadgets, a silver tongue and deadly fists; like Batman without the costume and a more pointed "gay subtext." Sure, it's not particularly original, but it's far more interesting than my life. I don't even have a robotic butler. Anymore.
Nearly two years ago, Jaycee Dugard was discovered living in a shed in the backyard of the man who abducted her at the age of 11 and is the father of her two daughters.
Now that her court case against Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy has been settled with a guilty plea, Dugard is telling her own story in a book to be published by Simon & Schuster on July 12 called A Stolen Life.
The public hunger for details about the Dugard case creates even more parallels to Emma Donoghue's bestseller, Room, which was inspired by a similar case in Austria. Hopefully Dugard, who has not spoken publicly or given interviews since her recovery, is prepared for the media onslaught that will doubtless ensue once the book is published.
Are you interested in reading Dugard's memoir?