Our April Top Pick in Nonfiction is Wild, the magnificent memoir by Cheryl Strayed. After the death of her mother, Strayed decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She starts her journey alone, grieving and misguided (her pack weighs more than 70 pounds) but discovers "a visionary state of solitude" while battling blisters and the elements. Writes our reviewer:
Wild is never simply a survival memoir. . . It is also a guidebook for living in the world, introducing a vibrant new American voice with a deceptively simple message: Go outside and take a hike.
Is this a memoir you will check out?
guest post by Beth M. Howard
I get asked all the time how long it took to write my book, and my answer is “Three months.” But the fact is I’ve been writing my book over a period of nearly two years. In real time. On my blog.
Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie came about in part because of my blog, The World Needs More Pie. The theme of my blog was about how pie can make the world a better place, how making a pie by hand represents nostalgia and simpler times. In my essays I evangelized about how pie was an antidote to the high-tech world we live in, a way to nurture our overworked souls. In fact, it was an antidote to my own overworked soul. I had had a dot-com job where I spent 16 hours a day in front of a computer. I finally said, “Enough!” The money—all six figures of it—wasn’t worth the stress. I quit and got a job baking pie. And started a blog.
My pie blog entries were charming and light, which was all well and good, but my blog didn’t become important to me—or popular with others—until I started blogging about something else, and nothing to do with pie: my 43-year-old husband Marcus’s death. Because I couldn’t find anyone willing to talk about the love I had lost, I used my blog to vent my feelings, my sadness, my very acute and complicated grief. And then people started writing me emails thanking me for being so open and honest, telling me that my stories about my struggles were helping them. So I kept writing. I kept sharing. I kept blogging.
When people ask "How did you get your book published?" I always tell them that they should start a blog. It’s free. You will get instant gratification seeing your work live in a public forum. Blogging will encourage you to keep looking for story ideas. You will hone your writing skills (hopefully!). You will home in on your theme. You will get feedback from your readers. You will be motivated to keep writing. And then, one day, you’ll realize that you’re ready. Ready to chain yourself to your desk for three months, not bothering to get dressed or comb your hair. Ready to turn down dinner invitations and weekend road trips. Ready to sit at your desk and wrestle with words and sentences and story structure. Ready to commit and realize your dream of becoming a published author.
Beth M. Howard is the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.
Big news for fans of comedy, rock music and women with a story to tell: Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag, Sleater-Kinney and recent pop-culture phenomenon "Portlandia" will be publishing a memoir with Riverhead Books. Publicity director Jynne Martin tells us that it will be "a memoir of her life in music, from ardent fan to pioneering female guitarist to comedic performer and luminary of the independent rock world."
No title or release date has been announced, but we'll be sure to share more details when we have them. I saw Brownstein live in Nashville during a stop on the live Portlandia tour (see blurry iPhone photo for proof). The audience was pretty wrapped up in the performance, to the extent of storming the stage when one audience member was invited up during a performance of "Dancing in the Dark."
While you wait for the memoir, check out this fascinating profile of Brownstein and Armistead in the New Yorker. Or watch one of my favorite "Portlandia" clips below.
Celebrate with a kiss, a pint of green beer or a bit of great literature -- it doesn't really matter, because we're all a little Irish on St. Patrick's Day. But since BookPage is neither kissing booth nor pub, we'll cover that last one: Irish stories.
For such a small island, Ireland has a vast history of notable (though often incredibly sad) writing: Swift, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney, McCourt, George Bernard Shaw, etc.
And the great books keep coming. Check out these three new epic tales, each taking inspiration from the Emerald Isle:
The O'Briens by Peter Behrens feels like the next generation in Irish literature. The poor O'Brien family seems caught between its potato-famine heritage, its isolation in the Canadian wilderness and the desire to grasp the 20th-century American Dream. It's a fascinating depiction of how Irish sorrow ripples through time. (Pantheon, 3/6)
May the Road Rise Up to Meet You by Peter Troy hits on familiar touchstones of Irish literature--famine, loss, the near impossibility of survival--but against the fresh backdrop of the American Civil War. This debut's four voices (Irish, Spanish and two slaves) tell a classic tale that feels equally Irish and American. (Doubleday, 2/28)
The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney is the conclusion to the beloved Ben McCarthy trilogy. These novels, set in impoverished 1950s Ireland, tell of the epic romance between Ben and his lost love Venetia. The masterful depiction of this tumultuous era in Irish history makes this series the perfect fit for historical fiction buffs. (Random House, 2/7)
For admirers of Frank McCourt and classic Irish memoirs, here are two great examples from the BookPage archives:
Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O'Faolain is the second memoir from one of the most powerful female Irish voices on bookshelves. In this book, she details her reinvention as she enters middle-age. Her process of aging as a "semi-American" is funny, candidly emotional and a great read. (Riverhead, 2003)
Midlife Irish by Frank Gannon is a humorous account of one man's exploration of his Irish heritage. He travels to the Emerald Isle to uncover his family's history and, in the process, begins a likeable, critical discussion of the country's past, present and future. This one just might send you searching for the untold stories lurking in your own family's past. (Warner, 2003)
And for kids with a little green in their blood, these picture books celebrate the spirit of ancient Irish traditions:
A Fine St. Patrick's Day by Susan Wojciechowski introduces a brand new fairy tale to the holiday. Children will love the story of the competition between the towns of Tralee and Tralah. (Dragonfly, 2008)
Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale from Ireland by Robert Byrd gives a loveable makeover to a classic Celtic legend. How can you go wrong with a tale of dueling giants? (Dutton, 1999)
Do you have a favorite Irish author or story?
guest post by Rick Lenz
Not having been exactly a megastar actor, I knew my memoir North of Hollywood would have to be different—unstereotypical. I share with you some of the guidelines that came to me in a scalding blast of inspiration as I considered this.
Okay. First of all, make sure you have nothing to say. If you have something to say, it means you’ve already begun organizing it, which—if you’ve done that before you begin writing—is death. Un-stereotypical writing has to be completely fresh.
Two: you can’t be unorganized either. Once you’re sure you have nothing to say and have said it inventively, make sure you then put it all in a sensible order. Just because you’re capable of covering a canvas with a coat of red paint doesn’t make you Rothko. Unconventional writing—just like anything else in the creative arts—had better have a lot of structure if it's going to be accessible unconventional writing.
Three: Make sure you’re at peace with yourself. Chaos never creates anything but a mirror image of itself. Don’t commit the day-to-day mess in your mind to paper. If you do, people will have firm evidence that that’s what’s in your head and they will not pay you for it.
Four: Make sure your writing is crystal-clear and avoid clichés like the plague.
The fifth, and perhaps most important, rule of unconventional writing is never to forget that everyone else is trying to be unconventional. We live in a time in which it seems as if we’ve watched too many absurdist comedies in a row. Our frames of reference have gotten bent around to the point that everything seems preposterous and nothing provokes surprise.
Ergo, at this very moment a million authors are thinking, “How can I shock the pants off them?”
Well, most readers’ pants are already down around their ankles.
To illustrate: an increasingly large proportion of writing in the 21st Century is for the Internet and television. If my late mother were to watch network TV today, she’d faint within a minute. The next night, she’d faint again.
But eventually, after some nasty falls and a few bruises, she’d make sure she was sitting in an easy chair when she turned on the television.
Then, gradually, her responses would turn into little more than faintly raised eyebrows.
Finally, she’d just stare at it like everyone else.
Meanwhile—and this more of a caveat than a rule—never forget we live on a continent that was only recently (in the big scheme of things) populated by people who deeply believed that plants, rocks, fire, water, as well as animals and people were imbued with a sacred inner life by the Great Spirit. Compare and contrast that with the man (also on television), warning men to seek medical help if their erections last longer than four hours.
To sum up: In order to write in an unstereotypical way, do not know what you’re talking about, but organize it well. Be peaceful (a lobotomy is permissible). Be lucid and remember that everyone else is trying to break the stereotypes too.
Maybe the best thing to do is simply to write old-fashioned, cleanly- stated prose and not worry about anything beyond that—unless you want to count being interesting and honest.
Rick Lenz has been acting on Broadway, TV and film since 1965. In his memoir, North of Hollywood—on sale today—he talks about a life spent acting alongside the likes of Walter Matthau.
Recently, Anna Quindlen has been focusing on fiction—but readers are sure to rejoice when they hear that the former Newsweek and New York Times columnist will be chronicling her own life once again this May in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House).
Marriage, girlfriends, kids, your mother, faith, possessions, solitude, and more—like her other nonfiction and her original New York Times column, “Life in the 30s,” this book gives us the heartfelt, insightful, wise Quindlen, the one who says for us what we wish we could have said ourselves.
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."