In her third memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller reflects on her African childhood and the dissolution of her marriage after moving to America. Our reviewer writes, "Fuller’s blend of wry honesty and heartfelt environmental consciousness will resonate with both new readers and longtime admirers of her distinctive style." (Read the review here.)
We asked Fuller to tell us about three books she's been reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I’ve read and re-read this spellbinding memoir of growing up with all the privilege and unconsciousness of a doomed elite in pre-war Liberia. Now, with West Africa and Ebola in the headlines, I found myself drawn back to Cooper’s lyrical, clear-eyed work. Anyone who wants to understand the political dynamics that have led to the current state of paranoia and suspicion in Liberia could do worse than start here. Anyone who loves beautiful, honest writing—or tales about families or coming-of-age stories—will find themselves smitten by Cooper’s descriptions of an exotic other time and the price we have to pay for paying too little attention to those less fortunate than ourselves.
I was completely smitten by this nonfiction novel (read it, you’ll see what I mean). It started life as four lectures delivered in Oxford in 2012 and appears in these pages more or less as given. An absolutely hypnotic, fiercely erudite meditation on art and literature, but also a reimagined love story (what if your lover could come back after her death? What if your connection to her was the ways in which you spoke about art and literature to one another? What if you missed your dead lover back to life?). Artful is not only about what art can do, but also about why we cannot do without it. Smith’s ambition is to break open the musty parchment of the way we typically think about literature and blow the reader’s heart open in the process.
I think Olivia Laing could write about the inside of a brown paper bag for 300 pages, and I would still be enthralled. Her prose is so gorgeous, so evocative, so sumptuous, I had to keep stopping to catch my breath and to ask myself, “How did she just do that?” In this work, Laing follows the drinking lives of six of the most brilliant writers—and tragically heavy drinkers —in modern U.S. history. What the reader learns—or doesn’t—about Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al from these pages is, in my view, completely beside the point. It’s more of an adventure story into the internal lives of familiar writers, their struggles and demons—perhaps somewhat partly familiar to many of us—and Laing’s own attempts to glimpse what early trauma can do, or undo, in a person.
Thank you, Alexandra! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Author photo by Wendell Locke Field
As part of our Best Books of 2014 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
How does a Southern Baptist boy from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, become an enthusiastic proponent of LSD and the countercultural voice of the 1970s? Tom Robbins connects the psychedelic dots in a mind-blowing memoir that reminds us why we love his hilarious, colorful and utterly unique voice.
As part of our Best Books of 2014 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Journalist and novelist Joanna Rakoff perfectly captures the anxiety and uncertainty of young adulthood in a memoir about her experiences working at an odd, stodgy literary agency in the late 1990s. All the unfortunate trappings of your early 20s are here: the lame boyfriend, the money problems and the aching hope for something better.
As summer begins winding down, it's about time to kick off the new school year.
When Kim Bearden began her teaching career, she never expected so many of her school day's teaching moments to come from her own students.
Bearden delves into her 27 years of experience in the education field and tells the story of her founding of the Ron Clark Academy (an innovative middle school in Atlanta with a world-renowned reputation) in her uplifting new memoir, Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me.
Crash Course is filled with anecdotes about the importance of bringing creativity into the classroom, advice for tackling problems from a place of honesty and embracing and celebrating her students' cultural differences—all relayed in Bearden's down-to-earth voice.
While aimed at fellow teachers, Bearden's memoir is a beautiful read with insights for anyone working with youth or the public at large.
See Bearden and some of her real students discuss Crash Course in the trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Any teachers out there looking for a back to school read?
International model Cea Sunrise Person may have an unconventional career, but she had a very unconventional childhood.
In her memoir North of Normal, Person deftly details the "miserable excesses and occasional beauty" of her off the grid upbringing in the Canadian wilderness. Until the age of 13, Person lived with her free-spirited mother, grandparents and two aunts in a tipi. That's right: No running water, no plumbing and no electricity. They formed a totally self-sufficient community, foregoing modern amenities and living off the land.
Their tiny hippie utopia—where little clothing is worn, lots of pot is smoked and sex is rarely private—is soon interrupted by Person's mother, whose string of whirlwind relationships threaten any possible stability.
Watch the trailer, narrated by Person herself, below:
What do you think, readers? Will you pick up a copy of North of Normal?
Our June Nonfiction Top Pick is Joanna Rakoff's new memoir, My Salinger Year. In this absorbing account, Rakoff (A Fortunate Age) describes her time as an assistant for 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, along with the agency's star client, J.D. Salinger.
At just 23, Rakoff found herself thrown into an office perpetually frozen in time where the agents still smoked at their desks, and the typewriter and Dictaphone reigned supreme. Aside from her more predictable administrative tasks, Rakoff learned that one of her duties would be answering fan mail for the reclusive Salinger. She soon found a rebellious courage to ditch the form-letter response, and secretly composed her own thoughtful replies to the passionate letters.
Although Salinger will certainly draw most readers in at first, Rakoff offers "a deeply moving but unsentimental coming-into-your-own story" that resonates long after the final page is turned.
Of course, Rakoff explains it better herself: Watch her video from Knopf below.
What do you think, readers? Interested? My Salinger Year hits shelves today! You can also read our lengthy Q&A with Joanna Rakoff for even more details.
Golden Globes winning actress, producer, SNL alum, personal role model and hilarious human Amy Poehler has unveiled the cover of her upcoming book, Yes Please. Set to publish on October 28th with It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, the book will cover topics such as friendships, dating, motherhood and more. It Books says this of Poehler's debut book:
"Her original twist on the conventional memoir will have universal appeal. An illustrated, non-linear diary full of humor and honesty and brimming with true stories, fictional anecdotes and life lessons, the book will be a unique and engaging experience from one of today's most talented and beloved stars."
If it's anything like her good friend Tina Fey's book, Bossy Pants, I will be overjoyed. But the real question is, can it live up to Leslie Knope's book, Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America?
The book is already available for pre-order. Do you think you'll be checking out Yes Please?
Emmy-winning actor, singer, director, producer (and my hero) Neil Patrick Harris is publishing a most unusual (we expect no less) book this October with Crown Publishing.
Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography is an autobiography in every way that an autobiography isn't, as readers choose the direction of NPH's life (or is it your own life?), from Broadway to fatherhood and everything in between. Because who wouldn't want to be NPH for a day?
The publisher shares more, because I won't even begin to try to explain this book in my own words:
"Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. ...
Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a guest stint on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song."
Think you'll join NPH's adventure on October 14?
I'm simply fascinated by the idea of teens writing memoirs. Never mind whether anything interesting has happened to them yet. Are they capable of insightful reflection—and communicating it through the written word? Last year, Malala Yousafzai's I Am Malala answered those questions with a resounding yes.
On the opposite end of teen experience is that of Maya Van Wagenen, the bookish 15-year-old whose eighth-grade social experiement is the subject of an utterly charming new memoir, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek.
Awkward and a self-described "Social Outcast," Maya came across a book that would change her life forever: Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide, originally published in 1951. Betty Cornell was a former teen model in the '50s, and her guide was filled with tips and advice on becoming popular. And so Maya decided that she would follow Cornell's 60-year-old advice—on everything from hair to clothing to "figure problems"—during eighth grade and just see what happened. The results are hilarious and heartwarming.
It's not surprising that, after a publisher bidding war over the book, Hollywood also came knocking, with DreamWorks snatching up the film rights before the book was even published. Something tells me we haven't seen the last of Maya Van Wagenen. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what she does next . . . aside from get her driver's license.
Melanie Shankle's best-selling memoir, Sparkly Green Earrings, delivered a laugh-out-loud portrait of the good, the bad and the hilarious aspects of motherhood. In her new memoir, The Antelope in the Living Room, Shankle turns her keen observation to marriage, sharing the ups and downs, the joys and disappointments of her own 16-year union with husband, Perry—all with her trademark, relatable humor. In this guest post, Shankle takes a refreshingly honest look at the holiday of love: Valentine's Day.
I’m sorry if the title led you to believe this was going to be any sort of actual researched work detailing the true history of Valentine’s Day. Because you’ll never convince me that it’s not just a holiday made up by Mr. Hallmark to find a reason to sell greeting cards and boxes of chocolate in that historically dead period between Christmas and some relative’s birthday.
And since the dawn of Valentine’s Day, it has proved to be a harbinger for most women as the day of the year we most prepare ourselves for disappointment. Maybe you’re in the minority of women and your husband actually shows up with two dozen roses and a piece of jewelry from the jewelry store at the mall to tell you he’d marry you all over again. If that’s the case, good for you. We’re all happy for you even though we may not like you. Also, you can quit reading now.
But for the rest of you, I will share a little story. In The Antelope in the Living Room, I write about the first Valentine’s Day my husband and I spent together. We’d been dating a little less than a year and he showed up at my apartment with a giant tin full of red cinnamon-flavored popcorn. And because I was a 24-year-old girl in love, I assumed there was a good chance that there might be a ring box containing an engagement ring at the bottom of that popcorn.
I was wrong.
My daughter read the story from my book out loud about the popcorn the other night, and she stopped at the end of it, looked up at me with a look I can only describe as pity and said, “I can’t believe you thought Daddy was going to put a ring in a bunch of popcorn to ask you to marry him. You didn’t know him AT ALL back then.” And I laughed out loud because she is so right.
Back then I had all these romantic, sappy notions of what Valentine’s Day should look like, and it involved candlelit dinners, roses and other grand gestures. But the truth is that real love isn’t just about a day of the year. True love is the daily commitment to share a life together that is sometimes messy and beautiful and frustrating and wonderful all at the same time. It’s the courage to pick up the pieces and fix what’s broken and constantly work to keep it all woven together.
And so for me, I’ve learned that Valentine’s Day isn’t going to look like it does in the movies or on Hallmark commercials, which is probably for the best because I really do not care for the chocolate assortment contained in those heart-shaped boxes. (It only takes biting into something with coconut filling once to scar you for life.)
So Valentine’s Day at our house is going to look pretty much like every other day of the year. There will be dishes to wash and dinner to cook and kids to drive to soccer practice. There might be pizza delivered for dinner and maybe a card that says, “I Love You” if it happens to be a particularly good year. There will be a car already started in the morning to warm it up for me before I have to leave the house and trash cans rolled out to the curb and leaves blown off the back patio because he knows they drive me crazy.
And what I’ve learned is that all those things look a whole lot more like real, true, lasting love than any piece of jewelry ever could.
Thanks, Melanie! What do you think, readers, will you be checking out The Antelope in the Living Room? Learn more on Melanie's blog.
(Author photo © 2013 by Leslie Lonsdale)