Never heard of Jacob Fugger? That’s probably because he was born in Augsburg in 1459, the grandson of a Swabian peasant. But by the time he died in 1525, Fugger had become, according to author Greg Steinmetz (who compared the net worth of wealthy people with the size of the economy in which they operated), the richest man who ever lived.
Many of us think of North Korea as a nation of automatons, blindly following Dear Leader over the cliff. If nothing else, Joseph Kim’s memoir of his harrowing childhood during the famine that devastated North Korea in the 1990s will complicate that view.
Does photographer Sally Mann really have a bulging file called “Maternal Slights,” as she writes in her courageous and visually ravishing memoir, Hold Still?
The frequent surprises in Oliver Sacks’ guardedly self-revelatory autobiography begin with the book’s cover photo. There we see a buff, leather-jacketed Sacks astride his new BMW motorcycle in Greenwich Village in 1961. Who knew that the genial, gray-bearded, best-selling writer-neurologist once portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings (1990) was such a hunk in his late 20s? Or a state-champion lifter on Southern California’s Muscle Beach? Or a physician addicted for a while to amphetamines? Or a closeted gay man who had sex during the week of his 40th birthday and then not again until he fell in love at 75?
If Elena Gorokhova’s splendid second memoir merely conveyed to readers a vivid, almost visceral understanding of the sometimes paralyzing sense of dislocation she experienced arriving in the United States in 1980 from the Soviet Union, that alone would be reason enough to read it. On her first day in the U.S., for instance, she visits the air-conditioned Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with the American husband she barely knows, and wonders, “Why are there no smells? Russia assaults you in your nostrils: milk always on the verge of turning sour, the wet wool of winter coats we wear everyday for five months, rubber phone booth tiles buckled with urine. . . .”
Suki Kim, author of the highly regarded novel The Interpreter, went to North Korea to teach English under doubly false pretenses. Her fellow instructors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) were evangelical Christians pretending to be nonreligious teachers. (“North Korea was the evangelical Christian Holy Grail, the hardest place to crack in the whole world,” she writes.) To be accepted into the program, Kim pretended to be an evangelical pretending to be a nonreligious teacher. She feared exposure on all sides.
“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.
The voice behind the popular web series “Ask a Mortician” exposes the grisly, hilarious details of working in a crematorium—and argues that everyone needs to be more closely connected to the realities of death.
In the middle of her otherwise fascinating story about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, Meryl Gordon’s narrative suddenly flattens. The daily details of Clark’s life during this long period of seclusion are assembled from wan notes to almost-lost relatives, bank statements and legal correspondence, and the memories of the few close friends who received cards and phone calls—but never visits—from Mrs. Clark.
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.”