Outstanding Memoirs

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Article in Category:Adult Nonfiction and Category:Biography. These are all great reading:

1950's Pittsburgh seems wrong for a girl destined to be a nature writer, poet, and mystic, but the author remembers her city, family, and upper middle class society with warmth and humor.
Matthew Polly, Kansan, Mandarin Chinese studying Princeton student, and self described "98 pound weakling", takes two years off from college to study kung fu with the monks of the famous Shaolin temple in China while knocking a few items off the list of "What's Wrong With Matt". A hilarious, very savvy dude comes of age.
  • Between Two Worlds: escape from tyranny: growing up in the shadow of Saddam by Zainab Salbi.
The founder of Women for Women International remembers her privileged but terrifying childhood as the daughter of Saddam Hussein's pilot, and her struggles in America as a teen-aged abused bride in an arranged marriage, cut off from her family by the Gulf War. Surprisingly upbeat, Salbi offers unique insights into the damage to ordinary domestic life caused by war, tyranny, and political repression.
The book struck me as a new form of "magical realism" -- tragedy presented as witty dinner conversation -- and reminded me of Fellini's Amarcord where childhood memories are presented with all the vividness, exaggeration, and misinterpretation of children together with all the linguistic and narrative power of a gifted adult. Where Fellini's were warm and hopeful, Burden's are lonely, cold, despairing, and unbelievably, chokingly funny.
The president's first memoir, in a novelistic form with long quoted conversations and evocative descriptions, focuses on his search for a personal identity and purpose through school and college, work as a community organizer in Chicago, and a trip to Kenya to meet with members of his father's extended family. It is remarkable for its lucid style, perspectives into race relations in America and abroad, and brief portraits of remarkable individuals. It is important for Americans as a view into what "community" means to our government's leader.
In the 60's American soldiers asked themselves what it must have been like for their Vietnamese contemporaries, who had spent their entire lives at war. Pham answers this question with power, beautiful language, and a surprising message of hope.
Funny coming of age story of an outgoing, acid witted, young gay man in Lexington, Virginia, trying to negotiate Valley high school culture and a military father, but supported by his unconventional mother.
English professor Boylan finally underwent a sex change, male to female, in her late forties, but in this layered, funny, and poignant memoir describes what it was like to grow up haunted in body, forced to live the conventions of a boy's life in public, while soothing himself by wearing his sister's bras filled with balled up socks, in private. Boylan was also haunted from the beginning in the family home in Pennsylvania by multiple strange apparitions and sightings, that few others saw. In one of the saddest parts, Boylan struggles to work up the nerve to tell his sister, to whom he was very close, about the impending transformation, but inexplicably when he does, by telephone, opportunities having slipped by in the face-to-face, she reacts coldly, angrily, and refuses further contact. In the end Boylan realizes that we are haunted by ourselves, by our future and other selves, looking out at us each time we gaze in the mirror.
Raised in a strict Muslim family, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries.
What made this book appeal to me was the number of different ways in which it could be read -- a detailed description of military engineering during World War II; a thoughtful presentation principles of leadership; a depiction of race prejudice (affecting not only the African-American troops, but the Papuans among whom they operated; and a chillingly frank portrait of love, loss, and betrayal. Samuelson is a thoughtful and complicated man, but always honest.
The author remembers her childhood and young womanhood in Leningrad during the 1950's and 60's. A fresh, sometimes funny, account of life in Soviet Russia.
  • The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
Anticipating an "introduction" to Russian literature, the book turned out to be a memoir on life as a graduate student, seeking an identity ("As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey..."), and the joy of relating what we read to how we live. Her style is no small part of the work's delight.
Homer and several of his friends, growing up in a small West Virginia coal town in the Sputnik era, become heroes of their town by learning to build and launch rockets. Also a moving and nostalgic portrait of a troubled family living in a simpler, more innocent time.
Samet, a civilian employee, began teaching English Literature to West Point cadets in October of 2001, and among her first assignments was greeting the parents of plebes: "They were all eager mothers and fathers whose concern about their children's progress in composition hid a deeper anxiety about what distant corner of the world they might be deployed to in a few years." The title comes from a turn-of-the-century term for battle fatigue, and the book is an exploration of the sustenance that cadets-turned-captains took from their reading, and the lessons the students-become-soldiers taught Samet. Along the way there are unexpected insights into expected classics: Thuycidides, Henry V, War and Peace, and the Iliad, and surprising cadet favorites, such as Virginia Woolf's Orlando, the poems of Wallace Stevens, and St. Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars.
  • Three by Lillian Hellman
Contains all three of Hellman's autobiographical works: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time. "Unfinished" is about her life while growing up in New Orleans and also the story of her longtime romantic relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. "Pentimento", consists of individual portraits of people important to Hellman in her life. "Scoundrel Time" is an amazing recounting of the devastating attacks on Hellman and many friends by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy years.
Wall Street Journal reporter Lagnado writes of her loving, devoted relationship with her father. A dapper, successful capitalist he and his family lost all when they were forced to leave Cairo in 1963. Ultimately they settled in Brooklyn after a sojourn in Paris. Her father's strong Jewish faith seemed to sustain and occupy him as the family circumstances changed and declined. The reader gets a real sense of life and community in Cairo, Paris, and Brooklyn.
Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. It was 1994, and in 100 days more than 800,000 people would be murdered in Rwanda and millions more displaced. Clemantine and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, ran and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries searching for safety.