Tag: Bios / Memoirs

A Travelogue

by Lucy Knisley

Short graphic novel memoir about a trip Knisley took with her elderly grandparents- on a cruise ship to the Carribean. There was very little of the surroundings, it mostly takes place on the boat. Her grandparents signed up for the cruise, but in their nineties with failing health, the family was concerned about them traveling alone. So Knisley volunteered to go along and help them out. Turns out to be a trip more full of worry and stress than relaxation. Her grandmother has dementia, is often confused, and needs constant watching over. Her grandfather is incontinent but refuses help with cleaning his clothes (at first). Neither one had much interest in most of the activies on the boat. Knisley struggled to find things for them to do, fretted about are they enjoying it or not, and by the end was desperate to have some time to herself. There’s all the stress and small inconvenient incidents of traveling. Meeting strangers who don’t care or are judgemental. Having to manage small emergencies, one after another. The hearbreaking frustration of being a caretaker for a loved one who doesn’t even realize how much you’re helping. But there’s also a slowly growing feeling of greater connection to her family, as she reads her grandfather’s WWII journal and muses on some family traits (perhaps finally coming to terms with some). It’s a kind of slice-of-life about dealing with old age, the family that you love even if you’re often worn out by things that never change, and finding small moments of calm. Helping others find ways to enjoy the journey.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
160 pages, 2015

More opinions:Nomad Reader
anyone else?

A Very Natural Childhood

by John Lister- Kaye

This author worked in conservation, restoring habitats and saving endangered British species like the Scottish wildcat. His memoir tells about his childhood in a manor house on a huge estate, where he roamed at will looking for bird’s eggs, tracking foxes and so on. I really wanted to like this one, but just couldn’t get into it. There seemed to be a lot of description about everything except the animals in the first few chapters, and then a lot about the grand house of his childhood and while it was interesting and well-written, it just wasn’t what I’d expected. One chapter is mostly about his mother’s poor health. I am sure it all ties together showing how everything led up to his passion with nature and working for wildlife, but I was just loosing attention fast. I’ve put this one back on my shelf to try again later. Perhaps if I’d do better to read one of his other books first.

Rating: Abandoned
336 pages, 2017

A Misfit's Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In

by Phuc Tran

Memoir of growing up in an immigrant Vietnamese family during the 80’s and 90’s. Tran’s family evacuated Saigon when he was barely two, moving to small-town Pennsylvania. His story tells about the struggles to understand a new culture, his eroding confidence in his parents (because they couldn’t help him navigate English, were publicly insulted by other adults, had low-paying jobs after his father had been a lawyer in his home country and other things) and his initial bafflement at being taunted by classmates- for his name, for his appearance, for simply being Vietnamese. He tried to change his first name to something American, and got teased more (so changed it back). He decided to fit in by standing out, connecting with skaters and punk kids. Earned himself a reputation among other kids for minor misdemeanors- talking back to teachers, petty crime, fights (always standing up for himself or friends) etc. Then he gradually fell in love with literature- read all the great books his teachers recommended and came back for more. Loved the library- an awe for the readily accessible knowledge that his father passed on to him. But also rebelled against his family’s strict expectations, his father’s sudden bursts of rage and physical punishment. Lots more than I can mention in here. Facing prejudice and racism. Trying to fit in with soceity’s norms, even when you don’t believe them. Finding yourself in places you didn’t forsee. I was thrown off at first by the f-word in the very first sentence, but the profanity in this book isn’t excessive and always fit the circumstance, so it didn’t bother me. I liked this book far more than I expected to. It’s very well-written and really insightful, examining Tran’s family dynamics, his parents’ efforts to remake their life in a new country, his relationships with other kids at school, teachers, and the world at large in ways that feel full of clarity and understanding. Of course I especially liked how books are woven through the narrative, as he discovered and learned from them. This was an unexpected find, off the recommendation shelf at my library, and it’s one I’d readily add to my own collection.

Rating: 4/5
306 pages, 2020

A Memoir of a Unique Journey to True Health

by Dee McGuire

I found this book browsing. I picked it up out of curiosity- how could health be accidental? The blurb on the back gave me no indication of what health issues the author struggled with, or how she overcame them- it sounded inspiring, but vague. Oddly none of the reviews online mention the conditions that were debilitating the author’s life, so I will tell although with a note of spoilers if you want to be surprised. Because I didn’t see where this story was going, and then it sure made me sit up and take notice. (And this post gets a bit personal because of how I related to it).

She suffered acute back pain, for many many years. It became more severe with pain in other joints, skin problems, difficulty concentrating and lots of other symptoms that just seemed to pile up. Visits to doctors and specialists, multiple surgeries on her back, neck and knees, pain medications and physical therapy- none of it really did any good. In the middle of all this was a frightening time, suddenly learning she had breast cancer, getting surgery, and just as suddenly told it was completely resolved. Really I was appalled to read how callously and brusquely the doctors treated her, with her concerns about conditions that were undermining her whole life they seemed to think unimportant. Unless she was leaving something out, I can’t imagine meeting doctors who give you so little actual consideration.

I started to suspect one of the major answers she found to her health issues, when I read that after a certain proecdure, she was unable to eat for a number of days, and her body aches and some other complaints instantly disappeared. Only to return later. I skipped ahead to see if gluten was mentioned in future pages and stared at a sentence in the beginning of chapter thirteen: My goal was to avoid wheat, rye and barley, the grains containing gluten. It was celiac disease (or a gluten intolerance?) Discovered when she noticed a friend at work avoiding certain foods, and asked about her diet- the friend was gluten-free which sparked McGuire’s interest. She decided to just try eating differently for a few days, and was amazed at the difference in how she felt. Her pain was gone.

I know exactly this feeling. I’ve been there: so delighted in the flexibility and ease to move my body that I laugh out loud to my family: “look, I can touch my toes! I can walk barefoot and my feet don’t hurt!” It’s just so shockingly wonderful to have that chronic pain gone that you’re stunned at how good you feel- it’s like a miracle, and yet that’s how you ought to feel every day, ha. So I could relate well to this part of her story. Her frustration in trying to make new food selections in the grocery store (yeah gluten-free on the label doesn’t always mean what you hope it does). Her quest to figure out what other foods bothered her digestive system and caused flareups. She moved on to visit a fuctional medicine doctor. (I had to look that up- seems to be another kind of alternative medicine) and then did a detox. To be honest, I’m skeptical about detox, and some of the other measures the functional doctor recommended (not to mention the staggering expense, and all those tests!)

But this story resonated with me because I could relate to all the stuff about how gluten had affected her autoimmune system and caused her joint pain. I’ve had those moments, when suddenly my wrist hurt so acutely I’d drop something, or my knee so I’d have to stop walking and hold onto something, or my lower back so I’d need a cushion or heat pad behind it to drive. I’d wake up in the morning with my body hurting and have to roll out of bed and lever myself up from the floor, because I couldn’t just sit up in bed. At one point I could barely bend to tie my shoes. I was on the verge of going to the doctor to find out if I had arthritis or some joint issue when I stumbled on the idea that gluten could be causing another chronic issue I had (insomnia) so I tried going gluten-free for a few days. Just to see. It was a shock and delight, to find that my insomnia, joint pain and many other symptoms disappeared. Most have never come back, except for the few times I accidentally have gluten exposure again.

So I’m there with the author on all this. The need to clean out your kitchen, to be super careful in restaurants, to ask people about ingredients if they make you food, to read labels on food packages more discerningly. I’ve found cross-contamination and trace amounts really do affect me. I appreciated reading the particulars on how her family found ways to eat healthier and avoid the foods that gave them problems (her kids had minor issues that were resolved when they avoided gluten too).

The whole book is kind of a wake-up call, that the things you put in your body really do matter. That having good health could be as simple as giving your body the wholesome foods it needs to maintain itself properly. Not all the author’s health issues were resolved when she went gluten-free, cut individually problematic foods and did her detox. But the worst ones dissipated and she felt increasingly better as time went on. I’m glad she was determined to keep seeking for answers, and that she shared her story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
201 pages, 2021

How Kes, My Kestrel, Changed My Life

by Richard Hines

Memoir by a man who grew up in a small coal-mining town in Yorkshire. Where most men were employed in “the pit” and some never came out alive again. Prospects for the future seemed slim when Hines failed to pass a test for better education, he was shunted into a public school that didn’t seem to teach much. Corporal punishment and petty cruelty from teachers was all over the place. Kids were prepared to take jobs of manual labor, or at best learn a trade. Hines’ older brother moved on to the better school and became a writer. The author himself often spent time roaming the fields and hedges, when he happened to find a nest of kestrels in an abandoned building, took a young bird and then taught himself falconry from old books. His fascination with the archaic terms and the methodology of teaching hawks became an obsession, he would talk about it with anyone he met. Reading about his patient success with the kestrel was lovely. Especially the little close observations on its behavior and wild beauty. After schooling, the author took a few jobs he didn’t care for (plumber’s assistant, office worker for a housing council, etc) but was fired to move on with his hawking experiences. He wanted to man another bird of prey species, but goshawks and others were very scarce in England at the time only kestrels were commonly found. The only way back then to obtain a bird, was to catch a wild one. He decided he’d have to travel to find other avenues for his passion, so volunteered to do chairty work abroad and ended up in Nigeria. He didn’t find any opportunities there to catch and train a wild hawk, but did discover that he liked teaching when his assigment changed. Returning to England he went back to school to get liscenced as a teacher.

Meanwhile, his older brother wrote a fictional book about a boy in a mining town who finds and trains a wild kestrel. While the home life and trajectory of the story in Kestrel for a Knave was completely fictional, details surrounding capture of the falcon and its training were patterened after reality. In fact Hines’ older brother questioned him closely about falconry, borrowed some of his books, and watched him work with the bird. Later when a film was made of the novel, Richard Hines also worked on the set, he was the person who (of course) trained the three falcons used for filming, and taught the young boy actor how to handle the birds and fly them to the lure in scenes. It was fascinating reading about the filmmaking. Of course there were some frustrations involved, and disgruntlement when Hines found out his brother was taking more credit than he felt was due.

The latter part of the book tells how the author lost his desire to keep a hawk after he met a falconer at a demonstration and experienced some class prejudice. He felt he’d never be accepted among elite falconers, but didn’t want to just keep flying kestrels, so he gave up on it for decades, though still always had a keen interest when he saw birds in the wild or read about them. Also growing concern for environmental issues that impacted birds of prey. He’d read and gushed about T.H. White’s Goshwak as a boy, and now discussed many times J.A. Baker’s Peregrine. Which delighted me as I own, and highly regard, both these books- but of course there are many other works he talks about in this memoir, which I haven’t had the pleasure to read yet.

And then, thirty years after abandoning the hobby, the author began making film documentaries about the lives of working-class people. In his travels and interviews, he met more upper-class men and realized they didn’t intimidate him as in years past. He attended a falconry demonstration and realized that things had changed- talked to the man and learned that birds of prey were now bred in captivity, anyone could buy a bird to train, methods were a bit different now, it would be easy to join a falconry club, etc. So he obtained a captive-bred merlin and once again trained a bird to fly. Reading about the differences in this experience to the ones in his youth was enlightening, and I’m not even involved in this hobby! I’ve just always been kind of fascinated by it.

There’s much more in here about his family, life in the mining town, amusing incidents between friends, the volunteer work in Africa, teaching experiences, what it was like working with the film crew, his growing concerns about wildlife and so on. It was very interesting to read about the film and then watch it, even though I’ve never read his brother’s novel (though it’s been on my TBR for many many years). Enough is patterened after real life that I could follow what was going on in the film, though I struggled a lot to comprehend the dialect and slang. The film was made in the author’s hometown, in the very fields where he flew his kestrel as a young man. But not having read that book, the film’s ending took me by surprise, and it was very sad. It made me think a lot of stories by Helen Griffiths. With the bitter, gritty reality.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
275 pages, 2016

by Oliver Sacks

This book, following Uncle Tungsten, was fascinating to me just because of how much I didn’t know about the man. It starts when he was about fourteen, tells about his young adult years, univeristy education, how he figured out his career, his experiences writing books, his intellectual family (and schizophrenic older brother), many lasting friendships with colleagues, his compassion and concern for neurologic patients, and so much more. I would have had no idea (apart from the cover image) that Sacks was very much into motorcycles as a young man, and loved to travel the country on his bike. That he was seriously into weight-lifting. That he was gay, fell in love a few times, it never quite worked out. That he wanted to do research but was kind of a “walking disaster” in the lab- loosing items, breaking things, etc- until he was politely told to leave (this during university years). His passion was people- learning about their lives and how everything interacted with or influenced their neurological disease. He was vividly interested in the case histories his mother would tell (she was a surgeon) and put this same passion into telling stories, only in book form- and after gaining the consent of patients, many whom wished their stories told, because they felt forgotten and ignored. These were often patients who lived in long-term care facilities or hospitals. Sacks tells of his writing process, his many frustrations in bringing books to press, his travels and the thrill of new discoveries in the field. It was wonderful to read the “backstory” as it were, of his books that I’m familiar with, and has fired my interest to read all the others. The last chapters of this book were difficult for me to get through- they go into more detail on the workings of the brain, which I struggled to understand. But this one’s staying on my shelf, maybe I’ll comprehend more with a re-read someday.

Rating: 4/5
398 pages, 2015

by Robin Ha

Graphic novel memoir about moving to a new country, getting used to a new culture, and finding yourself. The author (Ha Chuna, with chosen American name Robin) was a teenager when she accompanied her mother on a visit the United States- only they never went back home to Korea. She was abruptly plunged into a new life, going to regular middle school but unable to speak the language, separated from all her friends and favorite activities back home. She felt so isolated living among strangers in a sprawling suburb in Alabama. Kids at school teased or ignored her. But gradually things began to get better. As her English improved, she started to stand up for herself and make friends. Her mother enrolled her in an art class specifically for drawing comics, and she found joy in something she’d always loved- Korean and Japanese manga. Made her best friend at the comic bookstore. But the clash of Korean and American culture was still a big part of her life- even though she’d moved to a new country, her mother still experienced pressures from her new Korean family members (having by this time married a Korean-American man). Chuna hated the pressure put on her to perform piano pieces in competitions or even just in front of family members and visitors, but as she learned more of her mother’s history, she realized how much pressure her mother faced as well. How much social criticism she’d lived with back in Korea, being a single mother raising a child alone. One of the reasons they came to America. The story is just as much about the struggles her mother went through, and the strength she showed, as it is about Robin herself. And when Chuna finally goes back to Korea to visit old friends, she realizes that she doesn’t quite fit in there anymore. It’s a relief to read that at the end, she’s coming to accept her new identity as Korean-American and has found her old love (manga) in new places with new friends.

I really liked seeing the samples of the manga she drew herself as a teen, in a backdrop on some of the pages. Wish I could see the whole story of that! Side note: I also really liked how the text indicated if the characters were speaking in Korean or English, by using a different color text, or English words Chuna couldn’t understand, with undecipherable scribbles!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
236 pages, 2020

Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

I was about halfway through reading On the Move by Oliver Sacks when I realized it was his second memoir. I wanted to understand more of where he was coming from, as he hinted at some incidents from early years that seemed significant so I put pause on that book and read this one.

Uncle Tungsten is about his early life in London during the 1940’s (the book ends when he’s about fifteen). He was from a very large and intellectual family- his parents were both surgeons, he had an uncle who owned and ran a lightbulb factory (thus the title) and many others involved in the sciences or entreprenuership. It was lovely reading how avidly older family members would explain scientific phenomena to him as a young boy. Incredible to read about the lab he eventually set up in a back room, where he did all sorts of experiments re-enacting what famed scientists had done- as he read and learned their histories (which are recounted in plenty of detail). In fact nearly as much of the book is an explanation of chemistry and physics as it is stories of Sack’s childhood. I didn’t mind so much, as his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious, but near the end when it gets more advanced I was a bit lost. I found the personal chapters much more engaging- telling how he was sent away to an awful boarding school during the war, or how the community of Jews that he lived among changed after, so many of them were lost. For the rest- it’s an enthralling account but also a rather remote one- on many pages the author seems to talk more about the chemistry he admired, than about himself. I’m glad I read this book because yes, it gives me a better understanding of the second one, and I can start to see how he became the remarkable nerologist I have so admired. I think anyone growing up in such a household, mentored and taught by so many highly skilled, critically thinking scientists and doctors, would have become a remarkable person no matter what their field of study turned out to be.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
338 pages, 2001

by Maude Julien

I don’t know how to rate this book- it was riveting, but also horrifying. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Several times I had to stop listening (audiobook) and come back another day. Very eerily similar to previous audiobook Educated, in that the father was paranoid and abusive, though in a completely different manner. This is also a memoir, written by a French woman whose father had survived atrocities of World War II. He had a deep-rooted conviction that he must teach his child to withstand any kind of privation or torture she would face in the future if Nazis overtook the world, so he trained her very strictly. He was also apparently a member of the Freemasons and had all kinds of weird ideas due to that- some of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. Mixed together it was just awful. Plus with the paranoia, secrecy and emotional manipulation he wreaked on his family (the mother was also controlled and brainwashed by him) I seriously think this man had mental health issues. Sadly his wife and child suffered for it. And being brought up by this severe controlling man, she believed it all from the beginning.

That she was being prepared for some special destiny. But in reality she was kept shut up in the house or on the grounds nearly all the time, sometimes even the windows were shuttered for months on end. Nobody around but her parents and workers who came to fix or build things, no other children, no school- taught at home by her parents. Endless lessons, forced to work on the grounds with the builders, laying bricks or hauling things- even as a small child. Made to sleep in an unheated room, deprived of comforts, no affection, often had her food restricted, made to do strenuous exercises, sit in the dark, abruptly thrown into a pool to learn to swim- the atrocities go on and on. Berated for the smallest things, punished by getting silent treatment for weeks on end- it was just appallingly unbelievable. And the psychological and emotional abuse even worse. Don’t get me started on the way her mother was brought into everything, or the worker who molested her for years (and her mother saw it and walked away) or the absurd psychobabble her father lectured her on for hours- really it made my head swim and I tuned out listening sometimes.

What made it bearable was the animals and her books. She loved the family dog, a pigeon she was allowed to raise, a particular duck in the flock, a pony her father got to teach her to ride. Miserably, the animals were mistreated by her father as well, but she gave them what friendship she could and took comfort in their companionship. When she was older the words of literature started to sink in, comprehension grew (at least her parents gave her a somewhat decent education, with long music lessons too) and the books really helped her withstand the horrors of her family. It’s appalling how much the father’s attitude had weighed on her- even when she figured out where she could climb over a wall to escape the grounds, she couldn’t bring herself to leave because feared his punishment, that he could really see everything she did in his mind like he told her. But then she started to practice little deceits and lies and found out he wasn’t all powerful after all. And two things happened to finally allow her to escape the place- a music teacher came who treated her kindly, encouraged her, and finally set her up with employment outside the home (previous tutors and music teachers had been harsh or unkind). Secondly, she was sent to take some exams by her parents, met other students at the testing place, began to have glimpses of what life outside could be like, and one girl even wrote to her (though her parents quickly squelched that).

She did, at last, escape by marrying. And this was disappointing- that the memoir didn’t describe much of how her life changed when she left this dismal household. (I am leaving so much out, you have no idea how bad it was unless you can bear to read this book). The story ends rather abruptly when she leaves. There is an epilogue that discusses very perceptively how much she had to learn, change and overcome to function in the real world, how at first she tried not to think of or talk about her past, but things continued to affect her. How she had to go through a string of therapists and psychoanalysts before finding someone who could actually help her, and how she became one herself. I wondered about her young husband, how her strange and torturous upbringing would have affected their relationship, but she says nothing of that. Probably it was too personal. It’s hard to believe this ever happened to someone, much less that she could overcome it and be mentally healthy and whole again- there are several parts where she describes wanting to end her life, or how she would self-harm in order to feel some modicum of control over pain- as opposed to all the pain caused by her parents which she had no escape from. Terrible that for the first time in some dim way I can comprehend that now. The mental games she played with herself in order to withstand the debilitating treatment her deranged father meted out- it’s extraordinary and very very disturbing. I don’t think I would ever want to read this in print.

Audiobook, borrowed from the public library. Read by Elisabeth Rodgers, 7.5 hours listening time.

More opinions: I’ve Read This
anyone else?

by Tara Westover

It was hard to listen to this book. I found the story compelling, the phrasing adroit, but the descriptions of abuse and horrible injuries, difficult to hear. In this memoir, the author describes growing up in a large family on the side of a mountain in Idaho. Her father was a fundamentalist and survivalist- to the extreme. They stockpiled food, ammunition and gasoline. They shunned government “handouts”, avoided doctors and didn’t send their kids to school. The author says she was homeschooled, but it didn’t sound very structured or consistent. Her father owned a junkyard where he dismantled automobiles and sold the metal for scrap. He made his kids work in the junkyard- there were few safety precautions, and frequent injuries. Some quite severe. At home, her mother (reluctantly at first) trained to be a midwife, used herbs and tinctures to treat people (including her family) and eventually ran a business selling essential oils. Tara suffered a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from her father and older brother, who eventually also turned violent. It’s shocking how much a blind eye the family turned on this behavior. It’s appalling the kind of excuses they made for it. Later on, looking back, Tara suspected that her father suffered from bipolar disorder, and her brother may have started acting violent after a head injury. More shocking than all that, is that she managed to leave this situation.

One brother left the family and managed to go to college, Tara determined to follow suit, even though she’d never been to school at all. She didn’t have a GED, but somehow she studied enough to take the ACT and managed to get into BYU, then later did a term of study abroad at Cambridge and attended Harvard. I’m still not sure how- she didn’t explain much of the culture shock she must have suffered, sitting through her first classes. Interacting with the other students, being ignorant of so much- from basic history to popular culture. The last part of the book becomes very retrospective, as Tara attempts to face her past. She gets counseling, suffers an emotional breakdown, and returns home to confront her family about the abuse- but they for their part seem to think she’s been led astray by the world in her quest for an education. It’s a story that leaves you feeling very unsettled and disturbed, yet admiring too- that she could come so far from such beginnings. Although plenty of people have thrown doubt on her story- saying it’s exaggerated or falsified. A brief look at any stack of reviews online will show you that. I don’t know if any of it is contrived, I just know I was captivated by the words, even when I wanted to turn away.

Borrowed from the public library. Audiobook, 12 hours read by Julia Whelan.

Rating: 4/5
352 pages, 2018

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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