Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.
Blogger, mom and wife, and, in her own words, “recovering Jesus Freak,” Addie Zierman writes the story of her evangelical adolescence and young adulthood in When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. Raised by parents who belonged to an evangelical church, Addie caught “fire” in her sophomore year of high school when she and her friends became devout Christians, first joining and then creating their own Bible study group at their high school. These were the 1990s, the days of WWJD?, mission trips to save lost souls and contemporary Christian pop music.
Divided into four sections, Zierman provides the reader with a glimpse into the mind of a young evangelical woman who believes she knows the path that her God has put forth. Pressing her along this journey is Chris, a young man three years older, who seems to Addie to have it all figured out. But as she eventually realizes, nothing she does is holy enough for Chris while he is in his own state of “fire,” and they part on bad terms. This breakup points Zierman toward her disillusionment with her beliefs; nonetheless, she enrolls in a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities. She meets the love of her life, Andrew, who shares Addie’s propensity for standing out from the rest of their classmates. After their marriage, failed attempts to find a church that has everything they’re looking for results in her rebellion against everything. This includes forays into alcohol abuse, a minor infidelity and previously undiagnosed depression. Ultimately, she finds redemption in creating a spiritual center that is right for herself and her family.
Conversationally composed, with very little religious jargon that might bother the casual reader, When We Were on Fire is an exceptional memoir. Relatable to anyone who has ever become fixated on a topic, whether it involves matters of faith, a romantic interest or otherwise, Addie Zierman’s work makes her a writer to watch.
A dizzying amount of wealth permeates the stone fortifications in Anthony Russell’s entertaining new memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. What seems most important is what the wealth symbolizes and how it shapes the lives of those it cradles. Yes, the tweedy set flaunts its well-placed connections. There are pheasant-shoots, duck launches and tea-sipping beneath museum-bound tapestries. Not surprisingly, Russell admits there are also consequences to being reared in a "gilded bubble,” where everything material is handed to you. Russell aims to satisfy our curiosity.
For those not familiar with medieval fortresses, Leeds Castle is about as splendid as they come. Located in Kent, England, the former Norman stronghold with ties to six queens of England is among the most visited historic buildings in Britain. Its 900-year history is the stuff of fairy tales. Readers will appreciate the complement of black and white photographs.
The writer-musician Russell, who grew up in this milieu, was exposed to the stuff of kings at an early age thanks to his maternal grandmother and chatelaine, the bold, indomitable Lady Baillie. "Granny B" purchased Leeds Castle in 1926 for the American sum of $874,000. It is here that Russell spent his childhood in the 1950s, absorbing "the castle way." This included eccentric "ceremonies" like fussing over baby ducks and enduring family gatherings where no one paid him much mind. With such a privileged start, gearing up for adulthood beyond the castle gate would have its challenges.
Writing with wry humor, Russell alternates between being sardonic and wistful. He points out unapologetically some of the silliness while poignantly recalling the shear splendor of it all and gratitude for being a part of it. We get to know some of the uniquely British personalities (with names like Morg, Guysy-Wee and Mr. Elves) who help add the color that make this frank, behind-the-scenes look a delightful jaunt, just in time for the return of another extravagant household in Downton Abbey.
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.
Never hesitant to state his strong opinion and create controversy, Morrissey has been a lightning rod since he burst onto the scene as The Smiths’ frontman in the 1980s. Now, with Autobiography, he sets his record straight on the many phases of his life and recording career. Whether or not you find him a hopelessly depressing poseur or are a longtime fan and follower (there really is little middle ground!), this stream-of-consciousness memoir will be of interest to most anyone who listened to the music of the era.
Starting with his Manchester childhood and school days, the singer outlines his life through memories that are by turns gauzy and pointed. He shows a surprisingly tight relationship with his family, and includes the tragic deaths of relatives and friends, many of which have seemingly affected his songwriting and have haunted him to this day. Much of the book, naturally, focuses on the many people who Morrissey feels have wronged him. The much-heralded rift between him and his Smiths writing partner Johnny Marr is fairly minor compared to the vitriol Morrissey retains for Mike Joyce, former Smiths drummer, and the British judge that ruled in Joyce’s favor when it came to recording royalties. The usual suspects such as the English music press, the monarchy, Margaret Thatcher, radio DJs, etc. are also the recipients of his bitterness.
While there are no chapters or other breaks in his memoir, it reads quickly. Regarding his personal life, he doesn’t directly address his ambiguous sexuality, and the encounters he has with various celebrities are more interesting than mere name-dropping. He places a focus on the constant touring and the fans more than on his songwriting and records produced. By turns heartbreaking, intriguing, frustrating and peppered with Morrissey’s well-known wit, there is no doubt that Autobiography is a product solely his own – no ghostwriters here.
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney: for most of us, the three are linked together with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, tea parties on the ceiling and Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The name P.L. Travers, however, is recognizable by only the most diehard of Poppins fans, as she is the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book series, as well as the subject of the biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson.
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and christened Helen Lyndon Goff; she later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as a pseudonym. Travers valued her privacy, and felt protective of the Mary Poppins characters and stories. Lawson explains that each contained elements of Travers’ own rather peripatetic and often difficult life. Initially, Walt Disney encountered resistance from Travers when he approached her about adapting her Poppins books to a film version. The “real” nanny is sharp-tongued, mysterious, controlling and a bit vain. Travers felt Disney would “replace truth with false sentimentality” and called Disney’s movie-making “vulgar.” In the end, Disney’s coffers trumped Travers’ misgivings, and the Julie Andrews version of Mary triumphed on the silver screen.
Expect to hear more about P.L. Travers after the December release of the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which follows Disney as he woos Travers for the film rights to the now-classic movie Mary Poppins.
Under One Roof: Lessons I Learned from a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House by Barry Martin is a truly one-of-a-kind story. When Martin, head of a construction project, first hears of the octogenarian Edith Wilson Macefield, all he knows is that she’s feisty, fiery and will not give up her modest home to the developers constructing the shopping mall around her…not even for a million dollars. As he does with every one of his sites, he makes rounds in the neighborhood to apologize for the noise and to tell the residents to contact him with any concerns.
He could not have anticipated the call he soon receives from Edith asking him to drive her to a hair appointment. After a while, he finds himself walking over to visit her while she’s putting out seeds for the birds, watching Lawrence of Arabia and reciting poetry. Soon, he’s drawn into the fascinating details of her life, which contains multitudes of tales that could fill five lifetimes. From being a 14-year-old spy for the British in Nazi Germany to memories of receiving a clarinet from her cousin, the American swing musician Benny Goodman, Martin is pulled into the hidden yet wondrous existence of the resolute elderly woman.
Martin’s firsthand account of his tender companionship with this small but mighty force of a woman undoubtedly makes this a touching read. All at once, he is concerned, bewildered and very much intrigued by Edith, who stands her ground. When social services start calling, she reveals her wish to pass away on her couch, the very same place her own mother passed. Without denying Edith her independence, Martin begins to assist her as her physical strength declines so that she can die the way she’s always lived—on Edith’s terms.
This biography verges on indescribable in the way humor, compassion and sadness are simultaneously intertwined to recount the infallibility of the human spirit and pricelessness of human kindness.
As a child, author Kimberly Rae Miller would pray that her home would catch on fire. Her prayer was answered but, to her horror, it came with some unforeseen consequences. In her memoir, Coming Clean, Miller writes about her experiences growing up as the only child of parents who were hoarders.
Miller makes it clear that hoarding isn’t just a messy home with too much clutter. Hoarding à la the Miller parents means never throwing anything away. It means online shopping so obsessively that delivered but unopened packages are stacked to the ceiling. It means sleeping on the edge of a mattress otherwise piled with junk, never opening the refrigerator since it contains moldy sludge and showering at the gym since to call in a plumber to repair leaking pipes would mean being reported to social services. Yes, it means moving to a new home to escape the detritus in the old house.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as piggybacking on the odd appeal of the popular reality TV show Hoarders. The descriptions of the Miller family’s living conditions are shocking and sad. Miller also relates the shame she felt as a child, colluding with her parents to present a picture of normalcy, and the guilt, too, after the wished-for house fire resulted in the deaths of her beloved pets. Yet, this story is multi-layered, and Miller is clear that she was raised by loving and intelligent parents who encouraged and supported her in academic and social pursuits. Coming Clean reminds us that imperfect people and good parenting are not mutually exclusive, and our circumstances do not define who we are. Visit Miller at her blog, TheKimChallenge, where she writes about food, fitness, perspective and love.
In school, we all learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but there was another book published around the same time that had an important impact on the discussion of slavery in America. That book was Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave. Northup was born a free man and lived most of his life in New York. In 1841, he was lured to Washington, D.C. where he was beaten, drugged and sold into slavery. For the next 12 years, he was a slave on a series of plantations in Louisiana until his family was able to find him and bring him home to New York in 1853. 12 Years a Slave is his unflinching firsthand account of what he experienced and witnessed during that time.
When it was published in 1853, Northup’s memoir became a bestseller, selling over 30,000 copies. After the Civil War, the book was out-of-print for many years. It was rediscovered by two scholars in the 1960s and reprinted in 1968. Now, it has been adapted into a film that brings the horrors of Northup’s experience to the big screen. Like many of us, the film’s director, Steve McQueen, was surprised when his partner brought the book to his attention. He writes, “The book blew both our minds: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror and the humanity. The book read like a film script, ready to be shot. I could not believe that I had never heard of this book.”
The movie, which the New York Post calls “brutally powerful and emotionally devastating,” is already generating Oscar buzz. The film’s A-list cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. The trailer is available here.
J. Maarten Troost’s newest work of travel journalism, Headhunters on my Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost, tackles foreign shores, classic literary giants and a newfound sobriety with the same sharp wit we’ve come to expect from the author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages and Lost on Planet China.
Again, Troost invites us along on his voyage to the South Pacific, but this trip promises to be immensely different. For one, his sole inspiration for this particular expedition is to follow Robert Lewis Stevenson’s own eccentric island-hopping excursions. On Hiva-Oa we stand over the stacked rocks of Paul Gauguin’s supposed grave, where Troost ruminates on the conflicting lives of the Post-Impressionist artist, both at once the freedom-loving painter and the syphilitic sexual tourist. On Nuka Hiva we discover the hidden dangers of the land that include falling coconuts, tiger sharks and deceptive fellow rovers.
But what’s with Troost’s sudden interest in the life of the novelist who penned Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? What was compelling enough to set Troost trekking distant lands and sailing strange waters? The search for redemption. He asks us to “step back for a moment and consider our hero, Robert Lewis Stevenson. The first thing one gleans is that he does not mess around –no hemming and hawing for him, no dithering.”
Troost, nearly one year sober, is testing not only his sea legs but his teatotaling fortitude which has held him back from both wrecking his marriage and ruining his life. Troost, while traveling on a boat of booze-guzzling shipmates, is not dawdling nor dithering in his search to better understand addiction. With candid humor, Troost dissects himself while also ruminating on the relationship between some of the great artists and writers and their own proclivities for drugs and the endless bottle.
For fans of classic Troost, there are still plenty of escapades including a pack of vicious village dogs, an underage Marquesan tattooist and the rogue cannibal. This travel memoir just offers a bit more; both a view into a wanderlust’s struggle with dependency and a hopeful tale of where the curiosity of the human might lead.