During much of my early reading career in grade school, I devoured a series of biographies of famous people–Daniel Boone, Clara Barton, Abe Lincoln, Madame Curie, all bound in blue cloth library editions. My love of biography and memoir, particularly about unusual but not always well-known people, has only increased over the years. About a third of my reading each year is in these two genres. This is a group of books about people whose stories fascinated me, most of which have been recently published.
Well who doesn’t love Cumming–the hair, the dimples, the accent, his coy yet masculine presence–so I was drawn to this memoir for the wrong reasons. And I loved the cover picture! Yes, covers do sell books, as not all publishers have yet figured out. But the story of his childhood at the hands of an abusive, mentally ill father, and his career as an actor were beautifully interwoven in this book, and I had the additional joy of listening to the book on CD, narrated by the author. It made it an exceptionally nuanced and emotionally honest experience for me as a reader. Cumming was raised on one of the large estates in Scotland, where his father was employed as a forester, before the break-up of that economic system. Just when the story about his childhood gets too dark or heavy, he moves forward, to his blossoming career, his relationship with his mother and brother, and his steps to healing. Neither sentimental nor emotionally manipulative, Cumming’s book is a standout in the very crowded, competitive field of memoir.
It’s What I Do, by Lynsey Addario
Subtitled: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, Addario’s book is unique because it intimately describes a person torn between having a relationship and family AND doing what she is passionate about. This was one of a small handful of my favorite books this year. Addario’s photography assignments ranged widely: civilians, troops and doctors during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, transvestite prostitutes in New York City, and HIV epidemic victims in Africa, are a few examples. Addario’s often mysterious photographs of the ordinary are liberally scattered thoughout the book, adding strength to her story. And the heart of her story is her struggle to find and maintain a loving relationship and keep her career, which she does in time. She meets a French journalist who understood her choice and its inherent risks, and fully supported her need to do it. In time they marry, have a child, and Addario is further challenged to adjust to this new reality. Buy it for the photographs alone!
Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan
Here I go again with another surfing story–I can’t seem to resist any of them. (See earlier blog titled “On the Water”). Finnegan was one of those early pioneers of the fabled surfing life of Southern California and Hawai’i in the 60’s, and while the story certainly details his peripatetic life, it is also a fascinating social history of the time period. For those who are not absolutely addicted to the surfing life, there are parts of the book, particularly the second half, that may become somewhat tedious. However, I highly recommend hanging on, as there are two particular misadventures (one in Portugal and another in San Francisco) that were so compelling I found myself clinging to the armrest (white knuckles, yet) and biting my fingernails. Finnegan is a well-respected and seasoned writer for The New Yorker and author of four other books, and his prose style reflects this writing experience. If you are an arm-chair traveller and love water, you will find this book unique and enthralling.
Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford
There was rarely a feeling or situation while growing up that Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry did not perfectly illuminate for me. So when this biography was published in 2002, I bought it immediately. Millay’s life, which I had not read much about when studying her poetry in high school, surprised me. She was a complex figure: part feminist, part free spirit who seemed to indulge in all her impulses, having affairs with men and women, married or not. But she was always her own person, totally dedicated to her art, and very famous during her lifetime. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1923, so she was well-known during her lifetime. Milford was also the author of a first-rate biography of Zelda Fitzgerald; she picks fascinating subjects and fleshes them out without sentimentality or over-exaggeration.
Hold Still, by Sally Mann
Mann and her photography have been controversial for the past 3o years of her career, in part because of her photographs of her young children, often taken naked. She works primarily in black and white, and has been showing her work in major galleries and publishing books of her photographs for many years. What struck me about this book, a combination memoir, photography retrospective and family and cultural history set in the South, was the quality of her writing. It compliments her striking photographs perfectly, with wit, fearlessness, and stranger- than-science-fiction stories of her ancestors and their own secret histories. Mann was brought up “somewhat feral, somewhat intellectual” by parents who believed in benign neglect and lots of freedom for their children. So it is no surprise that Mann’s career reflects many of the same values. This is not a coffee table book to browse and put down to be dusted, but a book to delve into deeply, and revel in its many secrets and surprises. It will show up on many of the “best book” lists this year.
On the Move, by Oliver Sacks
I cannot confess to being a huge fan of Oliver Sacks, or even reading most of his numerous books. However, the cover of his memoir, published shortly before his death this year, caught my eye. Who is this man, dressed in leathers and buff of body on a hot motorcycle, claiming to be Sacks? Indeed the man’s life was full of surprises and contradictions like that. As a young doctor, he emigrated to the U.S. from England, settling in San Francisco, a young gay man exploring his sexuality and struggling to find a job as a doctor in a place that suited his interests and abilities. Although his writing style is often choppy (just as you think he has revealed all about 1967, he adds another memory), flowing back and forth between continents and years, it was still fascinating. How could this man accomplish so much in the short life span we are given? Body builder, avid motorcycle rider, English scholar, “brain” doctor, writer and many other obsessions describe him, a talented and multi-faceted person. I came away with new respect.