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In The Year's Best Memoirs, Mirth And Melancholy

Dec 14, 2009

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Man types on a typewriter 'Stitches' book cover Cover of 'Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir' by Diana Athill 'Cheerful Money' book cover Cover of 'Camus, a Romance' Cover of 'The Slippery Year'

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Here's a pleasant surprise: None of my favorite memoirs this year involve coping with fallout from addiction, incest or widowhood. One does feature recovery from a grim childhood that included cancer, and another faces mortality dead-on. But there's also a trenchant family history, a chronicle of a lifelong literary infatuation, and a humorous look at middle-aged malaise. What they have in common is sharp, fresh writing that brings the reader headfirst into their world, with the heart following not far behind.


Stitches

Stitches, by David Small, hardcover, 331 pages, Norton, list price: $24.95

Caldecott-winning children's book author David Small's stunning graphic memoir is about losing — and finding — his voice during a harrowing childhood in a silent, angry household. Small was a sickly child, and his radiologist father subjected him to repeated X-rays, believing it would cure his sinus problems. (See Small's illustration of those hospital visits.) When a lump materialized on his neck, his mother complained about the expense and put off surgery for three years. Small emerged from multiple operations at 14 unable to speak and unaware that he'd had cancer. He's saved by a wonderful psychiatrist, who helps him realize that drawings are his language and his voice. Melding ink-washed drawings and incisive captions, Small captures a menacing, child's-eye view of Detroit smokestacks, hospital corridors and scowling, bespectacled adults. His book will leave you speechless.


Somewhere Towards The End

Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill, hardcover, 183 pages, Norton, list price: $24.95

There is something tremendously heartening about a no-nonsense nonagenarian who writes with clarity, wit and unblinking frankness about getting old and facing death. Longtime British editor of V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, Diana Athill chronicled her literary career in an earlier, equally vivacious memoir, Stet (2000). As she notes, there are many books about personal growth, but few about what she calls "falling away." An Oxford graduate who never married, Athill is as frank about the waning of sexual desire, once so central to her existence, as she is about her numerous affairs, often with married men. With neither religion, children, nor lavish funds to support her, the prospect of potential infirmity is sobering, but Athill concentrates — inspiringly — on "how to get oneself through the present" using "escapes and compensations" such as sewing classes, gardening, reading and writing. (Learn why old people shouldn't buy puppies — and other lessons of aging — in an excerpt from Somewhere Towards the End.)


Cheerful Money

Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, by Tad Friend, hardcover, 349 pages, Little, Brown. List price: $24.99

In a milieu that values decorum and reticence, revealing private family matters requires gumption — or, in WASP-speak, "sand." Tad Friend shows the necessary grit in this suave, sharp-witted expose of his native culture. Using cash as a "behavioral-management tool" — including a 25-cent reward, so-called Cheerful Money, for sunny behavior — is just one WASP peccadillo that Friend nails. His forebears made fortunes in steel, coal and banking, but since the Depression, conservation and preservation have become family mainstays, trying to "caulk the seams" of their leaky financial vessel. Friend, a staff writer for The New Yorker, writes about emotionally constipated ancestors (read about their disagreement over the pronunciation of the word "tomato"), the waning of WASP power, years of psychoanalysis, and the painful erosion of beloved family holdings with minimal whining and considerable style and soul.


Camus, A Romance

Camus, a Romance, by Elizabeth Hawes, hardcover, 313 pages, Grove. List price: $25

Elizabeth Hawes has channeled her lifelong ardor for Albert Camus into a rich, unusual hybrid of a book that is part biography, part personal memoir. While writing her college thesis in the late 1950s, Hawes developed a crush on the Humphrey Bogart-handsome French-Algerian author so irresistibly endowed with what Susan Sontag called "moral beauty." (Hawes describes her introduction to Camus as the "bonding of two souls.") She was attracted, in part, by "his basic message — that in a world that was absurd, the only course was awareness and action." His fatal car accident in 1960, at age 46, did little to dampen her enthusiasm. Decades later, she determined to understand her passion for the man behind such books as The Stranger and The Plague. Hawes' admitted bias and reflections on the biographical process add intriguing dimensions to this intellectually stimulating literary portrait.


The Slippery Year

The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After, by Melanie Gideon, hardcover, 209 pages, Knopf. List price: $24.95

In 12 humorous, self-deprecating essays that cover a year of personal challenges, Melanie Gideon explores a nagging dissatisfaction with her life, a lack of wholehearted appreciation she finds all the more distressing because she recognizes how fortunate she is. At 44, with a 9-year-old son and a marriage plagued by little more than snoring, the Oakland, Calif.-based author of young adult fantasy novels feels the tug of mortality and wonders why she's lost her sense of adventure (i.e., when her husband went online and bought a used camper van, she was not amused.) Her subjects range from a hilarious account of her attempt to tame her unruly half-Indian, half-Armenian hair with Japanese thermal straightening, to unguarded, sincere confessions of loneliness slipped in among her quips and jabs. Although some may dismiss Gideon's woes as luxury complaints, it's hard not to appreciate this sparkling new elixir for ennui.

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