Tag Archives: memoirs

Queer Memoirs

I love reading memoirs because unlike fiction, you know as the reader this is the writer’s version of the events that happened in their lives.  It is the edited version of course, which makes it that much more intriguing. The authors have to ask themselves what they want to share and who they want to name and what details should remain quiet. The magic of queer memoirs is that these create narratives that give voice to LGBTTQ+ experiences.  Definitely not a new genre and there are so many authors to check out!  Audre Lorde, Alison Bechdel, Leslie Fienberg and Jeanette Winterson  have written autobiographies, and they are all available at Winnipeg Public Library!  Read on for some suggestions of recent memoirs that have caught my eye.

 

Dirty River by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

This book is a quick, engaging read that contains some heavy content. It is a relatable coming of age story about Toronto-based activist/writer/artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha that details being broke, queer, and living with a disability in the 90’s, interspersed with the writers fraught relationship with her parents.

 

How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

Speaking of coming of age stories, “How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea” is a memoir that focuses on becoming an adult. This title reads as a series of essays with advice for the reader. What I appreciated most about this book is the author’s honesty about how her path to “adulthood” has been a rather slow and twisty one, which I’m sure many of us can relate to.

 

A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby with Mary Louisa Plummer

This book (technically an autobiography) details the amazing and very difficult events in the life of Ma-Nee Chacaby, an Ojibwa-Cree lesbian.  Chacaby discusses how she was taught traditional knowledge by her grandmother, learning to survive through trapping and hunting.  She also details her experiences with abuse, racism, addiction and poverty. Chacaby overcame these barriers, helping many people throughout her life including her own children and foster children. While not technically a memoir I had to put this item on the list as it is an incredibly inspiring book that has many gifts to offer potential readers.

 

My Body is Yours by Michael V. Smith

The first sentence of this book sets the tone – “I spent the first thirty years of my life trying to disappear”. Michael Smith grew up in a small town and did not fit into the strict understanding of gender and sexuality. His honesty in this memoir is striking, examining his life as a young queer person growing up in a working class town and not holding back all of the gritty details.

 

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir by Kate Bornstein

This is “the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.” Kate Bornstein has a writing style that will bring the reader in and keep engaged from the first page. Bornstein explores her gender transition journey and doesn’t shy away from a lot of facts about her life.  An honest and brave book recommended for anyone looking for a little inspiration.

 

Check out the LGBTTQ+ Info Guide for more books suggestions, new books, local resources and more.

Kim

Have a Laugh!

You know, it’s okay if you just want to laugh out loud, sometimes, when you sit down to read, right? Sure, you may feel compelled to read the latest “important” book by Malcolm Gladwell, or the latest gut-wrenching tale from Joseph Boyden, or maybe your book club is all about this year’s version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” or “Gone Girl,” or “The Girl from the Train”. And speaking of that, what’s up with all these disturbing thrillers with “Girl” in the title? When I write my great Canadian thriller, it’s going to be called “The Girl in the Library.” Look for it!

Anyway, yeah – I enjoy those kinds of books too, but sometimes you want a good laugh, and if you’re in one of those moods, then why not try one of the following?

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

why not me

For those who don’t know who she is, Mindy Kaling got her start as a writer and minor cast member on the American version of The Office. She has gone on to write and star in her own series, the hilarious “Mindy Project” and is active on Twitter and other social media platforms. This is actually her second memoir so, if you want to start at the beginning, I highly recommend Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? which covers her childhood, her time working the Fringe Festival circuit, and getting her big break in television. The second memoir carries on where she left off in the first and talks about the struggles she’s had keeping her show on the air, all the work that goes into making something great, as well as the ups and downs of being a minor celebrity. As she says: she’s well enough known that she can have lunch with Reese Witherspoon, but not well enough known to have people go through her garbage. Ms. Kaling is a wonderful writer and has excellent comedic sensibilities. I strongly recommend both of her books and look forward to what she has planned next.

Food, A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan

Food a Love Story

Jim Gaffigan is one of those guys who pops up in supporting roles on TV and in movies, and you’d recognize his face but maybe not remember his name. I first saw him a few years ago doing stand up on Dave Letterman and took an instant shine to him. His latest book, Food, A Love Story is really just an expansion of his recent comedy tour, transcribed to print, about the weird food traditions he’s experienced all over America and around the world. It’s funny, but it would probably be even funnier to see him perform the material in person. His first book is much better. It is called Dad is Fat, and it is about becoming a father. Not just a father, actually, but a father to five children who all live (with Mr. Gaffigan and his long-suffering wife) in a two bedroom apartment in New York City. It’s a great mixture of humorous parenting stories.

I Must Say: The Life of a Humble Comedian by Martin Short

i must say

Andrea Martin’s Lady Parts

lady parts

I’ll finish off with these two books together. By the Martins. Anyone of a certain age (let’s say over 30), who had access to TV, and who grew up in Canada will remember the wacky wonderfulness of Second City Television (SCTV). For all you too young to remember, it was a sketch comedy show based around a fictional TV network. The humour was often absurd, but distinctly Canadian, and I must have seen every episode multiple times. In addition to Andrea Martin and Martin Short, the show launched the careers of John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, and Harold Ramis.

It was fun to read these memoirs within a few weeks of each other, to hear different stories about the same time period, and different perspectives of the same events. While I read and enjoyed Andrea Martin’s memoir very much, I may have enjoyed Martin Short’s even more. This was probably because I borrowed the audiobook from the library and listened to it on a road trip. Martin Short reads it himself, and is able to slip into various characters and voices as he tells the stories, which really enhanced my enjoyment.

The old gang.

The old gang.

  • Trevor

Where Science Meets Poetry: Remembering Oliver Sacks

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” – Dr. Oliver Sacks

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Dr. Oliver Sacks died of cancer on August 30. He was 82.

Dr. Sacks was a neurologist and writer whose most famous book, Awakenings, was turned into a feature film in 1990 by Penny Marshall, starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. It was a fictionalized version of the events described as case studies in Dr. Sacks’ 1973 book of the same name. In 1969 Doctor Sacks made a breakthrough in treating a group of encephalitis patients in New York who had been in catatonic states for many decades. Using L-Dopa, a drug that was designed to treat Parkinson’s disease, he was able to “wake up” many of the patients for a short time over a few weeks in 1969. Although the experiment was ultimately unsuccessful, Dr. Sacks showed a remarkable amount of empathy and respect in writing up these case studies and treating his patients as people first, rather than as merely test subjects. Even though the movie takes liberties with history, Oliver Sacks spent time on the set to ensure that the clinical elements of his experience were portrayed accurately.

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of "Awakenings"

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of “Awakenings”

In his books and case studies, Dr. Sacks walked a fine line between scientist and philosopher, and often resembled a 19th century “adventurer” who was on the frontiers of brain research, treating the mysteries of the human mind with the same sense of discovery and wonder as the world’s great geographic explorers did.

His work was not without controversy, though. Many researchers felt that his work wasn’t clinical enough, and that he emphasized the subjective approach over the scientific method. Some former patients felt that their stories were exploited for his own benefit. And yet others believed that his approach to understanding and explaining the complex qualities of the human mind could only fully be expressed by taking the human qualities of the patient into account.

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Even though neurology was his speciality, Dr. Sacks’ innate curiosity about the world and his ability to make complex concepts understandable also made him popular with general interest readers. I came to know of him first through the Awakenings movie; after that I tried to read everything he put out, starting with The man who mistook his wife for a hat, a book of case studies including the title story about a man with severe perception issues who cannot seem to process what he sees in front of him, whether it is the flower in the doctor’s lapel, or even the difference between his wife’s head and a coat-tree with a hat on it. Sacks sees that the man’s life is not really impaired by this problem, as he has compensated in other ways, including the ability to sing songs to remind him of what’s around him. Sacks does not even venture a diagnosis, although he suspects it may be a tumour or the deterioration of the visual cortex. He ends up prescribing more music for the man to listen to, to strengthen his own inner music which seems to be the engine that keeps him going. The patient goes on to live a full and happy life. We don’t learn much about the wife’s head, though.

Uncle_Tungsten_(Oliver_Sacks_book)[1]

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Sacks’ life, I’d start with Uncle Tungsten in which he talks about his childhood growing up in a Jewish household in England, his early fascination with chemistry and how he developed his natural curiosity about the world.

 

80050[1]A Leg to Stand On is part micro-memoir about his recovery from a surgery after a bad fall hiking in a remote area of Norway, and part case-study as he examines his own reactions, both physical and psychological, to this injury.

51fWhqBeboL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1] His most recent memoir, published earlier this year, is On the Move, which picks up where Uncle Tungsten left off and describes the bulk of his life, his struggles with his own sexuality as a gay man coming of age in 1950s England, and trying to keep the balance between telling his patients’ stories at the risk of seeming to exploit their conditions for his own benefit and research.

The library has several of his books, and I encourage you to seek them out and find the ones that interest you, whether it is how music affects the brain in Musicophilia, or a bit of travel writing in Oaxaca Journal where he tracks down some elusive ferns (I’m not joking).

Toward the end of his life, Dr. Sacks didn’t shy away from his own aging and mortality. I’ll link to three pieces, all published in the New York Times. He wrote the first one in 2013 to mark his 80th birthday, the second was published this past February, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the third piece appeared just a few weeks ago and concludes with this eloquent reflection on his life’s work:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

sacks_scourfield[1]

Trevor

Come on and Slam

One of the most interesting non-fiction titles I have come across recently is the book I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales of a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams.

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed

As you can probably tell from the title, Kyria Abrahams grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. She was taught to believe that her and everyone she knew was in danger of dying in an apocalypse at any time so she grew up thinking that nothing really mattered. Abrahams attended a public school and found it difficult as she was not allowed to participate in holiday celebrations with her classmates. Smurfs were forbidden so she would get merchandise of knock-off characters called the Snorks and convince herself that they were a lot cooler. There is a lot of humour in this memoir with an undercurrent of deep emotional pain. Abrahams found it difficult to adhere to such strict rules and ended up in an unhappy marriage to escape her grey, oppressive home life. She suffered with OCD, turned to self-harm and alcoholism, eventually leading to her suicide attempt. She finally decided that she would have an affair to get purposefully “disfellowshipped” from the Jehovah’s Witness community. Even after she left the community she found it difficult to find her place in the world as she had not been given simple skills to operate in a world outside of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She explains that for most of her life, she was led to believe that “leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be like leaving the haunted cabin in the woods to ‘go check on that strange noise.’ Never again would a disfellowshipped person find caring friends or experience true love, as these things did not exist in Satan’s world.”

Abrahams , however, did manage to form relationships outside of her community. She became friends with a group of slam poets who did indeed offer her friendship, acceptance, and love as well as a place to stay and money to help her on her feet. Today she is a comedian and has performed sketch comedy and slam poetry. She ended up competing in the finals of a national slam poetry competition. She spent time at poetry readings in bookstore basements where “hippies sat cross-legged on milk crates and teenage goths gave each other backrubs.” She’d never interacted much with people so different from the people she grew up with and found that she wanted to belong. I would be interested to find out more about her process of creating a new life for herself, as this part of her life is only touched on in the last few chapters of the book.

Reading this book, you might find yourself interested in getting involved in the world of slam poetry. Here are a few titles the library carries that can help explain what it’s all about and how you can get started:

Stage A Poetry Slam: Creating Performance Poetry Events: Inside tips, Backstage Advice, and Lots of Examples by Mark Kelly Smith. Mark Kelly Smith is known as “the father of slam poetry itself.”

Take the Mic: The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam, and the Spoken Word, another title by Mark Kelly Smith.

Poetry Slam : The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry ed. By Gary Mex Glazner. This book has tips and examples of slam poetry as well as a history of slam poetry.

The Spoken Word Revolution (slam, hip hop & the poetry of a new generation) ed. by Mark Eleveld. This title actually comes with a CD so you can listen to examples of well-known slam poets.

Winnipeg has its own slam poetry community—you can find information about that on their website: http://winnipegpoetryslam.wordpress.com/.

Madeleine

You’ve Got Time

On July 11, Netflix launched its newest original drama, “Orange is the New Black”, following quickly upon the heels of its Emmy nominated “House of Cards” and Season 4 of “Arrested Development”. Even though “Orange is the New Black” is only airing through the Netflix subscription service, it is quickly becoming this summer’s breakout hit, scoring points with viewers and critics alike. You can check out the opening credits, featuring the song written especially for the show, “You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor here.

orange-is-the-new-black[1]

The 13 episode first season follows the journey of Piper, an upper middle-class woman who is convicted of transporting drug money across international borders and faces 15 months in a federal women’s prison. The series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name. In real life Ms. Kerman served 13 months out of a 15 month sentence for money laundering and drug trafficking in 2004. Netflix had so much confidence in this show that they already greenlit a second season before the first one was posted. My wife and I watched all 13 episodes over a week, and quickly got all wrapped up in all the characters, main and supporting, and their various storylines.

If you’ve read the memoir or seen the show and are looking for additional “prison themed” material, why not check out some of these?

A Prison Diary” by Jeffrey Archer.

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British novelist and politician Jeffrey Archer went to jail in August 2001 after being convicted of perjury during an earlier 1987 libel trail. He wrote about his time in prison and these journal entries were eventually published as three books, subtitled “Hell-Belmarsh”, “Purgatory-Wayland” and “Heaven-North Sea Camp” each one based on a different prison. He was released two years later, serving half of his original four-year sentence.

“Running the books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian”

by Avi Steinberg

9780385529099[1]

Mr. Steinberg wrote a wonderfully insightful and hilarious account of his experiences as a prison librarian in Boston. He was a recent graduate from Harvard and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next and actually just answered an ad on Craigslist for the job. When I read this book last year, his style felt like one part Hunter S. Thompson and one part David Sedaris, and I really enjoyed it. His lack of librarianship and lack of knowledge of prison protocol gets him into all kinds of dicey situations, but you also get to know many of the people he encounters through the prison library and get a unique perspective of prison life filtered through the prison library.

“The 16th  Round: from #1 contender to #45472”

by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

The-16th-Round-Carter-Rubin-9780140149296[1]

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a professional middleweight boxer from 1961 to 1966, but his career was cut short when he was arrested and convicted of a triple homicide in Paterson New Jersey. He spent nearly 2 decades in prison. Half of that time was spent in solitary due to his disobedience of prison rules to demonstrate his innocence. A group of Canadians who believed in his innocence worked tirelessly for years on his appeal, and the result was his release in 1985. “Hurricane” Carter’s story was retold in pop culture in Bob Dylan’s song, “Hurricane” and Norman Jewison’s 1999 film, “Hurricane”, starring Denzel Washington.

“The Enormous Room” by e.e. cummings

Cummings.EnormousRoom.1962.big[1]

e.e. cummings may be best remembered for his distaste of capital letters and his unconventional use of grammar and word placement. He also wrote a memoir of the four months he spent as a prisoner during WWI in France. He was arrested by the French for having anti-war sentiments. The room in the title refers to the large quarters which he shared with thirty of his fellow prisoners, but also refers to the concept of his own mind and imagination.

“Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

shawshank1[1]

I didn’t think I could make a list without including at least one fiction title on here. A lot of people don’t realize that the critically acclaimed movie starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins was originally a short novella found in Stephen King’s “Different Seasons” collection. The story follows Andy Dufresne, who is wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and is given a life sentence in Shawshank Penitentiary. A classic in the “innocent man sent to prison” genre, and one of the rare examples of the movie being just as good, if not better, than its source material. I love them both, and have been known to spontaneously break into my “Morgan Freeman” impression with quotations from this story. Fair warning.

-Trevor

Life on the Wild Side

“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”  ~ Anatole France

Recently there has been a rise in the number of animal memoirs.  Many of these books,  such as Marley & Me and Dewey:  the small-town library cat who touched the world, are about our domestic friends.  But I’d like to discuss some great tales about more exotic animals who have befriended humans.

Born Free

Born Free

Let’s start in Africa where some very famous animal-human relationships have been forged.   Born Free is Joy Adamson’s memoir about her friendship with the African lioness Elsa.  Joy and her husband George raised Elsa from a cub and released her back to the wild.  Born Free was followed by Living Free and Forever Free, which continue with the story of Elsa and her cubs.  So popular was  Elsa that there was also a movie (the theme song of which was a hit too) as well as a television series.

Another interesting lion story is A Lion Called Christian by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall.  Christian was bought from Harrods department store in England and lived in London with his humans for a year before being reintroduced back to the wild in Africa by none-other than George Adamson.   The official website is here, and includes the famous video footage of Christian’s reunion in the wild with his previous caretakers.

A Lion Called Christian

A Lion Called Christian

Lions aren’t the only African species to have connected with humans.  The  popular book and movie Gorillas in the Mist tells the story of Dian Fossey and her time spent with gorillas.  Dian was actually one of 3 women who dedicated their lives to studying the great apes.  Birute Galdikas has written several books detailing her study of orangutans in Borneo, one of which is Orangutan Odyssey,  and of course there is Jane Goodall and her lifetime dedicated to chimpanzees, celebrated in the book 50 Years at Gombe.

Birute Galdikas

Birute Galdikas

In North America there are many cases of humans rescuing and living with wild animals.  Two of my all-time favourite books are Rascal by Sterling North, which tells the story of the author’s year spent raising a baby raccoon, and Paddy: a naturalist’s story of an orphan beaver by D.H. Lawrence (which will forever change the way you think of these industrious animals!).indexCAG8WJ33

If you’re a bear-lover like me you might enjoy the goings-on at Bear With Us Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre for Bears  in Ontario.  Every year this wonderful facility rescues and rehabilitates orphaned or injured bears before releasing them back to the wild.

Bear With Us Sanctuary

Bear With Us Sanctuary

If you’re more interested in canines, you might like the film A Man Among Wolves about Englishman Shaun Ellis, who spent time living with a pack of wolves in the United States.   Or how about The Daily Coyote, about Charlie the coyote.  Charlie’s blog has a huge following of over 1 million fans and he also has a website here.

The Daily Coyote, Charlie.

The Daily Coyote, Charlie.

The above suggestions are only a smidgen of the many animal-memoir books and movies available in the Winnipeg Public Library.  For the complete catalogue list please click here………and happy reading to you!

When Judy isn’t at work as a Customer Service Assistant with the Winnipeg Public Library, she spends time with her 9 animal companions.