Let’s Take A Breather: Memoirs Worth Reading

As I mentioned at the tail end of my previous post, I took a break from the Harry Potter series to read Moshe Kasher’s Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. Scott and I had just watched a (downright hilarious) special of his standup on Netflix, and I remembered his appearances on Stop Podcasting Yourself fondly, so I went ahead and borrowed an e-copy from NYPL. (By the way, if you live in New York and don’t utilize the library system, you’re really missing out. I haven’t read this much since college. I might actually read more than I did in college.)

ANYWAY, Kasher’s story is wrenching, downright difficult to read at times. But it’s also beautiful, and it’s funny, and it’s emotionally satisfying. (A word of warning: the MPAA would give this book an R, or maybe an NC-17, so make sure you’re prepared for that if you are thinking about reading it.) On an individual basis, it’s good when a memoir fulfills any of those criterion. To do it all, though, that’s rare. Maybe a successful memoir doesn’t need humor, but for me, a memoir needs to be funny to really hold my attention. Sick of the word “memoir” yet? Too bad! Here’s a list of the memoirs I think everyone should read!

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield. Let’s just get my favorite out of the way, alright? Each chapter of Sheffield’s memoir begins with a mix tape’s track listing and the month and year during which that mix tape got the most play. Through the individual chapters, Sheffield paints a picture of his relationship with the first love of his life, an extraordinary woman named Renée who tragically died of a pulmonary embolism in 1997. The descriptions of their romance, his heartbreak, and how Sheffield rebuilds his life are truly a thing of beauty. No matter how many good nonfiction books I read, this remains the one I love the most.

The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture by Nathan Rabin. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed Rabin’s pop culture writing. He’s delightfully wordy and quirky and insightful, and I’m looking forward to reading his most recent book as soon as I’m able. I don’t know how it’ll beat this one, though. The Big Rewind tells the story of a kid who simply loves what American pop culture has to offer and eagerly consumes it wherever he can get it, no matter how dire his circumstances or what sort of near-misses he’s experienced (his foray into televised film criticism is particularly heartbreaking and, yes, painfully funny). It’s even more addictive than the essay collection My Year of Flops or his contributions to the A.V. Club and The Dissolve, and if you love movies, endearing neuroses, or amateur softball, you’ll love this. (In a lot of ways, Kasher’s memoir reminded me of Rabin’s. Both are well worth your time.)

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. I suppose Traveling Mercies is more of an essay collection than a memoir, but there’s a distinct through line and chronological order so I’m going to classify it as a memoir anyway. Besides, I love it too much to not put it on this list. Lamott is a truly remarkable woman, a brilliant writer with a bit of a checkered past and a lot of very strong opinions. Even when you don’t agree with her, the slice-of-life pieces in this book are lovely, with painstaking detail and great variety. I can’t say what this book is about other than life, frustrating, complicated, beautiful life, and that’s more than enough for me.

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman. I have a type. This also can’t strictly be classified as a memoir. It’s really the story of a road trip, but there’s so much going on with Klosterman, so much inner monologuing and glimpses of his past that it’s as much a memoir as I think he’ll ever produce. As he travels around the sites of various rock stars’ deaths, Klosterman revisits his past relationships, meeting up with the women he’s loved and wondering where he’s gone wrong here, there, and everywhere, if that is what he’s done. It’s equal parts humorous and devastating, and I’m always up for a re-read.

Bossypants by Tina Fey. What, you think humor can’t be beautiful or emotionally satisfying? (Of course you don’t think that. But let’s suppose you did.) Fey will prove you wrong, page after page. I had trouble finishing this book because I simply didn’t want it to end. Having read it, I admire Fey even more than I did before. She’s intelligent and articulate and she makes jokes about all the right things. She’s irreverent but not offensive, confident but not egotistical; she’s a national treasure, and I’ll never stop wanting to be more like her, if only a little.

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