Memoirs, autobiographies and biographies are all book genres that focus on someone. A person’s life, put on display. The difference lies in the way this person’s story is told. Although both memoirs and autobiographies are first person accounts, a memoir takes selected memories and musings and weaves them into a cohesive narrative. This can be a tiny snapshot of someone’s life, or it can take a wider view, perhaps the same type of experiences throughout the person’s life, often as a way to link common threads. An autobiography is also told in first person, but the material is much more comprehensive, encompassing that person’s entire life. A biography is similar, but it is written by someone else, requiring a good deal of research and interviews.
As I mentioned in a previous BWR post, memoirs are one of my favorite types of books. I am a fan of pop culture (and a child of the 80s – yes, dating myself here) and love to read about some of the icons of my youth and teen years. Some of my favorites have been books by brat-packers Rob Lowe (Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life) and Andrew McCarthy (Brat: An ‘80s Story) and former Brady Bunch kids Barry Williams (Growing Up Brady) and Maureen McCormick (Here’s the Story). This year I have had the chance to read three memoirs of note. Two also written by actors – The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman and Have I Told You This Already by Lauren Graham – and one by Montana rancher and writer Holding Fire: A Reckoning with the American West.
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is presented in an interesting format. Written post humorously from interviews between Newman and his close friend screenwriter Stewart Stern, it provides a firsthand glimpse of Newman’s life experiences and how they affected and influenced those around him. A well-known and revered Hollywood icon, Newman exuded confidence and a raw sexuality due to his rugged good looks and piercing blue eyes. But even after he became famous and very successful, he was often unsure of himself and just couldn’t seem to shake his feelings of self-doubt and realize his talent. These types of humble and candid revelations are what make memoirs so interesting.
Actress Lauren Graham is no stranger to writing. Have I Told You This Already is her second book of personal essays, comprised of fifteen insightful chapters relaying impactful moments and life lessons that have helped shaped who she is today. She also wrote a debut book of fiction (Someday, Someday, Maybe), another book of personal essays (Talking as Fast as I Can) and an advice book for graduates (In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It). Graham’s writing is fresh, sharp and very funny, with fast, staccato-laced sentences that evoke what it must be like to be at the other end of a conversation with her. Inviting the reader into her world, she conveys an openness that makes you want to be her best friend. Memoirs are revealing by nature, and this one is, but its humorous, down-to-earth tone provides a refreshing counterbalance.
Holding Fire: A Reckoning with the American West is the only book here not written by an actor or person of real fame for that matter. But that doesn’t make Bryce Andrews’ vibrant, candid account of his experiences working as a cowboy in Montana any less significant. Although labeled and marketed as a memoir, Holding Fire also has many elements of regional non-fiction, natural history, and even diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) scattered throughout. As a result, it is structured in a fresh and unpredictable way, with each chapter opening a new window into Andrews’ thoughts, feelings and prior experiences. Framed around the inheritance of his grandfather’s gun – a Smith and Wesson revolver – each of these reflections has a theme that helped him comprehend the fragility of life and inevitability of death. Over time it led him toward the realization of the pattern of destruction caused by violence. So he takes the gun and forges it into a useful gardening tool, learning blacksmithing in the process. Mastering this new skill and transforming the gun helps him find purpose, meaning and a new outlook, providing insight about the past, present and future of not only Andrews’ own life, but the existence of all living things.
Some memoirs available here at Rutgers:
- Beatrice’s Ledger: Coming of Age in the Jim Crow South by Ruth R. Martin and Vivian B, Martin – A vivid and moving story about family, courage, and the power of education.
- Child: A Memoir by Judy Goldman – A personal meditation on love in the shadow of white privilege and racism.
- Cross Bronx: A Writing Life by Peter Quinn – chronicles Quinn’s odyssey from the Irish Catholic precincts of the Bronx to the arena of big-league politics and corporate hardball.
- In sight : my life in science and biotech by Julia Levy – a memoir about how a love of science and discovery drove Julia Levy, a celebrated scholar and biotech CEO, to work her way through gender bias in order to achieve academic and professional recognition.
- My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future by Indra Nooyi – a firsthand view of Nooyi’s legendary career as CEO of PepsiCo and the sacrifices it so often demanded.
- Shades of Springsteen : Politics, Love, Sports, and Masculinity by John Massaro – Massaro reflects on his experiences as a lifelong fan of The Boss and one of the first professors to design a college course on Springsteen’s work.