I love memoirs. I’m one of the many readers who disagreed with this scathing commentary on memoirs and memoirists in The New York Times, as I believe that everyone has a story worth telling. While I love fiction with an equal passion, there is something compelling about a story that actually took place, and there is something very powerful about a writer’s voice that is birthed as a result of experience, processing, and honest reflection. It is through memoir that we can become more compassionate and understanding as well as feel validated and connected. Below are three memoirs I’ve read so far this year of three very different lives:
The World’s Strongest Librarian is Josh Hanagarne, a (6’7″) Mormon, librarian, weight lifter, book lover, husband and father who has struggled his whole life with severe Tourette’s Syndrome. I list these descriptions because they are all discussed in his book, and they are all interconnected in his efforts to get his Tourette’s under control. He writes first and foremost about life with Tourette’s Syndrome, and how the inability to control or predict his extreme twitches (at their peak Josh is literally punching himself) has impacted everything from his ability to finish college to his fears of burdening the woman he loves to his anxieties of passing his genes on to his son. He writes also about faith, which he has struggled with over the years, and weightlifting, which he finally discovered as a way to gain control over a body he had previously very little control over. And the big bonus is that he also loves books, and he relays some very entertaining tales of the crazy patrons he sees and deals with in his work in the library!
I loved Josh’s voice, which I found to be witty, intelligent, honest and humble. On some very odd level I often forgot I was reading about someone who was going through so much, because he showed so little anger or bitterness. I’ve battled, privately and with shame, a much milder case of tics, and his story is all my fears lived through another person; I don’t know how I could have coped if I had a full fledged case of Tourette’s. But Josh is a humble, persevering and positive man, and a loving family and community member. Reading his story you know that he is just a regular guy – someone you would want to be friends with. Yet if you sat down in a restaurant and saw an enormous man violently jerking, it may not be so easy to view him in the same way.
My interest waxed and waned slightly in some parts as he sometimes went at length in some details, but overall I am glad I got to know this new writer and to hear his inspirational story.
Swinging to the other extreme, I also picked up The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess by Turney Duff, a former hedge fund trader-turned-writer. Duff’s memoir, which I couldn’t put down, is an (excuse the forthcoming cliche) unflinchingly honest account of his rise and fall on Wall Street. Yes, that description is cliched because we’ve heard or heard of this story before: the young and blinded plunge into excess and the inevitable repentance. In that sense this story is neither original nor surprising. Duff starts out at Morgan Stanley as an assistant through a family connection and after failing to get a job as a journalist. “Out degreed” as he describes himself as a graduate of Ohio University among all the pedigreed MBA traders, he was soon able to distinguish himself socially after hours, which led to critical relationships and dealings that would eventually help him rise as a trader. The more successful and well paid he became, the deeper he sank into a cesspool of cocaine, alcohol and sex. Duff is a great story teller and you feel the pain of the drowning and re-drowning, even as his live-in girlfriend and mother of his daughter threatens to leave him if he can’t stop.
I have read comments by people who say they have no intention to support this writer. As a member of the 99%, I am no Wall Street sympathizer by any means. However, I tend to not judge writers. Duff’s story is not original in its theme, but it is his story, he is honest, and I can understand the therapeutic need to purge oneself. I’m a firm believer that even if a million other people have gone through something similar, only you could have lived the experience that you have. Ultimately, I believe it is important for us to understand the darker sides of our society and, indeed, of our selves (even if we consider ourselves above the temptations of money and narcotics…I still find the psychology fascinating). The only thing I wanted to hear a bit more of in this memoir was a reflection on why he kept going back to the drugs as it appeared that his fellow colleagues were not addicted at the same severity. Was it, figuratively and literally, the high, and the exhilaration of the freedom? Was it a coping mechanism for the stress or a deeper disillusion? Maybe these questions point more to my lack of knowledge of drug addiction.
A Fort of Nine Towers is one of the most personally impactful books I have read in a while, and I’ve been wanting for months now to write about this book, because it doesn’t seem to have garnered the attention that I believe it deserves. Qais Akbar Omar writes about his and his family’s life in Afghanistan, from the Soviet occupation to the more recent Taliban takeover. It is a coming-of-age memoir and we see Omar from the time he is 8 or 9 through young adulthood.
His memoir reads like a novel (and is page-turning in most places), vivid and rich in details of all the senses. You learn so much about the political landscape of Afghanistan but first and foremost it’s the story of a boy growing up and the love and support of a family that sustain him through some of the most unspeakable experiences that a human being – let alone child – could ever go through. At one point I put the book down mid-sentence and cried. But the miracle is that despite the horrors, the story was simply beautiful to me. Omar told his story in such a way that you knew the resilience and love of family were more powerful than any evil…because of that, what I was left with after reading this amazing memoir were the beauty, light, and inspiration of Omar’s story and voice.