I have never seen the show Girls, which Lena Dunham writes, directs, and stars in. But based on her memoir (of the whole 28 years of her existence), I now want to. She doesn’t strike me as an obvious friend (she’s a city girl, through and through; more neurotic than Woody Allen; and fully aware of her Millennial brand of narcissism). But she writes about herself and her life with disarming frankness and humor, and now I certainly know more about her than I do many of my real friends. The facts of her life are mildly interesting, but she turns them into wildly entertaining cocktail-party anecdotes and the rambling confessions of a late night drunk-dial. Despite the loose structure of the book, her mission in life shines through clearly: she wants to create. I’ve heard many criticisms of her generation, not the least of which is that they were crippled by their parents constantly telling them they could be anything they wanted. Apologies to the hordes of baristas and freelance designers, but Lena Dunham seems to be making it work.
Read if you enjoyed: One More Thing by B.J. Novak, Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown
No one knew Andre the Giant. Everyone knew who he was, once he gained fame as a professional wrestler, once The Princess Bride was released, and once Shepard Fairey plastered his face on a million buildings. But Box Brown’s new graphic novel biography highlights how little people knew of Andre Roussimoff in real life. He had colleagues in the wrestling world, he was friends with actors and celebrities, he had girlfriends, he even had a daughter. But he remains a mystery. Readers looking for an answer to that mystery will be disappointed by this biography. It’s entertaining, well-written, and masterfully illustrated, but the story of Andre’s life is told from the outside looking in, with no special insight into his point of view.
It’s worth reading, and I certainly learned more about Andre’s life than I knew before. But if anything, Brown’s book heightens the mystery surrounding the man. Fair warning: this book will whet your appetite for the full story, without providing satisfaction. Reading it is a bittersweet experience.
Read if you enjoyed: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The name Sylvia Beach, perhaps better known in Oregon for the hotel named in her honor on the coast, was once synonymous with English-language literature in Europe. Beach opened her bookshop in Paris in 1919, as the world recovered from World War I, and ran it through the Second World War. Her clients and friends included Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and of course James Joyce, whose Ulysses she published when no other English-language publisher would take the risk. Joyce emerges as something of a diva here, but in Beach he found his staunchest supporter. Hemingway’s reputation as a man’s man seems to have been earned. This book is not superbly written–Beach was a friend of writers, but not really one herself. But the history it relates is refreshingly personal as well as legendary in its literary scope. Required reading for all fans of the Lost Generation.
Read if you enjoyed: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer.
The only thing more annoying than a cliché is a cliché turned into a corny pun. But Julia Sweeney manages to justify her title, which perfectly encapsulates this comic memoir. Sweeney, an alumna of Saturday Night Live and contributor to This American Life, used a one-month break from her husband and daughter to reflect on life, romance, career, home, and most of all, motherhood. She has never shied away from weighty topics, covering in earlier pieces cancer, god, and divorce. But she approaches it all with a stout matter-of-factness and a cheerful resignation that I find refreshing. (The “Birds and the Bees” chapter was particularly entertaining.) It’s no great work of literature, but will provide a few fun hours for mothers, atheists, pet owners, and minivan drivers.
Read if you enjoyed: Bossypants by Tina Fey, Naked by David Sedaris.
Tudor vs. Stuart: Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, two icons of British history. Jane Dunn dives into their parallel stories, contrasting their upbringing, style of rule, and ultimate fate. Despite the fact that the two women were related, that they were both reigning monarchs of neighboring countries, and that one held the other in prison for nearly twenty years, they never once met face-to-face. This palpable absence created a tension between them that affected their lives and their policies. Dunn draws on scores of letters between Elizabeth and Mary as well as contemporary historical sources, and crafts a work of nonfiction that reads like an epic saga.
Read if you enjoyed: Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir, Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
The story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière’s imprisonment and multiple escape attempts would have made for an implausible novel—as a memoir, it is riveting. In the 1930s, Charrière was convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor in the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The book recounts his life in detail—the voyage to the colony, his friends and enemies, his escape attempts, adventures during his brief stints of freedom, solitary confinement, and the inhumane grind of daily life in a French prison. It’s no spoiler to say that he survived, but the lengths he went to in order to create a normal life are astounding, and made me hold my breath in anticipation.
Read if you enjoyed: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
West with the Night is the memoir of a truly unique life. Beryl Markham was born in England but raised from infancy in Kenya, where she became a pioneering racehorse trainer and pilot. The book, a record of her youth and early adulthood, was first published in 1942, and Ernest Hemingway said of it in a letter to another friend, “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade b—-, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” There are some questions about the veracity of her memoir, but frankly, who cares? It’s one of the most beautiful books you will ever read.
Read if you enjoyed: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen; Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry