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Tag: memoir

READING THE TBR, DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) by Frances Mayes

Don’t get me wrong here. I am very happy for Frances Mayes that she spent the duration of her Money Pit-like renovation of her new holiday home in Italy’s gorgeous Tuscany region with her long-time husband, Ed. It is lovely that they experienced the vicissitudes of their enormous undertaking — from understanding cultural differences to dealing with ancient plumbing — together, and had each other to lean on when all the foreignness of their surroundings just got a little too unbearably foreign for these American part-time expats.

But in the 2003 film version of this tale, Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is newly divorced and depressed, which is what leads her to take on the Tuscan house project in the first place — and then leads her to a new love — and since that was the story I was expecting, and quite liked, I didn’t exactly know what to make of this (admittedly more realistic and, clearly, factual) version of events for much of the time I spent reading it.

Except to say, wow, the hubris of that film’s producers, to think it’s okay to entirely change the facts of a living person’s life like that! On the other hand, she probably doesn’t look like Diane Lane (because no one looks like Diane Lane), so despite the rather drastic, not to mention hurtful, alteration to her life, it must have been hard for Actual Frances to be mad about Character Frances and her lovelorn situation.

Actual Frances’s story is filled with a lot of wish fulfillment, and a lot of home renovation porn, and for the most part I enjoyed it, despite the weird presence of Ed. (Sorry, Ed, but it was just weird that you were there… in your life. Hollywood, huh?) The narrative did get bogged down in fish-out-of-water ignorance in some places, and detailed a few Italian feasts perhaps a tad too lovingly in others, but it is nevertheless an engaging snapshot of life in the kind of picturesque surroundings to which we all aspire but can probably never own a piece of, and that is most of its appeal.

The biggest shock of the book, for me? When Frances and Ed were still together at the end of the book. Moreover, a quick google proves that they are still together, nearly twenty-five years after this book was published. 

Like, damn. That movie really just had no shame, huh? IS ANYTHING ON FILM EVEN REAL?


TBR DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir, Non-Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers.
KEEP: Probably not, no.

READING THE TBR, DAY 289: The Wrong End of the Table (2019) by Ayser Salman

A sprightly and engaging story of hardships, embarrassments, friendships and dating, successful screenwriter Ayser Salman’s reminiscences of being an immigrant in America, an expat in Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi during two Gulf Wars and a Muslim post-9/11 kept me entranced all the way through. Her storytelling is effortless, her humour often subtle, and her life completely fascinating, while also being infinitely relateable. 

Loved this.


TBR DAY 289: The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 months.  
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 269: When You Are Engulfed by Flames (2008) by David Sedaris

A couple of years ago, champion raconteur David Sedaris put on an Evening with… himself at a prestige theatre in my home town. My friend Austen scored some free tickets, and knowing how bookish I am, he was kind enough to take me along.

I had read a couple of Sedaris books beforehand, but afterwards I rushed out to buy the other ones, because he was fantastic on stage, and reminded me just how much I enjoyed his slightly off-kilter observations on life, the universe and, well, himself.

This is another terrific collection of Sedaris’s thoughts, scattershot and unrelated, but impeccably told. Some of them defy belief, some you hope aren’t true — because unpleasant people abound — but all carry a grain of human truth that cannot be either denied or ignored. And they are, for the most part, funny as hell.

I could have done without the story about parasitic worms escaping from people’s legs that kicks us off, though. I will have nightmares for weeks.


TBR DAY 275: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
GENRE: Humour, Memoir
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 263: From Scratch (2019) by Tembi Locke

When I saw this book on the New Releases stand, I spent a whole lot of time staring at the cover, trying to remember why I knew the name Tembi Locke. I looked hard at her picture, trying to place her. I knew her, for sure. I just couldn’t remember from where.

Now, sure, I could have Googled it. I had my phone with me, after all. But it’s much more satisfying to remember stuff for yourself, if you can, isn’t it? There’s a dopamine rush of accomplishment. Google just feels like cheating, much of the time.

To me, anyway.

So, I puzzled over it for ages. I wandered around the bookshop for at least half an hour, letting my mind wander, hoping the information would drift to the surface if I stopped obsessing over it. I mean, forget Google, I could probably have just picked up the book and read the blurb. Surely that would have told me how I knew her! But no. I would not give in. My mind would give up its secrets, dammit! My memory has always been pretty good, and has mostly obeyed my whims — I refused to let it win.

Then… aha! Tembi Locke was Grace in Eureka, a sci-fi TV show I used to love! That’s who she was! And she had written a book? And one, not about acting, or even Eureka, but about… cooking, I guessed, given the title From Scratch?  

Obviously, I was intrigued. Obviously, I bought it.

I should have known it would make me cry.

Why? Because of course her husband died. OF COURSE HE DID.

And the memoir is really about his long illness as much as it is about how they met, and how his family disowned him for marrying an African American, and about how he was a genius chef, and also about their daughter, and food, and, as the title suggests, Sicily.

It’s a well-written story, and very sad, but there is hope there, too. Locke’s gentle prose is frank but also lyrical at times, and the alternating nature of the narrative, which flashes back to how she met the love of her life and then fast forwards decades later to his steady decline, takes the reader on a real roller coaster of emotion.

And I’m not gonna lie — for all its precipitous downs, I really enjoyed the ride.


TBR DAY 263: From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
GENRE: Memoir, Travel
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 months.  
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 254: Footnotes (2019) by Peter Fiennes

Informative and interesting — two things that do not always go hand in hand — this is the epitome of a quirky travel narrative, which I love, as well as a biography of several venerable English writers, which I also love.

The beginning section on Enid Blyton is a triumph, enthralling and satisfying to anyone who grew up with her works (and must now constantly examine their own attitudes as a result), while the fondness I developed for travel writers now long-dead, having travelled with them alongside the amusingly dry-witted Peter Fiennes, is an added bonus. And I have been meaning to read some Wilke Collins for years now — I certainly will do so now.


TBR DAY 271: Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 month. 
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 237: Book Love (2019) by Debbie Tung

I got this book for my birthday this year, and it could not be more perfect for me. (Thanks, Tara!) Cartoonist Debbie Tung perfectly illustrates exactly how it feels to be a total bibliophile, and for me it was just page after page of understanding and agreement as I nodded along, smiling in recognition as I found myself within its pages.

The perfect gift for your book-obsessed friend! 


TBR DAY 237: Book Love by Debbie Tung
GENRE: Comic Books, Memoir, Books
TIME ON THE TBR: 9 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift. Thanks again, Tara!
KEEP: Absolutely!

READING THE TBR, DAY 207: Is it Just Me? (2012) by Miranda Hart

Miranda Hart is a very funny comedian whose plummy accent contrasts delightfully with her slightly sophomoric silliness, but who can also bring some quality observational satire to her sets — and, of course, which she brought to her popular eponymous sitcom. 

I loved that sitcom, and so of course bought this book not long after its release — and, as usual, am reading it a mere six or so years later. I am speedy like that.

Throughout, Hart delivers many a sharply pointed judgment but there is also a lot of her familiar, always delightful, self-deprecation as she bemoans what it is to be an adult, and looks back on her Enid Blyton series-worthy years at an English girl’s boarding school. She recounts embarrassing incidents and delivers a bunch of her signature bubbly asides, and you positively hear her voice in her prose, which is not something always accomplished in a memoir, especially a memoir of a comedian.

In short, this book is very funny. Just like Miranda. 


TBR DAY 207: Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart
GENRE: Humour
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 6 years.  
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 141: Life & Laughing: My Story (2010) by Michael McIntyre

Michael McIntyre is such a stalwart of UK stand up that it is hard to remember that there was a time when your Newsfeed wasn’t flooded with his clips. But this memoir takes us back to his beginning, to a privileged but disjointed childhood, to his attempts at higher education and decision to pursue comedy (like his father) and his early failures at open mics and small gigs.

In his signature chatty, genial, humorously ironical style, McIntyre reveals a lot about his life — though, as with all autobiography, and all comedians, there can be no doubt that there is some exaggeration and careful excision, because that is what autobiographers (and comedians) do — and it is a very enjoyable read throughout. The story of the long wooing of his wife Kitty is adorable, his account of Edinburgh Festivals, successful and not, is fascinating, and for anyone who only associates him with arena shows and comedy road shows, it is a timely reminder that everyone starts somewhere.


TBR DAY 141: Life & Laughing: My Story by Michael McIntyre
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Humour
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years.  
KEEP: Sure, why not?

READING THE TBR, DAY 100: Under Cover (2015) by Craig Munro

This book is a fascinating and detailed history of the Australian publishing industry across the past five decades, as seen through the eyes of scholar and former University of Queensland Press editor Craig Munro. At times it may be a little too detailed, especially in the people it mentions in passing who were colleagues or rival editors or such, but of course, a book like this has to be careful not to slight anyone, and in some ways the painstaking attention to often superfluous detail adds to the veracity of the narrative.

There is so, so much in here that I did not know, had never considered, and probably never would have if not for this book. One thing it highlights more than anything is that I do not read enough works by Australian authors. There are literally dozens listed in this book of whom I have never heard. but whose work has best-sold and been critically acclaimed throughout the world over the last half-century and more. Oh, sure, Thomas Kenneally and Patrick White and Peter Carey. (The latter two of whom Munro not-so-subtly mentions he helped put on the map; there’s a fine line between reminiscence and name-dropping, and he walks that line adroitly, but sometimes cringily.)

But the other thing this book definitely highlights is the massive shift in publishing norms since it was released in 2015, let alone when Munro first embarked on a literary career in the 1970s. The red pencil of old has given way to Track Changes; the Express Posted cover proof has given way to a .pdf, the flowery correspondence praising an author’s work have given way to text messages. I love the simplicity of our system now — and especially that it has been democratized and is returning to the small press roots of the pre-conglomerate system, due to the ease of self-publishing — but there is also a lot that is attractive and romantic about the world described in here, all boozy lunches and hardcover print runs and international rights-buying trips.

The fact is, this book makes me nostalgic for something I never experienced. And a memoir cannot really earn any higher praise than that.

 (Oh, and a belated extra-thanks for the Christmas gift from… God, over three years ago, Louise! This proved to be a most excellent choice.)


TBR DAY 100: Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir
TIME ON THE TBR: ~3 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a Christmas gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 68: Vacationland (2017) by John Hodgman

John Hodgman’s surreal humour has always appealed to me. I loved his work on The Daily Show, as Jon Stewart’s most offbeat correspondent pretending to knowledge he did not at all have, and I loved his fake almanacs of fake facts (his first, The Areas of My Expertise is a particular favourite) that likewise claim his preeminence in fields that are largely made up. He has a winning pomposity that marks him as a consummate satirist — America does have those, and Hodgman is among the nation’s leading exponents of this cleverest of humorous endeavours.

In Vacationland, subtitled “True Stories from Painful Beaches”, Hodgman turns his hand to memoir, and in a staccato, utterly immersive style he presents a series of vignettes from his privileged life, from his childhood New England prosperity to his years at Yale to his marriage to a “beautiful, challenging” wife to his appearances on TV (not only on The Daily Show, but as the PC to Justin Long’s Mac in those popular Apple commercials) that led to limited fame and fortune, and made his adult years as easy as his childhood ones. His self-awareness is palpable, and even his name dropping (his best friend is cult music phenom Jonathan Coulton; he once had dinner with Black Francis of the Pixies; a Scientology exponent movie star once laid hands on his wife, in a platonic and awesome way) is done with an underpinning of “Can you believe this craziness?” that makes it far less unbearable than it would be in less capable, self-deprecatory hands.

Hodgman dwells much on being an only child, which is clearly something that affected him greatly, and in his examination of what that status did to his psyche, I came to appreciate my younger brother more, troublesome as he so often was. (And is.) Hodgman is also a great rule follower, which resonates profoundly with me, because yes, rules are there for a reason, people! I love rules! If for that, if nothing else, I would have enjoyed the hell out of this book.

But Hodgman’s gentle humour throughout also adds to its vast appeal, his anecdotes skirting the line between kindly and kind of mean, but you know he’s just being honest, and honesty is always compelling, especially in a memoir. His occasional forays into poignant reminiscence, of his mother and his childhood and his children’s early years, are quite beautiful, and his appreciation of coastal Maine and rural Massachusetts make of the book an ersatz travel narrative, which only adds to its splendour.

In the end, it turns out that Hodgman’s truth is superior to his fiction, and that is very much saying something indeed.


TBR DAY 68: Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman
GENRE: Memoir, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year.  
KEEP: Yes!