Tag Archives: memoirs

Square Azaleas

As I was walking to work today, I happened past a building with square azaleas in front of it.  You know you’ve seen them: a wildly-blooming bush full of bright pink or yellow flowers that has been trimmed into a formal shape, as if to keep it in check.  As if we wouldn’t want those gorgeous flowers to get out of control and take over the landscape.  Seeing people taming nature that way reminds me of all the ways that our various human tendencies limit beauty, often from our trying to do what we think is right.

While that phenomenon brings me a certain amount of melancholy, I am fortunate to have books and movies that counter that feeling.  For example, I just recently read Claire Dederer’s Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, a memoir of a young woman and her struggle with perfectionism.  She sends her back into agonizing spasms trying to be the perfect mom and decides to try yoga, which gives her a choice of continuing that painful path or trying another.  Another author who writes about the process of coming into a more authentic sense of self (which I seem to be interpreting as beauty) is Sue Monk Kidd.  Both the main character in her novel The Mermaid Chair, and she herself in her memoir The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, experience a profound blossoming that, while perhaps rather messy-looking, brings them closer to who they truly are.

One movie, originally a play, that portrays the beauty of one woman letting herself go a little wild is Shirley Valentine.  In it, a bored and lonely housewife in Liverpool gets an opportunity to go to Greece for a vacation and risks her marriage to do so.

Lest you think that this theme applies only to women, let me tell you about Donald Miller and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  While writing the screenplay based on his book Blue Like Jazz, Miller realizes that due to a certain amount of risk aversion and laziness, his life lacks the elements that make both stories and life interesting.  Inspired to make some small changes, he finds himself in a completely new and beautiful way of living.

Of course it’s your turn now.  Tell me how much you love perfectly trimmed bushes, or send me suggestions for books or movies about the beauty of going wild.


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I’ll give you something to whine about!

I’m cold, I’m tired and I’m hungry.  It seems that I am in the mood to whine lately, and there’s just nothing to be done about it.  Or is there?  Perhaps it’s time to read about people who have it, or had it, worse than I do.  Let’s see how this works…

Strength in What RemainsStrength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder (who is coming to the Drue Heinz Lectures this month, by the way!).  This is the story of Deo, who lives in a tiny village in Burundi.  He wants nothing more than to be a doctor, so somehow he gets to medical school.  Once he gets there, though, the violence in Rwanda spills over to Burundi, and he’s forced to run for his life.  From there, he manages to get to New York City, where he has to learn to survive all over again, since he speaks no English, has no contacts and only $200 in his pocket. 

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor.  She’s doing well now, of course, but Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist at Harvard, woke up one morning to find herself having a stroke.  It took her eight years to recover from a complete state of no identity and non-functionality.

The Center Cannot HoldThe Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn R. Saks.  The brain of a schizophrenic tells its owner all sorts of things, often scary, violent and nonsensical.  Imagine having that going on in your head while you’re trying to go to law school and you’ll have a sense of what life is like with what can be a debilitating mental illness.

Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand SorrowsTen Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows:  A Couple’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s, by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle.  It’s hard to say who has a more difficult time with a disease like Alzheimers, the patient or the caregiver.  For Ms. Hoblitzelle and her husband, who is diagnosed at the age of 72, it’s a chance to put all their understandings of psychology and meditation into practice.

I Remember RunningI Remember Running:  The Year I Got Everything I Ever Wanted – and ALS, by Darcy Wakefield.  Living with a terminal illness like Lou Gehrig’s disease could be such a downer – serious whine potential.  Yet so many quotes from this book sum up Darcy Wakefield’s attitude, such as “The real truth of my ALS is that it takes daily acts of courage to get up, live the day fully, be grateful for what I have, and to find the humor and grace and the pleasure, yes, pleasure, in not being able to clip my own nails.”

Best Seat in the HouseThe Best Seat in the House:  How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life, by Allen Rucker. Another title that tells you most of the story, but you’ve got to read it to get the full benefit of Allen Rucker’s humor, such as his idea for a daily flip calendar for people who are paralyzed, “flip” being the operative word.

To tell you the truth, I actually feel better.  Not so much because I’m glad that I don’t have a physical or mental disease, but that I’m grateful that there are folks out there who have had tough rows to hoe and were still willing to share their inspiring stories with me. You never know, though, when I will slip again and start whining.  What would you suggest to get me out of it?


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


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‘Tis the Season

We are fast approaching one of the most emotionally difficult times of the year.  Maybe you have family you’d rather not interact with, but are forced to. Or you don’t have the family that you wish you had or used to have. Or you are more alone than you’d like to be. Any and all of these situations are difficult on an everyday basis, but become magnified during the holiday season when every store clerk, commercial, and television show tells you that you should be having a “happy holiday.”

So rather than doing yourself, or someone else, unnecessary bodily harm, why not check out one of these, and make yourself feel a bit better.

Escapist Travel Adventures
Don’t Look Behind You: A Safari Guide’s Encounters with Ravenous Lions, Stampeding Elephants, and Lovesick Rhinos
by Peter Allison

To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism
by Chuck Thompson

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid)
by J. Maarten Troost

Naked in Eden: My Adventure and Awakening in the Australian Rainforest
by Robin Easton

The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness
by Jon Turk

The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating and Island Life
by Ann Vanderhoof

The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trail: A Memoir of Discovery, Endurance, and a Lazy Dog
by Kevin Runolfson

Self-Help Information
Enough!: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns
by Chonyi Taylor

Getting Past OK: The Self-Help Book for People Who Don’t Need Help
by Richard Brodie

Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone
by Beth Lisick

The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child
by Paul Pearsall

Once Upon a Cow: Eliminating Excuses and Settling for Nothing But Success
by Camilo Cruz

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship
by David Whyte

Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life
by Gail Blanke

Well Being: The Five Essential Elements
by Tom Rath & Jim Harter

My Family Sucks Too Tales
The Bill from My Father
by Bernard Cooper

Dead End Gene Pool
by Wendy Burden

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
by David Sedaris

I’m Down
by Mishna Wolff

Home for the Holidays (DVD)

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers
by Jennifer Mascia

Why Not Say What Happened
by Ivana Lowell

You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas
by Augusten Burroughs

Here’s hoping that you and yours survive the holiday season with your psyches intact!

-Melissa M.


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Don’t try this at home. Or do, and write a book about it.

As I was flying into New York City a couple of weeks ago, I thought about all the interesting experiments going on there at any given time.  Truly, the thought first occurred to me after seeing Julie and Julia –  all these quirky New Yorkers doing something for a year and then blogging or writing about it.  Although I didn’t spot any actual experimenters on the streets while I was there (that I know of at least), somehow I am still holding that strange impression of them.

It is fortunate for us that these people are willing to do the wacky things they do for two reasons: 1) we don’t have to do them; and 2) they make terrific reads.  My favorite author in this vein has to be A. J. Jacobs.  In The Year of Living Biblically, he grows his hair and beard, wears only white, and refuses to shake hands, all in the name of following every law in the Bible.  If you liked that one, try his most recent book, The Guinea Pig Diaries:  My Life as an Experiment

A couple of other options in this genre include:

Last on my list does not take place in New York, but should at least get me to stop judging New Yorkers.  The Urban Hermit: A Memoir recounts a year of living on $8 a week and 800 calories a day.  The author, Sam McDonald, now lives in Pittsburgh and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. 



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Believe the hype

I hope I’m not the one to break the news to you of the memoirist Frank McCourt’s passing on Sunday. McCourt left us with three unforgettable full-length books: Angela’s Ashes, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award; ‘Tis and Teacher Man. It is my belief that these books can only be truly appreciated when read aloud by the author. That’s right—I’m telling you it’s time to step out of your comfort zone and listen to an audio book. Listening to Frank McCourt with his Irish lilt, telling you about his miserable childhood in Ireland is like having your very own Irish grandpa telling you hilarious, heartbreaking stories of the old country.

Here is a snippet from the beginning of Angela’s Ashes:

“The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.”

If you have never had the pleasure of reading Frank McCourt, believe the hype, and try out one of his books in audio format.


Support your library! The Pennsylvania Library Association has designated the week of July 20th PaLA Call-In Week. Please take the time to call the Governor, your Senator, or your Representative and tell them how much your library means to you. Visit the PaLA website or our advocacy page for details.

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Persepolis book discussion

We’ve got plenty of fantastic book groups here at CLP, but this month we’re  trying something new: a graphic novel book discussion. 

This Sunday, March 29th at 3:00 pm, join us for a discussion of Marjane Satrapi‘s renowned two-part graphic novel memoir, Persepolis.  In the books, Satrapi describes her experience as a rebellious girl growing  up in Iran and moving to Europe alone during periods of war and political upheval.  The result is an honest tale that emphasizes the impact war and tyranny can have on individual lives.  The international success of the recently adapted film version speaks to the universal nature of her story.

As a super special added bonus (librarians are fond of those), attendees to the book discussion can enter a drawing to win tickets to Satrapi’s appearance in The Drue Heinz Lectures series on Monday, March 30th at 7:30 pm in the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.  For a great writeup of the lecture and its details, you can also check here.





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free lecture on grief

This is my family’s first holiday season without my grandfather, and we’re all feeling his absence. People have different ways of dealing with the loss of someone close, and sometimes we may ask ourselves, ‘How long will I feel this way?’ or ‘Is this normal?’ Grief is a natural response to death, as we work through the myriad of feelings that come up as the grieving process takes its course. Sometimes, however, one can get stuck on that course, and it becomes difficult to move on.

Tomorrow, December 3rd, Dr. Allan Zuckoff, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, will be at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main to speak about grief, how it works, when it doesn’t, and to clarify commonly held misconceptions about it. The lecture will be held in the International Poetry Room on the 2nd Floor at 6pm, and there will be free screenings for Complicated Grief and Depression. It is part of the Mental Health & Wellness Lecture Series, a monthly event sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

If you or someone you know wants to learn more about the grieving process, please come and take advantage of this free program. You may also be interested in this list of fiction, memoirs and self help books, as well.



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woof woof, meow meow, tweet

With a sick kitty at home, I have animals on my mind a lot these days. There is nothing quite like the connection between a pet and its person, whether it’s a dog, a cat, or something more exotic

Speaking to that connection are so many books that come out on the subject every year.  There’s the runaway hit from a couple of years ago, Marley & Me:  Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog, by John Grogan, or any of Jon Katz’ books, if you’re a dog lover.  Aelurophiles may want to try A Cat Named Darwin: How a Stray Cat Changed a Man into a Human Being, by biologist William Jordan, who takes in, and gets taken in by, a flea-bitten, mangy stray.  My Cat, Spit McGee, by Willie Morris (who also had a dog named Skip), is another one that speaks to that irresistible feline allure.  If all that dander gets to you, though, you can try The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship, by Joanna Burger.  One of my all-time favorites on the human-animal relationship is Allen Schoen’s Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live. Veterinarian Schoen’s beautiful descriptions of how he learned about healing on all levels from his golden retriever and other animals are incredibly heart-opening. 

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When it comes to fiction, beastly puns tend to rule the roost.  Several of those titles are featured on our Animal Mysteries booklist.  Beyond that, though, another favorite of mine is the author, Jennifer CrusieAnyone But You features a pathetic, yet insistent, basset hound, and she knows exactly how to depict the way those furry friends can insinuate themselves into our lives.  Lastly, I couldn’t possibly feel complete with this post without mentioning Mutts, the comic strip that looks cute, but can bite when you least expect it.

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Of course there are many more. Let us know some of your favorite books with animals in them!


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Memoir vs. autobiography, Or, “It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s hundreds of boys and girls! And they’re all famous!”

The lush fertile womb of the New and Featured Nonfiction collection on the First Floor of the Main Library has recently given birth to a new Biographies section. It’s 144 inches and 250+ pounds of pure neonatal delight!

Now, everyone knows that nothing is begotten without labor pains. What could be painful about this new collection? For me, it is comes down to one word: Memoirs. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has written one, and if we put them all into the Biographies section, we would have one giant, unwieldy baby on our hands. But how can we differentiate the memoirs from the autobiographies?

Here I quote Nigel Hamilton from his 2008 book How to Do Biography: A Primer: “Memoirs may be manipulated and selective…Amusing, informative, possibly deceitful, often self-deceiving, memoirs are extended self-portraits that whether pompous or humble, reflect the time in which they are composed—even if they do not shed much light on the author’s character” (p. 281).

Using St. Augustine, Frederick Douglass, and Anne Frank as examples, Hamilton defines autobiography as “the relentless record and examination of one’s own life: a quest for mental freedom through truthfulness” (p. 293).

However, my confusion multiplied when I consulted the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (4th Edition), edited by J. A. Cuddon. Autobiography is described in these terms: “Everyone recalls what he or she wants to remember. Disagreeable facts are sometimes glossed over or repressed, truth may be distorted for the sake of convenience or harmony and the occlusions of time may obscure as much as they reveal.” It doesn’t seem that anyone can agree on a definition or a concrete way to differentiate the two. To make matters worse, many of the review tools that we use when deciding on our purchases label items “biography” indiscriminately.

So, as a rule, I generally use these guidelines:
• The subject of the autobiography is the person, rather than a time, place, or experience (or other aspects of a person’s life).
• The subject of the autobiography is famous, outside of the book itself.
• The autobiography covers (most of) the person’s entire life. The memoir may only cover a certain segment.
• If other libraries label a book a biography, so will I. Sometimes.

Here are a few pop cultural books sitting on our Biographies shelf:

Redneck Boy in the Promised Land: The Confessions of “Crazy Cooter” by Ben Jones
You Can Run But You Can’t Hide by Duane “Dog” Chapman
Don’t Hassel the Hoff: The Autobiography by David Hasselhoff
Dr. Dre: The Biography by Ronin Ro

So come down and check out the Hoff’s autobiography. It has drama, photos, and everything you ever wanted to know about Baywatch, and it’s been sitting lonely for too long. Have you read any good memoirs (or autobiographies) lately?



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