Best Of: Memoirs/Biographies

Well, thanks to the utter sadism of the Educational Testing Service (that is, having GRE scores expire after a measly five years, forcing would-be doctoral students to retake an exam that almost drove them crazy the first time around, with the added pressure of having to best or match their previous score), recreational reading will have to be put on the back burner for a while—more specifically, for about a month. So until I’m able to post further reviews, I’ll be coming up with “creative” ways to review books I’ve already read, particularly through the time-honored tradition of “best of” lists.

*Obvious selection-bias disclaimer: These lists account only for books I have actually read, and are thus not necessarily culled from the most eclectic collection on Earth. That said, I have kept detailed lists, A Beautiful Mind-style, of every book I’ve read since the eighth grade, so these picks aren’t just off the top of my head, either.

Without further ado—Top Five Memoirs/Biographies (the definition of which is stretched pretty much to the limit), in no particular order. 

1.) Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed is unmissable, no matter your political proclivities—and Ehrenreich, as I’m sure will come as no surprise, is unabashedly liberal. A well-known and respected journalist, Ehrenreich goes “undercover” in blue-collar America, in an attempt to expose the myth that Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congressional cabal campaigned on: that getting people off the welfare rolls and into the workforce would make their lives better. Ehrenreich spends four months apiece in Florida, Maine and Minnesota (she purposely chooses quote-unquote “whiter” states so as to take race out of the equation as far as possible), working as a waitress, hotel maid and Wal-Mart “associate,” respectively. The account of her experiences is heartbreaking, and should serve as a call to action for anybody who thinks America’s poor simply aren’t working hard enough, or that if they somehow “tried harder” they’d be able to pull themselves up by those proverbial bootstraps. She’s kind of a hero for writing this. (Ehrenreich also wrote a follow-up, in which she infiltrates the white-collar world and exposes the cult of the positive-thinking approach to unemployment, called Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. I highly recommend it, but if you only have time for one, pick Nickel and Dimed.)

2.) Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson. For those of us who read and loved A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail with his boorish (but oddly likeable) companion Stephen Katz—and even those of us who didn’t, since I read this one before AWitW. Katz reappears in Neither Here Nor There, in flashback but no less vividly, as the middle-aged Bryson embarks on a retread of the backpacking trip across Europe he made many years ago, after high school. I read this while I myself was making my way throughout Western Europe with an unlimited rail pass and a 40-pound backpack, so I know for a fact that Bryson’s anecdotes could not possibly ring any truer. His experiences aren’t altogether unique—the French are rude, the Italians boisterous, the Dutch exceedingly proud of their open-mindedness and just about everybody dismissive—but Bryson is funniest when he’s describing the mundane, like a simple trip to the bakery in Paris or encounters with the police in Florence. But he’s also inspiring, and his trip to Hammerfest, Norway to see the Northern Lights rocketed that destination to the top of my travel wish list, despite the month he spent in virtual solitude and the freezing cold. This book does just what a travel memoir is supposed to do: make us laugh, and make us starry-eyed.

3.) In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, by Robert S. McNamara. I read this a few months after seeing Errol Flynn’s magnificent McNamara documentary “The Fog of War” (where McNamara famously cries on camera), and I have to say, while McNamara was the Donald Rumsfeld of my parents’ generation, I think the guy is smart, circumspect, and willing to admit his mistakes—and not just in this book, forty years later; he “resigned” (i.e., was asked to leave) from the Johnson Administration precisely because he was having doubts about the war in Vietnam and expressed those doubts to the President. He got the top job at the World Bank in return, sure, but the fact is, he wasn’t as obstinate as liberal lore makes him out to be and, like Johnson, he was tortured by the war (which is more than either Bush or Rumsfeld ever admitted to). As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. puts it: “Can anyone remember a public official with the courage to confess error and explain where he and his country went wrong? This is what Robert McNamara does in this brave, honest, honorable and altogether compelling book.” I’m not absolving McNamara of responsibility for the Vietnam debacle, but regardless, his book is not just a mea culpa but a truly original portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most important policymakers. Bonus points for his inclusion of Rudyard Kipling’s haunting “The Palace” as a kind of epilogue; reading it here got me hooked on Kipling’s poetry.

4.) The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. It’s impossible to overstate the effect this book had on me when I read it three years ago. It’s not like Joan Didion needs me to compliment her writing, but it’s so ungodly beautiful all the same. “The year of magical thinking” refers to the twelve months after Didion’s husband (and often her creative collaborator) John Gregory Dunne dropped dead of a sudden heart attack at the couple’s kitchen table in New York, during which Didion went through the motions of grieving while simultaneously believing that her husband would reappear at any moment. Meanwhile, the couple’s beloved daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, went into septic shock while recovering from pneumonia. She was hospitalized for much of the next year and an half after suffering a massive hematoma, and died in August of 2005, after Didion has finished TYoMT (but before its publication). At the time, Didion said she didn’t want to go back and change any details (though the dramatic irony of reading about her daughter’s recovery efforts is heartbreaking); in November of this year, her memoir about her daughter, Blue Nights, will be published. I so admire not just Didion’s talent but her ability to take her tragedies and wring true beauty from them (she advises herself, in the throes of grief, to “go to the literature,” and particularly to Walter Savage Landor’s poem “Rose Aylmer“), and I can think of few books I would recommend more highly than this one. It’s painful to read, but in the best possible way.

5.) Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham. Catfish and Mandala was one of the Xeroxed books most hawked by street vendors when I was studying in Hanoi, and it’s not hard to see why. Educated as an engineer, and employed as one for more years than you can readily believe given his considerable literary talent, Pham wrote this book after exploring Vietnam by bicycle, revisiting the town he grew up in and exploring, despite being raised in California and considering himself altogether “American,” his fascination with his homeland. “America is full of young-old Vietnamese, uncentered, uncertain of their identity. The older generation calls them mat goch—lost roots,” he says, adding later “I tell [a group of Vietnamese people he encounters on Highway 1] I’m Vietnamese American. They shriek, ‘Việt Kiều!’ It sounds like a disease. The news travels down the procession and the excitement subsides. Half of the group peels away, losing interest since I am not a real foreigner.” While I do have a certain predilection for books about traveling in Vietnam, completely aside from any desire to reinforce the “beauty of my own experiences,” CaM is exquisitely written and utterly compelling (especially for white people like me with no clear attachment to any land outside my own). If you must think of it as something else, think of it as a bigger, better Eat Pray Love.

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