Memoir

Book 22 of 52: Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

In 2017, I took a four month road trip to see all the 18 states I hadn’t been to yet. On my first day, I picked up a Passport to Your National Parks, a blue booklet that lists all 423 locations that the National Park service oversees – not just the big National Parks, but also the national seashores, battlefields, historic monuments, etc.

Along that trip – and on many road trips I’ve taken since since – I’ve tried to visit as many of these sites as possible, collecting stamps at each one. It’s a great way to figure out how to break up long drives – or pick targets, as I often plan trips around getting a few stamps. I’m scheduled to hit the upper midwest late this summer to do just that.

I’ve been to more than 200 sites so far. This quest has of course lead me to see some beautiful places – Yellowstone! Glacier! Grand Teton! But it has also steered me to locations of some of the worst parts of our country’s history. In Arkansas, I stood at a critical point along the Trail of Tears at the Fort Smith National […]

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Book 13 of 52: You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

I first saw Kal Penn as many elder millennials did: as a supporting character in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, and then as the co-lead in the much better and way funnier Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I heard that he’d taught at Penn and did…something in the White House? But that was about it. So I went into his memoir, You Can’t Be Serious, skeptical about what I would learn.

A lot, it turns out. This guy can be serious. The memoir is funny, of course, but it’s Penn (whose real name is Kalpen Modi but uses Kal Penn as his byline, so I’m going with that here) retelling his Hollywood story, from growing up in a mostly immigrant community that didn’t understand why he went into acting and not the sciences, to having a very real job with the Obama administration, to his baby, the series Sunnyside, making it to NBC but getting kneecapped from the start.

Penn grew up in North Jersey, the son of Indian immigrants, with grandparents who marched with Mahatma Gandhi as part of the India independence movement. He was both picked on for being Indian, but also embraced by his Jewish friends (and found a […]

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Book 12 of 52: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi is an author and graphic novelist who grew up in Iran and, as a tween and teen, lived in the country through the Iranian Revolution before her parents sent her to Europe for school, and for her safety.

As an adult, she wrote Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, a nonfiction graphic novel, originally in French. I read the English translation, which was published in 2003, three years after the original. It was a critical success, won a slew of awards, and became a movie. I haven’t read the sequel, Persepolis 2, but I hope to (you can also buy them in a set. I found Persepolis in a Little Free Library, or I’d have bought them combined).

In the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is about the author’s father talking to him about the Holocaust, Persepolis is a memoir of trauma told through a mix of images and words that when combined, combust into powerful, beautiful and soul cracking art.

For example, Satrapi portrays the 1978 Cinema Rex fire as already skeleton-faced souls trying to flee for the theater’s exit, and the 1978 Black Friday Massacre as rows of heads with blank, dead eyes. These images are searing, and […]

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Book 10 of 52: Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox

When I first started listening to the audiobook of Brian Cox’s Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, I wasn’t sure why I was there. I’ve watched Succession, sure, where he plays the media titan Logan Roy. I enjoy it, but but I’m not obsessed with it (I watched most of the show while running on a treadmill).

But I’d listened to Cox do Wait Wait…Don’t Tell me, an NPR news quiz, and tell a story about how almost everyone at his first wedding got very drunk except for him, which was a bit of a problem since most of the guests were also starring in Romeo and Juliet, and they had a performance that night. Plus he and Michael Gambon (one of the drunk wedding guests ) also had a matinee performance of Othello. This might be worth giving him a few hours of my time, I thought, and then, when I was unsure about the book, worth sticking with it.

I was right. Putting the Rabbit in the Hat is the story of a poor kid from Scotland who became a working actor, and what he learned/saw along the way. A friend and I joke that all of British TV is made […]

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Book 4 of 52: This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Burnett

My audiobook consumption generally falls into three categories:

Hefty historical books that I’d probably never sit down to read (like Book 2 of 52 in this series)
Juvenile or YA fiction (the 2006 production of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet as read by Peter Coyote is the tensest audiobook experience I’ve ever had)
Celebrities reading their memoirs

Book four falls into that last category.

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Burnett isn’t a straight memoir – Burnet wrote that, One More Time: A Memoir, in 2003. Instead, it’s a anecdotes that she often told in the Q&A sessions before tapings of The Carol Burnett Show, and then on tour. I say performances for a reason: listening to this book is like listening to her on stage.

These stories have the polish of well practiced storytelling. And there’s nothing wrong with that of course! Burnett is supremely talented performer – I would expect no less from her reading her own audiobook. This format also means that she could do her not so great Marlon Brando impression, and her wonderful and well known Tarzan yowl (my heart also broke she also struggled to read the chapter about her daughter, Carrie, who died of cancer […]

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