Biography, memoirs
There is no heroic poem in the world
but is at bottom a biography,the life of a man;
also it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded,
but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.
Thomas Carlyle,
London and Westminster Review, 1838

New | Artists | Expatriates | Illness
Midlife | Saints | Warriors | Writers


My Vast Fortune by Andrew Tobias. Money memoirs? Well, what could be more interesting than reading about how a young fellow grows up thinking about, amassing, and using money? In the case of Tobias, he combines the attractive traits of thrift, generosity, and determination (some would say stubbornness) in addition to more than an average dash of intelligence. Lucidly and entertainingly, he reports the results here. If you've wondered how to use money to make a difference, here's how Tobias does it. Go thou and get a clue about doing likewise. And read his The Best Little Boy in the World, too.

Will This Do, an Autobiography by Auberon Waugh. Son of Evelyn, this writer at age 50 says "a professional writer has only so many shots in his locker, and autobiography is one of them." His unsentimental,but plainly affectionate, description of the famous family from which he sprang is a high point. Because of the "monstrous child and even worse adolescent" Waugh recalls (himself, in his own words), this might be especially interesting to parents of teens. See also Salon's review.

Prozac diary by Lauren Slater. Slater is a "long-termer"--about a decade, now--on the relatively new class of anti-depressants called SSRIs. That even these new drugs are only an imperfect treatment, and not a cure, for depression is painfully clear in this memoir. Still, life with treatment is at least possible where life before or without treatment is not, as the high suicide rate among the depressed attests. About depression.


Matisse, Picasso, Miro As I Knew Them by Rosamond Bernier. Even if the essays were worthless, the exquisite plates would be worth a long look. In fact, the essays are gems of information and insight about modern art at mid-century: a good antidote to more sensationalistic writing. Matisse, a Portrait by Hayden Herrera synthesizes material from other sources; read this only if you'll give equal time to others, perhaps Bernier, Jack Flam, or John Russell (Time/Life series). For children, the excellent A Weekend With... series now includes an English translation of the Matisse volume.


"Spotted Dick, s'il vous plait": An English Restaurant in France by Tom Higgins. This book deals with two relatively common fantasies: working in France and owing a restaurant. Higgins, a Lyonnais restauranteur, spares none of the gritty details, including the fantastically high payroll burden in France (50 per cent!), and he throws in a dozen recipes at the end. Ah, Lyon! For a look at life in rural Ireland, see The Luck of the Irish: Our Life in County Clare by Niall Williams and Christine Breen.

Out of This World: A Woman's Life Among the Amish Mary Swander describes how Environmental Illness affected and ultimately re-formed every aspect of her life. To escape the noxious fumes and various physical substances that threaten her health, she relocates to a rural area of Iowa where most of the residents are Amish. As her health restores itself, she finds a home for herself among people whose beliefs and practices are quite different from hers. Themes of grief and healing weave throughout the stories. The Immune Mail List Home Page has further information about Environmental Illness. And there's information about the Amish on the Web.

New Men: Inside the Vatican's Elite School for American Priests by Brian Murphy. The Reader approached this book skeptically, wondering what sort of scandal or perfidy could lead Grosset/Putnam to take a chance on a hardcover description of a year inside the North American College. Murphy followed a half dozen students--"new men"--through their first, and perhaps only, year at the seminary. Some have never been away from the USA before; all are on a territory where honesty, especially with the self, is a pre-eminent virtue. At the heart of the story is the question of vocation: how do we serve best? There is also a matter of learning to pray. And, yes, the topics of chastity and celibacy get the full and frank discussion they deserve.

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Cardiac Disease | Depression | Multiple Sclerosis | Dying

I Took a Lickin' and Kept on Tickin' and Now I Believe in Miracles Lewis Grizzard. Well, he didn't. Keep on tickin', that is. Mr. Grizzard, "an American by birth...a Southerner by the grace of God," and a very funny man, died in March, 1994. What happened before his too-early death is told here. Funnier before he died, one imagines. Don't Fence Me In, an Anedoctal Biography of Lewis Grizzard edited by Chuck Perry brings together funny, sad, poignant and simply off-the-wall recollections of Grizzard, whose penchant for vodka and vamps--in about that order--is described in detail some readers will find excessive.

The Heart: A Memoir by Lance Morrow. Facing his first heart surgery at age 36 Mr Morrow felt, he now admits, almost precocious. By the time the second surgery is required some 16 years later, the passage of time as well as the death of his father make him more conscious of his mortality. There is a maturity in these reflections, for example in the clear-sightedness coupled with compassion about his own parents, that makes this work worth reading. Also worthwhile is Mr. Morrow's description of seeing a child trapped in a situation not unlike his own chaotic childhood, but finding himself unable to respond. An extensively developed issue is Mr. Morrow's discovery of his own deep anger and his speculation on how that has affected his heart. Information and support for cardiac patients and their families.

Undercurrents: A Therapist's Reckoning with Her Own Depression by Martha Manning. This is a journal into depression as experienced by a 38 year old psychologist. Candid writing about symptoms, about the impact of depression on a family, and about the search for treatment, which ultimately includes a half dozen electroconvulsive therapy treatments. From the book: 'When you're depressed, everyone has an opinion about what you should do. People seem to think that not only are you depressed, you are also stupid' (p. 75). See also The Beast by Tracy Thompson. Fine autobiographical writing and fascinating tidbits on the development of anti-depressants. Here's a good index to Web information about clinical depression. See also...

Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness by David A. Karp. A memoir of a sociologist's depression and his interviews with other people who have experienced depression or who have been affected by it. Karp studies the models our society has constructed for coping and offers a final diagnosis that looks beyond individuals to a society in which a high level of dis-ease has become, apparently, inevitable. Check Oxford University Press catalog about this book.

Remembering the Bone House and Ordinary Time by Nancy Mairs. The first deals with the physical self; the second details the developmental cycles of the spiritual and emotional self. Mairs writes with bluntness about things many of us don't talk about, and I have mixed feelings about putting oneself and one's family on such public display. But these are engrossing books, beautifully written, about the most important matters of life: love, faith, fidelity, wholeness--and their shadows. A review of Nancy Mairs' new book, Waist-High in the World

The Gift of Peace by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. The final years of Cardinal Bernardin's life brought enormous burdens, including the suffering of his last illness. He tells his own story, partly in his own beautiful handwriting and entirely in a voice that expresses its regrets and yet refuses to lapse into bitterness. Eugene Kennedy, a close friend, tells a parallel story in My Brother Joseph. Although Kennedy's story explains more of the extraordinary background of the Cardinal's life, in some ways the Reader felt she learnt more about Kennedy than about the Cardinal. That is not a bad thing, because Eugene Kennedy's life as a writer, professor of psychology, and former priest certainly has its own interesting texture to add to the story.

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Piano Lessons: Music, Love, & True Adventures by Noah Adams, host of All Things Considered on the United States' National Public Radio. Interesting diary of a man who decides, at midlife, that he would like to play the piano. Read about his ambitions (at least as grandiose, at times, as they are noble) and about his ennui and learn a little about how pianos play. Some interesting notes along the way about pedagogy, as well.

In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason, and Discovery by M. Scott Peck, M.D. At the outset, Peck apologizes to book store owners who, he says, have trouble categorizing his books. Regardless, I have no trouble at all in calling it 'autobiography'. Because it is set more than nominally around a trip the author and his wife have taken on which they discover more and more about ancient megaliths (Stonehenge-type stones in groups or, on occasion, singly), he thinks it might be fit for the travel section. But the main journey here is less into the byways of Peck's life than into his determinations, seemingly made in front of the reader, of how to tell the story. He manages both the confessional approach and simultaneously brings down a curtain of privacy in a way that suggests that the tabloids better not bother. The Faithful Reader is often in at least two minds about Peck's work; here, again, my opinions are scattered.

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As a Seal Upon Your Heart: The Life of St Paul of the Cross, Founder of the Passionists Paul Francis Spencer C.P. 1994 was the tercentenary of the birth of St Paul of the Cross, a fine occasion for publishing a new English language biography of a fascinating saint. Lovely photographs and simple, evocative prose draw readers to contemplate of how one man passed through life's vicissitudes to sainthood. More.

To Heal the Broken Hearted: The Life of Blessed Charles of Mount Argus by Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. An ordinary man thrown into the chaos of culture shock and a startling lack of support from his co-workers (and this, believe me, understates the case) emerges as a gifted minister of healing. More.

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Robert E. Lee by Emory M. Thomas. Why does a moral man make immoral choices? Lee was considered by all who knew him to be honest, honorable, courageous, ethical and fundamentally good. He was an outstanding engineer, a largely self-made and devout man, a devoted husband and father, and a widely admired American war hero who opposed both slavery and secession. But when the most crucial choice of his life (and of his generation) came, he turned against the Union and fought for the slave-holders and traitors. If Lee had accepted Lincoln's offer to lead the Union army, the civil war might have been over within a year. Instead Lee brilliantly fought the Army of the Potomac to a standstill for four years, resulting in a horrible loss of life. Thomas's excellent biography asks why and suggests some credible answers. Check out the Civil War Archive.

Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story by Theo Aronson. Although the research is extensive and sound, this is an easily digestible guide to the Napoleonic years. Great pictures, too. Also see The Napoleon Series, an electronic magazine and A Salute to Napoleon.

There Shall be Wings edited by Max Arthur. The subtitle is "Vivid Personal Accounts of the RAF from 1918 to Today," and that is exactly what this book is. The accounts are indeed both vivid and personal, from men and women, commissioned and enlisted. These true stories range from the mundane to the heroic. A fine oral history.

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Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking by Anne Mendelson. Part biography and part critical exegesis of the development of American cooking, this excellently researched and well-footnoted book deserves a place on the shelf alongside The Joy of Cooking. Try teasing apart the engaging personalities of the authors of Joy from the elegant and witty prose of Ms. Mendelson; the Reader doesn't think it can be done. Fully as enjoyable as it is erudite, and that's saying a lot.

Gertrude Stein Remembered by Linda Simon. This collection of remembrances about Stein steers clear of hagiography to gather a range of impressions into a kind of crazy quilted biography. Although you may have run across pieces of this work in other places, side by side each bit takes on a more interesting colour. Gertrude Stein Memorial Page

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings. Hastings' goal is to write not the memoir nor the critical biography, but the 'life' of Evelyn Waugh. It's an interesting story, although from time to time I bogged down in some of the critical aspects she felt she had to include. The photographs included invite their own study. Take a look at a Waugh site that will launch you to a number of other sites.

Double Exposure Jessamyn West. Journal entries and letters from a young woman's first voyage to England and France in the late 20s. Most interesting is Miss West's meditation as an octogenarian on her youthful self.

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Copyright 1996-1998 Anna Read-The Faithful Reader.