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Books - Bios/Autobios/Memoirs

About the person or the life; some overlap with non-fiction works (Top 10 Index)
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A Christmas Memory - Truman Capote
Originally appearing in Mademoiselle, this brief memoir is a slice of Capote's childhood. He grew up with a distant cousin, a single woman sixty or so years older than he.

Simply told and sentimental without becoming maudlin, the book - which most English majors haven't even heard of - left an indelible mark on me. Like Capote (the man) or not, he certainly can write. The books tenor is similar to Calvin Trillian in the latter's Remembering Denny, but a little sadder and introspective.

Fast read; poignant; highly recommended.

A Mathmatician's Apology - G.H. Hardy
A very short book - really, just a long essay - where Hardy describes his thoughts about mathematics, the field's worth and his place in mathematics and the world. Some talk of cricket, which I totally don't get...

Hardy is one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, and this books is an excellent examination of mathematics, English collegiate life and - oddly (but not if you know Hardy) - cricket.

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
In this book, Hemingway writes of his love of Paris, writing and his first wife. An almost unknown book to non-English Major types, this book is a readable feast.

Darkness Visible - William Styron
A very short memoir by Styron about his battle with depression and his near suicide.

Dear Theo - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo. Well written and - at times - haunting. In his last letter to Theo, Vincent writes: "Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half-foundered."

Night - Elie Wiesel
Wiesel - a Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner - writes of his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Along with The Diary of Anne Frank, part of the unfortunate literary cannon known as Holocaust literature/memoirs.

Plainspeaking - Merle Miller
Subtitled "An Oral History of Harry S. Truman," that pretty much sums up the concept and protagonist of the biography. However, the format - a great deal of Q & A - is compelling because you hear Truman's voice, get what makes him click.

I remember reading this shortly after it came out in 1973 - after Nixon ("I am not a crook") resigned.

Night and day, even though - in retrospect - both Presidents shared common traits: More common folk than other commander in chiefs (such as Hyde Park Roosevelt or Princeton-groomed Wilson); less-than-impressive pasts (Eisenhower led the Allied Forces; Kennedy was beloved for his style/family etc, war hero also).

Yet Truman - who seems more like LBJ than the corner grocer (uh, ditto for Nixon) - comes off more as a common person, more grounded. More like Jimmy Carter, which (out of office) is not a bad thing.

It's interesting to hear Truman ruminate about recent and distant history, and about human nature in general. I don't have the quotation, but Truman says he views his lack of presidency as a promotion: The Americans are the boss of the President, so - no longer in power - he wields power over the President, instead of having 200+ million bosses. Even if it's a line, it's a good one.

Remembering Denny - Calvin Trillen
Trillen, one of today's sharpest and most intellectual wits, pens this short memoir of a former Yale classmate.

Denny was a golden boy, popular in school, Rhodes Scholar, headed for great things in life: Potentially the biggest brass ring of all, the Presidency. It seemed possible.

But Denny wandered and ultimately took his own life. Trillen's examination of Denny's life turns into a closer look into the culture of upper-crust New England life and late-1950s society in general. It examines the privileged life and what one does - and doesn't do - in this culture.

For Trillen, this is a very quiet, serious book.

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Plath Worship is almost a religion among many; like Ayn Rand, Plath has garnered (for different reasons) fans in the over-the-top way Rand has.

Beyond that - and even beyond her poetry (which rocks, painfully) - her prose is textured and moving. The story of her early life - through her excellence at school and winning an intership at a New York magazine - is most telling in what it tells about her: Her work, her feelings about family and friends, suicide attempts and so on.

This book is technically a work of fiction, but the membrane that separates this novel from reality is so thin as to be non-existent.

Plath - like Rand - has become somewhat of a cliche, which is unfortunate but not totally unexpected. However, look beyond the conventional wisdom and actually read her work, instead of reading about her work.

You'll be rewarded.

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