The whole point of summer vacation is doing nothing, or as close to it as possible. Stretching out full-length on scorching sand, a sighing emerald lawn, a porch swing, a deck chair, a chaise longue, rearranging knees and elbows to find the best pose possible for turning pages with one hand while holding a glass or bottle with the other: That about marks the apex of ambition once the summer clock starts ticking. And when you're languid, lying perfectly still under a huge sky on one of those vast, dilated days that linger way past dinnertime, what bigger frisson than reading about other people rushing around having wild adventures and deep epiphanies all over the world?
It's a counterpoint thing. The more placidly motionless the reader, the more impact all that vicarious action packs.
And vicarious action, subtle or speedy, from pursuing gurus to dodging bullets to sidestepping the SS, is all the more thrilling if you know for sure that it actually happened to someone somewhere. Fictional predicaments are fine for cold weather, when fakery fills the air. Invented adventures are only too appropriate in those months when mere survival hangs on contrivances such as central heating, snowplows, and layered fleece. But in summer, which gives bodies stripped nearly bare nothing to fear, nothing satisfies like the absolute truth. The brutal but crystalline clarity of a first-person nonfiction narrative is a metaphor for the summer sky itself. And the adrenaline rush that comes with reading about real-world revelations, revolutions, and shark-infested seas shoots like an ice cube down the back.
This season, hot new adventure-memoirs are stacking up. Don't confuse these with that stolid old standby: the recollections of icons whose entrenched, in-the-bag fame hoists their books above the status of mere memoir to full-on autobiography, with all that implicit extra dignity and instant best-sellerdom and waiting lists at local bookshops. The other Clinton autobiography is now upon us.
Rather, the zeitgeist right now is for titillating memoirs by authors of whom you've never heard. More or less regular Joes and Janes who are, in this celebrity-driven world, near-nobodies. Doctors. Lawyers. Reporters. Grad students. Moms. No one you'd notice on the checkout line or in the adjacent Camry stopped at the light. But they've done things. Weird things. Funny things. Dumb and dangerous things that have rendered them accidental sages, surprised survivors, dispatchers from heaven and hell.
Matthew McAllester had been dispatching for years, but -- filing news reports from war zones around the world -- he never expected that his biggest scoop ever would be about himself. Last year, just as war broke out in Iraq, the Newsday reporter was arrested with several other journalists in a Baghdad hotel. In Blinded by the Sunlight, he recounts their chilling week of captivity, interrogation, and terrifying mind games in Saddam's most notorious prison, Abu Ghraib. The book's title is a bit of a misnomer as McAllester sees every detail, peeking over and under his blindfold.
War gets you thinking about ... well, about war. In At the Abyss, former Secretary of the Air Force Thomas C. Reed offers an insider's view of those duck-and-cover decades now remembered with a shudder as the Cold War. Reed, who worked under Reagan and the first Bush, writes about his life among spies, bombs, and world leaders with an irresistible if unexpectedly wry wit that humanizes this long but -- as international crises go -- only relatively lethal conflict. In the process, he makes no bones about how close we've been to being vaporized.
But a far cry from world affairs is Kat Albrecht's The Lost Pet Chronicles, a warm and fuzzy narrative about an animal-adoring California cop who bought herself a few cute puppies and turned them into highly skilled search dogs. After years spent hunting with them for missing humans, Albrecht had a bolt from the blue: Why not use animals to hunt for missing animals? These chronicles of her highs and lows as a certified pet detective might make dog- and catless readers' eyes glaze over now and then, but diehard zoophiles will relish Albrecht's tales of suburban search-and-rescues, sad little stiff corpses, and joyous reunions, intercut with insights on raising bloodhounds at home. (They're smart and lovable and exude saliva incessantly.)
We don't like to think of doctors as having lives. If they have lives -- lovers and cranky kids who keep them up all night, and ailments of their own -- then that bodes really poorly for their concentration, and that is the only part of them we wish to think about. Emergency-room physician Frank Huyler breaks down that professional wall of silence in The Blood of Strangers. This memoir-in-essays' title says it all, baring the heart and soul of a man who in the course of a typical work shift watches a beautiful girl bleed to death, laughs bitterly at a fellow medic's joke about broken jaws and blow jobs, sees colleagues losing it, stops a child from slipping into a coma, and saves a wounded murderer's life. What goes on behind that white surgical mask? Maybe more than you want to know, but as both a published poet and a wielder of scalpels, Huyler gives it to you straight and stunningly.
Many of these authors are so ordinary, so much like us and those we know, that we slide into their shoes effortlessly, automatically, as they walk on the wild side: a far cry from the way we fawn and genuflect our way through the reminiscences of, say, the Clintons or Maya Angelou. Within the moments it takes to skim a single paragraph of this new type of memoir we love the author or hate the author, envy the author or identify with the author, and imagine being the author and telling his or her story but also shudder with relief at not having actually had to be there. A cool trick.
Sometimes the walk in question isn't really on the wild side, yet a skilled memoirist keeps us in step anyway. This is an entirely different sort of cool trick, in which the author takes a standard practice, an experience neither new nor extraordinary and which is shared by millions daily, and turns it around to reveal seldom-spoken marvels lurking within. Herman Gollob does this deftly with Me and Shakespeare, recounting how, shortly before retiring from a career in publishing a few years ago, he happened to attend a Broadway performance of Hamlet starring Ralph Fiennes as the prince.
"As an English major" some forty years previous, Gollob writes, "I'd taken the obligatory Shakespeare course, but it was only a semester." In the intervening decades he spared the Bard hardly a thought. But galvanized by Fiennes' performance, Gollob was swept into a passion that puzzled and utterly pervaded him. Writing comfortably as if to a friend, he describes how rediscovering each of Shakespeare's plays in turn shed new light on his own life and the world at large.
Steve Almond took a similarly though deliciously lower-brow universal experience and made it into his memoir Candyfreak. The portentously named Almond confesses to having eaten at least one piece of candy every single day of his life. It's more than just a sensory thing with him; it's about far deeper comforts. As a small boy in the suburbs, "I wasn't just interested in eating the candy. I fondled it."
The Holocaust-memoir subgenre has redoubled in output over the last few years, bolstered in part by the onscreen success of Wladislaw Szpilman's The Pianist, which was based on a memoir. This season's Running Through Fire puts a new slant on the story as Polish-born Zosia Goldberg describes her survival strategy: After slipping out of the Warsaw ghetto with a fake ID, she simply pretended not to be Jewish. Years of hard work in the war-bitten countryside ensued, but she got away with it, admitting that male Jews who tried the same ruse were not so lucky: The Nazis made them unzip their pants, and the jig was up.
Blending a bodily journey with that other sure thing, a spiritual one, Elizabeth Kadetsky writes compellingly of her quest for enlightenment in First There Is a Mountain. The subtitle, "A Yoga Romance," lends a misleadingly fluffy Harlequin tone to a book that is as starkly honest as a sprained wrist. Journalist Kadetsky minces no words about her youthful bout with anorexia, during which yoga and hunger combined to fuel the pursuit of what she calls ruefully "body as topiary." Curling and stretching into ever more astounding postures at the feet of the cruel but much-revered yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, the earnest student discovers that those feet are at least partly made of clay.
Some of these memoirs serve as paeans to a time and place now lost to us and lost to the authors as well, recoverable only through their musings. Recounting tragic romances with two abstract painters, Joyce Johnson's Missing Men recaptures mid-20th-century New York City, a milieu throbbing with new ideas, new styles, and new ways of living that shattered old social mores. An accomplished novelist, Johnson is still -- for better or worse -- most famous for having briefly been Jack Kerouac's girlfriend. In this book she skips lightly over Beatdom while lingering over her early career as a Broadway child-actor and her marriages to two artists of whom you've most likely never heard. The gimlet poignancy with which she evokes the presence, then absence, of these men in her life makes up for those other moments, always a risk in memoirs, when you're pawing the ground yearning to move onward from schoolyard antics and Mom and Dad.
Proving yet again India's age-old supremacy as the armchair-, deck-chair-, and beach-towel-traveling capital of the world, Terry Tarnoff's The Bone Man of Benares takes us back to the author's youthful subcontinental sojourn circa 1971, alight with sex and drugs both hard and soft and big hairy bugs and tragic missed connections that wreck people's lives forever. While Tarnoff sometimes slips into the obvious -- Bombay, surprise surprise, is a "nonstop 24-hour circus" -- most of the time he scores big-time with unsettling, acid-fueled images that just won't quit.
Twenty years or so can really change young Americans' reasons for wanting to see the world. As a foreign correspondent reporting from dozens of war zones and disaster areas, Neely Tucker recorded myriad modern hells. In Zimbabwe, home to one of the world's highest AIDS rates, a land of extremes where "the sun burns for days on end and rain is a rumor that will not come," he volunteers at an orphanage, most of whose young charges wither and die within weeks. Love in the Driest Season starts with Tucker's youth -- spent bagging groceries, reading Faulkner, and booting footballs in racially riven Mississippi -- then goes on to chart his coverage of plagues and genocides and the bond he felt for one desperately sick orphan, whom he and his wife adopted and brought home with them against all odds. Tucker describes both horror and splendor with heart-stopping skill.
That is the power of memoirs by almost-ordinary authors: horror and splendor, both searingly vivid in a summer read because you know it's true. And you know it could have been you.
Blinded by the Sunlight
By Matthew McAllester
At the Abyss
By Thomas C. Reed
The Lost Pet Chronicles
By Kat Albrecht
The Blood of Strangers
By Frank Huyler
Me & Shakespeare
By Herman Gollob
First There Is a Mountain
By Elizabeth Kadetsky
Little, Brown, $23.95
By Joyce Johnson
Love in the Driest Season
By Neely Tucker
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