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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
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