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Happy Holidays, Voyeurs: Nancy Pearl Picks Memoirs

Truth to tell, I have a real love/hate relationship with memoirs. Because I very much enjoy reading about people's lives (an unappreciative therapist might term my predilection voyeurism), I gravitate toward the biography and memoir section of libraries and bookstores. But despite the fact that memoirs are, by definition, self-referential and are therefore -- to one degree or another -- filled with variations of me, me, me, I don't really enjoy (and therefore tend not to read) what I call the "Children of Job," subgenre of memoir-writing. You know the type, and I don't need to name any names. Rather, what I'm looking for are engaging characters, enlightening and/or entertaining stories and good writing. Here are some of my favorites.


Blue Blood

By Edward Conlon; paperback, 576 pages; Riverhead Trade, list price: $17

If you, like me, could watch Law & Order reruns eight hours a day, or if you've ever been curious about the inner workings of police departments, you'll want to rush right out and read Edward Conlon's Blue Blood. After graduating from Harvard, Conlon came home and joined the New York City Police Department, walking a beat in some of the worse housing projects in the South Bronx. His wide-ranging book is partly a memoir of his experiences (he is now working as a detective for the NYPD); the effects -- pro and con -- of the Giuliani anti-crime years; the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases; Sept. 11; and the scandals and the triumphs, both large and small, that mark the history of the NYPD. Nicely written (some of it appeared in The New Yorker as "Cop Diary" under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey) and filled with interesting characters (both cops and perps -- wait, make that suspected perps), this is both a pleasure and an education to read.


The Bill From My Father

By Bernard Cooper; paperback, 256 pages; Simon & Schuster, list price: $14

In The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper takes a familiar trope — a complex and unreliable parent -- and gives it a unique spin as he looks back on his stormy relationship with his father. Edward Cooper was a prominent Los Angeles divorce attorney, once seemingly invincible (at least to the author) but now sinking into dementia, whose constant philandering was hardly a secret from his sons (or presumably, his wife). Now, with his mother and all three of his older brothers dead, Cooper attempts to understand the complicated bond with this most difficult man, which means trying to come to grips with his father's strong disapproval of both his choice of career as a writer -- the elder Cooper wanted Bernard to become a lawyer, as all three of his brothers did -- and his homosexuality. As you might imagine, the father/son relationship did not noticeably improve when his father sent him a bill for nearly $2 million -- the cost of raising him. This moving account is liberally leavened with humor and never morphs into the oh-poor-me school of autobiography.


The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century Of Art And Loss

By Edmund de Waal; hardcover, 368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $26

Every once in a while, I run across a book that has such wide appeal that I can easily imagine giving copies to nearly everyone on my gift list. One such book -- and my favorite work of nonfiction this year -- is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. The author, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, contemplates the history of his ancestors, a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family, from the latish 19th century through World War II. He uses as the linchpin for his discussion a collection of 246 netsukes, miniature ornamental carvings (including one of a hare with amber eyes), which were originally collected by the first Charles Ephrussi and handed down from generation to generation. In the process the collection moved from Japan to Paris to Vienna, back to Japan, and thence to the author, in London. The Ephrussis were a cultural force both in Vienna and in Paris. You can see what was once their house on Vienna's Ringstrasse even now. Charles was a patron of many artists and writers; he was also the model for Swann in Proust's great novel, and he appears in Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he's the man in the back, in profile, with a top hat and a reddish beard). I'm giving this book to friends and family who love history or biographies or art or visiting and/or reading about Paris or Vienna; to those who enjoy family sagas and, especially, to anyone who appreciates graceful, understated writing. And those who love books with family trees. Kudos to the publisher, FSG, for producing a book that's both a pleasure to hold and behold.


Journey Into The Whirlwind

By Eugenia Ginzburg; paperback, 432 pages; Mariner Books, list price: $16

Anyone with the least interest in 20th century history shouldn't miss Eugenia Ginzburg's two memoirs, Journey Into the Whirlwind and its sequel, Within the Whirlwind. I first read them about a quarter of a century ago. I still remember how reading them knocked the breath out of me, as though I'd been run over by an out-of-control truck. I first learned, from reading them, of the true horrors of Stalin's reign of terror. As I turned the pages I was forced to consider how one can never predict how a friend or a foe, or oneself, for that matter, will behave under the most extreme circumstances. In Ginzburg's accounts, she presents both the highs and lows of human behavior, and by extension, humanity itself. Ginzburg spent 18 years caught up in the nightmare that gripped the Soviet Union during the height of Stalin's powers, when he turned on loyal Communist Party members, religious minorities and anyone else who displeased him. The picture I have in my mind is that of a paranoid Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, screaming almost randomly, "Off with his head," in a world in which nothing makes sense. Only Stalin's era was no fantasy, and the consequences of his paranoia were terribly real. The great staying power of these accounts arises partly from the stark facts of history, but mostly from Ginzburg's unadorned and unaffected writing about her situation. From her arrest (for not speaking up against a colleague who was later accused of being a Trotskyist) to her incarceration in prisons and jails and huts (unheated) in Siberia's gulag, we are with Ginzburg every step of the way. And I was struck by how often she finds consolation in the poetry she remembers.


Cakewalk: A Memoir

By Kate Moses; hardcover, 368 pages; The Dial Press, list price: $26

I am not a foodie, although some of my best friends are. Thus, there's no way I would have picked up Kate Moses' Cakewalk to read but for the photograph on the cover, which made me smile. (See, you can judge a book by its cover!) I continued reading it because Moses is a writer of salutary talents. And if I hadn't read it, I would have missed not only an affecting memoir but also some recipes that I feel sure -- if I were a baker -- I would immediately try out. If my oven even works. Luckily, those friends of mine who do bake have, in return for lending them the book, let me try samples of the ever-so-tasty results of several of Moses' recipes. Mainly focused on her life during the 1960s and '70s, her memoir is marked by parental discord and differences (her mother and father were spectacularly unsuited to one another), frequent moves, and a thorny family history. Cooking and reading were her lifelines out of the unhappy situations she found herself in. Each chapter includes a recipe, and each -- from cheesecake to linzer tort, from spiced pecan cake to chocolate truffles -- sounds more scrumptious than the one before. One bit of advice I feel compelled to give: brownies, page 209. Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I know the first version (with walnuts) is amazing.


Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life

By Amy Krouse Rosenthal; paperback, 240 pages; Broadway, list price: $13

There are so many memoirs being published these days that the ones I read sometimes blend into one gigantic life story in my head, but there's no way I'm going to confuse Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life with any other memoir anytime soon. I had forgotten, until I reread it recently, what a delight it was to spend time with this self-described "ordinary" person, learning her quirks and hangups, her likes and dislikes, her everyday (and not) adventures (including the inspired way she attempted to get out of paying a parking ticket — you'll love it, trust me), all arranged, encyclopedia-style, from A ("Amy," "Anxious, Things That Make Me Anxious," "Ayn Rand") to Y ("You"), with appropriate cross-references and clever drawings to supplement the text. To get a sense of Rosenthal's writing style and humor, here's how the foreword to the book begins:


Half A Life

By Darin Strauss; hardcover, 204 pages; McSweeney's, list price: $22

Darin Strauss' moving memoir Half a Life is painfully honest and inherently dramatic without seeming either precious or self-pitying. When the car he was driving hit and killed Celine, a high school classmate whom he knew only casually, Strauss' life was, as one might suspect, altered forever. Although he was held to be blameless in Celine's death (what insurance companies refer to as "a no-fault fatality"), Strauss found that this event — which occurred nearly 20 years ago — has now shaped almost half his life. In prose that is introspective, evocative and unaffected, Strauss shares with us his musings on life, death, blame and self-doubt. I wondered, as I read it, how I would have lived the rest of my life after the parent of someone for whose death I was, however innocently, responsible, says this to you:

So how do you live your life after that?


Stuffed: Adventures Of A Restaurant Family

By Patricia Volk; paperback, 256 pages; Vintage, list price: $13.95

In Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, Patricia Volk delivers an affection-filled tribute to both family and food. In a series of vignettes, she lovingly describes her adored extended family. Each chapter, titled for a different food, from Butter Cookies to Caviar, is primarily devoted to one of her relatives. Among them are her great-grandfather, who was the first to import pastrami to New York; her grandfather, who invented the wrecking ball; her mother, forever trying to improve her daughters ("Mom made me, and now she will make me better"); her beautiful and best beloved older sister, Jo Ann; her embittered Aunt Lil, who embroidered a pillow with the phrase, "I've never forgotten a rotten thing anyone has done to me"; and her magnetic father, who taught her:

Volk's family is sufficiently odd enough to keep anyone's attention, while her writing (she's also the author of a novel and two collections of stories) is both witty and tender. I pored over the all-too-few family photographs, wished that there was a family tree that I could refer back to, and most of all wished that I, too, could be part of the whole Volk/Morgen clan.

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Nancy Pearl
Nancy Pearl is a regular commentator about books on NPR's Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa.