In the third installment of his memoirs, Stephen Fry briefly reviews the most formative events of his childhood and university years before meandering through the cocaine-laced journey of his career. The memoir is littered with anecdotes about his own personal life and his star-studded friendships–although he makes a point not to tell any scathing or overly embarrassing stories about famous people other than himself. The story of his initial introduction to cocaine and early, high-functioning usage is much more detailed and direct than the story of its negative impact on his life (told through the publication of a litany of his actual diary entries which focus primarily on people and events). But he makes a point of telling the reader that cocaine dependency negatively impacted his professional and personal life, and he would recommend it to no one.
Fry’s non-chronological reminiscences follow thin thematic threads, which makes the book difficult to follow at times. There is no real arc to the overall points he makes (they are somewhat scattered throughout), so the memoir reads more as a collection of anecdotes than a cohesive narrative of its own. That said, many of the anecdotes are quite entertaining. One of the highlights of the book is an anecdote about Prince Charles and Princess Diana paying a visit to Stephen Fry’s home over the Christmas holiday while he had house guests (including Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson). The majority of his anecdotes, however, will be of most (perhaps exclusive) interest to fans of Stephen Fry and his closest colleagues (Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, etc.). I would recommend this memoir specifically to such fans.
As a child, Michaela DePrince witnessed terrible violence in war-torn Sierra Leone. She survived the death of both of her parents, and escaped as a refugee to Ghana, where she was adopted by an American family. What kept Michaela’s hope alive through her years in Sierra Leone was a torn magazine cover with a photograph of a ballerina on it. It was the most incredible thing she had ever seen, and she hoped that one day she could become a ballerina too. Her adoptive parents supported her dreams, and Michaela overcame racial discrimination to become one of the world’s few black classical ballerinas.
Young as she is, Michaela’s memoir only covers her first 17 years of life. But her story is inspiring and very well-written. I read it in one sitting. Although marketed as a young adult book, her story will be of interest to teens and adults. I highly recommend it!
LONE SURVIVOR: THE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF OPERATION REDWING AND THE LOST HEROES OF SEAL TEAM 10 by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
In 2005, Marcus Luttrell and three other members of SEAL Team 10 began tracking a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan, a mission called Operation Redwing. But when several Afghan goat herders stumbled upon the SEALs, Marcus and his teammates made a decision that would cost them their lives. Unsure of whether the goat herders had allegiance to the Taliban, and unwilling to execute them for fear of being prosecuted for war crimes upon their return to the States, the SEALs released them. The goat herders immediately reported the SEALs to the Taliban, who had them surrounded within hours. In the bloodbath that followed, Marcus’ three teammates on the ground—as well as every SEAL in the rescue copter that came to help them—were killed. Marcus survived (barely) and struggled to evade the Taliban warriors who were tracking him through the wilderness, hoping for a rescue he wasn’t sure would ever come. But ironically given the source of the SEALs’ betrayal, Marcus’ salvation would also come in the form of Afghan goat herders.
Lone Survivor is part biography, part military history, and part survival narrative. As far as the writing/storytelling goes, it took me a really long time to get into the book. The first half was a bit scattered and confusing as it jumped back and forth in time and in and out of story and political commentary; it took me a really long time to get into it, and I almost gave up. But about halfway through, beginning with Luttrell’s description of SEAL BUD/S training, the narrative got more straightforward, and it became very engaging. The account of the battle is gruesome, horrifying, and heartbreaking. I have not seen the movie yet, but my brother, who is in the Navy, has this to say, “The movie was better, even though I know the book was more accurate. The movie was more believable, because it was simplified, and when you hear everything those SEALs went through it is so crazy it’s hard to believe.” He also says the storytelling in the movie flows better, which does not surprise me now that I have read the book. I do hope to see the film someday, but it will have to be at a time when it doesn’t matter if I have a few sleepless nights. A horrifying and thought-provoking account of the reality of war, and a heartfelt tribute to the friends Marcus lost.
Susannah Cahalan’s illness came out of nowhere. One day she was living a perfectly normal life as a New York Post journalist; weeks later she was strapped to a hospital bed, experiencing seizures, paranoid hallucinations, and catatonia. The doctors were ready to send her to a psychiatric ward, but her family insisted that there must be a medical cause. Something was wrong with Susannah, and it wasn’t mental illness. After a month of tests, procedures, and turmoil, doctors finally found a diagnosis just in time to save Susannah’s life. Although Susannah has nearly no memories of her “month of madness,” she has reconstructed her path through illness and recovery based on family recollections, journals, and hospital records. Her memoir is intense and fascinating, forcing readers to reexamine their perception of mental illness and reminding us how little we know about the remarkable human brain. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in memoirs or medicine!
Although his culture placed great importance on magic, William Kamkwamba always knew the importance of science and education. He was determined to succeed in primary school and make it to one of the top secondary schools in Malawi. But drought and famine destroyed his dreams, plunging his farming family into poverty and forcing him to drop out of school. Once the famine subsided and survival was no longer the only thought in his mind, William decided to educate himself. At his village’s library, he stumbled upon the text book Explaining Physics and began to experiment with the concepts and technology described in the book. His house filled up with the trash he collected from the junkyard for his experiments. People in the village began to mock him, thinking him mad. But when he created a windmill that produced electricity for his home (and eventually a reliable water pump to stave off famine) he became a hero to his village and to scientists around the world.
In this autobiography, Kamkwamba tells the story of his childhood and his eventual success as an inventor and scientist. The story is a blend of cultural history and detailed scientific narrative, all told with Kamkwamba’s great sense of humor. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is truly inspirational and will be particularly engaging for readers with an interest in both world cultures and science.
Avi Steinberg did not plan on becoming a prison librarian. In fact, he once planned on devoting his life to the study of the Torah and Talmud. But after a Harvard education, a falling-off from Orthodox Judaism, and a brief career as an obituary writer, he finds himself on the staff of a Boston “correctional” facility. The experience challenges him in ways he could never have expected. He spends his day cracking jokes with pimps, scouring the library stacks for forbidden messages between prisoners (and secretly saving them), leading prison creative writing groups, and struggling to balance his professional work, his almost-friendships with inmates, his often-dashed hopes for the inmates’ futures, and his knowledge of the terrible crimes many have committed.
Running the Books is both funny and touching. It is entirely character driven, not always chronological, and occasionally confusing. But if you enjoy reflective memoirs and character studies, I definitely recommend this book. I greatly enjoyed it.