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Moments Of Truth: 6 Memoirs Written With Heart

Andrew Bannecker

Summer vacations are where we do some of our most serious thinking — whether we're sitting by the ocean, cradled in a hammock, or strolling alongside a river. And yet, when it comes to summer reading, we can be quick to grab the latest flashy espionage novel or an earthy romance slathered in buttery prose. Not that there isn't a time and place for brain popcorn, but lately, I find that I want my summer reading material to match my buzzing mind. And for that kind of constant engagement, I turn to memoir.

I wasn't always a memoir reader, but in recent years, as I have grown older (and more wistful), I find myself longing to commune with others' memories. Reading memoir pushes the mind to confront another's actual, lived experience, and in doing so, reflect on one's own. Plus, in the hands of a beautiful writer, nothing tears at the heart like something true.

Last summer, Cheryl Strayed's Wild became a hita memoir so intense that it caused me to weep on a subway in front of a gaggle of strangers. This year's fresh crop of true-life tales are just as engrossing. (Hint: Throw some tissues in your beach bag.) Enjoy your vacation meditations!

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by Sonali Deraniyagala

Most of the time, the beach is a place of peace, but every now and then, it can be the site of a living nightmare. In 2004, a devastating tsunami hit the coast of Sri Lanka, where economics professor Deraniyagala was vacationing with her husband, parents and two young sons. She was the only member of her family to survive the wave. Deraniyagala's sparse, exacting prose, trained with a gimlet eye on the process of grief, contains echoes of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, though it is uniquely her own. She is able to describe in precise, acute detail the chaos of losing loved ones, from the aching hurt to the moments of beauty following an unthinkable tragedy. Somehow, even after losing everything, Deraniyagala is able to write through it with grace and an elegant distance that rarely comes with such extreme circumstances. Her story feels essential — but it would feel that way even if a tsunami never happened again. Hers is a timeless tale confronting real questions: How can one carry on when everything you love is suddenly, completely washed away?

The Book of My Lives

by Aleksandar Hemon

In 2011, The New Yorker published an essay called "The Aquarium," by Chicago-based novelist Aleksandar Hemon, and after reading it, I could think of nothing else for weeks. The essay followed Hemon and his wife through the harrowing process of learning that their infant daughter, Isabel, had a rare brain tumor, needed chemotherapy, and would ultimately not survive. Hemon's retelling of his daughter's death is so beautiful and raw that it catches the reader in the throat. That essay appears in The Book of My Lives, along with 14 others that easily cement Hemon as a virtuoso of the form. He makes one want to follow him anywhere, from his childhood in pre-war Sarajevo, to his teenage chess career, to starting a new life as a writer in Chicago after fleeing his homeland. Hemon's voice is intimate, funny and alive — an ideal companion for a long trip inward.

Give Me Everything You Have

by James Lasdun

If thrillers are more your speed, then pick up James Lasdun's memoir, a creepy, claustrophobic account of obsession and near ruin. Lasdun, a poet and novelist who teaches writing classes, began a friendly e-mail correspondence with a student that quickly escalated into something far more sinister. Soon the student, Nasreen, was vowing to ruin Lasdun's life and started posting slanderous remarks about him anywhere she could. Death prophesies, accusations of rape, obscene voice mails and ominous notes on Facebook menacing Lasdun's family followed, and even at the time of the book's publication, had not ceased. Lasdun weaves together his own stalking experience with those from folklore and mythology, and includes thoughtful meditations on the state of modern reputation, bullying and connection in the digital age. Though his story is like horror film unfolding, Lasdun tells it so well as to allow the reader inside, and to feel grateful not to have a Nasreen lurking in the shadows.

After Visiting Friends

by Michael Hainey

Imagine if the story you believed about your father's death, the story that you held with you your entire life, was a lie, fabricated by your mother and family friends in order to cover up the secret last days of your father's life. This is what happened to GQ editor Michael Hainey, whose ambitious newspaperman father died in Chicago when Hainey was only 6 years old. Hainey grew up believing that his father died of a heart attack on his way home from work, but realized upon reading an obituary that his father had passed away after "visiting friends." Hainey then went on a quest to discover the true circumstances: Who were these friends? And why didn't anyone ever mention them? Hainey beautifully recounts the bustling history of 1960s Chicago and scrappy newspaper culture, while also revealing some stark truths about his parents' marriage and the stories about love that we are told as children. Written in a spare, sparkling style, Hainey's memoir feels less like a gushing confessional and more like an elegiac poem.


by Patricia Volk

2013 has been a big year so far for "mommy dearest" memoirs — stories of daughters overshadowed and overpowered by larger-than-life maternal figures. For those interested in an alarming tale of substance abuse and neglect, there's Domenica Ruta's haunting With or Without You. For those who prefer a kooky story of a glamorous woman living like a grown-up Eloise in New York, to the detriment of her daughters, there's Wendy Lawless' fizzy Chanel Bonfire. But as far as daughter-mother tell-alls go, my favorite this year is Patricia Volk's charming Shocked, a refreshing mixture of memoir and biography that defies classification. Volk's mother, Audrey, was a truly elegant creature — the striking, often vain hostess of her family's New York restaurant. At a young age, Patricia found a copy of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli's autobiography and saw flashes of the eccentric volatility of "Schiap" in her own mother. She started to view Audrey through the lens of Elsa, both as a kindred spirit and a contrasting one. Don't let the quirkiness of the book's premise deter you — Volk effortlessly weaves history and memory together into a completely unique whole.


by Christa Parravani

Warning: Her may make you cry in a public place. Be prepared. Christa Parravani's memoir is that rare kind of book that hits you out of nowhere, and suddenly it's overwhelming you with cinematic swell. Parravani is an identical twin — or, rather, she was an identical twin. Her sister, Cara, was her best friend, her confidante, her entire world. And then, Cara becomes the victim of a terrible act of violence, falls into a spiral of drugs and depression, and ultimately passes away young, without leaving answers. Christa, who grew up feeling like one half of a sacred unit, didn't know how to go on, let alone thrive, without her sister. Her only option was to write her way into some sense of clarity. Parravani's book feels so special because you can see her struggling on the page, the act of acceptance taking shape with the words. Parravani begins bereft, but through telling the story of who Cara was, what it meant to be her sister, and what kind of person she might become without her other half, she gains strength. It's not often to find so much pleasure in the act of watching someone heal herself, but that's exactly what Her provides.

Rachel Syme
Rachel Syme is a frequent contributor to NPR Books. She is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast, and has written and edited for Elle, Radar, Page Six Magazine, Jane, theNew York Observer, The Millions, and GQ.