Larger-Than-Life Memoirs Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl recommends 10 personal tales that emphasize strong writing and stories that capture truths relevant to the wider world.
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Larger-Than-Life Memoirs

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Larger-Than-Life Memoirs

Larger-Than-Life Memoirs

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Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl has come to see us again. And, as always, she's brought a list of recommended reading. This time, some books to wile away the last days of summer.

Nancy Pearl, you've sent us maybe one of the biggest stacks of books you've sent us yet, and they're memoirs. Why memoirs?

Ms. NANCY PEARL (Seattle Librarian): I love memoirs if they are not self-indulgent. It seems to me that self-indulgence is the abiding sin of many memoir writers. I think everyone has a story to tell but not everyone's story needs to be published.

INSKEEP: Which is why some people in the publishing industry and outside have been asking: Are there too many memoirs, period?

Ms. PEARL: And I think there probably are too many memoirs, so when I'm looking for a memoir, I'm looking for absolutely wonderful writing, as well as something beyond the author's life, something to set it into the context of the larger world, and all the books that I brought today definitely do that.

INSKEEP: All right, top of the stack here: "Hons and Rebels." The author is Jessica Mitford, a well-known journalist.

Ms. PEARL: Yes. Yes. A well-known journalist, but her life, her childhood, and adolescence, was marked by the fact that she belonged to a very quirky family of sisters. One of her sisters, Diana, ended up marrying Sir Oswald Mosely, head of the British fascists. Another sister, Unity, was very taken with Hitler, and...

INSKEEP: Mitford was not of those politics at all, Jessica Mitford (unintelligible).

Ms. PEARL: Mitford went the--Jessica Mitford, or Decca, as she was known to the family, went the opposite way, and early on developed a very strong social conscience, a great interest in, and loyalty to, the British Communist Party. It's a wonderful picture of the 1930s and the 1940s and an England that is long gone.

INSKEEP: Let's keep moving down here. What else do we have here?

Ms. PEARL: Oh, Peter Balakian's "Black Dogs of Fate" is just a really wonderful, wonderful look at growing up in suburban New Jersey as a member of an Armenian-American family. Peter Balakian grew up always believing that there was something hidden from him that something that his parents and his wide circle of other Armenian-Americans were not telling him. But he didn't find that out until he discovered the facts about the 1915 Armenian genocide, and he gives the reader a sense of what those times were like and what the murder of one million or more Armenians meant to the survivors.

INSKEEP: And we'll keep moving here. "Going Back To Bisbee" by Richard Shelton.

Ms. PEARL: "Going Back To Bisbee," one of my all-time favorite books. Richard Shelton was a high school English teacher in Arizona and he, in this book, "Going Back To Bisbee," recounts a car trip that he took through the Sonoran Desert south from Tucson to this small town in Arizona called Bisbee. Some, like me, who lives in a very wet leafy place always thinks of the desert as having nothing to offer, and reading this book, I saw how wrong I was. I saw--what he made me see was the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, and, because Richard Shelton is a poet, this is absolutely magnificently written.

INSKEEP: Well, let's go to--oh, we've got a couple more--"Astro Turf" by M.G. Lord, and there's a subtitle--"The Private Life of Rocket Science."

Ms. PEARL: Yes, Lord's father worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1950s and the 1960s and this is a social history, in a way, of JPL, and talking about her relationship to her father who really combined in himself the ethos of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory--very detached, very--a male-oriented world.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to read a paragraph here? This is M.G. Lord, the author, remembering a moment in her childhood that sort of brings home who her father was and what it was like to live with him.

Ms. PEARL: (Reading) `I was in La Jolla, California, on the floor of my room, from which you could see the desk in my dad's study. I remembered two smells, both beguiling to me, though not necessarily to others. They were melting plastic and skunk. The latter emerged from the decrepit foam rubber lining of a pressure helmet that my father had dug out of the trash at General Dynamics Convair where he worked in the early 1960s and presented to me. However stinky and disgusting, the helmet was authentic. It trailed two hoses and its visor could be sealed shut. The object elevated my stature among my fellow fourth-graders. I wore it for Halloween, class presentations, entertaining after-school guests. At night, I slept with it.'

INSKEEP: The beguiling smell of skunk.

Ms. PEARL: Not to mention melting plastic.

INSKEEP: Let's make sure we do one more here, Nancy Pearl, and this is a memoir about memory. It's called "In the Shadow of Memory" by Floyd Skloot. What is his story?

Ms. PEARL: Floyd Skloot's story is that he contracted a virus in 1988 that really caused profound neurological damage to his brain. This collection of essays details that experience but, as well, it talks about what it's like to live in a world where you can never be sure that you will remember a particular word. I mean, imagine trying to ask to have the salt passed and not being able to come up with that word. So it's--but this is a book that is so gracefully written. And when I was reading it the first time, I wondered, `Well, I don't see how his dementia, how this brain damage, has had any impact on him as a writer.' And then he says in the book that each essay in the book took him between a year and two years to write.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to read a little bit of Floyd Skloot's memoir here?

Ms. PEARL: I'd be delighted to.

INSKEEP: Page 41, Floyd Skloot here is recalling an instance in which a childhood friend gets back in touch with him and he doesn't recall who this person was. He has to ask his mother who this kid was that he'd played with. And he's describing how he responds to that situation.

Ms. PEARL: (Reading) `I wrote to Larry, saying that I was the Floyd Skloot from Long Beach. How could there be another person with such a name, after all, but that I had no memory of him. Certainly, I could have written more tactfully or more fully, but I was bedridden at the time. He says that he threw my letter in the wastebasket and was deeply offended, furious that I did not remember him. But he then calmed down and wrote back anyway to explain that he had been my neighbor, playmate and teammate. He recalled being in my house with me the evening after my father died. He was filled with the memories I had lost, and, when I explained my situation, was eager to share them. In the years that had followed, Larry not only helped me reclaim many of those memories, he resumed his place in my life as a friend so close that I cannot get through a week without talking to him.'

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Ms. PEARL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is the author of "More Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason." Nancy's memoir picks are at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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