Tag: Memoir

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

Posted July 28, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 4 Comments

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise FrenkelTitle: No Place to Lay One's Head (Goodreads)
Author: Françoise Frenkel
Translator: Stephanie Smee
Published: Vintage, 1945
Pages: 286
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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I have seen a lot of comparisons between Françoise Frenkel’s memoir and Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. They both depict the struggles of living in Nazi occupied France for a Jewish woman and both were works that were found by chance and published. I am yet to read Suite Française, although it sits on my shelf quietly waiting, so I am unable to speak to any more similarities. No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) was originally published in 1945 with a limited run by the now defunct publishing house Verlag Jehebe. Thirty years later it was rediscovered in an attic in the south of France and republished in 2015. Thanks to the efforts of Australian translator Stephanie Smee, an English translation of this book was released this year.

This memoir gives an account of part of her life, from opening Berlin’s first specialist French bookstore in 1921 to her experience with the rise of the Nazi party. Françoise Frenkel, like many other Jewish people, suffered greatly, but what fascinated me about No Place to Lay One’s Head is what she left out of the book. There is no mention of her husband in Rien où poser sa tête at all. The only reason I know about his existence is because of the timeline in the back of the book.

Grief is a powerful emotion and people find their own ways to deal with the pain. Looking at this timeline I know that Frenkel and her husband Simon Raichenstein opened Maison du Livre français (which means House of the French Books) together. He was deported (due to the fact he was a Belarusian) and lived in France from 1933, until he was arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Françoise Frenkel ran the bookstore alone until she escaped Germany in 1939. I do not know if the two spent reunited in France, but I suspect that they may have. My suspicions are based on this idea of grief; Frenkel started writing No Place to Lay One’s Head in 1943 after she was able to so escape to Switzerland, and I get the feeling that the anger and sadness that comes through in the book might have been related to the one person she cannot bare to talk about.

I picked up this book in the hopes to explore the life of a specialist book seller in a rapidly changing political climate but I got something different. I would have loved more chapters on her time learning the trade in a second hand bookstore in the Rue Gay-Lussac. Or even exploring the idea of opening a specialist French bookshop in Germany and the impact it had. Maybe even something that compared the idea to Sylvia Beach opening Shakespeare and Company (a specialty book store dedicated to English language books) in France two years earlier. I love books about books and thought these would be some interesting topics to explore. However I got something completely different; something so devastating and yet full of beauty.

I am partial to a book that is able to deliver cruelty and shock in such an elegant way and I think No Place to Lay One’s Head was able to do just that. It is a weird feeling to go into a book hoping for one thing but finding something unexpected. This memoir is heartbreaking and to try and understand everything she was not saying, just made this book even more affecting. In the back of the book there is one picture of a dedication she wrote to a priest. “…I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace; I am grieving for so many and know not where my family have been laid to rest.” I think that sums up the feeling Françoise Frenkel must have had when writing No Place to Lay One’s Head.


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Posted December 19, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtyTitle: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (Goodreads)
Author: Caitlin Doughty
Narrator: Caitlin Doughty
Published: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
Pages: 272
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Caitlin Doughty started her career working in a crematory. She quickly discovered a common issue that seems to be a major issue in Western society. People are generally unprepared for death, not knowing loved ones wishes and not willing to have conversations regarding the topic. Doughty often refers to this as an anxiety towards death or even a death phobia. In an effort to educate people in death, she started a web series called “Ask a Mortician” allowing people to ask her anything regarding about death and the death industry.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory is an extension of Caitlin Doughty mission. Written as part memoir, part micro-history, this book explores the history and current state of the funeral industry. From the age of eight, Doughty had been exposed to death after witnessing a horrible accident that ended in the death of a small child. From that point she realised people were not willing to talk about death, as if they were scared of this inevitability.

Working at the crematory, she also discovered the lack of ritual towards death in Western society. To her she felt like people would rather criticise the funeral industry for their prices. Like paying to view the body of the recently deceased, a process that involves many processes to make the person look like they are resting peacefully. Price has been a big issue with people; it even is at the point where you can order a cremation over the internet and have the body picked up from the morgue and the ashes delivered without even having to deal with anyone.

The idea of the book is to educate people around the death industry, covering topics like the cremation process, the history of embalming, and even going as far as criticising some of the actions that are being used. Caitlin Doughty believes people should have an understanding of what is going on and have a conversation with their loved ones on the topic. With understanding and acceptance of death, we will be better prepared and should promote a healthier grieving or mourning process.

I had planned to read this book for non-fiction November, but then my mother-in-law died. I was not sure if I would be able to handle reading this but had committed to a buddy read of this book with Steph from Time to read! I was surprised how much comfort this book brought me, I felt better knowing about the processes and what happens in a funeral home. I think Smoke Gets in Your Eyes came at the perfect time for me and I was fascinated by the history and everything else within the book.

It is important to have a better understanding about what happens after death, and I am not just talking about the concept of an afterlife. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the type of book that I think everyone needs to read and then tell your loved ones what you want when you die. I am curious to know more on the topic, I might pick up Stiff by Mary Roach or even Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek to learn more. One of the things I love about non-fiction is the chance to learn so much about a wide variety of topics.


Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Posted December 18, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan HillTitle: Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (Goodreads)
Author: Susan Hill
Published: Profile, 2009
Pages: 244
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: eBook

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While searching for a specific book from her library, Susan Hill discovered that the book was not where she thought it would be. However she did discover many books that she had not read, or deserved a re-read. This inspired a new reading project, to spend the next year dipping into her own library and read the books she has forsaken. Howards End is on the Landing not necessarily charts her reading but more Susan Hill’s opinions on literature and the bookish world.

First thing you discover is that Susan Hill’s house is full of books, not sorted and no order. She had to search for the book she was looking for, expecting it in the one place but not finding it. I love having my library like this, I recently had to look for my copy of Anna Karenina and I just loved looking at all my books and remembering the stories and memories that go with each one. This is the basic premise of this memoir; Hill goes through her bookshelves and shares memories and thoughts she has about the state of literature.

Susan Hill goes on talking about her thoughts on being an author, the publishing world, self-publishing, libraries, bookshelves, re-reading and even the joys of reading slowly. I have recently discovered the joys of re-reading and reading slowly so on so many thoughts, Hall and I were on the same page. Even though we come from different lives, it was such a joy reading a book devoted to her memories of all the books that sit on her shelves, and scattered across her house.

I have tried to spend a year not buying any new books, in the hopes to read more of the books on my shelves. It did not work. I did however discover how great the library is and started using my local library more. I also discovered how easy it is to get books without having to spend money, especially ARCs. The book buying ban did not work, I still have shelves full of books I still need to read. I know my taste in literature has drastically changed, and I am not sure if I should cull some of these books even if I have never read them.

The end of Howards End is on the Landing talks about if she had to cut down her library to forty books, which ones she will keep. The thought of culling your library so drastically terrifies me but I did enjoy pondering which books I would keep if I did have to cull that much. Or maybe my house burnt down, which books I would rebuy to start my new collection. I know Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, Lolita, and most of the books on my favourite’s shelf would remain. However it is not about picking favourites, more about picking the books you would like to read over and over again. Which makes for an interesting thought process.

I am interested in the topic of memoirs in association with books like what is found in Howards End is on the Landing. My memories with this memoir will be closely associated with sitting in a hospital in Nouméa as my mother-in-law passed away. It gives me mixed feelings to love a book so much in such a sad time for my family. I even read this as an eBook on my phone, an experience I do not enjoy either but it was more convenient than carrying a book around.

I found Howards End is on the Landing to be one of the better books about books out there, I am disappointed that my memories of it will be attached to such a tragic event. I found Susan Hill to be very tender towards her love of books, while remaining unafraid to express why she did not like a book. She is never dismissive of the books she did not enjoy, she just does not have the desire to read them. I think it would be a hard balance to get that balance right without sounding like a cranky reader. Howards End is on the Landing will hold a special place in my heart and I do hope others get a chance to read it.


The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Posted December 17, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

The Art of Memoir by Mary KarrTitle: The Art of Memoir (Goodreads)
Author: Mary Karr
Narrator: Mary Karr
Published: Harper Collins, 2015
Pages: 256
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I have been getting into non-fiction lately and especially memoirs. I love reading bookish memoirs, exploring someone’s reading journey or a challenge they completed. I think I have an interesting reading journey and I would love to write it down on paper. I picked up The Art of Memoir to get some ideas and motivate me into writing it down, even if it may never become a memoir. I like the idea of experimenting with the memoir form, developing my writing skills; who knows I might put my reading journey up on my blog as a series.

Mary Karr is a memoirist that has three memoirs in print, The Liars’ Club, Lit and Cherry. All three have been meet with huge acclaim, though I have not read them yet. Karr is an English literature professor Syracuse University often teaching a subject on memoirs. The Art of Memoir draws from her own experience as well as some of her favourite memoirs, including Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Possessed by Elif Batuman and Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

I found that this book had plenty of interesting things to think about when writing a memoir and it really got me excited on the whole endeavour. I really want to check out Mary Karr’s own memoirs and I am thankful that she put this book together. It does not offer a step by step guide but instead offers different examples on how to approach writing. I like how she kept enforcing the idea of sticking to your strengths and building from there. What works for Vladimir Nabokov will probably not work for me, even if I adore and want to emulate his writing style.

I do not know what will become of my writing, I now think of myself as a non-fiction writer (blogging). Since embracing this writing path, I have felt more inspired. I just need to experiment with different styles and see what works for me. Obviously blogging and reviewing is great but I want to see where I can go with my writing if I push myself more.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Posted December 7, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesTitle: Between the World and Me (Goodreads)
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published: Text, 2015
Pages: 176
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Between the World and Me is a collection of essays that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his son. In this collection, Coates reflects on the state of the world and the history in America over the last 150 years. Covering the history and his own personal story of growing up as an African American and attempting to answer some of the questions that his adolescent son might have about the world.

I have always struggled to review a collection of essays and Between the World and Me is no different. What can I say about this book that Ta-Nehisi Coates has not said already, apart from the fact that this is an impressive collection and very informative? Ta-Nehisi Coates is an elegant writer and I found so much beauty in the words, despite the fact that it was a very unsettling subject matter.

One thing that really stood out to me, is the fact Ta-Nehisi Coates offered no answers, no solutions and no hope. He comes across as feeling hopeless in the situation; like racism is never going to end. While this focuses on racism in America, it still manages to get the reader thinking about the topic in their own country. I buddy-read this book with Hanaa from Craving Books who is a Canadian, so we both were not American but still got a lot from the book.

This is an important book and while there are no answers to be found in Between the World and Me, I think just reading this will be a good start. Understanding is an important part of change, and if we can somehow get everyone understanding just how bad the situation, we might get change. Ta-Nehisi Coates really knows how to write and I find myself wanting to read more of his books; I know he has written a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle. I hope he continues to write, and I would love to see him try fiction, but until then everyone should read Between the World and Me.


You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Posted November 24, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia DayTitle: You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) (Goodreads)
Author: Felicia Day
Narrator: Felicia Day
Published: Sphere, 2015
Pages: 262
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I’ve been a fan of Felicia Day from when I first saw The Guild. I think she is a talented and quirky actress/writer/content creator. She knew how to use the Internet to her advantage and I have been watching her grow in popularity and in content creation. But let’s face it; her best work is from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, with Dr. Holly Marten from Eureka a close second. Obviously this is subjective and she has been involved with many great projects but those two really stand out for me.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is the first memoir from Felicia Day; it covers broad strokes of life so far. If you follow Felicia on the Internet, a lot of the information within the book is familiar. However it was nice to have everything in the one memoir. While I knew a fair chunk of what is covered in the book, I still enjoyed reading this.

The memoir goes into great depth with the concept of failure. Failure, should never mean the end, or taken so negatively. Felicia Day goes to great lengths to explain the amount of times she failed and the importance to keep going. This is a lesson Felicia had to learn time and time again and she hopes that she can pass on the advice to the readers. However I think this is one of those lessons we all have to learn for ourselves.

I listened to You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) as an audiobook, read by Felicia Day. I think the audio experience enhanced my experience. I really enjoy listening to non-fiction as audiobook, and when the author reads their memoir, that just makes the experience better. Felicia Day is an interesting person but I do not think this book is for everyone. Fans of Felicia Day or people with an interest in content creation might enjoy You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), but for everyone else, there is not much left here to offer.


H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Posted June 28, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldTitle: H is for Hawk (Goodreads)
Author: Helen Macdonald
Published: Vintage, 2014
Pages: 300
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Helen Macdonald has always had a fascination with birds, since a young age she was determined to become a falconer. She would read books on the topic; one book in particular had stuck with her, The Goshawk by T. H. White. When Helen lost her father, grief struck her in a big way, and soon her obsession in training her own goshawk was her own way out. H is for Hawk is a memoir on both dealing with grief and obsession.

I heard so much about this book and when it was assigned for book club, I was excited. Although in the back of my mind, my thoughts on falconry were sceptical. I find falconry to be a barbaric and cruel practice that is no longer required within our culture. To starve and cage a raptor for your own amusement seems unnecessary. With these thoughts going into the book, I had a hard time appreciating the memoir.

I know Helen Macdonald repeatedly stated that she was not starving the goshawk, I still thought of it as a cruel practice. I learned a lot about falconry, some stuff was interesting but there was so much information to process. The book never changed my feelings towards falconry, only cemented them and that become my fundamental problem with H is for Hawk. I enjoyed the parts about The Goshawk and I love reading memoirs about reading books but there was not enough there to hold my interest.

I thought I would try annotating this book, it is a habit that I want to start and thought it would be fun. However I did have to stop with the annotation, as I started to feel like Helen Macdonald was over playing her grief just to make the story more interesting. I did not want to be the heartless person that criticises the author’s emotions, especially when it comes to grief. So I quickly abandoned my annotations and I continued to try to get into the habit.

While H is for Hawk has some wonderful writing, I had a very difficult time enjoying this book. I wanted Helen Macdonald to return to talking about The Goshawk through out the entire memoir. I am interested in seeing what Macdonald will do next, she certainly can right. I hope her next book, whatever that may be, will be something I can get behind.


Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Posted January 2, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Graphic Novel, Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Fun Home by Alison BechdelTitle: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Goodreads)
Author: Alison Bechdel
Artist: Alison Bechdel
Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006
Pages: 234
Genres: Graphic Novel, Non-Fiction
My Copy: eBook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that chronicles the childhood of Alison Bechdel, growing up in rural Pennsylvania and her complicated relationships with her father. Alison Bechdel is best known as the person whom the Bechdel test was named after. The Bechdel test is a simple method that can be used to determine if a work of fiction (or movie) is gender biased. To pass the Bechdel test there must be at least two women, who talk to each other about something other than men.

Fun Home is a non-linear account of Alison Bechdel’s childhood with a strong focus on her relationship with her father. A complex relationship, Bruce Bechdel was a funeral director and a high school English teacher. He was obsessed with restoring the family’s Victorian home and often viewed his children as free labour. He was often cold and prone to abusive rage, Alison’s relationship with her father was a difficult one. At 44, he stepped in front of a truck and was killed; while never confirmed, Alison believed her father completed suicide.

After his death, Alison discovered her father was a closeted homosexual who had sexual relationships with his students and babysitters. Alongside this, Fun Home follows Alison’s own struggle with her sexual identity,coming out to her parents before actually knowing her sexual preferences. The graphic novel centres on Alison Bechdel’s thoughts about whether her decision to come out triggered her father’s suicide.

This is a fascinating insight into the mind of Alison Bechdel, not only as a memoir but the struggles that she faced while trying to understand her own identity. Drawn in a gothic style, Bechdel uses blue shading to give her art a dramatic feel. She even uses childhood diary entries to help capture the mood and feel. The dramatic artwork and emotionally charged writing complement each other and really help drive the story.

While I enjoyed Blue is the Warmest Color more as a coming of age story and a struggle with sexuality, Fun Home still remains a wonderful graphic memoir than really packs an emotional punch. Graphic novels and memoirs often get pushed aside and disregarded as works of literature but every now and then comes a work of art that proves this idea wrong. It happened with Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; but Fun Home seemed to be the most common example that comics (I use the term comic as a catch all for graphic novels and memoirs as well) need to be taken more seriously.

I have been reading more comics of late and I have been impressed with the way art and writing can work together to tell a story. I like these graphic novels/memoirs that capture raw emotion, in the writing or art and I am trying to find more like this. While comics by Marvel and DC are a lot of fun, there are so many other works out there that explores this art from an interesting and new way. I really enjoyed Fun Home, it wasn’t a comfortable read but the experience was well worth the effort.


My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Posted December 27, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 6 Comments

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadTitle: My Life in Middlemarch (Goodreads)
Author: Rebecca Mead
Published: Crown, 2014
Pages: 293
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Rebecca Mead grew up in a coastal town in England and often dreamed of escaping to somewhere more exciting. She gained admission to Oxford and later become a journalist in the United States. When she was young Middlemarch was a favourite of hers and now as she re-reads this classic she is sharing her story along with it. My Life in Middlemarch is told partly as a bookish memoir, but also explores the life of George Eliot and her novel Middlemarch.

This book started off really well; in the prelude the reader gets to discover a bit about the life of Rebecca Mead. Beginning like a bookish memoir this insight into the author gave a fascinating look into her relationships with books, especially with Middlemarch. However as I progressed with My Life in Middlemarch, the memoir elements became fragmented and I found myself yearning to return to this style. I love bookish memoirs, I have been reading so many of them lately and this had the potential to be great but it had two other strands to weave into this book.

My Life in Middlemarch also looks at the life of George Eliot, which allows some perspective about this author. Though I had already done some extensive research. I know that the life of Eliot played a big part in understanding Middlemarch so my autodidactic nature kicked in and I learned a bit about her. I was reading Middlemarch with a reading guide as well, so I had the added advantage of gaining some insight as I read. Apart from access to George Eliot’s journals, I didn’t gain much information; it was a very broad strokes look at her life and I would have gained that information from Wikipedia. I would have been better off reading a biography or her journals instead.

Finally we come to the literary criticism within this book and yet again I felt a little disappointed. I would have liked to know what Rebecca Mead got from the book but instead she just referenced others people’s criticisms on the novel. Having smarter people’s insight into Middlemarch is useful but I would enjoy a personal opinion mixed in with all the references. It reminds me on how I write a research paper for university; I pack it with quotes and references that say what I want it to say but don’t offer much in the way of personal opinion

Combine these three parts and you have an accessible look at Rebecca Mead and her life with Middlemarch but it felt like a huge generalisation. There are some interesting elements worth exploring in this book and I feel like it could have done so much more. We have three interwoven strands within the book but nothing of substance from any of them. This would be an enjoyable book for someone that has not read Middlemarch but for me, I had just finished the classic and I picked this book up because I was not ready to move on.


Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

Posted December 11, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Humour, Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony HawksTitle: Round Ireland with a Fridge (Goodreads)
, 1997
Pages: 248
Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

What happens when you make a stupid bet while drunk at a bar? If you are anything like Tony Hawks, you actually try to win the bet. With £100 at stake, Tony Hawks decides to hitchhike around Ireland with a fridge (even though buying the fridge cost him £130). Round Ireland with a Fridge is a travel memoir about the adventures Tony Hawks had with his fridge.

First of all, it is important to point out that Tony Hawks is a British comedian and is not to be confused with the skateboarder. While he is best known for his travel memoirs, Hawks first claim to fame was as the lead of the comedy band Morris Minor and the Majors, which had a hit with a Beastie Boys parody in 1988.  He is also a voice actor, most notable for voicing a vending machine and a suitcase in Red Dwarf.

This book starts off with Tony Hawks talking about how he doesn’t spend much time drinking or going to bars. Then for the entire novel he drinks in bars as he hitchhikes around Ireland. Putting aside this huge contradiction this book is actually very entertaining and manages to captivate the audience for its 246 pages. Travelling from Dublin to Donegal, from Sligo through Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork, Wexford, Wicklow–and back again to Dublin this a story of the people he meets along the way.

The fridge actually become more of an asset that Tony Hawks originally expected, helping him get rides, free accommodation and even pick up woman. Even the fridge had its own adventures; it was christened by a nun and even went surfing. While this may seem like a gimmick you will find some interesting philosophical thoughts on people and life as Tony Hawks reflects on all the experiences he had with his fridge.

I had a lot of fun with this book and I am so glad to have read it. There were so many laugh out loud moments (I especially enjoyed Hawks views on marathons) and still offered plenty to think about. As a travel memoir I expected something like Bill Bryson and while the comedy is there I think there was more opportunity to teach people about Ireland and its culture. Highly recommend this book and I plan to seek out Playing the Moldovans at Tennis so I can dip back into Tony Hawks writing again.