Memoirs paint portraits of life

Memoirs paint portraits of life

I've written before here about how much I enjoy memoirs and the wide variety of human experiences that they depict, and this summer there have been quite a few new titles in this genre that caught my eye. I recently read three very different memoirs, all of which movingly explore the people and places that helped shape the authors' lives.

— Josh Hanagarne's book "The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family" made it onto my to-read list based on the title alone. As a child, Josh was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, which set him apart from his peers. He wasn't as affected by this as some children might have been, though, because he lived in a world of books.

His mother fostered his burgeoning love of reading with library trips, and the library becomes a sanctuary for him as his Tourette's progresses until it became very severe. While people most often associate Tourette's with vocal outbursts, it also manifested itself in uncontrollable movements, and Josh ended up frequently injuring himself.

Josh is able to take some comfort in his family and his Mormon faith, but for a large swath of his early adulthood, he was unable to complete his education or hold a job. Eventually, he finds two very different things that help him control his symptoms: dedication to what he calls "old time strongman training" and a career as a public librarian. Strength training gives him an outlet, and the library once again becomes a place of solace and inspiration for Josh, who tells his story with humor and heart.

— In "Crapalachia: a Biography of a Place," Scott McClanahan relates his memories of growing up in rural West Virginia. As a child, Scott spent time living with his grandmother, Ruby, and his Uncle Nathan, who suffered from cerebral palsy.

He sketches spare, lyrical remembrances that are incredibly evocative of the people in his life and the particular history and culture of the place that shaped them. He lovingly depicts his life with Ruby and Nathan, and he uses small moments to perfectly capture the emotions involved in his childhood friendships.

Interspersed with these personal vignettes are stories illustrating moments in history that informed the imaginations of Scott and those around him. The mining industry, and mining disasters, are part of a frequent refrain, as are the many effects of rampant poverty: health problems, mental illness, despair, and violence. "Crapalachia" is a small, strange book that weaves together strands of memory into a heartbreaking, funny and realistic portrait of people and a place that played a formative role in the author's life.

— Alysia Abbott's "Fairyland: a Memoir of My Father" is a beautifully written and moving remembrance of her life with her father and their unique relationship. After her mother died when she was just 2 years old, Alysia was raised by her single dad, the gay writer and poet Steve Abbott, in the bohemian San Francisco literary scene of the 1970s and 1980s.

Steve was a caring and involved father who nonetheless struggled to raise a daughter alone in a time where single, openly gay fathers were rather unheard of, even in San Francisco. Alysia writes vividly of the colorful cultural landscape of San Francisco during this time and the close-knit communities she and her father inhabited.

Unfortunately, Alysia also had a heartbreakingly firsthand experience with the AIDS epidemic that ravaged San Francisco in the 1980s. She lost many people she was close to, including her father, who died in 1992. Alysia writes quite frankly about her conflicted feelings about the unconventional life she lived with her father, and her own selfishness and impatience when she had to leave her college life to care for her dying father, but her love and respect for her father is palpable in every sentence she writes.

"Fairyland" is a powerful portrait of a love between a father and his daughter, but also of San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s and the power of community, art, and love in the face of discrimination and death.

While all three of these books are by young authors who were growing up in the latter part of 20th-century America, their experiences differ vastly due to the places and people that surrounded them in their formative years. Memoirs like these offer glimpses into the lives of everyday people and illuminate the many ways that our circumstances influence our lives and the people that we become, as well as the common bonds and emotions that shine through all of our stories.

Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at

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