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Category Archive for 'Autobiography/Memoir'

Beginning this novel in 1937, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists, takes a new direction in this novel, his last. Here he describes the lives and cultures of a succession of Japanese house maids in a financially successful household. The novel’s time frame, 1937 – 1962, is obviously a time in which Japan faced some of its most dramatic changes and these changes, as described by Tanizaki, were at least as dramatic sociologically as they were historically during this period. The class system was being dismantled, local languages and dialects were changing, movement from the countryside to the city and back was becoming relatively common, and a sense of independence among young women was emerging. Tanizaki saw it all, and while a previous novel, The Makioka Sisters, focused on those who lived comfortable lives, this novel focuses on those who helped make the lives of those people as comfortable as they were. These were the people who saw and dealt with the greatest changes – the maids who lived “below stairs,” as translator Michael P. Cronin describes them in his Afterword. In this novel, which was published in installments in a Japanese newspaper in 1962, his purpose seems to have been, instead, to seize the opportunity to talk to his readers about the changes to Japanese society that he has noted over the past twenty-five years. While this is often intriguing and even fascinating, new readers to Tanizaki will want to start with one of the other Tanizaki novels previously reviewed on this site.

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In this memoir of a man’s life, from his problematic childhood in the rural south Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common in the late 1950s, through his current, highly successful adulthood in Sheffield, also in South Yorkshire, author Richard Hines makes total connection with his reader in “gentle and familiar” ways. Rarely, if ever, have I had such a feeling of intimacy with an author as he tells about his life and draws me in completely. The key to his whole life took place when he was just fifteen – the summer that he “manned a kestrel,” a small hawk. The first half of the book focuses on Hines’s childhood, beginning in 1955, when the author is eleven and living in Hoyland Common, a town in the shadow of the coal pits. His father and grandfather both worked in the mines, and as Hines reminisces about family life back then, we see a poor, working family dealing with a typically active young boy, sometimes in trouble, but mostly attentive to the “rules.” Close to his father, who is injured on the job more than once, Richard Hines also admires his brother Barry, six years older and an excellent student, with whom he shares a bedroom. Always a lover of birds and animals, the author keeps a magpie at home, a bird which, having never lost its wildness, terrorizes the neighborhood and inspires him, eventually, to release it into the wild. Not until he is on his way home from a hike to Tankersley Old Hall one afternoon does he see and get close to his first kestrel, a bird he decides that someday he will bring into his life. And he does. Vividly and honestly created and absolutely captivating.

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Although author Herman Wouk talks about writing as a crapshoot, he himself also had a talent for being in the right place at the right time, recognizing new opportunities and new avenues of communication (such as television) as they have arisen. This talent, combined with his incredible dedication to long-range goals and seemingly unlimited energy – several times spending seven or eight years on a single book – led to popular success as well as literary recognition. Though many people over the years have suggested he write an autobiography, he has always been reticent about his private life, and his wife even told him, “Dear, you’re not that interesting a person.” This book, which he has declared will be his last, is a memoir, but in it, Wouk limits its scope to his work and the people and events which influenced it. About the author, one learns only as much as he deems necessary to understand how and why he wrote what he did. One of the most ambitious and principled writers of the past century ,Wouk has said that this book is his last. With a career which has spanned comedy, serious historical fiction, popular fiction, philosophy, and religion, Wouk has sold hundreds of thousands of books and had a major impact on the people and the culture of this country. He will be one-hundred-one years old on May 27, 2016, but with his energy, I would not bet anything on this book being his last.

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In this unusual approach to memoir writing, Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano presents all aspects of his life from his earliest memories until he turns twenty-one, without embroidering them, without drawing conclusions about who he is as a result of them, and without moralizing, excusing, or apologizing. It is as complete a record of his life as he can apparently remember or resurrect from records, with numerous references to people and places that were important to him but that most American readers will not recognize. The result feels more like an objective research tool for students of Modiano’s work rather than what one finds in memoirs written by other, more loquacious, authors. Those who have read a novel like Suspended Sentences, for example, cannot help but believe that much, if not most, of that novel is autobiographical. Here in this memoir, however, Modiano gives only the basic outlines of the events at the heart of that novel, forcing the reader to conclude that the action in this and other novels has been embellished, developed, and described in ways which make for great fiction, whether or not it is completely true. An unusual view of the past and its memories.

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Devastated by the sudden death of her father when she is in her early thirties, author Helen Macdonald finds herself lost, overwhelmed, and dealing with a “kind of madness.” She and her father were especially close. They had loved walking for hours in the woods of Hampshire, and she had always wanted to become a falconer. Her parents, sympathetic, had even allowed her, after much pleading, to accompany a group of falconers hunting with goshawks in the field when she was only twelve. In this brilliantly described and vivid depiction of the meaning of life and death, Macdonald connects with readers in unique ways as Macdonald trains a huge goshawk to come to her hand, hunt, and live a relatively wild life, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who will not be changed by this incredibly moving work: “In my time with Mabel, I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known…what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it…Their inhumanity…has nothing to do with us at all.”

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