Mary Karr’s Mastery on Display in “The Art of Memoir”

Everyone has a story to tell. For some among us, the hope of connecting our own personal story to the larger human narrative drives us to write and share what happened. But even if you, instead, just prefer to read others’ true-life stories, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir proves to be a thoughtful investigation into the popular literary form.


Based on thirty years of her own research into and teaching of memoir, and written in Karr’s signature gritty, funny east Texas voice, The Art of Memoir works as both an instruction guide for the willing writer and an exploration into the best memoirs for the hungry reader.

Karr begins the book with, “No one elected me the boss of memoir.” While technically true, she still must be credited in large part with the explosion of the genre’s popularity.

Published twenty years ago, her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was a revelation. Without a hint of pity or sentimentality, she shared the harrowing tales of her dysfunctional and, at times, violent upbringing in an east Texas oil town, her artistic, alcoholic mother and tough-guy father springing alive from the pages. With love and lots of laughs amidst the pain, it was an honest look at a not-perfect childhood from someone who survived it. She followed that up with Cherry, about her rebellious teen years, and in 2009, with Lit, about her own struggles with alcoholism and eventual conversion to Catholicism. When it comes to memoir, Karr knows what she’s talking about.

She explores all the facets of writing memoir that a budding author should master: developing a voice, choosing details, describing those details effectively to create a living, breathing world in the mind of the reader, and perhaps most vitally, how to handle questions of truth and memory.

Every memoir is by nature subjective and not an objective history of the facts, but that can certainly be tricky territory when it comes to writing about your own past or your family’s past. She touches, too, on the way memory itself works. It’s not a faithful recording of every part of an experience. It’s shaped by the emotions of the event and can be influenced by what others remember and share about what happened. Her advice is to write about the most vivid memories and never, ever make stuff up.

She includes commentary, as well, on many of her own favorite memoirs, and a reading list at the end. Whether you’re a hopeful memoirist or someone who enjoys reading them (or both), there’s much to love and learn from here.

(Originally published here:

“Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” Offers Tips for a Meaningful Life

For many of us, the start of a new year brings the desire to engage in a little self-reflection, to change for the better, and to be the person we all believe we can be when we look deep down inside. Whether we’re vowing to finally get control of our eating and exercise habits or to make our family and friends a bigger priority in the year ahead, anything seems possible at the outset of a fresh new 12-month period.

Yet, as I’m sure just about all of us can attest, things can so quickly revert back to our old ways and practices of years gone by. Creating lasting and effective change isn’t easy, no matter what the calendar says. Psychology and the role of ingrained habits in our lives loom perhaps larger than we’d like to admit.

Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston’s Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now, would be helpful for nearly everyone in one way or another just about any time of the year. But read now, in the glow of hoped-for new approaches to life in the coming year, it’s an honest look at the challenges we all face.


Livingston’s book combines his many hours as a professional listening to people’s troubles with his own very human heartaches to create 168 pages of straight talk with a compassionate bend. His life, like everyone’s, has not been without struggle. For instance, he served in Vietnam where he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, but became disenchanted with America’s goals there. He discovered as an adult that he was adopted. And in one 13-month period, his oldest son and his youngest son both died, leaving him with unimaginable grief.

Livingston writes about the many common problems he sees people having in their relationships with their spouses, their children, and their parents. He also addresses, for example, the ways in which some of us abdicate responsibility for ourselves and our actions, either by blaming traumas from long ago or by believing that fate is somehow against us.

Reading his book feels a bit like listening to an opinionated, well-educated friend as he passes along wisdom he’s gathered. His comments never feel like platitudes. He doesn’t offer or tolerate excuses. Further, when he uses experiences from his own life to illustrate his points, you can trust that he’s being just as hard on himself as on you. If you’re hoping to truly change in 2016, this book offers lots to think about.

(Originally published here:

“M Train” a Meditation on Life, Loss, Love

Patti Smith is a woman of many talents. She’s an accomplished performer, visual artist, and photographer, as well as a punk-rock icon and poet. With the publication of her exceptional memoir Just Kids in 2010, she added National Book Award winner to the list.

In Just Kids (which I liked so much I read it twice within a year) Smith chronicles her life from her blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey through her discovery of her love of music and poetry and art to her eventual move in the 1960s/early 1970s to New York City. There she lived for a time in the Chelsea Hotel surrounded by many of the same musicians, artists, and writers she worshiped. It’s a book that is imbued with a specific time and a specific place, so filled with perfect descriptions of life then that you feel as though you, too, were hanging out at the Chelsea, chatting up Bob Dylan at the bar.

Her newly released follow-up to it, M Train, feels different but somehow similar, permeated instead with Smith’s attachment to her memories and the things and people she’s admired and loved and lost. It’s not a straightforward “this happened and then that happened” memoir. It reads instead as a beautiful look into Smith’s own mind, into her ruminations about the past and her obsessions with certain books, authors, and even TV shows.


We tag along with her as she travels in the past and in the present; a trip to Japan, a trip to French Guiana, a trip to Berlin, a trip to Mexico, among others. We’re beside her as she visits the graves of Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, and Arthur Rimbaud, marking these moments with quiet gratitude and respect. We see her Manhattan apartment, filled with photos and talismans from her life, as well as her books and her cats. We sip coffee along with her each morning, notebook and pen in hand, at the small café across from her apartment. We discover, as she does, the beauty of Rockaway Beach, and the unexpected folly of purchasing a falling-down house mere weeks before Hurricane Sandy would strike. (The house, remarkably, was still standing after, though many around it were not.) We feel her pain, years later, after first her husband died and then her brother not long after.

At age 68, it feels like Smith’s taking stock, in a sense, holding on to memories through photos and objects, trying to regain what’s been lost and hold on to what hasn’t been (yet). I think that’s something we can all relate to and Smith gives us her beautiful words to savor as we melt into that melancholy.

“The War of Art” Can Help Bring About a Breakthrough

Maybe it’s an idea for a start-up that you keep talking yourself out of. Or a new line of business for your company that you believe would improve your fortunes tremendously, but would be something of a risk to pursue. Or it could be finally sticking with an exercise routine — no matter how painful it is at first — to ensure that you’re around to enjoy time with your family for years to come. Or perhaps you loved painting or writing when you were younger and you’d like to try it again but you keep quieting the part of you that bubbles up these ideas.

I bet most of us have something like this inside; some unanswered call that we think about when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, some nagging little voice that knows you could do more if only you were braver.

When you finally reach a point where the voice is shouting and you realize you only have so much time here to do the things you’d like to do, read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The subtitle for this slim little book (just 165 pages) is “Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles.” If you’re willing to take a hard look at yourself and be honest, this book can help you do just that.


Pressfield is the author of lots of fiction and a few works of nonfiction (like this one). Perhaps the book of his you’re most likely to have heard of is The Legend of Bagger Vance, which became a movie. However, he’d been at it for years before he was actually paid for his writing and before anything was published, simply because he believed in doing the work. He had to do it. And if there’s something you feel called to do, too, no matter how big or how small, The War of Art can be just the kick you need.

Pressfield, a former Marine, comes across as your own private drill sergeant, calling you on all your excuses as to why you can’t do the thing you most want to do. Pressfield dubs the enemy capital-R “Resistance.” It shows up everywhere.

In his words, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” The more important to your life the thing you want to do is, the more Resistance you’ll feel. This book breaks down how to recognize it and battle it. When you’re ready to fight, read this first.

(Originally published here:

An Uneasy Exploration of Modern American Medicine in “Doctored”

The state of medicine in America today leaves something to be desired, whether you’re a patient or a physician. In his eye-opening second book, Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist and heart failure specialist, details the way things stand, explains how we got here, and describes what it means to be a doctor in today’s medical landscape.


In Jauhar’s first book, Intern, he explored his own journey into medicine and those first tough years in residency, when sleeplessness and overwork were common. This book takes a mid-life look at both his development as a doctor and the evolution of American medicine.

Over the last five decades, the practice of medicine here in the U.S. has changed considerably. Jauhar’s historical explanation of how we went from private fee-for-service practice, where doctors charged patients what they could afford, to our earliest instances of health insurance, to the introduction of Medicare in 1965 was fascinating. Medicare reimbursements changed medicine in unanticipated ways, and health management organizations (HMOs) were introduced in the early 1970s to (in theory) help keep costs under control.

As the system has developed from there, a confluence of factors has made it difficult for the doctor of today to really know you and have a relationship with you. First, there are the unintended consequences of the reimbursement system. And second, doctors understandably fear being sued for malpractice and must shoulder the necessary cost of expensive malpractice insurance.

What this creates, then, is a situation where doctors need to see as many patients as possible, and will be more inclined to order tests and procedures to both cover their own liability in case of a misdiagnosis and to be paid for those tests via reimbursement. In the early years of Medicare, many doctors’ salaries soared, but that trend has reversed for most physicians, thanks to reimbursement cuts and increased costs of practice. Another wrinkle here is that doctors’ salaries are linked to how much revenue they generate for the hospital, which can create misaligned incentives between good patient care and billing. For Jauhar, a hospital employee, this link isn’t as direct as it would be were he in private practice, but it’s still a consideration.

This book is an uneasy inside look at the many challenges doctors today must contend with. I’d recommend it for anyone thinking about going to medical school, as well as anyone interested in why our system is as it is currently. Jauhar is a smart, compassionate, and worthy guide.

(Originally published here:

Follow One Skeptic’s Path to Meditation in “10% Happier”

Television journalist Dan Harris was reading news headlines and stories for Good Morning America one June morning in 2004 when something scary happened to him: he had a panic attack on live national TV. Millions of people watched him stumble through his words and they then saw him end the segment early and awkwardly.


Harris was not new to the world of television or being on camera. He’d been working for ABC News for over just four years at that point, writing, producing, and taping segments for shows like the Peter Jennings-anchored World News Tonight. He had reporting experience in war zones, including Iraq, the West Bank, Gaza, and Afghanistan, where he dodged gunfire in the mountains near Tora Bora. He was competitive and driven to succeed in the cutthroat field of TV news.

Operating near exhaustion for years, not acknowledging trauma that developed from his war-zone work, and dabbling in illegal drugs here and there to mask his feelings, a crash of some sort seemed inevitable. The fact that it happened during a live national broadcast was, to put it lightly, a wake-up call for Harris. He had to figure this out or his beloved chosen career would undoubtedly be finished.

He began seeing a psychiatrist, and around the same time, started covering the religion beat for ABC, at the request of Jennings himself. He was not the spiritual type, but would find a solution to his problems in an unexpected place when he interviewed author Eckhart Tolle, which led to Deepak Chopra, which would eventually lead to Dr. Mark Epstein. He, in turn, would lead to Harris exploring Buddhist meditation. And it is meditation that would be the answer for Harris, allowing him to (paraphrasing the book’s subtitle): “tame the voice in his head, reduce stress without losing his edge, and find self-help that actually works.”

Harris is certainly not alone in adopting meditation. His book recounts the scientific evidence for meditation’s many psychological and even physical benefits. As well, several large companies, including General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Target, and Aetna now offer guided meditations or meditation rooms for their employees to de-stress during their workday. Meditation, it’s safe to say, is having a bit of a moment, but for good reason.

Harris is funny and self-deprecating and about as opposite of “new-age” as a person could be. He’s a perfectly skeptical guide, then, for a book about meditation. “Well, if it works for even him…,” you find yourself thinking. It’s a good read for anyone the least bit curious about this age-old practice.

(Originally published here:

A Terrifying Look at the Dangers of Texting and Driving in “A Deadly Wandering”

Texting and driving is dangerous and irresponsible. Until I read the exceptionally well-written A Deadly Wandering, though, I had no idea how terrifying it truly is. And I say “terrifying” because after you read it, you’ll quickly start noticing how many people around you are messing around on their phones when their eyes should be on the road and their hands should be on the wheel. Even if you never touch your phone while driving, a whole lot of other folks sharing the road with you are.


Author Matt Richtel bases his book around a tragic true story out of Utah. In 2006, a 19-year-old college student named Reggie Shaw was driving down a narrow road in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains early one rainy September morning. Headed the opposite way were two actual rocket scientists, on their way into work, commuting via their usual route. Shaw’s SUV drifted into their lane, clipping the small sedan they were traveling in, and a large truck hauling a trailer behind Shaw then t-boned them, killing both men instantly. Shaw was unharmed. He’d been texting just before impact.

Back in 2006, before our world was drenched in smartphones like it is today, the science of how our brains handle actions like talking on the phone while driving and texting while driving was still fairly new and evolving. The law was evolving to catch up to the times, as well, which was a tremendous challenge to the people investigating Shaw’s case.

Richtel does a masterful job of balancing the stories of Shaw and the families of the two men killed, along with the hard work of the investigators working on the case, and the incredible scientists trying to uncover just why we’re so attached to our devices that we’ll literally risk our lives and others’ lives for them. The way the book is structured and paced is just perfect, with short chapters that bounce back and forth between covering Shaw, the families, the scientists, and law enforcement.

The science presented in the book is both memorable and scary. Texting and driving makes you six times more likely to crash. Talking on a cell phone while driving makes you four times more likely – about the same as being legally intoxicated. So, yes, texting and driving is worse than driving drunk. (And talking while driving isn’t actually safe, either.)

This book will change your behavior for the better. Read it and ask those you love to do the same.

(Originally published here:

In “Far North,” a Chilling Look at a Dystopian Future

It seems to be part of the human condition that, along with wondering about our own mortality, we inevitably think about the end of the world, or the end of time, as well. When will it come? What will it look like? What will be left? Who will be to blame?

Vivid explorations of these questions, whether in movies or in books, have existed for years and continue to fascinate. Most, if not all, of these types of stories could be described as “dystopian,” and Marcel Theroux’s 2009 novel, Far North, is no different in that sense. However, he does approach these questions from a unique angle.


Set in Siberia, we find one single, solitary survivor living in what was formerly a city settled by Quakers. The survivor, named “Makepeace,” is the sheriff of this place, and continues to patrol it, despite no one else living there. Makepeace’s parents, along with other Quakers and peace-seeking people, had left the modern world behind years ago, and moved as a group to this isolated land in Siberia, where they went about setting up a new kind of society.

This worked well for some time, and Makepeace, having known no other way of living or being, might never have known the violent, materialistic world outside had it not come knocking at their door. But knock it did, as people in more modern cities across the globe continued to consume more than they needed, driven to excess by greed and fear. The earth’s resources were plundered and disrespected, and the consequences were dire. When both crops and economies began to fail, hoards of desperate, hungry people traveled to settlements like this one, asking for help, for food, for protection. Before long, the settlement was overrun by the very problems of the modern world that they’d tried to escape.

There are indigenous tribes of people in the area, but Makepeace knows of no other existing communities. One day, however, an airplane flies overhead and crashes, sending the sheriff off into new lands in the hope of finding others who’ve also survived. We travel along on this cold, lonely journey, getting glimpses along the way of what could have been, had only societies thought longer-term and made better decisions.

We find the world described here by Theroux a hostile place, where little humanity remains in the people still there, and where they’re ultimately held accountable for their actions. A finalist for the National Book Award, Far North, because of its dark subject matter, isn’t exactly a light-hearted read, but it is a compelling one.

(Originally published here:

“The World’s Largest Man” Delivers Laughs and Heart

Father’s Day may be behind us already this year, but that’s no reason not to let Harrison Scott Key entertain you with tales (some tall) about both his larger-than-life father and his Mississippi upbringing. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll reminisce about the time your own dad brought home a three-wheeler for you and simultaneously delighted you and infuriated your mother. (Or is that just me? I guess those things really were pretty dangerous.)


Key was born in Memphis but his family moved down and out to the country in north Mississippi when he was six. His father, dubbed “Pop” here, will be intimately familiar to many readers in Mississippi and throughout the South. He believed a man’s place was in the woods during hunting season, pre-dawn, gun in hand, waiting to successfully take out many vicious deer or doves. If not the woods, though, the football field was the most appropriate place to be. Or, a man’s place was at the dinner table, where in Key’s family, all the men were served and ate their food before the women were able to enjoy even a bite of their own hard work.

Trouble was, Key was a kid who enjoyed pursuits more suited to the indoors, like reading and drawing. He shared a special bond with his mother, a teacher, who fostered these things in him, but also didn’t wave his father off from trying to make him “a man.” As he writes about his childhood, you feel the intense respect and love he had for his dad, but you also can’t help but appreciate his ongoing bewilderment and frustration. They were about as different as a father and son could be.

Key’s gift for humor and language makes this book an absolute joy to read. His wit and way with words will surprise you and make you laugh out loud. In fact, be prepared for a few strange looks to be shot your way if you’re reading it alone in public somewhere. It’s so worth it, though. I hated when it ended.

Key also has a deft touch when it comes to more tender moments, and you’ll likely be fighting back (perhaps unsuccessfully) a tear or two now and then. For all the outrageous stories, there is an openness here, an honesty about life and family and love that connects all of us, in a way, to Pop. Give this book a read and get to know him yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Postscript: I had the immense pleasure of meeting Harrison Scott Key at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC recently. He was reading from and signing The World’s Largest Man. He also talked about the sometimes-tricky experience of writing a memoir while many of the people in it are still alive to read what you’ve written about them. He’s incredibly charming and funny. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much at a book event before. If he’s coming to a town near you, I highly suggest you go! I accosted him afterwards and he graciously agreed to this photo with me:

(Originally published here:

Heroics and Heartbreak in “Five Days at Memorial”

Did she or didn’t she? That’s the big question in Sheri Fink’s much-lauded work of nonfiction, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. The “Memorial” in the title is the now renamed Ochsner Baptist, located in New Orleans.


Nearly ten years ago, after the levees failed following Hurricane Katrina, Baptist, like much of the city, began flooding. Fink spends close to 500 pages telling the stories of those who were there: patients, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and a great number of family members (and pets) who’d come to ride the storm out, as they’d done so many times before.

After Katrina delivered a glancing blow instead of a direct hit, many in the hospital mistakenly thought the worst was over. However, conditions deteriorated rapidly. Power went out, cutting air-conditioning, and not long after, the hospital’s three generators stopped working as the floodwaters rose, leaving them with no electricity whatsoever.

For many critically ill patients dependent on high-tech devices, the situation became serious. Brave nurses and doctors worked to keep everyone alive and as comfortable as possible — an unimaginable task when you consider the heat and humidity, the stress and lack of sleep, the fear and worry they all faced. Rescue was not easy, and while they did get many patients out safely (including all the premature babies), moving the sickest was a challenge. Indeed, doctors decided to evacuate the least sick and most able-bodied first, leaving the most vulnerable patients for later.

Many of these patients, though, would never leave, and would die at the hospital; 45 in all, the most of any of the New Orleans hospitals following the storm. How, and why, and would could have been done differently, are the questions that remain. Fink tries to answer them.

The book focuses on several doctors who were there, but the central figure is Dr. Anna Maria Pou, a native New Orleanian whose surgical specialty is head and neck cancer. Not long after the waters receded, allegations surfaced that some of the patients had been euthanized, with Dr. Pou and two nurses in the crosshairs. They vigorously denied any wrongdoing, saying they only tried to make patients comfortable. Dr. Pou was eventually charged with second-degree murder, but a grand jury refused to indict her.

The truth is, we can’t know what really happened. Despite Fink’s precise reporting, she wasn’t there and neither were we. This book’s still worth reading, though, to appreciate the heroics of the staff who worked tirelessly in unfathomable conditions to help the patients who did survive.

(Originally published here: