on memoir

Mini reviews of two memoirs: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and David Sedaris’s Calypso.

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A collection of twenty-one personal essays on approaching middle age with humor and hope, Calypso stitches together the poignant and the satirical. Sedaris takes on a wide array of lighthearted topics, from fitbits to vacation homes, as well as more serious subjects, like illness, addiction, and death. The author’s wit shines no matter what he discusses, though, and he paints a vivid portrait of his family across the entire memoir. The concluding essays focusing on his sister’s suicide and his mother’s alcoholism are especially moving. A few of the middle essays drag on, but otherwise the memoir is absorbing and irreverent.

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Resolute and unsentimental, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal reckons with the legacy of childhood neglect. In the memoir’s first part Jeanette Winterson reflects on her experience of growing up gay in Accrington, England, inside the household of her adoptive mother, a Pentecostal fanatic prone to abusive tendencies. In matter-of-fact prose, with great wit, the author confronts the harrowing conditions of her childhood; narrates the social history of her working-class hometown; and recounts how her local library helped inspire her to seek a better life. The memoir’s second part, by contrast, follows the author in the present as she searches for her biological mother, with the help of her partner. Both sections are characterized by fragmented, nonlinear narratives, a choice explained at length toward the book’s end, and both paint a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the woman the author only can call “Mrs. Winterson,” not “Mum.” Winterson’s resilience is remarkable, her craft exceptional, and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal easily is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve read.

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