We’re a week away from revealing the winners of the 2011 Indie Lit Awards, and the panels who will choose those books have been busily reading and discussing their short lists for the last few weeks. We’ve been asked not to post our reviews of these books until after the big announcement; look for those starting on March 19, but I’d like to introduce the finalists in my category, Biography/Memoir. These books have already had the honor of just being nominated, and represent several facets of the category.
- The “stunt” memoir (a/k/a “I’m going to do this thing for X amount of time, and write a book about it”): a woman who read–and blogged about–a book a day for one year
From books to blog and back again, Nina Sankovitch chronicles her “year of magical reading” in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. In describing it that way, Sankovitch intentionally references Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; this is a time of healing from loss, as she turns to books–reading one each day, every day for one year, and writing about it on her blog Read All Day–to help her make sense of life following the death of her beloved sister from an aggressive form of cancer.
If you didn’t know what was motivating Nina to undertake this project, it would be easy to envy this stay-at-home mother of four sons for having the luxury of spending the bulk of her days reading and blogging for an entire year. And once you do know her motivation for it…well, it’s still hard not to be just a little envious, but that’s greatly tempered by compassion. This isn’t a vacation–Nina is not taking a year off from her family or domestic responsibilities to bury herself in books. It’s not a vague, idealistic quest for “self-improvement” either–this is focused, or as she describes it, “intense.” This is reading as therapy.
- The “life-changing experience” memoir (a/k/a “I did this thing I never thought I’d do”): a man who found a mission in a children’s home in Nepal
At the beginning of a year of traveling around the world, and with very little idea of what he was getting into, Conor Grennan worked as a volunteer at the Little Princes Children’s Home in Godawari, Nepal for a few weeks. He hadn’t known what to expect, and he certainly hadn’t expected to be as affected by the experience as he was, but he quickly grew attached to the eighteen orphans who lived there and promised to come back as soon as he could. That wasn’t till over a year later, and on his return visit, he stayed longer and expanded the scope of his work. He’d learned that most of the children at Little Princes weren’t truly orphans; they’d been recovered from a child trafficker. Parents in the remote, impoverished northern regions of Nepal would give over their children in the belief that they’d get education and opportunities in Kathmandu, never knowing that they were being sold as laborers in the city or ending up on the streets. The city’s numerous children’s homes couldn’t help enough of them. There was no social-services system to protect them, let alone get them back home, but Conor was determined to do something about that. He could raise money…and he could make the difficult journey, largely on foot, into northern Nepal to track down families, beginning with those of the Little Princes.
- The “memoir that started out as a biography”: a man whose drive to tell the story of his grandfather shaped his own story
The title of I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At was provided by retired three-war veteran Robert Stuart, who was intended to be the subject of the book. However, the book’s author is Stuart’s grandson, Kyle Garret…and along the way, the book became at least as much about him, and how he went about writing a book about his grandfather, as it ever was about Stuart.
The end result is a mixture of biography, memoir, history, and dissection of the writing process.
- The “memoir that started out as a parenting manifesto”: a woman whose daughters taught her a thing or two
The very nature of memoir sometimes makes it challenging to evaluate the story being told and not the person telling that story. Amy Chua makes it especially challenging with her parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; particularly in the audio version, which she reads herself, she seems quite aware that she’s opening herself to a lot of potentially negative personal judgment. But she doesn’t seem entirely uncomfortable with that, either; as an attorney and law professor, as well as a mother, Chua is likely well acquainted with both passing judgment and being subjected to it.
The original premise that led Chua to write ...Tiger Mother–that Chinese mothering practices are better than “Western” ones–is a pretty judgmental one, and if the book stuck to it more closely, it might have been judged even more harshly than it was by some readers. But along the way, it develops into a much more personal story–one that contains many revealing, unflattering details undermining that original premise.
- The “celebrity” memoir (that doesn’t quite “tell all”): a woman who (mostly benevolently) wields the power to make people laugh
Fey’s recollections of career and life milestones are mixed with observations about life, society, and the challenges of being a woman who loves both her work and her child in early 21st-century America. Bossypants may strike some readers as being a little short on personal insight and reflection, but Fey’s opinions on the bigger picture are a worthwhile trade. It’s not entrirely clear to me whether she self-identifies as a feminist, but her worldview is clearly informed by feminism. As befits the title of the book, Fey does spend much of the second half discussing work, and repeatedly expresses a preference for the collaborative management style that tends to be more associated with women; she is a boss, as creator of 30 Rock, and is fully aware of the perks, the stress, and the responsibility that go with being the source of 200 people’s paychecks.
But it’s not all serious gender politics or management theory – in fact, most of it’s not serious gender politics or management theory. Most of it’s humorous and real.
Many thanks to the hardworking members of the Biography/Memoir panel (I’m sure the other panels worked just as hard, but I can only speak for mine!)–Alyce, Candace, Colleen, and Nadia–who have had to make the tough choices from this crop of worthy contenders, and we’re not quite done yet!