If there's one thing that my college classes taught me, it was to remember to be a critical reader. We should never be passive receptacles of material, especially when it comes to reading memoirs. (James Frey reminded us of this point, no?) The following are a few must-read memoirs, but reader beware. Don't lose yourself in the fascinating tales and completely forget the person behind the story.
Under a Cruel Star, A Life in Prague 1941-1946 is the tragic story of Heda Kovaly, who survived the Holocaust only to face persecution by the Communist government a few years later. Informative, heart-wrenching and ultimately triumphant, you won't find a bad review of this book anywhere. Nor should you. It's an unhappy story told with dignity, eloquence and beautiful writing. But keep in mind one minor detail that Kovaly implies but never says outright: not everyone in post-war Czechoslovakia joined the Communist party. Many brave souls protested against the party and suffered the consequences. Many were persecuted and others lived as permanent dissidents. Many more fled the country. But our author did join the party and was married to one of its top members. While nothing will ever justify what Kovaly her family endured at the hands of the Communists, it is important to remember that she was a part of and benefited from a non-democratic system of government until it turned against her.
A memoir of her six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle, Even Silence Has an End is easily Ingrid Betancourt's most popular book. Her writing is astoundingly beautiful and much of the prose reads like poetry. Few people will ever have Betancourt's gifts for describing love, hopelessness and reaching the depths of despair while clinging to faith through it all. It's hard not to be swept away by this must-read memoir, but do try to keep your feet firmly on the ground. Don't forget that Betancourt was (and still is) a politician, that all of her former fellow captives have described her book as pure lies, that she sued the very government that rescued her and that she is quite possibly the most loathed figure in Colombia. None of this changes the fact that this is a wonderful read. Just try to remember the whole picture.
Escape from Camp 14 is an as-told-to memoir about Shin Donghyuk, the only person to have been born in a North Korean prison camp (think modern-day Auschwitz with an Asian twist) and to have escaped with his life. This is not an uplifting read and it offers absolutely no resolution. Escape from Camp 14 is to memoirs what Human Centipede is to film: a lot of gruesomeness and descriptions of torture that make you question just why you chose this particular story. Yet it does offer some miraculous tales of courage and survival, and it also provides a lot of fascinating facts about life in the Hermit Kingdom. Before you take this book at face value though, remember that Shin Donghyuk's story is impossible to verify and that he's admitted to fabricating parts of his story in the past.
While none of these memoirs is as extreme in untruths as those by James Frey, Margaret B. Jones or Herman Rosenblat, it's still important to remember that each memoir you read is one person's side of the story. Never assume that you will be given the whole truth.