I'm quick to admit that memoir is my favorite genre. Real life is a million times more fascinating than fiction, and memoirs take us to places that even the greatest literary imaginations can't dream up. The real person behind a memoir is always more multi-faceted and complex than any fictional character, and the stories these people have to tell are often more important than anything found in a novel. Yet even the greatest genre has some duds. The following is a list of memoirs you can happily skip. You won't be missing anything.
Everyone loves Scott Jurek. He's an ultra-running champion, a proud vegan, and... well, he just seems like a really nice guy. In his new memoir Eat & Run, Jurek gives detailed accounts of his impressive ultra-marathon records while crediting his plant-based diet for his victories. He also discusses his upbringing in Minnesota, his determination, and his beliefs about raw food, yoga, and...zzzz... Scott Jurek is a runner, not a writer. He either hired a terrible ghostwriter (which I doubt) or spent the better part of a year talking into a tape recorder for his publisher. The book literally reads like a transcription. There are no real descriptions or imagery. There's not a lot of tension or suspense. Instead of a narrative arc, there's really just a list of Jurek's ultrarunning victories. The monotony is broken up by a few of Jurek's favorite vegan recipes at the end of every chapter, but with a turn of the page it's back to more drudgery. On the positive side, Jurek does have some interesting ideas about veganism and offers some healthy alternatives to the horrific, standard American diet. If you decide not to skip it, then read this memoir to learn something. Just don't expect to be entertained. Let's hope Jurek doesn't quit his day job.
I actually wrote a review of Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia on another website and sent the author a link to what I'd written. The result wasn't pretty. I stand by what I said the first time I reviewed this book. This memoir is one of self-delusion: when a talented writer is blind to her own faults as she pens a memoir, she's able to blind her readers as well. The problem is this simple. Harriet Brown's daughter becomes ill with anorexia; instead of listening to doctors and mental health professionals saying that the disease is not about food, Brown does exactly the opposite and focuses solely on food. Her own existence -- and that of her family -- suddenly becomes one of fixation on her ill daughter's calorie intake. Instead of letting experts do their jobs, Harriet Brown insists that they're all wrong and that her method of refeeding her daughter is the only proper course of action. The outcome is that her daughter puts on weight but continues to relapse. Instead of trying to find another solution, Brown continues to champion her refeeding method, despite the fact that it hasn't succeeded. The book ends on a shaky note of hope, but with no real resolution. That's a frustrating conclusion for any reader who knows that the illness is curable if properly treated. Unless you want to be infuriated, skip this one.
In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family is the follow-up to one of the best memoirs ever written, Still Life with Rice. Unfortunately, In the Absence of Sun is a colossal failure. Still Life with Rice was the combined effort of Helie Lee and her grandmother. It recounted the grandmother's life during the last years of a united Korea, and her courageous escape from Pyongyang during the Korean War. That book is written with emotional depth, beautiful descriptions about a time slipping away, and a country ripped apart by war -- and it accomplishes all of that with dignity, without ever sinking in to bathos. That's a rare thing in this day and age. In contrast, In the Absence of Sun reads like a PMSing California-girl weeping at every turn because Koreans in Asia don't treat her as nicely as Koreans in L.A. It's a conversation. It rambles. It's disorganized and rife with grammatical errors and typos. It takes a story that should be fascinating -- smuggling relatives out of North Korea -- and renders it dull and irritating, leaving one wondering if the two memoirs are indeed by the same author. Skip it. Reread Still Life With Rice instead.
If you have ever been to Italy or have any plans of visiting, save yourself the headache and don't read Four Seasons in Rome. I'll bet you fifty bucks that the author was under a deadline with his publisher and had nothing to submit (probably because he spent too much time daydreaming in Rome instead of writing), so he typed up the pages of his journal from his year abroad and dubbed it a memoir. It's the story of the author making all of the cringe-worthy mistakes of the typical American tourist who has never left home. While Doerr's musings are very poetic and pretty, they're meaningless and disconnected from the plot ... But then again, there isn't any plot; it's just a series of events that have nothing in common and no real place in the story. What's worse? Doerr lacks the self deprecating sense of humor that makes these kind of memoirs work. It's simply a series of mistakes made by a tourist, who never realizes that he's made any gaffe or faux pas because he never stops being a tourist. One of the greatest reviews out there on Four Seasons in Rome said it best when he called this book"superficial" and "a Fabergé egg, a festoon, the rich-and-creamy icing on a cardboard cake." The whole thing is a disaster. Shelve this one.
So, not all memoirs are perfect. But even with the duds, memoirs are still better than fiction.