As the great novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka noted in The Trial, “It’s sometimes quite astonishing that a single, average life is enough to encompass so much…” If the biographies and memoirs included in this list are anything to go by, it certainly seems that the average life is really very far from average.
As its title suggests, Easy Crafts for the Insane: A Mostly Funny Memoir of Mental Illness and Making Things is a highly unusual book that combines basic crafting tutorials with moving and amusing biographical aspects in an effort to help readers tackle mental health issues. Kelly Williams Brown was riding high in life after writing a bestselling book, launching a lucrative speaking career, and having a fairy tale wedding, but she was brought crashing down to reality by a series of misfortunes, including physical injuries, family illness, and divorce. In fact, things became so bad that she had to spend time as an in-patient in a mental health facility. Her own experience of the positive impacts of crafting, which helped her get through her darkest days, inspired Williams Brown to write this highly autobiographical, undeniably practical, and very entertaining self-help book. She found that a range of crafts, none of them particularly complicated, helped to motivate her and provide a sense of accomplishment, such as embroidery, lettering, block-printing, origami, and making tiny stars, thousands of tiny stars. Aside from relating events from her own life, both the good and the decidedly not good, in an effort to help and inspire those in similar situations, she also provides straightforward guidance on how to do a number of the crafts that helped her quieten her mind and cope with difficult times.
Trent Preszler had been estranged from his father for so long that he had given up any hope of reconciliation between them and reconciled himself to the lack of a relationship, which is why it came as a major shock when his father telephoned and invited him to spend Thanksgiving at the family home in South Dakota. Busy in his new role as CEO of a wine company based on Long Island, Preszler was doubtful about the wisdom of accepting the invitation, although he ultimately agreed to make the trip. That Thanksgiving turned out to be the last time he saw his father, who subsequently died of cancer, leaving Preszler a legacy in the form of an old wooden toolbox and a mass of unanswered questions. At first, puzzled by the gift of the toolbox since he wasn’t renowned for his DIY or building skills, Preszler decided that he would learn how to use his father’s tools and build a wooden canoe, which he would launch to make the first anniversary of his father’s passing. Little and Often: A Memoir is a moving account of Preszler’s time spent working on the canoe and mulling over the events of the past in an attempt to better understand his father and their (lack of a) relationship. It’s a tale of self-discovery and of the complex relationships between fathers and sons, and by telling it, Preszler manages to achieve a sense of acceptance through channeling his creativity toward something that signifies hope.
While best known as a songwriter, Phil Ochs was also an immensely talented short story writer, poet, journalist, diarist, political commentator, critic, and travel writer. In fact, when it came to words, he was something of a polymath. I’m Gonna Say It Now: The Writings of Phil Ochs is a treasure trove of exquisite and insightful writing that collects Ochs’ non-musical works from his early days as a student at Staunton Military Academy and then Ohio State University, through to his heyday and political awakening as part of the folk scene of New York during the 1960s, and on to the more melancholic and polemic pieces that characterized his later years. Over the course of his lifetime, Ochs produced numerous stories, poems, essays, articles, and reviews that expertly addressed their topics while also revealing his thoughts, hope, and concerns for individuals and for society at large. A truly extensive collection, the book includes many rare pieces as well as previously unpublished works held in the Phil Ochs Papers at the Woody Guthrie Center, in addition to reproductions of journals and notebooks, which shed light on Ochs’ thought and writing processes. It also features a host of never-before-published photographs that serve to augment the impact of the text.
The delightfully named Nora Barnacle was just twenty years old when she first met famed Dubliner James Joyce, then a medical school dropout who had so far failed to launch a career as a writer, and embarked upon a complex and decidedly unconventional relationship that would see the pair of them travel among Europe’s greatest cities, enjoy the highs of celebrity, wealth, and literary success, and endure the lows of mistrust, poverty, infidelity, and mental illness. Their desire for each other was intense but while they both sought a life bigger than that on offer in their native Ireland, they were fundamentally quite different. While Joyce was happy to endure poverty so long as he had sufficient company, booze, and time to write, Nora was troubled by the instability and precarious nature of their lives, particularly the impact that those factors had on their children. Although success did come to the pair, so too did tragedy, and while they remained together until Joyce’s death, their intense relationship was not always a happy one. In Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, a truly impressive work of biographical fiction, Nuala O’Connor pens a powerful and incisive account of the life of Nora Joyce, who despite being remembered as “Irish literature’s greatest muse” was really a far more complex, commanding, and intriguing individual than her lasting reputation suggests.
Shooting Out the Lights: A Memoir recounts the early years of Kim Fairley’s marriage to Vern, a man more than thirty years her senior. Fairley considered that she lived a rather solitary life before her work at the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office caused her to meet Vern, the owner of a hardware store in her adopted hometown of Hillsboro, and she was quick to embrace married life after the two moved from being friends to being romantically involved. When Fairley finds that she is pregnant just a few months after their marriage, everything seems to be going well for the pair of them––although the specter of tragedy remains in the house following the death of Vern’s fourteen-year-old son Ben some years before he met Fairley. However, things get difficult very rapidly when Vern agrees that Stan, the young son of his recently deceased friend, can come and stay with them for a couple of weeks while his mother sorts out probate issues. As the length of Stan’s stay increases and his behavior becomes increasingly troubling, Fairley struggles to cope with the strain on her marriage, the taxing nature of pregnancy, and the secrets that lurk in her and Vern’s pasts. Kim Fairley excels at building up tension as she relates her recollections of the period in question, suggesting that events are building to a crescendo and that secrets are about to be revealed. It’s a compelling memoir peopled by real-life characters who are both very real and, often, very strange.