Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…
MATCH DOT COMEDY: SUSANNAH B. MINTZ
After breaking up with ‘The Contractor’, Susannah Mintz reactivates her Match.com profile and embarks with a sigh on the challenging path of online dating. This mini-memoir follows her through the ethical and emotional bear-pit that follows. There are men she finds interesting but unattractive; men to whom she feels an electric physical attraction, but who lack purpose; and of course, because this is a ‘comedy’ (in the Dantesque sense of a happy ending), there’s ‘the one’. I can’t say that I found Mintz’s attitude to dating immediately relatable: imagine auditioning dates by sending them your essays to read! Nor was I always sure what she was trying to do with her story, as it’s a tad meandering and there’s a fair amount of navel-gazing, but she’s is a clear-eyed and unsentimental companion. Naturally, this little book reminded me of Justin Myers’s The Last Romeo, also a catalogue of dating (mis)adventures.
ROOSTER STORIES: FARM-RAISED TALES OF LIFE, LOVE AND MOTHERHOOD: ANNA MITCHAEL
When Anna Mitchael falls in love with a man from the country, she has to reassess her entire future. A dyed-in-the-wool city girl, she suddenly finds herself living on a ranch in remote, rural Texas. More baffling still, she finds herself in possession of a flock of chickens and a series of self-satisfied roosters, all named Kenny (after Kenny Rogers). Mitchael uses her experiences with her chickens as a spur to ponderings on broader issues: how women behave in groups; the interaction between the sexes; the difficulty in adjusting from one reality to another. It’s fairly light, but Mitchael is funny, self-deprecating and no-nonsense: I get the impression she could quite easily turn her fish-out-of-water experiences into a full-length book.
SOME THINGS I DID FOR MONEY: STEPHANIE GEORGOPULOS
Growing up in New York state, the daughter of loving but financially straitened parents, Stephanie Georgoulos knows from an early age that she will have to make her own money in life. This self-deprecating memoir is a millennial-eye view of the tough years following the credit crunch, and the current state of the job market. From her first grim Saturday job as a fourteen-year-old at McDonald’s, to a brief stint in modelling; from pet-sitting to telesales; from posing for artists to dealing drugs on her college campus, Georgopulos has tried a wide variety of things to supplement her dream career – writing: ironically the one thing almost certain not to bring in the money. It’s written with humour, but Georgopulos offers a sobering glimpse of the struggles faced by many of her generation, burdened with university debt and desperate for financial security.
FALLING FORWARD: A MAN’S MEMOIR OF DIVORCE: CHRIS EASTERLY
When Chris Easterly’s wife announces that she has had an affair, his world falls apart. Searching for books and advice to support him through his despair, he discovers that the self-help literature for divorce is overwhelmingly weighted towards women. There are plenty of books advising you how to cope when your husband leaves you… but what about vice versa? Easterly decides to use his own experiences as a way to level the playing field, and to investigate when and where it all went wrong. It’s a painful account of a relationship that was crumbling even as it began, but you follow him as he learns from the mistakes that he and ‘M’ have made. Articulate, wise, and often extremely sad, it’s a powerful little book which reminds us that men can be hurt, lost and betrayed too.
Easterly writes beautifully and makes a number of well-phrased observations that I’ve seen elsewhere, but are always worth reiterating: ‘No matter how long or how well we’ve known the one we love, we always marry a stranger’; ‘You never solve the mystery of another person because the mystery keeps evolving. You never crack the code because the code keeps changing‘; ‘You never marry the right person. Because that person doesn’t exist. You just marry another person willing to take the same leap of faith‘. Some valuable thoughts there for those embarking on relationships.
BEING SAM FREARS: A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: MARY MOUNT
This one’s a puzzle: it feels more like an article for a lifestyle magazine than a book. Yet its subject is undeniably interesting. Londoner Sam Frears was born with familial dysautonomia, an extremely rare degenerative illness. Yet, despite all his challenges, Sam has just celebrated his fortieth birthday. He’s remarkable, yet also resolutely down-to-earth and I hoped to learn more about his rather unusual condition, and how he feels. However, Mount seems more taken with describing his hangouts in quirky North London, and his various well-known friends (who, it must be said, are splendidly supportive and have helped Sam maintain his independence).
The story is touched with an undeniable glow of privilege: not everyone gets Kylie Minogue and TV actors to come to their 40th birthday party, after all. Sam is the son of the director Stephen Frears and former editor of the London Review of Books Mary Kay Wilmers, and I did wonder how FD sufferers in less fortunate situations might cope (Mount makes no mention of any others; presumably it’s so rare that not many people can be found). It’s hard to shake off the feeling that you’re reading a Richard Curtis vision of London, in which famous arty people sit around being charming to each other. Pleasant, but not quite as informative as I was hoping.
An interesting side note: I learn, after having finished Mount’s book, that the young Sam’s nanny was Nina Stibbe, so if you enjoyed Love Nina, give this a go to see ‘what happened next’.