Four Recovery Memoirs Your Can't Miss
By Hayley Grgurich
Editor's Note: A few things to know before considering this list:
1. There are a lot of terrific recovery memoirs out there.
2. I have not read even one-sixteenth of them.
3. Hardly any of the books on this list are explicitly about recovery.
4. This list is based on nothing but my opinion which is based on nothing but my feelings which are based on nothing but 25 years of life in various parts of America and four months in London during which I’ve become increasingly convinced I know nothing about anything.
5. I hope you like it anyway.
1. Thirty Rooms to Hide In by Luke Longstreet Sullivan*
Synopsis: Sullivan’s memoir is an autopsy of a decade of alcoholism that raged through his father and family home in the 1950s and 60s. He dissects his own memories, the diary entries of his five brothers, letters written by his parents and grandparents and the recollections of his father’s neighbors and colleagues to try and find the cause of death for the man he knew before – and between – drinking took over.
Highlights: This is a memoir with a mission – several missions, in fact. It wants to reconcile the tender father who loved his six boys with the raging wolf who stalked around their home, slurring at their mother. It wants to pinpoint the day and the drink and the moment that tipped one of the nation’s foremost orthopedic surgeons over the edge to one of the town’s most infamous drunks. And it wants to remember the reality of days and nights in a 30-room Minnesota mansion where the band practiced, The Beatles played and for a time, things were funny, crazy and good.
*Sullivan is a veteran of the advertising world and the author of one of the top texts used in advertising programs, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Ads.
2. One Man’s Meat by E.B. White*
Synopsis: White lives the hipster dream years before hipsters were alive to dream it by leaving Manhattan for the solitude of farm life in Maine. He chronicles the entire process by writing about the potential value of electric fences for pastures, taking his son to school, figuring out what his dachshund has up a tree and joining a compost club. In so doing, he also manages to tell us everything about life, aging and starting over.
Highlights: Most of the chapters are only a few pages long, but they’re full of richly considered, thoughtful writing. “Incoming Basket,” written in August of 1938, lasts all of a page and a half but manages to pick you up, give you something to think about and drop you off, alone with your thoughts, somewhere entirely new.
*You know who else likes E.B. White? Eight-year-old you when you read his childhood classic, Charlotte’s Web.
3. Daughter of the Queen of Sheba by Jacki Lyden*
Synopsis: Manic depression wasn’t ‘manic depression’ when housewives in the ‘50s had it. It was ‘hysteria’ or just being ‘moody.’ As a child, Jacki Lyden came along as her mother swung between wild manic highs and desperate depressive lows, enchanted by the power and glamour of her frenzy. The narrative follows Lyden from youth to adulthood, where she recognizes the impact of her tumultuous upbringing on her relationships and career as a foreign correspondent.
Highlights: This memoir is honest, sad, beautiful and true. It doesn’t hurt that Lyden’s command of language and memory is so evocative that years after reading it, I still remember descriptions like the face that was ‘a smile like a half-pulled zipper,’ and the mind that unraveled like the ribbons on a maypole fluttering apart.
*Lyden was the first NPR correspondent on the air following the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11.
4. The Urban Hermit by Sam MacDonald
Synopsis: Sam MacDonald is a smart man. Yale smart. But in 2000, five years after he graduated, he also became a fat man. 340 pounds fat. And a poor man. Five-figures in debt, poor. So he decided to do something radical: He outlined and followed a plan of self-induced sobriety and poverty involving little more than working, walking and eating nothing but tuna and lentils until he wasn’t fat, in debt, or keeping his potential on ice any longer.
Highlights: In a memoir, there is always the temptation to make yourself slightly smarter, kinder and better than you might have been. It’s the same thing with drinking stories – they’re always a little wilder, a little more reckless and romantic when retold. Not here. MacDonald pulls no punches with himself and the resulting narrative is a man’s man-version of giving yourself a good talking to and making sure it sticks.
*If you lived in Baltimore between 1996 and 2000, you may have seen commercials for Kisling’s bar that featured a heavy man dancing. Sam MacDonald was that man.
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