Summer reading: True confessions

Recommended memoirs for your beach book list, from an Italian idyll to a childhood spent trying to be black.

By Salon Staff

Published June 9, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

Last week Laura Miller recommended great thrillers to keep you chilly on a long, sultry afternoon, and some of our favorite authors talked about their summer reading picks (which ranged from Balzac to Sherman Alexie to Michael Pollan).

This week, we shine the spotlight on first-person narratives: A young backpacker's life unravels on a trip to China; a novelist traipses around Italy in search of adventure; a girl grows up with a white dad who wants her to act black; a movie star helps a sensitive young woman make it through a turbulent childhood and a "mean little deaf queer" comes out (and grows up) with honesty and good humor.


Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

By Susan Jane Gilman

It was a plan inspired by a paper placemat at a Rhode Island IHOP, but Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire, newly minted Brown graduates, were too young and romantic to see this as inauspicious. They decided to team up for an around-the-world backpacking tour, beginning in China. They didn't know each other that well, and they made something of an odd couple: Gilman a funny, voluble New Yorker from a family of modest means, and Claire (a pseudonym, for reasons that soon become clear) a wealthy WASP determined to prove to her overprotective father that she was "not some pampered little princess." "Let's be Don Quixote, Huck Finn and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one -- except with lip gloss," was what they told themselves.

Since the year was 1986 and the People's Republic of China had been open to independent travelers for "all of about 10 minutes," it took only about 10 more minutes before squalid guest houses, sweltering heat, weird food, the impenetrability of the Chinese language and the sudden realization that "we didn't know one soul in the entire hemisphere" began to batter their resolve. Gilman found herself wondering how famous travelers like Hemingway and Captain Cook had managed it. "Then it dawned on me," she writes. "Most of them had been completely drunk all the time."

"Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven" is a frequently hilarious and ultimately moving coming-age-story disguised as a classic backpacker's memoir. There are the homesick collect calls to relatives ("You've got three thousand dollars, an Ivy League education, and an enormous pair of bazooms," Gilman's grandmother told her. "The world should have your problems, bubeleh."), the hellish wrangling with the Chinese bureaucracy, the intense yet fleeting alliances with people met on trains or in hostels, the unexpected and overwhelming moments of exhilaration, and of course the irritable sniping inevitable between any two people who spend most of the day together under stressful circumstances. Gilman, for example, bridled at what she regarded as Claire's melodramatic "playacting" -- the superimportant "reports" she went off to write at times, her insistence that people they met on boats and restaurants were "contacts" sent by her father and his associates, the fear she professed whenever she saw anyone who looked Middle Eastern.

The reader will recognize the true nature of Claire's difficulties much earlier than Gilman did. When her friend disappeared in Guilin and their great adventure dissolved into a frantic search followed by nightmarish negotiations with Communist officials and police, Gilman got a growth experience far more transformative than the average Lonely Planet itinerary can offer. It's a page-turner ripe with odd little ironies -- the water purifier the women carried went unused, but that 900-page copy of "Linda Goodman's Love Signs"? That wound up saving the day -- and finished off with midlife update at once wistful, gratifying and wise. Which, when you think about it, is more than you can say of "On the Road." -- Laura Miller

The Last Supper

By Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk's engaging memoir of three months spent roaming Italy begins with a desire to escape -- not from anything specific, but from the dull, familiar feeling of familiarity. She is weary of Bristol, the British city where she and her husband are raising their daughters, and more than that, she despises the gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction that has crept over her. As anyone who's read a bit of E.M. Forster knows, the English have long used Italy as an exotic escape valve. ("In novels I read, people were forever disappearing off to Italy at a moment's notice, to wait out unpropitious seasons of life in warm and cultured surroundings. It was a cure for everything.") As the family speeds along the French coastline she feels the dark clutter of her English world flutter away in the sunlight. And yet once they settle into their Italian farmhouse, she is frustrated to find that the family has not undergone a magical Mediterranean transformation. "Did we come all the way here to behave exactly as we do at home, while dogs bark at the wire fences and the mist hangs sodden on the hills?"

"The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy" is not your typical rosemary-scented, ready-for-cable ode to renovating a rustic house and rubbing shoulders with jolly peasants. A very talented novelist and observer, Cusk has a knack for drilling down into the thick of things and finding strangeness in even the most ordinary experiences. (Her autobiographical "A Life's Work" is one of the most bracing, dark books ever written about new motherhood.) Rather than looking for a sensual vacation, Cusk has in mind nothing less than a rearrangement of her senses. Once in Italy, she dedicates herself to a twofold process: making herself at home with the locals (particularly the Scottish-Italian taxi driver who takes the family under his wing and forces them to play endless games of tennis in the staggering heat) and pursuing aesthetic enthrallment. As she writes self-mockingly, "We will learn to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat deboning a Dover sole."

Madonnas and altarpieces and relics fly by, as Cusk (and her remarkably patient, art-appreciative young daughters) traipse the Piero della Francesca trail and chase Raphaels and elbow their way through the museums of Florence. The author approaches everything she sees through the prism of history and literature, allowing herself to be captivated by her surroundings even while she is trying desperately to detach herself from the tourists all around. Cusk may hate tourists -- her descriptions of them are usually hilarious and sometimes cruel -- but she makes a passionate, sharp-tongued tour guide in this book about fleeing the ordinary in search of something beautiful. -- Joy Press

 I'm Down

By Mishna Wolff

If you're going to spin a tale about your impoverished, racially conflicted childhood, you might as well be funny about it. How else could Mishna Wolff explain to the reader of "I'm Down" that she grew up with a white dad who lived life as if he were black and expected her to do the same?

Wolff's dad -- who styled himself in a short perm, "a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chains and a Kangol" -- divorced her lily-white hippie mom when she was a kid, and took custody of Wolff and her younger sister. While her mom is laying one kind of politically correct guilt on her ("Honey, oppressed people of the world make Barbie so a big corporation can get rich. Now is it really worth that kind of karma for a doll?"), Dad is unleashing another kind of guilt -- about skin color and privilege. He pressures her to fit in with their African-American neighborhood, goading her to toughen up and demand respect when kids call her names like "marshmallow turd." It isn't until Mishna learns the art of capping -- throwing insults -- that she starts to thrive and transform into the humorist she is today.

But just as Mishna is relaxing into her new role as ghetto smartass, her mother yanks her into an upscale white school on the other side of town where the unspoken rules couldn't be more different. Getting into a fight isn't a power play here; it's a sign that you've lost self-control. And playing dumb is uncool among the angsty rich girls who sit around drawing horses (and later listening to the Cure). Wherever she is, Mishna is never quite at home: At school she is always a little too rough around the edges, and at their broken-down house, her father and his string of African-American girlfriends warn Mishna against getting too uppity.

"I'm Down" is full of funny incidents that probably weren't so funny at the time -- like when Mishna's dad punished her for taking part in a faux-satanic ritual at a slumber party by forcing her to ... join the local basketball team, populated entirely by African-American amazons hoping to get to college on a scholarship. That would teach her a lesson! Of course, it actually does teach her a lesson, as do so many other semi-traumatic events along the way. Although the book sometimes relies so heavily on wit that it's hard to separate emotional turmoil from comedic setpiece, Wolff's affection for her family and friends -- and for the prickly, clueless honky girl she once was -- makes "I'm Down" more than just a joke. -- Joy Press

My Judy Garland Life: A Memoir

By Susie Boyt

Great movie stars are our magnifiers. They take some precious morsel of our humanity, a chip of diamond, and blow it up to the size of the MGM Grand, making it magnificent. Yet because they exist in a realm where ordinary people seem irrelevant, hardly anyone ever talks about how a star can change the way you feel about yourself. Susie Boyt, who became obsessed with Judy Garland after seeing "The Wizard of Oz" at the age of 3, does just that in her memoir, "My Judy Garland Life." Her book is an unusual mixture of appreciation, biography and autobiography, but its most fascinating aspect, is, paradoxically, not the shimmer of the star, but the portrait that emerges, via a tantalizing trail of revelations, of the author herself.

"That girl should work two hours and then be taken home in an ambulance," the actress Ina Claire once said of Garland; "how she gives of herself!" For Boyt, growing up in Britain as the conventional youngest child in a family of unflappable bohemians, Garland "proves something I've all my life believed, that nobody else in the world thinks is true." The Judy Garland credo, as Boyt sees it, is that "to be the person with the strongest feelings in life is to be the best." Garland's determination to strip herself bare, to funnel every modicum of her energy into her performances and to sing with all of her engulfing emotions utterly exposed to her audience, communicated to Boyt that her own "highly sensitive" temperament was more than OK. It was heroic.

The daughter of painter Lucien Freud (whose grandfather was Sigmund), Boyt was raised by her mother, the sort of woman who, upon receiving a modest inheritance, bought a small cargo ship, pulled her four children out of school and set about raising them on the high seas. But this, like her parents' separation, all happened before Susie was born. She grew up in an environment rather like a Victorian laundry, with pots on the stove boiling the yellow out of old bloomers for the vintage clothing store her mother opened after the ship project went bust.

Boyt portrays herself as an unexciting "old-fashioned girl," a chubby, stagestruck child turned domestic angel (she likes to bake, wash her father's dishes and fantasize about being Garland's faithful housekeeper). But she offers ample hints -- a college boyfriend who dies in a tragic accident, rock stars greeting the dawn on her roof -- that her life has been anything but drab. Her ruminations on the spiritual cost of dieting, the delicate art of consolation, the dignity of suffering and the importance of hero-worship are unfailingly funny and perceptive. "Do psychoanalysts share their fellow human beings' desire for a place where there isn't any suffering?" she writes, wondering what her great-grandfather would have thought of Garland's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." "If so, they are very altruistic." It would be altruistic to wish Boyt had a more comfortable childhood, but without it, we wouldn't have this thoroughly delightful book. -- Laura Miller

"Mean Little deaf Queer"

By Terry Galloway

The most significant moment of Terry Galloway's life happened before she was even born. During a family stint in post-WWII Germany, her pregnant mother was given the antibiotic mycin to treat a kidney ailment. The drug helped cure the infection, but also led to fetal complications -- and Terry's creeping deafness. In her meandering, beautifully written memoir, Galloway recounts her path from Germany to Texas, from hearing to nonhearing and back to hearing again, and from her chronically insecure youth to a career as a stage performer and writer.

She also makes her way from bed to bed, men to women -- having, among other dalliances, a foursome with a classics professor, his wife and her mistress, and an affair with a cocaine smuggler. "Mean Little deaf Queer" manages to be more intriguing and more entertaining than most coming-out memoirs, partly because it tackles the intersection between sex and disability (a sexually inexperienced Galloway can't hear her early female lovers giving "urgently needed information" during sex) and partly because of the honesty and good humor of her prose (during a sojourn at a "camp for cripples," she reacts to losing a swimming race by pretending to drown).

Despite the frequent darkness of her story, with trips to a psychiatric hospital and multiple suicide attempts, Galloway never lapses into preachiness or self-pity, and the result is an unusual memoir about an unusual life that is both oddly uplifting and  eminently readable. -- Thomas Rogers

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