Riding in the backseat of our Impala as a child I got a feeling of guilty pleasure from peering into the lit windows we passed. There was something intriguing about catching glimpses of activity in other homes. A quick look into an apartment window and I could see that other people lived differently than I did. I wanted to know their stories. I still have this impulse, and must admit that I still can’t resist glancing into lit windows, but rather than veer off into a dangerous (not to mention illegal) pastime, I learned to channel my obsession into the more socially acceptable hobby of reading memoirs.
I just finished a new book called Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me by Patricia Volk. For those of you who aren’t into the history of fashion, Elsa Schiaparelli was an avant garde fashion designer in the middle decades of the last century. Her bold, often outrageous designs were influenced by the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists. On the cusp of puberty, Volk discovered a biography of Schiaparelli, which made a lasting impression upon her, as it opened her mind to the possibility that she could grow up to be different from her uptight, controlling, impossibly beautiful mother. The book shows how these two women, one real to Volk, the other living only in her imagination, helped shape her into the woman she became.
Other coming of age memoirs that are as engaging as a good novel:
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting saga of a boy who is verbally and physically abused by his cruel stepfather, but manages through pure tenacity to escape his situation and obtain a superior education.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a story of growing up with intelligent, but unconventional parents who clearly love their children, but are incapable of providing them with any form of security. Often homeless or living in deplorable conditions, Walls and her siblings devise a plan for escape.
America’s Boy by Wade Rouse is a heartbreaking and humorous account of growing up gay in the Ozarks. Rouse’s close relationship with his grandmother, who loved him unconditionally, ultimately gave him the resources he needed to cope with his survivor’s guilt at losing his older brother (the handsome, athletic, straight one), and ultimately gave him the courage to be true to himself.
A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel is a delightful, quirky story of a girl whose nick-name says it all. Growing up in a tiny Indiana town with a father who doted on her, but was also mysterious and maybe a little dangerous, and a mother who spent her life on the sofa with her head in a book, (there’s a sequel called She Got Up Off the Couch), Zippy nonetheless savored her life and perceived it as perfectly normal.
Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia by Mark Salzman. This is one of my favorites; maybe because Salzman and I both came of age in the 1970s. Obsessed with all things Chinese, Salzman had little interest in school, but decided at age thirteen to become a Zen monk. He survives Kung Fu lessons with a sadistic sensai, believes he has achieved ultimate enlightenment after his first experience with marijuana, and finally comes to understand and appreciate his father’s love.