There are, to adapt the saying, two kinds of people: those who write memoirs and those who read them. One can be forgiven for feeling that the first group easily outnumbers the second, which is a pity if that means the reader might skip this book. Tad Friend is a sharp, wry writer of New Yorker profiles, but it turns out his best subject by far is himself and his family, which includes his father, once president of Swarthmore; his wife, Food 52 co-founder Amanda Hesser; and their twins. The author is incapable of writing a bad sentence (trying to connect with his dad “always felt like ice fishing,” and their kids growing up showed that “we were racing toward that moment in their trajectory when our role, as booster rockets, is to fall burning back to earth”), and his wit saves many a moment in his dealings with others.
Until, of course, it doesn’t, and Friend chronicles his heartbreaking stupidity and his efforts to re-invent himself into a less selfish, more caring person with a painful clarity that leaves the reader precariously hopeful. You root for Friend not so much because you like him but because, by book’s end, you know him—and may even spot glimmers of him in yourself. It is unlikely you will read a finer memoir this year.
This lively book will not teach you to write like Anna Quindlen, a justly lauded novelist and essayist, and that is precisely her point. Everyone can benefit from writing down what they think and see and experience, since only by doing so will you learn to think, make connections, preserve memories, and find your own voice. If she imparts any lesson, it is that there are no lessons, only “How it’s done is how you do it.” How you do it is up to you, but just do it. History, and not just you, will be “truer, fairer, richer.”
Oh, to have the knack Candice Millard has for picking the pockets of history and finding just those tales of adventure and tragedy that make for such compelling works. Whether it’s the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of South America after his 1912 presidential defeat in River of Doubt or the capture and audacious escape of Winston Churchill during the Boer War in Hero of the Empire, Millard exhibits admirable skill in crafting narratives of uncommon drama and detail.
In her latest book, she details the epic struggle of two men, Richard Burton and John Speke, to find the source of the Nile River. They set out as colleagues in 1857 but quickly discovered a mutual hatred, not to mention mountains, sickness, hunger. Burton dropped out after two years, while Speke pressed on to Lake Victoria, but the true hero of the story is Sidi Mubarak Bombay, an East African slave turned guide largely responsible for whatever success the expedition enjoyed. A first-rate tale of 19th-century exploration that rivals the best of the polar exploits.