Several years ago I decided to write about the early part of my life and started reading some books that deal with our memories and how they affect us in later years. As I encountered each title — some for the first time, some that I was revisiting and re-discovering — I grew more and more convinced that there are underlying emotions that are universal, however different the individual narratives may be.
by Marcel Proust
This is the first volume of “Remembrance of Things Past” and to my mind it is the definitive, classic, perfect “memory book.” One of the all-time greats. At the onset of the novel, a flavor, a scent evokes in the adult Marcel a particular moment of his early childhood which, in turn, opens a floodgate of reminiscences that will take him on a journey of memories spanning his entire life. Belle Epoque Paris and France are vividly depicted.
by Frank McCourt
In his amazing book, Frank McCourt describes his Dickensian, miserable childhood in Ireland, and yet manages to leave the reader with hope instead of despair. It is full of unexpected humor and is a shining tribute to his heroic mother Angela. It will break your heart and yet lift your spirit as young Frank overcomes adversity and sails into his new life.
by Eva Hoffman
This is one of the books closest to me. Eva Hoffman is uprooted from post-war Poland and brought to America at age thirteen where she is confronted with an alien world and an alien language. The book is about her assimilation into her new life, but even more it is about the fact that one becomes a different person in each of the languages one uses: many things are “lost in translation,” as multilingual people often know.
by Elspeth Huxley
As the subtitle of this book says: it is a memoir of an African childhood. The young Elspeth, child of English settlers in Kenya, grows up during the early part of the twentieth century, a world that is so different from ours that it might as well be on another planet. She is a wonderfully observant child and seeing the world of pre-war British Africa through her eyes is a delight. Her pioneering parents and her friends among the Kikuyu and Masai people make an indelible impression.
by Maxine Hong Kingston
Growing up Chinese-American in California, surrounded by older female relatives and especially a mother whose “talk-stories” take on a life of their own, this book is imbued with magic realism. As the mother tells her daughter of her own young life in China, a society is described in which women are virtually worthless and must fight brutal wars to assert themselves. These tales in turn are juxtaposed with the narrator’s present day life and her own fantasies. A truly original “memory book."
by Khaled Hosseini
Extremely timely, this wonderful book describes an Afghanistan of several decades ago — not so very different from the current one. The narrator’s life is forever changed by a childhood friendship, betrayal, exile — and an eventual opportunity to right some long-ago wrongs. The memories of Kabul in the last days of the Afghan monarchy before the Soviet invasion are interspersed with a description of present-day California and life there among the fiercely traditional Afghan exiles. It is a book of great beauty and power.
by Arundhati Roy
The author uses the English language in one of the most beautiful ways that I have ever encountered. She writes like a poet, a storyteller who uses almost musical riffs to bring us into a magical world of South India. It begins as a mystery: what was the event that caused one of a pair of twin children to stop talking and the other one to go into exile? As the story unfolds we enter the hothouse world of Estha and Rahel, holding our breath until the final, devastating conclusion. I have recently re-read it. It is even better the second time.
by Andre Aciman
Andre Aciman’s elegant writing is another wonderful depiction of a world that had disappeared as thoroughly as the Roman Empire. The narrator, child of a wealthy Jewish family in Egypt, describes the eccentric members of this family, their love of Alexandria, and the slowly tightening noose around their way of life. Exile looms; and yet, until it happens, the magical city and its people hold sway over young Andre who does and yet does not want to be “out of Egypt."
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. more...
About Susan Gerstein
I am an artist and writer living and working in New York City and have been a devoted reader all my life. My book Lily’s Daughter was published in 2012: it is a memoir of growing up in Hungary during the Second World War and its Communist aftermath. Samples of my artwork can be seen at New York Artworld.
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