Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries by Maureen O'Connor

When I was a kid, the best thing to come in the mail was the Christmas catalog from Sears Roebuck & Company. I could look through its pages at games, toys, and sports equipment for hours. I'm like a kid again, for I received Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries by Maureen O'Connor. Memoirs and autobiographies are among my favorite books - I'm not alone in this - and Maureen has fully described 655 titles and identified another 2800 read-alikes to go with them. I have already spent several hours browsing through the guidebook spotting intriguing titles. My reading wish list is going to get really long.

Like other books in the Real Stories series*, Life Stories groups the books in chapters according to categories. Chapters range from lighter reading, such as "Travel and Adventure" and "Celebrities," to darker accounts, such as "Life at War" and "Surviving Life." Each chapter has subsections, such as "Adventurers," "From Rags to Riches," "Foodies," "Expatriates," and "Breaking the Cycle." Each book description includes bibliographic information, availability of audiobook, large print, and e-book formats, an informative review of the book, book awards, subject headings, and titles to try if you liked the book. I was pleased to find numerous books that I have already enjoyed profiled, including Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve, Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas, Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, and I Had a Hammer by Hank Aaron.

Maureen supports historical as well as contemporary reading in her up-to-date guide. (Books from early 2010 are included.) Near the beginning of each chapter, after the definitions, she identifies five classic memoirs that are well known and should be widely available. "Classics" include what Elaine Showalter calls "instant classics," so not all of these books are really old. River-Horse by William Least Heat Moon and Days of Grace by Arthur Ashe appear in the classics lists. Chapters end with a "Consider Starting With ..." list and "Fiction Read-Alikes."

I'm sure many people are going to skip the Introduction to get straight to the reading suggestions, but I recommend serious readers set aside some time to return to this important part of the book. Maureen not only tells how the books were selected and how to navigate through the chapters, she explains the reading appeal of the memoir and autobiography. She also recounts recent controversies concerning the veracity of autobiographical writings and constructs a history of the genre. Besides gaining some new insights into literature, readers may find more titles that interest them.

Maureen identifies more titles that she could not fit into the main text in "Appendix A: Classics." She then identifies memoirs that have been discredited in "Appendix B: Controversial Titles." Lists of awards for memoirs, an author-title index, and a lengthy subject index complete the genre guide.

With the current popularity of memoirs and the need for discussion groups to find titles, Maureen's extensive new guide belongs in public libraries across the U.S. and Canada. It is an especially good investment for libraries emphasizing readers' advisory.

O'Connor, Maureen. Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries. Libraries Unlimited, 2011. 723p. ISBN 9781591585275.

*My book Real Lives Revealed is in this series.

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