Tag Archives: Memoir

Will, by Will Smith

Will Smith: rap singer, TV star, movie star, and now Man of Letters. What a life this guy has led! His father was a military man and expected rigid obedience, and his sweet grandmother called him Lover Boy. Although his dad was not always a good husband or father, he gave him discipline, while his Gigi let him know he was beloved. It was probably both of these influences together that propelled Will through his high-pressure life and allowed him to achieve great things.

I only became aware of Will Smith when he started making movies in the ‘90s, so his entire earlier life was a mystery to me. He had a hardworking mother and father, and he loved to make people laugh. He started rhyming and performing hip-hop for fun with some friends, and then they decided to make a go of it. They made some rookie mistakes, and then Will made some mistakes that only a young, suddenly rich man could make. He was climbing to the top, and the fall was a resounding crash. He was determined to regroup and succeed, and he always wanted to be the good guy. He never cursed in his songs, which is rare in the hip-hop world, and he recognized and used his gift for humor. He wanted to get married, to be a great husband and a great father. He expected a lot from the women in his life, but he wanted to give them everything he could. He also wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. Life never turns out the way we expect, but by this point, he has been everywhere, met many amazing people, and had experiences that few people on this planet are able to enjoy.

There are passages in the book that were uncomfortable to read, because it seemed that Smith had huge blind spots when he was bragging openly about events or achievements that were not as kind or generous as they could have been. Often, however, that would be followed by a candid confession of his own faults or how his hubris caused him to fall on his face, sometimes publicly. He was, and continues to be, earnest in his pursuit of self-improvement.

Many successful people write name-dropping, tell-all memoirs, but the defining feature of this autobiography is the thoughtful consideration of lessons learned and wisdom gained. Smith works hard at learning from his mistakes, and his conclusions often have universal application, so that those who can’t spend millions of dollars on therapeutic endeavors can learn from him, instead. All of this without sacrificing the fun of reminiscing about younger days and super-cool movies. Tremendously entertaining.

This book was recommended to me as an audiobook, and I recommend it to you in this format, as well. Not only is it read by Will Smith in his own affable voice, but when he mentions a song, it is inserted into the narrative. Smith is also great with impressions, and he changes his voice for all the characters in the book, which is often hilarious. The language is blistering, especially for the parts with rappers, and many of his rapper friends from Philly stay with him his whole life as managers, producers, and bodyguards. It’s one of the best new audiobooks out there, but don’t play it in front of the kiddos.

Great fun.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one our greatest living writers, and her novels have won copious awards. She is also prolific, and always seems to have a new novel in the works. However, when the pandemic took over our lives in 2020, Patchett realized that—like many of us— she did not have the mental bandwidth for an extended project, but she found solace in short memoirs and essays. Some of the selections in this volume have appeared in a different form in the past, but some are new, including the longest piece in the book, the title story.

Patchett’s topics vary widely, from a clear-eyed tribute to her three fathers—one biological and two stepfathers—to another generous piece about growing up with an exceptionally beautiful mother. There are references to becoming a bookstore owner, being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an address to the Association of Graduate School Deans. As a children’s librarian, I found her essay about reading Kate DiCamillo’s books to be especially heartwarming. It was like having two of my best friends meet for the first time and discover that they really like each other.

I read her piece about her husband’s exploits as a pilot out loud to my husband, and we both enjoyed it thoroughly. We both laughed at the funny parts, but I think I understood her distress about his safety more than David did. Her story entitled, “How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice,” hit a deep chord. She related how she had learned to knit as a child, but never appreciated it as much as when a close friend died recently. I learned to knit just a few years ago when I knit a blanket for my first grandson, who then died. My second project was an extravagant shawl for myself, far beyond my skills and with yarn I couldn’t afford. I made a mistake about halfway through and left it in, because there are some scars that never disappear. Knitting saved my life, too.

Ann Patchett is blessed with many good friends, and she writes funny and loving stories about them. Her title story relates how she came to know Tom Hanks, and how he later agreed to narrate the audiobook of her beautiful novel The Dutch House (reviewed here). Through a series of coincidences, Hanks’ assistant, Sookie, came to live with Ann and her physician husband in Nashville while she underwent clinical trials to treat pancreatic cancer just as the pandemic shut everything down. The memoir explores the discomfort of sharing spaces with a virtual stranger, the desire to do good when good is hard to discern, and the anguish of the terminally ill when they are forbidden to say goodbye to loved ones.

Although very little of this collection is about the pandemic, it is perfect reading when our thinking is scattered and we need books that don’t require an extended attention span. All of the pieces are written in Patchett’s exquisite style that won the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Of course, if you’re tucked in for the winter, you can’t do better than The Dutch House, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, or any of her other brilliant novels.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor became a priest in the Episcopal Church in the years when few women thought of such things. She became a clergyperson in Atlanta, where she was worn out by the constant demands of urban church life. Eventually, she admitted to herself that her marriage had been on the back burner for so long that it was cold and her heart had become numb toward those to whom she was ministering. All the while, she had been expending all of her energy in performing the good deeds that were expected of her. She couldn’t remember her spiritual passion.

Barbara found a new position in charming Clarkesville, Georgia. The tiny, historic church building spoke to her, and after she and her husband had been there for a few years, they built a home in the gentle mountains nearby. The challenges of a small, rural congregation are different from a city parish: more intimate, but often claustrophobic. Over the years, Barbara won many accolades for her preaching and writing, and the congregation grew exponentially, to the point that she and her assistant were holding several services each Sunday and talking about a building program. After finding herself frazzled and exhausted again, Barbara began to question the role of the church. Was this what Jesus intended for his followers? For that matter, was she even making disciples for Jesus? After many years of dedicated service, Barbara decided to leave her position. Since the Episcopal church advises their separated priests not to visit their former churches, and Barbara and her husband wanted to stay in their beloved home, she left the church entirely.

Despite the title, most of this volume is more of a memoir of Ms. Taylor’s years as a priest, and she only comes to the questions about faith, the Bible, and the modern church in the last part of the book. After leaving the priesthood, she became a religion professor at a university nearby, and she approached spiritual studies with a wide-open point of view. Her husband had always been a spiritual adventurer, and he once invited some local tribes to use their property for a multi-day religious observance. Barbara began her questioning with that experience, and then she committed to acquainting her students with world religion in ways that they would not typically encounter in rural Georgia.

David and I lived in northern Georgia for a number of years, and we often spent Saturday afternoons strolling through the antique shops of Clarkesville. I now know that Ms. Taylor was priest at Grace-Calvary Church during that same time period in the 1990s. Although the book cuts off very shortly after she left Grace-Calvary, she has gone on to write many others that continue her story and delve more deeply into the issues. I was surprised to discover that I already own two other books by Barbara Brown Taylor, the newest in my teetering pile of to-be-read titles and another, older title on my bookshelves. Clearly, I need a cataloger. Taylor’s approach to life is so thoughtful and her writing so accessible that I will surely move her other books to a higher spot on the list.

A moving and candid memoir by a woman of faith.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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