I love books about inspirational women who stand up for themselves, who speak up even when living out of their comfort zone, half way around the world from where they were born. With this in mind, I searched for memoirs that dealt with the themes of most interest to the Wagamama Bride, starting with falling in love, marriage, birth of children, raising the little buggers, making peace with in-laws, and finding a solid community of friends, teachers, mentors who become the surrogate family till the endof time.
Then there’s religion. And spiritual guidance. And mostly there’s God to illuminate the zaniness of a life well lived.
These memoirs on my list all take the reader on a journey to wholly different worlds that few of us have access to. Books that take us behind closed doors, behind curtains, behind gates and into forests and up mountains we couldn’t ordinarily reach.
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull Published by Avery Press August 2004 320 pages
This book came highly recommended, a hilarious read about a topic close to my heart–the culture clashes that ripen into deadpan humor when an Australian woman meets the man of her dreams and follows him back home to Paris. While reviewer described the book as pointless, whiny drivvle that perpetuates the love-hate stereotypes that strong a reaction increases my curiosity even more. One woman’s drivvle is obvious another’s barrel of laughs.
An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chester Published by St. Martin’s Press 256 pages
The title is misleading because the author, Jewish American from Brooklyn, only spends ten weeks in Afghanistan at the start of her marriage to Muslim in Kabul in 1961 and the rest of the book is an exposition of how the author comes to appreciate Western values after all. She returns to the US, becomes an academic and human rights activist, and shares with her readers a wealt of insights about how women are valued–or undervalued in so many other parts of the world.
Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg Kason Published by Sourcebooks July 2014
The author fell in love with the Chinese culture before she met her Chinese Romeo, who she marries, has a child with, takes back to the US with his folks too, and then ultimately divorces. What went wrong? Of course I’m curious. Marriage to an Asian, as I know first-hand, is no banquet. One reviewer wrote: “a true cautionary tale for any romantics abroad who believe that exotic intrigue is enough to sustain an interracial marriage.” I haven’t even read the book and I’m nodding my head.
Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life by Priscilla Warner Published by Atria Books Sept 20, 2011 288 pages
Oh the irony of it! A book to bring calm published 8 days after the World Trade Towers crashed to the ground! Priscilla Warner, one of the co-authors of the wildly successful “The Faith Club,” took a year to face a problem that had been following her for years–debilitating anxiety and panic attack. Set in New York–I think–in a post 9/11 world, Learning to Breathe came well timed to bring calm back to Warner’s life. This memoir chronicles meditation, spiritual retreats, teachings that range from the Dali Lama to Jewish mysticism–closer to her own Jewish background.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman Published by Simon& Schuser August 2015 371 pages
While not technically a memoir or even a biography, I couldn’t resist adding this acclaimed work to the list. Marriage of Opposites is a work of historical fiction set in St. Thomas in the Caribbean in the early 1800s where a small Jewish community of refugees from the Spanish inquisition hundreds of years earlier, led their children to ill-suited matches and devastating marriages. This is based on the true story of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s Jewish mother– who is married off to man much older than her, produces a trio of kids, becomes a widow, and then falls for her nephew.
My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin Published by Fig Tree Books March 2017 326 pages
Pogrebin, daughter of the co-founder of Ms. Magazine, grew up in an orbit of impassioned feminism even stronger than her own Jewish roots. In this memoir she designs a yearlong quest (these yearlong quests are getting pretty much the rage, as you’ll see further down this list more of them). A year just about covers all the major holidays in the Jewish calendar. But can it lead to meaningful self-transformation in beliefs and practices? Stay tuned. Or please join me in reading and discussion of what it takes to lock in step with Judaism when you weren’t raised to do so.
The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell Published by Icon Books May 2015 354 pages
Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. Or is it Bhutan (see below). The British author lights the long winter with lots of candles and finds many other things to appreciate during a life-changing yearlong adventure with her husband.
Married to Bhutan, By Linda Leaming Published 2001 by Hay House
The U.S. author falls in love first with a remote Himalayan nation–Bhutan, then with the Buddhist artist she marries. This memoir offers a total immersion in the culture of these insular mountain people and their simple and happy way of life.
My Father’s Gardens by Karen Levy Published by Homebound Publicaitons April 2013 April 2013 248 pages
A memoir set in both Israel and the US about taking years to lay down roots on foreign soil. Levy, who returned to Israel to serve in the army, had finished high school in Los Angeles after her parents divorced and hop-scotches back and forth as her parents make new lives following their divorce. Struggling to find her place and her home in the world, I identify here so strongly… and I haven’t even opened the book.
Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community by Enuma Okoro Fresh Air Books Published 2010 181 pages
The author makes it clear from the start that this memoir is going to be about her world, her mindset, her passions, her grief, and her relationship with Jesus. I’m intrigued that it’s described as a laugh-out loud, no-holds barred account of a woman who prays to savor God’s goodness and is never satisfied. That does sounds familiar. One reviewer praised the spiritual insights drawn from the ups and downs of life.
Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction by Gabrielle Selz W.W> Norton Company May 5, 2014
A summer reading list would not be complete with a bit of high art to add color. Selz’s memoir about her father, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, reds like a who’s who in American late-20th century Art-until divorce strikes. Selz’s mother moves with her children to a utopian artist community. I’ll be reading Unstill Life as much for Selz’ stories about the giants of the art world as for the intimate revelations of her unstill family.
And although not technically a memoir…here’s one I can’t resist!
Almonds and Raisins by Maisie Mosco Published by Harper Paperbacks January 1991 480 pages
Even if the first in a trilogy about a Jewish family who flee Eastern Europe and settle in Manchester, England in the early 20th century hadn’t a 4.5 star rating by Goodreads.com, I’d be reading it anyway. My maternal great grandparents fled Latvia in the 1890s, came to England, settled in Manchester, and to this day I have no idea about what their lives were like that prompted them to not only leave Latvia behind, but many of the Jewish traditions that had kept their faith strong in the old country. A powerful read for anyone curious about why Jews abandoned faith once they got to a country where they were free to actually keep it.