In her latest memoir, Travel Light, Move Fast (Penguin Press, $27), Alexandra Fuller returns to the family history and African childhood that made her 2001 Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight a classic. Recounting her upbringing on a farm in war-torn Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Alexandra chronicles the incomparable and fastmoving life of her ex-pat father, Tim Fuller. Starting with his death a few years ago, Fuller highlights the nuggets of wisdom Tim gathered over the course of his life from experiences that included his sense of himself as a black sheep, his self-exile from England, his role as patriarch of his own family, and his efforts, throughout Africa, to grow bananas in the midst of post-colonial revolutions. Moving through her grief, Fuller mines her memories and her father’s example for the resilience she needs to navigate the challenges of her own life. Writing with her signature striking, beautiful prose and hilarious anecdotes, Fuller effortlessly blends her story and her father’s into a moving account of an unconventional family.
In 2003, Tim O'Brien began “a few short messages in a bottle that my kids might find tucked away in a dusty file cabinet long after my death.” Then his son Tad proposed he write a “maybe” book: which all writers do at the outset. “We are all writing our maybe books full of maybe tomorrows, and each maybe tomorrow brings another maybe tomorrow and then another until the last line of the last page receives its period.” If this sounds hokey, think again. Dad’s Maybe Book (Houghton Mifflin, $28) explores ambiguity. Tender, funny, and poignant, it reveals O’Brien as father, magician, Vietnam vet, and reader (especially of Hemingway) as well as O’Brien the writer. Though he believes his obituary will call him a “war writer” really he is anti-war, anti-absolutism. “This entire maybe book, like our lives, is full of maybes…and it’s okay to say ‘maybe’ even when you believe you have access to some self-evident ironclad miraculous and eternal Truth.” The most poignant chapter—“An Immodest and Altogether Earnest Proposal”—suggests we eliminate the word war from our vocabulary, substituting killing people, including children. This reframes not only our best war literature but also our values themselves.
2016, the lunar Year of the Monkey (Knopf, $24.95), began for Patti Smith with a west coast concert tour, during which she saw her friend of forty years, Sandy Pearlman, succumb to a cerebral hemorrhage. She later watched the decline of another old friend, Sam Shepherd, and felt the acceleration of time as she turned seventy, couldn’t sleep, and took up walking at night. Smith survived all this and, exhibiting no symptoms of “dried-up poet syndrome,” recounts it with the same matter-of-fact yet slightly bemused tone that made her previous memoirs so engaging. Taking what comes, Smith turns it all into remarkable language; whether describing a deserted café that has “a J. G. Ballard kind of gone,” or a patch of blue wildflowers looking “as if it had been seeded by sky,” she is our great poet of ambience. Fittingly for a time permeated by “an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges…[and] an avalanche of toxicity,” Smith moves frequently and without warning between daily life, memories, and dreams, intermittently receiving “transmissions” from a neon Dream Inn sign. Between dreams, she references a wide range of films, music, and books; makes the rounds of cafés; and snaps many of the Polaroids that complement this vivid, poignant, and deeply satisfying narrative.