Book Buzz: The Art of the Memoir

The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me  by Sherman Alexie

Summer is heralded as a time for the sort of escape provided by light, guilty pleasure beach-reading, but memoirs are the type of books I enjoy this time of year, when the longer days and more relaxed pace invite slipping into another’s skin for several afternoons. The following memoirs all share an intensity that lends a page-turner quality to the reading, and the stories are compelling in that the authors are, in many ways, outsiders to their native culture.

In The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road, trucker Finn Murphy (known by his handle “U-Turn”) shares a perspective on America and Americans as witnessed from the dash of his Freightliner (fondly named Cassidy) over 30 years and more than a million miles of long-haul trucking. Murphy reflects on how small-town America has changed over the decades, and relates humorous and sometimes haunting stories about the characters he has met on the road. Similar to Hillbilly Elegy, this is a compelling view into working-class life and the underbelly of the American Dream.

Souad Mekhennet, a reporter for the Washington Post, is no stranger to straddling two worlds, and I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad explores the ways she has had to mediate between Muslim and Western cultures. The daughter of a Turkish mother and a Moroccan father, she grew up primarily in Germany. Since 9/11 she has covered terrorist events around the world, and was a lead reporter in the story that broke the identity of the ISIS executioner, Jihadi John.

Mekhennet’s unique background gives her access to some of the world’s most dangerous men—leaders of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban—and by far the most gripping accounts of the memoir are interviews with these men where she is “told to come alone” and never knows how the conversation may turn or what fate may await her. Throughout it all, she maintains an objective empathy that allows readers to gain a deeper understanding of the people labeled radical Islamists.

Sherman Alexie’s long-awaited memoir is unflinchingly raw, heartbreaking, tender, and at times funny—exactly what readers have come to expect of the author—but You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is all these things to the power of 10. At first anticipated to be a book about his charming and likable alcoholic father, Alexie reports that after his mother died in 2015, the poems included in this book just roared out.

Alternating between prose and poetry, Alexie paints a portrait of a complicated woman, who in his words was “dead-salmon cold” and “army-ant intense.” “She protected me against cruelty/Three days a week.” Throughout, Alexie explores a potent mix of grief, anger and gratitude, slipping into poetry to express the most vulnerable or intense emotions.

Readers who enjoyed the semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian will appreciate the confirmation of the true parts of that novel, as well as learning more about this beloved Pacific Northwest author’s early life and complicated relationship with family and friends who remained on the reservation.

Alexie was expected to make an Aug. 8 stop at the Mount Baker Theatre as part of a promotional book tour, but late last week announced in a letter on his website ( that he had canceled most of his remaining speaking engagements to focus on his mental health.

“I don’t believe in the afterlife as a reality, but I believe in the afterlife as a metaphor,” he wrote about being haunted by his mother’s memory since starting the national tour.  “And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass.”

To send your best wishes to the author, make your way to Village Books stores in Bellingham and Lynden, where cards will be placed at the front counter for people to sign.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System, and plans to enjoy long stretches of reading in a hammock this summer.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 19, 2017.)