Autobiographies

Lucky Man: A Memoir

Author: 
Fox, Michael J.

The remarkable memoir of film star Michael J. Fox and his first ten years living with Parkinson's Disease. Diagnosed in 1991, Michael eventually lost his balance, his grace, his spontaneity, and the ability to read the morning newspaper. Even so, he realizes that, in fact, he is a lucky man.

The same sharp intelligence and self-deprecating wit that made Michael J. Fox a star in the Family Ties TV series and Back to the Future make this a lot punchier than the usual up-from-illness celebrity memoir. Yes, he begins with the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the incurable illness that led to his retirement from Spin City (and acting) in 2000. And yes, he assures us he is a better, happier person now than he was before he was diagnosed. In Fox's case, you actually might believe it, because he then cheerfully exposes the insecurities and self-indulgences of his pre-Parkinson's life in a manner that makes them not glamorous but wincingly ordinary and of course very funny. ("As for the question, 'Does it bother you that maybe she just wants to sleep with you because you're a celebrity?' My answer to that one was, 'Ah...nope.'") With a working-class Canadian background, Fox has an unusually detached perspective on the madness of mass-media fame; his description of the tabloid feeding frenzy surrounding his 1988 wedding to Tracy Pollan, for example, manages to be both acid and matter-of-fact. He is frank but not maudlin about his drinking problem, and he refreshingly notes that getting sober did not automatically solve all his other problems. This readable, witty autobiography reminds you why it was generally a pleasure to watch Fox onscreen: he's a nice guy with an edge, and you don't have to feel embarrassed about liking him. --Wendy Smith

Discussion Guide: 

How much did you know about this person before reading the novel?

What did you think about this person prior to reading it?

Now you have read more about this person, has your opinion changed?

Do you like this person more or less?

How would you describe this person?What is their most impressive quality?

What has this person contributed most to the world?

If he/she hadn't been around, would the world be any different? What would have changed?

Is there any particular aspect of their life that shocked or surprised you?

Were there any parts of the book that did not ring true? Which?

Were there any parts of the book/their life where you would have liked more information?

Were there aspects of the book/their life that were too detailed? Which?

Can this person write or is it just a great story? How much help do you think the author has had to write the book?

In Pieces : A Memoir

Author: 
Field, Sally

In this intimate, haunting literary memoir and New York Times Notable Book of the year, an American icon tells her own story for the first time — about a challenging and lonely childhood, the craft that helped her find her voice, and a powerful emotional legacy that shaped her journey as a daughter and a mother.

One of the most celebrated, beloved, and enduring actors of our time, Sally Field has an infectious charm that has captivated the nation for more than five decades, beginning with her first TV role at the age of seventeen. From Gidget‘s sweet-faced “girl next door” to the dazzling complexity of Sybil to the Academy Award-worthy ferocity and depth of Norma Rae and Mary Todd Lincoln, Field has stunned audiences time and time again with her artistic range and emotional acuity. Yet there is one character who always remained hidden: the shy and anxious little girl within.
With raw honesty and the fresh, pitch-perfect prose of a natural-born writer, and with all the humility and authenticity her fans have come to expect, Field brings readers behind-the-scenes for not only the highs and lows of her star-studded early career in Hollywood, but deep into the truth of her lifelong relationships–including her complicated love for her own mother. Powerful and unforgettable, In Pieces is an inspiring and important account of life as a woman in the second half of the twentieth century.

Discussion Guide: 
1.Why do you think the author chose to title her memoir “In Pieces”? What does that title mean to you in terms of the story? Do you think your experience of the book would have been different if it had had a different title? Why or why not?
2.Field’s opening chapter focuses on “My Grandmother’s Daughter,” telling the story of her mother and the “world of women” who raised Margaret, and would later help raise Sally and Ricky. What is the significance of this world to young Sally and to the book itself? Why begin here, with the focus on her grandmother Joy? And why does she introduce her mother as “my grandmother’s daughter”?
3.When Sally is four years old, she meets her future stepfather, Jocko, for the first time. As he holds the frightened little girl, she says, “Maybe to be comforted and admired, I had to be terrified as well, maybe that’s what I was supposed to learn.” How do you see this moment playing out in the rest of the book, and in Field’s personal and professional lives as an adult? How do you think her life might have been different if she had learned a different lesson from that moment, or if her mother had rushed in to comfort the scared child? Can you think of any similar "turning point” moments in your own life?
4.Family relationships are central to the book, especially Sally’s complicated but loving one with her own mother, Margaret. Describe this relationship. How do you think Field’s relationship with Margaret informed her own actions as amother of three sons, later on?
5.Field describes her acting as a time when “I felt free...I could hear myself.” Why do you think this was so valuable for her?
6.On page 102, after the casting agent from Screen Gems stops seventeen-year-old Sally on the street and invites her to audition for what will turn out to be the sitcom Gidget, Field says, “Something had reached out of nowhere to change my life, just as it had for my mother and even my grandmother before her.” Discuss the role of chance, or fate, in shaping your own history. Do you believe it is always simple coincidence, or something more?
7. A number of very different men flow in and out of Field’s life over the course of the book. What do you think drew her romantically to certain people, from her childhood sweetheart Steven Craig to the flashy heartthrob Burt Reynolds? How much of the decisions we make about who we love are unconsciously driven by established patterns in our own history?
8.Field writes intimately of many traumatic events in her young life, but rarely states them matter-of-factly on the page. Indeed, many of the most painful revelations are unveiled only gradually, such as when, on page 47, she writes, “When I was seven and eight my feet could almost dance across his back, if I’d wanted—but I didn’t. Later, as my feet got bigger, there was no room to dance and no dancing in my heart.” Why do you think she chose to write her own story this way? Do you find that this storytelling style added to your experience of the book? Why or why not?
9. In Pieces tells vivid, revealing, and often very funny stories about Field’s early career, as she got her start as Gidget and The Flying Nun, then broke into more serious, award-winning roles in Sybil and Norma Rae. Why do you think her primary focus in the memoir was on those early years, rather than the big blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s? To what degree does a well-known author have the right to decide the shape of her own story?
10.Do you consider this memoir a “feminist” book? Why or why not?

Wild : From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Author: 
Strayed, Cheryl

A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.
 
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
 
Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. “The Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t a world to me then. It was an idea, vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery. Something bloomed inside me as I traced its jagged line with my finger on a map” (p. 4). Why did the PCT capture Strayed’s imagination at that point in her life?

2. Each section of the book opens with a literary quote or two. What do they tell you about what’s to come in the pages that follow? How does Strayed’s pairing of, say, Adrienne Rich and Joni Mitchell (p. 45) provide insight into her way of thinking?

3. Strayed is quite forthright in her description of her own transgressions, and while she’s remorseful, she never seems ashamed. Is this a sign of strength or a character flaw?

4. “I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told” (p. 51). Fear is a major theme in the book. Do you think Strayed was too afraid, or not afraid enough? When were you most afraid for her?

5. Strayed chose her own last name: “Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine...: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress” (p. 96). Did she choose well? What did you think when you learned she had assigned this word to herself—that it was no coincidence?

6. On the trail, Strayed encounters mostly men. How does this work in her favor? What role does gender play when removed from the usual structure of society?

7. What does the reader learn from the horrific episode in which Strayed and her brother put down their mother’s horse?

8. Strayed writes that the point of the PCT “had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets” (p. 207). How does this sensation help Strayed to find her way back into the world beyond the wilderness?

9. On her journey, Strayed carries several totems. What does the black feather mean to her? And the POW bracelet? Why does she find its loss (p. 238) symbolic?

10. Does the hike help Strayed to get over Paul? If so, how? And if not, why?

11. Strayed says her mother’s death “had obliterated me.... I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill” (p 267). How did being on the PCT on her mother’s fiftieth birthday help Strayed to heal this wound?

12. What was it about Strayed that inspired the generosity of so many strangers on the PCT?

13. “There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another.... But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT” (p. 304). How does this realization change Strayed’s attitude towards her stepfather?

14. To lighten her load, Strayed burns each book as she reads it. Why doesn’t she burn the Adrienne Rich collection?

15. What role do books and reading play in this often solitary journey?
(Questions by publisher.)

Kitchen Privileges : A Memoir

Author: 
Clark, Mary Higgins

In her long-awaited memoir, Mary Higgins Clark, America's beloved and bestselling Queen of Suspense, recounts the early experiences that shaped her as a person and influenced her as a writer.

Even as a young girl, growing up in the Bronx, Mary Higgins Clark knew she wanted to be a writer. The gift of storytelling was a part of her Irish ancestry, so it followed naturally that she would later use her sharp eye, keen intelligence, and inquisitive nature to create stories about the people and things she observed.

Along with all Americans, those who lived in New York City's borough of the Bronx suffered during the Depression. So it followed that when Mary's father died, her mother, deciding to open the family home to boarders, placed a discreet sign next to the front door that read, FURNISHED ROOMS. KITCHEN PRIVILEGES. Very shortly the first in a succession of tenants arrived: a couple dodging bankruptcy who moved in with their wild-eyed boxer; a teacher who wept endlessly over her lost love; a deadbeat who tripped over a lamp while trying to sneak out in the middle of the night...

The family's struggle to make ends meet; her days as a scholarship student in an exclusive girls' academy; her after-school employment as a hotel switchboard operator (happily listening in on the guests' conversations); the death of her beloved older brother in World War II; her brief career as a flight attendant for Pan Am (a job taken after a friend who flew with the airline said ever so casually, "God, it was beastly hot in Calcutta"); her marriage to Warren Clark, on whom she'd had a crush for many years; sitting at the kitchen table, writing stories, and finally selling the first one for one hundred dollars (after six years and some forty rejections!) -- all these experiences figure into Kitchen Privileges, as does her husband's untimely death, which left her a widowed mother of five young children.

Determined to care for her family and to make a career for herself, she went to work writing scripts for a radio show, but in her spare time she began writing novels. Her first, a biographical novel about the life of George Washington titled Aspire to the Heavens, found a publisher but disappeared without a trace when the publisher folded. (Recently it was rediscovered by a descendant of the Washington family and was reissued under the title Mount Vernon Love Story.) The experience, however, gave her the background and the preparation for writing Where Are the Children? which went on to become an international bestseller. That novel launched her career and was the first of twenty-seven (and still counting!) bestselling books of suspense.

As Mary Higgins Clark has said when asked if she might consider giving up writing for a life of leisure, "Never! To be happy for a year, win the lottery. To be happy for life, love what you do."

In Kitchen Privileges, she reflects on the joy that her life as a writer has brought her, and shares with readers the love that she has found.

Discussion Guide: 

How much did you know about this person before reading the novel?

What did you think about this person prior to reading it?

Now you have read more about this person, has your opinion changed?

Do you like this person more or less?

How would you describe this person?What is their most impressive quality?

What has this person contributed most to the world?

If he/she hadn't been around, would the world be any different? What would have changed?

Is there any particular aspect of their life that shocked or surprised you?

Were there any parts of the book that did not ring true? Which?

Were there any parts of the book/their life where you would have liked more information?

Were there aspects of the book/their life that were too detailed? Which?

Can this person write or is it just a great story? How much help do you think the author has had to write the book?

Becoming

Author: 
Obama, Michelle

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America--the first African American to serve in that role--she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare. In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her--from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world's most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it--in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations--and whose story inspires us to do the same.

Discussion Guide: 

1. Mrs. Obama begins her book with a story about making cheese toast on a quiet night at home, a few months after leaving the White House. Why do you think she chose this story to begin her memoir?

2. Mrs. Robinson is the opposite of a helicopter parent. She was tough and had very high expectations for her children, and she also expected them to figure some things out on their own and learn from their missteps and the process of making choices. She gave her children agency at a very young age. How did that shape Mrs. Obama? What is the balance between discipline and trust?

3. In Becoming, we get to know the constellation of Mrs. Obama’s extended family through her eyes. Her grandfather, Southside filled his house with music and makeshift speakers and merriment. Years later, Mrs. Obama would fill the White House with music and culture through live performances and several programs aimed at children. How do those kinds of early memories leave an imprint on us as we grow older? What were the sights and smells that you remember from visiting grandparents or other elders, and how have they left a mark on you?

4. In discussing her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Mrs. Obama writes, "Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear." How did this insight shape Mrs. Obama’s work and mission as First Lady? What can we all do—as individuals, parents, and community members—to help break this cycle?"

5. Mrs. Obama writes about the early influences of her mother, Marion Robinson, and her TV role model Mary Tyler Moore. One was a single, professional living on her own in the big city. One was a wise and supportive stay-at-home mother, who later went to work to help pay for her children’s education. Where do you see the influences of both of these women in Mrs. Obama’s life?

6. Early in her senior year at Whitney Young High School, Mrs. Obama went for an obligatory first appointment with the school college counselor. Mrs. Obama was treasurer of the senior class. She had earned a spot in the National Honor Society. She was on track to graduate in the top 10 percent of her class and she was interested in joining her older brother, Craig, at Princeton University. The guidance counselor said to her, "I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material." How did Mrs. Obama handle hearing that statement? How does one avoid having one’s dreams dislodged by someone else’s lower expectations?

7. In high school Mrs. Obama said she felt like she was representing her neighborhood. At Princeton, faced with questions of whether she was the product of Affirmative Action programs, she felt like she was representing her race. Was that more than a feeling? Was she actually representing her communities in those settings? Have you had moments in life where you feel as though you are representing one of your communities?

8. In her early life Mrs. Obama writes about being a "box checker," but as she gets older she learns how to "swerve" to adjust to life’s circumstances. What does it mean to swerve and how do we develop that skill in life?

9. In Becoming, Mrs. Obama describes a number of women who have served as mentors for her at different times in her life, including Czerny Brasuell, Valerie Jarrett, and Susan Sher. What do these women have in common? What lessons did Mrs. Obama learn from them about finding a fulfilling career as a parent? Who are your mentors and how do you cultivate those relationships?

10. In Chapter 15, Mrs. Obama explains why she chose to support her husband’s run for the presidency despite her misgivings about politics. What made her change her mind? Would you have made the same choice? How do you balance the competing worlds of family life and work in your life?

11. As Mrs. Obama notes, First Lady is a role without a job description. How did Mrs. Obama choose to approach the role? If you were in charge of writing the job description for the First Lady, what would you include and exclude?

12. In Becoming, Mrs. Obama writes candidly about detractors who tried to invalidate her standing or her work. "I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliche, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say." What is the root of that "angry black woman" cliche? How and why does it do damage?

13. Throughout her life, Michelle Obama has been a meticulous planner. It is evident in her approach to her studies in high school and at Princeton. It is evident in the way she transitioned through jobs as a professional. And it is evident in the way she approached her role as First Lady. Where did that come from? How did Fraser Robinson’s approach to life impact his daughter? Are you a planner or more spontaneous? How does it impact those around you and your life?

14. In the epilogue, Mrs. Obama writes, "I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that." Did you find her statement surprising? Do you think politics is an effective way to make social change?

15. Why do you think Michelle Obama chose to name her memoir "Becoming"? What does the idea of "becoming" mean to you?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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