The deadpan title of Bruce Eric Kaplan’s memoir, I Was a Child (Blue Rider, $25.95), would suit pretty much every memoir ever written. Of course, Kaplan, best known for his New Yorker cartoons, had a childhood like no one else’s, and his droll book demonstrates exactly how unusual it was. In a word: quite. Kaplan, who grew up in New Jersey in the late ’60s and early ’70s, had the kind of upbringing you might associate with a character on “Seinfeld” — and that makes sense since he wrote for the show. There’s a lot of that program’s brand of comic neurosis here. “I am always excited for the next thing, whatever that next thing is — sadly, this can happen after starting what had just been the next thing moments earlier,” Kaplan writes. “I often start thinking about what I will have for dinner as soon as I take my first bite of lunch.” The book builds slowly, as Kaplan strings together short, seemingly disconnected memories — of holidays (“My mother gave out pencils for Halloween”), trips to the shoe store (“I never understood who Buster Brown and his dog were, or what Buster was winking about”) and so on — accompanied by his signature minimalist drawings. The emotional impact of these vignettes accrues as the book approaches its denouement: the decline and death of Kaplan’s parents. (Kaplan has also written for “Six Feet Under.”) His slender book is a deceptively tender homage to his family, flaws and all. As he writes in the dedication, “This book is for my parents, who tried.”
Jamie Brickhouse’s mother would fit in nicely with the ladies at the beauty parlor in “Steel Magnolias.” A flamboyant Texan with a penchant for Cadillacs, red lipstick and bluntness, Mama Jean takes center stage in Brickhouse’s colorful memoir, Dangerous When Wet (St. Martin’s, $25.99). “I could never predict what was going to come out of her mouth,” Brickhouse writes, but “anyone peering through a window into her house would instantly have known what she was feeling by watching her histrionic gestures, which were as broad and iconic as those of her favorite soap-opera stars.” Growing up, Brickhouse was enthralled by his flashy mother (the “Joan Collins of Beaumont”) and thrived on her “unconditional adoration.” “She had placed me on a pedestal and I loved being there,” he writes. Their bond was tested as Brickhouse struck out on his own, moving to New York and coming out as gay. It was challenged even further as he slid into alcoholism. There’s never a shortage of drama — or humor — as Brickhouse chronicles his early years running behind his mother’s (high) heels, his wild days in Manhattan and his struggle with addiction. But in the end, this raucous memoir is a testament to his mother: “I never could ‘out-Mama Jean’ Mama Jean,” he writes, “because her love was love in its purest form, and it saved me.”
“What if the mightiest word is love?” Elizabeth Alexander asked in her poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which she delivered at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. It’s a sentiment she plumbs beautifully in her affecting memoir, The Light of the World (Grand Central, $26). The book gracefully tells the story of her relationship with her husband, the artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died suddenly in 2012 at age 50. Given its subject, it is remarkably uplifting — more eulogy than dirge. “The story seems to begin with catastrophe,” Alexander writes, “but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.” In unadorned prose, she narrates the tale of her union with Ghebreyesus: a meeting in a cafe that led to marriage, two sons and the kind of fellowship few couples seem able to achieve, much less sustain. “In all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different,” she writes. “But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, There you are, my love.” Alexander, who grew up in Washington and is now a professor at Yale , doesn’t wallow in her grief or vent anger at her loss. “I miss my friend,” she says, “plain and simple.” By the end of the book, you will understand precisely why.
Nora Krug is a contributing editor of Book World. She writes about memoirs every month.