It's a counterpoint thing. The more placidly motionless the reader, the more impact all that vicarious action packs. And vicarious action, subtle or speedy, from pursuing gurus to dodging bullets to sidestepping the SS, is even more rewarding if you know for sure that it actually happened to someone somewhere.
This season, hot new adventure memoirs are stacking up. Don't confuse these with those stolid old standbys, the recollections of icons whose entrenched, in-the-bag fame hoists their books above the status of mere memoir to full-on autobiography, with all that implicit extra dignity and instant best-sellerdom and waiting lists at the library. The other Clinton autobiography will be upon us soon enough.
Rather, the zeitgeist right now is for titillating memoirs by authors you've never heard of, more or less regular Joes and Janes who are, in this celebrity-driven world, near nobodies. Doctors. Lawyers. Reporters. Grad students. Moms. No one you'd notice in the checkout line or in the adjacent Camry stopped at the light. But they've done things. Weird things. Funny things. Dumb and dangerous things that have rendered them accidental sages, surprised survivors, dispatchers from heaven and hell.
Matthew McAllester dispatched for years, but filing news reports from war zones around the world, he never expected that his biggest scoop would be about himself. Last year, just as war broke out in Iraq, the Newsday reporter was arrested with several other journalists in a Baghdad hotel. In Blinded by the Sunlight, he recounts their chilling week of captivity, interrogation and terrifying mind games in Saddam's most notorious prison. The book's title is a bit of a misnomer -- McAllester records every detail, even while blindfolded.
War gets you thinking about ... well, about war. In At the Abyss, former Secretary of the Air Force Thomas C. Reed offers an insider's view of those duck-and-cover decades now remembered with a shudder as the Cold War. Reed, who worked under Reagan and the first Bush, writes about his life among spies, bombs and world leaders with an irresistible, unexpectedly wry wit that humanizes this long but -- as international crises go -- only relatively lethal conflict. In the process, he makes no bones about how close we were to being vaporized.
But a far cry from world affairs is Kat Albrecht's The Lost Pet Chronicles, a warm and fuzzy narrative about an animal-adoring California cop who bought herself a few cute puppies and turned them into highly skilled search dogs. After years spent hunting with them for missing humans, Albrecht had a bolt from the blue: Why not use animals to hunt for missing animals? These chronicles of her highs and lows as a certified pet detective might make dog- and catless readers' eyes glaze over now and then, but die-hard animal lovers will relish Albrecht's tales of suburban search-and-rescues, sad little stiff corpses and joyous reunions, intercut with insights on raising bloodhounds at home. (They're smart and lovable and exude saliva incessantly.)
We don't like to think of doctors as having lives. If they have lives -- lovers, cranky kids who keep them up all night, ailments of their own -- then that bodes really poorly for their concentration, and that is the only part of them we wish to think about. Emergency-room physician Frank Huyler breaks down that professional wall of silence in The Blood of Strangers. This memoir-in-essays' title says it all, baring the heart and soul of a man who, in the course of a typical work shift, watches a beautiful girl bleed to death, laughs bitterly at a fellow medic's joke about broken jaws and blow jobs, sees colleagues slipping over the edge, stops a child from slipping into a coma, and saves a wounded murderer's life. What goes on behind that surgical mask? Maybe more than you want to know, but as both a published poet and a wielder of scalpels, Huyler gives it to you straight and stunningly.
Many of these authors are so ordinary, so much like us and those we know, that we slide into their shoes effortlessly, automatically, as they walk on the wild side. It's a far cry from the way we fawn and genuflect our way through the reminiscences of, say, Hillary Clinton or Maya Angelou. Within the moments it takes to skim a single paragraph of this new type of memoir, we love or hate the author, envy or identify with the author, imagine being the author but also shudder with relief at not having actually had to be there. A cool trick.
Sometimes the walk in question isn't really on the wild side, yet a skilled memoirist keeps us in step anyway. This is an entirely different sort of cool trick, one in which the author takes a standard practice -- an experience neither new nor extraordinary, something shared by millions daily -- and turns it around to reveal seldom-spoken marvels lurking within. Herman Gollob does this deftly with Me and Shakespeare, recounting how, shortly before retiring from a career in publishing a few years ago, he happened to attend a Broadway performance of Hamlet starring Ralph Fiennes as the prince.
"As an English major" some forty years earlier, Gollob writes, "I'd taken the obligatory Shakespeare course, but it was only a semester." In the intervening decades, he spared the Bard hardly a thought. But galvanized by Fiennes' performance, Gollob was swept into a passion that puzzled and utterly pervaded him. Writing comfortably, as if to a friend, he describes how rediscovering each of Shakespeare's plays in turn shed new light on his own life and the world at large.
Steve Almond took a similarly though deliciously lower-brow universal experience and made it into Candyfreak. The portentously named Almond confesses to having eaten at least one piece of candy every day of his life. It's more than just a sensory thing with him; it's about far deeper comforts. As a small boy in the suburbs, he writes, "I wasn't just interested in eating the candy. I fondled it." Incorporating research on candy history into his own memories -- to call them bittersweet is just too obvious -- of home and friends and lovers lost and kept and how Junior Mints and jawbreakers flavored all of that, Almond celebrates a small pleasure too easily overlooked. His elegies for bars and brands no longer sold -- the Powerhouse, the Marathon, the caramelly Caravelle -- bespeak a surprisingly palpable grief.
The Holocaust-memoir subgenre has redoubled in output over the past few years, bolstered in part by the onscreen success of Wladislaw Szpilman's The Pianist, which was based on a memoir. This season's Running Through Fire puts a new slant on the story with Polish-born Zosia Goldberg's description of her survival strategy: After slipping out of the Warsaw ghetto with a fake ID, she simply pretended not to be Jewish. Years of hard work in the war-bitten countryside ensued, but she got away with it. Male Jews who tried the same ruse were not so lucky: If the Nazis made them unzip their pants, the jig was up.
Blending a bodily journey with that other sure thing, a spiritual one, Elizabeth Kadetsky writes compellingly of her quest for enlightenment in First There Is a Mountain. The subtitle, A Yoga Romance, lends a misleadingly fluffy, Harlequinesque tone to a book that is as starkly honest as a sprained wrist. Journalist Kadetsky minces no words about her youthful bout with anorexia, during which yoga and hunger combined to fuel the pursuit of what she ruefully calls "body as topiary." Curling and stretching into ever more astounding postures at the feet of the cruel but much-revered yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, the earnest student discovers that those feet are at least partly made of clay.
Some of these memoirs serve as paeans to a time and place now lost to us and to the authors as well, recoverable only through their musings. Recounting tragic romances with two abstract painters, Joyce Johnson's Missing Men recaptures mid-20th-century New York City, a milieu throbbing with new ideas, new styles and new ways of living that shattered old social mores. An accomplished novelist, Johnson is still -- for better or worse -- most famous for having briefly been Jack Kerouac's girlfriend. In this book, she skips lightly over Beatdom while lingering over her early career as a Broadway child actor and her marriages to two obscure artists. The gimlet poignancy with which she evokes the presence, then absence, of these men in her life makes up for those other moments, always a risk in memoirs, when you're pawing the ground yearning to move onward from schoolyard antics and Mom and Dad.
Proving, yet again, India's age-old supremacy as the armchair-, deck-chair- and beach-towel-traveling capital of the world, Terry Tarnoff's The Bone Man of Benares takes us back to the author's youthful subcontinental sojourn circa 1971, alight with sex and drugs both hard and soft; big, hairy bugs; and tragic missed connections that wreck people's lives forever. Tarnoff sometimes slips into the obvious -- Bombay, surprise, surprise, is a "nonstop 24-hour circus" -- but most of the time, he scores, with unsettling, acid-fueled images that just won't quit. A fresh strawberry, for instance, sends him into a wild meditation on jaunty hats. Bali, Africa and Europe also figure in this tale of a time when faraway roads shimmered more with promise than peril, when gods and ganja competed fiercely for the attention of young Americans abroad.
Twenty years or so can really change young Americans' reasons for wanting to see the world. As a foreign correspondent reporting from dozens of war zones and disaster areas, Neely Tucker recorded myriad modern hells. In Zimbabwe, home to one of the world's highest AIDS rates, a land of extremes where "the sun burns for days on end and rain is a rumor that will not come," he volunteers at an orphanage, most of whose young charges wither and die within weeks. Love in the Driest Season starts with Tucker's youth -- spent bagging groceries, reading Faulkner and booting footballs in racially riven Mississippi -- then goes on to chart his coverage of plagues and genocides and the bond he feels for one desperately sick orphan, whom he and his wife adopted and brought home with them. Tucker describes both horror and splendor with heart-stopping skill.
Such is the power of memoirs by almost-ordinary authors: horror and splendor, both searingly vivid in a summer read because you know it's true. And you know it could have been you.