Once the domain of dark stories of dysfunction, recent memoirs are lighter tales about coping with the challenges of everyday life.
Our current and lengthy love affair with the memoir began with dire books: Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club," with its guns, rape and alcohol, and "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's tale of an impoverished Irish childhood (with alcohol). For awhile, memoirs grew darker every year, steeped in addiction, incest, dysfunction and abuse.
More recent memoirs have reached for the ordinary. This summer sees first-person accounts of all things mundane -- rehabbing a house, changing apartments, eating a hamburger, getting a dog. These memoirs might be a little harder to pull off than the tragic ones; the question becomes how to keep readers' attention while telling them stories of everyday life.
The simple answer is that many don't. Fortunately, though, plenty do. Here's a sampling:
"The House at Royal Oak," by Carol Eron Rizzoli (Black Dog & Leventhal, 272 pages, $22.95)
You may think you've read this story before -- a couple buy a gorgeous but dilapidated house in an exotic location, spend tons of money on renovation -- but you haven't. Carol Rizzoli's memoir of the two years she and her husband, Hugo, spent renovating a proud Victorian mansion in Royal Oak, Md., is beautifully and thoughtfully told. Transplants from Washington, D.C., the couple bought the house at Royal Oak with the intent of turning it into a bed and breakfast. They faced all the predictable obstacles: huge repair bills, recalcitrant workers, suspicious villagers, costly mistakes, irritation and exhaustion that threatened to turn into something more insidious. Halfway through the process, Hugo suffers a stroke, and everything changes. This lovely, intelligent memoir is told with clarity and deliberation.
"Love in a Time of Homeschooling," by Laura Brodie (Harper, 272 pages, $25.99)
Until she tried it herself, Laura Brodie thought that the world of homeschooling was populated by fundamentalist Christians and ignorant people who wanted to remove themselves from society. And yet she boldly plunged into that world when she thought it best for her 10-year-old daughter, who was miserable in school. "I kept looking at the bland content in Julia's worksheets and tests, and thinking, 'Oh, c'mon, I could do much better than this,'" Brodie writes. Ah, famous last words. Brodie envisioned unstructured days, field trips, hands-on learning and cozy sessions studying French, knitting and the violin. A great plan, but doomed from the start. Julia -- dreamy, impatient, tactile, a will-o-the-wisp -- was so unlike her mother, who was organized, intellectual, earnest and rigid. Their journey is sometimes painful to read, but push on -- it is Brodie's honesty that makes this book wonderful: her initial suspicion of homeschooling, her exasperation at Julia for not becoming a grateful and perfect student, her growing awareness of her own flaws, her intense desire to make it all work.
"Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love," by Justine van der Leun (Rodale, 215 pages, $23.99)
Miserable in New York City, Justine van der Leun moved to a village in Italy, where she fell in love with a farmer. The relationship was clearly doomed; Emanuele was handsome and kind, but their worlds were just too different. "This was a culture of women who took care of men from birth to death, and of men who feigned incapability." And then Justine found a dog. Caged and starving, Marcus was one of a long line of hunting dogs that its owner abandoned and, sometimes, cavalierly shot. Already an oddball in the village, Justine rescues Marcus, and their subsequent bond "cemented my reputation as a weirdo," she says. Her fish-out-of-water stories are affectionate, appalling and funny. When Marcus (named before Justine realized the dog was female) goes into heat, everyone has an opinion. "Your dog must experience lovemaking just once, or what is her life?" one Italian man says. But what about the puppies? "La mamma fa tutto," shrugs another. The mom does everything. Ah, yes. Of course. (Marcus was spayed within days.)
"The Butcher and the Vegetarian," by Tara Austen Weaver (Rodale, 228 pages, $23.99)
Tara Austen Weaver grew up vegetarian, the daughter of a California hippie, but by the time she was in her 20s she was sick of lentils and curious about meat. She set out to join the mainstream of carnivores, one meatball at a time. Her journey takes her to butcher shops, barbecues and cattle ranches, and, like everyone else on the planet, she falls in love with bacon. Weaver is curious and adventurous, and that is the charm of the book: She approaches the world of meat as if she were a tourist in an exotic land, and even though she might not move there permanently, she's not leaving until she's sampled everything.
"No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments," by Brooke Berman. (Harmony Books, 256 pages, $23)
Brooke Berman's book has an odd and subtle charm, an intelligent memoir about growing up and finding one's place in the world. It's told through her endless moves all over New York City -- subletting, crashing on couches, finding roommates, making her way from borough to borough, from job to job. She tussles with landlords and roommates, is assaulted by a man who climbs in her window, and tries her mightiest to come to terms with her difficult and needy mother, all while carving out a career as a playwright. This is a thoughtful and fascinating coming-of-age book -- ordinary, yes, but intelligent and wise.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor. Her memoir, "News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist," will be published in September by the University of Minnesota Press.