True Confessions

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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, in which the author takes a standard practice, an experience neither new nor extraordinary and which is 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 40 years previous, 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 a memoir. In Candyfreak, the portentously named Almond confesses to having eaten at least one piece of candy every single 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, "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.

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 Harlequin 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 calls ruefully "body as topiary." Curling and stretching into ever more astounding postures at the feet of the cruel B.K.S. Iyengar, a much-revered yoga master in India, 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 lost 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 artists of whom you've most likely never heard. 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 and big hairy bugs and tragic missed connections that wreck people's lives forever. While Tarnoff sometimes slips into the obvious -- Bombay, surprise, surprise, is a "nonstop, 24-hour circus" -- most of the time he scores big-time 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," Tucker 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 felt for one desperately sick orphan, whom he and his wife adopted and brought home with them against all odds. Tucker describes both horror and splendor with heart-stopping skill.

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Anneli Rufus