Humorous memoirs are my favorite genre. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve seen David Sedaris on his speaking tour five times. For some authors though, instead of writing about their already interesting lives, they purposely attempt to make their lives interesting and then write about the results. Enter my second favorite genre: the stunt memoir, also known as a gimmick book.
Most would agree that the king of the stunt memoir is A.J. Jacobs. In The Year of Living Biblically he does just as the titles suggests, going first by the Old Testament and then the New Testament. Pulling off the life experiment (or at least attempting to) for a predetermined length of time (typically a whole year) is one of the most common themes in these narratives. For example, Sean Aiken questions success and happiness in his year-long stunt, The One-Week Job Project. Similarly, Gabriel Thompson spent a year “doing the jobs that (most) Americans won’t do” in Working in the Shadows. Robyn Okrant for a year attempted to live by all of the advice and suggestions given by the Queen of Talk, including what to buy, in Living Oprah. For a shorter amount of time, Chelsea Haywood attempted a new career in 90-Day Geisha.
Other memoirists have decided to focus on traveling or going on a mission. In The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner searches the globe for the happiest places. Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson embark on The Great Typo Hunt across America to correct all the signs they can find. Celia Lyttelton travels the world seeking the perfect perfume in The Scent Trail. Sarah Vowell road trips across the U.S. in her memoir/history lesson, Assassination Vacation. Donovan Hohn sets out on the potentially craziest quest of all in Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.
Within stunt memoirs, health is a big topic for those looking to make a change and document the process. Several attempt to get in shape in I’m with Fatty by Ugel Edward, Yoga Bitch by Suzanne Morrison, and Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster. Others attempt a serious sports goal, like running seven marathons on seven continents as Cami Ostman did in Second Wind, playing for the NFL when you’re merely a sports journalist like Stefan Fatsis in A Few Seconds of Panic, or going on a two-year quest to make the Summer Olympics in at least one of nine different sports like Katherine Bertine in As Good As Gold.
Even the idea of “going green” is fuel for the stunt memoirist. Farewell , My Subaru by Doug Fine, Farm City by Novella Carpenter, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and No Impact Man by Colin Beaven are all attempts by the authors to live a more environmentally sustainable life. In another way, Susan Maushart and her family get back to basics by banning all personal electronic devices, video games, and TVs, and live to tell about it in The Winter of Our Disconnect.
On the brainy side, in this year’s biggest book of the genre, Josh Foer spends a year training for the world memory championships and ends up winning first place, in Moonwalking with Einstein.
Find all these and more stunts, quests, and life experiments in Content Reserve.
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Karen Donovan is a collection development associate at OverDrive.