Bittersweet: A Savage Memoir, by George M. Savage
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]
There are quite a few puns related to the title of this memoir. For one, the book is a memoir about a life spent in a savage world by someone whose last name happens to be savage. It is also not so much a memoir about one person alone but about the family in which he is a part, and the memoir itself looks at the savagery of life related to health and economic and geopolitical conditions. The title therefore is rich in layers and irony to be puzzled out by its readers. As a memoir, this book tests the boundaries of a memoir in several ways. For one, it does not follow entirely the usual narrative flow of a memoir , but instead it features a lot of lists and seemingly extraneous material, and a fair amount of commentary by the author on other people in a way that is seemingly unrelated to the flow of the author’s life story and also contains a substantial bit of material about other people praising the author. The author’s life sits at that boundary between not fascinating enough for a memoir in the eyes of some and too fascinating for the memoir it gets in the eyes of others–certainly a younger writer would have made much more hay of some of the material discussed in this book.
Despite the fact that the author himself does not believe his own life to have been that interesting, this memoir is a worthwhile account of an intriguing life, and it is clear that those friends and family members who urged the author for so long to write an account of his life, probably in light of the stories they had heard him tell about his youth, were right to do so. The contents are divided into thematic blocks, many of which contain interesting commentary that can be taken further by the reader. The author’s discussion of his own family history, which takes place over several chapters, some at the beginning and some towards the end, demonstrate a history of solid work in a particular area where the author and his family settled, and the fact that the family had to deal with several serious curses, among them TB and alcoholism, both of which influenced the author by increasing his isolation, forcing him to spend a lot of his childhood fatherless, and giving him an edge against alcohol abuse and even use that this book is full of. The author’s religious background as a Southern Baptist is well discussed and the book as well discusses the difficulty many managers of the author’s companies had in dealing with the southern workers, while also demonstrating the author was in an uncomfortable position between union sympathizers or local racists on the one hand and management that the author continually comments on as Jewish and northerner and not being sympathetic to Southern concerns, which puts the author in an uncomfortable middle space which makes his lengthy success in work rather remarkable.
There are many areas of the book that a different writer would have made more hay out of. For one, the author had a lot of experience being bullied as a kid, and this likely shaped his view somewhat. For another, the author seems to have teased one of his best friends about not being married–he comments that he wishes he would have been kinder to one friend who never married and died too young, and in the book he teases one of his grandchildren about not yet being married and having children of his own. This is an area that I am particularly sensitive to, for easily understood reasons. Nevertheless, the memoir is clearly a love letter to the author’s wife, who has managed to beat colon cancer, and to the rest of the author’s large family and circle of friends. It is clear that the author is a loyal friend and relative to those he writes about, and the inclusion of a significant amount of praise is also worthwhile. The author’s discussion of the shame of accepting handouts even during the Great Depression also shows much of the chip on the shoulder that the author likely had as a way to spur him on to success. This book, as a history of a particular place and time and person, is likely to be a worthwhile resource for local historians of his area of Tennessee for some time to come, given that it discusses a great deal of interest to an understanding of life in that part of the South. It is also a life worth celebrating on its own terms, and we can therefore be happy to see such a delightful, even if unconventional, memoir from a man whose life was far more interesting and noteworthy than he may have believed.
 See, for example: