Technical difficulties involving the loss of an appendix‚ of the anatomic, not bibliographic kind‚ preoccupied your reviewer for much of the past few weeks. Once the meds wore off, the common theme in all this month’s memoirs became clear: growing up. Some of this month’s memoirists accomplished that task much earlier in life than others, but they all got there in the end.
Ahmad, Imran. The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West. Center Street: Hachette. Apr. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9781455508495. $24.99. MEMOIR
This chronicle of the immigrant Pakistani experience in contemporary London considers questions of ethnicity, religion, and citizenship. A product of the English school system, international business consultant Ahmad feels British, he says, but his sketches of his life as a perfect gentleman illustrate the divide between those born in England and outside of it. VERDICT The author’s matter-of-fact tone does not mask the ugliness of his treatment by classmates and teachers during his childhood. Ahmad speaks from the point of view of a moderate Muslim, a demographic that so many in the West deny exists. It is irksome to think that those who most need to read this probably will not.
Alvarez, Julia. A Wedding in Haiti. Algonquin. Apr. 2012. illus. 304p. ISBN 9781616201302. pap. $22.95. MEMOIR
Novelist Alvarez’s (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) attempt to travel to a dear friend’s wedding in Haiti from her home in the Dominican Republic provides the framework for this sensitive portrait of a country teetering on the brink of several kinds of disaster. Going from one country to the other is comically complicated, and Alvarez’s determination to support her friend leads to discussions of coffee, colonialism, and familial obligation in its largest and smallest senses. VERDICT This is a quiet little book that acts like a telescope. Looking from the Dominican Republic, readers can see Haiti and‚ thanks to the assistance of Alvarez‚ with great clarity.
Duane, Daniel. How To Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. May. 2012. 224p. ISBN 9781608191024. $24. MEMOIR
San Francisco surfer dude and journalist Duane (contributing editor, Men’s Journal; Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast) confronts the changes in his life that marriage and parenthood have brought about in a manner peculiar to northern Californians: he cooks his way through all of Alice Waters’s cookbooks, organ meats and all. This culinary odyssey leads him to audiences with the culinary gurus of today but, more important, back to his own kitchen with a realization about what‚ and who‚ matters most there. VERDICT The deck was stacked from the start: Duane’s Montessori preschool teacher was Alice Waters. This foodie memoir will appeal to most culinary enthusiasts, but there is a strong theme of person vs. food here: Duane attacks every issue like it’s an ascent of Everest (especially the epic eating steaks in Vegas sequence).
Johnson, Lacy. Trespasses: A Memoir. Univ. of Iowa. 2012. 156p. ISBN 9781609380786. pap. $19.95. MEMOIR
Unraveling lives populate this episodic memoir of three generations of writer Johnson’s rural Missouri family. Confronting one of the last acceptable stereotypes‚ white trash‚ Johnson dissects, with a plain grace and candor, the tempers, mismatches, romances, and mistakes that bind family members to one another and to the Great Plains. Footnotes ground the work’s often poetic attempts at establishing family truths that may vary from family facts. VERDICT There is a dreamlike quality to some of Johnson’s stories, and often the narrator’s voice seems to come from far away. While she says that some of the facts got in the way of the truth, by going back three generations, she is able to shift the focus from the facts of her family to the story of it.
Quindlen, Anna. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Random. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9781400069347. $26. MEMOIR
Quindlen (Every Last One: A Novel) is facing 60, and she wants readers to know what she thinks of it: it’s not easy; there have been losses along the way, but there are joys and a measure of clarity to be gained over the years. Touching on Botox, booze, and the role of faith in life, she looks back on her midlife years and ahead to future ones and takes stock. Unsurprisingly, the privilege of growing old is not lost on Quindlen, whose own mother died young. VERDICT Quindlen’s Life in the 30’s columns in the New York Times catapulted her to fame, a Pulitzer Prize, and a place in the hearts of baby boomer women who nodded their heads in recognition at her tales of juggling motherhood, marriage, and career. Her latest effort will have those same readers in accord about wrinkles, health scares, and the joys of friendship. There’s nothing unexpected here, but Quindlen’s loyal readers will take comfort in knowing that she’s still taking them along for the chatty ride.