The first few weeks of a new year make for a good time to review the work this column does. Reviewing memoir is tricky stuff, and a review is not a referendum on the writer’s life. A loathsome life story beautifully told? Great. A life of virtue predictably related? Nope. Like I’ve said before: it’s all about the stories.
Berger, John (text) & Selcuk Demirel (illus.). Cataract. Counterpoint. 2013. 80p. illus. ISBN 9781619020634. $22.
Art critic and novelist Berger (G) provides another way to think about one of the mundane discomforts of aging—cataract surgery—in this charming, short meditation on the benefits of illumination (as provided by surgeons). He compares, whimsically, the dimming of his vision with his clarified post-op perceptions of light, color, tone, and scale, but illustrator Demirel’s evocative line drawings complement the brief text perfectly and elucidate Berger’s points in ways words cannot. VERDICT This quiet little book will appeal to thinkers and artists and anyone interested in “seeing.”
Cepeda, Raquel. Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina. Atria: S. & S. Mar. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9781451635867. $25.
The complicated geometry of race, ethnicity, and family identity forms the crux of filmmaker and journalist Cepeda’s account of her search for answers about her racial makeup. Relying on stories and hard science, the result is part Dominican family history, part DNA tutorial. Readers are encouraged to solve their own genetic mysteries with the aid of a coupon for ten percent off genetic testing at the end of the book. VERDICT Cepeda’s complex family history is both uniquely Latino—the book is peppered with Spanish idiom—and paradoxically universal in this nation of immigrants. It will appeal to those who watch Who Do You Think You Are? and wonder about themselves.
Huang, Eddie. Fresh Off the Boat. Spiegel & Grau. 2013. 276p. ISBN 9780679644880. $26.
Hipster restaurateur Huang takes the American dream and tilts it a few degrees off center in this rambling saga of his trek through a childhood and adolescence marked by hip-hop, law school, arrests, and a fair amount of troublemaking. He explodes the “model minority” myth in his chronicle of growing up as the problem child of a family of Taiwanese immigrants in a country where an Asian face causes a lot of preconceptions. What value stays with him all along? No spoiler alert is needed to say that it’s a love of food. VERDICT While there is probably no other paean to that iconic Thanksgiving side dish—the green bean casserole—in recent literature, Huang’s in-your-face delivery of his scramble to succeed will appeal to foodies out there who are too cool for school.
Jordan, Pete. In the City of Bikes. HarperPerennial. Apr. 2013. 448p. ISBN 9780061995200. pap. $14.99.
Aspiring city planner and memoirist Jordan (Dishwasher) arrived for a semester in Amsterdam in order to find ways to make the United States more bicycle friendly, but a few weeks in the bike-crazy city convinced him to stay forever. The resulting memoir is as much a love letter to Amsterdam as a chronicle of family life on two wheels. Replete with historical detail and quirky anecdotes (bike fishing is not what you think), this tale of bicycle mania provides compelling evidence that, with some effort, we can lead the lives we’d like to. VERDICT This thoroughly researched and entertaining narrative of one family’s passion for pedaling places may encourage readers in search of a greener way to live.
Plump, Wendy. Vow: A Memoir of Marriage and Infidelity. Bloomsbury, dis. by Macmillan. Feb. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781608198238. $25.00.
Journalist Plump delivers a blow-by-blow report of the slow-motion destruction of her marriage after several bouts of infidelity on her part and a colossal example of disloyalty on her husband’s (think second family). The corrosive effects of these behaviors on a marriage and a family are examined from all angles in this emotional record of what happens when wedding vows are used as guidelines rather than guarantees. VERDICT Plump spares and excuses no one in this catalog of petty slights and brief lusts throughout the course of a long marriage. Interested readers may feel as if they are stepping into the aftermath of a tornado.
Schaap, Rosie. Drinking With Men: A Memoir. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781594487118. $26.95.
Schaap measures out her life in beer and shot glasses in this beautifully composed look at a woman’s coming to age in a setting more often reserved for men: bars. Each chapter details the allures of one of Schaap’s favorite watering holes and its role in her growth as a person, writer, teacher, minister, and counselor. There is no veneer of vanity in Schaap’s tour of the taverns of her life, which results in a portrait that is detailed and genuine. VERDICT Several chapters in Schaap’s account could stand alone as short stories: readers first meet her as a fortune-telling hippie chick teenager cadging drinks on the Metro North. This book grabbed me, and I think it will grab you.