It’s a big world, and the number of stories out there reflects its immensity. This month’s memoirs contain tales of young lives formed and spent in places like the Hudson Valley, Chicago, Oakland, Louisiana, and Utah (with stints in Africa, Venice, and Antarctica). Was geography destiny for our memoirists? Does where you come from matter as much as what you did while you were there? How does setting inform narrative? If you imagine each of these stories set somewhere else do they retain the same power? I don’t think so.
Aldrich, Alexandra. The Astor Orphan. Ecco: HarperCollins. Apr. 2013. 272p. photos. ISBN 9780062207937. $24.99; ebook ISBN 9780062207968. MEMOIR
Rokeby, the sprawling, dilapidated Hudson Valley home of Aldrich’s aristocratic forebears, the Astors, played as much of a role in her bohemian childhood as any of the eccentric adults who raised her there. Tensions between efforts at historic preservation and a desire for normalcy and comfort created warring factions among the numerous family members (and their partisans) residing at the 43 room estate on 450 acres. Aldrich’s portrait of a family with more history and house than money, vividly illustrates the concept of shabby chic. What is made even clearer is the extent to which Aldrich’s family draws its identity from Rokeby. VERDICT Inevitably, comparisons to Albert and David Maysles documentary film Grey Gardens spring to mind. Aldrich provides a fascinating, if voyeuristic peek behind the rotting silk curtains in one of America’s aristocratic families’ home. Seriously? It made this reader want to hop in a car and poke around Rokeby herself.
Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming. Hachette. Apr. 2013. 271p. ISBN 9781455521913. $25.99. MEMOIR
The fatal illness of his younger sister Ruthie (equally saintly and vinegar-tongued), leads conservative journalist Dreher to examine what he left behind in his childhood home of St. Francisville, LA, to pursue a writing career in cities such as Philadelphia and DC. The reasons for why “you can’t go home again” are evident to Dreher, who chronicles the tradeoffs between city and small-town life through the lens of his conversion to Catholicism and search for community. VERDICT While Dreher’s account of a family devastated by the illness of a beloved member may comfort readers in similar circumstances, the religiosity of his approach to Ruthie’s illness and death may be harder for others to relate to.
Hainey, Michael. After Visiting Friends. Scribner. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781451676563. $25. MEMOIR
The hazy and conflicting details of his Chicago newspaperman father’s long-ago death bothered Hainey (deputy editor, GQ) enough that he spent years unraveling the story of what really happened that night. Central to this noirish tale is Hainey’s mother, an enigmatic woman who held her family together in spite of (or perhaps with the aid of) secrets.Years of investigation lead to new truths about her as well as the original mystery of his father’s death that Hainey set out to solve. VERDICT Readers may intuit quickly what happened the night of Hainey’s father’s death but the portrait of the bygone world of the Chicago newspaper industry and the slow unraveling of the puzzle surrounding Bob Hainey’s life, rather than his death, will keep readers interested beyond that point.
Parravani, Christa. Her: A Memoir. Holt. Mar. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780805096538. $26. MEMOIR
Parravani’s twin sister Cara died of a drug overdose at the age of 28 and the author herself danced close to the same edge from time to time. In recounting their tumultuous upbringing, young marriages, and a devastating assault on Cara, Parravani succeeds in “writing Cara back to life” and saving her own life in the process. No punches are pulled here, and Parravani’s matter-of-fact tone does nothing to shield readers from the enormity of her loss. VERDICT Imagine looking in a mirror and not seeing yourself. Imagine living the rest of your life with half of yourself missing. Imagine looking at your own corpse. You don’t have to imagine: Parravani’s story makes it all clear.
Stephens, Liz. The Days Are Gods. Univ. of Nebraska. Mar. 2013. 216p. ISBN 9780803243545. pap. $18.95 MEMOIR
A move from LA to Utah’s Cache Valley allowed Stephens and her husband to create the rural, horse-owning life they had dreamed of; more importantly, the move opened Stephens’ eyes to where she was really “from.” Life in the valley was as beautiful and difficult as she imagined, but the pull of the place itself—gorgeously described by Stephens—was irresistible to her as a child in a rootless American family. VERDICT The sense of place created by Stephens is notable as is her nonhysterical treatment of the ways and lives of her new Mormon neighbors. Those who dream of a practical escape from the rat race of modern life will find a kindred spirit here.
Williams, Mary. The Lost Daughter. Blue Rider: Penguin Books (USA). Apr. 2013. 320p. photos. ISBN 9780399160868. $26.95. MEMOIR
Williams’s early childhood in Oakland, CA, the daughter of Black Panther activists, subjected her to poverty, neglect, and abuse. Her informal adoption during adolescence by Jane Fonda changed the material circumstances of her life but, as the last several hundred pages of Williams’s book demonstrate: the past is always with you. William’s attempts to reconcile her two disparate families and lives form the heart of her conversational narrative of a life changed by what looks like chance. VERDICT Williams presents clear-eyed portraits of all the adults who looked after her, or should have. A fascinating picture of Jane Fonda in a maternal role emerges but equally intriguing is Williams’s description of life as a small child living in the close-knit Black Panther community. Williams will remind readers that tensions ran high in the 1970s and that sometimes the collateral damage was human life.
MacLane, Mary. I Await the Devil’s Coming. Melville House. Mar. 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781612191942. pap. $16. MEMOIR
Originally published in 1902, this is the confessional memoir of Mary MacLane, a 19-year-old girl in Butte, MT. Written in diary style, the work is saturated with overstatements and melodrama endemic to teenagers as she explores essential human emotions, such as loneliness, expectation, and longing. Throughout MacLane addresses the devil as a savior liberating her from her dull existence, and eagerly anticipates his arrival; the title derives from the persistent refrain with which she ends many of her diary entries. She ponders questions both mundane and existential that inform the development of her sensual approach to life. A precursor to feminist manifestos, but containing some less than liberated concepts, the author expresses fierce desires during a time when women were expected to be subdued and conventional. The memoir illustrates the discontent that later led to greater rights and opportunities for women. VERDICT Despite its use of antiquated language, the book remains accessible for modern audiences. A fascinating read for those interested in gender and women’s studies, as well as women’s history.—Rachael Dreyer, American Heritage Ctr., Laramie, WY
Miranda, Deborah A. Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9781597142014. pap. $18.95. MEMOIR
In this powerful memoir, poet Miranda (Indian Cartography) dispenses with a chronological telling of her relationship to California’s Spanish missions, sharing transcripts of recordings made by her relatives, her poetry, mission history, and pieces of her own wrenching childhood. The legacy of violence that began at the missions in the late 18th and early 19th century stretches into the author’s relationship with her own children, a testament to how it was handed down through brutalized and marginalized generations. VERDICT This is intense but important reading, especially for those whose American history class discussions of Native Americans began and ended with the Mayflower. For readers of memoir, and history from a point of view too-often unheard.—Kate Sheehan, Middlebury, CT
Williams, Jody. My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize. Univ. of California. Mar. 2013. 347p. ISBN 9780520270251. $29.95. MEMOIR
Activist and Novel Peace Prize winner Williams (coauthor, After the Guns Fall Silent: The Enduring Legacy of Landmines) describes her life as an average woman driven by compassion. Williams grew up in a typical American family, but through education and her own curiosity, she became a powerful activist for those without a voice. A single flyer handed to her before heading into the DC Metro prompted a journey through Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which then expanded to work in southeast Asia. Williams takes the reader on an exciting and honest story of her work with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, Medical Aid to El Salvador, and finally the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. A fascinating story, readers will not want to put down this memoir. Williams has the ability to connect with her audience while explaining the not-so-pretty history of Central America and the excessive use of anti-personnel landmines. VERDICT A wonderful glimpse into the life of an activist, sister, daughter, and wife. This memoir is a must read for anyone who wants to be inspired by the not-so-average woman.—Meghan Dowell, New York
Donald, Mark L. & others. Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780312600754. $26.99. MEMOIR
Donald joined the Marines to escape a dysfunctional home after high school. Over the course of his career, he developed into a tough warrior, a Navy SEAL, a medic, and a physician’s assistant. He’s traveled the road from student to instructor and from training in the waters off Coronado to the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. He was a reluctant hero, who saw comrades and friends killed in action, who saved many more, and who came home a changed man. He details those firefights, his struggles with PTSD, and how he found the help that he needed through the love and support of family, fellow SEALs, and service organizations. This book is similar to Service: Lone Survivor, a Navy SEAL at Work by Marcus Luttrell. VERDICT An entertaining inside look at the psyche of special operations warriors, this book will be of interest to those who enjoy military memoirs, with an emphasis on special ops and military medicine, along with a side look at PTSD and its issues.—Martha Bauder, LTC, U.S. Army Reserve Physician
McAdams, Frank. Vietnam Rough Riders: A Convoy Commander’s Memoir. Univ. of Kansas. Mar. 2013. 280p. ISBN 9780700618989. $34.95. MEMOIR
Complete with heroes and villains, McAdams’s (The American War Film: History and Hollywood) story of his days as a Marine in Vietnam has all of the excitement and action of a war movie. He pulls no punches when expressing his frustrations with some of his superior officers; he liberally praises those soldiers who acted above and beyond the call of duty. The turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s is captured through letters from and interactions with his wife while he was fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. VERDICT This is a highly satisfactory and stimulating read best suited to those who are interested in the Vietnam War and the changes that America experienced in the 1960s.—Martha Bauder, LTC, U.S. Army Reserve Physician