According to this month’s memoirists, a surprise rooster is a formerly sweet hen that starts acting like a brute and grows feathers in suspicious places. Cock-a-doodle-doo! Oddly, the first two memoirs I read this month (Bootstrapper and Mud Season) featured a surprise rooster that both authors thought was a hen but turned out not to be—a charming coincidence. The other memoirs featured metaphorical surprise roosters: a partner who turns abusive, a loving father who kidnaps his daughter, and a parent who absents himself from his family.
Asante, MK. Buck: A Memoir. Spiegel & Grau. Aug. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780812993417. $25. MEMOIR
This is Asante’s account of growing up in what he dubs “Killadelphia,” the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia during the 1990s. Asante’s first book, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop, argued that younger generations were becoming disillusioned with mass-produced, mainstream hip-hop. The influence of hip-hop on Asante is readily apparent; lyrics from Common, 2Pac, and even Mac Dre are scattered throughout the memoir, supporting the prose. After Asante’s older brother Uzi is sent to Arizona to live with their uncle, the young man struggles to hold his life together. He finds his mother’s journal and reads it, uncovering her private struggle with manic depression. Meanwhile, Asante’s sister is in a psychiatric ward and his father has become obsessed with Afrocentrism. When his best friend Amir is killed in a gang-related incident outside a McDonald’s restaurant, Asante seeks salvation by enrolling in an alternative school. VERDICT The author’s background in hip-hop and poetry is made apparent by the lyrical prose of his memoir and is an moving account of growing up and out of the “Killadelphia” of the 1990s.
Link, Mardi Jo. Bootstrapper: From Broke To Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm. Knopf. Jun. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780307596918. $24.95. MEMOIR
After Link and her husband call it quits on their nearly 20-year marriage, Link must pull out all the stops to save their Northern Michigan farm from foreclosure. With the help of her three sons, she wins a zucchini growing contest, gathers enough firewood from around town to eschew furnace heat in favor of their fireplace, and survives a ten-day flu. Along the way, she learns the finer points of hog butchering, chicken raising, and how to attend your oldest son’s heavy metal concert without mortifying him. VERDICT In muddy boots and with a beer in hand, Link tells the story of her relentless struggle to hold her family together and keep her farm during her first year postdivorce.
Monaghan, Louise & Yvonne Kinsella. Stolen: Escape from Syria. Thomas Dunne. Jun. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9781250030276. $25.99. MEMOIR
Monaghan could not shake her suspicious feeling as she waved goodbye to six-year-old daughter May and ex-husband Mostafa on their way to the beach for a father-daughter day. Unfortunately, her maternal compass is all too accurate: Mostafa kidnaps May from her island home in Cyprus and brings her to his home country of Syria using an invalid passport. He tells Monaghan that his daughter will now be raised Muslim and will never leave the war-torn country of Syria. With the help of her sister, Irish-born Monaghan embarks on an extremely dangerous journey into Syria to retrieve her daughter. To do so, she pretends to make amends with Mostafa and devote her life to becoming a “proper Muslim wife.” Half of this book is devoted to the history of Monaghan’s relationship with her abusive ex-husband and the other half is a suspenseful account of her journey to save her child. VERDICT Monaghan is careful to assert that she is not anti-Muslim but encourages readers entering into mixed-faith marriages to have tough conversations early and often about how they will raise their children.
St.Germain, Justin. Son of a Gun: A Memoir. Random. Aug. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9781400068623. $26. MEMOIR
St.Germain and Wyatt Earp have something in common: the defining moment in both of their lives turned out to be a gun fight in Tombstone, AZ. In September 2001, while the rest of the country had their eyes glued to the news following the terrorist attacks on NYC, 20-year-old St.Germain was notified that his mother had been found shot to death in the trailer she shared with her fifth husband. This memoir follows St. Germain’s return to Tombstone years later as he tries to piece together how his ex-army-paratrooper mother could have endured a relationship that led to such a bleak ending. In a part true-crime story, part grief memoir, St. Germain visits several of his mom’s ex-husbands, digs up the police records from her murder case, and even attends a support group for relatives of murder victims. While seeking answers, he has time to reflect on his own life and his own relationships. VERDICT Most of the memoir takes place in Tombstone, rendering the city another character in this compelling tale.
Stimson, Ellen. Mud Season: How One Woman’s Dream of Moving To Vermont, Raising Children, Chickens and Sheep, and Running the Old Country Store Pretty Much Led to One Calamity After Another. Countryman. Oct. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781581572049. $23.95. MEMOIR
A picturesque family vacation in rural Vermont inspires Stimson and her husband to pay a visit to what they call the “Life Store” to shop for a new adventure: packing up their city life in St. Louis and moving into an old farmhouse in Dorset, VT (pop. 2,036). After taking over the old country store, they try to keep it afloat through the five Vermont seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and mud. But these city mice discover that country life is not exactly what they imagined. Moving the bread in the store inspires town-wide gossip. A hen in their “yuppie chicken coop” turns out to be a rooster. Stimson chases a goat while wearing a bathing suit and is forced to face the fragility of life when her family takes in lamb orphans. Mishap after mishap, Stimson compares their new life to “putting out a fire using a hose of gasoline.” VERDICT Written with self-deprecating honesty, this memoir is for anyone who has ever gone on vacation and fantasized about staying.
Ballantine, Poe. Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere: A Memoir. Hawthorne. Jun. 2013. 282p. ISBN 9780983477549. pap. $16.95. MEMOIR
Tom Robbins is spot on when he proclaims, “Ballantine is the most soulful, insightful, funny and altogether luminous ‘under-known’ writer in America.” Until reading this book, this reviewer was unfamiliar with Ballantine (Things I Like About America), but quickly rectified that situation by ordering all of his books. While designated a memoir, this book transcends categories. It is a memoir in recounting Ballantine’s curiously nomadic life and even more curious pastiche of odd jobs, but it is also a cultural exploration of Chadron, NE, the town that finally became his home. In addition, it is a true-crime murder mystery, chronicling the bizarre disappearance of Dr. Steven Haataja, a math professor at the local college. The book tracks Ballantine’s private investigation of Haataja’s disappearance and suspicious death. Along the way, it plumbs the depths of the author’s tempestuous marriage and, in poignant prose, unveils his loving relationship with his autistic son. VERDICT Humor and insight are constant companions throughout the narrative, and aspiring writers would do well to study Ballantine’s brilliant prose. Superb for readers who enjoy quirky personal narratives like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.—Lynne Maxwell, West Virginia Univ. Law Lib., Morgantown