Dylan told us all that “everything is gonna be diff’rent when I paint my masterpiece.” The belief that things could be different, even if they weren’t going to be perfect, carried many of this month’s memoirists through very trying times. Masterpieces are not always on canvas: here we glimpse families, houses, and careers that are themselves real works of art.
Coincidentally, half of this month’s memoirs deal with growing up on Long Island. The circumstances described range from apparently idyllic to squalor—you just never know what’s going on in the house next door, do you?
Adams, Rachel. Raising Henry. Yale Univ. Sep. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780300180008. MEMOIR
Adams’s (English, Columbia Univ.) seemingly perfect life as a tenured professor and happy wife and mother veered ever so slightly off course with the arrival of her second son, Henry, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome very shortly after his birth. Adams’s comprehensive account of the first challenging years of Henry’s life (and of the history and evolution of services for the Down Syndrome population) is as personal as it is educational. VERDICT Her honesty in describing the difficulties of raising Henry in her family’s somewhat rarified New York City life makes clear that privilege and achievement do not make the task any easier. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army to raise a child with Down Syndrome (and not everyone is willing to enlist). Adams’s thoughtful memoir provides a battle plan for those facing similar fights but she never lets us forget that Henry is a great little guy, not a problem.
Calcaterra, Regina. Etched in Sand. HarperCollins. Aug. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780062218834. pap. MEMOIR
Calcaterra has been a lawyer, New York State government official, children’s rights activist, and television commentator. She has also been homeless, and an abandoned and neglected child. The disturbing history of Calcaterra’s early life with her siblings and dangerously unstable mother is a series of ever-more horrifying situations involving unsuitable men, addiction, and the darker side of suburban Long Island life. Calcaterra’s blunt determination to save herself as well as her siblings is the glue that binds together this gritty portrait of a young life lived mostly under the radar and out of range of the social safety net. VERDICT As an adult, Calcaterra went on to sue for the right to determine her paternity through DNA testing. (It’s clear we have not heard the last of her.) Nothing in the worlds of politics, government, or media would ever be more difficult than the battles she’s already fought. This memoir is not poetic, but it wasn’t poetry that saved Calcaterra’s life.
Duron, Lori. Raising My Rainbow. Broadway. Sep. 2013. 224p. ISBN 978077043772. pap. MEMOIR
Popular mommy blogger Duron (raisingmyrainbow.com) and the rest of her family took a crash course in flexible decision-making when it became apparent that her toddler C.J., born male, preferred nail polish and Disney princesses to Lego and baseball. Should C.J. wear dresses outside the house? And, really, what difference does it make if he wears Little Mermaid underwear? Questions of LGBTQ politics and the ethics of sexual reassignment surgery crop up too. Duron presents one family’s solutions to a complicated set of questions in a matter-of-fact tone which conveys a whole lot of love for a fabulous little boy in pink. VERDICT Discussions of gender, sex, sexuality, and gender nonconformity can make for dry reading but Duron conveys all she has learned about the world of gender variance in a conversational voice that educates and amuses.
Miller, Kimberly Rae. Coming Clean. New Harvest: Houghton Mifflin. Jul. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780544025837. MEMOIR
Lifestyle blogger Miller (thekimchallenge.com) spares no detail in her chronicle of growing up on suburban Long Island as the only child of a hoarder father and medically fragile mother. A childhood and adolescence spent moving from home to home—which would eventually became chock full of paper, knickknacks, mildew and sometimes rats—drives Miller to a very different sort of life. Her ability to appreciate her parents’ continued affection despite a clean break from their way of life distinguishes Miller’s saga from others of domestic instability. VERDICT Living through your teen years in the suburbs is hard enough without having to hide from your friends the fact there is no running water in your house. Miller’s wry retelling of her upbringing is never mean spirited, but it is completely clear in cataloging the damage caused by her parents. Her story will encourage others who also did not emerge from the cookie cutter.
Slater, Lauren. Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother. Beacon. Nov. 2013. 208p. ISBN 9780807001738. MEMOIR
Psychologist and writer Slater (Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir) weaves together a series of essays demonstrating that even the unprepared and initially unwilling may create a family life that doesn’t go up in flames (except when it does). Equipped with no role model and significant mental health issues, Slater proves that life is, in no bad way, what happens when you are making other plans. Her long trek across the territory from the boundaries of her own comfort to the land of society’s idea of motherhood is the source of some beautiful writing. Slater talks about things as varied as the satisfactions of woodworking and what ensues when you comes upon your husband engulfed in flames. VERDICT Slater graciously acknowledges that many of these essays were written for “women’s magazines,” which allowed her to live aloud and encouraged address difficult truths over the course of many years. The essays skip from topic to topic, but Slater’s gorgeous eloquence never fails.
Von Ziegesar, Peter. The Looking Glass Brother. St. Martin’s Press. Jun. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780312592981. MEMOIR
Screenwriter and filmmaker von Ziegesar allows his readers a glimpse behind the usually drawn curtains of the privileged North Shore of Long Island. This account tells the story of his coming to terms with his place in a family full of complicated relationships and the trappings of old wealth, and lacking an ability to effectively care for its weakest members. The contrast between von Ziegesar’s own experiences and those of his mentally ill half-brother may occupy much of the bandwidth here, but it is the influence of von Ziegesar’s mercurial father that that looms over every page. VERDICT Storybook summers on the family’s Gold Coast estate provide a hazy, golden background for von Ziegesar’s narrative of drug abuse, mental illness, and infidelity. Readers who wonder what happens at the end of those long, hedge-lined driveways will appreciate this look behind the gates.
Green, Karen. Bough Down. Siglio. 2013. 188p. illus. ISBN 9781938221019. $36. MEMOIR
This is a memoir of loss. The book seems indecipherable upon first read but is immediately evocative and visceral—it is artist Green’s response to the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace. Here she intersperses prose poems with small delicate collages, making this book a piece of poetry, prose, and art in one delicate but powerful package. After rereading and rereading, the meaning unlocks itself and characters and events emerge even as readers question if they are real. The post stamp sized collages strike the eye as having been subtly, but deliberately, pieced together. They seem to reflect Green’s nonlinear grieving process of delving into the past to piece together a future, somehow. The last line summarizes the whole of the work: Green writes, “I can’t wrap this up,” leaving us to ponder the nature of suffering and of love. VERDICT Lovers of literature, poetry, and memoir alike will be astounded by Green’s openness and honesty. A gem, this beautifully shares the most private moments of a life.—Julia A. Watson, Marywood Univ. Lib., Scranton, PA
Harris-Gershon, David. What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried To Kill Your Wife?: A Memoir of Jerusalem. Oneworld. Sep. 2013. 288p. notes. ISBN 9781851689965. pap. $17.95; ISBN 9781780742229. MEMOIR
Awkwardly titled but deeply felt, this memoir of Harris-Gershon’s (blogger, Tikkun magazine) struggle to come to terms with the bombing that injured his wife while both Americans were living in Jerusalem. It tackles a range of difficult topics: PTSD, graduate school, the conflict in the Middle East, and sleep training a baby while battling trauma-induced insomnia. The author’s emotional pain and resulting intensive research is belied by his chatty tone and frequent conversations with himself. His decision to process the bombing that killed their friends and hurt his wife by deepening his understanding of the conflict between Israel and Palestine benefits the reader, as does his meeting with the family of the man who planted the bomb. Harris-Gershon’s storytelling chops (he won the 2013 Moth Pittsburgh GrandSLAM Storytelling Championship) serve him well as he explains his own experiences and desires as well as the complicated history of the region. VERDICT Given the subject matter, this isn’t an easy read, but it’s worthwhile and well done. The memoir will draw in readers, regardless of their interest in reading about Israel- Palestine relations. An essential title for memoir-fans also interested in current events.—Kate Sheehan, Waterbury, CT
Katz, Dori. Looking for Strangers: The True Story of My Hidden Wartime Childhood. Univ. of Chicago. Sep. 2013. 170p. ISBN 9780226058627. $22.50; ISBN 9780226063331. MEMOIR.
Poet Katz (literature, Trinity Coll., Hartford, CT; Hiding in Other People’s Houses) has crafted a poignant memoir of her early years, spent hidden away with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Belgium, but also of her later search as an adult for the family that kept her safe. The need to pull into focus the gauzy, elusive half-memories of early childhood and the mysteries of family history that they obscure contributes the momentum for the narrative. Another intriguing facet is Katz’s relationship with her mother, with whom she was reunited after the war. The elder Mrs. Katz does not approve of her daughter’s search for her wartime caretakers and this tension adds a distinctive complexity to the present-day portion of the narrative. While other books about “hidden children” exist in memoir, biography, and fictional renderings, many of these accounts have been directed at youth audiences (e.g., Lola Rein Kaufman’s The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust and Howard Greenfeld’s The Hidden Children). Katz’s narrative probes her family history with an analytical eye that appeals to mature readers. VERDICT She has crafted a story that dives deeper any simple happy ending. This compelling memoir explores the impact of unspeakably traumatic events on familial relationships and the development of identity.—Rachael Dreyer, American Heritage Ctr., Laramie, WY
Putignano, Joe. Acrobaddict. Central Recovery. Sept. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9781937612511. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781937612528. MEMOIR
Former star acrobatic contortionist and gymnast of the Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem,” performer in Twyla Tharp’s musical The Times They Are A’changin, and guest on Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN show Human Factor, Putignano, shares his heartfelt, emotionally wrenching story of addiction to heroin. Putignano’s memoir takes readers on an unsettling journey from his experience in the U.S. Olympic Training Center to homeless shelters to shooting heroin on the job, and even being declared dead. His vivid, brutally honest story begins with his realizing at an early age his innate talent for gymnastics, followed by his obsession with becoming an Olympic gymnastic champion, how he abandoned his Olympic hopes to chase his love of heroin, and ultimately how he managed to overcome his addiction and move into long-term recovery and stability. The narrative is replete with colorful descriptions of his many harrowing experiences, and deep musings that have formed the foundation for his commitment to remain free of drugs and a shining light for others who may be seeking guidance. VERDICT Putignano’s honest memoir of drug abuse is a valuable addition to substance-abuse literature. His status as a successful gymnast and performer helps connect readers, and his impressive, erudite style results in a highly credible addition to this rapidly saturating genre.—Dale Farris, Groves, TX
Shelton, Allen C. Where the North Sea Touches Alabama. Univ. of Chicago. Sept. 2013. 256p. illus. index. notes. ISBN 9780226063645. $60; ebk. ISBN 9780226073224. pap. $20. MEMOIR
In this work of ficto-criticism, Shelton (sociology, SUNY Buffalo; Dreamworlds of Alabama) reflects on his dead friend and his rural roots. Artist Patrik Keim killed himself in Athens, GA, in 1998. Years later a coffin dug up near Shelton’s Alabama home connects the living and the dead for Shelton, who believes that Keim travels in the coffin like it is a ship between worlds. Shelton remembers his friendship with the young man and describes Keim’s disturbing collages and art installations. Meandering among memories, relating family history and ghost tales, Shelton describes the pines and fire ants of his Alabama life. He incorporates the writings of various thinkers, including Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Karl Marx, and Jorge Luis Borges. In particular, the life and philosophies of German critic Walter Benjamin are interwoven throughout the book. The lengthy endnotes expand upon quotations and ideas cited within the text. VERDICT This unusual book is best-suited for those interested in Keim, Shelton, or the juxtaposition of the southern rural landscape with ponderings of philosophy and literature.—Janet Clapp, N. Clarendon, VT