Ah, the holidays. The time of year for twinkling lights, random acts of kindness, and generosity toward one’s fellow man. Or if that sounds more like a Hallmark Channel original movie than what you have planned for December (dodging cranky shoppers, shaking off passive-aggressive comments from family members, pretending to like ugly Christmas sweaters), then these memoirs may be for you. When you find yourself in close quarters with creepy Uncle Ned, remember you can always escape into a good memoir that tells the story of a family that’s even more dysfunctional than yours.
Crane, Antonia. Spent: A Memoir. Rare Bird. Mar. 2014. 312p. ISBN 9781940207063. $24. memoir
Crane comes from a family of women who grow vegetables, ride horses, and join community organizations in their small town. They don’t move to San Francisco and become sex workers, which is exactly what she does. In this explicit memoir, she describes her precarious affairs, struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, and her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer that causes her to briefly quit the sex industry. VERDICT This is not an antiprostitution diatribe, but is instead one woman’s account of how she gave up drugs and alcohol in favor of another addiction: sex work. Not for the faint of heart.
Dow, David R. Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life. Twelve: Hachette. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781455575244. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781455575237. memoir
Dow’s previous memoir The Autobiography of an Execution makes the case against capital punishment by taking readers inside the desperate, chaotic moments before a state-sponsored execution. In this new memoir, the director and founder of the Texas Innocence Network brings us back to Texas’s death row at a time in his life when he is simultaneously losing his father-in-law and beloved family dog. But as the subtitle suggests, this narrative is also for the living: how we support one another in the face of the inevitable as parents, lovers, and friends. VERDICT Dow’s lyrically written prose shimmers as he traces life’s final moments for his death-row client, father-in-law, and dog Winona. Its exploration of the elusive line between life and death will leave readers speechless.
Menaker, Daniel. My Mistake. Houghton Harcourt. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780547794235. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780547794242. memoir
Menaker started at The New Yorker as a fact checker in 1969. But when he questioned a sentence in a piece by the prolific editor William Shawn, he was told to seek employment elsewhere. He ended up staying with the magazine for 26 years. In this memoir, Menaker relates many stories about his flourishing publishing career, as well as tales of coming of age, fatherhood, and caring for an aging parent. Throughout his life he is haunted by lingering guilt from his involvement in a precipitating incident that led to his brother’s death at a young age. VERDICT With dry wit and a matter-of-fact attitude, the author leads readers through the decisions he made in his life and how they made him a more complete individual, mistakes and all.
Theall, Michelle. Teaching the Cat To Sit: A Memoir. Gallery. Feb. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781451697292. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781451697315. memoir
Growing up gay in the Texas Bible Belt during the 1970s and 80s was no easy feat for Theall, especially with a devout Roman Catholic mother and a beautiful older sister who seemed to make friends wherever she went. So now that she lives in the liberal city of Denver and has settled into a comfortable life with her partner, things should be easier. But when she tries to have their adopted son baptized into the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, the author faces discrimination once again. The parallel narratives in this memoir tell two stories: Theall’s coming of age and her present-day struggle for acceptance in a religion that does not welcome gay parents. VERDICT Readers will have white knuckles right along with Theall as she grapples to convince the church to accept her son despite his having two moms.
Tidd, Catherine. Confessions of a Mediocre Widow: Or, How I Lost My Husband and My Sanity. Sourcebooks. Jan. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9781402285226. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781402285233. memoir
When Tidd’s husband dies suddenly in a motorcycle accident, leaving her to care for their three small children, she wonders why there is no instruction booklet for how to be a proper widow. Bewildered and adrift in her grief, she talks to her dead husband’s clothes, buys a sports car, and starts exercising incessantly. With wit and good humor, Tidd looks back on the time immediately following her husband’s death with charming self-deprecation at her seeming inability to be a good widow. Through this, she shows readers that there is no “right way” to grieve. Included in an appendix are tips for widows and those who support them on subjects such as memorializing, coping, and even dating. VERDICT Not only will widows of six months or more find comfort in this book, it will also make a great resource for those wishing to lend support to a friend or family member who has been recently widowed.
Other memoir reviews
Reynolds, Anita with Howard Miller. American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World. Harvard Univ. Feb. 2014. 334p. ed. by George Hutchinson. illus. notes. ISBN 9780674073050. $29.95. memoir
Reynolds’s memoir of her adventures in 1930s Paris and Europe, before World War II drove her back to the United States, was written in the 1970s but was never published. After a brief silent movie career and an “uptown/downtown” period hobnobbing with Harlem’s intelligentsia as well as Greenwich Village’s bohemians, the racially mixed author decamped to Europe at just the right time to meet such luminaries as Man Ray, Antonin Artaud, Louise Bryant, and many others. She lived the Left Bank life, with many forays into respectability (or something like it), traveling between the two worlds effortlessly. Reynolds’s breezy tone is occasionally jarring, such as when she devotes only half a page to her long-distance reaction to her mother’s death, or when dismissing a lover’s fascist leanings. However, her lavish descriptions of the clothes she wore, the men she loved, and the places where she dined and danced enchant, and her frank discussion of sex is refreshing. Hutchinson’s detailed chapter notes provide invaluable biographical and cultural info. VERDICT Although there isn’t much history here, this title is essential for those who enjoy reading about the African American expat experience, as well as fans of Paris memoirs.—Liz French, Library Journal
Wall, Carol. Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn: Putnam. Mar. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9780399157981. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698150980. memoir
Reluctant to get her hands dirty, essayist and teacher Wall hired her neighbor’s gardener, a Kenyan immigrant who sought odd gardening jobs in addition to his job packing groceries. She had no idea he would not only transform her yard, but rejuvenate her life.The patient, modest gardener (who had a PhD in horticulture) withstood her clumsy attempts at direction and conversation while encouraging her participation in gardening. Toiling together, they exchanged personal stories. Their unlikely friendship comforted them both through family problems and health challenges. Wall’s monumental insecurity, guilt, and anger over her breast cancer, odd childhood, and aging parents almost overwhelm the reader at times, but one keeps reading to learn more about—and from—the engaging Mr. Owita, who exudes joy and wisdom despite racism, immigration trouble, and his own health issues. Unlike Dominique Browning’s Paths of Desire where the garden takes center stage as she transforms her life, the garden here is more of a backdrop. VERDICT Recommended to anyone needing a warm friendship story or reassurance that a teacher appears when the student is ready.—Bonnie Poquette, Milwaukee