Somehow, it’s another new year and here we are talking about memoirs again. For five of this month’s memoirists, this is a second or even third title. What motivates this sharing of the good, the bad, and the ugly of life? Gail Caldwell, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic for The Boston Globe—and one of this month’s life storytellers—suggests we often don’t get a choice about some of the facts of our experience but points out: “The story is what got you here, and embracing its truth is what makes the outcome bearable.” Seems reasonable enough. This month’s stories helped make bearable the war in Afghanistan, major life changes, illness, deaths, loneliness, and loss for those who wrote about it. It couldn’t hurt to take a look and see what got our writers here. New year, new stories, let’s go.
Bonenberger, Adrian. Afghan Post. The Head & the Hand. Jan. 2014. 340p. ISBN 9780989312523. $18. memoir
Unlike many of his fellow Yale graduates, Bonenberger eschewed law school or a career in finance in favor of two tours of duty in Afghanistan as an officer in the U.S. Army. The format of this epistolary memoir, ostensibly based on Bonenberger’s contemporaneous journal entries and correspondence, is ambitious. He gives us fascinating glossaries of military terminology, mundane details of meals in the field as well as soul-searching insight into the corrosive effects of war on those sent to fight. VERDICT Bonenberger, now a blogger and a journalism student, makes clear the war’s awful toll on his psyche while providing civilians with a crash course in the hell and exhilaration of combat and training.
Caldwell, Gail. New Life, No Instructions. Random. Apr. 2014. 176p. ISBN 9781400069545. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780679604426. memoir
Caldwell, author of the previous memoirs Let’s Take the Long Way Home and A Strong West Wind, presents a calm and affecting portrait of the challenges of loss and frailty in middle age in her carefully written series of observations on the roles of friends, family, and beloved pets in creating a sense of community in our lives. The benefits of a long-overdue medical procedure at the center of the book extend beyond the physical into the realm of the transformative, but Caldwell’s steady tone reminds us of the daily miracles of friendship, too. VERDICT This lovely recounting of a disheartening patch in Caldwell’s life will appeal to scores of readers of a certain age who are encountering their own mortality while still figuring this whole life thing out. [See Prepub Alert, 11/15/13.]
Feldman, Deborah. Exodus. Blue Rider. Mar. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780399162770. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101603109. memoir
Feldman’s first memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, which detailed her departure from the Satmar Hasidic community, was met with alternate praise and skepticism. This follow-up traces her efforts to establish a life for herself and her son free of the judgments and ghosts of her past. The journey recounted here is one of many actual miles (in search of her European roots) as well as through many lifestyles (student, mother, girlfriend, outcast) but the shock value of Feldman’s first saga is a distant backdrop to this more conventional tale of self-discovery. VERDICT Feldman’s accounts this time around are less controversial, but the notoriety of her first book ensures that many readers will be eager to discover whether she finds happiness outside the community of her heritage. [See Prepub Alert, 10/1/13.]
Gore, Ariel. The End of Eve. Hawthorne. Mar. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9780986000799. $16.95. memoir
In this candid narrative, Hip Mama magazine publisher Gore chronicles the last year (or so) of her mother’s life and exposes the tenuous balance between filial piety and losing one’s mind. Gore’s high-maintenance mother, diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, did not want to die alone, so Gore brought the “crazy” to her house (and then moved that household from Oregon to New Mexico and renovated the house to boot). Gore’s efforts to preserve her own sanity while caring for her mother are recounted with equal measures of exasperation and tolerance. VERDICT Gore’s mantra of “Behave in a way you’re going to be proud of” guided her well during her mother’s seemingly unending final illness but also in the writing of this book.
Loh, Sandra Tsing. The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones. Norton. May 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780393088687. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393244236. memoir
Loh, a writer and performance artist, has reported in previous memoirs upon, among other things, her adventures in parenting and life in LA, so it is no surprise that when she hit the wall of menopause, she wrote a book about it. Loh’s madcap (hysterical might be too literal a description) tone propels readers through chapters dealing with despair, an affair (her own), divorce, aging parents, and other miseries weathered during the hormonal upheavals of midlife. Chatty references to medical and psychological supports for menopausal women are interspersed with comic complaints about weight gain and the inability to maintain a house that resembles one in a lifestyle magazine. VERDICT Loh’s meandering account of her perilous trip through menopause will appeal to readers searching for moral support during their own menopausal miseries the same way talking to a friend might, but for real medical advice, stick with a sympathetic doctor, the way Loh did.
Sankovitch, Nina. Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing. S. & S. Apr. 2014. 192p. ISBN 9781451687156. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781451687170. memoir
The discovery of a cache of old letters in her home led Sankovitch (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) to examine the history and practice of letter writing and question why letters are such a powerful form of communication. From Heloise and Abelard’s impassioned missives to love letters from her husband, the author deconstructs a wide variety of correspondence in her effort to determine the basis of our fascination with letters (especially the ones not addressed to us). At once a history as well as an homage to a dwindling practice, the memoirist’s review of the art of letter writing is a unique blend of personal and public history. VERDICT Sankovitch’s enthusiasm for all things epistolary is clear as she makes the case for their importance. It’s hard to imagine future generations becoming as excited over discovering emails and texts as she was over the revelation of century-old letters.