We know Ahab lost his leg, and that loss became a story, and that story became an obsession that in the end defined, and ended, his life. We have to be careful of the stories we tell about ourselves.
Nick Flynn made the point in his Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and I could not have said it better myself (no matter how many times I have tried.) Since the stories we tell about ourselves become the blueprints for the myths about us, let’s be careful out there, memoirists. You define the story. Thanks to Justin Hocking, one of this month’s memoir writers (The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld), for resurrecting Nick Flynn’s worthwhile advice!
Andrews, Colman. My Usual Table: A Life in Restaurants. Ecco. Mar. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780062136473. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062136503. MEMOIR
Veteran foodie and food writer Andrews (Saveur; Gourmet; The Man Who Reinvented Food) reminisces about the restaurants that lured him into a long career writing about food and culinary trends. Filled with gossip about the food and entertainment world, this chatty look back at eateries (ranging from the legendary Chasen’s to Spago) allows Andrews to trace the history of foodie obsessions in the baby boom era along with his burgeoning career in food writing. VERDICT Andrews’s work will hold the most appeal for die-hard food folks, but has some nostalgia value for general readers, who will remember the days recalled by Andrews when radicchio was not sold in supermarkets and “smorgasbord” was exotic.
Bair, Julene. The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning. Viking. Mar. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780670786046. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101609316. MEMOIR
Essayist and writing teacher Bair (One Degree West) examines whether or not you can ever really go home again, and, if you do, whose life do you lead: your parents’ or your own? Concerned about the rapacious depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer by farming families like her own as well as the industrialization of farming, Bair fights to honor her agrarian heritage while preserving the harsh beauty of the High Plains. VERDICT Bair provides a crash course on the huge ocean (the Ogallala Aquifer) that lies below the heart of America, but mixes many themes. Her tale of romantic misadventure overshadows her concerns about sustainability at points.
Bauman, Jeff with Bret Witter. Stronger. Grand Central. Apr. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9781455584376. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781455584352. MEMOIR
COSTCO employee, lifelong Bostonian and “Average Joe” Jeff Bauman was caught up in events much bigger than his life when he stood next to Tamerlan Tsarnaev near the finish line of last year’s Boston Marathon. Within minutes, his life changed irrevocably—with the loss of both legs and other severe trauma—but what did not change was his no-nonsense way of approaching life’s challenges. Bauman recounts his long road back to mobility as well as his role in identifying Tsarnaev to the authorities in this from-the-heart story. VERDICT Only a misanthrope would fail to be moved by Bauman’s guileless narration of the horrors of rehabilitation or his frustration with learning to live with his new prosthetic legs. This is the simple story of one decent guy who fights hard to stay strong in the face of adversity. Go Boston!
Hocking, Justin. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir. Graywolf. Mar. 2014. 296p. illus. ISBN 9781555976699. $15.00; ebk. ISBN 9781555970871. MEMOIR
Skater boy Hocking moves to New York and endures a stultifying publishing job, crippling anxiety, and bad romance but his life is saved by surfing and a devotion to Moby Dick. In this elegant hybrid of homage to Melville and memoir, Hocking examines timeless archetypes and questions their pertinence in his own life. VERDICT Hocking’s lack of vanity in describing his tough years in New York is noteworthy, as is his devotion to Moby Dick. His admiration for Melville’s opus does not prevent him from telling a compelling story of his own.
Shankle, Melanie. The Antelope in the Living Room: The Real Story of Two People Sharing One Life. Tyndale House. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9781414385549. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781414390581. MEMOIR
Memoirist (Sparkly Green Earrings) and blogger (TheBigMamaBlog) Shankle presents a modern view of marriage in the tradition forged by Erma Bombeck. From holidays with the in-laws to mistakes in gift-giving to the tribulations of living with someone who thinks an antelope head is appropriate living room decor, Shankle treats the daily challenges of marriage with a light touch and a certain amount of Lucille Ball-like frivolity. VERDICT The author’s approach to describing the joys and trials of marriage relies heavily on her Christian faith, which may not resonate with all readers. Devoted fans of her blog will savor this latest installment in the chronicles of her fairly charmed life.
Venegas, Maria. Bulletproof Vest: The Story of an Outlaw and His Daughter. Farrar. Jun. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780374117313. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781429944168. MEMOIR
Venegas’s father was a desperado. The convoluted and often violent saga of her family’s fractured life north and south of the Mexican border is told here in graceful and controlled prose. The author, who now mentors at-risk youth in a writing program in New York, has taken a story riddled with gunshots and transformed it into a historia of estrangement and understanding. VERDICT The slow path to Venegas’s reconciliation with her father was not straight or without detours but what matters is the crystalline accuracy with which the route is described. The scene in which she describes learning to shoot a gun with her father on New Year’s Eve at her family’s isolated ranch will redefine the idea of “shooting stars” for you in a way that only the clearest writing can.
Barr, Damian. Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland. Bloomsbury. Apr. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9781620405888. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781620405895. MEMOIR
Set against the backdrop of Thatcher-era Scotland in a small industrial town, Barr’s (Get It Together) childhood was not an easy one. Often the outsider, the target of bullies, the quintessential underdog, he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, cope with family hardships, and find his place in this often-cruel world. Though Barr tackles some touchy subjects, from class and religious hostilities to abuse, his story is not entirely tragic. With a mix of resilience, a lot of humor, and sophisticated, imaginative prose, Barr proves himself as tough as the Iron Lady herself and yet as personable as any reader’s best friend. VERDICT This is an emotional roller coaster that will as much break readers’ hearts as make them laugh out loud. It’s a raucous journey that fans of Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? or any of Augusten Burroughs’s works will adore.This unforgettable tale will stay with the reader long after the last page.— Melissa Culbertson, Homewood, IL