May is notable for the proliferation of two things: pollen and greeting cards celebrating maternal love. Allergy season is short and ugly. As for the latter, there’s not much to do but wait it out and dose yourself with an antihistamine (and hope the “non-drowsy” formula is true to its label). Maternal love is a trickier and longer-term proposition. When it’s offtrack, which would happen more often than the greeting card companies would have you think, things get dicey for all concerned. This month, we hear stories about drunk moms, hippie moms, blind moms, stubborn moms, devoted moms—you get the picture. Let’s hear it for the moms and not so much for the pollen.
Bydlowska, Jowita. Drunk Mom. Penguin. Jun. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780143126508. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780698156395. MEMOIR
Years of sobriety unraveled—spectacularly—in minutes when Bydlowska, a Polish émigrée in Toronto, toasted the birth of her son with champagne at a party while he was still a newborn. Alcohol, cocaine, crack, lying, and deception occupied her during the early part of her son’s life, along with guilt, rationalization, and, after false starts, rehab. There is no nonchalance in Bydlowska’s description of her new grip on sobriety nor is there sugarcoating the truth about how tenuous that grip is. VERDICT Whoa. Bydlowska’s unvarnished account of the ugly facts surrounding her downward spiral during her son’s infancy does not spare any detail nor salvage her vanity. This unconventional story of the power of maternal love will appeal to addiction memoir readers but will have them holding their breath, even at the “happy” ending.
Johnson, Lacy. The Other Side. Tin House. Jul. 2014. 232p. ISBN 9781935639831. pap. $15.95. MEMOIR
With a story line echoing the creepiest of TV’s “crime unit” shows or summer blockbuster novels, Johnson’s second book (after Trespasses) outlines monstrous crimes perpetrated by her jealous ex-boyfriend. The catch is this is a memoir, not fiction, and Johnson, now an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and college instructor, was the victim of her ex’s heinous behavior. Johnson’s desperate escape from her tormentor, while heroic, was just the first step in a journey to reclaim her life and a sense of ownership of her body. VERDICT Think locked, soundproof room, think rape, think chains, think terror. Imagine knowing the guy who wanted to torture you to death is still out there, somewhere. Johnson’s matter-of-fact retelling of the horrors that befell her is by turns poetic and journalistic but harrowing all the way through.
Kear, Nicole. Now I See You. St. Martin’s. Jun. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781250026569. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250026576. MEMOIR
A diagnosis of eventual blindness (owing to advancing retinitis pigmentosa) received by Kear when she was in college changed everything about her future, and, for years, nothing about her behavior. Her pursuit of normalcy in the face of a devastating disease resulted in some madcap elements (circus school!) and a whole lot of denial packed into ten years. Kear’s coming to terms with her prognosis is recounted in this chatty, touching, but nowhere-near-maudlin account of developing some focus when one of your senses goes bad. VERDICT Things got real for Kear when she became a mother, but she was still reluctant to out herself as visually impaired in a seeing world. For Kear, the distance between acceptance to acknowledgement of her condition was a long one and that journey is what distinguishes her story from other disability memoirs.
LaGrow, Cathy & Cindy Coloma. The Waiting: The True Story of a Lost Child, a Lifetime of Longing, and a Miracle for a Mother Who Never Gave Up. Tyndale. May 2014. 344p. ISBN 9781414391908. $19.99. MEMOIR
LaGrow, granddaughter of now almost 100-year-old Minka Disbrow, has written (with the assistance of coauthor Coloma) her grandmother’s memoir for her. In 1928, Disbrow, a naïve Midwestern teenager, was sexually assaulted, became pregnant, and was persuaded to surrender for adoption her baby girl (“Betty Jane”). However, Disbrow never gave up thinking about “Betty Jane” or trying to determine what had happened to her over the course of more than 70 years. When her daughter, now known as Ruth, and her son researched her own biological roots, all the puzzle pieces fell into place and the story of an extraordinary reunion became possible. VERDICT Though Disbrow’s own life unfolded against a century of American life and she struggled through a difficult marriage and many losses, the one constant was her desire to see, just see, her child once again. A trove of letters from Disbrow to the agency that placed her infant and other official records provide the factual backdrop for this story that will appeal to adoptees, genealogists, and anyone who has a mother.
Person, Cea Sunrise. North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, my Unusual Family, and How I Survived Them Both. HarperCollins. Jun. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780062289865. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062289889. MEMOIR
A childhood spent traipsing around the Canadian wilderness with her countercultural grandparents, and, ultimately, her hippie-chick mother (and her mom’s often questionable companions) did little to prepare Person, now a retired fashion model, for life outside a tipi or a commune. The yearnings Person felt as a child were for things exotic to her: underwear, a real toilet, and candy bars. This detailed portrait of a young life spent surrounded by a haze of drug smoke and free love is vivid in its depiction of the toll parental choices take upon powerless children. VERDICT Person’s eventual escape into the world of fashion modeling—foreshadowed by her fascination with Barbie-type dolls and fancy dresses—might not have been the route everyone would have taken out of the woods, but the adults in her life gave her no road map. Although much of Person’s own career is glossed over in the retelling, the story of her survival in the wilderness is the crux of this distinct tale.
Stuart, Sarah Payne. Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town. Riverhead. Jun. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781594631818. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101626740. MEMOIR
Paying no heed to the adage that “You can’t go home again,” writer Stuart returns to her hometown of Concord, MA, to raise her family in the shadow of her own family’s ghosts as well as those of the town’s most famous inhabitants: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts. Matters of sanity, property values, class distinctions, and parenting share the stage in this examination of what waits behind the doors of classic New England manses. Stuart’s ultimate resolution of her family and housing challenges (“problems” would be too gauche a word to use) relies on saying goodbye to the myths as well as the realities of her real estate and real-life quests. VERDICT Readers may be familiar with Stuart’s saga via her 2012 New Yorker article, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Her insider’s perspective on New England ambivalence about money, class, and ostentation lends a tone of sociological reportage to what could have been merely a family history.
Deuel, Nathan. Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East. Dzanc. May 2014. 138p. ISBN 9781938604904. pap. $14.95; ISBN 9781497644830. MEMOIR
Deuel’s collection of essays, each ready to be excerpted but more powerful taken together, are a meditative series on war, death, fatherhood, and marriage. The husband of an NPR war correspondent, the author spent five years in the Middle East, most of them with the couple’s young daughter. Unmoored during a time of life that is described as often disorienting at best, Deuel has the sense not to compare his troubles to those happening around him or pontificate on the political situation of the countries he temporarily calls home. Instead, his writing covers his interior landscape as he carves out daily routines in new places, worries for his wife’s safety as her colleagues are killed, and adjusts to fatherhood. Beautifully written, this title is not a journalist’s accounting of conflict but a moving contemplation of life in the face of grief and fears both justified and overwrought. VERDICT Readers of memoirs will all find something here. Deuel explores fatherhood, the loss of a parent, and life as an expat. Avid NPR listeners will likely also enjoy this view of how news is reported.—Kate Sheehan, Waterbury, CT