This month’s memoirs feature individuals who are pushing at the boundaries of conventional societal expectations. As outsiders working within and against the strictures of society, these memoirists illustrate how personal freedoms are essential to creating meaningful lives. We have an account of one woman’s garden apprenticeship in the private and temple gardens of Kyoto, one of Japan’s cultural and religious centers. Leslie Buck leaves behind everything that is familiar—her romantic partner, her business, and the conventional path to success—in order to pursue a long-held desire. We have a memoir/parenting manual from Sarah Turner, whose refreshing honesty about parenting upends the Instagram-perfect picture of motherhood. Ariel Levy writes expertly of the conundrums facing women in our society regarding career aspirations, marriage, monogamy, motherhood, and childlessness. Richard Ford portrays his parents’ unorthodox existence; in a time when one was expected to be rooted in one place, they enjoy the demands of life on the road. As with all memoirs, this month’s batch takes us outside ourselves to give us perspective. This month, that perspective focuses on what it feels like to be an outsider, looking in and trying to decide to join “in” or to stay “out,” but having the freedom to choose.
Buck, Leslie. Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto. Timber. May 2017. 280p. ISBN 9781604697933. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781604698046. MEMOIR
As a professional gardener in Berkeley, CA, Buck works with plants large and small but feels that her career would be advanced by studying with Japanese master gardeners. She secures an apprenticeship at a large company in Kyoto, which gives her a wide range of work to do, from the very skilled labor of pruning and styling trees and shrubs to raking, weeding, and even cleaning garden gravel. Alongside her all-male crew, Buck navigates both cultural and professional differences. She’s an expert in her own right in California, and beginning at the bottom of the company hierarchy is a humbling and sometimes demoralizing experience. Japanese culture is rife with unspoken rules and silent understandings, and Buck struggles at times to find her place. Her experience teaches her essential skills that she carries back to the United States as well as a broader cultural appreciation for other professional perspectives. VERDICT The descriptions of the gardens the author tends while in Japan will transport readers; it is an armchair tourist’s treat to wander the temple gardens as she describes them.
Ford, Richard. Between Them: Remembering My Parents. Ecco: HarperCollins. May 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780062661883. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062661906. MEMOIR
Prize-winning novelist Ford (Canada; The Sportswriter; Independence Day) writes his first nonfiction work that actually puts two memoirs together: the first (written recently) relates details from his father’s life; the second (written in 1981 after his mother’s death) shares details from his mother’s childhood. Both sides converge as the couple’s life begins. The overlap between these two is a sweet repetition; the love and happiness that his parents, Parker and Edna, found with each other is focused and intense. As a traveling salesman, Parker sold laundry starch in bulk and Edna traveled with him for the first 15 years of their marriage. They reveled in this time together. When Richard was born, Edna and her infant son settled into a more sedentary lifestyle, while Parker continued his sales route during the week, coming home on the weekends until a fatal heart attack felled him when Richard was 16. VERDICT In simple prose, Ford reflects on his parents’ lives in observable ways. He does not extrapolate, saying only that parents will always remain mysterious to their children; we never really know the true depth and breadth of their thoughts and feelings. This memoir shares little in tone with his fictional works, but Ford’s meditations on family life are worth reading alongside the rest of his oeuvre. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/16.]
Levy, Ariel. The Rules Do Not Apply. Random. Mar. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780812996937. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780812996944. mEMOIR
To some readers, this stellar work will evoke memories; author (Female Chauvinist Pigs) and New Yorker staff writer Levy first wrote of the book’s catalyzing event in a piece for The New Yorker, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” However, this title ranges further afield. With intensity and grace, Levy unpacks her courtship, marriage, affair, pregnancy, the premature birth and death of her child, her wife’s alcoholism, their separation, and divorce in the space of a scant 200 pages, but her writing feels expansive. Readers will find a compelling meditation on what it means to be female, to be married, and to explore the boundaries and contexts that surround personhood, marriage, desire, and aspiration. This title serves to remind readers, as well as the author, that while rules exist, they need not ultimately define us. VERDICT Levy uses her considerable talents to bring readers into deeply personal experiences with prose that feels raw, genuine, and incredibly true. It resonates on a visceral level.
Turner, Sarah. The Unmumsy Mum: The Hilarious Highs and Emotional Lows of Motherhood. TarcherPerigee. Apr. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780143130048. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101993552. MEMOIR
Author and self-proclaimed “Unmumsy Mum” Turner expands on her blog of the same name, exploring themes about the many aspects of parenting that don’t make it into those blissful social media photos. She tells it like she sees it and calls out our collective tendency to broadcast only the most positive moments. In reality, parenthood is a mix of challenges, obstacles, love, baby vomit, greasy hair, and undying affection. This memoir relates her own experiences of parenting, and it is through this lens that she demonstrates that not loving every moment doesn’t make you a bad parent—it makes you a real parent. VERDICT Turner provides a breath of fresh air with her true and unfiltered account of raising her favorite people—her kids. Like many parents, Turner finds child rearing to be both incredibly rewarding and unimaginably challenging and is brave enough to say so.