LJ’s memoir columnists and reviewers help celebrate the first quarter of 2017 with four starred reviews from the monthly online column, a book about love of urban gardening, and, just in time for Valentine’s Day, three titles that deal with making marriage work in these troubled times.
Andreas, Peter. Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution. S. & S. Apr. 2017. 336p. photos. ISBN 9781501124396. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501124457. MEMOIR
After becoming radicalized during the late 1960s, former Mennonite and housewife Carol Andreas became obsessed with making “the revolution” happen, kidnapped her son, Peter, and moved to South America. Eventually, they made their way back to the United States, where they lived in hiding. Although infuriating and terribly misguided, she is portrayed as affectionate, understanding, and full of acceptance. Andreas (John Hay Professor of International Studies, Brown Univ.; Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America) uses an interesting, straightforward style that early on relates his life as though through a child’s eyes. Yet, as the narrative progresses, and the author grows older, he becomes increasingly critical of his mother’s actions. In the end, he is thankful for the experiences she gave him, even though their relationship has become increasingly strained. This comprehensive account involves a parallel story line about Carol’s divorce from Andreas’s father, Carl, and Carl’s attempts to gain custody of his son. VERDICT A profound and enlightening memoir that will open readers up to different ideas about love, acceptance, and the bond between mother and son. (Memoir, 1/13/17, ow.ly/D1mr308cbNW.)
Brownmiller, Susan. My City Highrise Garden. Rutgers Univ. Mar. 2017. 152p. photos. ISBN 9780813588896. $25. MEMOIR
In this charming collection of essays, feminist journalist, activist, and author Brownmiller (memoir, Rutgers Univ.; Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape) writes with passion, humor, and complete candidness about 35 years of gardening on the 20th-floor terrace of her Greenwich Village apartment. Along with weather, climate, and critter issues, Brownmiller also describes unique gardening problems that a more traditional yard gardener couldn’t fathom, such as building renovations and neighbors unappreciative of leaf drift—although plenty of them are eager to share plants and pots for Brownmiller’s urban oasis, too. From stories of the loss of her beloved birch trees in the wake of a hurricane to tales of victory at her garden’s thrilling achievements, the author reveals all, including the odd assortment of detritus she discovered thrown down from the shared rooftop garden above. VERDICT With a style reminiscent of Eric Grissell’s Thyme on My Hands and A Journal in Thyme, Brownmiller’s meandering musings will delight readers. Memoir lovers and gardeners alike will enjoy these adventures in urban gardening.
Forsthoefel, Andrew. Walking To Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time. Bloomsbury USA. Mar. 2017. 400p. maps. bibliog. ISBN 9781632867001. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781632867025. MEMOIR
Unsure of what to do after graduating from college, Forsthoefel decided to walk across America, from Pennsylvania to the Pacific coast, and listen to the fascinating stories of ordinary people. Forsthoefel includes chunks of many of these tales verbatim. But what is even more fascinating, and unexpected, is the journey he goes through himself. Guided by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—both of which he quotes from copiously—he discovers what he can endure, what he is capable of, and finds his place in the world. For the author, what started out as an attempt to understand our connections to other people ends in a greater understanding of a connection with himself. VERDICT A remarkable book that calls to mind William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. (Memoir, 1/13/17; ow.ly/D1mr308cbNW.)
Gerson, Stéphane. Disaster Falls: A Family Story. Crown Archetype. Jan. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781101906699. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101906705. MEMOIR
This diamond-sharp book is both meticulous and breathtaking. With methodical pacing and painstaking detail, the author describes how his eight-year-old son Owen died in a rafting accident on Utah’s Green River, at a place called Disaster Falls. It is evident that Gerson is driven by a desire to get it right, to tell the full story of the accident, including its aftermath and preceding events. And while he takes us to the precipice of the fatality, it’s as if the accident is secondary to the larger story. This creates a narrative tension in the passage about the incident itself. Though we know the outcome, we hold our breath as he and Owen approach the falls in a raft: we hope that it will end differently. Gerson also connects these events to the loss of his father in the year after his son’s death, and in this way offers a meditation on the connection between fathers and sons. VERDICT A beautiful book, even as it deals with unthinkable anguish. (Memoir, 10/17/16; ow.ly/5jnF308ccrE.)
Leiris, Antoine. You Will Not Have My Hate. Penguin Pr. Oct. 2016. 144p. tr. from French by Sam Taylor. ISBN 9780735222113. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780735222144. MEMOIR
Here is a short and brilliant treatise on grief and loss as experienced in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. On November 13, 2015, Leiris lost his wife, Hélène Muyal-Leir, in a terrorist attack at the Bataclan Theater in Paris. Hélène was also survived by their 17-month-old son, Melvil. It was the need to take care of Melvil, and to not allow the terrorists to “have his hate,” that made it necessary for Leiris to continue. As expected, this is a very raw book—Leiris says he began composing it just days after the attack—and as such provides tremendous insight into the early grieving process. VERDICT Leiris is to be commended for not providing easy answers nor engaging in the platitudinous language that too often infects memoirs of this sort. This is necessary reading for us all. (Memoir, 11/14/16; ow.ly/pVqe308ccNV.)
Saldaña, Stephanie. A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide. Sourcebooks. Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781492639053. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492609759. MEMOIR
In this memoir, Saldaña meets monk Frederic in a monastery in Syria, and they fall in love. This sounds like the story’s happy ending (for more on this, read the author’s Bread and Angels), but instead, this is where Saldaña’s narrative starts. She and Frederic, now a former monk, marry in France yet seek a place to live where they both feel at home. Both are deeply spiritual and profoundly religious, and they decide that the holy city of Jerusalem should be their first dwelling together. They rent a rambling house on Nablus Road from Franciscan nuns, on the Palestinian side of the city. Nablus Road is a colorful and vibrant place, and it is here that they raise their young children. However, on the edge of East and West Jerusalem, Saldaña and her growing family watch as checkpoints spring up in front of their house, altering the neighborhood’s way of life. Even though they ultimately move to a different house, they remain in Jerusalem, a testament to the couple’s full embrace of peace and a commitment to living the lives they chose together. VERDICT This book about hope in uncertain times reads especially poignantly for anyone looking toward the future. Saldaña writes about her Catholic faith in a way that is inclusive of other traditions as well. (Memoir, 12/12/16; ow.ly/pfQw308cd7D.)
Calhoun, Ada. Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give. Norton. May 2017. 192p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780393254792. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393254808.
Piazza, Jo. How To Be Married: What I Learned from Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage. Harmony: Crown. Apr. 2017. 304p. bibliog. ISBN 9780451495556. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780451495563. MEMOIR
Ushering in the arrival of the spring wedding season, two writers, both usually identified with other topics, offer their insights into what keeps the marriage machinery running. Novelist Piazza (The Knockoff) recounts the first year of her marriage to a man she knew for less than a year. With her parents’ own rocky relationship as her only guide to married life, and the challenges the union faced early on owing to the revelation of a potentially devastating medical diagnosis, Piazza sets off on a worldwide odyssey in search of advice about how to be married. She seeks guidance from sources ranging from observant Jewish women in Israel to members of polygamous communities in Kenya with several stops in between (including tense discussions with chic French women). Her takeaways include timeless advice (keep talking to each other), along with updated adages (maybe it is okay to go to sleep angry, especially if you are tired). Piazza’s insistence on maintaining her independence—even on the dance floor—despite having become a “wife,” lends this account an uplifting tone.
Calhoun’s (St. Marks Is Dead) foray into the world of marital musing began with her oft-shared 2015 New York Times “Modern Love” column, “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give,” a pithy summation of the realities of marriage from the point of view of a veteran member of the institution. Calhoun, whose own marriage to a performance artist is in its second decade, expands upon her original piece in this series of graceful essays that explore the significance of marriage in a time that no longer deems marriage a necessity. Alternating between hilarious personal anecdote and sobering professional insight, this memoir conveys perhaps the simplest lesson ever given about learning to make a marriage last: just don’t get divorced. Her other great contribution to the literature on marital happiness might be her explanation of why fights in cars are the worst: you cannot storm off. VERDICT Piazza and Calhoun approach the conundrum of connubial happiness from differing (albeit white, heterosexual) vantage points, but with the same endpoint of golden anniversaries in mind.