As I continue to struggle in my relationship with my father and to be a good father to my son, I seek out memoirs that relate stories about families, particularly fathers and sons. Four of this month’s memoirs do just that; two of them—Benjamin Taylor’s The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered and Michael Frank’s The Mighty Franks—exceedingly well. The one exception, Jim Dickinson’s quirky collection of memoirs about his adventures in early rock and roll, is just for fun, just for a breather. Happy reading!
Dickinson, Jim. I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone. Univ. Pr. of Mississippi. (American Made Music). Apr. 2017. 248p. ed. by Ernest Suarez. photos. index. ISBN 9781496810540. $25. MEMOIR
Music producer and performer Dickinson (1941–2009) played on records by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and many other giants of rock and roll. The focus of this collection of short memoirs, edited by Suarez (David M. O’Connell Professor of English, Catholic Univ. of America, Washington, DC), is on Dickinson’s life in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was cutting his teeth in the Memphis music scene. Dickinson relates early encounters with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and legendary producer Sam Phillips. One of his early bands even opened for Bo Diddley. Dickinson’s writing style is charming and untutored and reminiscent of the writings of John Fahey, the maverick acoustic guitarist, in his books How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life and Vampire Vultures. VERDICT Accessible and quirky, this is essential reading for fans of Dickinson and early rock and roll and blues.
Feinstein, Sascha. Wreckage: My Father’s Legacy of Art and Junk. Bucknell Univ. Mar. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781611487855. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781611487862. MEMOIR
Painter Sam Feinstein (1915–2003) was a compulsive hoarder whose obsessive need to collect led to the ruin of three of his properties. His son, a professor of English (Lycoming Coll.), here examines his father’s life mostly through the lens of his art, giving detailed discussions of Sam’s paintings and using poetry and jazz (the author’s twin passions) to get to an understanding of who his father was. In the end, Sam remains largely mysterious in the sense that all great works of art are mysterious. They can never be reduced to a single meaning, or even a set of meanings, and so continually draw people in, in attempts to decipher their message. VERDICT Because Feinstein’s approach is largely academic, he rarely gets at the emotional core of his relationship with his father. Reproductions of his father’s art—even just a few—would have been welcomed.
Frank, Michael. The Mighty Franks. Farrar. May 2017. 320p. illus. ISBN 9780374210120. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374715960. MEMOIR
The character at the center of Frank’s extraordinary tale is his aunt, Harriet Frank Jr., a screenwriter perhaps best known for her work with director Martin Ritt. Late in the book, the author comments that he first tried writing about Harriet in fictional form but was consistently told that people like her just don’t exist. Well, they do, and here she is: an insecure and egocentric tyrant who always got her way. She identifies her nephew early on as the perfect victim and begins stroking his ego by telling him how smart and different he is, and demands he read the best books, look at the best art, take in the best of everything. Yet she seems to care little for Michael the person, and as he comes to realize this and begins to rebel, his aunt’s outbursts become more extreme and frequent, and their relationship begins to break down irrevocably. Truth is not just stranger than fiction, it’s more interesting, too. VERDICT More than a memoir, this is really a study of human pathology, a book that should be widely read for its insights into families and the process of growing up. [See Prepub Alert, 11/27/16.]
Friedman, Daniel. The King of Chicago: Memories of My Father. Carrel: Skyhorse. May 2017. 178p. photos. ISBN 9781631440687. $29.99; ebk. ISBN 9781631440694. memoir
Friedman’s father (the king of the title) grew up in an Orthodox Jewish orphanage in Chicago, along with his four siblings. His mother, though alive and well, considered herself unable to care for the children after her husband’s death. This abandonment, and the pain it caused, are at the heart of Friedman’s tribute to his father, Daniel. In spite of his great success in the scrap paper business, Daniel never moved on beyond his childhood, and in fact, wouldn’t ever speak about it. In the last few chapters, Friedman begins to delve more fully into his own life, particularly his failed marriage and move back to Chicago, closing the circle of the Friedman saga. VERDICT This is a so-so memoir in the fathers-and-sons genre, with not much to recommend it. Friedman rarely moves beyond father worship and into true insight about their relationship.
Taylor, Benjamin. The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered. Penguin Originals. May 2017. 208p. photos. ISBN 9780143131649. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781524705299. MEMOIR
This wonderfully tangential memoir from author (Proust: The Search), novelist (The Book of Getting Even), and writing prof (New School’s Graduate Sch. of Writing; Columbia Univ.) Taylor covers much more than a year in his life. We learn about his parents and grandparents, growing up in Forth Worth, TX, his undiagnosed Asperger’s, his experiences at a sleep-away camp, his passion for literature, and that he shook President John F. Kennedy’s hand on the day he was assassinated. Taylor seems congenitally incapable of sticking to one subject for long, and therefore, we reap the benefits. Looking back on this slim memoir, it boggles the mind of this reviewer that so much life was covered in so few words, teaching us so much about our own lives in the process. VERDICT This is a marvelous memoir that will appeal to anyone who loves good stories and interesting lives.
Carroll, Leah. Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder. Grand Central. Mar. 2017. 240p. photos. ISBN 9781455563319. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781455563302. MEMOIR
Tough and dreamy, searching and sad, this debut memoir by a collateral victim of murder delves deep. When she was four years old, the author’s mother, Joan Goldman Carroll, was killed by drug dealers in Providence, RI. Her father’s self-murder took longer: 14 years later, Kevin Carroll, a charismatic, mercurial alcoholic, was found dead in a seedy rooming house. In urgent, present tense, Carroll tells the story of her parents. herself, and a little bit about the decline of industrial New England. Joan and Kevin were young, rebellious working-class kids with ambitions, but drug abuse, alcoholism, and the precariousness of middle class existence overwhelmed them. Sent to live with her mother’s parents after the murder, Carroll slowly becomes aware of the details and implications of Joan’s death. She moves in with her father and his new wife and family, and witnesses Kevin’s descent, especially after he loses his job distributing the Providence Journal. The author also interviews friends and family and pores over police records to get a clearer picture of both parents. VERDICT This book ends on a hopeful note, but Carroll’s journey to sympathy and understanding is a rough ride. Recommended for true crime aficionados and readers of survivor memoirs.—Liz French, Library Journal