This month’s memoirs tell the stories of several people whose safety and security are particularly jeopardized: people experiencing severe poverty, women, African Americans, and refugees. In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla tells the story of her family in India, untouchables whose social status creates challenges and tragedy. In Beautiful Bodies, Kimberly Rae Miller writes intimately of the damage done when women’s bodies and appearance are discussed in degrading terms. Jessica Harris’s My Soul Looks Back reflects upon the energy and creativity emanating from black literary and cultural icons in the late 1960s through the 1980s. With Among the Living and the Dead, Inara Verzemnieks works through her family history to create a near-whole account from the shattered narratives of her refugee and exiled relatives. These personal histories amplify the voices of individuals who are threatened and vulnerable in the hope that through reading about those with a different lived experience, we find commonalities and strength to share in the struggle toward a more equitable world for all.
Gidla, Sujatha. Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. Farrar. Jul. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780865478114. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780374711382. MEMOIR
In Gidla’s memoir of her family’s experience as members of an untouchable caste in India, she traces the lives of her mother and uncles. Interspersed throughout is both national and regional history that informs major events. The caste system imposes poverty and social ostracism, but Gidla’s family works through the system by pursuing education. Each time a new challenge is thrown in their path, they seem to overcome it, only to encounter new obstacles. Gidla uses descriptive and personal details to enliven her family’s story. Indeed, the book focuses primarily on her uncle, Satyam, and her mother, Manjula, and only in the introduction and afterword does the author bring her own biography into the picture (at the point in her mother’s story when Gidla is born, she refers to herself only in the third person). VERDICT Insightful and personal examination of the ways in which the caste system sanctions discrimination. Recommended for readers interested in social justice and eradicating systemic inequality. [See Prepub Alert, 2/6/17.]
Harris, Jessica B. My Soul Looks Back. Scribner. May 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781501125904. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501127007. MEMOIR
Culinary writer Harris’s reminiscence of her initial entry into the literary circle of James Baldwin begins on the fringes of the group, but as a French professor at Queens College, she makes professional connections, as well as personal ones. Her colleague Sam Lloyd becomes her longtime romantic companion and introduces her to Baldwin, as well as other prominent black writers and artists of the 1970s, such as Nina Simone, Rosa Guy, and Maya Angelou. This memoir is as much about Harris’s life as it is about a specific time and place—New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s—as those around her gained recognition for their efforts and successes in the arts. Harris intersperses her chapters with recipes that for her, epitomize that moment in her life, pairing her culinary evolution alongside the development of her cultural consciousness. VERDICT Harris moved in rarefied circles, and her work provides a glimpse of what it’s like to observe different artistic processes, vulnerabilities, and eccentricities.
Miller, Kimberly Rae. Beautiful Bodies. Little A. Jul. 2017. 209p. ISBN 9781503935174. $24.95; ISBN 9781477829578. pap. $14.95 MEMOIR
Author (Coming Clean), editor, and blogger Miller traces her approach to beauty and health back to her childhood days of trying to break into modeling, acting, and the pageant world. She dieted for the first time in elementary school, always feeling that her body wasn’t the right size. Her approach to eating and exercise caused her to swing from overweight to underweight, with no stability. Miller’s body image and self-esteem issues reach a critical point when she accidentally reads her boyfriend’s email, in which he muses about whether he should end the relationship because of her size. She consults with a nutrition counselor and an endocrinologist to restructure her eating habits; with medication and an appropriate diet, things even out. Some additional commentary on the difficulties of accepting yourself at any size would have been welcome; even though Miller ultimately reaches a healthy weight, it doesn’t always seem like she fully accepts herself. VERDICT This account offers telling insight on the immense negativity surrounding body image, as well as acknowledging that love and acceptance of oneself is a constant exercise in reinforcement.
Verzemnieks, Inara. Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe. Norton. Jul. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780393245110. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393245127. MEMOIR
Verzemnieks’s impressive work examines the refugee history of her grandmother’s family with sensitivity and compassion. During World War II, her grandmother Livija is married, her husband fighting as a Latvian conscript, with one young daughter and a son born just days before violence consumes the capital city of Riga. Livija flees with both children and becomes one of the many war refugees seeking safety in the European countryside. Ultimately reunited with her husband, Livija and their now three children spend years in a refugee camp before finally receiving a sponsorship in Tacoma and emigrating to the United States. Through her visits to Latvia, the author develops and strengthens bonds with an entire extended family that she clearly relishes. The trips don’t erase the suffering and anguish of the past, but they do offer hope of reconciliation and forgiveness. VERDICT For readers looking for parallels between historic and current events. Though Syria isn’t mentioned, this book could have been written about what’s happening today, rather than over 70 years ago. [See Prepub Alert, 1/23/17.]
Shopsin, Tamara. Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Farrar. Jul. 2017. 336p. illus. ISBN 9780374105860. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374715809. MEMOIR
Shopsin, a graphic designer and illustrator, writes with affection and humor about her 1970s-era childhood in New York’s Greenwich Village and her parent’s small grocery-turned-restaurant, Shopsin’s, which her family always referred to simply as “The Store.” The book, scattered with photographs, illustrations, and ephemera, is an ode to a New York that no longer exists, one in which gentrification has not yet taken hold and eccentrics, artists, and free spirits can find reasonably priced, rent-controlled apartments. Although designed to be more like a collage than a cohesive narrative, this memoir transitions from the author’s childhood to the present, feeling abrupt at times. Despite her efforts, characters such as Willy, a store regular and family favorite, never fully come to life on the page, nor does Shopsin’s father, whose bouts of anger she frequently alludes to but never explicates. Shopsin is at her best when she chronicles the ins and outs of growing up in this unique environment, navigating the parade of zany customers, working in the kitchen with her siblings, and relaying any number of comic incidents that take place at The Store. VERDICT A charming glimpse into one family’s singular archive; readers who enjoy kaleidoscopic memoirs will find it appealing.— Barrie Olmstead, Sacramento P.L.