Reconciling Histories, Unraveling Mysteries | Memoir

This month, we’ve got a variety of memoirs: two that focus on family and its vicissitudes, and two that consider different aspects of Russia and its traumatic history. Anne Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a standout—possibly the best memoir, and one of the best books, this reviewer has read in 2017.

Alyokhina, Maria. Riot Days. Metropolitan: Holt. Sept. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9781250164926. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781250164919. MEMOIR
Alyokhina, a member of the Russian feminist protest collective Pussy Riot, writes passionately and with insight about the events leading up to and the two years she spent in a penal colony for “organized hooliganism.” Her offense? Participating in the performance of a “Punk Prayer” in an Orthodox Russian Church in Moscow. Unfortunately, the author provides little context for this incident and related events. Many assumptions are made about what readers already know about Pussy Riot and about life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A foreword or afterword would have been helpful for American audiences to put things in perspective. Still, Alyokhina well captures the horror, absurdity, and confusion of life in contemporary Russia. VERDICT For readers interested in and familiar with Pussy Riot. Others may want to seek out Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.

redstarFadiman, Anne. The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Farrar. Nov. 2017. 272p. photos. notes. ISBN 9780374228088. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780374711764. MEMOIR
Essayist (At Large and at Small; Ex Libris) and author (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) Fadiman’s wonderful memoir examines herself, her father, her relationship with her father, wine, books, family, and much more. Clifton Fadiman had a long and distinguished career as a radio and TV host and book reviewer. But his main passion, besides books, was wine. Those familiar with the author’s essays will recognize her polymath mind and tangential style, and those unfamiliar will find it delightful to encounter for the first time. How she manages to fit her own life, her father’s life, her marriage, a primer on wine, the scientific study of taste, and many other subjects into such a slim volume is mind-boggling, something this reviewer is still trying to comprehend. VERDICT A fascinating book with something to interest anyone; a pure reading pleasure. [See Prepub Alert, 7/12/17.]

Johnson, Claudia Hunter. Hurtling Toward Happiness: A Mother and Teenage Son’s Road Trip from Blues to Bonding in a Really Small Car. Skyhorse. Oct. 2017. 288p. photos. ISBN 9781628728156. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781628728170. MEMOIR
With their relationship, and their lives, at a breaking point, documentary filmmaker (The Other Side of Silence: The Untold Story of Ruby McCollum) and memoirist (Stifled Laughter) Johnson and her 16-year-old son Ross realize that they both have always had the same desire to head west on I-10 and see what they can find. They journey from their home in Tallahassee, FL, to the various places in Texas where Johnson grew up. While her childhood wasn’t always happy, and the book has many tearjerker moments, it is also filled with warmth, affection, and good humor. Johnson tells her story well and does a particularly good job of interweaving past and present. VERDICT Highly recommended for all parents, whether their children are teenagers or not. This memoir will alternately cause readers to smile and tear up frequently.

Sukys, Julija. Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning. Univ. of Nebraska. Oct. 2017. 192p. photos. ISBN 9780803299597. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781496203144. MEMOIR
In this debut memoir, Sukys uncovers the horrible family secret that her paternal grandfather, Anthony, was involved in a pogrom against Jews in Nazi-occupied Lithuania during World War II. Sukys alternates this narrative with the story of her grandmother Ona, who spent 25 years exiled in Siberia. Here, too, the author uncovers secrets and discovers that Ona’s exile, and the circumstances surrounding it, were not what they appeared to be. While Sukys’s stories are nearly always fascinating, the purpose and audience of this title are unclear. In fact, the narrative in places reads more like a history than a memoir, yet one wonders what it is a history of. In a nutshell, this book is slightly unfocused and offers extraneous detail to little effect. VERDICT For readers interested in the time period or subject.

Note: see Sanderson’s full-length Q&A with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (LJ 9/1/17, p. 119), about which Sanderson said, “Memoirs—hell, books—like this don’t come around too often. This is absolutely essential reading.”—Ed.

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Derek Sanderson About Derek Sanderson

Derek Sanderson is currently Assistant Librarian for Instruction Services at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. When not reviewing books or at the library he enjoys spending time with his son, reading, listening to the Grateful Dead, making mix tapes, and watching whichever sports are in season.

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