Embracing Life | Memoir

This month’s memoirs focus on either death or transformation and teach us lessons about embracing life while we still have it. Musician Alan Doyle explores his native Canada for the first time; Jennifer McGaha’s marriage and life are tested; David Giffels decides to build his own coffin; and devout scholar Kate Bowler is diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. [Also transformative is Michael McCaughan’s reexamination of his relationship with the oldest written language in Europe.—Ed.]

Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Random. Feb. 2018. 208p. ISBN 9780399592065. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399592072. MEMOIR
Canada-born Bowler is a Mennonite and scholar of the American Prosperity Gospel (think “God wants you to be rich”). Throughout this book, she explores her struggle with Stage IV colon cancer via the lens of faith and the concept that things happen to us solely owing to God’s purpose. Ultimately, she rejects the notion that her cancer, or anybody’s cancer, happens because of some divine design, while also maintaining her faith. Puzzlingly, we learn little about the details of Bowler’s faith, just that she has it. VERDICT A decent memoir about faith tested, examined, and ultimately maintained. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]

Doyle, Alan. A Newfoundlander in Canada: Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home. Doubleday Canada. Oct. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780385686198. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780385686204. MEMOIR
Born and raised in Newfoundland, a province that joined Canada in 1949, Doyle (Where I Belong) knew little about the wider world until he was asked to join a band that eventually became known as the Great Big Sea. What follows is a memoir-cum-tour diary that explores Canada from an outsider’s perspective. Doyle has a light and gentle touch that is rare in contemporary memoirs, and he’s frequently funny in a folksy kind of way. VERDICT A wide-eyed and optimistic look at Canada.

 

Giffels, David. Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life. Scribner. Jan. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9781501105944. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781501105975. MEMOIR
Giffels (The Hard Way on Purpose) is an intriguing guy: a professor of writing, a former writer for the show Beavis and Butt-Head, and, as described in this book, a coffin maker. Inspired by a growing sense of his own mortality, he enlists his retired engineer and jack-of-all-trades father to help him build his own casket. In the process, his mother and best friend die, and his father falls ill with cancer for a second time. Giffels’s ironic and humorous style helps leaven all this sadness. Though he grieves, he moves forward with purpose, his coffin-making project driving him on. VERDICT A wry and affecting memoir about death, loss, and the meaning(s) of life. [See Prepub Alert, 8/7/17.]

McGaha, Jennifer. Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of Appalachia. Sourcebooks. Jan. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781492655381. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492655398. MEMOIR
McGaha, a professor of English, and her husband lose their house after finding out that they owe the IRS an extraordinary amount in back taxes. They then move their family into a cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina. They embrace rural life in their new home, raising goats and chickens, and learning how to live with less. Along the way, McGaha learns about her marriage, herself, and what really matters in life. The book also includes many tasty-looking recipes (most of them McGaha’s own), as well as a reading guide and an interview with the author. VERDICT An enjoyable back-to-the land memoir. 

More Memoir

McCaughan, Michael. Coming Home: One Man’s Return to the Irish Language. Gill. May 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780717171590. pap. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780717171576. MEMOIR
Compared to other minority tongues, explains journalist McCaughan, the Irish language—the oldest written language in Europe and a branch of Gaelic, not itself called Gaelic—is enjoying a renaissance in Ireland (astoundingly, even in areas of Northern Ireland that are loyal to Britain) and abroad. This great read, mainly for lapsed speakers who want to take the language back up, is more than a chronicling of McCaughen’s journey back to a language he hated in school. It also discusses attempts to revive the tongue and what it’s like to use the language in Ireland today, where speakers can be met with derision and the government underfunds revival efforts and often fails to offer services in what is the first official language (reports on negative attitudes from both sides can start to wear). McCaughan also helpfully lists relevant books, music, and even immersive residential courses, as well as his daily media diet as Gaeilge. VERDICT A motivating and sometimes hilarious source, mainly for libraries that serve Irish Americans.—Henrietta Verma, National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore

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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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