Memoir Short Takes: BFFs, Agorafabulosity, & a Mom Gone Nun

Welcome to 2012, fellow memoir readers! This year’s initial crop of titles, if plotted on a Venn diagram, would appear as a bunch of nonintersecting circles: a search for a new BFF, a foodie memoir, and a tale of agoraphobia, too. While the memoirs featured here may not share many common themes, each deals in some way with coping‚ whether with loneliness, an elderly parent, or murky career goals. Let these stories lead the way into 2012 and perhaps inspire ways of coping on our part, with all the miscellaneous, nonintersecting problems in our own lives.

Benincasa, Sara. Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom. Morrow: HarperCollins. Feb. 2012. 272p. ISBN 9780062024411. $24.99. MEMOIR
Comedian and writer Benincasa survived a rocky adolescence only to crash and burn during college in a particularly distressing way: agoraphobia and anxiety left her unable to eat, leave her apartment, or, worse, go to the bathroom. The hard work she did to reenter the land of plumbing (and employment) is recounted here in a brash but confessional tone that may comfort readers facing similar demons in their own kitchens and hallways.
Verdict Benincasa was, for a time, a mess, but she got through it with her sense of humor intact. While what worked for her might not work for others, she pulls no punches in describing how quirky she had become before friends intervened.

Bertsche, Rachel. MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. Ballantine. 2011. 384p. ISBN 9780345524942. pap. $15.00. MEMOIR
New in Chicago, with a boyfriend (later husband) but no girlfriends, journalist Bertsche launched a systematic project to acquire new friends. In pursuit of a new Best Friend Forever (BFF), she went on one “friend-date” per week (described in detail) over the course of a year, providing her with ample time to meditate on the importance of friendship in women’s lives as well as the difficulties of making new friends in adulthood. An index to all 52 friend-dates is helpful for those trying to keep straight the various brunches, drinks, and meet-ups.
Verdict Bertsche’s project forces you to think about the hows, whys, and histories of your own friendships. Discussions of the science and psychology of friendship weave through her accounts of the dates, but the tone here is entirely personal. If I lived in Chicago, I’d text Rachel and ask her out for coffee.

Donahue, Heather. Growgirl: How My Life After the Blair Witch Project Went to Pot. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). Jan. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781592406920. $26.00. MEMOIR
Actress Donahue didn’t really die at the end of The Blair Witch Project. Her brief post-acting stint as a medical marijuana farmer in northern California may not have been as scary as her first movie role, but it did have its own tribulations. These are hazily enumerated in her first book, a rambling look at life as a member of a pot-growing consortium. Donahue’s hippie-chick sensibilities don’t impair her ability to offer droll descriptions of the foibles of the community of growers she lived with for a year.
Verdict Who knew that the agriculture of pot was so arduous? Pot plants are picky, and Donahue spends lots of time and space describing how she sprayed, fed, groomed, trimmed, and otherwise babied the Girls. Honestly, I got lost in the details. Maybe this is a situation where factory farming would be more efficient?

Morse, Susan. The Habit. Open Road. 2011. 260p. ISBN 9781453221006. pap. $22.99. MEMOIR
Morse’s mother always marched to the beat of her own drummer, even when, in old age, her one-woman parade led her to a convent. In this humorous look at intergenerational relationships among women of a certain age, Morse, a freelance editor, wryly examines her own membership in the “sandwich generation”‚ adults who care for their aging parents and young children at the same time‚ and her mother’s refusal to be pigeonholed into any group. The delicate changes in the balance of power between children and their parents are illustrated here with many head-shaking examples.
Morse’s mother is a memorable character, and who among us has not wished for a relative to join a religious order (or at least take a vow of silence)? The combination of tasks Morse has to juggle may make your own life seem tame.

Simmons, Gail. Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater. Hyperion. Feb. 2012. 432p. illus. ISBN 9781401324506. $24.99. MEMOIR
Top Chef judge Simmons (special projects director, Food & Wine) answers the question Who am I to judge? with this look back at her life and the steps that led her from her Toronto childhood to restaurants tables all over the world. Her education as a chef and the dues she paid in high-pressure celebrity restaurant kitchens form the backbone of this conversational memoir, which will appeal to actual and virtual (i.e., television-watching) foodies alike.
Verdict There’s backstage gossip about Simmons’s time at Le Cirque and with chef Daniel Boulud, new dirt on Top Chef, and the scoop on Food & Wine. If you’re into food gossip, this takes the cake.

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