Memoir Short Takes: Family Stories

May presents plenty of reasons (the word opportunities might ring a little optimistic) to see relatives: Mother’s Day, weddings, and graduations‚ all chances for old family stories to be told and new ones made. While our own sagas are still in progress, this month’s memoirists have solidified their family tales. There’s anxiety, grief, and disappointment in the mix, leavened with courage and hard work. It looks like some families even have fun during the dysfunction.

Bissinger, Buzz. Father’s Day: A Journey Into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son. Houghton Harcourt. May 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780547816562. $26.00. MEMOIR
Complications at their birth, over 20 years ago, resulted in a life of differences between Bissinger’s (Friday Night Lights) twin sons, Gerry and Zach. A cross-country road trip with neurologically impaired Zach provides Bissinger with the time and proximity to appreciate what is brave and unique about the twin who seems to have gotten the bad deal in a family of high-achievers. VERDICT Zach’s way is not his dad’s way. It may have taken Bissinger two weeks (or 23 years) and a drive across the country to figure this out, but he has the good grace to admit their differences and appreciate them in this intense chronicle of a very different kind of male-bonding road trip.

Gilbert, Jennifer. I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events‚ the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t. HarperCollins. May 2012. 224p. ISBN. 9780062075949. $24.99. MEMOIR.
Hiding the scars‚ some of which were physical‚ from a murderous attack by a madman with a screwdriver resulted in more misery for entrepreneur and event-planner Gilbert. This upbeat account of learning to live a joyful life after an encounter with pure evil centers on Gilbert’s headfirst dive into the frantic world of party planning and the lessons she learned there: you cannot control life but you can control your expectations. VERDICT It would be easy to get caught up in the chatty details of all the near-disasters Gilbert encounters in her fast-paced life in the world of event planning but this memoir is about more than cake and flowers.

Lancaster, Jen. Jeneration X: One Reluctant Adult’s Attempt to Unarrest Her Arrested Development, or Why It’s Never to Late for Her Dumb Ass to Learn Why Froot Loops Are Not for Dinner. NAL: Penguin Group (USA). May 2012. 384p. ISBN 9780451233172. $25.95. MEMOIR
Prolific comic memoirist Lancaster (Pretty in Plaid; My Fair Lazy) strikes again with this look at the recent lessons she’s learned about living her adult life. Areas of personal responsibility‚ nutrition, real estate, finances, and nosiness‚ are mined for increasingly antic anecdotes often involving dogs, odd neighbors, and booze. An aphorism of Lancaster’s own creation ties up each chapter, for better or worse. VERDICT If you’ve wondered what happened to Lancaster since the last of her five memoirs, this is the book for you. Given her current age (she is 45), we can anticipate future ruminations on menopause, osteoporosis, and social security.

Smith, Daniel. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. S. & S. Jul. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9781439177303. $25.00. MEMOIR
Was it genetics? Pot? A frightening first sexual experience? Does it really matter what precipitated the lifetime of chronic anxiety that Smith (Muses, Madmen and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity) details so vividly here? A lifetime of efforts to eradicate, manage, and, finally, coexist with the constant terrors percolating in his head well prepared him for the task of writing a history of his own anxiety and of how this psychological state has been treated by doctors and novelists alike throughout time. VERDICT From taking solace in the defiance shown by Philip Roth’s anxious characters, to doing talk therapy, to using maxi pads to soak up flop sweats, Smith tried it all before coming to a nervous truce with his condition. This has got to be helpful to someone else too, right?

Wahls, Zack. My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781592407132. $26.00. MEMOIR
University of Iowa student Zach Wahls’s filmed testimony, last year, in favor of same-sex marriage legislation before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee made him a YouTube star. He continues his argument here, in an enthusiastic summary of the lessons he learned growing up with his sister in a two-mom household. From Boy Scouting to playing sports to dealing with health crises, it doesn’t seem like Zach’s house was much different from all the others on the block. VERDICT While Wahls’s youthful fervor is admirable and he will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the future, there’s lots of repetition here. This book is going to be the best Mother’s Day present his moms ever get.

Wood, Monica. When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir From Mexico, Maine. Houghton Harcourt. Jul. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780547630144. $24.00. MEMOIR
A specific sense of time and place pervades the tale of novelist Wood’s (Any Bitter Thing: A Novel) family as it negotiates the aftermath of the sudden death of her father, a laborer for the Oxford Paper Company, in Mexico, ME, in the spring of 1963. The clearly drawn members of the Wood family walk through the complicated logistics of grief, some better than others, against the backdrop of the community of their company town. This is a beautifully composed snapshot of how a family, a town‚ and, later, a country‚ grieves and goes on. VERDICT The bonds between family members, neighbors, and coworkers, as well as men and their professions, are all explored here with sensitivity and a sweetness that isn’t saccharine. Though there’s probably not much to see in Mexico, ME, this reviewer plans to drive through the next time she’s nearby. Readers will feel like they know the town and its people too.

Additional Memoir

Crow, Tracy. Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. Univ. of Nebraska. 2012. 224p. illus. ISBN 9780803235045. $24.95. MEMOIR
When Crow (creative writing, Ekerd Coll.; An Unlawful Order as Carver Green) joined the Marine Corps as an 18-year-old recruit, women were not allowed to fire or qualify with weapons; they were given classes on proper makeup application and dress/deportment; and sexual harassment and unwelcome advances were common. Crow worked her way up to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer and was in charge of Public Relations at a major military post. The discovery of a consensual sexual relationship she had with a general officer, termed in the military as fraternizing, sent her tumbling from her seat of power to being under threat of court martial. This is the story of one woman’s quest for acceptance as a Marine and how the Corps ultimately treated her. VERDICT A brief, personal look at the inequality of the Marine Corps in the 1970s and 1980s, this book will be of interest to military and Marine Corp historians as well as feminists and female Marines and soldiers.‚ Martha Bauder, LTC, US Army Reserve Physician, Chandler, AZ

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