Memoir Short Takes: What Happened?

It can take a long time to answer a simple question: What happened? Good memoir writing takes facts and makes sense of them; great memoir writing takes emotions and does the same. This month’s memoirs all take a hard look back at events that begged for explanation. Was the process therapeutic for the writers? Perhaps. Will the reading be instructive for us? Most definitely.

Bayley, Robin. The Mango Orchard: The Extraordinary True Story of a Family Lost and Found. Arrow: Random House UK. 2012. 304p. illus. ISBN 9781848092242. pap. $14.95. MEMOIR
The meandering and adventurous path blazed by his British great-grandfather, who traveled throughout Mexico during its revolution, provides writer and actor Bayley with a road map for his own trip through the Americas in search of his family’s history. The complexities of genealogy as well as the vagaries of familial mythology are illuminated in this lighthearted but carefully documented saga of a quest that resulted not only in uncovering truths about a beloved relative, but also in discovering multiple previously unknown family members. VERDICT Bayley’s excitement about his new, hard-earned knowledge is tempered by worries about the effect of his discoveries on other family members. This sensitively framed tale will appeal to genealogists as well as anyone who has dreamt that his or her family is not quite as mundane as it seems.

Bugan, Carmen. Burying the Typewriter: A Memoir. Graywolf. 2012. 192p. photog. ISBN 9781555976170. pap. $15; eISBN 9781555970574. MEMOIR
The delights of childhood in rural Romania contrast sharply with the miseries poet Bugan (Crossing the Carpathians) and her family later endured when her dissident father was identified as an enemy of the Ceausescu regime. Interrogated, isolated, closely observed, and shunned, Bugan’s entire family paid a high price for her jailed father’s activism. The effects of the state’s brutality are clear, but more subtle damage resulted from life with a father who placed politics at the center of everything. VERDICT While an unflinching look at life in the shadow of a totalitarian regime, this is as much the story of how a family endured the unbearable. This moving memoir illuminates how a brutal dictatorship inflicts the sins of the father on his children.

starred review starFletcher, Harrison Candelaria. Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life. Bison: Univ. of Nebraska. (American Lives). 2012. 147p. photog. ISBN 9780803238398. pap. $14.95; eISBN 9780803240162. MEMOIR
The keenly felt absence of a long dead father and the artistic influences of a creative but reserved mother are two of the forces that drove writer Fletcher (founding editor, Shadowbox) to seek out the story of his father’s life. Imitating the descansos (or tiny storytelling shrines) his mother fashioned out of found objects in the Southwest, Fletcher recreates the saga of his father’s life in short, episodic essays that stand out for their mysticism, grief, and evocative prose. VERDICT Fletcher’s mother taught him to look at the details in all things—in nature, in junk, in antiques—believing there is a story in everything. He learned well and has constructed a touching series of verbal shrines to the man he barely knew but sorely misses.

LaCava, Stephanie. An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris. Harper: HarperCollins. 2012. 224p. illus. ISBN 9780061963896. $23.99. MEMOIR
Freelance writer LaCava spent her teen years as an American expat in Paris, and the city acts as a moody backdrop in this catalog of the beautiful and unusual things that absorbed and captivated her during an uneasy adolescence. Now a journalist, LaCava presents a chronology of those years and salts it with footnotes explicating everything from the cult of religious relics to Nirvana CDs to cardigans to mushrooms she collected, researched, or sought out over the course of her teenage years. This quirky inventory provides detailed evidence of a life shaped, and perhaps saved, by the power of observation. VERDICT LaCava creates a self-portrait out of the almost kaleidoscopic collage of objects that caught her fancy over the years. A brooding tone pervades the book, but it is saved from cheerlessness by the whimsical variety of objects she shares with readers.

Nuzum, Eric. Giving up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means To Be Haunted. Dial: Random. 2012. 305p. ISBN 9780385342438. pap. $15; eISBN 9780345534682. MEMOIR
Haunted by childhood memories of a little girl’s ghost (in a blue dress!) as well as memories of the real teenage girl he once loved, Nuzum confronts the supernatural one step at a time in this quirky recounting of his attempts to put the spirits in their rightful place in his life. NPR’s Vice President for Programming, Nuzum (The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula) survived a hazy adolescence in Canton, OH, marked by drug use and mental illness and bolstered by the encouragement and kindness of his enigmatic friend Laura. His attempt to discern what he really experienced results in a trip down a memory lane populated by psychics, ghosts, and psychiatrists, and in hard-won self-awareness. VERDICT Nuzum treats his teenage wasteland with humor and affection. There is no easy ending here, but the knowledge that the author survived it all to write this book may hearten others dealing with lost boys or specters of their own.

starred review starRoth, Marco. The Scientists: A Family Romance. Farrar. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9780374210281 $23; eISBN 9781466825840. MEMOIR
Roth’s childhood in the intellectual hothouse of the Upper West Side prepared him for study at Columbia under Derrida and for a life of the mind, but not for the illness and death of his father from AIDS and the wall of silence his family erected around that huge truth. Roth (cofounder, n+1) approaches questions of truth, family, and memory with the help of his father’s extensive library and eventually arrives at an understanding of his family’s past that incorporates not only knowledge but a newfound sense of independence. VERDICT This look back at the life of a family seems very much a part of a specific time and place in New York history until Roth dissects the germinal truths gleaned from his father’s collection of classic novels; then, suddenly, the Roth family saga lines right up with Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. Roth weaves elements of memory and lessons from fiction into a memoir that illuminates the truth of it all.

Additional Memoir

Carvajal, Doreen. The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and Inquisition. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9781594487392. $26.95; eISBN 9781101596814. TRAV
Carvajal (senior writer, International Herald Tribune and New York Times), an American expatriate with Spanish roots, sets out to unearth her family’s lost crypto-Jewish roots. The book’s solid research and evocative descriptions of the town of Arcos de la Frontera will provide readers prepared for a meandering journey with something to enjoy. In particular, Caravajal’s interactions with the increasingly popular field of DNA genealogy will make this title of particular interest to many genealogists. Howevever, the story is slow to start, as the first several chapters are dedicated to detailed descriptions of places and family members. Even once her journey hits its stride, the book’s many descriptive detours make for a disjointed narrative in which readers will, at times, struggle to maintain interest. Carvajal’s own emotional journey as she reevaluates her identity, which could have been the thread to unite these passages, is unfortunately underdeveloped through much of the story. However, the book’s final third improves in pace and emotional honesty. VERDICT Because few other recent popular memoirs on this topic are available, those interested in the Inquisition, crypto-Jewish history, and especially Spanish or Sephardic genealogy will appreciate this title.—Audrey Barbakoff, Kitsap Regional Lib., Bainbridge Island, WA

Witchel, Alex. All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Oct. 2012. c.224p. ISBN 9781594487910. $26.95; eISBN 9781101596999. HEALTH
Watching a once bright and organized parent struggle with memory loss takes its toll as child and parent reverse roles, with a daughter becoming her mother’s caregiver. As her mother’s mental functions deteriorate, novelist and New York Times Magazine staff writer Witchel (The Spare Wife) seeks refuge in reproducing her mother’s recipes for childhood comfort foods, such as meatloaf, frankfurter goulash, and noodle kugel. These dishes in turn recall and reinforce her memories of growing up in the 1970s as the child of Jewish working parents in suburban New Jersey, leading to an appreciation of her mother’s role in fostering a sense of security, self-confidence, and adventure—essential ingredients to the author’s success as a journalist. VERDICT A humorous memoir of a daughter’s coming of age interspersed with more recent anecdotes about coping with her mother’s dementia—spiced with recipes that will be familiar to many readers. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/15/12.]—Lucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA

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