Dad Jokes, Chainsaws, Cystic Fibrosis, and Iowa | Memoir Short Takes

“The Devil will find work for idle hands to do,” is a phrase I repeat in my head when I’m really trying to motivate myself to finish a dangling task. Upon writing this column, my first for LJ, I realized it is actually a Smiths lyric and not a mantra I picked up from a first-generation immigrant grandparent. Regardless, these books are about labor. Whether its a labor of love, a labor in the dirt, farm labor, or a complete lack of labor, these memoirists can never claim that their time was spent idly.

Benner, Scott. Life Is Short, Laundry Is Eternal: Confessions of a Stay-At-Home Dad. Spry. Apr. 2013. 160p. ISBN 9781938170157. pap. $14.95. MEMOIR
Benner is a member of what he refers to as the DOC, or diabetes online community. Since 2007, he has chronicled his struggles caring for a child with Type 1 diabetes on his blog Here he takes a different route and describes meeting and courting his wife, his daily life as a stay-at-home parent, and how his father abandoned him and his siblings, coloring his own approach to parenthood. Benner paints himself as a bumbling father with self-deprecating stories of being in over his head. However, he loves his children fervently and asserts the secret to happiness is to never stop and never give up. VERDICT Benner gained an online following by chronicling his life as a caregiver to his daughter with Type 1 diabetes, yet details about this part of his life don’t appear until the last third of the book. Still, his unabashed “dad humor” brings a distinct charm to his writing without being mawkish or overly sentimental.

Byl, Christine. Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods. Beacon Pr. Apr. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780807001004. $24.95. MEMOIR
After a summer job in Montana’s Glacier National Park evolved into seasonal work, Byl maintained forest trails for the National Park Service summer after summer. This is no Walden: each chapter begins with a meditation on a tool, including an axe, rock bar, chainsaw, and skid steer. Over a decade passes with Byl returning each summer to Glacier, working her way up from novice to trail leader. When she decides to pursue an MFA, Byl and her husband move and work clearing trails in the Alaskan seaside town Cordova and then on to Denali, which pays better but requires a uniform. Byl’s writing is superb and doesn’t romanticize her dirty work. She addresses the privilege in choosing a career as a manual laborer and explains how a cleared trail helps conservation efforts. VERDICT For readers who have visited a National Park or would like to, this book provides insight into what it takes to maintain these American oases and reveals a cast of characters behind the preservation efforts.

Kirkman, Jen. I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. S. & S. Apr. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781451667004. pap. $22. MEMOIR
Kirkman (Chelsea Lately) is childfree by choice. Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t suffice for many people, including her mother-in-law, strangers at weddings, and even an audience member who encounters her in a comedy club bathroom after one of her stand-up routines. Kirkman—like her acts—is deadpan in her descriptions of the repetitive, inappropriate comments friends and strangers have made about her decision to abstain from parenthood. Retold with the characteristic wit that is found in her comedy writing, this is a smart book that will serve as a childfree-by-choice manifesto for working adults and women pursuing a career in a male-dominated industry. VERDICT Even if you are a parent or hope to be, this book shows the other side of the coin by dispelling the myth that a woman who is childfree by choice will eventually change her mind.

Salisbury, Ralph. So Far, So Good. Univ. of Nebraska. Apr. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780803245921. pap. $19.95. MEMOIR
Part Cherokee, part Irish-American Salisbury (Light from a Bullet Hole: Poems New and Selected) grew up in poverty on a farm in Iowa without heat or hot water. In a memoir replete with sibling rivalry, spousal abuse, and farm work that was both difficult and dangerous, Salisbury describes his upbringing with stark honesty. Readers follow his service in World War II as a young adult, his refusal to enlist during the Korean War, and, in all, eight decades worth of life. Salisbury has recorded his family’s past without fictionalizing or poeticizing his years as an American with Cherokee, Shawnee, Irish, and English roots, from his beginnings on an Iowa farm to his current status as a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon. VERDICT An important glimpse into 20th-century Midwestern life, this book will also be an important addition to the canon of Native American literature. In particular, libraries looking for uniquely Midwestern memoirs will find this indispensable.

starred review starScarboro, Elizabeth. My Foreign Cities. Norton. Apr. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780871403384. $24.95. MEMOIR
Conceived from a New York Times “Modern Love” column, this entrancing story of a woman’s marriage to Stephen, a man living with cystic fibrosis (CF), should not be written off as merely a memoir of disease. When Scarboro met her future husband at 17, she struggled to make a life for herself while faced with the challenge of loving someone with a constantly looming expiration date. While Scarboro, her husband, and CF are the three main characters, the story truly shines as the two try to navigate their twenties bouncing between the Bay Area, Boulder, and Boston during the 1990s.VERDICT This book squeezes a soul-encompassing marriage into the events of just one decade, and Scarboro manages to tell—with strength and grace—her all-too-short love story in less than 300 pages.

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Erin Shea About Erin Shea

Erin Shea ( is Supervisor at the Harry Bennett & Weed Memorial Branches of the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT. She tweets from @erintheshea.