I Will Survive | Memoir Short Takes

Some stories of survival leave powerful imprints on human consciousness: a wrist stuck under a boulder; a teenager stranded with only a hatchet; cloned dinosaurs on a rampage.*  Such images leave us white knuckled with tense jaws and a ferocious desire to know what will happen next. Still, survival may mean something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other each morning, joining a choir, moving into a van, getting sober, or leaving the country. This month’s memoirs column features acts of survival that may seem small but are in fact indispensable steps taken in the direction of a more fulfilling life.

Min, Anchee. The Cooked Seed. Bloomsbury. May. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781596916982. $26.
The sequel to Min’s 1994 internationally best-selling memoir Red Azalea, which detailed her experience growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution continues with Min’s immigration to the United States on a student visa through the Art Institute of Chicago. Without money or English language skills, her attempt at building a new life brings challenge upon challenge. She works up to five odd jobs at a time, lives in unlivable apartments, suffers rape, health problems, and the thievery of con artists. She marries a man who treats her poorly; however, she then gives birth to her daughter, Lauryann, who gives her life new meaning. The first part of this memoir chronicles Min’s struggle to achieve the American dream as a Chinese immigrant in the 1980s. The second part describes Min’s Chinese parenting method as it is received in the Western world, reminiscent of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Verdict After spending her formative years in a labor collective in Mao’s China, Min is unable to see failure as an option for either her or her daughter. Her declarative prose slowly reveals the enduring bravery of an immigrant who refused to dwell on hardship.

Kopp, Heather. Sober Mercies. Jericho. May. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781455527748. $29.99; ebk. ISBN 9781455527731.
Kopp’s (I Went to the Animal Fair: A Journey Through Madness to Meaning) journey from being a young, devout wife to a secretive, Chardonnay-guzzling alcoholic is recounted with astounding honesty. She enters a recovery center in an effort to get sober and begins attending meetings of a program she deliberately chooses not to name. After a relapse and several close calls, she writes this book with several years of sobriety under her belt. A practicing Christian, Kopp tackles head-on the attitude that drinking too much is a sinful compulsion that can be prayed away. Instead, she reiterates that alcoholism is a treatable disease that cannot be cured. Verdict Kopp’s willingness to reveal her stumbling blocks in her recovery efforts will make this addiction memoir helpful to those struggling with similar diseases, Christian or not.

Ilgunas, Ken. Walden on Wheels. New Harvest: Houghton Mifflin. May. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780544028838. pap. $15.95.
To see if he could graduate from Duke University debt free, Ilgunas lived in a red Econoline van parked in one of the student apartment complex lots for two years while he attended graduate school—an experience he wrote about for Salon in 2009. This memoir is an account of what happened before his experiment with van-dwelling life, beginning with his admission to the University of Buffalo to embarking on a 4,500-mile postgrad road trip to Coldfoot, AK, now burdened with $32,000 in student loans. His childhood friend Josh, who is in a similar situation financially joins him in Coldfoot, where they both work odd jobs in exchange for room and board and a modest wage, allowing them to slowly chip away at their enormous debt. After Alaska, Ilgunas embarks on a transatlantic hitchhiking journey, working various low paying jobs along the way. Meanwhile, Josh returns to his parents’ house near Niagara Falls and begins work as an admissions advisor for Westwood College, where he struggles financially in a job that encourages students to take on a similar mountain of debt respectively. Verdict A frank account of the challenge that so many Americans face after climbing out from under crippling student loans, this memoir is also a meditation on living a simpler, more deliberate life—whether on wheels or not.

Aschenbrand, Periel. On My Knees. HarperPerennial. Jun. 2013. 208p. ISBN 9780062026897. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062099396.
After the dissolution of a ten-year relationship and the passing of her favorite grandmother, Aschenbrand (The Only Bush I Trust is My Own) squats in her late grandmother’s rent-controlled New York City apartment. Chain-smoking her way through countless episodes of Law and Order: SVU on a 50-year-old pink, plastic-covered couch, she is knee-deep in a major funk with no end in sight. What follows is a comedic collection of single-girl-in-the-city stories that include the disappearance of a perfect dental hygienist, ruminations on the poor dating choices of her friend Hanna, and culminates with a trip to Israel where she meets a handsome stranger. Verdict This uproarious, raunchy memoir evokes the same playful crudeness found in the writing of Chelsea Handler or Sarah Silverman. Fearlessly fun, Aschenbrand is perfect for those who have experienced heartbreak but are on their way to being back on top.

Horn, Stacy. Imperfect Harmony. Algonquin. Jul. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9781616200411. pap. $15.95. ebk. ISBN 9781616201012.
When Horn finds herself at a crossroads and searching for something more in life, she auditions for the community choir of Grace Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In spite of her agnosticism and mediocre singing voice, she discovers a keen, unwavering joy coaxed out by singing in a group. Interlacing her own choral history with the history of choral societies in America, each chapter includes a well-researched rumination on a conductor and composer partnership. There is also careful attention given to the proven physical benefits of singing. Verdict Even if the only singing readers do is in their car, Horn’s story of finding happiness in choral harmony will leave them applauding for the encore.

Becker, Suzy. One Good Egg. Bloomsbury. May. 2013. 224p. illus. ISBN 9781608192762. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781608193271.
Becker established her reputation as a straight-talking, kooky cartoonist after her best seller Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat, 1990. Here Becker details her struggle to conceive as a single, successful 39-year-old entrepreneur and social activist. Almost immediately after Becker decides to pursue the path to pregnancy, her partner leaves and Becker realizes she is in love with her lifelong best friend, Lorene. After the two are married, Becker pursues the harrowing process of conception that includes corn oil lubricant, ovulation predictor kits, and hormone injections. With the help of her friend Steve (who lives in Australia), they work together to get the Massachusetts–based Becker pregnant. Becker’s charming illustrations accompany her story and include a flash mob of hair follicles and a “note to self” that reminds her to “1. Learn constellations before child is of stargazing age and 2. Learn stargazing age.” Verdict The delightful images and unswerving humor of this lighthearted tale of the making of a modern family will provide a much-needed repose for readers on their own journey to parenthood.

* Ed. Note: For those curious, the stories Erin mentioned are Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston (which later became the movie 127 Hours), Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, which also became a movie.

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Erin Shea About Erin Shea

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


  1. Lauren Smith says:

    What a great list of books. I have added all of them to my list of books to read. Thanks! I just finished the best book that should be on everyone’s list. It is called, “Ring EXchange – Adventures of a Multiple Marrier” by author Pam Evans. The book imparts realizations, insights, and wisdom to others who are caught in the multiple marriage syndrome. It’s a heartwarming memoir that will leave you smiling! http://www.ring-exchange.com/