Keeping Score | Memoir

Fall approaches. The boys of summer are winding it all down on the diamond and the gridiron guys are gearing up. Since my sport is reading, I’ve tallied up the major themes and attributes of this month’s six memoirs. Here are the scores: family stories six/six; tales of resilience six/six; woman memoirists five/six; damages of war four/six; devastating secrets three/six; health woes two/six; wealth and power two/six. What’s the common ground? Kate Hopper, author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, earns points for her explanation: “As long as I have words, I’ll be strong enough.” Stories carried her through one awful year and had the strength to carry Theodora Getty Gaston (Alone Together) through 100 years of life. Score one for the wordsmiths.

Cronin, Eileen. Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience. Norton. Jan. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780393089011. $26.95 MEMOIR
One of 11 children in a loud, scrappy, Cincinnati family, Cronin (now a clinical psychologist) realizes in early childhood that she differs from her siblings in that she has—in addition to other physical problems—no legs. The cause of her birth defects is just one of the family questions answered over the course of Cronin’s long search for a place in the world and in her own clan. VERDICT Is it a credit to the author’s parents that she failed to notice she was born without legs until she was almost four? Or is it a sign of just how much else was going on in the house? Either way, Cronin has managed to create a cogent account of coming to terms with her condition (and with the condition of her family). Her determination to create a life without secrecy and full of experience is evident in this matter-of-fact portrait of a family that did not always pay attention to the facts.

Gaston, Theodora Getty & Digby Diehl. Alone Together: My Life with J. Paul Getty. Ecco. Sept. 2013. 416p. illus. ISBN 9780062219718. $26.99. MEMOIR
Debutante chanteuse Teddy Gaston didn’t know who J. Paul Getty was when she met him in a glitzy nightclub in 1935. Over the next 40 years, some of which she spent as the oil tycoon’s fifth (and final) wife, Gaston recognized Getty to be as unreachable as he was rich and charming. The saga of the couple’s tortuous relationship is the stuff of soap opera and tragedy. VERDICT Gaston, now 100, crafted her memoir with the assistance of veteran cowriter Diehl and the chatty narrative often sounds as if it were dictated. The account of the Gaston-Getty romance is melodramatic enough to power through any stylistic glitches, however, and Gaston’s pain over Getty’s treatment of their terminally ill young son is still fresh 55 years later.

Glaser, Paul. Dancing with the Enemy: My Family’s Holocaust Secret. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Sept. 2013. 336p. photos. ISBN 9780385537704. $27.95. MEMOIR
A glimpse of his own surname on a piece of luggage on display at Auschwitz prompted Dutch businessman Glaser to explore his family’s secretive history. The truths he discovered about their background and about his estranged Aunt Rosie form the basis of this well-documented record of a family’s destruction by World War II and intolerance. Rosie’s struggles during the war were exacerbated by betrayals by the men she loved, but her zest for life, love, and dance provided a lifeline for survival. VERDICT Glaser quotes extensively from Rosie’s prewar and wartime diaries and letters and the memoir is peppered with family photographs. The recreation of family history almost from scratch is remarkable enough but the gruesome facts of Rosie’s concentration camp experiences make this account particularly affecting.

redstarHenderson, Artis. Unremarried Widow. S. & S. Jan. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781451649284. $25. MEMOIR
The facts presented here by essayist and journalist Henderson are fairly simple and it would be easy to guess where this memoir is going from the title alone. Her husband of a few months, deployed to Iraq, dies in a helicopter crash. Henderson’s grief echoes that of her mother, who was widowed when the memoirist’s father died in a plane crash (which Henderson herself survived as a small child). That would be enough to consider but Henderson travels beyond the boundaries of her grief and the result is a graceful examination of family bonds, the role of a military wife, and the preservation of memories. VERDICT Grief and guilt and loneliness and love and loss are all tied up here in one heartbroken package. Henderson explains her journey through grief and healing in no-nonsense terms but we are left aware, as is the author, that she will someday be an old woman carrying a photo of the young boy she loved and lost.

Hicks, Lady Pamela. Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten. S. & S. Sept. 2013. 272p. photos. ISBN 9781476733814. $26. MEMOIR
Hicks’s parents—the legendary Lord Mountbatten and his mercurial wife Edwina—epitomized British aristocracy and the author’s childhood was spent surrounded by the rich, the famous, the powerful, and the totally eccentric. Wealth and privilege did not shield her entirely from the terrors of wartime and she and her sister were often afterthoughts in the capriciously conducted personal lives of their parents. Hicks’s account of her role as one of the future Queen Elizabeth’s bridesmaids is just one episode that will satisfy cravings for gossip about the royals and their ilk. VERDICT An air of understatement permeates the narrative and it is hard not to imagine Hicks maintaining a stiff upper lip when confronting myriad circumstances in her life. A pet lion? Mummy’s and Daddy’s live-in lovers? A safari with the queen? It’s all history and Hicks saw it all. Fortunately, she decided to write it all down.

Hopper, Kate. Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Univ. of Minnesota. Sept. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780816689323. pap. $19.95. MEMOIR
The difficulties writing teacher Hopper endured during her pregnancy did not end as she wished or wanted. Preeclampsia forced the premature delivery of her tiny daughter Stella and the next months were a blur of neonatal terror for Hopper and her husband. Stella’s eventual homecoming wasn’t a Hallmark movie moment either and Hopper’s confidence about motherhood took several seasons to develop. VERDICT Hopper articulates the difficulties her family experienced but also shares the stories of others she encountered along the way with Stella. Strangers in restaurants, “roommates” in the neonatal unit, and friends and poets all had words that gave her strength. Hopper’s own words will appeal to others in similar straits.

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