Family Papers | Memoir

Buggy and muggy conditions at the beach have driven me indoors and, despite the lingering, scratchy reminders of our tiny biting friends, I intrepidly report to you upon this latest batch of memoirs. Family histories? Families in history? Historic families? It’s all covered here. Karen Chase, author of Polio Boulevard, believes history is large and history is small and that it is happening to all of us all of the time. This month’s memoirists—or their grandparents—had the presence of mind to write down what happened to them so we can see how they and, we, fit into the web of history.

Blue BoxBingham, Sallie. The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters. Sarabande. Aug. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781936747788. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936747870. memoir
Author, playwright, feminist activist, philanthropist, and media heiress Bingham wears many hats in life and her latest memoir helps to explain whence all that passion and drive comes. After being given the titular big blue box of family memorabilia by one of her sisters after their mother’s death, she sifted through its contents and crafted a narrative of the lives of three of her Southern female ancestors—mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother—whose lives spanned from the Civil War to the Jazz Age. The account is replete with domestic detail and provides insight into what hard work it was to be a Southern belle. VERDICT The author’s family history is easy to read but not frivolous. Issues of race, privilege, and class arise, as does the ugly topic of money (or lack thereof) in this colorful snapshot of Bingham’s family. Fans of women’s history and devotees of Southern family sagas will enjoy taking this detour into nonfiction territory.

Polio BoulevardChase, Karen. Polio Boulevard: A Memoir. State Univ. of New York. Sept. 2014. 100p. photos. ISBN 9781438452821. pap. $19.95. memoir
The terrors visited upon families by the 1950s polio epidemic in the United States are succinctly and sympathetically recounted by poet and polio survivor Chase in her prose debut. The author’s recollections of her illness and long recovery comprise the bulk of this slender book but are supplemented by the reflections from her family members and friends. The result is a vivid portrait of what it was like to grow up shadowed by a plague and how a sense of family can arise among people thrown together by miserable circumstances. VERDICT Chase brings her poetic sensibilities to the page in discussions of the way history is not just huge wars and battles but small, personal skirmishes too. With an economy of words, she elegantly conveys the experience of one small part of the world—her own—at a particular point in a much larger history.

In a Rocket Made of IceGutradt, Gail. In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot. Knopf. Aug. 2014. 336p. photos. ISBN 9780385353472. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385353489. memoir
In a roundabout way, a spiritual pilgrimage to India led the author to volunteer at Wat Opot, a Cambodian community run by an expat former U.S. marine, for children living with—or whose families have been affected by—AIDS. Gutradt, a journalist and author, documented her trips to Wat Opot with photographs, which complement her lovely and loving account of the work being done at Wat Opot by its idiosyncratic and tireless founder, Wayne Matthysse. However, it is the stories of the children, some infected with the AIDS virus, some “merely” orphaned by it, that illustrate Matthysse’s extraordinary work in creating a family for those who have none. VERDICT Gutradt’s account could easily have fallen into sappy greeting-card sentimentality, but she avoids that trap and provides a clear-eyed view of Matthysse and the kids he lives and works among. The result is a nicely written wake-up call for those suffering from compassion fatigue.

I'll Drink to ThatHalbreich, Betty with Rebecca Paley. I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist. Penguin Pr. Sept. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781594205705. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101634554. memoir
One of the few benefits of the author’s lonely childhood was the opportunity for her to develop a friendship with…her mother’s wardrobe. A lifelong love affair with couture enabled Halbreich, the now legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, to reinvent herself when needed after the collapse of her marriage. Now 86, Halbreich has been the subject of a documentary (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) and a New Yorker article, and Lena Dunham is writing an HBO series inspired by her life. With the aid of coauthor Paley, she details the steps she takes to keep her clients looking fab and timeless in this chatty chronicle of her evolution from trophy wife to style doyenne. VERDICT Names are dropped and stories are told in Halbreich’s distinctive voice. Fashion mavens will enjoy the industry gossip while mere mortals may benefit from the closet organization tips.

My Grandfather's GallerySinclair, Anne. My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War. Farrar. Sept. 2014. 240p. notes. ISBN 9780374251628. $26.00; ebk. ISBN 9780374711795. memoir
After her mother’s death, noted French TV journalist Sinclair found a box of correspondence in her family’s New York apartment that revealed extraordinary aspects of her grandfather’s life. Paul Rosenberg, Sinclair’s maternal grandfather, was an influential art dealer and tastemaker in the Paris art scene during the first half of the 20th century. Close friendships and business relationships with Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and others are documented in the correspondence, but it is the privations and degradations Rosenberg and his business suffered during World War II that are the most vividly portrayed. Rosenberg’s own story may have ended, but his granddaughter has successfully woven it into the larger tale of the treatment of French Jews and ongoing efforts to retrieve art treasures looted by German forces.VERDICT Paul Rosenberg’s role in the development of the market for modern art is explained effectively here against the broader context of the world art scene and the upheavals of World War II. Sinclair’s ability to create such a coherent and compelling narrative out of the contents of a box of letters is a credit to her journalistic chops. (Sinclair is the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and she hints at further disclosures and family storytelling in the future.)

Paper LoveredstarWildman, Sarah. Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. Riverhead. Oct. 2014. 400p. photos. ISBN 9781594631559. $27.95; ebk.  ISBN 9781101616161. memoir
The family myth about the author’s grandfather was that he was lucky to have escaped persecution in Europe prior to World War II and that his flight to the United States was part and parcel of a fairly charmed life. Wildman’s discovery of a trove of records and letters in her grandparents’ home led the journalist to some unsettling facts about the actual difficulties her grandfather had experienced throughout the war years and thereafter. The most startling revelation: her grandfather had left behind a young woman, Valy, with whom he had an intense and long-term love affair. Wildman’s efforts to discover the truth about her grandfather’s life and any facts at all about what became of Valy form the backbone of this exemplar of investigative reporting. VERDICT Wildman’s extensive investigation into her grandfather’s history is well documented and analyzed, but it is her determination to find out what happened to Valy, a woman at the periphery of the family circle, that distinguishes this family history. The author’s gradual realization that others cared about Valy’s fate, too, led her to a larger understanding of the unbearable circumstances and decisions faced by everyone involved, even those lucky enough to establish new lives elsewhere.

Other Memoir

Blatchford, Claire H. Coming to My Senses: One Woman’s Cochlear Implant Journey. Gallaudet Univ. Sept. 2014. 136p. bibliog. ISBN 9781563686153. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781563686160. MEMOIR
Many people now are familiar with cochlear implants, mainly from watching videos in which a baby’s face lights up when he or she hears sound for the first time. Blatchford decided to get cochlear implants when she was 67 years old, despite the fact that she had been orally educated and wore hearing aids for most of her life. The author describes her experience in this engaging memoir and includes some of the poetry she had written during that time, because she felt her poems better expressed the complicated emotions she was dealing with. She also recounts some of her earlier life prior to the implantation. Blatchord’s story is compelling, and her frank portrayal of life as a deaf individual is enjoyable. Besides her triumphs, she expresses the insecurities and difficulties she faced while navigating a hearing world. So much of the account is very relatable, and it is quite clear how much she enjoys her life. VERDICT This memoir will appeal to those who appreciate candid biographies, and it is a unique addition to collections about deafness.—Caitlin Kenney, Niagara Falls P.L, NY



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  1. Julia Snyder says:

    There are some great reads on here! I am very interested in The Blue Box. I love those kinds of stories. I recommend the one I am currently reading called Finding Vern, an incredibly inspirational story of a woman who loses her soul mate and her journey. is the book site for it’s info! I hope The Blue Box is as good! Looking forward to reading!