Family Fireworks & “Boomoirs” | Memoir

The reviews this month highlight four debut memoirs, all of them dealing in some way with both the legacies and burdens that families leave. There’s also a little international flair this time around, as only one account is by an American. Other authors include a Canadian, a Libyan/Egyptian Englishman living in the United States, and an Englishman residing in Australia. Continuing the global theme, Memoir columnist emerita Thérèse Purcell Nielsen contributes a combination review of two “boomoirs” (her coinage) by a Canadian journalist and an Australian novelist.

Forhan.FatherBeforestarred review starForhan, Chris. My Father Before Me. Scribner. Jun. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781501131264. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501131325. MEMOIR
When poet and professor (English, Butler Univ.) Forhan was 14, and just before Christmas, his father, Ed, killed himself. Long a mysterious, absent presence in the lives of Forhan and his seven siblings, Ed turns out to have been a tremendously tormented and unhappy man, someone who never was able to make peace with life. This memoir does an extraordinary job of delving deep into Forhan’s Irish American family, and his parents’ own dysfunctional pasts. He is particularly brilliant when delineating the ways in which we inevitably carry on our family histories, no matter how we may try not to. Readers are also reminded about how we learn from our upbringings, and how this knowledge is essential to helping to make our own lives, and those of our children, not only different, but better. VERDICT A wonderfully engrossing book. Essential for all parents and children, that is, all people. [See Prepub Alert, 11/30/15.]  

PlumJohnson.TheyLeft.UsJohnson, Plum. They Left Us Everything. Putnam. Jul. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780399184093. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399184116. MEMOIR
Johnson’s memoir is a lighthearted look at aging parents, short on insight and heavy on memories. It mostly chronicles the aftermath of her mother’s death (her father had already died), and the various thoughts and regrets it recalls. The author tends to explain away or gloss over bad or negative memories of her parents, which prevents the book from being more emotionally complex. The title may not resonate with people who do not have large incomes, in spite of its suggestions of universal experience. Johnson’s parents were clearly wealthy, and she herself has enough money to maintain a home in Toronto (an extraordinarily expensive city), while living at her parents’ residence on Lake Ontario. Her mother had in-home care for nearly the last 20 years. This is not how most people live and die. VERDICT A mostly superficial book. Readers looking for similar subject matter may want to try either Bettyville by George Hodgman or Jonathan Kozol’s The Theft of Memory.

Matar.TheReturnMatar, Hisham. The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. Random. Jul. 2016. 256p. maps. ISBN 9780812994827. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812994834. MEMOIR
Novelist Matar’s (In the Country of Men) debut memoir is elegant in its style and refined in its thinking. This is all the more notable since the subject is so ugly: the disappearance of his father, Jaballah, at the hands of the Libyan regime led by Muammar al-Qaddafi. Though other members of Matar’s family also went missing, Jaballah is the only one who never returned, and this book sets out to investigate why. Along the way we learn a lot about Libya’s very complicated colonial history, and much about Libyan exile life in Cairo. Disappointingly, we don’t learn enough about the author’s relationship with his father. He clearly loved and revered him and, understandably, misses him deeply. But what was their relationship actually like? What kind of person was Jaballah? We almost get more information about Matar’s various disappeared uncles and cousins. Perhaps this is deliberate, that Matar turns his father into a ghost to get readers to experience what having someone just disappear really feels like. VERDICT Though impressive technically, organized impeccably, and tremendously analytical, this is a bit of an emotionally chilly book. [See Prepub Alert, 1/11/16.]

ColinThompson.FittingThompson, Colin. Fitting In. Jessica Kingsley. Jun. 2016. 232p. photos. ISBN 9781785920462. $25. MEMOIR
Children’s author and illustrator Thompson’s memoir is beautifully designed and illustrated. His style is distinct, bitter, angry, and funny. By the author’s own admission the title is deliberately disorganized—he puts down episodes from his life as they come to him. A lot of the focus is on Thompson’s various stays in mental institutions, for reasons he never makes entirely clear, and on his struggles with his distant mother. Promotional materials concentrate on Thompson’s Asperger’s syndrome, and except for a multipage spread in the middle of the book, the work hardly touches on this aspect of his life. Thompson, in fact, never actually indicates when, or if, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s. All in all the book is a bit of a mess, and often a depressing one at that. VERDICT The haphazard nature of this memoir charms for the first 60 pages or so, and then the content begins to grate. A more standard organization of events would have been welcome.

Boomers + memoirs = Boomoirs

IanBrown.Sixty Garner.Look

Brown, Ian. Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year. Experiment. Aug. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781615193509. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781615193516.
starred review starGarner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Text. Sept. 2016. 228p. ISBN 9781925355369. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781922253644. MEMOIR
Two esteemed writers of a certain age present complementary reports of the perils and pleasures of aging. Award-winning Canadian journalist Brown (The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son) chronicled the events and ruminations of his 61st year as he fought to make sense of the changes he began to experience as he entered “early” old age. Not a believer in living an unobserved life, Brown provides a year’s worth of matter-of-fact diary entries focusing on both the large and small questions of getting older: altered relationships with family and friends, diminishing physical and mental capacities, and the comparative costs of graduated vs. plain trifocal glasses. Recognizing that regret is the enemy of a life well lived, Brown seeks to provide a prescription for living the last part of life as intentionally as the first. Wisdom of Ferris Bueller (“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”) echoes behind Brown’s endeavors to enjoy every bike ride, every beer, and, as far as life advice for baby boomers goes, it’s solid.

Lauded Australian novelist and journalist Garner (The Monkey Grip) relates details she’s taken in over many years in this latest collection of short pieces addressing topics ranging from the invisibility of aging women to an analysis of the antipodean phenomenon that is Russell Crowe. Garner’s unsentimental, but not heartless, accounts of, among others, her relationship with her mother or with a victim of the most awful variety of domestic abuse, demonstrate her range and capacity for emotional accuracy in the face of tremendous difficulty. Perhaps best known—recently—in the American media for yanking the hair of a bratty Australian schoolgirl who was harassing elderly Asian women on the street, Garner brings to the collection not only her tremendous powers of observation but a continued employment of those skills to force readers to confront unpleasant truths. The graceful prose with which she delivers her insights will challenge readers to look at what is happening around them. VERDICT Brown and Garner approach core questions about ways to live a meaningful life from differing vantage points, but both provide readers, baby boomers in particular, with examples of how to live thoughtfully and observantly.—Thérèse Purcell Nielsen, Huntington P.L., NY


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Derek Sanderson About Derek Sanderson

Derek Sanderson is currently Assistant Librarian for Instruction Services at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. When not reviewing books or at the library he enjoys spending time with his son, reading, listening to the Grateful Dead, making mix tapes, and watching whichever sports are in season.